07.31.19

sadness

Posted in Uncategorized at 4:36 pm by Administrator

in a moment of deep meditation a few months ago, I felt myself connecting with all life and with the flow of the universe. time, as in that which delineates the present from the past and from the future, became meaningless. I felt myself root my being in the bedrock of the earth and felt its shifting, its struggle, and its acquiescence to the collective will of humanity. and so I felt sadness. it was not the idea of sadness—a regret about something that should have been different, a resistance to a reality that felt unfortunate. no, it was the sadness that comes with awareness of suffering, a suffering which permeates life and lays the seed for the next moment of even more pervasive consequences. a mantra came to mind: sadness for your organization, sadness for your nation, sadness for the world.

in the aftermath of this reflection, I have seen certain developments unfold at my company and in the world as a whole that have resonated with this anticipation of broadening sorrow. it has made me wonder if prophecy is not actually a foretelling of what is yet to happen as much as a profound awareness of what is present in the here and now. I have learned too that sadness and hope can very much coexist, and in fact one informs the other. I can experience sadness and yet appreciate life for its continuation and even resilience in the face of all seeming adversity. this is a great mystery, and it is the truth that drives faith.

I am moving to a new home, and even in the midst of this I am moving into a new state of mind about my daily work, my children, and my community. change, that thing that used to inspire such horror and anxiety in me, now strikes me as the universe’s gentle reminder to me of the graceful and healing impermanence of all things. once, I needed to forgive often, every day even. now, there is nothing to be forgiven; forgiveness itself implies a resistance to what is. I discern the many movements in my society, and the passion and anguish of last night’s debate between the Democratic candidates impressed me on account of its intensity and conceptual complexity. truly, this is an interesting time, a time in which values and ideas and theories are being actively tested and redefined in the public sphere. so many people care about these things; it seems probable that many will be swept up in this tide, to go toward what they believe that progress is. is it life-giving, truthful, and wonderful? I don’t know. but I can tell you what is good and living for me: the breath, always the breath.

yesterday, as I lay still within an MRI scanner for half an hour, alone with myself, I practiced mindful breathing, and the closed space and the furious sounds of the whirling magnets became for me a milieu of bare and wonderful life. I know that I will not live forever. I am not afraid to return to the place where consciousness goes, to be consoled, enlightened, and prepared for the life that is yet to come.

it is so difficult to be well. I have lived for forty-three years and have found it nearly impossible at times to find peace and happiness. but here where I am, in this very moment in time, I am well. the muscles in my face are relaxed and without tightness. I can feel the lack of tension in my hands and in my feet. I can sit with and observe the background anxieties and ideas about the future and what ought to be; I can observe these and hold them, and so these concepts and their underlying identities do not hold me. it is a miracle to walk outside and touch the leaves of the planted flowers and know that even though they were placed where they were for a purpose, they live brilliantly and without purpose nonetheless. my day is not so different from the day experienced by the cactus plant that resides in the soil right by where I parked my car: it absorbs water from the earth, it breathes in the air, and it rises to the sunlight. in a million invisible interactions, it influences the world around it and is shaped by all the natural forces of a universe that frolics with uncountable and unceasing energies. when I stand in the midst of all of this wonder and I raise my hands to the sky, I can feel it, I can really feel it.

I am alive

07.17.19

recap of the journey

Posted in Uncategorized at 4:46 pm by Administrator

as i contemplate my colleague’s suicide, i remember that my own journey into mindfulness began with the story of a suicide.

it was in the immediate aftermath of anthony bourdain’s death that i realized a few things. the first thing i recognized was that as shocking as his suicide was, it was also deflating for me on a deeper level; it was confirmation of something I’d already suspected—that even a life filled with interesting relationships, meaningful conversations, and exceptional meals can be profoundly empty. it reminded me of a truth that i embraced even when i was deeply committed to an evangelical worldview: that the principal responsibility of every living human is to determine his or her reason for living. the other thing i realized, as i examined myself, was that i was not making forward progress in life. at the age of forty-two, i was still struggling with bad monday blues and a week-to-week struggle to discover happiness in my everyday living. every single day, i wrestled with a relentless sense of intrinsic meaninglessness. i knew that this was not clinical depression; i knew that there was something fundamentally true about this intuition about life.

