Some people are hesitant to start a meditation practice because of a fear that it will "change" them. Well everything "changes" us and as far as I can tell, the changes brought by meditation are welcome.
By being present with myself quietly for twenty minutes a day for months, I have come to be able to see much more clearly the emotions, sensations, and thoughts that unfold within me. As I become more consistently intimate with my inner landscapes, I can better recognize patterns. I realized I can actually play with those patterns. I can follow them to where they lead, I can build on them, and I can change them. My overall experience of myself and my life has become brighter and gentler. Here's a glimpse of some of the changes I've enjoyed:
1. Improved emotional intelligence (the cereal incident)
Having a chance to sit with my emotional experiences as they were opened my eyes to their patterns and subtleties. Periodically I found myself first in acute irritation, only to find that if I could be present with that aggravation and wait a little longer, then I would burst into tears. So I started to understand that I shouldn't take certain emotional states at face value, and that I needed to be careful not to blame the closest, most likely culprit for how I feel. For example, once I thought my housemate eating cereal was the cause of my extreme irritation. "Why does he have to eat cereal all the time!?" (It had never bothered me before). After a few moments of listening to his spoon clink in the other room while I sat on my cushion, rage and tension gave way to sadness - tears began to flow and my lungs reopened. I discovered that I was actually overwhelmed by the general moment in my life. It wasn't the cereal--it was my fears, sadness, and hopes around my career, heart, and dreams that were expressing as irritation. But why was all that fear, hope, and sadness coming off as irritation? Now, thanks to emotional awareness, I understand that when I don't attend to my deeper feelings and provide a sufficient outlet for them, I get an uncomfortable buildup of energy. I needed to have conversations and to work creatively to mobilize the emotional state beyond its surface layer of irritation into its more salient depths of sadness, hope, and doubt. Irritation needs to be understood as a sentinel, even if we don't like the way it delivers its message.
2. Body awareness and body love (includes not getting hurt while training)
I used to be so caught up in my head that I was rather desensitized to my body. Even though I was athletic, I was not particularly attuned to my body. Interoception is a word for sensing your inner body experience--hunger, temperature, emotional states, and more. Meditation has given me time and space to notice what the heck is going on in my body, and has made me realize it's very important and pleasurable to do so. I have become a better communicator, finding that I can adjust my posture when I need to express something important. I have become a better aerialist, have remained uninjured while training contortion on my own, and haven't been sick in a year. I have also become less tolerant of things like sitting indoors for forty hours a week, which has prompted me to rearrange my life so my body can have what it needs. I'm dedicated to better responding to my body's signals, and have come into a beautiful relationship with my body. Check out the Body Connect meditation program to set that process in motion!
3. Social comfort and calm
Calm is becoming more and more a default state and reaction for me. I'm more comfortable around people than I used to be, and that change expresses in the fullness of my voice when I speak, the relaxation in my shoulders, and the willingness to allow silence. I'm better at noticing when I start to get overstimulated/overwhelmed by people (which has also improved). I definitely still get worked up by things people do and say, but more frequently, I am able to meet inappropriate or anxiety-inducing exchanges with a calm demeanor. It doesn't mean I am not anxious at all, but that I am able to pause and be silent before deciding what to do or say. As a very reactive person who often feels the "pressure to speak," this has been very helpful and liberating. I now feel I have permission not to respond to everything people say. I still experience panic when I have confrontation, and find it very difficult to physically speak, let alone organize my thoughts, but on the whole I feel more comfortable around others and I am eager to connect.
4. Positive framing (and keeping species healthy)
I believe this one was influenced by meditation because meditation has made me more sensitive generally. I have always been sensitive to the meanings and connotations of words, and have been inwardly cringing at harsh language all my life, but now I have had a chance to see how certain words make me feel inside. Lately I've been enjoying a creative mental game of postively reframing negative statements (which is particularly fun as an editor!). For example:
"I hope she doesn't mess up" vs "I hope she executes all her moves well!"
"I hope I don't get sick" vs "I hope I remain healthy."
"If the project fails, the species might go extinct." vs "If the project succeeds, the species could one day thrive again."
Sometimes negative language is the best way to express something, and I am by no means suggesting we should try to make everything positive all the time. But often, we can spin what we say and avoid giving ourselves and/or other people little ripples of tension. This change was also inspired by the IUCN Green List - instead of listing species' statuses relative to extinction, species are listed relative to their highest thriving potential. This encourages funders to support maximum recovery rather than just getting a species afloat. Positive framing uses the power of the mind and the imagination to help us feel happier and do the best we can with our circumstances. Negative thinking and framing easily becomes a habit we are not well aware of, but just the slightest adjustments make a big difference.
5. Higher self encounters
Meditation, combined with strong emotional experiences, unlocked my higher self. I now receive guidance and comfort that express through my own words, spoken or on paper, and enjoy imagery of the version of me that is devoid of attachments.
