08.28.20

negotiating religion, protests, and life

Posted in Uncategorized at 7:38 pm by Administrator

the other day i took a walk. i was in the midst of another tough day at work, and despite the 100 degree heat under the blazing sunshine, it felt like a relief to get out of the office and just be alone for a while.

for the first time in a long while, i was tempted to pray. i held that feeling, just held it in my mind, and i was reminded of many things i used to think about God. toward the end of that particular chapter of my spiritual journey, i had come to see a fundamental conflict between the true person of God on the one hand and the biblical character of God on the other hand. after many years of introspection, deconstruction, prayer, and internal debate, i had come to the conclusion that the biblical character of God was a paradox—a deeply problematic idea of a genocidal tribal warlord later recast (rather unconvincingly) by the apostle Paul as the self-sacrificial victim of his own deeply flawed creative design. increasingly this strange literary character contrasted with the person of God as i experienced him/her through other people—a person who did not disdain humanity.

as i took my walk and meditated on the many years that i spent trying to find a good god in the rather complex account of God provided by the Bible, i found myself seeing an interesting parallel with my own evolution as a doctor. once upon a time, i embarked on this path into medicine believing that the purpose of my healing art was to restore people to the health and happiness that was their natural state. only after the many years of bearing with hypochondriacal, histrionic, and deeply unhealthy individuals did i come to a dramatically different realization: that the real purpose of medicine (Western medicine at least) is to bring structure and rationality to the terribly uncomfortable discussion about why human beings invariably destroy themselves and the ones that they love. i’ve seen all manners of human suffering and death, and i have learned that when human beings suffer, they cannot help but force that personal suffering upon others. the world is a plague of cascading suffering.

as my opinion of humanity decreased over the years, my tolerance for a vengeful, violent, and ultimately self-serving God correspondingly decreased as well. and the more human suffering i witnessed, the more important it became that the ideal of a god represent something far greater than human cruelty. this was where my path into Christianity ultimately reached a dead end. i expected a good God to be loving toward LGBTQ people, deeply interested in equality among individuals of all races and genders, and committed to a world in which tyranny, tribal identity, and warfare had no place. say what you will about the christian religion, but the biblical god is not this kind of god. he is best known for torturing and killing an innocent man (his own son) in order to mitigate the rage that he felt for other people; and in so doing, he proved himself to be both murderous and inescapably unjust.

after so many years of making excuses for this kind of a god—a deity that chooses those whom he will accept as his devotees and those whom he will consign to eternal torment—i came to a place where i could observe this belief in the context of my total being. and what i realized in meditation is that the whole of my being was suffering and breaking at the seams just trying to make a place for this incongruous and terribly conflicting persona. as soon as i stopped immersing myself in this belief, i stopped dying to myself; and once i stopped dying to myself, i began to experience real life—the life of empty moments and simple expectations. indeed, the god that we project from our imaginations can be no better than what we are. we are racist, misogynistic, homophobic, and self-loathing; and so the god that we fabricated in our lore is just the same.

it is because i am no longer a fan of great causes and beliefs that i cannot participate in these protests about police brutality and systematic injustice. it is not that i am not sympathetic to the grief and the desires of those who take the streets. it is that i cannot articulate what it is exactly that i would hope to achieve by standing with the protesters. sure, i want us to be less racist and violent to one another; but i do not believe that expressing that anger on the streets will accomplish that. yes, i want structural and legislative changes to prevent further abuses; but i cannot tell you exactly how i think our structures and laws should be changed. yes, i want murders and hate crimes to be punished; but i can’t say what punishment—whether individual or collective—is sufficient to satisfy my yearning for justice. i cannot articulate what i hope for our society, because it is a vague feeling fueled by many uncountable anxieties, angers, and personal hopes; and so i do not protest, because i have nothing specific to say. and i do not want my feelings and personal sufferings to simply fuel the feelings and sufferings of others. we can catch fire together, so to speak; but then our bonfire only serves the purpose of the person who can best leverage that energy into a transformative relationship. there is too much energy, and there is too little relationship.

my wife believes that the essence of all great religions is love. i admire her when she says this, but i laugh a little as well because it strikes me as ingenuous. i don’t mean to be cynical; but from my experience, human beings do not know how to love themselves, much less other people. at their very best, they are civil and respectful; at their worst, they sacrifice themselves in order to impose a belief upon others. this evangelistic mission, this manipulation of others, this endless cycle of guilt and self-destruction—this is at the core of every great movement that has culminated in mass murder, whether that movement was an inquisition, a religion, a tribe, or a nation. at some point, we must learn as a species to accept one another and leave it at that. personal beliefs are meaningless. what matters is mutual respect and preservation. if love is anything other than this, then it is a force for destruction, to be leveraged by those who have malicious intent for the world. we have had enough flags, constitutions, protests, and great causes to fill cemeteries across the globe. simple kindness and an acceptance of what is—i call this awareness, and it is better than love

