on making mistakes

Tonight my heart is heavy as recently I had the opportunity to take an action that wasn’t an easy one. I do not regret my decision, and I am proud of how I handled myself through it. And even though my life has a new element of uncertainty and fear, I am willing to live with the consequences – and learn from them, hopefully. It is one of those things where I come to really rely on my Buddhist practice, my faith. In the trials of life I find that’s all I can rely on.

It is easy, when doing something new, or when contemplating a change to one’s life – a large change or a small one – to become preoccupied with our mistakes. It is easy to self-criticize even more when we see our mistakes, our behaviors, repeat over and over, sometimes long after we began to wish for something different.

Let me illustrate. As an alcoholic, I understand what it’s like to drink more than I want. Or drink on occasions I didn’t think I wanted to. Or drink, then experience unpleasant consequences that were out of my control. Now – even then, someone could experience these things and not consider themselves an alcoholic. But for me the clincher was this: I felt shame about drinking, even when I’d only had a little, and nothing catastrophic or unseemly occurred. In facing this mysterious shame there seemed only two possibilities: either I was neurotic, or I was an alcoholic. Since there is no other substance, food, or activity that imparts me with the sense of shame that drinking did, it seemed the label alcoholic might apply.

This example might seem arcane or even off-putting to those who are unfamiliar with substance abuse. But if you don’t understand the experience I describe, it isn’t because you’re not an alcoholic, but because you have not come to see how our lives are often in the grips of forces beyond our control. You are still asleep, and have not come to grasp the gravity of your situation. But don’t worry! It is possible to wake up at any moment.

People grow into adulthood and are forever chasing: grasping at pleasurable experiences, or trying to satisfy desires, without even knowing their lives have become fruitless, increasingly lonely and scary. They grasp at esteem, for material “security”, for status, for forced intimacy, for Enlightenment itself – but the more they chase, they less they are satisfied.

It is a great relief to one day realize the truth of our lives.

Therefore it is an act of bravery to look our mistakes in the face, and yet it can be a scary experience as well. We can feel a great deal of dismay, and a sense of being lost. Perhaps a part of us, even a large part of us, no longer wants to keep up the chase. We are exhausted. We no longer want to continue a friendship that feels inauthentic, or participate in the family holidays that are so tension filled, or work a job we’ve come to loathe. But even so, we can’t let it go. Who will we be, without these experiences? What will give our lives purpose if we let these things go? How will we find someone who understands?

In the quietness of our hearts, perhaps we can be a little honest. We can admit to ourselves what is no longer working for us, even if it hurts our pride. Perhaps we feel no hope, but then if we look deeper we may know someone who can help us. A spiritual teacher or a mentor is just that helper. It doesn’t have to be any particular person. Someone who we trust, and someone who has a sense of purpose and satisfaction, real satisfaction, in their lives. Who has something that you want? Who has the strength that you lack? Is this person willing to share? They often are.

Our mistakes don’t seem all that glamorous while we’re living them, and re-living them, and even in those early days when we’ve relinquished them. But if we give it time – and patience, persistance, and prayer – our mistakes become something beautiful. The garbage of our mistakes becomes – in an analogy that has its source in a much greater spiritual teacher than I – the rich compost that grows flowers. These flowers couldn’t grow without the compost. Look deeply, and you will see this is true. Life long enough, and honestly enough, and you will come to see this is true.

just keep swimming / just keep swimming

Today I swam my thirteenth mile-swim. It was the second session I’d managed consecutive and consistent bilateral breathing (that is, breathing every third stroke). I am pleased with this accomplishment as I’d been struggling with the technique for a couple weeks.

Funnily enough, since mid-February when I started swimming, I avoided developing a lopsided stroke and a one-sided preference by breathing on my left side down the length of the pool (stroke, breathe, stroke, breathe and so on), then breathing on my right side when I returned. I thought this was a rather clever plan of mine so that bilateral breathing (that is: stroke, stroke, breathe, then repeat) wouldn’t be as difficult as I’d be used to rolling to each side. And I think I was right. Now that I’m doing a little research on the topic, I’m pretty impressed with my progress!

Swimming isn’t solely about physical fitness for me, but about stretching myself mentally and spiritually as well. Learning to swim has not only been beneficial to my cardiovascular health and to the practice of meditative breathing, but it has also shown me so many things about myself. Mostly humorous, silly things!

