Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Do the Training, Welcome the Opportunities

Our household has no cable access. One of many pleasures that has come to our household as a result of this fact is the experience of exploring the local library for DVDs. Wandering up and down the stacks, all three of us has allowed ourselves to drift, have our attention drawn by a colorful spine, a recalled title, an unexpected shiver. This process has brought home shows I’m sure not one of us would have previously considered; it has brought home some wonderful surprises.

Ugly Betty is an example from this latter camp. I had heard of the show but had no idea what it was about. The front image of America Ferrera grabbed me. ‘She’s from Traveling Pants!’ I thought. Having thoroughly enjoyed both of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants movies, I grabbed the disc and took Betty home. Within an episode or two each of us was captured. Watching Betty Suarez’s evolution through four TV seasons became a valued family experience.

The Gilmore Girls is also of this ilk. I really enjoyed spending time with fast-talking, culture-popping, coffee-drinking, oft-times out of her mind Lorelia Gilmore, her family, and friends. In fact, when Samantha asks me to rank the Top Five television shows we’ve watched together - the composition of such lists (Top Five shows; Top Five movies; Top Five songs) being another popular act around here - Gilmore Girls inevitably ranks high.

All, however, was not well with the good ship Gilmore as we sailed toward the end of its sixth - and penultimate - season. Leaving aside such issues as loose writing, improbable story lines, and the atmospheric list pervading the show, Lorelia and Luke were no longer a couple.

From the very beginning of the series, the relationship between Lorelia Gilmore and Luke Danes was a central element of the Gilmore universe. The chemistry between these two was immediate. Their warmth. Their affinity. The undeniable gravity working between them. A delight to see and to feel, watching these elements shift and develop over the years - from friends to lovers to fiances - was one of the main rewards of the GG experience. At the end of the show’s second to last season, though, the two had broken up. Lorelia was back in the arms of Christopher, father of her daughter and her on again, off again, on again flame.

So unsatisfying was this turn of events that I had little interest in watching any of season seven. Sharing a small space, however, makes such resolve difficult to maintain. Moving about our home, I would catch bits here and snippets there. Before long I was coming into the living room regularly, just to see what was happening. To be more honest, I was coming to see if Lorelia and Luke - and the show’s creative team - had finally come to their senses and reunited.

Of course there was a certain amount of teasing as the pair moved in this direction. Nothing lacking taste or appropriateness, but there was teasing. And some of it was delicious. Take the karaoke scene in Episode 20 ‘Lorelia? Lorlelia?’ Celebrating daughter Rory’s graduation from Yale, most of the gang heads off to a karaoke bar where Lorelia has promised, when sufficiently inebriated, she will get up and sing.

When the moment finally arrives, Lorelia climbs on stage and launches into Whitney Houston’s torchy ‘I Will Always Love You’ - a touching and suitable choice given the occasion.  As the first chorus ends, however, Luke walks in. Given the physical set-up, Lorlelia is the only member of her party to see this arrival. She stumbles over words, glances at the prompter, shuffles awkwardly. 

Over the next fifteen seconds, remarkable things happen. With eyes on Lorelia, Luke crosses the room and moves toward the bar. Mirroring this, Lorlelia’s body repositions. Now, instead of facing her daughter, she is looking right at her ex. Her vocals stabilize and, one by one, the people at the Gilmore tables follow her steadying gaze to see Luke in the house. One by one they realize what we in the audience are beginning to figure out: Lorelia is singing ‘I Will Always Love You’ to Luke Danes. The expression that washes Rory’s face as this understanding floods her awareness is devastating.

Caren and Samantha must have viewed this episode without me because I was sitting in the living room alone one night as the above scene unfolded. A thick, dull pressure started to build in my chest and throat. I swallowed several times, blinked. The scene complete, I sat stunned for several moments, then pressed ‘rewind’ and watched again. The pressure now had a light, swirling, energetic quality. My nose began to run. Again I swallowed. I pressed ‘rewind’ a second time.

