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Category Archives: mental-health

(Fandom) 2 Words

 

Fandom 150Comedians who use shocking or transgressive humor are often no strangers to controversy and criticism. Even the best of them sometimes tip over into the gratuitous, but most don’t stay there very long. The transgressive nature of stand-up comedy is used by these artists as a tool, a scapel that scrapes away the flab of public discourse to reveal the wounds buried underneath. Then there’s 2 Gryphon. He’s the most recognizable furry stand-up comedian we’ve got and has made transgressive humor a centerpiece of his act for over a decade now. However, that humor isn’t in service of exposing and ultimately healing the sensitive topics he frequently covers; it encourages flippant dismissal of the people who disagree with his stances. The “jokes” and comments he makes online encourage his fans to dismiss concerns that he’s engaging in bigoted behavior, spread misinformation and act on it in ways that hurt furries who are most in need of our compassion. 2’s irresponsible and insensitive attitude towards public discourse helps him to shrug off criticism but hurts the fandom as a whole — and that’s something we can’t tolerate any more.

Last Wednesday, 2 Gryphon announced his performance at AnthroCon had been canceled by the board. He did this by responding to a tweet not obviously directed to him from a Twitter account that hasn’t posted in two years before then. In the absence of any official word from the convention staff, it was assumed by both his fans and critics that the decision was made due to a long history of offensive comments made from his personal blog and Twitter account. The way this news broke is important, because it shows us how 2 handles controversy when he has control of how to present it.

The exchange with his fan puts 2 in a sympathetic light right away. He gets an innocent show of support from a fan excited to see him; he then has to disappoint that fan with the news. This allows him to present his absence from AnthroCon as “the convention is denying you, the fans, something we all want and they didn’t tell me why.” This framing primes his fans towards a particular reaction. It shifts focus from him towards the convention and lays the foundation that the convention’s board is responsible for this situation.

But it’s suspicious that 2 responded to an account he doesn’t follow two minutes after it was posted, especially since there was no obvious way to know it was even directed at him. It’s also suspicious that an account that had been dormant since August 2015 just so happens to make a random tweet right around the time the decision came down. The facts of the tweet and his response to it should make us question if what we’re presented with — an exchange between a comedian and his fan — is really what’s happening. But if 2 (alone or with someone’s help) orchestrated this exchange as a way to break the news, why would he do such a thing?

It’s because 2 understands the importance of framing. Political commentator Jim A. Kuypers describes framing this way: “Framing is a process whereby communicators, consciously or unconsciously, act to construct a point of view that encourages the facts of a given situation to be interpreted by others in a particular manner. Frames operate in four key ways: they define problems, diagnose causes, make moral judgments, and suggest remedies. Frames are often found within a narrative account of an issue or event, and are generally the central organizing idea.” In argumentation, even the informal kind, how you sell your argument matters just as much as — if not more than — the content of your argument.

2 is a very smart guy who is great with sophistry — using clever but ultimately fallacious and/or deceptive arguments to win over an audience. He frequently targets and engages with the most extreme forms of criticism to dismiss any criticism outright. He mischaracterizes the content of those arguments to benefit his rebuttal against them and paint his opposition as foolish, ignorant, uninformed. He demands proof of what he’s being accused for, then dismisses, deflects or outright ignores it when it’s presented. He moves the goalposts constantly. He offers up token friends as proof against transphobic or racist remarks instead of addressing the remarks themselves. He uses a suite of different tactics to make sure criticism doesn’t stick, shifting the field of debate from his actions to general “SJW” fallacies that are functionally red meat to his fans.

