the courage to be present

(in which Dave attempts to psychoanalyze and counsel himself, as part of a practice of learning to be present)

what you can do

As the new year begins, the old me begins yet another evolution. I am in BC, searching for my new ‘summer home’ here. My intention is to live here May-October each year, and in Australia or New Zealand December-March each year, spending April and November as a nomad, visiting friends and loved ones by train across North America. I hope to report on progress on the home search soon.

As in recent years, I have no New Year’s Resolutions, but rather New Year’s Intentions, which I published last fall and reproduce below:

Long-Term Intention Long-Term Practices Short-Term Intentions (Exercises & Projects) Hrs/day
Reconnecting with All Life on
Earth, Instincts & Emotions
Appreciation (1)
Presence/Paying Attention (2)
Heart-Opening/Letting Go (3)
10am to 1pm: personal/group
– Forest/ocean walks
– Presencing exercises
– Gratitude exercises
– ‘Breathing through’ meditation
0 3.0
Increasing Capacity & Competency
Personal and Collective)
Understanding How the World Works (4)
Capacity-Building (6)
2pm-6pm: learning/exploring:
– presentation/conversation skills
– demonstration skills
– creative writing exercises
SSUQIOC exercises
– balance and empathy practices
1.0 1.0
Dismantling Civilization Activism (7) 2pm-6pm:
– Open Space: Stopping the Tar Sands
– Open Space: Ending Factory Farms
0 1.5
Creating Models of a Better Way
to Live and Make a Living
Model-Building (8)  2pm-6pm:
– novel: The Only Life We Know
– film: Earth 2200: A Travelogue
– workbook: Finding Your Sweet Spot
– unschooling: personal practice guide
Joy, Understanding Self-Knowing (5)
Being Myself (9)
– reflection/questioning exercises
– blogging
– play: drawing, photography, with animals (original play)
(activities not directly related to
any of my intentions)
other hours:
– self-care (sleep, exercise etc.)
– networking; serendipitous reading
– self-management (gardening etc.)
19.0 13.0

This evening, as others seek to escape reality at hopeful and inebriated ‘celebrations’, I am comfortably ensconced in a delightful and quiet Vancouver suite, engaged in introspection and self-assessment. I am in the process of reading two books, Jim Hansen’s Storms of My Grandchildren, where he once again states the urgency and utter necessity of a global, immediate, rising tax on all carbon at source of extraction, and a ban on tar sands and shale development, and Karen Wegela’s The Courage to be Present, which applies Bodhisattva Buddhist principles to self-awareness, meditation, and psychological counseling. I am using the latter as part of my Presencing/Paying Attention practices (#2 in the chart above), and the former as part of my Understanding How the World Really Works practices (#4 in the chart above).

I am thinking about how little real attention I pay to what I am feeling, and how little I understand why I feel what I do. Being present, I think, is going beyond just noticing the world around you and being aware of your thoughts and reactions to it, to achieve an awareness of what you really feel and an appreciation for why you feel that way. I think at the moment there are several things I am feeling:

  • With the thought and growing experience of living alone (for the first time in nearly 30 years) I am feeling: an ambiguous mix of freedom/exhilaration and anxiety/trepidation/loneliness. I love being alone, but I also love companionship, stimulation and direct exchange that only comes with being with others — as soon as I’ve been alone more than a few hours I crave company, and vice versa. And, I’m often told, “people who live alone are weird”.
  • I’m feeling delighted at moving to a place that meets all my aesthetic and emotional criteria for “home” (a place of great beauty, warmth, wildness, comfort, connectivity and progressive thinking).
  • I’m feeling a bit guilty that I have so many opportunities to do what I want, while others are trapped in slavery, oppression, thankless responsibility and suffering of one kind or another.
  • I’m concerned and a bit uncomfortable that with retirement, some of my tendencies for depression and procrastination will re-emerge — I love the idea of having “nothing to do, nowhere to go” but when it actually happens (which is rarely) I do tend to do nothing (sometimes not even write, though here I am writing right now) and to go nowhere. I often describe myself as lazy, though this word dates back only to the start of wage slavery in the industrial revolution, so perhaps a more precise term would be unindustrious, self-indulgent or subsistent — I could quite easily be enticed into spending all day eating (organic vegan), sleeping and making love, and would be somewhat unapologetic about it (such actions, after all, do not produce a large ecological footprint). Nevertheless, I’m concerned about it — if I get into this somewhat antisocial pattern I’ll feel guilty and then depressed for not achieving the intentions I’ve laid out in the chart above.
  • I’m annoyed at myself that I can’t shake the adolescent fantasy of having a ‘play-mate’ — someone living with me in a relationship of convenience i.e. frequent sex just for mutual fun, she gets to do her art/music without having to worry about paying the rent, no commitment on either side. I appreciate that relationships are complex, and that the relationship(s) in this fantasy are unrealistic, shallow and unsustainable, but still, part of me keeps asking why not?
  • I’m confused about the fact that, while I will be closer to the people I love with this move, and while I am comfortable with being poly and loving people who are also poly, I am still quite deliberately moving to a place that is quite a long distance from anyone I love. And at the same time, this is a place where I envision house-mates who I don’t necessarily love — beyond my absurd fantasy above, I like the idea of my new home being a beautiful place where friends can stay for a while, or a while longer, on their way to finding their own place. I like the idea of having company around without commitment, of having people I can share ideas with, perhaps mentor, and then send happily on their way.

