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Category Archives: Self-Reflection

A Worker’s Prayer

Buddhism 150After a couple of months out of work, it feels really good to be gainfully employed again. To respect the privacy of this secret burrow location, I won’t say exactly where I’m working. But I can say that what I’m doing now adheres to the practice of “Right Livelihood,” which means I’m not making my living by causing or contributing to harm. As I grow older, it’s an increasingly important precept — likely because it’s becoming much more difficult to observe in too many areas of the country. During my time off, I got to think a lot about what I would be willing to do for a paycheck and what I would avoid for as long as possible. But a lot of us don’t really have that luxury. In order to pay the bills, so many of us are forced to do unfulfilling work that doesn’t do anything to make the world a better place. Some of us even have to take jobs that make things worse. That’s because so many of us lack the power to choose the work we find most fulfilling, that calls to our purpose in life or at least lets us help our fellow beings.

There are so many barriers to being able to land a decent, fulfilling job. Just pulling from my background, my family wasn’t in any financial position to send me to a private school and I was exceedingly lucky to be placed in whatever ‘gifted and talented’ programs were available. This gave me opportunities most children my age couldn’t get — like learning Latin, gaining access to extracurricular programs that furthered my studies, even meeting teachers who were lively and dedicated enough to make sure my lessons stuck. In high school I floundered because I had never learned how to study properly or work past frustration. My home life was a shambles, and there was no way to deal with that. I was woefully unprepared for college, and didn’t have the institutional, community, or familial resources that most do to get help. I never got a degree, never developed a network in the workforce, never learned skills that could be applied to different positions. Now I’m a 40 year old black man without college education or any certifications. If it weren’t for the kindness and generosity of my professional network, I would have been in serious trouble. My age, my race, my education, my mental health — all of them are working against me in the job market. I am so, so grateful to have such good friends and colleagues, and I’m mindful that so many people like me don’t have the resources I do.

Having a job that doesn’t fulfill you, or that you believe is harming your community — it wears on you in a way that few other things do. It can poison your self-image and rot you from the inside. Being forced to deal with immoral people without the ability to assert your values is a quiet devastation of the soul. It changes the way you see people, and the way you see the world. In order to survive the experience, most of us either have to adopt the mindset of the colleagues trapped in such a system — the attitude that life is a competition, and we all have to do whatever it takes to make it. This may include backstabbing our coworkers, lying to customers, damaging relationships in order to get ahead, compromising our integrity. We might quell the disturbed voice within us by adopting a new mantra: This is just the cost of doing business.

We are incredibly adaptable creatures, capable of surviving and thriving in any environment. But sometimes, our efforts shouldn’t go towards thriving in a harmful environment — it should go towards removing ourselves from it, or, barring that, changing it. Most of us don’t have the luxury of leaving jobs we don’t like, so transforming it is often our only choice. That is often lonely, exhausting, thankless work. Without some sort of validation or recognition, we can fall to despair. Why even try to change things when we know it’s not going to work? We’re not going to be able to make a company think more about ethical behavior and less about money. Who are we doing this for?

Ourselves. We may not be able to transform the world around us, even with hard work and persistent effort, but we can make sure that the world doesn’t transform us. At the very least, we can take stock of our values and do our best to make sure we’re handling our jobs in a way that aligns with them. That is difficult, I won’t lie. It might require some creativity. But making the effort to transform our relationship with our work is an overlooked act of self-preservation. If we can’t do what we love, we can find a way to do what we have to with love.

In the United States, we’ve largely shifted from an industrial economy to a service economy. A lot of us work for companies that put us in contact with people all day, every day. We encounter others who present themselves angrily, with unyielding expectations and an air of entitlement to treat us as terribly as necessary to make sure those expectations are fulfilled. Sometimes, both of us are trapped in a system neither of us want to be in, forced to protect a company’s profit over true service to our fellow beings. Many customers see us as nothing more than an adversary, an obstacle in the path of the just treatment they deserve.

And despite the names of the systems that trap us, like ‘customer service/success/care’, the systems themselves force us into that adversarial relationship. Often, the customer isn’t given the right information at the right time to understand a company decision. Sometimes, the decision itself is terrible and we’re tasked with justifying it. Sometimes, someone feels cheated and we have to protect the company that pinched their purse. When someone comes to us, the expectation is to deny what’s being asked for and try to make the customer feel good about the experience regardless.

