Sometimes we get a good reading on ourselves — on how culture or the circumstances of our individual lives leave their mark, often outside of our awareness – simply by changing up something small that breaks us off from some routine comfort.
With two hours to kill in the middle of my work day, I decided to empty my pockets and go out into the world. When I say empty, I mean empty. No cell phone. No Ipod. No money, wallet, nor credit cards. I even decided to leave the door to my office unlocked so I wouldn’t be burdened by keys. I would travel light. I fancied myself the footloose fool on his merry way.
Leave your own house or office with empty pockets. Walk downtown around lunchtime where the smells of food and the glitz of so many storefronts tempt you in. Would you, too, be as immediately riddled with anxiety? What if I get hungry? What if I miss that call, or text? What if I see something that I want to buy? The tethers of modern life bind us with comfort and security. Our bodies can go into a panic when familiarity is pulled out from under us. But the security is more psychological, than real. We panic when there’s nothing really to panic about.
Would I starve to death if I wouldn’t eat for two hours? What if I grew thirsty? Would my social or professional life cave in, if I was completely out of touch? Suppose someone breaks into my office! Is there anything I really need to buy? After several blocks my anxieties started to dissolve. A reflective sensibility started to take hold.
The smells of downtown struck with more intensity. My scan was wider and seemed to take in much more of the town. With no earphones plugging my ears, my sense of hearing was taken over by the sounds of cars, buses, and people chattering . Music? Yes. I heard street musicians, people chattering, horns honking. The world around me had come to life.
After about 20 minutes, the pangs of anxiety and panic gave way to a sense of freedom and something in my mind seemed to open up into itself. I thought of poems long forgotten. Songs drifted in and out of my thoughts. I could easily grab the low hanging fruit of ideas, dreams, and memories. I lingered on thoughts about certain friends without the pressure of a sudden flurry of texts. I felt as if I were holding them in my thoughts longer and with a renewed depth of feeling. And occasionally, something disturbing might cross into consciousness, yet like my pace saunter back out.
Are these comforts — texting or calling with a sudden inexplicable and immediate urge to reach out; food seeking at the tiniest pang of hunger; buying on credit that thing our mind convinces us we need — some readied escape from the unquiet of our own thoughts? Has the pace of modern life conditioned us to fear that if we aren’t in some way productive, or doing something, even if it’s a productivity as illusory as texting a friend, that we’re wasting precious time? Have all of our gadgets and preoccupations ushered us away from self-reflectivity, daydreaming, and imaginative wandering?
I emptied my pockets and unwittingly stumbled across corridors of thought that had been neglected and undernourished under the clutter of convenience and modern gadgetry.
Jeffrey Winke, Coquette (a collection of sensual Haiku)
The erotic is the arousal of our sexual sense through the slowing of attention. The erotic is sexuality, not sex. The erotic refuses to rush past. It rebels against compartmentalizing sexuality to sex, or the bedroom, or erections and orgasms. It slows us down, takes notice, can happen beneath the covers, in a crowded restaurant, cooking a meal, or over a game of chess.
The erotic pays attention. It notices a fold, a texture, a scent, a nuanced gesture with a wink of delight. The erotic is neither the whip nor the whisper, but the lingering of attention to how either, or both, strikes the senses.
Stop the rush of time to notice that peach’s texture as you take your first bite…
…and the feel of a pair of fresh nylons slipping up over your legs…
…and how her hands work the knife when slicing a fresh vegetable.
Lean in and whisper to your spouse, lover, or friend when it would be just as easy to speak in your normal voice. Lay in bed before your morning shower, attuning yourself to the sparrow, neighbor’s voice, and that passing car. And when you finally step into that shower, notice where skin-pleasure inclines you to let the water fall.
The erotic requires no end other than drawing a moment out with a sensory detail. The erotic can see the universe in a grain of sand and satisfy a craving for love through the subtle touch of the hand. “We are obsessed with an insatiable appetite for ever more vivid sensations,” Isabel Allende writes in her book Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses. “…a subtle caress, the pleasure of skin against skin, or of sharing a peach is not enough anymore.”
