The Lesson You Need

The Lesson You Need

If you’re on “the path,” as we spiritual nerds call it, you’ve doubtless found yourself connecting more intimately with some teachings than others, and that changes over time & circumstance. I have been glued to this one for a few months now, and it’s been life-changing in that subtle, Buddhish way.

I don’t actually remember who this came from – a contemporary Buddhist text or dharma talk, or Ram Dass or one of his ilk, or all of them. But it fits into all of that stuff. There are lots of ways to phrase it, but I like this:

The lesson you need is always right in front of you.

There are lots of ways to interpret this. You can go with the idea that everything is preordained or meant to be. Despite not believing in free will, I don’t find that helpful. For me, it’s another version of the belief that every moment is an opportunity to awaken. But it’s better. Because awakening seems beyond my control. I can’t reason myself into awakening, so perpetual opportunities just seem like missed opportunities. But the lesson I need being here, right now? And not having to sign up for another intensive retreat to experience real spiritual growth? That I can work with.

Basically, it turns every difficult or shitty thing into an opportunity for practice. How can I Buddha my way through this situation? Now that moments present themselves in this way to me, challenges have become a fun and enlightening game.

My partner’s changed our plans at the last minute? Okay. Am I attached to the previous plan & if so, why? Would getting pissed off at this moment improve anything? Teach anything? Cause suffering? What does my past experience tell me?

Someone wants to discuss a topic on which we are ideologically opposed. How can I open my mind while still being genuine? How can I be simultaneously engaged in the conflict and loving? Can I hear what they are saying without shoving them into a pre-labelled box? What is my goal here and what is theirs? Is mine driven by ego or empathy? Can I find a way to connect & namaste either within or outside the strictures of that conversation?

At the State Fair: why do I feel the need to judge my fellow fairgoers? What is it in me that is reacting to something utterly superficial in them, whether it’s how they look, the clothes they wear, or the slogans they brandish? How can I soften that?

Even moments far pettier: I think we’re supposed to cook something one way. The guy thinks otherwise. Instead of fighting him on it or grasping onto my opinion at all, I admit that I just heard my theory somewhere and have no idea whether it has any validity. We carry on from there.

Put another way, in one of Ram Dass’ lectures he recalls requesting a particular type of microphone for a talk he was giving, and when he arrived they didn’t have it. He started to get pissed off, then recognized, “oh, there’s my yogi, disguised as a microphone.”

Some of you will likely think this isn’t even worth sharing; others may find it revolutionary. I haven’t even told you the best part yet: I do this all without self-criticism. When everything is a lesson, I’m showing up as a student, not a fuckup or an asshole.

I can’t adequately express how much lighter the combination of pausing, sitting in not knowing, and the lesson perspective has made everyday challenges. So much of it is about space, which feels to me like a pause paired with a distancing and a refreshing breath. That Space allows the witness room to step in and observe what’s actually happening outside of the ego; outside of an agenda, personal history, or judgement. The witness doesn’t tell me what to do, it just gives me perspective. All I do with the perspective is bring it into my thoughts and actions and see where it takes me. It infuses a bit of wisdom into the situation, which allows me to make better, more conscious, more loving choices. I cannot recommend it enough.

Be Like Putin

Putin as a boy

Oh, that’s right. We already are.

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 Tools Will 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.

Tell Me I’m Wrong

Tell Me I’m Wrong

I like 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.

A Third Grade Lesson, 40 Years Late

A Third Grade Lesson, 40 Years Late

When you don’t love yourself, trust yourself, value yourself, whatever you want to call it, you over-invest in the judgment of others, either to confirm your worthlessness or make you feel better, depending on your mood and the occasion and, I suppose, how fucked up you are by the treatment that blinded you to your own beauty.

I’ve worked on the “love yourself” thing. I tried brainwashing myself with guided meditations specifically targeting people raised by narcissists. I tried a form of EMDR therapy. I even tried to read one of Louise Hay’s books (she of the mirror work fame), on the recommendation of a lovely young woman I met at a retreat. The pages were darkly colored & shiny, and therefore hard to read, and the content pissed me off, so that didn’t go far.