A half dozen times I watched this three minute scene. With each repeat the pressure in my upper torso became more fluid, more active, more lively. I could feel it insinuating between ribs, beneath collar bones, throughout my shoulders. It rose up and loosened my throat. Tension in my cheeks dissolved and, eventually, during viewing number five, my heart burst. I started to cry.     
In that suddenly open heart there was so much. There was Lorelia. There was Luke. There was what they had been through together. There was all the love I had felt in my own life, all the love I had expressed. In close proximity to this, was the love I had not felt and the love I had left unspoken. There were all the people who had ever found and lost the love of their lives, those who had found and lost and then found this again. There were those who long - even if only for a moment - to have this kind of connection. There were those who, through some gift of the Fates, did. In that suddenly open heart there was so much.

Part way through my sixth and final viewing, however, I had had enough. Self-consciousness pushed in and I started to feel a little bit stupid. This was a TV show, for God’s sake. For whatever reason, spirituality often takes a dim view of pop culture - mainstream television, film, music - and I could feel this attitude shouldering forward, quickly turning down the lights on my experience. ‘What would Reggie think?’ I wondered, pulling my teacher into the mix. Before the scene was even complete I pointed the remote and put and end to this. Lorelia Gilmore froze and then shrunk and then disappeared into darkness.

It was late, so I went to bed. Laying on my back, however, I could not sleep. My body was pulsing, vibrant. Everything tingled - hands, cheeks, the top of my head. My heart felt enormous, like it was reaching out to the world. There was so much love, so much hurt, so much joy and happiness and loss and loneliness. And within these, visions of the men and women and children who were experiencing, who had experienced, and who would one day experience these. Before long my pillow was soaked by tears that had fallen in acknowledgment of the aching, wonderful, desperate beauty of it all.

I pushed back the covers and rose, went through to the living room and, remote in hand, turned on the television.

From one point of view, our task in this life is relatively simple: open. We are here, it seems, to welcome ever more of our lives, of ourselves. We are here to become aware and, in the process of this, allow the cosmos to become conscious of itself. This journey is an always asking one - there is always more, it never ends. 

Take this morning. To the puffy-eyed fatigue I woke with after another lousy night’s sleep: open. To the irritating squeeze I felt while rushing around trying to meet a deadline: open. To the everyday pleasure of getting Samantha to a play date - the easy conversation, the building excitement: open. Again and again. Over and over. More and more. We open. We welcome. We become aware.

Meditation offers training in opening that, in my experience, is unparalleled. The word ‘training’ here is important. Through a massive body of teachings, meditation helps us understand the path of and gives us practice in the act of opening. Consider the following aspiration, composed by Reggie Ray following some verses by Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche:

“May I develop
Complete acceptance and openness
To all situations and emotions,
And to all people.
May I experience everything nakedly,
Completely without mental reservations or blockages.
May I never withdraw from life
Or centralize onto myself.
May my heart be laid bare and open
To the fire of all that is.”

Here the variety and depth of our life’s central task is elaborated line after line. “May I...“ we aspire. May I accept, experience, be laid bare. May I welcome situations, people, emotions. May I, in other words, open to it all. To accomplish this we are given a technique: place your attention in the body, whenever you wander into thinking just relax and come back, allow whatever that arises during this process to do this - arise.

Rather than leaving the matter of opening to chance, then, the meditative tradition provides structured preparation and exposure to this act - it provides training. To my mind, this generous fact is invaluable. A desire to take advantage of this training is one of the main motivations I have for engaging this work. It is one of the main reasons I listen to talks and read books and go to programs, one of the reasons I meditate every day.

While I do believe meditation offers unparalleled training in opening, however, I do not believe it is the main arena in which opportunities to open are presented. I used to believe this. I used to think meditation was pretty much the whole thing. If I sit more, I thought, and study more all will be taken care of. My view today is significantly different.

Now I see that, if meditation gives us the training we need to open, life itself provides most of the opportunities needed to do this. Some such opportunities do arise during formal practice, of course. The feelings, impressions, images, sensations, insights, and recollections that come as we sit can all be understood in this way. The source of the most numerous and diverse opportunities, however, is our day to day existence.   

Sudden illness, a child’s dance recital, job insecurity, the tumbling, head over heels sensation of falling in love, the lingering brilliance of a summer sunset - all these are chances for us to do what we have come to do, what we as meditators train to do. With this realization, the equation of our opening becomes this: do the training then welcome the opportunities.             