When a customer rails at us, they are bringing that story with them already in progress. It can be incredibly easy to accept the role we’ve been given and become enemies, especially if we feel attacked unfairly or the demands of our job has already drained our self-image. If we feel isolated in our lives, unsupported by our colleagues, and bound to anti-social company practices, our frustration only has one way to go — towards the person attacking us. It can even feel like a karmic righting, denying someone who dares to treat us so poorly.

That’s a spiral I’ve been down, and desperately want to stop. The anger I feel about our current social conundrum or the helpless loneliness I feel doesn’t go away with perpetuating unkindness. Those feelings become fossilized with those actions, and we begin to not only accept the role of enmity we’ve been given but the whole story — our customers are our enemies, and the lot of them are stupid, ignorant, entitled. It’s a horrible story that brings out the worst in me and denies me the chance to change the course of our interaction from combative to collaborative.

But, in order for me to do that, I have to change the way I think about…well, everything. I am not an agent of a company. I am a person with the ability to help another person who has come to me for help. I don’t have a list of policies that determine what I can’t do to help our customers; I have a small suite of tools for assisting people who need in the best way I can manage. I am not here to be screamed at by a customer; I am the only one who can hear this person’s frustration with the system we’re both stuck in, and I can offer a way out.

For me, Right Livelihood isn’t just about making sure the company you’re working for does no harm. It’s also about making sure your work doesn’t poison you into spreading harm. Some of us have a lot of work to do if we expect to retain our compassion and equanimity in the face of a difficult situation; it’s best to recognize where we are with that and do our best to proceed accordingly. Sometimes, the way out of the wrong situation is simply changing the way we respond to it. Even if we can’t be in a place that does no harm, we can decide to help as much as we can, in any way we can.

This Labor Day, I pray that all of us finds a way to find contentment with our work, and to keep striving to transform ourselves and our communities to the best possible versions of themselves. Each of us has the power to connect with our fellow beings, to change the hostile narrative we’re trapped in, to encourage an attitude of love and helpfulness. I’ll keep working on that here, now that I’ve been given another chance to.

 

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A Few Thoughts As I Turn 39

Self Improvement 150This time last year, I had just begun a new job that felt like a new chapter in my life. I had spent nearly ten years at a company that invested a lot in me and gave me an opportunity I’ll always be grateful for, but after a merger had brought about too much change and tanked morale, I thought it would be best to move on. The new job was at a company I was genuinely excited to be a part of — enough that I didn’t mind a pay cut to get my foot in the door. I was optimistic about my ability to grow, and the future of my career.

Now, as I turn 39 years old…let’s say I’m in a very different place. That opportunity didn’t work out, but I learned a lot in what turned out to be a tumultuous year. Now I’m between jobs, looking for my next chance to apply all I’ve learned. I’m less optimistic about the future, but not because I no longer think I can change. I don’t think the world can.

Our leadership is encouraging the worst aspects of our society, and it’s a genie that won’t be put back in its bottle any time soon. Over the course of decades, we have learned to be scornful and distrustful of expertise, become immunized to factual evidence that defy our beliefs, allowed ourselves to be distracted by the constant shouting to assign blame or argue the minutiae of our arguments while the world burns around us. The world has become not smaller but more interconnected, and the intricate nature of those connections require stability to function well. Our relationships to each other, from the personal to the political, have frayed and grown shallow. Because it’s so easy to cut ties with one another, I don’t think many of us even see the value in making deeper bonds. We would rather sit alone in ideological purity than come together to exist as a supportive spectrum.

Meanwhile, dissatisfaction and a sense of entitlement has lead to increasingly brazen attacks on those of us without the institutional power to protect ourselves — people of color and of alternate sexuality, poor people, people with disabilities, people of different faiths. Our government is branding the effort to fight this rising tide of bigotry as terrorism, a literally Orwellian abuse of power that we’ve forgotten about because something worse happens the next day. And the next. And the day after that.

And on top of that, the effects of climate change are happening way faster than anyone thought but our government has hamstrung the ability to fight it, study it, or even discuss it. The rest of the world is moving on without us, even though it might be too late to mitigate the most disastrous effects. The people who would champion a better, greener world are marginalized by their own party in order to preserve what small power they have on the national stage. The party in power has subverted democracy to the point that they only have to cater to a shrinking minority of the population to remain in power, poisoning the system of checks and balances in the service of their own greed.