6. Empathy and connection (and not being as sarcastic)
Since taking up meditation I have become better aware of and attuned to the depths of the difficult emotions in my life. This has been paired with an understanding that everybody has difficult experiences to work with, which leads me to be gentle to myself and others by default. I recognize the insecurity in arrogance, the ignorance in condescension, the depression at the heart of aggression, and so on. I see the cover-ups and don't take them at face value. I used to be pretty sarcastic and I was proud of that part of my identity. I worried it might go away if I did too much yoga and meditation. It DID go away (mostly), and I'm happy about it after all! I take different approaches to interacting with people now, and I have never had more positive connections in my life. And I now know, thanks to experiences like the cereal incident, that what we see on the surface is just the tiniest hint about what's going on below. When people interact with me in strange or irritating ways, I'm usually able to see what's going on and have the patience to wait until we can connect more authentically. So I'm less quick to push people away, and have a higher tolerance for the time people take to feel comfortable to authentically connect. It's really worth it--to me when someone finally opens up, it feels like breathing after holding my breath for a long time!
7. Sense of humor (will laugh for money for novice stand-up comedians)
I laugh...a lot. Even when I'm alone my mind will give me hilarious memories and I get to laugh all over again. This often happens before I fall asleep, which is really nice because I used to just go through all my stressors before falling asleep. I'm sure at times this is irritating to people, but I try to be mindful of others' emotional states when I'm feeling giggly, and overall, I'm really grateful for this change. It feels amazing to laugh. Laughing uncontrollably makes me feel like the day was fulfilling, a success, I am content.
I've been writing prose and poetry and consistently journaling since I started up a consistent meditation practice. All my writing reflects features of my emotional life, which I am attuned to because of meditation. I have learned when I am in a condition for writing; I can feel when I'm getting the creative spark, so I know to gather my materials and take time to myself so I can create an outlet for what's unfolding in me. I feel inspired and purposeful every day, and really enjoy feeling that my creative work forms a connective thread between my life experiences. I am currently working on two poetry albums that I hope to publish on Spotify. Stay tuned!
9. Gratitude (without complacency)
I actively feel grateful. I even sense the absence of bad things as an actively good thing. I don't have everything I want in life by any means, but it has become easier and easier to recognize and thoroughly enjoy what is good. Even looking at trees or walking in nature feels wonderful. This sense of appreciation hasn't made me complacent, as some people worry might happen to them. I still strive for my highest goals and seek fantastic experiences. It just means that in the lulls, in the difficult times, I still feel connected to the goodness. I am not overcome by negativity.
10. Discomfort tolerance (this is not an emergency)
Becoming more body-aware through meditation led me to realize that my mind very much overreacts about physical sensations. Basically, my brain sounds the alarm prematurely when pain or anxiety are detected. I didn't realize all this at the time, but I experienced an interesting example of this in late 2017 I went to a private contortion lesson in San Francisco. My teacher assisted me into a backbend that did not hurt, but created an extreme sense of pressure throughout my torso. I was thinking I couldn't possibly endure it and it couldn't possibly be safe, even though I fully trusted my teacher. My alarm bells were ringing! When I came out, I felt wonderful. No pain that day or ever! So sometimes if I get some strange tension or pain in my body, or start to feel slightly depressed, I notice the red lights and the SOS signals going off. Now I tell myself, "This is not an emergency. If it were, I'd know." Nothing has ever seriously debilitated or killed me. I've overcome every injury and illness in my life. It is unlikely that some new discomfort is going to be anything significant, and if I know anything, it's that human experience fluctuates, so soon I'll feel different, back to myself again. Having this attitude prevents me from making the pain or discomfort WORSE by getting anxious about it, and lets my mind and body do the necessary work to heal and come back to equilibrium.
Meditation starts to bring us what it is we need. It doesn't always work like magic (though sometimes it really seems like it does)--we still need to put the work in in the particular areas of our lives we see room for change. I think ultimately, meditation helped me to see where I was experiencing difficulty, and helped me see my options for expressing myself and relating to myself and others differently. It helped me understand what was happening within me and showed me what I need to do to accommodate that.
Check out the online meditation programs available through Pattern Shift, and contact anytime if you have questions!
Part 2 in the Connection vs Attachment series.
This post honestly explores natural feelings of insecurity and jealousy, and walks through the thickets of attachments into the clearing of connection.
Ever bristled when you see your partner talking with an attractive stranger? Become tense at the the thought of their one-on-one time with their long-time friend of the opposite sex? Everyone gets like this at least to some extent. It's okay, it's natural, and it's a really good entry point for inner inquiry.
I admit it. Sometimes I find the idea in my head that I want to be *super* special to someone. That we could share a closeness and a tunnel vision-unbreakable-time and reality-bending love for each other, a connection intricate and strong, like the love of Albatross, the world's only truly monogamous animal (they choose their mate based on who can perfectly mimic their intricate courting dance). I find myself wishing that for someone, I were the one and only woman they could possibly have feelings for.
Cue the question: "Is this connection or attachment?" Do I really want that in real life? Is it possible that its appeal fades once outside the pristine realm of my imagination? And could it be that I concocted this idea because I actually deeply fear the grief of betrayal, or the potential shame and anguish of feeling I'm no longer loved? Is it a reach for a sense of power? Could it be that actually I just want to protect myself from being hurt? And could it be that idealistic notions about love hold us back from enjoying the beauty and authenticity of the imperfect, nuanced love that happens between intrinsically flawed and not exactly monogamous-by-nature humans?
