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(Friday Fiction) Changeling: The Talk

Writing 150Our protagonist gets a name! I’m still feeling out how being a Changeling would feel in inner-city Baltimore. I think there’s something distinctive about the idea and I’d love to try and capture it. Here, Mr. Foster takes our narrator to McDonald’s for an explanation of what’s going on. Or not.

I don’t know if I’ve ever really SEEN the McDonald’s at Walbrook Junction before. I’ve walked past it all the time, and it’s always been the same place since I was a kid. The outside is the same fake stucco that covers the entire crumbling strip mall, and the inside is this big, open space that is way cleaner than it should be for the neighborhood but still choked with the smell of a generation’s worth of fryer grease and industrial cleaners. The tile is old, the walls are peeling but scrubbed clean, and the chairs are so worn you wouldn’t know foam was in the seat. I had always thought it was a dump, like everything there, even if the owner gave a shit about it being clean.

That was until I went in there with Mr. Foster. When he picked me up at my house, it was in a car that was twice the size I had remembered it being. The dashboard was covered with weird knobs and words in another language, but he drove it just fine. We cruised through my neighborhood, and it was like I was seeing everything for the first time. The trees were bigger and greener. The abandoned house looked like it was alive, sitting back from the street with its mouth wide open like it wanted to eat you. There were rats and cockroaches playing double-dutch on the sidewalk.

Walbrook Junction looked mostly normal, except for that McDonald’s. It was a castle with — I shit you not — an actual moat around it and banners flying and everything. When Mr. Foster walked up to it, a drawbridge just appeared. When he opened the door, one of the old mascots — the bird with the yarn hair — curtseyed and greeted him like he was a visiting noble. “Good afternoon, Sir Baobab,” is what I think she said.

Everybody seemed to know him. He walked up to the counter and the worker there stared up at him. Mr. Foster is a tall dude, but…he was really tall here. His Afro scrunched against the ceiling, and you could hear the horns coming out of his forehead scraping against it. His skin was unnaturally black but kinda brown, like molasses. And his hair was white with little flecks of black in it. That’s not how Mr. Foster looked before. And I had known him for like, five years now.

He ordered two quarter pounders with cheese, two Big Macs, a 20 piece Chicken McNuggets, and the biggest Coke they had. I got a double cheeseburger and a McChicken, then some fries and a milkshake. I don’t know why, but it felt like I had to keep up with him. The way everybody was acting around him, it made me want to live up to something.

We got our food, and he wasn’t charged for it. He told the cashier where we were going to sit (at a table in the corner) and he said “I’ll make sure you aren’t disturbed.” Before we sat down, he took a lima bean out of his pocket and put it on the chair. It sprouted immediately, and a new chair made of vines formed over it, sized up for him. He caught me staring, but he just pointed at me to sit down.

Mr. Foster tore up his food immediately. I couldn’t stop looking around. There was a five-foot squirrel dude mopping the floor and wiping down tables. Every once in a while, a rat walking on its hind legs would walk up to him and he would chitter at it or something, and then it would go off and pick up trash or put balls back in the ball pit.

I’ve been seeing shit like this ever since I got mugged. It’s still straight-up crazy to me, but with Mr. Foster it was the first time it felt like it was a kind of crazy I could live with.

“What do you want to do with your life?” When he spoke, he demanded you listen. He had that kind of voice.

“Uhm, what?” I was distracted by the squirrel-dude, and caught off guard by the question. What did that have to do with anything?

Mr. Foster leaned in and rounded his shoulders. There was a table between us, but I still felt trapped. “I said, what do you want to do with your life?”

I stared at him for a long minute. My mind went blank. Was I supposed to know what I wanted to do with my life when I was just in high school? Wasn’t that what college was for? I reached for anything I could think of, the first thing that came to mind.

“I want to cut hair.” I felt so stupid right after I said it. Mr. Foster lifted his eyebrows, but otherwise he didn’t react.

“Why?”

I shrugged. “It’s cool to just be able to talk to people all day while doing something nice for them.”

Mr. Foster nodded. “You know how to cut hair?”

Oh shit, I didn’t even think of that! I shook my head quickly. “Naw, but I can learn. It looks like something I can get pretty good at.”

“Yeah, you think so, huh?” Now he seemed amused. But not in a way that made me feel bad. “You just need some clippers and a YouTube video, right?”

“Maybe a head to practice on or something, I don’t know.” I returned his smile without knowing why. None of this made sense. Weren’t we supposed to be talking about the fact that all kinds of impossible shit was happening all around us right now? That we were in a McDonald’s that suddenly looked like a castle? That he was some giant unnaturally-colored dude that seemed to pull a lot of respect here? Why were we talking about hair all of a sudden?

“Listen, I got a few friends who could use a haircut.” He shifted in his seat, and the whole thing groaned, vines and all. “I’m going to bring a clipper set over to school tomorrow. It’s yours. And in two weeks’ time, you’re going to come to my house and cut hair. That’s how you’re gonna pay me back. Deal?”

“Uhm. Deal.” I glanced at a small group of rats that seemed to be arguing about a mess on the floor. They were squeaking at each other in these high voices that made it hard to make out what they were saying. “But shouldn’t we be—?”

