Theme(s) of the Year(s)

Theme(s) of the Year(s)

I can’t help it. My little human brain loves the idea of fresh starts and propitious dates and all that bullshit, no matter how much I try to ignore them. I don’t make insanely detailed resolutions like I used to (terrifying lists of quantified, specific behaviors designed to make me more likeable to myself), but as a human clawing my way to enlightenment, I also can’t pretend that I’m fine with the way things are. The great dichotomy: everything is perfect and things are fucked.

… which brings me to my theme of the year. 2021’s was the embrace of Non-binary truth and Not Knowing. Of all my Buddhist study in 2021, the many talks I listened to, all my own practice, that was the lesson that resonated most with me. As an Western intellectual (in focus, if not … intellect) who is primed to seek non-ambivalent answers, it was clearly a lesson I needed to learn, and continue to learn. It’s drawn me further away from politics (not that I needed much nudging) and closer to people, and has helped me dismember a lifetime of shame around any ignorance I have around any topic on which I think I should be well-informed. So fucking liberating, y’all. When I admit to Not Knowing the answer to the urgent question of the moment, I feel the spine-crushing weight of identity-based inadequacy falling to a harmless heap at my feet. I feel my mind open up and my curiosity let loose. This Not Knowing was the foundation of what became my spiritual theme of 2022: The lesson you need is always right in front of you. More about that here. I’m not entirely free of the burden of intellectual pride, but I know how utterly useless it is in moving me forward on either spiritual or intellectual paths, and I recognize how gross it makes me feel.

Ah, feelings. The first play I did in Minneapolis was called Why We Have a Body. I loved the script, but couldn’t answer the implied question until a few months ago. We have a body to experience the world. And yet so many of us, me foremost in my mind, go through our lives not trusting the messages of our body. Or, rather, we believe the messages we shouldn’t, and ignore the messages we should. It’s understandable that we would trust what our eyes tell us they see, and our ears tell us they hear. We don’t witness the intense work that goes into crafting our visual or aural experience, the interpretation that precedes our perception, creating the illusion of reality when what we are actually experiencing is the filter our brain has chosen for us. No judgment here, I know we’d likely be overwhelmed into a silent, frozen scream if we perpetually absorbed all of the stimuli available to our senses. But what we perceive is not an objective reality, and it’s not really trustworthy.

Meanwhile, our body regularly sends us essential messages which we generally ignore, or only acknowledge in the form of emotional reaction, bypassing the message itself and skipping directly to the response. We don’t do this consciously, either. Those of us caught in this cycle of obliviousness (which I’m guessing is most of us) think we’re having reasonable, defensible reactions to the given situation. My spouse is home late, so I’m angry. Makes sense, right? Not to everyone. There are plenty of rational people who don’t get angry when their spouse is home late. If I recognize that, I might be tempted to follow that logic: if everyone doesn’t get angry when their partner is late, then I don’t have to be, either. This is not a universal response; this is not the fear that rushes through my body when I slip on ice. So, do I want to be angry? Maybe in the past; but nowadays, No. So where is the anger coming from? If I stop, if I slow down and honor my body when the clock ticks past the presumed arrival time, I might notice a tension in my gut, something I can recognize as fear. I’m afraid that he’s dead. This is not his problem, but mine. I can acknowledge the feeling and move on without a reaction that would make me tense and make my partner unnecessarily chastened once he arrives intact. (How dare he.)

But how? How did I exercise this magical power? Same boring answer: MEDITATION.

I don’t think meditation is the solution to every problem. I don’t think it will bring enlightenment (though I still hope!) and I’m sure there are other ways to achieve similar ends. Yoga may do it. Breathwork. Reiki. Psychedelics. I really don’t know. I can only speak to my own experience, and meditation has trained me to be aware of my own body and to pause before blindly reacting to an impulse. These have been essential to my PRESUMPTIVE THEME OF 2023: My Body Knows Shit.

I’ve been an Instinct Denier for most of my life. I witnessed the fucked up magical thinking that people attributed to instinct, and I decided that, while good instincts may exist, they are so muffled by our own biased thinking and life experiences that we don’t have the ability to access them in an unsullied form. But with years of meditation and study and most recently the book The Extended Mind, I see that the body doesn’t actually lie. That the body is not subject to the same biases and fears that our brain (protectively) forces upon us. That if we actually stop and listen to the body, it can often move us in the right direction. (Not always, I’m sure. Physical addictions definitely bring this theory into question, though I don’t know that somatic awareness would never work even in those extremes.) It’s giving me a trustworthy message, I’ve just been interpreting it all wrong. I’ve been playing with this new way of living, and it’s been magical. I find myself in situations I’ve probably repeated thousands of times (the late partner example, to wit) where I can now stop, feel what’s happening, and bring some wisdom into the scenario before I go off on some reactive tangent. It’s a pretty impressive superpower, folks. And one I’ve only begun to explore. I can’t wait to see what my body tells me in 2023. I HAVE INSTINCTS! It’s really exciting. Like having a supersmart, inspirational new friend. And, despite the Minnesota ethos, everyone can use another good friend.

