planning, poignancy, and perfect moments

Posted in Uncategorized at 7:54 pm by Administrator

it’s the basic design of life that has me confounded nowadays. things used to be very linear, very clear. life had its chapters, and these chapters had their milestones, and these milestones implied trajectories—beginnings, middles, and ends. all of life’s moments could be understood this way. I spent my grade school years training to be a collegian, and I became a collegian so that I might understand the ways of the world, and I joined the workforce to become a contributor and to ensure the propagation of my way of life. there were nuances to this perspective, as befit any individual’s frame of mind. my nuances revolved around religion, afterlife preoccupations, and creative aspirations. but these were just small variations on a common if not monolithic theme.

planning and preparation were the substance of living, the ideas that gave meaning to all the moments that transpired between beginnings and ends. most everything I did could be understood as a preparation for something yet to materialize. most every serious thought revolved around an outcome that I wanted to achieve.

it was for this reason that the poignant moments were so rare and precious to me. the poignant moments were interruptions of perspective, times when I was reoriented to something unusual and unplanned. poignancy was something that could not be replicated or reproduced; it was a perfectly spontaneous experience of life, a moment divorced of its past and utterly sufficient in its absence of a future. in the midst of a life full of trajectories, it was the poignant moments that I found myself living for.

I’ve always known that the perfect moment cannot be planned. it occurs despite what is anticipated, and it is so jarring as to undermine the significance of all planned trajectories.

what I have experienced through the focused observation of meditation is the sense that perfect moments need not be rare exceptions, interruptions of what is otherwise mundane. in fact, there is perfection in the mundane. what makes a moment poignant is not its circumstantial content but rather the sharp awareness of the consciousness that it engages. when one expects nothing and is fully observant, the everyday moment cannot help but be unique. it is when we stop fitting experiences to patterns that we appreciate the particularities of our living. life is not a flow. flow bespeaks a current, a direction, a continuity of connection and of psychological time. no, to one who has escaped the dimensionality of linearized life, the experience of life is discontinuity. one moment is distinct from the next, like bubbles that adhere without union, like wakefulness abutting the loss of consciousness, like life in one moment giving way to what appears like death in the next.

all my life I have been taught to recognize patterns, to devise synthesis, to organize around guiding principles. to see life fall apart to its naked elements and to rest upon the bare foundations of these is to sense the fundamental entropy of existence. it can be unsettling to the untrained mind. I have to remind myself that the world I had previously constructed out of ideas was a Babel of sorts; and now that the voices of identity have become unintelligible to me, I can see that there was no real reason to pierce the sky. it is beyond reach, as it should be.

so now I plan a vacation with two hands and two eyes. one hand holds details; the other hand simultaneously opens itself to emptiness. one eye observes cadences, rhythms, and ideas of an experience, but the other eye is turned inward, to the motionless state which appreciates no real difference between one place and the next. when I travel, I am sensing a change, but indeed I am also recognizing the constancy of change. there is the sense even as I am physically moving that the mind remains still through all of it, even without a mooring or a home. it is in this state that I can feel the spontaneity of all things—the exchange of words, the appearances of things, the connections that result from all manners of interaction. and the moments cohere without collapsing because they are each perfect, even the moment of profound ending when the bubble breaks into a million discontinuous pieces, each of them a moment in the making


how deep it goes

Posted in Uncategorized at 8:35 pm by Administrator

at first, emptiness meant the lack of felt purpose. it meant for me that the rock-bottom feeling of Monday blues was a true thing, not a feeling to manage or dismiss. emptiness gave me permission to acknowledge that meaning is most often conceptual, and because it is so, I have a choice about whether or not to accede to it. emptiness meant for me a freedom from scripted life; it was a liberation from expectations.

but now, I recognize that emptiness goes much deeper than this. emptiness is the loss of regret and the denial of yearning. it underscores the vanity of desiring something other than what is. it highlights the futility of reacting with emotion to what might appear incongruous, unfair, or cruel. emptiness is timelessness, made complete in the absence of a narrative about what should and should not be. as deep as emptiness goes, it always goes deeper, to the point of challenging the significance of consciousness itself. Einstein described individuality as “a kind of optical delusion of one’s consciousness”. indeed, emptiness is the gateway to utter integration of self with the rest of the universe. and it begins with the shattering of the delineation between self and other—a delineation intricately, relentlessly, and ruthlessly maintained by the ego.

so then, when I see an injustice or witness a cruelty, do I care? am I driven to action? should I stand in opposition? how does one who is empty define himself as an advocate for what is right? my wife has asked me this question. she fears the implications of a certain strain of pseudo-Buddhist thinking that she describes as self-oriented and disconnected from the pursuit of compassionate unity.

