Guaranteed resistance means: say a thing, and you will hear back from the Customer Service Department, which you may sometimes experience as the Customer Disservice Department. But really, they are all working out of one huge warehouse in Metuchen, or Ho-Ho-Kus, or someplace else off the New Jersey Transit lines that tells me clearly that I am not from there.
Guaranteed resistance comes in many flavors: there’s the relentless push, as of new shoots from underground. There’s the “says you!” defiance of opinion, and the unstoppable inertia of ignoring what you don’t want to know. And there’s also the Universe’s opposition to anything pretending to be what is not. This is the toughest of the lot, the one that makes me throw my Buddhist hands up and say, Really? You can’t cut me some slack just this one time?
Say you are walking the dog, when really you’re bargaining for time away from his impatience, and he will briefly go medieval on some old lady’s poodle. She will tell you you’re a terrible person. You will say OK, but is your dog alright? And she will tell your dog is a terrible person. This will go on for a while, and your back will be saying, For fuck’s sake! What kind of game is this? I want to lay down in hot tub and not get out till next year.
Guaranteed resistance is the force in the Universe that will reliably bring things to a crisis point where change can happen. So it is the most important thing to pay attention to, and also the easiest to fear.
I watched a video about the Brazilian judoka who just won the gold medal in the women’s 57kg category. That is one fierce, fierce woman. Her open hands, her wide stance, the braces on her teeth, lending her face a special category of do not fuck with me. She came from a favela, and her parents enrolled her in judo because from the age of five, all she wanted to do was fight in the streets. So she learned to fight big, and hard. I didn’t know anything about judo till watching this, but, holy shit! That is some intense resistance, some gnarly ground-wrestling, some big thumping dished out, back and forth.
So my question is: what’s the relationship between that kind of I will grapple your ass to the ground, and the if it be your will strand of spiritual growth that I have been dancing with, these many years? (Spoiler: this is not the essay where I solve this question.)
I guess part of it is: honesty. I honestly want to take this situation, and wrestle its ass to the ground. Okay, good. Is there some way to do that? Yes. Try it. Oof! Here I am, on the mat. Here I am, not on the mat, but looking down at this situation, and wondering, Now what? Guaranteed resistance means that unless I understand what I’ve either just thrown to the ground, or been thrown by, this particular thumping will keep happening, back-and-forth, into endless time. Which, actually, might not be the most beneficial way to spend time.
The trees sough and sigh. I pull on my jacket, feeling the cold of almost-September rising from the rain-soaked ground. The ground both resists, and doesn’t. It’s there to push back at my steps, and also there to take in all the spilled sodas and myriad raindrops of the world. The golden retriever pee, and the discarded milk.
Tai chi, from what little I understand, doesn’t work exactly like judo. Instead of resistance, there’s going around, snakily, remembering that around any point of resistance exists a wide world of space. I don’t want to wrestle you, and I don’t want to be thrown. Swish. Now I’m not where you want me, and I’m somewhere safe instead. Now I’ve taken your resistance, and turned it on you. Not my circus, not my monkeys. Goodbye.
I think this is an amazing way to be in the world, and it’s really hard for me a lot of the time. Partly a Taurean thing: I lower my horns, and go right for the point of resistance, forgetting all about the lovely, unobstructed, untrammeled space all around it. There! That pesky weasel! Not, Everywhere, the soughing trees and the earth, ready to support my footfalls in any direction, and not just weasel-ward.
The train hoots and the Listen short-bus screech-tweets its intention to back up. Both operate on resistance, and so travel the world.
I am finished with my addictions coursework for the summer, and about to be finished with my teaching, too. Something’s ending, and something else will begin. In the midst of that change, I can feel both the eager, open, curious part of mind; and the part that says Why bother? Why-bother mind is guaranteed resistance. It says, These efforts amount to not-much. What’s the big hurry? The whole system's rigged. It knows a lot about everything, and none of it is good. If I resist this voice, then I am playing life on its terms, and that is a deeply tedious place to be. Notice instead – Thank you for this bright stripe of sunlight between cloud-banks. Thank you for the delphiniums not flattened by the storm. Thank you for a sound night’s sleep next to my sleeping pup.
