The Bad Guy

A friend of mine told me once he realized his internal suffering was ‘helped’ by letting his  super-ego, a destructive inner critic, dominate his inner landscape. This critical voice loved to point out every error, lapse in judgement or faux pas that my friend ever made.  My friend calls it “The Bad Guy” or B.G.

My friend said that when he beats up on himself, it’s really the Bad Guy voice that is running the show.  His B.G. voice says, “You made a mistake. You are at fault. You should feel crummy. You always mess up. Feel bad about yourself. Blah blah blah blah.”

Until he creates a distance from the negative thinking, my friend found that he couldn’t question the truthfulness of Bad Guy’s voice.  But once he was not triggered by this stream of negativity, he became aware that B.G. doesn’t give objective or constructive information. The critical persona is only capable of judgements. B.G. has no investment in whether we feel bad or want to improve ourselves.

 

I was thinking yesterday about my friend telling me this story, and thinking “My god, that is so right!” How many times have I gone down the path of feeling bad for past mistakes, without looking at my own Bad Guy sending these messages. Feeling bad happens and I step kick towards doom and gloom overwhelmed with feeling and unaware of choices.

Someone might be disappointed, or displeased with me… or worse yet– I imagine they won’t love me. As an adult I can logically figure out a solution, but a younger me didn’t have that skill set. This dread-filled feeling filled my psyche. I would be in a panic– feeling like I was going to die– before any facts or objective information regarding the situation could be investigated. I believe it is called being “limbic”– separated from the reasoning of  higher functioning cerebral cortex. It may have been in my best interests when I was young to imagine the worst case scenario to prepare for the unexpected. However, there isn’t an ‘off’ button. Bad Guy can rule, if I am not vigilant.

Terrance, my husband, has been a meditator for about thirty years. He reminds me that there is nowhere to go “fix” these feelings when they arise. I hate that. No, Terrance says, try to sit still. Breathe. Just get close to the negativity, without joining B.G.’s rap. Nothing bad will happen, he says.

But, there are icky feelings, the hard and lumpy feelings, the panicky stuff, and general awkwardness. I don’t want to get close to any of this. I feel sick to my stomach. I feel heavy and dense and my breathing feels constricted. The truth is I am flooded with resistance. I don’t see how this will help. I’d like to take a toke and haze out on Netflix instead.

Since Terrance and I have been together, we have had many conversations about meditation. I am not against it, but I feel like I got the meditation mug, ashtray, and bumper sticker in the sixties and seventies. I work at being mindful through other modalities: drumming, Sufi dance, TaKeTiNa, yoga, and free-form dance and sometimes, meditation.

 

When we talk about meditation, I find that I am defending my right to work with mindfulness/awareness practices the way I do. Sometimes, I am just resisting the lure of the cushion –just as I avoid feeling my feeling the energy that is Bad Guy. I feel like a cat in a paper bag, fighting to get out. Or is it in? Doesn’t seem to matter because I am not going anywhere.

So just for today I will try it.  I will sit down and be quiet. Here goes. Sitting. Breathing.

 

Uh-oh.  My mind is buzzing. My stomach feels upset.

What is it? It’s an icky feeling.

 

What color is it? What shape? Puce green and the size of a football located bright around my heart center.

 

This is ridiculous. Inner critic.

 

Breathe. Breathe in, breathe out. Let it go.

 

I just remembered: there is a phone call that I have to make.  Restless. I want to get up from my seat. I will stay for now and call later.

 

Stay. Sit. Breathe again.

 

What am I feeling? Where am I? I just nodded off for a minute.  I noticed I am thinking about the conversation I had with my girlfriend yesterday.  Come back.

 

Breathe. In and out. In and out.

 

And then I notice that the football is slightly smaller. There is more relaxation in my gut. The edges of yuckiness don’t feel as pervasive.

 

Off again–day dreaming about seeing a movie.

 

The Bad Guy is definitely in the room. I am not breathing fully, I am aware of his critical vibe. Familiar triggering thoughts begin trickling in. The memory of a negative conversation and guilty feeling arise simultaneously. I said, they said.

 

Back to the breath again.

 

Hmmm. What is this bad feeling? Is it really true? Will it matter if I sit here? Breathe.

 

I notice the tension around my ribcage beginning to relax.

 

This time perhaps I can let a provocative thought go by, instead of following it.

 

Oops.

Thinking, thinking.

 

I feel my butt on the cushion. I straighten up again.

 

The story is wafting around but I am not denying or embellishing it, just sitting. Breathing.

My panic is starting to ease. My breathing becomes fuller. My attention is on the inhalation and exhalation. I relax a little more. I can feel the animal-ness of myself breathing.

