Sometimes you just make a shift in life and you understand so much more about everything around you in an instant. You suddenly see clearly after years of being deaf and blind.
When it happens, then you find yourself wanting to address all the things you’ve been avoiding up until now. At the same time, you find patience because you realize you can’t change everything all at once. You also develop a simple and profound forgiveness for your own stupidity and failures. You’ve been doing the best you could, you realize, even if that best wasn’t very good at all. It’s taken you years to fuck up your life, so give yourself a little time to unfuck it. You can only hide from yourself for so long, living someone else’s life. When you decide to live your own is when other things begin to fall into place.
I told you in my last post that one of the things I needed to address was my eating habits. And so I have. I’ve reawakened my pallet and my desire to try new foods and my desire to cook. I’ve used that newly found passion to address another sore spot in my life, probably my biggest: my relationship.
For years, my woman and I have not seen eye-to-eye, but we’ve always loved each other, even when we were killing each other. We’ve come to the end of this relationship many times and we might come to it permanently one day. However, I realized that in my weakened state I’d only seen a caricature of her, a projection of my own mind and not the real her in many years. I decided that I couldn’t make any decisions about this without attempting to open up and see her clearly again. My woman and I have stayed together so long because we have something to teach each other. And yet both of us are bad teachers and bad students, when it comes to each other. Our patience died years ago. I had to change that, so I could see her again as she really is and not as I imagine her. To do that, I knew I needed to do a few things:
- Understand my triggers
- Break a long standing cycle of bad communication
- Become her willing student
The first key is to recognize your triggers. These are the tones of voice, phrases, looks and body language cues from your partner that drive you mad. They can send you from calm to furious instantly. For me, it’s always tone. I can’t stand anyone I perceive as talking down to me or implying that I won’t be able to learn what they have to show me. I rage at this because there are certain things that just aren’t easy for me to learn. I can’t see all the angles right away. In particular, this happens with stuff related to the physical world. In the ethereal I’m comfortable, but when it comes to taking care of the messy world of the every day, I don’t much like it. She is just the opposite. She is incredible at knowing every detail of the physical world, from how to perfectly cut steak to the best way to get out stains. I have to toil at it and work at it. That makes me even more mad, and puts me into reactive mode. And when I am in reactive mode, I learn nothing. I’m like Gandhi at a protest sit in. You are just not going to move me. I stop. I refuse to learn. And because I can’t have patience with myself, nobody can have it with me.
Your triggers will be different, but I can tell you that whatever you perceive them as, they will probably look unimportant to an outsider. To anyone else your triggers make no logical sense. Seen objectively, they are almost absurd. But that doesn’t matter, because for you they will be everything and all consuming. That little phrase your lover says will be packed with a thousand bad associations that make you crazy. And yet they are illusions really. The reasons why you have a particular trigger doesn’t really matter. The why will never get you anywhere. You can rationalize with clever causal links back to your childhood all you want, but in the end what matters is one thing: recognizing that trigger as it happens and stopping it in the moment. Learn to recognize a reaction and you can stop it. But, you have to catch that reaction at the exact moment it’s happening. Analyzing it later will do you little good. The present moment is all we ever have to change anything. Things can’t be changed in the past or the future, only now.
I needed to do something else after I recognized my trigger moment. I had to respond, instead of reacting. When couples are together for a long time, they communicate with short hand, a kind of pseudo-communication that is not really helpful to either of them. It’s a little like sleep walking. It’s no more present than watching TV or sleeping. Think about riding a train to work. Perhaps the first time you did it, you noticed everything passing by outside, trees, stores, people, signs, landmarks. But after a long time, you probably couldn’t tell me what you just passed two seconds ago. The same is true of couples when they talk to each other. They’re not really seeing or hearing the other person, they are just reacting to shadows projected from their own minds.
By responding, rather than reacting, I was able to do something I hadn’t done in forever with her: listen and learn.
I became her student. Instead of simply fighting with her, I decided to learn what she had to teach, even if she didn’t know how to teach me. I realized it was up to me to get her to teach and to do that I had to be a different student. Since I’ve come to understand the web of causality that leads to bad health and disease, I suddenly became interested in cooking. In that regard, I’ve got a lot to learn. I fucked up a meal royally the other night. I did everything wrong. I cooked the vegetables before the meat. I burned a pan. I didn’t have the right heat. It came out bland. A million little things went wrong. Now for me, because I am a life long learner, this doesn’t really bother me. I expect to just do it wrong and after repeated efforts, to get it right. I’ve always learned this way. But what I hate to do, is learn in front of someone else. Most people do not understand how to learn and so when someone is watching you fail, which is the first step of learning, often they cajole and criticize and interrupt. My woman is like this. As I said, she’s a bad teacher and I’m a bad learner when it comes to her teaching. On this particular night, I didn’t react to her critique. I let her go through it all for me a bit and I said one thing: “then show me how to do it.” She did.
After that I was there, fully present, paying attention, and learning. Over the course of the night, I learned cutting vegetables properly, how not to drip when you pull the lid, which foods go first, the subtle shifts in sound that signal that food is no longer cooking properly, the motion of the cutting knife, seasoning perfectly. A funny thing happened. Her tone changed. She became a good teacher and I a good student. I realized that she is an absolute master of her environment, in a way that few people are and because of that, she has little patience for imperfection. She doesn’t realize that most people can’t approach everything in life with a steadfast determined perfection. This is the stuff of enlightenment, that sages work their whole life for, to do one thing perfectly and she does so many of them that it seems obvious to her. But, if I can stay my rage long enough and see what is actually in front of me, then I just might be able to learn a little of this quiet persistence from her.
Our biggest challenges take a lot of different forms. They’re different for everybody. For one person it might be facing jumping out a plane and for another it might just be giving a public speech. Whatever your challenge is, it will be yours alone. For me, dealing with my relationship, and how we communicate is one of my biggest ones. I have no idea how this will turn out in the long run. We’ve done a lot of damage to each other over the years, but if I can stay calm and focused and present long enough, I just might see the real her and through gentle repetition, let her see the real me too.