Friday was gorgeous GOR GEE USSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS. I cut out of work early, dug up some grass in my yard, and biked over to the pie place in the hopes of some weekend dessert slices. The line at the pie place was a block long, so I laughed it off and kept biking. I couldn’t just turn around and go home because the weather was GOR GEE USSSSSSSSSS. Like, perfect. Like, bike down the street no-handed singing and conducting songs from the playlist of your youth gorgeous. I honestly can’t remember the last time I felt so happy. No – joyful. I was filled with unintellectual, full-body joy. It was fucking glorious. The only stain on the afternoon was a brief realization that, “fuck, I’ve become my father.”
I wasn’t mostly naked, I wasn’t riding an old Schwinn, but those were the only significant differences in our behavior. I didn’t hate my dad’s weird behavior as much as my sister did, but it was sometimes embarrassing. It wouldn’t have felt like such a betrayal if he had allowed us to be ourselves as he insisted on being himself, but it was only acceptable to be authentic if our authenticity matched his, and we were continually shut down for not behaving, thinking, or being exactly what he wanted us to be.
It’s difficult to separate the action from the person, and difficult to separate admirable behavior from a person whose behavior was often inconsiderate or cruel, but there is always that yin & yang. No one is all evil all the time, all inappropriate all the time, all annoying all the time, but our need to recognize and predict patterns and our emotional attachment/aversion to the behavior of people with whom we have complicated relationships is often tough to work past. As is our assumption of impure motives. Sure my dad was unconventional and weird, and I generally value that in people, but because I associate it with his narcissism, I don’t give him the credit others may earn from the same nonconformity. But what do I know? Just because he had narcissistic tendencies doesn’t mean he was incapable of a pure act of joy & self-expression. And just because I express my joy in a similar way doesn’t mean I’m a narcissist.
Or … does it?
Honestly, I don’t fucking care. I’m not hurting anyone and I’m alchemizing bliss out of spring air. The critical they can roll their eyes and think whatever they want. I am so tired of our joy-crushing culture.
I have been trying to spread the word about Wynn Bruce, and whenever I do I get choked up and blurry eyed. So it seems I should write about him. Wynn Bruce set himself on fire in front of the Supreme Court and died a few days later, a few days ago.
Wynn Bruce was a Buddhist and he cared about the warming planet and he set himself on fire. He was not explicit about why, or only in a coded way, but his father and his friends believe he was intending to call attention to climate change. He would not be the first to do so. I fear he may not be the last.
It’s hard to know how to feel about this. That is, it’s hard to have one feeling about it. It’s horrifying, brave, ridiculous, extreme, understandable, admirable, and frightening. As a pseudo-Buddhist, I rest primarily on honorable and heartbreaking.
Bystanders said he didn’t scream as his skin burned.
I can’t say this is the wrong thing to do, if he wanted to do it. It appears that no one ever suggested it, so there is no fault to be laid. I can’t say it’s the right thing to do – causing pain to loved ones in a deadly act that will have little, or any, impact. Removing yourself from the playing field, instead of staying in the loving fight. I wouldn’t argue with a chronically, fatally depressed person who took their own life.
Is it even suicide?
The only thing I can say, the only thing I may know, is that if he burned himself alive in order to call attention to Climate Change, we owe him the honor of paying attention to Climate Change. I don’t know what paying attention means to each one of you; I just believe that we bear witness to his death by bearing witness to the deadly changes in our living environment.
He attributed this beloved quote to Thay:
The most important thing, in response to climate change, is to be willing to hear the sound of the earth’s tears through our own bodies.
thich nhat hanh?
There is more than one way to do that. It will be painful, but it may also be generative and invigorating. The end is uncertain, but despair is not an extreme reaction. I hope we can move past it.
My intellectual energies are being diverted to my other blog this week, so this will be relatively short and feely (gross); call it observational, if you prefer.
I am a week into a mildly intensive three-week practice through my local meditation center, which entails as much as participants can manage or want to include of the following:
an hour or more sit in the morning
meditation in the afternoon
meditation in the evening
attending a weekly talk
attending weekly Qigong
read the recommended readings
listen to the recommended listenings
post (but only a little!) in the community Google group
read and comment on (but only a little!) others’ posts
attend Practice discussions with a teacher
attending a daylong retreat at the end of the 3 week practice period
Looks like a lot, listed out, for a practice that is supposed to be incorporated into your everyday life, rather than taking you out of it, as a retreat would. But you are encouraged to set your own goals according to your abilities and responsibilities. It doesn’t seem excessive to me.
Let me get my petty bullshit out of the way first. I’ve been to a handful of sits at this meditation center (and another dozen or so online) and I like the space a lot. Many meditation centers in the area are Zen, and while I love my UPAYA peeps and so many more in the Zen tradition, I’m not big on the type of ritual and formality it typically expects. Fortunately, this closest place to my home is pretty generically Buddhist. However, I was hoping for more from the main teacher, who I first sat with on Monday. My assessment is based on almost nothing: I didn’t get much of any vibe from him, and he didn’t laugh or smile at all during the 10 minutes or so he spent talking to us, so Fuck That Guy!
