Saturday, June 10, 2017

Forced Growth

I am indebted to a woman who has suffered for many years with M.C.S., and who is now old, disabled and shut-in. She gave me the words that title this piece, and described an amazingly poignant experience I now want to focus on. She was reflecting, with a group of old people, on the difficulties associated with self-care. She spoke of taking care of oneself in the midst of the very conditions that age and infirmity thrust upon us, then she mentioned how these things had “forced her to grow.” Being the kind of person I am, I heard her, and began to reflect upon what all she meant by that comment. I want to share some of these reflections with you, because I believe they reveal the painful, miraculous and paradoxical nature of human life.

As an older person, I have slowly become aware that things I used to assume, are not the way I had made them out to be. This is one of those learnings, I experience from time to time. Because she was able to give voice to her awareness of forced growth, I was able to take it in. And what I am taking in —  is changing my awareness; awakening me to just how complex and incredible existence is. She basically shared her burgeoning awareness — that the tragedy that befell her — was the very same painful and shocking experience that had forced her to grow.

“Another fucking growth experience.” How often have you heard that expression? How often have you used it? We have the awareness that growth experiences can be uncomfortable and unpleasant, but do we really know that even tragedies like illness, disability and accidents have that same growth potential folded within them?  Out of the fire and ashes, a transformation can occur. That may seem like an abstract possibility for some lucky few, but is it really a possibility for the rest of us? Yes. And here’s why.

For many years she dwelled in the heartache of having her normal life snatched away from her. It was a long time of deep and agonizing loss, of loneliness, of anger and hopelessness. She didn’t know it, for all she could experience was the ache of grief and hardship, but something else was also happening. The very burn of painful loss was delivering a sensitizing awareness; a world was opening, as her familiar one dissolved. The scalding reality of loss carved out a new consciousness.

It took her awhile to recognize it, to believe that something good could come of something so bad. Then, she thought she was crazy for a while. But, eventually, she adjusted, and came to accept the fact that she had become more aware, sensitive and compassionate. Being broken down, by Life, had made her more whole.

What impressed her the most (and me, having gone through my own phoenix experience) was that the changes that took place, had occurred, without any effort or intention on her part (or mine, for that matter). She didn’t change deliberately; rather, she was changed by what she had gone through.

In reply to the question “why,” comes this answer.  There is a kind of molting that human beings go through, sometimes dramatic (like the traumatic experiences we had) but mostly just inconvenient, dismaying and uncomfortable. These “fucking growth experiences” mostly are accompanied by an experience of dread, but they turn out to be blessings in disguise, molting human-style.

Knowing this, which most of us begrudgingly do, doesn’t make the experience more pleasant or endurable. It doesn’t lead to praying for hardship, nor does it mean truly embracing those undergoing this kind of struggle. But this kind of awareness could provide a balm to the fear that haunts human activity. There is a maturing aspect of who we are. We don’t have control of it, but we can rely on it. It is human to molt into shape.

It might be useful to remember this tendency, this aspect of human nature right now. Life has our backs. Sometimes (maybe times like this) things have to get worse, before they get better. Everything has to be in doubt — the possibility of death brings about the possibility of Life. Nature regularly and faithfully forces growth, not out of malice (though it looks that way for a time) but out of a terrible kindness. Forced growth is that terrible kindness, or as Ram Dass calls it, a “fierce grace.”

Considering the possibility that evolution is at my back brings ambivalent feelings.  I like the idea that I may grow just because I am alive, but I am chagrined when I face the existential fact that I may be grown in ways I would not choose. I am always surprised that I am equipped for such vulnerability and adaptation.

The Green Fuse

“The force that through the green fuse drives the flower”
                                                                                                                           Dylan Thomas

There is a force that hasn’t gotten adequate recognition. Elder’s lives are too easily categorized and dismissed — because what drives aging is so hard to perceive. I’ll say more about how this happens later, but for now, I just want to concentrate on the fact that the later stage of human life is infused with the energy of Nature. Dr. Bill Thomas is fond of saying “aging is growth.” I’d like to amplify that perception, by pointing out that what drives human life, the force behind it all, also drives the aging process. The force that created humankind creates old age.

