12.02.22

the little joys

Posted in Uncategorized at 9:23 pm by Administrator

i feel that i don’t write much about the things in life i celebrate, perhaps because i’d rather share joy with real people rather than with an imagined audience. to change things up a bit, i will share about a few things that have recently given me delight.

i onboarded a physician assistant straight of training during my first month on the job here, and i decided that i was going to take full responsibility for her early career experience with us. i designed her onboarding schedule from scratch; i made it a point to spend several hours with her over her first couple of weeks with us; and i have intentionally reached out to her at least every couple of weeks since then, to make sure she was well-supported. i’ve seen more than my fair share of young providers burn out in their first few months on the job, and i know from personal experience how positively frightening it can be to take total responsibility for a patient as a relatively green clinician.

this past week was her first week of seeing patients on her own, and it was a very tough week for her. she sent three patients to the hospital because she was afraid of what she didn’t know about them; one of those patients proved to be septic and was admitted to the hospital, which justified her concerns. she had her moments of paralyzing anxiety in the exam room, and she had her sleepless nights of second-guessing the clinical decisions she had made earlier in the day. she asked to sit down with me to debrief her first week, and i realized as she relayed her experience that this moment, the moment we were sharing, could be an absolutely pivotal moment for her entire career. i knew this because once upon a time i was where she was sitting, saying the things she was saying, and worrying about my future as a clinician just as i’m sure she was.

after she finished what she had to say, she asked for my perspective. “you’re right where you need to be,” i assured her. and then i congratulated her for everything she had experienced during the week: the anxiety, the frustration, the doubt, and the fear. because the pain was a reflection of connection—connection to responsibility, to the patient, and to the importance of our work—and her willingness to endure this pain in the pursuit of growth was a reflection of her commitment. and i told her that this kind of pain was something she would always experience, but to a progressively smaller degree, and increasingly in balance with the pride that her work will afford her. she has experienced this poignant rite of passage that all independent clinicians must experience, and her career will be better for it.

it was immensely gratifying seeing the change in her face, the moment when she transitioned from being the suffering to observing the suffering. it was an awareness she gained in that moment, and i could see it in her face, and i could sense it in the words she shared thereafter. she realized that next week she could come back and do everything that she’d done this week again—and do it better. and moreover, she realized that she wanted to.

another doc i sat down with that very same day, a seasoned psychiatrist of more than thirty years, admitted to me that he was afraid of medicolegal litigation after losing a young patient, a severely disabled group home resident who died suddenly while under his care. but as he relayed the story of his relationship with this patient, it was clear that he’d done nothing to contribute to the death of this young man. what he was wrestling with wasn’t guilt but rather grief. and so after he finished describing the situation and his fears, i acknowledged his loss and his personal grief, and i asked him to separate that from the ramifications of his grief, which were manifested in his vague anxieties about a malpractice lawsuit. after a few moments of reflection, he confessed that he wasn’t “good at this”—the experience of losing someone—and that perhaps he had never been a good fit for the career that he had chosen. i chose to validate his sensitivity, the human part of him that makes him uniquely good at his invaluable work. “it is because you grieve your patients that i know the special and healing nature of the relationships that you create with them,” i told him. “don’t ever regret that or consider it a weakness. it is your gift.”

two weeks ago, a physical therapist at my company showed up to work, saw his first patient of the day, and then fell unconscious to the ground while wheeling her out to the waiting room. his colleagues, my teammates, rushed to his side to resuscitate him, but he never regained consciousness, and he died there in the clinic. i was the one who called his wife, to let her know what was happening to her husband. and then i spent time with the providers and nurses who had been with this man in his dying moments. we had all loved this man; he had been wonderful, in his longstanding commitment to his chronically disabled patients, and in his quiet but attentive support of his colleagues, many of whom had come to him for advice about their bad shoulders, their achy knees, their troubled children.

at the viewing, his wife recognized my voice. “you were the one who called me,” she said. “how difficult that must have been for you. i so appreciate the way that you shared that news with me.” we sat down in that room filled with pictures and love, and we shared stories about this good man and the life he had lived with his patients and with his family. in the midst of such sadness, there was this little joy, of knowing that we had been witness to a life well lived.

a few months ago, before we left los angeles, my family vacationed in puerto vallarta, and in the airport on the way back, when my wife pulled out our passports, she asked me if we needed the customs certificates that we’d filled out on the way in. i said no, and i gave them to my son to discard. my daughter, who knows me too well, erupted in a cry of anxiety, and she warned my wife and son about my tendency to throw away things that are important. so convinced i was that her anxiety was unwarranted that i dismissed her out of hand. “it’s fine!” i said with absolute certainty.