Finding Refuge

Finding Refuge

If you’ve studied any Buddhism, you may be familiar with the concept of Taking Refuge. If not, don’t fret! This is not a post about formal Refuge or any formal Buddhist practice. Refuges are everywhere, and it is our skillful or unskillful use of those that intrigues me most.

Buddhists take refuge in the Three Jewels: the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha. This is done as a formal ceremony, but can also be performed as a private practice or affirmation. If you know my blog, you know I gravitate towards the informal route.

I’ve mulled over the three treasures on occasion. It’s not much of a stretch for me to get there, depending on whose interpretation I adhere to. The hardest for me to get behind, ironically, I guess, as a Buddhish type, is the first. What does it mean to take refuge in the Buddha? For me, it is either the idea that a being without illusion and attachment could exist, which is heartening; or the idea that Buddha nature is in all of us, which is even better. The dharma, the teachings, are obviously instrumental in guiding my life and decisions; and the sangha, which for me is my community of like-minded practitioners, be it the Western Buddhist leaders whose writings I rely on, my online sangha left over from the UPAYA Socially Engaged Buddhist group, or just the world of fellow meditators who are trying to live a life free of inflicting or indulging in suffering.

Nonetheless, when the Refuge-focused, 3 week intensive with my local meditation center started, I didn’t really have any idea of what Refuge meant outside of these strictures and the dictionary definition of the word. When we were encouraged to consider where we find refuge and where we don’t, I really didn’t know where to begin. A lovely Buddhist teacher couple whose daylong retreat I attended in November came to mind — they had asked us to find a place in our experience or memory that we could turn to when times were difficult. I have good, safe memories, but none that stood out as worthy of developing or grasping, and isn’t the point to be good with where we’re at?

So now I was being asked to look at my places of refuge again. Have I completely misunderstood Buddhism? or are we, mere mortals, being invited to indulge in stopgap measures while we float in the moat outside of enlightenment?

I eventually listened to the talks we were assigned (usually a good idea) and realized I was more aligned than I had thought. The idea was not to find more places to take refuge, but to recognize the ways in which we try to find safety in helpful, impermanent, silly, or even destructive things. I have plenty. Here are some choice ones:

  • food – a constant battle: eating out of boredom, depression
  • filler noise – podcasts while I do repetitive, mindless work
    • What’s the harm there, you might say? Well, one, that I stay in a job in which I am regularly bored; and, two, there is ample evidence that when humans try to distract themselves from unpleasant tasks, they always feel worse, not better: the task is more demoralizing the less you engage with it. This also gels with Buddhist beliefs
  • drama – there’s been plenty of that at work lately, and I can feel myself being energized, maybe made frantic, by it. The drama is destructive. It is causing real practical and emotional harm to many people, and I don’t like that, but I do like how it makes me feel. I am not bipolar, but I have so much sympathy for folks who don’t want to give up the mania in order to mitigate the depression. It’s enlivening.
    • I used to feel this way about anger – what is more invigorating than anger? – but I couldn’t handle the hangover. I couldn’t control it, so it controlled me. It was so destructive that I couldn’t help but recognize the harm it was doing and to loathe the feeling it generates in me. But I still like drama.
  • sleep – not a bad thing, but in winter I can prioritize sleep and just lying in bed over pretty much anything, if I let myself
  • reading – again, not bad in isolation, but as a substitute for doing things that need to be done it’s still an issue
  • gossip – I don’t think of myself as a big gossip, but it’s been tied up with the drama at work. If only we got the same thrill in praising others as we do in talking shit about them…
  • exercise and cleaning are both immensely beneficial to my wellbeing; I don’t know how I’d get through winter without them. I suppose they only become a false refuge if used as a substitute for facing up to truth. I believe even meditation and retreats can be false refuges if done for any reason other than awakening. There’s a New Yorker cartoon I saw long before I started meditating that still sticks with me: a man meditates, looking peaceful, while a closet bulges off the hinges behind him. I couldn’t find that one, but there’s some gooood meditation comedy out there. Here’s one (courtesy of Ginny Hogan & Jason Chatfield).

I have certainly used sitting to avoid one thing or another. One challenge for me is distinguishing a false, harmful refuge from a simple, mostly harmless, or even beneficial, distraction. If I sit now instead of doing that work thing, won’t I approach working more mindfully? Eventually? If exercise staves off depression, doesn’t that help me update my resume? Someday?

The truth is, I’ve been doing this for long enough to know when something I’m doing is avoidance disguised as meaningful action. I may not know why. I may not be able to stop it. But I can feel it when I’m efforting all around the problem and pushing life further down the road. Ugh. Consciousness is hard.

Even harder is forgiving yourself and letting your fuckups just be. The oxymoron is almost as confounding as the belief of the Socially Engaged Buddhist: nothing to do in a world that is fine just as it is, and everything to do in a world of prevalent injustice.

