I dreamed about a misused apostrophe.
It occurs to me that this is my subconscious way of finding things within my control, when the fact is that most things are not. I can control what I put in my body. I can control what and I how communicate. I can control what thoughts to focus on and which to filter out (easier said than done, but still). I can control getting up out of my green kitchen chair and out into the day.
I can have the illusion of controlling my schedule, kids’ appointments, and future plans. Take that, Oxford comma! I sneaked three things into one neat and tidy sentence there. Illusion, indeed.
I can control whether I am paying attention to the thing I’m doing, whether that is commenting on someone’s writing, listening to my wife when she is talking to me, washing the dishes, taking a walk, reading an article — you name it.
Truth is, much of the time, my attention is spliced and split and splattered. It’s like I’m playing mental Twister much of the time, rather than standing where I am.
The perils of nowherelandia.
On Sunday afternoon, Mani and I went out to get some groceries, but we made a little date of it. Sometimes it’s just nice to get out of the house together, no matter what the reason, and after the recent cold snap, we haven’t been outside as often. On our way to the Starbucks drive-through, she put on the newest music from her iPod — a song by Laura Marling.
We listened quietly for a few minutes, and then I asked her, “Do you think I’m a gentle person?”
I can’t say exactly where this question arose from. But that’s the nature of driving and listening to music — it can induce the kind of beta state where the soul has a chance to come out of one’s mouth in the form of words and questions.
This opened to a deep conversation as we wandered the aisles of Famous Footwear, Bed, Bath, and Beyond, and Whole Foods. A conversation about what makes each of us feel nurtured by the other, and how feeling loved and feeling nurtured are not always identical.
I think people who know me through my writing groups and social media presence feel that I am a deeply nurturing person. And one thing this outing with Mani got me reflecting on is that our interactions with others — be they in person or virtual — are only as genuine as the way we meet and care for those closest to us.
If I am gentler or more generous with people I’ve never even met in real life than the ones under my own roof, who am I?
It is admittedly cringe-inducing for me to honestly acknowledge just how often I don’t put my phone down or lower my laptop screen when my wife or kids are talking to me, or when I’m talking on the phone. Or how often my body is doing one thing but my mind is a million miles away in nowherelandia. I’m increasingly convinced that whatever anxiety or depression I experience has its roots in this place that is no place at all.
Operators are standing by.
Instead or cringing and being hard on myself, I’m trying something different. I’m calling my very own personal AAA 800-number: Kavanah, a Hebrew word meaning “intention” or “sincere feeling, direction of the heart.” It has everything to do with devotion and what gets our full attention.
Benefits of kavanah include acceptance, awareness, and action. In fact, we all have instant access to this wonderful service: All you have to do is dial in and (your inner) operators are standing by. You were born with a lifetime membership guarantee, and best of all? It’s free (and no, you don’t have to be Jewish to call.)
Acceptance of myself as human. As flawed. As so very susceptible to distraction in its many guises. Acceptance of the inevitability of losing my way. Acceptance that I will stray off the path, stumble in the dark, and let some people down. Acceptance that I have blind spots, and by their very nature, I don’t know what these are.
Awareness of how it makes me and others feel when I’m not fully present. Awareness that my most sacred priorities and deepest values are only as good as my actions. Awareness is like the moment when you see the blind spot, stripping it of its power. The flood of visual or emotional information that may come with this moment can be temporarily overwhelming. Awareness that the overwhelm is temporary.
Action based on these discoveries. Action as a kind of return to self and other. Action is “put your money where your mouth is” and “actions speak louder than words.” Action is making my love a cup of tea, without her asking. It’s following through on the thing I said was so important. It’s listening, all the way. It’s one tab at a time. It’s one dish at a time. It’s one word at a time. It’s awake and evident.
Consider these words from the 12th century Spanish rabbi and philosopher, Maimonides. See what happens when you replace the word “prayer” with awareness, acceptance, and/or action.
“Prayer without kavanah is no prayer at all. He who has prayed without kavanah ought to pray once more. He whose thoughts are wandering or occupied with other things need not pray until he has recovered his mental composure.”
These three As coexist. They tumble through the space-time continuum that is individual consciousness. Sometimes one gets eclipsed by the rush of the day or lost, like a missing sock. But as I sit here writing this morning, what strikes me as miraculous is that we can always come back. Like the writing itself, each of these is a practice and requires commitment and repetition.
Practice, not perfection.
Acceptance is a practice. Awareness is a practice. Action is a practice. (I suppose it would follow that prayer is practice, too, if you like.)
This is the part where perfection tries to hijack the whole damn post. Here it is:
I’m so far from perfect. My life is far from perfect. I have no idea what “perfect” means. The mourning dove on the branch outside my kitchen window is perfect. This moment, for all I know, is perfect. I’m tempted to delete this whole paragraph, since I’m not sure how the stranglehold of perfection factors into this particular conversation. But for the sake of seeing what happens, I’m going to leave it here.
OK, here it is: Perfection ties right back in with that part about cringing. If I get stuck in shame — in other words, fuck, I suck for looking at my phone while Mani is talking to me or while one of my kids is asking me a question — then I’m really not even close to the AAAs. Hanging out in a place of guilt and shame is just another way of being self-absorbed and missing in action. This notion of getting it right as a fixed target has got to die.
It doesn’t feel good to live on autopilot. At some point, life throws cold water in your face and says: WHERE ARE YOU? WAKE UP!
I think it’s possible to experience this reawakening ten thousand times a day. For me, a key question is whether I can bring some gentleness to it. Going through the motions leaves me feeling like a shell of a person, with that vaguely empty feeling in bed at night: Where was I all day? Who was I all day?
As surely as the light of day comes with morning, we all have the face we put on for the world. More than anything, I want to be genuine. The thought of having a “persona” makes me want to go live in a cave. Being honest with myself — without the cringing — is the doorway I must come back to throughout the day.
I can’t control where things go, but I can be intentional about the direction my heart is facing and the orientation of my mind. That’s the bottom line. Come back, come back, come back. Be all the way here, wherever “here” happens to be at any given moment.
Accepting the complexity of this being alive thing, awareness that there are few things I control but taking responsibility for the ones I can, and acting accordingly — this is my kavanah.