Mr. Foster put up a big hand to stop me from talking. “You’ll get to talk all you want in a couple of weeks. But if you have questions, you write them down one at a time on this.”

He made a motion like he was sliding something to me across the table. It didn’t look like anything at first, but when I looked down there was a piece of paper there. It was thick, like a page out of an expensive journal or something, colored yellow-brown with all kinds of spots in it. It looked awesome. Too good to write on, even. I gathered it up and slipped it in my backpack, not really sure what to say. “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome. You write the question, and I’ll see it. I’ll write a response, and you’ll see it on that slip of paper.”

“How?”

“Magic, that’s how.” The look on his face let me know he was giving me a big secret. “It’s like untraceable email, right?”

“Yeah, I guess.” I still felt weird about all of this, but kind of comfortable. “But what if my parents find it or my sister starts snooping in my room?”

Mr. Foster shook his head. “They won’t see it. Only folks like you and me can. If you want to know what I mean by that, that’s your first question.”

He got up all of a sudden, and it looked like he was going to smash right through the ceiling. But he didn’t. “I’ve got to go, but I want you to know two things. First, you’re not crazy. You’re special. Second, if you ever feel like you’re in danger or this is too much to handle, you come here and ask a cashier to get me. I’ll come as soon as I can, OK?”

I nodded. I didn’t really like it, but I nodded.

“Good.” Mr. Foster grabbed my shoulder when I stood up and squeezed it. “You’re a good kid, Marvin. It’s going to be OK.” He stared at me with those weird blue eyes of his until I believed it.

And then he drove me home.

 
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Posted by on September 16, 2016 in RPGs, Sleepwalkers, Thursday Prompt, Writing

 

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(Reviews) A Pixar-Disney Sandwich

At this point in the Disney animated canon, Walt Disney Studios is coming to the end of their Renaissance while a young upstart CGI studio named Pixar is on the rise. The House of Mouse put a lot of their effort into adapting a really tricky Edgar Rice Burroughs pulp-adventure, while the boys in Emeryville continued to push their engines with really impressive lighting and texture effects for a story about an outsider ant and their very first sequel. What results is a trio of stories that have epic action but very personal stakes. They prove that you don’t need an apocalypse to provide a reason for the audience to be invested in what happens to your characters.

A Bug’s Life (1998)
Pixar’s second feature-length movie is about Flik, a young dreamer of an ant who just wants to help his colony gather enough food for the winter. In addition to tending to their needs, the colony is also under a tremendous strain providing an offering to a gang of huge, violent grasshoppers. When one of Flik’s inventions accidentally sets the colony back weeks, he’s exiled. Determined to find a way to drive off the grasshoppers, he recruits a group of hapless circus insects to fight them. Secrets and misunderstandings pile up until the whole operation collapses — or does it? This is a children’s movie, so you know how these things go.

A Bug’s Life is surprisingly charming; even though it’s one of the lesser efforts in Pixar’s stable, I think that speaks to the overall quality of the studio more than any fault of this film. Flik is kind of vanilla as a protagonist, but his earnestness wins you over at some point and you find yourself rooting for the little guy. Hopper the grasshopper is an uncomplicated villain; just a jerk and a bully who uses superior size to get his way. In this context, it works — this is a basic story that’s told well, and that’s all it tries to be.

The secondary characters flesh out the world with just enough personality to make them fun and relatable. I have a soft spot for Slim, the extremely-tall but erudite walking stick played by David Hyde Pierce but you’re almost bound to come away with a favorite of your own. The voice cast is populated with sitcom actors who know their way around busy scenes — the dialogue purrs with precision timing and expert delivery.

The animation may not have aged wonderfully, but when you look back on the improvements made over Toy Story you can’t help but be impressed. The world of A Bug’s Life is well-rendered; sunlight filters through grass and leaves in these wonderful ways, and the sense of scale suffuses every scene and new location in imaginative touches that just subtle enough that you don’t consciously notice them. I think the most impressive thing about A Bug’s Life is the attention to detail. Even with relatively pedestrian fare like this, Pixar didn’t sleepwalk through the worldbuilding process. It’s this devotion to concept that’s made them one of the most-celebrated animation studios in history, and it’s evident even here.

Tarzan (1999)
Did you know that at the time of its release, Tarzan was the most expensive animated film ever? It cost $130 million to make, and looking at the finished product you can see where the money most likely went. The title character is — according to Wikipedia — the first animated Disney character to display working muscles accurately. He does this while running, leaping and sliding through a three-dimensional environment that feels like a mixture of labyrinth and roller coaster. The movement and physicality on display is a genuine surprise. Tarzan has some of the most impressive action sequences I’ve seen in a Disney film, and I never thought I would say that.

The movie is a loose adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ pulp novel, removing the racism in the text and changing the third act so that Tarzan doesn’t go to England. He didn’t need to. His meeting of Jane, the charmingly eccentric but adaptable explorer, leads him to address his humanity in a way he never had before. Meanwhile, Clayton the guide serves as a memorable villain; the hunter of Tarzan’s gorilla tribe, he forces the makeshift family to heal their fractures in a way they never would have managed otherwise. Tarzan’s navigation through the tension between his wild upbringing and “civilized” nature becomes a thoroughly engaging arc. When he comes into his own as leader and protector, it’s a thrill.

