Connection: The Care and Feeding of the Spirit

In life coaching, I was introduced to the idea that human beings have three primary needs: Connection, contribution and authenticity. I have yet to discover a need that doesn’t fall into one of these categories, so at this point it’s still a frame that works for me.

Photo by Peter Hershey on Unsplash

For me, any discussion of connection must include spiritual connection, and to talk about that clearly I need to define terms.

Spirit: The nonphysical part of a person that is the seat of emotions and character; the soul.
Religion: The belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.
Faith: Strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof.
Ideology: The ideas and manner of thinking characteristic of a group, social class, or individual.
Sacred: Connected with God (or the gods) or dedicated to a religious purpose and so deserving veneration.

(All definitions from Bing search.)

SpiritualitySpirituality may refer to almost any kind of meaningful activity, especially a “search for the sacred.” It may also refer to personal growth, blissful experience, or an encounter with one’s own “inner dimension.” (Wikipedia)

The archeological record tells us we have sought to understand ourselves as part of a greater whole from the infancy of mankind. Long before written records were made, there was cave art, pottery and carving thought to represent sacred beings, including, in many cases, animals. When we began to write, myth, story and legend wove a rich tapestry of religion and other spiritual frameworks all over the world.

Our powerful need for spiritual connection has historically been a significant motivator geopolitically, economically and creatively. Our search for understanding who we are and what our place in life is, individually, culturally, politically and socially, firmly anchored in our conception of spirit.

How do we create a spiritual connection? How do we choose from such a bewildering array of beliefs and ideologies? How do we cope with tribal shaming if we don’t accept the spiritual beliefs of our family or tribe? How do we think about the “nonphysical part” of ourselves, and what, if anything, does that part of us need?

It’s taken me more than 50 years to even begin to answer these questions. The two biggest obstacles I had to overcome were disconnection from my own emotions and feelings, and denying having any needs. Disconnection and denial are both disempowering, and healthy spiritual practice, at its heart, is a practice of self-empowerment.

Some people approach formal, organized religion as a way to share power. Others are quick to use it to assure power over others, and at that point it no longer fits my definition of a healthy spiritual practice. Discovering and nurturing the shape of our own spirit is an act of dignity, privacy and self-respect. It has nothing to do with what anyone else thinks or believes. We decide where we stand on the continuum between science and faith, and we define what is sacred in our lives. We have the power, and we have the responsibility. No mystic, guru, psychic, yogi, mentor, sponsor or other spiritual or religious leader or authority knows what we need better than we do. We owe nobody an explanation, justification or apology for our spiritual practice, as long as that practice doesn’t seek to harm or control others.

That’s not to say the guidance, teachings and wisdom of scholars, practitioners, philosophers, masters and thinkers are without value or interest. Yoga, martial arts, meditation, mandalas, drumming, dance, sacred traditional music and countless other rituals and traditions may be part of a spiritual practice, but none of these are essential. The real strength of spiritual practice doesn’t lie in appearance, embellishments, publicity or visibility and has nothing to do with economic or social condition.

A spiritual practice is an activity in which we are wholly present with ourselves in a nonjudgmental fashion and after which we feel empowered, anchored, refreshed and renewed. A healthy spiritual practice is a haven, a refuge, a place of solace and joy. It connects us to ourselves, to others, and to something larger than we are. It doesn’t matter if we name that something God, Allah, Spirit, Divine, Goddess or even Gaia, it all boils down to the basic human need for some kind of spiritual connection.

A few weeks ago I wrote about living a seamless life. My spiritual practices are frequently invisibly embedded throughout my every day life, requiring nothing more than my presence and intention.

Here’s an example: After a long day the kitchen is full of dirty dishes. I slather my hands with the most luxurious lotion/cream in the house and don rubber gloves. I turn off lights, tech and the TV. I light a couple of candles. I might play some music, or just soak up silence. I look out the window over the sink. I breathe. I relax. I’m present. I’m consciously grateful for a kitchen, dishes, a sink, running hot water, the ability to stand and use my hands, and food that creates dirty dishes. I take time to feel what I feel, check in with myself, daydream and drift.

