jakebe: (Buddhism)

You 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.
jakebe: (Buddhism)

Mindfulness 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.
jakebe: (Buddhism)

So far we've gone through five different spokes on the Noble Eightfold Path, comprising two groups -- Wisdom/Prajna and Moral Virtues/Sila. They are Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood. Together, they make up the understanding/philosophy and practice/action parts of the path. Now, we head into the third and final group of the Path, spokes six through eight -- the Meditation, or Samadhi group.

Right Effort is the very first step in that process, and to me it feels like sort of a companion step to Right Intention, stretched out from two to three dimensions. Right Intention tells us to make sure that we enter into each situation with a proper understanding of what we want to happen as a result of it -- preferably the compassionate connection with another sapient being, allowing them to go on about their lives in peace and contentment. Right Effort is the mechanism we use to keep making sure we do that; it's the way we sustain our drive towards Right Intention.

Specifically, Right Effort asks us to release these negative impulses that enable us to cling to attachments far too easily (called the Five Hindrances) and cultivate positive impulses that allow us to be more mindful and compassionate (called, appropriately enough, the Five Antidotes). The hindrances are sensual desire; ill will (remember that one?); sloth, torpor or drowsiness; restlessness and worry; and uncertainty or doubt.

Sensual desire is more a manifestation of greed than anything. Whether our craving for sex or doughnuts is at the root of it, this pull to titillate the senses can lead us to a lot of trouble. It's rare that we become satisfied once we've actually attained the object of our craving; a lot of the time, there's that short hit of bliss while we indulge, and very quickly we're already wanting a repeat of that experience. Or maybe it's just me, but man, when I make a candy bar disappear, the taste of it has scarcely left my tongue before I'm thinking about how much another one would be so great.

The antidote to sensual desire is RAIN: Recognition, Acceptance, Investigation and -- eventually -- Non-Identification. It's a nice way to move through the steps of mindfulness, really. Acknowledge the desire without judgment, because it's just a part of the human condition. We aren't any less enlightened people for wanting to have sex or being in possession of a sweet tooth, but we must face that impulse in order to be more mindful of it. Investigate it once we've moved past our judging of it; what is it like, and where does it come from, and what's the underlying desire that drives it? Meditating on our desires, noticing when they arise and turning it over in our heads can be a really helpful tool to become more aware of ourselves and our specific natures. Once we've recognized and investigated it, we can let it go, and this is where the magic happens. We realize that the desire is an impermanent, transient thing, separate from ourselves; we don't have to act on these impulses -- they, like everything else, come, stay with us for a time, and then go.

Ill will is pretty much what it says on the tin -- thoughts of rejection, hatred, bitterness and overall hostility. We all have people we've viewed as enemies at one time or another, people who raise our blood pressure at the mere thought of them. We've wished harm on them; insulted them mentally or verbally; even possibly dehumanized them in some way. This, too, is a part of the human experience. There are always going to be people whose personalities rub us the wrong way, or through some means or another will come to represent everything we believe is wrong about the human race. This is especially true when you're politically active. It can feel like there's an entire world of them out there, actively working to make the world a more terrible place.

The more we give in to this ill will, the easier it becomes to indulge in it. We may find ourselves wishing harm on other people more and more often, for lesser and lesser infractions. Any pattern of thought we regularly engage in becomes easier to recall. So it's important to cultivate an attitude of loving kindness instead. Meditating on loving kindness allows us to restore the humanity of our enemies, to make a genuine attempt to understand them and see how their impulses are also our own. Extending this consideration to people we're diametrically opposed to makes it easy for us to extend it to everyone; strangers become more easily recognizable, and the things that annoy or enrage us are easier to understand. When we get to a place of loving kindness, we can brush aside the things that ruffle us to focus on the true intentions of the people we interact with all the time. We become more open, more accepting, and more forgiving.

Sloth and torpor is ennui, more or less, and this is a tricky one for me to talk about. In my struggle with depression, I've frequently fallen into a torpor of sorts when I'm at my worst. It's an emotional exhaustion that makes it almost impossible to do anything, even if I want to, even when I know I should. That in itself would be agitating, if I could muster the energy to care about it. There are several friends I know who struggle with the same thing, that inability to focus or muster energy of any sort -- and it's through no fault of our own. This is an illness that affects our brain, which in turn affects our ability to rouse just about anything else. The sloth and torpor we speak of as a hindrance is not this kind, this illness outside of our control. It's something else.

As we get older, we tend to lose interest in our lives and the world in general. Well, at least, I recognize this within myself. I can feel myself calcify, almost -- I'm a creature of comfort, and when I find a comfortable state I just want to wallow in it for as long as I can. It can be very difficult to remain alert and present to the world, or to accept the things that we find challenging. When our days become full of the things we do to maintain our lives, it can be easy to become incurious, to turn away from things we don't know to seek the comfort of the things we do. But when we do that, we expend less energy; we become used to that easy and comfortable life, and find that we have less energy to spare for the things that shake us out of that. Torpor sets in. And before we know it, we find ourselves asleep -- uncritical, unthinking, on auto-pilot.

A beginner's mind is a good antidote for this. When we don't have the context we learn as adults, we have to ask questions about almost everything we come across. Why do we work only five days? Why do we have to work for five days? Why are things as they are? What would it be like if they were different? Why do we sit a certain way while meditating? Is suffering in life really inevitable? Isn't that kind of a downer? By stretching ourselves, remaining curious, learning just a little bit each day, we hold on to precious energy and a curiosity about life that keeps us spry, flexible, and critical.

Restlessness and worry is the other extreme of this continuum. I kind of think of it as "monkey mind". Again, this is a tricky thing for me to talk about. If you're dealing with an anxiety disorder, then the last thing you need is some asshole on the Internet telling you that your anxiety is a spiritual failing -- it absolutely is not. But, there is an aspect of our attention that we can bring about to focus, with time and dedication.

It can be extremely difficult for me to focus on things at times. In the short term, I could be writing this blog entry when all of a sudden something in my brain tells me to see if there's anything cool on YouTube. Then, I'm looking at spooky paranormal countdown videos, professional wrestling interviews, TED talks, cartoons and assorted science education vlogs for an hour. In the long term, I forget about my health or writing goals the moment a giant piece of cake or a fun, relaxed evening turns my head.

Sometimes it's difficult to be still with whatever I'm thinking or feeling. Somewhere along the way, boredom became the worst thing that could possibly happen to me. Or I'll worry about the state of the country; the way our ecology is being pushed to the point of collapse; or my nonexistent relationship with my mother. These thoughts fill me with fear and dread to the point I can become paralyzed and blinded to the way things really are.

Learning to be present and content is the antidote to this. We live in a culture where this is extremely difficult. Advertising is all around us, and it works by telling us that we really lack something in our lives that a certain product fills. Even though we think we've become inoculated against us, in so many ways we've become conditioned to be discontent. We don't have the latest phone, computer, game; we don't have new clothes or furniture; we don't have that cheeseburger we've been craving. I know for me, it's become a matter of habit to just reach out and get something as soon as I want it. The world has made it so easy to do that, why not indulge?

Because, like I've mentioned before, acquiring the thing we want reflexively all too often doesn't satisfy us for very long. For a short time, there's a sense of relief or contentment, but then -- an even newer phone comes out. Or that burger is gone and now we want a milkshake to go with it. There's always going to be something we don't have, but want, and as long as we chase after it reflexively we'll never be satisfied.