I’m in a society that doesn’t look kindly on the middle-aged, no matter how kind or thoughtful. I’m struggling to land an opportunity to sacrifice my time and energy for a company that demands loyalty and sacrifice from me, but refuses to offer its loyalty in return. I’m stuck in a system that tallies a list of traits it considers undesirable and diminishes my options based on how many I hit. At this point, it’s a lot.

Given the way I perceive the world as it is, it’s strange to me that I feel happier than I’ve ever been. Even though I no longer have faith in the world, I have more than enough faith in myself and the people around me. I know who I am, and I know who supports me. I know my worth. I know my flaws. And I know how to work towards being the best version of myself at long last. Best of all, I know all the things I cannot control, and have learned how to let go of my desire to control them. All I can do is the best I can. I have to accept whatever happens beyond that.

It’s a scary and uncertain world, but I’ve never been more certain of my purpose in it. This year, I’m resolving to work on deepening my connections with people, becoming a more reliable person, and doing my best to become more openly and unapologetically myself. That’s really the best gift I can give myself at this point. Hopefully, it at least makes my small sphere of influence a better place.

 
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Posted by on August 7, 2019 in Self-Reflection

 

The Overnight Walk to Prevent Suicide 2019

I’ve attempted suicide twice — once a short time after I was disowned by my mother for being gay, and again after a bad break-up with my first real boyfriend. Both times, I felt completely unmoored after severing fundamental relationships that also disconnected the fragile support networks that came with them. There was no one I could tell about the persistent, gnawing pain that hollowed me out until there was only numbness, which felt even worse.

It got to the point where I didn’t just want to feel nothing; I didn’t even want to be aware of feeling. There was no way to step outside of myself, no way to know that I could eventually feel different. There was only the awful, disintegrating pain and the cold fog beyond it. Oblivion had to be better.

It took a long time to put my life back together again. While I still have a brain that I struggle against constantly, I also have a loving husband, an incredible community of friends, and the great fortune of health insurance that covers mental health services. I feel incredibly lucky and grateful every day for these blessings and the sense of perspective they’ve given me.

But there are so many people like me who aren’t as lucky. People of color have to navigate a hostile country that looks at them with disdain and suspicion. People with mental illnesses have to bear the torture of misfiring synapses with no idea what’s happening — much less how to manage it. LGQBT people of color not only have to deal with the isolation that comes with their race; they also have to face isolation from their communities because of their sexual preference or gender presentation.

Every year over 45,000 Americans commit suicide. Most of them are men, and LGQBT youth are at a much heightened risk. Without access to mental health services or an understanding support network, they’re as disconnected as I felt at my lowest points. Even though I’m doing so much better than I was, I can’t forget about the people who are trapped in cities like Baltimore or small towns like Fayetteville, AR without any tools to cope with their situations. There are so many people out there who wrestle with the idea that oblivion might be better.

That’s why I’ll be participating in the Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk to Stop Suicide in San Francisco on June 8th, 2019. Hundreds of us will be walking across San Francisco that night to raise awareness and money for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, an organization that educates the public and medical professionals about mood disorders and suicide prevention. Their work is extremely important, offering a way to remove the stigma surrounding mental health issues and showing both therapists and patients how to connect in ways that help those suffering feel less alone.

I know there are a lot of causes passing the hat around these days, for issues as huge as climate change or as personal as helping someone pay for their medical costs. But if you have any funds to spare for a worthy endeavor, please consider this one. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has an 89% rating from Charity Navigator, so this isn’t an outfit that squanders the good will of the people who donate. If you would like to give what you can, please visit my walker’s page here:

https://www.theovernight.org/participant/David-Cowan

Thank you all so much for helping out and spreading the word. I appreciate all of you!

 
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Posted by on May 13, 2019 in mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

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It’s Black History Month!

Myth 150I honestly don’t know if Black History Month is a big deal to anyone who doesn’t have to learn about it because it’s a whole section of their American History class. Being educated in a predominantly black city, I was taught about the usual black American luminaries year after year — Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King. But even then, comparing what I learned then to what I know now, it feels like a shallow version of the true history of my forebears. We talked about the Underground Railroad, but we didn’t talk about the conditions that made it necessary, or made Tubman so brave when she kept going back to the South to lead slaves to freedom. We learned about King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, but we never learned about the event surrounding it — a march on Washington to protest the brutal Jim Crow laws that kept black Americans in the South oppressed one hundred years after slavery ended. Today, Black History Month feels more like a feel-good opportunity for companies to flout diversity than anything with meaning or weight.

