Fear and Practice

I’m coming to see that of the three primary fear responses available to human bodies (fight, flight, and freeze), it’s freeze that’s the most habitual for me. Like many people who share a similar personality structure to me, the presence of fear or despair in the world is easily an opportunity to tune out, to dissociate, and to disappear in the midst of life. And this week, with ongoing news about the state of the earth’s climate, with the attacks in Sri Lanka, and with the ongoing presence of an energetic xenophobia in our politics, there has been ample fuel for the kind of asleep-in-the-midst-of-things that it is so easy for me to fall into.

All of this is one reason why I’m grateful for the increasing role of practice in my life. As I’ve written before, when I remember to live a life of practice – swimming, writing, contribution to community, meditation, Jewish practices, walking, music, intentional conversation – I feel more spaciousness in my heart, a renewed sense of aliveness in my body, and my mind is quieter too. I’m less convinced by stories about who I should be and what I’m supposed to be doing. Without practice it is easy for me to be swept up in my habits of absence, as if hurled by a swelling tide until I no longer remember that I’m swept up in anything and life becomes an invisible whirling torrent of fear and falling short and things to do and places to be. It should be of little surprise to me (though it often is) that in the midst of all that my body has tightened up, my heart more rigid, my mind filled with barely visible oughts and shoulds, judgements and obligations and disappointments.

It’s practice that allows me to rehearse, repeatedly, a relationship with the world that’s full of life, and full of expression, full of connection to others, and full of welcome for all of it – even the greatest difficulties. And this, I’m starting to see more clearly, is the very point of practice – that over time, done again and again, it allows us to experience life as if parts of ourselves that are more often marginalised, abandoned or simply forgotten have come home again.

I’m particularly grateful today for the poem Thanks by W S Merwin, which points to the restorative possibilities of giving thanks, practicing gratitude, right in the middle of the darkness. It’s what I’ve needed these past weeks, and the conversation that Lizzie and I had as part of this week’s Episode 82 of Turning Towards Life (another restorative practice for me) explores it in depth.

And, if you missed them, we’ve also talked in the past couple of weeks about the moment-to-moment choices between possibility and fear (in Episode 81, Two Paths), and about the problems being too certain about things can bring us (in Episode 80, The Place Where We Are Right).

You can catch up with all the conversations in that project over at turningtowards.life, and you can also find all our conversations on YouTube, and as a podcast on AppleGoogle and Spotify

Photo by Clark Young on Unsplash

All that he taught me by leaving

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I wrote the first words of ‘On Living and Working’ six years ago today, drinking tea and sitting on a high stool in the cafe window of London’s Wellcome Collection, a museum exploring the intersection of life, the body, science, and culture.

As I finished the first post a call came in to say that my father-in-law had died.

We drove to his home that evening, curving our way through the rush-hour traffic, and sat in the kitchen drinking more tea and preparing ourselves to enter the small ante-room where he had spent the last weeks of his life.

The dead are so incredibly, shockingly still.

In the absence of the ongoing micro-movements that animate even someone who is sleeping, in the absence of breath, there is a perfect, uncanny silence. And it is the absence that reveals just how alive it is to be living. No flutter of the eyelids, no flexing of fingers or toes, no gentle rise and fall of the chest, none of the tiny cues that a person is present that I find my own eyes searching for. Just silence, and an absolute stillness like the stillness of stone, but strange and unsettling and sacred and exquisite and perfectly, unarguably real.

In the jarring realness of absence, in this space where his warmth and movement and presence had been only hours before, I am brought into a fresh encounter with life’s unlikeliness, its strangeness, its fierce beauty, its transience. I am thrown back into life by my contact with not-life.

And I see how often I forget that I am actually alive. How readily I act as if I am not fully here: deadening myself and numbing myself and absenting myself and distracting myself. As if finding myself living in this brief shining flash of consciousness is too much to bear. Or as if I will always be alive.

But here in this quiet room I see that one day I too will be this still, as will everyone else I love, and everyone else they love, and everyone else they know. And another day, in the unimaginably far-off future that will still come too soon, everything will fall into stillness and this grand experiment that we call life will itself be over.

Somewhere I always know this. But when it fades into the background, when I am ‘had by’ this knowledge, its shadowy presence can easily act as an encouragement to go to sleep, to exist as if some of me or all of me is already dead. It’s simpler that way, quieter. Apparently. And though living this way actually scares the hell out of me, the fear loops back on itself, fuelling and feeding the addictive numbness with its guileful promise of safety.

So it’s better to know the truth directly, I think. To keep reminding ourselves how different we are, even in our most humdrum everydayness, from absence.

To be human is to live in this dance between remembering and forgetting ourselves, being awake and asleep, being present-in-life and dead-to-life. At least, that’s how my life seems to be. But there are practices of presence, and remembering, and truthfulness that we can take up if we so choose – practices of art and body, movement and song, contact and attention that can help us return to the intense realness of life when we have lost our way. We can choose to stare directly into the unbearably bright light of our own ending so that we have a chance of being here, right here, while we are actually here. To be like fierce angels, heralding the sunrise. To be alive, before it’s too late.

On this 6th anniversary I’m grateful for words and language, for writing and speaking and those of you who read and listen to the many forms this project has taken since it began. And I’m feeling grateful for Sidney, my father-in-law, for all that his way of being showed me, his way of singing and hoping his way through, and for all that he taught me in his leaving.

Photo by Andraz Lazic on Unsplash

The Path of Beyond and Beneath

The latest conversation in our ‘Turning Towards Life’ series is here. In ‘The Path of Beyond and Beneath‘ we ask what we can do, when we get wounded, to stay in a relationship with others that’s dignified and respectful of everyone’s humanity? It’s a question pertinent both to our personal relationships and to our troubled, fractious conversations about the big issues of our times.

You can read the source and watch the conversation here, or listen on Apple, Google and Spotify podcasts.

Photo by Hoang M Nguyen on Unsplash

The mystery of Time and Death

I’m thrilled to announce that ‘Turning Towards Life’ is now available as a podcast on Apple, Google, and Spotify.

In our latest episode we talk about the mystery of time and death. We consider together two different ways that we turn away from the reality of time – either by tuning out from the fleeting nature of things and the urgency of our response, or by eating up time in a panicked flurry of frantic activity. Somewhere between the two, we discover, is a way in which we can meet time more directly, more lovingly, and in a more responsive way – and in a way that helps us both decide what matters and invest our activities with mattering.

Along the way we talk about the changes that time brings, in our bodies and the bodies of others; the mystery of where time ‘goes’ when it has ‘gone’, and we bring to mind those we have known and have loved who are no longer with us and find out that they are still present, in time, even though they are no longer here. And it occurs to us that this is the nature not only of people but of all moments that continually arise, disappear, and yet travel with us.

Photo by Harry Sandhu on Unsplash