What specific opportunities we welcome is not a matter of our choosing. An intelligence beyond what we conventionally consider ‘ours’ makes this selection, presenting people, situations, and emotions that seem tailor made to the unique character and requirements of our path. In brief, whenever life comes at us with a notable vividness and intensity, with a charge - whenever life grabs us - opportunity has arrived.     

A few minutes ago an old Simon and Garfunkel tune was playing in this coffee shop. Something deep and long ago welled up as I listened. A heaviness, a melancholy I carried through many of my teenage years swelled behind my eyes. After this, Natalie Merchant’s ‘Kind and Generous’ swirled its way through this space igniting a toe-tapping joyfulness. Yesterday afternoon claustrophobia overwhelmed our home, seeming to suck all the oxygen out of that place. Each of these possessed that “grabs us” quality. Each, then, was opportunity knocking, awaiting welcome.

So it was with the Gilmore Girls’ karaoke scene. Regardless of the biases I held against it being so, this heart-wrenching slice of network television was, in fact, an opportunity for me to realize this life’s purpose. How stupid I felt, how self-conscious, how concerned I was that my teacher might discover what I was doing late that night - rather than being reasons for me to stop our DVD player and shuffle off to bed, these were instead opportunities for me to take my attention into the body and open to whatever was waiting there.    

As already mentioned, there was so much. Burning embarrassment heated my cheeks. Tension wrapped my chest. I thought of my friends, other students of Reggie; ‘What if they find out?!’ I worried. My eyes clamped shut against this possibility. An oh so familiar fight warred against the swelling in my heart. Resistance and rejection, denigration and denial were some of the main weapons here. There was an attempt toward hardness and then a sudden burst of - something, I’m not sure what. Life. Energy. Love.   

Before me Lorelia Gilmore was singing Whitney Houston’s ‘I Will Always Love You’ to Luke Danes. Tears streaming my face, heart more expansive with each viewing, I watched her do this again and again until the energy of the situation became a fine, boundless mist. Sitting in the quiet expanse of this, the DVD for the moment paused, I felt as easy and comfortable with myself as I had in a very long while. 

I also felt thankful - both for the opportunity that had presented itself here and for the training that was letting me take advantage of this. ‘Sometimes life is good,’ I thought, a slight smile lifting my face. Then I raised the remote. Pointing toward our TV set, I pressed ‘play’ and watched Lorelia’s karaoke scene one more time. 


Thursday, 19 July 2012

Let Myself Sing

My daughter bounced home from singing class. “We listened to ‘Mister Postman’!” she exclaimed, energy bubbling through her features. She had stopped walking in order to tell me this and could barely contain her excitement. In fact, she couldn’t - standing there, her feet shuffled and arms swayed as if music were pulsing through her bloodstream, pumping from her heart.

Her mention of this song was striking. All at once a gate opened inside. Freed by the sudden appearance of these swinging doors, a series of moments - all seeming not one bit less real than their initial arising - flooded through. The smell of warm summer air hanging trapped in a van. Sticky vinyl heat pasting bare thighs to the seat. A green landscape, grey asphalt whizzing by outside.

I was ten years old and on my way to a swim meet in Oregon. With the exception of a single adult sitting eyes-forward in the passenger seat, it was just us and our coach; a dozen or so kids packed into the back of a long white van. This was a time before on-board DVD players, satellite radio, ipods. This was before even tape decks had established themselves as common. Our only source of entertainment was a tiny AM radio in the dashboard up front.

Covering hundreds of miles that day, moving constantly in and out of listening areas, we would yell at the coach whenever our journey took us beyond station range. As soon as the signal weakened we’d demand he reach out and turn that dial, search for a suitable replacement. A wall of “Noooo!” greeted any hint of talk radio or country music. Early in the trip, before being worn down by our insistent fancies, the parent chaperone would encourage us toward the former. “There might be something interesting,” she would say, her features in hopeful profile. We would have none of it. We wanted Top Forty - something we could bounce along to as we tore down the I-5.      