Swimming has been illustrative, most of all, in my fears. You know, I still have a fear of the deep end of the pool! And some days – even after all these miles, and about nine hundred lengths – this fear grips at me as I first head to the sharp downslope of that end of the pool. It is very interesting to have a fear live on in my body, long after my cognitive capabilities understand there is “nothing” to fear.

In fact, nearly every session has been an opportunity to experience, and perhaps alleviate, a fear. The most often-experienced difficulties are boredom and fretfulness. It goes something like this: I can’t believe I’m going to swim for forty-five minutes. I should be doing something else. What is the point? I just swim back and forth, back and forth.

As you can imagine, this can be a near-daily struggle.

Other fears are more gripping and acute: when I first attempted flip-turns, I experienced a surprisingly large amount of anxiety. My daughter taught me the basic premise. And the first few sessions I missed about half of them, which made me feel (and probably look) foolish. I also only attempted flips at the deep end, because I was afraid of hitting the pool bottom in the shallow end.

Now, however, flip turns are one of my favorite parts of my swims. I enjoy the freedom I feel in somersaulting in the water. I am learning to somersault to my “blind” side, or to somersault sideways, or to put my hand briefly on the pool floor when I flip at the shallow end. Flipping feels rather joyous! When I think back to a few weeks ago and how fearful I was to flip, the memory of gripping and releasing the pool edge seems rather sodden.

Because living in fear doesn’t feel great.

I don’t think I will ever be a truly fearless person. And I don’t know where or how I grew all the fears I have. Living in conscious contact with fears, however, is very different than attempting to live as if they have no effect on me.

Swimming has helped me develop a lighter touch about “who I am”. Only a few weeks ago I could barely swim a length; that skill level is also where my swim classmates left off when lessons  ceased – because, I think, they were trying to “push themselves” to swim, instead of learning to love it. I outstripped my classmates and now I easily swim a mile and have started to stretch myself further. Gently stretch myself. Who knows where I might go?

So while it is hard for me to imagine, for instance, ever being comfortable in open water (more of that fear!), I also know – that future is possible.

Yeah – barely!

a heart hardens; a heart softens; a heart grieves

Recently I gave a ride to a woman I’d just met, who called me for assistance after having car troubles. When I picked her up we fell into conversation, mostly about her life and what had brought her to where she is today.

She had recently moved to the area. As she shared with me, it was immediately evident she’d undergone many major changes in the last few months: a divorce. A move. A hysterectomy. Other health problems. Then she told me she’d lost her own mother this last winter – and without warning, she began to cry shakily. “I used to call her up every Sunday to talk with her – and now she’s not there.” I sat in the idling car with her and my thoughts were taken to my own father’s death. I offered some words of comfort, and some of my own experience.

“This is my mama,” she said, revealing her phone screen and an image of a vintage picture of a young Latina beauty. In the photo, the framed portrait was set up against large roses. “Was this from the memorial service?” I asked; she affirmed. “Were you able to be there?” I asked. “Oh, of course,” she said.

Later in the evening, as I drove her home from our engagement, her conversation returned to her mother once again. She revealed that for years she’d been angry with her mother and that now she regretted this. Again, I was brought to my own life experiences. The resentments I carried, the ones I carried for years.

Sometimes we hold a resentment for two minutes, sometimes two months, sometimes two decades – sometimes much longer. Even if we had good cause to be angry originally, soon no justification will be enough to soothe our angry minds and our hurting hearts. Holding resentments is perhaps the number one way people will poison themselves daily.  Over time resentments change us from the inside; we will no longer know the real from the false.

I don’t know exactly how this happens, but resentments come to have a life of their own. We may believe they are keeping us safe, or that they are righteous, or that the wrong is such that it justifies these years of bad feeling. This thought life warps and twists us without us knowing it. If we live long enough, we will one day fall into a resentment that is overpowering. Then we will begin to wish to be free of it. On that day we will come to see how baffling and strong they can be.

We hold onto resentment. Yet one day, somehow, we are able to set it down. This process of release is still a mystery, since many live and die with their resentments unabated. Most people who know about real forgiveness will tell you something spiritual has to be involved – because without this practice, there will be times we find it impossible to forgive on our own power, however much we would like to.

