FIRST DREAMS OF THE NEW YEAR

The sky was still black when I woke in awe from my first dreams of this new year. Other people’s dreams are, I know, commonly thought quite dull, but humor me — I’m still grateful to have been returned to a life in which I am able to sleep and wake normally, after 2019’s virulent nightmares and daymares that, yes, were hallucinations. This is the first time I’m typing that word for anyone to see.

2019 was the year I discovered the hard way that I have cavernous hemangiomas in my deep brain. They are little raspberry-shaped clusters of blood vessels that don’t belong and leaked into the tissue and cerebrospinal fluid and led to many extremely upsetting experiences. Among those were hallucinations and, following them, a kind of burial alive, six feet under the abject shame that my brain had failed me in that way, and that I hadn’t been able to recognize it or stop it from happening. Thankfully that shame has fallen away; it was a medical condition, inflammation in a region that’s acutely sensitive and, it is said, more complex than the whole universe. It could have happened to anyone, that vascular anomaly. Biology is not a meritocracy. Bodies we cultivate and care for can still be stricken by illness or accident.

Anyway — I have a friend, S, who just started teaching college courses. His field is religion. I asked him over the holidays what the word “mythopoetic” means to him, as it had drifted into my mind during our conversation. How strange that I should ask, he said, as he’d used that word for the very first time during a recent Zoom class.

In my dream, S volunteered to drive a young and impoverished pregnant woman, whom we’d happened to meet, ten hours to a prison to see the father of her child. Sitting in the passenger seat, the seat belt crossed over her belly, she looked at the wide country they traversed and spoke her thoughts aloud. Recounting this, S said to me, “I hope she’s able to find time as a single mother to write some of this down.” He told me what she’d said, gazing out the passenger window, that struck him the most: “When it comes to breath, there’s ‘my exhalation,’ which is lame — and ‘your exhalation,’ which is lame — and ‘the collective exhalation,’ which is lame — but when they gather over the sleeping land, they become spectral and beautiful.”

There’s some social realism in that dream; for example, the poor are far more likely to be imprisoned and sent far away from their families. It was her words, though, which I heard so distinctly in S’s voice, that made the greatest impression on me. The way I translate them for myself is, Regarding the essence of life, which ought to inspire and elevate, our discourse tends to fail and fall into cliches. Even so, there is a place beyond words where the echoes of words fall into a hush, and the true collective breath of all living things — the biosphere in its breathtaking mystery — maintains itself with or without us. Perhaps I found that as profound as I did because I was still half-asleep — but I looked at the clock and realized dawn was coming, so I made some coffee and drove out past the sleeping town to meet it. The sky was vast; the spectrum, diffuse, stretched along the length of the horizon. I was alive to the cold and the light. It was mythic. It was poetic.

Text and image copyrights on this site are held by me. The shame I experienced began to lift after I had my MRI and had a context for what had happened; but my ongoing hesitation to identify that I’d hallucinated points to, among other things, the deep internalization of stigma, as though a malfunctioning brain were a bruised fruit that might contaminate others. Feeling that way is dangerously isolating. Many thanks as always to those who’ve loved me through thick and thin, and those who gave me company in my pain. If you’d like to see more of this story, let me know, and I’ll try to write it — no promises! Happy New Year to one and all. EA

META ON METTA

 

The end of any year brings seemingly innumerable invitations to make financial pledges. This is not one such! It is a contemplation, rather, on the merits of taking the whole process of New Year’s resolutions one step further, by creating or adopting a meaningful philosophical pledge, for the coming year and beyond—a pledge that, like metta meditation, moves you to consider your own life and the life of the world through the same lens—then post it somewhere prominent where you won’t fail to see it. A dashboard could work, for those idle moments in traffic. The back of a smart-phone case, as a tactile reminder on an abstract medium. A few valuable inches on your fridge.

I do my damnedest, in this writing, to maintain a positive approach to the subject at hand; I could opine all day long, but the virtual world is full of tirades already. I also try to be simple and straightforward; there’s an overabundance of glib commentary. With the conscious effort that my approach can require, I help reorient myself toward my own higher ideals—of which I not infrequently lose sight in my day-to-day interactions. I mostly write about my therapeutic work; but I’m no plaster saint, to use an old expression. As a child, I was asked to suppress my anger, and it’s still coming out now—mostly in the form of outrage over this and that aspect of culture, all the grievous injustices of which I’m aware, but also things that hit close to home and close to the bone, failures of friendship and emotional betrayals.

