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: (Hugs!)
No Shame Day was last week and I completely missed it, so I thought I would take a bit of time to open up further about my mental health issues. I believe that the more we discuss these things openly, the more people understand the nature of mental illness and the more we destigmatize those suffering from them.
I manage chronic depression, and I'm pretty sure I've had it all my life. Depressive episodes have been really bad a few times, and it was only recently (when I moved to California) that I finally got the help I needed. Now, I cope with a mixture of medication, cognitive behavioral therapy, and Zen meditation. For the most part this does the trick -- my thoughts don't run away from me nearly as often because I can recognize when something is being driven by depression and have tools to engage that.
However, things aren't perfect. One of the reasons I identify with rabbit so strongly is because it's a creature whose life is ruled by wariness. They're constantly on guard for potential threats, and so much of their communication is about worry and the lack of it. The less they worry, the more their personality comes through; it can be hard to "get to know" a rabbit, but it's a delight when you do.
I'm a high-strung person; most of my effort goes towards the managing and alleviating of stress -- in myself and others. At work, I sweat the small stuff as much as I can, though it gets exhausting to do so and I end up dropping a lot of the details because I just don't have the capacity to deal with them. THAT can stress me out, knowing that I'm inconsistent with my attention to detail or the ability to get things done. And since I'm stressing about that, I have a reduced capacity for new stressors in my life.
The cycle completes when I get overwhelmed. It becomes impossible to concentrate on the things I need to do. The more I try, the more my brain just seems to slide off the task and I look for anything that can provide a distraction. Sometimes I'll end up just clicking on the same three websites over and over for distraction's sake, not taking in anything, just doing something so I don't have to think.
But that's no way to live your life, much less spend your career. I'm trying to move into a position of more responsibility at work, but it's difficult when you struggle to manage the responsibilities you have. This obviously isn't something I can talk about my superiors with; I'm not a bad worker, I just have trouble dealing with certain aspects of my work. Still, something had to be done.
So I went to a psychologist to see if I had ADHD; the lack of concentration and focus, the excitability, the tension all seemed to point to that. After a test and a consultation, she determined that yes, that was a likely possibility as well as Generalized Anxiety Disorder. GAD is characterized by excessive worrying about various aspects of daily life (in my case, writing and work) with physical symptoms that include fatigue (yes), muscle tension (yes), twitching (yes), difficulty concentrating (yes), irritability (also yes).
So now I'm embarking on a new front for my treatment: group therapy classes for GAD and ADHD, with a round of medication possibly starting up today. I'm hoping that the coping mechanisms learned in these group therapy classes can help me cope with anxiety, and the medication at least puts me on an even keel for long enough to make those mechanisms habit. We'll see how the rest of the year goes, but I'm optimistic that it'll at least help me deal with my reactions to stress.
I know that mental health issues are difficult to speak about. You have celebrities and various seminars and self-improvement courses trying to tell you that it's "all in your mind" and medication is never a good idea. You have the media promoting the idea that when something terrible happens (like say, Dylan Roof) it's because the perpetrator was mentally ill. Well-meaning friends and associates tell you to suck it up or get over it without properly understanding just how difficult (and sometimes impossible) that is -- like people who suffer haven't tried that already.
But mental illness is a real thing with real causes; sometimes those causes need medication to be resolved, and sometimes developing a mindfulness program is enough. Sometimes the condition is transient, brought out by extraordinary stimuli. Sometimes it's chronic, without any cause but chemical, and you'll have to work to manage it for the rest of your life.
All of this is OK. We each have our own burdens, and sometimes we need the help and wisdom of people better equipped to deal with them. It takes a while to find a therapist we feel understood by; it takes a while to find the medication that makes us feel even without feeling emotionally restricted. Learning just how to handle mental illness is a journey that can be long, lonely and frustrating. But like getting to know a rabbit, the end result is very much worth it.
It's important to me that people know mental illness is a real affliction, and that it can be managed. People who have them can live productive and meaningful lives. And most importantly, that there's help out there. If you feel there's an issue that you can't manage on your own and need help, mentalhealth.gov is a good place to start. Reach out to friends and/or family you trust; a support network can be tremendously helpful. And know that you're not alone. There are those of us who are fighting the fight with you, all the time, every day. We see you, we understand you, we love you.
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.
jakebe: (Buddhism)
It's taken me a very long time to understand what meditation is for. When I first started to practice, I assumed that the time I'd spend on the bench was in preparation for something else. By sitting down and counting my breath (one-in-out-two-in-out) my brain was being molded in a way that would manifest elsewhere. I assumed that meditation was a ritual, and that like most magic it would work in ways I wasn't looking for, that it would surprise me with its effectiveness when I needed it to. An incredibly stressful situation would arise, and suddenly I would get through it with grace, focus and clarity without knowing how it happened. One day, just like Neo in The Matrix, my eyes would open and I would simply see everything for what it is. Instead of lines of code, I would see another person, sharing the same air that I was, wanting the same things I did, no different from me at all. I'd put in the time, and there would be a reward later, a mysterious effect disconnected from its cause by time and thought.