08.21.20

wrestling with the ego

Posted in Uncategorized at 7:41 pm by Administrator

when i think about the nature of my suffering—that suffering that comes from ideas, identity, and ego—i recognize that it goes back deep into my childhood. it was a different kind of suffering back then, and out of respect for my younger self, i don’t want to diminish what it was. the suffering i had when i was at the age that my children are at now was the suffering of negotiating and fulfilling the expectations of others who had power over me. even when i was eight years old, the age of my daughter, i had the suffering of trying to be all things to all people. to my parents, i sought to be the high achiever, the peacemaker. to my teachers, i sought to be the best among my peers. to my friends, i aimed to be interesting and loved. to God, i aspired to be sinless. it was not until my adolescence that i realized that i could never be all things to all people; and that is when a different kind of suffering began—the suffering of the unstable identity concept, the suffering of not knowing what i really want in life. this suffering remains with me even now.

i want to believe that my journey into mindfulness will enable me to disable my ego and bring an end to this suffering. for sure, meditation has forced a rift in my consciousness between what i once held as belief and what i now experience as the present moment. but meditation has not changed my ego any more than prayer changed what i once experienced as my innate sinful nature. sometimes i am able to hold my ego; sometimes my ego rules me. meditation enables me to see what my ego does to my mind and to my body; but it does not undermine my ego or change its fundamental nature. in fact, the older i grow, the more pervasive, greedy, and powerful my ego seems to become.

at this stage in my life, money is where i see my ego most firmly established. it is here in my “generative” years that i find many of my lifelong preoccupations around responsibility, legacy, self-worth, and morality now converging in this obsession with financial stewardship. it is not enough for me to simply pay the bills or have adequate insurance to protect my family; i have to be right about the decisions i’m making about the way i’m investing our finances. it isn’t enough to not have to worry about abject poverty in the event of my disability or incapacitation; i have to be able to prove to myself and to others that i maximized what was given to me.

there are layers upon layers of memory and identity that deepen this fixation. my father invested his money poorly; i want to learn from his mistakes. my financial adviser led me into some ill-advised investments; i want to prove that i can do better for my family. the whole world is going to shit, and i want to think that i saw it coming and did what was necessary to avoid the disaster from hurting me. i want to be right. i want to be safe. i want to be powerful. when it comes to money, the ego overwhelms, because money is the currency of the ego. in this society and in these times, ego exerts itself in all its machinations, designs, and power plays through the movement of capital. i think this is why the biblical authors spent so much of their energy addressing how people think about money. beyond simply encouraging greed, thoughts about money can be addictive, pervasive, and ultimately destructive to personal peace.

more than at any other time in my life, i find myself suffering on account of money, and ironically it is because i have never before had more of it. this is no accidental correlation, i believe. when the poor think about their lack of money, it is clear to them what they lack in their lives on account of their poverty. but when the rich think about their abundance of wealth, it is not clear to them what they lack in their lives on account of this idea of their wealth; that vague and relentless pondering on the significance of their wealth takes over their lives and destroys their sense of being. it turns ordinary moments of life into opportunities for multiplying wealth; it turns ordinary human interactions into transactions of gain and loss. money itself may not be evil, but as a concept, it is as dangerous a thing to the human mind as any drug could be.

i’ve lost sleep this week because at some point i began tracking the VIX in relation to my own predictions about market volatility. so convinced am i that there will be a devastating market crash in the next five months (by the end of January 2021) that the suffering i experienced from restraining myself from shorting this market became nearly unbearable. so i did the strangest and most indefensible thing i have ever done with money up to this point: i bought into VIX futures. specifically, i bought UVXY at $20. it’s not a long-term investment; it’s not a buy and hold strategy for long-term wealth. it’s a bet, pure and simple. it’s a statement my ego is making because it is so incensed by every aspect of this bear market rally that it can see no way forward except to double down on its conviction that there will be a sell-off this Fall.

i felt immediate relief after i bought the shares, and yet i was never more aware of my ego’s role in driving my actions. the mindful and present side of me witnessed this thing and recognized that there is only one way this ends well: if my ego is proven to be utterly and completely wrong. i experienced this crushing truth as a younger man when i gambled on sports and on games of chance. i learned that lesson well enough to avoid that kind of gambling ever again. but the stock market is a different kind of gamble; it’s a form of vice that is socially acceptable, kind of like alcohol and cigarettes. and it does not help that my ego and its powerful instincts about money have been mostly right over the past two years. i bought the correction in december 2018; i sold in january 2020, when i saw covid on the horizon; and then i bought the dip again in march 2020. these weren’t small plays either. the funds represented the whole of my retirement and nearly everything i held in liquid assets. in the context of what i own, i was all in every time, because i knew what was going to happen—or at least i thought i did. and now i have that same level of conviction about the market right now. the s&p is at 3397 today; i can feel the cliff just ahead. i can feel it in my fingertips.

