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(Buddhism) Taking Refuge

Buddhism 150I’m not going to lie — 2016 has been pretty stressful so far. The day job has been demanding and constantly shifting; racial and identity politics have been as contentious as ever; and the rise of Trump signalling the fall of the GOP has been one of the most depressing stories to follow. Meanwhile, there are reports that we’ve hit the +2 degrees Celsius shift that we had been talking about maybe avoiding some day; China’s economy is faltering enough to make their government fearful, which makes what’s happening in the South China Sea especially worrisome; there’s also Russia, ISIL, Syria and a whole host of problems around the world. This is the time we should be uniting as a species to solve problems that threaten our existence, and we feel more fractured and disconnected than ever.

I realize that there isn’t a whole lot that I can do about all of this besides try to be the best person I can and encourage others to do the same. For me, trying to be the best person I can means trying to be the best Buddhist that I can be — so that means diving back into the Dharma and realigning my life to hew closer to its principles.

I don’t talk a lot about Buddhism here because I’ve never figured out a way to talk about it that didn’t sound like proselytizing on one hand, or exposing a vast ignorance about core teachings on the other. Being a Buddhist has always felt like a personal thing to me; I can make allusions to it, but that’s as open as I’ll get for the most part.

But the fact is that Buddhist philosophy is a very large part of who I am, and as I grapple with trying to be a better activist and a person who serves as a connector and organizer within his community, leaning back into Buddhist principles will help me tremendously with that. I believe that following the Noble Eightfold Path helps me to encourage my compassion, move past my fears, keeps my worry from curdling into despair.

Like most idealists, I have an attachment to the idea of a perfect world. People are kind and considerate in the ways that I deem most important, and their priorities are in lockstep with my own. We take care of each other. We take care of my environment. We’re an empathetic people who can’t see suffering without taking action to do something about it. We turn away from harmful things, even if they provide us with short-term pleasure, even if they’re something we’ve been doing for a very long time. Connection with other animals is one of the best things we can do. We’re accepting of each other’s differences; we even celebrate them. Sadness and loss are tempered by love and understanding.

That’s not the world we live in. None of us are perfect, and all of us have darker natures that we fall prey to. We are afraid, and angry, and selfish, and hurting. We make mistakes. We act maliciously. We do things that aren’t in our best interest because we think it will make us feel better. Our differences cause disagreements, and those cause divisions that widen and deepen until we can’t even see the other side as human any more. While problems get worse, we can’t even reach consensus on whether or not there IS a problem. Some people — perhaps most people — will never agree with me.

One of the strengths of Buddhism is enabling practitioners to deal with what is right in front of them. I am who I am, and the world is what it is; wishing for a utopian version of either invites suffering. It is better to see ourselves exactly as we are, and take the best actions we can under those circumstances.

This is the Dharma that I will be trying to follow. I’m digging back into the basics for a while, to check my foundation. What are the Four Noble Truths? What do they really mean? What is my understanding of the Noble Eightfold Path? The Bodhisattva Vow? How can I marry the vulgar and the divine? How can I follow the Middle Way while driving, or in the supermarket, or on the toilet? And how does Buddhism inform my activism?

These are important questions for me to figure out, and I’ll be spending a little time talking about them in the coming days, weeks, months.

 
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Posted by on March 7, 2016 in Buddhism, Self-Reflection

 

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Making an Author’s Disaster Recovery Plan

Self Improvement 150One of the constants of my life has been a distinct lack of consistency. I’ll start many projects with the firm belief that I’ve cracked whatever problem has prevented me from seeing something through to completion in the past, lay it all out so that I see the path to victory before me, make a post about it telling people where I’ll be going over the next few months and then…nothing.

What happens is this: Once I switch from a high-level, overall project view back towards the trench-work of the project, it gets really difficult to overcome my inertia. Or, once I’ve managed to do that, to keep productive inertia going. All it takes is one bad day where I come home exhausted, or a spontaneous and fun thing that would wipe out my plans for the evening, and then I’m done. Once I’m off-track, it’s easier to stay off-track. And then, once I’m ready to hop on again the shame of being off the wagon for so long makes it uncomfortable enough that I delay that again. So forth and so on, until it’s months later and I can quietly declare my latest bid for organization and discipline a failure.

It’s a frustrating cycle, to put it mildly. I want to finish things. I want to share those finished things with all of you. I want to be the kind of person who says he’s going to do something and then do it. But for some reason I’m just not and becoming that person feels like a very long road of hard work and reflection away.

One of the things I’m learning about project management is that you have to plan for failure. The longer and more complicated a project is, the more failure points there are — and you have to drill down towards each one and make a contingency plan for it. This is actually really difficult when it comes to figuring out failure points for personal projects, because you have to take a long, hard look at your worst impulses.

For example, what happens to that short story when you decide to spend those two hours scheduled for Saturday work on a movie, dinner and a ton of alcohol instead? What happens to preparation for your Pathfinder game on Tuesday evening when you’re mentally exhausted and spend the hour you’ve set aside for it playing Facebook games instead? What happens with the blog when work swallows up more of your free time and mental energy than you were expecting?