I approach exercise as a spiritual practice. I’m not worried about my weight or health, but I do notice I feel better, sleep better and function better if I stay active, so my daily goal is to show up at some point with myself to move. Sometimes I dance. Once a week I swim, then soak in a therapy pool, then take a long hot shower. I walk, both by myself and with my partner. This winter I’m going to begin snowshoeing. I do Tai Chi. With the exception of walking with my partner, all of these activities are opportunities to have time with myself, quiet, undistracted time in which to be in my body, remember what a beautiful world I live in, practice gratitude, allow feelings, pray, chant, sing, work creatively, stretch and breathe. When I’m finished I feel relaxed, empowered, centered and grounded.

Photo by Miranda Wipperfurth on Unsplash

A spiritual practice may be as simple as a special tree, rock, crystal, cushion and/or candle. It might be a secret altar or shrine, a string of beads or a stick of incense. It can take place anytime, anywhere, solo or in a group. It can be a five-minute pause or a long weekend of ritual at a hot spring, but it always makes us bigger. Anything that diminishes, restricts, confines, limits, shames, invalidates or disempowers us is not a spiritual practice, no matter what anyone says. It’s merely an ideology of control.

Many of us naturally find our way into spiritual practice without realizing what we’re doing, impelled by this often unconscious but powerful human need. Recognizing the need for spiritual connection, giving it language, honoring and allowing it, allows us to take back our power to define and protect sacred space in our lives, free from distraction, interruption, multitasking, pressure, hurry and the constant noisy static of media and entertainment. If our spiritual life is tainted by criticism and judgement, our own or others’, it won’t sustain us and our spirit will sicken and starve. We’ll begin to look outside ourselves for spiritual nourishment and become vulnerable to addiction, perfectionism, pleasing others and people who steal power.

The care and feeding of the spirit is the least talked about aspect of the need for connection, but it may be the most important. In the absence of spiritual connection, all our other connections suffer. True spiritual power transcends physical strength, youth and beauty, and it cannot be coerced or stolen. Our greatest strength may lie in our ability to create spiritual connection for ourselves and support others in theirs.

Photo by Deniz Altindas on Unsplash

The care and feeding of spirit. My daily crime.

All content on this site ©2018
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted

The Complexity of Simple

It’s the first week of the new year, and many of us are pausing to look back over our shoulders at where we’ve been the last twelve months and then turning to survey the path before us, at least as much of the path as we can see. The internet is awash with lists of how to make New Year resolutions as well as lists of why we shouldn’t make New Year resolutions. Advertising for buying our way to a new persona is frenzied.

As usual, I’m out of step. I’ve read a couple of great pieces this week, one about the limits of willpower and a list of 13 things to give up for success. I’ve read and re-read them, thought about them, and discussed the first article extensively with my partner. Normally when material like this catches my interest it develops into a blog, but this week nothing is happening.

Photo by Amy Humphries on Unsplash

All I can think about is simplicity.

Lists are great. I used to be a champion list maker. They guided my whole life during a lot of complicated years.

Now? Not so much.

I have really simplified.

But the thing about simplifying is how complicated it is.

For example, more than a year ago I stopped shaving. But that’s not where it started. It started with me deciding I was no longer going to please people. But that’s not exactly where it started, either. Part of it started when I decided to allow myself to be everything I am and nothing I’m not.

If I hadn’t given up on pleasing others and limiting myself, I never would have stopped shaving. It wouldn’t have crossed my mind to do so. Interrupting this lifelong habit never made it onto a list, though it would have been easy to cross off. One decision and it was over.

Making a list of behaviors to discard is wildly misleading, because it doesn’t address what underlies our inappropriate and ineffective behaviors, and that’s where all the ongoing and time-consuming work is.

Pleasing others and making myself small are two lifelong, deeply entrenched habits, and I work every day to make different choices. It’s not easy. I’m not perfect. (Another deeply entrenched habit–perfectionism!) Any distress or inattention results in automatic reversion to my old habits. I don’t expect to ever be able to cross ‘stop pleasing others’ and ‘stop making yourself small’ off a list.

On the other hand, working to change and challenge these two big things allows a whole cascade of smaller habits to loosen and fall away, the kinds of habits that are reasonable to put in a list. Pleasing others and making myself small create an immensely complicated set of actions.

Anyway, one day it occurred to me to ask myself why I shaved.

Answer: Because everyone does. It’s a social rule that women shave their body hair. Hairy legs are unattractive.

The everything-I-am and nothing-I’m-not me: Oh, yeah?

The not-pleasing-other-people me: I don’t think hairy legs are unattractive. All my lovers have had hairy legs. I didn’t mind. In fact, I like body hair. It adds texture and sensation, especially in erogenous zones. I refuse to accept that male hairy legs and armpits are acceptable and female hairy legs and armpits are ugly. That’s ridiculous.

