Turning myself off (or endless summer)

A few years ago I read a compelling description of myself in the book , Goddesses in Everywoman, Powerful Archetypes in Women’s Lives, by Jean Shinoda Bolen.  It was one of those ‘killing me softly’ moments, one of those ‘double-take in the mirror’ moments, one of those ‘jump-out-of-your-seat-shout-aha!-and-call-your-best-friend-about-it’ moments.  To this day, her portrayal of me continues to inform me, deepen me, and persistently call me home, as any good archetype will do.

Basically the portrayal goes something like this.  (paraphrased from pages  133-135)

“A woman with diffuse awareness has an attitude of acceptance, an awareness of the unity of life, and a readiness for relationship. (note to self, remember this part, Vicki).  However, for a woman with diffuse awareness, making the shift to focused consciousness is not easy. 

The consciousness of diffuse awareness  is analogous to the light from a living room lamp, which illuminates and casts a warm glow on everything within its radius.  It is a generalized attentiveness that allows a person to notice feeling nuances (uh huh), a receptivity to emotional tone in a situation (mmhmm), an awareness of background sounds as well as whatever is the center of attention (duh). It is this awareness that allows a woman to notice her child’s whimper through the din of conversation, or know instantly her spouse’s emotional state when walking in the door.  This receptive, whole, gestalt consciousness is in contrast to the more focused attention that concentrates on one element to the exclusion of all else.

A woman’s behavior is necessarily modified and often reinforced by her children to keep her in this state of diffuse awareness.  What often happens is that when she is with her children she must be in a receptive and unfocused state of mind, yet even when she changes modes to concentrate intently on one thing, she is interrupted and brought back to a focus outside of herself.  For instance, when engaged in mindless activities such as cleaning or laundry or even light reading, her children may be content playing in the next room, but as soon as she decides to take advantage of some quiet time to focus inward, in study or journaling for example, her children (and husband for that matter) seem to show up somehow needing her.. Trying to focus in the midst of continual interruption is frustrating. The net effect is to discourage focused consciousness, thus modifying her behavior . For a woman with diffuse awareness, this same thing is true with older children, lovers, spouses, friends, and co-workers too.  

The thing is, she has ‘turned the light off’ and tuned them out and they feel it when her scanning-for-details, attentive-to-them mental state is replaced by focused attention.  Even a supportive partner may feel insecure and anxious when that warm light is turned off.  For relationship-oriented women one inevitable source of friction, when she decides to do something that requires her undivided attention— anything that tunes loved ones out to focus on some concern of her own — , is the constant intrusions and interruptions.  (my note here.  that friction is not only between her and her loved one, but also present within herself) . She herself often has trouble concentrating on her work, for the receptive, diffuse state of mind that allows a woman to attend to others also allows them to distract her easily. She is aware of the state of their presence through her empathetic connections even when they are not with her.”

For a woman like me, whose boundaries were practically nonexistent to begin with, the experience of 30 years of mothering did a phenomenal job of reinforcing  those thin boundaries between myself and the other.  And certainly, there is something good about that (remembering that ‘note to self’ above). I do not want to lose that quality in me that helps me to feel what my loved ones are feeling.  I do not want to lose my sense of interconnectedness. After all, empathy is at the heart of compassion.  I expect I will always walk that thin line between caring for and taking care of, feeling for and feeling responsible for.. and often fall over the edge.  I have long since known that being aware of the place in me from which my actions and addictions arise is vital (read life-giving). Am I flowing from a groundedness in love, from a deep place where compassion for myself and compassion for the other are one,  or am I reacting from a place of fear? Fear of abandonment– of being rejected, misunderstood, unloved–is the place in me where I fall down every time.  Relationships are obviously very important to me, my actions speak that loudly.

What I am noticing today in a fresh way is this. Cell phone and computer technology with all of its relational features …. text messaging, email, facebook, blogs…. acts the same way in modifying a person’s ability to focus attentively on one thing. Wham! for those of us with diffuse awareness. Combine that with the little dopamine rush that researchers have noted in the brains of persons as they are opening a text, or an email, or checking in to facebook (regardless of whether their hoped-for message is there) and it seems to me you’ve got the ingredients for the desert dryness of an endless summer.

Perhaps I should explain. For probably 25 years or so of my life, I’d been aware of the distracted and numb, empty feeling I experienced by the end of a summer of a constant need to be ‘on’, with five children home from school and no longer taking the naps that at least had offered some ‘down’ time when they were younger. I’d find myself staying up later and later to catch some time to myself after the oldest went to bed. In later years I came to lament that as a loss of contact with the depths of myself, in which I’d found Love and creativity, and in which I could refuel and ground myself in soulful living.  I’m convinced that some of my love affair over the years with autumn had to do with its open invitation, and spaciousness offered, to turn inward, to move deeper, to focus my thoughts and my creativity, to live wholly, unfragmented for long hours each day.  The cool weather seasons were life-savers to me, pulling me down to my depths, beneath the surface, where I could breathe deeply. 

