Tuesday, December 29, 2009

“When I put the flower near your eyes, they twinkle again”
~8 year-old boy to his mother on her birthday. The mother was recovering from severe depression.

Where does the gaze fall? What do I see? What makes me twinkle inside? What repels me?

The eyes are the window to the soul, but so too are they the soul’s window onto the world.

I can perceive the world as harsh and grasping, like it could eat me up or skin me alive, and then feel compelled to turn away from it. But the world has no claws. Really, when I feel this way, it is aversion that has taken hold of me from the inside. When I recoil from phenomena, when I avert my gaze, in fact I turn my soul upon its own darkness. That is why introversion (or perhaps more aptly extro-aversion), in the extreme, can lead to depression.

I can perceive the world as the source of love and light and inspiration, but be prone to covet and consume what it proffers as “good”. Yet I cannot assimilate things which are not things, and grasping them just extinguishes their flame. Now it is attraction which has got hold of me and my soul has come to feel like a desert. Ths is why extroversion (intro-aversion), in the extreme, can lead to addiction, even when the quest for an oasis can have every appearance of selflessness.

There are more benign forms of introversion and extroversion, but doesn’t every point on the continuum between the extremes fail in some way to secure a fit between me and the world?

I know a shy adolescent girl who is an avid reader and has brilliant insights into the books she reads, but because she is unable to translate her ideas from verbal to written form, her English grades are mediocre when they could be exceptional. I experience a similarly difficult transition when I wake up in the morning. When my eyes are closed, my mind is quite clear and creative, but the minute I open my eyes and sit up, poof! like mist in the sun, any thoughts dissipate completely. So many good ideas— exiled forever to the land of missing socks.

When we remain responsive, aware and awake to what's going on inside and out, the effects can be transformative, as in analysis, EMDR or meditation. Closed eyes and a reclining position facilitate free association,a kind of mental opening to emotional material. This is why analysts have people lie on the couch, I suppose. It loosens the mind during verbalization. EMDR and some forms of meditation, on the contrary, are done sitting up and with the eyes open. This grounds a person against the destabilizing effect of the thoughts and emotions that can arise during stillness and silence.

Neither introverted nor extroverted-- what shall we call the mind’s eye when the whole surface of its mirroring orb is engaged as reflection? Is it the activation of both cerebral hemispheres, is it “dual attention”, simultaneously gazing inward and outward, or on the edge of both, linking creative hypnagogic states to lucidity, energy to inertia, emotion to cognition? Is it the synthesis of opposites or is it beyond duality? Something else completely?

Like a tent drawn upright by being pulled equally in opposite directions, the mind becomes taut, erect, spacious, stable.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Sure on this shining night
Of starmade shadows round,
Kindness must watch for me
This side the ground.

The late year lies down the north.
All is healed, all is health.
High summer holds the earth,
Hearts all whole.

Sure on this shining night
I weep for wonder
Wandering far alone
Of shadows on the stars.

~Description of Elysium
James Agee

A lot of people I met with this week were struggling due to a current or impending separation from a loved one. Some were anxious to move on, others were grieving the absence of the familiar, still others were in limbo, numb and bored but unable to take the next step. Everyone expressed dissatisfaction with being in transition.

Change is hard. Even positive change. It reminds us that nothing remains the same and challenges our inflexible pattern-driven need for stability. Change cuts to the heart of the human condition: the thwarted desire for unity with something beyond… just this.

During transitions, we become aware of being like trapeze artists trying to manage the leap between two ropes, “here” and “there”. If you hold onto the first rope too long, it goes flaccid. If you let it go too soon, you end up twisting in mid-air with no future. If you indulge nostalgia and look back, you may regret it forever. Results in all cases aren’t pretty and may even be tragic (or comic!, depending).

We aspire to govern ourselves in all situations with elegance, that is, by thinking, feeling and doing the “right” thing. This is expressed by Buddha in the Noble Eightfold Path, and by Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics. Doing the “right” thing in this sense means responding to our circumstances “at the right times, with reference to the right objects, towards the right people, with the right motive, and in the right manner.” (Aristotle)

Right action does not refer to what is morally right but, rather, to what is fitting in response to any given situation. This is the path, but what is the way?

The true trapeze artist is a master of timing and seemless transitions, appearing to do nothing and go nowhere. He becomes stillness in motion, vigilance at rest. Gradually, by just passing through, heads up and hearts open, maybe we too can aspire to this. Change is an opportunity to practice becoming better disposed toward our circumstances, remaining poised to eventually engage them, gracefully.