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)

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)

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!

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