Everyone is vulnerable to the fantasies, anxieties, and attachments that come with loving someone. The fear of being hurt can and often does hold us back from something deeper and can even end relationships. But really, no expression of love, whether small or vast, is comparable to another in the first place. Love is not relative. It is unique and it upholds itself. Love is not compromised by other expressions of love. The question that sometimes arises about whose love is more special than whose is constructed by our insecurities and is an unsound foundation for any relationship.
I'd always say after a breakup, "But nobody is like them. I can never love like that again." It was true, and it was also eventually followed by me falling in love with someone else. See, I couldn't love quite like that again--because that person was unique and our relationship was unique. The precious moments could never be repeated. And the next love would have its particular qualities and its precious exchanges. Does new love invalidate the love I felt before? Not at all. Does past love dilute my present love? Not at all. It's sort of like how my love for one singer's voice does not take away from my love for another singer's voice. How could it?
Only when our insecurities and attachments get involved does a past relationship damage a present love. For example, if a person dangles a past "love" in front of their present partner as a proclamation of desirability and a way to trigger jealousy. When this happens the person trying to make their partner see their desirability and worth is not truly drawing from past love to enhance their power--they are simply winding the chains of their present attachments around themself and dragging their partner in. If you find yourself in any way trying to make your partner feel inferior, or as though they have competition, stop for a second. Will this serve your relationship? This tendency is common. Humans get weird around love and self-protection, because we are so scared of getting hurt or let down. When we reach for our weapons and chains, we wind up burdened with attachments rather than lightened and deepened by connections. Then, even if we are in a relationship, we feel alone.
Attachments make a mess of things. Connection, handled with care and sincerity, need not stir up trouble, though it often does when it is met with attachments. Something to remind ourselves is that love is not the exception. Love is the rule. Some people take it *very* personally when someone is attracted to them, and think "I am the special one." You are not, haha. That person could have a loving, successful relationship with many different people. When we open to others sincerely, share experiences together, and become intimate, of course love arise, in one form or another. We can't expect to be the "one and only" or to have some kind of magical "albatross love" because we're human. It is the deciding to be with one person despite other existing or potential meaningful connections that makes a relationship significant. Human commitment requires sacrifices, and we have to decide for ourselves if those sacrifices are worthwhile.
Every connection is unique, and like love, upholds itself through its specific qualities. We get insecure when we discover that our partner is getting something from someone that they aren't getting from us, whether that's emotional resonance, intellectual stimulation, play, growth, etc. But aren't these beautiful things? Don't you wish for your partner to be happy and well? One person cannot and should not offer everything to their partner. One connection does not undermine other connections.
Connection is not a limited resource. Time? Energy? Yes--those are limited resources that we offer first to the ones we have found ourselves in love with or committed to. These are worth disputing. But connection itself is not threatened by other connections. If another person makes our partner feel whole, inspired, or cared for, our partner is going to be in better shape to offer us what we need too. A foundation of trust and communication helps us make way for connection.
Even if your partner connects beautifully and sincerely with someone else and decides to leave you--it either means something wasn't working in your relationship, or something simply clicked better between them. If it's sincere love, it's best to let your partner leave you and let that happen, even if it devastates you. If they are chasing after attachments, you're better off letting that person run off anyway--they will probably just do this again and again, making a mess of things by mistaking attachment for connection.
Every partnership requires its own ongoing discussion of terms and boundaries. We're all nuanced, imperfect, conflicted, and multi-dimensional. But if we are really open, honest, and trusting with our partners, understandings over matters like friends of the opposite sex and exes only bring us so much closer together--plus, its not just fulfilling and connective to give and receive respect and trust, it's also sexy. And don't we all want that? ;)
Most of all, though many of us have forgotten: we all want to feel genuinely loved, and love can take a wide wide variety of forms. It doesn't need to be forced to be a certain way--can't we just accept it as it comes?
Photo: Wandering Albatross by Ed Dunens
A series about connection vs attachment.
Part 1: Is this connection or Attachment?
Part 2: Love & Jealousy: Connection or Attachment?
Part 3: Morality: Connection or Attachment?
Part 4: Possessiveness of Connection
Part 5: Fear of Connection
Part 6: What to do With Your Attachments
Author's note: I didn't write this because I think you don't know the difference between connection and attachment. I wrote this because even though we all have a sense of this, it can be difficult to grasp, make sense of, or put into words. I've taken the time to outline this topic because that kind of thing is fun and interesting to me, and I hope that this post can serve as a reference point for any one of us to turn to (I know I will), to be reminded, to support clear thinking, and to bring some structure to the mind when it becomes wound up in itself.
You know that state you get into within your mind that feels very push-and-pull? Or like spinning wheels cycling anxiously with no sign of a solution emerging?
One of the worthwhile questions I ask when I find myself caught in an inner struggle about something or someone is, "Is this connection or attachment?"
This question is clarifying because it helps us make an important distinction. In literal, physical terms, "connection" and "attachment" may be interchangeable. But in personal, emotional contexts, they are definitely distinguishable. Discerning them is an art, requiring inner listening and experience, but once we begin to make that inquiry, it's not so difficult--and we get better at it with practice.