All this is to say, I Am Working On It. However, I am observant enough to know when I am being treated differently, and I don’t like it. I’m not yet at the place where I can let it go with grace, but I can trudge through it with intellect and compassion. Maybe this will help those of you out there who, like me, aren’t yet within spitting distance of the self-love mesa.

I attended a nonviolent intervention training recently, as part of my anti-racist, community engagement, minimize the police personal agenda. It was great, and really helped me feel like I could intervene to reduce the danger in some harmful situations without putting myself at unnecessary risk. The two main trainers were both very good- knowledgeable and engaging and charming and all that – but one of them called me out three times while never casting any shade on any of the 35 other people in the class. The first one was weird – referring to me as “the girl with the purple hair” (girl? and it’s multicolored, thank you), they “pushed back” on the appreciation I expressed with the first step of the process they were teaching us: Observe, and how I thought it was a good way to keep us from jumping into knee-jerk, evolutionarily obsolete reactivity. They said that, on the contrary, some of our instincts were good, and we shouldn’t shut those down. It contradicted what they had just told us, I thought, but I didn’t feel any question or explanation was welcome. The second shutdown was not worth conveying and I only enumerate it because of the other two. The third was after we were discussing what we learned from the role playing section, when I said it was good for me to get past my sometimes debilitating intellectual assessment of The Right Thing to do, and just try to help out where I could, wherein they jumped in and told the class what I had said when I first engaged, as an explicit example of how very Not Right it was. No other person’s actions were recounted by the trainers.

It was super weird, folks. I think the weirdness was amplified by them never looking directly at me when they were critiquing – there was no connection to me, no shared joke with me, no evident empathy for me, just strange commentary. My own issues amplified it as well – they were Black, and I’ve always put far more weight on any perceived antipathy from a Black person than a White (still that haunting ghost of a belief that Black folks are inherently superior to White folks), and therefore their opinions of my hold more weight; and of course, I cannot honestly say that I love myself, accept myself for who I am, believe I am enough, so that insecurity makes everything worse.

If I did believe I was enough, none of this would have bothered me or been worth writing except as an amused anecdote or flip observation about human nature. It didn’t hit me physically, or only subtly – this negativity wasn’t a crushing blow – but it did bother me a bit, and did stay with me, so here’s what I came up with to work myself out of it:

  1. It wasn’t personal. First things first. If they didn’t like me – and that’s a big if – that has nothing to do with me. I could have looked like someone they disliked or talked with a phrasing they disliked or believed something they disliked. If I accept that my own aversions are the result of my own circumstances and suffering and not the fault of the thing I’m averse to (which is an essential to my Buddhism), then I have to believe the same when the situation is reversed. And even if they disliked every observable thing about me – my looks my words my tone my ideas my movements – it doesn’t make any of those things wrong. Finally, that’s not even me, “the most inner part, entirely free of disease,” the me that matters. It’s hard for me to believe all the above, to internalize it. Every time someone I respect – for good or petty reasons – appears to dislike me, I feel worse about myself. When they like me, I feel better. It sounds natural, but why? We know how fucked up & fickle everyone is. If they like me today & didn’t yesterday, does that mean I was an inferior person yesterday? What if they had just lost a friend or were in pain yesterday? What if their ex looked exactly like me? To place our self worth in the hands of humanity is to let it slip through their grasping fingers.
  2. It doesn’t matter. Why do I care if this person likes me? Because they’re competent? The likelihood I’ll ever see them again is fairly low, the likelihood their opinion will have any bearing in my life extremely low. Am I just trying to rack up points? Why does this person’s apparent dislike count any more than the apparent rapport among the group of people I actually spent time with during the training? My self-ranking is like chess.com: I get a tiny bump for getting something right, and a big penalty for getting something wrong. Yeeshhiiiiiit.
  3. What if it was a lesson? I don’t typically get targeted in situations like this. It’s definitely not unheard of (I had at least two White, female, self-proclaimed “feminist” teachers go after me because they felt threatened by me – one even flat out said it), but it’s not common. I’m smart enough, I try to be agreeable, I’m respectful of others. But so are lots of LGBTQI, Black, disabled, indigenous, immigrant, and other folks who get shot down in petty situations all the time. Maybe it was just my turn. Maybe others learned something by this trainer’s tactics. Who’s to say.
  4. What if they were having a bad day? It didn’t look like it, but what do I know? Maybe they were hangry. If so, the impact was terribly mild, and I can handle (if not quite enjoy) a little bit of weirdness, which brings me to
  5. What if I took the fall for someone else? I know I’m off in the deep end here, but what if a target was inevitable for some reason and I got lucky? That means someone else was spared as a result, someone who might not have a practice or level of self-awareness to process it, who might have reacted by treating themselves or someone else badly in response, or disrupting the training in a negative way, having a chilling effect on everyone.

