Illustration: The Magazine of Yoga
Permission to Create the Conditions You Need
Becoming an effective advocate for yourself with yourself is the core of Four Words practice
BY MAGAZINE EDITOR SUSAN MAIER-MOUL
The first audience of the self is, of course, the self.
~ Kathryn Harrison
Most days my work demands several periods of protracted absorption in what I’m doing.
Over the course of my career, I’ve gotten better at creating the conditions for allowing those periods to arise and that intense absorption to happen. The most persistent and unusual obstacle I had to overcome was my own guilt about the process.
I had the idea, for quite a bit of my adult life, that time should happen to me. If I was meant to have some time, then it would, ah, appear. It’s not like I don’t know that sounds crazy, but there it is. What I thought was, if I was really meant by “the Universe” to do something, then magically (and that’s a key word here) the time would make itself available.
When it first occurred to me that perhaps the Universe, my guardian angel or my destiny WAS making time available, time that I was receiving time in my left hand and passing along to someone else with my right, my first path of resistance was to pray harder for the time to be, you know, clearly marked.
For crying out loud, as my mother would say, to this day I wish I knew what I thought this would have looked like.
A crushing fear of self
It’s not that I squander time. I just arrange for it to be at the service of something more important. More important than I am important. Something bigger than me, or something helpless and in need. I’m not picky.
I had to come to grips with the idea – the daring, freaky idea – that I deserved time for my work. That my work deserved my attention.
Oh my god.
After a decade of practicing yoga, I realized that deep in my belief system I was sure: if I did what I wanted to do with my time, I would be damned, and I’m using that word in its teleological sense. I might laugh at the idea as I said it out loud, but secretly, I totally believed it.
I was mortally afraid of my own interests.
If I could bottle that kind of fear, the government would give me a military subsidy, because it’s a total show stopper.
Being busy – yes, being busy is something I could totally get down with. I am good at busy. I don’t mean busywork, I could move mountains. I mean get it done work, make happen what other people had failed to make happen, especially if it involved higher good, bosses that I believed in and being underpaid. Where can I sign up?
Having a boss I believed in meant somebody who deserved my attention was setting the agenda. Having work that involves higher good meant I was not not wasting my life. Being underpaid meant it really is good work, important work, somebody has got to do it work, and somebody was my middle name.
The private language of distress
There is something about setting the time aside to do my own work that brings up an anxiety I can hardly describe. It doesn’t show up as Hitchcock variety anxiety, with wringing hands and a sweaty forehead. It shows up as interrupting myself, taking phone calls, doing stray bits of housework, getting up and sitting back down twenty times.
I did not recognize for years that this physical activity was my way of trying to soothe a sensation that lay unrecognized and unnamed beneath my devotion to causes. It was the “pushme / pullyou” sensation of not enough / too much, the hot flashes and cold blasts from my intemperate view of myself. I did not understand how I could be both too much and never enough, and the reason for that is, because it’s impossible.
Settling down, giving myself permission to settle down causes a great dread in me. Me and my attention in the same place, without something more important standing guard between us. Settling down to my own work is one of the times in my life when I understand the biblical use of the word “terrible.”
My restless movement, when I want to work, is not distraction or a lack of focus. It’s an acting out of a terrible conflict, one that I at first had taken as being between me and god.
But this anxiety was all about my relationship with me. It was inner conflict, conflict between what I deeply wanted and my fear of what I deeply wanted, my fear of myself. The centrality of this sensation to my every waking moment was revealed to me by a graduate advisor I chose to help me with my writing.
Why are you doing what you’re doing?
One of the assignments of my course of studies was something known as “process notes,” in which we would document what we had been up to when we did a piece of research or wrote something or compiled a bibliography. It would be a statement like “in the course of reading about Einstein’s ‘spooky action at a distance’ I came across a reference to this additional theory which gave me these ideas and caused me to look up these authors.” Etc.
I found this activity – the process notes – frightening and exhilarating. It was so literary! Explaining myself had always come at a big cost – it usually meant I was in trouble for something. The process notes were by contrast, practically a second work of art, an exegesis, a refractory period in which I narrated – what?
That’s what my advisor wanted to know.
She liked the process notes. Why were they notes, was her question. I was in the midst of a semester with some small poetry (mine) in it. The process notes for ten line poems were three or four pages long.
Lise called me on the phone one evening. I could hear her smoking in Montreal, where she was probably curled up with her cat.
Why are you writing poems? she asked me.
Is it not allowed? I asked
What the hell do you mean is it not allowed? What? I’m asking you! Why a poem and not something else? Why a poem? Because, it’s not that I don’t like this poem, I’m not like a big fan of poetry, but I like this ok, it’s just – well none of what is in the process notes is in this poem. So I’m asking, why a poem?
Smooth out the creases where your life has been bent
I grew up in a working class family in a rural town. A job, in the world I grew up in, was industrial and unforgiving. My mother and father worked in a weaving mill and we children pulled together, getting ourselves home from school, getting dinner ready according to my mother’s careful roundhand notes, getting housework and homework, laundry and math, underway before my parents arrived in the kitchen and sank down at the table, hungry and viciously tired.
I had written poetry all my life. It never ever occurred to me to ask why I had chosen that form. The poem was because, because that’s what there was time for, and because that was where there was to hide, a space small enough that no one would notice it in the first place and take it away from me, a place to hide large, large vistas. Magically.
Lise thought about this (exhaling smoke in Montreal) and then she said. OK. I mean like if that’s important to you. But what about this stuff that’s in the process notes? Could you just write that?
It takes so long, I answered. It takes so much time. Will there be enough time?
Yeah, said Lise putting out her cigarette. Yup, there’s time. I gotta go. Just sit down and write. Get busy.
Make some time, she said. Stop writing poetry.
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.