Friction

Friction (noun): The resistance one surface or object encounters when moving over another.

Friction (noun) : Conflict or animosity caused by a clash of wills, temperaments, or opinions.

I work in the realm of health and wellness…so naturally I spend time with other health and wellness professionals (us hooey people gots to stick together).

And to be completely honest…most of the time is spent in a sort of love-fest meets kumbaya chorus. I love me. I love you. You love me. You love you. We love each other. We love life. Life is beautiful. Pass me some of that kombucha, will you? And by the way, how is your meditation and yoga practice going?

But when we aren’t busy fluffing each other’s hypoallergenic pillows, we frequently do have tough, raw, pragmatic and meaningful conversations.

In one such conversation, I was sitting across from a gentleman I’ve been working with for some time. We were talking about the concept of egos. I was feeling pretty smug (thank you very much) because I had recently finished reading through another feel-good book on the importance of letting go of our ego. I brought it to the table thinking I would get a nod of approval (a human health nut’s version of a doggie bacon treat).

Instead, I got an arched eyebrow and a thoughtful “hmmmm.”

That’s not exactly the kind of response you want to get. Not from your dentist. Not from your gynecologist . And certainly not from a mind-body-therapist-meets-spiritual-philosophy-guide.

Seeing my expression of what I can only assume must have been pained surprise, he got to talking.

“You know…” he said “healing isn’t necessarily about letting go of the ego. It’s about striking a balance. Some people are highly egoic. They are wrapped up in themselves to such an extent that they really struggle to see others…they have a hard time understanding perspectives others might have. For those individuals? Yes. Letting go of the ego is an important practice. It helps them move, gradually, to the center of a spectrum.”

I, meanwhile, am thinking “yeeeeah. Those egoic people just gotta figure this stuff out, man. the world would be a better place if…”

“However” (he interrupted my internal reveries) “there are others who have a different set of challenges. Some people are on the opposite end of the spectrum. They struggle to think of themselves at all. These individuals frequently think they are being kind. Selfless. In reality, however, they are often coming from just as much patterning as their egoic counterparts. They really don’t need to practice letting their egos free. They need to work on developing their egos.”

He looked at me pointedly.

“You, Leah, don’t really need to check your ego at the door. YOU need to check your ego to make sure it’s still there.”

Craaaaap.

In Yoga, there is a Sanskrit word frequently used called “Tapas” (no, my dear foodies. Don’t get excited. I’m not talking about overpriced Spanish small-plates). The word, in Sanskrit, is loosely translated as “heat”…as in the kind of heat that burns off impurities. The idea is this: we all have patterning. It’s inevitable. We amass a set of behavioral habits based on our temperament (or…constitution) and our life experiences. These habits, when left unchecked, can lead us to become imbalanced people. To develop into fully functional, discerning emotionally intelligent adults, we need to challenge our habituated ways of thinking and open ourselves up to other ways of moving through the world. When we do this, we grow.

In my case, for example, I was born with a more vigilant nervous system…otherwise called sensory processing sensitivity. I also came into this world with a system that seems to recharge better when spending time alone than it does in the company of others (sooo…I’m an introverted highly sensitive person). I didn’t work at that. I just kinda…came that way. Life experiences, meanwhile, helped me to take that constitution and develop a set of behaviors that would lead to the greatest amount of felt safety. My sensitive nervous system helped me gauge what the environment needed. My learned behaviors helped me to blend in and stay out of everyone’s way.

In short, the culmination of all this helped shape me into the kind of person who actively avoided friction.

Avoiding friction meant adhering to a number of hard rules. Do not take up space. Do not make waves. Do not upset people. And do not, under any circumstances, get attached to the way things are. The only constant in life is change.

I got really good at letting go.

But, as it turns out, my Yogi comrade knew a thing or two about what he was talking about.

Yes…of course life is change. The very fact that our planet exists at all (and can sustain life as we know it) is a damn-near statistical impossibility. Our planet has undergone at least 5 massive extinctions. Many scientists are of the mind that we are in the midst of a 6th. Clearly there is value in not getting too attached to the way things are.

But there is also tremendous value in standing still. Engaging in conflict. Stirring up waves. Causing friction.

Look to Earth’s most beautiful landscapes…coastlines…mountain tops….volcanoes…every one of them exists because of violence and friction. Earthquakes. Volcanic eruptions. Ice caps chafing against each other. Waves crashing up against shores.

