Composing a Life

2017-Mary-Catherine-Bateson-lead-nocolormanageAuthor, linguist, and anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson is interviewed this week by Krista Tippett on the OnBeing podcast. Bateson’s book Composing a Life profoundly influenced me and my teaching of memoir writing in the 1990’s. Now, retired from teaching at George Mason University, she continues to inspire readers with what she calls a life of “active wisdom.”

This is such a lovely interview, giving us insight into her amazing upbringing as the daughter of anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, and her consistent dedication to the life of the mind, and especially to considering what it means to “compose” a life. She sees life as an “improvisatory art.” But still, she suggests, a life lived well is a deliberate act, one that does not operate in default mode, but rather searches for the conditions of living and the habits of mind that allow one to flourish.

She says, “In a stable society, composing a life is somewhat like throwing a pot or building a house in a traditional form: the materials are known, the hands move along familiar tasks, the fit of the completed whole in common life is understood.”

And a bit later in the interview she says, “I like to think of men and women as artists of their own lives, working with what comes to hand through accident or talent to compose and recompose a pattern in time that expresses who they are and what they believe in, making meaning even as they are studying and working and raising children, creating and recreating themselves.”

Creating and recreating themselves. This was a thrilling thing to hear early on a Monday morning in August—an idea I have grappled with for many years; an idea that is the raison d’être of LifeArt Studio. We are all artists of our own lives. How then can we create and recreate our best selves, moment by moment? Each day we get the opportunity to live the hours well, to choose experiences wisely, to offer beneficence where we can—to pursue the good, the true, and the beautiful as we compose our own artful living.

And this week, as I experienced a milestone birthday, I am particularly inspired by Bateson’s notion of “active wisdom,” a term that honors the experience, knowledge, and legacy of people moving into what she very graciously calls “later adulthood.” Bateson, true to the legacy of her own iconic parents, urges us to think of later adulthood as a time of “harvesting a life of learning and thinking and observing.”

And so, to my fellow baby-boomers, I send out best wishes for your own unique forms of composing and harvesting your life. May you go into your “later adulthood” with wisdom, insight, contentment, and gratitude for the amazing life you continue to create.

As someone famous once said, “Rock on!”

 

 

Baby Goes to Meditation Class

12112460_10153631533039280_6368652957090106424_nThis week on the blog, we’re happy to offer a personal story by local writer and life coach Eddie Selover. He first shared this story on Facebook, and I was so taken by his honest and funny depiction of what happens to everyone who undertakes a meditative practice. Meditation is hard enough under the best of circumstances; but Eddie shows us that there is more to learn when we persevere in the practice when it’s really hard.

Baby Goes to Meditation Class

I’d taken a meditation class for well over a year. There was a couple in the class, and over time I watched them go from strangers to acquaintances to dating to getting married. Eventually I stopped going to the class and didn’t see any of my fellow sitters for about a year or so. But one Sunday, there was an invitation to return, so I went back. And this couple was there, with their new infant child. After cooing over the baby, we all began our sit.

I closed my eyes and focused on my breath. “Muh-heh” said the baby. Back to the breath. “Muh-heh-heh,” the baby elaborated. No no, back to the breath. And as babies do when they’re not getting their point across, it began to fuss a little more. This went on for a while, with long enough pauses for me to wonder if it was over, settle my mind, and have it start up again… louder each time.

Thoughts inevitably arose. Thoughts like: maybe you should take that baby out of the room. Your baby is crying, you should go feed it. Why exactly did you bring a baby to meditation class, you assholes?

And back to the breath.

“Waaaaaaahh,” the baby said. And for clarity, it added: “Whaaaaaaaaahhhhhhh!”

By now, all focus on my breath was lost because I was instead thinking: takeyourfuckinbabyoutofthisroomrightnow and doIhavetogetupoffthiscushion and letmeshowyouhowtorearachild and youselfishfuckinmoronsIhateyou.

It had developed into quite the ragestorm when I suddenly noticed it and thought, “Wow, I am really resisting this baby.”

And I began to explore my resistance. A tightening in the muscles. An obsessive focus on what I don’t like. A fire hose of judgment. All of me, body and mind, had become this fierce unified NO! to the experience I was having.

Just like the baby. Wait. Who exactly was the baby here? The only difference between us was: it didn’t have articulate speech, whereas I was too conditioned to be polite to give my anger voice. The baby’s full-throated objections were in fact more authentic and valid than my hopeless silent struggles with myself.

And then I had another thought: maybe this baby can help me. Every time it yowls, I can notice my resistance, and my judgment, and how I react when things or people come into my experience that I don’t like. Let’s breathe into THAT for a while.

“Whaaaaaaaaahhhhhhh!” the baby would repeat, only now each time when I’d feel the muscles tightening, I would smile. There’s that resistance again. This baby is awesome! Whaaaaaaaaahhhhhhh! Oh yes yes yes. Thank you, baby. It got better and better, and it went on for a nice little while longer.