I haven’t committed to this intensive practice period as much as I would have liked – there are so many things going on this time of year, and so many things going on in parts of my life, that I’ve only gone a wee bit beyond upping my daily meditation time. But it still helps. It helps me deal with the demands for attention and the temptations and the cold and the sadness for the people in the cold. I’m grateful for all of it. And for all of you who let me write about it. This blog is definitely a refuge for me.

Feelin’ It

I recently finished a fascinating book called The Extended Mind. (If you’re on Goodreads, you can find my review here.) It covers all sorts of realms where we store intelligence, adaptation, knowledge, and wisdom beyond the skull, starting with the rest of our own bodies. I’ve been all up in listening to my body since I started body scan meditation over a decade ago, but interpreting that as a kind of intelligence is new for me. The combination of body awareness, interpretation, and situational analysis has had some interesting results of late. Here’s one example.

I did a session of “below the belt” exercises yesterday, following my virtual kickboxing platform, and decided to perform the dead lifts I usually skip because they always hurt my back. They weren’t so bad this time, but I still had some pain. B was up when I finished, so I mentioned it to him. I showed him what I was doing & asked what could be wrong. He said I was bending my back. I said I wasn’t. He demonstrated. I didn’t see the difference. Eventually he said I should tuck my butt more, and that made sense. I tried it. He might be right. Pretty dull scene.

Behind the scenes: drama! When he said I was doing it wrong, I immediately got defensive. I noticed this when we were moving cedar planters in the yard over the summer, too. B said I was lifting with my back and I responded maturely with something like, No I’m not! or So’s your mom! and left both of us mildly annoyed. I was just as defensive this time, but decided to be “adult” and power through it. Once the instruction was over, I took a shower and sat down to unpack what had actually happened.

What actually happened is that when he corrected my form, he used a tone he doesn’t use often – slightly excited, slightly loud, and with a bit of upspeak at the end of the sentence. My body immediately went defensive. I could feel it: a tension that my brain interpreted as a threat, and to which I immediately wanted to respond with denial. I assume it’s a holdover from childhood, from a father who responded to every mistake and demonstration of ignorance as if I were deliberately fucking with him. This would lead to a long (sometimes hours long) narcissistic and inane lecture or interrogation in which I was not learning or growing or investigating, but just desperately trying to come up with the answer that would get him to stop.

The response is different with B – I don’t see him as a threat, but the physical tension motivated by the tone caused me to react with a defense of my intelligence, an ego defense that makes it impossible to learn. I didn’t forget about the yard incident; I knew my response was not ideal, but I assumed it was embarrassment, not wanting to be wrong. The thing is, I like being wrong these days; I’ve actively worked on detaching any ignorance I unwillingly harbor from my self-esteem, or from myself at all. It’s been incredibly liberating, and these days I usually don’t have to work through much of my own shit before I can come to a place of openness and acceptance. Why was this different? Well, it turns out I’m more forgiving of content than style. If B had said the same words with a different inflection, there would have been nothing to overcome. I memorize the exact phrasing of every singer or every song I’ve ever liked, and apparently the exact tone of every phrase that has ever hurt or humiliated me. The ears keep the score.

Though I didn’t fully understand why it was happening, I was able to observe my body with just enough distance to recognize that my reaction yesterday was unreasonable and unhelpful. I couldn’t make it go away, but I could decide how to react to that feeling. Instead of saying, “you’re wrong” again, and giving into the amygdala hijack that was taking place in my monkey brain, I decided to white knuckle my way through it and take the imperfectly articulated advice.

Progress, but still not ideal.

Once I figured out what had happened, I talked to B about it. I said he had used a certain tone that he doesn’t use often, and that probably came out of concern for my physical safety, but which my body interprets as a threat to my intelligence. My reaction to that type of threat is to get defensive, which makes it hard for me to reap any value from what he’s saying. He said he wasn’t entirely sure where the tone came from, and didn’t know if he could stop himself from ever using it again. I agreed, but said I wanted to explain what was happening so that we would each have a better understanding of the dynamics underlying those interactions in the future. I think we both walked out of the assessment without any wounds or additional defenses, and with a better understanding of each other.

I don’t know whether his tone was caused by fear, if he uses it with other people, or if investigating that fear might help him modulate his communication style in similar situations with me or others going forward. That’s his journey. For my part, I now have an ally in breaking up similar chain reactions going forward. That’s potentially one less wound, one less grudge, one less bitter pill to carry around and cram down someone else’s throat.

Healthy for me? check

Healthy for this relationship? check

Good for the world? check.

Is this ridiculously boring? It sure feels like it might be. (Ever listen to someone talk about meditation? I sat without moving! I observed my breathing! Jesus.) To me it is thrilling. It’s like I’ve been hauling around this box of tools for decades, and I suddenly know how and when to use them. All these gifts, all these answers that I didn’t know were here all along.