This perception came home to me through a friend’s relationship with his new grandson. In his love for this new member of his family, he was touched by an awareness, which has tremendous application to the respect that elder life deserves. As he watched this newborn, and marveled at his growth, he could see the elemental energy that drives all development.

He noticed that as his grandson aged, he became more aware of the environment around him. He began wriggling, and unconsciously leaning out to touch whatever attracted his attention. Slowly he began to acquire the capacity to grasp. From there he learned he could pull those things towards his inquiring mouth. My friend was captured by the recognition that this was all happening naturally, without effort, much consciousness, or guidance.

To his credit, he connected the instinctive movements of his grandson, with what was happening in his own life. New awareness and capabilities were emerging.  As he aged, he was being changed! Unbidden, he was going through a maturational process. He was being altered! He could see that he, and his grandson, were related, by more than blood — there was something, a force — that caused them to unfold themselves.

This force, the life-force, has shaped old age. The greying stage of life is something intended. It is part of the pathway of Life, an element in the design of things, which we humans do not understand presently, any more than the infant knows why it is reaching out. Late life is not what it has been thought to be (decline and demise) — it is Life bringing about a new phase of being.

The general pressure that modern life has put on Nature, the mechanization of every aspect of living, the time crunch, all have supported a terrible conceit. Hubris has taken over human perception. The assumption that we know better than what animates us, colors what we make of life. Mistakenly, we tend to think it is our efforts, instead of this force, the force of Life, that makes us more human.

Old age has been viewed through a human-created lens. It has been misperceived — shrunken into a shriveled up caricature. It suffers from a limited viewpoint. Seen through the lens of life, something new is unfolding — a ripening of the human spirit is taking place — a flowering of wild energy.

An animating force moves us. We are it. We can cooperate, appreciate what we have, learn, be renewed beings, even have evolution at our backs. To do so, however, we have to give up the idea that we are separate from this animating Mystery. Life prevails, as it will. No matter what we identify with.

The old are evidence. Through stages of growth— We are continuously cued into what matters. 

Mystery Haunted

Something is going on here. I can feel it. I always have. Early on, I thought of it as magic. In adulthood I thought of my recurring sensation as a kind of childish wish fulfillment, and wouldn’t let myself indulge in awareness of it very much. But now, as I’m getting older, growing more sensitive and aware, I can feel it more. It’s like a kind of soul-tingling. I know, though I can’t prove it, at least not in any kind of conventional scientifically acceptable way. Something is going on in my life, and it appears to me, that something is going on with we humans, here in this place.

I don’t know what it is, but as I’ve aged, the tingling has grown into a kind of satisfying unknowing. There is something delicious and totally odd about having this feeling grow with uncertainty. The less I know, the more convinced I become. This must be some kind of trick that is inherent to growing older. I think this sense has to do with my declining fear of death and my sense of happiness increasing. Something is happening!

I don’t know if others are experiencing it. It’s probably too vague a sensation to talk about, but my level of intrigue is deepening. I keep finding that the surprises in my life seem to be adding up, making a sum I can’t ignore.

I’m not very enamored of the world’s religions. I’ve experienced some very pious and humble practitioners of these religions, but all of the ideologies behind them have been too rigid and certain for my taste. Some weird combination of Buddhism and twelve-step wisdom has come the closest for me, but I find myself fonder of not-knowing. There is something about mystery that just sets the winged delight of my soul free. I seem to thrive with uncertainty, ambiguity, and paradox.

And it is a paradox for me, to find myself enlivened by not-knowing, and a growing sense that something is going on. I’m enamored by the crazy miraculousness of this world, and the heartbreaking horror of it. I’ve been around long enough to have seen both of these facets of existence, morph into each other. And, instead of getting cynical about it, I find my sense of wonder and awe growing.
When people come to me with the tragedies they are suffering, I now have a guilty sense of joy. I’m not a sadist. I just know that growth all too often comes through those same tragedies. I’ve lost all sense of balance. Instead, I have something else — an unexplainable reverence for Life. Mystery just seems to be pouring through all of my broken expectations.