While I was spending time in conversation with this new woman, a very dear friend of mine had traveled north to see the grave of her father. He died when my friend was a very little girl, and for many years this friend blamed her father for the hardships in her life. She held a resentment for a man who’d been dead decades. Later in life when she found herself in a personal crisis she sensed this resentment was eating her alive, and she set to work on dismantling it. Her visit to her father’s grave has come now that her heart has softened and she is experiencing grief, not anger. On the day she was visiting the grave I texted her to ask how she was doing and she wrote,

“i am here with my dad
it is very emotional
i hear birds”

The memories of my resentments remind me to resolve not to pick them up again. When my friends – new and old – share with me their stories I am reminded, once again, that my heart has the capacity to harden. I don’t know much about how to let it soften again, except from the practice of my faith tradition. I must reach outside myself for wisdom and steadfast love. Without my practice, and without the other human beings who help me, I would soon grow withered and angry.

Life is simply too short, and too precious for that.

staying sober in soggy climes

I work, in an avocational sense, in the world of alcoholism and addiction. On a daily basis I spend time in a group, or one-on-one, with other alcoholics – and addicts.

Sobriety is rare these days. Where I live, most people drink whether they have a problem with alcohol or not. Yet a sober life has given me more gifts than perhaps anything else in my life – besides my husband and children. I share my sobriety with others who want sobriety as well. When we work together, we both have a chance to stay on a path that many fear to tread.

One thing I’ve been asked over the years by those new to sobriety has to do with the availability and socially-acceptable role of alcohol in our culture, and in our families. I have been asked how I can walk past alcohol in the grocery store, or stand to have it my house (rarely; when other people bring it here), or be at a restaurant where others are drinking. Doesn’t it tempt me? Many self-identifying hardcore addicts have expressed wonder and admiration for this supposed “strength” I have. A couple years ago in a meeting one woman said she couldn’t imagine how I stayed sober, when liquor was everywhere. “It’s not like there are crack stores you can go to!” she said in wide-eyed exasperation.

I responded, “But there are crack stores. They’re a little harder to find. But you know where they are. I don’t. But you do.” The room relaxed into laughter for a moment. Because it is true. Whatever has a hold on us, whatever has its hooks in us, we are so lovingly familiar with this person, or this thing, or this life. It – or he, or she – is as precious to us as a child.

Perhaps it does seem a mystery how an alcoholic can walk in safety in a gin-soaked world.

But alcoholism is not contained in a bottle, or in a location. Alcoholism is within me. Perhaps it was passed down though my family but even so, if they were to all expire my alcoholism would not die with them. Just as blaming others for my drinking is a false construct, so is the concept that alcoholism is a condition one can conquer by managing life’s circumstances – by carefully stacking the dominos just right so they fall where they should. Alcoholics are a great example of nearly inexhaustible attempts at this. They try to cut down. They switch types of alcohol. They start making bargains about when they can drink. Doctors tell them to stop but they decide the doctor doesn’t really know what she is talking about. They “mis-hear” or ignore these orders. They start talking about when they drink, or hiding when they drink, or making light of drinking. And so on.

Alcoholism as a social problem is a very old problem, and much attention has been devoted to it. Nevertheless, it has not been conquered by scientific research, intellectual analysis, or even the constant development of perfectly intelligent treatment strategies. Alcoholism is not conquered in a personal way by making a list of my “triggers”, or being around only such-and-such sorts of people, or making sure to perform rituals or stay out of certain places – or spend inordinate times in certain other places. Alcoholism is not conquered by a self-improvement program, either ruthless or gentle, where I supposedly surgically-remove all the unsavory parts of me that compel me to drown my troubles in drink.

I am reminded of a very precious passage in the Dhammapada:

Not by rituals and resolutions, nor by much learning, nor by celibacy,
nor even by meditation can you find the supreme, immortal joy of nirvana
until you have extinguished your self-will.

Most alcoholics die drunk. The wouldn’t call it that, and their families don’t like to admit it. Yet they will go to their graves denying alcohol had a grip on them. They die without ever getting more than a wheeze or two of sobriety. They die with their hands wrapped around the neck of their obsession while cheerfully denying they are even in a struggle. They die with a deep-down knowledge that something was amiss, but without ever having experienced a sense of freedom.

