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"The primary focus of this path of choosing wisely is learning to stay present. Pausing very briefly, frequently throughout the day, is an almost effortless way to do this. For just a few seconds we can be right here. Meditation is another way to train in learning to stay or learning to come back, to return to the present over and over again."
~ Pema Chödrön, from Taking the Leap  
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A Marriage of Marriages

Un mundo (A World), Ángeles Santos Torroella, 1911

The current understanding of work-life balance is too simplistic. People find it hard to balance work with family, family with self, because it might not be a question of balance. Some other dynamic is in play, something to do with a very human attempt at happiness that does not quantify different parts of life and then set them against one another. We are collectively exhausted because of our inability to hold competing parts of ourselves together in a more integrated way. These hidden human dynamics of integration are more of a conversation, more of a synthesis and more of an almost religious and sometimes almost delirious quest for meaning than a simple attempt at daily ease and contentment.

Human beings are creatures of belonging, though they may come to that sense of belonging only through long periods of exile and loneliness. Interestingly, we belong to life as much through our sense that it is all impossible, as we do through the sense that we will accomplish everything we set out to do. This sense of belonging and not belonging is lived out by most people through three principal dynamics: first, through relationship to other people and other living things (particularly and very personally, to one other living, breathing person in relationship or marriage); second, through work; and third, through an understanding of what it means to be themselves, discrete individuals alive and seemingly separate from everyone and everything else.

These are the three marriages, of Work, Self, and Other. 

A word about this word marriage: Despite our use of the word only for a committed relationship between two people, in reality this book looks at the way everyone is committed, consciously or unconsciously, to three marriages. There is that first marriage, the one we usually mean, to another; that second marriage, which can so often seem like a burden, to a work or vocation; and that third and most likely hidden marriage to a core conversation inside ourselves. We can call these three separate commitments marriages because at their core they are usually lifelong commitments and, as I wish to illustrate, they involve vows made either consciously or unconsciously. 

Why put them together? To neglect any one of the three marriages is to impoverish them all, because they are not actually separate commitments but different expressions of the way each individual belongs to the world.

This book looks at the dynamics common to all three marriages: first the recognition of what an individual wants, then a pursuit, then the hope to circumvent the difficult but necessary disappointments, and ultimately, in the face of that disappointment, the full recommitment to the vows we have made in each of the three areas, spoken or unspoken.

The Three Marriages looks at the way each marriage involves a separate form of courtship and commitment, each almost a world unto itself that then must be rejoined together. The end goal: In these pages I am looking for a marriage of marriages.

The main premise of the book becomes also its final conclusion: We should stop thinking in terms of work-life balance. Work-life balance is a concept that has us simply lashing ourselves on the back and working too hard in each of the three commitments. In the ensuing exhaustion we ultimately give up on one or more of them to gain an easier life.

I especially want to look at the way that each of these marriages is, at its heart, nonnegotiable; that we should give up the attempt to balance one marriage against another, of, for instance, taking away from work to give more time to a partner, or vice versa, and start thinking of each marriage conversing with, questioning or emboldening the other two. As we discover, through the lives and biographies I follow in this book, how each one of the three marriages is nonnegotiable at its core, we can start to realign our understanding and our efforts away from trading and bartering parts of ourselves as if they were salable commodities and more toward finding a central conversation that can hold all of these three marriages together.

The understanding of this book is that the deeper, unspoken realms of the human psyche, work and life are not separate things and therefore cannot be balanced against each other except to create further trouble. The book most especially tries to dispel the myth that we are predominantly thinking creatures, who can, if we put our feet in all the right places, develop strategies that will make us the paragon of perfection we want to be, and instead, looks to a deeper, almost poetic perspective, a moving, more untouchable identity, a slightly more dangerous but more satisfying sense of self than one defined by ideas of balance.

