I've just spent a week immersed in theater: daily rehearsals and constant running of lines, culminating in three performances in the space of 28 hours. And looking back over it this morning (how can I not, given the way it's consumed my thoughts and time this past week) I think it's taught me something very important about our struggle for spiritual maturity.
If you've followed this blog a long time, you probably know by now that I was once deeply involved in church but am no longer so involved. I haven't in any way lost my faith, it's just evolved over the years to a place where the language and messages of most of the churches I encounter seem to miss the mark of what I know -- or at least believe -- to be true.
So what I think today -- after this interesting week -- is that the problem with churches is they encourage people to sort of will themselves to goodness. And I don't think that's all that effective: I think what result's a bit like the disconnect between political correctness and the horrid nastiness we're currently seeing on the American political scene.
When we are busy willing ourselves to goodness, it becomes a sort of mask that we put on, but the character beneath the mask remains unchanged. This can become such a habit that we may not even be aware when the mask slips, because over time we come to inhabit it so completely that we honestly believe it's who we are.
I think, actually, that true spiritual maturity is more a matter of becoming conscious than becoming "good." And here's how I saw that played out in the theater.
The show was a 10-minute play festival: ten plays by ten playwrights, each ten minutes long, with five directors managing two plays each with a stable of actors, some of whom were in more than one play. Since I was only in one play, I was only on stage for 10 minutes in a performance that lasted two hours, so I had lots of time to observe.
And the first thing I noticed was this: a director known to be a sweet, gentle, very sensitive and intelligent person, would suddenly turn and utter rude, insensitive and even sometimes abusive comments to his actors and staff, and then later not even realize he had done so -- in fact, become hurt and deeply apologetic; frankly disbelieving when called on his actions. It so perfectly mirrored an experience I'd had last year with another director that I was forced to realize that this must somehow be a part of the human condition, but thrown into relief in these stressful situations.
The second thing was more oblique: an actress in one of the other plays -- a very seasoned and truly gifted actress -- was extremely nervous about going on stage and wondering if she should ever act again because she found it so intensely stressful. "Aren't you nervous?" she asked. "This really isn't fun," she said. "I wonder if I should, like, meditate or something."
And I realized I wasn't nervous, actually; at least -- not in the way she meant. But it wasn't because I have a meditation practice, in the sense that "I meditate, so I'm a chill person." Looking closely at my thinking processes, I realized my biggest worry was not that I wouldn't perform well or would forget my lines, but that I wouldn't stay conscious; that I would become so obsessed with how I might perform or be perceived that I would lose track of my lines, of the arc of the play, of where I was on stage -- all of which was especially critical because one of the other actors who provided most of my cues didn't have his lines yet and kept going off script. So I had to be always aware of what was physically happening in the play so I could respond appropriately while still keeping the play as close as possible to the script the playwright had written. I needed to be fully present at all times -- something I (daydreamer, observer, performer that I am) traditionally find difficult.
These individuals -- the two directors, the nervous actress, the actor who kept muffing his lines -- are all good souls, talented, thoughtful, hearts in the right place, and I'm very fond of them all. But with all that time to observe and process, I found myself increasingly grateful for the time I spend in meditation every day. Not that I am a better human being for it -- I know I'm every bit as capable of flying off the handle, of panicking, of forgetting my lines, of saying one thing while doing another: I am human, after all!
But my daily practice has helped me to be more present and more conscious; has helped me to let go of my need to be right and good; has helped me to trust that my performing self is not my best self; that beneath all that need to be right or good is some deeper self that is already genuinely right and good; it's a sort of collective divine core that I believe is deeply rooted in each of us. And I believe that if I can get my need to be perceived as "good" out of the way -- if I can be totally present and fully conscious of what is happening around me -- then what needs to be said or done in any given situation will somehow rise up and spill out appropriately.
The performing self's resistance to allowing that to happen, I suspect, is that if I let that deeper self control what happens then I as an individual can no longer take credit for whatever good occurs: it's not me being or doing good, it's good being done through me. You'd think the performing self would be grateful for a chance to look good -- and of course it's my performing self that's talking to you now: she's trying to make way for the deeper self to take charge because Performing Self knows that that will make her look good. But when Deeper Self does take charge, Performing Self kind of fades away. So because she is desperate to stay visible, she resists that letting go process quite ferociously.
I suspect this is all rather muddy; I haven't fully processed it yet. But it's the first time I've looked at the difference between what Richard Rohr calls False Self and True Self in this context. I've seen it before, when I'm painting; that when Performing Self tries to control the outcome of what I paint, it's somehow less satisfying than when I paint from my Deeper Self. But to see it play out on the stage, in community with others, seems to be taking that awareness to another level; integrating it a bit more...
Funny. My husband just came in while I was typing, so I was trying to describe all this to him. He sees it all as a control issue -- hierarchical management versus a more cooperative approach, both organizationally (director and cast) and personally (what's in our brains at any given moment vs what we know at a deeper level). He believes the difficult behaviors stem from fear of failure, fear of lack of control. All of which is also true. And isn't that interesting? Because the performing self from this perspective is the individual, needing success, and the deeper self is the part of us that steps back and trusts that the collective good will emerge, and works to create a more collaborative environment where that can happen.