That's a completely shitty idea. I know that now, of course, but I didn't then. It took me a few years of sporadic meditation to understand that meditation isn't a preparation for anything. It's an act, it's *doing*, and that you're expected to take the focus and awareness you cultivate on the bench and carry it with you through your day. Meditation isn't a ritual that pays dividends down the line -- it's the beginner's version of how Buddhists are expected to move through life itself.

It can't start out any easier. You simply sit down, and pay attention. The ideal thing is to pay attention to whatever is happening in the moment without attaching to it; when you attach to it, the thought carries you away from the present along a stream of associated thoughts and moods. When that happens, let it go, then return to where you are. It takes practice to maintain that presence, but the idea is that when you do you find yourself responding to what arises in a much more centered way. And the bench isn't the only place where this happens. Meditation is a practice you can cultivate wherever you are, whatever you're doing.

That's one of the things I've been trying to focus on recently. My meditation practice is as spotty as ever, I'm afraid (I've never been one to develop good habits), but even when I don't manage to sit on the bench I've been trying to really pay attention to what I'm doing when I do it. If I catch myself getting stressed at work, I take a moment to step back from that emotion, figure it out and move on. It really helps when you're dealing with anxious or angry customers I've found; instead of taking a remark or behavior and being carried away by it, I can try to anchor myself and focus on a need that's being expressed.

And that's a huge deal to me. I come from a long life of depression, which is a pretty self-centered condition to have. You get used to thinking in circles around yourself; everything comes back to you, how you're deficient in some way, how no one could ever love you, so forth and so on. Even managing it, it's difficult to learn to step outside of yourself if you don't work for it. That's what meditation does for me; it provides me a way to step outside of myself, simply by being active in my awareness and focusing on my surroundings, other people, or feelings as they arise and fade. That helps me relate to people better, it helps me solve problems more quickly and easily, and it helps me to understand people and their perspectives without warping it through my own.

One of the reasons I'm talking about this is to try and explain my perspective in the hopes of encouraging people to explain theirs. Meditation helps me quite a bit, but I know a lot of people really aren't into it. I'm curious about what other folks think about it -- is it useful to you, if you practice regularly? Did you try it for a while, but find no good use for it? What do you do instead, if you have something that centers you? How does it work?

I think it's important to have a way to remember the things that are important for you, no matter who you are and what you believe. Meditation is mine. What's yours?
jakebe: (Disapproval)
It’s been six weeks since I made my first set of New Year’s resolutions, can you believe it? My, how the time does fly.

In case you needed a refresher course, I had decided that instead of making these big, grandiose and vague plans, I would try to set three concrete goals that could be accomplished in six weeks. That way, I would have a built-in ticking clock, and a time period long enough to form a habit and short enough that I could keep it at the forefront of my consciousness for a while. Well, how did I do with that? Not well. Let’s review the resolutions, shall we?

Resolution #1: Write 3500 words a week for six weeks. Failed.
That first week was pretty productive, but ever since then I haven’t managed to capture that same spark. Unfortunately, I hit a pretty bad snag early in the year with Further Confusion and never recovered after that. Part of it was working picking up to the point where I was working through a lot of lunches, but honestly I’ll cop to the fact that I was lazy and unfocused too.

To be absolutely honest with you, writing scares the shit out of me. There are a lot of reasons for this, but I have a fundamental mistrust of my brain. It’s not the most reliable instrument I own, and if left to my own devices it’ll come up with all kinds of crazy stuff. I don’t really trust myself to be able to keep track of all the things you need to in a good short story. If I just...let myself go, who knows what I’ll come up with? More than likely, it will be a fever dream of half-formed images, where people say things in weird cadences that sound good but don’t illuminate much about what they’re thinking. That’s...not useful. It’s frustrating for the audience and just embarrassing for me.

But to be honest, that’s something I’m just going to have to get over. For a long time I’ve been operating under the mantra “Don’t get it right, just get it written.” But I’m too afraid of my own voice to do that. And that’s got to stop. All of the writing tricks in the world aren’t going to do me any good until I man up and start saying the things that are on my mind.

That’s one of the reasons I wanted to start this journal again; to get myself in the habit of “translating” my thoughts into essays that aren’t only legible, but interesting. Words are the only things we have to take our abstractions and give them form, and even if they make poor substitutes at times they’re mighty if you give them a chance.

Anyway, there really is nothing for it than to sit down, man up and write more. I don’t really have anything better to say than that.

Resolution #2: Eat no more than 1750 Calories per day for six weeks. Failed.

I haven’t done too terribly with the food thing, actually. I give myself failing marks because I haven’t been consistent or anal enough to keep track every day, every meal. If I had, chances are I wouldn’t have stayed within my limits on a regular basis.

Again, the convention sunk me and I just never really recovered from there. A good deal of it was lack of discipline, and trying to juggle too many things at once. I’m a stress eater, and with things going on at work and changes at home (the husband and I are moving soon), it’s a little difficult to keep my diet in check.