Still haven’t found the tool that fixes my employment situation. More on that another day.

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.

3/4 of a box step

3/4 of a box step

I’ve been feeling pretty good about myself lately.

My new volunteer gig is frightening and wondrous. The easiest and hardest volunteering ever: literally nothing I have to do [exhale] … except hang out with people I don’t know [gasp], and infinitely rewarding.

And I’ve developed a new superpower: CHANGE. As some of you may have read in The Fireworks Guy anecdote, I (yes, the writer you know and love) have the ability (it’s okay: you can touch the hem of my garment) to stop doing destructive shit! Not only have I stuck a wrench in the churning hatred of Fireworks Guys (so successfully that I don’t feel any anger even when surprised by one of the little bombs anymore, just … surprise), I also preemptively stopped myself from falling into passive-aggressive relationship patterns twice last week.

The magical source of this newfound talent? Dumb old meditation. The best explanation I can give is that I’ve grown accustomed to my thoughts, or to observing them. Instead of just reacting to a perceived offense thoughtlessly, my response sits in the center of my vision like a dog in need. I can get off my lazy metaphorical ass and try to figure out what the issue is, or I can ignore it, fester in my angry/grumpy/bitter automation, while it slinks off and waits for the next opportunity to bump me out of inertia. In both recent scenarios, instead of just thoughtlessly plodding along as I usually do, I had a brief debate with myself over my choices:

I’m gonna be withholding now.

But why?

Because I didn’t like that.

And will clamming up make you feel better?

… no

And will it make him feel better?

… no

And will it teach anybody anything?

… … … no

So?

Fine. Forget it.

And that was it. I just didn’t do the pointless, harmful thing. Twice. I was so excited about my new superpower that I had to share it with the Practice Check-In group at my local sangha on Tuesday. To be honest, I was feeling pretty fucking cool. Not braggy cool, just quietly proud cool.

And then today I felt like shit. Depressed. Surly. Trapped. Drained. I took a short nap. I worked out. I logged out of my work computer. I listened to some Lizzo, did some dishes, took a walk. Everything helped a little, but I still feel shitty. What is this need for control? For consistency? Why do I panic whenever I’m down? I suppose there is some fear of feeling the way I used to when I was younger, of struggling to get out of it. And I have a need for answers. I have a few – an unfulfilling job, some bad news about a project I’m working on, eating too much sugar this week. But those answers don’t help me right now. Just sitting with it is probably the best thing I can do. But part of me wants to be better than that. Perhaps I need to stop thinking of the “good” things (my superpower, for example) as a step forward and the bad things (depression, criticism) as a step back, and see it more as a dance, a sidestep, an expansion into more, rather than better.

Writing helps, too. Thanks, friends.

Practice (lots)

Practice (lots)

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.

Wishing you enlightening sits, sitters.

How to Do Nothing – A Sort of Book Review

How to Do Nothing – A Sort of Book Review

I have so much to say about this book that I haven’t been able to write anything at all (well, that and the cast (#2!) on my wrist have been complementary barriers).

I loved this book and needed it. In the same way that A Field Guide to Getting Lost found me when I had left all my friends, gotten divorced, moved to a new city, and was underemployed; How to Do Nothing was kind enough to come out in paperback after I signed up for a year-long Socially Engaged Buddhism course, and had kicked off an effort to reframe my life through a lens of conscious, compassionate behavior, rather than the political chaos, urgency, and lonely echo-chambering of 2020.

Jenny Odell’s work isn’t long, but it’s quite expansive – a feature that some readers have found wacky, incoherent, or exhausting (good old Goodreads), while also hitting many of 2020’s best of lists. I won’t malign its detractors, I understand where they’re coming from, but I would also posit that her wide-ranging topics are cohesive under the banners of anti-capitalism and mindfulness.

I’m sure many of you like Capitalism, or parts of it. I see some benefits, too, but Capitalism is built on competition, production, and growth, which are generally weakened by communal support, contentment, and “doing nothing”. Advertising appeals to jealousy, self-loathing, and unhappiness; social media appeals to all those plus loneliness and binary thinking. I feel those brief moments of satisfaction when I jump in to endorse a fiery political opinion on Facebook, quickly followed by a physical grossness, much the same spike and dip I feel when eating refined sugar, which I’m also minimizing these days.  For me, it’s essentially an excess of reaction – my critical mind is overwhelmed with judgement of every post I scroll past. Right or wrong? Genuine or performative? Good person or bad? I could give you a long list of Buddhish explanations of why this is generally unhelpful to our and humanity’s development and happiness, but the clearest deterrent for me is the feeling in my gut. I don’t know if I’d be aware of it if I hadn’t been meditating for over a decade, and maybe that’s why so many of us remained hooked on not only social media, but self-righteousness, anger, and judgment. The addictive nature of those behaviors in turn make it difficult to step away from them, stop, and center ourselves in the world, so the spiral into anxiety, conformity, and misery continues unabated.