in moments like these, i can see it clearly, that the path of mindfulness must lead me away from power and success, while the ego’s journey is toward victory and annihilation. in this world of rivalries, competing interests, politics, and greed, i want to be well, but it is hard for me to ignore all the signs and signals of a world on the brink of collapse. what am i to do? how can i get free, to save myself from the suffering of the self that is hell bent on conquest and redemption? how volatile is the self, in its constant efforts to find immortality and invulnerability. how difficult it is to focus on the thing right in front of you, to deny yourself every belief and every pleasure, to be still and silent until the emptiness of the moment before you unveils itself, like the slow turning of a head that at long last reveals the face and the eyes full of beauty and understanding. i will trust you, the universe, to give me what i need in this very moment, so that the ego will never have me completely

08.18.20

quick hits

Posted in Uncategorized at 9:23 pm by Administrator

i’m reading again. i decided to stop reading financial news and to eliminate my screen time in the bedroom. all of a sudden i realized that i had the capacity to read again. i picked up a book that i’d tried and given up on several times last year, and now i’m engrossed in it.

on sunday i was vacuuming the house, and i ran across a spider. instinctively, i vacuumed up that spider and its web. then i came to a second spider in another room, and this time i realized what i was about to do and restrained myself from doing it. i did not want to kill that spider. more fundamentally, i wanted that spider to live. the house i live in is not for myself alone; it is for all life, of which i am a part.

later that night, i killed a fly as it perched upon my lampstand, and i had no misgivings about that at all. i realized then that not all life is the same to me.

i had a dream last night that i became deathly ill from covid-19. in the past, severe illnesses were a blessing in disguise, because they forced me to rest, disconnect from my work, and focus on my body. in my dream, i was being transported to the hospital, and something in me was relieved that my life would never be the same.

i’ve thought about my dad a lot lately, and in fact i had a vivid dream about him recently. he was worried about my health, and in the dream he was trying to save my life. there are two versions of my dad that i remember well: the first is the frantic person who could not stop worrying about me, and the second is the angry person that could not escape the trauma of his childhood.

in the midst of all the important things that are being said about race and racism in america, i feel that it is still not an inconvenient time to admit that my father had very little sympathy for black people in this country. he grew up dirt poor, barely survived the devastation of the korean war, came to this country on his own, was repeatedly marginalized and discriminated against on account of his race and his poor english, and lived in constant fear of being compromised or deported. amidst of all of that suffering, he refused to believe that poor black people couldn’t get ahead by getting educated and working hard. he saw black people assaulting and killing asian storeowners in the city where we lived, and he viewed that criminal behavior as a genetic flaw.

sometimes i feel great anger for people who share my father’s point of view. but then i hold that point of view through the lens of my father’s life, and what i realize now is that his racism was also his pain. his racism was a line that he drew in the sand that defined the limits of his empathy even as it entitled him to his own deep and specific suffering. racism, sexism, classism, and nationalism are not all the same, but they are buds off the same stem of human life. we come up out of the dirt with skin thick as bark and a limitless hunger for the sunshine, and we twist and turn ourselves with our memories and our rage until suddenly spring comes and we sprout leaves that shockingly cover over all of our ugliness. the leaves are our children, our good works, our accidental beauty. when the season turns and the leaves fall, we’re all alone again, alone with our twisting and hardening selves. that was my father, at the end of his life. i must have known, because the last birthday present i gave him was a reproduction of andrew wyeth’s pennsylvania landscape. my father loved it at first sight, because he saw himself in it.

i’m tired of talking about race. but we will talk about it for the rest of our lives, because it matters so much, even though it’s nothing at all. and i say this with full confidence, that race is meaningless, because it is just an idea. but because it is an idea, it causes so much suffering, and we cannot escape its consequences.

i still do not understand why i write, and sometimes it is bad for me, because writing is purely about ideas and feelings. i know that holding the ego and learning to live fully does not necessarily mean that one must disassociate himself from feelings; but for me, this does appear to be the most straightforward way to peace. when i hold ideas and beliefs less tightly, i feel less strongly; and when i feel less strongly, i suffer less acutely. feeling does not make me human. all creatures feel something. what makes me human is my ability to feel something and yet not be defined by it. before meditation, i was an animal. it is not a bad thing to be an animal. but the virtue of being human is that we can choose to have a belief and then give it up completely.

i admitted to my colleagues that i was, once upon a time, a very religious man. and when i was a religious man, i learned some interesting things from the bible about how to lead other people. i still remember some of those lessons. many of them were wrong. but one of those lessons still lingers in my mind as something very true. it is something andy stanley once taught me—to do for one what you wish you could do for everyone