This is true for people who are non-alcoholic as well. They live and die in the grips of their attachment and their aversion. It is not difficult to see this in a person; I see it when this season they are still complaining about the same people, and circumstances, as they were last year. They are still blaming others, or circumstances, for their problems. They live in perpetual servitude to their desires, and they make bitter enemies of others.

Who is your real God? If I spent time with you, I would probably be able to make a few intelligent guesses. I would look at this – what do you practice daily? Who, or what, are you obsessed with? What do you complain about? Who are you frightened of?

My grandfather died last fall. He was on very large amount of medication and so was sleeping almost all the time. I rarely got to speak with him. Shortly before he died he and his caretakers were still trying to manage his drinking, and his diet. My mother told me a doctor of his recommended some quantity or habit of red meat, to help my grandfather drink less. I was surprised to hear this, and I said – “But – isn’t grandpa an alcoholic?” After a bemused pause my mother said, “Well, yeah.” Then we both laughed.

I don’t know what was in her laughter – but I know my laughter spilled out of me in Love. Love for my beloved grandfather – my last grandfather, lost to me now. Love for my mother, and for my aunts and uncles, and for a family who continues on in the way I remember from my childhood. Love regarding the silly games we play, that some consumption of red meat is any kind of treatment plan for an alcoholic! Love even for hubris, for pride. For trying to manage our Ego and our reputation right up to the moment of death. This is the human condition; untempered, this is how we are, or at least how we are by the time we are grown.

Obviously this leads at once to a great sense of freedom. I am free to love my grandfather, and miss him. He wasn’t any less of a human being for his struggles with alcohol, and if he did not come to terms with those struggles, he died with unfinished business as so many of us do. I loved him very much and I only wish we could have been better friends.

My legacy to my own children – and, should I be blessed, any grandchildren and so forth – would be honesty, and a spiritual practice. Like most parents and carers I would like to leave them some monies, maybe an estate, maybe a few beloved personal items. But in the end what I would like to offer them, if they want to take it, is a faith practice. In the end I believe as it is said – “My actions are my only belongings. My actions are the ground I stand upon.”

My actions are my practice. Sobriety is a practice; Love is an practice; Forgiveness is a practice. In the end perhaps my life won’t have a great deal to show for it, but if I’ve delivered these things to my children I will consider my time well-served.

Grandpa Bill

arrogance: the finest armor a man applies

Today a friend and I entertained our once-weekly meeting where we discuss our spiritual practices. We were speaking on the topic of Self-Worth and the word “arrogance” came up. My friend asked me what I meant by this word. I first said we’d be best looking it up, really, because I did not have the definition by any means! I was quiet for a moment and thought a bit more, then I said:

“For me – I am arrogant when I believe you and I are irrevocably different, in such a way you can’t understand, and in such a way that can’t be bridged.”

Now keep in mind, I have known for some time that having money, or a degree, or a flash car, or my physical health, or a particular skill, or a marriage, or happy and healthy children, that none of these things make me better than someone who does not have these things. So I have for some little time had a broader definition of arrogance than what many people might mean by the word (for instance, today I think of someone who goes about self-publishing their accomplishments and material possessions in an irritating fashion as someone who displays hubris, rather than arrogance).

If you notice, I define arrogance not as believing I’m better than you, but believing we are different in some particular way. I will come to this distinction a bit later. But while growing up, the concept of “arrogance” was that of a braggart, a loud person making boastful claims of superiority. I was taught this was a very taboo behavior – especially for a young woman. Emotional? Fine. Laughing, or crying? Tolerated – when appropriate. Angry? Unacceptable! And a vocal, direct, self-confident woman? The worst. We have special words for such women (“bossy”, and “mouthy” are a few fit-for-print which immediately to mind; invective we rarely afford men). The message is loud and clear: if you are good at something, if you have any attributes, keep your mouth shut about them!

For many girls and women, we are taught to take this a bit further, and to actually perform rituals of self-deprecation. If someone compliments something we own, or the way we look, we are taught to rebut and downplay the compliment. Then the other woman presses the compliment; and so on – a tiresome conversational charade. Men have their own versions, their own games they’ve been taught to play.  More incredible still, people who’ve learned to refuse compliments think they are being humble by doing so. However, the opposite is the case: rebutting a compliment is as rude as openly disparaging a gift just as someone hands it to you.

