I have long respected and admired Brian’s thinking process and philosophy of life (even when we’ve disagreed) so I did the most obvious and easy thing to do: I bought the book, read the short essay on “Anger,” remarked to myself how poignant it was, and put it on the coffee table book pile never to open it again. But the name David Whyte gained a place of esteem in my head, and I’m glad that it did, because when I saw that Sam Harris had a conversation with David Whyte in the Waking Up app (which I use for daily guided meditations and recommend), I took notice. Last week I finally listened to it and it absolutely blew me away. Within the hour long conversation, David read two of his poems (“The Bell and the Blackbird” and “Everything Is Waiting for You”) and an essay on the word Vulnerability from “Consolations.”
Have you ever had the experience of hearing someone plainly, succinctly describe a concept that has been tumbling around in your head, amorphous but forming, slowly slowly solidifying? For me, as I listened to David and Sam talk, it was like bombs kept going off in my brain. David’s words turned a plethora of personal inklings into fully formed, fully realized (and actionable) concepts. These types of moments are unique, but not entirely rare for me, and I realized at once that something significant was happening.
Like a fighter pilot who has been hunting down it’s target, circling and chasing, David’s words through the hour were the missile lock, the final poem he read flipped the safety cover off of the firing pin. Locked and loaded, ready to fire. Insight, ready for action.
Here is the poem, which I share as a window into my experience, an incredible moment that was years in the making. Read it, but also take a moment to hear David read it in the video just under the poem.
Everything Is Waiting for You
Your great mistake is to act the drama as if you were alone. As if life were a progressive and cunning crime with no witness to the tiny hidden transgressions. To feel abandoned is to deny the intimacy of your surroundings. Surely, even you, at times, have felt the grand array; the swelling presence, and the chorus, crowding out your solo voice. You must note the way the soap dish enables you, or the window latch grants you freedom. Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity. The stairs are your mentor of things to come, the doors have always been there to frighten you and invite you, and the tiny speaker in the phone is your dream-ladder to divinity.
Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into the conversation. The kettle is singing even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots have left their arrogant aloofness and seen the good in you at last. All the birds and creatures of the world are unutterably themselves. Everything is waiting for you.
Fatherhood has changed me, and continues to change me. It is the greatest privilege and deepest joy. It has also been heartbreaking and humbling. It is always changing, and I am so thankful for the love that remains constant between these beautiful people and me, and also the love between siblings that takes its own form.
A few years ago, I came to realize (through hardship and a great therapist) that I had a problem with self-differentiation. In my most important relationships I was being driven by a deep-seated fear of rejection and abandonment. My sense of self was WAY too tied up in others and outside forces.
Self-differentiation is a concept introduced by Dr. Murray Bowen, and here I’ve copied some text from The Bowen Center to describe a well-differentiated self.
A person with a well-differentiated “self” recognizes his realistic dependence on others, but he can stay calm and clear headed enough in the face of conflict, criticism, and rejection to distinguish thinking rooted in a careful assessment of the facts from thinking clouded by emotionality. Thoughtfully acquired principles help guide decision-making about important family and social issues, making him less at the mercy of the feelings of the moment. What he decides and what he says matches what he does. He can act selflessly, but his acting in the best interests of the group is a thoughtful choice, not a response to relationship pressures. Confident in his thinking, he can support others’ views without being a disciple or reject others’ views without polarizing the differences. He defines himself without being pushy and deals with pressure to yield without being wishy-washy.
thebowencenter.org – Differentiation of Self
This is hard shit if you didn’t grow up in a family with healthy attachments. Honestly, it’s hard shit for anybody.
With the help of a this therapist, I began to try and rewire my brain, in what I now recognize as my first steps into mindfulness training. It began with a constant reminder that became a mantra: Orient Self To Self. My aim was to move away from looking to others/outside to see if i’m okay, Rather I can look to myself (hello, mindfulness!) and also commit to being the kind of person that I am proud to be, giving myself grace and forgiveness when I don’t live up to my own expectations or the commitments i’ve made to others. To be free to be okay when others may not act in the way I expect or hope for.
I’ve made some progress. Most day’s I earn a “B” in this category. Some days and strings of days, I really lock into a healthy mindset that’s even better. But on the occasions when my more intense anxiety surfaces, and my ability to access these new skills becomes compromised, I can actually observe myself getting pulled away from wise mind, sucked into fear and muddled thinking, feeling unworthy and unloveable.
Tara Brach, in her excellent teaching on the RAIN of self-compassion, refers to this as a trance, “a narrow, distorted reality that lasts for a time.” The trance narrows one’s focus to only see what’s wrong, forgetting the larger context of life. She proposes that the only way to widen perspective from the narrow focus on what’s wrong, is to shine a light on the trance itself, which I suppose is what i’m attempting to do here.
I’m going to write more another time about how I’ve been attempting to integrate the RAIN concepts into my life this year. It is slow and vulnerable work, and rewarding.
These last couple of weeks I have been battling the trance with some big wins and some sad losses. Wish me luck.
Has it really been nearly four months since I started this painting? In this period of quarantine stress, lockdowns, social upheaval, and massive shifts in my daily life, I have been without the motivation to paint. Like a fool who has learned nothing about self-motivation I have waited to feel it again. But for me, action precedes inspiration and motivation. Surprise, surprise… just getting started was all I needed to reconnect. Returning to painting has returned me to painting.
Took a little dip into painting again today. The quarantine energy has been the opposite of what motivates me to paint, but today as i was setting up a painting station for my daughter, i decided to flip open the big pad and do some quick, monochromatic paintings.
It was fun, and i felt things click for a bit, which was reassuring.
There is a mind state I find conducive to making landscape paintings. The best way i’ve found so far to induce this state is by working to certain kinds of jazz. I am going to explore this more in future writing, but for now I’ve got a handful of records that bring me right there.
I made this blind contour drawing while waiting for Jeff Parker to play at Dorian’s. It was my last night out, and the last live music I witnessed before the stay at home orders hit Chicago just a few days later.
The show was exquisite. I can’t wait to get out and see live jazz of that caliber again. I have a new list of acts I have to see and I’m willing travel to make it happen “whenever this coronavirus thing is over” (as my daughter Ingrid would say).