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Category Archives: Buddhism

(Personal) What I Brought Back From Europe

In August and September, work sent me one of their headquarters officers in Belgium for training on the product we support as part of an effort to foster more collaboration between the Support teams in Europe and the US. I was there for two weeks, with a “gap weekend” in Paris visiting a dear friend teaching there. It was my first time out of the country, and I had just enough time there to get a small taste of how life was different there and gain a few lessons about how I’m living here, day to day. Basically, spending a couple of weeks working in Europe taught me a lot about the pace of life here, how we relate to people, and how simplicity really can be a better way of life. Here are five broad lessons I’ve brought back with me from Belgium and France.

Culture shock is real.

If you’ve never experienced a culture different from your own, it’s not something you can ever be prepared for — especially if you’re spending a significant amount of time in said culture. There were so many things, both big and small, that shook me out of my comfort zone constantly. Belgium is a country with three distinct cultures and languages — French, German, Dutch — and they’re used to speaking multiple languages to get by. For someone like me who only speaks English on a regular basis, that lingual fluidity was much more difficult. The cuisine was different, of course; Italian dishes, beef and potatoes were the order of the day with very little seasoning. Mealtimes were a social event, where the expectation was that significant time would be carved out to eat and speak at leisure. Even the small interactions were different. People were less open but more friendly, stores were a lot smaller and more personal, coffee culture is way more geared towards espresso, and the volume of life is much quieter — even in Paris.

There are so many things we take for granted as universal to the human experience when it really isn’t. Beyond cultivating different personalities, cultures can also work from pretty different foundations about life’s purpose or an individual’s responsibility to society. And those foundations can sit beneath structures that are similar on the face, but baffling to navigate through. I know I’m not a worldly rabbit, but I try hard to recognize and accept those differences when I come across them. Even still, two weeks of that kind of discomfort was much more exhausting than I had anticipated.

Discomfort is a good thing.

The two weeks I spent in Belgium and Paris were almost constantly uncomfortable. Right up front I fought through jet lag, and after that was the harder, steadier work of navigating culture shock. There was the more familiar discomfort of building relationships with a small circle of coworkers who came over with me. There was penetrating a very different office culture and learning a complicated piece of software on top of that. There weren’t a lot of familiar comforts to be found; everything was new and required active engagement.

That wasn’t a bad thing, though. After making peace with the reality of the situation, I learned that constant engagement could be fulfilling and fruitful all on its own. That discomfort meant I was being tested, and learning how to move forward through that taught me a large amount in a relatively short time. Rest is important, of course; so is taking time to sink into comfort. But I think we’ve prized comfort far too much. Difficult things will cause discomfort, because building the skills we need to do them demands a lot of effort. We have to gauge whether or not this discomfort will lead to empowering us later, and not all hard situations are worth pushing through. But I think we’re too afraid of being uncomfortable in general. We treat it as an enemy instead of a sign that we’re doing something that changes us, makes us better.

Understanding people is hard work, but totally worth it.

The trainer in Belgium was a fairly difficult man to get along with, and it made training a lot more difficult. Beyond the culture and corporate clash, there was the fact that he didn’t have a personality well-suited to being in a room full of people all day explaining things and answering questions from a wide variety of students with different learning speeds and methods. After six or seven hours of this, we were set free on the city and had to muddle our way through conversations in English, Dutch and French. The whole time, I looked for non-verbal cues that might give me insight into conversational tone that might not be obvious from language alone.

In so many situations, it’s not just important to know what someone is saying — it’s also important to know what they *mean*. That means active listening, paying attention to not just the words but the context in which they’re being said, all the non-verbal cues that accompany them, the personal and interpersonal foundation the conversation is building on. Communication is not just the words we use, but the intent behind them and the skill of expressing that intent consciously. While sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, it’s also important to ask and accept why someone is saying something to us in the manner they’re saying it. Then, we have a better chance of knowing the best way to respond.

Slowing down and shutting up is something everyone should do on a regular basis.

I think the thing that impressed me most about my time in Europe is how the expectation is to slow down and focus on what you’re doing is baked into the culture. On our way back from the office, or while we were roaming around hunting for dinner, we’d see so many people sitting in front of shops and enjoying a beer in silent company. Television shows were so much more low-key in a way that’s difficult to describe, but things were designed to draw attention to what was happening — not diffuse it amongst a whole lot of sound bites. Focus and contemplation are encouraged; constant activity is not.