The erotic is our body electric carefully listening, touching, tasting, smelling – stopping time and refusing to not take notice.
As of late, through our cold winter nights, I’ve taken to staring into the glow of a fire. Lights off, computer asleep, TV quieted, cell phone hidden away in another room – I let myself fall under the spell of her skirt-like flames licking, screaming, bending and percolating behind the glass of my wood burning stove. She rages. She stretches. When spent, she quietly recedes into the wood’s luminescent orange glow, until once again fed, or poked back to life. I poke her often. Sometimes, I keep the glass door opened to hear her crackle and hiss.
Fire hypnotizes. It soothes. It amazes. It frightens. It coaxes us into contemplation. As gazing into a star-clustered night fills our thoughts with wonderment about the vastness of space and time, fire hearkens us back to tribal memories: fire-dancing; ritual trances; fire-circles and storytelling; fire sticks and torches; stone lamps; shadows flickering ghost-like upon cave walls; shadowy figures huddled in its warmth against icy winds; howling, stalking predators kept at a distance – their instincts keeping them wary of a sting that never lets go.
By rough estimates, the controlled use of fire dates back half a million years. That’s 500,000 thousand years of coaxing itself into our genetic consciousness. (Some scant evidence suggests that our pre-human ancestors tamed it over a million years ago.) It protected us, calmed us, purified us, warmed us, lit our darkness, sanitized our food, lead us through the most hostile of environments. We danced with and around it. We sacrificed to it. We catch the sight of fire at the edge of our conscious awareness, we not only turn to look – we stare. Fire calls to something deep within our consciousness. We’re compelled to watch, and watch we will until its danger is right upon us.
Some nights I watch in spite of myself. Time ticks away outside of awareness. An hour passes. Maybe two. My thoughts both deepen and calm. Events from the day slip behind a veil I don’t even know exists. My list of “to do’s” recedes from anxious calling. All the mindless yapping and chatter of memory, want, request, duty and need fall away. I’m entranced and at peace – protected…warmed…inspired. Sometimes I dance before her – sensing ancestral ghosts circling with me. Sometimes the flames weave barely conscious images that send me cozily into sleep.
“We are here on Earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you any different.”Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
For most of our 2 million year evolutionary history, we lived as hunters and gatherers. We became fully human around 250,000 years ago – give or take 100,000 years. We were nomadic. Lived in wide open spaces, and in tribes of no more than 150. Seldom, if ever, would our tribe run into other tribes, and if so we probably just moved on.
What was there to fight for?
Other humans were few; grazeable land was plentiful. We gathered nuts and other wild vegetation. We chased down birds, insects, fish, rodents, and an occasional bear or elk. And when the food gave out? Or, some natural catastrophe struck — like a flood, fire, or volcano eruption? The survivors ambled on — following their eyes and noses to more ample pastures. The earth was our oyster. No pollution, oil spills, trespassing signs, fences, private property, militarized zones, or cars to dodge.
Richard Lee’s work on the !Kung Sun bushmen of the Kalahari Desert wrote that these hunter-gatherers spend only fifteen hours a week gathering food — the rest is down time. And this in the desert, no less. “A woman gathers on one day enough food to feed her family for three days, and spends the rest of her time resting in camp, doing embroidery, visiting other camps, or entertaining visitors.”
If you can wrap your mind around the thought that humans of 250,000 years ago were not that different emotionally and mentally from humans today, you can imagine how it must have been to have plenty of time to lay back. (Or can you?) A day or two of light work followed by three days off trying to figure what to do with yourself. Imagine. No e-mail to check. No text messages. No deadlines, traffic jams, jaunts to the gym, mortgage payments, supermarkets, or business lunches. Plenty of time to just stare out into space. Fool around. Daydream. Play. Mate. Contemplate. This life is our evolutionary heritage. It’s how we are wired to live.