Just kidding, of course. I look forward to sitting with and listening to him more and seeing what he has to offer – I have no doubt it’s a lot. But I can’t deny that I am greedy for one of those knock-you-off-your-feet, Holy shit experiences that the White folks who interacted with Baba Neem Karolyi or Tcich Naht Hahn or the Dalai Lama talk about: that thoughtless knowing that this is someone special, the embodiment of, or at least confirmation of the possibility of, enlightenment. I know the hope that I would just happen to run across one of these exceptional folks at the Center that just happens to be a mile from my house is asking a bit much, but I’m disappointed whenever those hopes are dashed. Giving up hope is “the beginning of the beginning,” as Pema Chodron wrote.
If we’re willing to give up hope that insecurity and pain can be exterminated, then we can have the courage to relax with the groundlessness of our situation. […] Without giving up hope that there’s somewhere better to be, that there’s someone better to be [that there’s someone better to meet?] – we will never relax with where we are or who we are.
Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart, Chapter 7
Second, the Google group itself. Again, I get it. People want to connect over their practice and we can’t all be in the same place every day, so it’s a nice alternative. When we had that option with my UPAYA group we never used it, because we were all so sick of written, online communication, I presume. But beyond that, the main guy gave pretty specific instructions about how we were and were not supposed to use it. In fact, we should only comment if we were really inspired and we should probably wait several days and see if anyone else posted before we posted at all, but we should definitely post, but really we should wait and make sure that what we wanted to say was worth posting, but there should be maybe three posts a week, with maybe five to ten comments per post …. And then he emailed us three days later to point out that no one had posted and maybe someone should post.
I know we don’t want folks to go nuts and annoy everyone with constant emails and notifications. I just thought that could have been better conveyed by simply saying, “be mindful about what you post, ask yourself if it is contributing something helpful, and go to essence” rather than a weird collection of rules/not rules that seemed to make everyone reluctant to engage and felt a bit infantilizing.
Honestly, I think those are my only complaints with the nuts and bolts of the Intensive. Pretty minimal for me, so yee-ha! I am so very happy to have this opportunity to suffer practice with others, and particularly for the weekly meets and full day at the end, because far more than being urged into more mindfulness for a short time, what I really want and need is a sangha. Fingers crossed this may become one.
Now onto my responsibilities and self-assessment. I am likewise mildly disappointed in my behavior this week. I’ve focused very hard on the long morning sit and 1-2 additional sits during the day, as time permitted; I’ve read some of the readings and listened to some of the audio, and attended the Qigong & weekly meet in person; but I have basically behaved as though pushing myself through that physical discomfort and clocking more time would magically transform me, rather than making the effort to apply mindfulness to my regular everyday activities. I have perhaps been more conscious of what I’m doing – how much I’m eating, how I’m reacting to conflict, etc. But it could be much more, and I want it to be. It is possible that the magic is making me reassess my job satisfaction, which is scary, so that is … something.
Funny how I so look forward to sitting down to a half hour meditation, and am filled with dread when I settle in to double that. As if time itself is the problem. It is, in the most obvious way. After a certain point, the pain sets in. It doesn’t always come in the same way, or at the same time, but I have never sat for more than 40 minutes without feeling something – pain or discomfort (hard to distinguish between them in the early days). For some folks it’s the knees or back that cry out for attention or just (just! LOL!) overwhelming restlessness and anxiety. For me it used to be the I’d rather rip my crawling skin off than sit a minute longer, but nowadays it’s typically hip pain. I don’t know why it’s changed, but I’ll consider it progress. It still ain’t fun, but it’s easier to deal with physical pain than what was essentially terror and self-pity, in my case. I had at least one good sit this week where I just focused on the pain – the physical pain, not the psychological shit that it picks up while rolling around inside me. But in other sessions I was like, what should I really be doing here? and can I really sustain lovingkindness meditation for a freaking hour? and this is boring, there’s got to be a better way to use my time. I like mixing it up with guided meditations or focusing on a particular intention in a sit, but the fact is, I don’t need that. The best meditation response to this is boring is, of course, the boringness itself.
Maybe I needed this week to just power through the physical adjustments before I could focus the spotlight of my consciousness more deliberately throughout the day. That’s what happened, so I might as well believe it’s true. Starting today I intend to pick up the mindfulness a little more often, carry it lightly, let it watch as I walk through the daily grind. We’ll see how that goes. I’m going to take the recommendation in Norman Fischer’s so-far-excellent book, The World Could be Otherwise and try not to criticize anyone (maybe anything?) as well. I guess that starts now, since I ripped into the teacher and meditation center above (facepalm). Trying to be honest without flaunting irreverence. I definitely sense a warning there.
