A couple years ago, a woman I know developped a rare condition. The symptoms of her condition, affecting a mere 6,000 people in the world, are mostly invisible, so her regular doctors had a hard time believing she was really in pain. After about year of physical pain coupled with the psychological torment of watching her life unravel, no longer able to work, drive, think straight, or get enough sleep, and not knowing why, she eventually- and incredibly- found a specialist a mere ten hours away who knew about her illness, a massive comfort after encountering hostility and skepticism from her general practitioners.
Last night I did a phone survey with a woman I met at an Enneagram workshop in 2014. She's doing her certification to be an Enneagram instructor, and has to do a research paper on her own topic. She's doing dreams and our instinct stack- how our instinct stack affects how we solve problems in our dreams. Pretty interesting, and I'll definitely pay closer attention now... and incidentally I did have a dream last night that confirms her thesis.
We ended up having a lengthy conversation and I'll take some gems away from it, but the biggest thing I took away was a kick in the pants to get back to meditation. I just moved, and I'm recovering from that, running around getting everything settled, and I keep saying, "when I'm settled, I'll meditate. When I'm settled I'll meditate." And you know that's just backwards, but you keep feeding yourself that line. Eventually it has to stop.
One thing she mentioned about it that I liked was this idea that meditation is time spent with yourself, reaffirming your purpose on this earth. I liked that line. After how many decades on earth, I finally know my purpose- to teach the Enneagram- that, I'm 100% sure of, but how am I actually advancing on that purpose?
Anyway, you just know meditation is the right thing to do. My job is super stressful, and when you're driving to work in the morning and your anxiety has already got your pulse up and your muscles clenched, you know you have stuff to process, and the more you put it off, the more it builds and becomes a monster.
Plus the coaching school that she attended (New Ventures West)- I think one of the best coaching schools in North America, if not the best- asks their students to commit to 30 min a day.
'Nuff reasons. Must get started today.
Yesterday I wrote about having a "container" for your child's psychic energy. Or whomever's. Your dad's, your employees', your own. The leader in the room is the one with the biggest container. Actually, let's back up a bit. As Russ Hudson brilliantly said Oct. 2014, "The leader is just the first person to become present." Another quote that has changed my life in a big way. How do you develop leadership skills? Develop your practice of presence.
Which should provide a clue as to how exactly a person would go about "creating a container" for others. Create it for yourself first with your practice of presence and it will be there for others.
Basically, what I mean is developping a self-observation practice. By turning the flashlight of your mind back in on itself and observing your breathing (is it shallow or deep, quick or slow), your thoughts (how they float -- or zoom-- by like clouds), the muscle tension in your body (can you feel tension in your neck? Your jaw? your buttocks?), you deepen your quality of presence, thereby creating a container for others.
How long do you do this for? One second? One second is good- it's a long time by meditative standards, but I prefer to use the metronome of my breathing because my attention is on my body anyway, might as well keep it there instead of going back and forth between my body and my watch. A deep, mindful breath can feel like a very long time. It's difficult to stay with the awareness of your body for an entire breath, but it's a good goal to aim for when you're in the throes of your job and you want to create a little island of mindfulness in the hecticness of the pace of business. If you can't stay with yourself for an entire breath, that's fine, a half a breath, or even a quarter breath has been known to change the course of events. Two breaths is audacious. The people around you will wonder what you're doing. Three, you're off your rocker according to non-practitioners. Three mindful breaths creates not only an island, but a retreat centre on the island and a rent-a-car establishment so you can drive to the retreat centre.
But let me go back to high-energy kids, because that's what prompted me to write about this in the first place. When high -energy kids become annoying or draining, the best thing to do when you feel reactive is to take a mindful breath and "land" in your body. When you spend some time sensing into your body, noticing how the annoyance feels (do you feel annoyance in your throat? Your stomach? Your face? Your feet? I notice it in my nose quite a bit) you've landed in that moment, and you've essentially created a little container for your child's energy. The next time you practice this, you might notice a little bit more tension, like maybe you didn't notice before, but you've got tension in your hands. That second time, your container grew a bit.
