No one knows what the body can do. -Spinoza

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Revisiting Decision Making; or, A Letter of Recommendation for Pneumonia Sent to All the Top Employers in the World (you know, YOU)

I want to revisit a post I made at the beginning of November while in the throws of pneumonia. (It's mostly gone now, by the way. The truth is, it turns out, that pneumonia takes a month and a half at least to heal. My arms and legs are skinnier than I've ever seen them. But that's what comes from laying in bed so long. There's an occasional crackle in one lung, but rarely, and I also still have a cough.)

The post I want to revisit is one where I discussed the *way* we make decisions, and said that in making my decision to come here to the Northeast United States I'd made a mistake. I think there's an important distinction to make there--between the process, and the outcome of the decision.

It's a distinction that I made in the original post, but that I didn't highlight enough at the time. It could easily seem that the subtle difference might not ultimately matter that much--that we end up having to figure out what to do in the end anyway. Truthfully, I think that even had I gone through my decision making process about whether to move here or not in a different manner, the right choice STILL would have been to up and move all the way across the country to New England. So, why the heck do I care, then, to belabor the point about *how* I went about getting here at all?

It's clear to me that in my actually coming here to take this fellowship I made no mistake. In many ways, some of which are only obscure and esoteric, coming here was exactly the right decision. So, wonderfully, I have no regrets in my being here, or in my having left Northern Arizona when I did either. The mistake I made was in not well enough considering my own feelings about what I was doing. By overlooking those feelings I also missed my opportunity to learn something crucial about what I valued in the life I was living, and so then too something crucial about how to enact those values as I shifted to making a journey into the ivy league (so to speak). To put it another way, by not acknowledging well enough how I felt, when I moved I ended up metaphorically leaving myself behind. That is, I basically arrived in New Hampshire without my heart--not in any romantic sense, but in the sense of having a connected, genuine relationship with myself. As a result, a move that would have been challenging no matter the circumstances occurred with me being hollow to myself.

One of the surprising truths of this whole experience is that I'm deeply grateful for how awful most of this Fall has felt, and deeply grateful too for having gotten pneumonia so virulently (I had to have a second round of antibiotics that included both intravenous AND oral treatment because three weeks into it the symptoms just weren't getting better). It turns out being uncomfortable in so many different ways all at the same time I was forced to take a look at WHAT WOULD make me feel better. After a point I couldn't really do much to help the physical discomfort of being ill, and being stuck in bed meant that after a point I also couldn't really do anything to counter a sense of isolation either (the internet really does only go so far). Pneumonia takes a long time to heal, so after some point I just couldn't really mentally fight the idea that I was ill and alone anymore. I just had to accept it and then find out what I was going to do to deal with it.

Pema Chodren discusses the buddhist idea of the wisdom of no escape (in fact she also has a book with exactly that title). In thinking through the insight we come to see that much of our life is spent developing various forms of diversion. We practice distracting ourselves in various ways again and again out of a kind of avoidance of the simple reality that right NOW right this minute we are alive. The thing is that the simple awareness of our living is actually a radical awareness. For many of us it brings a variety of emotions that are hard for us to deal with, like inordinate fear, or incredible grief, or shocking lonliness. Such feelings, though, are hard to deal with in many cases simply because we're not used to dealing with them; that is, we are resistant to being uncomfortable in ourselves when it can be avoided, and so we do avoid it when we can. (Let me not be taken here to discount the very real challenge of actually going through such feelings as strong grief. It can be severely uncomfortable, and in no way do I want to deny that.) As a result, any of us end up living our lives avoiding feelings we're afraid of, and also avoiding making decisions we're afraid of. We cultivate distractions that we're invested in maintaining, even while paradoxically not actually investing ourselves in those activities. Activities ranging from that drink at the end of the night, to the television show we don't quite like but keep watching anyway, or by staying in the relationship we're not actually happy with but are afraid of leaving. None of these particular activities--having an occasional drink, watching a television show, or being in a relationship--in themselves is any sort of problem. Instead, it's the *way* we engage in them that could be a problem, or, conversely could reveal the very richness of our self and our lives.

Once we recognize how much of our lives is actually just pursuing distraction, we can begin to see where there could be a moment instead of no escape. The wisdom of no escape is in facing those very moments we want to just metaphorically run away from, and in so doing find ourselves in the midst of those very feelings we've been avoiding feeling. This isn't to say we should stay in a situation that really is bad for us, obviously. Instead, it's saying that sometimes just staying still is necessary to genuinely recognizing ourselves, and connecting to the possibility of living our lives with an awareness deeper (and larger) than those uncomfortable feelings. The buddhist insight is, of course, (at least partially) that in doing so our sense of what matters to us, what we want to invest in, what we are attached to, and even who we are changes.

The gift of my having been here in pneumonia-ville for so long, also in a town where I honestly didn't know anyone that could visit me during the illness, has been that I was put, whether I was willing or not, directly into that space of no escape. I could psychologically fight the situation for a while, but after some point I was simply too tired even for that. Somewhere in there I had to just accept that I was stuck in bed with no where to go and no one to spend time with besides myself.

