Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Soothing the Baby

As I grow up, I feel more and more compelled to toss certain esoteric thoughts out there among the 180 quadrillion web pages in case they’re helpful someday - even if they’re of scant current interest.

In a lifetime of finding myself ahead of curves (that's a complaint, not a boast), I’ve noticed that once crowds catch up, my voice is rarely necessary - or even heard - amid the torrent. But in certain realms, where I'm extra ahead, there are chunks which might remain missing. So I’ll risk confusing and exasperating regular readers by occasionally posting such chunks for the possible (if unlikely) use of other people in another time. Which is to say: you may well want to skip this (if only because it’s long!).

I started teaching myself yoga and self-hypnosis when I was around 11.
The notion of "teaching oneself" may be paradoxical, but I've taught myself all my life. This very Slog, which may appear to be teaching you, is really me teaching myself while you eavesdrop (as I recently noted, 95% - perhaps much more - of human communication is actually self-directed; the only difference with me is that I acknowledge it).
I'd borrowed a dopey book about self-hypnosis from the library, and, though I recognized its shortcomings, it stimulated enough exploration that I was eventually able to devise my own approach (I haven’t used it in many years, however). As for yoga, I'd worked through many of the poses on my own while reading a slew of books on Eastern spirituality (most memorably: "Powers of Mind" - a lightweight massmarket treatment that happened to ring my bell - plus classics like "Zen and the Art of Archery", "Introduction to Zen Buddhism", "Siddhartha", "The Way of a Pilgrim", "Be Here Now", and the first stanza of the Hsin Hsin Ming - aka "Verses on the Faith Mind by The 3rd Zen Patriarch" - which was as far as I was able to get for years without falling into reverie. Also stuff by Castaneda, Salinger, and certain elements of "Dune" (a bizarre combo, yes, but booting up in knowledge is always jagged because unknowing is the father of knowing).

Actually (it's a bit blurry) I might have read most of those later, trying to understand what I had experienced. But before all else I needed to learn to relax.

Yoga and self-hypnosis both showed me how maddeningly difficult a proposition the notion of "relaxation" is. You could spend an hour splayed out on the floor, breathing deeply and progressively relaxing each muscle group, and however relaxed you might feel, it's still a pale shadow of full-out relaxation.
Spiritual practitioners inevitably overestimate their progress - again and again, as mere pinholes of surrender feel like cosmic gushers. Spirituality has a Dunning-Kruger effect of its own, leading the clueless to prematurely deem themselves holy masters or whatever, which explains all those rotten, greedy, sexed-up gurus we've heard about. The truism "a little knowledge is dangerous" should be translated into Sanskrit.
Yogis practice relaxation in "corpse" pose, and the name offers a lovely clue. Once you've laid there, yielding completely to gravity and feeling yourself as being breathed rather than actively breathing, certain you're as floppily relaxed as can be, my trick was to mentally compare myself to an actual corpse. If you were honest, you'd concede that your muscles remain a roiling hive of twitchy hyperstimulation and your mind's madly atwitter. If you were to drift into sleep (let alone death), your body would splay out in drastic contrast to this superficial oh-look-at-me-I'm-so-relaxed posturing. You call this relaxation? Pffft.
I taught a little yoga at one point. Once, while my students strained to touch their toes, grunting and cursing their stubborn hamstrings, I asked them to imagine someone walking in and shooting us all in the head. Wouldn’t we all execute flawless, effortless forward bends en route to collapse? Your hamstrings, in and of themselves, are not the problem!

I’ve just accounted for the brevity of my teaching career, but this was actually a fantastically useful observation. It normally takes decades for practitioners to notice that their resistance is them.

No “you” resistance!
Back to my childhood: I devised two visualizations to bridge the impasse and enable deeper relaxation. Once you’re as relaxed as possible, try this:
1. The Pole
You find yourself in a vast blue sky, clutching a very long horizontal pole receding infinitely in both directions. There's nothing else to grab at, so hands and feet wind tightly around the pole for dear life. Having faith that you'll float, not fall: unpeel a hand, and notice that it doesn't drop. Then repeat with a foot. Then another foot. Then, finally, your remaining hand. The pole, disregarded, disappears, leaving you calmly, blithely afloat.

2. The Tree
You're sitting on a sturdy branch of a mature tree, facing the trunk, with a saw in your hand. Now saw away at the branch.
You never needed to clutch that pole or branch. Your clutching was always entirely was every iota of stress you've ever invited into your body. Never, ever, would you have fallen. You can’t fall. It's/he's/she's got you (you don't need to personify the everything of everything).