These are pretty difficult questions to ask myself, let alone answer. But you have to if you have a hope of cultivating the discipline and consistency you need in order to be a writer. It makes for a good thought exercise — if the trials of Job were to somehow befall me, how would I find a way to keep creating?

That’s where I am right now, in multiple aspects of my life. I know myself well enough to know the common pitfalls that will derail me, and now I have to step up my game of cat-and-mouse with future, shittier me. I have to find ways to deconstruct every excuse and trap for myself ahead of time, clearing any possible obstructions between myself, my failing resolve and my goal.

What are some of your pitfalls? What do you do to navigate around those?

 
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Posted by on September 15, 2014 in Self-Reflection, Writing

 

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It’s the End of Summer, Start Falling

Self Improvement 150The summer of 2014 was a pretty crazy one for me! Most of it has been structured around Ryan’s trip to Clarion, the associated Write-A-Thon and all of the lessons I’ve learned since then. It turns out I needed to take a bit of a break from writing after that, just to process what I had done and return to the desk with a greater understanding of what I’m about.

Now that August is behind us and we’re looking ahead to the season of turning leaves, cooler weather and hot drinks, I thought I’d take a little time to think about how I would like to spend it. Where do I want to be by the end of the year? What would I have liked to accomplish?

There are a few things that I’d really like to focus on over the next four months: writing, reading, exercising, eating. You know, the basics. I think of them as the four things that encourage both physical and mental health, two sides of the same coin. You have to exert the proper effort to keep yourself in fighting shape, and you have to make sure that you’re intaking the right things to fuel that effort.

For writing, I’d really like to get more consistent. A friend of mine intimated that his goal for word count is 500 a day, 3000 a week — I think that’s pretty strong, so I’m going to shamelessly steal it. That word count will only count towards short stories (both preparation and writing) and the Pathfinder game I’m running. Blog entries will be their own thing entirely, hopefully focused on over the weekend. Putting in the effort consistently, grinding out the words every day rain or shine, has never been one of my strong suits. I really need to learn how to do this if I’m going to get serious about writing.

For reading, I’d really like to read short stories and novels in both the science-fiction/fantasy and furry fiction “genres”. There’s a ton of great stuff out there in each space, and I think there should be more folks who are really invested in the literary traditions that have been built. I have a unique perspective, and I’d like to get better at thinking about fiction critically. Part of that means reading as many stories as I can and breaking them down to see how they work. I’d like to post critiques and thoughts about these stories as I go, just to get into the habit of talking about them, sharing them with all of you.

For exercising, I really need to get a bit more flexible than I am! I’ll be trying to settle into a routine with body-weight exercises and stretches/yoga so that I’m toning myself and making it easier to get in running and biking. For the next few months I want to focus on cardiovascular health and mobility — those are pretty easy spots to hit with a minimum of, say, going to the gym or needing special equipment. One thing I’ve learned about myself is that I’m going to need to remove as many barriers as possible to getting exercise. Otherwise, it’s just way too easy to make excuses.

Finally, for eating, I’m going to have to retrain my palate towards healthier food. I love carb- and sugar-heavy things at the moment, and that really needs to shift towards fruits, vegetables and lean meats. I don’t think I’ll do anything as crazy as Whole 30 or Paleo right now, but cutting down on carbs — or at least being a lot more mindful about the carbs I do eat — is absolutely necessary. It’s going to suck for a while, but I need to push through that if I ever hope to slim down and get rid of this rather impressive spare tire I’m sporting at the moment.

So those are my goals, in broad terms. I’ll have to develop a plan to make sure I actually stick to those, and that’s fairly exciting. I know I talk a lot about my interest in project management, and it sounds really boring, but there’s this exciting bit of alchemy in taking these vague, broad, big goals — “I have to eat better.” “I have to write more.” — and figuring out how to actually turn them into working, flesh-and-bone plans of action. Drawing a line from desire to doing is pretty satisfying.

So that’s my fall — as usual, putting my head down and trying to calm the mind from being flighty and thoughtless. Every time I put a new plan together, it’s a little stronger. I learn from my mistakes, incorporate more personalized protection against pitfalls, have a bit more willpower. I accept that I might not reach all (or even most) of the goals that I’ve set, but striving for them gets me closer than I would be otherwise.

 
 

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An Evening with John Scalzi

Myth 150Last Thursday I attended a book reading and signing by the outgoing president of SFWA (the Sci-Fi/Fantasy Writer’s Association), John Scalzi. I hadn’t read anything written by Scalzi except his blog, Whatever, which is actually quite good. It does just about everything that a good blog should — talk about the minutiae of someone’s life in an interesting manner, tackles big ideas on a fairly regular basis, and (best of all) cultivates a vibrant, engaged, respectful community. I’m impressed by the work he’s done with it for nearly fifteen years; a collection of essays from that blog, Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded, actually won a Hugo Award. If that’s not a stamp of legitimacy for your blog, I’m not sure what is.

