I woke early this morning. It was with some effort that I fell asleep last night. Between those events I slept well and deeply, and I am appreciative of the good rest more than I am moved in a  negative way by the lack of sleeping in. My thoughts at the end of yesterday picked up where they left off this morning, with the fragment of an idea worth further contemplation; prohibition, ‘being’ positive or negative, and the many layers of rules, rule breaking, fault-finding and reinforcement on which so much human experience is built.

So many times my traveling partner and I have spoken about words, language, and communication, and it is not uncommon that my use of ‘phrasing things in the negative’ comes up as a linguistic quirk with some potential to frame more of my experience in negative terms (potentially further influencing my thinking and decision-making). “How are you doing?” might be the question. “Not bad.” I might say in response. It’s pretty easy to see the use of negative there – did you notice it a sentence earlier on when I observed that this use of language is ‘not uncommon’ for me? It’s a subtle thing sometimes. I don’t know with any certainty whether it is of genuine significance in any way but one; it causes my traveling partner some stress. I don’t know why, but it is a linguistic form that he is uncomfortable with, and this gets me thinking about ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ people – human beings for whom a clear state of one versus the other seems to be prominent in the day-to-day interactions we share, as a defining characteristic. We all choose, but the choices are not always obvious in the moment – or easy to change once we’ve built habitual uses of language and behavior (whether toward others or ourselves), and then there’s the humor thing; people often behave in a specific fashion for a laugh. That can be pretty confusing sometimes. Sarcasm as humor isn’t accessible for every ear; I am a bit ‘tone deaf’ in the sarcasm spectrum – particularly in text – and make an effort to avoid using it, myself (somewhat unsuccessfully if I am feeling angry or frustrated).

I think about a former colleague so negative in day-to-day demeanor that sometimes working with him was enough to cause my PTSD to flare up, forcing me to just go home to be out of that environment. Strangely, he’s a friend, and a really sharp guy, educated and an astute thinker – all but for his practice of pushing every perception, every observation, and every experience through an intensely negative filter and the resulting depression, resentment, cynicism, bitterness and expressions of futility are a huge downer. Finding out later that he isn’t actually saturated in that experience, but communicating in that fashion as a form of self-expression much of the time was actually really disturbing for me; he seemed unaware that it affected others.

I am often unaware of how my use of language affects others. I am having my own experience. (Aren’t we all?) Holding this thought in my awareness I understand that life’s many prohibitions reach me through many voices over a lifetime – voices that may not be aware of how the words, tone, and implications of each prohibition may affect me. I reached adulthood understanding that the choices in life were now entirely my own, but without any understanding of what that means, or how deeply I might have to dig to make the choices that would matter the most. This morning I sip my coffee listening to jazz, and wondering how to ‘end prohibition’ in my experience and live more positively – not just on the surface, with my words and actions in the most mindful moments, but also in those dark corners where damage lurks, replacing the negatives with positives.

Have you really thought about this, yourself? How many prohibitions are you living with? I think that over for myself and make a quick list… that becomes a majorly long list very quickly. Some of the items on that list are mundane, some are no longer practical or relevant, and some just sound… mean. Where did this bullshit come from? Don’t interrupt. Don’t fidget. Don’t swear so much. Don’t walk away while I’m talking to you. Don’t leave dishes in the sink. Don’t leave papers piled up everywhere. Don’t leave paint out open. Don’t leave half full coffee cups lying around. Don’t leave that door open. Don’t be late. Don’t be early. Don’t cry. Don’t yell. Don’t talk so much. Don’t let the laundry pile up. Don’t watch so much tv. Don’t spend all day in your room. Don’t ignore me while I am talking to you. Don’t procrastinate. Don’t sigh so much. Don’t play games with me. Don’t forget this. Don’t talk about that. Don’t miss the bus. Don’t eat with your elbows on the table. Don’t flop down on the sofa. … And don’t expect help sorting all this bullshit out later. For real.

