Leave No Traces
I hate the idea of writing things for you to do. It repels me. Hairs stand on end. Yet, here I am.
I don’t pretend that humans are one size fits all. I don’t think that anything can serve everyone, and I often find myself rolling my eyes a bit when someone starts to shriek from the rooftops about how they have found THE way – the right way of eating, the right kind of exercise, the right spiritual path, the right thing to believe in. I do believe that there are certain lines of inquiry that can serve many people well. The answers that will arise will be varied, but they will be equally valid. This is one such line. The inquiry of what kind of traces are holding me to the past?
I was surreptitiously issued a challenge during the last retreat that I participated in. Ok, maybe it was an invitation, but I took it as a challenge.
The idea, the mental construct, of ‘Leave No Trace’ instantly brings to mind burners chasing sequins across the playa screeching “MOOP! MOOP!” or cute girls who make YouTube videos about how they can fit all the trash that they created in the last year in a jam jar, or solemn Californian requests to respect the Beauty Way and leave places better than you found them.
And I dig all of it. The idea of not leaving traces, that we wouldn’t leave a negative impact on our surroundings is simple and devastating at the same time, because if we could do it, everything would change. In terms of physical reality this was something I had knocked around in my head quite a bit, and it inspired me. But this proposal, or, as I interpreted it, this challenge, was taking this to much deeper levels. This time it extended past just my physical impact and started to consider the energetic and emotional traces I was leaving as well. The challenge was – could I get clarity about what things from my past I have not yet left behind, and could I move forward in a way that didn’t create things I would later need to clean up?
Some connections and interactions leave us feeling free – like those friends that you can go seven years without seeing, and when you are together again you pick up where you left off like only a few minutes had passed. And some connections and interactions are loaded and keep us bound, ones where we don’t feel like we can express our needs or be ourselves, ones that are filled with guilt, expectation and which don’t give us the space to say what we feel. Ones that feel imbalanced and hopeless.
The idea of Karma in spirituality is easy to misunderstand. We often think it refers to some kind of cosmic retribution, a mystical big-bother’s-watching which lets no deed go unpunished. In truth karma is just a law of physics; what you put out, comes back (or, like we say where I grew up – what goes around comes around). I do something to hurt someone, they do something to hurt me back, then I retaliate, then they retaliate into infinity – or until someone decides to stop.
And what was being proposed in this retreat was that we decide to stop. That we give up the war, that we finish what was unfinished and that we move forward without dragging anything with us.
Presence is the result of a lack of traces
Presence is the Holy Grail of spirituality, everyone is seeking it, some think they’ve found it. We know that it’s the key, where happiness and eternal life reside, and we look everywhere for it, or fool ourselves into thinking that we already have it, when actually what keeps us from it is simple – the past.
The more tied I am to the past, the less possible it is for me to be here. Unfinished business forces my mind into an endless loop which keeps me moving from past to future without so much as a pit stop in the now.
The less traces that I leave, the less ties that I will have with the past and the more possible a connection with the present becomes. Lofty idea, but what does it mean practically?
The ‘challenge’ is the following; to say what needs to be said in the moment that it needs to be said, to do what needs to be done in the moment that it needs to be done and to clear up anything in your life that is unfinished. If we could do that, we wouldn’t have a to-do list hanging over our heads dragging our attention away from what’s actually happening.
I have been vibrating in this possibility for a few months now, and in the attempt to commit myself to it. And in that endeavor, it’s become something quite concrete. There are steps. There are actual things that you can do to help you to understand what traces you are leaving and to help you to sever ties and clean up your movement through the world.
The first step is to make a list of everything that is sticky in your life right now. Everything that is unfinished, left-over, pending. This can range from very simple material things like finishing that website or paying that bill to much more subtle things like – something is weird between a friend and I, I’m not sure what it is, but it doesn’t feel good. From the obvious to the barely perceptible, sit down and list everything in your life that would fall into this category, everything that gives you the feeling that you are not free and clear and cannot move forward.
We are often carrying a charge from something that happened a long time ago, sometimes a wound that was created over decades of unhealthy interaction with a person and it’s not as simple as identifying something that needs to be said, or something that can be done. In this case you might just write the person’s name to note down that there is something there, something you would like to free yourself from.
Then take a look at the list and ask yourself “What can I do to resolve these things?” In some cases, like the unpaid bill and unfinished website it will be a straightforward Nike “JUST DO IT” and in others, where it’s stickier and deals with emotions and leftovers, the course of action may be much less clear.