an hour later at the gate, as passengers were boarding, i was then informed that we were missing our customs certificates, and we would be unable to board the plane without them. there was possibly a way for us to have these reissued on the spot, for a significant cash fee, but it was unclear how long this process would take. when i brought this news to my family, i saw my daughter’s little face go hard. i tell you, it was a moment of sheer embarrassment for me, and it was simultaneously a moment of utter delight. it was utter delight, because as much as she could not look me in the face, i knew that she had truly seen me—this man of preoccupations, who cannot suffer a mess, and who ruthlessly discards what he cannot perceive to be of value to him. my daughter had known me through and through, up to the very moment that i had ignored her qualms about the customs certificates. to be known in this way was nothing less than a joy.

in that moment, with our flight back to the States hanging in the balance, i lowered myself so that i could see her eye to eye, and i put a hand on her shoulder. “you were right,” i said. “you were absolutely right, and i’m sorry for ignoring you.” and she looked at me, her face flushed with frustration, her anger at me melting into a confusion of conflicting feelings, and i could not help but smile. i did not know what would become of us or our trip, but i did know that i was on a life journey with people who loved me and saw me for who i am.

it is true that life, for all that it demands of us, gives us so much in return. i call these little joys, but they are not lesser than any other pleasure that the universe affords. in fact, it is the little joys, often forgotten and rarely celebrated, that make life, the day to day exercise of consciousness, worth the living

11.28.22

the cake

Posted in Uncategorized at 7:04 pm by Administrator

on my birthday weekend, i did many things. i connected with some old friends. i drove through old haunts. i visited the place where my father is buried. and i ate my favorite cake in the world: the white chocolate macadamia nut cake at filomena, in georgetown.

as poignant as many of the moments were, there seemed to be even more moments of emptiness: moments when i felt an absence of purpose; moments when i could not string together a story that linked the hour behind me to the hour ahead of me. maybe it is the season, or maybe it is the move we have made and its many disruptions, or maybe it is my age, which has hollowed out a small place in my being where thoughts go and do not return. when i was younger, i thought of emptiness as the absence of being, an inertness or even depression. now, when i sense it, i feel the absence of my self—all the preoccupations and ambitions that i once assumed would last for a lifetime—and a part of me feels the staid satisfaction of knowing that even beyond the reach of all feelings and aspirations there is something to life.

i grow older. my children are older. what of it? in the context of the spinning galaxies and the billions of years that it takes for a star to tell its story, i am just a flash of consciousness, aware for just long enough to know that there is nothing to be lost by returning to where i came from.

i am forty-seven. there are still times when i take comfort in memory, and through my memories i can access things that i have not felt for a long time. i was a boy who was once so afraid of nuclear war. i was a young man who tasted the fire of love. i had an ambition; i was inflamed with passion; i raged at the world for not being what it ought to be. isn’t it amazing that light, as weightless and ethereal as it is, can be restrained by the force of gravity, bent by the basic forces that hold the universe within its form? so has the knowledge of self, graver with time, come to lay hold of the many feelings that once defined what i am. the story of who i was is only now being revealed, in a shimmer visible only when the night is darkest. the story of what i am becoming will not be known until eons have passed. it is the taste of cake that i want to describe, as if it can capture what it has meant for me to be alive, but what i have is the gravity, not the light, nor the world or all the things in my being that this force holds together

11.15.22

remembering the spider

Posted in Uncategorized at 8:13 pm by Administrator

for years, my wife and my children have asked me to kill,
to dispense of lives of a smaller scale, and of lesser consequence.
for years, i did as i was told, out of consideration
or even love.

but i asked them, now and then, why they didn’t think
of charlotte and her web, or of the ecosystem.
what of karma and of rebirth? weren’t we once
like these lives we crush between our fingers?

with time, i began to think about the killing
even in the act of killing. the moments became notable:
the cricket i accidentally maimed, before ending its life
with a third and mortal blow.

or the fly that was already dying, there where it
perched upon the glass, perhaps regarding me
in its final and weary moments. i feigned lifelessness,
barely breathing, as i waited to strike.

once i invited my daughter to take my place.
i gave her the weapon. i invited her to kill.
my grief, her fear, and a precious ember of life
all hung in the balance.

even still, there is the moment when i killed
without prompting, and for no reason at all.
it was my last day in a house that everyone had left,
save for me, and for a spider in the corner of my room.

i could have let it go. no one would have known.
it had the right to live its brief
and radiant life in that space
that was no longer even mine.

but before i could think it through,
i took its life—an act of habit, really.

and even now i remember the silence
of the room, a kinship but only after the loss,
an emptiness, however subtle,
that the spider left behind for me.