He read from The Human Division, a just-published collection of stories he first released online as a serial. That’s an interesting experiment to me; I have an idea for two serials released in a similar manner, and have been wondering about the best way to go about it. Now, I don’t have anywhere near the name recognition of someone like Scalzi, but I think it could be a minor success in its own right. The big question is if you can get avid readers — who are used to getting their stories all at once and ingesting them at their own pace — to accept an episodic form of long-form storytelling. I mean, there’s also the challenge of writing that kind of story; the structure of it is forced to change to match its form, and that’s not necessarily an easy thing to do. But if you can crack that nut, is that still something your audience would be willing to accept?

I don’t know the specifics of Scalzi’s experiment, but it seems like he’s done well with it. Books Inc. in Mountain View was standing-room only for the reading, and the crowd was lively. It was full of that special kind of geek who comes out to these things, those of us who’ve built our lives around sci-fi/fantasy, those of us who view our favorite writers as rock stars.

He read two bits: “Hafte Sorvalh Eats a Churro and Speaks to the Youth of Today” from The Human Division and “Who Gets to Be a Geek? Anyone Who Wants to Be” from The Mallet of Loving Correction, a yet-to-be-released second compilation of Whatever essays. They were both really decent; the short story bit really makes me want to go out and read Old Man’s War, and the essay has a lot of great points about geek culture and the nature of geekdom that reaffirms my faith in the community and broadens my perspective of it to be more inclusive, which is always a good thing. Scalzi knows how to work a room; he’s silly, but self-aggrandizing, which definitely helps with the whole rock star vibe.

Afterwards, because one of our friends actually got to know him at Clarion a year or two ago, we were invited out to dinner with Scalzi and his entourage at a crepery right across the street. I have to say, it was pretty surreal, and a whole lot of fun. We sat at the fringes of the party with a couple of other locals, and it was a good chance to meet our fellow geek neighbors who we never would have known about otherwise. The crepe I ordered — chicken and feta and mushroom — was rich and sooooo delicious, and I have to say the sangria I got to go with it was the second-best choice I made that day. (The best choice? Wearing my “Gamma Rabbit” t-shirt.)

The whole experience was energizing and inspiring. Scalzi is one of those guys who came up from the Internet, a blogger and online presence who “made good” and now has a thriving career to go along with it. He hasn’t jumped ship to the old guard of straight-up publishing, though. He spends a lot of time and effort on his blog, tries new publishing models that take advantage of the e-book format, and works with his publisher to experiment with ideas. It’s pretty cool to see him at work, to see him enjoying the fruits of all that labor.

More importantly, it keeps ME going. I’m not out to duplicate Scalzi’s success necessarily, but his passion and his desire to try new things, to see what sorts of things can be done with this place. I’m still in my infancy, but he’s provided a grown-up vision to look up to, a signpost that gives me some direction. It was definitely good to meet him and see what he’s about.

If you have any favorite authors, I highly recommend going out to see them if they’re anywhere close to your neck of the woods. It’s an experience every budding author should have, to meet the folks who’ve made it.

 

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Writing Through Rain or Shine, Snow or Drought, Feast or Famine

Self Improvement 150It’s common knowledge that in order to be a writer, you have to write. And in order to be a “professional” writer, you have to treat your passion like a job. This means adhering to a schedule of some sort, making sure that no matter the capricious moods of our muses we’re sitting at the desk banging out words. And it feels like I’m nearly there — that I can sit down and work on something every day.

It’s quite different when you have specific projects that you need to have done within a certain deadline, I’m discovering. Last year, if there was something I didn’t quite feel like working on I could go off and do something else — a low-stakes project that didn’t require a whole lot of thinking or worry. But now that’s not quite an option; if I wake up in the morning and feel a bit too sleepy to work on a story that ‘matters’, too bad. It needs to be done, so I’m going to need to do it anyway.

That requires an adjustment that I’m still working through. I’m behind on a few things already, including a Thursday Prompt short story that I wanted to have done today. That will have to wait for the weekend to be written; I already have my idea spun up and waiting, but I’d rather take some time to play with it before rushing it out the door.

On the bright side, this means that my three posts for next week are all spoken for. Ryan and I have made a commitment to watch an AFI Top 100 Movie every Thursday, so I’ll be reviewing that in a post here. Between that and the Thursday Prompt, that leaves one blog entry to fill during the week to keep up with my minimum. I think filling that slot with personal thoughts and progress on various projects is a good way to use that.

This weekend, I’ll be writing, reading a lot and probably watching Ryan playing Mass Effect 2. We have yet to recover from the holidays, so this will be an excellent time to slow down, clean up our apartment, and really solidify our plans for a great new year.

That’s the plan, anyway. I’m sure there will be plenty of wine in there somewhere, and a meal or two with friends. A rabbit has to poke his head up out of the burrow once in a while, after all.

 
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Posted by on January 4, 2013 in Self-Reflection, Writing

 

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