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.

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 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.

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.

Prescription: The End of the World

elephants climateThere’s a theory that one of the reasons humans are so depressed and anxious is because life is too easy. We are animals, and animal subconscious is primarily consumed with 3 duties:

  1. keep from getting killed
  2. keep from starving to death
  3. keep your species alive

Evolution and our awesome brains, whatever other neat directions they may have pushed our species, haven’t moved us beyond these primary concerns. Nowadays most of us (let’s make this “us” middle class white people; whites are also the biggest US consumers of anti-depressants) don’t have to worry about 1 & 2 on a daily basis. (3 will have to be its own blog post.) The theory is that we are hard wired to be on the alert for threats and scarcity, so when they doesn’t exist, our brains help us create them with anxiety and depression. Similarly, allergies are your body reacting to a threat that doesn’t exist in a way that hurts you (making a poison out of a peanut), and also rarely happen in countries where bodily threats like malaria and intestinal worms are real and the immune system is kept occupied.

I spend a lot of time thinking about the harmful tendencies of the brain and how to negotiate with them. I formulated this particular negotiation because I’ve been tasked with creating some Climate Change content for a State Fair exhibit. Here’s a question:

What if we really, truly internalized the threat of climate change?

What if we woke up every day and calculated how every action we took increased or decreased our risk of decimating humanity? What if we did that every moment? What if our every action was a conscious meditation on fossil fuel reduction or carbon capture or community education? What if we lived our lives on a scalding planet the way Robert Redford does on a sinking ship in All is Lost? Have you seen it? I’m not the only person who had this experience: after watching the film, for a too short period of time, every physical thing I did felt deliberate and important; every dish washed, every door opened, every piece of clothing placed in the laundry felt glutted with meaning.

What if we could live every day like that? Would it give our restless brains something to do? Could we stop being anxious and depressed about nothing in particular and focus that energy on the survival of the species? Do you think this Anti-Depressant Marketing idea might get people to give a shit? CLIMATE COMPULSION FOR MENTAL HEALTH!

I have my doubts about getting this past the MN State Fair committee.

Of Mindfulness and Magic

I studied my forehead like I’d done almost every morning for the last year, observing closely just how much the scar between my eyebrows had faded, or if it had gotten worse, and then feeling a frustration rise up in my throat, a tightening of my neck muscles as I remembered the moment when I endured the injury that gave me the scar: cutting across a parking lot and walking headlong into a wire stretched so taut it was like walking into a brick archway. Continue reading “Of Mindfulness and Magic”