11.08.22

the times ahead

Posted in Uncategorized at 9:15 pm by Administrator

i’m still haunted by a story i read back in 2009, about the suicidal death of freddie mac’s chief financial officer david kellermann, who was 41 years old. he’d just been promoted to his executive role at the troubled company and was under extreme pressure by federal regulators, company insiders, and the community as a whole to do right by mortgage loan borrowers who were fighting for their homes. in the context of a severe global recession, a 24/7 high pressure job, and incredibly low morale at his company, kellermann tendered his resignation. it was refused. a day later, he hung himself in his basement. he left behind a wife and a 6 year old girl.

to a large extent, i was insulated from the effects of the 2008 recession, having been early in my career and with an organization large enough to weather the economic impact of the financial crisis. even so, i certainly witnessed the great desperation of those times. many of the patients i was taking care of lost their health insurance during those years and ended up migrating to public clinics or community health centers. friends and acquaintances of mine were wiped out by the market calamity. the home i ended up buying was a foreclosure, and the sellers of the home begged me to let them squat on the property for weeks even after the sale closed. so many people in my orbit were just trying to survive.

fourteen years later, i find myself remembering that time, because i am beginning to see it and feel it again: that desperation. but this is not the desperation of a sudden and unexpected system collapse. no, this is the slower and more subtle desperation of getting squeezed, of being slowly choked out by rising costs of living and steadily declining hopes of a windfall. i feel it in my bones, as winter approaches. it’s not just a recession that i fear; it’s the beginning of a new chapter of our existence as a society.

here in the midst of midterm elections, i was reminded of this blog post from two years ago, on october 20, 2020.

the next administration is going to inherit a disaster. we are facing an accelerating pandemic that will plague public health and the economy for another two years. given the rising pressures on the economy caused by persisting high unemployment, rising debt, and contraction of growth, the lucky winner of this election will have to raise taxes and institute austerity measures. moreover, there will be plenty of difficult geopolitical crises to manage, as regime changes and escalating regional conflicts across the world test america’s capacity to retain its influence while funding its domestic priorities. the congress and white house that inherit this situation will likely be entirely turned over within the next 4-6 years. it’s an unenviable position that is sure to sink anyone who gets on the ship.

it’s this idea of austerity, so foreign to america’s way of life, that i anticipated from afar with great anxiety. it’s antithetical to our culture, not to live on debt, not to entitle ourselves to conveniences and luxuries, not to build lifestyles around vacation, travel, and leisure. but the crushing experience of austerity now seems inevitable, as spiraling inflation is prompting the federal reserve bank to raise its key interest rate with the goal of suppressing consumer demand for goods and services. we have no other tools with which to battle these unsustainable costs of living except to now impose austerity through draconian measures. and as per jerome powell’s testimony last week, the federal reserve cannot and will not let up on interest rate hikes until inflation has been quashed: a veritable commitment to forcing austerity, by means of a severe recession.

i think that a lot of people are underestimating what this will mean because they’re employed, they have cash reserves, and they’re confident that prices at the pump and at the grocery store will invariably drop. unemployment numbers persist at record low levels, and america’s service economy is veritably booming. my perspective is different, having worked for two non-profit agencies over the past three years that are facing financial catastrophe. my former organization is experiencing a slow-motion train-wreck, as they project the total depletion of their cash reserves within a year. my current organization is veering toward a fiscal cliff and has for the first time struggled to meet monthly payroll. the root causes of these hardships are precisely the same: exponentially rising personnel costs due to pandemic-related workforce factors; diminishing returns due to persistently fixed reimbursements in the context of rapidly accelerating costs; acutely declining consumer demands due to seasonal and societal factors. it’s a nightmare convergence of factors that i believe are affecting not just the healthcare industry but small businesses across all sectors.

while the big companies are able to mitigate these impacts to some degree, the small companies aren’t diversified or established enough to survive. the reason no one is hearing about this is because the small companies aren’t publicly listed, don’t have to be transparent about their imminent struggles, and have no incentive to divulge their emerging weaknesses to their employees and customers. they have pandemic relief cash to weather the next few months, they’re afraid to scare away potential mergers or acquisitions, and their window of focus is just months, not years. to all outside observers, they’re doing fine and they’re not firing workers; but in closed-door meetings, they are drawing up worst-case scenarios, including plans to sell, furlough, or outright close. it’s what i call the “slow apocalypse” of the american economy. prices can’t rise as fast as salaries are, and even before the average consumer begins to cut back on discretionary spending, the small businesses will begin to fold. unemployment figures will be a lagging indicator of the economic destruction that is already unfolding. to put it simply, pandemic salary inflation signaled the end of this most recent long-term debt cycle.

