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(Personal) The Importance of Love

Buddhism 150We’re less than 24 hours away from Valentine’s Day, a holiday that a lot of people out there have a problem with. Traditionally we’ve thought of it as something only people linked in romantic relationships care about — single people need not apply. I’ve always thought that this was kind of a limited view of love, and it would be awesome if we could expand the focus of the holiday towards something a bit more egalitarian. Love comes in so many forms, and instead of taking the day to focus on the one kind of love we don’t have it would be much more in the spirit of the holiday to sit back and focus on the kinds of love we do. What do we love? Who do we love? Even if we’re not in a committed romantic relationship, what are our closest and most enduring bonds? When do we take the time to celebrate those?

Full disclosure: I’m a happily married rabbit, so my perspective on single people might not be the most accurate. But I would like to talk about the importance of love and how necessary it is to take the time to be grateful for its presence in our lives. One of the ways in which society (and our biology) conditions us is to make us acutely aware of the things we lack. We look at the successes of our friends and neighbors and wonder why we don’t have the same things. Meanwhile, it’s quite likely that our friends and neighbors are regarding something about us with an equally jealous eye. When we spend most of our energy focused on the things that need to be improved, we tend to miss all of the things that could bring us enormous contentment.

Nowhere is this more prevalent than in assorted corners of the Internet. In our fandoms, we gripe about the direction our favorite shows are taking, the theories or pairings that become most popular in our cultures, or wage war on other, more inferior or stranger communities. With our politics, we’re ready to whip out the pitchforks at a moment’s notice, our outrage on ready standby for the controversy of the day. I don’t mean to belittle the value of anger about injustice. It’s important, and even necessary, to speak loudly against the things that we will not stand for. However, I think it’s equally necessary to speak up in support and defense of the things we love. By being open and passionate about the ideas that make us feel like better human beings, we remind ourselves of the kind of world we want to build, and aren’t solely focused on the things we need to tear down.

This is going to be a rough few years for us progressives. Conservatives control the Executive and Legislative Branches of the Federal government, an overwhelming majority of governor’s mansions and state legislatures, and they’re launching an all-out blitz to increase and preserve their power, push through an agenda built on fear instead of facts, exhaust and alienate those that oppose them. We’ll have to absorb that and fight against it every step of the way. In 2018, we have our first chance to oppose them through the electoral system — but any candidates that rise up in the mid-terms will need to have a message more inspiring than “We aren’t those guys who will try to take away healthcare, reproductive and minority rights, or put more power in the hands of businesses and bankers!” The people who hope to shift the country towards the left will need to outline a vision of what they believe America can be, what their values will lead them to focus on if elected, and remind us of the love we have for our country and each other.

As activists and informed citizens, we need to do the same. Yes, President 45 is a terrible embarrassment for our country, but why is that? What values do we, as Americans, see him and his administration stripping down for political gain? What ideals do we want to see restored, and where else can we find them in times like these? What WOULD a more just and progressive society look like for us?

It’s important to think about these things. We need something to work towards as well as something to work against. We need to imagine the society that we want to live in, the community that fulfills America’s promise. What do the people in that vision look like? What kinds of things do they do to help their fellow Americans? What role does government, business, and economics play in all of this? How does our country interact with foreign governments, allies and rivals alike? How does America influence other countries to be better in their own ways? What does a successful progressive vision for the world look like?

For me, it’s a world that embraces the collective responsibility that we share for one another. It’s a world that respects individual and cultural differences while also balancing that against the need to take better care of our planet and each other. It’s a world that gives everyone — no matter who they are or where they come from — the means to achieve their dreams with hard work, patience and a sense of fair play. It’s a world built on mutual respect and consideration, one that acknowledges freedom must be tempered by wisdom — that just because we’re free to do what we like we’re free from considering the consequences of our actions. My dream is that the world recognizes itself as one community with a common goal, the survival and advancement of the human species and the recovery of our home, the great planet Earth.

I want to spend more time speaking up for the things I love — compassion, creativity, and connection. I know that there are a whole heap of fires out there that need fighting right now, and I’m rolling up my sleeves to put them out. But I also want to remember that we’re fighting these fires because we’re trying to save our house; the place that we were born, or moved to, that shelters and protects us, that forms the basis of our best memories. I want to remember that my house is worth fighting for, and that there are so many reasons why.