Gratitude is an antidote of guaranteed resistance. It’s got better things to do. It sees gifts everywhere, even in the most painful places. Thank you that our dog biting someone woke up to how wild he’s been getting. Thank you that the person he bit is kind, and did not insist that we fire him Immediately through a cannon into outer space. Thank you that this nutty situation, tending to our other dog, post-surgery, has brought us closer together. Thank you that I have friends to call on, when resistance yields to despair. Thank you that now I have some sense of what it might be like for parents with troubled children – the horror, and the love.
My friend writes me a gnarly note on the back of a rehab handout about Acceptance. Of course, I resist, but the medium should be the message, and eventually, if I keep working at it, it will be.
The medium can’t stay at cross-purposes with the message forever. It’s just too much work. Once, on a coffee table in one of the communal areas of the YMCA of the Ozarks, in Missouri, I found a Jesus handout that talked about love on one side. On the back, written in a child’s crayon hand, it said “when I had a bad attitude I was wrong.” We kept the bad attitude side on the refrigerator door for a couple of years, until we moved. It was a useful reminder of how resistance is born, and how it can be laid to rest.
Having read what students (including you) have said about grades in their statements at the end of this quarter, I want to share my perspective on that subject, and to offer a distinction that you (and all the other students I have taught this quarter) may find useful. Many students have said, I tried hard, I did my best, and so I deserve an A.
But that kind of thinking confuses two important areas:
1) an inward awareness of your own current capacities and skills, and the extent to which you have exerted yourself toward solving the task at hand.
2) an outward awareness of the task at hand, and what it might look like to complete it with mastery.
If you don't understand the difference between these two awarenesses, then difficulties arise. If you depend on grades for validation, then you may undervalue your efforts when you don't receive an A. If you use your own internal process as the only point of reference for gauging the value of your work, then you lose the opportunity of seeing the task on its own terms, and in that way, of improving your understanding.
When I was an undergraduate, I took a REALLY hard Paleontology class, more or less in honor of my childhood love of dinosaurs. I worked and worked at it, and still wound up with a C. That made sense to me: my best efforts did not represent complete understanding of the subject matter at hand. I had the satisfaction of knowing that I had stuck with a tough class and done my best, and I accepted that my grade reflected the limitations of what I had been able to achieve. Drawing and painting are no different from Paleontology in this respect. You can work hard at them, and still not come to the level of mastery that is possible in the assignments you have been given.
So, I encourage you to keep going with your studies with courage. Do your best. Be kind to yourself. Look around, and learn to recognize excellence when you see it. Not as "my excellence," or "your excellence"; "her excellence," or "his excellence" - but as a kind of non-possessive quality that resonates deep inside you, and arises unbidden, in response to the wild variety of this life.
I wish you all the best.
Once upon a time there was a child.
Actually, there were two children, and between them, there was one tiny rubber duck, no bigger than the thumbnail of the hand that is holding the pen to write this story. Back then, it may have been half the size of a child’s finger. Anyway, it was called Duck-Duck, and it lived inside a small, clear plexiglas cube, which, in turn, was supposed to live on the shelf above the first child’s bed. But, being so irresistible, Duck-Duck had a way of wandering: amid the socks in the dresser, into the cozy underspace beneath the second child’s pillow, at large in the abyss of longing that can open up inside a childhood bedroom. Instead of a proper bedtime story, the children and their mother often engaged in ritual mourning for Duck-Duck, keening, searching the room, crying their pillowcases soggy, until sleep or duck-restitution ensued. I do not know how my mother endured so many repetitions of this drama. Maybe it only seems to me to have been some existentialist version of a long-running Broadway show. Maybe it was only four times, but it was enough.
