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?