When I first re-entered the Buddhist path, I didn’t know this. I didn’t think I was particularly conceited. So the first time my spiritual mentor told me my self-absorbed guilt, and my by-rote refutation of compliments, were both displays of arrogance, I was shocked – and a bit stung. After all, I knew arrogance was “bad”, and I didn’t want to be “bad”! Arrogance was “bragging”, and I didn’t “brag” – right? Besides, self-absorbed guilt, like worrying, or like the diminishment of a compliment, can often feel quite virtuous!

Despite my initial shock, my spiritual mentor’s statements quickly became incredibly helpful. Hundreds of times since this teaching was given to me, I’ve remembered to say “thank you” to a compliment. I’ve been able to set aside those painful “old tapes” of my past, the unpleasant memories that can invade the mind when it is time to sleep, or in a quiet moment. Like the adage says – “If the past calls, don’t answer – it has nothing new to say.”

But in order to truly gain freedom from the past – it has to be the past. Another saying comes to mind: “Old behavior is not old behavior if you keep doing it.” If deep in our hearts we know we are doing wrong, the same wrongs that didn’t work out yesterday, we will not have relief – no matter how much self-justification we employ – until we stop the behavior.

The mind is a slippery customer. It doesn’t always serve our best interests. No one wants to believe themselves undeserving of compliments, but since we aren’t willing to practice accepting them, and to sustain the effort, we become incapable of believing them. No one wants to be tormented with guilt, and yet, because we are not careful, this mental exercise becomes a compulsive thought-life of its own. The work of dismantling our arrogance isn’t merely an intellectual exercise, either, as these matters of the mind can mean the difference between happiness and misery; between life and death. The rehearsed experience of arrogant “uniqueness” has led many to their doom – and usually, not before they hurt a lot of other people on their way out.

I am not different than you in some “special” way. My mind will grasp at this illusion, attempting to comfort itself or to distance itself when your behaviors frighten me. But if I look deeply enough, I will find you experience the same pains, the same fears. You want to be safe, and you want to be loved – just like me. I am not better than you, if my life has fewer misfortunes. I am not lower or worse than you, if my life or my person seems less glamorous, less healthy and hale, or less blessed with friends, family, and prosperity. And I am not the same as you. I can’t know your experiences, until you tell me. You can’t know why I do the things I do, until we know one another a little better.

It is only natural we will compare; we will experience revulsion, we will experience envy, we will experience self-pity. If we know these are all operations of conceit, we can return to Right View. As my preceding paragraph alludes to, arrogance is a seductive practice. The Buddha is said to have identified three forms of conceit: thinking oneself superior to others, thinking oneself inferior to others, and thinking oneself the same as others. This seems like an impossible riddle, until we see with clarity how often our mind tries to separate itself. The humble mind knows there is no “self” and no “other”, and the calm spirit can experience those distressing moments of illusory separateness with a smile – and a return to mindfulness.

shooting the wounded: the sickly thrill of gossip

“The only thing more frustrating than slanderers is those foolish enough to listen to them.” ― Criss Jami

I write and speak a bit about gossip because it is one of those things we rarely discuss – but we probably should. It is endemic, it is hurtful, we all “feel” it when we hear it, and we “feel” it when we engage in it.

Most of us recognize the toxic potential of gossip, but we don’t know how to stop. We can’t stop gossiping, we can’t stop participating in the gossip of others, and we can’t stop reacting in response to gossip. More incredible still, we do these things, and somehow convince ourselves we are virtuous while we are doing them.

What is gossip?

Gossip is the inappropriate sharing of information, usually at least partly true, about other people.

The fact is, a great deal of time when we are talking about another person, we probably shouldn’t be.

I’m a talkative person. I have many friends. So gossip is something I take very seriously.

Every day my friends and family share personal information with me. Most of the time the specifics of what someone tells me and the name attached to the experience, falls into a kind of black hole in my body. That “secret” is never coming back out of me! There are many things about many people that my husband, my soulmate, doesn’t know. I don’t use my husband as the person to blow off conversational steam with, and I don’t need to share exciting secrets of my friends to feel important or interesting.

