Wrong envelope. Wrong clock, wrong interpretive frame. Wrongety wrong wrong. It's actually a wonderful word to say – and even better as a Mandarin syllable. Ni rong bu rong? Can you deal with it, or not? There's a retroflex French-Russian twist to this Chinese sound, and to this sentiment.
I’ve been reading up on dreamwork, of late, and it’s been bringing up some feelings about the nature of the wrong envelope. This Western Buddhist dude whose book I’ve been reading is a perfect example of Team It’s All An Illusion. He talks about removing the superficial mind, rejecting superficial dreams, and seeing through to the Clear Light. This thing's been working him for decades, making him call his dog “it,” when he knows better; making him unable to deal with meeting the eye of the camera recording his Deep Teachings on dreams. It’s painful. Painful, any way. I know what I choose is the way of no wrong envelope, nothing to remove, no place to look that isn’t holy. Oh, and, respectful pronouns for all sentient beings, up to and including “they,” for our gender-fluid furry pals.
Here’s how it is. You open a jar of natural peanut butter that's been sitting in your basement for months. The oil and the nut-stuff don't really want to mix. It's easier to keep them separate, but then, what have you got? Oil that won't sit on toast, followed by dry nut-stuff that gives you the hiccups, guaranteed. So you grab a silver-handled knife with a steel blade, which you stab into the jar a bunch of times, to prime the mixing. And then, patiently, like nothing else matters in that moment (which, it doesn't), you start stirring, careful to keep all the oil in the jar, and to reach all the dried patches deep inside. You mix the above and the below, and in so doing you wind up with something marvelous: sticky, firm, fluid, delicious. You bring the opposites together, and you dedicate yourself to doing this process over, and over, and over, like breathing, sleeping, waking, dying, and being born again. You accept that being alive is a process of enlivening matter, and enmattering spirit. You quit weh-weh wishing for unicorns and rainbows everywhere. Unicorns and rainbows insofar as they naturally occur: Super! All about that! But you don’t waste time dismissing perfectly good shitpiles, and you don’t call your dog (or anyone else’s) “it.” You wipe the knife-blade with your fingers, and share the results with the dogs: Chronic Interspecies Sticky-Snout Syndrome.
Buddhist Dream Man lives in a world of yearning only to interact with Awakened Beings in ethereal, noncorporeal, deathless ways. He wants very much not to see All the Other Crap: noisy lawnmowers, anxiety dreams, community cafés turned into snooty restaurants, rescue dogs with obdurately wild edges. He wants to avoid the taint of the wrong envelope altogether. I know I'm harshing on this guy, but I believe that his biases are a source of real, unnecessary, and widespread suffering. My dancing friend takes the awesome Finger-Gun Mudra that I learned from a client last week, points it in at his own belly, and pulls the triggers. “I’m killing my ego,” he says proudly. Really, Friend? And what will happen then? You think you’ll be well-equipped for this world if you succeed in cutting off your personality? I think you’ll just slide off toast. I think you’ll give everyone the hiccups, yourself included.
Who says personality is the wrong envelope? Lots of people, actually, but I think they're not giving the ground of being credit for it for its full reach and range of fabulousness. Are hands wrong? Noses? Knees? Why, then, personalities? Can't it better be said that the work we have to do is a process of integration? I look with serious skepticism at any tradition that requires me to remove a body part in order to succeed within it. (Luckily, it turns out the original Amazons didn’t lop off their breasts.) I feel just the same about lopping off a psychic part. I will stir the oil and the solids together. I will refuse to abandon any level of being, or any of my dreams, even the squirreliest-seeming ones.
Yesterday I dreamed I was telling an old kitchen-boss of mine all about a favorite dessert of my childhood. I had just walked into her kitchen, where she was slicing a large, flat, round bread at its equator. I asked her if it was a Tarte Tropézienne, and she said no, but I told her all about it anyway: the soft brioche, the silky, fluffy orange-flower cream in the middle, the pellet-sugar sprinkled onto the egg-wash before baking. In the morning, this is the only dream I could remember. It seemed kind of pointless, but I wrote it down anyway: no wrong envelope.