I am constantly overtaken, surprised by my innocence. Somehow, I’m way past naiveté, and filled with expectancy. I like it here, I’m often nonsensically afraid, and at the same time whimsically sanguine. I know it’s not me, and I feel somehow implicated. I’m probably as broken as a human can be, and strangely whole despite that. Life has served me up a mystery deep enough so that I can fall in, and drown, all while being buoyed up.
I don’t deserve any of it, but I feel like I am here to experience all of it — the wrenching pain and the unexpected joy. But, most of all, the sense of wonder, I am now endowed with.

There is something going on here. I don’t know what it is. Reality seems to be some kind of amniotic sac containing and growing me, through pain, inexplicable companions, and thrills I would never have signed up for. I am all too often too overwhelmed by the dizzying pace of all this commotion, to fully grasp how fortunate I am —  to be part of the something, that is going on here. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2017


A few days ago someone I hadn’t seen in a long time came to visit me. We were catching up. We noted how we had both grown older, and we began comparing notes about how that had gone for each of us. One of the things he told me about was how much more beautiful people had become. I realized, with his words, that my idea of beauty had changed too. That started me on a train of thought that I want to share with you.

I have been delighted to discover, that one of the positive elements of getting older, is that a person can become, more and more, themselves. I have always related to this movement as one of becoming more and more unique. The advent of personal uniqueness has been a hallmark of aging, in my perspective. For him, this kind of development meant people became more beautiful! I like his perception, because I think it is true, and because I also think it represents an important evolution in my concept of beauty.

I have grown up in a culture that primarily conceived of beauty in the young female form. Setting aside, for this moment, what that has done to women, I want to explore what this notion of beauty has done to older people. I suspect some of the invisibility that many older folks experience is related to this way of seeing beauty. I also think some of the revulsion about aging has its roots in this very limited concept of beauty.

Beauty has for too long been primarily considered an external phenomenon. It has been an aspect of appearance. Sure, there has been some acknowledgement of internal beauty, like a beautiful personality, but there hasn’t been a wide-spread realization that beauty could be an innate quality that comes out with life experience and uniqueness. Beauty then is more like a diverse eco-system, a quality of Life’s devotion to profusion and diversity. Beauty, in this later conception, is a combination of internal factors and a relationship with more of the whole of Life. This notion seems more organic, humane, and lasting, than something that involves a winning a genetic lottery.

The evolution of my sense of beauty is also helping me perceive beauty outside the skin –encapsulated world I’ve formerly lived in. Now, I’m much more likely to see the complex beauty of something that has both an internal and external ability to find a certain kind of alignment. This has been especially true in my experience of those people and places that have endured the rigors of existence. I’m finding I’m growing more partial to scars, marks, wrinkles, and the wisdom derived from heartache. Beauty has become something marked by Life.

It seems to me one of the greatest gifts of being human has been the gift of being able to perceive the complex poignancy of Life. There is beauty in suffering the unknown for the sake of the whole. I can’t describe that kind of beauty, I think it can only be experienced. Beauty can be an inexplicable experience — a way mystery has plucked a gossamer heartstring — that resonates into every cell of being. Beauty can be a particular poignant moment, a flash of meaning colliding with attention. Beauty can be a state of mind that is revealed with showing up and being present. Beauty can be seen everywhere, if one is willing to embrace it all — especially those places where the darkness and the light combine.

I like Leonard Cohen’s realization that the crack is where the light gets in. My way of saying it, is that hardship is the hand of artistry. Beauty, on the way.

It helps me feel better about being involved in this transitory soup when I think that the experience of beauty evolves, and that as my eyesight grows dimmer, it also grows sharper. That also seems beautiful to me. Maybe death, which is part of Nature’s design, is really, as the poet Hafiz suggests, “a favor.” If so, that’s incredibly beautiful.

Medicine Moments

Illness, and the holiday season, combined to slow me down even more than my normal disabled, older self. And I’m glad it did. It seemed as if I was stopped. For what seemed like an eternity, I was totally in the moment. It was as if the tide had gone out, and revealed an always present but hidden structure. Under it all — my day-to-day activity — there was an unseen element, an energy that only became obvious when I had no energy. This Slow Lane is about that. I don’t know what it is, but I became aware of it, during my time of convalescence, during the time when I was down for the count, and so sick I didn’t care. Then, I was affected by something that exists unseen, and influences me. I hope I can refer to what seems a mystery without demeaning it.

