Yes, pain is inevitable

Of course, many of you know the follow up statement: Suffering is optional. I was reminded of this when I was reading Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach. It’s not reaching me as well as How Yoga Works, but it is a valid and meaningful read just the same. In this case, I’m talking about emotional pain, psychological pain. This is mostly because I relate my posts to my career in editing and writing and teaching. Outside of potential carpel tunnel syndrome, I don’t have much in the way of physical pain to relate to my job. Ok, I get a pain in my head when I read some of my students’ work but that is another story. No matter how good I am at my work or even just proficient, I always relate the outcomes to my self worth. Ouch. Can we all really do the job perfectly all the time? Can’t life get in the way? Can’t the perspective of what is good and what is not be subjective to a degree? Yes, right? So why insert pain into the mix?

In my work, tangible results are the measurement of my worth. What I think of it is not relevant to the paycheck or continued success. What I write must not need much editing if it is to be considered good. My editing should enhance the written page. The majority of my college students should be able to meet the basic learning outcomes when they leave my classroom. Sometimes, though, I’m not up to snuff. My writing may not be as dynamic as I’d like. But isn’t that what an editor can take on?

As an editor, I can answer, yes. There is a difference between sloppy or weak work and good stuff that needs some tweaking sometimes. Needing support is not a failing. As an editor, I can be very judgmental, but I do my best not to antagonize the writer. He/she might be having a bad week. It’s my job to find out what makes him/her tick and keep the clock going. Finally, as a professor, I can’t guarantee that the whole class will get what I’m teaching, but I should be able to know I did my best to be clear and  consistent with them.

How do these connect to mindfulness and pain-free living? If Yoga teachers were judged on concrete outcomes, they’d all be in trouble. Which of us can say we never regress in our practice? Who can say why some days we cannot keep our balance or pose as well as others. In some cases, we know what affects us. Just one glass of wine affects my energy in my morning practice. But did I screw up by drinking it? No, I just learn to know my body better by remaining mindful–aware.

I really like feeling comfortable with being human, mistakes and all. Pain should bring insight, not a sense of futility.

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“There is Now A Level Zero.” But Is That Reality or Perception?

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Yes, I quoted Kung Fu Panda, and I’m proud of it. Even though a film or a book is geared towards a younger audience or is not intended to be an intellectual or overtly educational experience, many writers of these materials are well educated in literary history, philosophy, logic, rhetoric, religion, and history.

One of the most profoundly thrilling moments in the film for me is when Master Shifu realizes that it is not Po’s inability to learn or belong (Po being the “big fat panda”–the hero), but his own failing to learn how to teach Po. This causes the perpetual chaos and frustration that everyone is experiencing. Shifu judges Po’s ability from outside appearances (as self-conscious and comedic as they are) and sees him through his own filter of expectation—not Po’s own essence and possibilities.

When I teach my students or work on my own educational, literary, and spiritual growth, I cannot fail to remain conscious of the possible causes of any setbacks, stagnation, or failures. Is my student refusing to make use of his materials? Maybe. Is it me that has not acknowledged that these materials or the medium I use to disseminate them are suitable to this person’s style of learning? It is up to me to figure this out. If I stop learning, I am not worthy of being a teacher.

I am currently working on a text for an educational publishing company that should be a breeze for me. It’s a 5th-grade-grammar workbook for ESL students. Very basic layout via Word. How simple is that for a professor and long-time writer/editor of similar materials? Not at all. The book map is not as detailed as I’ve worked with before or even created before. The distribution of work (writing, editing, layout, and proofreading all in separate stages with different people) is not part of the process. I have to design and write simultaneously. Yes, there are existing texts to use as my guides. Yes, the content has already been chosen. But I have to be creative and write entertaining exercises while being conscious of what images to use and how to fit them while I keep to the objectives of the grammar for each stage. Too many hats for me. Maybe not for anyone else, but yes, for me. That made me feel quite ashamed frankly. How can a person with a master’s and who has been in publishing and academia for years be so unable to do this with ease?

I return to the movie: At one point, when Po has been repeatedly pushed physically and emotionally to his limits, Shifu finds him high on a shelf in a perfect split (that he could not master on the training grounds at all). Po cannot not perform even basic moves in standard training, but he can accomplish quite a bit when what he relates to best (food) is involved. It was Shifu who insisted on making Po fit in the wrong mold more than Po’s being an ill fit.

Maybe my “level 0” has more to do with a structure that I do not relate to. I work in larger grammatical structures, vocabulary that addresses many disciplines, and freedom to choose my own topics to write about. I just buck at the limitations of this project.

Maybe we all have a “level 0” just as we all are masters in some aspect of our lives or work. What you see as “level 0” at the moment may be really that your mind rejects directions and motivations that are not framed the right way for you right now.

So, how do you see yourself? Is how you define yourself or how others define you truly who or what you are? Can you see a person struggling as someone in need of a new perspective or motivation rather than a person who is failing or a misfit?

I’ll take my “level 0” in stride right now and see if Master Shifu (my editor) can figure out how to frame the structures differently for me. Or, when I must take the role of Master Shifu, I will try to figure out how to connect with my own versions of Po without the obstruction of judgement and rigid form.