We must be still, and cultivate contentment and gratitude about things as they are. Yeah, I really want an Oreo shake right now, but...I had a good dinner and a glass of beer. If I stop and pay attention, I can feel my full belly and that nice little buzz of intoxication. And it feels nice. The desire for a shake, that restlessness, falls away.

Finally, there is doubt. What's interesting about doubt is that it is a very necessary thing to have. We must be critical and questioning of ourselves, our beliefs and our world. (Who says? Good question.) But doubt can also be crippling; we can feel so lost in it, with no idea where to begin, that we throw our hands up and give up on the whole endeavor. With meditation, we can often feel as if we're not doing it right because we're not in the lotus position, beneath a bodhi tree, with the morning star clearly twinkling in our field of vision. We will stop ourselves from stretching, from trying something new, from taking risks, because we doubt our own ability to do it, or the ability of the people around us to forgive mistakes. Doubt all too often leads to fear, and fear leads to paralysis, blindness, stagnation.

Doubt is one of the big ones for me. The antidote for this is preparation and trust; we learn what we can, while we can -- and we trust in our ability to discover the answers we don't yet grasp. With meditation, for example, learning the various traditions will help us understand a common thread that all meditators seek and we learn which ones will suit our own individual preferences as we seek the same thing. And we trust that any mistakes we make can (and will) be discovered and corrected, and that these mistakes are part of the process. It's another way we learn and grow. And I know that it is very much easier said than done, but there you go.

Guarding ourselves against the Five Hindrances, recognizing the form they take within ourselves, and working on the traits that encourage us to be more open, accepting, curious, loving and prepared constitutes Right Effort for me. This is done through meditation, but also carrying the mindfulness cultivated on the meditation bench with me through the rest of my life. It's an ideal I continually strive for, even though I fail. Frequently. But hey, part of the process, right? It isn't Right Perfection, after all.

jakebe: (Buddhism)

The fifth spoke on the wheel of the Noble Eightfold Path is also the last one in the Moral Virtues (or Sila) group -- Right Livelihood. Together with Right Speech and Right Action, these form the backbone of how our understanding of the principles of Buddhism translate into practice through the rest of our lives. For most of us, especially the lay Buddhists who won't be joining a monastery, Right Livelihood means abstaining from taking work that harms people through cheating or fraud, killing, etc. It can be interpreted as, well, not making money through wrong actions. But it can also mean a lot more than that.

Let's tackle the job thing first. We live in a country where it's absolutely necessary to have a job in order to survive. We can't easily do odd jobs as they come to us, or rely on the goodwill of our community; we must choose a profession and spend significant time with it in order to make enough money to maintain a certain lifestyle. And a lot of the time, those jobs require us to do things that might run into trouble with a strict interpretation of Right Livelihood.

For example, I work for a company that specializes in digital marketing, providing platforms for companies to reach people through email, text and digital advertising. A lot of our customers have very questionable business practices, and there are one or two of them that I am in direct moral and political opposition to. However, the nature of my job means I can't necessarily discriminate between the customers who don't violate my principles and the ones that do; whenever I'm in contact with them, I must treat them all the same. Even if I believe that by helping them, I am in fact helping someone hurt someone else.

It feels like most of us are put into positions like that with our work. It's very difficult to be politically or morally conscious without realizing that there are a number of different ways we all contribute to a system that succeeds, even thrives, on practices that harm other people. In order to step out of that system, we would need to spend a disproportionate amount of time reviewing each company we do business with, what their business practices are, and what (if any) alternatives there may be. In order to be certain that our lives don't contribute to the harming of another living being, I think we'd have to remove ourselves from a capitalist system almost entirely.

So what do we do about that? I honestly don't know. I think, in some way, we have to make peace with the fact that there are certain moral compromises we all make in order to participate in society. At least, we must recognize all the ways in which our lifestyles are problematic. I've lived in poverty and near-poverty right into my late-20s. I've had to rely on the kindness of friends and strangers more times than I can count. Only recently have I been in a position where I feel like I have "enough". And now that I've spent some time here in the middle class, I'm beginning to realize all the ways I've allowed myself to indulge to excess.

I eat too much food, buy too many things and give in to impulses too often. It's very difficult for me to save money because I've always thought that the moment I have it I'll need to spend it on something sooner or later. The idea of holding back is kind of foreign to me; being able to purchase something purely for my own comfort is a novelty that hasn't worn off yet.

Then again, does it ever get old? I think we just get used to a certain level of comfort, then get very reluctant to make sacrifices in order to serve some different purpose -- whether that's being prudent with our finances or satisfying a personal moral obligation. I know that I've fallen into the trap of clinging to my lifestyle more than once; I know how bad being poor sucks from experience, and I'm reluctant to put myself in that position again.

That brings me to another interpretation of Right Livelihood. For many, it means to make a living from begging -- but not accepting everything and not possessing more than is strictly necessary. That could mean maintaining a minimalist home -- one plate, one knife, one fork. That could mean holding on to the things you have as long as they work, not chasing after the latest and greatest version of something. That could mean being more mindful of your impulses, and living comfortably but not excessively. I think the ultimate interpretation you choose is the one that your conscience will bear, and that's different for everyone.

So what does that mean for me? I suppose it means making sure that my lifestyle minimizes the harm it brings to other people. And that means buying less, being content with what I have, and doing whatever I can to address the ways in which harm is unavoidable. That means doing my best to combat climate change and environmental degradation; counteracting the ways in which I may be helping to further the aims of people who wish to perpetuate consumer culture, mindless bigotry or the insidious way advertisers are trying to make it easier and more effective to sell you things; and hopefully, trying to pursue a life in which I can make a living without feeling like I have to compromise my morality.

What I would really love is to be able to live closer to nature, tell stories and be dedicated towards helping people to be better. It may be a long time before I get to do that, and I accept that possibility. I think now it would be best to try and align my lifestyle closer to the one I want, where moderation is a habit painstakingly cultivated and my priorities are straight. I'm not sure that's the case now, so it will take some doing to get it there.
jakebe: (Buddhism)

For my own spiritual practice, I'm writing about each "spoke" on the wheel of the Noble Eightfold Path for a while. Reviewing what I know and think about each step of the path helps me clarify my understanding, expose any misunderstandings, and allows me to take a snapshot of where I am in my Buddhist practice. Sometime later, I can come back to this series of posts to see how my understanding of these aspects has changed over time.

Right now, we're in the second of three groups within the path: Sila, or moral virtues. Right Speech is the abstaining from divisive, abusive, untruthful and idle speech, striving for honest, open, compassionate, helpful and relevant speech instead. What we say is a subtle but powerful way to create our karma; it can either foster hatred and fear, or happiness and connection.

Now, we look at Right Action. For the most part, Right Action covers the abstaining of killing, stealing and committing sexual misconduct. It can also be extended to mean any action we take and whether or not it contributes to connecting us with the world around us, clarifying our senses, or spreading compassion towards our fellow beings.

Right Action is one of those subjects that can be very controversial, especially when we parse what it means to "kill", to "steal", or engage in "sexual misconduct". I'm not an authority on this by any means, but I'll share what I think it means here and how my understanding of it affects my engagement with it.