So I stopped shaving.

Ahhh! Simplicity.

No more razors or shaving cream to buy and throw away. No more rashes, nicks or razor burn. Less hot water, less time in the shower. Bonus: In wringing humidity and hot weather, the hair on my legs and under my arms helps me cool more effectively. Another bonus: No more microcuts in my armpits. I worry less about health concerns regarding deodorant. A third bonus: Hairs provide sensory information. If a tick is crawling on me, it stirs the hairs on my body and alerts me to its presence.

I still wear shorts and skirts. I swim every week. My partner appears to be able to deal with a woman in a natural woman’s body without fainting with horror. In fact, I don’t think he even really noticed.

Shaving is just one of many examples of things that can be crossed off lists, but before we can get to those, we have to deal with the big stuff, and that’s hard, ongoing work. The big stuff drives the little stuff. Want to get more exercise? Work on keeping your word to yourself. Want to lose weight? Excavate your relationship with food and redefine it (which means change your life and purge your kitchen).

Simplicity is frequently the end result of complex effort.

On the other hand, some of us have a genius for making simple steps unbelievably complex.

Take exercise, for example. Do you want to exercise more? Really? Then set down the device you’re reading this on, put on clothes appropriate for whatever is outside and (here’s the hard part) walk. You don’t need a dog, a buddy, your mate, special clothes, neon shoes, a Fitbit, a step counter, a timer, a gym membership or a piece of expensive equipment. You don’t need earbuds or entertainment.

Photo by Jon Flobrant on Unsplash

Just. Walk.

Now you’re getting exercise. Do it every day and you’re getting more exercise.

It’s simple. Nike got it right. Just do it.

If it feels more complex than this, it’s not the exercise that’s the problem, it’s some belief or pattern (often deeply buried and unconscious) that’s sabotaging our efforts. And that’s complex!

It’s been very cold here in Maine, as it has in many other parts of the nation. We had a heavy snow on Christmas Day. After my daily stint of three or four hours of writing, I wanted a walk, so I layered up and went out into the storm.

Unbroken fresh snow underfoot. One set of tire tracks going up the hill. The chill kiss of wet flakes against the little bit of exposed skin on my face. Wind, and the sound of the trees groaning and creaking and the snow hitting my hood. The sound of my own breath, which condensed on the scarf wrapped around my face so that it crusted with ice. My steady footsteps squeaking up the hill. Everything grey and white and shadow.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Christmas Day, and nothing but swirling snow and breathing, walking, the warmth and vitality of my own life. So simple. So peaceful. So starkly beautiful, and nothing to do but inhabit my body and the day.

In these days, fully in the grasp of winter, life is reduced to the wood stove, hot meals, my daily exercise and my writing practice. At 4:30 p.m. it’s dark. Storm and gale, wind chill and subzero temperatures limit our ability to drive. We delve into our piles of books. The cat snuggles with us on the couch. If the power goes out, we light candles and I’m not displeased. At night, the house pops and cracks, groaning in the cold and the wind. Sitting in my comfortable chair with my feet up and a blanket around my shoulders, I doze off as I’m reading The Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures. This kind of extreme cold is very simplifying. Eat. Stay warm.

Simplifying my life has made me happier, healthier and more productive. It’s also been frustrating, slow, unpredictable, unexpected, terrifying and painful. It has not looked like an orderly list on a fresh sheet of paper written with my favorite pen. It would be nice if it were that easy, wouldn’t it? Lose weight. Check. Get more exercise. Check. Spend more time with family and friends. Check. Get more sleep. Check.

Those are all worthy goals, and perfectly attainable, but not by writing a list or making New Year resolutions. Changing behavior is a great deal more complicated than that, and creating a life of simplicity is an enormous undertaking.

Boy, is it worth it, though!

Happy New Year to each of you.

Photo by Das Sasha on Unsplash

All content on this site ©2018
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted

Discovering Character

Character: The mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual; a person in a novel, play or movie.

Photo by Nick Grappone on Unsplash

I’m fascinated with the places between. All the places between. Threshold places. Edge-of-chaos places. Here-there-be-dragons places off the edges of maps. It’s in the gaps, fissures, cracks and edges that I mine for the characters that inhabit my writing. It’s in the between places my own character is shaped, and I gain the clearest understanding of the characters around me.

