Three years ago I tattooed a hand-written note to myself on the inside of my right wrist.
After a particularly intense January filled with stress of writing a paper for conferences about forgiveness and 9/11, and after having submitted all of my applications for graduate school, I felt like I need a reminder to keep things in perspective. What do I need to do? Breathe. What else? Love. Sometimes, I want to be sure to breathe love itself, to live breath by breath out of compassion, kindness, and love. And when times get particularly difficult, all I need to remind myself of is, “Breathe, love.” Sometimes, that is enough.
Now, at the end of another long and intense January when I am again writing papers for conference submissions, I find myself returning to that memo to myself. Although I am not worried about getting into graduate school these days, I do have the stress building inside of me thanks to a pile of 42 BIG, dense canonical philosophy texts that I have to get through in the next semester for my comprehensive exams. But there’s more to my need for a reminder to “breathe love.”
As my writing has indicated over these past couple of days, I have been acutely aware of a strange vulnerability that comes from putting myself “out there.” I teach from the heart, because I really do care about my students, about education, about growing from the learning that can occur in a classroom. I write from deep inside about issues and ideas that are personally and politically important to me, because I think that philosophy, and reading, and writing are often rooted to these very personal things anyway, and that pursuing them honestly is probably the best way to proceed if we really want to make sense of our experiences and create some changes. And I am honest about these “personal things” in my public and professional spheres because I don’t really see a divide between what is public, private, political anyway, and I think that being open about these connections is one of the only ways to help other people come to terms with the interconnections of issues and experiences in their lives. My made up word reflects this interrelatedness of life and philosophy. “Philifesophy” denies the notion that some things are suitable for “thinking” philosophically and that these are best kept separate from what happens in our “real lives.” A really simple way to explain it is that I deeply care about the things that I do. And I pursue them with the sort of intentionality, dedication, and expectation that follows suit. And doing so comes with serious risks.
I am acutely aware of how I “put myself out there” not simply because of the sheer act of doing so. My acute feelings arise as unnameable tensions, turmoils, stirrings, or unsettling dis-eases that I often don’t really know how to deal with. I think, perhaps, these are the feelings that accumulate in my chest, in my lungs (at least that’s where I always experience it) when I don’t know how to process and assimilate the very real chances that what I do, who I am, and what I share with others will not be accepted or appreciated for what it is. When I share myself with others–my feelings, my fears, my passions, my ideas, my struggles, my insights–I do so out of the interest to share, to create a connection, to facilitate a mutual relationship. Unfortunately, when it comes to philosophy, some people are not interested in true dialogue and listening to one another for understanding. Instead, some people just want to tell you that you are wrong. And when students think that what I do is too political, or philosophers think that what I write about is too personal, by most other people’s standards they are probably right. Not only is it a possibility that my passion, intention, and sincere desire to connect on these levels with these things will often not be reciprocated. It is a fact. And I feel like I haven’t yet developed a way to deal with such “less than preferred” situations except by hardly acknowledging them and trying to move on.
This, I know, is not going to be a healthy or sustainable practice.
Given all of this, I can understand why it is easier for some people to just divide up their lives: “This is my work. This is my personal stuff. That way, when you criticize my work, I don’t have to take it personally.” Or, if they don’t impose a strict separation, I can understand why it is easier for some to harden up and forget about what other people say. This, I think, is what it means to develop a “thick skin.” You find ways to make your skin so thick that people’s opinions, actions, words, don’t affect you. You become impenetrable. Like a rock or layer of armor, nothing gets to the “mushy-gushy” stuff inside. Or like rubber, what other people say bounces right off of you (We can learn a lot about ourselves by looking to what we learn as children, even in things like little kids’ rhymes). These approaches might seem to work for some, but I am skeptical. I know that for me, I don’t have a thick skin. But more importantly, I don’t want one. And I don’t want to divide up my life. That runs counter to everything that I stand for and have been working towards.
So what do I do? If walls and separation and rubbery-thick skin aren’t viable options, but failing to healthily address how other people’s unfavorable responses and resistances affect me isn’t going to work for long either, I am left with few options.
Except to look at my wrist.
It’s strange how a mindfulness tattoo can be so quickly forgotten and go unnoticed. That goes to show how quickly we can fall out of some practices. But what I want to do, and what I think I must do, is find a way to stay open without letting whatever comes my way harm me and make me sick. If I can return to the practice of cultivating loving-kindness, compassionate understanding, and transforming negativity within myself so that when I exhale something more like love rather than pollution comes out of me, I may just overcome the feeling that I need to impose separations and grow a thicker skin (There was another reference in there to questionable things we teach our kids: “Breathe in the good…Exhale the bad.” Well great, now we just have a whole lot of bad out there in the world). In fact, what I want to do is the exact opposite of being incapable of being affected by others. I know it is delusional to think that others don’t shape and affect us, so the key insight that I want to stay mindful of, especially right now, is to deal with these real effects (affects?) in a healthy, loving, and compassionate way. For my own sake, and for the sake of others.
I recognized it a while ago that I am actually lucky to have been assigned to teach Asian Philosophies this semester. And again, I find myself grateful for the unexpected twists and turns in my path. Even though it wasn’t my first choice, and even though my original (and very cool) syllabus for a cutting edge approach to Asian and Asian American philosophy got rejected because it didn’t match the description in the course catalog, I think it is a good thing that I am going to be teaching Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. I am glad to be returning to those simple ideas that helped ground me during my college years, ideas like mindfulness, compassion, and breathing. Because, as I have experienced already, teaching is really one of the greatest opportunities for learning. And I see that I need to relearn some things.
As my cough returns, my hope is that I can transform those sharp and desperate inhales and exhales into what my body is actually craving for them to be–deep, nourishing breaths.