Taking a minute to shut up and think about the things we do and say is something that’s sorely needed. I think in American culture there’s a need to “join the conversation” regardless of whether it’s helpful or necessary to do so. We’re encouraged to be productive, to do great things, to admire those who are doing a billion things at once. While there are definite drawbacks to slowing down and focusing more intently on one thing, the benefits are obvious. We experience fewer things, but we experience them more deeply. That’s not a bad thing.

News should be designed to empower and inform, not agitate.

While I was in Belgium Hurricane Harvey was flooding Houston; not long after that, Hurricane Irma destroyed Barbuda and many other Caribbean islands; then, Hurricane Maria caused a tremendous humanitarian disaster in Puerto Rico. I watched a lot of news on these events in Belgium, Texas and California, and the difference between BBC and CNN is incredibly striking. The BBC is more of a traditional newscast, reporting on major events, giving facts (without immediate ‘analysis’ or ‘conjecture’), even offering insight on what could be done about the situation to help. Watching the news on CNN, the breathless commentary constantly running about the day’s events struck me as incredibly unnecessary and unhelpful.

I think it’s time for us to step back and think about what we want out of the news, as a society. So much of our news cycle these days is designed to agitate us, to make us afraid or angry, because we’ve said through our feedback that these are the stories that gain the most traction. Even nominally ‘neutral’ outlets are full of crawling chirons underneath split screens or constantly-updated sidebars spitting shallow bits of information faster than we can properly absorb them. It doesn’t allow us to focus on what we find important; it just keeps throwing things at us to keep our distracted attention.

Being immersed in a slower culture that prizes focus and being present has helped a lot to recontextualize aspects of American culture that I think contribute to a lot of the fear and anger this country has been gripped by. One of our biggest problems, I think, is the constant fight and fragmentation of our attention; we’re bombarded by advertisements, calls to action, demands for focus or emotional investment almost all the time. I think we as Americans should discourage this kind of attentive pollution and treat our focus as a precious, limited resource. We pride ourselves on more of everything — bigger portions, more productivity, more wealth. But for the time being, I think less is more; eliminating distractions to focus on what’s most important is what I need.

 

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(Personal) Crescent Shadows

Myth 150Yesterday a rare event grabbed everyone’s attention — a total solar eclipse. While these happen roughly every 18 months or so, they tend to happen in unpopulated areas or on the open sea. What made the 2017 eclipse so special is the fact that the totality line cut a swath across the United States from Oregon down to South Carolina; twelve states were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the totality in all. The next total solar eclipse to hit the US won’t happen until 2024, and even then only states east of Texas will be in the path of the moon’s shadow. The next coast-to-coast eclipse won’t happen until 2045; the last one before this was 1918 — almost a hundred years ago.

It’s really neat to be swept up in an event that the entire nation can talk about, especially if it has nothing to do with the current political situation. On Twitter, my feed was full of pictures of people marveling at the shadows of the leaves in their backyard, videos of countless viewing events around the country, retweets of breathtaking views that could only come from NASA, high-end equipment, or lucky people in an airplane while it was happening. Quite a few friends were in Oregon and Colorado and Missouri for the sights, and one guy lost his mind when he took perfect shots of the moon blocking the sun, an eerie corona peeking out around the edges. People described yesterday as eerie, beautiful, cool as fuck — for a moment, we were entranced by a celestial event that most of us simply don’t get to see.

It was a really lovely day. Around these parts, my husband and I stepped outside of the burrow to watch the quality of the light change around us. Over the 30 minutes or so it took for the moon to pass over the sun, we felt the temperature drop and a persistent chilly breeze whisper through; we noticed that the birds went largely quiet and still; and that the swaying leaves left rippling, crescent-shaped shadows on the sidewalk. It was eerie, to be honest; it made me think of what it must have been like before we understood what was happening, for random people to notice the shadows changing shape and the animals getting really weird about the weather. If you were in the path of a total eclipse and had no idea what was happening, it would be so easy to think the world was ending or that some supernatural thing was stealing the light from the cosmos.

That made me glad for all of the knowledge we’ve gained over hundreds of years. We now know that this isn’t apocalyptic, or even supernatural — it’s simply a very rare thing that happens only when the conditions are just right. Eclipses are something to be celebrated, marveled at, instead of feared. And around the country almost every American got to take a moment to do that — look up at the sky in wonder, reminded of just how fantastic it is to be alive on this planet with the ability to appreciate the beauty and rarity of what we witnessed. These days, with the myriad problems and divisions we face in our daily lives, we almost never get to come together and feel this way — humbled, happy, appreciative — but we did yesterday.

