Tuesday, November 13, 2012

On friendship... this is the training ground part 2...

In my last blog, This is the training ground, I wrote, "It is this place - between the running and the staying, the closing and the opening, the hardening and the softening - where we see precisely what we're made of.  This is where we can initiate meaningful and substantial change within ourselves.  This is where we become better people, more integrated, more open, more loving, more clear.  No one is exempt from fighting this battle within him or herself.  The only real choice you have is which side you fight for.  It is the choice you make - between the fear and the love - that becomes the story of your life.  Which side are you fighting for?  What story do you choose to tell?This is an internal dynamic as well as a dynamic we take into our relationships with others.  There has been lots of talk on the wind lately of friends having difficulties with other friends, questions about how to be a friend, how to stand in your own integrity when a friend is struggling in their own darkness, how to stay open instead of shutting down.  It has been at the forefront of my mind lately, tooOne thing I know for certain is that unless we each confront our own darkness, there is no way to have deep, meaningful friendships with anyone else in this world.  The good news is these difficulties are opportunities to become better people, no matter which side of the scenario you fall on.  As we head into the dark of the year, it is an ideal time to turn our focus to the internal work required of us to become the best people we are capable of becoming...
Meaningful relationships depend upon our individual, ongoing self-reflection.  It's crucial to know where our landmines are, our triggers, our hard edges that cast the darkest shadows. We need to be mindful of all the ways we escape, shut down, short cut, run away, numb out so we can be accountable when those things come up in our relationships.  I hold myself to high standards of integrity and accountability, and I likewise expect that from my friends.  We all fuck up sometimes, it's not only okay, it's to be expected.  This isn't about being infallible, it is about actively working on being the best we can be, and being accountable to ourselves and others for our thoughts, feelings, words, and actions when we fall short.   
 So what do we do when another person's shadow butts up against our own?  We are not alone out in the cold, there are tools we can use to bring clarity to our own internal dialog so we can bring clarity into our dialog with others.  If I see a friend trying to pound a nail into the wall with a sock, I go give him a hammer!  There is no judgement or blame here, none of us have these tools when we come into this world.  Some of us are very lucky to find them along our way, and many of us still need someone to give us a goddamn hammer!  Now if my friend keeps using a sock to pound the nail after I give him a hammer and show him how to use it, then there is not much I can do other than feel compassion for his folly as he becomes increasingly despondent at the failure of his method.  Afterall, we all have blind spots and stubbornness that obstructs our view at times.  It can be challenging and often futile to reason with someone who is already convinced of things being a certain way.  As a stubborn person myself, I know how frustrating it is for my friends to try to convince me of something I don't want to hear or think I already know.  But if we tune into the nuances of our own inner workings, our emotional reactions become a light that shines precisely on the places we ought to be looking.
Our emotional life maps our incompleteness: A creature without any needs would never have reasons for fear, or grief, or hope, or anger. But for that very reason we are often ashamed of our emotions, and of the relations of need and dependency bound up with them.  So people flee from their inner world of feeling, and from articulate mastery of their own emotional experiences... What is the remedy of these ills? A kind of self- love that does not shrink from the needy and incomplete parts of the self, but accepts those with interest and curiosity, and tries to develop a language with which to talk about needs and feelings. ~Martha Nussbaum  
Feeling emotion deeply can be a gift when we are equipped with the tools to properly manage it.  When we don't have the tools or know how to use them properly, our emotions can be overwhelming and outright destructive to our lives and the relationships that are most important to us.  They can undermine and sabotage everything we desire and work so hard to create.  We end up living out our greatest fears.  But when we employ the proper tools, our feelings can be a great catalyst for transformation.  They can propel us toward our dreams.  They can be a bridge that connects us in the deepest and most meaningful ways to the people in our lives.  We have the choice, every day, to approach our emotions with interest and curiosity and to use them to initiate beneficial change in our lives and in our friendships.
Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom... The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance.  ~Viktor Frankl 
Our thoughts generate our emotions.  If we change the way we think about something, the way we feel will likewise change.  When I am upset about something, I work to understand what is at the root of my discontent.  I inquire within myself about my own needs, motivations, judgements.  What is my role in this?  Oftentimes, creating just a little bit of space between the situation and the emotional reaction is necessary to have enough clarity to responsibly manage the habituated response which, more often than not, is counterproductive to our contentment and the wellbeing of our friendships.  How do we create that space when things are heavily charged with fear, hurt, pain, vulnerability?  We take a breath.  We breathe just enough space around our fear/hurt/pain so we take a moment to ask ourselves some important questions.  In my yoga practice, fear comes up in backbending almost every day and can induce something close to a panic attack.  This is a helpful place for me to practice creating that space between the situation and my immediate reaction, even if it's just pausing for one breath before I cave to the fear.  The next day might be two breaths, and my capacity to make that space continues to grow as I continue to practice.  Learning how to fall is also helpful, so when that fear comes up, you can ask yourself, what is the worst that can happen?  And you answer, I could fall.  Well, as silly as it sounds, it's quite helpful to test it out so you know you won't die if you fall, and it hardly ever hurts as much as you fear it will.  For me, yoga is a safe place to practice this, and there are also relationships in my life that are safe places to practice making space in my emotional reactions.  No matter how safe these places are though, it always feels risky.  That's okay so long as we are continually pushing our capacity to stay open.  The greatest things in life involve the greatest risk.
Gamble everything for love, 
if you’re a true human being. 