I still have my birth date listed on Facebook, so I got a smattering of Birthday wishes this week. Most were from people I have never known well, one or two from good friends (most text instead), some from once-friends. No doubt I would have dived into some good old self-pity if I hadn’t had at least that, but despite the appreciation some sadness rose to the surface anyway. Not on the day: my birthday was lovely, with decent weather, a nice little hike with my guy & my dog, a delicious dinner, and all that. But when I went on Facebook the next day to address (“like”) the various acknowledgements of my birth, I felt sad. I started to write a post about social media and the pitfalls of not engaging with it – that the algorithms render me invisible and methodically shrink my reach, so that very few people see anything I post – but that wasn’t quite it. Then I logged into a webinar with Tara Brach and Frank Ostaseski today, and through the talk of loss and grief and death and living, one word connected with my current state.
Yes, I miss socializing. During the most locked down days of the pandemic I think I most missed just going places – coffee shops, bookstores – and having casual, brief, human interactions with the workers or other shoppers. I value those almost meaningless interchanges far more than I realized. But that’s not the problem these days. I miss being known, being seen. And this is from someone with a partner who does know and see me. So greedy. I want more. I want to be seen in different ways by different people. I want what they see reflected back at me so I can remember who I am.
Even within intimacy there is so much variation. When a friend from college moved into town – someone who wasn’t part of my inner circle back in the day, but who I liked and knew and saw 5 days a week, 9 months a year for 4 years for fuck’s sake – I was thrilled, because we shared an intimacy. I was able to have a deep conversation with him right off the bat because I wasn’t trying to prove anything, or to perform my personality (whatever that is) or anything like that. He knew me, I knew him. We trusted each other. Even though almost all the details of each other’s adult journeys were mostly unknown, there was something there that I don’t feel with most people I know in my city now, people I’ve seen with some regularity for nearly two decades.
I also feel an intimacy with my Socially Engaged Buddhist group – 5-20 people who met online monthly, more or less, while studying a variety of topics under a variety of teachers for a year through a Zen center. I feel a deep connection to them, due largely, I’m sure, to our mutual commitment to open ourselves up to self-awareness and empathy and honesty and change. Certainly ego and etc. pop up sometimes, but there too I feel known and free to just be. I think it’s almost the opposite of what I have with my college friend. Whereas I think he knows me at my core, with my Buddhist group there is no core. Whether we can practice it consistently or not, we are all more or less committed to the idea that The Self isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. We share our spiritual and mundane struggles and strivings and return again and again to acceptance, love, and not knowing.
I have long-lived, deep friendships for which I am forever grateful, but they are mostly with people hours away by car or plane, and that distance is wearing on me. Since I can’t forge lifelong friendships overnight, I am attempting to make that other intimacy happen – the connection of spiritual commitment. As much as I love my online sangha, they are not HERE NOW, and I need an intimacy that is present and tangible, not just electronic. The weather is finally, way too slowly, changing, opening the world up again to my carless, afraid-of-the-frigid-cold self. I’ve enrolled in a 3-week, semi-intensive mindfulness course and plan to get to the nearby Meditation Center for talks and sits as much as possible. I’m hoping it will set me on the patch of feeling connected to a local sangha, but I won’t be disappointed in a better understanding of myself and the paths available to me right now.
None of that is bad. It just is. Wishing you all peace and moments of intimacy.
Like many of you, I presume, I’ve been feeling pretty down about the world – specifically humanity – of late. Not just the invasion of Ukraine, but the ongoing US-backed Saudi slaughter of civilians and starvation of children in Yemen, the abandonment and starvation of Afghans, the anti-truth and anti-LGBTQ legislation passing in state after United state, the infestation of voting restrictions and other steps toward the de-Democratization of our country, the Congressional blocking of nominees because they recognize climate change, and so on.
When I hit a breaking point with these kind of current affairs, I hit an empathy barrier – not for the victims, but for the perpetrators. So? You might ask. Why waste empathy on them? They don’t deserve it and they’re certainly not worth your emotional energy. That is a perfectly reasonable reaction, but Buddhism and other forms of Love offer other perfectly reasonable reactions as well.
If you can love something, you can love anything
I stole this from John Lewis, who said something to this effect in an interview I have yet to place. Simply put, hate creates hate and love generates love. The more you open your heart, the more open your heart is. Loving “bad” people doesn’t make you bad, it exercises your capacity to love. Love and loyalty are not the same, nor are love and admiration. But loving, or let’s step back from that loaded word – generating empathy – for flawed humans is a good thing. Because we are all flawed humans. And we all deserve empathy.
There are no Monsters
Okay, maybe there are; but far, far fewer than we like to assume. Some of the easiest people for me to hate right now were once damaged children – Putin grew up in poverty and Trump in privilege, but they both were (heard tell) deprived of much affection or unconditional love and their desperate striving for approval, power, and money seem an attempt to compensate for that. That’s not the focus of my argument, but I do think it’s important to remember, as President Bartlett passionately averred, “They weren’t born wanting to do this.”
