The Dance with Difficulty: Learning and the “Hard Stuff”

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“I’m just glad to hear that someone else is doing something that’s hard.”

My dear friend Lady Bird said this to me in one of our many conversations in which we hash out the contents of our souls and describe the decor of our interior castles. She was responding to a comment I made about how challenging it was to practice all I was learning in my healing artists’ school. This healing work was asking more of me, mind, body and spirit, than I had ever imagined.

As an English major, I remember being envious of my friends who were studying more technical things. I longed to be immersed in brand new concepts in the way that the biology majors learned about obscure physical processes and the psychology students learned about the activities of the brain.

It wasn’t that every poem and novel didn’t offer new gateways into knowledge – in many ways it was much more limitless than the structures of scientific theories. It was just that everything was so open ended and there were so few “right” answers that I sometimes felt a little at sea. We would all read the same books and compose completely different papers that flowed in countless directions. I was full of free floating thought (isn’t that what liberal arts educations are supposed to give you – the ability to think?), but I felt that I was getting little concrete information. My brain was learning expansion, but not necessarily discipline.

As my days as a student become a smaller and smaller percentage of my life (funny how that happens – when I was 22 I could say that I had spent 10% of my life in Ireland – I don’t want to do the math to know what it is now!), I look at that legacy of how I learned to learn.

What is my relationship with gathering and retaining knowledge now?

And, what does it mean to embark upon learning something that’s hard?

dsc00095So much of life is already “hard.” Finding work that sustains you economically, mentally, emotionally. Taking steps to be physically and mentally healthy. Maintaining relationships and finding the balance between caring for ourselves and others. Monitoring all of the suffering in the world and making whatever small steps we can to alleviate it. Coping with pain and death and debt and loneliness

Getting through the day is so often challenging enough, why take on any more stuff? We have so many practical and emotional battles to fight, why add more information and “to dos” to the list?

This morning I started looking back on the last few years of my life. There have been countless challenges that have forced me to grow as a person and I know I have learned thousands of essential lessons.

I have read hundreds of books and meandered down countless avenues of thought. And yet, I have enjoyed the luxury of being my own teacher, putting the book down when the prose got too thick or the philosophy deviated too much from what I thought I wanted to absorb.

Last week, I mentioned that I still thought about how I had decided against pursuing my PhD. Though it is still in the back of my mind as a path not taken, I treasure the freedom I have had to pursue whatever wisdom strikes my fancy.

Now, I find myself in a completely other kind of study. It is wildly open ended as I use all of my creative powers in service to another’s healing process, and yet there is groundwork to be laid and structures to be learned first. I find my brain needing to adapt to a whole new sort of discipline that can let me fly free and stay grounded at the same time.

dsc001831We are still in the time of a year’s fresh new thoughts and dreams. Maybe this is a good moment for you to consider how you learn new things and how you engage with stuff that’s “hard.”

Is there information that begs to be absorbed in a new way? Are there challenges that ask for a different sort of attention?

What new territory is asking to be claimed and explored?

Definitions, Categories, and Other Roadblocks on the Way to God

A couple of years ago I sat in a colleague’s office in the midst of yet another existential crisis (as you might surmise by the fact that I was sharing such a dilemma with a coworker, she is also a good friend). I was agonizing over whether I should enroll in a graduate program to get a master’s in library science. There were loads of good reasons to do it: my experience would set me up well for a job in academia; I hadn’t been to school in a few years and was starting to miss my student status; there seemed to be a general feeling of “what are you going to do next?” and this seemed a logical answer. Of course, the main reason I could cite in opposition to committing the next two or three years to my life to this pursuit was that I really didn’t want to be a librarian. At the time, that did not seem like a compelling enough answer to give up the idea.

My friend sagely observed that I was just wanted to be able to tell people: “I am a… something.” My currently ambiguous job title could be traded for a recognized profession and I could rest assured that I had secured a stable identity. When I was too scared to present myself as a writer, or it felt too new and strange to call myself a wife, or when calling myself a feminist or a redhead or a Cape Codder or a spiritual seeker felt too limiting or unacceptable or broad, I could cheerily fight the stereotype of a geriatric creature in a bun with a habit of shushing people as a declared a librarian.

Fully realizing that this quest for a title is practically a caricature of my need to construct and cling to my fragile false self, I can laugh at this misbegotten bid for a prepackaged mask. This is not to say that I no longer cling to my ego, but at least my need for it is slightly less transparent these days.

This episode belies my addiction categorization, even as my right-brained literature studying being seems to shun such logic. I think part of that came from feeling lost in the free flowing waters of fiction and poetry; I required some vocabulary to help me structure my education, a few rocks to cling to in that eddy of words and expression. Part of it, of course, must be human nature as well. Even now, I refuse to cleave to any specific religion but I still seek to build a framework of earthly logic upon which to hang my experience of the Divine in my life. I dance with definition – longing for it even as I endlessly dart away from its comforting grasp.

Of course, as I unpack this box of thoughts by seeing them sprawl across the screen, I realize that all spiritual writing and even thinking is produced against the backdrop of this essential paradox: we write and read to understand and describe that which can never be captured on the page or even by the mind. Another elementary epiphany, I realize, but something that I need to remember as I repeatedly make the mistake of choosing theory over practice, reading that book about meditation opposed to, well, you know.

All of this comes to mind specifically after reading about the difference between Celtic spirituality and mysticism at The Website of Unknowing. I was presented with so many new terms in that post, and the ersatz librarian in me longed to start researching words like “apophatic” and “cataphatic.” While such knowledge has its place however, and I recognize the site’s writer to be incredibly learned, I am going to make a conscious effort to avoid discovering the tenets of such dichotomies for a while and experiment with trusting experience and the wisdom of the body rather than trying to cultivate further encyclopedic book smarts.

Surely all of this is a delicate balance as we gain insights from great thinkers and mystics even as we risk using their quotes and vignettes as crutches that allow us to hobble ever away from the sacred.