If not, leave this gathering.  
 Half-heartedness doesn’t reach into majesty.   

You set out to find God, but then you keep stopping 
for long periods at meanspirited roadhouses.  


So how do we make space in our reactions to a friend?  Well, we embark on a process of self-inquiry.  For instance, if a situation arises where I do not get what I need from someone, I look to see... Did I ask for what I need?  (When I ask myself this question, the answer is almost always a resounding no!  And I'm always shocked!  Shocked!  I mean... but... how... uhhh... what... but.... if... damnit!  Why can't you read my mind?!  (Note to self: Be fearless in asking for what you need.))  If you don't ask, the answer to your question is always no.  And as the guy who picked me up hitchhiking one time many years ago said, "If you've got the balls to ask, the only answer is yes!"  I've realized this is a profound insight into the inner workings of the universe.  Regardless of whether or not I asked for what I need, was I open to receive what was given to me?  Was I open to recognize what I need in unexpected forms or from unexpected sources?  Did I express gratitude for the kindnesses extended to me?  Did I give freely to others what was needed of me?   
If I judge someone else as having fallen short, say, by being unkind.... I ask myself, "In what ways have I been unkind?"  If I already know the person to be a good person based on our shared experiences and history, then I am inclined to give a more generous interpretation for their actions.  I ask myself if there are other factors at work: Are they under duress?  Do they have the proper (physical/emotional/spiritual) tools to deal with the situation properly?  Are they doing the best they can under the conditions?  Are they willing to acknowledge where they fell short?  Are they actively working to be better?  And then I turn every single one of those questions on myself. 
Hopefully that line of inquiry turns up a new, more positive perspective on the situation and my friend and I can start working things out from there.  But if it doesn't, I consider if I could be mistaken in this assessment of my friend.  Is there a more fair and generous interpretation?  Am I projecting my own fears/biases/beliefs/pain/anger onto this person?  How is this triggering my own pain/fear/darkness?  Did this person unknowingly step on one of my landmines and go explodey all over both of us and now I don't know which way is up?  What is at stake if I act on a potentially inaccurate or incomplete understanding?  Is this friend important enough to me to do the work required of me to gain greater clarity?  Do my feelings about the situation or attachments to my defense mechanisms outweigh the care and regard I have for my friend?  Is my friend willing to help clarify the situation, their motivations, their feelings?  Am I willing and courageous enough to stay present and open even though it's uncomfortable/scary/confusing/triggering me? 
Don't turn away.  Keep looking at the bandaged place.
That's where the light enters you.  ~Rumi 

What is at stake is not just the friendship.  By running away or shutting down or closing myself off, I am reinforcing my own negative patterns, defenses, and fears.  What part of me does this serve?  Does this serve my deeper desire for connection and intimacy?  No!  Does this serve the love and care I have for my friend?  No!  How do these defenses obstruct my ability to have meaningful and substantial relationships with myself and the people I care about?  And most importantly, how do I serve the higher parts of myself, the desire for connection, the love I have for my friend?  