The way he broke the news is consistent with his handling of criticism in the past. He knew that being disinvited from AC would create a controversy, and in the absence of definitive information or any official response from the convention itself he used the opportunity to set the frame of the debate and subsequent response. Tying the announcement directly to a fan exchange allows him to spin the narrative that the fans want this show and will be very disappointed if they don’t get it; that’s his basis for argument, and to be fair this would be true even without the work he put into framing the debate that way. However, opening with this also allowed 2 to provide a reason without any evidence, blame “the SJWs” for that reason, and encourage outraged fans to email Programming and demand an explanation — even though they’re less likely to trust anything besides the one they were given before. Instead of discussing the reasons that his critics have been giving for years about his comments and behavior, he picks a straw-man argument that we “have spread the lie that he’s a Nazi”, asserts that the Board has been duped by the lie and shouted down by the “silent majority” who just want to be entertained by his brand of comedy.

But I’m not a critic of 2 because I think he’s a Nazi. I haven’t seen any other critics of 2 say he’s a Nazi. His defense of Richard Spencer arguably makes him a Nazi sympathizer, but that’s a debate for another campfire. I’m a critic of 2 because he’s irresponsible with his language and insensitive to the social and racial issues that a large segment of the fandom have to face in their daily lives. In an environment where that kind of sophistry and insensitivity has given rise to the alt-right in our own fandom AND in the White House, we simply can’t tolerate that kind of behavior any more. It’s unacceptable to target the people with the least power to combat the narratives that are formed about them. It’s unacceptable to promote racist, misogynist, othering ideas under the guise of comedy. It’s unacceptable to take no responsibility for the environment you create and expect others to put up with speech and behavior that makes the fandom a less-welcoming, more-hostile space.

The fact that I disagree with 2 politically isn’t the reason I’m writing this, or advocating that he should lose his space at AC. He’s, of course, free to believe that this is a valid argument against Kaepernick’s peaceful protest on behalf of #BlackLivesMatter, even though he hasn’t done a single thing to be thanked for. He’s free to believe that this is a simple joke about Detroit with no reasonable link to racist undertones. He can say that this is just comedy and that anyone who takes offense should “just get over it and move on“.

I’m also free to call bullshit on all of that. 2 never defended anyone’s rights in any way that mattered; he uses free speech mainly as a smokescreen to avoid consequences for saying something shitty in the same way most Internet trolls do. Colin Kaepernick drew attention to a serious problem in a non-violent way as well as donating time and money to communities of color. Everyone knows that Detroit is a majority-Black city and there’s a long-standing history of racist comments comparing black people to apes. Comparing being transgender to claiming racial ancestry not your own is at best false equivalence, and moving from that to the absurdity of “burritokin” means that we can reasonably infer just how seriously he takes the whole idea. It doesn’t matter that he has black friends or transgender friends; he made comments that perpetuated tired yet persistent stereotypes that hurt disadvantaged populations. If he was truly a friend to these people, he would be sensitive to the social conditions they struggle with all the time and work to legitimize them as people with every right to self-determination that he has. But he doesn’t. Instead he mocks and diminishes their protests without ever touching the legitimate issues that cause the protests in the first place.

As a fandom, we’re better than that. If we hope to reverse the damage caused by people who feel entitled to say whatever hurtful thing they want, we have to start in our own backyard. That means calling out the people who promote bigoted and harmful ideas. That means pushing back against the people who insist on being as irresponsible as they can get away with using the platforms they’ve been given. That means demanding that those shouting “Free speech!” understand that there is a responsibility to accept the consequences of that speech.

2, by consistently attacking progressive activists and making jokes about marginalized groups, has proven what he thinks of us through his actions time and again. He doesn’t care who’s hurt by the things he says or does, or how his rhetoric makes the community a smaller place filled with narrow-minded ideas about what’s “valid”. And that’s his right. But it’s also my right to demand that the institutions of our fandom (including AnthroCon) refuse to legitimize that carelessness by denying him the platform he abuses, especially since he continues to deny and deflect criticism instead of actually trying to see the perspective of other people. It’s my right to say there’s no room in this fandom for a comedian who compares people like me to missing links, then tells me “Relax, it’s just a joke!”

It’s not a joke. It’s my life. And I won’t put up with someone who says — by word and deed — that my life matters less than his.