If you practice relaxation - plus these extensions - sufficiently, you can, in time, learn to fully relax - float-not-fall! - within the blink of an eye, even amid life turmoil. Self-help authors at that time wrote about "the relaxation response". I didn't read their books, because it was something I'd already learned.

To briefly review, having mastered superficial relaxation, I spotted the shortfall and acknowledged my self-deception ("I'm sooo relaxed!"), bucking the innate human impulse to feel that we're doing everything right. I resolved to go further, beyond the mere posing. I committed and persevered, learning that I can’t fall, come what may, and that stress is entirely elective.

And then, finally, I added love.
Love is the ultimate secret ingredient shaker bottle, ripe for sprinkling. The bottle we forgot we had at the back of the fridge. It's life's umami, and cosmic de-icer. It’s the solution even where it seems incongruous; the forgotten foolproof trick reliably up your sleeve; the smartphone feature you keep forgetting about.

Jamaican and African athletes don't win those track and field medals because black people are super fast. It's because running is the most viaible route for elevating their beloved families from poverty. That's not just a powerful motivator, but, much more importantly, it’s a complete reframing of the situation, likely inaccessible for an equally talented athlete from, say, Düsseldorf.

And consider all those Oscar and Grammy winners deflecting their credit and glory toward god or whatever (i.e. anything beyond themselves). You might roll your eyes, considering them ditzily brainwashed by corny superstition, but when human beings work for a Higher Purpose (anything beyond themselves) - all faculties neatly aligned by the indefatigable flow of maximal love - that's when serious greatness is possible. Those who’ve never won Oscars or Grammys would do well to pay attention when such people freely reveal the secret.

Would you at least concede that works dedicated to dead loved ones tend to suck a little less?
At this time I was a cynical, bitter little shit. I'd discovered early how cruel and ignorant people are. My family had trained me to view fellow humans as a contemptuous herd of stupid fucking assholes deserving neither respect nor sympathy, and this proposition was not a hard sell. I already bore scars from random cruelty, and had witnessed dishonesty, corruption, and antagonism gratuitously wielded even where truth, propriety, and kindness would have better served. At a very young age I was already fed up (and, shamefully - though predictably - beginning to display touches of needless cruelty of my own).

Lying on the ground, relaxing into a primordial state - a heartbeat from actual corpse-hood - I alighted on the recognition that no one chooses that route. They're all in pain; confused and lost. Knotted up in anguished flailings, they knoweth not what they do. Nor do I.

When a baby screams and writhes in angry hunger, we don't condemn or punish the baby, nor do we try to talk sense into it. We don't allow ourselves to be triggered into raging back. Maturely recognizing its innate helplessness and non-comprehension, we hug the baby. Empathizing with its blameless emotion, we look past the tight, red, hysterical face, the shrieking and flailing limbs, the gross spittle. We...just...soothe the baby, period.

Shedding all armor and yielding to the gravity beneath the floor, I indiscriminately soothed every baby everywhere, large and small, surrendering myself - my very molecules - for the cherishing comfort of even the most seemingly loathsome...who need it most. I pleaded to no one in particular to be atomized into a spray that might infinitesimally erode the massive, massive mound of human pain. Overlooking the stench as if it were an innocent stinky diaper, I reached out with arms and ear lobes and toenails to embrace what I’d previously regarded as a contemptuous herd of stupid fucking assholes, including (especially!) any who'd gone out of their way to do me harm. I forgave, not via weighty judgement, but as we forgive babies for their tantrums; shifting my framing to deem them loveable.

With a hapless gesture of utter stupidity and hopeless hope (the heart is an idiot), my heart swiftly expanded to swallow it all - the entire universe - whole (this sounds like metaphor, but did not feel like one). I immediately recognized that this transcendent embrace had always been there, perpetually underpinning the bustling veneer of worldly drama, for me and, equally, for any of us. Within this framing, there was no individuation; only a unity of love embracing love.

This, too, was practiced until it became reliably accessible upon demand (I was a kid who practiced lots of stuff; juggling, ear wiggling, celebrity impressions, boogie-woogie piano...and this felt like more of that). I tried to discuss it with others, but there was a puzzling disconnect. It couldn't possibly have been anything special, because I was just some shmucky kid with merely pretty good grades and who rated no more than middling esteem from authorities and peers. So I couldn't fathom why everyone stared blankly when I'd matter-of-factly bring it up (first with my mom, who listened impatiently to my tale of heart expansions and atomized sprays, finally breaking in to suggest that I go outside and play so she could finish making dinner).

