She suggests that a practice, whether it be meditation, prayer, or whatever else, is not a pathway to calm, but a pathway to passion. This struck me as a radical idea, and it made me reevaluate my Be Still Now practice completely.
Sitting in silence with nowhere to go, nothing to do, focusing only on my breathing, has been of inestimable value to me in ways I feel deeply but cannot easily put into words. I can talk about the effects in words: less speeding, diminished anxiety, a deeper connection with my intuition and creativity. But the pleasure of the actual practice during those few minutes a day is an experience I can’t share.
I would never have associated it with passion, however. Serenity, yes. I’ve pursued serenity and peace all my life, and that was my destination in creating a Be Still Now practice.
Pinkola Estes suggests I’ve not walked far enough along the path the practice opens up; that beyond the peaceful place where I stop and have my being in those minutes lies something more, some primal power I’ve been trying to control, hide, and even amputate for most of my life.
What does passion mean? Passion is a strong or compelling feeling. It comes from a Greek root meaning ‘to suffer’.
Passion expresses the full power of feeling. It’s a tidal wave, a hurricane, a tornado. It’s the grief we cannot bear, the rage we dare not fully express, the physical desire that overcomes our civilized facades and renders us as natural as wild animals.
Passion is agony and ecstasy. It’s a quality that attracts and repels. We admire passion in music, on film, and in other artistic expression, but it’s more easily appreciated when we keep it at an arm’s length. Living with our own passionate nature, or that of someone close to us, is an uncomfortably intense experience for most people.
My experience of my own passion is that it makes others uncomfortable at best. At worst, it’s a fearful threat, and when I’ve allowed it to bloom it’s been beaten down without mercy. Passion, for all its beauty, is also suffering, and none of us want to get too close to that. It might be catching.
The problem is that if we are passionate, to deny deep suffering is to deny all deep feeling, to live in a kind of numb, unchanging twilight. We show a bland, inoffensive face to the world, asking for nothing, needing nothing.
We know much more in this culture about numbing our feelings than we do feeling them. When I view any personal practice from this angle, I can see that being present without distraction is a natural first step to presence with our feelings. If we deliberately put aside all our coping mechanisms for pain, all that’s left is to feel it.
I don’t want to feel it. I want to feel peaceful. But my Be Still Now time doesn’t actually take the pain away. It takes my thoughts about the pain away. It allows me space to express and experience pain directly, without a lot of noise around it, but I have to actively consent to enter that space.
Passion is, of course, much more than pain. It’s also incomplete without pain. For me, pain is the top layer of passion, and if I don’t allow it, I can’t get to any other deep feeling.
Which means I can’t write from the fullness of my being.
Which diminishes the core of my life.
But, hey, nobody’s offended or uncomfortable. Nobody’s threatened, so it’s all good, right?
If I use my daily Be Still Now practice to connect wordlessly to passion, what would happen?
Just before I started writing this post, I read this:
In spring the blue azures bow down at the edges of shallow puddles to drink the black rain water. Then they rise and float away into the fields.
Sometimes the great bones of my life feel so heavy, And all the tricks my body knows— the opposable thumbs, the kneecaps, and the mind clicking and clicking—
don’t seem enough to carry me through this world and I think: how I would like
To have wings— blue ones— ribbons of flame.
How I would like to open them, and rise from the black rain water.
And then I think of Blake, in the dirt and sweat of London – a boy staring through the window, when God came fluttering up.
Of course, he screamed, seeing the bobbin of God’s blue body leaning on the sill, and the thousand-faceted eyes.
Well, who knows. Who knows what hung, fluttering, at the window between him and the darkness.
Anyway, Blake the hosier’s son stood up and turned away from the sooty sill and the dark city— turned away forever from the factories, the personal strivings,
to a life of the imagination.
I wonder if it’s possible for me to endure a fully passionate life now. I am attracted, and I am afraid. If my daily practice might be a doorway to reclaiming and inhabiting my own passion, I’m not sure I dare open it. There are reasons I’ve worked so hard all my life to bury passion.
And yet … to dance. To live in music. To be joyfully in the body. To howl and snarl and know the innocence of joy. To weep without shame. To love without fear again. To turn it all into words that awaken passion in others. Can I ever be truly peaceful without those? Is a life without passion peaceful, or merely numb?
Alchemy: A seemingly magical process of transformation, creation, or combination (online Oxford Dictionaries).
Emotional intelligence training opened my eyes to the power of needs in our human experience. Coming to terms with my own needs catapulted me into a new life. During the months in which I learned to navigate through my feelings, needs (click here for needs inventories), limiting beliefs and stories, I kept coming back around to the same question.