Fascinating. Well, to me, anyway. Such fun thoughts to start the day.
Have a good one. Get some rest. Enjoy these last bits of summer.
It's been quite a week: a friend's brother lost his home in the Louisiana floods, a friend's daughter miscarried at 14 weeks, we put our dog to sleep, tonight is opening night for a play I'm in, and my husband, who's been in school all summer, has his final test this morning.
So when we got word from another friend that his teenage daughter was in the ICU with blood clots, it was like, oh, dear, what else will we need to pray for and worry about?
And the truth is -- I don't really want to know. Because things are going wrong all over the world, for all sorts of people, in all sorts of difficult situations. I can't begin to encompass them all, although I can pray that my prayers for those whom I know will echo in the lives of others unknown to me.
At times like this, when I am hyper-aware of the fragility of life; when there are so many thoughts and prayers clamoring for space in my brain, I notice it's very difficult to stay on task. So I begin again to make lists: pray for this, practice that, water these, notify people of this, do this, remember that... And I look for something to ease the clutter -- which is, I think, why this image appealed to me today.
I look at all these peaceful faces, and, just as the act of contorting my features into a smile makes me feel happier, the feeling of reflecting these faces (those hyperactive mirror neurons at work again) helps me feel calmer.
I'm hoping that, whatever's going on in your life today, it does the same for you...
Yesterday we said our final goodbyes to this little guy. It's hard now to remember that he once looked like this: his coat, when he grew up, was all white, and his tail, which you can see quite clearly here, all but disappeared into his fur as he matured.
I walked around the yard when we got home from the vet's office, picking up the last of the poop and dismantling all the extra fencing we installed to help him find his way around in his latter years, since he was blind.
It's never easy to lose a pet, and this was no exception; 13 years of loving and caring creates a permanent niche in your heart, and the ache when that niche is emptied is pretty painful. But life goes on, responsibilities continue, and the work of healing begins right away, aided by all the friends who know and sympathize. This is one of those universal human experiences, and sharing it builds bonds even in places where you might think none could exist. Almost everyone knows this particular ache well; I'm grateful for all the hugs...
At some level we are all slaves to our emotions, but I'm usually pretty even-tempered. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons my stress levels are really high this morning. We finally got the dog to eat last night, but he still won't eat a full meal, so it's hard to adjust his insulin levels -- and he throws up the new treats he loves but won't eat the old ones, and then begs constantly when he doesn't get them. So I'm off to the vet again at nine.
I'm in a play that opens this Friday but the director changed the blocking and his vision of the character yesterday, and we still haven't had a clean run-through with no interruptions. I need a few of those to feel comfortable in the role, so I'm worried I'll screw up.
And I've been privy to a lot of high-emotional-content conversations lately, and having to carefully sort out truth from perceptions and projections is a task I find quite exhausting: conflict always makes me uncomfortable.
So I woke in a panic this morning about something completely unrelated to all of this, and am now trying to step back and just carefully put one foot in front of the other and trust that "all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well." My husband, ever the practical one, puts it more succinctly: "Look at it this way: no one died" -- but then, he's the same man who used to tell our daughter it was foolish to be fearful.
The fact is, yes, the fears may have no basis in reality, but for those of us who carry what we in our family call "the fear gene," that rational approach doesn't really help. Just because our fears are foolish doesn't mean we stop feeling them.
And, in the long run, I need to remember to be grateful to that fearfulness, because it's what got me to try meditation, which then, in turn, brought me to a place of spiritual wonder and a sense of acceptance that is in fact what fuels and restores me, what enables me to keep stepping out in faith, to keep trusting, despite my fears, that all shall indeed be well; that "no-one will die."
I'm sure that sounds a bit cyclical, a sort of chicken and egg problem, but I still think it's important, when I begin to flagellate myself for my weaknesses, to remind myself that in the end those same weaknesses have brought me some incredible gifts.
So, when looking for an image to place with this post, this one sprang to mind. There's a junkyard I occasionally pass on my journeys, and the owners have a way of taking stuff the rest of us think of as trash and turning it into art. Perhaps that's what I'm trying to do here, or at least trying to speak of here: that living the spiritual life allows us to transform that which gives us pain into something that helps us grow.
Or maybe it's just that, as Garrison Keillor says, "To an English major, everything is material."
My husband has a favorite joke he's been sharing with some frequency over the last couple of years. It goes like this: A priest, a minister and a rabbi get into a discussion about when life begins. "At conception, of course," says the priest. "Nah," says the minister, "Life begins at birth; everyone knows that."
"Nope," says the rabbi, shaking his head. "You're both wrong. Life begins when the kids move out and the pets die."
He got started telling this joke a while ago, because it became increasingly difficult to find dog-sitters who were willing to inoculate our diabetic dog with insulin twice a day. But now that the dog is also deaf and blind dog-sitters are really no longer an option; he needs someone to be with him all the time, responsive to his requests to go out, willing to guide him to and from the doors, and willing to clean up whatever mistakes he makes (although those are surprisingly few.) Which means we haven't been able to leave the house together for more than a few hours for several years now. We got one overnight last fall when one of our daughters was home, but other than that all our travels have been done separately.