The third time you practice this, you might notice tension in your jaw as well as your hands, and maybe if you stay with the mindfulness a bit longer, you notice the arches of your feet are tensed up. "Wow", you say, and you let go of the tension and relax. Your container has grown a little bit.
And then you forget for a couple months and when you remember again, you're back to only being able to do mindful half breaths, and the tendency is to beat yourself up and say, "Gah! Why didn't I sustain my practice??!" But then you notice the tension in your body as self-condemnation arises, and you take a deep, mindful breath and notice how tight your neck is, or how you're clenching a body part. Eventually you're back on the horse, back to being audacious again. And after getting on and off the horse more times that you would like, you decide to have a sitting practice, and set an alarm that rings gently after 20 minutes. You love it that much. Over the years, the love grows. You get on and off the horse, don't worry, it happens to everyone, but the smart mindfulness practitioner uses prompts to turn the flashlight of their mind back in on itself, like it used to be turning on the bathroom taps for me. But you could just as easily use the tension that comes with self-condemnation as your first prompt to start the journey back onto the horse.
About three years ago, I read The Great Work of Your Life by Stephen Cope, a read so savory you tend to inhale it in one gulp, but a few words of wisdom have stayed with me, among them, to copy other writers. Basically, Cope says, if you're wanting to find your own voice, copy someone else's for a while. Pick a writer you admire and write out their speeches and poems over and over again. Commit their works to memory. Eventually, their understanding of the universe, their way of working with language and sentence construction, the rhythm of their prose will inform your own mental patterns down to the cellular level, practically, and you'll be able to build off that foundation with your own style. I've done that once before- I was so intimidated when I heard a recording of Don Riso and Russ Hudson giving an introductory talk on the Enneagram that I wrote the entire hour-long talk out by hand to get the clarity of their thought process embedded into my brain. I'm pretty sure modern-day composers would corroborate the idea that playing the works of the great composers like Mozart and Beethoven calibrates an orientation to different styles and structures, helping them write their own unique pieces.
This morning I decided to finally act on this injunction and memorize actual poetry. The poem I chose isn't a poem at all, but I have a bit of an aversion to the genre, so I just lump all thughtfully-worded literature into one big category. It's actually an essay by Aldous Huxley that I came across in the dear Maria Popova's popular weekly digest of beautiful images, literature and philosophy, Brain Pickings. Upon opening it, I fell upon the most irrisistable piece of writing and said to myself, "This is it. It starts today."
For a couple years now, I've been noticing that my mind doesn't have the same clarity and focus as it did in my twenties. The combination of stress over the last five years and the fact that I now own a laptop, an ipad, and a cell phone has contributed to a new scattered way of thinking that has me hopping from one task to the next, and clicking from one window to the next without completing anything in one sitting. My job also has me interrupted every three minutes to the point that lately, I can't sit down and read one full page of a book, let alone an entire paragraph without checking my phone or making muffins because the clanging in my head is so much louder and busier than it used to be. That quality of concentration I had before internet 2.0 (2007-ish) is just gone. I read differently now; I scan instead of letting myself sink into the experience. I've had enough, but what can you do? Do you get rid of your technology? I've started meditating, I've resisted having my banking apps "remember" my account numbers so I have to practice retrieving them from my memory bank, and the other day, I bought a combination lock for the gym instead of one with a key specifically so I'd have another set of numbers to remember. My next step is to bring back my old alarm clock instead of using the alarm on my phone. When I wake up to my cell phone, I inevitably get stuck in reactions of all kinds to my e-mails, the news, and texts that I got (or didn't get) during the night that I lose that precious, ethereal opportunity at the beginning of the day to take the reins in hand and rationally plan my day.