Sometimes we are faced with the need to resolve something unresolvable. We need to say something to someone and we know that they are not open to hearing it, we need to do something that is physically impossible; we need to go back in time, or to end a war with someone who deeply wants to stay at war with us. Sometimes a relationship feels so deeply damaged that you can’t even think of what could be done or said that would make it shift because it seems to be irreparable. In this case the work happens within.
I was given an invaluable tool for situations like these – write a letter. Need to say something to someone who has left the body, who never wants to speak to you again, or who you haven’t seen in twenty years and have no idea how to locate? Need to vent to about something and you know that the person would retaliate with vengeance, not be able to understand, or might have a heart attack if you actually did it? No problem, grab a pen and write it down. All of it. Set aside a good chunk of time, go to a secluded, quiet space where you won’t be interrupted and write.
Often sending the letter would be either futile or damaging, but writing it can be profoundly cathartic and can bring clarity and levity to a situation which might have been festering for ages. Start with their name and then just allow yourself to say everything that you haven’t yet been able to say, do this without censoring yourself, let it be a catharsis in which the emotion behind the words comes to the surface. Chose a space where you could cry if you needed to, or have a pillow near to chuck across the room or yell into. If there is a big charge of anger that comes up, give it space. Anger needs to move through the body, so either shake, dance, or go for a walk or run, don’t let it just settle into the body, move it out.
It isn’t only anger and sadness that fester when not expressed, gratitude and affection can also remain stuck in our system, stopping us from moving forward. For some complaining and confronting are easy, but saying thank you or I love you are impossible. Sometimes we withhold affection because we don’t think it will be received, we withhold love out of fear of being rejected. We will choke on whatever we hold inside us, and sometimes precisely what needs to be expressed is love.
And sometimes – maybe even most times - we have the need to express both of these things – sometimes even to the same person. I love you and you hurt me, I trusted you and you let me down. I want to be close to you, but I’m afraid. I love you and I hate you. I love you and I am so hurt that you don’t love me back.
Allow yourself the space to write whatever needs to come out.
Once the letter is written figure out some way to complete it. You have written it with no filter, just allowing yourself to say what you really feel. It’s quite likely that you will decide that (at least this version of) this letter is not for the other person, it’s for you. This is often a step toward organizing your feelings and releasing some emotional charge. It may help you to decipher whether something really needs to be said to this person or if writing this has been enough. This last step may be to burn it, to throw it away, bury it, anything but giving it to the person unless you are really sure that is what needs to happen. Burning it is a really good solution, it gives the sensation of completion and transformation.
My dear friends, what you have already read is a lot, some might even say, really, really, enough. I might agree. I think that there are a few different ways that you can use this article. The first would be to just read it to here, and go – ok, I got it and put it down never to return. Another would be to read it to here, go, ok, so far It resonates, but the internet has whittled away my attention span and now I need to go for a run, or watch some videos about cat shenanigans before I come back to this riveting subject refreshed, with my ADD in check and ready to concentrate anew. Yet another would be to pause here for now, let the challenge take root, kick about a bit in your brains and return to this once you have unpeeled the first layer and are ready to go deeper. Or you can just soldier on!
After releasing the charge of saying what needs to be said there is still a world of inquiry that can bring you closer to understanding the places where you are stuck, where, for one reason or another you are not moving forward, and are unable to cut cords, close accounts and move on. This doesn’t usually descend like a cosmic download, and in one afternoon you have razor clarity around everything unresolved in your life. Usually it comes in a quiet unraveling that takes time. The first glaring layers are easy to identify; the people you are incapable of getting along with, the debt that chases you, the projects left piled up. The deeper layers; the perfectly excusable procrastination, the person that you don’t even really register that you are avoiding, the subtle ways in which you are not taking responsibility for your actions, all surface after the initial clutter is be cleared and can be used as tools to begin to access real truths about conditionings and beliefs deeply lodged in the psyche which don’t allow us to expand.
The following are subtle realms where I discovered a lot of content. They can just be points of inquiry, where you invite yourself to reflect on over some time. You may choose to write some of it down, to share your findings with someone trusted who will take the challenge with you, or to simply observe what the light of consciousness uncovers.