Killing, for me, is the intentional act of ending the life of someone else at its most basic definition. However, it's really difficult to refrain from that entirely. We slap at mosquitoes and other insects on our own almost instinctively, and we don't necessarily alter our paths when we see beetles or flies crawling on the sidewalks. When insects or rodents invade our homes, we often lay down traps or poison for them to discourage them. Is this a wrong action? It depends on who you ask, and what your intentions are.

Again, stopping to think about our intentions can help us to review our instinctive impulses and learn that we don't have to act on them. Those impulses fade, and are often replaced by better ones. Do we really need to kill insects that are on or near us? Why is it necessary? Thinking about this before you're placed in a situation where it's us or them can help us to check that initial behavior and make a more informed decision on what gets us closer to behaving consistently with our beliefs. If we decide that insects are fair game, that's all well and good; but we must be aware of our views and intentions to see whether or not our actions are consistent with them.

However, killing doesn't just mean ending someone's life. It could also mean making their lives more difficult through harmful or ignorant action; destroying a significant emotional, social or spiritual aspect of our fellow beings; revising their history to something that untrue through lies, deception or hiding. Physical death isn't the only one we should consider.

Stealing is the taking of something (or someone) without it being offered, either by force, stealth, fraud or deceit. Taking someone's TV out of their house obviously applies here, but so does misrepresenting ourselves in order to gain someone's trust for nefarious purposes. If we loosen our view of what constitutes a possession, then we see all the ways we could (and might) steal without even realizing it. If our intentions are to follow the path, then we must understand as well as possible how this aspect of it might be applied -- or how it doesn't apply.

Sexual misconduct, of course, means different things depending on your intentions. For monks, this part of the path is where they lay down their vow of celibacy. For laypersons like us, it means doing our best to understand and respect the boundaries of any sexual situation in which we find ourselves. Consent is the most basic aspect of this -- is our partner willing to engage in sex with us at this time? Are they in a position to make a conscious and informed decision? Are there other factors beyond their consent that may lead to harm or divisiveness?

These questions can only be answered as each situation arises, and it's very important that we know the answers clearly before engaging. If there is any doubt, refrain until that doubt is removed. Even if we're in the throes of our lust, there is no "point of no return". If doubt arises at any point, then the expectation (at least in my view) is to abstain until that doubt is removed. Learning to be mindful -- even in highly emotional or sensual situations -- is one of the best ways we can avoid ever being in a situation where we're "unable to stop". And if we can't trust ourselves to be mindful and respectful in a certain situation, we shouldn't be in that situation at all if we can help it.

In a lot of cases, our actions will fall into a grey area. One example I really like is dealing with a pet who, for some reason or another, is facing an illness or injury that may lead to death. Is taking them to the vet to be euthanized a violation of the "no killing" part of the Eightfold Path? What about taking office supplies home, or pirating music or movies -- does that count at stealing? If we're in a sexual encounter and we're not sure if going ahead with it is actual misconduct, what do we do?

It all comes down to our intentions and being honest about what those are. We must have an objective, self-aware knowledge of what's in our heart at the time and be forthright enough to make our decisions based on that. If we want to end the suffering of our pet, euthanizing them is OK. If we don't want to pay the vet's bills or deal with the hassle of caring for them, maybe it's not. If taking office supplies home helps us to do our job more effectively or makes it easier to help our coworkers, then it should be fine to ask. If we just want free staples and pens, then it's not. If we're sure that our sexual encounter will increase happiness, connection and compassion AND we're sure that informed and conscious consent has been given, it's OK. If our own pleasure is our primary motivation for moving ahead, we want to reconsider.

For me, the right action is the one that is not entirely selfish; hurting or degrading someone else in order to put myself ahead or make my life easier is not OK. I believe that human beings are innately social creatures, and we're at our best when we're working together. Fostering a spirit of community and companionship is my guide for action. Easing the suffering of other people is an impetus to act. Making my environment worse through action or inaction is the thing I need to watch and abstain from.

What do all of you think? Do you agree or disagree? Are there nuances on this that I've missed? How do you determine whether an action is right or wrong?
jakebe: (Buddhism)

So for a little while now I've wanted to go over the "spokes" in the wheel of the Noble Eightfold Path -- more for my own benefit than any pretense of instruction. One of the things that I'd like to get more serious about is my understanding of Buddhist ideas and how they relate to mindset, action and life. Going back to the basics is a great way to do this; making sure your foundation is sound helps you to be sure as you can that your belief structure is well-constructed.

Last week, I talked about the two spokes in the Wisdom or Prajna group: Right View and Right Intention. Right View is an accurate understanding of reality and how it works, though there's also the understanding that this will need to be adjusted as we gain knowledge and experience. Right Intention is the decision to act upon that view to be harmless at worst, and harmonious and helpful at best. It is making the commitment to be the best person we can be, and to pursue improvement not only for ourselves but for everyone we come into contact with.

Now that we have our best understanding of the universe and our best intentions towards goodness, we move to the next group of the path: the Sila group, or the "moral virtues". These are how we manifest our understanding and sharpen our focus towards being as helpful and compassionate as possible. These three virtues are Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood.

Right Speech is a very important one for me. The idea is to refrain from four kinds of speech that are damaging and uncompassionate: we are meant to abstain from lying; from divisive speech; from abusive speech; and from idle chatter. At least for the layperson, telling the truth while doing our best to connect and uplift people is the best thing we can do. Idle chatter can be...just talking for the sake of talking, speech that offers no benefit or takes attention without giving anything in return. It can also be gossip that bonds us to one person by distancing another -- especially when they're not there.

I'll be honest right now: I'm terrible with right speech very often. I have a hard time being honest with people -- mostly because I learned how to be secretive at a very early age and being open and vulnerable is very scary to me. I can be gossipy and uncharitable towards folks who have habits or attitudes I find annoying and harmful. When I'm stressed, I am often impatient and snappy towards people who turn to me for help. And as much as it pains me to say it, I am not nearly as good as I'd like to be with comforting people who turn to me with their problems.

I don't like these things about myself, of course. Focusing on Right Speech is a great way to unlearn these bad habits and inclinations, then replace them with alternatives that foster a sense of compassion and connection. I believe that ultimately, what we say has a powerful effect on the people around us; it fosters a sense of emotion that tends to develop unattended because we're not talking about it directly. If we look for and speak negatively, we begin to think along the same track and encourage others to do the same in order to communicate with us. Others might think that in order to connect with us, it would be easier to complain or share outrage. We might only look for the things that upset us, because those are the things we speak most about.

On the other hand, speaking up more about the things we love and make us excited can generate a sense of openness, contentment and positivity. If we focus on the things that make us happy and share them with others, it invites them to do the same. If we look for the best in people and compliment them when we find it, it lifts them up and encourages them to do the same. Speech is a powerful thing, and being aware of how we use it can enable us to use its power towards our best aims.

It can be difficult to remember this in the immediacy of conversation, especially at first. If we're among friends who tend towards being divisive or abusive, then it's really difficult to turn that around or find ways to abstain from that and still be a part of the conversation. But I think the difficulty of it is precisely the reason it's worth doing; it's far too easy to let ourselves be negative and distancing, especially online and in this political climate. It's hard to change a thing for the better, but it must always start with ourselves first. We must make the commitment to strive for compassion and connection any way we can, and how we communicate with each other is one of the most fundamental ways we can do that.

