community, spirtuality

What Makes Love Last?

-how fortunate are you and i,whose home  is timelessness:we who have wandered down  from fragrant mountains of eternal now  to frolic in such mysteries as birth  and death a day(or maybe even less)

E.E. Cummings, “stand with your lover on the ending earth-” 

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Redwoods, Nisene Marks State Park, CA

I will soon be celebrating the marriage of one of my family members that has lasted several decades, 40 years to be exact, and I’ve been giving some thought as to what it is that enables a love relationship to endure over such an extended period of time. When my parents were in their 60’s, I interviewed them about their lives, asking how it was they met and married. My parents married during the Great Depression and it was a simple affair–no party, no special wedding dress, no photos. It was a regular day except they got married, and that event changed their lives. Neither of them emphasized the romantic aspect of their relationship in relating their history to me, and yet I never doubted that they loved each other and were committed to the relationship even though there was a period of years that my father lived away from home managing jobs in other states and came home once or twice a month. What was it that enabled their love to endure through time? Communication seemed an important key to my parents’ connection to each other. I remember hearing the low hum of my parents’ voices through the walls in the mornings and after we children went to bed. There was also a a commitment to the relationship in the bigger, long-term sense–that they were there for each other and for their children, even when apart. During WWII Dad worked in Hawaii, and also worked out of town for a number of years when I was in junior high and high school–but my parents wrote each other letters frequently and regularly made trips to be with each other. Dad wrote stories and poems that he shared with us as well.

My parents were also committed to being there for people in the larger community–to helping neighbors, friends and other people that they came in contact with or learned about that needed help. Dad built and repaired things for many people, and brought people turkeys at holidays, for example, while Mom sewed quilts and clothes for others. My parents didn’t live simply to improve their own lives, they contributed to their community. Helping others was an important part of living. Together they embodied what Martin Seligman in his study of the science behind of what creates a meaningful life has found–that people who feel their lives offer them a deep sense of meaningful fulfillment are those that use their personality strengths for a purpose larger than themselves. Much of this kind of caring, this love, can be carried on without words. It is a way of being together. Love is given in the tone inside and underneath the words, and is the mood inside the actions spoken with the body. As one of my friends told me, “A lot of what love is is simply showing up–being there for each other.”

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Forest Path, Nisene Marks State Park, CA

Being there for each other. What does that look like? The Buddhist leader and monk from Vietnam Thich Nhat Hahn in an interview with Oprah, explained when asked if he meditates every day, that he is also meditating “while drinking, while talking, while writing, while watering our garden, it’s always possible to practice living in the here and the now.” (Read more on the Oprah website “Oprah Talks to Thich Nhat Hahn” here.) Thay (as Thich Nhat Hahn is also called) goes on to say that when sitting with someone, “Darling I am here for you,” is his mantra. He explains. “When you love someone, the best you can offer is your presence. How can you love if you are not there? ” This attitude of a listening heart is what I mean by showing up for the ones you love: in your full being you are intentionally, consciously present. You are listening not just to the other person’s words and actions, but to his or her heart, to the silences and things the person can’t quite articulate, even if you’re not sure what everything means that you are hearing or noticing. You are present for the other with your full self, and you work to know who you are so you can give yourself in a caring, open way.

Pamela Dussault in her The Huffington Post article, “5 Essential Steps to a Happy, Enduring Relationship” suggests that couples need to know their purpose for being together. The base for the relationship rather than focused on fear or the desire to control, has the focus of sharing life of companionship. Also, she describes that enduring relationships are those where partners have the ability to give and receive without having expectations. Lastly, she says partners in happy relationships connect with each other both emotionally and spiritually, appreciating the partner’s uniqueness.  A key, she suggests is that “your partner must be seen, loved, appreciated and cherished for who they are, as they are.”