If I had to sum Jenny Odell’s book into two words (and since I’ve just set that standard, I now do), I’d go with Mindfulness and Curiosity, in that order, though it’s more simultaneous in practice. All conscious change starts with awareness – whether that’s of a habit we don’t like, or a goal we want to reach. The greater the awareness, the more likely the change will stick. This is why people put reminders of diet motivations on the fridge, or download apps that check in on them. Our brains will always revert to the easiest, more immediately satisfying, most habitual thing if we don’t pay attention to what we’re doing and why. It’s the simplest and hardest thing in the world, because we’re modern humans wired for a short, constantly life-threatening existence that simply doesn’t apply to the vast majority of us anymore, and the imbalance makes us miserable. I do like the idea of Attention over what many perceive as the more ethereal mindfulness. It implies something more active. Odell’s subtitle is Resisting the Attention Economy, but it’s more an act of engagement than resistance, and a real, volitional something instead of nothing. By choosing to direct our attention to things that are outside of the economy, that do not generate wealth or power, we engage in an act of revolution.

I honestly found the whole idea ridiculously exciting.

She doesn’t end with attention, though. Attention is also a starting point for a better world (my squishy words, not hers). If we paid attention, would we know our neighbors? Would we change our jobs? Would we check our email every ten minutes? Would we keep stumbling through our lives, zombie-like, if we recognized how many other options were out there? Odell has a background in visual art, which I definitively do not, and her examples of disruptive art in the world were excellent windows into something I’ve been thinking about a lot – the life-sucking power of habit and conformity. Two examples: in the Twin Cities a few years back, some entity placed giant picture frames in strategic locations in the State & National Parks. It was framed (ha) as a photo opportunity – a way to get Instagram-obsessed youngsters to notice the great outdoors, I suppose, but in a more general sense it was marking out these non-productive spaces as worthy of notice. The beauty of nature which a lot of us seek to create in our own home with giant posters or representative paintings are actually all around us for free whenever we direct our attention towards it, but we are such creatures of goal-oriented habit, that we don’t notice them unless we recreate the style of the recreation and bring the picture frame to the source of the picture. Humans are hilarious.

Example two: B & I stopped at a coffee shop in an outlet mall on our way out of town last year, and as I was walking back to the car, sun bright and delicious blended matcha in hand, I had an impulse to pirouette. I didn’t, and subjected Ben to a philosophical theory on conformity and oppression when I closed the door. I was focused on racism at the time (as I often am), and interpreted in part as the dominance of a repressed White European culture (particularly the Scandinavian influence here) that sees any act that might call attention to yourself or disrupt norms as morally questionable. I still believe that, and believe it manifests in a racist way, since many cultures would embrace physical outbursts of joy, etc. But Odell calls attention to another aspect of nonconforming behaviors: they wake people up. We can make an hour’s drive from work everyday and remember none of it, but if we narrowly avoid an accident, those moments are emblazoned on our memories, and our actions at the time are present and fully conscious. Trauma certainly wakes us up, but a simple act of nonconformity, of creativity, of whimsy can do the same. Acts of disruption become acts of love, an invitation to stop and be in the world at that moment. As much as we shun this behavior in others (even being the only person in the movie theatre laughing at the dark comedy can be isolating), we also crave it. I would also argue that we need it, that unless we shake up the quotidian we don’t even see the maze we’re trapped in, and without recognizing it, we’ll never break out. Let me call back to White Supremacy for a moment and point out that pretty much everything that is considered “normal” in the US is a White cultural norm, so allowing these standards to remain unchallenged is itself a racist act. Who knows what other options are out there? I can feel my muscles relax just thinking about it.

So, less of a book review than a mulling over mainstream society, but I have to credit Odell for helping me explore and articulate it. If you’re looking for a how to get off social media, this isn’t what you want. If you want some ideas on how to consciously craft a better life for yourself and your people, I think you’ll get a lot out of it.

Bros Before Everything

I had a bit of a freakout last week. Maybe that’s not the right word. Crisis? That seems to involve decision-making. Breakdown? Nah, I could still function. Normal reaction to the world in all its horror? Yes, that’s it.

I had finally read an article I had set aside for months – about femicide in Mexico. I was too devastated and revolted to sleep after reading the details of the gang rape, mutilation, and murder of a preteen girl when I last picked it up, a few months back. But this was broad daylight, and it seemed important. I topped that off with a piece about the Police unions in Vanity Fair’s Breonna Taylor issue. I can’t even remember the other unmentionables of that day, but let’s throw in a few additions from the last week – another gang rape of a young Dalit woman in India, ICE officers taking children from their fathers in the Immigration Nation documentary, Muslims beaten to death and scapegoated in India, every Trump rally, even college fraternities flagrantly flouting social distancing rules.

It’s all about the Bros.

