Rule, rule, everywhere a rule

One summer, on our first visit of the season to the municipal swimming pool, we sprung from the diving board as horizontally as possible, quickly lost momentum, and arced into the water–face first.

water summer jumping spring
Photo by Markus Spiske on

Over the long fall, winter, and spring, we had forgotten to put our arms out first, to carve a soft gash in the water for the face to glide through. Or, rather, until the moment of face slapping water, we hadn’t quite understood why the arms and hands precede the face into the pool during a dive.

So much of our life seems just like that, forgetting to do something and learning or relearning why that practice is in place. “Rules” is what we call these practices, and we often forget what the rules are, which rules are real, which rules are important, which rules were made by other people so that they are possibly actually barriers or borders, which rules we made to keep us alive or safe or imprisoned, and which rules are necessary to keep us alive.

Telling the differences among all these different possible categories of rules is as hard or harder than remembering the rules themselves.

If you are confused at this point, then we have done our job in trying to convey our own confusion and overwhelm.

You can dive face-first. It won’t kill you. It will hurt like a slap to the face: an act of violence that you blame yourself for, and it won’t kill you, and you might even like it a little even as you are an embarrassed teen and have parts of you that will store such incidents in the mind forever and use them for self-punishment over the years as a means of controlling who causes the suffering we feel.

At the other extreme, if you drive the wrong way on the highway, you are likely to suffer greatly and injure others in the process. In between these are the multitude of rules governing everything from whether it is okay for men to wear eye makeup in public (a social rule that isn’t necessarily “real” and still can have consequences), when and where it is acceptable to yell, whether or not you should speak to a stranger in an elevator, and on and on and on and on and on.

Most rules are made up by people to keep order. Think of, “Sign, sign, everywhere a sign. Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind. Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?” No, we can’t always read the sign, or remember the sign, or remember if the sign’s edict is enforceable and by whom and what the punishment might be.

It’s like _50 First Dates_. We are considering some sort of morning video or ritual to remind us the crucial rules, the ones people tell us are real, such as:

  • Everyone wants to be free of suffering.
  • It is compassionate to say, “May every being be free of suffering.”
  • Only right now, while I am typing this sentence and you are reading this sentence, is real.
  • The past is over and any remembrance is occurring in the now
  • The future has not happened yet and so any projection or expectation of it is a fiction occurring in the now.
  • The body writing these words is __ (fill in specific age of the body).
  • The body writing these words appears to others as __ (fill in gender we present as).
  • We don’t have to refresh our pain via memory or self-punishment to honor what we have survived.
  • We have good intentions.
  • Intentions matter.
  • We feel connected to wild animals, to the natural world, and to wild spaces.
  • Connection matters.

When we wake up, as we did this morning, to a brutal nightmare of children who had been abused–our inner Littles–we really need this list of rules. What we are missing, even with the list, is trust that they are true. That this is the right list. That our ways of knowing (that are different from how many other people know what they know) are or are not authentic. That the fragmentation of our personality into parts is a legitimate diagnosis and that we are not stark raving mad. That there is a future worth persisting for. That we are safe from the dream because it is just a projection or remembrance that is not actually occurring now. That we are learning what a body sensation is, what an emotion is, and how to tell the difference between them. That we have intrinsic value beyond what we mean to other people. That this process is a journey that has value. That no matter where/how/what we end up, the calculus of “is it worth it?” is the wrong question.

Since we’re so good at suffering, we would likely suffer under any conditions. We have a loving spouse and loving children. And we prize our alone time because we can breathe and get closer to what we mistakenly believe is the goal, is the opposite of suffering: numbness.

There is no quality of life in numbness. Maybe it’s okay to get to numb from suffering before naming the next emotion. We’re new at this, new at being inside our body, at inhabiting the biological tree in which our bird flock roosts.

If we were alone, we would suffer for not having people. Suffering is what we were programmed to do in the absence of nurturing. Our body was an unsafe dwelling. Our need for nurturing was rejected, disdained, punished, ridiculed.

So now we go to three therapists and read books and learn to meditate and learn to spend time inside this body and learn that we know enough rules to keep surviving. Until we forget. Parts of it. All of it. To much to allow coherence.

And then we forget who we are, what we are capable of. We believe we are small and unholy. Unworthy. Reminders don’t always work. So what will? What will work? Is time healing these wounds? Therapists say they have no doubt we will improve. Well, this doesn’t feel survivable, you know? That’s not a threat.

It has been a long life. Maybe it’s a good rule to target the suffering. Let it be easier. Try not to resist so much. Come back to things you know are true: the feel of the rug under your toes; the sound of the fan; the taste of iced black tea; the hunger rippling your belly; the emotions you feel right now that are real and yet impermanent. No feeling is final. Just keep going.


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