A Gradual Reawakening: Letting go of my world-weary blues and connecting with reality . . . again
“That is not a good look for you, sweetie,” I grumbled, as I perused the fifty-something woman in stylishly tattered jeans sauntering down the boulevard.
“You might try pushing away from the dinner table every now and then, pal,” I sneered, as, red-faced and profusely sweating, the morbidly obese man lurched from the YMCA sauna for the third time.
“Pull over and goddamn Google it,” I snarled as the Florida tourist in front of me drove fifteen miles per hour in a forty-five-mph zone.
Was I cranky? No doubt.? Judgmental? Absolutely. Disheartened? Unquestionably. And I’d been unconsciously operating out of this frame of mind for months. Yeah, yeah, I know, given the pandemic, America’s veer toward authoritarianism, war crimes in Ukraine, and the state of our ailing planet, it’s easy to feel discouraged and even drift into depression without really being aware of it. And I’m not the only one, right?
But I consider myself a fairly self-aware kind of guy, and I clearly wasn’t enjoying life in my current state. Hell, it was even affecting my handball game. And that was a bridge too far. So during my morning meditation, I breathed deeply, cleared my mind, and opened myself to the truth about the existence I’d created for myself. As my meditation deepened, my first realization was that all my judgmentalism was not about those I’d been judging; it was about me. I was actually judging myself and the unconscious, habitual manner in which I was living my life, taking my misery out on those around me.
And in that moment of awareness, I heard the voice of my now-deceased mentor Brad Brown, co-founder of the More To Life program, with whom I’d spent days, sometimes even weeks in intensive personal development workshops during the ’80 and ‘90s, learning about myself, about life, and how to free myself from my cultural conditioning. And what Brad said was something his guru had once told him: “Lighten up, asshole.”
Lighten up, yeah, that’s the ticket. Lighten up. Yes, but how? A few days later I was contemplating this when I remembered a story by Michael Ventura about his encounter with Carlos Castaneda that was published in a 1998 issue of the Austin Chronicle:
A woman had asked Castaneda how she could have a spiritual life. Answering this woman, Carlos didn’t change the lightness or generosity of his manner; yet a steely thing came into his voice, a tone that made his words pierce all of us. He said that when she got home at night she should sit in her chair and remember that her child, her husband, everyone she loved, and she herself, were going to die and they would die in no particular order, unpredictably. “Remember this every night, and you’ll soon have a spiritual life.”
Later in the conversation this woman asked how she could discipline herself to follow his advice, deeply follow it, so that it wouldn’t be just an exercise. Carlos said: “You give yourself a command.”
On the page there’s no duplicating how he said it. He spoke quietly, but it was as though he’d suddenly jammed a knife into the tabletop.
“What’s that mean?” one of us asked.
“It means you give yourself a command.” And that was that.
And so I decided that’s what I’d do: Give myself a command. But what kind of command should I give myself? I’d already lightened up . . . a bit anyway. And I could now discern the hole I’d dug for myself. But how to dig myself out? A command, hmm. Then I recalled a Bob Newhart bit in which he played the role of a psychologist, Dr. Switzer (lightly edited for brevity):
Dr. Switzer: Tell me about the problem that you wish to address.
Katherine (the client): Oh, okay. Well, I have this fear of being buried alive in a box. I just start thinking about being buried alive and I begin to panic.
Dr. Switzer: Has anyone ever tried to bury you alive in a box?
Katherine: No. No, but truly thinking about it does make my life horrible. I mean, I can’t go through tunnels or be in an elevator or in a house, anything boxy.
Dr. Switzer: All right, Katherine, I’m going to say two words to you right now. I want you to listen to them very, very carefully. Then I want you to take them out of the office with you and incorporate them into your life.
Katherine: Shall I write them down?
Dr. Switzer: If it makes you comfortable. It’s just two words. We find most people can remember them.
Dr. Switzer: Okay. Here they are. STOP IT!
Katherine: I’m sorry?
Dr. Switzer: STOP IT!
Katherine: Stop it?
Dr. Switzer: Yes. S-T-O-P, new word, I-T.