But the real selling point is the animation. It’s shockingly under-appreciated in its ambition and scope; as Tarzan moves through the environment, it’s hard to tell what’s more impressive — the gorgeous background as it flies by, or the pitch-perfect physicality he displays. The jungle is lush and deep, almost a character in its own right. When you step back to consider how firmly integrated the characters are in their environment, you have to wonder how in the world they managed to animate a world that looks like so much more than a hand-drawn foreground character moving over a painted cel background. It’s the most three-dimensional traditionally animated world I’ve ever seen.

The care that was used to animate Tarzan is evident in every move he makes. He carries himself like his primate brethren, even though the proportions are all wrong. Far from making him look deformed, his posture and movement is supremely functional; he looks just like a human who has been raised by apes would look, all sinew and grace. It’s a strange mixture of brutish, wild strength and a dancer’s poise that shouldn’t work but totally does.

Tarzan’s friends — the female gorilla Turk and the nervous elephant Tantor — are fine. Rosie O’Donnell and Wayne Knight work well together, but more often than not I feel they’re distractions rather than enhancements. Maybe I’m less tolerant of comic relief characters in my old age.

Still, if you haven’t seen Tarzan in a while, it’s definitely worth a second look. The animation is truly a work of art, and the Phil Collins soundtrack isn’t as bad as I remembered.

Toy Story 2 (1999)
After the success of A Bug’s Life, Pixar returned to Woody and Buzz for Toy Story 2. While sequels are usually at best interesting failures, this one cemented the studio’s status as a major player in animation and remains one of the most well-regarded movies of all time — and for good reason.

After Woody is broken right before Andy was meant to take him to summer camp, he is accidentally sold to a collector looking for the crown jewel of a complete — and incredibly rare — Woody’s Round-Up toy set. Facing the inevitability of abandonment as Andy grow up, Woody at first relishes his newfound superstar status. Meanwhile, the rest of the toys in Andy’s room mount a desperate rescue operation to get Woody back before Andy gets home.

Toy Story 2 expands and deepens the theme and premise of its predecessor in an organic but surprising way. A toy’s entire purpose in life is to bring joy to the child that owns it, but eventually the kid will grow up and become interested in other things. That’s just a part of growing up. Where does that leave the toy, though? It’s a relatively ageless thing, and for it nothing has changed. That bond can’t simply be erased. When a seemingly permanent love suddenly becomes unrequited, the effects are devastating. How do we deal with the grief of impermanence? How do we balance our personal needs with the needs of friends and fellows?

It’s surprisingly adult talk for a children’s movie to have, and while Toy Story 2 is funnier and more inventive than the original it’s also a series of body blows emotionally speaking. Jessie — a spunky cowgirl who’s been trapped in storage waiting for Woody to complete their collection — has a backstory that chokes me up just thinking about it. “When She Loved Me” is a song so full of ache and longing it’s impossible not to be touched.

Both Jessie and Stinky Pete are unable to deal with their isolation and the frustration of their unfulfilled purpose. Even as it causes them to lash out in these troubling ways, it’s understandable. You can’t help but feel sympathy for them. And ultimately, the movie seems to say that we must each find our own way to deal with these very real and difficult realities of life. What works for one may not work for everyone, and it only compounds our trouble if we try to force others to follow the same solution.

Alternately, respecting and helping one another with those struggles is the best way to deal with our own. The bonds we form doing this allows us to bear the burden of life; it doesn’t make it any easier, but it does make it worthwhile. It’s a bittersweet lesson, but a welcome one. I think it’s one of the first children’s movies I’ve seen to address such an existential problem in a manner that doesn’t feel facile or condescending. And that’s nothing short of amazing.

 
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Posted by on September 12, 2016 in Movies, Reviews

 

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(Buddhism) Right Concentration

Buddhism 150You know how there are certain people who, when you meet them, make you feel like you’re the only person in the world for as long as they’re talking to you? The full weight of their attention is startling at first, because it’s not something we’re used to. In these busy times, there are always distractions trying to tear us away from where we are. If we’re at a party, there are snatches of interesting conversation; if we’re on the street, there’s no end to visual stimuli. Even in relatively quiet surroundings, we often have to battle with someone’s inner thoughts or phone for their attention.

So it’s noticeable when it’s clear someone is paying attention solely to us — to what we say, how we say it, and all of the non-verbal cues we give both consciously and subconsciously. That level of focus can make us feel important, even confident. And then we notice that the next person this same fellow meets gets that same treatment.

When this happens to me, I feel confused, maybe even a little slighted. People can’t actually work that way, right? Focusing on one individual at a time, one conversation at a time, being fully present in the moment they’re in before letting that go and moving on. What gives?

It took me a long time to realize that cultivated concentration looks just like that. Being able to focus squarely on the one thing we’re doing while we’re doing it, giving it our total effort and full being, is one of the best things we can do as Buddhists. It is the practice of Right Concentration.

Mindfulness and concentration are closely connected, but I think it’s good to view them as a broad searchlight (mindfulness) and a narrow spotlight (concentration). While mindfulness allows us to take in the many different aspects of a situation and come to an understanding with it to determine the best response, concentration is what allows us to commit to that response wholly and fully.