 
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Posted by on March 21, 2017 in Furries, mental-health

 

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(Personal) Technical Difficulties

Myth 150The thing that really sucked about 2016 is that I never saw it coming. I went into the year with the sense of excitement and optimism one usually does, confident that I could get my shit together a little more and find success with things that had always eluded me. The Jackalope Serial Company started in January with an ambitious first serial, a novel-length story that would take me the entire year to complete. Now that I had my mental health issues figured out, more or less, I was impatient to get to all of the things that I was too busy fighting my own broken brain to get to. Of course, that boundless energy and optimism didn’t last long.

As the year wore on, I found that it was a bigger struggle than I thought to undo three decades of bad habits and poor decisions; the serial faltered, then stopped altogether. In the wider world, political discourse had gone from rancorous to toxic as Donald Trump somehow managed to beat 16 career politicans (and a few outsiders) to take the Republican nomination for President. Great Britain surprise-voted themselves out of the European Union, kicking off a wave of far-right xenophobia and racism that would be repeated on this side of the pond months later. Surprise that Trump made it this far into the Presidential process turned to shock, and disgust at his incompetence and inexcusable behavior became horror, when he became President thanks to razor-thin victories in three states that gave him all of the electoral votes he needed.

As we were reeling from the shock and facing down the prospect of a disastrous four years of a Trumpist administration, I thought that I could be prepared for 2017 knowing that it was going to be a rough one. I expected that there would be a lot of hard days ahead, and most of my friends would be frightened, depressed, in trouble, and struggling. I resolved to plant my feet and stand my ground as best I could, help out however I could, resist and endure. While I was facing the oncoming tsunami of political bad news, I was blindsided by a few personal crises.

First, my family. I received a letter in the mail asking me if I was related to a child whose name I didn’t recognize. Sure that it was some kind of mistake, I brushed it off until I received a follow-up phone call that told me my sister had been deemed unfit to raise her two youngest children and they had been placed in foster care. The woman on the other end was a social worker looking for relatives to take them in indefinitely.

Suddenly, my husband and I were faced with the prospect of raising children. As an adoptee myself, I know how important it is — but there was no way we were prepared for such a huge task. I couldn’t ask my husband to blow up his entire life for children he had never met, and I knew that saying yes would put all of my plans on hold for who knows how long. There were a lot of hard conversations and frenzied calls to family; I finally got to reach my sister and pledged my support, but I told the social worker there was simply no way we could take them in.

Since then, I haven’t heard anything from either of them. I have no idea what’s going on, despite repeated attempts to get in contact.

Two weeks ago, I was involved in a five car accident that pretty much wrecked my car. Since I rear-ended the car in front of me and the driver of that car was able to avoid the “main” accident I was deemed at fault and will have to pay a huge deductible if the cost of repairs are under the car’s value. Since that’s looking less and less likely, I should be OK with the total write-off but I’m not looking forward to the rise in my insurance premiums later this year. Besides the stress of uncertainty about the status of my car and the fact that this was my first major accident, things turned out a lot better than they could have there. Still, it’s been very stressful.

On top of that, we’ve had persistent plumbing issues with our kitchen sink over the past couple of weeks that got progressively worse until we learned that the sewer line from our kitchen had been corroded completely. That’s been repaired, but now we’re back to square one — our kitchen sink drains very slowly, as if something is not quite blocking it. A fourth/fifth visit from the plumber is likely later this week.

The family crisis, accident and plumbing issue has been taking up a good deal of my focus; the Argumentation & Debate class has been eating up the remainder. As a result, I’ve been stressed to all hell and those old avoidance behaviors have been creeping back into my days. If I’ve been flighty, distant and unreliable online that’s why. I’m feeling overwhelmed with everything going on and I’m just trying to tackle the biggest problems with what limited energy I have. I have to reserve a lot to fight my worst impulses, which makes it even harder to deal with anything new.

