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The baby force pulls the strings

It takes courage to love, but pain through love is the purifying fire which those who love generously know. We all know people who are so much afraid of pain that they shut themselves up like clams in a shell and, giving out nothing, receive nothing and therefore shrink until life is a mere living death.

Eleanor Roosevelt

Long stretches of life pass in boredom and stupidity, and then you find yourself under water, or in the fire, backed into a corner, the rug pulled out from under you. Shake your head and look around new at the sharp, bright corners, familiar things become strange. The green jagged line of a tree against a hot blue sky. This table now furnishing an alternate universe. What are your most shameful weaknesses and paralyzing fears? Life is coming for them, coming for you. You can’t hide. Is this true, or does it just seem to be? Doesn’t matter.

Imagine you have a sage guide, because we all want a sage guide, and imagine you’re the hero of the story, because we all want that, too. Your sage guide says, ‘Yours is a great destiny to fulfill. But you must endure these trials.’ These trials were created by you. Instinctively, over time, you programmed them into existence, like your own self-designed video game. Because something in you knows what you lack and therefore what you need. Babies and children learn like it’s their job, because it is, and they are non-stop, committed. Have you tried getting a kid to shift gears lately? That baby force is still inside you, and it’s dedicated to your education and betterment, like it or not.

This is the program running in the background, front brain caught up as it is in the day-to-day, concerned mainly with safety and stasis. Get here, text back, trash, dishes, what was I doing? recycling, laundry, check the calendar, eat. But deep in there, the baby force is at work, identifying obstacles, problem areas. It’s directing you, forcing you to confront them. (Interesting question: which one is the autopilot and which is the real pilot?) Suddenly or slowly you find yourself outside your routine of maintenance and plunged into surreality. ‘How can this be happening?’ you ask. ‘I’ve spent my whole life working to to avoid this.’

And that’s how the person desperately afraid of heights finds themselves up on a rock wall, toe in a crack, hanging on by a finger. To use an obvious example. Unconscious, subconscious, however you want to name it, the mechanism has to stay hidden because you would prevent it if you could. Adrenaline junkies, warriors, extreme athletes might seek out discomfort and welcome challenges, but would they choose an injury for the experience of living through it? Or a restriction on their freedom to move, to see how they might adapt? No. No one chooses what’s truly, personally scary.

It doesn’t work if you apply it elsewhere, outside of yourself.  It’s an inside job. We don’t think a mudslide buries half a Bangladeshi city because the people there feared or needed a mudslide. When the tragically distracted parent forgets their sleeping toddler in the backseat and returns hours later to a nightmare, we don’t say, ‘what an excellent lesson in mindfulness.’

The baby force is yours alone. It’s the tiny divinity that makes sure that you get what you need, until life leaves us. And contrary to some scriptural interpretation, it might actually be more than you can handle. So we look for tools and patterns. Who cares if it’s determinism or free will? What matters is finding a way forward. When you feel helpless and victimized, what greater agency than to interpret everything that happens as a plot device? When you are the writer as well as the protagonist? There is no loser in this story, if it is the story of the hero doing whatever is necessary to become heroic.

You’ll know it by your suffering, and ultimately by your stillness. There you are, at the cliff’s edge, or even plummeting through space. At this moment, there is no possible action to prevent or escape what is happening. There is nothing you can think of to do. Your normal avenues are cut off. No grand gesture will save you. Whatever the situation you have found yourself in, you can only experience it, allow it. Life has sat you down. Buried you in mud. There is nothing to do but be in it.

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Yoga and the Great Blob of Consciousness

Benjamin Betts, from Brain Pickings

Yoga is a living art. Like language, it stays relevant because humans use it, and adapt it to their current needs. Though many texts, ancient and modern, teach the principles of yoga, there is no yoga orthodoxy. Yoga was conceived and developed to answer the age-old question: how best to live? Its many practices are all intended to allow a practitioner to experience his or her true, divine nature.

The Yoga Sutras say that when we slow the incessant patterning of consciousness, we realize we are in essence pure awareness, and not apart from anything.

What does it mean to still the patterning of consciousness? Our minds filter and organize incoming information so that we can survive and thrive. As we get older, these patterns become deeply carved in our minds, and the connections we make happen more automatically. This is good and bad. It is both wisdom and prejudice, quickness and rigidity. But the patterning is necessary; to lack it is insanity. Without patterns, boundaries, the naming of “other” things, all the world’s sensory data would pour in at once, continually, without a means to process it. Our brains would be like a hoarder’s house with the roof blown off, in an endless storm, magazines and cats and plastic bags swirling and blowing around and around. We could not function. So why would we want to still the patterning of consciousness? Stilling it must be different from removing it.

Lately I imagine consciousness as a massive transparent blob that floats all around us. Every living being takes from it and contributes to it. If yoga means union with source, then perhaps when we seek to “still” consciousness we are trying to get to a point where the ego, or our most basic boundary of Self, temporarily disappears. This brief reprieve from separation is like a waking lucid dream. We are here, but “we” are gone. There is the realization of one common energy, one common source. That our universe isn’t made up of inert matter, but of living, ordered, presence.

And I wonder if what we think of as individual consciousness is not at all discrete, but shared, and that the idea that there is continuity to the Jenny that is here right now is an illusion. Ultimately there is communion, and no alienation, from anyone or anything.