A lot of what we see as stereotypical monastic life feels like it’s geared towards this purpose. Monks simplify their lives in order to learn how to live each moment with total concentration. When they are meditating, they meditate; when they’re cooking, they cook; when they’re gardening, they garden. The act of losing one’s self in the absorption of their activity has always been tremendously appealing to me, and I think this is why.

You see this a lot even outside of a Buddhist context. My favorite conversations with people are when they “step out of their own way” and become a conduit for the wonder and excitement that their favorite hobby or life’s work brings to them. You see them get so lost in the work that there’s almost no ego at all; just someone performing this activity. It’s a kind of rapture, this state, where you’ve drawn in to the pursuit of the perfect sentence, or musical phrase, or brushstroke. It’s so difficult to get to, but it’s a wonderful place to be.
Right Concentration posits that this state can be expanded beyond a rapturous creation of art and carried with us into everyday life. In fact, the very idea of total concentration and complete absorption is actually nothing special. It can be reached when you’re shopping for your groceries, washing the dishes, putting the children to bed, or lounging by the pool. You can do it in conversation, or solitude, in passive observation or active participation. The most important thing is to allow yourself the chance to concentrate on the task in front of you.

That is, of course, much easier said than done. It’s difficult to perform one task with a single-minded focus in this day and age. It’d be much easier if we were monks in a temple, with no distractions. But that is not the world we live in. There are countless things vying for our attention every waking moment, and part of our practice is to understand and accept this, then move forward with clear concentration anyway.

This is why our time on the meditation bench is so important. It allows us to simply be with what is present — whether it’s a pain in our legs or a troubling memory we can’t shake. By accepting what is present, we learn how to shift our perspectives so that what arises is not suddenly our entire world, but just a temporary piece of our experience. It will be with us for a while, and then it will fall away.

With mindfulness, we can determine whether or not what arises should have our attention. If so, our views and intention will direct our speech and action to work towards the most harmonious outcome. And our concentration will allow us to continue that work whole-heartedly, without ego, clear and faithful in our work.

The steps on the Noble Eightfold Path aren’t linear. Right View does not necessarily lead straight into Right Intention, so forth and so on until we reach Right Concentration and into Right View again. Sometimes we will need to focus on one aspect or group above the others, or sometimes we’ll need to take things step by step in order to steady our footing. But overall, the Noble Eightfold Path is one of those things that can’t helped but be worked all at once, with one aspect helping us to move forward in every other. Wisdom, ethical conduct and mental training go hand in hand; it’s really difficult to focus on one without the effects of your study filtering through everything else.

So for me, this is what the Path looks like. It’ll be interesting to revisit this in a year or two to see what’s changed.

 
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Posted by on September 7, 2016 in Buddhism, mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

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(Buddhism) Right Mindfulness

Buddhism 150Mindfulness is one of the cornerstones of Buddhist thought. In order to realize your enlightenment, you must see it just as it is, through direct experience unfiltered by emotion or judgement. What’s really interesting to me about this is that it’s possible to have these moments where everything seems to click and you have this epiphany about yourself, or the world, or the nature of reality whether or not you’re Buddhist. That to me, is the realization; a small taste of enlightenment that arises when you’re fully engaged in that moment.

For Buddhists, those moments aren’t necessarily goals; they’re more signposts that tell us where we are in our practice. Mindfulness is not a state that we achieve and then do no more work with. It is a habit, a way of living, an action that we perform every moment of every day.

So Right Mindfulness is the sustained effort required to take the things we’ve learned so far and use it to clear away the cobwebs in front of our eyes, so to speak. So much of our daily experience is filtered through the lenses of our emotions, our judgements, our aversions and attachments. When we realize exactly what those are, and how they distort the reality we see them through, we have a better chance of recognizing, accepting, and eventually letting go of them.

Mindfulness is primarily cultivated through meditation — the act of simply sitting with ourselves and being present with what arises. I think that there is often a misunderstanding about the “goal” of meditation, and I’m pretty sure I haven’t done the greatest job of describing it before. But here’s what it means to me, and what I get out of it.

Mindfulness meditation is a way of checking in with yourself, noticing the patterns of your own thoughts and feelings. This can often be very difficult — there are notions and emotions that we don’t like to confront for various reasons, after all — but sitting with them can teach us patience, compassion and empathy that we can then bring out of the meditation space and into the rest of our lives. Eventually, as you become more familiar with the ways you think and feel, you may find yourself detaching from them — and with that, a newfound ability to examine what arises with interest and tenderness.

That detached, amiable curiosity is a wonderful friend. With it, you can follow difficult emotions down to the root. You can shake loose these very deep emotions that may prevent you from engaging with something fully; that, too, is difficult work. I’ve often found hypocrisies within myself that make me feel ashamed, uncertain and like an all-around terrible person.

But you keep sitting. You allow these thoughts and feelings to spend time with you; you watch them dissolve after a time. And the more you do it, the longer you sit, the more you realize how ephemeral these emotional states and thoughts are. The pain in your shoulders arises, then fades. The embarrassment of that really stupid thing you said eases into amusement, then acceptance. Your mind begins to exhaust itself of the memories and thoughts and emotions that constantly bombard you. It begins to get easier to return to your breath, to focus on the simple physical act of inhaling and exhaling.