Fear and anger can make us cruel when it gets out of balance with our love and our courage. We’re all afraid right now, and we’re all angry. It’s more important than ever to spread love and encourage each other to be brave. So, tomorrow, in addition to romantic love, let’s spread any kind of love we have in our lives. It could be the love between friends; the love of family; the love of our country, culture, background; the love of cherished ideals. Spend some time thinking of what you love, and if possible, encourage that love, spread it wherever you can. Loving what is good is just as effective a form of protest as hating what is bad.

 
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Posted by on February 13, 2017 in Buddhism, Politics, Self-Reflection

 

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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) San Francisco by Starlight – Walking for Suicide Prevention

Myth 150The first time I attempted suicide was the lowest moment of my life. I was sprawled out on the couch of a relative stranger, miles away from home, certain that I would never see my family again. It was the summer of 1999, and I had been outed by my therapist to my mother as gay (long story); after several months of put-downs and pretty awful behavior, my mother told me not to come back home when I left for college in August. I moved out that week, and I’ve never been home since.

A few friends who lived nearby offered to pick me up and let me crash at their place for the summer. They were generous with their space and resources when I had no one else, and I’ll always be grateful for that. But they were also dealing with their own fairly severe emotional, psychological and relationship problems — it was a dysfunctional household, and I was facing down the rest of my life without ever seeing my family again.

I had never felt so alone. I grew up in a religion that encouraged its adherents to keep a distance from the rest of the world, so my congregation was my life in many ways. I didn’t have many friends; I didn’t have many appreciable skills; I didn’t have any money. As far as I knew, I would live on campus, struggle through classes as best I could, and sleep on couches for the forseeable future.

The thought of that, barely surviving through a series of tests with few friends and no prospects, was too painful to contemplate. Who could possibly love me? I was sad all the time. I knew nothing and I couldn’t learn. In a very real sense, my life was over and I had no idea what could replace it.

So I bought sleeping pills, and took as many as I could swallow. I slept like the dead for ten or twelve hours, and when I woke up I took more. Then more, and more. After three or four days, one of my hosts shoved a sandwich into my hands. I ate automatically. And I began to recover.

Before I dropped out of college at the end of the year, I lost a friend to suicide and another friend made an attempt on her own life. I’ve known others — friends of friends, people in the furry community, folks from back in the old neighborhood — who have tried to kill themselves. Almost every single person I know has been touched by suicide, an act of desperation made by people who say no other way out of their deep suffering.

A 2005 study found that suicide was the third-leading cause of death among young black males in this country. A CDC report found that between 1999 and 2004, the suicide rate among black males was the highest in the land. There is a whole culture of us who feel trapped in broken neighborhoods, targeted by those in authority, with no hope of anything getting better for us. In addition to turning to crime, drugs and anti-social behavior, suicide is a recourse that so many of us consider.

The same holds true for LGBTQ youth. Those brave teenagers and young adults who are open about their alternative sexuality and gender expression face bullying, rejection from friends and family, isolation, confusion about their own minds, and depression almost routinely. So many of us have felt like there is simply no place to go, no other option left to us. We have no idea what kind of help or resources are out there.

There is a stigma about mental health and suicide in the black community, and in the fandom/geek community. There is so much misinformation about there about the nature of suicidal thoughts, expressions and actions; there’s an incredibly damaging attitude about self-harm and what it means. It’s incredibly important to me to change that. I need to speak up about my own experiences and advocate a more responsible and compassionate conversation about this. I want people to know that they’re not facing this alone, that people see and support them, that we understand and want to help.

So I’ll be participating in The Overnight, an event in San Francisco that begins at sundown on May 21st. I and hundreds of others will walk 16 – 18 miles across the city, visiting landmarks by moonlight and connecting with others by sharing our experiences and losses. At sunrise we’ll gather one final time to reflect, share, mourn and celebrate the fact that we’re still here.

If you’re in the Bay Area — or New York, where an Overnight Walk will take place on June 4th — I highly encourage you to join me. If you can’t, please donate whatever you can to support me and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. The AFSP is a charity that focuses on education and outreach about mental health and suicide, provides support for those who have been affected by it, and promotes legislation that encourages a more compassionate response towards those of us dealing with mental health issues or suicidal thoughts. If you would like to help me raise money for this important work, please visit my participant page here: http://theovernight.donordrive.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=donordrive.participant&participantID=18579

Every little bit helps, and I’d be incredibly grateful for your support.