So, muster up some sympathy for the shitty childhood if you like, but there is a path to a deeper understanding. I’ve been engaging in a practice of tracing what I presume to be Putin’s motivations and seeing if I can find those in myself. And – surprise! I easily can.
greed – whether it’s hiding the last piece of chocolate or giving the guy at the stoplight a dollar instead of $5 (or nothing at all)
nostalgia – Putin’s is for the Soviet Union; mine is for the best year or two of college, my reign at the theatre bookstore, or the best years in Minneapolis, where I could always find a friend at my local bar
heroism – if you think I don’t care about being the “good guy” you don’t know me well
revenge – rarely practiced it, kinda horrified by it, but have definitely thought about it
power – not obvious for me since I’m not career ambitious, but I absolutely want to be the one people defer to when I care enough to have a strong opinion
lying – yup; not as a habit, but sure
covering up bad things I’ve done – when I can, and when my conscience hasn’t stopped me. I once scraped up a car when I was driving buzzed in college. Never told anyone.
silencing people who talk shit about me – I’m sure I’ve talked shit about people who didn’t like me in an attempt to render them untrustworthy
taking my bad mood out on others – all the fucking time
It’s the actions Putin takes, the things Trump says that horrify us, but they all come from some combination of the above motivations and others. Just as everything we do is motivated by something
Recognizing the self in the other isn’t just an intellectual exercise for me. It’s both the foundation and the goal of my spiritual life. Which is not just about being kind or forgiving or certainly “good,” it’s about recognizing our Oneness, that we are all different expressions and perceptions of the same consciousness, or, if you haven’t studied Buddhism or taken large amounts of psychedelics, it may be easier to see it as different parts of the same body. I love this metaphor, originally (?) from Santideva – if your foot is impaled by a sharp object, your hand pulls it out. Your hand doesn’t ponder whether the foot pain has anything immediate impact on the hand; your foot doesn’t have to ask for help or explain its plight; your hand doesn’t expect recognition or payback; and your mind doesn’t have to oversee and assess the situation. Nothing could be more natural than moving to relieve your own pain. That is where I want to get, with everyone. With everything.
One of the reasons I love this metaphor is that you can extend it to almost any situation. Sometimes you can’t alleviate the pain and you just have to live with it. Sometimes you choose not to do the work to alleviate it and it pulls at your conscience like a bad deed. And sometimes that foot is so far gone, you have to cut it off. You don’t hate the foot, you can’t even really blame the foot. The foot is a product of the body and the world it interacts with. But just because you feel bad about the foot doesn’t mean you’re going to let it infect the rest of the body. We can practice compassion for the Putins and Trumps while still passionately working to stop them. But when we call them monsters, pretend we don’t understand them at all, exclude them from the pettiness, cruelties, and failures that are our shared human bullies, we fail to recognize these things in ourselves and fail to appropriately address them when they rise up and likewise try to motivate us.
Understanding our own pain and suffering, and how that plays out in our thoughts, connects us to the suffering of the world, and may prevent us from acting on it.
The problem with dissatisfaction and suffering isn’t that they’re painful but that we misunderstand their nature and purpose. What makes suffering painful is that we identify it as “mine.” In fact […], it’s the common human suffering […] loss and pain connect me to others, and to life. Experiencing suffering like this, suffering ends. It transforms into love.
from The World Could Be Otherwise, Norman Fischer
Okay, maybe (you say). But still, I’m not going to be like Putin. I’m never going to steal billions of dollars or kill an enemy or bomb a country. But those things are different from what most of us occasionally do by an order of magnitude only. Drawing a line on empathy is no less arbitrary than drawing a line between countries. If my empathy stops where someone’s political beliefs, or racial awareness, or capacity for kindness differ from mine, I’m just as narrowminded and closed-hearted as those whose empathy stops with my political beliefs, or race, or capacity for kindness towards them.
Yes, it’s kind of like saying you can’t fight love with hate, and maybe you don’t like that expression. How about, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”. Better yet, let’s examine the full context:
The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. Racism and homophobia are real conditions of all our lives in this place and time. I urge each one of us here to reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside herself and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives here. See whose face it wears. Then the personal as the political can begin to illuminate all our choices
Audrey Lorde, from The Master’s ToolsWill Never Dismantle the Master’s House
Sure, Ms. Lorde was talking about the kind of terror and loathing that we “good people” know is “bad.” But it seems to me that her attention is not focused on the kind of hatred we practice, it’s centered on the practice, the terror and loathing itself. The separation, the hierarchies, the isolation and denigration: those are the master’s tools. Those are what we touch, what we reach down into. We can always and easily find a reason to hate someone, someones. If not the abused, then the abuser. But those roles are continually changing. The choice to empathize or reject are what remain.