What mindfulness meditation has given me is the ability to see myself as separate from the emotions and sensations that arise within me, and the chance to step back to examine them before acting. Granted, it doesn’t always happen that way, but I feel a lot better about how I handle difficult situations in the moment on my better days.

Mindfulness meditation gives us direct experience into the impermanence of our existence. The things we think flit into our brain, and will just as happily flit out again if we don’t hold on to them. The emotions that come with them rise as well, and remain with us for a time, but fade again; they just might use a longer timetable. The physical sensation that often accompanies emotion will rise and fade as well, and even though these might feel longest and be the most difficult to sit with, eventually we see that they are impermanent too. Beneath all of these — thought, emotion, physical sensation — something separate persists. Our heartbeat. Our breath. It is a constant that we can use to remind ourselves of the fleeting nature of other things, that we are not what we think or feel, that we do not have to follow those things into immediate action.

For someone like me, who has let his emotions get him into trouble so often in the past, this feels wonderful. I still get depressed. I still wrestle with anxiety. I still have tremendous trouble with focus. But the more I meditate, the more mindful I become of the way these states feel and pass; the more mindful I become, the more I am able to see the truth of things beyond the filters of that emotion; the clearer I can see things, the better able I am to recognize what is needed at any given time and respond in turn. Being mindful is how we can move past the things that make us angry to recognize the reason they exist. We can acknowledge our anger, recognize its presence, but allow it to have no bearing on our reaction if it’s not needed. Mindfulness isn’t denying what arises — it’s quite the opposite. We hold it, give it its proper perspective, and then move on with clear eyes.

So many Zen koans are calls for this mindfulness. “What is Zen?” asked a monk to his teacher while they were shopping. “Three pounds of flax,” the master replied. No matter what you’re doing — meditating, chanting, or relieving your bowels — Zen calls for full, clear engagement with it. Practice doesn’t end when we leave the meditation space. Meditation is rehearsal for the rest of our day. Right Mindfulness is the spoke on the wheel of the path that lets us do that.

 
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Posted by on August 30, 2016 in Buddhism, mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

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(Buddhism) Right Effort

Buddhism 150So far we’ve gone through five different spokes on the Noble Eightfold Path, comprising two groups — Wisdom/Prajna and Moral Virtues/Sila. They are Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood. Together, they make up the understanding/philosophy and practice/action parts of the path. Now, we head into the third and final group of the Path, spokes six through eight — the Meditation, or Samadhi group.

Right Effort is the very first step in that process, and to me it feels like sort of a companion step to Right Intention, stretched out from two to three dimensions. Right Intention tells us to make sure that we enter into each situation with a proper understanding of what we want to happen as a result of it — preferably the compassionate connection with another sapient being, allowing them to go on about their lives in peace and contentment. Right Effort is the mechanism we use to keep making sure we do that; it’s the way we sustain our drive towards Right Intention.

Specifically, Right Effort asks us to release these negative impulses that enable us to cling to attachments far too easily (called the Five Hindrances) and cultivate positive impulses that allow us to be more mindful and compassionate (called, appropriately enough, the Five Antidotes). The hindrances are sensual desire; ill will (remember that one?); sloth, torpor or drowsiness; restlessness and worry; and uncertainty or doubt.

Sensual desire is more a manifestation of greed than anything. Whether our craving for sex or doughnuts is at the root of it, this pull to titillate the senses can lead us to a lot of trouble. It’s rare that we become satisfied once we’ve actually attained the object of our craving; a lot of the time, there’s that short hit of bliss while we indulge, and very quickly we’re already wanting a repeat of that experience. Or maybe it’s just me, but man, when I make a candy bar disappear, the taste of it has scarcely left my tongue before I’m thinking about how much another one would be so great.

The antidote to sensual desire is RAIN: Recognition, Acceptance, Investigation and — eventually — Non-Identification. It’s a nice way to move through the steps of mindfulness, really. Acknowledge the desire without judgment, because it’s just a part of the human condition. We aren’t any less enlightened people for wanting to have sex or being in possession of a sweet tooth, but we must face that impulse in order to be more mindful of it. Investigate it once we’ve moved past our judging of it; what is it like, and where does it come from, and what’s the underlying desire that drives it? Meditating on our desires, noticing when they arise and turning it over in our heads can be a really helpful tool to become more aware of ourselves and our specific natures. Once we’ve recognized and investigated it, we can let it go, and this is where the magic happens. We realize that the desire is an impermanent, transient thing, separate from ourselves; we don’t have to act on these impulses — they, like everything else, come, stay with us for a time, and then go.

Ill will is pretty much what it says on the tin — thoughts of rejection, hatred, bitterness and overall hostility. We all have people we’ve viewed as enemies at one time or another, people who raise our blood pressure at the mere thought of them. We’ve wished harm on them; insulted them mentally or verbally; even possibly dehumanized them in some way. This, too, is a part of the human experience. There are always going to be people whose personalities rub us the wrong way, or through some means or another will come to represent everything we believe is wrong about the human race. This is especially true when you’re politically active. It can feel like there’s an entire world of them out there, actively working to make the world a more terrible place.