As I’ve been told to do, I’m sitting with these feelings, trying not to judge, discount or rationalize them. I intend to become more sensitive and empathetic to the emotions of others, and to do that I need first to really understand my own. Using Richard Moss’ approach, I’m trying to understand the myths, the false but reinforced stories (about ourselves and the world, about the past and about the future) that underlie the ‘negative’ emotions above.

Underlying the anxiety, the trepidation and loneliness of living alone, I think, is this story: Alone, I’m lost, incomplete, useless, incompetent, nothing. Perhaps even a little crazy, dangerous, unpredictable, vulnerable. Where does this story come from? Times when I’ve been alone and seriously depressed, or lost somewhere and frightened, or just disconnected, that feeling of not being here or real that you sometimes get when you lose yourself in a novel or in a solo creative project and you come up for air and everything is suddenly very loud and you ask yourself: Where was I? Another factor underlying this story, I think, is my lack of survival skills — fixing things, swimming, anything requiring coordination. And, from painful experiences in my youth, remembrances of poor social skills — inability to dance, to converse with strangers, to be comfortable at parties or in crowds.

Underlying the guilt and concern about my extraordinarily good fortune and my self-indulgence, I think, is this story: You’re lazy and shirking responsibility when the world is full of suffering and poised to collapse, and you’re doing nothing for others. Where does this story come from? My underlying and unbearable grief for Gaia, and my absolute conviction that our civilization will collapse in the latter part of this century. How can I be so selfish as to think of retiring and focusing on my own wants and needs? And is my whole belief (inspired by John Gray’s Straw Dogs) that there is really nothing we can do about the coming extinction just a salve, a cop-out, an excuse for this inexcusable behaviour? The explanation in The Courage to be Present of the Bodhisattva way is “dedicating your life to the benefit of all other beings”. Why does this feel like salt being rubbed into my wounds?

Underlying the annoyance and confusion about my immaturity and nonsensical choice of housemates is, I think, this story: I’m afraid of commitment, and lack the emotional intelligence to cope with real, mature relationships. Where does this story come from? A long history of people saying I have disappointed them, let them down. Of what I perceive as others’ unreasonable expectations of me (“you should be able to do this”; “why can’t/didn’t you just…”) and unreasonable behaviour towards me. This pushes all my buttons, and drives me crazy. It’s so effective in the workforce, with so many people, that bosses now routinely damn employees with “I was disappointed that you…” instead of “you fucked up”. Not only did you do something wrong or fail to do something right, you caused pain and suffering. Damn you.

Some Buddhist and other teachings would have you “out” these stories for what they are, fictions, inventions, tricks used to convert pain to “tamed” suffering because that’s easier than either facing the real pain or acting on it. I’m wary of some facets of Buddhism that encourage you to distance yourself from what’s grieving you, because I think disconnection can be really dangerous, an escape no different than a drug. But I’m impressed by Wegela’s take, which stresses that pain is not the same as suffering (suffering is the consequence of pain, how we deal with it, and pain cannot be diminished or alleviated but suffering can). Pain is real, suffering is invented. You turn towards and understand your pain in order to address your suffering.