I have been struggling to find the right words for this experience. It is so compelling, yet so shrouded, I am a combination of flabbergasted and awed. How could there be something beneath my usual awareness that holds such power, and that guides my efforts, without my knowledge?

I am beholding to the worldview of Native America. You see in that awareness, the idea of medicine appears in a more psycho-spiritual context. Medicine in the indigenous way of seeing things is healing, not only to the body, but also to the soul. This perspective helps me view my experience of barely moving, in an interesting new light. By being slowed down, even more than usual, I had an experience of something that always operates, something which resides inside of all my activity. I think of it now as a kind of medicine.

I think that the energy-less place I occupied when I was sick, which I called a feeling of “warmed over death,” was in fact a place near enough to this source, where it became somewhat palpable, but far enough away that I’m able now to reflect on it, and be caught up in wonder. I was sick enough that I got a little sense of how sick I have been. The illness was part of the cure. I had a medicine moment, through being slowed down and ill.

The paradox of such a happening is compelling. It makes me feel a sense of dizziness. I am here, thinking I am in charge of my life (or should be), when something else, something I can barely perceive, is generating a host of meaningful and healing effects. I guess that is just the nature of being lucky.

I don’t know, but I’m overwhelmed by a sense of the remarkable. In that sense of wonder I find myself engaged in a sort of magical speculation. What if, this thing I call my life, is a series of medicine moments, which pass by unnoticed, because I am so busy and distracted? Maybe, by being as sick as I have been, enduring this forced slow down, I simply am noticing what is always generating a string of salient possibilities?

I like the idea that I might be living out a kind of dual existence, a life partly of my own making, and one that is being created for me. Not exactly for me, something seems to be actively shaping this life, with me in mind, but for purposes I am barely able to guess. This sense gives me a feeling of having the wind under my wings, a sense of being lifted, scarily and surely, beyond my self.

I am considering, in this second, that this life I am accustomed to leading, is not what I have assumed (this is ultimately what is so hard about getting older). If I just slowed down enough, I believe I might sense, how much this life is composed of a series of medicine moments.

If so, I can feel how much I want to pay attention. I am enlivened when I notice, ennobled in fact. Life takes on a very different hue. From this place politics, sports, religion, sex, and wealth all seem less compelling and definitive. I am happy I lived long enough, to begin to think of my whole life as a medicine journey. I am living right in the middle of the playing out of a wonderful unfolding. Wow! What a way to enjoy the ill darkness.

I hope the light infects your darkness this year!

Not‑Knowing” Wisdom

It’s Christmas! I’m staying in, actually I’m a shut-in, celebrating in my own way. This time of year — add being sick, and alone, amounts to slowing down. This is a wondrous time to reflect. My mind could go back to the year I’ve just lived through, or travel further back to other Christmas scenes, but instead it is riveted upon this moment, wondering what all the uncertainty I feel portends.

This is ostensibly the beginning of a New Year. I wonder, will there be anything truly new about the New Year? The election continues to resonate. There is a lot of uncertainty in the air. The emotional tides are high. It seems that many of the old horrors are being warmed up. It is a time rich with feelings, fears, anxieties and apprehensions. There is an aura of teetering that colors the yuletide cheer. Going forward or going back, over the cliff or around it, becoming closer or more divided? — the moment quivers.

I’ve heard so many times this is the moment to stand up. Values are on the line, possibly the planet, certainly how we feel about each other, and ourselves. So much seems to be at stake.

I feel peculiarly out of step with the times. I am nervous, like many people, but I feel a sense of expectancy, like I’m participating in some kind of birth phenomena. The unknown, I sense, is delivering to us something unimaginable.  I don’t know what is here. I don’t have a name for it. I don’t know how to greet what is taking shape. Strangely, I can feel it happening in the midst of all the rehashed actions that are being called for. Evolution is taking the mess we (humans) currently are, and working us into a different shape.