Anyway, every experience of being isolated, ostracized, harmed, or embarrassed in any way is an opportunity to increase my compassion for the countless creatures that go through that every day, and to share the ongoing struggle with all of you. I long for the day that I don’t have to work myself out of it, that moment I react to someone’s hatred towards me the same as I do to someone’s hatred of a species of flower. Until then, practice.

Peace, joy, and enlightenment to all of you,

How to Be Nice to Yourself (at 1/2 century)

How to Be Nice to Yourself (at 1/2 century)

When The Guy asked what I wanted for my 50th birthday, I didn’t have much of an answer. My big plans for a trip and a party with my contemporaries from college had dissipated with the contagion many months before.

“oh, nothing really. I mean, be nice to me, but that’s about it.”

As if this was a special request. As if he isn’t typically nice to me. What did I even mean by that? Maybe that I’d get a pass for anything shitty I did that week? I’m usually pretty nice, too – to the extent that I’m capable, so what was I actually asking for? What unpleasant scenario had a decent chance of evolving?

The person I need a pass from is me.  

Hitting five-oh during COVID sucks, as far as birthdays go, as it has for so many millions of folks and many of my closest friends. So I kind of grumpily, snottily want to say Fuck It to the day. But I also want a chance to enjoy and appreciate this ultimately passive but still noteworthy achievement, so I decided to give myself the year to celebrate.

And what does that mean?

Again, the only answer I could find was “be nice to myself,” which rounds us back to

What does that mean?

Lots of folks take birthdays, holidays, vacations as a time to indulge themselves: eat, drink, smoke, fuck whatever they want, without “guilt” and that’s all fine & can be fun, but what is framed as a gift to oneself is often one you’d rather return. Drinking too much, eating too much, random sex, thoughtless purchases can all make you feel shitty. How is making yourself feel shitty an act of kindness? Or is it an act of niceness? Is there a difference?

I won’t dig into etymology here, but most of us recognize a pretty clear difference between nice and kind when it comes to other people. Nice is performative; kind is helpful. Nice takes little or no effort; kind may require something of you. Nice is habitual; kind is thoughtful. But when it comes to ourselves, I think it’s sometimes harder to distinguish. We associate indulgence with pleasure, even though the pleasure is so often fleeting, and the pain long-lasting. I’m not against fucking up and going overboard every once in a while, and I am actually thankful for the regret that keeps me from doing it much. I’m also not advising against a modicum of ridiculousness if it doesn’t seriously damage yourself or someone else. Rigidity is for the enlightened or unhappy few. But where is the kindness in those acts? Where is the love, baby?

How can I actually be Kind to myself for a year?

I am the only person calling me lazy or selfish or weak or thoughtless or disappointing or unworthy or simply inadequate. Others may think it, certainly, but if so, it’s hidden enough that I couldn’t identify who those folks are. That leaves me. I am the only one turning a perfectly pleasant day into a missed opportunity to save the world, an indulgent avoidance of important learning, a wasted chance to become better, stronger, faster – The Six-Million Dollar middle-aged woman. If I really want to be good to myself, I have to stop that.

