How can you run around and tell people things, what they should do, or what’s a good idea, what’s a good way to go, if you won’t share with them the truth of your own experience? – Aaron Kipnis, Sept. 1999
Attachment, Bonding, & Yoga – Mark Gardiner
The sound hole of a beautiful guitar
A person hit a Worker a good strong blow from behind.
The Worker swung around to return it; and the man said:
“Before you hit me, I have a question for you.
Now this is it: that sound: was it made by my hand or your neck?”
“The pain I am feeling does not give me leave for speculation.
These things are all right to worry about if you’re feeling no pain.”
– Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi
There often seems to be something missing from a Rumi poem, a space. This is the center of longing in each of them. “You must fill it with yourself.”
– Coleman Barks
* * *
Idle Questions was spoken for you and me to fill. I have certainly felt pain, but from what source? The pain I am feeling does not give me leave for speculation. The pain has begotten anger. The anger has begotten an urge to bolt from aversive stimulation. And where did I go, in 1963, as an eleven-year-old boy, sent home from school early because the President of the United States had just been shot dead in Dallas?
As I was walking home alone, I had time to remember that as an eight-year-old, I had actually seen Jack Kennedy when he campaigned for president. He was, surprisingly red-haired, in an open dark blue convertible. That had been less than a year after my father, at forty, had died of cancer. For more than fifty years, I had forgotten him waving to me from a high window in a hospital that would not allow children as visitors. It was all a jumble.
Now the President of the United States was dead too. Where to turn?
My father died without a will. I can remember my mother raving to me that she would have to go before a circuit judge to get some money to buy us shoes for the new school year. It seems in reconstructed memory that she was waving her arms over her head.
I think it was the screaming that put me off the arrival of the Beatles in America—but I was alienated enough and beguiled by language enough to listen to Bob Dylan. Knowing nothing of the lives of others, I believed myself to be uniquely harmed, while everyone else, I supposed, was living a normal life—normal, as in good—not what was subsequently revealed to be normal; blowing up little girls in churches, setting dogs and fire hoses on people singing spirituals, political assassination, napalm and carpet bombing normal. I used to think, my classmates were profoundly naive. I assumed that they did not yet know that in time they would lose everything.
While absolutely nothing at all happened, entranced as I was in grief, from the time I was seven until I was suddenly twelve, I woke one jingle jangle morning, certain both that I was …not sleepy and [even now that] there is no place I’m going to.
* * *
Immediately on disciplinary and academic probation, I flunked out of college as a freshman, barefoot, staring into the sound hole of a beautiful guitar. Back at home, I rushed into summer classes, anxious to reclaim some of the dignity lost when the Dean of Students at the school my father had attended, told me, by post, that I was not mature enough to return in the fall. Before my first headlong blunder into higher education, I had never even heard of a rathskeller, never fallen down drunk drinking grain alcohol, never taken LSD. And it all proved to little advantage, because grades not conviviality were the dean’s standard of achievement.
Even though I did not know how to apply myself to my studies or the meaning of hard work, in time, I was an honor graduate and had a jailbreak wedding with the girl I had been living with for two years, who I thought of as a logical romantic conquest because she was the slowest zebra in the herd. A jailbreak wedding, I learned much later, is a term of art for a negotiated escape from respective families of origin. We clicked because I had apologized for hurting her feelings once or twice. Later, Robert Bly would help me to recognize the naive male. He said, “To be hurt by someone you love, what could be better?” We were too young; unaware of the impending disruption from what we each had already undergone. I loved her as hard and inexpertly as I could into my thirties, when, as I was told by co-workers, she may or may not have begun stepping out, but I was freaking out, miserable, and acting out, right on schedule. When she said she was moving out, I helped load her belongings. She took the dining room table. The floor dropped away beneath me. Robert Bly calls it a path of descent.
I spent a lot of time in that phase of grief called bargaining, trying to debate my way back into that relationship. It was to my great good fortune that she said no. Finally, with no alcoholics anywhere on the radar, I joined an Al-anon twelve-step group, because one of twenty books I’d read on surviving divorce had recommended it. Separated, then divorced, but not alone, for two and a half years, I had the company of anonymous people around the tables, doing the steps with me.
* * *
I got better, but it is a constant practice. I was hooked on recovery schemes, anxiety, and adrenalin. I undertook an outward bound / inward bound program where we went backpacking and talked about feelings. In order to keep the group together we were asked to hike at the pace of the slowest walker, in this case, a woman, who it turned out had never carried a backpack before. This was very trying for me. My sense of self was all tied up in being stronger, faster, more experienced, out ahead, in the lead, impervious to pain and fatigue, instead casually inflicting a little pain and fatigue, here and there, with feigned innocence. At the time, some reptilian part of me told me that the accommodating pace approach was bullshit and that the stragglers had better just do their best to keep up and too bad for them if they couldn’t. Where could I have developed such hostility?