Romantic love has been central to the idea of marriage in the Western world since the time of the Middle Ages and the troubadours when knights accomplished their deeds for the love of their lady. While enduring love can include romance as well as traditions, negotiating between both passion and what makes a love stable, creating a relationship of lasting love encompasses a larger territory than romantic love or tradition alone. To ask what makes love endure is to ask what is the source or foundation of the love. To ask what creates love’s foundation is to ask what is it that makes love meaningful. To ask that is to ask what makes life meaningful, and to ask what makes a life. Is life just going through the days sharing food and shelter? Is it doing a sport or if talking about a relationship, is it participating in a sport or (any other activity) together? Is it having children together or accomplishing tasks at work? Certainly, these are parts of what life is, and some of these things could be called necessary elements of life, but if that were the whole of what it was, life could still feel empty. If life were composed of going through certain actions, or saying the right words at the right time in the right way, that also wouldn’t be enough to make one feel he or she was really living life.

E.E. Cummings’ poem at the start of this post begins with the line, “stand with your lover on the ending earth.” The earth is a physical object, and all objects wear out or wear down over time. At some point the earth and everything on it will end. Cummings begins this love poem in the awareness that all is at the “mercy of time.” We will die. The earth will die. But love is somehow beyond time. The home of all love abides in a mysterious essence beyond time. It is part of what Cummings describes as “the fragrant mountains of eternal now.” We frolic in the mysteries of birth and death, but acts done in love, living done with love, time where we sit with someone with the attitude and heart that communicates both with words or without them, “Darling, I am here for you,” that lives on in a place both in and beyond time. That love allows us a taste of eternity. Annie Lighthart’s, poem, “The Second Music,”  elaborates on this idea where describing the everyday events of life she says,

Now I understand that there are two melodies playing, one below the other, one easier to hear, the other

lower, steady, perhaps more faithful for being less heard yet always present.

There is the world we live in–all the wondrous sights our eyes have seen, our ears heard, our bodies felt; the wide oceans with their ten thousand colors of blue, the forests of intense greens, the smiles of a child, birds in flight, clouds drifting by in the vast sky, the hollows and hills of everywhere, rain splashing on stone streets, the icy lace clinging to trees, the laughter of the ones we love, the last touch of a hand from one who is leaving us, all these experiences, and so many, many more wonders known while walking in this world, these are ours, and inside of them “If the truth of our lives is what it is playing,” Lighthart goes on to write, there is a “second music” that she stops to listen to that is underneath and through all these moments, sights, sounds and experiences. She ends the poem by saying “I set my ear to it as I would to a heart.” This is the love that is living–I could say hiding–inside of the physical world. We perceive it with the heart because what is known with the heart is what lives on. That is the love that endures–the part of life when we are fully present with another. Love that endures connects to this larger love. That is the love that weaves the world together.

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Bridge, Nisene Marks State Park, CA

Recently, we had a guest visiting our house who is approaching her 80th birthday in September. When I asked her what is something that age has taught her, she replied, “Your age isn’t who you are. You are more than body, emotions or thoughts, more than any of these or all of these together.” None of us loves perfectly. Loving someone, anyone, is more than what we do or say, more than time together, more than body or emotions shared. Love is a journey, just as marriage is a journey, a pilgrimage toward love. You have to get out there and walk the trail. Sometimes you take a road you think is the right one but you get off track. Sometimes you might walk a long way through dry, flat land. You walk in rain and sun. You walk up hill. Sometimes you get tired. Nevertheless, love begins each day living in attitude of walking together. You walk and you listen to each other. Thoreau said, “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost. Now put the foundations under them.” This is the work of enduring love: you practice being present in small moments (and most of life is lived in those small moments, the daily acts) so that we will be able to be present for the big moments when they come. Our giving ourselves to learn to walk together and to listen to each other is what carries marriage across the threshold into the sacred and allows us to taste what is eternal.

Looking For...