I’m hoping that things will shake themselves out in a few weeks or months, but in the meantime things will continue to be a struggle. I haven’t had the spoons for activism or volunteer work yet, and it bums me out. I know that the administration of 45 and the Republican party are up to their persistent fuckery, but I just don’t have the emotional space to tackle that right now. I need to step back and try to right my world for a little bit.

Of course, this blog post means that I’m digging myself out of the hole, bit by bit. Hopefully I can return to a regular posting schedule soon.

 
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Posted by on March 13, 2017 in mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

(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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(Personal) Accountability Report, January 2017

Self Improvement 150At the beginning of last month, I made three resolutions: I wanted to meditate and write every day, and I wanted to avoid added sugars if at all possible. Well, the first month of the year has come and gone, so I thought I’d take a look back on the last 31 days to see how I did. I realize that it’s really hard to be actually perfect with these things, especially just starting out — it takes a while to build a practice into a habit and obstacles are going to come up. Still, all things considered, I think I did pretty well for myself.

I didn’t meditate every day in January. I missed one day during Further Confusion 2017 because I got distracted with Twitter, and I missed another day near the end of the month for much the same reason — I go to open the meditation app on my phone and ended up getting sucked into something else. The smartphone is a life-changing invention that gives us the power to do so much in our lives whenever we need to, but it also offers an endless tide of distraction. When I’m just waking up, without coffee or medication, I’m especially susceptible to that.

This month, I’ll renew my intention to meditate every day this month. I think the best way to avoid potential distraction is perhaps to put my phone in airplane mode before I go to bed; that way, when I get up it’s easier for me to use my meditation app than it is to turn off airplane mode and dive into Twitter or games. I realize this likely won’t be a permanent solution, but hopefully it will buy me enough time to get into that perfect habit territory. Even still, missing two days out of 31 isn’t bad, and I’ve definitely been a lot more even emotionally through regular meditation.

I didn’t write every day in January. I mean, I sort of did — between my History of Rock and Roll class, The Writing Desk and other things there were plenty of things to work on. However, when I made that resolution I specifically meant a fiction project that I wanted to release through the Jackalope Serial Company, submit to a publication or post online, or play through with friends. Making sure I’m regular with my Patreon is my top priority here; people have had my back since the beginning of last year, and I want to make sure I’m holding up my end of the bargain. Once I’m on a more stable footing there, I can move on to other short stories, serials or role-playing game stuff.

I’m renewing my intention to write every day this month, with the specific stipulation that it will be writing for Jackalope Serial Company stories. That means finishing up “Gift Exchange” (my January serial) in the next day or two, editing/rewriting “Stable Love (the February serial) after that, and working on the serial for March and April. The goal is to be at least two weeks ahead on serial posts so I can have a nice buffer for those weeks when work or school gets to be too heavy. Since I’m prioritizing the JSC, I may not be able to keep up my three times a week schedule for The Writing Desk. I’ll try my hardest, though. Maybe writing posts on the weekend for the next week is the best move here.

I avoided added sugars this month, with a few exceptions. Alcoholic drinks are a bit of a gray area, there — mixed drinks tend to use simple syrup (which is basically just sugar dissolved in water) or really sweet fruit juices, and I had one or two of those. During the Australian Open final, I did have a mug of hot chocolate because how could you say no to that? Overall I’ve severely limited my sugar intake, and my palate has shifted because of that. While sugar definitely makes fireworks go off in my brain, it takes a lot less to reach satiety. Still, it’s not a habit I’m interested in falling back into.

This month, I resolve to count my calories every day and exercise at least three times a week. My routine of choice involves a lot of running, but I’ll need to supplement that with stretches and body-weight exercises. I’m WAY too stiff in general, and it would be nice to work more on my core and arms. The calorie counting app I use is MyFitnessPal, so if you use it too feel free to add me as a friend! My name is “JakebeRabbit”.