If I accept that all human beings have needs, and a right to have them met, what then do I do with my unmet needs, past and present?
We might all have a right to get our needs met, but that doesn’t mean we have a guarantee they will be met, or that we can hold anyone responsible for meeting them. We can meet some of our own needs, but not every one. Some needs require healthy connections with others, but not everyone has that. Some people don’t have a single healthy connection with another human being, let alone many, and one relationship can’t meet all our needs.
Unmet needs are devastating, make no mistake. They drive addiction, all kinds of violence and power-over behavior (like school shootings), mental and physical disease and illness, and suicide. A chronically unmet need is a nonhealing, stinking ulcer on the soul. We may hide it from others and even ourselves, but it never stops oozing blood and pus. Unmet needs can cripple and/or kill us. We can let go of some people, behavior and beliefs, but needs are intrinsic.
None of us can entirely meet another’s needs. We all have limitations of some kind, and finite resources of time and energy. Being unable to meet another’s needs is not necessarily because we’re unloving or uncaring. Most of our close relationships probably do meet some of our needs some of the time, and we meet some of their needs some of the time. It’s not black or white. It’s a continuum, a balance of reciprocity.
So, I ask again, what about our needs that just don’t get met because even our healthy connections are unable to fill them?
At that point we make choices. We can choose to:
Act out in some desperate, destructive or deadly way that hurts ourselves or others.
Blame the people around us for failing to meet our needs.
Blame ourselves for having needs and feeling the pain of having them unmet.
Deny that we need anything from anyone — ever (my personal favorite).
Figure out how to neutralize the experience of unmet needs.
By neutralize, I mean accept and surrender to how painful it is to carry around a bone-deep, persistent longing for something that’s unavailable.
Acting out has never been my style. I’m also not much interested in blaming others for what goes wrong in my life. It feels like a cop-out and it disempowers me. Blaming myself — now that I’m very good at. I’ve spent years perfecting the art of self-loathing, but it’s never been helpful. Not even one time. Besides that, it hurts. I can’t pull off denial, at least not for long. I might refuse to admit certain things to someone else, but I don’t play games like that in the privacy of my own head. I have a file in my documents labeled ‘Denial File.’ Now and then I put something in that file and leave it there while I wrestle with my unwillingness to believe. When I’m ready to stop arguing with what is, I take it out and re-file it. Usually, the Denial File is empty, but I like knowing it’s there for the really tough information.
That brings me to the last choice, which leaves me standing squarely in my power. I don’t hurt myself, I don’t hurt anyone else and I get to think outside of the box — my favorite thing! What kind of alchemy transforms, creates or combines an unmet need into something beautiful?
For several months I’ve been researching outer space for my second book. I’ve compiled lists of constellations and the mythology around them. I have definitions of meteors, comets and nebulae. I’ve spent hours looking at images from space. Astounding, mysterious, vast and lovely, the universe is infinitely larger than the largest playing field I can imagine. I gulp down science fiction books and I’ve watched hours and days and weeks of Star Trek, Stargate, Battlestar Galactica, Firefly and yes, yes, Star Wars!
I also, fairly frequently, turn up The Star card when I work with my Tarot deck. The Star symbolizes creative powers, confidence and diversity.
So, what if I create a cosmos? Great word, cosmos. It means “the universe seen as a well-ordered whole” (online Oxford Dictionaries). I’m always in favor of well-ordered, especially when I get to define it. All the pieces of my experience, including unmet needs, are part of a whole. I prefer combination and integration to amputation.
Photo by NASA on Unsplash
Here I am, with my unmet needs, my history, the people who have been significant in my life and a lot of passionate feelings to express and process. I’m an alchemist, a creator, and before me is a vast black nothingness.
I want stars in my cosmos, so every tear I’ve ever cried becomes a star. I fling them far and wide, like handfuls of tiny crystals. My cosmos is so vast there’s always room for more.
I want planets in my cosmos. I hang them carefully, one by one. These are the people in my life, past and present, living and dead. Some are hot planets, sere and lifeless. Others are cool and green and blue. Every cosmos needs a bloviating, bullying gas giant with heavy gravity that sucks more than its fair share of, well, everything! Rings are decorative, and spots and alien seas and strangely-shaped continents. Also, sand dunes and storms, poisonous (to us) gases, radiation, erupting volcanoes, mountain ranges and glaciers.
Photo by NASA on Unsplash
How about moons? Cool and sterile or lush and verdant; I definitely want moons. I want constellations, too, and stories to go with them. Blazing meteors and trailing comets add movement. Nebulae add color and mystery. Galaxies swirl and spiral or spill like ribbons of milk against the darkness. Black holes suck. Suns supernova.