This morning, Elliot stopped cold in his prancing tracks, sniffing and twitching away from something in the grass that first looked to me like a big nugget of bark. Then I discerned a small sharp-beaked head, black eyes, trembling body. Elliot is mortally afraid of feathers, and so the fledgling was helped by the horror that tempered his curiosity. I pulled him away, and we went on. But on the way back, he rushed ahead, took the whole creature in his mouth, and crunched vigorously. Remembering past frail fledglings I have failed to save, I thought, Well, maybe this is a kind end – swift, definitive, in Elliott’s clean, warm mouth. He pranced on, feathers sticking out of his snout like the proverbial fox leaving the henhouse. He stopped, crunched some more, allowed a long thread of sinew to dangle to the ground, bloodily, ate it, and pranced on.
I realized I had never seen a creature so quickly and completely consumed before. The fledgling’s disappearance was far more direct and incarnate than Duck-Duck’s erstwhile shadow-plays with Being and Nothingness. Trembling, the bird is taken into the dog’s mouth. Its body is rent, chewed, swallowed. Later, I pat this dog’s long ribs, and know that they are not only made of kibble and grass, but Bird also.
I did not try to stop the dog. My back hurt so much this morning that a slow, canted walk was all that I could manage, and any significant attempts at dog-discipline felt beyond me. I hobbled along. Maybe I was hoping some even larger carnivore – a T Rex? – would come along and snap me up whole. No, not a T Rex. One cannot imagine their mouths as pleasant. A dragon? Maybe part of our problem, as humans, is that there is nothing Elliott-like around anymore to eat our trembling bird selves. I don’t want to be mauled by a grizzly, or a mountain lion. If anything: swallow me whole into your mouth, please.
Maybe that is why there are so many dragons in bedtime stories. Maybe that is why people turn to bad marriages, religion, all-consuming work, or drugs and drink. Swallow me whole! This trembling out in the open on my own is too much to bear.
We had a storybook called Moe Q McGlutch, You Smoke Too Much. It was about a nicotine-addicted dragon, who eventually smokes himself to death, much to the relief of all his creaturely castle-mates. I’m pretty sure someone besides my mom got this for us (she might not have dared), and it made my father’s smoking instantly very unpopular. We probably never liked it – smoking is stinky, after all, and my father would lurk moodily with his smokes in front of TV golf tournaments, when my brother and I would have liked to partake of the brightly-lit, muppetish gospel of hope, silliness, and learning. Anyway, his association with Moe was both foreboding and amusing to us. Eventually, my father quit smoking, and no one noticed, until one day my mom realized: no more ashtrays, no more Moe. The story retired around the same time, its work fulfilled.
Other stories arose and retired: the ones in Swedish that my grandmother read me, the one about the elves living in the big beech tree, the Yok-Yok ones about the little boy in the giant red mushroom hat. Now they live again, at my parents house in Switzerland, at the bedsides of my brother’s two boys.
When I go to visit my brother and his family in Baltimore, I tell my nephews new stories, gotten from the library by the armful. There is a whole series about some sociopathic bunnies with hyper-thyroidal eyes (not at all like Yok-yok's giant furry pal), wandering around glooping and pooping, laying the world to waste, while laughing at one another’s misfortunes. They are truly awful books, truly awful bunnies, but, for good little boys, I can see the appeal. For fifteen minutes at bedtime, mayhem comes to visit. Then the books are closed, the sheets are drawn up around little chins, and order is restored. It’s a very good deal.
The bedtime stories of immigrant families like mine are complex: the parents’ childhoods are far away, and paradoxically, so are the children’s. Where do they meet? Can the wolves of New World and Old agree on how to lurk, and in which woods? I think of the thousands of refugee households globally, in tents, abandoned resorts, rest stations, and Olympic stadiums. Is there space and support for stories, when everything’s gone missing? Or in some sense are the moments before sleep spent in some disordered ritual of searching for what might never be found?
My back still hurts like hell, sitting at this wooden picnic table, notebooking away in the rising breeze of what may be this afternoon’s rain. Yesterday, dancing, my friend asked, have you been sending your back light? Have you been breathing space and love into there? No, but what beautiful stories. Try to remember. I do. In addition to the huge maw returning us to earth, there is a force of love that can open up, swallowing us while making us more whole. We’re always caught between the two: Eat me! Annihilate me! Restore me to myself!