The more we give in to this ill will, the easier it becomes to indulge in it. We may find ourselves wishing harm on other people more and more often, for lesser and lesser infractions. Any pattern of thought we regularly engage in becomes easier to recall. So it’s important to cultivate an attitude of loving kindness instead. Meditating on loving kindness allows us to restore the humanity of our enemies, to make a genuine attempt to understand them and see how their impulses are also our own. Extending this consideration to people we’re diametrically opposed to makes it easy for us to extend it to everyone; strangers become more easily recognizable, and the things that annoy or enrage us are easier to understand. When we get to a place of loving kindness, we can brush aside the things that ruffle us to focus on the true intentions of the people we interact with all the time. We become more open, more accepting, and more forgiving.

Sloth and torpor is ennui, more or less, and this is a tricky one for me to talk about. In my struggle with depression, I’ve frequently fallen into a torpor of sorts when I’m at my worst. It’s an emotional exhaustion that makes it almost impossible to do anything, even if I want to, even when I know I should. That in itself would be agitating, if I could muster the energy to care about it. There are several friends I know who struggle with the same thing, that inability to focus or muster energy of any sort — and it’s through no fault of our own. This is an illness that affects our brain, which in turn affects our ability to rouse just about anything else. The sloth and torpor we speak of as a hindrance is not this kind, this illness outside of our control. It’s something else.

As we get older, we tend to lose interest in our lives and the world in general. Well, at least, I recognize this within myself. I can feel myself calcify, almost — I’m a creature of comfort, and when I find a comfortable state I just want to wallow in it for as long as I can. It can be very difficult to remain alert and present to the world, or to accept the things that we find challenging. When our days become full of the things we do to maintain our lives, it can be easy to become incurious, to turn away from things we don’t know to seek the comfort of the things we do. But when we do that, we expend less energy; we become used to that easy and comfortable life, and find that we have less energy to spare for the things that shake us out of that. Torpor sets in. And before we know it, we find ourselves asleep — uncritical, unthinking, on auto-pilot.

A beginner’s mind is a good antidote for this. When we don’t have the context we learn as adults, we have to ask questions about almost everything we come across. Why do we work only five days? Why do we have to work for five days? Why are things as they are? What would it be like if they were different? Why do we sit a certain way while meditating? Is suffering in life really inevitable? Isn’t that kind of a downer? By stretching ourselves, remaining curious, learning just a little bit each day, we hold on to precious energy and a curiosity about life that keeps us spry, flexible, and critical.

Restlessness and worry is the other extreme of this continuum. I kind of think of it as “monkey mind”. Again, this is a tricky thing for me to talk about. If you’re dealing with an anxiety disorder, then the last thing you need is some asshole on the Internet telling you that your anxiety is a spiritual failing — it absolutely is not. But, there is an aspect of our attention that we can bring about to focus, with time and dedication.

It can be extremely difficult for me to focus on things at times. In the short term, I could be writing this blog entry when all of a sudden something in my brain tells me to see if there’s anything cool on YouTube. Then, I’m looking at spooky paranormal countdown videos, professional wrestling interviews, TED talks, cartoons and assorted science education vlogs for an hour. In the long term, I forget about my health or writing goals the moment a giant piece of cake or a fun, relaxed evening turns my head.

Sometimes it’s difficult to be still with whatever I’m thinking or feeling. Somewhere along the way, boredom became the worst thing that could possibly happen to me. Or I’ll worry about the state of the country; the way our ecology is being pushed to the point of collapse; or my nonexistent relationship with my mother. These thoughts fill me with fear and dread to the point I can become paralyzed and blinded to the way things really are.

Learning to be present and content is the antidote to this. We live in a culture where this is extremely difficult. Advertising is all around us, and it works by telling us that we really lack something in our lives that a certain product fills. Even though we think we’ve become inoculated against us, in so many ways we’ve become conditioned to be discontent. We don’t have the latest phone, computer, game; we don’t have new clothes or furniture; we don’t have that cheeseburger we’ve been craving. I know for me, it’s become a matter of habit to just reach out and get something as soon as I want it. The world has made it so easy to do that, why not indulge?

Because, like I’ve mentioned before, acquiring the thing we want reflexively all too often doesn’t satisfy us for very long. For a short time, there’s a sense of relief or contentment, but then — an even newer phone comes out. Or that burger is gone and now we want a milkshake to go with it. There’s always going to be something we don’t have, but want, and as long as we chase after it reflexively we’ll never be satisfied.

We must be still, and cultivate contentment and gratitude about things as they are. Yeah, I really want an Oreo shake right now, but…I had a good dinner and a glass of beer. If I stop and pay attention, I can feel my full belly and that nice little buzz of intoxication. And it feels nice. The desire for a shake, that restlessness, falls away.

Finally, there is doubt. What’s interesting about doubt is that it is a very necessary thing to have. We must be critical and questioning of ourselves, our beliefs and our world. (Who says? Good question.) But doubt can also be crippling; we can feel so lost in it, with no idea where to begin, that we throw our hands up and give up on the whole endeavor. With meditation, we can often feel as if we’re not doing it right because we’re not in the lotus position, beneath a bodhi tree, with the morning star clearly twinkling in our field of vision. We will stop ourselves from stretching, from trying something new, from taking risks, because we doubt our own ability to do it, or the ability of the people around us to forgive mistakes. Doubt all too often leads to fear, and fear leads to paralysis, blindness, stagnation.