One by one, I use my unmet needs to decorate my cosmos. I turn them into color, texture, pattern, alien world, moon, star, sun, comet, meteor and nebula. I name them, animate them with feeling, polish them like jewels and set them in place. Maybe they stay in the farthest reaches of my cosmos, where I rarely visit them, or maybe I keep them closer. Perhaps my unmet needs appear from time to time in a meteor shower or a comet with a long tail, and I marvel at their beauty and mystery and remember again their taste and feel before they burn away to ash or disappear behind a planet.
Photo by Bryan Goff on Unsplash
My cosmos is my laboratory and my kitchen, illuminated by starlight. I stir and simmer over the heat of suns; chop and mix under waxing and waning moons; grind alien insects, rocks and roots for pigment and infuse gas and cosmic dust with color. I orbit, I dance from galaxy to galaxy in bare feet, combine a pinch of this with a handful of that until I float, weightless and free, in a cosmos of my own design and decoration.
Whenever the world is too much with me and I find myself staggering under burdens of unmet needs and other things I cannot release, I unlock a hidden door with the key I carry between my breasts and find star candles lit, suns asimmer, planets revolving and black holes lurking. Mortar and pestle, cauldron and crucible wait for my magical offerings as I combine, create and transform the material of my life into a complex and resplendent whole.
Relationship is the finest crucible I know for personal growth and transformation. Unfortunately, it’s also the best crucible for abuse and destruction, but I no longer focus on that aspect of connection with others. My relationships now are based on growth, not destruction. I have promised myself this.
As my partner and I slowly move toward shaping a life of self-sufficiency and holistic collaboration with our land and community, we are experiencing (naturally) many unwelcome pauses and fallow periods as we wait on favorable weather, the scheduling needs of others or the availability of funds.
I’ve noticed during these frustrating pauses my partner serenely deals with the work of the day and then is perfectly happy to sit on our sagging couch, a book in one hand, the TV remote in the other and the cat velcroed to him, occasionally getting up to feed the wood stove.
Photo by Lilly Rum on Unsplash
It drives me nuts. How does he do that?
We had a conversation about it over breakfast recently.
He’s hanging out and waiting for the stars to align so we can begin to move forward again. That might come in the form of some income, a phone call, a stretch of really warm days, or who knows what other miracles. He figures it will all work out, one way or another, in time, and meanwhile he might as well relax and enjoy life.
I, on the other hand, from my earliest memory, make Deals with the Universe. My Deal is that I’ll Be Good in order to get what I need to survive. Being Good is specifically defined.
I will not complain, whine, want or need anything I don’t have.
I will hoard what I do have and be grateful, because I have so much more than many others.
I will work as hard as I can at all the tasks that can be done right here, right now, even if it’s only scrubbing the kitchen floor on my hands and knees or cleaning out closets.
I will not wait, hope, dream. I will act. Now!
I will not make excuses, procrastinate or (God help us) relax.
I will never admit to feeling afraid or anxious or impoverished in any way. Being truthful about our experience is “airing dirty laundry,” which is shameful and vulgar.
Somewhere inside me is a hysteric who knows my partner is wrong. Sitting on the couch means he’ll never see his dreams come true. He won’t deserveto see dreams come true, because he’s not doing anything to help himself, to prove himself worthy of good things. He’s not hoarding what we have. He’s got a light on for reading and the TV on and he’s putting wood in the stove as though those six cords out in the barn will last all winter! (They will.) He’s not doing all the tasks that could be done. He’s failing the test, failing his side of the deal, and we are screwed.
All this panic and fear impel me to work harder and harder at everything. At anything. I must demonstrate to the Universe that I’m not a slacker, a sponge, an ingrate. I must also make up for his blasphemy of sitting on the couch, because we hold dreams in common, and we can’t manifest the lives we want without each other. Clearly, I must Be Good for both of us.
The infuriating but inescapable truth is that I can’t honestly say my Deals with the Universe work better than my partner’s approach. I’ve always had what I’ve needed to survive, but so has he!
It’s not fair.
Then, this last week I read the best essay I’ve come across on rape culture and its effect on women. The writer perfectly expresses much of my longing and the difficulty of allowing oneself to be fully and powerfully female. I feel more and more tension around this in our climate of hysterical political correctness, labeling, jargon and sloppy thinking. The increasing visibility of symptoms of rape culture give me hope that in some quarters there is a will to change, but will it be enough? Will we ever really see an equal playing ground for all people? Not necessarily the same playing ground, but equal in contribution and value, equal in respect, resource and power?