I imagine that not only does the process of memorization improve focus, but I'm sure it also strengthens the hippcampus, the long-term memory processing centre of the brain. When you create a new neuron connection, you have to maintain it in order to keep it, and the constant repetition of what you've memorized would help the neuron stick around and create connections with other neurons. When I was at a brain workshop recently, the facilitator asked us to turn to our neighbor and tell them what our most valuable possession was. Of course a lot of us said our house, our car, or whatever, and he interrupted with, "WRONG!! It's your BRAIN!" I was reflecting on that last week as I was driving down Albert Street and I realized it was really true. Some of us have been blessed with parents who not only activated our brains, but showed us how to do it for ourselves, and we have a certain set of chances at success in life. Others of us have had to do the activation ourselves because our parents weren't in a position to do so. The almost incomprehensible mystery of being human is having the capacity to reflect our thoughts back on our own minds and improve how our very brain thinks, all for the cost of the occasional late fee at the library, to quote Will from Good Will Hunting.
Not only would it be good for your brain, but from the few times it's happened to me, it's nice being able to impress people at a dinner party by quoting a famous line or two that contributes in some way to the conversation. I used to read the Aubrey-Maturin series (off which Russell Crowe's Master and Commander 2003 movie is based), and one observation from pre-modern life struck me: conversation skills are truly an art. The series is about people riding ships between the old world and the new, and when you're on a ship, you're stuck with the same people every single day, and you have to eat in the same dining room with them three times a day, sometimes for months, and you want to be on a ship with interesting people who can carry a conversation. The more well-read you are and the better your memory, the more weight you can carry in a conversation to take it on new and interesting turns, acting as a connector between ideas and leveraging them to lead the conversation into stimulating thought-territory. Having the confidence to guide a conversation is pretty empowering- not to mention pretty important for your career.
So here we go with the first few lines to Huxley's Music at Night, the title essay in a collection of essays published in 1931, a pristine treatise on the transcendental nature of music to connect people to emotional states in a way that words cannot.
Music at Night
Moonless, this June night is all the more alive with stars. Its darkness is perfumed with faint gusts from the blossoming lime trees, with the smell of wetted earth and the invisible greenness of the vines. There is silence, but a silence that breathes with the soft breathing of the sea, and, in the thin shrill noise of a cricket, insistently, incessantly, harps on the fact of its own deep perfection. Far away, the passage of a train is like a long caress, moving gently, with an inexorable gentleness, across the warm living body of the night. Music, you say, it would be a good night for music. [...]"
I know someone who grew up in Africa, and he checks his phone so infrequently, and when he does, it's very thoughtfully done. When I observe him working on a task, I notice a deep quality of concentration and a clarity of focus that I've lost over the last decade- probably most of us Westerners have as technology insinuates its way into our lives. Here's hoping we can work our way back to that level with a little intention and a little practice.
On Thursday last week, a newspaper article questioned if Rachel Dolezal, the president of the Spokane chapter of the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was really African American, as she portrayed herself to be, and it's been getting tons of national and international coverage since then.
Mr. M said no one can prove she's Black or White because there exist no legally-defined categories for race. After all, if it's true that we all descended from Africa, anyway, whose business is it to criticize her for embracing the black culture as her own?
I responded by saying "I appreciate your generous view on race, but would it change anything to know she was a type 4?" (I don't know for sure that she's a Type 4. I've spent a few hours this morning watching her interviews and catching up on her backstory, and out of the nine types, Type Four seems to fit the best with the complexity of what's going on.)
My heart goes out to Ms. Dozelal. I know how easy it is for her personality type (if she is a Type 4) to confound suffering with authenticity. The equating of the two leads some to feel like colored people's lives are more "real" and genuine than white people's. Moreover, people with this personality type can't imagine how anyone could accuse them of lying when they've dedicated their entire lives to being as "real" as they can, often at a cost, and at the most profound, unconscious level, they're doing this "appropriation of suffering" for those who made them suffer in the first place- their parents. In my opinion, it's the most backwards, and therefore misunderstood expression of love in the family unit, and in the West today.