Then, moseying around Facebook, a post from my writing friend Ann caught my eye – Anne Dufourmantelle, the French philosopher and psychoanalyst, had just died, trying to rescue some children. I clicked through. It turned out that she had drowned just around the corner from Saint Tropez, off the coast of the Plage de Pampelonne, where my family used to boat on windless days. (The currents there could be very strong, so you had to choose carefully when you went.) Apparently, she had seen the warning flag on the beach go from orange to red, and instead of heading straight for shore, she had tried to reach some children whom she had spotted nearby, to bring them to safety. She drowned, and they didn’t.
I'm guessing it was mistral weather – the fierce wind that blows dark, freezing water up from the deep, and pulls everything in that part of the Mediterranean out "au large" – into the greatness of the sea, and away from shore. She took a risk – just the kind of courageous behavior she espoused in her writing – and she was pulled out into mystery.
Mixing matter and spirit brings us into the neighborhood of death, again and again, until the balance becomes more than matter can integrate. This is true whether we choose to be aware of our frequent contacts with death-energy, whether choose to accept our predicament, whether we choose to live lives of integration, or not. The De La Soul line You are living in a full-time era comes to visit from the deep. Exactly. Living in a full-time era means responding to every aspect of life as though nothing is beneath notice and attention. It means living as though there were no such thing as the wrong envelope.
Eating your shadow for breakfast is nowhere near as weird as it sounds. This morning, it looked like this: I had a dream about being at a workshop or conference where breakfast was being served family-style. Servers would appear with big oval platters covered in triangular, open-face bean-quesadilla things, and place them in the middle of round tables. Then, people would lunge for them from the various sides of the tables, plus hungry onlookers who wanted some of what they hadn’t got. In this situation, the faculty/presenters/teachers were being offered slightly tastier food than the students. They got goat cheese chunks and white cannellini beans, while the students got American cheese and refried beans. Anyway, some of the more enterprising students were like, Fuck that shit, and so the faculty tables were pretty crowded and jostly. In the dream, I felt, Ugh! What a stupid scrum! Get me out of here. Give me some peace.
I wrote the dream down as I ran the bath.
Then, in the half-lit bath, sort of spontaneously, the thought came, I don't have to think of it that way. The scrum is only a scrum if I am trying to get something for me – if I'm a grumpy teacher, a striving student, or a numbed-out anybody. But if I'm a server, things can more interesting. I can make a point of bringing food where it’s needed. I can find a corner in the kitchen and have breakfast, so that I’m able to go back in to the dining room resourced and connected. I can eat my shadow of world-fleeing, and come into a whole new space of surrender, play, and service. All of this is possible. I felt the anxious quality of the dream dissolve, as the warmth of the bathwater cradled my body and soaked into my scalp.
Eating the shadow of world-fearing and eating the shadow of world-sticking may seem like different projects, but they're closely related. With world-aversion, there's mother-fear, body-fear, and pleasure-fear. No! I do not want to be embodied. I will operate as though my mind, my spirit, my Deathless Me were some kind of unearthly visitor to this unfortunate realm. I will be, essentially, David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth, or the Blessed Virgin Mary. My shadow will be in refusing to incarnate fully. I’ll keep a distance between me and everything, a slick, transcendent coating that claims all experiences of peace as victories for its savvy plan of control and non-committal.
I will say things like, “All experience is an illusion.” People will feel a little put off and confused, but because it sounds wise, and I’m wearing this awesome spiritual outfit, they will nod. Actually, a more correct answer would be, “Oh, honey, get over yourself, and come give me a big kiss!” Mostly that’s unlikely to happen, because David Bowie and the Blessed Virgin Mary bring up such a queasy feeling in the pit of people’s stomachs.
The shadow of world-fearing is fear of death. I won't allow myself to be a being that is subject to illness, old age, loss, and death. So I’ll identify with a deathless self, and in so doing, I’ll lose the opportunity to live fully.
The shadow of world-sticking is also a fear of death, but it shows up through a different door. In this case, there's a refusal to think at all about death, loss, illness, or old age, and so anything that arises in felt experience as a reminder of these things is pushed down. Don’t look at the severed lizard head at the foot of that hibiscus bush – look at the hibiscus blossom floating in your mai tai. Look to delight, and more delight. Flee your endings, into the arms of new beginnings. Eating the shadow of world-sticking looks like agreeing to feel the endings of things, and acknowledging the deathly in the beautiful. It means letting yourself off the hook of constantly engineering peak experience.
