Thursday, September 4, 2008

Practice/Asking Questions

Joseph Campbell used to say that we're having experiences all the time that hint at our hungers. He insisted that we learn to listen for them, learn to recognize them.

As a Leo, with most of my planets in the 10th and 11th houses, I am designed to shine my gifts out into the world. Perversely, this "hunger" of mine has made it acutely painful, at times, to risk shining, the very thing I am "talented" with.

I've noticed fate does this a lot, crippling us with the very thing with which it blesses us. In this universe of polarities, fate shows us, here is another one: That which we long for is often the thing with which we are most blessed (and most cursed) already.

How do we work with this paradox?

Gregg Levoy, the author of the book, Callings, has a suggestion that may help: To cultivate our deepest talents and nourish the longings of the soul, he suggests that we “resurrect the basic inquisitiveness we had as children...that had us down on our knees staring into puddles looking for upside-down worlds, pulling seeds apart to figure out how a tree could possibly fit in there, asking why, why, why."

Getting to the bottom of our "why" distracts us from our self-consciousness--directing our attention toward the things that fascinate us; we become so intrigued with the world that we are literally propelled, by our interests, outside of ourselves.

This is why artists, engaged in their work and scientists, hot on the heels of a new discovery are so happy: Caught in the flow of discovery, their whole attention is hyperfocused and alert. It's what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, calls "flow state"--the experience of hyper engagement when a musician loses herself in her music, when a painter becomes one with the process of painting. You've experienced it yourself, the suspension of time, the freedom of complete absorption in activity.

To cultivate flow, we get down on our knees and observe the world: The tide pool, the starry sky, the burst of flavor on our tongue as we bite into a fresh off the vine tomato (especially a tomato that we tended and grew in our own garden).

The tree inside the seed becomes a metaphor for the truth that we are each encoded for something special and meaningful; something that, because of us, will be better. And that something lures us forward, out of our self-absorption into a love affair with the world--through our own particular lens of interest.

Each of us is programmed for something we will experience as "great"; a great, personal work. It doesn’t matter whether this great work will add up to being a great parent or a great president, the cure for cancer or mastery of our golf swing. All that matters is that our great work engages and fascinates us, that our activities make us feel alive and aligned with our best self, that they lead us, through our intoxication with and our love of them, to express, fully and richly, who we really are.

Paradoxically, to discover our "something", we must turn our attention inward and outward at the same time.

We must open our inner eye to the symbolic meaning of things that happen around us. We must develop an inner "poet" scanning the world around us for metaphor and symbolism. This facility for finding meaning in everything imbues our lives with mystery, magic and faith: Faith that there is an ordering, organizing principle to our lives, that our intuition is a conversation between the inner and outer selves, between God and the individual soul.

This is the basis for all spiritual inquiry. "Everything is archetypal," says Caroline Myss (and Karl Jung, and Joseph Campbell and many others). "Every single thing has meaning."

Living this way requires mindfulness and practice. We must tame the false mind, the voice that criticizes our efforts as a waste of time, unproductive, navel gazing, wool gathering.

"The way we spend our days is the way we spend our lives," writes Annie Dillard. How will you spend your days?

When I started writing this essay, over a year ago, I was spending my days resisting guidance, not finding the time to do my work, not exercising, not doing yoga, not giving up caffeine. You've heard this before: I knew those things were good for me. Why wasn't I able to do them?

Several years ago, a wise teacher named Joseph Rubano told me this story: For an entire year, whenever he entered his home, Joseph would carefully remove his shoes, first the right, then the left, and place them in the exact same place on the floor. Every day. For a year.

"It was the hardest thing I've ever done," he told me. The single act of mindfulness, of attention to this one little detail, brought a cascade of insight that left him reeling. One night he'd be so filled with resentment, resisting the practice, he'd kick off his shoes, oh, just anywhere. Another day, he'd defiantly leave them reversed, left then right. Why? Who was he resisting?

He'd invented the exercise. He'd assigned it to himself. Who was he resisting?

A little while later, I visited my sister, Beth, at her home in Providence, Rhode Island. She took me out to the garden where she showed me the iris, folded over and tied face to knees, with their own leaves. "We do this to turn the energy back into the roots," she explained. "When we fold them in, they use the energy to strengthen themselves for winter and next season's growth."

I was reminded of the forward bend, my favorite yoga pose. Done sitting or standing, the pose--reaching hands to toes, folded at the waist the way my sister folded her irises, feels the same way; It turns the energy back to center, forcing us to look inward.

And I realized: In order to acheive the flow state I am searching for, in order to shine my gifts into the world, I need to place them at the center of my life. To do this, I need a simple, daily practice. Not something to beat myself up about if I miss a yoga class or eat some french fries. I need a practice that includes, daily, time for fascination, for engagement with the things that delight me. I need to fit into my life the choices I have already made--exercise, meditation and contemplation. If I want to write a book, I realized, I need to put words on paper. If I want a toned, healthy body--I need to go to the gym.

An effective daily practice has to fit into the life we are already living: To begin, I asked myself, when do I WANT to exercise. Notice I didn't ask, when do I have the time? My answer--6:00 a.m. may be different than yours, but it's my answer. My gym is open at that hour and, I discovered, I have the time to get there, work out and get home before anyone else wakes up.
I want to take my yoga classes before lunch--and there are three available then. I want a four hour writing block in the morning. I want to see clients after that.

One step at a time, I'm carving out a daily practice by asking myself questions, the most important one, the one I start with, is always: How do I want it to be? Not, how do I want someone else to change to make me happy. Just "How do I want it to be?"

It helps to have questions to focus our inward gaze where we want it to land. More than the crazy-making questions like: What do I do with my life? What is my purpose/the meaning of life?; we must choose our guiding questions with care.

Sam Keen gave me these at Wisdom University last spring: How can I serve others? How can I be the most authentic? How can I/we balance ecology and economy vs. how can we make the most money?

I still carry these, offered years ago by Anthony Robbins, inside of my planner: What am I most proud of in my life? Who do I love? Who loves me? What am I most happy about in my life? What excites me? What am I looking forward to today? This week? This year?

Each time I open the planner and see them, I am reminded of their basic premise: It is the questions we ask and the choices we make that determine the course of our lives.

In this spirit, I’ve recently added this one, from Oprah Winfrey, to my daily round: “Everyday, I get on my knees and ask God, 'How can I help you today?'" And when I stand up again, I take the time to listen to what God has to say.