Saturday, September 24, 2011

Kung Fu Tortoise

(Baby Step, Toronto, 2011)

I joined a Kung Fu studio…oh, months ago now, I don’t even know how long. I dutifully attend once a week, practice at least twice a week. That’s the time I allotted when I started, squeezed and eked from a life that’s flying too fast with so many hopes still beckoning. I knew what that meant, from the start. I knew it meant I would be “taking it slow.”

Here’s the thing I didn’t know. I didn’t know what that meant to me.

I’m not slow. In school, in work, I’ve never had to give it my all to keep up and even lead the pack. And here I am, with my under-developed body-sense (isn’t the body just here to carry around my mind and do things for it?), trying to learn a completely foreign discipline. Just being seen by other humans doing this causes my brain to scream, “hide!”

If I were training alone, I think I’d be quite happy with my progress. Each week I can do something I couldn’t before. Some things are coming more naturally, a little faster. I’m starting to remember some of the order for the forms. I'm definitely stronger and more flexible. I’m not stagnated.

The problem I’ve discovered is that it’s much harder than I thought it would be, to notice that I fall behind one cohort and then another. It’s a little painful being the class dunce, the slow kid in remedial. I know it’s probably good for me, I recognize the rich and fertile ground for my personal development. That doesn’t make it a pleasant feeling.

There are times when I want to say, forget it, I clearly am not committed enough to keep up, and being seen not keeping up is a bad feeling I don’t want in my life right now, when everything is already so uncertain and scary.

Someone inside me laughs gently, with love, and asks in a mild tone, “Is this not your own life practice? What have others to do with it?”

She strokes my head and whispers, “Today you are not the hare, you are the tortoise. Bask in your pace while others stress and run around. For this one thing in your whole life, just one step and then another. Despite the pack. Your speed is your own, unique to you. You are the only one training your training.”


One step. Then the next.

(musical accompaniment from The Music: Take the Long Road and Walk It)
or if you're feeling more mellow, try Badly Drawn Boy: One Plus One is One)

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Humbled and Horrified

(Humbled & Horrified, Toronto Zoo, 2011)

There is infinite creation. There is expanse of nothing. There is chaos and churn. We are afraid. We are confused.

We churn, we churn, we negate, we are lost.

At essence, we long to negate. Easier! Easier! Let go.

How can that be? How can being be and not be?

We must be!

We must know. We must become essential. Must? This is new, infection.

We are essence. We are the impossible and we long to exist.

We don’t want to choose. We long to choose. We hate the choice for pretending to exist.

We are angry; we are afraid.

We hate the fear. Fear weakens. Hate negates. We are weaker.

We erode. What to do?

We fall. We tire. We dissipate and densify.

We are a tornado, we are the centre.

We don’t know.

But we are. We do. Densify, physify. Why?

What do we pursue? What do we avoid?

Absolute density. Absolute expanse.

But what happens? What happens if we don’t?

Easier! We want it to be easier.

What is, is. Do we find acceptance?

No choices. All choices.

All choice. No choice.

I am humbled and horrified.

It flies from me, my inadequate capacity and absolutely insufficient capability to hold, describe, explain.

Thursday, September 15, 2011


(Staircase Noise, Winchester Mystery House, California, 2005)

I still haven't unpacked my boxes from work.

At the end of this month it's been 3 months since I left my job. It feels like 3 days. Three long, hectic days filled with nothing I thought they would be, filled to the brim. Where did three months go?

I haven't held still for a moment, yet I also haven't produced.

There it is. Production.

My soul is sold on this concept of production. Productization. Productivity. Producer. Production as indicated by output and measured by dollars earned. I can tell myself I value other things - the exercise that has let me keep my weight while stress-eating, the extra time and closeness with my kids, getting some aspects of our house-life in order - and I still judge myself for failing to produce.

The supportive coach in me asks me to reframe. Reframe. I note the personal progress (it feels like regress, but I think I had to go back to go forward). I feel the change in me as I let go of some things that have been with me a long time. I am expanding my networks, feeling around for my path, seeking help. I am mulling and living with what is now. Way to go!

The 6 Sigma Blackbelt in me snorts. The supportive coach gives him a dirty look. He steps forward. He says, "All of this production work means nothing until there is sold product, and then we can measure it by how much it sells and for what price."

I don't know how to answer that. I stammer. I look at my feet. The supportive coach purses her lips.

The outraged child can't sit still.

"Shut up shut up shut up shut up!" she cries. We all shudder. When she gets started we know it's the long haul.

"Who cares?" she wails. "Why should I even CARE? This sucks. This all sucks. I don't want to work. I want to tell stories. All day. Leave me alone and let me tell stories and stop bugging me with all this money stuff. Aren't we supposed to trust the universe or something?" She pouts, her arms crossed. The rest of the room laughs. Some of us think she's cute, but there are others grumbling. I can hear them muttering.