But the joke has become particularly poignant this week: he's been off his feed for a while now, and when he started throwing up his meals and refusing his favorite treats we took him to the vet yet again. The meds they gave him (we're back up to seven pills a day, plus the insulin injections and eyedrops) are slowly returning him to normal, but this is our third time round this particular issue in the last year, so they talked us into doing an ultrasound to uncover the root cause -- which turns out to be two tumors in his liver.
We'll get the results of his biopsy today or Monday, and make whatever decisions we need to make at that point. But however much we've joked about how frustrating it can be living with him, the reality of imminent loss is still upon us, and I, at least, am forced to realize that however much I've looked forward to the freedom that loss will give us, the loss itself will not be all that easy. And here's why:
He's adorable, he really is: a lovely midsize sheepdog with a very sweet face and a foolish obsession with tennis balls and to-go coffee cups. But beauty isn't everything: if he were human, I think we'd say he's on the spectrum. He's incredibly stubborn, and really doesn't bond well with others. What attachment he has to us springs more from abandonment issues (we gave up trying to leave him in kennels after his first year, as no-one ever wanted him back: apparently he wailed and moaned the entire time we were gone) than from any genuine affection.
All the doors in our new house have scratches on them because he cannot bear to have a door closed between himself and any of his owners. Bathroom doors, kitchen doors, studio doors... all of them -- plus, in an attempt to track us down, he'll accidentally close himself in a room and scratch to get out. And at least some of my shoulder issues come from attempts to control him on a leash: he never trusts us to have his own best interests at heart, and so when we pull the leash to keep him from running into something, or falling off a cliff, he either strains forward or digs in his heels. We took him to three obedience classes and he failed all of them. And he hates other dogs. And our vet bills over the years have been truly astronomical.
So at some level we will be glad to be free of this burden. And yet... the truth is, he's been part of our family for 13 years, and we love the guy in spite of it all. And for all the jokes we make, and all the dreams we have of actually being able to go away together for a change, I can tell this won't be easy.
The indicators, the bad behaviors, are all there. We've been going out to dinner more. I've been having bowls of chocolate ice cream for dessert. I ordered a gorgeous pair of boots in the largest size they had, knowing they probably wouldn't be big enough, but hoping anyway; dreaming they might fit, looking forward to their arrival, imagining them on my feet -- and then, of course, when they arrived, they were indeed both beautiful and too small, so I sent them back. Easier to be sad about that than to face the reality of losing the dog.
Because some part of me -- even though we've done a great job of caring for him all these years -- feels guilty because I've found him so hard to love. I always was a dog person, loved dogs, dreamed of having one who'd become a loving companion. But Nemo was never going to be that dog. And though, as he lies here snoring at my feet, I look down at him and smile, I know the truth is that I never loved him enough, and it makes me sad. Pets, like children, are very good at showing us our weaknesses.
My mother-in-law once explained to me that the job of a parent is to civilize her children. And I found myself thinking about that this morning -- partly because we are currently living in such an appallingly un-civilized political climate, but also because I was reading Richard Rohr, who is so famous for having said "If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it."
It seems to me that one of the key signs of maturity is exactly that: that whatever our own trials and discomforts may be, we choose not to project them -- or the blame for them -- onto others.
Which does not mean we become passive, accepting complete and total responsibility for whatever calamities may befall us: clearly we cannot stand idly by and allow tyrants to walk all over us.
But it is imperative that whatever actions we might need to take emerge out of the wisdom that comes when we take the time to know and explore the roots of our pain: when we come to understand the wounds we carry; when we realize and accept that we are not the only wounded ones; when we find ways to contain, manage, and transform our suffering; and when we allow that whole process to help us become more understanding and compassionate about the suffering of others.
When I was growing up I learned this phrase: "Takes one to know one." I've been using it for years as a response to compliments, but for some reason this morning I remembered that originally it was a taunt: if someone called you a bad name, you'd say, "Takes one to know one."
So now I'm thinking about all the wisdom contained in that one little phrase; that so much of what we see in others -- both good and bad -- is a reflection of our own strengths and weaknesses.
And yet, how rarely we realize that, when we're pointing fingers at each other -- which means we can get involved in endless unresolvable arguments about who's the bad guy and who's at fault.
... which is why I posted this picture, taken at a family celebration dinner at Seattle's Space Needle this week. The way out of those endless unresolvable arguments -- at least, this is what we were taught in grad school -- is to climb to the balcony; to rise above it; to take in the big picture, and realize we really NEED all those differing viewpoints; they make for a richer picture.
What makes this image fun is the juxtaposition of opposites: the sky, and the sea; the mountains and the flatlands; the tall buildings and the short; the dark buildings and the light, the red and the blue... all of it combines in a way unique to this particular city, giving it its own brand of character and beauty.
What makes our country great is also the juxtaposition of viewpoints: the conservative and the progressive, small towns and cities, grounded/rooted and imaginative/free form, dark and light, rich and poor and everything in between. There's room for all kinds -- that's a founding value -- and somehow we've managed to make that work.