I read about the murder of Jews in Pittsburgh, the plight of migrant families, the experience of people of color who have been terrorized by police, the abuse of gay and transgender people by their own families, the sexual abuse of children by priests, the bombing of Yemeni children by Saudis with American weapons, and the systematic destruction of ecosystems across the globe. how can I not care about these things? but in my empty place, what I recognize instantly and with utter clarity is that my feelings about these things are futile. they are the food upon which my ego, ever with me and hungering for the opportunity to assert itself against an imagined foe, feasts at my expense. in this way, the sufferings of the world precipitate my own sufferings, which are to no one’s benefit and which result in no benevolent action. later, after these sufferings have been magnified and sharpened by my ruminations, they manifest as a verbal violence that I inflict upon others. to my ego, this cycle of violence serves the purpose of defining my importance and significance. in truth, I have simply become part of the collective mind, within which all the world’s pains and their ramifications echo and cascade down the generations.

the cycle of violence has to end at some point. one person’s mind cannot simply be the consequence of another person’s misery. at some point, a person must choose not to translate suffering into more suffering. one must make the choice not to see another’s rage as a problem to be fixed but rather as an identity to be reckoned with. at the root of every injustice is an idea of identity; identity is what defines all injustices. every injustice and the violence it propagates requires the conflict and cruelty that only identity can spawn. empty yourself of that identity, and you cannot propagate that injustice.

I think of the pain that we experience as human beings with our brief lives and uncountable inequalities, and I am empty. I am empty of purpose; I am empty of aspiration. this does not mean that I am helpless, free of responsibility, or clear of conscience. it means that I have made a choice not to carry forward the suffering that has been imposed upon me. and it means that I acknowledge that the cruelties of the world have no simple solution because the identities of suffering people cannot simply be erased. we imagine that there are good people and bad people, but these are identities, and so they are illusions. in other words, once the suffering of the world cascades to me, my principal responsibility isn’t to offer a response to it; my principal responsibility is to end it.


lessons from dad’s life

Posted in Uncategorized at 5:13 pm by Administrator

today my dad would have turned 77.

with time, my thoughts about my father have changed, as he’s become more and more of an idea to me. once upon a time, I thought of him as a powerful, angry, and demanding man. nowadays, I think of the last time I ever saw his body. he lay in a coffin in a suit that I had chosen for him, his face infused with “lividity”, as the lady at the funeral parlor described it. my mother cried over his body and kept saying “sorry” over and over. in the background, a DVD played on a television screen, as a woman’s voice recited my father’s poems in a language I could not understand. there was so much emotion in my heart, and what it felt like was a cup so painfully full that the level of liquid actually rose above the top of the cup. only surface tension—taut, desperate, pervasive tension—prevented all that feeling from spilling over.

my father told me many lessons he learned from living. he told me that driving defensively was the most important lesson I needed to learn. he also told me that I should not pursue money or fame, because these things were not worthwhile. and he told me that my happiness was more important than anything else in the world; it was worth preserving with great care and jealousy, like something fragile and exceedingly rare. at many points in my life, my father asked me if I had any inclination to kill myself—and he never failed to remind me that if I ended my life, then he would end his as well.

I think of my dad and of the life I shared with him, and I have to say that there are no lessons for me to learn from my father’s life. my father’s life did not exist for the sake of my edification or learning. my dad experienced the moment of his life with the full force of his will and desire, and what came out of that passion was something that I cannot judge. how can I judge such a thing? was it beautiful? of course it was beautiful. it is beyond me to describe! I could not have lived his life any better than he did. but even the thought that I could have experienced his life is inescapably foolish. no, there are no lessons to learn from his life or from anyone else’s for that matter. there will be no accumulated wisdom; there is no progress. I will experience some of the very mistakes and realizations that my dad did, and I will do so gladly.

eleven days ago, I preached in a church for the first time in my life, and I told the people there that I know that my dad is with God, experiencing something that both he and God once anticipated with great excitement. I preached this knowing that my dad struggled to accept an idea of God that was once preached to him, knowing that my dad died without a “saving faith in Jesus Christ” as some evangelicals would call it. I don’t really care what they believe. I wonder if I ever have… at the moment that I delivered my sermon, I did not know that I would disclose my particular belief about my father’s fate; but in the moment that I did, I realized that election, salvation, justification by faith, and covenantal identity don’t really matter to me anymore. that does not mean that I don’t see great value in connecting with the teachings of Christ or with his person. but it does mean that much of the conceptual identity that has been developed around Jesus’s life and death no longer strike me as important. I preached that, and it was a heresy. I preached that, because I know it to be true.