Groups of guys – especially groups of young, rich White guys – have often scared and disgusted me. I was the the obnoxious, goth freshman girl screaming Fuck the Greeks! on Fraternity Row every alcohol-induced chance I got. I’ve always been ready to stereotype, but despite my aversion, I have underestimated the power and danger of the Bro group. It’s more than toxic masculinity: it’s blind obedience that is the threat. Toxic masculinity may guide the group ethos, but without Bro loyalty, it would have no following.

Fraternities are an obvious example, but they’re just a play-acting version of military brotherhood, which is perhaps an attempt to imitate the group cohesion actually necessary when fighting predators and hunting for food back in the “back when” times. I am utterly ignorant in the ways of military life, so Hedges’ book War is a Force that Gives us Meaning was enlightening not only on the individual addiction to the life-threatening energy of war, but for his widely accepted assertion that soldiers overwhelmingly fight not out of a sense of mission, or nationalism, or ideology, or even fear; but out of love for their brothers in arms, friendships formed out of abuse and stress and isolation and absolute interdependence. One could argue that without that brotherhood, and the psychological tactics that create and enforce it, there would be little war at all. These guys (and women) don’t have time to evaluate the justness of the battle; they’re worried about protecting their buddies. It’s admirable and terrifying. What wouldn’t they do to protect their fellow soldiers? Protection doesn’t stop when the bullets stop: the brain doesn’t work that way. If you are loyal to your bunkmate in battle, you’re also loyal when he drunkenly beats up a civilian in a bar, or rapes someone, unless your attachment to the people or standard under threat is stronger than your attachment to your bro. Bro group masterminds work hard to ensure that doesn’t happen.

It is hard for a person like me to fathom a method to the madness of gang rapes and mutilations in Mexico. I can see some twisted logic in physically demonstrating the price of noncompliance to the enemy, but the gruesomeness of it is still beyond me. A journalist intimate with these monstrosities said in the Harper’s article that bonds are formed through complicity, and criminal groups create complicity through crime. “When it’s a femicide, when corpses are mutilated, it doesn’t have so much to do with her. It’s a message between them, within the band. It’s something symbolic, done to the body of a woman.” The brutality is the point, and the less human, the less sympathetic the “other,” whatever that other is, the easier it is to remain loyal to the group. Toxic masculinity objectifies the women, but again that is just a small part of it. The groups are bonded through their collective horrific acts; they are all complicit and they all share in each other’s blame and unspoken shame. No one is turning on or turning in anyone else.

Unfortunately policing, a career with the stated intent of serving the public, often follows the same rules of soldiers under fire, street gangs, and mafias. Reports from cops released from, or on the margins of, the Blue brotherhood describe a community in which everyone who is not on the team is characterized as an enemy often a deadly enemy, and Backing the Blue takes precedence over everything else, including laws and morality. If that isn’t enough to ensure allegiance, forced participation in illegal activities has sometimes been used to coerce silence as well. This kind of cult mentality is what compels 57 police officers in Buffalo, NY to resign from the emergency response team when 2 members are suspended from policing duties after actively causing a brain injury in an unarmed 75-year-old peace activist. Why exactly they resigned is debatable, but the sequence of events is clear. Brotherhood that blindly swears allegiance to the belief that cops can do no wrong creates a police force that terrorizes cities, particularly poor people and people of color in cities. Again, the racism is just a part of it (given, a seminal part of it). The culture of us against them, and the refusal to point the finger at another brother (who may be a sister, who may be Black) is essential to creating an unjust system.

This brings up another aspect of the Bro cult philosophy: it usually involves victimhood. The idea that you are under threat (true in war; true if you’ve picked a fight with a rival gang) is a weird part of this macho, aggressive psychology. There’s far more incentive to defend your compadres if you are all being attacked. So fraternities say their first amendment rights are threatened if they’re penalized for throwing parties during a quarantine. And police feel the need to proclaim Blue Lives Matter, even though police and related law enforcement jobs are, with fire fighters, the only professions in which the killing of a member automatically generates a capital felony charge. Blue lives clearly matter in our legal system. I’m not opposed to that. But qualified immunity means the lives of those killed by police routinely don’t matter. Bro groups use their power to make themselves appear victimized, thus strengthening group loyalty and empowering themselves further.

The protectorate of Bros exists to provide a united front against anything that questions their power, so that they can do what they want without concern for the consequences. If Bros have power, if they have enough power, the only thing that can take them down is the defection of a Bro.

How do you keep a Bro from defecting? By crafting intimate bonds that are far stronger than any discomfort with any bro’s objectionable action; by making the group esoteric, hard to get into, ultimately fully accepting of each member in all his eccentricities, and an essential part of his life. Even better, by involving him in something so criminal or shameful that he puts himself at risk if he chooses conscience over loyalty and betrays the Bros. Some Bro groups, like cults, encourage or insist upon the detachment of their members from outside friends or family, even sacrificing all their worldly possessions, so that they lose everything if they lose the group. Standing up can be dangerous. There are usually punishments. You may be mocked, you may be called stupid, a traitor, a deserter, a rat. You may even put your life or freedom at risk. Look at Serpico. You will probably be gaslighted; you will be told that what you think is true is actually false; that what you think it moral is actually evil. The people who say this may even believe it, which makes it harder to challenge them. I don’t have an easy answer for avoiding groupthink, but inasmuch as I have succeeded, I can attribute it to independent study, meditation, an obsession with logic, and compassion. We’d probably do well to pay more attention to whistleblowers.