08.12.20

being well

Posted in Uncategorized at 10:53 pm by Administrator

i went on vacation last week—my first days off since i started this new job nine months ago. it was on my third day away that i began to realize what the stress of the months has done to my body and my mind. after a good night of sleep, i awoke to discover that there was no tightness in my chest, no butterflies in my stomach. the tension in my head was gone; i didn’t feel tenderness when i pushed my fingers into my scalp. it didn’t hurt to walk around for once. the ever-present ache in my left ankle had resolved, as had the tendinitis in my knees. my mind wasn’t racing. i could focus my eyes clearly on what i was reading. and i wasn’t plagued with a background sense of panic or fear.

it was only when i felt well that i realized how unwell i have been all this time.

i was tempted to blame it on my job. and for certain, i wouldn’t have fallen to this level of brokenness had it not been for my job, which has been relentless. for nine straight months, i have walked into mondays of crises, tuesdays of fires to be put out, wednesdays of endless debates and controversies, thursdays of pain, and fridays of desperation against deadlines. i have been inundated with texts, calls, and emails from dozens of people who need my attention right now, and i have already experienced too many disappointed expectations and near-misses to count. my insomnia, my drinking, my excessive exercising, and my continual anxiety have been driven by the steadily accumulating mountain of tasks and responsibilities related to directly managing twenty-five people and indirectly overseeing ninety people across the two largest departments in the company.

but as i reflected on what has hurt me so much over the past year, it hasn’t really been the job itself. it’s what goes in my mind as i do my work. it’s the constant conceptualizing, scheming, worrying, and anticipating that gets my mental machinery going at a high rate throughout the day. and once that mental machinery is in motion, it can’t stop; inertia compels that engine of my mind to begin processing things that really shouldn’t be processed. moments with my family. moments of rest. every moment of my day falls prey to my conceptualizing, synthesizing, organizing, and worrying mind. alcohol and anti-histamines can’t turn it off. meditation can’t turn it off. exercising myself to exhaustion can’t turn it off. it’s my mind that drives my body into disrepair, even as it exhausts its own fuel and breaks down, failing for lack of space, air, and time.

i am the cause of my own suffering. i am. and what this means is that i bear responsibility for what i think about and how i think about it. and if i cannot control what i think about and how i think about it, if i cannot exercise exquisite self-control over how the machinery of my mind operates and in what spaces, then i am simply a mental machine that will overwork itself and break down my whole material self. this is how it is for most chronically anxious and depressed patients that i work with, and it is surely true for me. the most important work i can do in my lifetime is to control what i think about and how i think about it. if i cannot accomplish this simple thing each and every day, then i am destined to suffer—and to suffer deeply.

i have resolved not to blame my job, my family who depend on me, and the general system of capitalism for my misery. after nearly forty-five years of flailing, struggling, aspiring, repenting, languishing, and sanctifying myself, i have finally learned that it is thinking and the ambition that it creates which corrupts my life. if i can dedicate my thoughts to things which do not further my suffering, or if i can avoid thought at all, then i can create a sustainable mental environment that allows my mind and my body to heal.

and so with this in mind, i have decided to make some changes:

1. i used to bring my laptop to bed to watch videos or read at night before bed. the laptop is now banned from the bedroom. when i retire to bed, i do so without devices.

2. i have stopped following market news, and i’ve deleted my stock watchlist from my phone. isn’t it ironic that wealthy people think more about money than those who don’t have it? thinking about money is a waste of my time, and all of my ruminations about the market have given me nothing but suffering.

3. i will run twice a week and no more than that. there is such a thing as exercising too much, and between my 30 minute HIIT workouts, my outdoor runs, and my resistance trainings, i’ve actually tipped over into breaking down my body rather than maintaining my physical health.

4. i’ve committed to silence in the car when i commute to and from work. no podcasts. no music. just silence. unless i need to meditate, in which case i listen to yongey mingyur rinpoche or jack kornfield, my great teachers.

5. i was following both fox news and cnn to get a balanced sense of the world, but really fox news is unnecessary nonsense, and the sheer stupidity of fox news and its fans has caused me suffering to no end. no more fucking fox news.

6. i’ll be blogging less. blogging is a lot of mental work, and i don’t need to be doing it so often. just when i need to remind myself of what’s true.

08.03.20

kindness

Posted in Uncategorized at 5:13 pm by Administrator

you will never be that thing.
as it stands, you have little time left as this.

an opportunity will be presented to you by the universe.
it will seem fortuitous, but even now it is in the making.

you have a song to sing,
a story to write.
you have a voice to express
and a quietness to discover.

when all of this madness has passed over you
and you have finally come to a place of utter peace

you will know then, as i know now
that this—the living through five senses—

was separation. and it was given to you
so that when you return, you might evince life

with kindness.