There is a Shadow Diner, where you can order the Incarnation Special, or the Renunciation Special, depending on what you need that morning. Actually, scratch that: the waitstaff take your pulse, listen to your dreams from the night before, and then bring you exactly what you need. Could be a little of each. Could be, that morning, you’re feeling shaky enough that you just need a metaphor-free meal. A croissant. An egg. Some sweet tea (just enough), and a warm hand on your shoulder.
At the end of the four-day trauma training I just completed, my new friend put his hand on my shoulder, and exclaimed, “Oh my gosh! You’re so loved, kid! You’re going to be just fine.” It was extravagantly kind, exactly the right thing for the Shadow Diner to send my way at that moment of groundless ending. Around me, the room dissolved, which is to say, our improvised healing community disbanded. Plans here, there, cards here, there, shadows, and light. I focused on pulling together my little box of leftover Turkish food, my pen, my shoes, my goodbyes, my signatures on the sign-in sheets, and an exit.
The sky was shadowy with storm.
I felt emptied, ill, deathly.
I went home.
Deadheaded the roses on the front of the house.
Made a drawing of souls, ground, and sky.
Went to bed, and slept as the first rain fell.
Sometimes eating your shadow feels like, Aha! And sometimes it feels like agreeing to be ill, empty, and sad. I didn’t make myself cheer up. I didn’t make myself attend to five days’ worth of emails. I went to bed, and lay down.
Have you ever had the experience of casting two shadows in daylight? I was walking back-and-forth in front of the retreat center where I often go, splashing my bare feet in a delightfully piss-warm puddle, when something alerted me to the weird. Something at the edge of consciousness. My shadow, and… my other shadow. I slowed down the walking to detect where this arose – the limit between what I knew and what was. There. Diagonally opposite, another shadow. But still only one sun, so… Stay with it. The windows on the house, bouncing back the morning sun. The next minute, the light rose to a new angle, eating my temporary second shadow.
Eating your shadow happens in layers. You can’t do too much of it at one time, or you’ll get sick. Also, you can’t set out to eat only shadow, though it will find you when you need it. Have a mango. Have a croissant. Look into them, and there is shadow, too.
It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine, goes the song from REM, from my high school days, when the end of the world felt desirable. Please! I thought then. Let this world of Advanced Placement Everything end. Let this world of bra-rules and in-crowds end. Let me be saved into a parentless world of permission and freedom, soon. Let me be delivered from high school, the suburbs, and my own inability to connect.
Even earlier, maybe between ages ten and sixteen, I had thought of the end of the world in terms of ending my life. Not floridly, not in any way that would've required my therapist at the time (had I had one) to confirm suicidal ideation, intent, or plan – but more as a kind of low-grade, persistent belief that there was no place for me in this world – that I was among those who’d not been issued workable papers for this life and so, unless I wished to continue feeling misshapen and unheard, it would be better to find some back door, and leave.
Poison-as-medicine: one miserable afternoon, I remember my mother sitting me down in our dark-paneled living room in the northern suburbs of Atlanta, and telling me. Look, she said, Claude Michel, your Uncle Claude, didn’t die of a heart attack, like we told you when you were little. He killed himself. I want you to know that, because I want you to understand that sadness like this can be really dangerous. I want you to know.
What else did she say? Did she say, I recognize this sadness in you, because I recognize it in me? I don't think she did – it was probably too scary, given how long my mother had been fighting her own demons. But she knew. Did she say, We will find you someone who will listen to you, and whose own demons won’t make facing yours so hard? Maybe, but again, I don’t remember. It is true that for very brief period around that time, I saw a therapist, for whom I formed an immediate and intense distrust. She told me, probably among other things, but seemingly apropos of nothing, that I would never have satisfying relationships with men, until I sorted out my relationship with my father. Really, Lady? That’s what you say to the fifteen-year-old virgin exile in your office? I read her as just another adult pontificating about how I was wrong and defective, and absolutely refused to ever see her again.