Eventually the mother took the baby out of the room — noooo, baby, don’t go! I felt a rush of gratitude to that baby for showing more of myself to me. And a wave of relief that I didn’t have to be so goddamn zen anymore. And a familiar feeling that I am a very flawed human being and there’s no cure for it and I’m okay with that. And I noticed those feelings, and went back to my breath.

Eddie Selover is a well-known Orlando writer and communicator, a marketing communications professional, and a life coach. And he is most especially admired and appreciated as the organizer and host of PechaKucha Orlando, an event which features creatives and professionals sharing their passion for community, culture, and life in a unique 20×20 presentational format: 20 slides, each one for 20 seconds.   Listen to his wonderful TEDxOrlando talk here. And join him at the next PechaKucha Orlando on Friday, December 6.

Memento Mori

Memento_Mori_by_GodfridHere’s what happened on the day of June’s full moon—a day my yoga studio closes to allow practitioners to rest the body, and reflect.  At 5:30 I began my usual morning routine, which is hugely important to me, and also responsible for the sense of joy and purpose I get to experience every day.

Here’s the routine:

1) Upon rising, I meditate for 15 minutes.

2) I make a cup of Bulletproof coffee. (I live for this coffee. It’s life-changing.)

3) Then I do my TIA journal. TIA stands for “thank,” “intend,” “ask.” It’s an expanded form of gratitude journal, and it’s pretty simple.

– I make a list of experiences from the previous day for which I am grateful.

– I make a list of all the things I am intending to be, do, or offer throughout the day ahead of me.

– And finally, I ask my higher power (what do we say? the universe? God? Source? Unity Consciousness? –whatever!) to guide me in any issue or problem I’m  grappling with.

I have filled dozens and dozens of  spiral-bound sketchbooks with this morning routine over the years, and I credit this practice with giving me a sense of clarity and purpose and joy in my life. Research has shown that the practice of gratitude really is the portal to cultivating these three qualities, just as all great wisdom traditions have told us for centuries.

4) And then, after my journal writing comes 30-60 minutes of spiritual study and reading in the wisdom traditions.

5) From there, I walk Dash, which has become our private walking meditation and sun salutation.

And then the last part of the morning routine. . .

6) I head out to The Yoga Shala for 80 minutes of astanga yoga.

Ahhhhhh. What a way to start the morning. I call it six steps to bliss.

What’s Next?

This way of starting the day sets me up to experience life in its fullness, to perform at my best, and to enjoy everything that comes my way. It is all good after this kind morning practice.

My practice today, though, was altered because, as I said,  it’s a “moon day,”— no yoga when the moon is full or new. Instead of practicing, I did a little bit of email communicating with clients, but nothing really hard or serious. Just reminders for up-coming groups.

And then I thought, what’s next?

It appeared I had nothing to do.  My  calendar revealed I had NO APPOINTMENTS OR EVENTS for the day. Yes, for the first time in a long, long time, a whole day of white space. So there was no ready answer to the question, “what’s next?”  I could not depend on my calendar to guide me.  I could choose exactly what I wanted to do: I could rest. I could paint. I could read. I could work in the garden. I could go see a sick friend. I could walk the dog. I could kill myself.

None of it would make any difference, would it? Who would care? That’s kind of where my mind went, though it might sound dramatic. But really, I thought, what difference do your days make? This is the very question that started me on a life-long quest for meaning when I was twelve years old and got kicked out of Sunday school.

The point is, in spite of all the fullness, all the joy, all the goodness, all the pleasure that makes up my life, there are also these moments of stark despair. Nothing makes any difference. There is no “next.” I can look at art, or I can walk into the lake. Don’t worry; I’m not gonna do that. But here’s my point. Even when we think we’ve created meaning and purpose in our lives, there still comes this wave of uncertainty. This silence that reveals a chasm of nothingness. This moment when we fear everything can go away at any moment, and nothing will remain.

If this sounds morbid, please know I didn’t  feel morbid. Believe me, a few minutes later, I opened a bottle of sauvignon blanc and enjoyed the vibrant colors of my little garden.  Dash curled up next to me and smacked her lips in the precious way dogs do when they are completely relaxed and completely content and just about ready to fall into a deep and happy sleep. And for a few minutes, maybe an hour, I was relaxed and content too. (Dash, my great teacher.)

But it’s days like this one that make me realize that these moments are precious and fleeting, and in the end lost. Meaningless.

I am in the end portion of my life. It doesn’t really make any difference if I get up or not. On any day, I can eat bonbons, or practice yoga, or serve the poor, or paint, or work with clients. I have the ability to choose. And this last moon day just happened to be a wide open, spacious, unscheduled day which allowed me to come face to face with this very idea. This day could mean nothing, or it could mean everything. It’s my choice. And the calendar conspired to nudge me to reflect on this fact. My heart took the opportunity to feel what it feels like to be alone, alive, aware, and totally responsible for my choices.

Totally responsible. I can choose. And in the end, that is a most, most precious gift. I bow down to the universe in gratitude.

Namasté dear friends, and memento mori,

Lezlie

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

            – Steve Jobs, Stanford University commencement speech