Lacking any context for the experience - and finding no one able to offer any - I took comfort in the unshakable knowledge that this is simply how things truly are beneath the noise and distraction, recognized or not. This truth requires no more attention or maintanence than is necessary to preserve the starry night sky during daytime, so I let myself be pulled back into worldly drama, losing first the immediate access and eventually becoming entirely detached from the Knowing...without ever registering a disconnection. As I recently wrote:
It's hard to distinguish between real remembering and the remembrance of remembering. You'll feel certain you still have "the gist" of it - a sort of mental snapshot - even though actual remembering is no longer available. The gist of remembering smoothly dissipates into the fog of forgetting. While remembering remembering, you can easily forget that you've forgotten.
I had, thankfully, taken the time to send myself forward some well-considered reminders and bread crumbs (including one of the above visualizations), foreseeing that I'd lose my way back. A decade or so later, I fell briefly back in through a different doorway, via the desperation and depression that had accumulated since my turning away (it's much more painful to recently have Known and forgotten than to remain perpetually numbly unaware). Then, with careers to pursue and web sites to wrangle and restaurants to find, I disconnected once again for a very long while.

The Knowing had resembled the ecstatic fullness of creative epiphany; a premium upgrade version of that more familiar sort of insight/inspiration. As a musician, I would struggle in vain, as does every artist, to "bottle" my muse; to make it accessible upon demand. I never came close (here’sme playing on a good night, when the juice actually flowed). Still later, I bumpily toiled, post-Chowhound, to rekindle my Knowing, finding it difficult to muster the requisite hapless stupidity and experiencing similar slippery frustration. Eventually I was startled to notice that I was indeed able to "bottle" the Knowing...and the creative muse along with it (voluminously cataloguing the secrets thereto here in this Slog).

Potential framings are infinitely diverse. It is only within the more familiar cinematic/dramatic “my-life-is-like-this” framing that all pain and disappointment reside. From that perspective, I'm a musician who'll soon lose his hearing, a gourmand whose daily aspirin therapy (for a heart condition incurred while eating healthily and exercising regularly) has ravaged his stomach to the point of a lifetime sentence of bland food, and a craft beer superfan no longer able to drink (ibid). I still endure some punishing social headwind from my principled refusal to manipulate and from the misfit juju stemming from my commitment to unsettlingly throw myself completely into everything I do. I've grown terminally disillusioned by The Big Video Game and, mysteriously, can’t seem to interest people in what I consider the most uniquely useful food resource ever created for a mobile device (even being the guy who’s previously done the same for the early Internet).

In terms of drama, it’s a dire predicament. But having been granted every genie wish - notably the aforementioned bottlings - and having weaned myself from the habit of obsessing over What's Missing (another priceless genie grant) and, most valuable of all, discovered that framings are lithely, instantly re-selectable (the proverbial wish-for-infinitely-more-wishes), I want for nothing. As I once wrote, "Ascetics, perennially misunderstood, only look austere. Their internal reality is completely different. Shake off the ash, and the embers glow brightly."


1. The links (all jillion of them) are essential.

2. Again: all resistance is actually you (remember the after-effect of a shot to the head). So the screaming babies are all actually you. Per the horror film cliché, it's coming from inside the building!. This connection is not apparent (nor even coherent) from within the everyday dramatic/cinematic framing of who we pretend to be and what we pretend to do, but it’s patently obvious from a deeper, more sober perspective. No need for mental gymnastics, however. None of this requires intellect. Be lazy. Take the shortcut. Let go and experience it all as love embracing love and see for yourself. If it doesn't work, you're not relaxed enough...or haven't added umami (recipe, above).

3. Years and years after all this, I stumbled upon Theravadin Buddhism’s “Metta Sutta”, the juiciest part of which says:

With a boundless heart
Should one cherish all beings;
Radiating love over the entire world
Spreading upwards to the skies,
And downwards to the depths.

A few years after writing this, I spent a week exhuming my childhood via school papers and artwork, documenting it in a series of postings (here they are in reverse chronological order). The final installment placed my childhood into the larger context established in the above narrative, which, out of sheer amnesia, treated my childhood trajectory as springing from out of nowhere.

1 comment:

Display Name said...

What a feast! Love your long posts Jim. Perfect food for thought as tomorrow I ride yet again at midnight friday into battle for my beloved card tournament. Thank you.

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