The most loving people in the world have often worked the hardest against hatred and violence, and come out the other side without being destroyed by the work, or causing harm to others in the process. For me, that is worthy striving for.
It’s been a good year for mice in the Twin Cities. Are the raptors in bad shape? Are mice fucking more than usual? It hasn’t been a particularly frigid winter (79th most cold, which hardly seems worth mentioning), so it doesn’t seem like their survival is under unusual threat, but many people we know in the area have had exceptional mouse problems this winter.
Ours has been a blessing.
You’d think we’d be a rodent nirvana, here. We are both messy and Buddhish. We are a philosophically and temperamentally no-kill family. Yes, we still eat fish (for the time being) and I honestly have no problem killing mosquitoes, or the wasps that have come after me that last 3 summers (because wasps are all-around fuckers and mosquitoes are humans’ most powerful enemy) but other than that, we remove insects from the home rather than kill them and try to protect the baby bunnies that their shitty mothers dump in our dog’s yard. Even the dog is exceptionally gentle. She observes and lightly bats at beetles, and tries not to drool when the bunnitos emerge. Mostly she squishes them. I think she likes the sound. 😦
We have occasionally had A mouse over the last decade. They say you never have A mouse, but since we never saw more than one at a time, we could convince ourselves otherwise. But this year, we had to face up to it. Unless they were teleporting, we had mice. The good thing about being messy is that it was easy to know where to first address the issue: we cleaned. That is, we started cleaning. We (my partner mostly, far messier than I and afflicted with ADD) are still cleaning. Because of some dabbling with diffusers and lotion-making years ago, I already had plenty of clove & peppermint oil, which I scattered all over the house (peppermint in the living areas; clove in the sleeping areas). We cleaned areas we’d never cleaned before, we shoved steel wool in anything that looked like a hole, we started picking up the dog bowl when she wasn’t eating, sealing her food in a plastic bin, not leaving plates on the floor for her to lick for longer than a few minutes, sweeping regularly.
I knew this wouldn’t fix it – most of our friends with mouse problems were clean people – but it was a start, and it was a life improvement, regardless. We were also very lucky. The mice never got on a counter, never got to even the second from the bottom shelf of the pantry, never got into the dog food or any food container. (I started keeping all my bottom-shelf food in glass or ceramic jars ever since the first mouse appearance way back when.) so when people laughed at us when we said we weren’t going to put down poison (Big No) or even traps (death isn’t the worst, but having your face or leg scraped off is), we would explain that they weren’t more than an inconvenience. Then came the emailed articles on hantavirus and other hazards. We kept cleaning and hoped the critters would find the living situation unpleasant and leave … from wherever they came … which we still haven’t figured out.
They had made it upstairs (shiver) to the bedrooms (shiver), so I thoroughly cleaned out my tiny shoe closet for the first time since we moved in, jettisoning some heels I will never again wear in the process. For a month, I refreshed the water and dropped clove oil into my diffuser every night; folded my clothes and put them on a shelf, tossed them in the laundry, or draped them over the hamper for reuse. I did not leave an AlterEco truffle or peanut-butter filled pretzel on my bedside table in case I woke up in the middle of the night and needed a snack. I (sloppily) folded up my meditation cape and blanket after I sat every morning and placed them on the designated ottoman instead of leaving them on the rug.
The mouse has done wonders for us, honestly. It told us to get our shit together and we’ve done our best to comply. We are still not clean by many standards, and we will probably never be neat, but we are so much cleaner. I have been disciplined about my bedtime habits for the longest stretch of time ever. That’s right, I have never consistently put my clothing, etc. away in my life. Better still (and YES, I AM AFRAID TO SAY THIS BECAUSE DESPITE EVERYTHING I AM STILL STUPIDHUMAN SUPERSTITIOUS), with all of these changes, and perhaps with the help of the meditations I have devoted to asking them to leave, there have been only two mouse appearances in the past month, and none upstairs, even though we’ve had some very cold days. It seems almost unbelievable. I find it hard not to believe it is a combination of right effort and right thought and right intention and … I know it sounds ridiculous, y’all, but I have learned over the past few years that there are more things in heaven and earth […] than are dreamt of in your philosophy and that it is possible that the winning combo of changing our habits and asking the mice to leave so that we didn’t have to kill them to protect the health of our dog & ourselves may have sent something out into the universe that encouraged them to find another home. The mice told us to get our shit together and we’ve done our best to comply.
Whatever it is, I hope it all continues. Not only the absence of the little guys, but my discipline, our increased cleanliness, the commitment to close up potential house holes in the spring, our squishy no-kill policy, and my spiritual concern and attention to the little guys. All of that is good, and more than that I am so happy that the path of compassion appears to have won out over the path of fear or aggression or convenience. I don’t begrudge those folks the killing of their invaders – we all have our stuff, and mice can be scary – but for us, it looks like it’s working. And I’m honestly a little astounded that I have kept up the new habits for so long. Really, I’m pleasantly surprised that I have adopted any new habit, at my age. Folks used to think that the we were far less flexible as we age, but studies of meditators, in particular, have shown remarkable plasticity. I’m not an example of a great meditator and this isn’t an example of an exceptional change, but I have to say I’m really enjoying it.