Online, almost all we have is our speech. Armed with our understanding of the situation and our intention to improve it, speech is a very powerful tool that we can use to achieve that. When we speak up to each other in person and online, we can ask ourselves whether what we're saying is truthful, helpful and worthwhile. At the very least, we can resolve to remain quiet if we catch ourselves lying, tearing someone down, or talking just for the sake of it. By choosing not to take action, we learn how to pay more attention to our impulses, and we also learn that we don't have to act on the first impulse that arises; it will subside, and often a better one will take its place.

These changes won't happen all at once. But the more we pay attention to our choices when we speak, the more we'll be able to make better choices more quickly. Personally, I'll be doing my best to be more honest and open to others, and to connect with someone where they are to the best of my ability. Where helpful, I will discourage abusive, divisive and dishonest speech and attempt to redirect the conversation towards something more positive. And perhaps most importantly, I'll try not to be an annoying and sanctimonious asshole about it when I do.

Now, my friends, what are the particular challenges you face with your speech? What has worked for you in trying to be better with it? Or do you have a different view about speech entirely?
jakebe: (Buddhism)

Right Intention is the second spoke on the wheel of the Noble Eightfold Path, and it makes up the concept of Prajna in Buddhism together with Right View. These two spokes form the foundation of Buddhist thought; once you have an accurate understanding of reality and have decided that you're going to try your best to do what's right according to that understanding, you're ready to move on to acting on what you understand.

Right Intention has also been called "Right Resolve," because it represents that step where you've gained this knowledge and resolve to act on it and incorporate it into our daily lives. We take what we've learned about ourselves, other people and everything else and aspire to use those lessons to make ourselves better. It's a commitment to align your life to principles you've adopted. But, as you grow in wisdom and knowledge, it's often necessary to review your views and adjust your behavior accordingly. This is a lifelong process; refinements will always happen.

This has been a huge part of the practice for me, because making sure I have the right intention essentially forces me to be mindful of my words and actions -- especially with matters of great importance. When I stepped into the social justice sphere two years ago, I wanted to make absolutely sure that I knew what my intentions were whenever I engaged with someone who didn't agree with me. Was I trying to understand them better so we could seek commonality? Was I trying to persuade them towards my point of view? Was I trying to make them feel bad about themselves or look bad in front of other people? Figuring out my intentions helps me to frame my argument towards that purpose. And knowing that people are essentially afraid, all the time, and that fear puts you in a space you feel you need to defend at all costs, a lot of the work I try to do is addressing that underlying fear inherent in uncompassionate ideas and behavior.

I believe that intention matters, and if you have really thought about your intentions then you'll naturally follow that up with careful and considered language and action. It's one of the reasons why careless, reckless behavior drives me so crazy. It points right back -- to me, at least -- to an ignorance of your true intentions or worse, willful disregard for the effects of your behavior on other people. In a world where all we have are our words (especially the Internet), choosing them carefully is one of the most fundamental things we can do to make our communities better and more harmonious.

But I'm getting ahead of myself a bit. One of my favorite sutras is the Metta Sutra, a Theravedan text that's often chanted by monks. (At least, so I hear.) It's one of those things that I use to bring my focus back to my intention with all interactions. When I get overwhelmed and anxious, I can often lash out at people who are asking for my attention. I get really whingy about all the things that I have to do when I feel like it's too much; and I can always tell when I've lost perspective when I start in on a rant and people just go glassy-eyed.

So, here's the Metta Sutra. Just reading it over, I'm again struck by how wonderful it is. It really is one of those things I've tried very hard to work towards:

This is to be done by one skilled in aims

who wants to break through to the state of peace:

Be capable, upright, & straightforward,

easy to instruct, gentle, & not conceited,

content & easy to support,

with few duties, living lightly,

with peaceful faculties, masterful,

modest, & no greed for supporters.

Do not do the slightest thing

that the wise would later censure.

Think: Happy, at rest,

may all beings be happy at heart.

Whatever beings there may be,

weak or strong, without exception,

long, large,

middling, short,

subtle, blatant,

seen & unseen,

near & far,

born & seeking birth:

May all beings be happy at heart.

Let no one deceive another

or despise anyone anywhere,

or through anger or irritation

wish for another to suffer.

As a mother would risk her life

to protect her child, her only child,

even so should one cultivate a limitless heart

with regard to all beings.

With good will for the entire cosmos,

cultivate a limitless heart:

Above, below, & all around,

unobstructed, without enmity or hate.

Whether standing, walking,

sitting, or lying down,

as long as one is alert,

one should be resolved on this mindfulness.

This is called a sublime abiding

here & now.

Not taken with views,

but virtuous & consummate in vision,

having subdued desire for sensual pleasures,

one never again

will lie in the womb.

jakebe: (Buddhism)

I'm sure I've done this before -- I may have even claimed that I would be running through the entire Noble Eightfold Path until I got distracted by something or discouraged into thinking that I had no business speaking up about this or that no one cared. But I think it's important to get my current understanding of these steps down on paper; mostly I would just like to be able to refer to this in a couple of years to figure out what where I was and how I've built upon (or changed) my understanding. So this is mostly just...me talking to myself, but feel free to jump in and offer your perspective at any point!

The Noble Eightfold Path is basically the Fourth Noble Truth -- the truth of the path that leads to awakening. The Four Noble Truths themselves form the basis of Buddhist thought -- the truth that suffering in life is inevitable; the truth that this suffering is caused by attachment, or grasping after the good while shutting out the bad; the truth that there is a way out of this suffering; and finally, the truth that the way out is through the Noble Eightfold Path.

The first step on the path is that of "Right View". What I find fascinating about this is that while it may be the first step, it's also just one in a continuum. The Buddhist wheel is a symbol of the path and the reality that the last step leads you right back into the first. As our concentration and meditation on reality improves, we find that we must make refinements in our view to compensate. With our foundation strengthened, we then go about the work of sharpening the path we walk.

So what is "Right View" anyway? It's an accurate understanding of reality and our place within it -- realizing who we are, how the universe works (including the recognition of all of the stuff we don't know about it) and the "useful fictions" we tell ourselves to make sense of our lives. In many ways, I recognize that using Rabbit as a totem for working with fear is one of those and that really it's simply a framework I like to use to make myself more comfortable with the work itself. I also recognize that in order to truly work with fear, I will eventually need to confront my need for that fiction. This doesn't necessarily mean getting rid of the paradigm -- I can still have my preferences, even if I'm not attached to them -- but it does mean understanding and embracing the inherent emptiness of it.

Right now, the world feels like a pretty hostile place. On a personal level, I'm someone who's had a pretty hard life and even though I've been lucky enough to get to a pretty good place there are still so many things I struggle with -- intimacy, confidence, concentration, to name a few. And looking at the state of our country and the world, there are so many terrible things that we're running out of time to address. The effects of climate change are happening right now, even though we've been warning ourselves for at least 50 years about it. Our political climate has become so toxic that reconciliation feels impossible, right at the point where we need to come together in order to take decisive and drastic action. There is a strong current of anti-intellectualism and the willful abandonment of empathy running through us at the moment, not just here in the United States but in many countries of the developed world. As resources become more scarce and our climate becomes more unstable, the concerns about refugees and displaced populations will become even more dire and important. And so far, our reaction has been to cling to the things we have all the more tightly and turn out those in need. Facing our own oblivion, we're regressing back towards our worst impulses as a species.