for too many years, I tried to convert my dad to a way of thinking that reflected my judgment of his ways. I refused to see the dignity of his life, because I considered his life worthless outside of a salvific, redeeming act of God. what foolishness! what incredible foolishness. wherever you are, I tell you Dad that I honor your life, and I pass no judgment on what you were, and your life has no lesson for me because your life is embedded in what I am. one learns nothing from the food that he eats; it simply keeps him alive. you lived, and so I live as well.

on this day, your 77th birthday, I remember you with fondness and love, and I honor the moment that you lived, which left nothing to be desired


great moment, big change

Posted in Uncategorized at 9:50 pm by Administrator

last night, i did my customary multi-tasking routine of turning on the shower to let it warm up while i brushed my teeth and disrobed. unbeknownst to me, my wife was also preparing to take a shower. as i rinsed out my mouth and turned to step into my shower, my wife bounded across the bathroom and jumped into the shower stall, closing the door on me. instinctively, i opened the door and tried to assert my claim to the shower, at which point she grabbed the handle of the door and yelled at me to get out. we then had a light-hearted exchange of threats and retorts, during which she established that i had seen her taking off her clothes and thereby should have known that it was her intention to shower, and during which i attempted to explain to her that i had not at all known that she was planning to use the shower until she stole it from me. at some point my son came into the bathroom and shot me several times with a dart gun, distracting me from my effort to wedge myself through the shower door. after my wife bit my hand and yelled at me some more, i relented and then ran naked after my son, who locked me out of his room, reloaded his dart gun, and proceeded to shoot me four more times. the styrofoam darts were surprisingly painful.

in the end, i managed to take my shower, but i had sandy’s tooth marks on my skin and several welts on my back and buttocks from projectile wounds. it was a great moment for the family, at my expense.

a big recent change in my life is that as of three weeks ago i have abandoned my low-carb diet of the last four years and stopped running, in an effort to put some bulk on my frame. my workouts have shifted almost entirely to weightlifting, and I’ve at least doubled my protein intake at every meal. I’ve already gained 3 pounds in the past three weeks, which means I’ve gained almost 10 pounds in the past year. when i look in the mirror, i can’t really see the difference, but i certainly feel much different nowadays.

for one thing, eating bread, rice, or tortillas with every meal has made me feel physically heavier and mentally foggier throughout my day. it’s a gross feeling, i won’t deny it. i used to go through my day feeling light and with a stable energy level. now i feel a little sluggish throughout the entire day. additionally because of the way I’m stressing my body with my new workout approach, i have a constant mild full-body soreness that is somehow less gratifying than the post-run full-body fatigue I’m accustomed to experiencing.

comparing these two vastly different ways of life, i have to say that i miss my old way of life very much, and i can’t wait to resume it. one might think that eating white rice, bread, pita, and pasta after all these years would be such a gratifying experience, but it’s actually not. i find these to be filler foods with a generic taste and very little aesthetic value added. I’m just eating them so that my body will pump lots of insulin that will turn my ingested amino acids into muscle tissue. it sounds terribly transactional, and it is.

i have to say that the weightlifting workouts are not much fun either. my old circuit training used to be essentially a high-intensity interval training approach that worked out the whole body without any particular anatomic focus. I’d be sweating profusely after 45-50 minutes of virtually constant and sometimes painful exercise, but i was almost never sore and i could easily reproduce the workout the next day. now I’m hitting specific muscle groups repeatedly and with a variety of different exercises designed to shock those muscles almost to their breaking point. i used to think that a good chest day was three sets on a flat bench press and maybe a burn-out set of push-ups. now my chest day looks like incline dumbbells, flat bench, flat dumbbell flies, forward leaning dips, and flies at two different downward angles on the synergy machine—3 sets of each with a burn-out set on the tail end. my legs routine is even rougher: 30-40 back squats at 6-rep weight, Bulgarian split squats, dumbbell hip thrusts, Romanian dead-lifts, one-legged deadlifts with the pulley, lunges with dumbbells, leg presses, knee extensions, and (if I’m still standing) Turkish get-ups with dumbbells.

i don’t have a specific goal, but i think that i’ll probably move from bulking to cutting once I’ve gained 15 pounds from my baseline.