I do. It’s new – maybe a few years that I’ve had positive reactions to being accurately corrected – but it feels so good when I do. It actually gives me a physical rush. Maybe rush isn’t the right word. It’s like a piney breeze softly winding through my body. It feels like freedom.
When I find out I don’t know shit…
I don’t know why, but it feels like Freeeeeeeeeedom
(thank you for the only upbeat popular songs of 2021, Mr. Batiste)
Oh, don’t think it’s always been this way. It definitively ain’t. I’m one of those people who has had a lifelong embarrassment of showing ignorance. Not any ignorance: I allowed myself some realms of detached unknowing. Mostly in realms I didn’t care about. You could tease me relentlessly about never having seen a full Star Trek episode or most forms of etiquette or different cuts of meat or fantasy novels and I’d laugh it off. But for a shockingly, shockingly broad swath of topics, not knowing something churned up not interest, but shame. Even some things I didn’t give two shits about, like the names of different kinds of rocks. I’d still feel stupid because I know we covered that at some point in grade school. So I should know it. Different kinds of architecture? Never studied it, but I know educated people often do, so I should know it. Damn near every event in history, every geographic location, every word in Spanish, every philosopher, every person who ever accomplished anything noteworthy, every non-obscure scientific theory.
Everyone who shares this affliction has their own unique backstory, I’m sure. As a child I was shamed and sometimes psychologically tortured for hours if I failed to define a word correctly or adequately explain why a race riot somewhere in Asia was noteworthy. And it wasn’t just facts or intellectual prowess I was expected to excel in, but physical activities as well. If I didn’t rapidly learn how to hit a tennis ball without lobbing it over the fence or catch a baseball thrown with some velocity at my face, I was met with anger and heaping gobs of disappointment. Is it any wonder I mournfully sat out softball while my BFA class got to know each other on the field my freshman year in college? Or wouldn’t partake in any new activity until I had already practiced on my own beforehand? There was also a fun little twist in that my abuser often accused me of “pretending not to know.” I really wonder where the hell he got that one. What kind of masochist did he think I was, to invite hours of soul-crushing confusion and barely contained violence just for fun?
Weirdly, or not, I have treated myself with much the same bad logic. I put a slightly different spin on it: knowing that I don’t know an answer, I’m clearly not faking it, so at least I don’t have that bullshit to contend with. Instead I see my ignorance as a personal failure. For someone who considers herself logical, it really doesn’t make any more sense than my dad’s accusation. If I don’t remember something from high school, did I choose to forget it? Obviously not, so how can I blame myself? More things are forgotten than remembered by every person, every day. And even more things are never acknowledged in the first place. We’d be unable to function in society otherwise. Perhaps I didn’t study hard enough, but considering the overwhelming mass of things I expect myself to remember, “enough” is an unreachable goal. Many crucial facts are things I didn’t even learn in class, things that might have been casually referenced in passing. If I had worked to commit to memory every stupid tidbit I’m expected to know, I wouldn’t have lived a life.
What if my ignorance is, Buddha forbid, just plain old stupidity? I certainly can’t blame myself for that. And if I am intellectually stunted, I’ve done remarkably well for myself.
Why does knowing things even matter? What wisdom or insight or empathy or connection is gained simply by carrying oodles of items around in your head? What real knowing comes of it?
Of course, if talking oneself out of bad habits were enough to erase them, we’d all be a whole lot healthier. My intro was an optimistic exaggeration. There are still too many areas or scenarios in which I feel that shame creeping in, and one of them will be put to the test yet again for the umpteenth time next week. I’m taking a Spanish class for the first time since 2019, and as much as I love the language, relish speaking it, and crave fluency, practice has always been an opportunity for me to start waving that flag of self-loathing. I can rationalize my way out of the wise analysis of previous paragraphs with the simple fact that I have been studying Spanish off and on for decades, so obviously I should know it perfectly by now. I will also be participating in an Mindfulness Intensive program during part of the semester, so I’m hoping that will help me process any fucked-up feelings I’m experiencing.
The irony (so often with the irony) is that I may be right about my language expectations. It is entirely possible that someone who has been studying as long as I would know the language at least comfortably, if not fluently. According to language experts, the main reason I haven’t gotten there is because I don’t spend nearly enough time actually interacting with people in Spanish. And why? Because I’m afraid of being wrong. You see here, that old Buddhist mantra creeping in – you can’t really love others until you can love yourself. Our fears create the scenarios we fear.