Doubt is one of the big ones for me. The antidote for this is preparation and trust; we learn what we can, while we can — and we trust in our ability to discover the answers we don’t yet grasp. With meditation, for example, learning the various traditions will help us understand a common thread that all meditators seek and we learn which ones will suit our own individual preferences as we seek the same thing. And we trust that any mistakes we make can (and will) be discovered and corrected, and that these mistakes are part of the process. It’s another way we learn and grow. And I know that it is very much easier said than done, but there you go.

Guarding ourselves against the Five Hindrances, recognizing the form they take within ourselves, and working on the traits that encourage us to be more open, accepting, curious, loving and prepared constitutes Right Effort for me. This is done through meditation, but also carrying the mindfulness cultivated on the meditation bench with me through the rest of my life. It’s an ideal I continually strive for, even though I fail. Frequently. But hey, part of the process, right? It isn’t Right Perfection, after all.

 
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Posted by on August 24, 2016 in Buddhism, mental-health

 

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(Buddhism) Right Livelihood

Buddhism 150The fifth spoke on the wheel of the Noble Eightfold Path is also the last one in the Moral Virtues (or Sila) group — Right Livelihood. Together with Right Speech and Right Action, these form the backbone of how our understanding of the principles of Buddhism translate into practice through the rest of our lives. For most of us, especially the lay Buddhists who won’t be joining a monastery, Right Livelihood means abstaining from taking work that harms people through cheating or fraud, killing, etc. It can be interpreted as, well, not making money through wrong actions. But it can also mean a lot more than that.

Let’s tackle the job thing first. We live in a country where it’s absolutely necessary to have a job in order to survive. We can’t easily do odd jobs as they come to us, or rely on the goodwill of our community; we must choose a profession and spend significant time with it in order to make enough money to maintain a certain lifestyle. And a lot of the time, those jobs require us to do things that might run into trouble with a strict interpretation of Right Livelihood.

For example, I work for a company that specializes in digital marketing, providing platforms for companies to reach people through email, text and digital advertising. A lot of our customers have very questionable business practices, and there are one or two of them that I am in direct moral and political opposition to. However, the nature of my job means I can’t necessarily discriminate between the customers who don’t violate my principles and the ones that do; whenever I’m in contact with them, I must treat them all the same. Even if I believe that by helping them, I am in fact helping someone hurt someone else.

It feels like most of us are put into positions like that with our work. It’s very difficult to be politically or morally conscious without realizing that there are a number of different ways we all contribute to a system that succeeds, even thrives, on practices that harm other people. In order to step out of that system, we would need to spend a disproportionate amount of time reviewing each company we do business with, what their business practices are, and what (if any) alternatives there may be. In order to be certain that our lives don’t contribute to the harming of another living being, I think we’d have to remove ourselves from a capitalist system almost entirely.

So what do we do about that? I honestly don’t know. I think, in some way, we have to make peace with the fact that there are certain moral compromises we all make in order to participate in society. At least, we must recognize all the ways in which our lifestyles are problematic. I’ve lived in poverty and near-poverty right into my late-20s. I’ve had to rely on the kindness of friends and strangers more times than I can count. Only recently have I been in a position where I feel like I have “enough”. And now that I’ve spent some time here in the middle class, I’m beginning to realize all the ways I’ve allowed myself to indulge to excess.

I eat too much food, buy too many things and give in to impulses too often. It’s very difficult for me to save money because I’ve always thought that the moment I have it I’ll need to spend it on something sooner or later. The idea of holding back is kind of foreign to me; being able to purchase something purely for my own comfort is a novelty that hasn’t worn off yet.

Then again, does it ever get old? I think we just get used to a certain level of comfort, then get very reluctant to make sacrifices in order to serve some different purpose — whether that’s being prudent with our finances or satisfying a personal moral obligation. I know that I’ve fallen into the trap of clinging to my lifestyle more than once; I know how bad being poor sucks from experience, and I’m reluctant to put myself in that position again.

That brings me to another interpretation of Right Livelihood. For many, it means to make a living from begging — but not accepting everything and not possessing more than is strictly necessary. That could mean maintaining a minimalist home — one plate, one knife, one fork. That could mean holding on to the things you have as long as they work, not chasing after the latest and greatest version of something. That could mean being more mindful of your impulses, and living comfortably but not excessively. I think the ultimate interpretation you choose is the one that your conscience will bear, and that’s different for everyone.

So what does that mean for me? I suppose it means making sure that my lifestyle minimizes the harm it brings to other people. And that means buying less, being content with what I have, and doing whatever I can to address the ways in which harm is unavoidable. That means doing my best to combat climate change and environmental degradation; counteracting the ways in which I may be helping to further the aims of people who wish to perpetuate consumer culture, mindless bigotry or the insidious way advertisers are trying to make it easier and more effective to sell you things; and hopefully, trying to pursue a life in which I can make a living without feeling like I have to compromise my morality.