The three italicized stories above, that I have been telling myself for so long, are not true, or at least they are not true right now, and now is the only time that matters, that exists. When we see ourselves as ephemeral, as figments of reality, as a part of all-life-on-Earth, these stories dissolve, they have no meaning. When we see this, we can let go of them.

My “Alone, I’m lost, incomplete, useless, incompetent, nothing.” story and my “You’re lazy and shirking responsibility when the world is full of suffering and poised to collapse, and you’re doing nothing for others.” story are stories about me and about my past, or invented ones about my future. Right here, right now, they do not exist, they have no power. I can let go of them, knowing that.

My “I’m afraid of commitment, and lack the emotional intelligence to cope with real, mature relationships.” story is a story about me that I’ve told myself, and others have told me. It too does not exist, right here, right now. I can let go of it, knowing that.

More importantly, none of these stories has any power or meaning unless I choose to believe them, to give them that power. The story that other people, including people I care about, often feel I have “let them down” is my own invention. What is really behind this story is that I believe I have let myself down by not doing what they said they expected or wanted of me. This is what the Buddhists call self-aggression. It is my expectations driving all these negative emotions, not theirs. It is my expectations of myself I must let go of.

And the story that, alone, I cannot cope, is also my own invention. What is really behind this story is that I believe I am afraid to really find out the truth about who I am, to let my heart be broken and to really connect with my emotions. It is my fear of this essential journey back to being truly “nobody-but-myself” that I must let go of.

And if I can find the courage to be present with that realization, and to let go of the self-expectation and the self-fear, who knows what I might discover?

Happy New Year, everyone.

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14 Responses to the courage to be present

  1. Mike Harmon says:

    Great Blog post. I am going to bookmark and read more often. I love the Blog template

  2. Pingback: Break Up Advice – Time to be Self Indulgent | Nixon Watch Reviews

  3. Pingback: Tweets that mention the courage to be present « how to save the world --

  4. Randall Ross says:

    Welcome to Vancouver, neighbour!

  5. John Graham says:

    Hi Dave, really pleased to see some development with this post – you’ve started identifying/guessing some actual emotions rather than just trying to figure out intellectually how emotions work. Looks like you’re starting to move away from self-analysis. And you seem to be starting to ‘get’ the whole stories thing, too.

    You’re starting to move from your head to your heart, that’s where the courage/coer-age is …no ‘if’ about it.

    One thing I’m not sure of from your post – I don’t think there’s any reference to how your *body* is as these thoughts and feelings arise – not sure if you’re paying attention to that.

    An emotionally fluid New Year to you, Dave!

  6. Jon Husband says:

    You’ve often said you don’t care what others think of you, and I’ve read many (of not most) of your posts exploring your inner landscape .. and I am not at all sure that you don’t care about what others think. I suspect you have adopted the “I don’t care” mantra as a defence of sorts, against admitting to yourself something that I think you perceive as weak ? IMO there’s a difference between denying and acknowledging and accepting, and then relegating it (consciously) to minor relevance (which makes it completely manageable).

    I keep wondering what / if you drop that pretense, accept and acknowledge that you do care, and like so many of the acceptance-of-self things, the changes that come from that acceptance may very well help you live and move more in the present, as you have often stated you wish to do.

    Welcome to Vancouver, hope to see you while you are here.

  7. Rafael says:

    Great, you are amazing Dave. I wish I could express myself like you. Your talent is writing and if you like it, it is your purpose.

    Regards Rafael

  8. dear brother dave, you have already accomplished a magnificent thing by creating one of the most intelligent dialogues on the web and serving as the center and focus for those of us with heart and mind and spirit to examine our options in this special time. It is just very hard to take all the blinders off our eyes. We cannot escape our culture or our times. All we can do is live each day with our eyes wide open and reflect what we can of the love that we receive from all those other sentient creatures of God who we are bound up with. We can only seek to do no harm to our brothers and to live as consciously as we are able.
    Remember we are not the center of the universe. We need to remember we are effective within a short distance from our center. And within that range, we need to do what we can to model our vision of what our best life can be. My personal belief is that there is a huge need for us or someone with the talent and vision to create a real model for how humans can restructure our mores and our infrastructure to reflect how we want to live with each other. Thanks again for your tremendous achievement but in reality I think you are really just getting started.