So: New Year’s resolutions are all well and good—my default is “Write more; swear less”—but I also need something bigger, deeper, stronger. Something to help me face the daily challenge of living, above and beyond a singular achievement, however important. My very first client, at my first internship, helped me to realize this. Whereas I had grown up in a broken-down neighborhood in a broken-down city, she lived a semi-rural life and loved her chickens with every fiber of her beautiful being—knew their personalities and followed events in the pecking order like a telenovela. Together we worked on validating her negative feelings, so that instead of being suppressed, they might transform themselves and empower her.

Through her, I came to be aware of the 4-H pledge: “I pledge my head to clearer thinking, my heart to greater loyalty, my hands to larger service, and my health to better living, for my club, my community, my country, and my world.” I saw her living out those values in continuing to love those who had hurt her, despite looking with clear eyes at their flaws, and rising above the chaos she’d known at home. The first four assertions have spoken to me ever since, like a nondenominational statement of grace. (I have mixed feelings about that string of possessive mys, and those feelings amplify as the picture gets bigger. Whose world? Our world.) An even simpler distillation of values, which for me is supremely grounding, is posted above my desk at work, a reminder to me and my clients: Be curious.

In 2018 and thereafter, I hope that ecosystems will be protected and valued as sacred, and that workers will be fairly paid and treated. I hope the humble honeybee, with its staggering commitment to fructifying the earth, will survive colony collapse. I hope that the rights of women, and various vulnerable populations, will be recognized and upheld. I hope that buzz words like “slow food” and “slow fashion” will build up to full-on movements, and that the doomed cultures of Agribusiness and Big Pharma will fall. Food doesn’t come from factories, and answers don’t come in pills. I hope that we collectively will have the resilience to develop the patience to labor on toward real answers—many of which can be found in traditions whose caretakers are indigenous peoples. And, of course, I hope children grow up feeling safe, loved, and respected. So many visions and wishes for our planet. I’ll be doing my part as best I can. I share these thoughts today, in this quiet corner of the internet—deliberately free from the commercial intrusions of ads—as an act of loving-kindness: I wish good things for me, and I wish them for you.

+

Out of respect for client privacy, names here are always changed or omitted, and details may be altered in fact while relevant in spirit. Text and image copyrights held by me. If you enjoyed this piece, I hope you’ll consider sharing it. To subscribe and receive future posts, please look to the upper right on your computer screen, or scroll to the bottom of the page on your mobile device. “The Numbers Game” (July 2017), now long delayed, will be continued in a future post, when I have more stamina for the topic. Thank you for reading!

 

SWEET WATER

I was once in a band of two. Having no ear for music, I was the frustrated lyricist, dependent on my bandmate’s gift for composition. There was one song we sang together, however, that was wholly mine. It had but four lyrics, repeated: Clemency. Softness. Sweetness. Mercy. I see that now as an inadvertent loving-kindness meditation.

The tradition of loving-kindness meditation is a long one and takes many forms. The one I use, said to be Tibetan, looks like this: “May I be filled with loving-kindness. May I be well. May I be peaceful and at ease. May I be happy.” Susan Kaiser-Greenland, in her good work, uses the term “friendly wishes” and encourages children to invent their own; she writes about that in her book The Mindful Child.

Loving-kindness as a practice involves directing positive intentions first toward ourselves, then toward those we care about, followed by those for whom our feelings are relatively neutral, and finally toward those against whom we harbor ill will.

This can be a slow progression; words like “first,” “then,” and “followed by” misleadingly elide the steps, which are meant not only to be sequential but to represent increasing mastery, gained over time. For myself, I tend to think the practice is lifelong and nonlinear. Love of self isn’t necessarily the easiest step, despite being the first.

In my mindfulness groups at the county jail, I chose not to introduce the whole concept of loving-kindness at the start, wanting to establish purity of focus and prevent bias or resistance. (The notion of wishing that good fortune might befall an enemy is easier to swallow when one’s own life has been sweetened.) As I was explaining the first phase—sitting mostly with addicts, who tend to struggle with self-esteem—a picture flashed into my mind. I described it thus:

Imagine that you’re looking into a well, and the water in this well is pure and sweet, but there’s no bucket or ladder to help you access it. There are stones on the ground, however—smooth, clean stones that you can drop in one by one to raise the level. At last, you can bend, cup your hands, and drink. Loving-kindness is like that. Each intention is a smooth stone that, eventually, can help you quench your thirst. May you be filled with loving-kindness. May you be well. May you be peaceful and at ease. May you be happy.