 
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Posted by on March 9, 2016 in Buddhism, Self-Reflection

 

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(Personal) The Wolf We Feed

Myth 150I’m sure you know this story. One evening, an elder sits down with his son. The son had been getting into trouble because he had problems with anger and lashing out, so the elder tells him a quick fable. “There are two wolves fighting inside of each and every one of us,” he says. “One of them is everything that is evil within us – anger, envy, sorrow, greed. The other is everything that is good – joy, compassion, peace and kindness. Though one may gain the upper hand for a time, the other is never truly defeated. They are fighting for the nourishment that only you can provide them.”

The son thought about this for a while, then asked. “OK. Which one of them wins?”

“The one you feed,” the elder says.

I think about this story a lot. As a Zen Buddhist, I see karma as simply the kind of environment we create for ourselves; we can only control our actions, and it’s important that we understand the effect of our actions on the people and places around us. It’s important to me that I bring comfort, contentment and connection to the places I’m in, because those are the kind of spaces that attract me. If I’m going to make the kind of world I would want to live in, I need to put in the work. So I try hard to find common ground with the people I’m with, to make them feel comfortable enough that we can work through our differences, to make them feel connected enough that they won’t fear me rejecting them for a disagreement. I don’t always succeed, but that’s the aim. That’s the kind of person I want to be.

But here’s something else. I self-identify as a social justice warrior. I know that’s a loaded label; most of the time it’s used by people who mean it as an insult. The narrative for social justice warriors is one of immediate, unthinking and overwhelming anger against anything that could be viewed as remotely offensive. If you say something politically incorrect, then the social justice warriors will grab their pitchforks and come after you. They’re the thought police of the internet.

I take on that moniker because I believe in the causes championed by many who’ve been derided as such. I occupy many different intersecting minority spaces, being gay, black, non-Christian and coping with chronic mental illnesses. I know what it’s like to move through a world that hasn’t been built for you, and I’ve experienced on a day-to-day basis what it’s like to have your existence questioned, dismissed or belittled. I’ve also experienced how occupying many privileged spaces has made my life easier in many respects; I’m a cisgender male, I’m able-bodied, I’m reasonably educated, have medical insurance and a support network. My illnesses aren’t so severe that I can’t function in modern society. There are people who have more fundamental challenges than I do.
So I fight for them, and I fight for the people who are dealing with the same challenges I do. I believe in a world where we clearly see, understand and accept the unique challenges and burdens of our fellow human beings. I believe we ought to live in a society that provides them with whatever they need to be healthy, happy and whole. I believe in fighting for a shift in our consciousness around these issues; it’s not enough that I personally believe these things – we as a civilization must address the needs of our most vulnerable and powerless. We must make sure they can be connected to the fabric of society just as well as those of us who don’t need additional considerations. I’m willing to work to make sure that happens, however I can.

This is a mindset I’ve come by recently, to be sure. As a progressive, it’s sort of my job to continually test and reshape my understanding of how the world works, my place in it, and how society should function. I absorb new information and ideas about the human experience, including the really fundamental concepts that we often take for granted. My views have evolved from where they were one year ago, and hopefully they’ll have improved still further a year from now. Change is a constant in so many ways, and that must be embraced.

However, I understand why so many of us in progressive spaces have the reputations we do. We’re passionate, we can be uncompromising, and we’re fierce believers in our way of life. For so many of us, especially as minorities, the ability to organize into a community and speak in a way we can be heard is very new. The power that affords us is intoxicating, and we’re still learning how to wield it responsibly. But for the first time we can say that the frequent targeting, incarceration, abuse and murder of our black men, women and children is unacceptable. We can say that it’s unacceptable for our transgender men and women to be forced through a parade of humiliating ordeals just to “prove” their gender to people who have no business policing that concept. We can say that each and every one of us occupy space of privilege as well as under-privileged spaces, and it’s important for us to recognize that and accept what it means. What’s more, when we say it loudly enough, forcefully enough, people have no choice but to hear us. We have the power to force a conversation about these issues, and we need to because otherwise the vulnerable among us will continue to suffer and die at the hands of a society that’s only interested in keeping things exactly as they are.

If you’re not a part of these spaces, or you don’t hold the same views about society, privilege and our individual responsibilities to our community, then it may seem like I’m forcing you to talk about ideas that don’t make sense. When you ask (or demand) that I explain these ideas in a way that makes sense to you and I respond with “It’s not my job to educate you” or a dismissal of that request, it can be tremendously frustrating. When you tell me that you don’t agree or explain your position and I respond by shouting down your ideas or making personal attacks and moral judgements, it can be enraging and only encourage you to dig in your heels. I understand that.