The fact is, we all become Bros at one time or another. We don’t even have to be forced into it. We excuse members of our own political parties for doing things that we would find unforgivable on the other side. We say our friend is just joking when she says something that we would call out as racist in our enemies. The fact is our brains (yes, all brains) work really, really fucking hard and are always looking for ways to make life easier for us. Thinking hard, thinking slow, burns calories. We are wired to conserve energy. If we can ally ourselves with a group that always knows what’s right and what’s wrong, that makes living more efficient and convenient. Your brotherhood may even be right some of the time, or most of the time. It may be an activist organization with the best intentions, but any group can be swept away by its own passions or power. Good groups need their members to keep them current and flexible and compassionate and transparent. Allegiance should never be blind – to our country, our party, our religion, our friends, not even our actual brothers. Trust is nice, but vigilance is essential to democracy.

The one thing Trump rewards is loyalty. For me, that’s reason enough to question its value.

Anger (The End of Empathy, pt. 2)

rageAh, Anger. It’s the hip vibe of the Trump era. Friends and acquaintances and annoyances and feminists and proud white supremacists all sing the praises of anger. It’s the caffeine of activism: perceived as necessary to wake up.

Trying to categorize sensations or psychological states as feelings or emotions is about as difficult as trying to distinguish between Empathy and Compassion. Just so we’re on the same page, though, let’s agree to this: emotions are uninterpreted physical sensations: they start in your body and often are almost instantaneously translated into something else (one of the things meditation tries to slow down), but they are real things, no matter how you interpret or indulge in or ignore them. Feelings or secondary emotions (don’t ask me to distinguish between them), are emotions interpreted on a very quick and base level: maybe fear or anger or attraction. I used to be a proponent of the Two Emotions: Love and Fear theory (pretty, isn’t it?), but now I buy into four: pleasantness, unpleasantness, arousal, and calmness. These are vague and hard to describe, but I think that’s the point. Meditation in the back yard on a lovely summer day: calmness; light breeze: pleasantness; neighbor’s dog growls menacingly: arousal; dog bite: unpleasantness; your neighbor calls you an asshole for bothering their dog. Anger is the most obvious next step, right? Probably. The neighbor’s reaction is unjust, and you have been done wrong, which typically leads to anger. And that’s fine and natural and all that.

Here’s the thing: the anger may be caused by the injustice, but it isn’t necessary to address the injustice. The most gut-level, emotional reaction would be to punch the person or kick the dog or both. Most of us would agree that this is not the ideal reaction, however, and few of us would do it. Maybe we know the neighbor’s going through a rough time, or the dog is sick, or maybe now that you think about it, you might have accidentally hit it in the face when it startled you. There are reasons why you don’t act on your anger.

And yet, people love to talk about how anger is necessary to social justice work. I simply don’t believe that the most effective actions that have been performed in the name of reform and progress are actions of anger. The anger may well have helped the recognition of the social ill, but acting in anger, instead of assessing the situation, looking at the history, finding an appropriate organization through which to organize, or a creative way to call attention to the issue, is typically feckless and often disastrous.

I used to love the saying, “if you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention,” but now I find it offensive. No one should judge or police anyone’s feelings. You can be informed and aware and active and mindful. You don’t have to buy into anger activism. At best, the anger clouds the message of the activism. Did the marchers in Selma act out of rage? No. Were they angry? Fuck, yeah, but that was not how they chose what to do. They marched because of a reasoned decision that this action would bring attention to the cause and have the greatest national impact and likelihood of changing the law. Nonviolence itself is a suppression or redirection of anger. Action in anger leads to riots.

Maybe you like riots; maybe you think they’re effective. I can’t say you’re wrong, I can only say my heart hurts when a single innocent (no one is innocent, yeah yeah) person is hurt in blind anger. Not only is it immoral (the forces that led to it are immoral, yeah yeah), it makes those in the right look like they’re in the wrong. It’s a terrible recruiting strategy. It is true that the organizations working for civil rights in the South in the sixties knew that white kids would have to die before the national media would pay attention to what was happening, but they didn’t kill those white kids. Riots are understandable, and they may sometimes lead to indirect positive action, but the pain caused is deep and awful.

My father was extremely angry, and did not hide it. He did a pretty good job of not expressing it in the form of physical abuse, which his parents did, but the threat of violence was always there nonetheless. I wasn’t really allowed to be angry around him, so I suppressed it or let it out in short bursts of screaming to punk music. And then when I got out of the house, I exploded with anger all over Los Angeles.