I think, moving forward, while it’s probably not possible to create this kind of feeling across the nation for everyone, it’d be nice to find smaller ways to call it forth in our communities and personal relationships. There is so much beauty in the world still, and so many wonderful things — it’s just as important to take a moment to stop and appreciate them as it is to fight for their preservation. All too often we focus on the things we’re fighting against that we don’t fully absorb all of the things that we’re fighting FOR.

That’s an essential part of resistance to me — holding on to the things that give us joy and hope, that remind us of what the world could be. I know that I don’t let myself feel that kind of honest, earnest joy nearly as much as I used to because everything is so heavy, all the time, and if you allow your heart to feel light for even a moment it’s like you’re not taking things seriously. But that’s not true. I know what’s at stake; moments like yesterday, that happen all too rarely as it is, disappearing entirely from our world.

I guess that’s all I wanted to say. Just take a minute to remember the things that make you truly happy. Allow yourself to feel joy and ecstasy whenever you can. Encourage that feeling in others. Expressing and spreading happiness is vital, and we tend to overlook that.

 
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Posted by on August 22, 2017 in Buddhism, mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

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(Personal) Spit and Vinegar into Clear Water

Buddhism 150I think most Buddhists, if we’re really honest with ourselves deep down, flirt with the daydream of what we’d look like enlightened. I know personally I would love to resemble Budai, the eternally-laughing bodhisattva known for his jovial attitude, wisdom, contentment, and the fact that you can rub his belly for good luck. In my daydream, I would move through the world with a wide smile and ready laugh, meeting everyone in my travels with the same abundant good humor whether they were friend or foe. Of course, these daydreams about my enlightenment are ironically a barrier to my enlightenment. They move me away from who I am in the present — an already-enlightened being too distracted to realize it.

This daydream does something a bit more subtly damaging, too. Instead of accepting the parts of myself that are difficult to absorb I excise them to mold myself in the image of this laughing Buddha. Gone is the brief but intense flash of anger; gone too is the persistent static of anxiety and fear that thrums through my veins. Self-doubt, an easily-overwhelmed brain, impulsive and puzzling behavior — all mysteriously absent. As much as I love the idea that I would be Budai, the truth is I would not be; I would simply be myself, as imperfect as always, but mindful of my imperfections in a way that allowed me to express the Dharma in a truly unique way.

It’s important for me to remember this, especially these days. For a very long time I have built my energy around the hope that if I believed hard enough, I would unlock something within myself that loved everyone without reservation. I wanted to be the embodiment of loving-kindness, of compassion in even the most difficult circumstances. This is a not-so-secret of mine: the most beautiful thing in the world to me is a moment of small grace in a hopeless situation, those automatic gestures that speak to the spark within me, that gives me hope that for most people the basic state of humanity if collaboration and love.

One of the reasons this year has been so rough on me is that this dream of mine is dying and I have no idea what to replace it with. Reconnecting with my family and spending time briefly in Baltimore has shown me what life is like for too many people who have lived their entire lives in a hostile and unforgiving world; any sense of compassion and connection is seen as a weakness, and something even as basic as a smile is not to be trusted. Everyone has an angle, not because they’re selfish, but because it has been ingrained in generations of black Americans that there is absolutely no one who will look out for them; they’re on their own, and the more quickly that’s realized the better able they will be to get theirs and keep it.

Some brothers and sisters in the city are so desperate for connection that they’ll see any attempt to give it freely as an opportunity to tap the well dry. While it’s understandable, given their background and experience, it doesn’t make the reality of it any less unpleasant. I find myself pulling back more and more to protect myself from being drained completely, but at the same time I feel intensely selfish for doing so. I left Baltimore, and over a very long time and through painful effort eventually managed to build a decent life for myself. I have a loving husband and amazing friends. I make decent money. How could I not want to go back to the place I came from and help others to do the same thing?

It makes me feel like a bad person to not be generous. Aren’t people with compassion supposed to be? Isn’t that how you prove loving-kindness?