It is the second story – the one about being seen kindly in the midst of trembling – that knits the sundering world together.
Look deep in your salad, and you may find a gray-striped cat named Embark. He likes hanging out in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator, munching gently on the organic baby greens. He likes sucking on toes and licking stray locks of hair, while a person is trying to sleep. Something went wonky with Embark’s carnivore-conditioning, and so now, if you look deep in your salad, you may see a snow-leopard gazing back up at you with romaine-colored eyes, saying, Mrow?
Look deep in Elliot-the-dog’s eyes, and you will see that he’s really pretty new at being a predator. I mean, he’s spent the past few thousands of years as a rabbit / calf / antelope, and this time around the Wheel of Furry Beings, poof! Out he comes in a whole different kind of suit, one with enormous teeth and claws, and with a thunderous butt suited not only for being chased (the usual) but also for chasing (holy shit! that’s new!) You don’t have to look too deep into your salad to see that a 65-pound rabbit with sharp pointy teeth is – as Monty Python rightly pointed out – a dangerous creature. His old fear can take new forms, besides: run away! freeze! or, make a death-scream! This time around the Wheel of Furry Beings, Elliot has won the teeth-lottery, and he's not yet sure what to do with that bounty.
Yesterday, my friend, Rabbit Pal, came to deliver some lungwort and mint for my garden. Elliot, the aforementioned; Chloe, his commanding officer; and I were all loaded up and zooming downhill to the river for our afternoon expedition, when - flash-flash! - came Rabbit Pal’s little Prius – the smallest kind – the one the Italians would call Topolino. I turned around and followed her back home.
Don’t let her get close to the car, I thought, or Elliot will freak. So I opened the door, and he ambled out, indefinitely. Big mistake! Elliot got within four feet of my friend, who is tiny, and started lunging and barking wildly. Please make him stop, she said, looking ever-tinier. I grabbed his leash, zapped him, no-ed him, sitted him, and stuck him right back in the car.
I am so glad that Elliott didn’t bite my Rabbit Pal. I am so glad his rabbit-nature, or his growing actual confidence as a dog, prevented that. But, shit! I am realizing, in matters of hoping that Elliot won’t be an asshole, that I will need to be pro-active every single time, from now until he realizes that my five-foot gardening Buddhist friend, who loves dogs, has not come for the express purpose of disemboweling the lot of us, and running off with all the kibble. I will need to boss him until he sees that if he looks deep into almost anyone’s salad, there is no stolen kibble in there, and no ripped-out bowels, either.
Of course, easy for me to say. No one took me, as a small soft helpless animal, and stole my testicles. No one left me crated in my poop. Well, maybe they did – cribbed in diapers – but now, autonomy is more the flavor of the day, and I’ve been working hard at not taking sides: not staying stuck in Rabbit. Not staying stuck in Wolf, Angel, or Fiend. Woman seems to be the order of the day, and I am on walkabout within this realm, finding out all that it entails, from past lives, as from the present.
If I look deep into the salad of What Is Up Right Now, I see the ripe middle of summer, and the consistency with which what I need to learn is showing up. Before, I could wolf the salad, think Ew! or Tasty! and move on quickly to wanting something else. But now, things are more insistent, like salad. Salad. SALAD, MOTHERFUCKER, are you paying attention? S – A – L – A – D. We don’t want to have to make it again like this – so, look deep. This tendency to isolate, to disappear, to exceptionalize, to homogenize – whatever. Does that actually taste good to you? Does that actually seem like a real meal?
There’s a man walking to the river with a bird scope, making sneezy-weasel sounds. I think he’s here for Heron Club, and I wish him hearty herons all around. May they emerge from their shy places, remembering they have a right to be here.