When I was in college, anger was my #1 go-to secondary emotion, by a longshot. And it suuuuuuucked. Yes, there was something invigorating, something exciting about it, but at the same time I could feel it eating away at me, depriving me of sleep and joy, draining me of energy and focus. I chain smoked and cut myself to release some of the stress of that raging rage, but my main outlet was on the streets of LA, where I could drive recklessly and aggressively and yell at people from the bubble of my car without consequences (usually), and lay on my horn and speed on the freeway at 3:00am. But none of it made me feel better, and some of it was truly dangerous.

I am now a recovering rageaholic. If you catch me on a bad day, I don’t look like I’ve recovered much. (My partner would agree.) But the bad days happen less since meditation, and even better is my ability to move on when I am overtaken. I used to cling to anger, because it is energizing and it feels purposeful. It can be a kind of hot, thrilling mania. But I have never made good decisions while I was angry. Most of the really embarrassing moments in my life have been born in anger.

I know there’s a popular book about the power of women’s rage. I don’t need to read it, but I’m sure it has value. Black people have historically been pressured to stuff their anger because of the manufactured stereotypes of primal, unbridled emotion; and because it could sometimes get them killed. And of course that’s horrific and of course women and Black people have the right to be angry. Anger and rage are a part of life, but sanctifying rage or dwelling in it is always destructive to the rager, and often to others. Maybe I’ve put too much weight on this – it’s the longest post I’ve written in months – but a central tenet of the great Claw to Enlightenment is not acting on my base instincts, my raw emotions, the bullshit behavior that’s fucked up humanity for centuries. I’d like to better. I think we all can do better, but we first we have to know what we’re doing.

Cops & Fear

policeWhat does it mean to be afraid?

You’ve probably heard about the recent murder verdict in Minnesota. If not, here are the facts: a cop was convicted of second degree murder in the shooting of a civilian. It is the first time a police officer has ever been convicted of murder in Minnesota. Of the 98 officers in the US arrested for on-duty fatal shootings in the last 15 years, only 4 have been convicted of murder. And here is the context (you saw it coming): the cop convicted of killing Justine Ruszczyk, a White woman, in Minneapolis, was Mohammed Noor, a Muslim, Somali, Black cop.

Both Noor and Yanez, the cop who killed Philando Castile in 2016, said they feared for their lives and shot to defend themselves. I don’t doubt that for a second. Have you heard the video of Yanez? He’s clearly terrified. I have no particular reason to think either of these men had any desire to kill anyone, ever. But why is fear a justifiable excuse for shooting a civilian while on duty? And why only sometimes? Prosecutors in fact mocked Noor’s fear on the stand, asking, “The whole blonde hair, pink T-shirt and all is a threat to you?” Kind of sickening, right? Implying that a black man in a do-rag would have been a real, or at least a reasonable threat.

I’m not saying cops shouldn’t be afraid. They should be human. But they should also be held to a higher standard. Anyone licensed to carry and discharge a deadly weapon on the job should be held to an incredibly high standard. Every attempt should be made to draw out and minimize all implicit biases. Extensive mindfulness training should be mandatory, to keep them from reacting on base, baseless instinct. Instinct itself should stop being treated like some kind of gift and recognized for what it is: a reaction based on a lifetime of accumulated experiences, traumas, observations, and media input, supplemented with evolutionary impulses and only occasionally informed by the reality of the given situation. Is it okay to be afraid of a black man shooting a gun at you? What about a black man holding a gun? A black man? A black child? A black child running away from you? When does it stop being acceptable to justify violence with fear? Why is violence accepted as a reaction to fear? I could be scared walking down a dark street at night in what I perceive to be a bad neighborhood, but that doesn’t give me the right to kill anyone who approaches me. A black man could be scared when he’s pulled over by a police officer because he sees people like him being killed on the news with horrifying regularity, but that doesn’t give him the right to kill the officer when he approaches his window. It doesn’t even give him the right to run away from him.

I don’t pretend not to understand the elevated circumstances in which cops work, the unimaginable stress in dangerous areas, and the threats they often do encounter, but this fear defense is so fucking grey it seems to have no precise meaning at all. If they’re that afraid, they shouldn’t be cops. Or they should be treated for that condition before they’re on the street. If their training itself is telling them to be that afraid, the training is fucked. Maybe my barely thought out alternative is ridiculous, but it’s not unprecedented. Mindful police training is quietly happening around the country. It has the potential to help the officers live better lives and improve the outcome in all of their interactions.

I’m going to call toxic masculinity out in this one. What else could be the source of the belief that compassion and reason and equanimity and thoughtfulness are bad qualities in a person for whom a deadly weapon is an office supply? Or is it capitalism? The American Way? So many destructive ways of thinking.

I like the idea that there are only two emotions: love and fear. I don’t know if that’s accurate, but it makes sense that the more you love, the less you fear. If law enforcement can stop seeing love and compassion as enemies of the job, there might be less enemies of the job, and they might be able to actually, effectively, serve and protect all the people in their community.