Observations and a Meaningful Life

When I first started the exercise of purposeful noticing, a friend living in Singapore wrote me, wondering about the value of observing the same location repeatedly vs. seeking out new places and things. I have family members who return to Venice, Italy every year, never tiring of it, always seeing something new in the familiar. There’s something to be said for pushing your boundaries within confined parameters, and my friend’s comment reminded me of an exercise of Ann Berthoff’s, which had students observing an object for 10 days in a row and writing about it in their journals. Through this activity, the writers grew to know their chosen object in new ways while interacting with it–sometimes talking to it, sometimes analyzing it and breaking it down into its parts, other times imagining how the object might be used–each writer taking a different approach.

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Light Play–Patterns of the Afternoon’s Dappled Light on Front Steps

Berthoff, who was interested in the interaction between reading and writing, suggested that people make meaning as they read, and that language’s power comes through writer’s attempts to construct meaning while looking for patterns and explore the tensions in a text, both while reading and while writing. I recall the photo of splotches on a page in one of her books, Forming, Thinking, Writing, that when viewed, the brain translates into a Dalmatian. You can see how your brain does this for yourself here on this link. The recognition of a dog occurs because our brains search for patterns and connections. This wrestling with our confusion and making patterns out of it is actually what enables us to come to know what we know. Not only that, this shaping is a recursive process of naming and renaming, not a linear one with the goal of getting to the end product and then moving on.

From this foundational view point, we can understand that confusion is actually valuable. Confusion actually leads us into an interactive, exploratory composing process. When actively working with our confusion, we come to see how meaning is fluid, not static. We are wise, then, not to rush to conclusions, or be too quick to line up our points in an argument. It is our play with ideas, our extended experimentation and exploration, that is essential to deep thinking and understanding. We explore as we write, we think as we write, and through that, understanding grows. I believe this process actually holds true in many areas–whether exploring a question or a train of thought in science, or experimenting with materials in art. It is the extended play and continued exploration that expands our understanding of anything’s complexity, and that, in the end, can bring us back to a relationship with wonder.

Berthoff’s ideas resurface for me now as I reflect on the past nine days of purposeful noticing, and observe what is happening as I continue this practice. I’ve not been able to get out and see new places much, and have, therefore, needed to observe more closely things that are familiar, that I see every day, and try and give them focus through directed attention. As a result, I’ve found myself asking questions I’ve not thought of much or even at all. I’ve also noticed how observations lead to further observations and additional questions that I wasn’t planning on. Additionally, I’m beginning to more frequently see how the things I’m noticing can serve as metaphors.

Here are my observations, and a brief synopsis of what they’ve led me to think and wonder. (The previous observations are in previous blog posts.)

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Reflection–sky and trees

Day 5: Outside my apartment, birds caw in distinctive ways, as if in conversation. What does their conversation mean? I’m noticing the birds in the tree I see through the window. How the tree that has died and been cut off half way has caused birds to shift from one tree to another. When something is taken away, we find another place to rest.

Day 6: At the swimming pool: The thin line between the surface of the water and underneath the water–two worlds separated but containing each other. So beautiful, this fluid division of realities.

Day 7: At the pool: The wobbly hexagonal shapes the broken surface of water makes on the shallow floor of a pool. What causes this shape to occur?

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Reflections, Nehru Park, New Delhi

Day 8: Dragonflies. Yellow wings swarm and swirl by the hundreds above the trees outside my window. (Aren’t dragonflies viewed as good luck in Far East Asia?)

Day 9: Drooping collard greens in the window box. Leaves curling under, as if to hide  from the afternoon’s oven heat. What appears to be fragile, isn’t necessarily. But even plants have their limits as to how much heat they can tolerate.

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Reflection 3–sky, blossoms and trees

Day 10: The glistening leaves, toss white light as they blow outside the window. One brilliant pink flower, still and unmoved, beneath a harbor of vines.

Day 11: A layer of water spreads in thin pools across the stony green path. I walk across the sky and trees reflected there. Water allows stone to become mirror.