i’m wealthier than i was fourteen years ago, but i’m more frightened about the times ahead than i was when i was facing the great financial crisis of 2008. as dramatic and far-reaching as that crisis was, it peaked quickly, wiped out the vulnerable borrowers within a year, and set in motion the fiscal and monetary mechanisms of economic recovery almost immediately. this time, the financial crisis will set in unevenly and over a longer period of time; and real austerity, not just a punctuated market crash, is significantly more likely to supervene. that means that there won’t be a simple v-shaped recovery from this inexorable path of decline. there could be years of meandering, a steady and longstanding erosion of capital across all asset classes, and a long-term impact on the psyche of the american consumer. my memories of the 1970s are remote and dim at best, but even i can remember what it meant for my family to save money, to count costs, and to weigh competing financial priorities. only the extreme risk takers put money into the stock market back in those days. like i’ve said several times before, this generation of millennial investors is about to be wiped out, a phenomenon that i think will have as great of an impact on the culture of this country as the depletion of the baby boomer generation’s retirement funds. we will be squeezed: too few good jobs, not enough employment benefits, too many taxes to pay, not enough cash to get by.

i’ve wandered from my prior thesis on the opportunities afforded by long treasuries. while a fed pivot is certainly possible if the recession sets in fast and furious, i just don’t think it’s going to play out that way. it’s going to be slow-developing, stagflationary, and woefully persistent. in an environment like that, you just have to hold on and wait it out. you keep up your house payments; you stop eating out; you try to hold onto your job; you save cash. you let go of the way things used to be. you brace for the long haul

11.07.22

andy stanley

Posted in Uncategorized at 3:18 pm by Administrator

at the end of this past week, i had a conference in upstate new york that entailed a four hour drive through hundreds of miles of heavily forested countryside. i don’t like driving, but the views were incredible. along the way, i randomly decided to listen to christian podcasts, and at some point i began listening to andy stanley.

i discovered andy stanley about six years ago because of a friend of mine from a church i used to go to. he had lent me four CDs packed with messages from a leadership conference he had attended, which was headlined by andy stanley and craig groeschel. i thought that these two guys were absolutely phenomenal, in their ability to translate biblical teachings into a basic commentary about healthy organizational culture. they were “common sense” christians; it was evident that what preoccupied them wasn’t the esoteric nuances of theology or apologetics as much as the establishment of conscientious and creative spiritual communities. even now, i remember and practice some of the things i learned from their teachings.

in any case, stanley’s latest podcast is a reflection on what it means to be a church here at the brink of what could be a contentious and divisive midterm election. as i expected, he shies away from taking a side or expressing sympathy for a platform; he takes the moderate stance of listening to both sides and pleading for a church that is on the one hand politically involved and on the other hand not overtly politicized. i found it to be a tenuous if not frankly unsatisfying position, as i’m not sure that agnosticism on the issues is possible for a person of conscience in these times—but i respected his willingness to be frank about his efforts to arrive at a position of open-minded and non-judgmental engagement.

regardless, i thoroughly enjoyed listening to him explain his struggle. he’s taken flak from conservatives and liberals, and i’ve seen a fair share of fundamentalist church leaders attack him through the years, particularly regarding his stance on the contemporary relevance of old testament scripture. nevertheless, he has not wavered in his willingness to apply his conscience to the story of scripture in order to find personally resonant truth. stanley encourages his listeners to make better decisions by applying wisdom based on their “past experiences, current circumstances, and future hopes and dreams.” where is the scripture exactly in this nexus of perspectives? i think that stanley believes that the exploration of personal conscience naturally reveals the truths of the scripture and that one really cannot contradict the other. call it ingenuous or heretical, but i find it bold and refreshing. if christianity really can revolve around basic practices of conscience and little else, then i can sign up for that.

to me, there is a place in this world for the common sense conscientiousness of jack kornfield, thich nhat hanh, and andy stanley. i know that fundamentalist christians everywhere would decry this statement as syncretism, a rejection of christ’s singularity, and a dismissal of the authority of scripture. but of course i’m not interested in these critiques anymore, and if i believe anything anymore, it’s that the basic conscience of human beings should not be constrained by complex belief systems that naturally pit them against their fellow humans. for years, i’ve dialogued with christians who were clearly uncomfortable with their church’s stances on gay marriage, misogyny, abortion, racism, systematic injustice, police brutality, global american empire, and collectivity in general; in most every case, these people felt compelled to hide their misgivings and to submit their conscience to the dictates of a higher power. for years, my question to them was WHY? WHY not allow a woman to teach a man? WHY not take the side of a black man killed by police in the process of being arrested? WHY not acknowledge that romantic love between two people of the same gender can be perfectly natural (and good)? WHY not question the overwhelming politicization of the right-wing church community, which contests any legitimate separation of church and state? the church is filled with people who want to exercise common sense conscientiousness but are bound, constrained, and even enslaved by indoctrination that pits them against their countrymen and their neighbors. this is what eckhart tolle describes as the unconscious and pervasive madness of our generation; and these are the beliefs that ultimately turn cultural battles into the wars that consume the lives of millions.