 

Then another thought: remembering breathing in yoga class. Return to the room, the breath, my body. Slumping. Straighten again. Cramp in my calf.

 

Breathing.

 

Distractions continue. Nanosecond shifts–this and that. I drift away from following my breath. Moments of being embodied for a half-second or more.

I notice that I am feeling neutral. Not triggered and not vacant.

 

All of a sudden, the bell rings. Time is up.

 

Nothing bad has happened. I do feel more expansive, especially in my gut and my ribs. I open my eyes and stretch.  I notice that I still feel like I have to “do’ something, but the urgency is gone. There really is nothing to do, except to notice. I can breathe. Hmm.

 
And I notice this: the Bad Guy is still here, but he is drinking a mai-tai and chillaxing at the pool. He has nothing to say, and he raises an eyebrow and lifts his glass in a salute.

The Ending of a Friendship

My girlfriend doesn’t want to be friends anymore.   Despite the loss I feel, ending this relationship is a relief.

My friend is a complex woman. She is intelligent, bright, attractive, creative, multi-talented, soulful. I have found her advice and support valuable.  Her creative life has inspired me and delighted me.

And she is particular. Very particular. Princess and the pea particular. She is an introvert who weighs and measures the time she spends outside of her work. She won’t try something unless she is sure she will receive the greatest reward for the time she puts into it.  Even if you travel  to see her,  she is still brutally honest about what she wants to do and when she wants to do it . She might be in the mood. She might be tired and need to take a nap. She might not feel like going out right then. She is being true to herself in the moment.

If you love her, you accept that.

I thought I did. I know I tried to.

The quality of her insight and her limited calendar had made my friend more attractive and important to me.

Maybe she is more authentic than many,  and honest enough to say what she thinks. Or maybe she is manipulative. I don’t know what the truth is.  But I do know I spent time, waiting and wanting her to be available. I told myself that she was worth it.

In the last few years, this on-again off-again availability became frustrating.  Her unpredictability and my desire for her time conflicted.  I felt resentful that she didn’t venture out to visit me.  I spent more time talking to her husband than I did to her.  That ended up being a problem, too.

When my husband griped about her specialness, I saw a new viewpoint.  I noticed that I was not okay with her unavailability.  I pulled back.

Still, I still considered her a good and worthy friend. I still sought her support, and missed her if too much time went by.  I should have known that something was wrong, but I didn’t.  In my world we (I) just had to work harder to understand each other (her). Or just live with it the way it was.

Then, her father died.

I didn’t show up the way she wanted me to.  She was disappointed and angry. And punishing. In response to her feelings, and for my sense of honesty and authenticity,  I soul-searched. I noticed my emotional sloppiness. I questioned myself. I know I was guilty of some lapses of awareness. I agonized about losing her as a friend. I was abjectly disappointed in myself. How could I have not been less than 100% truthful? I compared myself to her and came up short.

I wanted things to heal between us.  I tried to make amends.  Even though there were wounds, I felt that we were “getting real” with one another, “working things out.” In reality,  it was the beginning of the end of the friendship.

Her point of view had some truth in it. But I magnified that truth until there was no truth… there  was only the unforgivable fact that I was a “bad “ person. I had been unconscious. I was filled with self-loathing and shame. I lost sight of myself and went deep into the hole with no cheese.

As long as I focussed on my inadequacies, ( imagined through her eyes,) I was in a hell-realm of my own making. I was bad, bad to the bone, and deserved to be punished. If I could have had eagles eating out my liver, it would not have been enough. Once the mechanics of unconscious self-flagellation went into play there was no longer a witness to say what was fair or not.  I crawled around on my belly and took my medicine like a woman.

Over time, we seemed to make-up.

And more important,  I was done punishing myself. Regardless of what I did, my actions were forgivable.  I made a mistake.  That’s all.

Not in the eyes of my friend. Things were damaged. She said she couldn’t trust me any longer.

I couldn’t change what she thought. I had no control over whether she would accept my humanness, my inadequacies, or want to move forward.

But I did have choice about how I treat myself. Right now my well-being is more important than my friend’s opinion of me. I have to live with myself.

It is possible to forgive my errors without having to pay penance for several lifetimes. Enough is enough.

I made a mistake thinking my friend as a different person than she is– that she was my champion. A bad choice, because that is not her job. It’s my responsibility to keep my positive opinion of myself, not to expect it or need it from her. If you get strokes it’s nice, but don’t get addicted to them.

It’s important to abandon the illusion that there is a perfect way to be, where no one will ever get pissed off at you; that you will never again make an unconscious and messy mistake. Or that everyone will love you all the time. Forget about it.