It’s taken me some time to reconcile my identity as a Zen Buddhist with my identity as a social justice warrior. Spending time in activist spaces, I see how so many of them have become hornet’s nests of anger and frustration. For so many of us, this is a life-and-death struggle. For so many of us, people like Michael Brown and Freddie Gray (remember them?) don’t happen in a vacuum. They’re not aberrations or miscarriages of justice. They’re the end result of a system working as designed.
So many of us in progressive circles are afraid about what happens to us when someone decides that our differences will not be accepted. As a black man, will I be harassed by the police while I’m driving? As a gay man, will I be targeted for expressing love towards my husband in public? As a non-Christian, hearing the rhetoric in our politics about anyone who doesn’t go to church is disheartening. And these are anxieties I carry with my all day, every day.

We’re tired of being afraid. We’re tired of living in a world where speaking up means being shouted down or dismissed. We’re tired of feeling like we have to justify our existence. And that fear, fatigue and anger has reached a point where it’s simply taken over these spaces.

I understand why that has happened, and I hope other people do too. But…at this point it feels like we’re feeding the wrong wolf. We’ve given ourselves over to this anger and it means that we’ve become unable to actually affect change. When someone comes to us trying to understand why we say or do the things we say or do, it’s an opportunity to actually explain our position, to connect with someone else, to actually act on our principles and change the world. When we shut that person down with “It’s not my job” or anger, then we’ve missed that change. The disconnection deepens; that person becomes unable to speak with us because they don’t want to be subjected to that anger again.

Not every situation in which we’re asked to explain our position is an opportunity, and I know that too. But I’ve seen too many people turned away at the gate of our spaces because anger and dismissal is our default response. A lot of us have come to see the world as a more hostile place then it is, and we respond accordingly. We’ve fed the dark wolf until it has overpowered our better nature.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’ve come to the decision that this cycle has to stop somewhere. We can’t keep alienating those who disagree with us, and we can’t keep shouting down the people who haven’t arrived to the exact same conclusions we have. If we expect to change the world, we have to change the minds of the people living there. And we can’t do that with the tone of the conversation we’ve been having in and around these topics.

Inevitably, this opinion is going to be called “tone policing” or “concern trolling” because I’m more interested in the tone of the conversation than the subject. Since I’ve owned the social justice warrior moniker, I’ll go ahead and own the label of tone policing too. Fine, I’m advocating that we consider our tone. You know why? BECAUSE OUR TONE IS IMPORTANT.

The emotions that we deal with as minorities are certainly valid. It’s OK to be angry. It’s OK to be tired. And it’s OK to be afraid. There is a lot that’s wrong with the world we live in, and we’ve been fighting the same battles for a very long time. Sometimes, it’s even OK to let that anger fuel our actions; we can rise up and state in no uncertain terms that we will not tolerate unfair or extreme treatment from a power structure that is supposed to protect us from it.

However, different situations call for different actions, regardless of our emotional state. It’s important to consider what we want out of our conversations. Are we hoping to express ourselves in a way that gets someone to see the world the way we do? If that’s the case, what’s the best way to do that? Making someone feel bad about what they believe rarely changes their mind, from my experience. Making them feel kinship with you stands a much better chance. It can be more difficult, and a lot more frustrating, but ultimately it’s much more effective.

Explaining why a certain statement or action is offensive requires patience and compassion. If we truly want the behavior to cease, then we must get the person engaging in it to understand what’s wrong with it and what would be a better course of action. People aren’t willing to examine themselves if they feel attacked; they close themselves off as a protective measure. In order to soften habits, we must allow them to be vulnerable. We must respect that vulnerability and treat it gently. That is difficult, if not impossible to do when you’re angry. So we must find a way to temper that anger.

I understand where the anger of progressives comes from; in many ways, I share it. But I also realize that I must remain vigilant against the effect of that anger. I don’t want to feed the wrong wolf, because that pulls me away from the person I would like to be, which pulls me away from the world I would like to create. I do my best to feed my compassion, my joy, my kindness by acting on those emotions, even when it’s difficult. Especially when it’s difficult.

I think in order for social justice warriors to be effective in combat, we’re going to need to start doing the same.

 
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Posted by on November 16, 2015 in Better Living Through Stories, Buddhism, Politics

 

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