Stepping back a little, I think it's worth pointing out that suicide runs a pretty strong streak in my family, generation after generation, taking obvious forms – jumping under a train, hanging – sneakier ones – Russian roulette, smoking oneself to death – and societally acceptable, but still suspicious pathways – airplane, horse, and motorcycle accidents. I think this is not at all unusual. Intergenerational pain also sometimes takes the shape of military conflict, or serial addiction. It is all looking for the end of the world.
So, what changes? A pair of squirrels stands at attention in the shaded grass. Now one turns, now the other’s tail flickers. Each follows its squirrel telos – not because it is the best squirrel, not because it is an immortal squirrel, but because these movements are authentic expressions of squirrelhood, within this present cosmic situation. I, Squirrel. I, Universe. Hop! No squirrels anywhere. Then two starlings flit in, arcing their arabesque out of and then back into the knotweed growing at the river’s edge.
The Buddha said, I teach the world and the end of the world. By this, he did not have some Repent! For the end of the world is nigh! eschatology in mind. More, he meant, I teach awareness of how stories are formed and imposed on experience, and in so doing I teach the possibility of an end to fixation on any story whatever. I teach the open field of awareness, within which the world arises and ends. There is this groundless ground, nowhere more or less present than right here.
I started, then, to experience myself like the squirrels, or the lilies of the field. This one turns in awareness of that one, and there is so much space to hold them both – a kind of open, harmonious intelligence, without plan or purpose. For such a mistrusting, isolated young person, unfolding in relationship was an intense revelation. I fell in love. No one planned it, much of the world was still on my end this now list, but something new was happening, too.
My friend and I became nocturnal explorers, not only of one another, but of the world. This staid mansion – what lies beyond it, and behind it? Quietly, on grass-flecked, wet bare feet, we walked at the edge of the lawn, at the edge of the pool, downhill to the vast, dark river unspooling at the edge of the world. We did this again and again, over many nights, catching different glimpses of the same recurring truth. Go past the No Trespassing signs, the ostentatious displays of property, go quietly without any intent of harm (even if you do leave the occasional perplexing doughnut to enliven someone's garden statuary), and you will find a great, quiet flow, moving observed and untroubled.
I have just returned from a week of Mahamudra Vipassana meditation, which might sound like whatsy whatsit, and means turning the mind’s gaze back on itself, to glimpse the nature of mind. Is awareness constricted, or is it unbounded? Is it dark, or is it luminous? Is it static, or is it changing? Whatever you find or don’t find, rest there. Each night, having written, drawn, sat, eaten, moved among an improvised community, and listened to teachings, I would leave the house, walking out to the edge of the field, where my tent stood in a birch grove. A very gentle form of the end of the world, but still: there is something about being intentionally outside at night, walking under stars, that goes both against and towards very particular human instincts.
I focused, out there, on the sense of being in relationship. Scrunch, scrunch – the slugs rasping their little tongues on the nylon walls. My field of benefactors, holding space. Dreams, coming in their horror and blessing. More slugs, eating my shoes very slowly. Both within and outside the end of the world, I tried to remember not to be too sure about which is which, and to let go of making something happen, either way.
Uninvited guest, I wonder if your GPS brought you to the wrong address? I mean, out here, there are a lot of places with names like Mountain View Road, and so it could totally happen. Still, here you are, with your mirrored sunglasses, and I'm really not sure what to do with you. Rumi says this being human is the guest house, but I was looking forward to floating around like an Autre in this bathtub, and so… May I offer you a refill for your Jazzercise water bottle? A granola bar? Some tips on how to descend to paved roads that may connect you to other mountain views? OK. Good luck! Keep that rental car off class four roads!
In Somatic Experiencing universe, the uninvited guest is the pull of suffering that shows up when someone is trying to contact healing forces within themselves. Just when well-being becomes strong and sensible, some memory of being afraid, slighted, or hurt comes up, uninvited, to reroute awareness into old stories of how the world is unsafe, and we exist unwanted and uninvited with in it. What happens next depends on the intention of the session, and the capacity of the person’s guest house. If it’s large and comfortable, maybe the guest is folded into the Lilac Suite over there, and given some towels. Otherwise, the person notes the uninvited guest, says “not now,” and goes back to the project of allowing well-being to flourish seamlessly in the body-mind. It can be hard to accept that we are all invited to be well, through and through, and sometimes the project of feeling this is more important than any notion of psychic inclusivity. Shoulds don't get you very far, in the project of expanding capacity for being with What Is. Until you’ve felt well, you can’t come from a place of wellness, even if you’d like to.