The prohibitions of childhood become, overtime, manners and good conduct within social norms – or baggage. Some of the prohibitions we grow up with make a lot of sense; ‘don’t put your hand on the hot burner of the stove’ is one example of a very practical admonishment likely to save one a trip to the ER. On the other hand, ‘don’t talk so much’ just… hurts. It’s literally not ever stopped hurting, and every time someone dear to me shuts me down in conversation the message I hear is ‘your words don’t matter to me’, which sounds a lot like ‘you don’t matter to me’ in later moments of isolation or despair. We’ve built a culture that is both insensitive to the power of words, and insensitive to the delicacy of our human hearts; we’re fucking mean sometimes, to ourselves and to each other. Similarly; my lack of sensitivity with regard to how much I may be talking is equally at risk of cutting someone dear to me off from being able to express themselves, to converse with me, or may prevent them feeling heard. This awareness alerts me that it’s a more complicated puzzle – and I find myself wondering at the ‘why is this on my mind right now’ piece a bit distractedly.

Can all of life’s prohibitions be framed up in positive terms? Some surely can – ‘don’t leave dishes in the sink’ can be compiled with a whole bunch of detailed small prohibitions about housekeeping and life basics and pinned on the fridge with a magnet as ‘Live Beautifully’ – nicely positive. Will it remind me to take out the trash and recycling, vacuum, and do the dishes? So far, it generally does – because those are my choices, consistent with my own understanding of ‘living beautifully’. Clearly – your results may vary.

On reflection, I struggle to fit all of the prohibitions lurking in my background ‘programming’ into positive terms – some don’t seem to want to fit. I turn ‘don’t cry’ over in my head… I feel the lifetime of frustration and dismissal begin to rise as visceral emotions; hard to manage comfortably. I breathe and let that one go for now. I look at ‘don’t talk so much’, ‘don’t just keep talking’, and the correlated criticisms phrased as irritated questions like ‘are you every going to shut up?’ ‘are you even going to take a breath?’ and ‘can I just get a word in edgewise?’ – legitimate expressions of frustration heard with fair frequency over the years. Funny thing about this one; I rarely hear these expressed in this way from colleagues or strangers (because socially it’s rude) but still occasionally hear similar from loved ones. The words linger in my programming as remnants from other times in life, other relationships. My traveling partner is the most likely human in my experience at this time in life to express frustration with the stream of consciousness flow of near continuous talk – it stops being a conversation, realistically, if he is not also talking. He is eager to enjoy conversation with me. I don’t exactly make it easy with this injury; the executive functions responsible for managing social cues that drive the give and take of conversation are affected. I am learning to listen deeply, and engaging in listening as a verb of its own, to improve my ability to control rapid speech, and continuous talking. There are verbs involved. It takes considerable practice. I still mostly suck at it unless I am very mindful indeed; my results vary. I am a student. Listening deeply is a nice positive approach to counter the damaging prohibitions directed toward my flow of speech. Incremental change over time may be a thing – sometimes it is frustratingly slow. 🙂

I finish my first coffee of a lovely Saturday morning feeling like a kid that figured out a new math problem all on her own – a little triumphant, a little eager to go further, a lot humbled by all that I do not know. Making a connection between the subtle negatives of language, and the ‘programmed’ prohibitions still complicating my experience day-to-day seems useful. If my thinking is filled with prohibitions, rather than encouragements, it’s no wonder I use so much negative language; I’m overly focused on not doing, and not thinking, and eager to confirm that I am not… something. It is, at least, worthy of further consideration generally.

I can’t say I’m traveling this path without a map. I am reading a very good book that nudges my thinking in new directions, positively, and I’ve chosen to set Proust aside briefly to focus on it, finish it, and wring from it all the inspired thinking I am able to. “After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age” is definitely making my reading list. From the book:

Dharma practice exposes the limits of human thought and language when we are confronted with the puzzle of being here at all. All people, whether devoutly religious or avowedly secular, share this sense of unknowing, wonder, and perplexity. That is where we all begin.”

How many times might I begin again?

How many times might I begin again?