Have the demands of modern life robbed us of our healthy inclination to sit and ponder for hours on end? This question was among the thoughts that struck me when we were stopped in our tracks by the painting, The Wild by Barnett Newman, at the Museum of Modern Art. It looks like a painted tomato stake, but it’s truly a stretched canvas. 8 feet high. 1 1/2 inches wide. Cadmium red down the center with gray-blue down each side.
We had been provoked out of our rushed ways. Our art-at-a-trot pace came to an abrupt halt.
My daughter and I stood in front of this piece contemplating — is it art, is it not? Why is it here? Why shouldn’t it be? What if a third grader would have painted that same thing? What is its intent? How does this absurd 8 x 1 1/2 canvas reflect the entirety of the history of art and the conversation art has with itself? It was a contemplative brawl we ended up taking out into the streets.
Jeanette Winterson in her book Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery, challenges us to consider what it would be to spend one entire hour with just one painting. We’d soon get irritated. Impatient. The speed of our daily lives won’t allow it. “Why doesn’t the picture do something!” The same could be said for a poem. A petroglyph. A cloud. A mountain. A stream. A spiderweb. A bird’s flight. A blade of grass. Look! Move on! Get to the next sensation — quick! There are things to do, places to go, emails to get to!
We’ve filled ourselves with the self-importance of so much work-a-day activity. And when we’re not on the move, how many of us fully sink into the healing, contemplative joy of doing nothing? There’s always the next thing, or that thing undone yapping at the screen door of our conscious awareness.
Stop. Give yourself permission. Fart around. Paint a tomato stake red and call it art. In the quiet stillness of doing nothing but pondering the complexity or simplicity of whatever happens to be in front of you, maybe you’ll find what our ancestors had at their fingertips every day…
…a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
When we look at the chaotic dribblings of paint on a work of modern art, we become restless. We don’t know how to engage it.We call it ridiculous.Not worth our time.Childish.We shrug it off with simple judgments, and hurry on to more self-evident, prettier, less ambiguous pictures.
Grant Wood, American Gothic
We love certainty.Certainty keeps our world tidy.Predictable.The world and our actions shine in the glow of self-evidence.Certainty allows us to think and act quickly. The problem with human consciousness is that it takes effort and time.Better to remain unconscious and certain.It’s simpler that way.
When we say “I know”, we’ve given ourselves over to judgment.We’ve decided.There’s no more light to let in.We’ve pruned away enough complexity and ambiguity to fit all there is for us to know on a bumper sticker, or a 10 second news spot, or twitter feed.What we don’t know, or are too lazy to find out?To hell with it.Complexity is a nuisance.We must prove to the world our convictions by wrapping them in the mantel of certainty. “I think, therefore I know.”
Certainty is an illusion, a trick we play on ourselves. Certainty is an emotion that prunes away all the hundreds of millions of informational bytes taken into our senses. It’s a feeling hardwired into our emotional brains to allow us to act without having to face a mess.We can pick what we need, or what we believe we need. Certainty is not born of a series of self-evident truths.It’s a chimera whose purpose it is to make it easier to blame, to run, to fight, to scream, to love, to stay, to go.There is no courage in certainty. No heroism.There is no hard choice to make.
At times, the problems we face in our own lives feel as daunting as those chaotic scribbles on a piece of modern art. There’s too much information, too much we don’t, can’t, or refuse to try and understand.We can’t possibly take it all in.Moreover, there’s the element of chance to dash all those odds we calculated to come our way.There’s timing.There’s our incapacity to foretell the future. There are other people’s intentions, about which we can only tell ourselves stories to bolster the certainty of what we choose to believe.We become self-justifying informational processing machines.
“I know, and am too knowing, too strong, too courageous, to doubt.”
Doubt is not a problem of strength or conviction. Doubt is the light that humbles us in face of our perceptual biases and limitations.The real heroism shows when we stand squarely in front of doubt. It shows when we face our times of chaos and inner turmoil with the humility afforded by doubt’s light. When we courageously proclaim, “Yes, I doubt; and, still I choose.”