I don’t know.
Anyway, I went for my morning walk with the essay on rape culture and my Being Good rules rattling around in my head. There were snowflakes in the air under a mostly cloudy cold sky with occasional gleams of sun. The river flowed quietly along and I sat for a while under the trees to watch the snow fall in the water.
Photo by Joshua Fuller on Unsplash
What if, I wondered, instead of my exhausting and not-notably-effective list of what Being Good entails, I changed my Being Good Deal with the Universe to living the truest and fullest expression of myself possible? What if that included the entirety of my wants, needs, feelings, thoughts, creativity, passion, power and sexuality? What if that included all the great and small activities and experiences that give me pleasure? What if I gave my obnoxious, persistent and compulsive judgement a sabbatical, with an option for permanent retirement?
I was so intrigued by this that I’ve been playing with it for the last few days. In that time my laptop developed technical problems and is in the shop, so I’ve been without my usual habits, tools and routines. This post was not published first thing Thursday morning. I notice that life manages to continue in spite of it. I’ve read, walked, laid on my back on the ground in the sun, meditated, gone swimming and luxuriated in a hot therapy pool, done Tai Chi and ordered my favorite body oil. I’ve listened to Christmas music. I’ve eaten a bowl of ice cream. I’ve had an honest conversation with two women I like and admire. I’ve taken walks with my partner. This looks much like my usual life, it’s just that currently I’m allowing myself to enjoy my experience without shame, expectation or judgement.
Life is a lot easier and much more fun under my new (and simplified) Be Good Deal with the Universe. Will the Universe frown or smile upon this new Deal?
Who knows? Maybe it’s none of my business. Maybe the Universe isn’t looking over my shoulder, recording every action and thought, maintaining a cosmic scorecard. Maybe the Universe is sitting on the couch, alternately reading science fiction and watching reruns of Star Trek on Syfy and paying absolutely no attention to me whatsoever, and all my frenzied flapping around is just a waste of energy.
I went to the dentist last week. I spent the usual hour with the hygienist and then the dentist breezed in to give me four or five minutes of exam, comment, teaching and friendly conversation. Thankfully, I don’t require more than this, as my teeth are in excellent shape. In the course of those few minutes, I used the term “permaculture,” and he asked me what it was. I gave him a brief answer, and on the way out the hygienist said I had a “high dental IQ.”
“She has a high IQ, period,” he responded as he left.
I almost got out of the chair and went after him to explain that I’m the dumb one in the family, and certainly don’t have a high IQ.
As I’ve gone about life since then, I’ve thought a lot about that interaction. I’ve also been feeling massively irritated, isolated and discouraged. This morning I woke out of a dream of being in a closet groping for my gun, my knife, even my Leatherman, absolutely incandescent with rage, because a man outside of the closet was having a dramatic and violent meltdown, intimidating everyone present because of something I’d said or done that he didn’t like.
I wasn’t intimidated. I was royally pissed off.
When I had my weapons assembled, I stormed out of the closet and came face-to-face with a clearly frightened woman who was wringing her hands and making excuses for the behavior of the yelling man. I screamed into her face that he could take his (blanking) opinions and shove them up his (blanking blank) and unsheathed my knife, not because of her, because of HIM.
I woke abruptly at that point and thought, I’m not depressed, I’m MAD!
Photo by Nicole Mason on Unsplash
While I showered and cooked breakfast I sifted through IQ and conformity and cultural and family rules, economic success and failure, work, invalidation and silencing and keeping myself small. I thought of how pressured I’ve always felt to toe the line, be blindly obedient, follow the rules, ask no questions and be normal. Normal, as in compliant, and refraining from challenging the multitude of life’s standard operating procedures that “everyone knows.” Normal, as in not daring to resist, persist, poke, peel away, uncover. Normal, as in never, NEVER expressing curiosity, a thought, an experience, a feeling or an opinion that might make someone uncomfortable. Normal, as in never admitting that the way we’re supposed to do things doesn’t always work for me, and frequently doesn’t appear to work for others, either. I slammed around the kitchen, turning all this over in my mind, letting the bacon burn, and finally pounced on a keystone piece to write about.
What does it mean to be smart? Why do I feel like a lying imposter when someone makes a casual comment about my IQ? Why is IQ even a thing? Why does so much of my experience consist of “sit down and shut up!”?
Intelligence is defined on an Internet search as “the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills.” Please note the absence of any kind of test score in that definition. Likewise, there’s no mention of economic status, educational status or social status. Also, this definition says nothing about intelligence as a prerequisite for being a decent human being.