In the moment of my memory a thin, tinny signal was overwhelming the van’s speaker system. A now anonymous person pressed close on my right-hand side; to my left sat Amanda Patton. Blonde haired and strong shouldered, Amanda was perhaps twelve months my senior. This is a considerable gap when you are ten, but we had somehow found each other in back of that van and realized a common passion.

All morning it had been the two of us leading the cries to move the radio here, shift the radio there. We were desperate to hear everything by Elton John. “Crocodile Rock!” I remember her screaming after only two notes. I envied her swift recognition. “Turn it up!“ we shouted in unison. Should Elton not be available, we were willing to settle for one of our lesser lights: new hits by Neil Sedaka, perhaps, or the Captain and Tennille.   

Shared glee welcomed the emergence of the present song. Though it didn’t meet our agreed upon criteria, a glance at one another immediately established its suitability. A quick grin and a flash of the eye - then, near oblivious of everyone around us, of those turning to see what all the fuss was about, we were belting out words with careless abandon, pressing heads together during the chorus. The song? ‘Please Mister Postman’.

In the days after my daughter’s return from singing class, ‘Postman’ was rarely far from my mind. Eating breakfast together I would sometimes lift into song. “So many days you pass me by / Leaving tears standing in my eye.” “Dad!” Samantha would reply, rolling her eyes. “Stop, okay?”

Some excitement, then, greeted my sighting of the Beatles’ second album at our local library. With the Beatles slots a cover of ‘Postman’ between ‘Til There Was You’ and ‘Roll Over Beethoven’. Playing the disc at home, I was carried away, I think, by the exhilaration of this discovery. And by pure enjoyment. Lennon’s vocal on this track is delicious. The yearning apparent from the very start (“Oh yes”), the way this shimmers and nearly breaks from time to time (“I been standing here waiting”) - I suspect I got through three or four listens riding the waves of these alone.

After a while, however, I noticed something. My singing - vividly recalled from that van - did not match John’s. Our phrasing was, in several places, off. And my body moved to a rhythm that did not match what Ringo and Paul meshed together. My arms and legs grooved to something smoother, with more ease and glide. Though I could not make out exactly what I heard in memory, I knew it wasn’t this; it was not the Beatles’ version of the song. A quick check on YouTube revealed it wasn’t the Marvelette’s original either.          

At this point, I pretty much dismissed the matter with a shrug. I turned off the computer, headed into the kitchen, and let the rest of With The Beatles play while I readied dinner. The whole experience probably would have been forgotten had it not been for the copy of Carpenters’ Gold: Their Greatest Hits that jumped out of the library stacks a few weeks later.

The moment the Carpenters’ version of ‘Postman’ started playing I knew it was right. My body response was unmistakable. Even across several decades, my singing matched Karen Carpenter’s vocal breath for breath. And the smooth, easy movement of my limbs - something that kicked in without volition - partnered perfectly with the glossy production her brother Richard had wrapped around the song.

Bubbling through both of these was a joy I had not felt in a very long while. Vibrant, alive this was, like air, impossible to either hold or deny. The exhilaration that pumped along with the first verses of this song simply needed to be and I could do nothing to resist. With such feeling coursing wild in my veins, I was ten again - unable to contain myself, taken over by delighted abandon, feeling impossibly, unboundedly, unselfconsciously happy.

Then I stopped.

I was in the kitchen, one ear to the CD player atop our fridge. After about a minute I started to feel uncomfortable. ‘What if somebody hears this?’ I wondered, thinking of our neighbors across the hall. ‘What if somebody sees this?’ followed as my eyes scanned the building next door. A sax solo was playing slick through the song’s bridge. My features soured. All remaining movement ceased. ‘Cheesy,’ I thought, shaking my head in disgust. Reaching up, I stopped the disc and walked away.

What was I walking away from? A corny version of a catchy old song? A moment of sepia-toned nostalgia for a distant long ago? A random piece of flotsam that had surfaced for an instant, bobbed the waves of awareness for a while, and would soon return to the shadowy depths? If any of these were in fact the case, I probably would have been able to let that first walk away be the last. If that road trip memory were ‘only’ a memory, I likely would have been done with it here. 

But I wasn’t.