At the end of this difficult time I got a great reward: rediscovering, remembering this vital connection to myself.

So here’s what I learned:

It  isn’t about whether you are right or wrong, although it feels that way.

Apologize for your-less-than-perfect-ass.  Forgive her less-than-perfect ass.

Move to the center of your chest…that tender, soft, gooey place.

Say ‘thank you’, say ‘I love you’ to yourself.  Thank her for having been your friend. Send her love. Say goodbye.

And move on.

Silent Retreat of August 2014

Silent Retreat of August 2014

I have been attending a silent meditation retreat all this week. There is no outward speech, but by no means is it silent.

When Jesus got together with his disciples he said, “Whenever two or more are gathered in My name there is…”  The end of the sentence should have said , “there is disagreement,  doubt, fear, animosity, and lots of projection.”  I am right and you, (whoever you are,) are wrong.  And in retreat, not one of you says a word!

In silence with others you see the contents of your garbage-y mind. You begin by being unaware that you are commenting about everything and everyone.  The background mutterance (barely detected), contains all your continuing assessments and judgements.

A week of silence is a whole week where you look at and own your inner crap you project onto others (and yourself) every minute of every day. All the time. Constantly.

You might be the kind of person who placates, ameliorates, ingratiates– a beta dog crawling around on your stomach. “Don’t reject me, don’t hurt me. Please,” with a winsome, winning, smiley whine. In silence, this behavior is more visible, and harder to bear.
Or, possibly, you are the kind of person who ‘judges unto others’.  You might implode instead. ’God, these people are so weird. Look, this guy is taking up all the cushion space! He breathes so loud when he meditates! Sheesh! Some people!’

If you are not rendering the verdict or punishing yourself, you are mentally flipping someone else the bird.

In silence, in a retreat, you get to see every one of these moment to moment judgements, thoughts and boy, oh, boy. mmm. Some are quite astounding. And with no speaking, they lay where they lay. In your mind, not on others.
For example, I see this woman and just by what she wears I type her in less than two seconds. Wealthy, divorced, conservative.Even though we are on retreat, she is wearing Eileen Fisher quality, beautiful haircut. I have her pegged. Marin, or San Francisco. Or Santa Fe.
Then just before she eats her food, she bows her head. A softening of her face, and a long moment passes before she picks up her fork to eat. The projection I have held of her is blown.

 I may have been right about all the externals. I might be right that she is privileged and monied. That simple act of grace and bowing before she ate made those judgements irrelevant.

But maybe that is a projection, too. It’s a hall of mirrors guys.

As someone new walks by, the radar says: Straight or gay? Married or single? Holy or holier than thou? If I like them, I smile. If I  don’t like them, I imagine that they don’t like me. I wonder if I did something wrong. I cringe.
And how would I know the meaning of any of these projections anyway? It’s a moment by moment play of how my mind sees, filters, imagines, and daydreams.
And this is going on all day, every day, as the cast of characters at the retreat walk about on the conference center grounds, in silence.
It is as Rinpoche says,  “See the monkey mind, doing what it does.”

There are also my inner projections: “This was smart, that was dumb,” cringing with self- loathing at the ineptitude of this being called me.
Or … congratulating myself for being brilliant, insightful, having special effects like kriyas, or bliss bombs showering all over me and up and down my spine.  This means I must be very highly evolved. Or it just may be that my kundalini is out of whack and needs reé´alignment and I have gas.  Who knows what it means? You sit and see all of it. The fantasies of how I can be noticed by the teacher, or the flaws of the teacher or the teaching. Pay your ticket and you too can go to the movies. What’s playing? “The Life of Me”, starring me and everyone I know.

I – you– the drama unfolding– can be funny, sad, nervous, death-defying, all of it. The circus is in town.

That is why you may go (even though you don’t want to) on a silent retreat.

My knees are killing me, and I am falling asleep in half the meditation sessions. And there is something so important about getting close enough to your own inner landfill that makes all the discomfort worth it.

But I am not going to sign up for another retreat next week. I will wait until my knees heal. It make take a few years.

Meanwhile, back at the mindfulness ranch, awareness is corralling random projections into a big pen. The monkeys have crawled out of the mind and are serving the projections as left-overs, and they are all as happy as pigs in shit.

 

 

When Is enough enough? Or not enough good enough?

This post tackles the conundrum: can a creative being–say, just for example, me–express themself–say, just for example, myself–without the super-ego (commonly known as the boogie-man critic)–say, just for example, mine–interfering?

What is the deal with my super-ego? Is there a part of my personality so starved for work that the minute I start on something new it feels that it’s job is to tear the hell out of it?
Even as I write these words my boogie-man is busy reminding me that this is a dumb subject, and no one will read it anyway. What a bummer even before I’m two paragraphs in.