It is times like this that I find myself wanting to pause, like this holiday season is helping me do, and turn to that rarest of wisdom’s for guidance.  Here, I’m not referring to the wisdom of the past, the wisdom of tradition and what we know, but the unknown wisdom of the present. It is the degree of bafflement in the air that arouses in me a sense of wonder, expectancy, and a desire to be open and wait. I am poised at a vibrating threshold. How I comport myself now will determine in some way what I will meet. This is a quantum moment, what I find, will be determined by my expectations, thus I want to be as open and as free of assumptions as possible.

It is at times like this when I feel so strongly the pull of not-knowing. There is such a spaciousness in the unknown, a darkness that is rich with possibility, a creativity that is guided by the formless. This is what I want to stand for.  There is a miraculousness afoot, which doesn’t depend at all upon the election results, but becomes palpable when one opens up to the larger Mystery — of what is going on here.  Let’s stop pretending we really know what’s happening. All of the certainty, ideological nightmares, and historical references are apt, but insufficient to this time. They are good for stirring up fear, anxiety, and hatred, but not very good for soberly leaning into the moment.

I am growing old. I’m not as interested, as I once was, in chasing my tail. Now, each moment has grown more precious, and I want to meet it, as it is. In being dragged around the block by Life, as many older folks have been, I’ve learned to open myself to each moment, to spend some time with it, to let it be, and to relish what is unknown about it. Life has introduced me to a whole set of unforeseen possibilities, I would have passed by many of them, because they looked familiar. Now, I come to this moment, with continued reverence for the Mystery that brought me here, ready to be surprised anew. Not-knowing releases me into the moment, it allows me to experience what is, and shields me from the tides of emotional upheaval that I am surrounded by.

There is one other thing I want to be sure to mention before I stop for this Christmas day. Not-knowing isn’t only good for calming the emotional waters, but is essential for re-enchanting the world. Magic dwells in the spirits of those, most generally elders, who are savvy enough to know, that they know enough, to know, they don’t know very much. There is a form of elder innocence that forms late in life. It isn’t like the innocence of childhood, based upon an ignorance of the world; in elder life it is giving up on relying upon adult like certainty, and meeting the world naked in a different way.

The miraculous nature of Life is obscured by too much knowing. Not-knowing wisdom frees the imagination, releases potential, and honors what does not want to be changed by fickle human emotions. To recognize the blindness knowing brings, means liberating all that has suffered the slavery of human hubris. The world is enchanting, and so is this uncertain moment in our nation’s history. Something is happening, and let’s wait and see what it is.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Integral Activism (Part 2)

It is important to me that I am constantly acting on behalf of my values each and every moment, in all my relationships with strangers and within myself. To do that, I have had to redefine inner work and make it more robust and engaged. I find that when there is no boundary between what is within me, and my actions in the world, there is much more likelihood, that I am going to be connected to the moment, others, and the Spirit. All of this comes to pass because I practice what I call an inner form of activism to complement my actions in the world.

The advent of these internal practices came about as I followed my own natural ageing process. I have slowly been moving inward. I’ve talked to other ageing people and looked at the limited research on this subject. The research shows a resurgence of spirituality in the latter years of many old folks’ lives. This, combined with the reports of my friends, and my own shifting focus, altered my perspective. I like the sense that I am becoming aware, in a different way, at nature’s behest.
When I had my stroke, and especially during this long aftermath of disability, I acquired (without intent) a new more connected way of experiencing things. This involved a greater emphasis upon inner life. Alive, in a new way (for me), I have noticed how I have been naturally embellished through the aegis of getting older. I believe this is a process of integration aided by the actions of life. This formulation of an integral activism is an outgrowth of a burgeoning awareness.