The personality I'm talking about is Type 4 in the Enneagram system of personality types, where there are nine universal archetypes. According to this system, we each have one of the nine types that permeates our way of thinking, emoting, and behaving down into our unconcious motivations. The Type 4 has been called The Individualist, The Artist, The Romantic, all reflections of their characteristic emotional sensitivity, withdrawing and standing apart, and desire to be seen as unique and deep.
I understand her parents are not without their own issues, but I write this in hopes that Dolezal might read this and determine for herself if she is someone with a lot of empathy for the underdog, who feels she didn't receive enough validation from her parents, and who needs the depths of her creative and sensitive soul validated before she can be her "true" self.
Moreover, we all have moments in our lives where we feel like we don't quite fit in with everyone else, but Fours feel the distinction of "them versus me" at a most fundamental level where they seem to be missing something that everyone instinctively picked up on in life, or that was passed down from their parents. Whatever the missing ingredient is that causes their sense of deficiency-- it's elusive to Fours-- they go through life with a two-pronged approach to social situations-- believing they're either inferior or superior to others. On the one hand, they are dragged down by a sense of inferiority because their social impairment (or however they define that missing ingredient) causes them an overwhelming amount of shame. On the other hand, by virtue of their uniqueness and resulting separateness, from their vantage point, they see everyone else as "the pack", not as unique or different as they are, and therefore less refined and less profound.
When Rachel says she's "not white, but human", she's definitely evading the questioner's intent of what race she is, but there is a way in which she's pointing directly at the underlying issue beneath race- it's that personality and its ruses go deeper than our color. Personality is what arises out of our essence- who we are beyond our culture and DNA; race is just clothing.
Regardless of what color we are, we have all fallen into a trap laid out by our ego, the ego being that essential ingredient which separates us from animals. We all have false constructs- fears, fantasies, addictions in our thinking and emotional patterns that have no basis in reality. They're usually benign enough that the people in our lives put up with us and love us anyway. Unconsciously, what our ego is doing is re-creating a connection to a perfect state we "knew" before we were born by copying it in our personality. For Fours, that perfect pre-natal state was depth, authenticity, the capacity to "be with" suffering in its most terrible moments without turning away.
This isn't the greatest personality to have, you might think- who would want to identify with suffering when there are so many other great things to celebrate about life? Fours see a very valuable aspect of reality, that suffering is the kernel out of which transformation can bloom, and needs to be "sat with" to be processed, but in a bid to get back to that connection to essence, they over-identify with it, and thus see suffering as the only thing that's real and genuine in life.
Sometimes, out of great emotional need, they may go so overboard in their identification with that quality of essence, that they actually- consciously or not- recreate the stressful conditions necessary for that same resiliency to shine. This might explain why Rachel has made a string of allegations of hate crimes directed at her as president of the NAACP that have turned up for the most part unsubstantiated. If you read this list of her allegations of hate crimes, you wonder if she unconsciously needed that hate directed toward her in order for her to continue functioning normally in the world. Indeed, when Fours don't have something to be frustrated about, they become unmoored and start looking for a bare bone to gnaw on in order to reinforce their identity. (We all do this in different ways. That's how a Four does it).
Big Think, a American futurist think tank posted an interview with writer and poet Clint Smith entitled "If Being Black Gets Too Inconvenient, Rachel Dolezal Can Opt Out". The response to which, in my opinion, is that the inconvenience is exactly why Rachel opted in.
If indeed she is a Type Four, Ms. Dolezal's identifying with another race could just be another layer of the defence mechanism called introjection where the world's suffering gets introjected onto herself so that by suffering, she can finally feel approved by her parents for being good enough (The dominant characteristic of the relationship between Fours and their parents is that Fours feel misunderstood by their parents). Mr. and Mrs. Dolezal, for whatever reason, couldn't validate something about her rich and emotional inner life, which usually, when ignored or debased, elicits a subterranean rage at not having your identity supported by your own parents. Therefore, in pretense of being black, she is asking the black community to take care of her emotional needs in their place. Again, not consciously, but yes, it got out of control.
