In Times Such as These

One thing that has increasingly been in my mind the past couple of years is the idea of disengagement. When I decided to leave my old job two years ago there was a very real sense for me of stepping off the treadmill/escalator of career advancement.

In the time since I left, I’ve done a lot of thinking and growing that I just couldn’t have done if I was still at that job. I’ve also worked to build up a new way of working for money that is more balanced but still pays the bills. That is a work in progress I admit: there’s things I still want to change and tweak about that all. But the important thing is that I didn’t just jump back on that treadmill/escalator once again. That’s a huge breakthrough for me, as it means I’m able to change some of the deeply ingrained programming that says you put off what you want until you’ve finished what you have to do. I refer to this problem with me as the “eat all the vegetables first and then you can eat what you like” problem (or “vegetable problem” for short). I’ve disengaged from the old world and way of being.

In the past few months, I’ve realized that this “vegetable problem” manifests in how I interact with the world and results in another type of blocking of my creativity and pursuit of things I want.

What’s really made me see this is the recent election. Throughout my life, I’ve been very engaged in politics and current events. I actually have, in my past, a period of my life where I worked in politics in DC during the summers in college. And it was always made clear to me that not being engaged in politics is irresponsible and immature. So, of course, wanting to be a good, responsible, mature person, I threw myself into being aware and informed about what’s going on at all times. A part of that too is my paranoid nature, especially when younger: I wanted to know where the big, bad thing was coming from so I wouldn’t be blindsided.

Mind you, there’s a degree to which I’ve enjoyed having that wealth of knowledge. I have an interest in history and cultures, so this is a natural extension of that in many ways. But, over the past couple of years, though, I’ve increasingly found my tracking of news and current events to be draining and, dare I say, bad for the soul. And this election most especially so: I have found myself genuinely depressed by the current state of things in American politics.

I can’t put my finger on any one thing that’s a problem. Part of it is that the news seems so bad all the time. Part of it is that the players seem more petty and mean than they were in the past. Part of it is that I’m old enough now that I really am seeing history repeat itself. Part of it is that in a universe of limited time, I realize that time reading news is time not reading poetry, creative writing, travel writing, essays or writing on things like Buddhism. And part of it is that I just feel less desire to be so totally engaged with this in the way I used to me. This last mirrors the changes I’ve experienced with work: I want to do only what I need to; I don’t have this crazy drive to excel here any more.

But here I find the “vegetable problem” shows itself too. Just as I’ve realized I’ve been putting off doing what I want on the grounds that “first I have to make enough money to be comfortable and then can stop working crazily and do what you want” so too I find a voice in my head saying “first all the big scary problems in the world have to be settled out so you know you’re safe and then you can do what you want”.

In essence, it’s another way of putting the start of doing what you want off until tomorrow. Day after day, you wait until tomorrow. But tomorrow never comes, by the time it gets here it’s today. And you’re not going to do this today, you’re going to do it tomorrow.

The truth I’m coming to realize is that things aren’t going to be “OK” enough in my lifetime. For all the dreams and ideals of progressive improvement, there’s a huge drag that ensures there will always be problems. Two steps forward: one, two or even three steps back.

Joyce once called history the “nightmare from which we are trying to awake”. When I was younger, those were just words and ideas to me. Now, I feel the reality that they point to.

When I look at history, I realize that people have moved forward and created their art and life in spite of the troubles of their times. I have a book “Zen Under The Gun” that talks about Chinese Zen (Ch’an) Masters during the time of the Mongol invasions. Talk about a time of great disruption and upheaval. Yet, somehow they managed to move forward and keep working on their practice, on preserving what they could of the Buddhadharma, and working towards their own enlightenment. Similarly, when we look at Shakespeare, we see someone who created amidst a time of great danger and uncertainty. And Dante wrote the entire Commedia as an exile from Florence (he never did get to return).

And so, I increasingly think that the world isn’t going to right itself enough that I can disengage from it in this lifetime. So if I want to move forward in other areas of my life, I’m just going to have to disengage on my own. This is going to be very hard because it’s going to mean some real changes in behavior (not reading news online all the time I have spare time but instead reading blogs or other things that support my creative endeavors or actually writing). It’s also going to mean some real changes in my mental posture that are going to be even harder. It means that I finally have to not listen to the voice that tells me I’m being immature and irresponsible by not reading so much news. And it means not listening to the other voice that tells me that I’m putting myself and those I love in danger by not paying obsessive attention to everything that could possibly go wrong.

I think it is a mark of this stage of my life that I’m disengaging from the bigger world and focusing on a smaller one that is better for me overall. I’ve changed my socializing over the past couple of years to be more focused on a small group of very trusted people rather than a large group of people I sort-of know. So, disengaging in this area of the world too is consistent with this trend.

In someways, I guess, I’m turning into a reclusive extrovert. I guess that would make sense since I’ve never really fit well into traditional categories.

The biggest thing in this all is I think I’m learning how one really adapts to be able to live in times such as these. Meaning, how to not just survive but thrive in a world that is messy, fucked up, frustrating, and likely to always be that way.

Taking the teleological view of things, perhaps this lesson is why I chose to take birth in this time and place. Do I think that’s a scientific truth? No. But I think there’s a poetic and spiritual truth in looking at things that way that is ultimately beneficial. And Nietzsche said that we should measure the value of beliefs less by their facticity and more by the degree to which they are beneficial and life-affirming.

But to bring this back to disengagement, I realize that this is going to be a real part of my daily life practice. Just like I’m making changes (slowly) to improve my physical health, and am seeing some natural healing occurring with my mental health, so too I need to look after and attend my mental and spiritual health by making changes. And like all changes, this is going to be a lot of work.