Alan Watts, apropos of I don’t know what, once said that the Japanese in Japan were generally excellent English speakers, but an Englishman had to get them drunk to hear them talk because they were too afraid of embarrassing themselves to try when they were sober. I empathize, mis amigos. Your culture of shame is far vaster than my culture of one, but I feel you.
I have come up with a procedure that would get rid of all these self-positioned and self-perpetuating obstacles: just detach the identity from the emotion. Because it’s not the embarrassment that kills you, it’s the shame – it’s the attachment of the embarrassment to one’s sense of self that creates the shame. I deal with this whenever I try to get White people to talk about race and racism, and it does get frustrating. At times I just want to shake them and say, “your ignorance is not your fault/you didn’t choose to be raised under White supremacy/you’re not doing anyone any good by hiding from it/ you can make things better for yourself and others if you just open up, allow yourself to be wrong, and grow.” And of course, I recognize that I am in the same boat, just on a different river.
So I am not there yet. But feeling that freedom of openness, of detaching my mistakes from my identity, of just letting them be and moving on, should make it easier to welcome that liberation with my Big Enemy of the language I should know. We’ll see. I’ll keep you in the loop.
Anyone out there feeling strange feelings in response to Putin’s invasion of the Ukraine? I’m not talking about anger or fear or frustration or dread. Those are all media-friendly and acceptable in wartime. I’m talking about jealousy.
Part of me envies Ukrainian residents right now. I admit it. Hiding my feelings has never done me much good, so fuck it: I am jealous. This doesn’t mean I don’t fear for their safety or mourn their innocent (all innocent) dead. It doesn’t mean I minimize the agony and losses that will only accumulate as this continues. But, as Chris Hedges reluctantly argues in War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, our pleasant or unpleasant daily existence cannot compare with the addictive urgency of fighting or running for your life. Former war correspondents and soldiers don’t suffer from depression just because of the horrors they’ve seen or done in combat, they are also depressed because they are not in combat. What could be more real, more present, more in the moment than constantly being on guard for your very life, and the lives of those you feel compelled to protect? It’s physically and emotionally unsustainable (ask a pandemic nurse, if you don’t know a soldier), but it’s hardly depressing.
There are convincing theories, too, that the more comfortable we become as humans, the more anxious and lost we are likely to be. Those of us who have benefited from capitalism, etc. are only forced to face our own mortality on rare occasions, whereas our ancestors were up against it daily, either via hunger, predators, or deadly illness. Look, safety is great. It paved the way for all the things that fill our existentialist lives now. Art and philosophy and love replaced running for our lives and making babies so our species doesn’t die out as ways to give our lives meaning, and I would never trade them for the adrenaline of war.
Victor Frankl believed that a sense of purpose made the biggest difference between surviving and slowly dying in the concentration camps. Some speculate that the invasion on our Capital last year, the growth in QAnon conspiracy followers, the need to believe in the Big Lie comes largely out of boredom. That those folks have manufactured something that threatens their country, their children, their democracy in order to feel that rush of purpose. I’m not desperate enough to go that route, but I sympathize. I try to redirect my inherent need for meaning, if it does exist, into approaching the world with a relatively passive commitment to kindness and compassion. I try to resist the compulsion to find a villain and a position on which to hang my focus.
But, damn. Can the enemy, the goal, and the urgency be more clear than today in Ukraine? I know it’s never as simple as it seems, but what it seems is that a ruthless, murdering, amoral dictator is attempting to take over an independent, Democratic country in an attempt to restore a long-dead empire and increase his own power. His rhetoric attempts to erase the strong cultural identification of Ukrainians, and he flat out lies about the government and the people. I admire the civilians who are taking up arms to defend their cities, but I don’t find this surprising in the least. What greater purpose could you ask for? Not just protecting oneself or one’s family, but one’s cultural brothers and sisters, land, way of life, political freedom, language, heritage, etc. etc. I heard on the radio this morning that folks who had left the country when war started to look inevitable are now returning to fight. Volodymyr Zelensky adds more fuel to the righteous fire in his refusal to leave or be cowed by Putin. A great purpose and an honorable leader? I mean, come on!
So, yeah. I’m jealous. I don’t know if there are atheists in a foxhole, but I’ll bet there are no depressives. All the systems that our body employs to respond to a clear and present danger preempt depression. The floating anxiety that seems to crave a target, and which our systems seek to fill with abstract, random, manufactured worries transform in battle into real, tangible concerns, ones we can prepare for and fight against.
There are real devastating and apocalyptic things happening all around us in this century. The pandemic and global warming, to name a few. But climate change doesn’t present us with a clear way to stand up to it, not one that is inspiring and motivating, anyway. And the pandemic doesn’t present a way for most of us to contribute, other than by isolation and inactivity, which feel purposeless and depressing. Some do a good job of forcing urgency – chaining themselves to pipeline construction or even less extreme protests – and that can help both society and the individual involved, but when your community continues to roll along as if nothing is wrong, it’s very difficult to sustain motivation there, either. Medical professionals on the aptly named “front lines” of the pandemic have more than enough purpose, but it’s not just the excess that is wearing on them; it’s the disconnect between the war they face at work, and the obliviousness outside of the hospital. Some drone operators may suffer more psychologically than soldiers on the ground, because they likewise inhabit a world in which the battle they are fighting is invisible once they step off base. That is certainly not the situation in the Ukraine.