Connection feels mutual and meaningful (even if it isn't entirely positive), and feels like an authentic exchange. On the other hand, attachment comes with feelings of resistance, fear, self-interest, and insecurity, and it tends to feel more tense and isolating. Connection happens when we relate to something or someone as they are in the moment. Attachment happens when we relate to something or someone with an idea of how we want it or them to be. Connection brings us closer, regardless of physical distance; attachment drives us apart, regardless of proximity.
You can feel a connection with a place that you have experienced a meaningful moment in. You can connect with a person over shared fears, or dreams, or humor. You can feel connected with yourself--attuned to what's taking place physically, intellectually, creatively, and emotionally. You can feel connected with songs that resonate with you, foods that remind you of loved ones, and you can connect with living beings wildly different from you, recognizing your shared ephemeral time on this planet. The possibilities for connection are diverse and probably limitless.
True connection is not threatened by other connections. For example, if you have a connection with someone, it is not diminished if many other people have a connection with them too. It is not relative. It is unique and it upholds itself. Like love.
Attachment feels narrow and tense. It comes with an anxiety about wanting things to be a certain way. Attachment triggers our neuroses, makes us feel a need to self-protect, and shuts down optimistic and trusting outlooks. It often has to do with the urge to protect our image of ourselves. And it often drives us to grasp for power, to control, and diverts us from forming a truly healthy, inspiring relationship. It is relative--it begs for comparison and hierarchy. Like jealousy.
So when I'm getting worked up about something, the question "is this connection or attachment?" usually immediately softens me, as I realize, "ah--attachment." The beauty of attachment is that it begins to dissolve when we recognize it for what it is. We realize that the cause of our suffering is not the subject we are concerned about, but rather our relationship to it. This is liberative--it means that I don't necessarily have to change my external reality or others' minds. I just have to adjust my perspective. And maybe that isn't exactly EASY, but its entirely possible. Our perspectives and relationships are always subject to change.
Connection is flexible and spacious. It allows for time and distance to grow between subjects without altering the fundamental elements that draw them together. Connection is patient; we can be apart from something, someplace, or someone for a long time, return to them very changed, and still touch into something familiar, something shared.
We can bring this concept to a great variety of contexts. When a commercial comes on selling a product to improve your body--is the seller playing into your attachments to make money off you? Or is this a sincere gesture to support your connection with yourself? When your partner asks you not to spend time with a friend of the opposite sex, is that an expression of their connection with you? Or their attachment? When you seek companionship with someone out of a craving for validation, does that affect your connection with them? I'm not suggesting an answer one way or another to any of these. Good followup questions to clarify these, are, simply: are you present? and is this interaction oriented toward mutual good and understanding?
Of course, when the question involves another person, connection is very much a two-way street. Even if you are sincere, trusting, and well-intentioned, you may make little impression on the other person. The potential bridge between you needs to be constructed from both ends.
The point is not necessarily to let go of all attachments--and don't worry if it's SUPER HARD or impossible to face up to some of them. You're human, I'm guessing. Don't be hard on yourself or take it to mean you are a bad person. But identifying our attachments can spare us a good deal of struggle and wasted energy, and free us to refocus on genuine connection. Connection with others is easier when we establish and cultivate it with ourselves. So perhaps next time you find yourself upset about something, or feel caught up in cycles of the mind, maybe ask this question, and see what happens next.
Photo: Oliver Dunkley
Click play to listen to this blog post (8.5 minutes).
Pattern Shift explores, among other things, how meditation can support emotional intelligence and connection, and also seeks to support cultural change. This article touches on what it takes to have meaningful, connective conversation between men and women. Communication involves both emotional intelligence and connection, and is linked to cultural and personal perceptions. The content posed below of course does not pertain exclusively to women; this is simply the perspective I can speak authentically from. Please comment if you have a different perspective to share.
I was sitting on the patio of a local Santa Cruz brewery with a close girlfriend, drinking lemonade of all things. I had just met her (male) friend. They were both enjoying IPA's, like normal people do at a brewery. Anyway, those details are just to set the scene; what I really want to share is that this happened:
*Male friend gets up to order another beer*
Me: "Did you notice how he constantly cut you off?"
Me: "You never even got a chance to tell your story. Meanwhile he told three."
It's surprisingly easy to end up in an unequal conversation and feel like everything is relatively normal. But when you start paying attention, things become obvious. When you are talking with someone who respects you and is aware of the way their words and presence affect you, there can grow a sense of trust, comfort, and openness. When we feel comfortable and trusting, the mind can be more dynamic, more open, and more creative. Talking to these people is one of my favorite ever things to do, because we inevitably encounter new perspectives, unexpected connections, and hilariousness. Afterward, I feel connected to that person, inspired, and fulfilled.
Unfortunately women endure plenty of condescension, interruption, explanation of how things work, ideas about what is good for us and what we should do and think, and how we should feel. Plus, bonus inappropriate comments and advances! And it's all too normal. Ironically, men who declare themselves to be good at talking to people often are not, while those who don't make comments about or think much of their conversational skills are quite good. You don't need to read a book or take a course to be a good conversationalist. It's just about sincerity and taking an interest in what others have to say.