Here’s something I’m finding hard to take: I have a friend who’s just undergone complicated elective surgery. Months ago, as a follow-up to going to the psych ER with them, they asked me to accompany them to a shrink-appointment at the hospital. The assigned, generally unprepossessing medical person said, Hold up, my friend! That procedure is damn hard, and if you’re already engaged on a path of anti-depressant suicide attempts, then we are thinking you might want to wait until you are a bit saner, before going through with the surgery. Of all the things the doctor said, this one seemed truest. But it did not land in my friend’s salad, which was already overflowing with a preexisting wild array of ingredients. It just bounced off the glass spittle-guard, and landed on the skeevy Red Lobster carpet.
So, then, still prone to serious episodes of bonkers, still using lots of psychotropic meds, still socially isolated, still not working, still in chronic pain, this friend goes through with the surgery. Guess what? Disaster, followed by abundant abuse for everyone around them, so completely failing to support them in their disability. Did I ask this person to go get ripped seam-to-seam in a bid for happiness? Am I in any position to tell them to stick it, with the nonstop stream of Tragedy Queen? Why, yes, I am. I need to stop pretending to see anything other than what I see.
I find this situation hard to bear because I love this friend, and at the same time, something about their story pulls and tugs at a part of me that misunderstands “Beings are numberless, I vow to free them all” as “It is my job to soothe the crazy of the world.”
Wrong “I.” Wrong “free.”
Friend, I refuse the role of abuser that I perceive you to be offering me. I refuse the role of rescuer that I perceive you to be offering me. I refuse the role of victim that I perceive you to be offering me.
There. Free. What would I see if I looked deep into that salad? What would you see?
Some Buddhists get all smug, saying, What I feel has nothing whatever to do with outside circumstances, and is all to do with my squirrelly, karmically-conditioned perceptions, but I say, Horseshit. There are reasons that we meet as we do, and those reasons are mutual, offering mutual release if we can do the work of finding it. The middle way doesn’t sound like, it is all my fault, and it doesn’t sound like, it is all your fault, either. It is something altogether more improvised and subtler, whose unfurling shows the world as a situation built for enlightenment. Wallace Stevens said, The way through the world is harder to find than the way beyond it. (Given the poet's views on golden birds, I am pretty sure he meant this as an endorsement for the former.)
The way beyond the world says, to hell with you, freaky friend; to hell with you, snapping dog. The way through it doesn’t say anything at all. It is too busy dancing with what is.
We are serious, like heart attack.
We are serious, like Elliot the dog hurling himself nose-first down the stairs, butt-furs waving wildly.
We are serious, like the river-rock you stub your toe on, like Mirabai, when she says, Try to be serious.
We are serious, like otters face-biting outside time.
We are serious, and serious means: speaking up for What Is.
I’ve been reading about how President Obama’s initial desire to close down Guantánamo Bay prison failed in bipartisan politeness, in not-showing teeth, in trying to find a way to do things without ever seeming to assert unduly, and in wishing for harmony. It failed in not-seeing that others wanted it to fail, or at least, were too busy wanting other things to succeed, to be able to understand that they were scuttling something important.
So the men remain in cells. The men, sold there by people serious about receiving betrayal-money, are still in cells, and no one has figured out how to get them out of there.
My friend writes me a long story about two rapes. Rape number one involves two sex-workers working side by side. One refuses to wake the other while they are being raped, to spare the sleeping friend trauma. The other – I don’t remember how – also winds up raped, taking on all the trauma for themselves. Somehow my friend’s takeaway is that these two people, in their assaults, are acting out of compassion.
I do not think to myself, be careful what you say, there may not be bipartisan agreement on this. I do not think – though maybe I could – about whether my friend is referring to a much earlier part of their life. Maybe that is what is serious, here, like a heart attack. Something happens to us when we are far too young to defend ourselves, and we don’t have any help from those around us who could defend us. They don’t want to know what happened. We don’t know it wasn’t our fault. Whoever hurt us is shielded from having to be serious, by the fact that they are never confronted. Later, we think that being attacked is normal, and maybe even honorable. We don’t think, I do no good by allowing myself to be hurt. When our friends say, You do no good by allowing yourself to be hurt, we only feel attacked. This is no good.