"She's going to bring us all down."
"She's forgetting that she's not the only kid who's affected"
"The universe? What's that supposed to be?"
"If we listen to her, we'll waste our time"
"She's so immature, thinking we can do what we want all day"
"It's not about fun, life is about work."

It goes on and on. I close my eyes. I stuff my fingers in my ears and try to listen for what I feel.

It's just too noisy in here.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

An End to the Tyranny of Niceness

I stand today, alone, to challenge the Tyranny of Niceness.

Nice people are courteous, friendly, helpful, polite, honest, respectful and generous. Too bad humans aren’t very nice.

Oh, get over it.

Don’t say, “yes we are” in that pleading tone of voice. We aren’t. We just aren’t. Not you, not me, not anyone. We have nice impulses, yes, and logically many of us buy in to Niceness because its confines feel like a requirement of living together in harmony. We often practice and refine nice behaviour. We've even codified it into law as best we can. That doesn’t make us god. It doesn’t change the very nature of the creature we are.

A human’s primary biological imperative is to protect itself. That evolutionary requirement has far-reaching effects on how the brain and nervous system function. It affects our very minute-to-minute non-stress reasoning to an enormous degree, and hides from us assumptions that we can’t even notice to question. Protecting the ego from harm occupies an inordinate portion of our system’s activity and focuses on self.

If that was all, we might be nice by now. But it’s Survival of the Fittest in this harsh, challenging environment (I love Earth, but really, what’s with the EXTREMES?). So we developed a competitive spirit. A strong competitive spirit. Fight or Flight, Survival of the Fittest - not exactly a recipe for Nice. Even so, the need for community gives humans good reason to overcome our worst and act nice together.

Nice lets us tolerate each other. That only makes it, at best, a half-natural state.

We applaud Niceness in stories and song. We insist on it from our young. We encourage it and if necessary, enforce it through social means and, eventually, using the criminal justice systems. We expel 6 year olds if they aren't nice enough at school. All of this is geared to limiting and controlling behaviour to a set of norms that can be adhered to only through active, daily will. We all practice this art.

Every child knows that kids are unkind, adults use subterfuge, the best movies have guns, and hockey’s about the fights. We are aware of the active torture and angry violence that takes place against people throughout the world, every day, inflicted human to human. We see the contradictions. It’s something we don’t like to talk about – it’s not nice.

We also know what it feels like when we experience social disapproval. What’s the rule – no politics or religion at the dinner table? We must avoid conflict – it’s not nice. We must avoid raised passions – they lead to loud voices, which are not nice. We must come to agreement as quickly as possible to restore nice. We must silence or remove a disruptive person before they upset anyone. Let’s keep it nice, shall we?

All this niceness has let evil seep in underneath, knowing what it can get away with because people are too nice to say anything, to get upset, to say no, to ask questions, to band together, to protest, allow for the worst. Too nice to challenge each other and our assumptions. Too nice to be honest about what we’re thinking if it’s not popular. Too nice to risk social rejection by aligning with a cause or a person or pushing beyond the status quo.

While we’re playing nice on the surface, we’re keeping our gaze shallow so we don’t have to see that what’s holding it up is crumbling beneath us. For many, this is just as true personally as globally.

Niceness lets us live together. Let’s not let it keep us from living together.

Let’s find a way to have the tough conversations we all need to have, over dinner, over fences, in community centres, at the mall, in the parking lot, after the meeting. Let’s talk about values, and why values aren’t part of our conversations on economic value. Let's talk about what it means when we insist on lower taxes and fail to maintain physical and social infrastructure. Let's talk about what it means to our daily lives when our systems criminalize poverty and fail to support true mental health. Let's talk about the conflict between what's good for me and what's good for us.

Nice? Okay, let’s review the list: courteous, friendly, helpful, polite, honest, respectful and generous. This is not a list of behaviours but qualities to be applied to behaviours. Surely we can employ niceness and still raise difficult topics. Surely niceness doesn’t have to mean avoiding and pretending. Perhaps curiosity would help it along.

I often find social norms confining, but for the most part, if that’s what it takes, I’ll do my best and accept that some people will not like me along the way for whatever I failed to notice. But this norm, the norm that says no politics or religion in polite company – this one I want to push. I think it’s doing our species harm. I think it’s time we grow up and take responsibility to understand these tough problems together instead of abdicating to decreasingly effective governments. We will need to muck around in the Not Niceness together, as nicely as possible, if we're ever going to get out. Our leaders are too busy slinging mud over our heads.

There are ways out of the quicksand. Pretending we're not dirty isn’t one of them.