That song stayed with me. The Carpenters’ take of that tune would not surrender its place in my internal jukebox. As if on some tireless loop, I found myself again and again teetering on the edge of another play. “Stop!” and “Wait!” Karen insisted. “Please Mister Postman look and see / If there’s a letter in your bag for me” - these lines pulled at me; I could feel their draw in the body. As if the song were the moon and I the ocean, I physically shifted and swelled in response to its call; it was a force I could not resist.        

And within all this there was that kid. Every time ‘Mister Postman’ repeated, a ten year old me rose up as if roused from decades of slumber. The energy. The excitement. The camaraderie, happiness, joy. I could feel these insisting against my features from within, a power wanting, needing, yearning for... For what, exactly? The word that strikes me here is this: expression.

This memory arose, I realize now, from a time before. It was a time before I knew it was not cool for an adolescent boy to find such pleasure in pop radio. It was a time before I knew singing out loud in this way, singing the Carpenters with a girl of all things, was not  a behavior that adhered to certain lines that were beginning to emerge in the sand of my life. This was also a time before I was able to recognize what some of those turning faces further up in the van might be thinking.  

This was before I understood there were rules working to contain and channel my life, rules that would soon define acceptable and unacceptable for many years to come. It was before I deliberately started playing by these in an attempt to fit in, get along, hide. I tried very hard to like Led Zeppelin, for instance. Most of my friends did. While making this effort, however, I held secret the pleasure and affinity I felt every time the Carpenters or Elton John - later anything by the Go-Gos or Olivia Newton-John’s ‘Physical’ - came onto the radio. This was a time before the unselfconscious freedom evident in the moment above had been restricted and tamed, effectively lost.

Viewed in this light, that memory is not what we conventionally consider a memory at all. Practice meditation long enough and this gradually becomes evident: what we experience - the impressions and feelings, recollections and insights - these are not always what we think. Memory can, for instance, on certain occasions be more emissary than nostalgia, a representative from our past wanting access to and expression in the living present.

When recollection arrives with inexplicable force, lingers with stubborn insistence, this is quite likely the case. In these instants, what we call ‘memory’, something most of us consider lacking relevance in our daily lives, is actually a caring and intelligent messenger from our greater selves, something with tremendous day to day import. Showing us yet another step in our journey - the kind of openness and acceptance that must now be cultivated, the parts of our lives we must welcome back - such ‘memories’ are, as Reggie once noted, “Well worth paying attention to.”

It has been a couple months since my daughter bounced home from her singing lesson. Weeks have passed since I first picked up Carpenter’s Gold in the library. I have renewed my loan twice and soon will have to return the disc for good. I’ve listened to Karen Carpenter sing ‘Mister Postman’ at least once every day in this span. I’ve watched the Disneyland video that was produced for the single. I occasionally go even further afield and spend time with other Carpenter songs - ‘Yesterday Once More’, ‘Superstar’, ‘Rainy Days and Mondays’. I have also listened to much of Beauty and the Beat, the Go-Gos’ wonderful debut.

Whenever I do this, I try to let that ten year old boy return as fully as possible. I sing, I dance, I feel unbelievably happy and indescribably sad. I try to give this middle-aged body over to a kid who felt so drawn to the way this music played in his blood and in his bones that he could not resist its expression. To the best of my ability, I welcome myself from this time before in spite of the fact I still worry about the people next door and across the street - worry in a way I never thought necessary with those turned heads further up the van. ‘What will they think?!?’ I fret while welcoming anyway. 

Where is this taking me? I have no idea. Destination is something we are rarely offered as we step more completely into our lives. All we are given is a message - “Stop! Wait!’ - and the opportunity to respond. So respond I do. Sitting again beside Amanda Patton in the back of a van, I surrender to the giddy abandon that rises to meet the Carpenter’s ‘Please Mister Postman’ each and every time it plays. Feet move and arms swing. Eyes closed, words come effortlessly to my lips. Then, standing there, I just let myself sing. I let myself sing.


Monday, 9 July 2012

A More Positive Message

“I would think,” someone said to me recently, “you would want to send a more positive message.” He was referencing my writing of late which, while addressing a considerable range of topics and themes, has returned again and again to the difficult: abuse, trauma, depression.