Stopping the running critique seems selfish. Stopping seems privileged. Stopping seems immoral. I’ve managed to turn my fairly generic childhood psychological abuse into a moral compass: the words that have formed the voice in my head – others’ fucked up ideas – morphed into a sadistic, abnegating nun disguised as a conscience. Or perhaps it has turned itself into that in an effort to stay relevant. Our egos are infinitely clever in that way. Regardless, it’s much harder to recognize a critical voice as destructive and abusive if it’s saying things you know to be true – I am privileged, I do want to do more, I will feel better if I give more, participating is the way I want to live, I don’t want to “waste time.”

It’s not the message itself that’s destructive, it’s the judgment. Oh, and the way the message is delivered. When I have my dog tell me I suck in her weird, Cartman-like voice, that’s just not cool. Even as I write this, there is a voice in my head saying, “you’re just looking for a way out … all the talk about self-criticism being destructive is just created by lazy people who can’t hack it … being mean to yourself is motivating!” But I do actually trust science, and I trust my own negative reaction to “shoulding all over myself,” and I’m ready to try something different.

I suppose it’s a kind of behavioral therapy. I haven’t been able to work on my self-forgiveness and kindness from the inside out, so we’re going from the outside in.

For now that means that whenever I say something mean to or mean about myself, I’m going to stop and correct it. Or say something nice about myself. Or something sappy like, “I am enough.” Ugh. Haven’t worked out the details yet. I’m also getting rid of the word “should” in relation to the way I live my life and replacing it with “could.” None of this sounds easy. I’ll need help, so if you know me, please point out when I’m doing it. The Guy’s pretty good at calling me out on this bullshit, but I’m going to further empower him as well.

It’s worth a try. I’ll let y’all know how it goes.

Selflessness and Outreach

particle headSome of you may know that I struggle with deeply seeded self-loathing, despite actually liking myself quite a bit. I tried DIY brainwashing, which didn’t work. (Maybe I need a guru? Ritual? Drugs and a sex cult?) I’ve also tried changing my inner monologue – rejecting negative commentary, not allowing my dog to critique me in a voice that sounds a lot like mine. It’s really hard, y’all. Maybe if I put “be nice to Zoe!” signs in every room of my house. And on the inside of my glasses. And in little notes in all my books. And in post-its on every screen I view. It takes a ridiculous amount of attention.

Here’s the new plan:

I can’t hate myself if I don’t have a Self! You Buddhists and pseu-Bus out there know what I’m talking about. I believe that if I just stop identifying with the idea of the self, it will be the answer to all my problems and thus open up my capacity to engage & contribute to the world.

Easy enough. No more self =

  • no more self-loathing
  • no more self-doubt
  • no more self-judgment
  • no more selfishness

I was scrolling through Ted Talks last night while putting together a cheap compost bin, and was excited to find one on Not Taking Things Personally. Wasn’t crazy about the guy’s style, but the first half of his presentation was good. When people have a problem with you, it’s not about you. It’s about those people themselves. People react to you based on their own problems, preconceptions, and present state. Sure. No one sees what’s really in front of them, and there is no such thing as objectivity.

But then he addresses those (no doubt extremely rare) situations when it actually is your fault, and his solution is: compassion. Be nice to yourself. This pretty much puts me right back where I started: I am bad at being nice to myself, dude.

However, if I am just a collection of genetics, experiences, and particles, there is nothing to forgive, nothing to improve, nothing to loathe, nothing to regret. There is just this slice of life held together by a structure, some skin, and a more or less recognizable countenance. There is no master conductor that makes bad decisions and thinks bad thoughts and therefore no one to take anything personally when confronted by the perceived critiques or abuse of others. There is only the ability to incorporate that input into the particle stew and see how it changes the flavor.

