Tag Archives: buddhism

(Buddhism) We’re All Mad Here

Buddhism 150I’ve been thinking a lot about anger over the past month and a half. Ever since Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, MO way back in 2014 I’ve been increasingly political with my online presence — and the candidacy and ultimate inauguration of Donald Trump has pushed that side of my digital identity much more to the forefront. Politics, and the anger it generates, has crept into every aspect of my existence here. Largely, this has been due to social media and the breakneck speed with which outrageous news is being circulated there. There have been entire days spent tweeting and retweeting about the latest controversy in the furry fandom, in sci-fi and fantasy publishing, in Washington; agreeing with or challenging comments from folks about them; trying to find just the right point to make that might win hearts and minds. But now, four years later, I’ve hit outrage exhaustion: what’s left in its wake is a weary, frightened resignation. This can’t continue the way it has. We need to seriously think about how our current Internet culture is encouraging, even normalizing, constant and unreasoning anger.

First, let me say that we have a lot to be angry about. The police brutality we’ve seen through Brown and a parade of other victims hasn’t abated. The Trump Administration has been openly corrupt, incompetent, and vicious in its attacks on marginalized populations of just about every stripe — and it’s been largely aided by the Republican Party. Our ability to solve problems with even bipartisan support has become impossible. Meanwhile, authoritarianism, xenophobia, anti-social and anti-environment behavior has spread through the United States and the rest of the world in ways I wouldn’t have thought possible even back four years ago. There are far too many people who think we’re going in the right direction — or, at least, that there aren’t actually any problems with what’s going down right now.

This is an incredibly scary time, and it can be incredibly frustrating to see just how many things are going wrong and how few people care. In light of what’s happening to our country and the world, I think anger is a completely acceptable response. We’re right to be angry. But we’re not doing the right things with our anger, and that’s the problem.

One of the best things I learned from my group class for Anxiety Disorder is thinking about emotions like the lights on your dashboard. We don’t chastise our cars for telling us that our oil is low, that we need a new battery, or that we need gas. Those alerts are telling us that we need to attend to something in order to keep our cars running smoothly. Emotions are the same way; they’re our mind’s way of telling us that something within us needs attending to. In my case, the ‘anxiety’ dashboard light is way too sensitive but that’s another story. If we shift our thinking about our emotions to this framework, categorizing them as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ no longer makes sense. They’re simply calls for action.

Anger, in particular, can be a very difficult emotion to allow mostly because it’s so immediate and powerful. It drives us to do things at the moment we later regret, and I’m no different. Last year alone I can immediately think of three or four different occasions where my anger got the better of me and caused a difficult situation to become that much worse. When this happens again and again, we begin to mistrust that emotion. We see it as a problem, as something that we must ignore or excise in order to be healthy. But that’s just as damaging as flying off the handle.

It is important to allow yourself to be angry. It is important to understand that anger, like any other emotion, is a call to pay attention to something inside yourself. Exactly what that is might be different from person to person, but for me it’s a sign that one of my values has been offended or, as Tara Brach so wonderfully put it, a deep need is not being met. When we feel ourselves getting angry, if we sit with the feeling and follow it towards its source, we can learn surprising things about what we value and what we need. Once we’ve made that discovery, we can frame our reaction around that instead of making sure whoever angered us is ‘punished’. That impulse to punish is what happens when our desire to make the world a better place is carried through thoughtlessly.

I know that I have a problem with anger; it flares up fast but dies just as quickly. Over time, I’ve learned to wait out the emotion without taking action through it. Most of the time, whatever angered me won’t seem like such a big deal once I’ve calmed down. These past few years, though, I’ve been getting angry over things that are very much a big deal. These offenses to my values aren’t easy to get over, and when there are new offenses every day — sometimes multiple times in one day — it feels impossible to take a step back and calm down. Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr all seem to be designed for stoking that anger, keeping the coals hot, because we pay attention to the things that anger us. Algorithms designed to keep us on websites for longer have hijacked our focus and severely eroded our ability to deal with anger constructively.