Look, I advocate for nonviolence, and my inclination is toward nonviolence, but it is not a ride or die position for me. And I can’t say for sure that it is the right answer for every person in every situation. I don’t know what I would do if I were a Ukrainian in the Ukraine right now. Most of those Russian soldiers probably don’t want to be there either, and could be the victims of reactive Ukrainian violence that is yet another element of the injustice seething from every pore of this attack. I am not minimizing the horror of this situation. But I don’t believe in binaries anymore. It is frightening and monstrous AND it would be really nice to feel, in my body, that I truly mattered to something greater than myself, that I could make a real, life-or-death difference in my community, that I could make a meaningful sacrifice.
Blessings to all those good people, regardless, as I sit here with the luxury to ponder, and critique, and analyze, and envy. May you be well. May you be happy. May you be safe.
It’s been very hard to write this week. Feeling blah and everything I write seems to go nowhere and the post I’ve been working on for Out of the White Nest for months is just hard and sad. Not your concern; but I’ve committed to averaging a post a week in 2022, so this is why you’re getting…
a TV show review!
Sort of. There’s a vague spoiler or two in this, but nothing you couldn’t see coming once you jump into it. Ramy is such a good show, and so groundbreaking for Muslim-centered media, that I strongly recommend you give it a try. If you hate vague spoilers, go ahead & skip this in lieu of the show itself.
Is Ramy the first TV comedy centered on spiritual development? I think it’s the first I’ve seen. Of course there are sitcoms that deal with spirituality in an indirect manner – there are spiritual elements to some of my faves, like The Good Place and BoJack Horseman, but any centered on spirituality? Enlightened! Yes. Excellent show, but it wasn’t a sitcom. I’d heard good things about Ramy (awards, etc.) but it wasn’t until a friend told me that the spiritual quest was the plot of the show that I started watching. The Muslim focus was also intriguing for me, because I know so little about the religion, because I do have some Muslim acquaintancefriends, and because I lovelovelove irreverent approaches to any religion that outsiders perceive as arbitrarily rigid.
Ramy is a 20-something second generation (American born) Egyptian-American Muslim. Neither his mother nor sister wear hijab, no one in his family prays regularly, his parents drink wine and bother him about marrying a Muslim girl in the same way a high-holy-days-only Jewish family would harass their kid about marrying a Jew. Ramy dates lots of Jews. And others. But not Muslim women. Except his cousin. He’s admittedly fucked up, but not exceptionally so, and not in any exceptional way. He’s very American: hungry in the midst of plenty, unable to be satisfied with what he has, and looking for answers. What’s exceptional about him is his persistent attempt to not be fucked up, to do the right thing, to be a better Muslim.
This fixation doesn’t stop him from sleeping with married women, lying to his Imam, offending his parents, neglecting his friends, and compulsively masturbating. In fact, almost everything he does wrong is the result of a messed up attempt to do the right thing. Some of these mistakes are laughable, some have serious consequences. Almost all of them are understandable, even if you are shaking your head in frustration as he falls into yet another ironic predicament.
The show is very funny, very educational for the non-Muslim, and just a quality piece of work all the way around, but what has me so excited about it (enough to share it with my Socially Engaged Buddhist group, appropriate or not) is how the show demonstrates, again and again, that there is no Answer. The Ramy on the screen is ignorant of the lesson he is teaching (at least so far – I’m only partway into season 2).
His attempt to remake himself during Ramadan reminded me of my desires around meditation retreats. I feel for him when he tries to “do good” and ends up in a morally questionable situation. I, too, have tried to get the people around me to dwell on spiritual matters when they had no interest in doing so. I have thought myself both better and worse than my peers in focusing on spirituality more than other elements of life. I have thought that a change of environment would get me up the next rung of enlightenment, that a different kind of practice would move me forward, that deprivation would help, that the right teacher is all I need, etcetera. That’s all fine. In fact, it’s all good, but it’s not a solution. As the Sheik says, “Nothing in and of itself is haram [forbidden]. It’s a matter of how we choose to engage with it.”
Those of us with a spiritual drive so often hope for that One thing that will solve it all or us, or enlighten us, or make us less irritable, more focused, less egocentric, “better” people. But we know, and we are forced to see again and again, that it’s a continual process. It’s day in and day out practice, returning to the cushion again and again, returning to the present moment, returning to love and empathy again and again, the pausing and listening and letting go of our ego and recognizing our interbeing moment after moment after moment. It’s not easy. And I love how the relatable mess of young Ramy demonstrates that again and again.