I wonder about the limits of compassion. There’s a passage in Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love where she lays down an edict banning the plague ships of her own thoughts from taking harbor in her mind:
The harbor of my mind is an open bay, the only access to the island of my Self (which is a young and volcanic island, yes, but fertile and promising). This island has been through some wars, it is true, but it is now committed to peace, under a new leader (me) who has instituted new policies to protect that place. And now - let the word go out across the seven seas- there are much, much stricter laws on the books about who may enter this harbor.
But even the plague ships need harbor? asks my friend of the rape-fables. Maybe. But first those ships need to know that safe harbor is what they are seeking. They need to break the habit of showing up, raping, pillaging, drowning cats, shitting on beautifully woven blankets, burning everything, and then setting off distractedly for the next place they will despoil. Those ships need to starve a bit. Starve for a long time. Be restrained by their own isolation, and maybe come in to harbor only once the worst motherfuckers have killed one another off. They need to wait until they’ve had time to remember what it is like to hope to be given something that cannot be taken.
Also, they need to be received with wisdom, at several poles’ lengths. They need to be titrated carefully.
We see you are a plague ship.
We see you are hungry.
You cannot all come here at once.
Send us your two hungriest and least blameworthy ones, and we will see what they can tell us of their intentions. Meanwhile, we are catapulting these boxes of Frosted Flakes on board, and some Comet. It looks like your ship could use some cleaning up.
Yes but what if some of them die on board while they are so close?
So be it. If they want something specific that does not involve wholesale taking and owing, they can ask.
Titrating the pirates means that you can be the first one to hang up. It means noticing when someone doesn’t acknowledge you, and letting that knowing inform your next steps. It means learning to be comfortable with not-meeting the needs of others. You need to perform this ritual, but I am not available, neither as sacrifice, nor even as audience.
A small Internet video shows new versions of popular rom-coms, as though the well-being of the woman mattered. The new scene from Knocked Up looks like this:
Woman: I’ve got something to tell you, and it’s why I called you up.
Woman: I’m pregnant, and I am getting an abortion.
Man: I think that’s a great idea! Should we just skip the rest of the movie?
Woman: Yeah, let’s do that.
Not always accommodating. Not assuming that one’s I-can-host-it-all mind is the most appropriate place to be moving from. Not assuming that everyone’s I-can-host-it-all mind is even online for any significant percentage of their daily interactions with the world.
My mother-in-law sends us Shaker paraphernalia. My husband may take a special Shaker Broom class, to make her Christmas present. We decide the broom machine at the museum in Enfield is James Brown's original Shaker Moneymaker.
Ah! Remembering. Rumi writes of having a mind like a guest-house, and that is very beautiful. I also think, especially for women, that it is important to sometimes have a mind like a bear-cave. Do not fuck with the bear-cave while the mother bear and her cubs are in there. You are not welcome. There is deep sleep happening, and everyone here has just exactly the resources we need to get our life-giving nurture done, provided no one comes asking for waffles, or for an admirer to notice their most recent accomplishments.
My former monastery-mate, whose name means something like Holy Death, once went into a bear cave where she wasn’t wanted. The bear grabbed her head in her claws. The nun-to-be went OM, and fainted. When I knew her, you could see the parallel, symmetrical claw marks in her scalp, shining amongst the nun-stubble. I don’t think the bear did a complete job of establishing clear boundaries in that body-mind, but it was a real start.
Some people are underwritten by the sort of fraternity that both gives excuses, and makes it very hard to be honest. Hard to be honest among hyenas who might eat your face. Hard to be honest when you’re thinking you’d just as happily eat the face of the one questioning you, as answer. Then it is important to remember the harbor rules. There is no place here for your bluster, but if you’d like to be clear about your experience, we might have a place to stand together.
Serious like a heart attack.
When am I scoping out the next pleasant or unpleasant thing, and when am I present?
Can all of it be happening at once?
Julie Püttgen is an artist, expressive arts therapist, and meditation teacher.