  9. Martin-Éric says:

    This is one of your best posts in ages. I can relate to it in numerous ways, as I struggle to preserve nomadism and polyamory into my life. Polyamory has finally found acceptance, to the point that friends and relatives no longer frown or even find unusual the idea that there’s many women in my life and that these women have other partners too. However, nomadism is constantly threatened by abstractions like borders and citizenship – not to mention economic considerations related to the costs of traveling. From this perspective, you’re correct to count your blessings at having the freedom of choice due to consulting offers pouring in.

    Btw, I wouldn’t call the idea of having a playmate (or several) an adolescent fantasy. Looking back now as I’m about to hit 40, I realize that the whole idea of commitment “in good times or bad times, till death do us apart” is completely sick, because it goes against Benesek Monk’s basic 4 principles of relationships: 1) preserve the autonomy and independence of all partners at all times, because the relationship is only as strong as each individual’s ability to pull their own weight and to experience constant freedom, 2) mutual respect is the key, 3) communication is the way, 4) express open-handed “wants” rather than urgent “needs”.

    Not surprisingly, these four principles are fully compliant with the modus operandi of polyamory, especially if you frame the exercise of sexual activity as a part of the larger experience of sharing affection and showing mutual care in a relationship.

    Now that both my girlfriend and I are able to live up to these standards, we feel even more free than before and totally happy with our choice of polyamory. As she commented a few days ago, “There’s days where I could shred you to pieces for being so blissfully unaware of the consequences of some of the things you do or say and yet, regardless, I know deep inside that even though there’s gonna be episodes of grudge and radio silence, we will always be ONE. There will be other girls, other guys, but we’ll always be there for each other, because where there’s open communication, there’s no cheating, no deception, no infidelity; there’s only love and mutual trust.”

    PS: congratulations on finally getting around transferring your blog out of Salon! :)

  10. David Millar says:

    I hadn’t looked at your blog for a while (though I listed it in my Environment, peace and social justice links two years ago, and I am impressed with your Dec 31 post.

    Could I cross-post it with credit and links to you, in my blog ? Please reply by email. I am about to leave for a UNEP conference in DC.

  11. Wow Dave!!!
    Just did some reading of your posts. I really like the graphic you have for “What you can do.” I resonate with many of your steps, particularly letting your heart be broken… One of my life’s greatest gifts is having my heart broken and realizing just how deeply I love. Tears still well in my eyes just writing it…
    Thinking that we on Bowen could help with your feelings toward your dance abilities, come to the Bowen Island Legion at 7:15 on a Wednesday and join the Bowen Island Blacksheep Morris dancers, you would be very welcome.
    Be Well…

  12. Rafael says:

    I really like the graphic you use in the post. I wonder what soft are you using to make such drawings. I using Visio but I could not make such ones.


  13. admin says:

    Thank you everyone — your encouragement means a great deal to me. Recognizing and articulating what I feel is an important part of my empathy/reconnection practice, so I’m delighted I seem to be making progress.

    My graphics are made with plain old PowerPoint for Mac, the 2008 version with the spiffy new ‘SmartArt Graphics’ inserts. I’m not a MS fan, but this tool is familiar and powerful.

    As for how my body feels, John, I think what it feels is aroused by beauty. I’ve realized that when I’m surrounded by beautiful places and/or people and/or art I am more aware, more present, more energized, more turned on by life. And I’ve acquired the humility to know that I don’t have to ‘own’ or control that beauty — it’s enough that it’s close by, present in my life. I’m ambivalent about that — it seems a bit shallow, but I acknowledge it.

  14. Dreamrogue says:

    I have to tell you, this apparently my year for gratitude and coming out of my own illusion of suffering, though I got by purely by focusing on my pain as a transformable energy, that I have had a wonderful idea in reading your post. I’m not going to say what it is, but it involves a book I have been writing and the movie Julie & Julia. I came to your site interested in blogging and have been reading random posts throughout the day. I also coincidentally came to this great idea while listening to the same song by the Dirty Chaps, A Nice Kebab, as I did this afternoon, when I had another great epiphany. I enjoyed your insights and your exploration of your self-doubt… why is that kind of relationship a fantasy I wonder? Is it that all of us who want this are afraid to try it, or to ask for it from others? I’m taking on your challenge to converse and find a collective by the way, and I’m hoping to make it more of a permanent thing than the usual temporary chat with a new acquaintance, a new like mind, in order to find a really dedicated group of friends. It may happen with some hard work, but I believe with that kind of collective, we really could take over the world.

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