Taking the mask off and saying, "I'm white today, officer" would require an emotional intelligence she can only develop if she can let go of the fantasy that she is mirroring true depth by identifying with suffering. When she can allow herself to feel like the insider that she is, and humbly, mundanely breathe into the existence she disdains (possibly for good reason), the possibility exists for her to have the transcendental and transformative effect on the lives of "outsiders" that she's trying to effect.
The vast majority of us need to run into the big brick wall of reality in order to face the darker aspects of our personality that we don't want to see, and the hope is that once we do, we'll get on a healing path. Type Fours need to learn how to love the mundane, despicably un-deep, boring parts of their identities first before they can really champion the identity of others.
It appears that if Rachel lets go of the act and admits to being White, her world will crumble and there will not be much, identity-wise, left for her to operate out of in the world, but the truth is a very good, healthy place to start. The wisdom and profundity of the Enneagram, which understands us better than our parents do, can help her wind out of this mess and help her start putting her life back together.
I'm teaching someone the Enneagram, and I'm trying to remember not to go too fast. The first year you discover your type, you're just noticing your primary mood. Like a Type One will probably just spend their entire first year noticing their anger hidden boiling under the surface of their sense of duty and striving for perfection. I spent the whole first year noticing that I was giving the worst possible interpretation to events, and as a result, I was sad all the time. It's one thing to know you have depression; another thing to be able to attribute the overall rumbling river to its trickling tributaries.
The next year after that, I noticed my five wing, and all the ways in which I wanted to preserve my short reserves of energy. I had a telephone coaching session with someone I regarded very highly in the field (and still do), but she talked non-stop with hardly any breaths or pauses between her sentences-- probably to give me the best value for my money-- and it was information overload to the point that my brain blew its breakers. I was super angry that she was giving me all this valuable information and I couldn't keep up, and I asked for a five-minute break to process everything mentally before I took in anything else. I put down the phone and went to another room to unwind, and at that moment, lying on the bed, I had a dawning realization that I had a five wing. I went back and joyfully told her my new discovery. From then on I noticed how I tried to keep conversations and situations out that would "steal" that energy, and how I would read or otherwise process information to re-ground myself.
The year after that, I think, is when I discovered my instinct stack. I thought it was the worst possible instinct stack compared to everyone else's and I remember being really down about how I didn't have the Social instinct in the top two (there are three instincts, and three places that they can occupy. The top two are the best two places to have an instinct). If there had been an Enneagram god, I would have complained bitterly at her/his shrine, pointing out why my instinct stack was the worst possible one for the work I felt called to do and how there must be some mistake. I learned a lot about how I shrivel up around groups of people, but find incredible joy in the intensity of one-to-one interactions, especially with someone of my own instinct stack. I remember trying to come up with a mental image for my need for intensity, and if I really exaggerated the feeling in my imagination, it looked like I was becoming a flame, or trying to become one. It was only when I was a flame that I could experience true flow, but as long as I was with socials who were always trying to spread out my intensity, I felt like an absolute, miserable social failure. Or if I was really bored, or my life was flatlining, I'd look around for some loose thread I could pull or something I could rupture.
In the fourth year, I started paying attention to my body while I was stressed. I read one of the biographies of Gurdjieff (the grandfather of the modern Enneagram) and learned about how he would teach his students to always be aware of their bodies and keep them relaxed, especially under stress. During lessons, he would have his students become aware of all the muscles that held tension in their bodies, and would send a child around to palpate everyone's faces to make sure they were as relaxed as possible. Of course, the idea isn't to be a floppy, boneless body, but to notice that when we're clenching our muscles, it impedes a more intangible kind of flow- the flow of our "essence", let's say. For example, when you're trying to remember a word, and it's just on the tip of your tongue, it helps to notice your body's tensions, and when the tension is "noticed", the body relaxes, and the word comes to you at that point (ie. think of getting nervous and forgetting your name while flirting with someone of the opposite gender). Also, in dangerous physical conditions, like in times of war like Gurdjieff's students experienced, having a relaxed body was the prime state for being aware of noises in the night and dangerous trekking conditions underfoot.