Of course, the meal is incomplete without recognizing everyone else as their own particle hot dish, pozole, sega wat.  (Thank you to the kishka of particles named Brian Greene for the particle idea of the self.) No one is really choosing the way they behave or the way they think. Everyone is a product of their environment or, as Buddha put it, (per Sharon Salzberg), “nothing exists independently of the causes and conditions that bring it about.” Judging, critiquing, excluding, ostracizing people for being the particulate arrangement that they are is pointlessly cruel and self-destructive. If instead, I can poke at that arrangement and try to reshape it in a way that I believe is more generous, more compassionate, more curious, if I don’t hate those particles for what they have been led to become at this moment, then I don’t tribalize and build walls and thereby prevent myself from using the most effective approach to try to recruit them to my antiracist, antisexist, humanist team. That is, I find the ways that our particles connect, find the shaping forces that we have in common, and recognize that neither of us had any say in being who we are.

But we do have a say now, at least in the sense that we have been brought together in this hypothetical moment and can listen to and learn from each other, to send our particles in a different direction going forward. Change is inevitable. How we change is contingent upon our environment, including everyone who reaches out to smack us down or lend a hand up.

Do What Works, Instead of What Makes You Feel Good (The End of Empathy pt. 3)

cc imageSorry for the inconsistent posts, folks. I’ve been wrapped up in a State Fair exhibit and thus entrenched in Climate Change lit. It’s taken an emotional toll, to be honest. I’m not proud of that. Oooh, middle class American White Lady feels bad about the warming planet. Pooooor American White Lady. Yeah. I’d like to come up with a better excuse for the depression that engulfed me when I dove into this swamp, but this is what I’m left with.

Happily, a different kind of climate change book has been helping me cope. I just finished Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, which got me to jump off the doom train and mount the bipartisan babble bicycle (sorry). I loooove books about the human brain and how it fucks us up. The Invisible Gorilla, Why Buddhism is True, and the somewhat discredited Thinking Fast and Slow are all excellent. This is another in that genre, but with the specific task of improving communication about climate change in order to push us towards a critical mass of action.

There is a lot of excellent information here: about our attachment to identity, our need to conform to the ideologies of the social group we’ve chosen, the way we assess risk, confirmation bias, etc. I could nerd about all of it for paragraphs, but I’m committed to the same goal as the author; improving communication and action on climate change. With that in mind, here is my biggest takeaway from the book.

Do whatever the fuck it takes to get people to move on climate change.

Maybe that’s a big extreme, or maybe it’s not. I could say that whatever the fuck it takes means chaining myself to an oil derrick or lying down in the middle of a freeway or  blowing up a CAFO, but would that really be more effective that building support for carbon-reducing legislation? Most likely any non-believers who heard about my awesomely dramatic actions would be gifted with yet another reason to shun (what they view as) my “beliefs,” so those performances aren’t actually what it takes to get shit done. Let’s adjust:

Do whatever the fuck it takes to actually get people to act on climate change.

This is harder, because it’s not about declaring my convictions or self-righteously putting myself in harms way. It’s about doing what actually works, instead of what makes me feel good. And what works is letting go of my own narratives and beliefs and biases in order to join with my Others to fight the real enemy: the end of humanity and the world as we know it. (I don’t say the end of life as we know it, because that’s not necessarily an enemy or a bad thing. Moving towards a lower carbon lifestyle is necessary and can be even fun.)

This means I have to stop thinking of CC nonbelievers as stupid or sheep and start seeing them as vulnerable little human beings just like me whose circumstances have led them to the same kind of groupthink and bigotry and skepticism as mine have, just from the other political side. They critically distrust authority like I critically distrust the White House. They believe their community of caring, like minded people just like I do. They mold evidence to match their ideological beliefs just like me.

If I want them to join the fight against global warming, I have to make it their fight. I can’t just wait for the government to draft them into my war.