Back pain, Lyme disease, grief, cancer, digestive problems, social problems – hardly anyone hires a calligrapher to write out fancy envelopes for any of these, with curling P’s and deft strokes of brown ink. You are cordially invited to the unfolding of so-and-so’s life, on Thursday, the 23rd of October. Reception to follow. So all of these learn to take their opportunities where they may: pick the lock, crash the party, jam the signal, and pop out of the cake, surprisingly fully-formed for something so thoroughly repressed. It’s me! Your screwy genes, your family’s unsolved mysteries, that injury you were hoping never to think about ever again, that law that’s been on the books forever, and happens to apply dreadfully to what you just did.
Last night I spent some time talking about marriage with a woman who was feeling giddily impressed with her husband of 10 years. They had just come through a rough patch, where she wanted a divorce, and he wouldn't, and then he left, and came back. She was saying, In my family when things broke we just threw them away. But in his family they fixed everything, and so he refused to throw away our marriage, even though I wanted out. (The leaving part remained unexplained.) Anyway, one part of what she said that really struck me was that sooner or later in a marriage, the one you are with takes on all the qualities of an uninvited guest. You wake up, and you think, Who are you? Who let you in, anyway? Did your GPS lead you to the wrong address? You wake up, and you feel as though you are married to digestive problems, or to some kind of endocrine disorder. What happens next might actually be informed by your previous relationship with physical problems.
Is it shameful and impossible to experience pain? If so, you and your affliction-spouse are probably not long for this world together. You will try various medications and experts, see them fail, and fuck-you your ways into an ending. On the other hand, if you've already had the experience of letting an uninvited guest in, to give you a tour of parts of your house that you never knew existed, you might be OK. The uninvited spouse might show you that yes, indeed, it IS over, and you'll be stronger for it. Or, they might open up basement rooms leading to tunnels between you that explain a lot of things: how fresh air sometimes drifts in from the wine cellar; how you can sometimes hear music coming from the vent in the downstairs bathroom. You realize, in this guise, that the uninvited can be the catalyst for expanding the circle of the known.
We used to host people through Couchsurfing, and then that got tricky, because Elliot’s idea of who's invited sometimes differs greatly from our own. He's quite particular about defining the circle of the known, and about showing teeth to the unknown. As this, pretty much, is what humans bred and fed dogs to do, over millennia, it’s hard to really blame him. We manage his encounters with visitors carefully, and have evolved a kind of contain-and-greet protocol that works pretty well. He’d rather most people just let their GPS take them somewhere else, but he can be convinced, in time, that other bipeds can be tolerated, or even loved.
We do something like this internally, of course, all the time. I think part of why I love Elliot so much is that he has helped me see the socially anxious parts of myself, and relax around them. Are used to be so preemptively worried that someone would be mean, or boring to talk to you, that I would be miserable at parties. I kept so much of myself to myself that it was almost inevitable the conversations would be stale and uninviting. Not so anymore. Last night, as Marriage Lady told me her story, I could feel whiffs of some matrimonial-maternal mythology that set my teeth to tingling. I found ways to call them out, that I think set us both free. When we nod in agreement with something that we feel is horseshit, we are essentially politenessing our selves onto an island where no connection is invited. When we greet nonsense with truth, we open up tunnels beneath us, and admit the forms of suffering we've learned from, whether we wanted to, or not.
This whole time, I have been writing around a spectacular unwanted guest – the senseless of wine and because of a weird-whacker that just will not quit. It's funny to know it's there, to sense the annoyance of those around me, and still to allow the words to form themselves one after another. Now it’s a duet – a big motorcycle. A cherry-picker makes a trio. It’s a genuine Richard Scarry village of unwanted guests, and there is room in here for all of them.
Julie Püttgen is an artist, expressive arts therapist, and meditation teacher.
108 Names of now