For someone as fearful and anxious as I am, it's a very difficult time. But what Right Understanding offers is a chance to set aside my fear and despair to look deeper into the forces that drives our behavior. If I can better understand myself, I can better understand people -- because we are often guided by the same basic impulses, expressed in very different ways.

Understanding the nature and cause of suffering -- its universality, and the fact that so often we inflict it on ourselves -- allows me to see a commonality with even the people who have a very different, difficult view to digest. I understand that many of these people are afraid, just as I am, and that they cling to a situation that was good for them but must now change. Nothing is permanent; everything changes. Our time as the dominant society in the world, a capitalist country that is entirely dependent on oil, is coming to an end. In order to adapt, we must stop grasping the way it was as a society. We must have a clear vision of what is actually happening, first and foremost, if we want to have any chance of doing something about it.

I know how difficult this is for me. I love my apartment, and my job, and my set of friends. I'm very attached to them. Losing any of them would cause me great pain, and it would be very difficult to accept the loss. Asking the same of millions of other people, who have their own reasons for clinging so tightly, is not easy. But it's also necessary.

Right now, my view is that life is an inherently impermanent state of being. What my life looks like now is not what it will look like a year from now. It's already changed drastically from what it has been, multiple times. I've left elementary school, middle school, high school, college. I've changed jobs and ended relationships. I've moved to entirely different cities. And while these upheavals have required time to resettle, I've always been able to do so. Sooner or later, my life will change again. Eventually, I will need to face the biggest change of all -- my life's end. Facing that with grace and dignity means loosening my grip of it, and accepting what this means.

Fear is a direct block of that work. Fear makes us want to hold on tighter, to never let go of what we have, to force ourselves to make sure everything is exactly the same. And it's also understandable. The unknown is scary. Change can be terrifying. Especially when we've got things just the way we want them. But even the best of times end, and that doesn't mean what comes next is going to be worse than before. It's just different.

The fear of change has been occupying my thoughts a lot lately. So Right Understanding for me has been directed towards unpacking that. Being able to identify the ways in which I'm afraid can help me better recognize fear in others. Being able to loosen my fearful grip on reality can help me to be compassionate with others who are still unable to do so for whatever reason. Even when they make me angry, exasperated, fearful or anxious, I can still see them for who they really are -- people, like me, who are simply afraid. They may express that fear in unacceptable ways -- through bigotry or hatred or selfish behavior -- and while I can condemn those expressions of fear I can still have sympathy and compassion for that underlying cause.

That's very important to me. And I do get it wrong a lot. But it's the ideal I strive for. People like Trump and his supporters aren't monsters, even though they're frequently doing monstrous things. They're just people who are facing down big changes on a societal level and too terrified to loosen their grip on the status quo. Understanding that, sympathizing with that, and sharing the ways in which we too struggle with it might be the best thing we can do to reconnect with them and move forward together.
jakebe: (Buddhism)

So 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.
jakebe: (Buddhism)

There's this idea in Buddhism about the Noble Eightfold Path -- after you've taken every step along the path, what comes next? You've attained Right View and Intention, Right Speech and Action and Livelihood, Right Effort and Mindfulness and Concentration. Where do you go from there?

You attain Right View after that.

Like the wheel of karma, the Noble Eightfold Path is also a circle; reaching one spoke of the wheel brings you to the place where you can reach the next one. There is no completion, even after you attain enlightenment; there is only the work of realization of the present. One of the reasons I identify with Zen Buddhism so strongly is its acknowledgement that perfection is an illusion. Being alive is a constant balancing act, maintaining your stance while rolling with whatever bumps and turns ripple through the wheel.

It also reinforces the concept of interconnectedness. One thing leads to another, leads to another, leads to another. In this way, one act -- however small -- sends ripples through the wheel of your life that shape everything that comes after it. This is really what karma is; the awareness of the consequences of your actions, large and small, predicted and unintended.

So: my dear husband Ryan has been in Japan for nearly two weeks. He's been planning this trip for months, and I'm tremendously excited to have him back with me so I can hear about his experience and see the places he's visited. I also miss him terribly. For the past two weeks, I've lived as a bachelor -- it's just been me and my rabbit Puckles, watching TV and eating whatever we felt like sprawled out together in bed.

Except not really. The home we share is in a condominium complex that scheduled a fumigation for the weekend after he left, which meant that I would have to get everything ready for that. All of our food and medicine had to be double bagged in special material in order to avoid contamination. And I would have to clean up as much as I could, because there's no way I'm going to let strangers know just what kind of things we let slide in our household.

The work was more intensive than I expected, so it meant many late nights. I don't sleep well without Ryan anyway, so that meant trying to snatch just a little more rest well after the alarm went off. That meant being unable to meditate and ease into the day before work, which meant that I arrived at the office tired, harried and rootless. That meant being less resilient to stress, which there was plenty of last week. And that meant coming back home with my willpower depleted, my brain fried and unable to rest because there was more preparation to do. Which meant more late nights…

You get the idea. For the past two weeks I slipped into a cycle where I had all but abandoned the self-care mechanisms I had been building for a while, and the effect was dramatic. My mood plummeted, my anxiety skyrocketed and my coping mechanisms disappeared. All from staying up too late.

Except, of course, not really. The contradiction here is that I made a series of choices that put me into that cycle. I could have made more efficient use of my time, or gotten up early anyway to make the best of so little sleep. I could have asked for more help with getting the apartment together before that weekend. I could have simply sacrificed precision (I couldn't ignore the opportunity to throw away expired food and medicine) for time. Each choice I made along the way nudged me a little more firmly into that cycle, until momentum made it easy to remain there.

And once you're there, you feel stuck. Life doesn't pause for you to get your head on straight; there was still work and fumigation and everything else. Taking the time to put in the effort to get yourself off of a bad path can be difficult to find, but at a certain point it's necessary. You have to stop and take a breath.

This past weekend I managed to slow down enough to consider the choices I make. I went to bed earlier, caught up on sleep, re-established my meditation practice, and took the mindfulness I gained off the bench and into the rest of the day. I'm in a better place mentally and emotionally, but I'm still recovering. Pausing and changing momentum is still energy that must be expended. I believe I'm applying Right Concentration now, making a concerted effort to make sure the changes I make today stick.

Eventually, I'll get to a place where I can work on attaining the Right View.
jakebe: (Buddhism)

It might surprise some of you to know that I consider myself to be an angry person, but it's true. I have a pretty quick temper, and like most idealists there's a strong sense of order and fairness within me that gets offended often. That sense of fair play isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it can lead us to have strong emotions against the people who we think disrespect it on a frequent basis.

A lot of people think that anger is a negative emotion, but it's not; it's simply a difficult one to react constructively with. Acting on anger without thought leads us to do terrible things to other people in the name of "justice" or "revenge", and that doesn't really solve anything. It just directs pain somewhere else; instead of dissipating or eliminating it, it's amplified and channeled. Instead of stopping the behavior that caused the anger in the first place, these actions can often harden the targets of our lashing out. It makes them more defensive, less likely to listen.