When I'm listening to men, the most obvious sign that they are connecting with me as an equal is that their sentences sometimes end in question marks. Another indicator is if I am listening proportionately to talking. Interruptions are another clue as to what's going on. They are normal in conversations; they can be a nervous habit or can even be fun and connective, but when experienced repeatedly they are wearisome and reveal the lack of connection taking place. Talking to a woman as a man requires skill and awareness. Many people who think they have this skill do not. Many who think they do not, actually do, simply because their ego is uninvolved.
Honestly, I didn't notice how lopsided many of my conversations were until I was 25. Meditation was beginning to help me to be more aware of what was happening in conversations--in the past I had been rather overstimulated by most conversations, and the anxiety made it difficult to see what was taking place from a broader perspective. I was too easily carried away by others' words and couldn't notice subtleties. New awareness, nurtured by meditation, raised new insights. (Get started with meditation today.)
Part of the trouble is actually rooted in the beautiful fact that that many women are natural listeners. We tend to be curious about others' experiences and perspectives and thus leave space for the people around us to express themselves. The problem with conversations in which the woman is predominantly a receiver is that they include the implicit message "you do not have insight to offer on this topic." This is not always done consciously. People are almost always unaware of the biases they embody. Because the bias is not explicit, it actually works more effectively. It can't be easily noticed and defended against. It just works its way in to our subconscious. You don't think, "hey in most of my conversations with men I only talk 30% of the time!" You just absorb that fact into your schema of the world and your place in it. So the subtle bias generates an underlying, difficult to recognize or address sexism that both parties take part in, and the woman is liable to internalize an idea about herself that is less than equal to the person who is talking to her. Needless to say, the man's subconscious assumption that the woman doesn't have something to offer is incorrect. Anyone can contribute something to any topic, even one they know nothing about--they can relate it to something they are familiar with, and that connection might actually end up being very helpful to the other person because it provides something different from their own stale thought process.
It's important to note that there is always a second (or perhaps first) "conversation" between two people that takes place in between the lines. It begins with either an assertion of power or an extension of respect. The difference becomes very easy to identify when you start to contextualize your everyday conversations like this.
So here's my 30-second guide to talking to women, order irrelevant:
From one woman's perspective:
Photo credit: blazouf
I have just published a 5-day online minimalist meditation program. Simple, clear, and grounding. This track, the first in the program, is just under 10 minutes. Have a listen!
Intro to Meditation - Inner Listening
Pair of wolves. Credit: Tambako
Note: I have made this blog post an experiment in mixed media. For quotes from the book I refer to, I have included an audio option. What do you think?
If we can bring ourselves to watch and listen, the natural world can be a profound teacher.
I'd driven hundreds of miles to the Inyo National Forest to visit with ancient trees in hopes of reaching some inner insight and healing for an unsettled heart. But to be perfectly honest, my walk through the trees did not provide the transformative experience I was hoping for. Well, insight rarely comes from the place you expect it to.
A single light in the vast nighttime Inyo landscape shone from a dirt road hilltop, where I was snuggled into my hatchback with my headlamp, immersing in the lives of wolves in the book "Beyond Words" written by conservationist Carl Safina. This book entails explorations of animals' lives. Safina spends time with individuals who have spent day after day, year after year watching the same population of animals (elephants, wolves, whales, and more), and he shares the insights they have gathered over years of patient observation. When I was introduced to Twenty-one, a wild Yellowstone male wolf, I suddenly came into contact with values that had faded from sight over the course of a series of confusing life events. Twenty-one reminded me of the qualities I wanted to be looking for in others:
"Wolves are like this: the alpha male might be a major player in the kill, then go and sleep until everyone is full. 'The main characteristic of an alpha male wolf,' Rick says, 'is a quiet confidence, quiet self-assurance. You know what you want to do; you want what's best for the pack. You're very comfortable with that. You have a calming effect. Point is, alpha males are surprisingly nonaggressive, because they don't need to be'" (156, Safina).
Twenty-one lived a violent life, but he did not engage in violence that wasn't necessary to defend himself and his pack, and he never took it farther than he needed to:
"Twenty-one distinguished himself doubly. He never lost a fight. And he never killed any defeated opponent."
Twenty-one represented qualities of strength, power, and independence, but these were balanced by generosity, responsibility, playfulness, and compassion.
"One of Twenty-one's favorite things was to wrestle with little pups. 'And what he really loved to do,' Rick adds, 'was to pretend to lose. He just got a huge kick out of it.' Here was this great big male wolf. And he'd let some little wolf jump on him and bite his fur. 'He'd just fall on his back with his paws in the air,' Rick half-mimes. 'And the triumphant-looking little one would be standing over him with his tail wagging. The ability to pretend,' Rick adds, 'shows that you understand how your actions are perceived by others. It indicates high intelligence. I'm sure the pups knew what was going on, but it was a way for them to learn how it feels to conquer something much bigger than you. And that kind of confidence is what wolves need every day of their hunting lives.'"