10.27.22

conscience

Posted in Uncategorized at 3:16 pm by Administrator

a proverb i have encountered: listen first to your conscience; then to the opinion of the rest of the world

part of my journey toward wholeness and the reduction of my suffering resides in conscientiousness, which i have come to define as living in alignment with what i value and embrace as true.

during my many years in the church, i frequently explored the nature of conscience with religious leaders. my question was this: does christian practice requiring abiding by conscience, redeeming conscience, or replacing conscience with another moral point of reference? i got a variety of conflicting responses to this question. some stated plainly that the innate human conscience properly understands right and wrong, regardless of one’s state of relationship with god; this is part of the “common grace” extended to all of humanity. others told me that human conscience is inextricably linked to underlying depravity, and thus the conscience cannot be trusted, until it reflects the redemptive process enacted by the holy spirit. and still others told me that as the conscience inextricably reflects the innate limits of human understanding, it can only serve as an imperfect lens into what is truly moral—as defined by the inerrant scriptures. “the heart is deceitful above all things”, writes the prophet jeremiah, words that now capture for reformed christians the very idea that in the end one cannot actually know what is right or good, apart from biblical study.

the variety of responses i received over the years reflects what i believe is genuine and inevitable confusion about the role of conscience in the church. and even outside the church, conscience and its role are greatly disputed. secular humanists tend to believe that conscience, as a shared experience, can translate to societal benevolence; but i see plenty in the literature of our times to suggest that we are accustomed to demonizing the other and justifying our divisions on the basis of incompatible moral points of reference. generally speaking, there is no universal appeal to conscience in our times. there is a plethora of seemingly good causes, but i cannot find any single good cause that seems to have the support of all.

i wander into this line of inquiry because i am inclined to empathize and even self-project, which implies that my natural tendency is to assume others are pained and inspired by the same things that pain or inspire me. and even as much as i encounter conflict and differences that would appear to invalidate this thesis, i persist in believing in a universal experience of conscience. this belief has caused me much suffering over the years, particularly as i have become politicized and commodified in all the ways that affect most citizens of our post-industrial society. understanding that conscience is part of my experience of awareness and also understanding that conscience does not necessarily reflect universal values requires a level of disidentification and mindfulness that i have not yet achieved. in other words, i aspire to be conscientious, while understanding that conscience does not reflect any kind of absolute morality.

reclaiming my conscience has enabled me to begin dealing with concepts and beliefs that i acquired over many difficult years in the church. and i write these things not to attack the church or the evangelical understanding of the bible; i write these things to work through the immense suffering that my experiences in the church have caused me, so that i may suffer less. in that spirit, and out of conscience, i say the following without reservation.

it was not right for the biblical god to test the man abraham by commanding him to sacrifice his son isaac. even if it was the biblical god’s intention to prevent the ritual sacrifice in the end, the very act of commanding such an act represents abhorrent intention. this is a reflection of suffering. the behavior of the biblical god reflects his unique identity of suffering, which in turn reflects his profound humanity, which in turn reflects his lack of enlightenment. how can i say it any differently? the biblical god is not worth emulating. he should evoke our compassion.

it was not right for the biblical god to render an animal that abraham could sacrifice in place of his son. no life can rightly be purposed for sacrifice; all life is precious. my conscience disputes the biblically rooted idea of ritual sacrifice, which bears similarities to the role of sacrifice in other “pagan” traditions of the canaanite tribes.

it was not right for the biblical god to command the israelites to murder the men, women, children, infants, and animals of the canaanite tribes that they conquered in their quest for a promised land. this insidious concept of empire has bled into the mythologies and histories of every empire that has since followed the example of the israelite tribe. not only was this an inexcusable cruelty in biblical times; it is now a foundational underpinning of the war and social violence we experience today.

it was cruel of the biblical god to subject the man job to the torture and inflictions of a jealous angel. in so doing, the biblical god made himself like the agent of job’s suffering. as the devil illuminated what god so values, so does god reflect the devil’s divine purpose. one cannot be without the other, and thus they are very much the same.

lastly, it was not right for god to kill a man that he considered innocent, in order to satisfy his wrath against those he considered guilty. never mind the fact that this god created a thing in humanity that ultimately he could not bear with. the fact that he could find justice in punishing one man for the evils of another reflects injustice, even beyond a basic lack of awareness and self-control. for years, i was taught to understand this miscarriage of justice as a reflection of love, but my conscience bears witness to this now with great sadness.