Many people are not as careful as I try to be. A while back I let something pretty personal slip, in the presence of someone I know who spreads information about others quite freely. Sure enough, a little while later I heard my personal disclosure from the lips of from someone else and I knew exactly who had leaked it. I was stung, but I recovered my composure and the conversational buck stopped right there.

I was hurt and angry at the time, but I also knew I had been careless around someone who was not likely to respect how I’d feel being talked about, on such a personal matter. Over the next day or so the sense of betrayal gradually lifted and I regained my sense of humor. Mostly, I think, I had been angry at myself for “forgetting” not everyone is a safe person to talk to about my personal affairs.

I have valid reasons for not trusting the people I don’t trust. Or, to flip that concept on its head – I do trust people. I trust them to be themselves. And I trust my own observation of their behaviors.

Long ago I heard of a sort of four-part sieve used for measuring one’s words, before speaking:

Is it true?
Is it necessary?
Is it kind?
Is now the time to say it?

Once I got over the panic of realizing I was utterly failing so very often, I discovered it is possible to practice these criteria. Gossip is almost never necessary, kind, or timely. It is a destructive force, providing a sense of pseudo-comfort to the person speaking. It has ruined lives, driven hurt people to suicide, meddled in the thoughts of kind and noble people, engendered tremendous misunderstandings, and wasted a whole lot of time for those uttering, those listening (and therefore sanctioning), and those who are the subjects of this most injurious speech.

I am not perfect. I probably make mistakes daily. I try my best to correct my behaviors, including talking with my spiritual mentors and listening to their perspectives. I can trust them to correct my behavior; in fact, I rely on it.

Right Speech is a long road – sometimes funny, often frustrating, and occasionally grueling. But just because it’s difficult, doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. I doubt I’d have the friends, love, and trust I have without my commitment to practice.

My wish for you is you have the bravery to take up a practice of your own. Don’t let your past mistakes, or your previous way of behaving, keep you from wanting something better for yourself. And – I smile as I write this – I can promise life doesn’t suddenly get boring if you try your best to refrain from gossip.

“A” for effort

Today was our fifth Saturday morning swim class; the third class I’d attended. I hopped in the shallow end and pulled two 25s to take the edge off the coolness of the water. When I finished, my instructor, who’d been watching me, smiled and said: “I have nothing to add. That looks perfect.”


My swimming has improved phenomenally from where I started out mere weeks ago. This is due to nothing more glamourous or surprising than frequent and regular practices of reasonable duration, and some time conducting independent research on proper swimming techniques.

So, I felt a sense of accomplishment after hearing my instructor’s praise. But “perfect” is a bit of a four-letter word, for me.

Perfectionism is a drive much-encouraged in our culture. From childhood, we are told to be “good”. We are given praise when we perform, and  correction, harsh admonishment, or even blows when we do not. Every day we receive messages that bolster these concepts of “good” and “bad”; of “worthy” versus “throw-away”. From advertisements to family creed, we are told if we aren’t Top Dog we are – quite plainly – a waste of space. For many, the perfectionist drive grows into a compulsive behavior.

Perfectionist thoughtstream is a lot like worrying; the experience seems somehow productive, so we think we are being virtuous, or that it is good for us – or that we wouldn’t gain skills if we didn’t flog ourselves mercilessly. But in reality, perfectionist behaviors keep us unbalanced, humorless, self-absorbed, narrow-minded, and fear-based. Counterintuitively, we are more likely to give up on something rather than see it through with patient and persistent effort. We are more likely to build our Egos around the things we fancy ourselves good at – and we are devastated if those things are ever taken from us. We are more likely to stick to our familiar ruts rather than trying something new. In the words of the eponymous character in “The Secret War Of Lisa Simpson”, we subtly gravitate to only trying “a challenge [we] can do!” – and we quickly flounder in our perseverance, humility, and humor.

If we aren’t ready to recognize our own perfectionist drive, we at least know a few other perfectionists who are – let’s face it – annoying!  They seem to have nothing good to say; they tell overlong stories about their own lives, their own failures, their own opinions. Admittedly some of them have learned to refrain from constantly criticizing the efforts of others aloud – but, they still can’t stop doing it mentally. Some are so entirely consumed with Self that Self is, literally, almost the only thing they think about.