At the same time, I find it increasingly difficult to be compassionate and loving towards those people who have demonstrated time and again that my life, my rights, and my happiness mean less to them than preserving the status quo or taking a hard look at the inherent problems in our society. When I see someone making excuses for fascists, white nationalists, misogynists, bigots and other anti-social people I am filled with a rage that I have worked hard to manage and redirect towards positive action. But this is happening so often that I’m angry all the time; exasperated that there are so many people who are still silent and equivocating even though it’s so obvious that the current administration is filled with incompetent, criminal racists but that this is the result of decades of cultivating distrust of the government, racially-coded dog whistles, and the persistent preservation of institutionalized inequality. I used to believe that you had to be patient with everyone, for they were fighting a battle you could not see. But now we’re in a place where these people mean to do me real harm; I cannot be patient with someone who doesn’t see a problem with a world that thinks my continued existence is a threat to its survival.

So I am taking an increasingly hard stance on politics. I’m ending long friendships with people that I genuinely liked, because they voted for a man who is damaging the ideals of this country beyond repair. I can no longer tolerate people who have a problem with Colin Kaepernick but no problem whatsoever with police who brutalize and kill people of color without even a trial. I can no longer ignore that these people would rather be blind to the real fear and anger I have about my country than think about how they’ve been implicit in the progression of white supremacy and make deeply uncomfortable changes. I just don’t have it in me any more to give these people any quarter. But does that make me a bad Buddhist? Does that mean I simply can’t achieve boundless compassion for all people, for all times?

I honestly don’t know. What I do know is that it does me no good to judge these feelings as bad, or keep trying to run away from them. They are who I am at this moment, and as such they are as much a part of this enlightened and distracted being as the love and equanimity I feel. I cannot sit with something that I refuse to recognize.

So I have to be honest with myself — and with all of you — about how I feel. I’m angry, all the time. I’m very scared that we will not be able to find a way out of this. Even if we impeach Trump and remove him from office, we still have a major political party that was willing to bring us to the brink of fascism to hold on to power — and that party has rigged the system through gerrymandering and voter suppression to make it easier that they keep themselves in state legislatures, governor’s mansions, and Congress. Even if we make sweeping changes to reset that, we still face the existential threat of climate change — the same issue we’ve been talking about for 50 years without meaningful progress or even complete willingness to make progress. There’s the runaway train of capitalism that replaces compassion with competition and will not stop until it is forced to crash, killing most of the people trapped on board. These problems may not be insurmountable, but they will require coordinated and sustained effort to solve. We are nowhere close to that, and we’re running out of time to get there. In this environment, it’s so easy to despair. I struggle against that every day. It takes more and more effort to try; what’s the point of succeeding in a world that seems determined to destroy itself anyway? Why bother being kind in a world where kindness is weakness to be taken advantage of? Why keep shouting into a void that wants nothing more than to render me invisible?

I don’t know. I really don’t. I’m having a tough time with this. I’m hoping that facing it will help me find a way through.

 
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Posted by on August 16, 2017 in Buddhism, mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

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I’m…37? Yeah, 37.

Self Improvement 150Yesterday I celebrated my 37th birthday by watching Kubo and the Two Strings, playing two rounds of mini-golf, and having a dinner out with a few friends. It was tremendously fun, and I really appreciate folks coming out to help me ring in another personal new year. I have amazing friends, and to say that I appreciate all of you would be an understatement. You inspire me, you encourage me, you elevate me closer to being the rabbit I would like to be. Thank you all so much for being in my life.

Year #36 for me was a pretty big one. I went back to school for a time, reconnected with my family in fairly tragic circumstances, fought with despair and anger about the direction our country is going, and always kept trying to build on the gains that I’ve made — wherever they might be. Through the loss of my sister and helping my mother, the passage of time and the inevitability of death have been weighing on me. In three years, I’ll be 40; it’s such a strange thing to write because of the weight we place on middle age. In a lot of ways, it feels like we should be calcifying into the person we are by then; change happens much more slowly, through concentrated and difficult effort.

That doesn’t feel like the arc of my life at all — or the arc of most of the people I know. Human beings are nothing if not adaptable, and I watch as my friends struggle to cope with the setbacks of life, changing and strengthening through their experiences. Some of us have figured out our path and the struggle becomes how to walk it consistently; others of us are still seeking out a foothold that will allow us to see the way forward. But no matter who we are, we are constantly changing, molding ourselves towards our goals and the times, becoming the people we need to be.