So I decided to take Dr. Switzer’s advice and S-T-O-P, new word, I-T. STOP worrying about COVID. STOP worrying about antivaxxers. STOP worrying about the Proud Boys. STOP worrying about the gridlock in Congress, the greed of the billionaire class, the war in Europe, the degradation of planet Earth, the challenges confronting my spiritual home Jubilee! Community (after the retirement of its founder and long-time minister), my advancing age, my deteriorating handball game, my eleven-year-old daughter’s individuation process (pulling away from her mom and me and toward her peers). And to do so, it was imperative that I also STOP getting sucked in by the clickbait on Twitter and all my left-leaning news websites with their distressing news of the day and continuous catastrophizing. Stop it! Just stop it! And I pledged to halt my doomscrolling for a week, a pledge that I’ve extended for month and to this very day.
Perhaps the pièce de resistance was a weekend of camping in the great outdoors at the Lake Eden Arts Festival. Nothing like good old Mother Nature for a boundless dose of reality, and LEAF for a full measure of fun, frivolity, joy, music, and dancing. And rather than judging the folks there, I found myself gazing into the eyes of men, women, and children and deeply comprehending that these people were my tribe, my fellow human beings. At our campsite I lay on my back and witnessed the surrounding mountains and the geese flying south and the clouds overhead, sensing my connection with them . . . and with all that is. I paid attention to what was right in front of me, and I was amazed.
One day while Shonnie and Gracelyn were away, I took out my trusty old wooden tennis racquet, turned up Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” full blast, and proceeded to whack the hell out our futon while screaming “No! No! No!” at the top of my lungs, screams that devolved into guttural growls. No to the worldwide pandemic killing millions, no to Congress fiddling while the planet burns, no to Putin’s inhumanity, no to aging and death, no to what Life was sending my way (thus no to reality). With a couple of breaks to catch my breath, I continued full blast for ten or so minutes.
Winded and exhausted, I sat at my desk catching my breath, feeling the relief of releasing the frustration and anger I’d been holding inside for months (years?). And I got in touch with the resentment I’d been feeling toward those who were most important in my life, including my wife Shonnie. When I returned to breathing normally, I put on my headphones, turned on my favorite meditative tune, and began a Cost Process, a method from the More To Life Program designed to release resentments and to seek forgiveness from those I’d been resenting.
Though Shonnie and I have a commitment about keeping the space between us uncontaminated and handling disconnections and disagreements as they arose, I’d unconsciously failed to follow this agreement. So, I brought up Shonnie in my mind’s eye and stated my resentments toward her for real or imagined sleights. “Shonnie, I’ve been resenting you for sometimes speaking to me in a way that sounds critical to me, for leaving stuff scattered about the house, for telling me how to wash dishes. My payoff for holding these resentments toward you has been that I’ve gotten to withhold my love from you. I’ve gotten to regard myself as better and more enlightened than you. I’ve gotten to be on the lookout for any of your actions, no matter how minor, that justify my resentments.”
“The cost of my holding these resentments has been the loss of my connection with you, the sense of separation from you that I’ve felt, the loss of joy and happiness that we so often enjoyed together.” Finally, still holding Shonnie’s image in my mind, I quietly said to her, “I’m sorry that I’ve been regarding you like this, Shonnie, and I ask for your forgiveness. I commit to refusing to hold ill will toward you going forward. And should I find myself starting to resent you (and being human, I probably will), I pledge to do this process again.”
I went on to complete this process with several other people I’d been resenting. And after having done so, my sense of liberation from the nonsense that had been polluting my being was instantaneous.
Near the end of my daily meditation, I call out to the Universe, “I am your instrument. I am ready. Show me the way.” And one morning, I found myself called, at the age of seventy-eight, to put myself forward as the administrator at Jubilee! Community.
An excerpt from my cover letter for my application:
Jubilee has been my family’s spiritual home for more than twenty years, and I feel deeply connected to the community and many Jubilants in our community. Now two years after our founder retired, I believe that we are currently at a crucial juncture in our existence, and I want to offer myself and my skills in service toward Jubilee’s healing, stability, growth, and prosperity as our administrator.
After I was hired as administrator, I became deeply engaged in my work at Jubilee—ensuring that our finances are handled impeccably, keeping our facility welcoming and well-maintained, and supporting our staff to fully share their gifts. As members of our community began to step forward to support my efforts, it became clear that the path I had taken was truly my destiny.
Talking with Shonnie after dinner one evening, I confided in her: “You know, I’m really enjoying my work and the folks I’m working with at Jubilee.” I paused momentarily, took a deep breath, and looked into Shonnie’s eyes. “I’m feeling more alive than I have in years.”
“Yes, I see it too, sweetie,” she gently replied.