Philosopher Martha Nussbaum

I was falling asleep the other night, mumbling along about how I’d like to learn to be a good person. My squishy heart becomes very open and soft at night, under the covers, with the warm lamp glow illuminating the cool room. These mumblings and their accompanying thoughts were full of genuine aspirations of goodness…yet (and this brought tears to my eyes), I knew in my heart I was already so good, that all my strivings are towards goodness. My efforts seemed truly meaningful.

Excerpted from an interview with Martha Nussbaum, philosopher, in the July 25, 2016 issue of The New Yorker:

“To be a good human being,” she has said, “is to have a kind of openness to the world, the ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control that can lead you to be shattered.”

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My unicorn family, Halloween 2017

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Fixed versus growth mindsets

Sometimes little nuggets of trust and wisdom drop into your life when they are most perfectly appropriate.

I’m taking a course this semester called Mentoring in the Sciences. It is taught by a wonderful woman named Laura. Last week Laura started the class by putting up a slide that asked: “Is it reasonable to expect perfection when attempting something you’ve never done before?”

I smiled inwardly when I saw the slide. Maybe even a bit outwardly. I can be exceedingly unreasonable in this expectation. In graduate school, I often feel that I am balancing the act of pushing myself to achieve/learn/perform while developing acceptance of my own human limits. I believe I have cultivated habits that both encourage achievement and prevent me from really reaching my full potential. Yet attempting to achieve perfection is not the same as achieving mastery, and the narrowness of perfection certainly leaves much to be desired. I’ve been left to believe that attempting to achieve perfection provides safety, yet what it most reliably provides is emotional fragility.

So, no, it is not reasonable to expect perfection in light of trying something new, but, yes, I expect it all the time.

The next concept Laura introduced was the idea of fixed and growth mindsets. If you haven’t heard fixed and growth mindsets before, you might be able to intuitively understand what they are.

A fixed mindset leads to a desire to look intelligent and lends a tendency to…

…avoid challenges, give up easily, see efforts as pointless, ignore useful critical feedback, and feel threatened by the successes of others.

A growth mindset leads to a desire to learn and lends a tendency to…

…embrace challenges, persist in the face of setbacks, see effort as the path to mastery, learn from criticism, and find lessons and inspiration in the successes of others.

The presentation of these two mindsets with the realization that I live much of my life stuck with very fixed, rigid viewpoints was eye-opening, relieving, and a little sad all at once. I had been looking for this information. I had been trying to understand how my mind was keeping me stuck in a place of stagnancy, anxiety, and dissatisfaction. Adopting a growth mindset and relaxing the grip of perfectionism can be an effective balm to life’s stressors and challenges.

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Some of my favorite neural cell sketches from Ramon y Cajal.

 

In the mind.

On my last drive up north I was reading The Sun, a publication that has been in my life since I was a child. Since receiving my very own gift subscription, this magazine has followed me through ten different addresses, nine new tattoos, the time I cut all my hair off, when I met Elizabeth, Patchy Sanders, the time(s) I cut half my hair off, when I returned home after 10 years of being away, when I adopted my dog, and almost every drive north to Toolik.

Although this reflection could open all sorts of interesting paths to write down, I opened this little thought train with The Sun because a reader contributed a quote in this most recent issue that struck me:

“What is heaven? What is hell? In the mind.” – Jack Kerouac

Kerouac very succinctly described a concept I have been considering and turning around and examining for months now. Although this idea was first introduced with my dive into meditation, it has more recently surfaced because of experiences with my current partner.

Jason and I often see situations, conversations, and shared experiences very differently. In brief, he often views an interaction in a practical, logical way, while I see our interactions in an emotional, subjective way. We can be in the same room, having a conversation, holding hands, by all appearances having the “same experience,” yet when we reflect later we may have interpreted that interaction in completely different ways. What is most striking to me is when I have viewed the interaction as incredibly connecting, or incredibly disconnecting, while he may have viewed the interaction in a much more neutral way.

This recurring pattern got me thinking about personal realities. How diverse are the realities we carry with us in our minds? Can we ever really see an experience the same way as someone else? Perhaps most interestingly to me, once we realize how unique and subjective our personal realities are, are we ready to bear the weight of that responsibility? In other words, can we be fully ready to assume all responsibility for how external occurrences affect us? Can we take responsibility to work diligently on altering our personal reality to one that is harmonious, peaceful, content, and serves our community/world? Can we live intelligently?

It can be easy to blame the outside for what’s rising up on the inside, but it leads to a flat, static living. What would happen in your life if you developed full awareness that you are the only one steering your ship? What would happen if you established full certainty that it is only you creating your happiness, your misery?

I suspect a dramatic blossoming!!

Photo credit here.

Some small thoughts, like droplets in my mind.

Certainly, the emotion that most impedes progress in any endeavor is the emotion of fear. When I feel fear, it is a quickening in my heart, a sharpness in my in breath, a closing in of my mind. The world becomes smaller as my fears expand. Lately, I’ve been turning to the trees, looking up to the highest leaves and beyond to the clouds and sky. The world starts to expand again, and my breath slows, and my heart stills.

Certainty is what we seek. The feeling of uncertainty is most, most uncomfortable. When I’m uncertain, it can be incredibly difficult to elucidate 1) what I’m uncertain about, specifically; 2) how to handle myself in my uncertainty; and 3) how to feel certain once more. Maybe it’s impossible to ever really feel certain, but it’s important to attempt.