To be honest, it’s been a joy to watch — and to experience. For all the difficulties this year has brought me, it’s helped me to see how change can be weathered and how the support of the community can be essential for that. When Teneka died suddenly back in April, so many people stepped in to help when they really didn’t have to. They gave me emotional support, direct assistance, financial support; knowing that I didn’t have to face this nightmare alone helped pull me through one of the most difficult parts of my life. It restored my faith in humanity at a time I badly needed it, and it helped encourage me to try and do the same for others. This tragedy, and all of the chaos that followed, made me stronger and more compassionate. I have everyone who helped to thank for that.

Looking towards the future, it’s easy to be frightened and overwhelmed. Personally, it feels like there’s an ugly undercurrent in our society bubbling up to the surface, threatening to consume us all. Beyond an erosion of trust in our institutions — our governments, our media, our businesses — there seems to be an erosion of trust in the concept of society itself; it feels like so many of us distrust the goodness within our fellows, that the purpose of our lives is to take as much as we can for ourselves and maybe the people closest to us while we can do that. The American Dream isn’t a just and prosperous society; it’s elevating the “virtue” of selfishness above all.

This kind of thinking will lead to our ruin. We have not evolved to be a purely self-absorbed species; we are a social animal, built for collaboration and cooperation. We share this planet with other human beings with different ideologies, cultures, histories and perspectives; we share this planet with other animals who depend on us to make sure we keep things in balance as much as our limited understanding will allow us. We can’t focus only on the things that we have while ignoring the suffering of others. We can’t preserve our safety and prosperity if our neighbor is poor and in danger. We can’t keep taking whatever we want without making sure there’s something left for others, for our children.

I really don’t know how we rebuild our trust in our society. I don’t know how to encourage people to care about each other. I can only trust in the goodness of my fellow beings, know the selflessness and compassion I have seen in others, and see that in everyone I meet. I can only treat people as if they were their best selves already, because in so many ways they are — fearless and resourceful and far more beautiful than anyone gives themselves credit for. I want to be a mirror that reflects the Buddha-nature of everyone I meet.

But that takes a lot of difficult and consistent practice. In order to shine and reflect as well as a still pond, I must first smooth out the ripples of fear and anger within me. In order to reflect Buddha-nature, I have to realize my own.

That, I think, is what I will strive to do with myself in year #37. I’ve lived through a difficult year, and I know that I can live through another one. That’s not enough. I want to develop an equanimity through difficulty that helps me move through my own fear and anger; I want to be calm and reflective in even the most difficult of circumstances. That sense of stillness doesn’t mean inaction, or disinterest in the world around me. It means that no matter what happens, I can engage with a clear mind and a full heart. It means recognizing the poisoning influences of fear and anger, working with those difficult emotions, and ensuring my actions don’t only come from those places. That is much easier said than done.

Thankfully, I have 36 years of experience to draw upon. I have the help of my community. I have the wisdom forged by countless difficulties through thousands of years, lived and remembered through the stories we tell each other, the stories we tell ourselves. I have the hope that one day, we will look at someone different and see not a stranger or an enemy, but ourselves and our capacity for boundless compassion and love. I only hope that we won’t make things too difficult for ourselves before that happens. I only hope that we don’t fall to our fear and anger and destroy ourselves.

I love all of you. I know I’m scared. I know I’m angry. But I am choosing to struggle past that. There is something so much better on the other side.

 

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(Personal) Mission Statement

Myth 150This is an amazing world, inhabited by amazing people. We don’t have to go very far to see an animal or plant that does something incredible, if we stop to think about it. All around us, there are countless people each with their own rich inner worlds and intense, beautiful, heartbreaking stories. I think the single greatest challenge facing humankind today is the inability to maintain a perspective that allows us to live in harmony with each other and the world we share. This planet is the only home we’ve got, and as our population grows it’s going to be more and more important to focus on the impact each of us has on it and what that means for our friends, family, neighbors and fellow human beings. It’s frustrating to see that as thinking more about one another becomes more and more necessary for our survival, we seem to becoming more selfish, short-sighted and small-minded. I have no idea if this is a trend that can be stopped, much less reversed. But I don’t want to live in a world where there’s no hope of that happening, so I have to hope that it can — and will. It’s my mission in life to help connect people as much as possible, and to remind them that an attitude of collaboration is so much better than one of competition.