Inner work has become, in my mind, less “subtle,” and much more engaged and robust. Inner activism still relies on the cultivation of awareness (meditation, contemplation and prayer) but is much more active. It uses attention to actively practice increasing awareness in four areas that I have identified. Internal activism endeavors to:

• Uproot Internalized Oppression

• Free and Be Yourself

• Practice Community

• Cultivate Paradoxical Awareness

Uproot Internalized Oppression

There are a variety of forces at work shaping social reality, contesting for cultural adherence, and working at multiple levels, trying to capture us. This runs the range from group and class power dynamics such as racism, ageism and sexism to subtler forms such as advertising, psychologizing, and other forms of pathologizing or dehumanizing assumptions. There is a complex amalgam of assumptions that, when internalized, provide the preconceptions that limit others and lead to prejudicial beliefs. These beliefs rebound into a kind of self-negation and lead to a variety of self-image issues.

An example from my life illustrates, I have had to be around other disabled people to see more clearly how my able-bodied prejudices have poisoned my experience of other disabled people, and especially how these assumptions have impacted me.

This is a practice that involves developing an inner immunity to the internalized messages that are designed to keep us in a predictable place. The goal here is not to eliminate these messages/beliefs, but to identify and suspend them. As any interaction, or thought, arises it is reviewed to see if it expands or limits choice. This is an application of mindfulness that identifies thoughts and feelings that contain belief structures that limit.

Free and Be Yourself

This practice’s goal is freedom. It entails showing up authentically wherever one is. It involves a combined focus of attention, upon authenticity and inner conditions that inhibit freedom of expression. As you can probably tell this practice has several challenges, not the least of which involves self-knowledge. It acknowledges, that internal factors play as great a role in inhibiting freedom, as external factors.

To be as clear as possible, this practice is intended to support being oneself wherever one is. This means clearing the way within so one can give voice to differences, choose to offer a unique perspective, and add to the diversity of the moment. This is a practice that involves exercising one’s own freedom, by focusing upon, and suspending, the self-limiting beliefs that inhibit free choice.

Again, to use my life as an example, I’ve had to work with myself to show up as a disabled man. My wholeness, my humanity, is not obvious if I am unable to put myself out in the social world. To do so, I have to ready myself to face, out in the world, the very prejudices I know that are within me. My freedom to be me depends upon it.

Practice Community

The goal of this practice is to make the migration from separation to connection. This entails learning about, and practicing, the inner (and outer) conditions that allow interdependence. Immersion in intense social relationships necessitates identification with others, and the practice of internal capacities that connect one uniquely with the collective, lending surprise, authenticity, accountability and compassion to action.

Differences are highlighted (like my being disabled) in this practice and provide many of its benefits. The practice of community also provides insight into the way collectives create and maintain social reality. This provides a very dynamic environment in which practices of holding on to one’s uniqueness, can be seen as paradoxically related to the quality of social connection.
Cultivate Paradoxical Awareness

This is a practice that proceeds from, and best integrates, a sense of connection.  This practice provides the deepening of a broader perspective. The practice starts with the acknowledgement that one has grown knowledgeable enough, to know that one doesn’t know much. From this recognition emanates a greater awareness that inner, as well as outer, reality is composed of relationships that are paradoxically related. That means that things that appear solitary are joined.

The practice is essentially one of focusing attention upon the perception and realization of paradoxical connections. By cultivating this awareness, and applying it to all of reality, including one’s sense of self, there comes an experiential recognition of integrality. Combined with the other practices, a burgeoning of a broader awareness occurs.

As an example, I offer a highly relevant quote from Parker Palmer (from A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward An Undivided Life —Welcoming The Soul and Weaving Community in a Wounded World). This quote illustrates paradoxical awareness and demonstrates how this mindset transforms situations. “If we are to hold solitude and community together as a true paradox, we need to deepen our understanding of both poles. Solitude does not necessarily mean living apart from others; rather, it means never living apart from oneself. It is not about the absence of other people — it is about being fully present to ourselves, whether or not we are with others. Community does not necessarily mean living face-to-face with others; rather, it means never losing the awareness that we are connected to each other. It is not about the presence of other people — it is about being fully open to the reality of relationship, whether or not we are alone.
This particular practice has helped me see how my disability has led me to new abilities. I now say I am Lucky because I have experienced the enabling loss.
Integral activism is a product of age, experience, and awareness. It represents the refinement of love. The world is a holy vision. Gaining access to this vision does not diminish the passion for justice. It refines it, and renders a new way of acting.