How do I do that? My embracing religious perspectives, by expanding the consequences of CC beyond the realm of environmentalism, by moving away from blame. It feels so good to blame, but it’s worse than unproductive. We have shared values, and if we identify and build on those, we may actually be able to fight the corporations that don’t have values because they’re not people with consciences but vehicles of production and profit, and the politicians who don’t have values because they’re only interested in what will get them through the next election cycle.

What are the shared values? Protecting children, being responsible, enjoying life, making decisions for ourselves, and maintaining good health may be a few.

So I clearly have the brilliant idea. I could work on turning it into actual communication. And I’ve tried a bit of that with the abovementioned exhibit. But how much is that really going to do? Who else should I be reaching out to? Through what medium? Why would any of the nonbelievers believe me, a believer, anyway? Any ideas on how to disguise myself? Help?

Listamania

top 10I struggle with lists. Two of my best friends love lists. They try to get me to make my ranked lists and compare them to their ranked lists. Top five movies of all time. Top ten novels. Three best fruits.

BEST. FRUITS.

Lists are hard for me because I take them too seriously. The most recent challenge was contributing my list of 10 to the top 893 songs of the aughts. (Our indie music station is at 89.3 on the dial.) Specifically, the Essential songs. Meaningless. Is it the songs that most move me? The “objectively” best songs? The songs that are most musically representative of the era? Most lyrically aughtian? Should I cover the broadest range of music? Of performer types? It was too much. I think I wound up with a tidbit of each of those descriptions, and after several hours of analysis typed it up quickly and sent it in. Regretting all the breathtaking great songs I left out.

Some of you addicts are drooling to hear my list now. I get it. I would be, too. I truly don’t remember what was on it, but I know I included Amanda Palmer, Missy Elliot, TuNeYaRds, Elliott Smith, Lizzo, Rufus Wainwright, Kanye, and Sufjan Stevens. Sorry to disappoint.

But it’s not just making lists that’s hard; it’s the addictive yet disturbing assessment of the lists of others. I judge others according to how their lists compare to mine, judge myself by how my list compares to theirs, and judge their lists on a scale of my esteem for their creator. A song can theoretically drop a few clicks in my worst of list if someone I artistically respect makes a good argument for it, but I’m more likely to think less of a person for liking something I loathe.

Lists! The easiest clickbait on the internet. Top 10 most gruesome ways to die this year! Top 10 ugliest child stars! Why do we love them so much? It’s not just the thrill of having strong opinions about something insignificant. It seems to fall into that realm of human specialty: categorization. It’s one of our greatest strengths as a species. Evolution has blessed us with exceptional categorization skills. Safe and dangerous, while often ill-defined, are clearly important to survival. I’m sure if I weren’t rushing to finish this I could come up with a handful of others, and most of the unnecessary ones are at least innocuous. The ones that concern me are when we create a list based on a narrow set of characteristics, then label the list with a much broader title, then believe that title and apply those characteristics to the items we’ve decided to put in that list.

What am I talking about? I think my generalizations are no longer serving me.

You smile and say hello every morning. You tell me I have a wonderful dog. My dog likes you. I put you in the “nice” category. You mow my lawn after I break my leg and I upgrade you to “good.” Now that you’re in the good category, everything you do is colored by that label. The longer you stay in the good category, the harder it is to get booted from it. You say something that might be sexist and I attribute it to your age. You say something that might be racist and I attribute it to your homogenous surroundings. You say you’re a Republican and I have to wrestle with cognitive dissonance. Because Republican = Bad.

This has been brewing in my brain for a long time, and I’m not going to tackle it all here, but when we categorize people – good or bad; Democrat or Republican – we do it to make things easier on ourselves. And it somewhat necessary. For fuck’s sake, we can’t be expected to make a decision on the righteousness of every policy. We choose a side and trust that they’re making the right decision. We categorize people as good or bad so we don’t have to reassess them every time we meet. But “good guys” have gotten away with literal and figurative murder because we let the category define the individual, instead of taking the person’s actions on their own merit or lack thereof. Democrats have done horrible things. Republicans are sometimes right. We are so wedded to our lists that pulling a well-established someone or something out of one is worse than pulling teeth. It makes us question our ideology, our judgment, our perceptions. It’s horrifying. And liberating. And probably necessary.