Obviously, the thing to do here is to find better ways to relieve my stress. It’s not that I’m unhappy with anything that’s going on, or there’s a single thing I’d change about my life, but...there are things making me nervous pretty regularly, and I’m going to need to find a way to deal with that.

Another thing that I can do is make my stress eating work *for* me. I made a pretty awful bet with Ryan (more on that later), so it’s in my best interests to have healthier snacks to reach for when I need something to nervously graze on. To that end, I’ve bought carrots, apples and other things for nibbling. Also, mini-bags of pretzels, baked Doritos and the like.

Resolution #3. Pay attention to my personal appearance more often. Done.

I’m paraphrasing a bit here, and this resolution was a bit more vague than the others, but I feel like I’ve taken good strides towards making sure my appearance comes off better than it did before. There’s still a lot of work to do, though. Which is where I could use your help.

Local folks who see me on a fairly regular basis, could you recommend a thing or two that might help me improve my appearance? I know this is a really dodgy area of criticism for most people, but I’m looking for constructive feedback of any kind. Just drop me a private message through LJ or shoot me an email; I’ll gladly talk it over with you.

Now, I think the second pod is going to be roughly a repeat of the first one. I want to start out with something simple and easily measured, and I will keep trying this until I get it right. So, my three new resolutions for the next six weeks are:

1. Write 3500 words a week for the next six weeks. More than that, I must have material ready for an audience within that time. Blogs, of course, are quite helpful for that, but short stories, poems and the like are what I would really like to focus on.

2. Eat no more than 1600 Calories per day, on average, for six weeks. This should be fairly easy if I stick to my exercise regiment and keep training for Bay to Breakers. My eating habits during the week are fine, but I have got to find a way to keep the wheels from coming off during the weekends or in social groups.

3. Meditate every day. Meditation will help with my focus and stress levels -- those are just two of the most immediate benefits. Besides that, it’s been far too long since I’ve made it a priority in my life, and I’d like for that to change. Looking good will still be a focus, but I can’t think of anything concrete for that resolution. This is much better.

We’ll come back to this on Sunday, March 27th, and we’ll see how I do this time.
jakebe: (Zen)
I haven't posted an awful lot about Buddhism recently. Well, to be fair, I haven't posted a lot about anything recently. I think I've gotten to a point in my life where I'm more interested in living than talking about living -- sitting back to reflect is something that I've done in excess in the past, and I feel like it's kept me from actually doing the things that I've wanted to do.

I'm on something of an even keel now, though, so it's a good time to try and strike some kind of a balance. Living's well and good, but if you don't stop to check yourself out every now and again, how do you know if you're where you want to be? So for the next little while, this journal will be a way for me to stop and check up on what I'm doing, how I'm progressing with things that are important to me. Since Buddhism is a fairly central component in how I see myself, it only makes sense to start here.

That being said, I haven't read a Zen book in ages. This might sound arrogant, but I just don't think I need to. It's not that I've become enlightened (I'm not, by any stretch) or that there's nothing in the wisdom of masters old and new to take home with you (because there certainly is), but right now I feel the most important thing is to answer the call of immediacy in my life. No matter where I am, no matter what I'm doing, it's most important to be fully engaged in it. It feels easier and more natural for me to do this if I don't have the words of someone else in my head egging me on to do it.

This, I feel, is what all the old master are pointing you towards anyway. All of the poetry and wisdom and brilliant metaphors and shocking acts are for this very purpose, to wake you up, to put you in your own two feet, here and now. Doing this means more than being in your own head: it means stepping outside it to really see other people and understand what might be motivating them.

There's this arc in the Sandman comics that has stuck with me ever since I read it. In it, there's this blond Barbie girl (literally, that's her name) who starts out as this vapid stereotype, but as the arc goes on you see there's this entire world inside of her, with its own symbols and struggles that threaten to tear her apart or make her whole. One of the lessons you take from it is that every single person on this planet has that same condition. They're only one person, but they're also an entire world. You can never distill a reason for someone's action down to a single cause. There are multitudes of factors here. Being present means understanding that, navigating this ocean that resides in everyone you meet, determining the best course for interacting with them. It's not necessarily something you can think about. But it is something you can do.

Anyway, I have a lot to learn still when it comes to this. But I'm learning by experience instead of books. The zazen -- which is the heart of all Zen practice -- is still rocky, but I've learned to take the idea off the meditation bench and into my life. When I feel myself daunted by the blank page, I take a deep breath, and I type the first word, and then the next. When I feel myself getting frustrated or hurt, or wanting to withdraw from whoever I'm with, I take a deep breath, I place myself where I am, and I try to make the best of the situation. This is what zazen does for you; this is why you sit. And personally, I'd rather not sit and practice everywhere then only practice on the bench and forget about it when I step out of the door.

Spirituality is useless if you try to compartmentalize it. It has to permeate your entire life. You have to look at your relationships, your job, your exercise with the same mindset you use for your practice, or else it's doing you no good. You have to take the divine and put it in ever filthy corner of your life. You *must* make the spiritual vulgar. This, I believe, is what the masters say. And I just want to practice what they preach.

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