In recent years though I’ve noted an incessant,  nagging year-round lack in my ability to swim down and stay at those life-giving depths. I’ve written about it here on this blog… alot.  Once upon a time the structure of my life circumstances and the cycle of the seasons created at least some built-in external boundaries for me in those days before cell phones and the internet. Carving out space for solitude is even more difficult now, because I am the one who must do the carving, creating the internal boundaries in which I can say yes to those things that bring me life. What has changed, ironically, is my accessibility (as well as the accessibility of those around me!).  No one it seems ‘turns off the light’ anymore ( and gosh I am wondering here if the beginning of technological intrusions into the life of our psyche began with the invention of the lightbulb)  Whereas once I was ‘on’ for a house full of children, now I am ‘on’ to the phone ringing (sometimes both the cell phone and house phone at once! ), emails, text messages, and facebook posts, blogs, online articles, not to mention things i choose more consciously like committee meetings, yoga classes, grandbabysittting and invitations to meet with friends, old and new…. still scanning my environment, responding to the other (even if it is an inanimate ‘other’, the perfect blank screen onto which my needs for connection and fulfillment are projected), still struggling to balance my need for meaningful relationships with my need for relationship with my deeper self, still interrupted to the point where it feels fruitless to even bother trying to go there. And so I haven’t yet successfully navigated those waters from mother to crone at all, if I simply carry my ingrained mothering habits into a new terrain and ignore the invitation to love and to live from a new  place in me.

I have read that we are re-wiring our brains, that the ability to focus was perhaps a blip on the evolutionary radar anyway, that we are losing the ability for deep reading (full focus on long thoughtfully written works… like books! ) and reflective thought. I have read that we are re-enforcing more primitive parts of our brains, those parts that once upon a time couldn’t afford to focus at the exclusion of one’s surroundings or else you’d be dinner for something in those surroundings.  I have read that the dopamine rush of random reward creates in us an addiction to keep checking back in, and answering that phone, again and again. I have read that the etiquette rules of text messaging make it rude to choose to ‘turn off’ .

But it seems I’ve been waiting for such a long time to ‘turn off “ and tune in. This was supposed to be my time to live deeply, to create meaningfully, to live authentically.  And it seems I can no longer give the ‘other’ blame if I don’t follow that call of soul. I am clearly seeing that this is my work, my stuff to own… and to love.  The choice is really mine to recognize why I am compelled turn the light on, and then to consciously and lovingly choose turn ‘it’ off for ‘goodness’ sake.  The choice is mine  to turn inward and listen to my own deep wisdom, to follow that wholly and live according to what find there.  The choice is mine to live fully immersed in Life, in Creativity, in Reflection, in Beauty, in Poetry, in Gratitude, in Joy, in Empathy, in Love, in the Presence… Incarnate .

and  in relationship.

In balance.  Yes, I’d like to think I can live in both of these worlds. …Inner and Outer. Yin and Yang. Summer and Winter. Ebb and Flow. Connection and Solitude.  Sleep and Wakefulness…. that even in this my heart need not be divided.  I don’t tend to like either/or edicts (a symptom of that ‘awareness of unity’ from above) but I can recognize when I am being controlled versus freely choosing, feeling distracted versus feeling fully present. I do know something of what compulsive, addictive behavior feels like. I do know the bloated sluggish feeling of taking in too much of a good thing. It is time for me to take a look at what is behind my own mindless addictions and compulsions, my own inabilities to say ‘no’ and so to say ‘yes’… what I am avoiding, what I am filling, what I am afraid of finding, what am I afraid of losing? what am I looking for?

It is time for me to turn off the light and be mind-full. Reclaim the seasons for me.


maybe its not the internet or writing for you. maybe its not your children or food or the phone that you run to.  maybe its work, or television, or fitness or sex.  maybe its alcohol or drugs.  maybe you wouldn’t even call it a compulsion or an addiction…. to things like intimacy or responsibility or security or positive regard.  but what is it for you that keeps you trapped, distracted, unfree. gerald may would say that any of these attachments ‘uses up’ our desire, are attempts to assert control even as we are being controlled by them, and substitute for our deeper longing for an awareness and meaning. thomas keating and cynthia bourgeault would invite us to welcome ourselves when we notice ourselves to be caught in those places.

i’m hoping to look searchingly and gracefully at these desert places in me this lent. how about you?

* for more on how the internet is changing our brains se http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/07/is-google-making-us-stupid/6868/

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