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Reflections on Living in these Wild Times

October 1, 2020

Dear Reader,

We are all affected by the conditions of our planet - the pandemic, the environmental/climatic upheavals, the social/economic strife and much more. There is collective grief, uncertainty and angst. Some of us have been ravaged by illness and death in our immediate circles. Others have lost their businesses or homes. Courageously facing these life losses is a genuine path in itself. To those struck in these ways, from deep in my heart, I wish for you unanticipated grace and support from both inner and outer sources.

The great majority of people reading this are, like me, less directly devastated by circumstances. Still, we are carrying the weight of our unexpected losses and all of the unknowables. The following writing is predominantly intended for us.

Foreground and Background: Reflections on Living in these Wild Times 

A liberating teaching from the great Tibetan teacher Chogyam Trungpa: "The bad news is you have no parachute.The good news is there is no ground."

We are living in remarkable times. The challenges, both individually and collectively, are extreme for many of us. Yet, the gifts of living are also ever-present, always. Everyday we pass through a variety of states. Often, we then form a narrative about "good days" and "bad days". Yet, when we are connected to life, to others and to oneself, each day has moments of joy as well as sorrow. How do we live in ways that honor this diversity of experience?

Master Unmon asked his students to comment about the days before enlightenment and the days after enlightenment. No one said anything, just complete, confused silence. Then, he utters his famous, profound phrase: "everyday is a good day"

Unlike many people on our planet, the foreground of my experience over the last six months has often been graced with delight. Privileged to live in a beautiful environment of abundant nature, fresh, vibrant air, delicious food and relatively minor threat from the pandemic, this time has mostly been a blessing. While there have also been many moments of concern for the environment, for suffering people, as well as my personal worries, it has been easy to call most days "good". But what is happening in the background of this "good"?

I love Gene Gendlin's expression - the "wallpaper of experience". He used it to express the usually unconscious, background state of everyday life - the "set-point", for our dominant mood, the habitual level of calm/angst, happy/sad, etc. I am using the term a bit differently, as the background state formed by current conditions.

Even with a predominantly enjoyable daily life, I am affected by the wallpaper formed by: Covid-19, U.S. presidential politics, fires in California, other devastating environmental stories, racial distress, refugee horrors, food insecurity around the world, etc. I am guessing your wallpaper includes some of these and others as well. More personally, I profoundly miss practicing The Embodied Life with others, the nourishment of friends, plus I am tired of the past sixteen months of remodeling our new home. Raise your hand if you are ready for a change! It was not until about a month ago that I became conscious of the underlying toll or cost of the "wallpaper".

Concerned thoughts and worried feelings appear in my body-mind each day. Through acknowledging these and returning to contact with the present, they usually fade away quite easily. Goodness and beauty are never far away, when we can be present. Orienting toward THIS moment, without the stories of the past and future, is freedom. Even while this is true, the constancy of troubling wallpaper can be exhausting. It is like a weight we don't know we are carrying. I am learning that my usual orientation toward the gifts of the moment CAN become a kind of avoidance. This can be a version of "spiritual bypassing".

Recently, in a Focusing session, I "felt-sensed" my way into the new experience of "turning toward the present moment as avoidance". In presence, I was actively engaging in the sensory, bodily experience, the dominant "what is", without my mental habits, but downplaying the background state. I wasn't completely ignoring the background; rather, I was minimizing it. In acknowledging most feelings, without attaching a future story to that moment, the feelings would seemingly evaporate. My version of acceptance of "what is" focused more on the foreground "NOW", while partially excluding the background, which always carries the past and future.

A slightly diversionary remembrance-

One day, sitting across from Gene Gendlin in his living room, I described Embodied Meditation as "the radical acceptance of what is". To my surprise, he expressed antipathy for "acceptance". For him, there wasn't any difference between acceptance and resignation. We both agreed that resignation - the absence of any possibility of newness or hopefulness - was a life-destroying state. In fact, for many years, I have counseled people that if they have a choice between being very angry or resigned, choose anger!