anthony bourdain’s suicide forced me to confront my pervading sense of emptiness. how was it that decades of deep immersion in a Christian worldview had failed to equip me with the perspective necessary for me to resolve this emptiness? how was it that years of Christian disciplines had served only to transiently and unsatisfactorily mask my underlying sense of the true meaninglessness of our stories and beliefs? when i turned to face my lifelong enemy—the darkness i called futility—i was reminded of one of my favorite stories from childhood, Ursula Le Guin’s The Wizard of Earthsea. i was reminded of the protagonist Ged, who at a pivotal point in the story decided to stop running from his “shadow”, his frightening nemesis, and to pursue it instead. the shadow ran from him; and then eventually they came to face each other at the edge of the world. when they finally came together, Ged was changed. he lost his shame and his arrogance; he became aware.

there is nothing in Christian literature that addresses how to embrace emptiness. everything in scripture and inspired by scripture seeks to combat the void of meaning with more and more compelling stories. do you feel meaningless? then discover meaning through God’s purpose for you! do you feel worthless? then find worthiness through the redeeming sacrifice of Jesus Christ! do you feel that you lack a personal sense of mission or a guiding conviction in life? do you envy the passion of others who seem to be on a mission? then this is a signal that God is calling to you, to join His great crusade! for years, i addressed my emptiness by buying more and more deeply into identity, in its various manifestations. i embraced an identity of holiness. i embraced an identity of sonship in Christ. i embraced an identity of belonging within the church. and i embraced an identity of evangelical mission for the lost. but none of these identities actually addressed emptiness; they covered it with stories, mythologies, and ideas that failed to resonate at a deep level with the observer buried within me—the observer who senses the cycles of life, the fundamental equality of all living things, and the dispassionate nature of the universe.

as Christianity had no tools or perspectives to offer me in my approach to emptiness, i turned to the Buddhist tradition and found it to be helpful in some specific ways. Buddhists do not discount the importance of Christ or of Christ-like compassion; their ability to include believers of other traditions enabled me to explore their approaches, without fear of losing my own narrow sense of identity. Buddhists largely do not insist on metaphysical particulars. their focus on practical application seemed very relevant and valuable to me, at a time when Christianity seemed to present a minefield of conceptual requirements that complicate rather than simplify the practice of moral living. most importantly, Buddhism addresses emptiness in a manner that i find to be direct, straightforward, and truthful. is life empty? of course it is. truth begins with the understanding that meaning, purpose, and ultimately belief are derived from stories that we tell ourselves in order to evade emptiness. but emptiness does not need to be evaded. it is not equivalent to depression, and it does not represent an absence of true life. in fact, when one can deeply appreciate the emptiness of all things—their existence apart from the names, identities, and purposes that our egoic selves ascribe to them—one can appreciate the dignity and the interconnectedness of these things, in a manner that most everyone would understand as compassionate and good.

the evangelical worldview that i inherited from the church presupposes human identity based on responsibilities prescribed by the biblical narrative. humans are responsible for other living beings, a responsibility that allows them to kill and eat these living beings. husbands are responsible for their wives, a responsibility that gives them authority and power over their women. kings are responsible for their people, a responsibility that permits them to pursue war or peace based on the dictates of their conscience. priests, elders, and teachers are responsible for leadership, teaching, and the sustaining of the tribe, to the exclusion of those who either threaten the tribe or should not belong to it. from end to end, the bible is a story of identity—an identity given to man by a singular, jealous, and purposeful god—for the purpose of fulfilling covenantal relationship, exemplified by a people of God who exist in contrast to the heathens.

but the Buddhist worldview prescribes no such identity, and as such it allows for the acceptance of existence apart from that identity. the Buddhist in fact sees such a singular sense of identity as a source of great suffering; that is a truth that resonated immediately with me as i went deeper and deeper into meditative practice. as i began to observe myself and my thoughts through meditation, i noticed something that i had been previously unaware of—that my Christian beliefs had not only failed to equip me to handle emptiness but had also aggravated my deep personal suffering. i was a forty-two year old man with an adolescent egoic fixation; i was a spiritual child in the body of a middle-aged man. my lifelong quest to fulfill the identity promised to me had retarded my more fundamental quest to genuinely understand myself and others. the increasing contrast between Christian identification and intrinsic emptiness had in fact been manifested for many years in my emerging protests against evangelical culture, including my decades-long resistance to the Christian persecution of LGBTQ persons, to the white colonialist paradigm intrinsic to the Western military-missionary complex, and to the stubborn refusal of many American church leaders to participate in the general discourse regarding the dignity and rights of disenfranchised citizens in their country.

