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A series about connection vs attachment.
Part 1: Is this connection or Attachment?
Part 2: Albatross Love & Human Jealousy
Part 3: Morality & Attachment
This blog post explores how attachments can complicate moral stances, and offers perspectives that might help us become aware of our own contradictions and confusions.
There is a difference between being connected with values and moral perspectives versus being attached to them. This is tricky.
Morality for security reasons
As humans we are liable to identify and cling to ideas and structures that help us make sense of the world and save us from critical thinking and making difficult decisions, for example, taking religious scripture literally and accepting dogma. It's just easier for the mind to have a "go-to" reasoning model than to assess each experience as it comes.
Morality for social reasons
We also may identify ourselves with particular moral stances taken by our parents, heroes, and role models. "I stand for this." These relationships with moral stances are based on the desire to feel secure, to protect a familiar sense of self, and to align with identified alphas. It is different to genuinely form intellectual and emotional connection with the values, contradictions, subjectivity, sacrifices, and grey areas that form the heart of morality.
Morality for emotional reasons
Emotions show us how we feel about the world. Unfortunately emotionality has its own grey areas and pitfalls. Sometimes it guides us well. Often it misleads us horrifically.
For example, some people may have very powerful emotional responses to moral issues--lets say, for example, abortion. Having a strong emotional response to a moral issue does not automatically tell us what is right and what is wrong. Rage, tears, and other drama can be very compelling, and may give you an urge to take a side or engage action, but emotional intensity does not necessarily lead us to ethical clarity. Often you will find that where emotionality is on public display, logic and consistency are absent from the person's moral framework. For example, a person who does not support abortion because "all life is sacred" may support the death penalty, physician-assisted suicide, war, or other events in which a life is ended. This begs the question why has the person subscribed to this value but not that similar value? Is their emotional relationship with life and death or their own inner emotional loops? What is the difference? Are prestige or social implications entering the reasons for taking this stance?
Emotional memory can block presence and critical thinking
Furthermore, if a person has a strong emotional experience that becomes stored away as trauma in the body, the moral question can trigger anxiety and panic. Though this person may feel genuinely connected with a moral stance based on real life experience and memories of suffering, this way of reasoning can mislead. Difficult feelings can make us reactive to similar but different new experiences as we quickly try to avoid repeating that negative experience. This is hugely relevant for racism and hostility between "groups" of people. We base broad opinions off of specific experiences and end up becoming narrow-minded about what might be a rather complex, nuanced matter. As mentioned in the beginning of this piece, we like to make life easier - its easier to follow rules than to critically assess every scenario. Easier, but not more accurate, not more intelligent. Following preconceived notions is relying on previous patterns formed by past experiences - it stops us from being present. Simply asking questions about the nature of the situation at hand can stimulate the needed pattern shift that helps us out of our emotional loops, enabling us to see more clearly what is here now.
A sense of moral goodness can become an obstacle to action
"Slave morality" was coined by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, perhaps known best for his explorations of Nihilism. He described slave morality as a mindset sometimes held by an oppressed group that undermines their potential for creativity and power. In slave morality, an oppressed group (and that might very well be you and me, who are likely not capable of influencing political action) spends their energy celebrating their own moral goodness while resenting their master and dreaming of a future world (such as heaven) in which they are rewarded for their moral rightness while their masters are punished. The emotional expenditure of feeling self-righteous and resentful, Nietzshe argues, is really the killer of the possibility for change. Because active resentment and self-celebration absorbs the slaves and provides them with an identity, rather than take action to destroy the master-slave relationship, they inadvertently reinforce it. They adopt an "I am oppressed" mentality and create a tolerable world within their limited freedoms, frequently telling themselves that they are righteous and one day justice will be served. So the slave on the one hand is poised with the necessary insight and inspiration to form important human social values and change the world, recognizing the injustice of oppression and inequality, but if the slave contents him/herself with the satisfaction of being morally good and dreaming of a better future, they will never actualize their values and overthrow their masters. None of this is to say that oppressed groups of people are weak, unintelligent, uncreative, or anything like that. Nietzsche's warning is that we are liable to play the role of the identity we have become familiar with rather than changing anything. Pattern stuck.
So we have to be careful about identifying with the parts of ourselves that fall into the weak, oppressed, marginalized zones, whether that's being female, poor, black, queer, etc. If we adopt this "disempowered" identity and resent those who do not treat us fairly, we may feel emotionally satisfied in victimhood (and we may fuel that self-satisfaction with regular arguments and minor uprisings) while not actually making a difference. Even if we create goodwill among our own marginalized group, which is commendable, we have not altered the power structure until we interrupt the powerful/weak dichotomy. And if we do find the inspiration to meaningfully alter the power structure, we want to be clever--we don't want to recreate the same structure with the only difference being that now we are the ones on top. We want to come up with something that does not rely on subjugation but is not devoid of power either. We need to do more than overthrow and displace our "masters." We need to create structures in which power flows dynamically and changes periodically, not favoring one group or another. I for one do not know what that looks like, but it makes me think of ecosystems. I think if we keep slave morality in mind we may be better at avoiding it and come up with some interesting ideas.