The Text is Life

Perfection is an inaccurate term to use for a human being I believe. Maybe a state of purity or pureness? There is a positive force to embody in our lives regardless of the term we apply to it. As I continue to savor random moments alone with How Yoga Works by Geshe Michael Roach, I find myself kind of floating emotionally in a soft cocoon. My head hums a bit, my chest alternates between tightness and the most clear and weightless expanse of breath I can ever remember having. Realizations and fear, regrets and hope all ebb and flow around me. It’s like having a misty aura pulsing around me. Very spiritual. Very new. Very different from the reactions to the texts I usually read and write about.

A current passage that has insinuated itself into my thoughts contains references to the dilemma of pride. Pride is especially troublesome when it has installed itself within a student and the master or teacher must find a way to refocus it. One of the pending titles for my blogging is Teaching People How to Learn. I still may use it later on, but for the moment it serves as a better example of the trajectory of this post rather than a guide for an separate entry. As the narrator tells us, pride must be hit or beaten with a figurative stick until it becomes “a healthy kind of confidence” ( 135). One holds onto pride jealously but confidence is flexible. It can be shaken, it can be restored, and it does not begrudge change.

Confidence is what many of us lack when we endeavor to write. Pride is what stops us from learning. Those of us that have allowed rejection letters or the disinterest of influential people or difficulty with insecure bosses  to define our worth have allowed a perception to dominate our overall sense of ability and worth. That is not to say that there is a ceiling to learning and that writing is a static medium. The negative must be analyzed closely to find the realities within that collapse of hope or momentum.

This leads me back to teaching people how to learn. I have students who go into throws of anxiety and confrontation when they get a C rather than the expected A (Read: grade earned for simply producing the work). I see them as people with potential to evolve if I can assist them in realizing that earlier grades came at earlier periods in their education. Perhaps the standards were lower as well–let’s be frank about that. Many do not know how to evolve from the platform they have rested upon and refuse to find that there is more work ahead. Their pride is blocking the growth of their knowledge base. I am the wall they hit or the stick that beats the barriers down if I can.

What overcomes the obstacles? Reading of course. The text is life. Each text is a portal into a new perspective on life as it was or is if you see it for its potential rather than only its concrete form. How Yoga Works teaches us that things are not “themselves” or, rather, don’t have an unyielding unchangeable identity. Our engagement with the world creates or molds the nature of what we behold and that nature “itself” is not static. Roach offers us an example when the narrator engages her jailor in a discussion about a bamboo pen on his desk. Is it a pen? To him, yes, but is it only a pen? He comes to realize that it is also  a tiny piece of nourishment: “I mean that impression, that sense of division is so strong . . . I simply never realized that I make the pen itself ; my mind takes the pen a pen, just as the cow’s mind draws the same green stick as something good to eat” (118).

Now, I don’t  believe that our perceptions are an illusion or that people do not create texts, art, or even meals in an unconscious state that only others can give concrete form to as they engage with them. We are not passive vessels nor are our accomplishments eradicated by lack of witnesses or missing accolades. What this text brings to me and what I take from my interaction with it is that we can change our perception so that pain and discomfort do not concretely define an experience. If someone is cruel, the unhappiness is real, but the root cause of our pain may be suppressed or veiled by the surface actions. What is truly cruel in the moment?  The actions or the causes of these?

For a non-spiritual on non-philosophical example, think of the “kick the dog” syndrome. Someone is raked across the coals by his unhappy boss who is looking for someone to abuse because his wife made nasty comments that morning. The employee, feeling victimized and powerless, then spits profanity at someone who accidentally bumps his arm causing hot coffee to burn his hand. The person soundly abused for an honest mistake cuts someone off at a turn feeling the need to assert her authority and presence. The person who narrowly misses hitting that car comes home shaking and, as the dog trips him in his glee at finally having someone to play with, kicks the animal for also being in the way.

These examples and questions are not meant to confuse your sense of order or make you doubt your eyes or heart. Doubt is not the goal. Doubt is real at the moment you feel it, but it should not be a  manipulative tool for preventing the emergence of self-assertion. The key here is that self assertion must be based in awareness and tempered by acceptance of the changeable nature of what Roach calls “universal powers” and of perception.

The text I am reading is life. What you are reading is life. As it should be? As you agree? Does it matter? We are experiencing the opportunity to learn and grow from the nourishment that is found in the narrative.

Journaling and Blogging: What Should Their Content Be?

There is a substantial difference between journaling and blogging. Some may disagree and say that the only difference between the two is the medium. One opens a notebook or lovely bound blank text created for the very purpose of personal record keeping or one signs on and types into an electronic template of semi-personal design such as WordPress offers. I’ll accept that argument on the surface; but, what blogging offers, is the chance to Immediately share what you are most passionate about and in a form that acknowledges the presence of a reader.