There are a few other things I’d like to do this month — read more regularly, be more disciplined with my budget and to-do list, finally get my act together with activism and volunteer work. But meditation, writing, and diet accountability will be my main focus. What about all of you lovely folks? How have you been doing with your New Year’s Resolutions so far? What changes will you make to stick to your goals?

 

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(Politics) Self-Respect as a Form of Protest

Myth 150As a culture, I feel like we’re bathing in a pool of reminders to consider ourselves discontent, incomplete, and unworthy. Advertising is predicated on the idea of creating a need for whatever needs to be sold, and since it’s so ubiquitous we’re awash in a chorus of commercials, billboards and banners that scream to us “YOU ARE NOT HAPPY. YOU NEED THIS.” The current administration has told us that “real America” has been left behind by an establishment that cares more about itself than any of us, but that they do care and they will fix it. When we speak up and tell them their actions are making things worse, or that the claims they’re working from are fundamentally untrue, we’re told that they’re offering “alternative facts” or attack us for being unpatriotic enough to disagree with them. On the internet, any assertion made by women, people of color, LGBQTIA people, disabled people or anyone else on the margins is frequently met with a pack of dissenters eager to tell us our own experiences are wrong, our perspectives are skewed. We are constantly assaulted with messages designed to make us doubt ourselves, which is why we need to start putting in the work to believe in who we are and what we care about.

Respecting ourselves can be a form of protest against the society that wants to shape us into people who will passively accept what we’re told by our institutions, uncritically and gratefully. With so many of our cultural forces attempting to control how we think about ourselves, it is a revolutionary act to reject those attempts and determine who we are and who we want to be. Setting our own standards for happiness and personal fulfillment, then following through on those standards, makes us more resistant to the constant messaging that attempts to set our values for us. It allows us to know ourselves and our beliefs in a way that gives us a solid and stable center, that roots us to ideals larger than we are.

Our connection to this foundation is essential to our well-being. Instead of being buffeted by the shifting winds of our cultural attitudes, we sway with them while keeping true to who we are. Just as a tree bends with the wind, carries the burden of rain and heat, and still provides shelter to the animals and other plants who depend on it, knowing who we are allows us to be both flexible and grounded enough to remain upright against gale forces that threaten to bowl us over. We can come to see these storms as intense but transitory and gain a courage of conviction that checks our fear.

This work is not easy. So many of us have been told all of our lives that there’s something wrong with us, or that we have to change to fulfill the desires of the people around us. But there’s nothing wrong with you. You, as a human being, are worthy of happiness and respect. It’s one thing to be told that and wish it were true, another thing to believe it might be, quite a different thing to know it’s so. Getting to that point is a long and sometimes difficult process; it requires us to face ourselves and acknowledge our thoughts, our desires, our actions and beliefs. We may find things that are unpleasant and hard to deal with. But accepting all of ourselves, even the bad parts, shifts our perspective to one that makes the effort to change that much easier. It’s possible to recognize our flaws, work to correct them, and still treat ourselves with love, respect, and care.

When we do that, something extraordinary happens: we begin to have a clear perspective on the flaws of others and we learn to treat those with compassion. We learn to see how the behaviors of our fellow man are rooted in their own system of values, and how similar we are to each other. We find it easier to forgive people when they make mistakes, because we’re able to forgive ourselves for our imperfections. When we love ourselves, it becomes so much easier to love everyone around us — even the difficult people, the awkward ones, the people whose personality grates on our nerves.

We also find a security that allows our beliefs to be tested and changed according to new and more accurate information. We don’t cling to false ideals, or assume that our identities depend on dogmatic thinking. We know that our morality is an extension of our values, our ideals translated into action. Our understanding of those ideals and the actions they lead to can be examined and adjusted without the feeling that we’re killing ourselves or becoming unmoored. We gain a deep strength that underlies a flexibility allowing us to admit when we’re wrong and change our behavior with sincerity and purpose.