I'm seeing this play out in activist circles, and it unnerves and exhausts me. Being angry about the problems we face is a completely reasonable reaction; we've noticed how unfair our society is, how few times those in power do the "right" thing by us. As idealists, of course living in a world where anti-social behavior is accepted as "normal" drives us crazy. However, I don't think we've learned how to really think about the best uses of our anger. I've mentioned before how it can be a catalyzing force for us to change, or a way that we keep ourselves firmly on the path of social justice. But way too often, I see us lashing out, hardening the very people we should hope to change, demonizing and disconnecting an increasingly large set of people. Our anger is beginning to put us into an echo chamber, where we're only willing to tolerate the people who think exactly the same way we do.

That's not good for anyone. So in order to find a better way of dealing with those injustices that are everywhere within the modern world, I have to figure out how to have a better relationship with my anger, to really understand and harness it. For me, the best way to do that is fall back on the foundation of my Zen practice and recommit myself to the precepts and Noble Eightfold Path.

The Four Noble Truths tell us that attachment and desire is the root of all suffering, and the elimination of suffering can be achieved by eliminating our attachments. This is often misunderstood as having no emotions on anything, having no likes or dislikes, simply existing in reaction to whatever stimulus comes our way. That's a mistake; taking such an extreme view of detachment isn't consistent with the Middle Way, of course. It's a form of emotional asceticism, another attachment to a bad idea.

I think what's happening these days in activist spaces is a deep attachment to our anger. Perhaps we've spent so long ignoring or repressing our anger that letting it out just feels too good. It's an empowering thing to express our anger and have other voices rise up in chorus with it. But that attachment is simply preserving the cycle of suffering; we hold on to our anger, use it to lash out regardless of the situation, and the resulting ill will and alienation just creates more anger in others...who then lash out, and pass on this cycle to someone else.

What detachment really means is being able to disconnect ourselves from our anger just enough to figure out the best way to express it. Sometimes that's organized protest; sometimes that's respectful debate; sometimes that's leaving a situation where it's clear there is simply no way you will be understood or treated fairly. It depends on a multitude of factors that must be considered before action; even though the stimulus is the same (something offensive happened), the things that gave rise to that stimulus are different and have to be examined both on their own and in relation to one another.

Anger is one powerful emotion, but that doesn't mean there is only one response to it. We must put our anger in perspective to figure out its proper place and usage each time we encounter it. Knowing more about our emotions, when and how they arise, what our instinctive response may be to it, and how people are likely to react to that all help us out with that work. And one of the ways we learn more about our anger is through meditation, self-reflection and listening to the experiences of our fellow human beings.

As someone who struggles to cope with a variety of strong emotions, it's very important to me that I have multiple tools at my disposal to manage them. Anger, anxiety, despair and boredom are emotions that I'm very sensitive to; that makes it much more difficult for me to put them in their proper places. But hopefully, with a firm commitment towards Zen, I can do just that.
jakebe: (Buddhism)

I'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.
jakebe: (Buddhism)
Today 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!
jakebe: (Fandom)

Folks, 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!

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.

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!

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.

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!

jakebe: (Writing)
It feels like I swing back and forth with resolutions from year to year. One year, I'm all business with concrete resolutions that have a pass/fail success condition. Write 6 short stories. Read 10 novels. That sort of thing. The next year, having been beaten down by life and the unexpected, I ease back to more vague resolutions that have more subjective measurements of success. Be kinder to myself. Run more. Things like that.
This looks like it's going to be a year where I have soft and fuzzy resolutions. It's not necessarily that I don't trust myself to make big goals and keep to them; it's more that I just don't know what'll happen this year to take my eye off the ball. The more I settle in to the shape of my life and who I am, the more I realize that planning for November in January is just something that leads to disaster.
So I'd like to make resolutions that help me to refine my focus and habits towards a single goal this year. Instead of promising myself to hit a certain concrete measure of success, I'd like to make promises that help me fulfill my purpose. What is that purpose? To become a better writer, reader and person this year of course.
Finish what you start. This is a big one for me. I'll often jump into projects easily with grand plans about what the end result will look like, with a vast underestimation of the time and effort it will take to achieve them. Sometimes, I just don't have the space in my life to do what I would like to do; so it's better to pick my projects carefully and devote time to making sure they're finished before moving on to something else. If something that initially grabbed my fancy is really something I should do, then it will wait its turn in line until I get to it. It's more important that I do what I set out to do. You don't learn anything from a project until you have a finished one to look back on.
Be more organized. The ADHD diagnosis last year helped me realize that my brain just works in a certain way and I'll likely never get it to be as clean and straight-forward as other people's. Thankfully, I can rely on external tools to pick up the slack -- notepads to write down bits of information that I need to remember; to-do apps that help me keep track of projects and deadlines to provide structure for my day; rituals that prime me to do certain things in certain spaces. Writing stories isn't a science, or a project that lends itself to concrete and significant planning. But finally providing structure that allows me to focus on the important work will really help me to be more productive.
Read a LOT more. There are so many great stories out there you guys. SO MANY. As a writer, it's really important to read. Period. You have to discover the stories you enjoy and the way you love for them to be told to learn more about your craft. A writer who doesn't like to read is someone who has no idea how to create stories with an audience in mind. Besides, in order to come correct to the broader science-fiction/fantasy community, I'm going to need to know a lot more about what's out there. In order to be a part of the conversation, I need to know a lot more about what it is. I've got a reading list of short stories and novels prepared, and I'll be working on it throughout the year. I'm really excited to dig into books, comic books and other stories again.
See the spiritual in the mundane. The draw of Buddhism for me is the fact that its entire purpose is to push the mindset of the temple out into the world. For Buddhists, there's no distinction between the you that's on the meditation bench and the you that's answering customer calls at work. Every aspect of your life deserves your complete attention; every interaction you have with someone else is a chance to worship the Divine. As I'm running through my day trying to meet deadlines or do the things I need to, it's vitally important to remember this. Sometimes, that means slowing down, centering yourself, and doing the best you can to live up to your principles. It's something I forget in the thick of things, and I'll try to find ways to remember them this year.
Don't forget to take stock. This year I'd like to save concrete goals for weekly and monthly check-ins. This week, I've set goals to make sure that something goes through the Writing Desk three times; that the first two parts of my serial will be written; and that a review for a furry anthology is finally edited and sent off to another blog for posting. I'd also like to make sure I get in a couple of runs and I keep a tighter leash on what I spend. We'll see how that goes when I take my pulse for the week next Sunday.
So that's it: this year, I'm focusing on seeing things through, putting myself in the best position to do that, reading and connecting with people more earnestly, and making sure I'm mindful of who I am and what I'm doing. Concrete goals will be set every week; project updates will happen every month. That's the plan.
How about you fine folks? Have you set any resolutions for yourself this year? What does a successful 2016 look like for you, creatively?
jakebe: (Self-Improvement)
It's that time. Best of the year lists are popping up all over the pop-culture and entertainment blogs. Books, movies, TV shows, art installations, plays and musicals, even memes are being reviewed so we can try to make sense of the past twelve months. We spent how much time obsessed over that back in February? What really were the best things ever last year, now that we've had time to temper our breathless enthusiasm? What are we actually embarrassed for even liking at this point?
2015 was a big year for me, personally. I made the decision to speak up for causes that I'm passionate about in ways I never had before, and that opened up connections to folks online I'm so glad I got to make. I've shared my perspective as a gay black Buddhist who spends a lot of time pretending to be a jackalope online, my experience with my mental illness, my opinions and fears about telling stories. I've stepped into black geek, social justice and furry writer spaces, and I've found that those communities are homes I'd been searching for all my life. It's been a transformative time.
I've had to change, personally and professionally. At my day job changes in ownership and company structure forced a shift in my position, and I found myself learning technical skills that have always frightened the living shit out of me. Months later, that fear is still with me -- but I've learned how to make peace with it. I know how to use that discomfort to sharpen my focus, to be careful, to pay attention to what's necessary. The lessons I've learned from that experience I'm trying to apply to the rest of my life.
December is upon us, and we're all making one mad dash through the last holidays of the year. It feels like we're rushing through a time that we should be taking slow; the days are short, the nights are long and cold, well-built for silent contemplation. I've spent so much of my life letting my reflexes take over how I act on what I think and feel. If fear motivates my behavior, I've often let it with no questions asked. If anxiety demands comfort, I indulge in it. So many of my actions have roots in an automatic stimulus. I feel x, I do y. It didn't matter for a long time that these reflexes no longer serve a useful purpose, or worse, hold me back. I use them because I've always used them.
I've been making a persistent effort to live deliberately. I've become more consistent with my meditation, and taking the awareness cultivated on the bench throughout my day. I'm still new at this, though, so I fail quite often. When I'm overwhelmed force of habit reasserts itself and I fall back on those same ingrained behaviors. But I've gotten better at recognizing when I end up on those tracks, stopping for a minute to ask myself if I want to be there, and repositioning myself when I need to. As with everything, it's a work in progress. But progress is being made.
Everything we do throughout our lives is a choice that we've made. It can be difficult to take stock of our options and pick the best one, especially in the many moments that make up our days. Emotions demand action, we're often pressed for time, and our emotional reflexes have been well-honed. But it's helpful to double-check whether they're still useful after a certain point. We're often in situations where our first response -- our reflexive one -- doesn't fit, and it'd be better to go with something else. It's hard, slow work to do, but that awareness pays dividends sooner than I thought.
I've learned a lot more about myself this year. Learning about how my anxiety is on a fairly sensitive trigger helped me realize all the ways it influenced my decisions; I'm now working on consistently short-circuiting that system to make smarter choices. Learning that I have issues with ADHD has allowed me to recognize that there are certain things my brain will just never be good with. Far from simply letting myself off the hook with that, it encourages me to work harder (and more efficiently) by knowing I need to rely on something external instead of my own brain. Timers, to-do list and calendars have become essential; follow-through is not something I'm great with, so finding ways to make sure I finish what I start needs to be baked into every process. In this situation, knowing my limitations hasn't made me feel lesser; it's allowed me to work within and beyond them to do a lot more than I thought I could.
This year has been great. I've made a lot of progress, and I feel I see myself and the world around me a bit more clearly than before. But there's still work to do. I can be better still about how I manage my time. I could be more efficient with my projects, work through them more quickly by making sure I'm on task when I've set myself to be. Learning to be comfortable with my fear and anxiety is never something that will end. It's a project I'll be working on all of my life. But the work becomes more familiar with time and practice. Maybe it won't be easier, but I'll get better at it.
And working on the connections that I continue to make will be a big focus next year. Now that I've finally found and understand community, working hard to be a productive part of them is something I really want to do. I want to support my neighbors, both in the real world and online. What are the best ways of doing that? How can I help through my perspective and experience? What can I do to help us be better?
I'm so grateful for this year, even though it's been difficult at times. I'm thankful because it's brought me closer to so many of you. I'm really looking forward to the work of continuing what I've started here next year. I'm really looking forward to helping bring us all closer together.
jakebe: (Buddhism)