What are these observations? I don’t yet know, but surely many of the things I’ve listed here are metaphors for other things we experience in life. What do any our live’s observations bring? Our brains like to create patterns, as I said earlier. They want to make meaning. I want the whole of my life to be meaningful. Writing and seeing are ways into making meaning. They are tools for anyone who chooses to use and cultivate them, enabling us to wrestle with existence, and to find our place in the midst of the current of days flowing through us.

This belief about writing’s value leads me to wonder more of how, through writing, I can better help others find wrestle with and affirm their own questions, explorations, and discovery of meaning. Martin Seligman, talks about what makes a meaningful life. He has done research on what things actually allow people to have a more content, satisfying, whole life. There are three aspects: 1. a pleasant life–defined as experiences of positive emotion, 2. a life of engagement where time stops and you’re in the flow of what you’re doing, and 3. a meaningful life. He explains that the pleasant life, or the presence of positive emotion, is a largely hereditary and that these experiences habituate: Pleasurable experiences are great when you first experience them, but the thrill wears off fairly rapidly. A life that is satisfying is more than merely experiencing positive emotions. This is where the idea of “flow”, to use Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s term, comes in. Flow, Seligman explains, is where you are totally connected to what you’re involved in and are experiencing. When you are in flow, time stops for you during that activity. The recipe for experiencing flow, Seligman says, is knowing what your highest character strengths are, and then reshaping your life so that you are connecting to and using these character strengths at work, at play, and in all you do.

Here is his site where you can take a character strengths quiz to help you identify these strengths. Alternatively, you could also take the character strengths survey on this site. Both sites have quizzes for young people as well. The VIA site, gives a variety of ideas for each character strength of what you might do to enhance that strength in your life. The experience of living meaningfully, Seligman says, can be expanded through knowing what your highest strengths are, and then using them to belong to or be in the service of something larger than yourself.

Here are some specific things Seligman suggests in his talk that his research shows people can do to enhance well-being in their lives: 1. Take the character strengths quiz  and then once you know your strengths, design a beautiful day that uses and enhances these character strengths. Use savoring and mindfulness to deepen and enrich the day’s experience. 2. Gratitude visit: Write a 300 word testimonial directed to a person that you never properly thanked but that did something enormously important that changed your life’s direction. Make an appointment to meet with that person face to face and read them what you wrote. The positive effects of this experience last for several months, his research shows. 3. Strengths date: couples (and I suggest why not friends, or even enemies as a way of creating understanding) identify their character strengths through taking the strengths test (available on Seligman’s site and at the VIA character strengths site.) Then the couple designs a date or an evening where they both use their strengths. This activity serves to strengthen the bond between the couple. 4. Fun vs. philanthropy: Doing something philanthropic gives a sense of inner contentment or well-being that lasts longer than doing something fun. Do something that helps, enriches, or enhances other people’s lives, and your sense of well-being increases. Through research, Seligman discovered that the pursuit of meaning, in addition to doing things that people find engaging and where they are experiencing flow, contribute to people’s lives at the highest levels of well-being. If you’re interested in Seligman’s ideas, I encourage you to read his book Flourish, where he gives additional specific ideas and suggestions about what enables people’s lives to flourish, and how his research at the University of Pennsylvania is exploring what factors contribute to and nourish a meaningful life.  (View Seligman’s TED talk here about these ideas.)

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Rock Crevice in the Afternoon: A hollow place.
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Going Inside a Stone: Rock Crevice at Night, under florescent light.

I began my purposeful observation with the intention of making some cracks in my busyness so that I might find ways to live more purposefully, intentionally, meaningfully. I’m finding the close observations of tiny things are leading me towards some bigger observations and questions. How can I more purposefully keep my aspirations alive? In the work I do each day, how can I continue to renew those aspirations as I apply the skills I have to meet other people’s needs? What I’ve been given and what I’ve nurtured, strengthened and learned, is to be shared. How can I keep that focus before me so life’s meaning continues to deepen? We look and we look again. We explore and play. Step by step, we grow towards understanding of what it is to walk on this earth.

What insights do you have into what deepens your life’s meaning?