Given this recurrent subject matter, I can understand where my companion was coming from. On the surface, not one of these seems to offer much in the way of a “positive message”. Each, in fact, appears to give only the opposite: a sense of being mired in the downbeat, the dark, the negative. However much this might seem to be the case, though, to obsess upon the painful in my life has not been a core intention here.

In my late-teens and early twenties I did a fair amount of what one might call ‘spiritual exploration’. I read countless books, visited numerous groups and gatherings, all in the hope of finding some indistinct thing that seemed absent from my life. This is, at any rate, how I would have phrased my quest back then; it is how I understood my actions at the time. “A search for something that’s missing,” I might have explained. With the benefit of hindsight, however, I now feel something of a significantly different character was actually the driving force behind all this.

I remember, for instance, meeting with a small meditation group in some unknown person’s living room. The décor was stunning. There was a beautiful couch and chair, an ornate coffee table with a lily blossoming on its surface, gorgeous calligraphy adorning several walls. Most everything was either a spotless white or some subtle variation on this. Music floated gentle in the air - a harp perhaps, maybe guitar. 

There were six or eight people circled about that room. All impressed me as very friendly, welcoming. Kneeling beside the coffee table was a slim, balding gentleman who I soon identified as the group’s designated leader. He rang a soft bell to indicate the beginning of the session. “As we close our eyes, let’s connect with bliss,” the man said. His voice lifted among us on a series of hushed, airy breaths. 

The evening lasted a couple of hours. Much of this span I spent peering about the all-white room through one squinted eye. Rather than bliss, I felt discomfort during the meditation period. My back hurt. One leg fell asleep from kneeling so long. My torso prickled with overheating. I could have removed my sweater, of course, but much to my dismay everyone else seemed completely motionless. When instructed to “dissolve into the cosmos,” my throat silently tightened and my jaw seized tight. 

These feelings did not diminish during the discussion that followed. One after one, the other participants spoke of their experience. “Peaceful”, “attuned”, “complete” were some of the comments. I said nothing. By the time I left that house and its gorgeous white room, I was overwhelmed with dejection and loneliness. Scuffing my way home, I felt ugly and dark inside.

From my present vantage point, this internal dimming does not seem attributable to a failed attempt at finding some vague “missing thing” amongst that group. It was, I now see, the absence of something far more definite that weighed heavy on my mood. In all that talk of bliss and peace and wholeness, I did not once hear words that described significant elements of my own experience: heartache, uncertainty, doubt, and - lurking in the shadows, still needing many more years for the time of their emergence - the difficult triad above: abuse, trauma, depression.

Looking back, then, I see this as my search: I was looking for something, for someone who would fold the unseemly of my life - the prominent pain of daily existence - into the journey of being human.

Maybe deep down I sensed this was the case and simply needed someone to affirm it. I do remember moments - looking out over the city from the heights of Mount Tolmie, listening to waves lapping in Arbutus Cove, standing amongst a community of evergreen on the outskirts of Beacon Hill Park - in which I knew this life offered just what was needed, that whatever was arising was my only true path and destination. I could not, however, reconcile this occasional knowing with the challenging hurt of my everyday. As a result, I was searching for something that or someone who would weave these two apparently disparate threads into one. 

In the course of my explorations, though, I found mostly the opposite. Those elements I longed to have folded into the journey were almost always folded out. Sometimes this occurred by means of suggestive exclusion, which was the case with the meditation group mentioned earlier. In saying ‘attuned’, for instance, instead of ‘lost’, a subtle but definite message was sent. As this sort of word choice repeated itself through our hours together, the message became increasingly clear and explicit.

This said, however, exclusion was not the main way folding out was realized. More often than not this process manifested in a far more blatant manner: as undisguised, outright dismissal.

One fellow laughed when I asked about sadness. He was wearing a grey suit and a sky blue tie. He and another, similarly attired gentleman were sitting side by side on a small podium. The lift of this raised them both a foot or two above a gathering of about twenty students. From where I sat, their faces seemed to float on a sea of heads. “Sorrow is not real,” he told me between chuckles. “It’s like air,” he said, bringing fingertips together, blowing them apart, then letting the shivering digits cascade toward the floor like dying fireworks. A few others nodded on each side of me. I had no idea what he was talking about; sadness - like air - sure felt real in my life.