All of us move through our days with blinders, trapped in the narrative of our own making. We’re the protagonists of our stories, so everything that happens to us is filtered through that lens. If something prevents us from achieving our goals, it’s bad or unfair; if it gets us closer to where we want to be, then it’s great. The people who agree with us and help us out are good; those that don’t hold the same values as us, or who want something that we want, or who are just too different from us to relate to — they’re bad. Over time, this narrative becomes stronger and our belief in it absolute. We never question what the same reality looks like to someone else; we stop imagining what a situation looks like if we’re not the star of our own story.

So we start thinking that what’s good for us is good for everyone, or ignoring the complex and often invisible forces that have helped us along the way in addition to our own hard work. Our tolerance for other perspectives erodes, bit by bit, until we’re simply incapable of even imagining what the world looks like to someone else. We even become incapable of thinking that the world COULD look different to someone else. Our opinions become fact; other ones become wrong, even evil. We start to disconnect from more and more people until our world is small and hard, an oasis that must be defended from anything that would seek to change it. In extreme, everyone who doesn’t think exactly like we do becomes an enemy to strike down. Our way of life is a beacon of good; anything different, therefore, must be evil that is to be eradicated. Once that becomes our story, it’s nearly impossible to think it could be anything else.

But it has to be if any of us want to avoid a bad ending. We can’t keep alienating each other, dismissing the perspective and experience of other people. If we don’t learn to see what the world looks like through someone else’s eyes, we’re not going to stop fighting each other until no one’s left — or until there is nothing left to fight for.

I know where this idea can lead. So Jakebe, you might say, does that mean we have to understand why neo-Nazis see me as sub-human in order to avoid all-out war? Is that the message I’m supposed to take from this? Am I supposed to tolerate someone else’s awful idea just because not tolerating it means we can’t live together? No, of course not. Neo-Nazi ideology, or any intolerant, bigoted idea, should not be entertained or given quarter in civilized discourse. I cannot abide anyone who holds the idea that I’m fundamentally inferior simply because of who I am, and I cannot ask anyone else to do that either.

But, at the same time, the people who hold these ideas are not monsters. They are not fundamentally inferior, either. They hold abhorrent ideas and as long as they do I have no interest in entertaining them or their toxic perspective. But I try very hard not to forget that they’re people, and that whatever it is inside them that made them that way is also within me. That hatred, that fear, all of those awful emotions that make us shrink in on ourselves — that’s in me too. I could get there somehow, some day.

It’s very important for me to remember that, and to remind other people. We live in incredibly divisive times and just how our divisions are mended is really difficult for me to see. But we’re going to have to find a way to live together. And in order for that to happen, we have to stop seeing each other as monsters — or as pure evil, or unthinking hordes, or weak snowflakes, or enemies. We are connected, as difficult as that is to fathom, and each one of us has a hand in creating the world we live in. As flawed and frightening it is, we each have to look at what we’re doing to contribute to it for good or ill.

Personally, that means trying to be mindful of the role I play in someone else’s story. In every interaction, I try to be what someone needs in order to make their story that much better — though I know how often I fall off the mark. That doesn’t mean that I’m never challenging or that I never set myself up as an antagonist; if that’s what is needed, then that’s what I’ll do. I’m not going to subsume myself for the sake of someone else’s story.

It mostly means, though, that I won’t cause conflict needlessly if I can help it. I try to remind myself that each person who talks to me has their own story they’re moving through, and each “scene” with me is a chance to get them closer to where they want to be. If it feels like where they want to be is someplace that will actually lead to harm, I try to redirect that desire towards something better if I can help it; and if I can’t, then I try to be as honest and direct as possible. Which is the hardest, because I really get anxious about conflict.

As a writer, this means that I want to use my stories to remind people of the connections we share, the values that are most important to me, and ultimately a vision of what the world could be like if we just did a better job of looking out for one another. I want people to come away with a desire to engage with the world and with their fellow human beings; even if the story is a tragedy, I want it to be one that fosters compassion in someone else.

My life, my purpose, is to be structured around this goal. I want to live the way I’d want everyone to live — mindful of the responsibilities we have for one another, but to see that responsibility as a joy and an honor. To me, there is no greater thing than inspiring your fellow humans to live well, to encourage them to feel connected with the world around them, not above it or in enmity of it.

I know that I fail at this goal frequently, and I’m trying to get better. I may never achieve perfection with it, but that’s not the point; the point is the process, the attempt to get there. Even if I never reach my destination, the journey is what makes me a better person.