i have to admit that part of what’s driving this lifestyle change is that I’ve gotten a lot of negative feedback about how skinny I’ve become. at work in particular, I’m exposed to an ethnic culture which values masculine size; being skinny seems to be a sign of weakness. i don’t know if it’s a healthy thing for me to be reacting to these cultural norms in this way. on the other hand, i think it was something of an arbitrary norm that previously inspired me to cut body fat down to less than 10 percent. regardless, there’s a part of me that really enjoys experimenting with the body and experiencing the relationship between lifestyle and habitus. what a strange and interesting thing that we can so dramatically change the way that we appear to others by making a few distinct (albeit painful) lifestyle changes


conference, identity, and emptiness

Posted in Uncategorized at 4:48 pm by Administrator

I recently attended a medical conference where I got to reconnect with colleagues from back in the day. and by back in the day, I mean more than ten years ago. I was a bit nervous about how this reunion of sorts would go, because I wasn’t sure they’d remember me, and because I still have some unpleasant memories of who I was and how I was treated back in those times.

some of my old mentors didn’t quite remember who I was, but overall I was pleasantly surprised that most of them did. they were in fact very curious to hear about what I was doing; after all, I’m the one who left the academic world and disappeared. I found it more challenging than I expected to describe the career I’ve taken on. there were things I said that got a sympathetic reaction (”I work with an undeserved patient population”) and there were things I shared that provoked either blank stares or even a little skepticism (”I focus on the patient experience”). I reminded myself after these conversations that these are people who are still very focused on science—defining discrete questions, designing clinical studies, tracking outcomes, applying for grants, and networking with collaborators. my world must strike them as soft, nebulous, and political.

nevertheless, after several days of negotiating a variety of awkward, unexpected, and occasionally gratifying conversations, I found myself feeling strangely worthless. and sure enough, during my first day back at work, I looked at what I was doing and felt oddly disconnected from it all, as if it has all been a strange dream. once upon a time, I was a doctor, and I was immersed in a universe of empiric, interconnected phenomena, and all that mattered was the truth. now, I spend my days thinking about how people talk to people, whether in an exam room or in a corporate board room; I process how people talk about things, and it is an indefinable, subjective, and fascinating thing. i consider this, and I realize that I don’t know who I am and how my life came to this.

it reminds me of how my gay and transgender patients describe their experience of reconnecting with family over a holiday meal after many years of estrangement. it’s the reliving of trauma in some ways. really, they ought to know who they are and have confidence in that; but then they find themselves in conversation with someone from the past, someone who really should be almost irrelevant now, and that person’s words cut deep, expose insecurity, and unsettle the soul. when they come back to the lives they were once at peace with, they feel that something vague is profoundly missing. and they tell me that though they are proud of facing the people who judged them, they paid a price for it. they lost something, and they don’t know where to find it.

I am not proud of my journey. I observe the thing in me that wants to be proud of that journey. that thing in me spins narrative upon narrative, elaborating a story about how I have been exceptional, great, and even inspiring in my work. I watch my ego, inflamed as it is by my insecurities and utterly driven to prove its worth to anyone and to everyone. for a moment, I’m tempted to feel sad about it; in truth, has my life been a failure? did I fail in my quest to become a scientist? did I let down the people who believed in me? did I take on a work that is of little value, to produce results that will not influence anything of substance? for a moment, I’m tempted to have a feeling about a story that is about a past that is itself an idea that I derived from a feeling I once had of being lost in the world. I’m observing all of that now. I’m observing the thing in me that is up in arms and trying to hold together everything past, present, and future.

how wonderful it is to breathe. when I breathe, and when I submit myself to emptiness, I remember that my life has no meaning, no meaning at all. this is not a tragedy; this is just a fact, as bare and as reproducible and as true as the fact of the sculpted tree that I see from my office window. to see my mind go through these motions causes me no sadness in the end. it does not drive me to be greater or to prove my worth. no, to see my mind go through these motions is to be reminded of the truth of emptiness. whether we dedicate ourselves to a life of research, a life of service, or a life of aimlessness, our ends are the same. there is nothing to be accomplished, there is no one to convince. there is no grand performance of my life which I am rendering to a majestic audience; there is no final test of my quality or value. I have just this moment before me, and within this moment, I have no aspiration except to be well. the god of the prostitute inhabits that space with me, like the water of the cloud inhabits the formless sky.

a storm was gathering, but now it is gone. I think of how the birds see us from high above, how they hear the faint traces of our conversations, and I meditate on that, because indeed the sounds of our lives are strange and filled with so much language—even when there is so little to say