I don’t mean to say that learning to respect ourselves is going to solve all of our problems, because it won’t. We will still be frightened from time to time; we will get angry when our sense of morality is offended; we will still react poorly, make mistakes, backslide into bad habits, behave without compassion. We’re only human after all. However, learning self-respect will make us more resilient, more confident, more open and more compassionate. All of those traits are absolutely necessary if we are to face the rising tide of intolerance, ignorance and cruelty that threatens to destroy us. We cannot force others to respect us if we don’t respect ourselves first. We can’t teach others if we don’t learn about ourselves first. We can’t fix society if we don’t set the wounds we’ve taken on and ignored.

This year, learning to love and respect myself is one asset of my activism that I’ll be paying attention to. I will think about my values, and how that shapes the way I see the world. I will work to resist those people who diminish my values in an attempt to control me. And I will encourage all of us to do the same. We are as worthy of happiness and respect as anyone else; we have the right to demand our society treats us with the same respect we give ourselves. Don’t let anyone tell you different.

 
 

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(Personal) New Year’s Resolutions 2017

Self Improvement 150Welcome to 2017! How about that last year, huh? What a repeated kick in the teeth it was. I remember what I was like this time last year, all full of hopes and dreams and thinking that this was going to be a pretty great year of progress! If you were anything like me, then you probably drank as much as you possibly could to forget what happened over the previous twelve months — only it didn’t work. Donald Trump is still set to be inaugurated later this month; way too many luminaries shed their mortal coil; and the political discourse went beyond caustic into cartoonishly terrible. None of us were prepared for the parade of horrors that 2016 brought us, and the consequences of what went down last year will be with us for quite a long time.

The last year contained a few big wake-up calls. I learned that it’s not enough to only invest in something up to your comfort level and hope for the best — if you want something to change, you are going to have to stretch past your point of comfort to get it. I learned that changing the tone of our discourse is something that we will have to do ourselves; changing our government to work for us and uphold our American values is something we’re responsible for, not the politicians we elect; that in order to do anything I consider worthwhile, I am going to need to be uncomfortable, I will need to sacrifice, and I will need to put in the work.

My resolutions this year are centered around doing just that, putting in the work. It’s important to know what I want at a high level and build my life around what it will take to get there. If I’m going to be a writer, then I need to build my life around that. If I want to be a psychologist, then I need to make sure that the things I spend my time with get me closer to that goal. I will be 37 years old this year. It’s reasonable to assume I have fewer years ahead of me than I do behind. There is no more time to waste.

This year I have three fairly ambitious goals, and I’d like to think I have clear eyes on how difficult they will be. But while they’re ambitious, they’re also a solid foundation to build better habits with. Once I’m able to trust myself with the basics, I can move on to more complicated things.

Meditate every day. I practice sitting meditation fairly often, but I can get streaky with the process; I’ll have three weeks where I’m doing it every day, and then take a week where I’m just not doing it for whatever reason. The benefits are obvious, though. When I meditate, it’s easier for me to be resilient with interruptions and setbacks; I’m more attentive and compassionate with the people around me; I am able to handle and absorb stress better. Meditation not only helps my depression and anxiety, it helps my focus, productivity, creativity and understanding of the people around me.

In order to be able to do what I’d like to do this year, I need to make sure that I’m preparing myself properly. I intend to be more politically engaged. I will put myself and my writing out there a lot more. I will push myself to be better at my job by being more agile and collaborative, expand my knowledge about the underlying technologies I’m working with, and cultivate and nurture relationships with my coworkers. I will push myself to be more vocal about the things that actively hurt society, including willful ignorance and antisocial behavior. I expect that nearly every day this year, I will need to do something that makes me uncomfortable. In order to absorb the stress of that, meditation needs to be a cornerstone of my life. It will allow me to handle all of this, which means that it needs to happen every day.