It’s become increasingly important to me to reconnect with my culture and history, because it’s an indelible part of me. I am a reflection of that history in the eye of everyone who sees me, and if I’m going to be defined by that I should really know the truth of what I represent. I want to know more than the basic bullet points of what’s come before me, the flattened caricatures of the people who have made an impact. I want to dig into the long history of struggle, resilience, and cruelty that ties me to the place I and people like me have been assigned in our society.

So this month I’d like to take up a project of studying the bits of black American history that I’ve always wanted to know more about; the people who have contributed to our history but have been overlooked or mischaracterized; and the concepts that have persisted from our arrival in the United States some three hundred years ago to our fractured, angry time in the present. For me, it’s important not just to learn more about my history; I must also find a way to make sense of it, to connect it to my life today. History is only worth anything if it gives us perspective on our world and gives us the tools to plot a way forward.

The Writing Desk will be given over to this project all month. I’ll study up on the Atlantic slave trade that marked the arrival of our ancestors; the aftermath of the Civil War and how racial oppression was codified by laws and business practices in the South and North of the United States; the civil rights movement of the 60s, the Black Pride movement of the 70s, and all the things that haven’t changed since then. I’ll report back here with the things that I find most interesting, and hopefully provide a different perspective on black history that might make it more interesting for others, too. I’ll do my best to present facts without too much subjective interpretation, but ultimately this is a personal journey for me and I’ll include my personal thoughts as well.

So what’s the deal with Black History Month anyway? It’s a surprisingly recent event with surprisingly old roots. It was first proposed in 1969 by black educators and clubs at Kent State University, and celebrated for the first time one year later. In six years, it was a widespread practice within schools, cultural and community centers, and was recognized on a national level by President Gerald Ford during his speech for the nation’s bicentennial. From there, it was picked up by the United Kingdom in 1987, Canada in 1995, and Ireland in 2014.

It’s a trip that this is so new — only less than 50 years old. The precursor to Black History Month was “Negro History Week”, though, an initiative thought up by black American historian Carter G. Woodson — widely regarded as the “father of Black History”. Negro History Week was meant to be the second week of February, since that happens to fall on the birthdays of Abe Lincoln (the 12th) and escaped slave-turned-abolitionist Frederick Douglass (the 14th). From the jump, Woodson wanted to make the week a coordinated teaching of black Americans’ contributions to American history among the nation’s public schools. It was picked up in North Carolina, Delaware, West Virginia, Baltimore and Washington DC before spreading out from there. Over the decades, it increased in popularity until the trailblazers at Kent State carried it further.

Now, Black History Month is an American institution in our schools and its influence has spread to the rest of the culture. The celebration has been controversial for a while, with people wondering why we don’t include the contribution of black Americans (and Canadians, and Britons) all year ’round. Others wonder why we should even have a month dedicated to the history of one minority culture. I won’t get into those arguments, but I will say that it’s useful, even necessary, for me to dive into my own history. If an artificially-created month is what I need to do so, then I’ll take it.

I’m very excited to learn as much as I can over the next month, and I’m looking forward to our discussion about this overlooked section of American history.

 
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Posted by on February 1, 2019 in Politics, Pop Culture, Self-Reflection

 

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What I Learned This Month (January 2019)

Self Improvement 150January is usually dominated by two things for me: stress-testing the routines I’ve developed to fall into better habits, and Further Confusion 2019. The convention this year was actually pretty fun: I enjoyed myself at my panels, met a lot of really awesome people, and rediscovered my love of selling books (I was a relief volunteer at the FurPlanet table). As I get older, I become more aware of the ways in which I can stretch myself and which avenues for experimentation are just not going to work out for me. Parties and dances are for younger, more extroverted animals: give me a few quiet gathering amongst good friends and I’m much happier. The routines I wanted to build for the first month of the year didn’t quite fare as well, and that’s mostly because of the depression that blindsided me early and lingered on until…well, a few days ago.

I’ve talked a bit about it in a previous post from the month, but living with chronic depression is a bit of a balancing act. On one hand, you build coping mechanisms and treatments that make the depressive spells less frequent and less severe, to the point that you start to let your guard down. And on the other hand, there’s a small part of you that knows a depression could happen at any time, triggered by anything — an off-hand comment from a friend, or a particularly bad day at work, or a string of unsatisfying evenings at home.