it is conscience that tells me now that the story of the bible is the story of human civilization: a restless and unending need to escape karma by empowering the ego with a delusion of superhumanity. it is a story of suffering inflicted upon generation after generation through the imposition of evangelism, made perfect in ideological conquest and formalized in the structure of empire. like most religions of the world, the biblical story justifies and ennobles suffering, when it makes more sense to reduce suffering for the benefit of all. i knew this from the beginning, even when i was a child, but it was only when i could escape the oppression of beliefs that i was able to understand it as a basic truth. i was not made to be the servant of a wrathful god; i am because the universe is compassionate, because life does not require redemption, and because there is no soul that needs to be saved

10.20.22

justifying my journey

Posted in Uncategorized at 4:18 pm by Administrator

last night, i woke up in the middle of the night crying. this is very unusual; i can’t actually remember experiencing anything like this before. all i could remember when i woke up was that i’d had a dream about my father’s death. he would have turned 81 years old, two days ago.

reflecting on this, i’m reminded today that regardless of how i tend to my thoughts during the waking day, the unconscious mind has its own startling regrets and fixations to work through. i’m one kind of man when i’m awake; but i’m an entirely different man when my mind is free of constraints. on mornings like this, i am reminded that regardless of what i say about what i have done and what has been done to me, the person within me that i cannot control is always keeping score.

for years, my wife has struggled with my journey into mindfulness. in particular, she sees a strain of nihilism in eckhart tolle’s teachings that has found its way into my life. on one level, she finds it inherently contradictory, because a belief in the relative unimportance of conceptual beliefs itself represents a belief. on a deeper level, she finds this manner of thinking irresponsible, as it would appear to disable resistance to a status quo that would otherwise be tacitly accepted. this is personal to her because the invalidation of conceptual identification would appear to undermine her own work in identity formation, which is essential to intentional positionality and activism.

for me, there is a part of this ongoing conversation that matters. i don’t want to be irresponsible, and i don’t want to be irresponsibly disengaged. a part of me wants to justify my journey by demonstrating how it is inextricably tied to my long-standing passion for social justice. but another part of me resists this tendency, because in fact my journey into mindfulness has nothing to do with any particular agenda for society—and because my journey into mindfulness has thus far demonstrated to me that social justice, if such a thing can exist, is an idea built from suffering that inescapably manifests itself in more suffering. to be an activist is to embrace suffering as an identity. i am unwilling to do this, because it necessarily constrains the one thing in me that i consider essential to my well-being and humanity: non-attachment.

now, jack kornfield has talked about this at length, because kornfield is both passionately engaged with society and absolutely dedicated to buddhism. for jack, there is no conflict between speaking out against racism and war on the one hand and adhering to non-attachment on the other. he reconciles these positions by emphasizing the difference between attachment (identification with another) and commitment (the practice of compassionate awareness, manifested in enduring relationship). one can care about another and speak out against an oppression without being driven by an a priori understanding or agenda, if one can be present enough with those involved in the oppression (both victim and oppressor) to recognize the suffering that the relationship is causing all that are involved. in other words, the principle that guides view and action is not a preconceived notion of what is better or ultimate but rather a present-focused understanding of what is causing suffering.

i know that my resistance to defining social justice as an absolute point of reference will rankle people. let me say this: that the man in me who dreams absolutely has his beliefs about the way that the world ought to be. every day, i wake up from that dream with tears in my eyes. but the fact of the matter is that i cannot live in my dreams. i have to wake up and reckon with the fact that i know so little and am present with even less. people i have spent too much of my time despising for various reasons—white supremacists, authority figures who abuse their power, tyrants in our world, and racists, misogynists, and oppressors of various kinds—do not actually exist in my immediate circle of influence, and as such these people are just ideas to me. the designs that my unconscious mind might have for them exist in an ideological and theoretical space, a space in which i suffer. in the place where i actually live and breathe, these concepts do not help me to be a better, more compassionate, and more vibrant person. they just prevent me from seeing the person in front of me for what that person really is: a miracle of consciousness, for whom possibilities are endless.

i cannot justify those who say racism doesn’t exist in our time. but neither can i justify those who believe that reversing racism and injustice is a reasonable purpose for living. i can’t justify either party, any more than i can justify my own way of life. i can only say that i live in a universe filled with things i cannot control, and attempting to control those things is the very definition of suffering. to dedicate myself to a life of suffering is to be defined by my karma—that within me that clamors for destruction and revenge. this does no one in the world any benefit, least of all those that i love. while i cannot change the fact that i go to sleep and become political and ideological in all the ways that unconscious people necessarily do, i can change how i awaken to the world, as one who is truly alive. i’ll not have anyone take that from me. and i don’t need to justify the practices that i take on in order to stay conscious, to be aware, and to live