Very little grows on jagged rock,
Be ground, be crumbled,
So wild flowers will come up where you are.
You've been stony for too many years
Try something different


Our defenses are thorny weeds, the more we indulge them, the more strongly they take root.  So long as we submit to the spurious whims of our shadow, we will remain complicit in our own suffering.  We are making a choice, whether we realize it or not, every time we run.  But there is another choice we can make.  We can ventilate those claustrophobic places, we can uproot those thorny weeds.  We can choose to stay present in those moments we want to run, we can choose to stay open instead of closing ourselves off, we can choose to feel the depth of our emotions instead of numbing ourselves out.  Choosing this course of action chisels away at our defenses and opens up greater possibilities in our inner landscape.  It also brings us into greater integrity within ourselves and our friendships.  Standing in integrity means our thoughts, words, and actions are in alignment and turned toward the Good.  Breaking down our reactionary defenses and integrating the shadow part of ourselves is necessary if we are to live contented lives and enjoy meaningful relationships.  
We meet ourselves time and again in a thousand disguises on the path of life.  ~C.G Jung
It's worthwhile to look around your life every so often and take inventory of things.  It's helpful information to know if you've surrounded yourself with people who serve the lowest parts of you or the highest.  Take a good look around to see what kind of people populate your life and bear their influence upon your physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing.  And ask these questions of yourself, as well, to see what kind of friend you are to others.  Does s/he hold herself and her friends to high standards of integrity and accountability?  Does s/he manage her emotions responsibly?  Does s/he call me on my negative patterns?  Does s/he refuse to coddle my weaknesses?  Does s/he challenge me to look at the dark places within myself?  Does s/he encourage me and support me in becoming a better person?  Does s/he celebrate my successes?  Does s/he see the best in me even when I fall short?  Is the care and regard for our friendship mutually reciprocated?  Do I feel lighter/clearer/more energized after spending time with him/her?  Am I a better person for knowing her/him?  
If we are earnest in our inquiry, it is likely we've turned up some unsavory aspects of ourselves and our friends that may cause alarm.  Fear not!  This is to be welcomed and expected as the natural result of sincere self-reflection.  Afterall, I do not know a single soul who is as good as they'd like to be.  And the very best ones are often filled with the most doubt and fear and questioning.  So long as we are moving toward our goodness, that thing perpetually on the horizon ever out of reach, we are headed in the right direction.  When we fall short or do wrong, know that it is possible to repair the infraction.  First, acknowledge your short-falling at the very first opportunity you have to do so.  The more time that passes without acknowledgment, the more damage is potentially done to both you and your friend.  Then, account for the short-falling.  Explain to your friend what was going on in your heart and mind that caused you to behave the way you did.  Show your friend where you have clarity and where you are still struggling, and ask them to show you the same in return.  Listen to your friend's side of the story, and be open to really hear what they say so you can both better understand how to support each other and more gracefully navigate any difficulties moving forward.  Next, make amends by making the situation right in whatever ways you can and committing to yourself and your friend to actively work on becoming better.  Finally, forgive your friend for their short-fallings, and ask for forgiveness for your own.  Now hug it out, you two!

Life, and love, is short.  The forgetting, and regretting, is so very long.  Be fearless.  Be the first one to pick up the phone.  Say I'm sorry.  Extend a hand.  Ask for help.  Ask for clarity.  Ask for forgiveness.  Be forgiving.  Cry together.  Express gratitude.  Laugh at yourselves.  Celebrate the little things.  Friendship must be tended to, cultivated.  It takes continual, sustained effort over time.  It takes devotion.  It takes practice.  It takes showing up even when it's not convenient or pleasurable or easy.  It takes good days and bad days and falling down and getting back up.  It takes fighting for what and who is important to you.  It takes courage and a willingness to go far outside what's comfortable.  It takes vulnerability and sacrifice.  It takes looking your fears in the face.  It takes staying instead of running.  It takes being seen by another, shadows and scars and all.  It takes bearing witness to another person's pain and darkness and loving them still, even more.  It takes a goddamned impeccable, unshakable sense of humor.  It takes risking everything for the chance of love.   

This is the yoga of friendship, and it is one of the most beautiful and worthwhile things in the entire world.

Street art by Swoon

Lovers gather and give each other shade,
relief from the direct sun.
Stay closeby that community.
Be shade with them,
until you yourself are full of light
like the moon, then like the sun.

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