We breathe in; we breathe out.Oxygen rushes in.Carbon dioxide moves out. We inspire.We expire.Without breath, we die.
We take more than 23,000 breaths in a day.Most, if not all, breaths we take withoutthinking — without noticing. If breathing required thought, we’d not make it very long.
It’s easy for us to take our breathing for granted — as we do most things we don’t think about.
We choke it.We gasp it.We tighten it.We hold it back. Every time we hold our breath, we unconsciously signal to our body that danger is lurking. Even on a casual stroll through the park on a bright summer’s day.No lions there.It’s the mortgage due, the boss, the fight with your spouse or lover.Harbor a distressing thought?As automatically as you breathe, you’ll hold your breath.Danger!Danger!
Fear brings breathlessness.Breathlessness brings fear.
Breath in, we take in oxygen — our primary and most crucial source of energy.We can survive three weeks without food.Three days without water.Deprive us of oxygen?A few minutes.
Oxygen kills parasites, viruses, microbes and bacteria that can’t survive in a high oxygen environment.Without oxygen we cannot absorb important vitamins, minerals and other nutrients.The continuous flow ofblood douses our organs and tissues in oxygen.It’s nectar to our cells.Oxygen rich blood continually bathes our brain, which consumes about 20% of the oxygen we breathe in. If the brain is cut off from its oxygen supply for just 10 seconds, we’ll lose consciousness.
Without oxygen, nothing works very well.In fact, nothing works at all.
Hold your breath the sympathetic (flight/flight) nervous system kicks in.Your heart will race in order to divert blood to your muscles.Vigilance. Arousal.Activation. Mobilization.Get ready to run, or fight.Or, to sit immobilized and unsettled.
Take a slow deep breath, your heart rate slows, you decrease perspiration, your muscles relax.That deep breath kicks in the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system will go offline.The parasympathetic nervous system mediates calmness.It promotes growth, healing, and energy storage.The all safe signal flashes.Time to lay back. Rest and digest.
Go ahead.Take that slow deep breath.Oxyginate.Make your body drunk with it.
If you’re someone who sees poker as a game of luck, then chances are you’re not a very good poker player.Elite poker players are master psychologists.They know themselves — their tendencies, strengths, and weaknesses.They read other players.They understand the probabilities behind their choices.
A great poker player understands that luck is a part of the game, but Lady Luck is not where he or she rests their hopes.When taking a chance, playing a bluff, raising, or folding, the best players understand the probabilities, the psychology of the game and the other players.At the drop of a hat, they can tell you why they played their cards the way the did.
*Your greatest enemy is denial.We deny the truth about our own abilities.We exaggerate our wins, and fail to register our losses. We chase weak cards, or sit at games where we have no hope of winning.We tell ourselves stories that a flush is easier to draw than it actually is, or that we lose because we’re just unlucky, or someone else is luckier.Or, we fall prey to betting a hand that we know has no chance of winning because…well…just because.
*You should understand yourself more deeply.Why do you play the way you do?What are your tendencies?How does your style of play affect other players around you?Do you blame others, lousy luck, make excuses? Or, do accept responsibility when you have no chips left at the end of the day?
* Focus on other players.Are you self absorbed?Weak players fixate on their own hands.They think only of themselves. Strong players study the players around them, their tendencies, their talk, and what their talk says about them.They engage the other players as much, if not more, than their own hands.Who is he?What moves the way she plays her cards? They get to know the other players intimately.
*Playing styles are caused by and reveal people’s desires and fears.What do you want?Why are you playing this game with these people?What are your fears?How many times in our life do we get hijacked by wishes and fears — we chase that one card denying it’s poor probability, or we fold with a winner?