10.18.22

giving back

Posted in Uncategorized at 2:35 pm by Administrator

i was in a business meeting with a group of relatively elderly corporate leaders last week, one of whom is soon to retire. over lunch, he talked about a book he had recently read about the experiences of people who retire. he told us that there are generally three phases that people go through during retirement. the first phase is the phase of “extended vacation”, which usually lasts a year. the second phase is a phase of reconnection with family and friends and a searching for relevance. and the third phase, if it happens, is a phase of returning to meaningful work.

in his own words, this third phase seemed to be about “giving back”. this resonated with the people in the room. the youngest of the group (other than myself) insisted that this was about purpose. “we can’t live without purpose,” she said, which got nods of approval around the table. i was going to offer my own opinion about this—that we absolutely can live without purpose, and that in fact the idea of purpose is the very seed of all human suffering—but i decided in the end not to take the conversation in that direction. i was, after all, the one in the room that was least experienced at life.

my endlessly roving mind has for the past decade anticipated its next major job or life transition as an opportunity for real self-discovery and change. but each transition has been decidedly anti-climactic, an incremental if not frankly cosmetic adjustment to my way of life. the one transition i’ve held out before myself as the ultimate transition is retirement from work. it’s the one thing i haven’t yet tried, the one thing that would have to mark some kind of departure from the beaten path of productive labor that i have taken since early adulthood. but lately i’ve been challenging myself to reevaluate this expectation, in light of the transition i’ve just gone through and the lessons it is teaching me about myself. what is it that i might seek from a chapter of my life called retirement? would i not, like so many others, ultimately determine that there is no relief or enlightenment to be gained simply by relinquishing responsibility for others? would i not quickly recognize that the pleasures of retirement really ought to be no different from the pleasures experienced in the midst of work? would it not be immediately plain to me that if i could not experience joy or mindful awareness when i was a working man, then i would have absolutely no reason to expect that i could discover these in the absence of work?

the idea of “giving back” struck me this morning as a great irony. the universe, as i’m coming to understand, does not want or need human beings to give something back to it, in any sense that can be readily understood. because giving back connotes some kind of obligation, a sense of responsibility. and a sense of responsibility comes out of a concept of identity, which itself is a reflection of suffering and a rejection of what is empty. indeed, we are always “giving back”, whether in our working lives or in our retirement; we are giving back the suffering that we derive from our experience of a society plagued by belief, expectation, socialization, and indoctrination. and this “giving back” takes innumerable forms: carbon emissions, fecal matter that clogs sewage lines, waste matter that cannot be recycled, words and ideas that further the suffering of others, angry thoughts and feelings that we direct to others on the road, insidious judgments that we sprinkle upon the collective consciousness of social media. the universe, veritably breaking under the weight of human civilization, does not want us to give anything back anymore. “stop your purposeful plans!” she cries out. “stop building and rebuilding. stop layering beliefs upon beliefs. stop giving back!” the sagging, crumbling, breaking world cries out in the songs of the endangered birds and the dying species of our times, despairing at our plans to return to meaningful work. we are not despised, but nevertheless our submission to inactivity and then to death is a kind of relief, after the cruel and consumptive lives that we live.

no, i think that the opportunity we have, which is imminent and does not require any kind of retirement, does not reside in giving back but rather in receiving. we spend too much of our lives burdened by the responsibility of giving something which comes out of suffering, when indeed our lives are too short to not receive the one thing that the universe has to give us: the flicker of awareness, which comes out of emptiness, and which culminates in a compassionate, non-judgmental integration with other life. such a thing cannot be built, conceived, or imagined. it must be received, and it can only be received by one who is not under the illusion that the purpose of her life is to relentlessly give. our history is littered with the stories of people who sacrificed themselves, martyred themselves, tortured themselves for a cause that enveloped their lives and reduced consciousness to an instrument of action. the civilization we have built upon the tombs of these martyrs is hell-bent on paying forward its bondage of karma and grief through the generations. to this, mother nature can only bend her boughs, surrender her flowers, and retreat into the deep rings of wintertime contemplations.

there is no retirement. there is nothing to give back. and there is no responsibility that can define my value or the worth of what i am. here where i am, i fall into myself and relinquish the idea of a narrative arc to my life. i surrender the lessons of my years; i spread out my arms and open these constricted fingers to the dancing air; i receive, i receive, i receive

10.07.22

a poem for the Fall

Posted in Uncategorized at 9:01 pm by Administrator

for years, i thought the turning of leaves was
the extroversion of trees, the excretion of passion
out into the very tips of fingers, tendrils too tenuous
to hold feeling.

but lately, i’ve come to recognize: the leaves yield to color
for the lack of feeling. it’s the involution
of energy, the retreat of sap from the brittling branch,
that gives us autumn.

i embrace the girdle of thick, moist, dark, mysterious,
impenetrable bark and feel its hidden life.
as we all must, she gives her seeming offering of death
to all who might see, while in secret, she lives!

teach me your ways, i whisper into her rivulets
and channels. teach me how to surrender
my dying flesh, this brittle form,
even as i retreat into true life, within.

