The misunderstanding is between the nose and the tail, between the whisker sticking out from under my chin, and the hair sprouting from my big toe. True story: I am in the TSA line in Boston, and I turn down the handsome, gray-haired man in front of me – the one with the Akron Ohio T-shirt and the ponytail – when he tries to let me go first through the woo-woo scanner. “You’ve got to go sometime,” I say with a smile. I look down and see that both of his second toes have silver rings on them. Cool. The misunderstanding is in thinking that we know anything, ever, about any category of beings, as a category. So, boom: here’s a middle-aged white guy from Akron with beautiful manners and sexy toes. Take that, “Trump Nation,” as an abstract, enveloping concept.
It is a misunderstanding to say that we can’t know anything about one another, in the particular.
It is a misunderstanding to think that the work of understanding one another is a naïve illusion.
It is a misunderstanding to let ourselves off the hook in this way, to refuse to do the work of understanding joy and suffering in one another. We mistake our own joys and sufferings as somehow occurring either a) as a rule to which all others will conform, or b) as unknowable and unique. If either of those things were true, we would be screwed, and there would be no point whatsoever to the actual facts on the ground, which are: we live together. We are bound up in one another. We breathe one another and carry one another under the skin.
I take my car in for an oil change and a new filter. The place I've been going to has just gone through some kind of a coup, so that everyone I am familiar with is gone, the dealership has a new goofy name, and I have no real basis for trusting what's going on. But still: I experience delight in the simple interaction of handing over my keys, and getting them back from the same blonde-haired stranger – the first woman I’ve ever seen in the Service Department. Stranger. Fellow human. Good morning.
The woman who sells me coffee and a breakfast sandwich congratulates me on being able to dig out my loyalty card from the recesses of my overstuffed wallet. “Good job!” She smiles. I say she sounds like a person who lives with either dogs, or children. “Yes – I have six kids, so I’m used to seeing how little things can be a struggle.” I tell her how, with no kids, dogs have been my introduction to lavish daily praise. Now I find myself using the same language with little kids, as with my two mutts. It’s a good way to live, we agree.
The misunderstanding is that when we encounter something difficult, something has gone wrong. If this were true, then somehow the plan for us, in this existence, would be to waft around not bumping into anything, not learning anything, not expanding what we know in any way. It’s telling, I think, that some people imagine this stress-free vagueness as what Heaven would be like. You get issued your ever-stainless white robe and your perfectly-tuned harp, your twenty-five-year-old’s body and your worry-free mind, and you wander around some boundless sunny place forever, feet never quite touching the ground, because there IS no ground. There is no integrity of contact with the Earth, saying, remember you are of this, and you will go back to it. In Heaven there is no going back, and no going forward. There is no compassionate understanding of Hell because, as my fourth-grade self recognized intuitively, if you did know of others in Hell, your wafting around in aimless bliss would in that very moment become impossible.
The misunderstanding is that when I am feeling hopeless and trapped about something, those feelings are the whole truth. The misunderstanding is that my perception of the situation encompasses it totally and accurately. I ask the I Ching: Dear Uncle I Ching please tell me about this situation that’s been feeling stuck and static for awhile. I don’t know how to change it, but I know that it has fallen out of aliveness. I Ching says: Inner Truth – know what you know and feel what you feel. I feel I wish the members of the meditation group that I have been leading for the last couple of years would have an active and deepening practice outside the group. I feel I need a peer group of other teachers to learn from. I feel I am done being a student in the meditation practice program that I’ve been part of for the past two years. I feel I need help to be able to transition, each Sunday, from teaching meditation to facilitating dance. That’s what I feel. Then, I Ching says, Innocence, The Unexpected. Do not fall into the misunderstanding of thinking that you know how things are going down. Hold to what you feel and sense in your own experience, and allow yourself to be surprised.
One student, who has often said that she finds meditation an alienating experience, announces that she’s leaving soon for a week-long silent retreat with a Zen teacher. My fellow facilitator tells me that she really doesn’t mind helping to get the dance space ready. I’m told I may soon be teaching in the meditation practice program, which would mean access to a new peer group. Hold to what you know. Allow all else to be don’t-know, held not as needless suffering, but as the unfolding of creation on its own, powerful terms.
I scratch my chin – turtleneck-time, and the body is adjusting to new confinements, new sensations of heat, cold, socks, sweaters, big wooly scarves. Living in New England is a good counter to the misunderstanding that comfort is somehow due us at all times. It gets cold. This season of family holidays rolls in, making me reëxamine the somewhat hermitty life that Timothy and I lead. For Halloween with no children and two big barky dogs, we will park the dogs in the studio, and welcome the neighborhood kids, plus the little rural kids who come from places too sparsely populated to support fruitful wandering as a zombie-ninja-geisha. We will step up. Then Thanksgiving, a holiday that sets my lady-hackles on high alert. Really? Today? Women cooking His Favorite Bla-bla and doing endless dishes, while the football drones on? That's part of my discomfort, and then there's also the sense of displacement: no children, parents in Europe and on the West Coast, friends far-flung and occupied with their own families means for me: some fear of loneliness, of somehow not reaching the desirable quota of fellowship and satisfaction.
The best Thanksgiving I've ever experienced was the year that Timothy and I spent hiking the Perimeter Trail, all around Sewanee, Tennessee. In the four and a half years that I had been teaching there, we'd seen bits and pieces of the route, and this was our last chance to knit it all together, closing the circle. We started at dawn, and walked the entire day - twenty-three miles around the known world - until finally ambling back through downtown at dusk. We stopped to eat tasty things, to bask in the sun, and then we moved on, and on. The only hard part was coming home to a minimally-furnished apartment, just the two of us, some potatoes and a pie, ghosts of Feast all around us. Ghosts of Feast are a misunderstanding of where joy comes from. They fail to see what is whole, right here, in its current, surprising, just-right form.
Julie Püttgen is an artist, expressive arts therapist, and meditation teacher.
108 Names of Now