I think one of the reasons I’m so reluctant to make lists is because I know how committed I am to them. What if I’m wrong? What if Jason Isbell is more worthy than Rufus Wainwright? I have to be willing to make that switch if I’m proven wrong. Rufus will forgive me. Or, more likely, he will flamboyantly not care.

 

Tu Cancer es Mi Cancer

You have a friend with cancer, let’s say breast cancer because it seems both more common and less scary than others (just lop it off, right?). It was caught early and it seems like she’s going to be fine, if breastless. She’s not, like, your best friend, so this isn’t a direct hit on your life. But she’s close enough that you can’t dismiss it as another inevitable, anonymous cancer story. You truly care about her. You bring food and offer support and “like” or “cry” or “anger” all her facebook posts. You are not a Bad Person.

But she’s not what you think about at 2am, staring at the ceiling. You think about You. Specifically, You in contrast with her. You start to construct a questionnaire, like those at the doctor’s office that tell you whether you’re an alcoholic. Yours is something like this:

  • Are you older or younger than her?
  • Did she smoke? Do you?
  • Is she nicer than you?
  • Does she drink? A lot? How much less than you?
  • Would you describe her as a “positive person”? Are you?
  • What’s her medical history? How healthy are you?
  • Does she meditate? for how long? Does she seem enlightened? More than You?
  • Does she exercise? What kind?
  • Where did she grow up? Was it on a nuclear test site? Wasn’t there a paint manufacturer around the corner when you were a kid? Was this before they banned lead? Why don’t you ever see those neighbors on facebook!?

And you think you can take all your answers and hers, give them each a number, calculate a cancer score for each of you, and objectively determine whether you are more or less likely to get cancer than she is. Then think of ways to dramatically derail your life so you can beat those odds.

But it’s all bullshit. This is the story we tell ourselves. It’s a lot like our success story, our ideas of the right and wrong things to do to lead us to the desired conclusion. It’s magical thinking, and it’s utterly unhelpful. It saps energy and presence and eats away at you. Of course there are proven behaviors that should reduce risk, but that’s not what this is about. This is about constructing a story against which you can praise or blame yourself and chart your future – a way to give yourself control over something that is essentially out of your control.

Crafted after your scary health diagnosis, this magical storytelling is worse than unhelpful, it’s destructive. Blaming yourself for your affliction is, first, untrue (because there is no free will, folks – your cancer is the product of your genetics, the block you grew up on, the people you’ve known, and the behavior of every atom in the universe which crafted your inevitable journey toward every single thing you’ve ever done); and second, it’s adding insult to injury. Even if you do believe you were responsible, what does that matter now? It helps nothing. The post-diagnosis should be all healing and living and decision making and all that fun shit. When it comes down to it, Your Cancer is not about you and your concept of self. But even more than that, Her Cancer is not About You.

Get off it. Be a friend. Get over yourself. I mean, it’s normal to think this way, but stop now. It’s totally normal to turn your friend’s cancer into your rumination fantasy, right?

There’s no way I’m the first one to do this, right?

Hello? Is this thing on?

Unlearning the Lines

The_Memphis_Blues_4I am a lyrics junky. I know lyrics. Not just beloved lyrics, either. I know the lyrics of hundreds of songs I actively avoid, and probably twice as many that evoke not a single emotion. I’m guessing this takes up about 5% of my working brain.

I am also hard-wired with lyrics that are totally fuckin wrong. It’s happened more than once that after blithely, boldly singing along with a song for decades, one day, for whatever reason, I stop and actually pay attention to the song I’m accompanying, instead of getting wrapped up in the drama of my own (private) performance. Listening to the song with adult ears, I realize I’ve had it wrong this whole time. And now that I think about it, my version made no sense at all, whereas the actual lyrics were really pretty clear and sometimes disappointingly banal. Continue reading “Unlearning the Lines”