 

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Zen & The Art of Getting Shit Done

 

Buddhism 150It’s been a hard couple of months for me, mostly because of a few unexpected emergencies. I got into an accident at the end of February that totaled my car, and it took about a month for my insurance company to make that decision and offer me a write-off settlement. I had spent a bit of time researching available cars for a while, but past a certain point I had to blitz through buying a car because of the other sudden explosion — family. I’m still working through that one, and it looks like I’ll be devoting time and energy to that for a while yet.

My ADHD intersects with my Generalized Anxiety Disorder in weird ways. I’m not sure if I’ve talked about my anxiety disorder, but here’s a quick summary. Emotions are like the dashboard warnings on your car, right? They’re indications that there’s something you should pay attention to. Sometimes, the sensor and trigger for those warning lights can be faulty or over-sensitive; so you’ll feel angry at the slightest provocation, or your body will suddenly panic for no real reason. In my case, my anxiety trigger is really sensitive — it doesn’t take very much to trigger it, and that makes it harder to absorb new sources of stress when they arise. It’s easy for me to get overwhelmed.

When that happens, my ADHD kicks in. It feels like I have…hummingbird brain, let’s say. I’ll flit from thing to thing, rarely staying in one place or on one thought at a time. The more I try to settle down to focus on a problem, the more my brain slides away from it, distracted by the nearest shiny thing. Because there’s an urgent matter that needs my attention, some part of my brain will send an anxiety response to draw it back, but I can’t focus and I’ll slide to another distraction. This happens again and again, and I end up spending so much energy trying to get my brain on track that by the time I’ve wrestled it into submission exhaustion has set in and I don’t have much energy for whatever problem I’m dealing with.

It’s frustrating and awful. It means that instead of having the capacity to deal with what’s in front of me, my anxiety will throw me into a state where that’s more or less impossible. Flight becomes my default response, and I’ll get caught in an anxiety-flight loop until I’m too tired to run, metaphorically, from my problems. But I’m also too tired to deal with them.

This is one of the reasons that self-care is so important. I know that laying a foundation of care allows me to absorb stress better, recognize when I’m about to become overwhelmed, and pull back to manage stress as necessary. It does mean that things get done more slowly, but the process is a whole lot faster than letting the hummingbird tire itself out and trying to deal with things that way.

A big part of that self-care is taking time to practice meditation. Allowing myself to do whatever it is I’m going to do helps to ground me. It’s like…setting aside space to honor the hummingbird by letting it flit as much as it wants; sometimes it settles down to sip the nectar of a particularly attractive thought and I discover a solution for something I need to take care of. Sometimes, it simply gets tired and goes back into its cage of its own accord. Either way, meditation helps immensely to replenish my capacity to absorb stress and deal with unexpected things as they arise, without attachment or judgement. I can enter a state of flow more easily, and it’s not quite as devastating when that flow state is broken. Panic happens less often, and even if I’m tired at the end of the day it’s not that raw and troubled exhaustion that happens after time fighting anxiety; it’s a contented kind of weariness, knowing that I got shit done.

Those of us who have to deal with mental health issues have all kinds of other considerations that others might not. Whenever someone comes up to ask me something or make a bid for attention, there’s an instinctive rise of concern about how much this exchange will take out of me. If I’m dealing with a lot of stress-inducing stuff at the moment, I might not be able to spare much energy at all, but I want to help and I want to listen, connect, work with people. If I wake up too late to meditate, I realize that I’ve compromised my ability to deal with difficulties for the rest of the day and my focus will suffer. I worry a lot about being understood or communicating my internal life to others in a way that they will get or care about; it’s hard for me to open up or be spontaneous with people. There’s all this damage that makes the regular stuff so hard, and it’s hard to explain that in a way that doesn’t feel like a bid for pity or a plea for recognition.

With self-care, it can often be that a small change yields big results. Without stress management or coping mechanisms, the medication I take for ADHD can make it more likely that I’ll hit “hummingbird brain” — which is counter-productive to what the medication is supposed to do. Taking just 15 minutes in the morning to encourage quiet and focus can be the difference between a hectic but successful day and a total hot mess of wasted opportunity.

It’s important to do what you need to do to make it through the day; we all have those things that make us better people. It could be exercise, or conversation, or medication; writing, or singing, or hiking. Whatever it is, do it — and make space for others to do what they need. We never know what burdens other people might be under. We scarcely know how our burdens will affect us. But if we encourage and support one another, it makes everyone’s burdens a bit easier to bear.