The Three Marriages looks at the way we actually seem to function – as a kind of movable conversational frontier, an edge between what we think is us and what we think is not us…it tries to illustrate the way we can still make a real life even when crowded by other identities, or even when unbalanced and intoxicated with desire, or even when we are disappointed in work or love, and perhaps the way, at the center of all this deep love of belonging and this deep exhaustion of belonging, we may have waiting for us, at the end of the tunnel, a marriage of marriages, a life worth living, and one we can call, despite all the difficulties and imperfections, our very own.

~ David Whyte, from The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self, and Relationship

See also:


Breaking through the Illusion of Transparency

Excerpt from Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool by Taylor Clark:

Powell Street Station by davitydave, jobless, and without a plan for the future, Zoë Keating faced a dilemma: she was broke. To make her share of the rent, she needed a quick $250. Out of desperation, she resolved to try to earn some cash by playing her cello during rush hour at the busy Embarcadero and Powell Street Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) stations. To say the least, this prospect went over poorly with her newly reignited performance anxiety, yet onward she marched. At first, mortified at having so many potential spectators, Keating stuck to the Bach Cello Suites she knew best. “I was totally convinced that every single person was analyzing my technique.” She laughed. “I’d play the same few pieces over and over because I knew my bow placement was okay, or I was using the correct fingerings.” To fall under so many uncaring eyes was horrifying at first. What if they could tell how nervous she was? What if she made a mistake?
But then something unexpected began to happen: commuters thanked her for being there. “People would come up and say, ‘My mind was so fixated on what a terrible day I was going to have, and hearing you play made my day better,’” Keating recalled. “Even if I’d gotten the technique wrong, people would hand me a five-dollar bill and say, ‘That was fantastic!’ That was the first sense I ever got that musicians might have a role in enriching the world.”
Performing wasn’t just a pain-endurance exercise, or a battle for perfection; it could actually be rewarding. (The fact that she was pulling in $50 an hour in donations helped amplify this positive feeling.) Soon, she started stretching her wings a bit. “After playing the same thing four times in a row, I’d decide to flip the page to a Bach suite I didn’t know so well, and I’d see if I could make it through to the end, just sort of enjoying that I’d never played it before,” Keating said. “In other words, I allowed myself to play the music without worrying about all the little things – ‘Is your shoulder too high? Is your vibrato correct? And it was fun.”
Over time, as she became more immersed in her musical exploration, her stage fright at those BART station recitals transformed. She still felt nervous, but suddenly it seemed much more manageable – helpful, even. “This is the interesting part,” Keating told me. “I can actually remember playing in the subway.”
Busking in the BART station, Keating was accomplishing a few things, psychologically speaking…by exposing herself to her fear without running away, Keating was letting her brain slowly habituate to the idea of performing for an audience. Over the hours, as the realization dawned in her unconscious mind that these commuters weren’t going to descend on her like starving jackals, her perfrontal cortex taught itself to soothe the amygdala’s reaction to the crowd. This principle also explains why programs like Toastmasters are so effective at treating public speaking anxiety: by delivering speech after speech, regularly welcoming their fear, participants learn that standing behind that lectern isn’t really a threat to life and limb; it’s something they can handle.
But neuroscience aside, Keating was also coming to an important conscious insight: her listeners couldn’t see through her like she’d thought they could. “These people were anxious to get to work on time,” she said. “They didn’t care that I had a pinky waving in the air the wrong way.” No one really saw her nervousness. If people stopped to listen, that meant they were enjoying the music, not judging her.
Keating had finally broken through one of the most pervasive misconceptions underlying performance anxiety, the “illusion of transparency” bias. Put simply, we tend to believe that our internal emotional states are more obvious to others than they truly are. Ask a subject in the psych lab to tell a lie, and she’ll belive she’s shown more clues about the fib than she actually has…”If your heart is pounding, you think everyone can see it,” said Paul Salmon, the stage fright expert. “When you’re physiologically activated, your senses become more highly attuned and you magnify the impact of these things. It’s like you’re under the microscope.”
The illusion of transparency bias is powerful, but it’s also easy to correct. In one 2003 study, for example, the psychologists Kenneth Savitsky and Thomas Gilovich found that simply explaining to subjects that their stage fright isn’t obvious to others made them perform better – and with less anxiety – than two control groups when they gave a speech later on.
Almost immediately, Keating’s musical world began to open up…As she built her confidence, she began experimenting with solo compositions that blended her classical training with the electronic music she had studied in college, tapping and tweaking her cello to produce a dynamic range of sounds that she could loop and layer. Today, she makes her living solely through her music, jetting around the world to perform; her first album, One Cello x 16: Natoma, has been a steady seller on iTunes since its 2005 release, while her second, 2010’s Into the Trees, debuted at number seven on the Billboard classical chart.