What I would really love is to be able to live closer to nature, tell stories and be dedicated towards helping people to be better. It may be a long time before I get to do that, and I accept that possibility. I think now it would be best to try and align my lifestyle closer to the one I want, where moderation is a habit painstakingly cultivated and my priorities are straight. I’m not sure that’s the case now, so it will take some doing to get it there.

 
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Posted by on August 22, 2016 in Buddhism, Politics, Self-Reflection

 

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(Friday Fiction) Changeling: Emergent

Writing 150It was my first day back in school after the mugging, and people were treating me surprisingly well. I guess word had spread about what happened, which was cool, but what was most interesting was how the story changed based on who told it. The teachers talked about how I nearly got away by telling a story about this little Br’er Rabbit figure I had, which is true — I made it up on the spot because I didn’t know what else to do, and all that fear and anger and desperation just came out of me in this huge rush. It felt great. It made me dizzy, and sick, like I was high af. I couldn’t remember what the story was if I wanted to.

If you talk to my classmates, though, they’ll tell you how I started “acting crazy” after the first punch was thrown, speaking in tongues and all that. I was pointing to things that weren’t there, and having conversations with myself, and got in a fight with thin air. The people who attacked me were so confused that they were about to run off until I clocked one of them real good upside the ear. Then they jumped up and beat me down.

That’s true, too, but I don’t like to talk about it.

I’m adopted, and my mother was institutionalized for being a paranoid schizophrenic. When I was in the hospital, there were a lot of doctors who told me that I “had taken a pretty good blow to the head” and to let them know if I started seeing things that weren’t there. I couldn’t tell them that my room was filled with balloons of all sizes and shapes, that somehow managed to change color right in front of my eyes. I couldn’t tell them that these had been brought to me by a bunch of creatures that couldn’t exist — rats in waistcoats, or CPR dummies that told me where all the good drugs were, or an elephant that liked to be the size that would be most disorienting for you. I knew where that road lead, and that was one I wasn’t going to take.

So I pretended everything was fine, and I got pretty good at living a double life. In one of them, I was the victim of a violent crime recuperating from a possible concussion. In the other, I was this storyteller that every imaginary friend in the hospital would come to for advice or jokes they could take back to kids in other wings. I have no idea where these stories came from; it was like there was some doorway inside of me I could access now, and it all came spilling out. I really liked that feeling, and that disturbed me. I knew that I was getting whatever my mother had, and it was only a matter of time before things went bad.

I really did think that would be my first day back in school. There was so much going on I could barely keep it together. I saw a dragon on the roof, casually muttering to itself how these “insects couldn’t appreciate” the value of its own personal “hoard of knowledge”. I think it might have been the mascot for our football team. I saw trees gossiping to each other about who did what and when. There was a tiny bus that my mother nearly ran over, taking rats and squirrels right up to the building. The sky was made of rainbows, a feverish ripple of color that never stayed the same thing. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, but it was also terrifying.

My aunt thought that I was nervous about being back in school after my whole “incident”, and I was fine with letting her believe that. The walk from the car to the front door was the longest walk of my life.

How do you tell someone that your mind is broken forever? I knew, deep down, that whatever this was wasn’t going away. If I sat down and closed my eyes and told myself that none of it was real, the colors would fade and all of this madness would get harder to see. But it made me feel sick. I was pushing that door of stories further and further away every time I did that, and there was some different part of me that fought against that hard. When the visions came back, they were more intense than ever.

So I was sitting in homeroom, trying to ignore the squirrel seated next to me in a little desk, chattering away about how excited she was to learn about American history from the tree out in the quad. The other students either came up to me to ask if I was all right, or snickered at me for being crazy. I was just getting calmed down when Mr. Foster walked into the room.

Mr. Foster is one of those guys that everybody in your neighborhood knows. He’s been at Highland Park High School forever and taught Social Studies to an entire generation of people around the block. He lived alone, and hung out with a bunch of people way younger than he was, and he had this thing about swords. We started calling him “Ghost Dog” a few years ago, and the name just stuck. He was a tall dude with an Afro and a 70s moustache. He wore a trenchcoat like he was Shaft, even in the summer. He was an awesome guy, but he was easy to make fun of.

At least, until now. He ducked under the doorway and pushed himself into the room. At first, he looked like he always did, but then there was this weird snap, like electricity popping. Then he was eight feet tall and blue, with these little horns and ridges coming out of his forehead. The coffee mug in his hand was this this hammer as big around as my chest. His trenchcoat was this steel suit of armor that shined like lavender when the light hit it.

I startled, and Mr. Foster looked at me. He sputtered, and then stared. He flickered a couple of times, back and forth between the old teacher and this monster dude. But then he stayed there. A rat on his desk asked him who the new kid was, and Mr. Foster flicked his hand like he heard it.

When all of the imaginary rodents at the edges of the room piped up with a “Good morning, Mr. Foster!” and he grunted in acknowledgement, I knew that he was seeing and hearing the same things I was. And I have no idea how that’s true.

But if I was crazy, then so was he. We shared the same visions. And if he could somehow live his life outside of an insanitarium then he had to teach me how.

 
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Posted by on August 19, 2016 in RPGs, Sleepwalkers, Writing

 

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