A realization from last night’s walk: when my dog runs up to me with her tail circling wildly, her eyes bright and wide, and her tongue launching wet gobs of happy saliva, it is briefly impossible to feel uncertain.

Next year I will be thirty. My friend Claire calls it “the magic of turning thirty.” I think I know what she means. There seems to be a noticeable difference between those women still meandering about in their twenties and those regal thirty-something ladies lounging on self-confident sofas. Six more months of aimless wandering before the beautifully consistent straight-and-narrow. Am I being too optimistic?

“The most difficult times for many of us are the ones we give ourselves.” – Pema Chödrön

Photo credit here.

A flesh-colored bubble

Imagine you are naked, floating in a peachy flesh-colored bubble. The bubble is tough and strong, like skin stretched tight for a drum head, and is semi-transparent. You are warm and safe in this skin bubble. Nothing can hurt you, there is nothing to do, and you are free of all concerns.

Outside the bubble there is an inviting, soft light. It is irresistible, but you aren’t sure how to experience this light. After some time, the curiosity about the light beckons more and more strongly. You very much want to be in this light, and this desire begins to erode at your immaculate contentment. This peachy bubble is warm and safe, yet it is so small. It is so confined. You know every square centimeter of this bubble, your little womb.

You reach out a finger and press against the bubble. It stretches, yet it is very strong, so you pull your finger back after a minute of resistance. You look at the wall of the bubble, you focus beyond to the enveloping light, and you poke your curious finger again into the wall.

This time, you push harder. The urgency of leaving this small world grows with the pressure against your finger. It hurts. Your finger feels as if it might break, yet the light grows ever more brilliant, and your bubble ever smaller. Tears stream down your face as you apply more and more pressure, and when you can’t bear the pain and the confine of the bubble any longer, your finger breaks through.

It feels So Good. The feeling of your finger, such a small part of you, out in the light is so pleasurable that you almost can’t bear it! You feel as if your entire hand must escape into the light, followed by your arm, shoulder, head, belly and back, other arm, butt, legs, feet, and toes. Each body part takes an incredible amount of effort and pain to push through the bubble womb, but the feeling of goodness makes it all worth it, the whole thing, until your entire naked body is in the light! You are free in this bath of delicious light.

After floating around in ecstasy for some time, you see something in the distance. It looks familiar. As you come closer, you realize it is another peachy flesh-colored wall, another bubble. Another distant, brilliant light. You look down at your finger, then at the wall.

This is how I experience life. Happy within the confines of my experience until I see such a larger world I can participate in. The pain of reaching that place can be intense, but it is necessary to escape and expand. Bubbles will always be reached, and breached, ever expanding.

Be Seen

Today is a wonderful day: International Women’s Day. Women all over the world are speaking up, speaking out about where work still needs to be done to foster equal representation and to encourage courage in the face of those who wish to make us small.

The idea that to change the world we must change ourselves rings very true to me. How can we bring peace into the world if we ourselves are not peaceful? How can we encourage loving relations in the world if we are not loving toward ourselves? Initially, this idea of changing ourselves can seem more manageable than changing the world. Physically, of course, the world is enormous, and it is indescribably complex. Yet, as we are with ourselves continuously, there is always an opportunity to change ourselves, any moment. However, women’s inner worlds are also complex. If you are like me, it can be difficult to look inside. It can feel overwhelming to unearth all the emotions, fears, preconceived notions, and anger. I believe that’s why we can spend quite a bit of energy trying to change other people, other situations, other modes of thought. Yet if we have hatred, how can we expect others to release their hatred? If we judge and discriminate against some others, how can we demand others to not judge and discriminate against some other others? It takes courage to change the world, but it might take more courage to change ourselves.

This year’s IWD theme: Be Bold for Change. Be bold for change in the world, be bold for change in yourself.

I’ve been spending a good deal of time this semester feeling small, not wanting to be noticed. I believe this is because I am in a new relationship, and I’m being noticed, and there is an excellent chance this person will notice aspects of my personality or habit patterns that I am not proud of, or that are holding me back, or that are contradictory, or maybe even harmful to myself or others. This is ironic, because I spent a good deal of time last semester desiring that someone would notice me, that someone would see me. What I realize now is that I wanted someone to see my good, but not my not-so-good. So I’ve been slowly shrinking myself in hopes that I just won’t be noticed.

But what an opportunity. There is someone who sees me, who is seeing me more and more deeply. I can show someone who I am, I can share with someone how I think, I can tell someone my fears, I can mess up and be afraid and trip over myself and that person can be a witness to all of that living. Someone seeing me so closely is really, really scary for me. But what can I do but to keep showing up, keep refusing to get small, keep encouraging the courage in myself? It hurts to be seen, it hurts not to be seen. Which do you choose?

Happy International Women’s Day. Remember not to focus only on how far we have yet to go, but also on how far we’ve come. Remember the freedoms that you experience every day in addition to where your freedom is restricted. Remember that you are not alone, and women all over the world experience heartache, jealousy, self-criticism, rage, and fear. Remember that we all want to be seen, we all want to be loved, we all want to feel safe, we all want to feel justified.

And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom. – Anais Nin

Emily

The heart wants what it wants –

Or else it does not care –

– Emily Dickinson, 1862

Such a simple quote from a letter to a friend, yet it rings true, doesn’t it? A deep, heavy ring. The heart can be so passionate and fervent in its wanting, but to everything else it is silent. These are the words I feel as I go into my sit today. I’m certain my mind will be buzzing throughout the next ten days with ideas I want to share here. Until then! May all beings be happy.

Love,

Sara