A 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.

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

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

“The one you feed,” the elder says.

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

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

I take on that moniker because I believe in the causes championed by many who’ve been derided as such. I occupy many different intersecting minority spaces, being gay, black, non-Christian and coping with chronic mental illnesses. I know what it’s like to move through a world that hasn’t been built for you, and I’ve experienced on a day-to-day basis what it’s like to have your existence questioned, dismissed or belittled. I’ve also experienced how occupying many privileged spaces has made my life easier in many respects; I’m a cisgender male, I’m able-bodied, I’m reasonably educated, have medical insurance and a support network. My illnesses aren’t so severe that I can’t function in modern society. There are people who have more fundamental challenges than I do.

So I fight for them, and I fight for the people who are dealing with the same challenges I do. I believe in a world where we clearly see, understand and accept the unique challenges and burdens of our fellow human beings. I believe we ought to live in a society that provides them with whatever they need to be healthy, happy and whole. I believe in fighting for a shift in our consciousness around these issues; it’s not enough that I personally believe these things – we as a civilization must address the needs of our most vulnerable and powerless. We must make sure they can be connected to the fabric of society just as well as those of us who don’t need additional considerations. I’m willing to work to make sure that happens, however I can.

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

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

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

It’s taken me some time to reconcile my identity as a Zen Buddhist with my identity as a social justice warrior. Spending time in activist spaces, I see how so many of them have become hornet’s nests of anger and frustration. For so many of us, this is a life-and-death struggle. For so many of us, people like Michael Brown and Freddie Gray (remember them?) don’t happen in a vacuum. They’re not aberrations or miscarriages of justice. They’re the end result of a system working as designed.

