Tag Archives: Daily Life

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.

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.

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.

48 Days

When you live in the Free Republic of Cascadia, rain is a central topic of shared discussion and experience.

Whether it’s complaining about the rain, complimenting the rain, bemoaning people’s inability to drive in the rain despite its nearly constant presence, or complaining about people complaining about the rain, we here are as wedded to rain as a topic as my elderly relatives were to health issues (sigh).

So against that backdrop I say: it rained ever so slightly last night.

At first glance, you would think that’s unremarkable given what I’ve just said about rain. But, the important context is that the last time it rained at all was July 22, 2012. We’ve gone 48 days without measurable rain here. Amazingly, that’s not the record: 51 days is the current record and was set, appropriately enough, in 1951.

The funny thing is that, aside from the increased risk of wildfires, there was little complaint about the lack of rain. There was little praise too. It just disappeared as a topic, at least until the record looked like it might fall. Then, it became a topic mainly focused on “will we break the record”.

Maybe it just means we all needed a mental vacation from the rain? A bit of space where we’re not thinking about it at all so that when it comes back we’re in a better place to carry on our relationship with it?

Something to think about.

The Beauty of the Forest

As a practice, I try when I do posts that are heavy with negative energy to try and do another posting that has more positive energy. And it makes sense to try and keep balance in life, though I do worry that I may come across as suffering massive mood swings.

Be that as it may, this afternoon I took my dog out on a short walk here in the Forest. I kept it short because he hurt his leg a few weeks ago and is still stiff. But it was long enough to exercise him, give him a bit of doggie physical therapy, and get me out and about.

As is so often the case, there’s no one here on the trails. Just the light rain, the grey sky, the black of the wet, gravel road. And the green. For in the Forest here, there is always green everywhere. Even now, as the leaves are changing the predominant color remains green.

No electronics, no beeping, no sirens, no annoying conversations. Just rain and green. And a boy and his dog.

If you want to understand someone….

….look at the magazines they get.

Here’s what I get (in a somewhat logical grouping):

  • Parabola (got when I was in high school/college, let it lapse and restarted it last year)
  • Snow Lion
  • Shambhala Sun
  • Buddhadharma
  • Tricycle
  • Gramophone (got in the mid 90’s, let it lapse and restarted two or three years ago)
  • BBC Music
  • Listen
  • Military History (going to let this one lapse soon)
  • MHQ (going to let this one lapse soon)
  • The Atlantic (likely going to let this one lapse soon)
  • The Economist (the one I’ve gotten the longest, nearly 20 years)
  • National Geographic (gotten for years but don’t actually like it anymore, someone keeps getting it for me for Christmas and it’s easier to get it and not read it)
  • PRSA Tactics (work-related)
  • PRSA Strategist (work-related)

The Fall

It has been some time since I’ve written and to say that much has happened is an understatement of the highest order.

At its simplest, I finally accomplished what I set out to do: I walked out of that poisonous, abusive, unhealthy work environment on my terms, my timeline, with my head held high, much love and support from friend inside and out, and no small amount of envy from those left behind.

For the past eleven days now, I’ve been coming to terms with the separation, learning what it is to not check e-mail every 30 minutes unless on vacation. Most of all, I’ve been recognizing that a number of issues I had when I was younger haven’t really gone away: they were just pushed to the back of the closet. When something takes up nearly 90% of the available space in your life and your mind, you shove a lot to the back of the closet.

I expected that what I feel now is what I would be feeling. In a way this reminds me of my skydiving experience. You’re falling from a great height, fast, the air is rushing loudly and feels like water, you’re thrilled and scared all at once, you’re flying and falling and so alive and could well be dead if it all goes wrong.

And then….

…you’re on the ground, it’s quiet, there’s no movement, no danger, no excitement, no sound. It’s just you, where you are, with what you have with you. That’s it.

I’ve been watching the scene in the new Galactica where Adama enters the boxing ring and fights well to a point, at which point the fight becomes just a beating, a punishment, something that shows how much he can take until finally, he can’t take any more. And then, he falls.

The idea of falling is very prominent in my mind as I grapple with the new reality. I have had to cope with the idea that I have fallen, that I had to leave that job because I took it until I couldn’t take any more.

I always said that the difference between a setback and a failure is whether you get up again. And I am determined to get up again and move on.

But first, I have to heal. First I have to gather my strength before I try to stand once more. But I will, and I will move on to new and better things.

For now though, I am taking stock of where I’ve landed, what I have and who I am. That last perhaps is the biggest thing to work out, because I am free for the first time of the conditioning and conforming expectations of others. And while that’s wonderful, it means that it’s up to me now to fill all that space myself that others were happy to fill for me.

Dies Irae

The post title is taken from my favorite part of the requiem mass, the Dies Irae which translates as “Day of wrath” and is based on a twelfth century poem by Thomas of Celano that details the Apocalypse.

Yesterday was a dies irae for me. I had a rather stark and sobering realization. My work situation has deteriorated to such a degree that I am angry and resentful about it. I realized this as I was reading about the launch of a new product yesterday and realized that I was getting angry with some of the reviews of the product for not hating it. I realized that I’ve moved from being a morbid spectator watching the disaster that is this work to actively wanting and rooting for the disaster to be ever worse. I haven’t moved so far as to actively take steps to move the disaster along. But still, for me, this was a very stark and sobering and not pleasant realization.

I am now nearly a month past when I had planned to leave. And I still lack a clear exit date due to a number of factors. I know it will be no later than the winter holidays. But that’s still well over two months away and this clearly indicates that my mental health is worse than I’d realized.

It is interesting though, as I’ve turned the past couple of months into a bit of an self-administered psychology test, trying to carefully watch and catalog all of the bad aspects of my work and understand their impact on me.

For instance, I have come to learn that feeling overwhelmed is a killer for me. It makes me the most stressed and angry and unpleasant the most quickly of any sort of stimulus.

Boredom is also a killer for me and is something that I’m struggling desperately with even as I write this. Once I drop below a certain level of engagement and activity it becomes nearly impossible for me to do anything, really. I just sit and get progressively more low energy and ultimately depressed. Indeed, I find serious boredom to be far more physically and mentally draining than being being overworked.

I’ve also come to realize how merely being in this office affects negative changes on me. I recently had several days off and as soon as I was back in the office, I could feel how unhappy, frustrated and stressed I was by simply sitting at my desk.

But, realizing on top of that all how truly angry I am is a new insight. And now that I’ve realized it, I think I understand why I feel that way. It’s the way in which I’ve been treated with little regard, belittled, humiliated, told constantly how I’m wrong, and generally made to feel that all problems are my fault.

I am very angry. I am very resentful. But I am this way because of my circumstances. And in the end, I am changing my circumstances. And when I do, I will drain off the poison and venom they have pumped into me here, find the me I love once again, and resolve to never let anyone do this to me ever again.

p.s. In a fitting “cherry on the top”, I find that due to unknown networking issues here at work, I can’t easily publish this post from my editor but have to copy/paste from my editor into my browser. As my mother would say, some days you just can’t win for losing.

Wow, I almost died

Seriously. Literally.

An hour ago (8:45 AM PT) at the intersection of West Lake Sammamish and Interstate 90, one of those double dump trucks (technically called, I now see, a Transfer Dump Truck) owned by Pacific Topsoils started to pull out from 90 across Lake Sammish. I was traveling north.

The truck started to pull out in front of me. I hit my brakes and the horn. The truck stopped.

By the time I had stopped, I was half-way across the front of the truck.

If it hadn’t stopped I wouldn’t have been able to stop in time and would’ve hit it. And, those trucks are so wide that there’s no way I could’ve swerved.

And those things are big enough that if I hit it, it wouldn’t move, really. It would be the proverbial hitting a brick wall.

I would’ve died, I do think.

So, that’s more than a little freaky. My eye is twitching now and my hands are shaking. That’s the closest I’ve ever actually come to dying, truly.

I’ve said for a while that just as you can’t realistically live like there’s no tomorrow, you also can’t live like there will always be one either.

I almost didn’t have a tomorrow. The lunch I have planned with my wife tomorrow: wouldn’t have happened. On Friday, our traditional pizza night: wouldn’t have happened. The trip we’ve got planned for the UK: wouldn’t have happened.

If that idiot hadn’t stopped, the only thing left to happen for me would’ve been for me to be put in a furnace and turned into ash.

Yeah, you can say I’m more than a little freaked out by this.

Moods

Moods are powerful things.

Kierkegaard once remarked on how looking at brain matter through a microscope tells you nothing about consciousness.

While I rather deplore where he landed with all that, the fact is that the observation was, and remains, astute. We just don’t have really any more of an understanding of what it is that makes the human experience of consciousness now than we did then.

And, indeed, for all the supposed “advancements” of science, in some ways our clinical approach makes our experience worse rather than better. For, while we may be more accurate to no longer suppose that demons or other spirits are to blame, the loss of that explanation removes a point of view of externality regarding moods.

And, in so doing, puts a burden of self-healing on everyone.

“Oh, you’re just in a bad mood, pull yourself out of it”

Were that it were that simple. Were that moods were truly internal and responsive to command and control.

One of my interests is in manic-depressive illness (MDI) because, to a degree, I suffer a mild case of it. More prone to depression than mania and mania episodes are what we call “hypomanic” meaning they’re very light. Put it this way, I’ve never yet gone on a shopping spree that puts me in danger of bankruptcy: instead, I buy 3 books I probably don’t need. But, the swings are there and I feel them, like today.

And, any review of the history of those who suffer MDI shows that these “moods” will not heel or obey. Sufferers use a variety of methaphors and similes to explain it, and there’s nearly always an element of externality.

Me being me, my favorite is Churchill’s “black dog” metaphor. For me, I’ve viewed it as rather a demonic spirit, looking like a Quasit from the old AD&D monster manual with long claws that it can drive into my skull at the worst of times.

I suppose I should be glad that, over time, I’ve come to recognize what it is and how it behaves. I know when I have to accept the Fates’ decree that I have to grit my teeth, feel the agony pass slowly with hours seeming like days and wait for it to pass, in time.

I am glad to know that it will pass. But, the time is painful nonetheless. And so, there are moments like right now when I lament the fact that moods do not act the way we’re told they’re supposed to, when I wish that I could simply decide I feel better and have it be so.

But, then, as Nietzsche said so famously : that which does not destroy you makes you stronger. And, I am so very, very strong now.