Maybe during my lifespan here as Jenny, I have the opportunity to improve my contribution to the collective consciousness, this blob I am imagining hovering all around us, helping to tune it by better tuning into it. So in cultivating this connection we not only enjoy some personal feeling of transcendence or union, but also give back to the community at large by lessening the overall discord. Know what I mean?

It is my understanding that central to most religions is the experience of oneness. Not a “belief” but an understanding, a knowing, that the boundaries we create are only tools, that the divisions we experience (that’s me, that’s not me) are something like a great compromise: ways to move in and think about our world, but also the way we separate ourselves from that original knowledge of belonging.

What does that have to do with breath exercises, making shapes with our bodies, and sitting in stillness? I think these are methods a person can use, to experience that connection without drugs or outside sources magic-making. Yoga and the like are ways humans have developed to re-access or recreate this connection anywhere, anytime. Because that feeling fuels our spirits, and the necessity of that fuel is in evidence in all the ways we try to dissolve the boundaries we make, because we want to see more, feel more, understand more, love more.

To move through this world, to enjoy agency, to perceive and discern and make sense of, requires separation. But to learn how to fluidly move between the created world and the boundless world is to learn how to, to some extent, co-create or coexist between the two, like a little kid does.  I think getting better at that is the work of life. I think it is the key to living a bigger, less fearful, more loving, less harmful life. Without separation there is no threat, no misunderstanding, no jealousy, no hurt. And even if we can experience that only in tiny moments of illumination, that knowing lives in us and can be like a north star, guiding us in our normal lives.

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Midway on our life’s journey

As you can see, I didn’t do much blogging this year. I had the realization that I missed my voice, and that’s as far as I got.

In my house growing up, we communicated primarily by writing notes. We wrote notes about matters large (“THINGS ARE GOING TO CHANGE AROUND HERE!”) and small (“Ate the last hot dog”), leaving them on the kitchen table for the recipient to find. My friends and I exchanged notes, and in high school those missives (along with mix tapes) were the most important artifacts of my life. Some carefully crafted, others dashed off quickly in a boring class, and passed hand to hand between bells. My collection still exists in 3-ring binders, and when I see the handwriting of those old friends and lovers I can access some of those feelings again. One friend’s carefree scrawl, and another’s self-consciously stylized, all-caps, lettered only with the finest (.20mm) Micron pen, and folded with origami-discipline. The packaging expressed the person as well as the words themselves.

And the notes were full of song lyrics, because we were so full of song lyrics, and feeeeeeelings, and I can still read all the mundane details of Peggy’s chemistry class or whether she thought we’d win that night’s game, or what a jerk her brother was being. Notes from my girlfriends were different, sometimes written in code, sometimes not, and always with the fear of discovery. I can still recall the visceral dread and mortification of the day one of my notes was found by my girlfriend’s friends in the pocket of her jeans. Full of declarations of my devotion and plainly libidinous, she threw me under the bus to save herself (“She’s in love with me, what can I do?”). Going to school the next morning was one of the hardest things I ever did.

(I wrote my own journal in indecipherable code, because I knew my mom was onto it, and after a few months even I couldn’t make out my own acronyms and allusions.)

Aside from the all-important notes (“you owe me one!”), I also wrote in school. Wrote in history and English classes, wrote for the school paper, and the literary magazine. In college my major was Reading, Writing, and Rhetoric (words, words, words), and later I worked for small papers, continued writing letters until email happened, and then blogged daily for more than a decade. I wrote some terrible short stories, and I wrote in personal journals, which were sometimes discovered and again, nearly life-ruining. I swore off private diaries for a long time.

All of this is to say, I had a lifelong habit of writing. But it was always writing for a purpose. A persuasive purpose. Rhetoric is the art of argument. Journalism, like science, aspires nobly to objectivity but can’t escape or hide its inherent humanity. Everything has an origin, a point of view. I spent years and years writing from my own point of view, saying, look at how I see this! Look at this my way. See me.

And that is powerful. It’s powerful to create a reality and pull people into it. Persuade people of its worthiness or truthiness. There is the desire to connect and illuminate. But there’s also the desire to persuade, and to shape reality. To create reality. To control the narrative. To manipulate.

A year ago, I was asked by my wife to stop writing notes. They were crowding her mental space. She felt I was using words to control and create the narrative of our lives.

This idea took the wind out of me. Was I bullying with words? Was I being manipulative, controlling? I’d never considered this.  Isn’t writing my feelings what I do, what’s normal, and isn’t it your partner’s job to read, and listen, and understand?  To process you, appreciate you, and believe your version of events?

Maybe not. And then, what was the reality I was trying to create anyway? Was it even a good one? Was it one I wanted, or a story about something else? To prove what point?

And then, I tried to pick up journaling again. But without an audience, and without a point to make, with no one to persuade, what was there? What do I have to say alone, with just myself to listen? What’s my story now?

Well, I don’t know. That’s why I haven’t written shit all year. I’ve been rethinking the power of storymaking, and now I don’t know what to do with it.

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Throwback

It wasn’t this old, but you get the idea.

I kept a blog when blogs were cool. I posted every day for about ten years, and then I got tired of hearing myself talk, and then I managed to lose a decade’s worth of content in one failure of an ancient external storage drive. And then I despaired, got over it, and made do with Facebook like everyone else. And now ten years have passed again.

And I find that I miss my own voice, and wonder if it’s still there, and if it has anything interesting to say. Let’s find out!