Journaling, as I see it, is very personal and rather random at times. There is no need to worry about physical presentation or proofing because you are the only audience that must interact with the text. Perhaps your descendants may inherit these books and care to read them, but they are not the same audience as the online and blogging community who do not know you and may very well not find your idiosyncratic shorthand or random punctuation endearing. Leave that to those who want a personal connection to you or scholars studying your method of constructing narratives. I am thinking of the Alcotts (as in Louis May, author of Little Women) and the family’s regular discipline of journaling. These journals, their letters, their early works, etc. all serve to enlighten us as to how someone like Louis May developed her skills and her interests. We find out that the need for income as well as artistic output sat on each of her shoulders driving her on.

Now, does the average reader want to read these entries and letters every day? Not really. These are supporting material rather than primary areas of interest for many people. Do we want to read formally presented works that are as ponderous, belabored, and stylized as the works of her often-ridiculed father, Amos Bronson Alcott?  No. I’m not saying their private writings or public failures don’t have importance in American history or literary studies. In this family’s case, they also have a substantial place in the study of Transcendentalism. But not all of the family’s writings are of themselves enticing reads for the casual observer.

So, I stand for blogging as a form that is conscious of an audience and responsible for producing well-planned work ready for interaction, while journaling is the private process of drafting ideas or pouring forth observations and reactions or plans that have no need of a formula or obligation to an audience.

If you are interested in reading about Louisa May Alcott and her family, I recommend Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father by John Matteson. While it often belies the author’s bias in favor of A.B. Alcott, the text is an excellent introduction to the family and the American embrasure of Transcendentalism. For scholarly essays on the subject, I recommend searching JSTOR. Check with your library to see if they have a subscription to this database. As always, avoid treating Wikipedia as anything other than a starting point offering tertiary materials that my not be accurate at all times. Primary and secondary sources are what you want.

Readers really do make the best writers. And maybe you’ll even figure somethings out along the way.

Long title right? Well, I could not decide. I recently read a book that inspired me in more than one way. It held wisdom that I had been long in need of. Say, all my life. It was also just a great read. On the great read side, How Yoga Works by Geshe Michael Roach and Christie McNally is quite accessible for any level practitioner of yoga or anyone trying to work on compassion at a realistic level of earthly conundrums.

One of my yoga instructors has read passages from this from time to time and the narrative itself was so beautifully written that it drew me in immediately. Of course, as I read the book for myself, the wisdom also came through so subtly that I felt less like a student and more like a fellow traveler. This is a tale of yogic practice and purpose presented through the experiences of a fictional female character who must live her practice and beliefs (the principles of the yoga sutras) as she is imprisoned in a small impoverished village in dire and unpredictable conditions.

Ok, so why is this important enough to blog about? Good writing is nothing to ignore in this world of mass publishing, Barnes and Noble bargain books, and well, blogs and Facebook posts. It is harder to be “heard” above the visual noise of so much sharing and sausage grinding across genres. As well, as a middle-aged woman who has had much hardship from day one (no violins, I’ve done well for myself considering), I’ve been assaulted with many axioms that were supposed to encourage me and make me feel included in the world. Nothing has stuck. Much of my misfortune has followed upon the heals of happiness or optimism.

When I was a child, I used to think that an evil spirit was watching me. Keeping track of my hopes and attempts to survive with happiness in tact. At the moment of openness, terrible loss or consequence swept in to annihilate all chances of success. Or that is how I saw it. I did not have the fortitude to take the challenge and fight. Perhaps it was the volume and rapacity of the evil and misfortune. Regardless, once I became an adult, the superstition gave way to pessimism. Simply the knowledge that the good did not last as long as the bad or unexpected negatives became the basis for acerbic asides and knitted eyebrows. I’ve got the lines on my face to prove it and the reputation for real New Yorker one liners. Woody Allen might even be concerned for me.

I still would prefer to be happy. Hence the yoga classes, the desire for a challenge without competition or judgement. So, the book being rather poetic and full of kindness (read it to understand it) drew me in. I had my doubts about finishing it with any long-term inspiration in tow, but I was overwhelmed by a brief passage that addressed entirely my life-long confusion about acceptance and optimism followed by pain. Have you seen Bridget Jone’s Diary? Remember when she alludes to the idea that once something in your life is perfect, something else falls “spectacularly to pieces” (attempted quote–not sure of the exact wording). That sort of rang true but only as an irony, not an insight.

Now, in How Yoga Works, the exact relationship of good to evil or positive to negative is fully addressed and accepted as a universal truth. One that is not to be surrendered to, but understood and prepared for: “When Important things are about to happen, bigger problems come to try and stop them. This is a law of yoga and a law of the powers that run our lives” (40).

Maybe not news to you, but news to me in terms of universal truths rather than bum luck in a jinxed life! So, read and read, and read. One day, maybe later, maybe sooner, what you read will directly affect what you write and how your write it and how you understand why you write at all.

As another of my yoga instructors often says, things will come to you when you are ready to receive them or when they are ready for you.

One of my favorite authors, the late Penelope Fitzgerald, did not start writing until she was 58. And she was from a prestigious family of writers. It just was not in her or for her until she was ready. So as far as I see it, “it” is only just ready for me and I, it.