As my fifth year approaches, I have a good idea of what's coming around the bend for my next "layer" of unfolding, but I'm going to let it stay unspoken for now and I'll see if I'm right. I'm pretty excited about it because my life needs it really bad.
Of course, I learned other things about myself during those years, those were just the big themes, and no one is going to have the exact same unfolding process. Those were just really broad brush strokes, but within those strokes were lots of individual nuances, so I wouldn't use anyone's personal experience as a template.
I was touched the other day when I read that the man who trained the German pilot who recently deliberately crashed a plane with 150 people on board has received death threats. How could this man have any way of knowing what his future student was capable of?
I think there's a shift that needs to happen- and has been happening- in these discussions about terrorists and mass murderers that have been shocking us month after month for the last decade or so- school shooters, movie-theatre shooters, marathon bombers, ISIS terrorists, Nigerian terrorists, etc. Not to think of them as essentially evil as in the dualistic black and white polarity, as falling to the far right on some horizontal spectrum, like an antiquated duality of good people versus bad people.
To me, it would be more helpful if we thought of humanity as being on a vertical scale of emotional health- like on Don Riso's scale of the nine levels of health- even if it means saying the prevailing culture of an entire country is in the unhealthy levels- like those in civil wars- at least it puts the conversation in an emotional intelligence frame of reference instead of a good versus evil framework. The former gives us something to work with in the secular sphere. The latter- with a decidedly religious overtones- recalls witchhunts and holy wars.
Sometimes after talking briefly about the nine types with someone, they'll say, "Which type is the asshole? Because I've got a brother-in-law who ...". The point of the Enneagram is that any type can be an asshole- sure we might have different adjectives- bitchy, needy clingy, heartless. And at their worst, if we continued to descend down the levels, each type is capable of committing horrendous acts. It's grace (and there are different ways of interpreting that word) that keeps us in the average levels. (It's surprising when you hear Don and Russ say that 99% of the world's population is in the average levels. After a while you get it. There might be .5% in the healthy levels and .5% in the unhealthy levels- and that's probably an overestimation.)
Talking about personality types is healthy because it helps us all see how every, teeny tiny decision we make in every day lives are a response to one core fear- as Don Riso and Russ Hudson calls them- our red flag fears, and what happens when we repeatedly come up to that red flag fear and make the wrong decision? We descend down the levels of health.
On a vertical spectrum that we're all capable of scaling in either direction, we might find we have a greater capacity for compassion for those who have unconsciously flailed their way through the decision-making process and found themselves imprisoned at the very bottom.
For the sake of the sanity of our societies and the future of our planet, we need to frame crime in terms of emotional health on a vertical scale of emotional intelligence. I think it opens up more possibility for discussion, compassion, and more of a vocabulary around healing.
An older student at the school I worked with lied to me a while ago, and her teacher got her to write me an apology letter, which I found in my mailbox soon thereafter. She was pretty contrite and embarrassed of what she did.
I wrote back to her today:
Hi Xxxxx, thanks for the letter. I appreciate the apology- I was a little annoyed that someone thought they could fool me. ;). I understand you were stressed that day, which led you to do what you did. I’ll tell you- at least for us adults, the way we handle stress is what makes or breaks us. It is the thing that determines if we’ll have an exciting career or a boring one, a great family or a dysfunctional one. In fact, civilizations rise and fall based on how the individuals in it handle stress. If you can figure out how your particular personality type deals with stress, learn to observe the pattern in yourself without judgment, it’ll become easier to make those constructive choices… which means you can do anything in your life, which is all I hope for you.