Not that the triggers are ever really the things that, well, trigger it. The chemical networks inside the brain are so complex and mutable it feels like a global weather pattern inside my head, one that’s prone to fronts that will stall and dump a ton of rain where it’s least needed. Sometimes, conditions become just right for a storm. You get better at watching out for the signs, and the lead time you have to prepare increases, but nothing changes the fact that these storms are a fact of life and when they come there’s nothing you can do but hunker down and wait it out.

And that’s what January felt like, mostly — losing half the month to a storm that developed quickly but lingered once it arrived. I fell into a lot of bad habits during that depressive spell. I woke up and checked the Twitter outrage machine instead of meditating. I kept emotions bottled up thinking that I could deal with them, until I really couldn’t. I didn’t even try to do things that would make the depression less severe; I simply indulged a lot of my worst impulses. I could only tell how bad the depression was once I was out of it, and could actually hold a perspective that included other people. It’s not exactly fun to come back to yourself and find out that you weren’t holding things together nearly as well as you thought.

This month I learned that it’s important to carve out more time and space for self-care even when things are going well. A lot of issues that came up during my depression were lingering for a while, but I set them aside because I thought I could handle them — and I could, as long as the weather held. As soon as it broke, though, my ability to deal with things went straight to hell. So did, unfortunately, my ability to handle disagreements in a measured way. I’ve learned that while there’s value in not sweating the small stuff, for folks like me it’s also important to know there’s no such thing when you’re stuck in a depression.

I’ve also learned that my skewed perspective in depression can make it very easy for me to catastrophize criticism, which makes me hyper-defensive. So much of my anxiety is wrapped up in how I’m perceived by the people whose opinions matter to me — managers at work, friends and colleagues I admire, even you, dear reader. I want to present an image of this deep thinker who is earnest and strives to live his life according to Buddhist principles, but in reality I’m…just as selfish and prone to cognitive biases as the next person. I’ve had this deep and abiding fear since childhood that if anyone ever got to know “the real me” they would hate it and leave, and I suppose that never went away. In a depression, if someone criticizes me, even gently, I hear “I’ve learned something about you that I don’t like so you’d better change it or I’m out.”

This is not, I know, what my friends are saying. I can even understand that to a degree in the throes of depression, but it’s impossible to check that first panicked reaction. The instinct to PRESERVE MY IMAGE overrides any better, rational response. I know that I should care less about what people think, that I should be true to myself, and that part of the Buddhist practice means being as clear and honest as possible. I’m working to dismantle the thought patterns that were built to survive my childhood, and making progress. But when I’m unable to cope, they’re still there, deep down. There’s more work to do.

Through it all, I’ve also thought a lot about writing and what kind of stories I want to put out there. Thinking a lot about Terry Pratchett and his Discworld novels, and what makes them so good. How I can incorporate the things I love most about them (his characterization! His world-building! His crackling dialogue!) into my own writing. And also, realizing that it’s kind of essential for me to get ahead of my Patreon serial so I can actually put in some editing work as well.

All of this prepares me for a February of deeper engagement and self-reflection. I think next month I might go a little slower, but work harder to make the things I do that little bit better. I will also need to think about the things I really need to have in order to do the things that matter to me. Mostly, this will involve identifying my favorite means of self-sabotage and working against them whenever possible.

I hope all of you had a great month that taught you a lot about yourselves and the world! What was the best thing you learned since 2019? Let me know!

 
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Posted by on January 30, 2019 in Buddhism, mental-health, Self-Reflection, Writing

 

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Depressional Confessional

Myth 150I like to think I’m a pro at being depressed. Some of my earliest memories as a kid, looking back, suggest to me that I’ve had severe depressive episodes all the way back to elementary school. One particular experience I had in middle school, now that I think about it, had to have been an emotional breakdown. As I’ve gotten older I’ve learned to recognize the shifting weather in my brain much the same way a village elder can sense a storm coming in their bones. It’s not any one thing — it’s a bunch of small things that point to a vague, indescribable feeling that my brain is fixing to turn sour.

There was an inkling last Tuesday that my mind was curdling. It’s hard to describe, but I’ll try anyway. My depressions typically start with an increased paranoia and some obsessing — it’s like my brain is catching on a thought that it keeps circling back to. The thought itself can be anything from “I’m fat and broken” to “All of your friends think you’re lame.” but the effect is the same. It’s a whisper underneath the usual chatter that I can’t help but listen to. It starts to color my interactions with other people. I start to get really…nervous.