Something that can create subtle ties is imbalance in our relationships. Inequality can manifest in many ways; that one person feels more invested than the other, that one person seems to ‘get their way’ more of the time, or to have more freedom. Whenever we find ourselves relating with someone in a way where the power is not evenly distributed it creates discomfort and almost always creates the feeling of an energetic debt; either that the other owes us something, or an ever so slight awareness that we are taking more than we are giving, or occupying more space than them and that we maybe owe them something – even if what we owe is to feel just a wee bit guilty about it.
Try to notice the difference between relationships that feel equal and balanced and others that do not. Notice the percentage of balance in your relationships in general. Just evaluating is already revealing, but is there something that can be done? Where do you prefer to be? Are you generally the one who demands more and takes more or are you the happy martyr, willing to give the space and say to the other? Does it give you a sense of satisfaction to feel like you give more than you get? Try to notice if there is a certain position which feels more comfortable to you, or if you bounce between the two.
Are there places in these relationships where you feel like you can’t do or say what you want because of fear? Maybe you need this person for something – maybe they are your boss, someone influential, or a parent or partner who is supporting you financially. Maybe someone who you feel like you can’t live without, so you allow them and their needs to occupy more importance? Are you afraid of them? Do you know that they would be happy to get into an argument, and you hate to fight so you let some things slide? Is there someone who is always sad and downtrodden and hard-done by and you need to be careful to not hurt their feelings? Keep an eye on these places, the ones that feel suffocating, where you feel like you have no space to move, grow, or show up in a different way. Who do you need so badly that you are happy to repress yourself to keep them? Or is there someone that you know that you walk all over? Maybe you even feel bad about it, but it doesn’t even seem like they want any space, and that they are happy for you to take it all, and to focus on you. Maybe you like to have people around who have quieter opinions and less needs so that you are sure to be heard. Maybe you tend to be admired and supported, but if you pay attention that you don’t offer the same level of support that you receive.
Procrastination is the culprit behind so much stagnation and guilt in our lives, but it’s an energy that feels deceptively pleasant and beneficial, as if putting something off is something that we are doing for ourselves. I’ve been working so hard, I won’t finish this now, I’ll do it tomorrow, right now I need some Netflix, a time-out. A starting line is to look into the things you are postponing. Allow yourself to admit with full honesty all the things that you are responsible for doing that you haven’t followed through with. What are you putting off? What have you started and not finished? Try to come in contact with how much this pulls your attention, how much it vibrates in the back of your mind. Try to notice what feelings it brings up, notice if you feel guilty, if you feel ashamed or like you’re making a mistake or doing something wrong when you procrastinate and try to notice the impact of that feeling as white noise in the background of your day. You want to meditate, to sit and still the mind and that discomfort gets louder, and the impulse is generally to move around, to go do something so that you don’t hear it.
Sometimes the pull of the thing that we should be doing is so strong that it doesn’t let us rest, so we compulsively do things to quell the guilt, but for some reason we do everything except for the task that would quiet the noise, release the tension and give us real relaxation.
Try to see if there is some underlying thought or feeling behind this procrastination. Notice the way that it acts - If there is a laziness that overtakes you and you can’t even keep your eyes open, or your mind focused. If you just get incredibly bored and find yourself doing something else without even noticing that you moved away from the task. Does perfectionism take over? Are you unable to finish something because it’s never quite good enough? Is it just that you have so many things to do that no matter how many hours you put in you’ll never be done? Do you actually dislike most of the things that you have to do throughout the day? Does life feel heavy and full of endless demand and it exhausts you to even look at your to do list?
What is your relationship to your tasks? To your work? Do you like what you do? Does your work give back or does it just take?
What are you waiting for? Seriously, it’s a real question. Because most of us are waiting for something to happen to give us permission to start living our lives. Maybe we are waiting for someone to fully love and see us to feel that we are validated and are finally worthy of our oxygen intake. Perhaps we are waiting to fix all of our broken parts so that we are finally whole and ready to stand up and contribute. Maybe we are waiting to learn some lesson. Maybe we are waiting to have some aspect of our lives more together, to have more money, to have another certificate under our belt, to get some kind of skill down, to just work out this little personality kink.
What is it for you? What do you think needs to happen before you can fully live your life and express yourself?
Pacts of revenge
Sometimes we are just waiting for someone else to do it. Sometimes we have an unconscious ‘fuck you’ to life because what we really want is to be taken care of, for someone else to clean up the mess. As adults who likely didn’t receive all the care and love that we hoped for and needed as children, we sometimes develop a grudge against life. We feel that it’s unfair, that it’s too demanding, that no matter how much I do it will never be enough, and I will never be able anyway, so why try? Life takes the conceptual form of a disapproving parent who is always finding fault with everything we do, and never fully giving us what we want until we give up and stop trying.