Look to some of our most beloved political structures. They are systems which were hard won from many days and nights spent in intellectual and physical battles.

Look, even, to sexual gratification. Without friction…there would be no pleasure.

This is not to say that friction is inherently good. It is not. It is neither good nor bad. It may, however, be necessary. Or…maybe it would be better to simply say…it is.

When we look at our world right now and see political unrest, polarization, economic upheaval…it’s normal, I think, to be frightened by it. But maybe…just maybe there is some real, raw value in it. Perhaps the friction we are seeing is what happens when the systems in place are not working…are in need of something new. Maybe, like the majestic coastlines and mountain ranges we see and cherish…the conflicts we are watching are the first forest fires that will lead to regeneration? I suppose it is too soon to tell.

In my own life, I can say that at the very least, there really does seem to be value in the willingness to check my ego (to be sure it is still there)

I am learning to say things like “I want” even though it may not lead to my desired outcome.

I am saying it at the office, when making a bid for the kind of work I would like to do and for the kind of pay I want to receive for that work. By doing that, it has made candid conversations with my employer easier. I expressed an interest in working more hours. I made it clear what my aspirations are. That may or may not lead to me getting extra hours, but what it HAS done is cued my supervisor to see what opportunities for me might be possible. If I had not gone to her and said what I wanted, she would have been of the mind that I was happy as things were. If there were opportunities to expand my hours, she would not have spoken up on my behalf because she would have assumed that I didn’t want them. That initial conversation may have been a little uncomfortable…but it created the kind of heat required to kickstart action.

I am saying it to a man I’m watching myself fall for by making clear the degree to which I want him in my life, and the degree I would like to be a part of his. Until now, I have primarily relied on the man in my life (whoever he may have been at the time) to determine the pace of the relationship, and the kind of relationship we had. He determined what kinds of dates we went on. He decided how frequently we spent time together and what form that time would take. He was the rock. I was the water. I let the flow of my behavior move in accordance with the structure he built for us. The result was that the men in my life saw my presence in their life as a kind of effortless ever-adaptable question mark. It was also a little unnerving because they didn’t really ever know if I was fully committed. Did I have skin in the game? Did I have a stake in it? Would I even be upset if he left? Did I have any preference whatsoever? Some of that really is just part of my nature. I am pretty open and adaptable. And I do like trying new things. But SOME of it was patterning. Now, I’m learning to give more direction. I’m advocating for things I want in a way that feels a bit foreign. I want this. I do not want that. I will tolerate this. I will not tolerate that. The result, so far as I can tell, is that it is making it a little easier for this new person in my life to identify what my wants and needs really are…and decide for himself if he wants to be a part of that equation (rather than always feeling like he’s throwing darts in the dark). It’s also easier for him to see that I’m invested. Because I AM invested. If he lost interest, would I cling to him and blow up his phone? Of course not. But I’m making it clear I want him to stay…which, it turns out, can actually be quite helpful.

I am watching myself say it to myself, as I figure out what kind of life I want to live. I chose what kind of house I wanted to live in, and then I bought it. I decide when I mow my lawn and what colors the walls should be. I decide how much time I devote to my writing, my podcasting, and my day job. I decide whether I want to have a full time job or a compilation of a couple of part time jobs. I decide what food I want to eat. I decide who I want to spend my time with, what kinds of friendships I want to nurture and which I want to let go of. It’s all up to me. And when people upset me, I get to say “knock it off. I will not tolerate this.”

I suppose the bottom line is that I am learning to say to the world “I exist” even if (perhaps especially if) it causes friction and maybe even a bit of discomfort for those occupying the world around me. The result of every uncomfortable conversation and every new experience I inject myself into (despite what others may think of it) is that people are getting a clearer understanding of where I stand. I get to say “I think THIS way.” People around me get to say “I disagree” and the friction that is caused by those interactions leaves both of us walking away having learned something. Having grown. Having forged something new.

So the next time you are faced with a challenging situation…a situation that causes friction in your life…consider what benefits you may gleam from it. Just as landscapes we find to be exceptionally beautiful are often those which have been ravaged by friction and ecological violence…how might this new friction in your life create a landscape that is more interesting…more beautiful…than if you had chosen to always remain in a harmonious plain?

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