My experience with long-term depression is that this voice never really goes away, but you learn to accept it and move on with your day. There are some times, though, where the coping mechanisms you’ve built begin to fail and your ability to accept this voice becomes more difficult, requires more concentration. Over the course of hours and days, the constant refrain saps your energy and other things begin to slip. You’re a bit less patient with the people you meet. You don’t have enough willpower to make good choices. You begin to beat yourself up about the things you do to perpetuate the spiral. Your perspective gets skewed; the voice is joined by other voices, happy to remind you about every failing you have or every big mistake you’ve made. Eventually, you just collapse. You can’t fight your own brain any more, and you’re back in the pit.

The worst part about the whole process is that I’ve been through it often enough to recognize it, to know that this is the manifestation of a chemical imbalance in my brain. The knowledge doesn’t stop it from happening, and that’s its own kind of frustration. You see people with better coping mechanisms, or no inkling of the problem, and it makes me wish that I didn’t have this broken brain that required me to put so much energy into just managing to be a functioning adult. You try to eat right, you try to get enough sleep, you exercise, you take your pills — and sometimes, that’s still not enough. There are still days, weeks, months that disappear into a black void.

When I’m in the worst of it, it feels like there’s no possible way for other people to understand what this feels like. A lot of folks see depression as having no energy, or being unable to feel happy, or being a lump on the couch. What isn’t seen is all the mental work that goes into trying to get off the couch, or scrounging for enough energy to get things done, or maybe to keep from crying at work for no reason. The shut down isn’t necessarily from a lack of spoons; the spoons are being eaten up to put on clothes, have a conversation with someone else, to smile. The energy we have is being depleted by an internal process that most never see or experience. Depression isn’t laziness or lethargy: it’s exhaustion.

Thankfully, mindfulness training and therapy has taught me to recognize these stretches for what they are, and experience has given me a toolset to use so I can mitigate the “damage”. It’s easier for me to push through when I get depressed, so I can go to work and take care of chores and even try to keep up meditation and exercise. The pit isn’t as deep as it used to be, and I can find my way out of it a bit more quickly. I’m grateful for that, even when I wish I didn’t have to fall into it at all.

But that’s not something within my control. Depression is a disease. For some of us, it only happens once or twice after a big change. For some, the cycle can give us years where we never have to think about it. For me, it’s a constant factor in my everyday life. Every thought — especially any negative one — has to be tested. Is this depression? Is this legitimate? Do I feel as bad as I do because I should, or because of this illness?

It’s a hard thing to accept, but I’m working on it. Even though I feel as if I’m clambering up out of the pit now, I know that it’s possible for me to slide back into it again. When I get out, I know that there’s another pit up ahead waiting for me. Despite my best efforts, I will fall again and again and again. But I have trained myself to see them, to navigate around them, to climb out as best I can when I fall in. And I have a support network of friends and professionals that I can trust to have my back. That’s something a lot of us don’t have, and words can’t describe how grateful and lucky I feel when I think about it.

If you’re dealing with depression, please know that you are not alone. Please know that you won’t feel this way forever. Please know that with patient persistence, you can build coping mechanisms that will make the depressions shallower and less frequent. Maybe they can’t go away completely, but at least you can weather them. Your strength and resilience is better than you know. It helps me when I’ve fallen in and can’t see a way out. After all this time, I have faith that there is.

 
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Posted by on January 16, 2019 in Buddhism, mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

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Building A Better Buddhist in 2019

Buddhism 150If there is one thing in 2019 we are sorely in need of, it’s more compassion and empathy. I know this has been the rallying cry of many different corners of our society for a while now — some have even weaponized the idea of civility as a means of shutting down dissent. But look at where we are these days. On the right, people are trying to justify breaking up families of migrants and abusing children in the name of national security; creating hardship for thousands of government workers so we can spend billions on a wall that no one wants; and indulging in a culture of bigotry against any minority you’d care to name. On the left, we’re engaging in the usual infighting between groups that have problematic perspectives; alienating well-meaning but ignorant people who just need guidance; and rejoicing in the suffering of people we’ve deemed truly deserving. Our social discourse has become so consistently, exhaustingly hateful that it’s hard to see any chance of reconciliation.