It’s very important to take a beat when we find ourselves getting angry, if only to ask ourselves a few basic questions. Why does this make me so angry? Who benefits from my anger? What can I do to really address what’s causing this response? Tara Brach calls this “the u-turn”, a necessary and conscious choice to direct our attention inwards instead of outwards, to sit with our anger and learn what it’s asking us to attend to. Sometimes, before we can even do that, we have to forgive ourselves for being angry, or give ourselves permission, or just reckon with the unpleasant physical and mental sensations that come with it. Either way, none of that happens without taking a pause.

This can be very difficult on social media. Twitter moves so fast, and often taking a moment to consider our responses can mean that the conversation moves on without us. But this isn’t a bad thing; that can teach us that not every exchange or idea needs our input. Sometimes, it’s better for everyone involved to let the moment go.

Once we understand the mechanisms that trigger our anger, we can do better about expressing that anger in a way that fosters connection and collaboration. Tara Brach believes that anger, at its source, is about us — what we need, what we care about, how we express ourselves. I agree with that, but up to a point. While there are so many things in the world that should not be, we also have greater control over our personal experience than we think. Anger might be a completely justified response to an external stimulus, but how we handle our anger can be brought under our control. It’s not easy, and it’s not always possible to know the best way to express it, but with time, effort, practice and patience we can get better at it.

This has all been brought up through a few different things. One, Tara Brach’s wonderful talk on “Anger: Responding, Not Reacting“; two, an episode of the “Where There’s Smoke” podcast that explores how social media has become a Skinner box for impulsive, expressive rage. I highly encourage you to take a listen to both of these whenever you have a chance — and let me know what you think. How can we express our anger more productively? How can we change our behavior on social media to tackle the things we find most important without contributing to the ‘noise’ of outrage culture?


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(Buddhism) Smile, Breathe and Go Slowly

Buddhism 150We’re living in a time where fear is a completely natural and understandable response. It feels like the world is perilously close to the edge of ruin — nuclear tensions between the world superpowers are higher than they’ve been since the Cold War; our governments are doing very little to deal with the environmental problems even as we’re seeing the effects that have long been promised; the fragile network of agreements that form our civilization seem to be breaking down. Many of us are living perilously close to the edge of personal ruin, too. I know personally that if I lose my job and don’t find another one immediately, things would get really bad really fast. I think the tone of our public discourse reflects how much fear has become entrenched in our lives. Anything and everything that makes us feel safe and in control is inviolate, no matter how flawed or dangerous it is. I’ve been swept up in the current myself, fearful of what happens if things get worse, angry that they’ve gotten this bad, ashamed I’m not doing more to fight against it.

This year I wanted to step back and rethink my approach to what’s happening in my personal, professional, and social life. So much of the way I react to things these days is instinctive; if something makes me angry, there isn’t enough of a pause to think about the best way to express that anger, for example. I need to do something different — the way things are right now is just making more anxious, which makes it more likely that I indulge in the mindless, easy behavior that relieves that anxiety, which makes it more likely I’m just transferring my suffering elsewhere instead of really dealing with it. How can I deal with my anxiety more responsibly? I keep coming back around to this idea from Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, which has been quoted so often it’s become a bit of a cliche: “Smile, breathe, and go slowly.” What does that mean? What does it look like when it’s applied to how you move through life?

I’ve often thought of this idea as a simple mantra that can draw our attention back to the present moments, wherever we are and whatever we’re doing. Meditation, after all, trains us to view our breath as an anchor that ties us to our present experience. Whenever we catch ourselves getting caught up in our thoughts, or running away with some imaginings, we recognize what’s happened, allow the thought to be completed, and return to our breath. Going slowly forces us to pay attention to whatever we’re doing; that pace encourages us to really look at each part of our actions and perform them with care and consideration. Smiling, though, is often the part that I tend to ignore. I feel silly smiling to myself, and a lot of the time I just don’t think it makes that much of a difference, but it does.

One of the big reasons we become anxious and afraid is that we’re having trouble accepting what’s happening around us, or the possibility of what might happen to us in the future. This attachment — the attachment to safety, to certainty, to a knowable and controlled future — causes us great suffering all the time. In order to relieve that suffering, we have to ease the iron grip we have on our expectations that life will work out and that things will be OK. The less we hold on to that desire, the less power that small voice that goes “What if things will not be OK?” has over us. They key to weakening that desire is learning how to accept things as they are, even if they’re not the best they could possibly be.

We tend not to smile when we’re nervous or afraid. But we could, and it might help us to dislodge the pit in our stomachs when we think about a stressful situation. Smiling is a sign that we are content and happy, that things are well just as they are. Taking a moment to smile as you draw your attention to the present moment can serve as a primer, a way to think about what’s happening around you in the best possible light. Very often, especially in my most depressive states, my brain looks for a reason to feel sad and hopeless; if that sort of mechanism lets me attach meaning to those emotional states that arise for no reason, why not happiness as well? Smiling prompts our brain to look for a reason to be happy and content in the present moment, and after a while we actually get better at finding them.

Breathing, of course, takes our attention away from the internal chatter of our brains and places it with our physical experience. In meditation, we train ourselves to focus on the sensation of the breath: the way our stomach or chest rises with the inhale, how it feels for the air to be held within our lungs, what it’s like to push it back out through our nose and mouth. Sometimes, a single breath is all it takes for us to stop the train of our thoughts and check in with how we’re thinking and what effect that has on our mood. I like to think of my breath as a mental ‘door’; it’s a portal that I use to leave one ‘room’ (thought) and enter another.

Going slowly is probably the most difficult thing to do these days. We’re always so busy, dashing from place to place to get things done. Many of us feel like we don’t even have enough time to think about the tasks we’re doing as we’re doing them; we might be loading the dishwasher while thinking about an email we’ll have to write as soon as we’re done, or we might be dreading traffic while we’re standing in line at the store. But going slowly encourages us to really place ourselves with the tasks we’re presently doing. We might notice that the dish we’ve been wiping for the past few minutes is thoroughly clean, or that another checkout line has opened and the cashier has been trying to wave us over. Moving slower, paying more attention, can have the paradoxical effect of letting us do what we’re doing faster — by giving it our focus, we can be more efficient and make fewer mistakes.

I’ve found that placing a higher value on focus instead of productivity has helped me quite a bit with all of the things I’ve been trying to do. I enjoy what I do a lot more, and I’ve noticed that I can put more effort into it, which helps me to improve. I’m definitely not perfect with this, that’s for sure — this last year has taught me that more than anything. But when I remember to, taking a moment to accept my situation, clear my mind, and pay attention to where I am has consistently made my day better for just a little while.

So this week, when I’m on Twitter and see something that gets my blood hot; or when I’m stressing about all of the time-intensive stuff I’ve got to do and what I’ll need to push off in order to get it done; or when I’m well and truly frightened by a news headline or a Presidential tweet, I’ll try to remember to smile, breathe, and go slowly. It doesn’t change anything about the world that’s making me afraid, but it helps me figure out what to do about it with a clearer head.

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Posted by on February 5, 2018 in Buddhism, Self-Reflection, Uncategorized


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Kwanzaa, Day 7: Imani (Faith)

Myth 150Habari gani, brothers and sisters? Happy New Year!

I’m pretty sure most of us (myself included) are spending the final day of Kwanzaa somewhat sleep-deprived and hungover, so I’ll speak quietly and wish you the tastiest of greasy breakfasts and a quick recovery so you can start 2018 getting your shit handled. No matter how you woke up today — groaning and regretful, or clear-eyed and ready — I have faith in you and your ability for greatness. You can do whatever you set your minds to!

Today’s principle is Imani, or Faith. Faith is a tricky concept to talk about because it’s so nebulous; it means something very specific to our religious fam, while it might mean something entirely different (or nothing at all) to the rest of us. If you’re Christian or Muslim, faith means belief in a higher power as well as the righteousness of the rules as they have been set down in holy texts. The rules are often a constant source of confusion and conflict for us, though — so many of us in the diaspora are excluded by them, and our personal experience might tie the worst memories to the way religion has been used to drive a wedge between us. If you’re like me, Christian faith is most likely one of the most destructive influences in your life.

It can be hard to reconcile our experience with the positive aspects of faith, especially when the actions of the faithful can be so hurtful. It can be hard to have faith when you’ve seen what it does to people. The idea of putting your faith in something larger than yourself can be tremendously scary, a fool’s errand that only leads to the worst outcomes.

But here’s the thing: faith is necessary to push our ideals forward. If you’re religious, putting your faith in God means putting your faith in Their creation. The people all around you are made in God’s own image, which means that divinity exists in each and every one of us. Recognizing and respecting that divinity is one of the most important ways we can act on our faith — every interaction we have with someone else is another opportunity to connect to the divine spark within our fellow human beings, and the work of Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed pointed us to doing just that. It can be exceedingly difficult to find the divine righteousness in some people, but faith isn’t easy. Even with the understanding that God is present in all of us, having faith that we can connect to it in another is something that escapes us too often.

For me, personally, these past couple of years has largely destroyed my faith in humanity as essentially good. It’s hard to believe that we are basically kind and wise creatures when we seem so hell-bent on our own division and destruction. Over the past year, we’ve thrown away our standards for truth and compromise just so we can cater to our darkest impulses. We’ve begun to question ideas that were settled decades ago, and fostered an environment where knowledge and morality aren’t concrete, tangible things — they’re just details that can be swatted aside for something that feels better. Instead of admitting our ignorance and mistakes, we’ve become ruinously arrogant even in the face of direct contradiction. Our collective id has crowded out our sense of perspective; the only thing that matters is our personal gratification at this point.

It’s hard to see, especially when there are so many real problems that we refuse to face. We’re pushing our environment to the brink of collapse even though we’ve had more than fifty years to deal with climate change; we’re astonishingly willing to entertain fascist and totalitarian ideas in our political process, especially if it means a win for ‘our side’; we’ve stopped listening to one another for so long we can’t even understand each other any more; we don’t think of those less fortunate than us as anything but a drain on our society. At the precise time we should be shaking off the worst excesses of our civilization for the continued survival of our species, we seem to be choosing a bender of oblivion, drunk on fossil fuels and anti-social capitalism.

I’ve struggled to push through this year with any sense of purpose. What’s the point of anything if we’re so willing to destroy ourselves if it doesn’t mean making hard changes to our lifestyle and understanding? It’s been impossible to shake the feeling that we’re just doomed and that the world has effectively ended; we just don’t know when or how.

Faith helps so much to combat this narrative in my head. If I believe in anything, it’s the strength, resilience and ingenuity of my fellow human beings. We’ve had the chance to control the way things change in our future, but we’ve missed it for the most part. It’s up to us NOW to take quick and decisive action to make sure our future is the best we can make it; that’s going to require us to put our faith in each other and our own better natures.

As a Buddhist, this means putting my faith in the idea of enlightenment for all beings. We all have the capability of expressing our unique Buddha-nature for the benefit of all humanity. Your expression may be closely following the teachings and attitudes of Jesus Christ; or the wisdom of the prophet Muhammed; or the ancient, living Mosaic Law. It might be communing with the seasonal magic of the natural world, or following a humanist philosophy, or simply being who you are to the best of your ability. There is no one thing that means nirvana; our own paths take us to our innate epiphany.

My faith rests in the journey that all of us are taking to be better people. I have to believe that this journey will find us working together to take care of each other over time, and that we will come to celebrate and respect our differences while realizing we’re so much more similar than we thought. My faith means looking for the Buddha in every person I meet and finding ways to connect with them. It means hoping the best for everyone while not expecting everyone is at their best.

In order to make the most of the new year and to fully embrace the Nguzo Saba, I have to embrace the faith that we can turn this around. I must have faith in my ability to live up to my principles, no matter how hard it might be. I must trust in you. And I do.

Let’s make 2018 a great year. I have faith that it will be, because I’ll be trying every day to make it so.


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(Personal) Spit and Vinegar into Clear Water

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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I’m…37? Yeah, 37.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Zen & The Art of Getting Shit Done


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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(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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