Feeling my admiration for Twenty-one grow with every turn of the page, I understood that this wolf, this wild animal, was showing me the important fundamental traits to look for in a mate. As a single woman in my mid-twenties, these passages felt empowering; my past relationships had failed and I wasn't looking to have many more failures before committing for life. Having a clearer sense of the qualities to look out for (in humans!) has given me greater confidence. To my delight, as I continued reading, the wolves continued teaching.
Cinderella was a female a wolf who lived under the abusive reign of her sister. One day, Cinderella organized an uprising against their leader, and in turn, she became the matriarch of her pack. After a lifetime of being abused, she became a skillful and kind alpha wolf:
"'Cinderella was the finest kind of alpha female,' Rick Mcintyre says. 'Cooperative, returning favors by sharing with the other adult females, inviting her sisters to bring her pups together with her own while also raising her vanquished sister's pups--. She set a policy of acceptance and cohesion that allowed the Druids to swell into the largest wolf pack ever recorded.' She was,' Rick says, 'perfect for helping everyone get along really well'" (Safina, 159).
Like Twenty-one, Cinderella had no taste for needless violence. She selectively engaged violence to support the total pack in safety and connection. This is no small feat. She had to have the trust of her pack to not only take down the leader, but to also take her place. She had to take a deadly risk to create a better world for herself and the pack. Cinderella's courage, compassion, generosity, and commitment to her pack make her so easy to admire. But it's particularly helpful to us as humans that she is not human. It's helpful to contemplate female leadership and motherhood outside their heavily stereotyped and judgment-burdened human contexts. The way Cinderella skillfully played the role of leader and mother was inspiring, and refreshingly easy to accept and respect. The clear distinctions between us and them do not have to be alienating. In fact, thanks to our differences, I discovered connection with the wolves I hadn't even met.
A careful look at value-formation
Humans, like wolves, are social creatures. We look to the dominant individuals in our families and societies to form our values. But, as with wolves, sometimes human leaders are not good role models. Today, humans face the challenge of being surrounded by thousands of voices of "authority," ranging from within our friend and family groups to our world leaders. These "leaders" make value claims through their actions and words, and often we internalize this subconsciously. Eager to please the alphas around us, we may modify our behaviors, or in an effort to be accepted in the "pack," we might automatically identify with the values professed by the "alpha." I, and most of us, have personally been in a variety of social circles, in a variety of positions of influence, with diverse values, some of which included:
Not being "heady"
Having a strong work ethic
Being laid back
Living with passion
Being a daredevil
Caring about money
Not caring about money
And we may find that we and others around us end up spending a lot of time and energy trying to please the people who happen to be around us so that we feel accepted. But what if in our desire to be socially embraced we turn on our true values? And how would we feel if our "leader" suddenly changed their mind and voiced a new opinion that matched how we had actually felt all along but pretended otherwise? Which of these are our true values, and which do we just try to fulfill to achieve the approval of others?
If we don't define our own values, we get sucked in to others' value systems and deny the legitimacy of our own experience and knowledge. We act as though we have not seen and learned enough in life to set a standard for how we want to live, and waste time trying to impress people that we don't actually look up to but whose praise we seek. Then we end up with a fractured, confused, and insincere society. Do you want to live in someone else's world? What about your own? What if everyone were taking their cues from you? What influence would you choose to make?
I was always able to see value in just about all the lifestyles I came across, and I could also see drawbacks, consequences, and trade-offs. Which meant: I often felt a bit confused. Periodically, I would have powerful personal experiences that became important reference points for what I think is important. But still, we are not immune to social influence.
Perhaps this is why it helps to step outside human circles to study values. Within the passages about the wolves I was finding some welcome breathing room from values attached to human agendas; I was able to explore values for what they stand for rather than for who they were connected to. To observe values of loyalty and love and vigor and kindness woven across trails and woods and hunting excursions and playtime and rest was refreshing. Between the shimmers of Twenty-one's silver fur, the flashes of his teeth, and his playful spirit, I discovered the patience, strength, and self-assuredness I was looking for in a human partner. I came to a better understanding that I didn't need to compromise, and I didn't need to feel inadequate when someone who didn't even portray these values rejected me. Through the story arc of Cinderella's rise to compassionate leadership, I found a beautiful example of the integration of strength and nurturing that I strive to embody.
Can humans consider these wolves a reference point for our value systems? Is it so unreasonable? Any time I am unsure about a decision, I can think to these wolves, whose actions speak for themselves. What would the admirable alpha female wolf do in this challenging situation? Because I would love to be like her. What would the admirable alpha male wolf do? Because when the alpha male human in my current social circle is doing the opposite, I don't have to fall for it, and maybe I can even find the courage to stand up to him if I can think of Twenty-one's dignified and inclusive ways, and Cinderella's act of bravery that was committed in the name of a safer, happier, more inclusive and loving group.
The point I am trying to make is not to arrive at a fixed set of values that are never influenced by others, but rather to clarify the core of our value system and through experience, develop intellectual and emotional reasoning for that foundation of ethics that do not have to do with another person's proclaimed authority. Having a strong and clear sense of what is fundamentally important to us in the big picture of our world and lives helps us to navigated the details and to understand when it makes sense to deviate, experiment, revise, and update our values based on new experiences. This approach helps us to neither be rigid nor overly impressionable. We are shapers, but we are also shaped, just like a river being directed by the land at the very same moment it makes its impression.