In another class, a wound I had risked airing was publicly interpreted as a sign of immaturity. “I sometimes feel unheard,” I said. “How does this make you feel?” the teacher asked. When I replied “hurt and angry”, she shook her head, clicked her tongue. “If you’re still experiencing anger, you have to meditate more.” Face burning as if slapped, I asked the teacher to repeat herself. I figured I must have heard incorrectly. “Just sit,” she insisted with a flip of her wrist. Then, making eye contact with others in our class, “When we sit we grow up and leave such petty things behind.” 

Over and over this was the message I heard. Was it really the message offered? I don’t know, but this was what I heard: the path toward full human being embraces some things and rejects others - which just never made sense to me. This view was, instead, bewildering. It was disorienting in an almost visceral way. So maybe this is another manner of describing my search: I was looking for something that made sense.

A quick look at my dictionary finds two interesting definitions for the word ‘positive’. The first speaks of being “characterized by the presence or possession of features or qualities rather than their absence.” The second of “expressing or implying affirmation.” The first entries for ‘negative’, on the other hand, are (1) “characterized by the absence rather than the presence of features” and (2) “expressing or implying denial.” 

Which of these two sets best characterizes my sense of what I encountered in so much of my wanderings through those years? To my mind, the message offered by that meditation group and those two classes is more aligned with the negative than its opposite. Dejection and loneliness were apparently absent in that all-white room. And for those men on the platform, the woman clicking her tongue, sadness and anger seemed experiences not to welcome and affirm but, rather, to distance and deny. 

Several years ago I wrote a book entitled Learning to Swim: Reflections on Living. Drawing from a thirty year career in competitive swimming, this was a collection of stories from my life as both an athlete and a coach. ‘Good News, Bad News’ was a central part of the volume. The piece recounted how the very best news of my swimming career - a place on Canada’s Youth Olympic Team - spiraled into something far more difficult: injury and illness, maltreatment and eventual removal from that squad. It told of how “my prized Olympic dream became a terrifying nightmare.”

Rather than ending on this note, however, ‘News’ continued to tell the story of Eric. One of my own swimmers, Eric was sputtering toward the end of a disappointing season many years later. Recognizing his situation, I extended a caring hand in his direction and helped him conclude that campaign with some measure of dignity.  

Reflecting upon how this was able to happen I linked my own experience on that youth team with Eric’s struggles and my reaction to them. “Being part of an elite squad,” I wrote, “offered me the chance to swim with the very best for a time. Then it kicked me when I was down and in need of nothing more than a sympathetic lift. Recently, it has given me the empathy required to extend exactly this support to one of my own swimmers when he needed it almost two decades later.”

I remember being struck by these words as they appeared on the screen before me. I remember being struck by this link. This was not what I had planned to write or reveal - but there it was, flickering in my face. What hit me hardest was the sense of how much my years as a swimmer had shaped my work as a coach. [T]“his support” - this “sympathetic lift” - was something I was always trying to extend my own swimmers - Eric, Sam, Marissa, all of them. Always. It was as if, I saw at the time, I was trying to offer those under my charge exactly what I felt I so needed at one point during my career as an athlete, but never received.

“I would think,” that person said to me, “you would want to send a more positive message.” And they are right - I do want to send “a more positive message.” Writing here, teaching the many classes and workshops I am involved in, I want to send a message that is “characterized by the presence [of human experience] rather than [its] absence”, that “express[es] or impl[ies] affirmation” instead of exclusion and dismissal. I want to send the message that whatever we are going through in this moment - love, hate, loss, gain, elation, depression, anger, doubt, trauma, confusion, success, happiness - whatever we are going through, this is the path, this is the way into a deeper experience of who we truly are.

Are there echoes of ‘Good News, Bad News’ in this desire? Damn right. I want to send this message because, for so many lonely, difficult years, I desperately needed to hear it myself.

But there is more. I also want to offer this message because it seems to reflect the way things really are. We do not, in my sense of things, become more fully human by elevating certain aspects of ourselves and dismissing others. We become fully human by embracing everything we are right here, right now. This is what I am trying to capture in these posts and reflections. What, I wonder, could be any more positive?