In this conversation, I conveyed to Gene a different sense of acceptance, an active engagement with the moment, like biting into an apple. With his warm, liquidy eyes, I remember him saying, "OH, I see, you mean a kind of acceptance that moves forward into the experience, not withdrawing from it". YES! Acceptance for him had been a letting go of motivation, intentionality and self-responsibility. Now he could see it differently. As was often true, he again demonstrated for me the power of how the meaning we give to words shapes experience. Words, especially images and metaphors, not only describe, they create!

Back to my learning

In my learning, I saw how acceptance of the moment could become avoidance of a deeper truth that was living quietly in the time-based background. For example, imagine a single day in a long, cold winter. This particular day might be dynamically vibrant and beautiful but after thirty consecutive days, the enjoyment might fade. On this day, I still have the choice of orienting attention toward the gifts in the moment AND it is important that I consciously meet the inner parts that are tired of it all. When the wallpaper is not acknowledged, named, sensed and experienced fully, our resilience decreases. The healing power of awareness can often liberate this energy.

Inquiring more deeply, I noticed subtle instances of the cumulative effects that had been outside of awareness. Examples include: increased reactivity, loss of inspiration to write, heightened internal dialogue, interrupted sleep and more intentional efforts needed to access a natural, easy presence. Upon further reflection and Focusing, the subtle yet pervasive influence of what I call the "background stressors" became undeniable. Are there any examples in your life? Are you eating or drinking more? Is motivation more difficult to find? If so, I encourage you to open yourself with warm-hearted curiosity to the totality of your experience. Awareness practice can really mitigate these effects.

You might have a very different experience from what I am describing. Maybe the stressors and reactive patterns are frequently in your foreground. You might notice a chronic sense of dis-ease, angst, perhaps with frequent images of impending doom or catastrophe. For some of us, these feelings inhabit the foreground as well as the "wallpaper". What can one do?

For me, the reliable steps are:

-Pausing and freshly going deeper into the moment

-Saying "hello" to each inner voice and sensing the energy in the body

-Naming that voice or energy

-Finding fitting symbols, especially in imagery, metaphor or gesture

-Sensing the whole experience in body (sensations), heart (feelings) and mind (thoughts)

-Noticing and naming unhelpful, future narratives, questioning them and inviting them gently to the side

-Welcoming the experience fully (though not always liking it)

Again, for many of us, both the foreground and the background are filled with difficulty. For some, this has included genuine health or financial threat to oneself or ones family. For others, it comes from a habit of orienting predominantly toward the "bad" possibilities. Some of us habitually, perhaps even genetically, dwell on fears and difficulties, often missing the gifts inherent in any moment. If this is your tendency, stepping back and "leaning into" the joys and gifts a bit more might be the right antidote.

It looks like the months and years ahead will be full of opportunities to grow our awareness and truly learn how to live. Practicing warm-hearted, embodied awareness brings confidence in the unfolding of life. Stepping out of your familiar narratives, whether full of positivity or dread, and assuming that both joys and sorrows are always nearby seems a wise strategy. Returning to THIS moment, including the foreground and background, the joys and the sorrows, returns us to the groundless ground in which we can be free.

"The bad news is you have no parachute."

What does it mean to realize that you have no parachute? To me this says that we need to let go of our deep longing for absolute security. This is not easy. So many of our worst decisions, from electing autocratic dictators, to staying in abusive relationships come from the unconscious drive toward security. Ironically, the habit of imagining tragic futures is self-preparation, a survival strategy based in the quest for security. Facing reality means to embrace our fundamental lack of control.

"The good news is there is no ground."

What does "no ground" mean?

For me, this implies a basic confidence in life itself. When life includes death AND death is no longer the enemy, there is no fundamental problem. No ground means to have faith in the groundless ground of life itself.


Everyday is a good day!

Sending Blessings...Russell

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