Perfectionism is not a cost-free exercise, which is why it is important we recognize it. To the extent we practice it there is always an imbalance, usually many, and sometimes they are severe. Perfectionism is a driving force behind disordered eating and eating disorders, behind overwork, behind excessive gambling, behind drug addiction and alcoholism, and behind self-harming behaviors (cf. Shame and Guilt by Ernest Kurtz; a wonderful little tome on the mechanisms involved). So many suffer from a perfectionist drive that I think one of the greatest acts of compassion we can perform is to patiently dismantle our own, so we can help many who suffer.

I am not immune to the ghosts of a perfectionist voice. Two months ago I would have told you I yearned to be able to do, in the water, what I can do today. And yet today, I found myself easily discrediting my efforts. Gee, I could have swum longer. I could have tried a new stroke. I could have taken a steam afterwards instead of sitting in the hot tub.

I am not perfect at being somehow above perfectionism itself; yet, today, I shake those thoughts off like the pool water from my hair. I am grateful for my body, and I’m glad my practice has paid off. I refrain from thoughts of grandiosity – in other words, I don’t fixate on tomorrow’s swim goals – and I don’t put myself down reflexively when offered a compliment.

And the humbling fact of the matter is just so: if I wasn’t practicing this skill, I’d be practicing (and getting better) at some other skill.

Best of all, rather than exercising in the morning to “get it out of the way” – I can simply enjoy my swim.

Imagine that.

all the pretty songs

Today would have been Kurt Cobain’s 47th birthday. If you read here, and don’t live where I do, you might not know what a polarizing position he holds here in the Northwest – and particularly, in Grays Harbor, and more particularly still, in Aberdeen and Hoquiam. Perhaps part of the local controversy seems to be that the artist himself had little good to say about Aberdeen, at least as far as the public record goes. But something tells me even if he hadn’t thoroughly criticized the town and its citizenry, there would still be many locals angry at the mention of his name – angry about his music, his lifestyle, his fame, his drug addiction, and his death by self-inflicted gunshot wound.

This year, on the 20th anniversary of his death, first Hoquiam and then Aberdeen abruptly rivaled one another for a commemorative day to celebrate the late artist’s legacy. More controversy! Many are bitter he is the sole son of Aberdeen to have garnered such world acclaim; they are angry his scorn for his hometown is splashed throughout so many music magazines. However, there are many others who hold him and his music close to their hearts, who recognize his musical talent, his charisma, and his world-wide influence.

I write about Cobain – or more specifically, my community’s responses to him – because Cobain’s music, troubled life made public, drug addiction, and death are all mirrors demonstrating to us our own compassion and intelligence – or lack thereof.

Cobain was a heroin addict. Once he was habitually using this drug his life got harder and harder – and messier – and rapidly so – until the day he died. No amount of personal agency, money, or loving friends or family were able to stop this. This is the trajectory of any addiction and any compulsion; be it quick or slow, public or private, loud or whisper-silent.

Naming drug addicts as “stupid” or “irresponsible” – or any sort of character defamation thus inclined – not only demonstrates a lack of compassion, it displays astonishing ignorance – a lack of understanding. We say these things because we suffer illusions about the nature of addiction; we say these things because we are afraid. One of my wishes is that we begin to see more deeply into addiction and thus experience a freedom from hate and fear, ourselves.

I’ve known many heroin addicts, and what I can tell you is it is something almost impossible to beat. Modern medicine has not solved this problem or even, arguably, come close to understanding it – but many in the field valiantly continue the work.

I did not always know the nature of addiction. I spent many years treating those afflicted with scorn or, worse, indifference. I thought it was my own sense, my own superior choices, that kept me from suffering a similar fate. I thought I was less selfish than they. I thought I was more grateful in some way. None of these illusions were true, of course. It kept the fear at bay to believe thus. Or, so I thought. It was my best attempt at controlling that fear.

My wish for the world is that we grow love, and tolerance, and compassion, and intelligence. The world suffers a great deal and many of its citizens need our help, our strength, and our peaceful presence. Kurt Cobain wasn’t the first to die in the throes of addiction, or even the millionth. He won’t be the last.

For those who suffer, I remain on this planet, and do my little bit of Best that I can.