"You're sort of in this three-dimensional landscape of sound and that's where I really like to be with my music. Like when I'm on stage, that's where I am. I'm not on stage in front of you, I'm in this landscape of sound. I can almost see the way the music happens, but that's not seeing people playing and it's not seeing somebody conducting. It's not seeing an audience watching it. It's very much like this feeling of, What does the sound look like?  The sweep of the sound, the way it moves up and down, or rushing forward." 

~ Zoë Keating

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Engaged in the Normal Process of Living

Excerpt from Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life by Karen Armstrong:

armstrong-12-steps The purpose of mindfulness…is to help us detach ourselves from the ego by observing the way our minds work. You might find it helpful to learn more about the neurological makeup of the brain and the way that meditation can enhance your sense of peace and interior well-being…but this is not essential. Practice is more important than theory, and you will find that it is possible to work on your mental processes just as you work out in the gym to enhance your physical fitness.

Mindfulness is a form of meditation that we perform as we go about our daily lives…Just as musicians have to learn how to manipulate their instruments and an equestrienne requires an intimate knowledge of the horse she is training, we have to learn to use our mental energies more kindly and productively. This is not a meditation that we should perform in solitude, apart from our ordinary routines. In mindfulness we mentally stand back and observe our behavior while we are engaged in the normal process of living in order to discover more about the way we interact with people, what makes us angry and unhappy, how to analyze our experiences, and how to pay attention to the present moment. Mindfulness is not meant to make us morbidly self-conscious, scrupulous, or guilty; we are not supposed to pounce aggressively on the negative feelings that course through our minds. Its purpose is simply to help us channel them more creatively.

With mindfulness, we use our new analytical brain to step back and become aware of the more instinctive, automatic mental processes of the old brain. So we live in the moment, observing the way we speak, walk, eat, and think. The Tibetan word for meditation is gom: “familiarization.” Mindfulness should give us greater familiarity with the Four Fs that are the cause of so much pain (feeding, fighting, fleeing, and—reproduction). We will become aware of how suddenly these impulses arise in response to stimuli that make us irrationally angry, hostile, greedy, rampantly acquisitive, lustful, or frightened, and how quickly they overturn the more peaceful, positive emotions. But instead of being overly distressed by this, we should recall that it is what nature intended and that the strong instinctual passions are simply working through us. Over time and with practice, we can learn how to become more aloof and refuse to identify with them: “This is not mine; this is not what I really am; this is not my self.” But it will not happen overnight; we have to be patient and understand that there is no quick fix.

Yet we should also take note of how unhappy these primitive emotions make us. When you are engrossed in thoughts of anger, hatred, envy, resentment, or disgust, notice the way your horizons shrink and your creativity diminishes…In the grip of these hostile preoccupations, we become focused on ourselves, can think of little else, and lose all wider perspective. We tend to assume that other people are the cause of our pain; with mindfulness, over time, we learn how often the real cause of our suffering is the anger that resides within us. When we are enraged, we tend to exaggerate a person’s defects—just as when we are seized by desire we accentuate somebody’s attractions and ignore her faults, even though at some level we may know that this is a delusion.