Within the wolves' stories, devoid of the snags of confusing and contradictory human opinions and agendas, the values are so clear. I recognize that these wolves, like us, are complicated. We are not sensitive to them enough to recognize all their nuanced inner conflicts and perspectives. But what we can see in them is something we can learn from. Their lives carry messages that give us pause, help us reflect honestly upon ourselves, and equip us with the courage to step forward with confidence and make our impression on the world through our actions.
I drove hundreds of miles to learn from ancient trees only to discover the wisdom of wolves that roamed the pages of the book that was with me the entire drive. And of course...what we need is already with us, and in our heart of hearts, we already know what we really care about.
Photo credit: Laurel Guido
This article explores:
It's so much easier for your day to be ruined than made. And it's so easy to notice what's inadequate about a situation or person. Why is this? The answer has to do with our desire not to be killed.
"Negativity bias" is a term that refers to humans' tendency to focus on negative experience The reasoning behind this is fairly simple: in nature, having anything good has the prerequisite of not being dead.
This means that the most important features of our environment (inner or outer) include anything perceived as a threat. The nervous system can and will react to words, thoughts, sights, sounds, smells, feelings, and action. Everybody has different triggers based on life experience, but we also share common "danger" triggers such as screaming or the smell of smoke (when not near a known, controlled source such as a fireplace or barbecue.)
Simply, if we don't know about a threat, we can't respond to it, which means it might kill us. And then, because we have to be not-dead to have anything good (positive), we pay attention to bad things that might kill us (negative). And it doesn't end there--we remind ourselves of bad/threatening experiences we have escaped to reinforce the subconscious emotional memory whose function is to help us avoid similar situations in the future. So we might replay negative events ceaselessly, getting stuck in an addictive emotional-thought pattern in which it actually feels good to think negatively. Not uncommonly, we even take pride in our ability to recognize negative things. We think it means we're perceptive and smart. Sometimes it does. Sometimes.
Furthermore, as we live our lives with our negativity biases, we become habitually and socially conditioned by our own and others' behaviors to be negative. So this is why when you ask your friend about their recent travels, they tell you about traffic and long layovers and other problems that can't POSSIBLY be the most important or interesting things they have to share.
It's rooted in survival. So, don't be too hard on yourself for having negative thoughts. Negativity arises from those mechanisms that keep us alive. Negativity has its place in life. But more often than not, we're negativy-heavy, and most of us sense that we would feel so much better if we could lighten up. Luckily we do have the capacity to recognize when focusing on the negative is helping us survive and when it is just bringing us down.
Catching ourselves in negative thought-cycles is helpful but we don't often feel like there's much we can do about it. Inserting positive thoughts can provide a mild interruption, but what is really needed to get out of these cycles is another level of consciousness. This can be achieved through creative action (listening to/playing music or singing, writing, painting, drawing), meditation, conversation, exercise, sleep, or spending time in nature. BUT WAIT. Getting your pattern shift out of the thought cycle is EXCELLENT. But it is not the end of the story.
Whatever your negative spiral was about? It's points you toward something that needs your compassionate attention. So, during a time that you feel safe, calm, and not rushed, consider visiting with yourself about that topic. Maybe journal about it, or embark on a creative project that helps you walk through the conflicts and confusions surrounding the issue. This is transformation rather than temporary escape. The creative, reflective process changes something from being a pure problem/stressor to a resource for intellectual, emotional, and physical exploration. Transformation doesn't mean you will eviscerate negative feelings, but rather that you will be able to have a more flexible relationship with what could be very narrow, limiting, destructive patterns of thought and feeling.
Important to note is that "negative" emotions such as sadness, anger, guilt, and regret have their places and their functions in life. I am not trying to suggest we shouldn't have them. But there is a point at which they start to eat away at us or lead to violence, and developing skills in emotional intelligence so we can better work with them doesn't hurt.
Negative thought pattern action plan:
Want to better understand yourself, become more positive, and cultivate emotional intelligence? Check out the 21-day online meditation program "Foundations."
How are physical and emotional states connected? How can body awareness support communication and expression of highest values?
Learn more about body awareness and how it can support expression with the 14-day online meditation program "Body Connect."
Spaciousness of body, heart, and mind is powerful for creative work and expression. But there is so much mental clutter--so much stimulation and bombardment from the external world. So much in the way of busy-ness and distraction. With all that chaos, it can be difficult to even remember the stillness of the Soul, to remember that we can ease into a comfortable quiet within ourselves.
Our creative projects need us to find this spaciousness from time to time. Then, without strain, we can develop our works. Insights and ideas will surface effortlessly, and we can then make note of these to later incorporate into our projects.
Meditation is thus an excellent practice--it's helpful for developing the skills needed to return to inner repose. But in my own experience it seems to really be time in nature that unravels all the knots and makes space for the body, heart, and mind. Quiet time in nature does change your brain and can be considered a form of meditation. Plus, the contents of nature directly provide inspiration and material for you to work with. If you are a musician, you may be inspired by the rhythms of the sounds around you, or get ideas from the vocalizations of native wildlife. If you are a visual artist, you may be intrigued by the geometries, colors, and textures of the natural space. If you are a writer, the sense-scape can become an enriching groundwork for the abstractions you've been exploring. Let nature inform you. Form within you. Arrange and align the body, heart, mind, and spirit.
