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The Heavy Lifting of Presence in a Busy World

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Beth Anstandig

After two years of operating a manual gate at the front entrance of our ranch, we are about to install an electric gate opener. I can say, with all honesty, that I have made decisions about my plans for the day based on how many times I will have to open the blasted thing. There are days when I don’t leave the property because I’m simply not willing to give in. It’s essentially a power struggle with myself, I know. Yet, I’ve found that choosing and committing to a nemesis, especially an inanimate one, can be a great release of formless rage. And let’s face it, expressing that kind of big, primitive energy just feels good.

You might wonder what the big deal is about opening a gate. But I have been in relationship with this process for some time now. In fact, I have done some calculating, or what I like to call “The Mathematics of Resentment.” Score-keeping is a character trait I have been working to remove in my human relationships. I have yet to let this one go with the gate. Here’s the ugly truth: the manual gate has robbed me of approximately 168 hours per year. I hate the damn thing.

So why do I feel a sense of impending loss as this gate is swinging through its last days?

The other day, I drove up to the heart of Silicon Valley for a professional event. The trip there opened my eyes (and yes, my heart) to the significance of this odd drama with the gate. I left the ranch mid-morning and had my usual cranky exchange with the gate as I drove off the property. Please note it was my SECOND opening and closing transaction of the day and it wasn’t even 10 am. Trying to let go and move on, I headed north on a country road to avoid the interstate. It allows for a gradual transition into the more populated world, and though I have to pass through the stinky cloud of a mushroom farm and am sometimes slowed down by a tractor in my lane, the quiet drive is totally worth it. I’ve seen some awesome stuff taking this route. My favorite to date was the man walking a donkey along the narrow shoulder of the road. It seemed like a leisurely stroll with no particular purpose and that was what I loved most about it.

As I made my way through the mess of humans moving this way and that, hurrying, honking, merging, I could feel my whole body begin to tighten. I always feel it in my jaw first. My thoughts tightened too. They got rigid and absolute.  It started with some causal judgment about other drivers and quickly devolved into full blown attacks on humankind. Then I felt the emotional wave, a not-so lovely blend of anxiety and anger. I passed through the campus of one of the larger Silicon Valley tech companies, and I noticed the non-descript buildings, one after another lining the streets, and they started to look like boxes, not architectural creations but functional cells, a bit prison-like. At a stoplight, I had a moment to observe, to watch the faces of the people hurrying in and out of the buildings. They all had similar expressions, flat and dull, almost like they were moving through a black and white movie. You can tell when someone is awake and alive. In the spiritual group I’m a part of, we say that you can “see the lights come on” when people make a decision to fully wake up. And perhaps, this is what I was reacting to as I journeyed along. The world felt numb, anesthetized. And I could feel a massive revolt rising inside of me. A giant NO.

I didn’t quite realize the magnitude of my reaction until I was coming out the other side. I kept driving toward my destination and the landscape began to change, space and room to breathe began to emerge. The buildings spread out until there were no buildings. Traffic lessened and the road narrowed in a lovely way, with natural curves and lines. And then a sign for an owl preserve. Then, another sign for a kite flying area. Finally, a view of the bay, more sky, birds. I could feel everything start to settle inside me.

It starts with the gate. But the gate means something to me. And it’s very specific. When I open the gate to leave the ranch, the animal inside of me is pissed off. It doesn’t want to enter a world that is overstimulating and crowded. My mammal self doesn’t like the noise, the busy shuffle. It wants to run or hide or fight. And it’s wise. My animal body knows some stuff.  And it should after several thousand generations of instinct and survival. Of course I hate the gate.

So how do I let that awake part of me thrive in a world that is predominantly numb from overstimulation? I can’t keep the gate closed and hide–and I don’t want to. I want to be part of it all. I’ve been noticing lately that we have a huge amount of power over the fight against numbness. The choice to stay awake and aware is mine. The heavy lifting comes on the other side of the gate in a world I don’t control.

Through the gate I go, with a commitment to presence. I go looking for moments of connection, a longer acknowledgement of others with a smile, a hello, eye contact that means something real and loving. I go with the intention of slowing down and looking around. There’s beauty and grace everywhere. I saw it tonight on a crowded airport train traveling fast between terminals: one man losing his balance and another man putting his arms around him, holding him, and his kind voice, saying, “I’ve got you.” I stopped at the window before getting on my plane and could see a glimpse of the sun setting, a brilliant blast of color against the very gray airport. I slow my pace and feel my feet. I quiet my thoughts and there’s space in my mind. I enjoy the act of breathing and my airway feels soft and relaxed. And when I notice these things, I feel like I can thrive in the world on either side of my front gate.

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