Similarly, we become aware that the acquisitive drive, which originally motivated our search for food, is never satisfied. As you progress, you will notice that once a desire is fulfilled, you almost immediately start to want something else. if the object of your desire turns out to be disappointing, you become frustrated and unsettled. You soon realize that nothing lasts long. An irritation, idea, or fantasy that seemed all-consuming a moment ago tends to pass quite quickly, and before long you are distracted by a startling noise or a sudden drop in temperature, which shatters your concentration. We humans rarely sit absolutely still but are constantly shifting our position, even when we sleep. We suddenly get it into our heads to wander into another room, make a cup of tea, or find somebody to talk to. One minute we are seething over a colleague’s inefficiency; the next we are daydreaming about our summer vacation. Gradually, as you become conscious of your changeability, you will find that you are beginning to sit a little more lightly to your opinions and desires. Your current preoccupation is not really “you,” because in a few moments you will almost certainly be obsessing about something else.


The Uninvited Ache

Excerpt from Tinkers by Paul Harding:

Your cold mornings are filled with the heartache about the fact that although we are not at ease in this world, it is all we have, that it is ours but that it is full of strife, so that all we can call our own is strife; but even that is better than nothing at all, isn’t it? And as you split frost-laced wood with numb hands, rejoice that your uncertainty is God’s will and His grace toward you and that that is beautiful, and part of a greater certainty, as your own father always said in his sermons and to you at home. And as the ax bites into the wood, be comforted in the fact that the ache in your heart and the confusion in your soul means that you are still alive, still human, and still open to the beauty of the world, even though you have done nothing to deserve it. And when you resent the ache in your heart, remember: You will be dead and buried soon enough.

Howard resented the ache in his heart. He resented that it was there every morning when he woke up, that it remained at least until he had dressed and had some hot coffee, if not until he had taken stock of the goods in his brush cart, and fed and hitched Prince Edward, if not until his rounds were done, if not until he fell asleep that night, and if his dreams were not tormented by it. He resented equally the ache and the resentment itself. He resented his resentment because it was a sign of his own limitations of spirit and humility, no matter that he understood that such was each man’s burden. He resented the ache because it was uninvited, seemed imposed, a sentence, and, despite the encouragement he gave himself each morning, it baffled him because it was there whether the day was good or bad, whether he witnessed major kindness or minor transgression, suffered sourceless grief or spontaneous joy.


To Understand the Meek

A poem and an excerpt from an essay by Marry Karr from Sinners Welcome:

Who the Meek are Not

          Not the bristle-bearded Igors bent
under burlap sacks, not peasants knee-deep
          in the rice paddy muck,
not the serfs whose quarter-moon sickles
          make the wheat fall in waves
they don’t get to eat. My friend the Franciscan
          nun says we misread
the word meek in the Bible verse that blesses them.
          To understand the meek
(she says) picture a great stallion at full gallop
          in a meadow, who—
at his master’s voice—seizes up to a stunned
          but instant halt.
So with the strain of holding that great power
          in check, the muscles
along the arched neck eddying,
          and only the velvet ears
prick forward, awaiting the next order.

Facing Altars: Poetry and Prayer

To confess my unlikely Catholicism in Poetry—the journal that first published some of the godless twentieth-century disillusionaries of J. Alfred Prufrock and his pals—feels like an act of perversion kinkier than any dildo-wielding dominatrix could manage on HBO’s Real Sex Extra. I can’t even blame it on my being a cradle Catholic, some brainwashed escapee of the pleated skirt and communion veil who—after a misspent youth and facing an Eleanor Rigby-like dotage—plodded back into the confession booth some rainy Saturday.

Not victim but volunteer, I converted in 1996 after a lifetime of undiluted agnosticism. Hearing about my baptism, a friend sent me a postcard that read, “Not you on the Pope’s team. Say it ain’t so!” Well, while probably not the late Pope’s favorite Catholic (nor he my favorite Pope), I took the blessing and ate the broken bread. And just as I continue to live in America and vote despite my revulsion for many U.S. policies, I continue to take the sacraments despite my fervent aversion to certain doctrines. Call me a cafeteria Catholic if you like, but to that I’d say, Who isn’t?