Emotionality is essential in moral reasoning
Concerns acknowledged, emotionality is important for our moral reasoning. You may find cases in which a strong logical case is made for an ethical stance, but empathy is absent, and the purveyor of that stance may be dangerous. Attempting to take a "purely logical" view of the world often leads us out of connection with that which we seek to understand. "Science" cannot be divorced from the world of emotion, and if science purposes to understand the world as is, emotion in fact needs to be front and center. This is explored in a compelling way in Carl Safina's book "Beyond Words." We may conduct clinical experiments on animals to be able to assert facts about them, but that is only one kind of knowledge. Furthermore, there's danger in alienating emotionality and empathy from scientific pursuits; historically we have justified animal abuse with their "scientifically confirmed" lack of consciousness and intelligence (we've done this to humans too). But doesn't that reveal our own lack of awareness? Aren't we actually evolutionarily equipped to recognize emotionality in other living beings? And is that not something to explore and embrace, regardless of the messiness of subjectivity?
Emotionality must be part of morality; we only know how we feel about anything through our emotional responses. Lying awake at night with an ache about what is happening in the world is an important experience. Our sense of empathy is critical to morality. So that which sincerely troubles us is worth exploring. But we have to know ourselves well enough to understand the nature of our emotional responses, understanding how the body's stored memories may be holding us back from new perspective, and that we might even get addicted to the rush of feeling defensive about a cause. Claiming victimhood can also give us a sense of power; to be "wronged" and to blame makes us feel higher, safer. It is a false feeling.
Emotional intelligence, which can be practiced by anyone, shows us that even it we get a serotonin dose when we act as victims, that doesn't mean that acting as victims is in our best interest. We have to be aware of our physiological and emotional responses to our life contexts, and be critical at the same time that we are open.
When a moral stance is encouraged as a means to fulfill an agenda, we can call that manipulation. Emotion and logic may be used to influence others to support a cause that benefits a chosen entity. In this case, "morality" is weaponized. Its attractiveness and supposed nobility are instrumentalized to influence action that suits somebody's agenda. Attachments are definitely involved. Over and over again I observe people fighting over an issue, and find that the issue itself has been stripped of its substance and become nothing more than fuel for an ego-battle. Over and over again we have witnessed the weaponization of morality by world leaders. And we have seen the horrors that unfold from there.
Inquiring into morality
We can inquire into our own values by inviting emotional, physical, and intellectual sensibilities into our assessments of right and wrong, and by being open to reassessing again and again. Emotional intelligence, body awareness, and logical inquires can help us understand what is at hand. However, no matter how disciplined we are with these inquiries, there is no certainty that they will guide us to moral rightness. How could they, if moral rightness simply isn't absolute?
The deeper we dive into morality, the clearer it becomes that morality is anything but clear. Morality will never be finalized in a neat set of laws, because there are unanswerable questions that riddle every moral problem. The desire for moral goodness is simply part of our ongoing human challenge to be self-aware, discerning, and intentional participants in the shaping of our world.
We can at best seek to identify incomplete or insincere moral stances by acknowledging the gaps and contradictions that fall between our choices. The sentiment "Maybe I am wrong" could prevent a great deal of suffering. Morality brings a tension to life that offers us a good reason to be engaged with our own actions. Perhaps it is not the answers, but the questions themselves that can most effectively lead us to do the right thing.
But are we so lost in the grey areas of morality? Maybe I am wrong. One of the most profound quotes I have ever come across was by a Matriarch of a remote island community in Micronesia. I was supporting a conservation project and had the opportunity to learn and share some local perspectives from the island. Translated from Palauan, Ungilreng Takawo said,
"We all know what is good and what is not. We choose to believe otherwise because of greed and ignorance."
Photo: Tim Evanson
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
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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
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."
A simple guide for effectively bringing yourself down from mental overdrive.
You know how to connect conceptual dots. You can handle complex abstract ideas and follow intellectual queries to their logical conclusions. Mental gymnastics is your main event.
Intellect in action can be beautiful, exciting, and fascinating. But the mind can also get carried away, wrapped up in abstractions, paradoxes, and thoughts flowing so fast that if they were a river there would be a warning sign on the bank - Danger: swift current.
For times that thoughts and ideas feel overwhelming--too many thoughts happening too fast and making themselves seem urgent--body presence is an effective way to ground, center, and restore tranquility in the mind and body. However, many people who experience mental overdrive are not aware that a shift of awareness into the body can help them feel better. In fact, a common reaction to mental overdrive is to try to solve the problem through more thinking, which results in mounting anxiety and a self-perpetuating cycle of distress.
