Practicing turning toward

The essay I wrote that was published 2 months ago turned into something dense and serious in tone, and since writing it, I find myself wanting to go back, zooming in to certain parts, expanding and magnifying them. The first part that comes to mind is two words: “turning toward.” If I had to distill the whole essay into just two words, those would likely be them.

What they mean to me is a compacted version of a shift in how we relate: from avoiding to embracing. We can do this on so many levels – with parts of ourselves, other people, whole peoples, and probably life itself.

Today I rather serendipitously attended two very different events but both ended up being about this turning toward-ness, so I figured I should write about it.

If one of the core pieces of our work moving forward is repairing relationships, turning toward is one of the first steps. Where we avoid, disconnect, numb, separate, ignore – parts of ourselves, other people, etc. – we could instead welcome in, befriend, turn toward, cultivate curiosity for.

The first event I attended today was called Clearing Creative Blocks facilitated by Veronica Amarelle. She led about 300 of us through a guided meditation to turn toward whatever creative block we’re facing at the moment. What came up for me in the session was the idea of “trying to write the right thing” as getting in the way of my flow. Overthinking, tending toward perfectionism patterns, efforting in ways that don’t serve the work like trying to write as if I am an authority – these things have been actively getting in the way of my progress and process lately. However, sitting with this block while being guided through a meditation, I was invited to ask the block about what it wants for me. What I came up with was remembering to tap into a big and deep knowing. That it’s not so much about me “getting it right,” but more about connecting to something much bigger than myself – maybe something like a muse or collective consciousness or something else we don’t have a good word for yet.

I quickly pasted the affirmation onto a photo to remind myself of nature’s vastness.

We were invited to turn what we learned from the experience into an affirmation. In the session I also shifted my relationship to affirmations, which I came to understand as a potential for visualizing and remembering when I’ve felt this way in the past. Rather than imagining a scenario in the future where I feel the affirmation to be true, I can look into my past for examples where it already has been true. When have I felt tapped into a deeper knowing? Most of the examples were when I was with loved ones in vast natural spaces.

The second event was part of the Buddhism and Ecology Summit, an Zoom event called The Alchemy of Despair facilitated by Willa Blythe Baker. She offered a guided meditation where we were invited to bring whatever feelings we were having into the session, rather than trying to leave them at the door (which might be how we normally treat feelings in a meditation session). In the chat after, she shared how, by moving toward despair, particularly in relationship to climate change, we can understand it as a “symptom of our tenderness:” our ability to care about what’s happening in the world. Despair is a symptom of our compassion, our care, our love.

Feelings, like despair and others, she said are “only incapacitating if we stay stuck in them. If, instead, we metabolize them and love them, they transform themselves into our allies.”

Willa Blythe Baker

The practice of turning toward emotions we perceive as difficult or as blocks is the practice of self-compassion. The more we learn and practice not to reject, learning to open to, the more receptive and flexible we can be when difficult situations arise.

From this turning point in human history, I spend a lot of time wondering about what we can do to support our flexibility, our collective capacities to flow with what comes next, and to grieve what we’re leaving behind. Avoiding, ignoring, polarizing, separating do not seem to be energies that support that. On the other hand, turning toward, cultivating curiosity, and compassion do seem to be integral (and foundational) to supporting ourselves in this next phase.

A few practices of turning toward that you might find helpful – where to start:

“Advice to Myself” by Louise Erdrich

The poet reading, and then a short discussion

Leave the dishes.
Let the celery rot in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator
and an earthen scum harden on the kitchen floor.
Leave the black crumbs in the bottom of the toaster.
Throw the cracked bowl out and don’t patch the cup.
Don’t patch anything. Don’t mend. Buy safety pins.
Don’t even sew on a button.
Let the wind have its way, then the earth
that invades as dust and then the dead
foaming up in gray rolls underneath the couch.
Talk to them. Tell them they are welcome.
Don’t keep all the pieces of the puzzles
or the doll’s tiny shoes in pairs, don’t worry
who uses whose toothbrush or if anything
matches, at all.
Except one word to another. Or a thought.
Pursue the authentic-decide first
what is authentic,
then go after it with all your heart.
Your heart, that place
you don’t even think of cleaning out.
That closet stuffed with savage mementos.
Don’t sort the paper clips from screws from saved baby teeth
or worry if we’re all eating cereal for dinner
again. Don’t answer the telephone, ever,
or weep over anything at all that breaks.
Pink molds will grow within those sealed cartons
in the refrigerator. Accept new forms of life
and talk to the dead
who drift in through the screened windows, who collect
patiently on the tops of food jars and books.
Recycle the mail, don’t read it, don’t read anything
except what destroys
the insulation between yourself and your experience
or what pulls down or what strikes at or what shatters
this ruse you call necessity.

Bees bridge, foxes garden: we expand

I saw this post yesterday on instagram, and then a friend sent me this article, that basically says that Arctic foxes build gardens over the span of many generations, creating nutrient-dense spaces in the harsh climates they inhabit.

Also, did you know that bees build bridges with their bodies and a kind of glue they secrete? It’s called festooning and looks like this:

Bees festoon
They build bridges with glue secretions across impossible spaces
Photo from Flickr by Maja Dumat/blumenbiene.

For me one of the ways in which is relate to nature is through awe. Or I could say it this way: being outside or otherwise in contact with the natural world has the potential to fill me with awe, to get me into a state of being bigger than the bounds of my own body – to see and feel and know things I don’t normally consider. In nature we can sense possibilities, sense more for ourselves, than we can from within our human systems.

Why Write Love Poetry in a Burning World (Katie Farris)

To train myself to find, in the midst of hell
what isn’t hell.

