Flash of Stillness: Playing Patience at the DMV

2015/01/img_0329.jpg

Some virtues are beyond me. Patience, for instance, ever the teacher, lover and nemesis, eludes me today. As I sit in the hard plastic chair in the DMV, watching the screen to confirm the number announced courteously by the subtly enthusiastic electronic female voice, “Now serving number G095 at Window 13”, I sigh in exasperation. My number is G0172. It’s the second time in a month and a half that I have lost my driver’s license, and apparently the punishment is laid before me.

I want to pluck my eyeballs right out of my head at the thought of this wait in the stupefyingly catatonic government issue slate blues and grays of this Kafka-esque muffled, stifling prison. Too many dull civil servants shuffling paper among chair slumpers and leg shifters, all emitting muted boredom, disgust and defeat. No one appears to be content–merely a large aggregation of bodies connected only by will to the call of the numbers.

My daily practice of late has been precisely about this: finding contentment wherever I am. But not just the ordinary contentment of gratitude for a life lived in relative comfort and safety. For example, this may not be the best experience a late Friday afternoon has to offer, but at least I am not being held hostage in a bank. I will eventually leave this drone of hushed activity, having completed the exercise in obedient compliance with temporary license in hand.

And it is not mere at-oneness, presence within the space I am led to by attention to breath. That place is familiar to me as I have beckoned that presence to practice yoga on particularly distractible days, to preserve my sanity in extreme adversity, situations beyond my control such as waiting in a hospital room for test results, and to create–writing within the clasp of close observational sensation and thought.

No, the kind of contentment found in voluntary partial confinement among these resigned soldiers of complicity is not mere surrender; it is much more focused, pinpoint. It is the kind of contentment that comes in very small packages, minute actually, perhaps down to the cellular level. This cellular ease is squeezed out of a stillness and silence within that can hear the seduction of the computerized voice tapping into specific sensors in my brain, sliding across synapses that fire the corresponding response: chill. I hear the voice, calm, soothing, and yet infused with the transparency of its purpose. It’s experiencing and knowing all at once, an ultra alert moment of bathing light.

These moments of hyper awareness, like visualizing sound vibrations traveling across cilia in my ear canal to produce tones, reactions and information, store savory bits of future antidote to the haze of an overslept day just like today. They entertain and calm me when bored or anxious.

There are seemingly insignificant moments I can remember as mere hair’s breath of time and movement recorded so finely to capillary’s considered caress. I close my eyes in the echo of “Now serving…G108…” and summon one such scene of long ago to the black screen of my eyelids and I am there:

Walking out the door in a hurry, late for work, I don’t even notice as I rush past him. Evan near misses but manages to clasp my elbow on the fly. “Hey,” he says huskily. He has just awakened and struggles slightly with sleep-shorn disarray, a waver in his stance. Stopped, the momentum of my intention and determined pace is still rushing on ahead of me as my body is stilled before his eyes. “Hey,” he says again still clasping my elbow, my attention now filling my eyes that have been locked into his by the soft insistence of his gaze. He raises his free hand to my face and rests his four fingers, thumb-less, palm down, under my chin lightly. I feel the warmth of his morning hand and his embracing time. “Have a fine day.” The sound of his touch lingers. My racing pulse of wheeling stepped-to thought slowed in the honeyed silk of stilled breath and moment, somehow I sense I will.

I open my eyes, once again to the dimmed fluorescent daylight of the room. The 90s throw-back television screen flicks to G112 as I recover the speed of my breath, regulate it to the pace of the room’s still life painting of humans in suspended animation. Leaving behind the image on a slo-mo memory reel, I feel the filmy residue coating my mood–a clear outlook reset. The furrows in my brow have smoothed out, not merely caved into my face. The tension lines around my mouth are slightly faded.

Returning to the room, I imagine the civil space of 10 inches between my loudly sighing, glum neighbor and me, hitched to the same row of five chairs connected respectably, tolerably separated to allow both detached misery and connected commiseration in accordance with the building’s function. I will myself to blanket that distance with warmth like the heat of Evan’s hand emanating an atomic wave of empathic static connection.

Can he feel it? I have tuned out all voices, human or electronic, and squinch my sight with open eyes, twisting the last drop of intention from the tube of my will to touch him with an invisible hand. I turn to look at him, retreating from my straight-ahead-vision of the shaved head and neck of the body in front of me, but I only catch his departing blurred frame. His number, G118, is up.

Fortunate for him. Fifty-four more numbers to go. Twenty-five numbers in 90 minutes. Lots of time to practice patience and play at staking the heart of the energy vampire in this room. Luckily, I have a full flash drive of micro memory moments to fuel my efforts. Heck, I have time enough to remember where I lost my driver’s license in the first place.

The Power of Empathy

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/e19/64332962/files/2014/12/img_0306.jpg
credit: http://inspiremykids.com

I enjoyed this short from Collective Evolution featured in a Psychology Today article in April, 2014, on the difference between empathy and sympathy and so share it with readers today.

While most of us know the meaning of the two words and do not need an animated short to teach us, a subtle reminder about the power placement inherent in these two terms is beautifully and simply elucidated in this short.

The two terms have always been distinguished in my mind by power. The position of the giver and receiver of sympathy as opposed to empathy is quite different. I picture it as a gazing down at another versus a locking eyes with another.

Sympathy is synonymous to pity. Pity describes an emotion derived from a feeling of superiority, even though the intention of the pitier is to give relief and express care. More often than not, however, the pitied is treated as an object, one that makes another compelled to react as if the object of pity was drawing something from the onlooker. A person who suffers from whatever misfortune of accident or fate or foolishness, is, while in the throes of such misfortune, viewed as less than in some way, less than the one who is not suffering misfortune. The sympathizer distances him or herself from the misfortune and offers sympathy to the other, possibly feeling uncomfortable with the reminder of everyone’s vulnerability to life’s unexpected or expected cruelties.

My associations with the two words is not dispositive, however. Oxford Dictionaries defines sympathy as:

1Feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune:
they had great sympathy for the flood victims

SYNONYMS
1.1 (one’s sympathies) The formal expression of pity or sorrow for someone else’s misfortune; condolences:

2Understanding between people; common feeling:
the special sympathy between the two boys was obvious to all

And empathy as:

The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

These two definitions are not very enlightening because the terms are defined equivalently; the Urban Dictionary is clearer as to empathy:

Empathy
1. The ability to identify with and understand somebody else’s feelings or difficulties.

2. The transfer of somebody’s own feelings and emotions to an object such as a painting.

Where Oxford fails, Urban prevails. The clear distinction between the two terms is power–sympathizers judge:

sympathy
Sympathy differs from empathy in the following ways:

With sympathy, the helper:

Helps within his/her comfort zone
Makes a cursory judgment of the person’s needs
Often will get upset when it is explicitly revealed that their help is misguided or unwelcome (after a long buildup)
May feel as if he or she is the ‘mentor’, or the ‘superior’

With empathy, the helper:

Relates to the person on a personal basis
Forms a deep emotional bond with the person on many levels
Learns to see the situation from the person’s perspective
Sees the person more as an equal, and ‘walks in their shoes’.

The two should not be confused. More often than not, sympathy is the form of ‘caring’ that is given to those in need, and can be quite misguided, especially in dire situations that most are not used to dealing with. Most therapists, teachers, and unfortunately parents will often give this kind of ‘help’ to a troubled or very upset person. However, if they were willing to step outside their comfort zones, they could learn how to relate effectively.

The two terms should not be conflated as each embodies not only a different emotion but different disposition all together. The importance of understanding the stance “the helper” takes may help the helper to understand what she is trying to do and what she is actually doing. In other words, by feeling someone else’s pain and not trying to solve it, the empathizer puts herself into the other’s skin, stands eye to eye with the one in need of empathy, and not above or at a distance. The subject-object relationship is extinguished, at least in that empathic moment.

Brene Brown in the short RSA talk and article referenced above, outlines the key features of empathy as the ability to see from behind someone else’s eyeballs, to be non-judgmental and to communicate knowledge of the person’s plight by reiterating her position back to her or encouraging the other to speak about it. It takes putting one’s own agenda and feelings aside–and lots of practice, daily.

“The 9 Most Overlooked Threats to Marriage”

IMG_0280.JPG

Kelley M. Flanagan’s Huffpost article isolating the most threatening issues to a long lasting marriage is interesting, hopeful and thoughtful, even if somewhat obvious and common sensical. I especially like the introduction as she reminds me how humans are short cutters and labelers in nearly everything. She comments that communication always takes the rap for failed marriages, which is untrue.

When I have my students write an essay on marriage and counseling, the parroted mantra is marriage breaks down for lack of communication. Counseling helps couples communicate better. Well, that always seemed to be broad to incomprehensibility as well as reductive. Whenever two people show up in a room it’s more complicated than that let alone show up to a supposed life-long commitment.

I particularly like the point she makes about marriage and loneliness:

Marriage doesn’t take away our loneliness. To be alive is to be lonely. It’s the human condition. Marriage doesn’t change the human condition. It can’t make us completely unlonely. And when it doesn’t, we blame our partner for doing something wrong, or we go searching for companionship elsewhere. Marriage is intended to be a place where two humans share the experience of loneliness and, in the sharing, create moments in which the loneliness dissipates. For a little while.

As a 34-year marriage veteran, I can speak to the greatest advantage of marriage, regardless of the perceived strength or quality of the union, which is the frequent haven from loneliness even as couplehood sometimes increases loneliness or at least puts that human condition in sharp relief. Flanagan reminds her readers that marriage is neither a panacea nor a merging. When she goes on to point out the shame baggage marrieds bring to a marriage, she hammers home that point that–and I’m extrapolating a bit–the union is of two individuals not a solitary unit.

The rest of the article underscores the more obvious and familiar about boredom, blaming, not taking responsibility and the like. She does mention another item that resonates with me, two actually: marriage is life and empathy is crucial to survive and thrive in both. True?