So many of us in progressive circles are afraid about what happens to us when someone decides that our differences will not be accepted. As a black man, will I be harassed by the police while I’m driving? As a gay man, will I be targeted for expressing love towards my husband in public? As a non-Christian, hearing the rhetoric in our politics about anyone who doesn’t go to church is disheartening. And these are anxieties I carry with my all day, every day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think in order for social justice warriors to be effective in combat, we’re going to need to start doing the same.
jakebe: (Default)
Last Thursday I celebrated my 35th birthday. If I'm lucky, this puts me squarely in the territory of early middle age. That means that for the most part, I'm starting to have fewer days ahead of me than there are behind. It's a sobering thought, but not a depressing one.
Unlike most I really don't mind getting older. I think older people rule -- they have a depth of knowledge and experience that can only be obtained one way, have learned what's really important and what might not be worth paying attention to, have grown comfortable living in their own skin. I feel that happening to me as the days tick by; I keep learning new things, experiencing more things that I can compare to my previous experiences, and am more able to learn and accept my limitations. All of the regrets I have, instead of sending me into a paralyzing depression, are valuable lessons that help me strive for the ideals I treasure and the standards I've set for myself. I've made so many mistakes, and I continue to do so. But that is part of the imperfection that is my birthright.
I still have a long way to go before I feel like I'm where I want to be, but maybe it will always be that way. Maybe that's what life is; a constant running towards a set of moving goalposts. And I know how futile that might sound, but it's actually exciting -- the goalposts only move once you've reached them to find they're a signpost to the next thing. The idea that I'm standing in a place that was a goal somewhere in my 20s (stable job, self-confidence, a loving husband, a support network of smart, honest friends) is wonderful; and the idea that somewhere down the line, I'll be that much further along towards places I'm only beginning to think are possible now is simply wondrous.
I've learned a lot this year -- not only about myself, but about the world around me. I'm taking great strides in learning about my fear and overcoming it, and that is opening up an exciting range of new possibilities. I can sit with my discomfort far better than ever, which means I'm more willing to push through new experiences that make me feel stupid or uncertain (that means pretty much any new experience basically). I've learned that I probably have ADHD, and the treatment for that allows me to be focused and organized in ways I never thought I was capable of. I own a car, can drive all over town, and have (slowly and painfully) learned how to stop impulse buying. (Mostly.)
I've become more engaged with the world, both politically and personally. That engagement has pushed me further to the left at a time when it feels like my country is becoming more and more selfish, alienated and conservative. It's more important to me than ever to try and connect people, to value understanding and compassion, even as it feels more hopeless and certain that we're all going to die fighting for the few stunted scraps that will grow in polluted soil and poisoned water. I feel more passionate about the best of humanity even when I'm almost certain we will succumb to our own demons.
It reminds me of this parable: in the afterlife, all of us sit at a long table groaning under the weight of a tremendous feast. There are long forks attached to our left hand, long spoons fixed to our right. If we're in hell, we cannot possibly feed ourselves; the utensils are way too long to bring the food to our mouths. If we're in heaven, we're feeding each other; we're alleviating the suffering of our fellow man and accepting the charity of others. It's the same exact situation -- the only thing that changes is our reaction to it.
I want to devote my life to helping other people, however I can. I want to spend the time I have left helping people to understand themselves and one another, to feel less alone, to encourage them towards caring for themselves, their community and their world. I want to take all of the misery I've experienced and use it to ground myself in compassion for those who are having difficulty. I want to encourage active, positive change.
The personal is the political, of course, and vice versa. I believe that the best way to change the way our society operates is by reminding the people in it what their values are, and encouraging them to pursue that in a way that betters themselves and their fellow human beings. We can do this even if we hold different values in higher esteem. We can do this without judgment or hatred for our differences. We can feed our fellow humans whatever they want, and be glad to do it. That is what heaven looks like to me.
At the age of 35, these are my ideals. I know I will fail to live up to them; I know they might change by the time I reach 45, or 55, or 65. But that's fine. What I do today will be the foundation for what I will have built in the next decade or two, and it's taken me a while to realize just what that means. If I want to make sure that I'm one of those kick-ass old men who are smart and certain and passionate, then I'm going to have to build myself into that right now. One goal at a time, one day at a time, one small act at a time.
jakebe: (Default)
Last Wednesday I went to the Kannon Do Zen Centre up in Mountain View to hear Natalie Goldberg speak. A friend had invited me to see her, and when do you get a chance to actually meet the writer of Writing Down The Bones? Of course, I had to go.
It was a bit of a shock to see the Zen Centre right there in the middle of Mountain View, just a small way from downtown. The grounds were immaculate, the neighborhood was quiet, and everything there was geared towards one purpose -- the practice of Zen and the encouragement of mindfulness. I was really impressed with it, and introduced to a community of practitioners who were all striving for the same thing.
We meditated first. My friend asked if I wanted to sit in a chair, and I told him I would probably be able to hang on a cushion. That turned out to be a big mistake. I meditate on a seiza bench at home; it's basically a tiny little bench meant to hold your butt up off of your heels when you're kneeling. I'm way too inflexible for half-lotus, and I'm pretty sure I'd break my legs if I tried full-lotus. (I'm still marvelling that anyone can manage that pose. It's like they have cartoon noodle legs). Sitting seiza, though, is not the best without some sort of barrier between your rear and your heels. If you're not tiny (and I am not), then it doesn't take long for your lower legs to fall asleep. After that, any shift you make will send a horde of angry ants skittering from your ankle to your kneecap.
At first I could hang, but the second half of the meditation session was pure agony. I shifted out of seiza, awkwardly tried the half-lotus before I gave that up too, and just sort of ended up hugging my knees and resting my chin on my legs. It's a horribly undignified way to meditate, but nothing brings you into the present moment quite like shame.
After meditation, there was a brief chant. I had never experienced anything like it before! We chanted the "Great Wisdom Beyond Wisdom Heart Sutra," which is this:
Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva when deeply practicing prajna paramita clearly saw that all five aggregates are empty and thus relieved all suffering. Shariputra, form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form. Form itself is emptiness, emptiness itself form. Sensations, perceptions, formations, and consciousness are also like this. Shariputra, all dharmas are marked by emptiness; they neither arise nor cease, are neither defiled nor pure, neither increase nor decrease. Therefore, given emptiness, there is no form, no sensation, no perception, no formation, or consciousness; no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind, no sight, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch, no object of mind; no realm of sight…no realm of mind consciousness. There is neither ignorance nor extinction of ignorance…neither old age and death, nor extinction of old age and death; no suffering, no cause, no cessation, no path; no knowledge and no attainment. With nothing to attain a bodhisattva relies on prajna paramita and thus the mind is without hindrance. Without hindrance, there is no fear. Far beyond all inverted views, one realizes nirvana. All buddhas of past, present, and future rely on prajna paramita and thereby attain unsurpassed, complete, perfect enlightenment. Therefore, know the prajna paramita as the great miraculous mantra, the great bright mantra, the supreme mantra, the incomparable mantra, which removes all suffering and is true, not false. Therefore we proclaim the prajna paramita mantra, the mantra that says “Gate gate paragate parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha!”
Something came over me in the recitation of this sutra. It felt like something came unlocked, this idea that there is nothing to attain because whatever we could strive for is illusory; and once you realize that, the very idea of holding on to something -- or scrambling to achieve it -- just doesn't hold any weight. When you realize that, fear simply leaves you.
Fear is something I struggle with all the time. The past couple of weeks have shown me that I'm a very tightly wound person. I'm terrified of making mistakes. It frightens me to talk about something that means a lot to me and have it dismissed or rejected. I hate the idea of stretching myself out, of being in a place where I'm not certain. But that's where life is; and as much as you strive for the comfort of knowing exactly where you are and what you're doing, you will actually spend very little time there. That comfort, that stability, is illusory and impermanent; attaching so much of my emotional energy to it is a thing that causes me suffering.
Natalie spoke, after chanting and a period of silent reflection while a few associates navigated through technical difficulties. She talked about living in (and hating) Palo Alto, and how it taught her to be careful what you hate because so much energy goes into that act. She talked about being diagnosed with cancer and how it stopped her writing cold but channeled her creative output into painting. Her work there was interesting; warm, vibrant yet serene, touched by her New Mexico lifestyle while still capturing pieces of the setting she was in. Her self-portraits were the most interesting, capturing the fear, worry and sadness she couldn't express in words.
I was impressed mostly by the softness with which she lived her life. She was very gentle with her words and her tone, as if she knew that she didn't need to use pressure to get at the truth she was trying to communicate. There was a deep and abiding acceptance in everything she did, even when she spoke about the cancer that had frightened her so. That discomfort was something she knew intimately and embraced just as much as everything else.
Silicon Valley is not a place that lends itself to that softness. It's a fast-paced, high-powered world, and it's not conducive to slow and ponderous attention to one thing. It's difficult to know how to attain that soft and gentle attitude. The current teacher of Kannon Do, Les Kaye, wrote Zen At Work and actually worked at IBM for 30 years before becoming a Zen teacher. I think he understands the unique challenge of marrying Zen practice to the tech sector, which is pretty neat.
The intimacy and care with which the community of Kannon Do related to the space and with one another is something I'll remember for a long time. There are a number of things within my calendar right now, so I'm not sure if it'll be possible right now to attend services regularly. It's definitely something I will make time for, however. Just being there for one warm summer evening gave me an awful lot to chew over, and for that I'm grateful.

November 2016

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