Body presence to liberate yourself from cycles of the mind
Body presence is a form of awareness that focuses on sensation. If you find your mind becoming overactive and are feeling anxious, take that experience as a clear, compassionate message to take sanctuary in the body.
Three important messages for you:
For moderate anxiety: Feel the ground beneath you. Relax around your forehead, jaw, and shoulders. Notice where you can feel your breath--and encourage that breath to slow down and deepen a bit if you can. Put one hand on your chest and one hand on your belly to feel yourself breathe. Breathe in through your nose, and out through pursed lips as if through a straw. Acknowledge what you feel and encourage calm.
For high anxiety: Feel the ground beneath you. Relax around your forehead, jaw, and shoulders. Take a full, deep breath in and exhale in sharp short intervals. Repeat until you feel more calm. Flow between two or three simple yoga postures (see video below). As you become more calm, come to a seated or reclining posture. Put one hand on your chest and one hand on your belly to feel yourself breathe.
For panic: Go into child's pose or crocodile pose if you can. If you can't, do what you can to make yourself comfortable. Drop your shoulders. Feel the support of the ground beneath you. Take a full, deep breath in and exhale in sharp short intervals. Repeat until you feel calm taking root within you. When you feel more calm, begin to flow through two or three simple yoga postures while focusing on breath. Move slowly. As you deepen calm in your body, come to a seated or reclining position. Put one hand on your chest and one hand on your belly to feel yourself breathe. As you do, repeat this mantra, inwardly or out loud, recommended by mental health advocate Malia Bradshaw to yourself slowly: "I am safe, I am loved."
After calming yourself, find a simple, light activity that requires your hands and gentle focus. A few great options include:
Later on in the day, or the next morning if you feel comfortable being still, consider making yourself a cup of tea and journaling about what's on your mind, or curl up with a book or a podcast. Being able to shift awareness from mental activity to body presence is a powerful and helpful skill for everybody. Ultimately, this skill, and time spent in body presence will support you not only in feeling at peace, but also in nurturing a thriving intellect. I encourage you to bring meditation into your life to support yourself--the 14-day online meditation program "Body Connect" is a great place to start.
For immediate guidance and support, I recommend this video:
Think you need words or actions from somebody else to feel at peace within yourself? Think again.
"If only he would just call me and tell me he's sorry, I'd feel better about it."
"I just wish she would admit to me that she's wrong so I can leave this behind."
"I can't move on until I tell him what's on my mind, but he doesn't want to talk to me."
"My self-esteem would be better if my manager would see that I'm intelligent and respect me for it."
Sound familiar? We're all familiar with the uncomfortable emotional states that make us crave some kind of words or action from somebody else. The thoughts go round in circles and you think, "If I could just get 'x' from them, this suffering would be over.
This is a natural situation to find yourself in, but it doesn't feel good. Even if you're right--even if you deserve an apology, or forgiveness, or whatever, it feels powerless and neurotic to crave it so much. And it is--when you insist that a specific set of circumstances that are out of your control are the only thing that will make you feel better, you have chosen to give away your power to somebody else. Why would anyone do that? Of course, no one means to give away their power. But often, false power, which requires subjugation of others, is mistaken for true power, which is entirely different and misleads us to this state of needing external validation. More on that later.
Hoping for external resolution, which is similar to responding to sadness with distraction (food alcohol, etc.) or responding to anger with violence (common mistake, more on this another day). You're hoping the universe will arrange itself in just the way that will please you. It's nice when that happens, but it's not something anyone can depend on, and it does not come with the gifts of self-empowerment and self-awareness the way internal resolution does.
Internal resolution is coming to terms, or making peace with your situation without the participation of the person/people involved in your distress. This does not mean you disregard their role in the situation or their opinions. It means that you acknowledge the control and lack of control you have in the situation, and take the actions you can to lay the matter to rest. It's ending the cycles of anxiety about the matter in favor of freeing yourself for constructive action and compassionate presence once again.
The key difference between the state of distress and craving external resolution and the state of peace reached through internal resolution is the difference between attachment and connection. When craving external resolution, you are not seeing things for what they are and as a result you are attached to what somebody else thinks of you and you are attached to the illusion that your power has been taken away by them. You are attached to the idea that your inner state depends on anybody else. It feels unfair, like they have power over your emotional state. It's a feeling of being trapped, but it is you that has built a cage around yourself. (Please note this is not a series of judgments--this is a description of a common human affliction with the purpose of illuminating pathways for change.)
Pushing for/requiring external resolution by trying to command another person's words and actions does not support and enhance the connection between two people. You may enjoy a moment of satisfaction, but this will inevitably dissolve, as it is just a wisp, an effigy of true resolution.
Internal resolution arises when you release your attachments to make space to connect with yourself. What does this mean? How do you make it really count? What does that look like? Read Part 2 to find out.
Want to bring emotional intelligence to your life on a deeper level? Check out the 14-day online meditation program, Body Connect.
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