The Slowest Zebra
* * *
I read Juliet Macur’s Cycle of Lies: The Fall of Lance Armstrong, regarding as competitive a lost boy as ever there was, for whom, like me, there was no small stuff. Every act was in support of a strategy. As I understand it, Armstrong read the bicycle racing prohibitions closely looking for advantage. He remains of the opinion that it simply was not the case that you were not permitted to take performance enhancing drugs. Rather, the regulations stipulated that you would be in violation—if you tested positive—for performance enhancing drugs, so by implication the rules, with a wink, actually encouraged all riders to take as many and as varied drugs, hormones, and blood products as currently developed—provided that they did so in a way that they did not test positive, and bring shame on the family. Drawing a fine line is one of the hallmarks of anger. It is called gamesmanship and is widespread. Where could he have arrived at such fierce arrogance? Well, he lived in a world without an initiated mentor. And what is an initiated mentor? Not a father, not a step-father, maybe an uncle, or a grandfather, someone seen occasionally, generous with his time, wise enough, contented, and willing to listen, who sees and values young people. I never even knew what I was looking for.
* * *
One of the shortest, hardest, and most helpful lessons I ever received at the Minnesota Men’s Conference—I won’t say learned—came from a man who I have been missing, a man who I want to thank. His name is Jim Lee, not John Lee, though I thank him too. Jim told us, that while some of us suffered from the absence of fathers, others suffered from an excess of fathers. And he was part of that group. In my mind’s eye, I can see him now, when he introduced himself, in McLeod Hall, imitating with wildly bulging eyes, an excess of father. After observing me for a period, his pithy, unsolicited, instruction out of nowhere, was this: “Stop arguing.”
There should be a big pause after that; time for a full exhalation, ideally three, and time for me to consider that again. There is a sort of self-harming, due to resentment and longing for vengeful justice, that comes out in some boys becoming men “in the courtroom that never adjourns.” For some lost boys even conversation becomes competitive. There is an imagined premium on being right. We talk over each other with reflexive refutation. So, to stop arguing—without qualification—I wonder where Jim learned such an implausible lesson? Is it an inheritance passed on to sons with an excess of father and lost to me? Amid all the arguing, I still don’t even know how to breathe right, apart from fortuitous moments of surrender.
* * *
Apropos of surrender, Doug Von Koss speaks of listening to the silence that resonates like a struck gong when our circle ends a sacred chant in unison and we are in no hurry to fill the space we have created; experiencing silence like the fourth syllable of the word Om. I have been in such silence and long always to be in such stillness again… with angled light falling on a grove of quaking aspen. That would be good.
During the silence of a week-long meditation retreat, arguing and armor fall away, until a weary and unspoken love begins to show through the eyes, and in open faces. At which point may come the felt sense that, like Thich Nhat Hanh’s slowly settling apple juice, some things take time to become clear. Can’t be in a hurry anymore.
Thich Nhat Hanh
* * *
My habitual anxiety is, “How do I stay out of trouble?” Mostly, I read, trade in my life for others, and in books I found that Buddhist psychology recognizes three common unskillful temperaments, or personalities, that distinguish three particular spiritual paths. We all exhibit each, but maybe one predominantly: Grasping, Aversion, and Delusion. These temperaments are similar to the ones we discussed at the men’s conference in 2005 entitled, Three Roots, Three Roads, Three Dances, based on the work of John Bowlby, Mary Ainsworth, and the Attachment theorists. I have slowly learned from the teachings of Jack Kornfield, that the road and dance for an aversion-type, like me, is the cultivation of generosity, compassion, and kindness. As an aging man, my recovery, such as it is, has come to me through the patient appreciation of these graces, offered and received, expressed in extended courtesy and politeness. That is how I try to stay out of trouble. It began early with my mother’s insistent instruction to “Write your damn thank-you letters!”
My new wife of twenty-five years, not the zebra, is a play therapist who dropped an interesting one on me a month ago, over dinner, while talking about one of the traumatized four-year-olds she works with, who witnessed… You don’t even want to know.
I asked her, “What could you do with that?” She said, “I could teach him butterfly hugs and balloon breathing” (how to hug himself and how to take full breaths) “then he could write his life story, and maybe share it with his mother.” Then, the intriguing bit, “and then he could go on writing his life story, over and over, as he went through all the developmental stages, until finally he could see that he was grateful for the life he had been given.”
Then just when it is time to pause in consideration of that, reflect with gratitude on my life, and breathe again; I hear the quavering words “I forgive you,” and “may God forgive you” spoken in anguish and in blessing to a benighted twenty-one-year-old, by the families of the people he killed in a church, in the mad hope of starting a race war. And like that, I have the sting of drying tears on my face burning my eyes again.
– Mark Gardiner
Bob Dylan 1964 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OeP4FFr88SQ
Martin Luther King Jr. https://vimeo.com/30787074
“One night I found these magic words in a magic book…” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZiOI2y5007k