If you're asking "What's the point" of lounging or walking in nature, I'm smiling so big at you. Go see for yourself. Without a cell phone. Bring a journal or a sketch pad, some water and snacks. The way nature makes you feel will be all the explanation you need (but obviously maybe seek relatively comfortable conditions, although whipping wind and pelting rain can be amazing in their own rite).
The power of nature to relieve my stressors and release my attachments was never clearer to me than when I took a hike to the summit of Chalk Mountain in Santa Cruz one Winter morning. Read to the end to find out how a burrito rescued my hope for humanity. Here's the story:
The Time Chalk Mountain Finished my Poem
I had learned to keep Friday night restful, to decline invitations to go out so I could wake early on Saturday and hit Highway 1 with coffee and my journals. Coastal morning fog filled me with wonder and deep happiness as I followed the curves of the highway.
One morning I set out from Waddell beach into Big Basin, zipped snugly into my black down jacket. The trail was devoid of people, brisker than I’d even expect on a winter morning, and wonderfully quiet. I figured I’d hike to Berry Creek Falls, but when I reached the fork in the trail after an invigorating barefoot creek crossing, I hesitated. The last time I’d looked for that trail I couldn’t find it, and a similar distance away, according to the sign, was Chalk Mountain. I looked left to right several times. I wasn’t entirely prepared for a 14-mile round trip on an unfamiliar trail, but something about the name called me over to the left. I put my shoes back on and headed onto the unknown trail.
I saw not a soul at the mountain’s peak. I laid under a tree and rested after devouring the one piece of bread and avocado I’d thought to pack. I let my body sink deeply into the ground, gazing out at the clouds over the ocean. I was so content there, so blissfully alone. I lingered long. I meditated. I napped. I lifted myself into handstands. I gazed at the panoramic view as my skin absorbed the welcome winter sunlight.
When I descended, verses from the poem I’d written on my drive back from Bishop passed through my mind. I spoke some of them aloud, somewhat surprised I’d memorized them. As I spoke, it became apparent that the poem was missing some verses, as they now began to form in my head. Amazed the poem had followed me up the mountain, I took a moment to write down what was in my head. I marveled at the aliveness of this one--at its volition. It didn’t occur to me that it would give rise to more poetry in the coming months. Maybe years--who knows?
Hikes, runs, or rests in natural spaces can be incredibly gratifying. They ease us back to a peaceful state and help us release our attachments. From these places of rest, we can draw from our creative sources and breathe life into our spirit. Creativity easily follows. The gates to inspirations open wide. What are you waiting for?!
P.S. Remember to tell a friend if you are going hiking alone. And don't do what I did! Bring adequate food and water! I had to eat a huge burrito after this hike to save myself from thinking the world was evil (a common affliction caused by hanger).
This year I will be designing an online meditation program called "Nature Connect." Sign up for the Pattern Shift Monthly Newsletter (in the sidebar) to stay up to date.
I was driving through the mid-morning desert on my way from Bishop to Santa Cruz. Massive rock formations loomed on the peripheries of the road and ahead on the near horizon. Suddenly I felt a creative force breaching within me. The Devil. A metaphor that illuminated some recent experiences in my life suddenly came to mind. I kept my eyes out for a safe shoulder, pulled over, turned off the car and reached for my journal and a pen. I wrote everything that was coming up, much of it rhyming. Incidentally, when I continued on my way, over the next hill was a sign: Devil's Postpile National Monument.
Sometimes creative impulses or soul expressions happen all of a sudden. With regards to the above passage, I'm so glad I honored the impulse rather than continue driving. This one flurry of writing was the predecessor of a series of three (so far) poems that articulate real life experiences with creative fictional embellishments that I have shared publicly!
Sometimes we experience a powerful creative upheaval and though we don't know what it's from, it's a clear sign to find an outlet for expression. For me, it's usually writing. For you, it maybe be along other creative lines, such as music or drawing. This can often be a precursor to spiritual insight/higher self encounter. If you have a journal close by, you can capture at least the theme if not the essence of the upwelling, and you can go more depth into it later.
Authentic journaling--an expression of the soul--isn't this highly controlled thing. Sometimes a creative impulse pounces, and where it will take you is yet unknown. Do not aim for perfection. Just write. Perhaps you will refine and clarify later, or perhaps you will let it be as it is on the page in its original form. Relax your expectations and follow the expressions that rise within you. You might be pleasantly surprised, or even shocked, at the content you produce.
This concludes the Intro to Journaling Series! But it is not the end to the topic. Sign up for newsletter updates at the bottom of this page to stay connected.
Series in Review:
Intro to Journaling Part 1: Why Journal?
Intro to Journaling Part 2: Materials & Organization
Intro to Journaling Part 3: Setting up the Heart-Mind Space
Intro to Journaling Part 4: Ritual Writing
Intro to Journaling Part 5: Spontaneous Writing
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