The definition takes me back to the playing field in which I wrote last week’s post on work. Here again we have a simple definition for a word which is positively staggering under assumptions and connotations.
Fine, then. I’ve explored what work means to me. What does intelligence mean to me?
Intelligence means the ability to learn, unlearn and relearn. Good learners do not sit down and shut up. We question, and we go on questioning until we’re satisfied with answers. We try things, make hideous mistakes, think about what went wrong and apply what we learned. We don’t do the same thing over and over and expect a different result. We exercise curiosity and imagination. We pay attention to what others say and do and how it all works out. We pay attention to how we feel and practice telling ourselves the truth about our experience. After a lot of years and scar tissue, we learn to doubt not only our own assertions, beliefs and stories, but everyone else’s as well. We practice being wrong. We become experts in flexible thinking. We adapt to new information.
Intelligence endures criticism, judgement, abuse, taunts, threats, denial and contempt. It’s often punished, invalidated and invisible. Intelligence takes courage.
Photo by Cristina Gottardi on Unsplash
Intelligence is power. It does not sit at the feet of any person, ideology, rule or authority and blindly worship. It retains the right to find out for itself, feel and express its own experience, define its own success, speak its truth in its own unique voice, and it remembers each of us is limited to one and only one viewpoint in a world of billions of other people.
Intelligence is discerning the difference between the smell of my own shit and someone else’s.
For me, intelligence is a daily practice. It’s messy and disordered and fraught with feeling. It means everything is an opportunity to learn something new. Everything is something to explore in my writing.
I have no idea what my IQ is, and I don’t much care. I’m sick and tired of all the family baggage I’ve carried around about who’s smart and who isn’t and how we all compare. Honestly. What am I, 10 years old? Enough, already.
I’m also fed up with being silenced, and in fact I’ve already refused to comply with that, as evidenced by this blog. I understand a lot of people don’t want to deal with uncomfortable questions. Too bad. Those folks are not going to be my readers. It’s not my job to produce sugar-coated bullshit that can’t possibly threaten or disturb anyone.
I love autumn, and autumn in New England is particularly poignantly beautiful. The leaves, oh the leaves! It’s as though the trees release their passion in one final gasp of ecstasy before their long sleep. The colors stun the senses with their beauty; it’s almost too much to absorb. Yet the trees’ splendor is fleeting. Inexorably, the leaves fall like golden tears, like blazing sparks, and as they fall the greatest power of all is revealed: The true shape of things.
The green and fiery sea of the forest and fields recedes. Lichen-covered rocks bare themselves. Trees stand or lean in bony beauty, gnarled and hollow, smooth and upright, each species clad in its own color and texture, but now the colors are russet and ivory, shades of brown and grey touched with black. Thorns and stems become semi-transparent cover for winter-colored birds and animals.
The bare forest is everything it is and nothing it is not.
I, too, am becoming reduced to my essential self. Confusion, guilt and shame are loosening their hold on me and drifting away, and I make a resting place for them in my writing. I look back in my memory and, for the first time, begin to see the true shape of things. All the words that weighed me down and kept me small, all the gaslighting and controlling, all the lies and distortions, are responding to some miraculous internal seasonal shift and slant of light. I am bursting into triumphant understanding, and then letting go, letting all that does not serve me fall away. My true shape emerges, and it’s strong and clear-seeing and wise. It always was.
Photo by Erik Stine on Unsplash
Now I begin to see the true shape of things. Now begins a season without pretense, unencumbered by expectations. Now the lineaments of my feelings lie bare. The landscape of my life becomes stark and uncomplicated, a walk through winter woods where a feather is a feather, a quill a quill and a swatch of fur on a thorn exactly what it is, not more, not less, not something else entirely. I reclaim the dignity of my own perception, intuition and experience.
It does not surprise me that traditionally this is the time of year when the veil between the worlds thins, ghosts walk, legends come to life, ancestors are honored, and we acknowledge that which haunts us. I do not fear my ghosts. Indeed, they’re old friends and companions. My bogeymen were flesh and blood concealed beneath dazzling costumes of false power, fearful only as long as their true shape was hidden from me.
Some fear the fading light, endings and truth. Some prefer the riot of distraction and confusion. Some refuse to see or know the true shape of things. My own courage is not strengthened by distraction, no matter how beautiful or seductive. My courage is a thing of unadorned simplicity, spare and clean as bone.
The leaves fall, ravishing, rapturous. At last, the true shape of things emerges from the blaze, pure and indestructible, and I embrace it like a lover.