OK, boogie man, three.

Lately I have been “producing” re-cycled art with polyform clay. See photo.

A friend who owns an Etsy store turned me onto this. So first, the boogie-man points out, it is not a form that I invented. I “borrowed” it.  Second, it adds, my lines are not even and I run out colors before I finish, therefore the pieces are artistically unbalanced. My critic could go on and on….

And does.

This is a lightweight version of the critic. When she really gets going she wakes me in the middle of the night and broadcasts, in my brain only, a documentary that reviews everything I said or did wrong in my project, featuring how I forgot this and that or I said that and should have said this. It wouldn’t be so bad if the criticism was the least bit constructive, or was broadcast at an hour when I could distract myself with something useful. It isn’t and it isn’t. Whatever I did was not good enough; will never be enough; and that’s because I’m not good enough. And I will never be.

You could call it a habit of mind. Time and time again I remember that it is my responsibility to curb this meanie, and sometimes I do a good job. But I have to be vigilant. Sometimes she changes her voice, or hacks into the mainframe with a new set of passwords. And sometimes she runs a documentary about what a shit job I do handling her.

In my early 40’s I was a young mother.  I was working through mothering issues with my child, and mothering issues with my mother. I was having powerful dreams. I started painting my dreams to understand them better. I painted big canvases for a couple of years–producing about twenty of them. They were non-painterly, meaning I didn’t care about brush control or medium manipulation but just about getting my images onto the canvas.  I thought they were brilliant.  I managed to capture the feeling of the dreams, unafraid and directly.

But then–I am an extrovert, after all–I wanted others to see them too.  I wanted others to think they were amazing, too; and I wanted them to want get to know me because I created the art. So my “art” was not only an opportunity for me to work through my confusing relationship to mothering; it was an opportunity to be seen by others.

It  is one thing to create your work and it is another thing to share it. Sharing it puts you into the world of Art. Capital A, Art.

In the world of Capital A Art, the fact that the shade of green you chose is the perfect color to convey the feeling in a dream does not matter. The world of Capital A Art cares about media, skills, techniques, perspective, line, practice–based on standards that have evolved during the whole history of Capital A Art.

Years ago, my brothers and I went to the Museum of Modern Art–MOMA–in New York. A man named Cy Twombley (Dave Barry, I am not making this up) was one of the featured artists. Here is one of his pieces.

At the time I couldn’t, and even today I can’t, find anything that makes the smallest amount of sense to me. But…oooh, ahhh, there it is in the MOMA so he’s gotta be good, right? There must be something I didn’t understand.

But I wonder: did Cy Twombley wake up in the middle of the night and say, “oops, I did one curlique too many?”  Did his evaluation make his creativity a double-edged sword-  one where he enjoyed the process of creating, but hated the process of evaluating?

So is a painting a painting if no one is there to see it?

I recently lead a two-and-a-half day music workshop. It’s one of the things  I do for a living. The workshop, something called TaKeTiNa, demands many skills–among them an understanding of rhythmic structures, competence in playing an instrument–the berimbau, a difficult-to-play single stringed instrument from Brazil–and most  important, the ability to gauge the group and move them through the material at the right pace, and with the right rhythmic calls.

I was happy with the workshop except for one part. That one part wasn’t bad. It just wasn’t up to a standard that I held. This one part influenced my feeling about the entire workshop. The participants reported meaningful, transformational experiences. I saw the progress that they had made. Yet, I was left with the sour feeling of having failed to deliver what I had wanted to deliver. And even if I had been 100 percent spot-on in every moment, and felt good about what I’d done, I’m sure that I would have been criticizing myself for feeling better about my work than I had the right to feel. Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t .

How do I live with this super-critic? I’m not against criticism. In every art there are reasonable criteria, whether fully articulated or not, that reflect standards of competence. But then there is my super-critic who ignores or dismisses everything that turns out well and who turns anything that might be constructive into punishing annihilation. That is not playing fair!

And then, there is also the drive to create, and through the creation, to exist. There is the ego who like a small child says, “Mom! Hey Mom! Look at me! Look at what I did!” Beneath my occasional childish desires for adulation, fame, and riches, is a deep yearning to create something of lasting value for it’s own sake. And here is the gift: in my most brilliant moments of creation, while teaching or performing, the ”I”  disappears and only the teaching is left in the room, instructing me as well as everyone else.

I will continue to balance on this tightrope between creativity and criticism.
No matter how much Monday morning quarterbacking might ensue, and no matter how much I want to be seen and witnessed, the moments of grace/presence allow for the possibility of something beyond praise or blame. The moment is the moment is the moment. It is enough.