what i have discovered through thirteen months of meditative practice is genuine personal well-being. this does not mean that i no longer suffer. but when i suffer, i am quickly able to recognize my role in causing that suffering. specifically, i am able to see the workings of my egoic mind, as it summons stories, patterns, and beliefs in order to resist what it perceives as a threat to its immortality. meditation has allowed me to see that ego for what it is; it has empowered me to understand myself apart from this habitual pattern of thinking and to distance myself from it.

once upon a time, i prayed to an idea of god in order to overcome the unpleasant and self-destructive feelings that came out of the egoic mind; and the god that i worshipped used these feelings to drive me deeper and deeper into an identity of personal unworthiness and paradoxical empowerment. i viewed life as a responsibility to fulfill, a destiny to achieve, a battlefield to conquer through personal holiness. in retrospect, i understand now that my Christian practice was nothing less than ego affirmation; i gave myself over to an egoic state of mind, and i allowed my feelings, thoughts, and rhythms as a human being to be manipulated by this ego. the price i paid was deep, pervasive, and terrible suffering, which i experienced through repeated crises of conscience, depression, anger at the church, verbal violence toward others, and a profound lack of personal peace. by departing from this identity, what i have discovered is happiness. perhaps my happiness does not change the world—but i think that my happiness does not add to the suffering of this world.

when i think of frank’s suicide, i recognize that it was the idea of his life that killed him. even at seventy years old, frank did not have the personal wisdom and resilience required to overcome this mighty challenge to his ego; he was a man who was unpracticed at humiliation and failure, having been such an inspiration and success in the eyes of others throughout his adult life. at his funeral, so many people sought to tell the story of Frank the hero, Frank the conqueror, Frank the crusader for social justice. i understood why they were telling these stories, and i understood why they wished that he had known these stories for himself. the irony, i think, is that he knew these stories all too well. it was the incredible and painful contrast between these stories and the sudden emptiness exposed by his humiliation that he could not understand or resolve. frank’s conceptual identity might as well have been his religion; it was the thing that prevented him from embracing the one and only thing that has ever truly been his—the precious moment in which he lived

07.07.19

the darkness

Posted in Uncategorized at 2:06 am by Administrator

there was an earthquake the morning that frank died.

i didn’t hear the news until later that afternoon. i was at my sister in law’s house and had fallen asleep on the couch. i woke up to the buzzing of my phone and found myself groggy with a headache and with spots obscuring my vision, including a massive floater in the center of my left eye’s visual field. i’d been elbowed in the face a few hours beforehand by my wife’s nephew while playing hoops in the pool, and either i was concussed or was having a retinal detachment. annoyed, anxious, and altogether not there, i answered the phone. it was my CEO’s wife. she broke the news to me while i stood outside in the grass, distracted by the ring of darkness that darted in every direction as i tried to blink my eyes clear.

at first, i assumed he’d been trying to run through the atrial fibrillation and the mitral valve prolapse that he’d just been diagnosed with. i thought that maybe he’d ignored his doctor’s advice and gone harder than he should have. i remembered the talk he’d just given at our doctors’ retreat over the previous weekend. he hadn’t said a word about running, even though it had been his life’s passion. he’d told his story differently that time. i thought about his talk, as we drove home.

the next morning, i woke up and i saw streaks of light every time i turned my eyes to the right. i took a quick shower, dressed, and told my wife i was headed to see my optometrist to confirm i’d had a retinal detachment. she was suddenly alarmed and asked me what that meant. i told her that i might have surgery; the worst that could happen is that i would progress to lose all vision in my left eye. i wasn’t really thinking. i got in my car and drove out to the optometrist’s office, only to find that it was closed for the holidays. so i drove to the closest hospital’s ER.

when i got to the ER at 8 in the morning, there was no one else there. i went up to the front and told them i thought i was having a retinal detachment. they gave me a clipboard with a form to fill out. i wrote in all of the usual information: my name, my address, my phone number. they always ask for a cell number and a home phone number. who the fuck has a home telephone number that’s different from their cell? i found myself spending too much time wondering what to do with that.

the form asked me for my religion. if there was ever a moment when i should have found a religion to believe in, it should have been right then, here on the brink of possibly going blind in my left eye. but i drew a blank. i went to the bottom of the form, found that there was nothing else to fill in, and then nearly handed the clipboard back to the staff member across the desk. but no, i took it back. i picked the pen back up, and where it asked me for my religion, i wrote “none”. then i handed over the clipboard and sat down at the nearest chair. i took one mindful breath. i took two. i could feel my heart racing.