I’ve written about labels before. Discovering characters is not about labels. Labels aren’t people. We’ve had a lot of reminders recently that talent, success, money and power fail to fully define character. Ours is a culture of texts and tweets, acronyms and jargon like “neoliberal” and “postmodernism.” We’ve become skilled at reducing ourselves and others to one-dimensional paper dolls with the application of a label. It’s an all-or-nothing kind of culture. We’ve no time or interest to invest in understanding complexity.

But what lies between the enormously talented actor and his serial sexually abusive behavior? What is the untold story of the “perfect” mother who drives into a lake with her kids in an act of murder and self-destruction? How do we think about the extraordinarily gifted writer who is also homophobic, or a child abuser? Who are we in the gap between what we believe ourselves to be, what we define ourselves to be, what we want ourselves to be, what we’re afraid we are, and how we actually show up in the world in the experience of others?

In that space between lies real character. That’s where I’m at work, listening, taking notes, asking questions and observing. As a writer, I must know my characters. What are they afraid of? What’s their worst memory? What’s their ideal vacation? What motivates them? What does their sock drawer look like? What’s in their car? What’s on their desk? How do they treat a service person? How many unopened emails squat in their inbox? Where do they want to be in five years? In ten years?

Defining ourselves or others by a single characteristic, choice or ideology doesn’t build connection, understanding or empathy. We can spend hours online, commenting, facebooking, blogging and interacting with others about every issue from sexual politics to diet, but none of it defines our character as honestly as how we treat a real live co-worker who identifies as transgender, or what kind of food we actually have in our refrigerator.

Those tantalizing, fertile, often concealed places between! Interestingly, words obscure the places between. Words are capable of seductive lies, but action, especially action taken in the stress of an unexpected moment, points unfailingly to true character.

Another problem with labels is their inflexibility. We each perform hundreds and hundreds of actions a day, and some are notable for how well they don’t work out. Labels imply that we don’t change, we don’t grow, we don’t adapt and adjust and learn, when in fact the opposite is true.

The Johari Window is a concept created by a couple of psychologists in the 1950s to help people understand their relationships with themselves and others. The window suggests that we cannot see ourselves or others entirely, and there is always a space of possibility to discover. Fully defining character becomes a community project. Even so, the unknown or hidden parts of character can and do appear suddenly and overwhelmingly, often resulting in some kind of heinous act and leaving us struggling with what we missed, what we didn’t know or what we didn’t want to admit.

It’s so fatally easy to misunderstand and underestimate others, especially when we can’t observe, talk and interact face-to-face with someone and compare their actions with their words over the long term. Complexity takes time. Making judgements based on labels does not.

As a writer, I’ve learned to look at myself and others with a more interested and less judgemental eye. I’ve learned to set up camp in the places between, look and listen carefully, observe keenly and ask a lot of questions. I’ve concluded that people who toss labels around are often in too much of a hurry to achieve power over others and silence challenge or dissent to engage in thoughtful dialog or discussion. Label users reveal far more about themselves than whoever they’re labeling. It’s a diversionary tactic.

Who is that character hiding behind all the labels they’re slinging left, right and center? What’s really going on with them? What kind of fear, uncertainty, insecurity, pain or lust for power motivates them? Who taught them to use labels so carelessly and unhelpfully? What needs are they trying to meet?

Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

An engaging character is one who defies labels, one who challenges preconceptions, one we empathize with and even care about in spite of the abhorrent choices they make. A well-written character is complex and dynamic.

This week is one of those between places. We’re swinging between Christmas and the New Year, between 2017 and 2018. The holiday season has stirred up our memories, our family situations, our nostalgia, grief, gratitude, financial fears and resentments. We’ve traveled, abandoned our usual diet and routines, gotten worn out and indulged in sugar and alcohol. The flu is abroad. The package was stolen off the porch. The dog bit Santa when he came down the chimney.

Here, my friends, is the between place of authentic character. Not who we wish to be. Not who we say we are. Not who we present ourselves as on Facebook or pretend to be for our families and coworkers or resolve to become in the New Year, but who we are today, with our blind spots, our secrets, our fears, our greasy oven, our favorite coffee cup, indigestion, bills to pay, snow to shovel, our comfy sagging chair and what we choose to do with this in-between time.

Powerful characters. May we create them. May we discover, foster and celebrate them in others. May we honor our own.

Our daily crime.

All content on this site ©2017
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted