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(Politics) Mindful Resistance

Politics 150Ever since Michael Brown was shot dead by a police officer in Ferguson, MO I don’t think I’ve been able to reflect on our political situation without a mix of anger, horror or despair. It’s been tough to know what to do with these very difficult emotions even at the best of times; when the news cycle seems designed to draw them out of you multiple times every day, it can be almost impossible. Progressives in America have been emotionally and ideologically battered by the storm of Trumpism, and I think a lot of us have become unmoored from our principles and ability to cope with the constant thundering of awfulness. However, in order to effectively brace against the gusts of bigotry and hypocrisy, we have to be anchored to our core beliefs and values. It’s more important than ever to be considerate, deliberate, and careful in the ways we engage the big problems of the day.

Having compassion for the people we engage with, especially online, centers us in a place of empathy. There are so many corners of the Internet where perpetual outrage has become the norm, and we’re encouraged to think of the people who disagree with us as a faceless, perhaps inhuman ‘enemy’ undeserving of consideration. As we grow more estranged from folks with different perspectives, the criteria for being spared our wrath becomes smaller and smaller. Over time, we might find ourselves having knock-down, drag-out fights with close friends we’ve known for years over relatively small disagreements. We might cut ourselves off from people who might only need patience, understanding, and connection.

I notice these days that my temper is a lot shorter than it used to be, and I’m not saying there aren’t good reasons for that. It can be exhausting advocating for your right to equal protection and consideration, especially to people who refuse to acknowledge there’s inequality in the first place. There’s nothing wrong with being angry about this; anger is an indication that my sense of order in the world has been disrupted, that there’s an injustice that needs to be rectified.

It’s what we do with that anger that causes issues. Anger can be a great motivator for real change in the world. Protests and movements that have forced power to reckon with the abuses it has perpetuated gain momentum because of our anger, given direction and a purpose. But far too often our anger is simply expelled towards the closest targets, and far too often those closest targets are our friends. Even if our anger at something a friend says or does is justified, it’s worth holding that anger mindfully to consider how it can best be expressed.

Anger can be balanced with compassion for our fellow human beings. So many people we know have grown up in a racist society, unaware of their privilege or the fact that they benefit from it. It’s hard to see that for what it is, and harder still to reconcile that with the story we’ve told ourselves about our lives. Hardest of all is knowing exactly what to do about it; there are so many white progressives painfully aware of their privilege but with no idea how to make peace with it, or how to use it to erase the structures that have provided them with it. When we ask people with privilege to recognize it, we’re not just asking them to admit the existence of an institutional injustice. We’re asking them to admit their personal history is a lie; that they benefit from something they never asked for.

Dismantling our self-image is a process, and it’s different for everyone. It took me years to understand and accept transgender ideas, and longer still to come to terms with my privilege as a cisgender male. There are still issues that I need to deal with, still things that I get wrong all the time. To be honest, it’s frightening and exhausting wading into all of that; there’s so much to untangle, much of it a fundamental understanding of sex and gender expression, and the punishment for doing or saying the wrong thing is so high.

I think we all have our blind spots. Some of us are blissfully unaware of the immense amount of human suffering beyond the borders of our own country, while others struggle with recognizing the need for deeper consideration of our environment. Some of us are tone-deaf when it comes to racial justice; others don’t take into account how difficult it is to deal with poverty at an early age, or hidden disabilities, or even the difficulties of being a woman. Knowing our own difficulties in the journey towards undoing the damage of the bigotry we’ve been taught can help us understand how hard it is to do, and have greater empathy for those who may not be malicious — just ignorant.

That kind of consideration can also allow us to pick our battles. The Trump Administration and the forces that have given rise to his particularly odious brand of politics presents us with an overwhelming multi-front assault daily. Environmental regulations are being stripped; scientific expertise is being devalued; criminal justice issues are becoming worse as police forces are emboldened by the empty ‘tough on crime’ rhetoric coming from the Attorney General; people of color are being systematically targeted through countless initiatives; our privacy rights have been severely compromised; reproductive rights are being challenged at every level; cultural enrichment initiatives are being threatened and defunded; corruption, hypocrisy and sophist arguments have made reasonable debate about this in the public square all but impossible.

We now know that bad-faith actors online exploit our desires to try to bridge the gulf between ideologies, forcing us to provide evidence for minute details and batting them away when they’re delivered. We know that the thundering waterfall of awesomeness is designed to wear down our ability to resist. We know that the people who want to enable Trump’s agenda are counting on our eventual burn-out; once the heat dies down, they move forward after we’re too spent and discouraged.

We have to know our limits. We have to understand that our energy to resist is a finite resource, and that it’s important to give ourselves the space we need to recharge. If we’re incensed at every new scandal, or sound the alarm over every new development, we not only exhaust ourselves — we exhaust our allies and others who might come to our aid. Sometimes, taking a moment to understand what’s happening and what still needs to happen for terrible consequences to come due can help us prioritize the issues and decide where and how we fight. We’ve done an amazing job fighting so much bullshit from the administration, but there are three more years before removing them from office is a viable option. This is a marathon, not a sprint. We are ready for battle, but maybe we haven’t considered how to be ready for war.

It’s simply impossible to resist everything Trump is throwing at us. Sure, it’s awful that the President of the United States is getting into a Twitter war with athletes and rappers, entertainment figures and journalists, but we know that dignity is a foreign concept to him already. Will getting angry about it change anything? How much does that matter compared to, say, making sure that voting restriction laws aren’t rammed through various state legislatures or that our immigrant friends and neighbors have what they need to find a legal path to remaining here?

I don’t mean to advocate for letting important stuff fall off the radar. But it’s better to devote our limited time and energy to a few causes that are really important to us than try to do everything at once and extinguish the fire that keeps us going before we can see our actions produce results.

We have to be careful about our resistance. It’s great that so many of us have become so passionate about the direction of our country and committed ourselves to turning it around. But we must also be the changes we want to see in the world around us, and that can’t happen if we’re buffeted by the political currents day in and day out, unable to remain rooted to our principles and see things clearly. We sacrifice our mental health, our relationships, our ability to create true and lasting change by acting without thinking. We have to take a long look at our core values, what it means to live those values on a personal and societal level, and how we can take our communities from where we are to where we know they can be.

This can’t be done by the expression of anger or the rejection of the people who make us angry. Careful thought is needed, and planning, and eventual solutions to our biggest problems. How can we curb greenhouse gas emissions in this country before we incur the worst effects of climate change? How can we encourage big, multi-national corporations to keep their headquarters in the country while paying their fair share of taxes and their workers a living wage? What does a society that has dismantled the institutions of racism and bigotry within government and culture look like? What does justice look like for the corrupt, the racist, the hateful at all levels of society? Is there a way back for people like Chris Christie, or Louis CK, or that friend from high school who fell into the clutches of the alt-right? What does that path towards reconciliation look like?

I honestly don’t know how effective our resistance will be until we think about these questions and discuss the answers we come up with. I don’t think we can keep screaming at each other to make things better without thinking about how we can do that, all together. We have to be mindful with our anger, our calls for justice, ourselves, our friends and neighbors. Otherwise we’ll end up doing some of the very things we can’t abide seeing from the other side.

 
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Posted by on April 11, 2018 in Buddhism, mental-health, Politics

 

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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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(Personal) Perpetual Tharn

Myth 150We’re three weeks in to 2018 — just long enough to settle into the new year and whatever new habits or goals we’ve set for ourselves. I wanted to push myself towards more mindful behavior this year, doing my best to really dive into right speech, action, and livelihood. While last year was definitely stressful, a lot of unresolved anger bubbled towards the surface in so many interactions. I didn’t like the way that made me behave, and I can’t help feeling that my relationships suffered because of that. I ended up retracting socially through a good bit of the year; while a lot of that was probably for the best, I have the feeling that I could be handling these difficult interactions with a lot more equanimity — but that’s way easier said than done.

My anxiety has been very hard to deal with over the past several months. The current state of our country, and the world, has elevated the level of ‘ambient’ anxiety I’m dealing with and that makes it a lot more difficult to take on additional stressors. Surprises or an increase in workload are harder to absorb, and recovering from those episodes of anxious lashing out or simply being overwhelmed takes longer.

So much of the time I feel like I’m in a state of perpetual tharn, so overwhelmed by anxiety that I freeze up and simply can’t do anything. Today, for example, my mind is racing with thoughts about the government shutdown and why it’s such a terrible thing. I’m worried that Republicans will successfully shift blame for this to Democrats, who are taking all the wrong lessons from this and seem to be allowing the public discourse to be pulled further to the right. I’m worried about what this means for all of us — especially those of us who are self-employed, need health insurance, or just happen to be federal employees.

I’m worried about our environment and the fact that the weather has been so obviously unusual over the past year or so. I’m worried about my finances and how I’ll be able to meet my obligations there. I’m worried about so many friends who are going through a difficult time and my diminished emotional capacity to help them. I worry about our ability to talk to one another in a way that connects us instead of dividing us. I worry about my family, who I avoid talking to because I simply can’t handle the possibility of more stress.

I worry about the promises and obligations I’ve made and my ability to keep them. I worry about trying to maintain a balance between being principled and being too rigid; I worry about standing up for myself in a way that doesn’t make other people feel bad. I worry about our apartment and keeping it clean. I worry about learning the technical skills I need in order to move to the next stage of my career. I worry about the people I know on Twitter, and can’t shake the feeling that most people only tolerate me because I’m so frustrating and weird and hesitant. I worry that I talk a good game but can’t deliver when push comes to shove. I worry that I’m just a fundamentally untrustworthy person.

This is what anxiety is like for me. Almost every action I take is connected to a worry that is never far away from taking over my thoughts. Am I talking too much about myself here? Is there a better way to communicate this? What kind of response am I after? Is this just for attention, or reassurance, or am I really just trying to help people understand how anxiety works so that others can deal with those of us who suffer from this better? What are my motivations? Are they corrupt and selfish?

Existing in this state of paralyzing doubt is exhausting, and it just doesn’t leave me with much energy for other things. It can be difficult when I’m struggling with anxiety to remember my promises, or keep my focus away from distractions, or not to simply bail and spend large chunks of time chasing idle happiness. It’s hard to put in the work because setbacks and obstacles are a lot harder to handle rationally.

For the next few weeks, I’ll be focusing on building and rebuilding the habits that help with anxiety. Taking care of the basics is essential, which means that I need to get good sleep, eat good food, and exercise regularly. On top of that, building a meditation, reading, and writing practice will help provide some measure of virtuous stability that always keeps mindfulness with me. This might mean that I’ll be quiet and withdrawn for a bit longer; I need time and mental energy to put these into practice, and that may mean less to deal with other people. So, apologies in advance if I’m a bit slower to respond to things, or have to decline requests for favors for a little while.

Ultimately I would like to be able to interact with people, help them wherever I can, and find ways to have difficult conversations without surrendering to anger and fear as drivers of behavior. But in order to do that, it’s clear that I need to get on a more stable emotional footing. That means mindfully withdrawing to renew the foundation of my practice and hopefully coming back in a better, more hopeful frame of mind.

 

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(Personal) Accountability Report, February 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
 

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(Buddhism) Right Mindfulness

Buddhism 150Mindfulness is one of the cornerstones of Buddhist thought. In order to realize your enlightenment, you must see it just as it is, through direct experience unfiltered by emotion or judgement. What’s really interesting to me about this is that it’s possible to have these moments where everything seems to click and you have this epiphany about yourself, or the world, or the nature of reality whether or not you’re Buddhist. That to me, is the realization; a small taste of enlightenment that arises when you’re fully engaged in that moment.

For Buddhists, those moments aren’t necessarily goals; they’re more signposts that tell us where we are in our practice. Mindfulness is not a state that we achieve and then do no more work with. It is a habit, a way of living, an action that we perform every moment of every day.

So Right Mindfulness is the sustained effort required to take the things we’ve learned so far and use it to clear away the cobwebs in front of our eyes, so to speak. So much of our daily experience is filtered through the lenses of our emotions, our judgements, our aversions and attachments. When we realize exactly what those are, and how they distort the reality we see them through, we have a better chance of recognizing, accepting, and eventually letting go of them.

Mindfulness is primarily cultivated through meditation — the act of simply sitting with ourselves and being present with what arises. I think that there is often a misunderstanding about the “goal” of meditation, and I’m pretty sure I haven’t done the greatest job of describing it before. But here’s what it means to me, and what I get out of it.

Mindfulness meditation is a way of checking in with yourself, noticing the patterns of your own thoughts and feelings. This can often be very difficult — there are notions and emotions that we don’t like to confront for various reasons, after all — but sitting with them can teach us patience, compassion and empathy that we can then bring out of the meditation space and into the rest of our lives. Eventually, as you become more familiar with the ways you think and feel, you may find yourself detaching from them — and with that, a newfound ability to examine what arises with interest and tenderness.

That detached, amiable curiosity is a wonderful friend. With it, you can follow difficult emotions down to the root. You can shake loose these very deep emotions that may prevent you from engaging with something fully; that, too, is difficult work. I’ve often found hypocrisies within myself that make me feel ashamed, uncertain and like an all-around terrible person.

But you keep sitting. You allow these thoughts and feelings to spend time with you; you watch them dissolve after a time. And the more you do it, the longer you sit, the more you realize how ephemeral these emotional states and thoughts are. The pain in your shoulders arises, then fades. The embarrassment of that really stupid thing you said eases into amusement, then acceptance. Your mind begins to exhaust itself of the memories and thoughts and emotions that constantly bombard you. It begins to get easier to return to your breath, to focus on the simple physical act of inhaling and exhaling.

What mindfulness meditation has given me is the ability to see myself as separate from the emotions and sensations that arise within me, and the chance to step back to examine them before acting. Granted, it doesn’t always happen that way, but I feel a lot better about how I handle difficult situations in the moment on my better days.

Mindfulness meditation gives us direct experience into the impermanence of our existence. The things we think flit into our brain, and will just as happily flit out again if we don’t hold on to them. The emotions that come with them rise as well, and remain with us for a time, but fade again; they just might use a longer timetable. The physical sensation that often accompanies emotion will rise and fade as well, and even though these might feel longest and be the most difficult to sit with, eventually we see that they are impermanent too. Beneath all of these — thought, emotion, physical sensation — something separate persists. Our heartbeat. Our breath. It is a constant that we can use to remind ourselves of the fleeting nature of other things, that we are not what we think or feel, that we do not have to follow those things into immediate action.

For someone like me, who has let his emotions get him into trouble so often in the past, this feels wonderful. I still get depressed. I still wrestle with anxiety. I still have tremendous trouble with focus. But the more I meditate, the more mindful I become of the way these states feel and pass; the more mindful I become, the more I am able to see the truth of things beyond the filters of that emotion; the clearer I can see things, the better able I am to recognize what is needed at any given time and respond in turn. Being mindful is how we can move past the things that make us angry to recognize the reason they exist. We can acknowledge our anger, recognize its presence, but allow it to have no bearing on our reaction if it’s not needed. Mindfulness isn’t denying what arises — it’s quite the opposite. We hold it, give it its proper perspective, and then move on with clear eyes.

So many Zen koans are calls for this mindfulness. “What is Zen?” asked a monk to his teacher while they were shopping. “Three pounds of flax,” the master replied. No matter what you’re doing — meditating, chanting, or relieving your bowels — Zen calls for full, clear engagement with it. Practice doesn’t end when we leave the meditation space. Meditation is rehearsal for the rest of our day. Right Mindfulness is the spoke on the wheel of the path that lets us do that.

 
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Posted by on August 30, 2016 in Buddhism, mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

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(Personal) Retaining Mindfulness Under Stress

Buddhism 150So far this year has been an obstacle course, as I’ve mentioned a few times here. Work has flared up significantly as I shift positions and my company makes fairly major changes on an organizational and product level; priorities have been shuffled accordingly, and even though I’m getting better at juggling many things at once my ability to remain organized and focused still leaves a lot to be desired; and I still have a problem with saying “yes” to too much, underestimating the amount of resources and time each new thing will take. I can’t pretend that I’m on the verge of figuring things out, but I do think I’m making steady (if slow) progress addressing everything.

The latest hurdle has been entirely tech-related. My laptop went out of commission when the screen was broken, and the backup laptop I brought out of storage worked for a little while before simply turning off one day and never coming back on. My desktop has been having crazy performance issues where the hard drive is pegging at 100% usage for no discernable reason, and I’ve eaten up so much time troubleshooting it. Depending on where you go, it could be the “Show me Windows tips” feature in Windows 10, the Superfetch or Windows Search services, Google Chrome’s pre-loading capabilities or Skype doing whatever it is Skype does. It could be the AHCI driver for the Intel chip I have getting stuck in a loop, or it could actually be malware. I’ve tried nearly a dozen things for the past two weeks without success; Ryan and I eventually determined it has to be corrupted files on the HDD causing the OS to freak out.

Long story short, I’ve purchased a new laptop (at a great deal) and a new solid-state drive for the desktop that should improve things drastically. Hopefully, I’m out of the woods for now with my tech issues. But that still leaves me with a ton of sunk time where it was difficult to get anything done.

Life has been stressful for a few months now, and it doesn’t look like things will abate any time soon. Stepping back to take stock of the first four months of my year, I’ve noticed that despite a minor crash last month I’ve been holding up pretty well. I’d like to think that improved diet and exercise, better sleep and a recommitment to my meditation practice has helped with that a lot — and it has. But also, my perspective has shifted on being kept off my feet and I think this more than anything has helped me become more resilient.

The world is not a perfect place. I consider myself an idealist; there are ideals and goals that I strive to achieve and I genuinely believe the world would be a better place if everyone did the same. Not necessarily MY ideals, but some set of values that they would like to embody. I won’t even pretend that the things I care about are the things that others should, too.

But those ideals can often get in the way of my ability to deal with situations where I need to adapt on the fly or respond quickly. If something goes wrong and my instinctive response is to sink into anger or depression because my vision of an ideal world has been challenged, that’s a problem. Of course it would be great if all of my stuff worked, or if other people respected my time and boundaries, but that’s not quite the world we live in. The only world we have is the world of what is, and we are best served accepting what is in front of us and determining the best thing to do with it.

That’s not to say that I don’t get angry or frustrated; I certainly have these past few weeks. But it’s important for me not to get attached to those emotions, or the idea of a perfect, fair world where things are the way I prefer. I allow myself to express my frustration, vent a little, and then try to deal with whatever I need to. Giving myself space to be frustrated is important, but so is letting go of that frustration so I can see the situation as clearly as possible.

There’s always a solution to a problem. Sometimes, that solution is “Walk away from this!” or “Learn to accept this will not work the way you want it to.”, but there’s still a solution. Really bringing this in to my understanding of the world has helped me stick with a problem longer without feeling helpless, exasperated or depressed.

This is actually something I learned at my day job in tech support. Learning how to troubleshoot is an incredibly useful skill, and while I’m not great at it I’m leaps and bounds over where I was just last year. It’s a set of techniques that can be adapted for just about anything — figuring out tech problems, or home repairs, or car problems, or even why audiences aren’t flocking to your blog or story or comic. Being able to step back and look critically at something helps us to pinpoint problems and address them as best as we are able.

For example, my current serial for the Jackalope Serial Company isn’t one I’ve been terribly happy with. After some time taking the story apart, I’ve realized that my protagonist is as bland as Wonder bread, and that the supporting characters who’ve been introduced aren’t quite engaging enough to pick up the slack. This is mostly because I set out to be a discovery writer, which really hurts me when trying to write a story on a regular basis. In order to be excited about the story, I have to know where the plot is moving. In order to know that, I have to understand how the characters relate to one another and the world around them.

The Jackalope Serial Company hasn’t been a rousing success exactly, but instead of giving up on it (like I probably would have a couple years ago) I’ve been able to troubleshoot some problems and come back more excited and with more direction. This latest run might not live up to my ambition, but that’s totally fine. I’ll take stock, learn what’s wrong and try a few more things to fix it.

Detaching from ideals about the way the world should be or our own meager abilities has really helped me have a healthier relationship with my mistakes and flaws. And even though 2016 is going to stay super-challenging, I feel that the challenges are shaping me up instead of wearing me down.

 
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Posted by on May 4, 2016 in Buddhism, Self-Reflection, Writing

 

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(Personal) Spiritual Appropriation: Lent

Buddhism 150Today is the first day of Lent, a 40-day period of fasting and contemplation for those of us who practice Christianity. It begins with Ash Wednesday, where Christians are marked with the ashes of palm leaves that had been blessed during last year’s Palm Sunday and told “From dust you are, and to dust you will return.” Over the next six weeks — ending with Easter Sunday — worshippers engage in prayer, penance, the giving of alms, and self-denial. For most of us who are a bit more secular, Lent is mainly a way to feel a bit better about falling off of our New Year’s Resolutions by vowing to give up a bad habit for 40 days or so.

I’ve always been fascinated by festivals of self-denial and contemplation. Shortly after 9/11, a friend of mine still in high school practiced Ramadan as a show of solidarity with the local Muslim community and I joined in. I learned an awful lot about my relationship with food over that time and just how hard it is to deny yourself something if you’ve gotten used to indulging in it whenever you wanted. As the month went on, I cultivated a significant appreciation of food — getting up before sunrise every morning to make breakfast helped me to spend some time in the quiet, loving the small bit of food I’d take in to last me the rest of the day. And eating at sunset — often with other people — was almost always something special. The whole month brought a mindfulness to eating and gave me a newfound respect and joy when it came to breaking bread with other people. I may not act on the lessons I’ve learned there right now, but I still remember them.

The period of Lent is meant to give Christians a small taste of what it must have been like for Jesus Christ those forty days he wandered in the desert before beginning his public ministry. It’s a way to take a step back, focus on the things that are really important to you, put yourself in a space where you think about things a little differently. The most popular aspect of Lent — self-denial — can still be useful even to those of us who aren’t practicing Christians by showing us just how much we’ve come to rely on certain things and just how little we actually need them.

If you’re Christian and about to embark on the forty-day contemplation of Lent, I wish you a wonderful and holy season. If you’re non-Christian and using this as an opportunity to examine your relationship to something you think you can’t do without, good luck. You absolutely can, and I hope you’ll have a deeper appreciation of yourself and how you work when Easter Sunday rolls around.

Me, I’m going to do my best to give up mindlessness over Lent. It’s a bit of a cheat, but really zeroing in on habitual behaviors — especially when they’re negative — is something I could really use. It’s all right to get some down time, of course; but it’s so much better when that’s a conscious decision I’ve made as opposed to a default behavior I fall into whenever there’s free time. I will do my best to cultivate mindfulness, to speak, write and act with purpose, to strive to make myself, my surroundings and my fellow man better.

Now it’s just a matter of figuring out exactly how to do that! Are any of you giving up something for Lent? What does the observance mean to you? Have I gotten anything wrong in my understanding of it? Let me know in the comments!

 
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Posted by on February 10, 2016 in Buddhism, Self-Reflection

 

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Further Confusion 2016!

Fandom 150Folks, it’s that time again — the time when downtown San Jose is suddenly flooded with bizarre people descending onto the Convention Center to engage their weird hobby. The volleyball girls are back! Oh, and also Further Confusion is coming up this weekend.

Of course I’ll be there — just look for the portly black dude probably wearing a sweater vest and a backpack and some sort of jackalope badge. I’m really looking forward to meeting lots of you coming from all around the country, or hooking up again with friends I haven’t gotten to see for a while, or chatting with fans about the things that we love and care about. It should be a blast!

One of the best things about Further Confusion is the robust slate of panels, seminars and events that encompass almost every aspect of the furry fandom — art, writing, music, performance, science, spirituality and crafts are all well-represented there. As a writer, I’ll be on a few panels this time and I wanted to tell you about them, just in case you were interested!

THURSDAY, JANUARY 14TH
OUT OF POSITION Release Party (Marriott: Almaden) – 7 PM
My good friend Kyell Gold will be releasing the latest novel in his Out of Position series — Over Time — at the convention! His release party will be pretty awesome, and one of the best ways to kick off a weekend-long party is by celebrating a friend’s success. The book won’t be available for sale there, alas, but he’ll be there to chat and sign things, so it really is the next best thing.

FRIDAY, JANUARY 15TH
Power and Privilege in an Anthropomorphic World (Hilton: Santa Clara) – 1 PM
I’ll be talking about how to illustrate the societal effects of different species co-existing within the same world with Chipotle and my husband, NotTube. I’m really excited about this topic; it’s not necessarily all about how power dynamics from the real world translate into our fictionalized furry ones, but what a whole different set of dynamics borne from the traits of vastly different species might look like. Would carnivores really dominate the power structure? How would physical characteristics shape the world? And what advantages would humans have once we lose opposable thumbs and sapience?

Write Now! (Hilton: Santa Clara) – 3 PM
Kyell Gold and I will be talking about ways to think about the shape of your short story with an eye towards finally sitting down and banging it out! We’ll break down the basic elements of your story — what you’ll need to get started, most of the time — and then providing 30 minutes to work on it using the tools you have at your disposal. How generous!

SATURDAY, JANUARY 16TH
Mindfulness and Transformation in Action (Marriott: Almaden) – 11 AM
Kannik and I will be discussing the transformative power of bringing mindfulness into your life. We’ll talk a bit about our perspective and background working with it, discuss examples illustrating exactly how clear and present thinking can redirect negative experiences, and engage in a brief meditation session and a few exercises to give folks a feel for using it. This is always one of my favorite times at the convention; I look forward to it every year.

Furries and the “Other” (Hilton: Santa Clara) – 4:30 PM
Here we’ll be discussing how the concept of “otherness” applies to furry — or if it even does! Mapping real-life social and political differences to furry fiction is an interesting thing; there’s often not a direct parallel, but what can we learn from the way divisions are drawn? What does that say about us as creators and readers? I’ll be talking about this with Mary Lowd and Chandra al-Alkani.

SUNDAY, JANUARY 17TH
Brainstorming in Real Time (Hilton: Santa Clara) – 11 AM
One of the biggest things I’ve learned in writing last year is to always try out multiple answers to the question “And then what?” Your first answer is going to be the most common one, and the further out you go with ideas the more creative opportunities open up! Even ideas you instinctively discount can be the best ideas you have for really pushing your story into new territory. My writing group — Chipotle, Kyell Gold, NotTube and myself — will be hosting this panel detailing the brainstorming process and how you can use it to your benefit.

Unsheathed Live (Hilton: Santa Clara) – 10 PM
To close out the convention, the adult writing podcast is all set to go for another year! Kyell, KM Hirosaki and NotTube will talk about furry writing for adults, take audience questions and probably have a lot of wine. This is always a blast, and I’m really looking forward to going out on a high note with FC 2016!

So that’s my schedule! Feel free to join me at any of these panels or say hello if you see me bumming around the convention. I’ll even have business cards for the Jackalope Serial Company! Whoo!!

See you at the San Jose Convention Center this weekend, folks. It’s going to be legendary!

 
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Posted by on January 11, 2016 in Furries

 

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(Personal) Three Pounds of Flax

Buddhism 150A monk asked Tozan when he was weighing some flax: “What is Buddha?”
Tozan said: “This flax weighs three pounds.”

It is so impossibly hard to do one thing at a time in this day and age. As I sit to write this, I’m thinking about a number of other things — the 500 words I promised myself I would write on a short story, populating the latest to-do app with all of the steps I’ll need to take to finish all of my projects, the salmon in the oven, the vegetables on the stove, the friends who are hurting very far away, the people who dislike me. It’s difficult to consistently bring my attention to the present, to the words I’m writing right now. Why is that?

We live in a time of instant gratification. If we want to know something, most of us who are reading this have a way to look it up instantly. A lot of us are lucky enough to be able to buy something we want — if even only for a fleeting moment — just as fast. All we have to do is go to a website, click a few buttons, and expect that what we want will arrive in a few days. This is a wonderful time, but it also means that we’ve lost the ability to wait for things, to be uncomfortable, to anticipate something we’ve worked or waited long for.

Don’t worry — I’m not going to spend this entire post talking about how instant gratification has ruined our ability to actually enjoy the moment. But it has hindered it. Because we can get so much done so quickly, it’s easy to take care of business and move on to the next thing without thinking about it. Sometimes we’re already thinking about the next thing before we’ve even finished the thing we’re currently doing.

I’ve fallen into this trap. There are so many things I’d like to do, and there are only so many hours in the day I can do them. While I’m at work, I’m thinking about all of the writing I could be doing. While I’m home watching TV, I’m thinking about writing, or email, or work, or studying. While I’m writing, I’m thinking about all of these other projects. I’d like to try to send Christmas cards this year, and there’s a limited amount of time that I can actually put that together. Same with Christmas presents. Same with any Kwanzaa plans I’d like to organize.

My life has been filled to the brim, which makes it difficult for me to find enough space to take a breath. Those breaths are absolutely necessary for orientation; they give me a sense of perspective about how far I’ve come, how far I have to go, allow me to enjoy the distinctive place in which I find myself. I’ve spent a very good part of these last few months rushing around, trying to get things done, but not enjoying the process of doing them.

The koan at the top of this post is one that I use to center myself often; Buddha nature is three pounds of flax, no more and no less. Buddha nature are these words that I’m writing, the feeling of my fingers on the keys, the sound of video game music in my ears. It is here and now. That’s it.

Because I’ve made such great strides in determining what’s been blocking me from being productive this year, the anxiety I had about my ability to do things has been replaced by a different anxiety — one in which I’d better be doing things all the time. When I try to step back to think about all of the things that I have to do, it makes me think that any time wasted is another goal that won’t be met.

This month, I would like to take a moment and focus on the three pounds of flax. I’d like to re-center myself so that I’m fully engaged in what I’m doing. It might mean that I’ll be doing less, but hopefully it also means that I’ve invested so much more of myself in what I do achieve. Stripping away the distractions that surround me all the time to give myself over entirely to a project for a certain length of time is the only way to really enjoy the process of working.

I know how difficult this might be to pull off. December is a frenzied time of the year; we’re trying to manage our daily lives — which are full enough — while also trying to find and buy presents, send cards, prepare for parties and Christmas itself, decorate our homes and trees, prepare for New Year’s…the list goes on. This year I’m trying to do quite a bit more than I ever have before; I have a feeling a strong sense of organization, a great to-do list and a determined, efficient managing of my time is a necessity to make it to the next year without completely losing my mind.

But first, I have to make sure that I only focus on one thing at a time. First, the blog; then, a breath; then, the next project. So on, and so on, taking pleasure in the doing and completion of each task. The holidays provide an excellent opportunity to practice mindfulness and embrace single-tasking. It’s high time I took it.

 
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Posted by on December 2, 2015 in Buddhism, Self-Reflection

 

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Combatting Mindlessness with Personal Myth

Buddhism 150When I’m not pretending to be a giant rabbit who writes fiction on the Internet, I work at a services company where I deal with customers all day. The nature of our business is such that people often mistakenly believe we’re responsible for things that we aren’t, so it’s not uncommon for me to get calls from an irate stranger demanding that I change something I have no control over.

I would love to be able to say that my meditation and Buddhist practice enables me to respond in a calm and present manner to these calls, but I can’t. It’s times like these when the lizard brain takes over — often, I’m confused about why I’m being screamed at, and that makes my chest tighten and my heart beat faster. I’ll try to tell the caller why it’s not my fault they’re in this situation, which if I were thinking clearly I would realize is the wrong tack to take. Then an argument ensues, and all that matters is gaining the upper hand. For me, a ‘win’ would be getting the caller to drop their accusation of responsibility and go elsewhere. It doesn’t matter whether or not they’re frustrated or feel like they’ve been helped. As long as they stop being angry with me, specifically, that’s what matters.

When I’m rational, I know that this isn’t a personal thing. I’m merely the most convenient face for a problem that someone has, and since I’m on the front line as it were I’ll bear the brunt of the negativity for some people. But it’s really difficult to remember that as it’s happening; that the person repeating “What are YOU going to do about it?” in your ear again and again isn’t speaking of a literal ‘you’. At that moment, you’re a representation of your work place, an entire company given a voice.

I’m not sure if you would have guessed it or not, but I like to avoid conflicts whenever possible. Part of it is I don’t like the stress that a conflict brings, but another part of it is the knowledge of my own temper. It’s a quick one, and I’ve learned a while ago to disengage myself from a situation that sparks it — chances are it’ll die down quickly and I can come at it reasonably later. Obviously, this isn’t an option when there’s someone on the phone with you, refusing to give you space until you resolve a problem that you just can’t solve.

But see, this is why you meditate. The feeling that you get on the bench, when you’re just breathing, is meant to be carried with you through the rest of your life. If you can remember, all it takes is a few breaths to bring you back to mindfulness, to remember who you are and what you’re doing, to take an approach to the situation that’s less instinctive and more helpful.

I ended up raising my voice to the caller the last time it happened. He was especially pushy, demanding that something be done and using the time-honored “repeat yourself in a louder voice” to control the conversation. I admit, I was flustered. I took it personally and handled it poorly. At that moment, all of my meditation training went out the window. I played his game, and lost.

If I had taken just a few breaths, I would have realized the truth of the situation. He was painting me as an enemy, an obstacle to a desired outcome, but I’m really not. Instead of allowing myself to be placed into that role I could have side-stepped that relationship entirely. I could have said, “No, I’m a friend, let me help you any way I know how.” While I don’t have direct control over the situation, I could have come up with a somewhat workable solution with just a little thought. But it’s hard to think straight when you’re running on adrenaline.

One of the things that I’ve tried to do is tell a story of myself that runs closer to the person I would like to be. I suppose this is an advanced version of ‘faking it until you make it,’ but hopefully it will be useful. As I move through my day, I tell myself that I’m a friend to everyone, even the people that would rather not see me. I tell myself that I’m helpful, generous, kind, attentive, compassionate. I construct a myth of myself — a rabbit who is an Avatar of Comfort, dedicated to putting everyone around him at ease. It doesn’t always work, of course — sometimes I forget myself and then I’m just David, grumpy and harried, who’d rather get back to whatever it was he was doing instead of being patient and helpful. But that’s OK. People fail to live up to the myths about them from time to time, but it shouldn’t stop them from striving for it.

That’s one of the ways I ‘access my totem’, I suppose. I marry my vague, animist spirituality to my Buddhist practice, so that my idealized self, the picture of myself at enlightenment, is a rabbit that radiates calm and peace. I’m not sure if there’s a name for that sort of thing (besides insanity), but it helps, when I remember to let it.

Does anyone else do this? What sort of stories do you tell yourself, about yourself, to encourage you to be a better person?

 

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