10.03.22

de facto

Posted in Uncategorized at 8:44 pm by Administrator

i’m often asked how i’m doing and what i’m doing with my life, and one of the truer answers i offer is that i am still trying to figure out what to do with my life. the answer might miscast me as a dilettante or an idealist, when in fact i’m just chronically ill at ease. i don’t think anyone was born to do any one thing in particular, and moreover i don’t even believe that one’s labor can sufficiently express one’s humanity or value, so perhaps my answer has more to do with the fact that i’m still very much perplexed as to why i must work for a living and how i can justify my livelihood when it so clearly embedded in a system of labor that produces as much poverty as it does wealth. it is anger-provoking and bizarrely oppressive, and it makes me resist any pretense of experiencing fulfillment through employment. yes, i do experience certain joys in the work i do, but i will forever resent the fact that my ability to feed myself and my family depends on the value i offer my society as a commodified vessel of production.

of course this reminds me of the one book i read in college that actually resonated with me: herbert marcuse’s one-dimensional man. that—and my time on the ballroom dance team—might have been the two things i most cherished about my post-secondary schooling.

in any case, as i have spent most of my adult life wondering what to do with my life, i have also spent much of it trying to figure out what my parenting style ought to be. while i have weighed the many possibilities for myself, two children have grown up in my household, and my son, as life would abruptly have it, is suddenly sixteen years old and on the brink of finishing high school. whether i knew it or not, and whether i believed that i ever figured it out, i was the parent that i was going to be all along; and now, having no answers to the question of how i might best prepare my children for the world, i have evidenced in all the ways that matter that there was just one way i was going to do this. and it is strange and sad and funny and enlightening to recognize now that my parenting style was not preconceived or rational in any way. it is as it was: de facto.

my friend andrew has scripted the lives of his children in such a way that they are inevitably headed for successful ivy league college careers. his eldest is already following his footsteps at Yale. he asked me to describe my son’s narrative: what is the story that he will tell of his life, through his application, his interviews, and his essays? of course this is not a surprising question to me at all, because i once weaved out of the machinery of my young life a story that i told compellingly enough to get into every college i applied to, nearly thirty years ago. i was conscientious; i was mission-minded; i was a philosopher. beyond simply being curious, intellectual, and musically talented, i was a broad thinker about our world. perhaps some of this was actually true.

i know my son, and yet i cannot and will not answer that question about his life’s trajectory, about that narrative we shall spin about who he is and what he has to offer his society. sure, we can extract from his activities and aspirations a lyric that we could stretch out into a song, a veritable anthem celebrating his solid and steady march into productive adulthood. i can’t help but admit the disdain i feel for myself when i entertain the motions. it is not that i cannot produce an ivy leaguer out of my son; it is that i feel that this is so utterly beneath him, an utter travesty of authentic living. i walked down that path once upon a time, thinking that i was taking something mundane to me and turning it into someone else’s treasure, at no real cost to myself; their fascination with me would ultimately do nothing to change what i was. but i was wrong about this. the process of commodifying myself destroyed something precious to me, and i have never quite regained it. it is as marcuse wrote, all those years ago: we cannot escape the psychological ramifications of selling ourselves into bondage. we might imagine ourselves as free men choosing to wear the chains that shackle us to that which we despise, but regardless, it is enslavement. de facto enslavement.

i remember seeing my son asleep in his grandparents’ home one night so many years ago, and he was so small and innocent. it broke me to see his untroubled life, and it breaks me now to remember it. he is a beautiful, fascinating, and inescapably complex human being, and i have no wish to present him to the world as they might wish him to be presented. i will not even describe him here, to you. and we will not fashion him a narrative that makes him extraordinary, when there is nothing wrong with what is ordinary. it has taken me most of my adult life to escape the trap of being special and distinct. my son will not have to free himself from that snare if i can help it. what he is will always be sufficient.

perhaps it does not sit so well with me that i have raised my son so that he would not follow in my footsteps. but this is what i had to give him. i did not wish for him my kind of success. i desired for him a kind of happiness that i have struggled to experience throughout my life. if he can find it, in his own unscripted way, then perhaps i will have found a narrative that means something, after all

« Previous entries