This last week a friend of mine described for me an idea of what she called "wise mind." The image that illustrates wise mind is a simple one. There are two equally sized circles that overlap in the middle. One circle is "reason" and the other circle is "emotion." Where the circles overlap is "wise mind" and genuinely made decisions, and balanced living come from operating in that overlap of circles--deliberation that takes both reason and emotion into account. Looking back over my own life I recognize that in some sense I came out of my childhood operating strongly on the "emotion" side of the picture, then I went to graduate school in philosophy and flipped to operating primarily out of the "reason" side. The trouble is BOTH are needed, and reacting to the limitations of one by jumping over to operate only in the reality of the other is just as imbalanced and limited as where the situation started. The mistake I made in how I decided to move here was in choosing from the awareness of only one of those circles without living clearly enough in balance with the other. So, it turns out that even if I ultimately made the right decision by moving here, I made that decision without wisdom.

I arrived here in the Northeast United States and for the first two months of my time here (before getting sick) felt personally uncomfortable, like I was being squeezed tight by the choice I'd made to live (even if temporarily) in a place that felt quite simply like no match at all to me and what I care about. Even with the truth that this really is a wonderful place, with incredibly kind hearted and generous people, a lovely foliage, and pleasant range of offerings--still everything here feels *for me* like I'm being pushed out. To put it another way, I don't recognize myself in any of my surroundings. Again, the problem with this place for me is not in the place itself. The place is a very very good one. The problem with this place is in its relation to me. What I value and want to be able to engage with on a daily basis isn't readily enough found in this place for me. It's simply a mismatch for who I am. So, trying to live in that, trying to force myself to "just adjust" or "just open up to it more" or "just find places I like to hang out in" or "just go to that social event to be around people even if I don't want to" etc--all of that felt like me being squeezed alive by my own discomfort. Trying to make myself do all that stuff to "just adjust" also amounted to another example of ignoring healthier ways of making everyday level decisions for myself. What I needed was not to force the situation on myself because I should meet people, of hang out more, or get used to it, or whatever else I'm apparently supposed to do to deal with feeling out of place. What I actually needed was to get into a clearer sense of what I wanted to do to deal with my discomfort--to recognize what was making me so uncomfortable, and find within my own engagement with it that balance of reason and emotion so that I could both feel my discomfort and think-feel on what was right for me to do with it.

Being forced into bed by pneumonia and having to just live with the situation I was in, I had no real choice but to lay there rolling in my own uncomfortable emotions, being cuddled by my own anger that I'd moved here at all, being loved on by my sense of anguish that in many ways as a single parent my life has been inordinately hard, and here was just another example of that difficulty. I was stuck not just swallowing antibiotics everyday, but swallowing the reality of these various feelings too. The incredible gift of having to just learn how to recognize those feelings, and as a result also discover my own relationship to them was to realize that as stuck in my circumstances as I felt, I actually have a huge range of choices that can be made. As a result, I've found my way to making decisions about what to do in the face of living in a place that's felt so uncomfortable for me. In my previous post I said I'd have to sort out what to do in the face of my decision and that it would likely take some time. I've arrived now at a place where I am more clear what to do about it, and am implementing those decisions to make changes that matter to me. (I'll discuss what I'm doing in that regard further in a future post.)

Buddhists, and existentialists and radical feminists alike (though in importantly different ways) remind us that we are all constrained by the circumstances of our lives. This is simply true. And it is within those constraints that we discover the very possibility of creative engagement; that is, it is in the moment of recognizing our own constraints that we get to take up the question "and how are we going to negotiate that? what are we going to do with this constraint?" We are often tricked into believing that the answer to these questions is already given to us--well, I'm a mother, so I have to do this and that. Or, I already have this job so I must do these several things. etc. There are innumerable examples of how any of us assume we simply must do things in our lives in particular "obvious" ways. Sometimes in reaction to this feeling of obligation we day dream over the idea of radical freedom--our lives changing dramatically so that we become something like different people living incredibly different lives (winning the lottery, perhaps). But genuine freedom comes in the simple choices we make of how to operate within the circumstances of our everyday lives. We might strongly remake our circumstances by moving across the country, for example. But we can also (and probably more often) recognize the intersection of these two ideas--no escape, and wise mind--as bolsters for discovering greater freedom in the life we already have.

This morning I am making innumerable choices. I have chosen already to reflect on these ideas and write about them here, obviously. I also chose to SQUEEZE my girl-girl and feel the gift of that goofy relationship, while jokingly telling her not to pee on me (to which she laughed). I am also going to DRINK my coffee and imagine I can chew it up it tastes so good, and also eat a grapefruit. I like the way grapefruit makes my insides feel--like everything in my stomach has puckered slightly with the reality of that vibrant taste. Hey! Have you ever smelled the skin of your grapefruit before you cut into it? Do that. Then scratch the skin of it with your finger nail and smell it again. Close your eyes as you do this. It's a simple moment full of a vibrant, sharp brilliance that I love. Even if you hate it, what a moment to be had.


  1. "when I moved I ended up metaphorically leaving myself behind"


  2. the wise mind is such an important practice. i think that what you wrote here about distraction is similar to an idea i had reading a post on another blog, "the queer nun", which was about sexual encounters in an overdetermined power relationship. i think that the society we happen to live in distracts people to such a degree that they can even be distracted from fundamental lonliness inside themselves, and sexual hunting and "winning" the "woman who bites" is another distraction. it's a distraction that stops us from ever slowing down, looking in, and finding happiness.

  3. My third attempt to leave a comment... :)
    My situation in Santuario so closely mirrors your own, from the internal to the external. I respect the grace with which you are speaking of and dealing with things. Good work. Much more gracefully than I did.
    Lots of love,Ben