I understand why this is so, and I don’t want to give the impression I’m drawing a false equivalence here. What the current administration is doing, aided by the Republican Party and its base, is reprehensible and in no way the same thing as some of the worst tendencies of the left. But it feels like we in the liberal sphere have focused so much on hating the perpetrators of these atrocities that there’s no more room for us to feel compassion for its victims. The anger we feel is indeed fuel for the sustained fight we’ve engaged in for the past two years, but more and more it feels like this has come at a cost.

This year, one of the main things I wanted to focus on is being a better Buddhist — but what does that mean? Well, my particular Zen is one that prioritizes comfort and connection. I prize these things because I know how difficult it can be to change, and in order for people to make the adjustments we ask of them they need to feel comfort and support while doing so. Most of us flinch away when someone brings up one of our negative qualities, and the instinct to get defensive is so deeply rooted it can be impossible to deny it. So many of us can’t distinguish between a criticism of certain behaviors and a criticism of who we are as people; our self-identity is so deeply tied to our habits and beliefs we think of them as one and the same.

It takes empathy to translate that tendency in ourselves towards other people, to imagine how we would feel in someone else’s situation. If, for example, someone roasted us on Twitter for something we’ve said and any apology we could make just makes the situation worse, wouldn’t it be hard for us to resist the urge to defend ourselves? Maybe we’d double down on the behavior we think isn’t a problem. Maybe we’d call the whole affair silly and insubstantial. Maybe we’d chalk up the “drama” to “haters” who have nothing better to do than bring others down. Social media has been little more than an ideological battleground for years; in order for effective dialogue to happen, we have to shift our paradigm away from war and towards something else.

That is admittedly not easy. I know I still have this knot in my stomach when thinking about people I know who have voted for Trump, and I get intensely frustrated with people who don’t understand why issues like Black Lives Matter are so important to me. I haven’t been able to engage with many people about the news of the day because it genuinely makes me too upset and angry. Over the past two years, I’ve noticed my social circle get smaller and my general mood become more withdrawn and suspicious. I don’t want to be that person.

So it’s time to open myself more, and encourage others to do the same. This doesn’t mean engaging with people you know are acting in bad faith, or wasting your time with people who aren’t ready to entertain the idea that change might be needed on their part. But I think we could do a better job of filtering between the hostile and the merely ignorant, and I think it’s worth the time and effort it takes to educate our allies towards nuances they may have a blind spot towards. If we truly believe that our values are the right ones, then finding better ways to explain them or convince others to prioritize them is one of the best things we can do to help them spread.

Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach is one of the books that really made me take a good, long look at my behavior and a fundamental flaw in my perspective that caused the less desirable aspects of it. There are so many things that I can’t tolerate within myself, and that self-judgement closes emotional doors that would better serve me if they were open. Learning to accept people and situations as they are can help us become less angry, see things more clearly, and affect change more efficiently.

This not only requires empathy, but also mindfulness. Meditation is a bit more than just learning to be still in the present moment; it trains us to watch the pattern of our own thoughts and recognize when a particular framework doesn’t serve us as well as it used to. Armed with this self-knowledge, we can catch ourselves doing, saying, or even thinking things that solidify division and allows us to take a beat to find some other way of dealing with people that might get us closer to the world we want to live in. Acceptance of bad behavior isn’t excusing it: it’s putting it into perspective so that we can address it holistically, in a way that is more likely to stop it.

I know a lot of us are tired of having to moderate our emotions or check ourselves in order to make progress with contentious situations. A lot of us know that it isn’t fair to have the burden of being the better person consistently fall to us. It’s draining, and in a just world it wouldn’t be necessary. Unfortunately that’s just not the world we live in. We have to do what we can, when we can, to build that just world. Sometimes that means accepting an unjust situation while working to make it better.

This year I will try very hard not to get caught in that sense of outrage and despair. It’s not who I want to be. In order to build equanimity, I have to be mindful of my own tendency to dig in my heels and consciously soften my reaction when I feel it happening. I have to push myself to feel empathy and compassion towards the people who want to deny me and the people like me our basic dignity as human beings. If I don’t, then we will continue to resist one another and that disconnection will only deepen. Fighting the awful things that are happening in our world requires firmness and the willingness to say ‘no’, but it’s important to resist from a place of mindfulness and love. It’s so much harder, but I feel it’s the only way to really win out.

 
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Posted by on January 7, 2019 in Buddhism, Politics, Self-Reflection

 

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