 
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Posted by on April 3, 2017 in Buddhism, mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

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(Personal) Accountability Report, February 2017

Self Improvement 150At the beginning of the month, I noted that while I hadn’t quite achieved a perfect run on meditating and writing every day I had done pretty well for myself. There were a couple of days with Further Confusion where I didn’t hit my goal and a few more towards the end of the month, but overall I was building a pretty good routine for myself. For February, I had resolved to keep it going — write, meditate and count my calories every day. I had identified a few things that were working to keep me away from the meditation bench, writing desk and calorie counting app, and had developed a few ways to get past those potential blocks. This month, however, was a major stumble. In just about every metric I failed to write or meditate every day, and I was exceedingly spotty with my calorie counting.

Write every day. This just didn’t happen, for a lot of reasons. I seriously got out of the habit here, and I’m not even sure why. I think a lot of it was just…pressure, in general. Work has been a little difficult, and the whole thing with my online math course for school happened, and work on “Stable Love” and the “Gift Exchange” finale proved to be a bit more intimidating than I had bargained for. There were a lot of days this month where I just didn’t have the spoons for writing, even though I should have toughed it out and wrote anyway. It’s been really difficult to balance those kinds of long-term goals against the day-to-day demands of what comes up in the moment. I’m really going to have to find a way to do that, though.

This month, I will set the same goal I did in February: I will write every day, working on either a blog post or a short story. March will be notably busier; my “Argumentation and Debate” class starts up with twice-weekly classes on Tuesday and Thursday, and I’ll be working on my “Elementary Statistics” textbook in an attempt to get ahead of things for that eight week class starting up in April. Somewhere in there, I’ll be hitting up Texas Furry Fiesta — that’s something I’m really looking forward to, but it’s also something that I’ll need to prepare for ahead of time. I’ll need to make sure that my schoolwork and writing is positioned ahead of time so I can enjoy the weekend without worrying about all of the stuff I’ve let slip.

Meditate every day. This also just didn’t happen. There were a few nights of insomnia that made it really difficult to get up in the morning, and there were a few mornings where I just ended up getting distracted by my phone instead of doing the things I should have been doing. So far this month I’ve missed eight days, mostly at the beginning, but it’s still not great. There’s not a whole lot I can do about insomnia, I realize, but I could also make it a priority to meditate as soon as I get home on the days where I’m just not able to do it in the morning.

This month, I’ll set the same goal that I did in February: I will meditate every day for at least fifteen minutes. Ain’t nothing to it but to do it, but I do think that I will need to pay better attention to my bedtime. If possible, it’d be best to avoid a lot of phone usage before bed and if necessary I’ll take melatonin at around 10 pm to reset my body clock. I should be getting tired right around then, and preparing to hit the hay. If I can manage to do that successfully for a while, it’ll be easier and easier to wake up at 5:45, meditate, then get out the door and kick ass at work.

Counting calories every day. This also didn’t happen, and was probably the thing I was worst about over the month. I think I’ve just gotten really bad at updating things through my phone, to be honest. I use it for games and chatting more than anything, and I just don’t think of it as a tool that I can use to be better at holding myself accountable. Being a bit more strict about my phone usage would be a really good thing; making sure that anything I’ve eaten or spent has been logged before I do anything else would be an awesome habit to get into! I am just not sure I’ll be able to pull it off.

In March, I will log every calorie I eat and every dollar I spend through my phone. This will help me reset my habits and idea of what the phone is for, and start pushing me towards making more responsible decisions for it. I’ll be trying to take better care of my diet as well, and maybe reinstalling Fitocracy would be a good way to look up quick bodyweight exercise routines or a circuit of stretches for the days when I’m not running. My phone needs to be more than a mobile entertainment unit or boredom eradicator; I’d love for it to be more of a digital assistant. It can get there, but I have to be a lot more mindful about its usage.

So there we go. In March, I’m still trying to build the writing, meditation and accountability habit. February was a step down from January; there were a lot more things working against me, but that’s likely to be true in March as well. I’ll need to work pretty hard to make sure that the right things are a priority for me this coming month and make better decisions to emphasize that.

I’m curious about what the struggle is like for other people by this time of the year. Are folks still working towards fulfilling their New Year’s Resolutions? Or have we dropped them at this point because real life is way more complicated and antagonistic than we had anticipated? Does anyone have recommendations on what might help build a good habit?

 
 

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