The body, bald, cancerous, but still
beautiful enough to
imagine living the body
washing the body
replacing a loose front
porch step the body chewing
what it takes to keep a body
going –

this scene has a tune
a language I can read
this scene has a door
I cannot close I stand
within its wedge
I stand within its shield

Why write love poetry in a burning world?
To train myself, in the midst of a burning world,
to offer poems of love to a burning world.

Katie Farris

Wild Geese (Mary Oliver)

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Mary Oliver

A Small Needful Fact (Ross Gay)

Is that Eric Garner worked
for some time for the Parks and Rec.
Horticultural Department, which means,
perhaps, that with his very large hands,
perhaps, in all likelihood,
he put gently into the earth
some plants which, most likely,
some of them, in all likelihood,
continue to grow, continue
to do what such plants do, like house
and feed small and necessary creatures,
like being pleasant to touch and smell,
like converting sunlight
into food, like making it easier
for us to breathe.

Ross Gay

On words: “inclusion”

A few days ago, I posted an idea on Facebook that I’ve been toying with. I felt it was a bold statement that spoke about power in a way that isn’t often talked about and about a word I hear frequently. Here’s the post:

The post garnered more traction than most of the thoughts, photos, videos, and shares I usually put up.

Two people asked a question kinda like this: if this isn’t the right word, what is something like this that we can do to achieve a similar purpose?

I hear that. There’s an underlying theme in inclusivity that I can get behind in the context of histories of marginalization: making sure more people are being heard. Recognizing this is based on: 1) an acknowledgement that the people in the room don’t represent the broader group and 2) a determination that this should be the case. Not only are two heads better than one, but more difference at the table can bring about different relationships to problems, solutions, and systems.

On the other hand, inclusivity presupposes that the existing set-up is completely fine and the only issue is that certain people either aren’t aware of the metaphorical table, aren’t educated enough about it, or for some other reason can’t make it. This assumption erases oppression and power.

By framing the question as [ why aren’t certain people here? ] rather than [ is there something about our underlying structure/dynamic/agenda/leadership that turns certain people off? ] locates the problem and thus the solution in totally different places.

The following 2 women of color have also blogged about the word in ways I’ve found useful in developing my thinking around it. I’ve culled some of the key quotes.

I first turn to a piece provocatively titled “How to Uphold White Supremacy by Focusing on Diversity and Inclusion” by Kẏra, a Chinese-Amerikan trans woman working to create space for radical racial justice through technology where progress has been limited to liberal white feminism.

She writes,

“Inclusivity” and “exclusivity” are politically meaningless without context and divert attention away from specific power dynamics. In common use, they are assigned inherently positive and negative values without specifying who is being included or excluded.

So why do so many people seeking racial justice, female empowerment, and queer liberation still choose to advocate for “diversity” and “inclusion”? They appeal to liberalism. They prevent oppression from being named. They prevent us from speaking truth to power. They make progress sound friendly to those in power.

The only way to prevent that is to name oppression for what it is; to speak truth to power. If a group is dominated by whites, men, and other privileged classes, don’t let that be reduced to a diversity issue.

When we talk about diversity and inclusion, we necessarily position marginalized groups as naturally needing to assimilate into dominant ones, rather than to undermine said structures of domination.

As a web developer / techie / nerd myself, I’ve frequently found myself in spaces dominated by nerdy, white, cis-, straight men. Possibly because of this, becoming acutely aware of who is in the room, who is taking up space, and who isn’t is something I do by default. In response to Kyra’s point of not “reducing it to a diversity issue,” there are very well known and documented reasons that women aren’t equally represented in technology. To say that the conference organizer (for example) just didn’t know enough women, or the women were busy, etc, fails to recognize systemic ways in which women have been excluded from tech, forced out of it, harassed while persevering in it. (Perhaps that’s why more women are freelancing.)

Next, let’s hear from Virgie Tovar, MA is an author, activist and one of the nation’s leading experts and lecturers on fat discrimination and body image. Here’s what she says on her blog about inclusion:

The word “inclusion” is a buzzword in political organizing that typically indicates some vague understanding that something just isn’t right here. The idea of inclusion is typically thought of as an innocuous way of discussing the perceived lack of meaningful engagement by people who are experiencing the greatest impact of the political issue at hand. But I don’t think it’s an innocuous idea. I think there’s a lot embedded in that word, and so I wanted to give you three reasons to rethink the idea of inclusion.

Here are snippets of Virgie’s reasons:

  1. First, embedded within the idea of “inclusion” is a kind of white supremacist/heteropatriarchal/thincentric/ableist framework or epistemology – the presumption that thin people need to create space for fat people […]”
  2. Second, any movement that engages heavily with reinscribing dominant aesthetics – or respectability politics – is not going to be of interest to marginalized folks who see that dominant aesthetic as problematic and violent.”
  3. Finally, and – in my opinion – most importantly, is that the word “inclusion” presumes the maintenance of that movement’s current leadership with the understanding that these “included” people will become absorbed into that movement without any radical rehaul of its current hierarchy.”

At the end of her post, she poses 2 amazing questions for people who see inclusion as a need:

1. What do the people who see inclusion need or want from the inclusion of people who are not well-represented? I think this is an incredibly important question for organizers to ask themselves. We all kind of know that a lack of poc or big bodies or trans folks is an indication of a failure, but do organizers desire their inclusion simply as evidence that they are not failing or is there some greater desire to be in service to people who are experiencing the greatest impacts of marginalization?
2. Is the individual or group who is seeking “inclusion” ready to change up the agenda, the political tools they use, or the hierarchy of leadership?

So. What do you think – is inclusion a word you use frequently and a process you undertake? Or do you think it reeks of a liberalism that seeks to maintain existing power structures?

Here is a cat-related meme to get you started: