Category Archives: Personal Reflections

After the worst: relief

It is counterintuitive but it’s been my experience that often after the worst thing that you feared might happen happens…

….you feel relief.

If you stop to think about it, it makes sense. You no longer have to worry about whether the worst thing is going to happen or not.

It has happened.

As a person, I’m action-oriented and comfortable in the space of problem solving and crisis management; being in the realm of things gone wrong is much more comfortable than being in the realm of worrying that it might go wrong.

The truth is, there’s practically nothing I can’t handle in reality. I’ve looked unflinchingly, calmly into situations that most people would run from. And done it repeatedly over the years. Talking people out of suicide, navigating worldwide crises threatening millions of people: I’ve done that. Several times. Among other things.  And no, I’m really not exaggerating.

But when we talk about the realm of my fears: well, my fears know me well enough that they can undo me more effectively than any actual crisis in the real world can.

I’ve gotten more practice at this in recent weeks that I would’ve cared to. But it has taught me that I have people that love me and support me more than I thought imaginable. And it has reminded me once more of how truly strong I am and how I can get through anything.

Most of all, getting through this all has given me relief. It’s dispelled fears that have been hampering me for some time.

Rainer Maria Rilke is supposed to have said “Love and Death are the great gifts that are given to us; mostly, they are passed on unopened.” I read “death” here to be not just actual death, but loss and change. I have been sitting looking at these latest gifts of death for sometime. And I have only opened them recently, reluctantly. And in those gifts of death, I find gifts of love as well. And I have opened them too.

Perhaps the greatest gift of love that I have opened in this is the gift of love of myself. As my fears dissipate, I find myself again that me that I love. Even more that me that I love.

More trials that make me more the man I want to be, the gentleman I want to be.

So once again I thank the Universe for testing me, for hurting me, for breaking me that it might reshape me.

Rescue Me, Myself

I’ve been quiet on the blog for a bit.

More work on stuff I wrote about this past Fall.

Good work. But hard work.

And a big piece of that work has been work to get my physical and mental health into better shape. As I’ve said, in the Fall I reached a point where I really said for the first time in my life “I want to live”, not just be alive by default.

Since the start of March, a big piece of this work has involved my physical health. Resuming my weight training, cutting out alcohol and coffee for a while. Continuing my yoga. Resuming my elliptical training. And adding a new cardio workout to my program.

It’s definitely yielded physical and mental results. Physically, I’m back nearly to where I was at my physical peak 5 years ago. In a way that marks the final piece of recovery from leaving my job four years ago. And I am feeling like I’m making real, substantial progress in addressing and removing the issues and anxieties that plagued me (and thus everyone in my life) so profoundly in the Fall.

Candidly, no one will ever really understand how bad that was for me. And that’s good. Because it was very bad.

I feel myself emerging once again. A new me. A stronger me. A better me.

There is another piece to this all, though.

At the end of February, after I’d decided on my cleanse program and had started my weight training something happened that has changed my life.

I was driving home, listening the the Gravity soundtrack. A movie that speaks to me loudly with its own message of “I want to live”. And the music reminds me of the passing of my dog in January. The soundtrack wasn’t complete when I got to my drive so I decided to continue driving to play it out (I hate to interrupt things like that). While I was driving, listening to the music, I happened by one of the local fire stations. Out front, they had a banner up announcing they are looking for volunteers.

Now, I had seen a call like this years before, when I was in that job. And I thought about it and decided that I couldn’t do it due to my work.

This time, though, things are different. I thought about it. I came home and looked up information on the program.

And I decided I would do it. I would try to become a volunteer firefighter.

One thing that is a theme in my life is the role of luck. I define luck as the combination of random chance and the drive to grab those chances and capitalize on them. I live where I do because of luck. My partners are because of luck. Time and again my life has moved forward because of a single moment or event.

And I realized that this is another of those.

This decision immediately gave my other work around physical health in particular new focus. I would always say that my motivation for working out was the American Beauty reason: I want to look good naked.

But with this new project, I have a newer, much more effective reason. Quite simply, I now have a voice in my head that says “You don’t want to be unable to help yourself or someone else because you skipped your workout”. It is giving me some very plausible life or death reasons for working out.

So since March I’ve been pushing myself, hard (at least for me) because I want this.

I put my application in last Thursday. I’m waiting to hear back. Sometime in the next couple of months will come the tryouts. By all measures I think it’s likely that I will pass. If I do, then I’ll start their training in the fall.

Even if I don’t make it, the project has already yielded benefits. Beyond the physical ones I find that it is giving space for that warrior side of me. I’m feeling more of my toppy/dominant energy. And, in a way, I’m finding that it’s giving me more comfort with my masculine energy and identity.

I find too that doing this makes a lot of sense on a spiritual side, for lack of a better way of putting it. I have a very complicated relationship with change and chaos. And nothing symbolizes that more than fire.

I’m sure I’ll be writing on that more.

This isn’t something I’m taking lightly. I’ve talked with firefighters and they’ve given me the “scare the crap out of you” talk about what they do. I know that this is something very hard. Something that can be very traumatic. Something that truly could injure or even kill me (though the department hasn’t yet lost anyone in the line of duty).

But that doesn’t scare me off. Rather it speaks to that side of me that wants to run towards my fears.

I know that it may not make sense  that having found this desire to live, I should turn and start looking at something that could do the opposite. But it makes sense to me. And is giving me a grounding and focus I feel I’ve been missing, really for years.

I’ve been watching Rescue Me, which is about a fire station in the FDNY. It’s a very complicated show. But one thing it does well is show how hard this can be. And all I can say is that part of the show, that feels right to me.

In the end, I think I have that classic service calling, likely from my father. Perhaps that’s partly why I’m feeling better, that’s starting to flow once again.

I don’t know where this will go. And I’m OK with that. That’s kind of the nature of this.

But for now, here’s the opening credits to Rescue Me. I’ve fallen in love with the song (oh yeah and watching the firetrucks and equipment).

Stay tuned for more updates.

p.s. I should also note that when people ask me why I’m doing this, I always end by saying “Hello, uniform, duh!”. 🙂

Volcano: A Meditation

One month becomes two, becomes three, becomes four.

You look down: it’s the start of February. You look back up: it’s almost June.

Whoosh.

In the seeming blink of an eye, a third of the year is gone.

The weeks and months fly by, but the minutes and hours crawl.

Such is the distortion and dilation of time when life erupts like a volcano.

When change and violence cascade like lava, sweeping away and destroying what was there.

But in time, volcanoes stop erupting. Lava cools. Out of the lava that  destroyed comes new life.

Time doesn’t just heal wounds. It creates new life out of destruction.

Sometimes we mourn what was destroyed. But sometimes we celebrate. At times, some things just need to be destroyed.

Such is the danger and the benefit of building our cities on volcanoes, like Nietzsche says.

For now though, time to start building anew.

“For believe me! — the secret for harvesting from existence the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment is: to live dangerously! Build your cities on the slopes of Vesuvius! Send your ships into uncharted seas! Live at war with your peers and yourselves! Be robbers and conquerors as long as you cannot be rulers and possessors, you seekers of knowledge! Soon the age will be past when you could be content to live hidden in forests like shy deer! At long last the search for knowledge will reach out for its due: — it will want to rule and possess, and you with it!” – Nietzsche

Transitioning

First comes the gentle sounds of rain delicately hitting the panes of a window in another universe. Unseen but heard, it draws awareness away from the world around you towards that other one.

I woke up first to the sound of rain. Then I woke up to the smell of damp rain. Then the feel of cool damp air on my face. Then my eyes opened to grey skies, bright green plants with raindrops on them gently blowing in the breeze.

Make Merry

Today is Christmas here where I live.

And while I’m not particularly given to celebrating that holiday, it does occur to me that it makes sense today to make note of a gift that I’ve given to myself. Specifically, that I’ve given myself the realization of the importance of the idea of “make merry”.

It’s a phrase we tend to associate with these holidays. But I’ve come to realize that the phrase is much more profound and meaningful than its holiday use may suggest.

Implicit in this phrase is the idea that “merriment” is something that is made. In other words, merriment simply doesn’t occur by itself. It’s something that requires conscious actions for it to come about.

As I emerge from this most recent period of crisis, one thing that I’ve come to realize is that I can no longer simply let my health and happiness take care of themselves. I’ve been lucky thus far that my physical health has been such that I haven’t had to put much focus or effort into minding it but still have been relatively healthy. And as regards happiness: well, I was raised such that making that a priority was viewed as frivolous. You prioritize your work and school. You take your happiness wherever you can find it.

Now though, I’ve realized that I can’t let these things take care of themselves. Part of it is aging: my physical health just doesn’t take care of itself as well as it did when I was younger. Part of it too is I’ve realized that they don’t really take care of themselves. And in that regard, this fall I got a glimpse of what it can look like when these don’t take care of themselves. And, I’ve learned from my father’s family what the true risks are if my health and happiness all go wrong. As I’ve said “I want to live”. And I now know that failing to take care of my health and happiness runs a real risk to my life.

And so I’ve started a program of actively focusing on my health and happiness. In essence, I’ve come to realize that I really must make merry.

This isn’t going to ever be done. This is something that I’m going to be doing now every day for the rest of my life. I accept that now.

But it makes me hopeful. I feel like I have a direction in ways I’ve been lacking.

And so, on this holiday, I’m actually quite thankful that I’ve come to understand the true meaning and importance of “make merry”. Now it’s a matter of actually doing it. Every day. For the rest of my (hopefully long) life.

What is to be done?

When I was (much) younger, I fancied myself as being “mad, bad and dangerous to know”, quite like Lord Byron.

But the necessities of making a living in the world and its attendent comforts slowly tempered those fires.

My passionate, idealistic radicalism of youth became a pragmatism in adulthood.

At one point a number of years ago I found myself on a trajectory that was taking me and my family towards a life of conformity that would have shocked the younger me. It was also a life that was soul killing for me and my wife.

It was too much for her and an opportunity came up that would pull us out of there. But it required throwing everything we’d built up in the air and seeing what pieces landed where. Back then I couldn’t do that for myself but I could and did for her. It put us and me on a path away from conformity, on a path more of my shaping.

And then I had to do much the same three years ago for myself. Once again, taking everything and throwing it up in the air to see what lands where. And that too has put me further along on a path of my own shaping.

And now with first some stability in my life, and now new instability, I find myself thinking about where I’m going next. I am fully in mid-life. I have seen all of my family I grew up with die. I have seen many friends die young. I am seeing friends die in middle age now. I have sent three cats and a dog to the other side and am watching my dog start to decline in old age.

I have been with my wife nearly twenty-two years: soon I will pass the longer with her than not mark. And so, of course, my marriage has changed significantly over the years.

The recent instability and changes in my life have underscored a lot of loss and seen things go away for me. And while that’s part of life, it feels unbalanced: like there’s more loss than gain. And so I’ve been feeling despair: a sense of things being out of control and slowly decaying. As I’ve put it to some folks, I’m having that feeling once more that I’ve done all I’m going to do and I’m at the end of my life.

My life is hardly conformist now. A recent trip to where I once lived underscored how much I don’t belong there and how far down my own path I am.

I can’t simply sit and wait. I need to grow and move forward, always. But I don’t yet know where I want and need to go. I do know that when simply standing still I move further and further away from conformity because the world around me is moving in that direction, faster and faster. And so when I do move, I know it will take me even further afield from them all because my direction is in the opposite direction.

In a way, I’m coming back to where I was when younger. Becoming madder, badder and more dangerous to know. In part because I’m not flailing like I was in youth. I know how to get what I want. And clearly what I want is a life that doesn’t fit into anyone’s neat boxes.

When I was younger, I had my radical phase. I had my Marxist phase (yes, really….hard to believe if you know me now). In a high school debate on Capitalism and Communism, I wiped the floor with the Imperial Capitalist Pigs (and this was in the DC area in the 1980s). During that phase, a couple of words and phrases came into my life that had power for me.

Iskra“, the Russian word for “spark”. Vladimir Lenin used it as the name of his revolutionary newspaper. The idea being that a “spark” will light the fires of revolution. In my poetry and writing when younger, I would use that work to describe the necessary essence of vibrancy needed to sustain and propel forward. I would talk about how my college relationship was failing because the “iskra” was gone.

Another phrase that stuck with me, also from Lenin, was “What is to be done“: this was his revolutionary manifesto where he outlined his plans for revolution. By the way, it’s pretty much what he did. The decisive nature of the question and its answer always stuck with me for some reason.

As I feel the world pushing me further away by it’s movement, am contemplating where to go next, and continue this project of reconnecting with things from when I was younger, it just some how seems appropriate to meditate on the idea of “iskra” and the question “what is to be done”. Not so much from a point of view of Marxism-Leninism or even politics, but just around life.

What is to be done is to cultivate those things that have the iskra. And to understand and accept that for me those things that have an iskra take me farther afield from the society I live in.

This is a post without answers. This is post where I pause in my wandering and look around and see where I am. And after this post, I take the bearings that I’ve gotten and continue moving.

When you’re under the gun

“O.K. If that’s the way you want to play it. But when the gun is in my hand, we’re gonna have this conversation again.” Meg Cobrun (played by Mira Sorvino) in The Replacement Killers

It’s been a challenging couple of weeks for me. In particular, there’s been a number of things going on in life that are out of my control.

Similar to what I’ve said about being sick, it’s hard to feel like you have that calm stability at your center when things are being done to you that you can’t control.

And so again I’m looking at the question of how to hold space with what I’m feeling and not let it redefine me. Or, another way I suppose of saying it: how do I deal with these situations I can’t control and not lose the sense of being in control of myself and my life entirely?

It’s a bigger challenge than you may at first think. When, like me, you’re naturally energized by being in control, being out of control takes your energy away. Be in that situation long enough and you can start to feel like you never actually had control and that this weakened, put-upon person being pushed around and bullied by others is who you really are.  Similar to the extrovert forced into isolation, or the introvert unable to withdraw to recharge, you’re cut off from your natural source of energy.

But because we who like and need to be in control view these times as weakness or failure, there’s no real discussion about how to deal with them. And we have to deal with them: no one can be in control all the time. But lacking any discussion on how to handle them, we face a greater risk of them transforming from setbacks into true failures and permanently (or nearly so) cutting us off from our source of energy and vitality.

For me, it’s a real struggle. It’s a challenge I’ve only recently identified for myself. It certainly goes a long way to explaining why I was in such a bad way when I left my old job: I had been powerless and bullied for years (just as I had growing up). In many ways I’ve only just recently truly recovered from that experience: that’s over two years of healing time.

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve had my first real taste of that kind of fight once again since that healing. And so now the question is, how to deal with it and not lose what I’ve gained.

What I’ve come up with so far is that, much like with being sick, it starts with accepting the reality of things you can’t change: understanding that there are always things in life that one person can’t control (especially in a culture as bureaucratized as ours). Then, trying to hold on to that sense of yourself as best you can and try to steer yourself through the situation as best as you’re able so that once through you can return to that place of calm stability.

The best, most inspiring example of this that I’ve seen is in the 1998 film The Replacement Killers. At one point, John Lee (played by Chow Yun Fat) has kidnapped Meg Coburn at gunpoint to force her to make a false passport for him. When she starts to indicate resistance, he points the gun at her and cocks it. At this point, she accepts her lack of control gracefully while still asserting her ultimate control by indicating that they’ll have this conversation again when the roles are reversed.

It’s only a moment in the film but it’s delivered with calm and stability that indicates an acceptance of temporary circumstances while maintaining a firm sense of one’s self and power.

I can’t claim to be dealing with current events quite so well. It is, after all, a movie so perhaps no one really does. But at least it gives me something to aim for.

Astronauts of the Mind

Robert Thurman, former Tibetan Buddhist monk, scholar, lecturer, translator, and yes, father of Uma Thurman, talks about Tibetan Buddhists as being “Astronauts of the mind” (he actually uses the term “psychonauts”).

I find this idea quite fascinating, particularly when I think about it in conjunction with another idea of mine.

We tend to think that the world outside us is big and the world inside our minds is small (since our heads are smaller than most of what’s around us this makes sense). But what if it’s really the opposite. What if the world outside us is small and the world inside our minds is truly bigger and more vast?

I remember in college that one time I was in an altered state of consciousness shall we say, that I had this mental image of myself with my head being hollow and the entire Universe was inside it.

What if that’s more than just a nice vision?

As it is, I find myself playing with this idea more and more. Even if it’s not scientific truth, the poetic truth of it is powerful. And so, often, when I’m going to sleep, particularly when it’s nap sleep, I think of myself as going walking and travelling through the vastness of inner space.

Wait?! What are you doing here? You’re not supposed to be here!

It is, I suppose, a mark of the oddness of my make-up that there are times when I’m so deep in my head and myself that it feels that the thread that connects me to the ostensible reality of the outer world is stretched so much that it nearly disappears.

In these times I will be walking around (most especially with my dog on my mountain) feeling more like an observer of the world than a participant in it.

Indeed sometimes when I’m walking, I’ll feel so detached that I’m not sure I’m still here really and wonder if I’ve passed into a spirit realm. When I think about how I am still here, I will think that maybe I’m not supposed to be in the world now. I imagine myself running quite by accident into a psychopomp who’s busily going about their duties and then stops dead (pun intended) out of shock, looks at their paperwork, looks back at me, again checks their papers and then says in a tone of bureaucratic incredulity and frustration “Wait?! What are you doing here? You’re not supposed to be here”! The scene continues with this imagined fetcher of the dead explaining that the paperwork shows I was slated for pick-up some years ago and, indeed, that I was gotten and routed to where I was supposed to go successfully. As they continue, talking mainly to themselves about how this is just terrible and how it screws up the integrity of the time stream, I realize that this explains that feeling of detachment at last because I am here but not really here.

Perhaps this is what happens when you spend time on your own with your dog on a foggy misty mountain in the winter. Especially when you’ve had Dante on the mind a lot lately (including it being the picture on your blog!).

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.