Sometimes a theme rises up from our days, uniting otherwise random events. Consider these, from my last week:
- I’m at a parenting class on how to use nonviolent communication with our kids. Like many parents I use coercion and shaming—instinctively, impulsively—and only recently am I coming to see this. The instructor draws a flow chart: Your kid does something that stimulates you. You can go down the path of control by judging the situation, thinking up a strategy, and demanding action, or you can go down the path of connection by observing, feeling your response, identifying your need, and requesting action. I’m amazed by how hard it is to take this second path.
- I’m reading my church newsletter. The interim pastor has written a column challenging us to ask ourselves during this time of transition, “What do we notice?” Our habit is to see a change and jump to an opinion or judgment. He encourages us to first simply observe.
- I’m leading a class in a tried-and-true writing exercise: Begin with an object from childhood. Describe it in detail. Only once you’ve brought it fully onto the page, allow it to lead you to other memories. The class, as always, is profoundly moved by what emerges.
- I’m doing Centering Prayer, my candle lit, my knees on the floor. Ideas for this column pop into my head. They’re good ideas, but I remember Thomas Keating’s advice: Even should the Virgin Mary Herself tap me on the shoulder, I’m to say, “Not now, dearie; I’m doing my Centering Prayer.” I observe my thoughts then let them go.
Here’s the crack running through all these moments: A tiny opening between an awareness and my response to that awareness. Something potent lurks there.
When I skip the step of noticing and careen instead into judgment, clinging, action, or any sort of reactivity, I might believe I’m still making free choices when in fact I’m being governed by all sorts of personal and social patterns. Parenting’s a great example. When Gwyn’s gone seven days without a hair wash and is refusing to get in the shower, whole generations of manipulative parenting and a culture of dominance and retributive justice come into play: I physically carry her to the bathroom. I’m not making a free choice based on my deepest values; I’m a puppet of past hurts and cultural limitations. The example is dramatic, but it’s no different from that lovely thought arriving during meditation and my very human inclination to get on that train and ride it merrily away. I’m not free in that moment; I’m a victim of my addiction to thinking.
If I never notice what’s happening, I can’t choose my response. I’m reactive. But if I first stop and observe, I can be deliberate about what’s next. I’m coming to think that inside this crack lurks the greatest arena of human freedom.
–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew
October 12, 1:30-3:30: Re-Imagining Prayer with spiritual memoir, Wisdom Ways drop-in session.
NEW! October 27: The Launch: Reimagining Publishing with Integrity, Freedom, and Generosity at the Loft Literary Center, 1:30pm-4:30pm.
November 9, 1:30-3:30: Re-Imagining Loss with spiritual memoir, Wisdom Ways drop-in session.
November 16: Living Revision: The Writer’s Craft as a Practice of Transformation at the Loft Literary Center, 10am-4pm.
December 14, 1:30-3:30: Re-Imagining Revision with spiritual memoir, Wisdom Ways drop-in session.