Write every day. If you know me, you know that I have tremendous difficulty finishing the things I’ve started. There are a ton of short stories, snippets and other projects that I’ve started and restarted, only to have them flame out once the stress of continuing gets to be too much. That cannot continue. If I’m going to live up to my potential, I’m going to need to follow through. That means finishing the short stories and other projects I’ve started, no matter how terrible the first draft might be. In order to do that, I’ll need to shift my perspective on how writing is achieved.

For a while now I’ve operated like an “artist”, only writing when the inspiration strikes and cursing the dreaded writer’s block when it prevents me from putting anything good on paper. But a great craftsman doesn’t allow themselves to be tossed and turned by the whims of the muse; they are the center of the storm, putting in the work every day whether it’s good or not. It’s that time, that dedicated and focused practice, that allows us to make the work we put in on even the “bad” days just a little bit better. We also learn perspective, where we know that one bad day or one bad story isn’t going to break us; no matter what, we’ll be right back at it the next day. There’s always the time to get it right, but only if we make sure we put aside the time.

So that’s what I’ll need to do. Even if it’s just an uninterrupted 15 minutes, I will dedicate time to the project that I’ve designated as the primary one, every day. For the most part, I’m assuming that will be whatever I’m writing for the Jackalope Serial Company Patreon, but it could also be for MegaMorphics, the Furry Basketball Association, my Pathfinder game, or a short story for submission to a magazine or anthology. Whatever it is, if it’s my primary focus, it will get at least 15 minutes of dedicated effort every day.

Eliminate added sugars. Another one of the things I’d really like to do this year is be more discerning about the things I consume. There are too many great stories being told by too many great storytellers to waste time on careless fiction or time-wasting games and apps. The news media is in a legitimate shambles at the moment, and it will take time and training to learn what’s actual information and what’s been spun to advance an agenda or made up wholecloth. Even beyond that, there are so many things that might be good but lie outside of my range of tastes that I should stretch to see and talk about in service of pushing myself in general. But before all of that, let’s start with something basic and intimate.

I am a sugar addict. I can’t self-regulate when it comes to sweets; having candy, cookies and pastries doesn’t satisfy me, it just makes the desire that much more intense. Given that a whole lot of refined sugar in your diet can cause a lot of problems with your physical and mental health, it’s a great idea to cut them out whenever possible. This means leaving behind the Sugar Babies and chocolate bars, the fruit danishes and cakes that I love to have.

Just because something feels good to consume doesn’t mean it’s good for you to do it, and that lesson is no more simply learned than with the food I eat. I’ve taken big strides in 2016 with my diet, and I’m proud of the advances I’ve made. However, getting into the habit of watching for and abstaining from a lot of added sugar trains me to step back from the impulse of instant gratification to learn discipline and sacrifice in service to a higher ideal. It also trains me to look for the many different ways sugar can be hidden within food and reject the idea that something is healthy just because the box says it is. I know this sounds cynical, but I’m not trying to be — a company’s main goal is to get me to buy its product, and it will do whatever it can to make sure I do that. If Nabisco is worried about the health craze impacting its sales, it will bury the less healthy aspects of its products and promote the healthier ones to keep people buying. It doesn’t matter that a cookie or a sugary cereal is all-natural or certified organic — it will still promote all the problems that sugar does.

So for this month, I’ll keep close tabs on what I eat with the goal to lower my sugar intake to 40 grams or less a day. On special occasions I’ll indulge in a dessert or ice cream — when I’ve finished three short stories, meditated and wrote for 30 days straight, during birthdays or certain holidays. Otherwise, added or refined sugar is out of my diet.

For now, making sure that I meditate, write and abstain from added sugars every day will serve as a good foundation for me. Cultivating good habits that I consider fundamental to my experience and cutting out a bad habit that teaches me a few much-needed skills in the doing should put me in a good place to make the next leap towards the change I want to see in the world.

How about you lovely folks? What are your resolutions for the new year? If you’ve decided to forego resolutions this year, ain’t no shame in that; let me know why and how you plan to manage your own self-improvement in the comments.

 

(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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