It’s a good life; and I’m very grateful my day has not yet arrived, and that I get to enjoy it a bit more still.

pre-breakup blues

In the last few years my life has undergone major changes. One thing I am coming to find is I am increasingly sensitive to my own feelings.

I think I spent a lot of years suffering from poorly-developed emotional competence (as so many do). I had a difficult time identifying, expressing, and releasing my feelings. Even now, I am at times exhausted by what it’s like to interact with human beings. You know, people. With all their messes, plans, ambitions, dishonest behaviors, and – suffering.

Learning to tolerate others’ suffering, something I still struggle with.

Tonight I had dinner with a very dear friend who is seriously considering leaving their spouse. I know a bit about the details of the relationship, and both people involved. The spouse in question is ill and ailing but also abusive, unsociable, non-supportive, and unpredictable and cruel to the children in their life. My friend, then, is struggling with not only their own experience of anger, fear, and depression – but also a sense of obligation and concern about what others might think of someone who walks out on an ill partner.

This kind of circumstance involves incredibly personal decision-making – and it is not an easy crossroads. As tough a path as my friend likely has ahead, I think the hardest part is right now: making that decision. I’ve been there. Ultimately, I chose to stay – and today I do not regret this.

The scenario with my friend is so close for me that it is not easy to be objective. Part of me thinks my friend is best served by leaving because I know how bad it is in their home. But another part of me knows it’s possible to stay and still have a good life. I believe in my heart that my role is to listen, to care for my friend, to bear witness for my friend, and to release my need for any particular outcome – including an outcome that seems desirous: a reduction in my friend’s suffering.

As for advice? I did bakslag a bit, tonight, and gave some advice. I know me, I know my heart, and I know I do this when I’m trying to ease suffering (and I doubt it works). So, I’m a little sad I still have that drive. That said, I tried to focus more on what I know about my friend, and what my friend has told me before – and what I’ve experienced, myself.

Friendship is hard. In the end, you are friends because someone still loves you and spends time with you. Trying to do it “perfect” doesn’t seem possible – or even, really, necessary.

deepening a backbend

Today I found camel pose, ustrasana, while practicing yoga. Not so incredible or amazing, except there was something about this that surprised me. I found myself in camel today after weeks of practicing not-camel – but rather, a series of milder backbends and back- and core-strengthening exercises. Thus I practiced camel without having forced myself into camel, without having attempted it before I could do it, and without injuring myself.

I was surprised because the last few months I’d been doing backbends that frankly felt rather weaksauce. I thought I was miles and miles away from camel, but today I gave it a shot. It was amazing to find I had the strength and flexibility to achieve the pose. After today, I also have some ideas about how to practice so that I can continue to stretch myself and challenge myself – but stay safe, and honor my body.

My practice of Right Speech is the same. As a result of abstaining from giving unsolicited advice, I have been more mindful of my speech in general. This mindfulness in turn has been a light of awareness on my feelings – especially the days I am feeling especially angry, or short-tempered, or frightened.

Today was one of those days. Many times I felt a curt or sarcastic comment at my lips; suprisingly often. Yet I practiced restraint and did not say anything I would later regret. Today I felt anger, but I knew I was experiencing it – and I did not allow myself to speak from such a place. In this way I took care of my anger in a sensible way, and did not injure others. I am not worried that I am “stuffing” my anger since I am paying attention to it. I also have mentors to talk to, to put forth my anger (if I’m still feeling it at that time), with whom I can share, and from whom I can receive suggestions.

My anger is often an illusion and it can be a powerful one. I am usually preoccupied with something primal, yet my anger flares at something small, something tangential. Today I was quick to anger because I am wearied by a stiff body, an injury, and the experience of financial deprivation. The things I found myself irritated with – the denial as evidenced by a friend, the rude behavior of a staff member at the treatment center, the short-tempered response of my partner – were not my main complaints, and certainly not worth misbehaving over.

I think sometimes I forget that I can work with what I have, and where I am at, and that these practices – yoga, prayer, spirituality, or conscious speech – will gift me in ways entirely different than how I originally thought they might. I thought I’d be writing here about having a track record of “no unsolicited advice” – nothing more complex or admirable than that – and instead I am finding my speech is improving in many ways.