Sometimes we have a pact against another person and part of the way that we orient our lives is not so much ‘toward what I want’ as ‘toward what will show this person how they have wronged me.” I have never learned to drive. Part of that is because when I was the age that one would normally learn I was convinced that I would live in New York City for my whole life, and it’s a pretty dumb place to have a car. The other…and maybe bigger part is because when I was the age that I could start learning I felt my mother for her own, very possibly totally valid reasons, wasn’t there for me. If I wanted to do it I was going to have to go further, to jump more hoops, to put down higher stakes, then it seemed like those around me were having to and so I opted out. I have been jealously guarding my resentment over that one for a long time. My not being able to drive impacts my life consistently and profoundly, my not being able to drive is barely registered in hers, but yet getting my driver’s license feels almost like absolving her of that parenting flaw, and I am far too vengeful to relinquish such precious hard evidence that she did something wrong. It is stupid. It is infantile, but this is how the wounded child works, it gets its sense of self of having been mistreated and concrete evidence becomes precious.
All of us have pacts of vengeance, and we have access to them if we are willing to see them, but pride makes it difficult to be honest about this.
Clear communication is one of the greatest tools that we have to help us get our needs met in life, but very few of us know how to use it. Usually we have an underlying belief that if we express our needs we will seem demanding or needy. Often we believe that even communicating will get us nowhere, that the only way to get what we want is to do it ourselves, or to control the situation so that we get the right outcome. Sometimes it can feel like weakness and we would rather just pretend that we are ok with what is happening than to admit that we need something different.
How easily and often can you communicate your needs? Is it easy for you to say no if someone asks you for something that you don’t feel like giving? Do you say yes and resent the person for asking? Do you say no to things that you really want out of fear? How do you react when someone crosses your boundary? Do you not say what you want, but expect others to know? Do you get angry or hurt when someone crosses a boundary that you didn’t verbally express but considered implicit?
Try to notice the conversations that you don’t feel like having. What are the issues that you skirt around? Can you talk about money with someone who you owe or who owes you, or is it just too uncomfortable? Sometimes it’s about feelings, are there some feelings that you don’t want to admit to having? Do you try to not communicate about anger, fear or jealousy because you are ashamed of feeling angry or jealous?
Do You Know What You Want?
Much of this practice funnels down into this one place. It is very difficult to communicate something that you don’t know. If you don’t know your limits and needs it would be basically impossible for anyone else to. Do you actually know what you want, or are you just hoping that without defining what it is it will magically land in your lap? The right relationship, the right career, the right residence – have you thought about what those would be like for you? How much money would you like to be paid for your work? What level of intimacy would you like in your relationship? What would you like your daily life to be like? All of these things are supremely important but often left vague. This is the basis for everything else. Knowing what you want will help you to move toward it. Each person is a universe, we all want something different – to assume that we can deepen into intimacy with a person by only giving them what we think they want is crazy, but we do it all the time.
Knowing what we want gives us the ability to have a barometer and to orient our lives toward something.
This is a term we often use to refer to an increase in bubble baths and naps, and that’s awesome – but in my humble opinion – incomplete. Self-care has everything to do with self-respect. We want others to respect and honor us, but we don’t always offer that to ourselves. Self-care is paying bills and not allowing your partner to choose a restaurant that you hate just to avoid an argument. It is taking responsibility for your own well being and for the things that happen in your life. It’s taking measures to ensure your comfort.
Self-care is growing up, and no longer waiting for someone else to deal with it. It is empowering yourself to be the one to hold the reins of your life. And it’s scary, and we rarely do it. All of this boils down to rescuing yourself instead of waiting to be rescued, of being a contributing, participatory player in your life and in all the places that your life touches.
There is a misconception that spirit and matter are separate things, that I am either mundane or I am spiritual. This misconception leads to another mistaken belief – that sorting my life out will distract me from my meditation and my spiritual growth. That bills, and laundry, and cooking are inferior, and my energy should be directed toward ascension instead. In truth, sorting out matter, sorting out our roots, allows us to rise. Harmonizing with matter allows us to transcend it. Ignoring matter creates disruptions in our lives such as illness, disputes, and failures which keep us stuck. Taking responsibility for dealing with these elements allows us to be free and untethered; being healthy, in harmony, and succeeding in our worldly endeavors gives us the perfect ground to launch from.