*Think visibly.Make your assumptions and thought processes explicit.Great poker players talk to themselves, at least in their own heads.They can tell you what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. Great poker players live mindfully, attending to each check, raise, and call made, as well as each card dealt and how it changes the whole table. They play knowing that the last hand, win or lose, has little to do with the cards in front of him.
*One of the best ways to improve your results is to change your style.Change it up.If you tend to be loose and aggressive, tighten up.If you tend to hold back, push forward.Great poker players don’t have a one size fits all style.They are continually adjusting to the players in this game, and this pot.
In life, success is not always about winning or losing, but how effectively we navigate the bumps, opportunities, and good and bad chances that fall our way.There are times when that great hand we are dealt, falls short. There are other times, we win on a bluff that was better not taken.Either way, don’t fool yourself that the failure or success of one hand means anything.Until that last hand in life is dealt, there’s always another hand to play.There’s always room to improve our game.
Great poker players are self-aware, conscious of who they are for better and worse, take responsibility for their own results, understand probabilities, aren’t given to superstitions, don’t play in games they’re not suited for, and are brutally realistic about the hand they are dealt and the game they are playing.
Gotta know when to hold ’em, and know when to walk away.
Watch Daniel Negreanu talk himself out of a winning hand!
In 1974, Philippe Petit stepped out of the ordinary and onto a tightrope that he’d secured between the Twin Towers of New York’s World Trade Center. 200 feet of empty space from tower to tower. 110 stories up.No net.No harness.6 years of planning.6 years of patience, risk, setbacks, and heartaches.All for over an hour of daring.
As for the onlookers below?They, too, had been shaken out of their ordinary worlds as they watched the man dancing on the tightrope more than a quarter of a mile above their heads.“Is he crazy?” Who wouldn’t have asked it?“Of course…he has to be!”Still, no one could deny it was 45 minutes of awe — of beauty.
“Why?Why?Why did you do it?” he was asked over and over.Was it his childhood?An absent parent?Toilet training?Was he thumbing his nose at authority?Was he a harmless sociopath?Did he harbor a death wish?We had to have an explanation.
“There is no ‘why’,” he answered. Philippe Petit refused to cut it to pieces.He refused to make it easy to figure for the rest of us who choose to live on life’s sideline.
We are questioners.We are storytellers.When something strikes us as out of the ordinary, we are compelled by over two hundred thousand years of evolutionary history to fill what we can’t understand with a story.We are driven by a desire to make sense of our world, to reduce it to a single idea so that we can make life’s absurdities comprehensible.
The stories we tell will bring us comfort.Our world will seem less uncertain — more predictable.We will come up with that one answer that explains to us what on the surface may appear to be crazy.We will take the extraordinary and make it seem to be ordinary by bringing it to a predictable formula.The story doesn’t have to be accurate, only that we believe it to be so.
Jon Krakauer wrote, “So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservation…”
You wake up every morning at 7.Get to work by 9.Eat lunch at noon.Come home at 6.Plant yourself in front of the TV or computer screen until you fall asleep — then, the next day, and the next day after that for months and years, do it all over again.You will owe the world no explanation.And no one will think to ask you why.
But what if you decide to go backpacking in Nepal for a year, or spike your hair andjoin a rock n roll band, or suddenly take up comedy improvisation, or string a tightrope between two towers and walk from one end to another?The question will start to roll. Why?Why?Give us an explanation, please?
We all take comfort in the story of Sisyphus who was doomed to an eternityofrolling that rock up the hill day in and day out, only to have it roll back down.We take comfort in it, even as we curse it as our own fate.Sisyphus had no doubt what his eternity of tomorrows would bring.How many ideas do we nip at the bud because they seem to ourselves, our friends, and our families to be just a little crazy, or that they may bring that dreaded uncertainty to everyone’s life.
Unlike that cursed son of a king, we can even for a moment each day, week, or month of our lives step out from behind that rock.
Change a routine.Break from the chains of our predictable day to day.To be able to wake up to a day of uncertainty may be cause for our greatest anxiety — yet it can also open some door to our greatest joy.