a friend from work called me a minute later, wanting to talk. “i just want to tell you that i’m hurting,” he said. “frank was more than a colleague. he was a friend.” i could hear him struggling. i wanted to say something but then a nurse came out into the waiting area and called my name. i followed her into the triage area, where they took my blood pressure. my friend was still talking on the line, and the moment that he paused, i told him that i knew what he was going through and that i would call him back since i was in the ER with a possible retinal detachment. he was surprised and apologetic and i told him i was going to be fine. my blood pressure came up on the machine: 148/110.

they brought me back and then an ER doc came in in scrubs and a white coat and took a brief history. everything seemed pretty routine. he asked me if i drank, and i thought about it and estimated maybe a beer a day? right after that, he asked me how much i smoked, and i was momentarily speechless because i’d never smoked. i told him that i didn’t smoke, and then he asked me if i’d ever smoked, and i explained to him that i have never smoked a cigarette, puffed weed, or taken a recreational drug in my entire life. after finishing that up, he came back in with an ultrasound, coated my eyelids with a lubricant gel, and then put an ultrasound probe over each of my eyelids. he diagnosed me with a retinal detachment in my left eye right there and told me he’d be calling in the retina specialist.

for half an hour before the retina specialist showed up, i lay back in the bed and watched coco gauff play her third round wimbledon match. i’d heard of her, but this was the first time i’d ever seen her play. she looked nervous, stiff, and pretty awful in the first set. then the retina specialist showed up.

she got right to work, and it wasn’t until we’d talked for five minutes that she realized she’d forgotten to introduce herself. she put on her headset and stuck a speculum in my eyes and shined bright lights straight into my dilated pupils. here and there, we talked about where we were from and what we did, and though the conversation was entirely dispassionate, i learned quite a bit about her. i told her what i did and where i worked. during a lull in the conversation, i told her about frank, who had been the chief medical officer of my company. when the name didn’t ring a bell, i told her that he’d just died, after having been accused of cheating the LA marathon. “oh yes, i heard about that. it’s a national story, right? isn’t he like seventy years old?” she asked. “yes, he was seventy,” i said.

the retina specialist told me that in fact i had not had a retinal detachment; i’d had a vitreous detachment. i’d continue to see floaters and spots for a while, but eventually they’d fade. i was at pretty high risk for a retinal detachment now, so i’d need to monitor for new blind spots or flashes of light over the next few weeks before my follow-up visit with her. she finished up with me, and then i was discharged from the ED about half an hour later. they didn’t have shades for me, so i walked outside with my dilated pupils without any eye protection. it was so bright outside that i nearly fell to the ground from the excruciating pain in my eyeballs.

since i couldn’t drive home, my wife and daughter drove up to the hospital to take me to lunch. i huddled in a corner of the restaurant covering my eyes; i must have looked awfully strange. i was relieved that i wouldn’t need eye surgery, but i didn’t want to talk about it. i didn’t want to talk at all. since i still couldn’t open my eyes out in the daylight, my wife suggested that we drive to a nearby park where i could rest in the shade until i was ready to drive. she drove us somewhere nearby, and minutes later i found myself stumbling over a wood chip path, following my daughter’s footsteps into a little park with scattered benches, lots of trees, and birds all around.

we found a labyrinth there. beyond the labyrinth, there was a massive tree with long branches and a big patch of shade underneath. while my wife and daughter walked the labyrinth, i walked over to the tree and then fell onto my back right beneath it. i spread out my arms and my legs. my friend tom’s wife had told me just two days beforehand that this was what japanese people did to live long lives. they called it “forest bathing”. i spread out my limbs and looked up into the branches of the tall tree, and it was so thick with leaves that it blocked out almost all of the sky. i took a deep breath there in the shade of the tree, and i thought about how frank had ended his life. and then i found myself sobbing, just sobbing. tears were flooding my face, and my chest was heaving, and i cried without sound, beneath sunglasses that i’d put on top of my glasses so that i could be in the darkness.

when my daughter came over to me, i was quiet and without words. she lay down beside me, and i felt her put her little hand in my outstretched palm. i looked over at her, and she was staring up at the sky with a smile on her face, her limbs spread out like mine, like a little starfish. i closed my hand over her fingers and lay back into the soil. i took in a deep breath, and then i let it out slowly. and we lay there quietly for a while, amidst the songs of birds and the sounds of leaves rustling in the wind