As Philippe Petit said, “Life should be lived on the edge of life.You have to exercise rebellion.To refuse to taper yourself to rules, to refuse your own success, to refuse to repeat yourself, to see every day, every year, every idea as a true challenge, and then you live your life on a tightrope.”
10:37pm…midwinter…20007.An ice storm cut through Ann Arbor downing our electricity for days.Gone the incessant humming, buzzing, and chatter of TVs, microwave ovens, radios, computers, digital clocks, lamps, and the refrigerator.Other than the occasional snapping and popping of a perky fireplace fire, the house was doused in the sudden immensity of silence.
Silence soothes us.Silence unsettles us.Silence both widens our attention and focuses it at the same time. Not because of what we can’t hear, but because of what suddenly we can.At 2 a.m. a silent house can be an unsettling house.It creaks.It clicks. It shuffles.It’s not that we hear nothing.We hear everything.Each and every unintended noise draws our attention.A silent house jumps to life.
The composer John Cage once entered a soundproof chamber at Harvard University with the intention of listening to absolute silence. “I literally expected to hear nothing,” he said.Instead of nothing, he heard the whooshing and gurgling of his nervous system and circulating blood. When he emerged he declared that silence does not exist.
What we think of as silence is actually the absence of manmade noise.Kathleen Moore in her article in Search of Silence wrote, “It’s not easy to find silence in the modern world. If a quiet place is one where you can listen for 15 minutes in daylight hours without hearing a human-created sound, there are no quiet places left in Europe. There are none east of the Mississippi River. And in the American West? Maybe 12.”
Natural sound has a different quality and texture than man-made sound.There’s randomness.It’s stripped of intention.Think of the difference between the sound of a river or the continuous roaring and splashing of a waterfall, to that of shopping center music, a nearby freeway, or even white noise machines.Man-made noise dulls us.Thought narrows.Sitting by a river, or waterfall, or on a secluded stretch of beach thought becomes expansive.Our nervous system slows and soothes. We all become philosophers; we see and hear with clarity life’s bigger picture. (Listen to Caney Creek, Kansas.)Turn off the lights. Quiet our appliances. Light a candle. Meditate on the Zen mondo:
‘Do you hear the rushing of the river?’
‘That is the Way.”
Gordon Hempton in his sound journey across America noticed that in a dense moss covered forest you can follow the sound of a rain drop as it tumbles from leaf to branch to leaf. “A drop of rain may hit 20 times before it reaches the ground, and each impact—against a cedar bough, a vine-maple leaf, a snag—makes its own sound.”And each impact that drop makes you will hear with deafening precision.It’s not the sound itself, but the silence surrounding it.Silence is not the absence of sound, but the amplification sound. (Listen to the evening silence in Amazonia, Brazil.)
In 1952 John Cage’s work 4’33” was performed by the young pianist David Tudor in at Maverick Concert Hall in Woodstock, New York.Maverick Concert Hall was ideal for Cage’s 4’33” because the back of the hall was open to the surrounding forest. The piece was four minutes and thirty three seconds of the pianist sitting at the keyboard without playing a single note.Four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence.The first movement sounded only the wind in the trees outside the auditorium.The second movement brought raindrops pattering the roof.The third — whispers and mutterings.The piece was a requiem to unintended sound.
Cage said, “People began whispering to one another, and some people began to walk out. They didn’t laugh — they were just irritated when they realized nothing was going to happen, and they haven’t forgotten it 30 years later: they’re still angry.” When Tudor finished, raising the keyboard lid and himself from the piano, the audience burst into an uproar — “infuriated and dismayed,” according to the reports.
But Cage’s work wasn’t silent at all.It’s not that nothing happened.For those who actually widened their awareness and listened, they would have heard a world of unintended sound.
Feel daring?In the wee hours of the night, go to your electrical box and flip the circuitry of the entire house to OFF.Sit.Let your awareness widen.Free yourself from intention.Hear the immensity of the surrounding silence.