As an American, or perhaps as a Westerner, or perhaps as a White person, non-binary realities are difficult for me to accept. I have meditated and learned and experienced enough to believe that a thing and its opposite can both be true, but truly living that BothAnd-ness is another thing. What did it mean when Neem Karoli Baba told Ram Dass that the world is both perfect and terrible, when he told Larry Brilliant that everything was exactly as it should be and that he had to go out and eradicate smallpox? Practitioners can get caught up in the everything is perfect concept in Buddhism and use it as an excuse not to serve others or engage in the pain of the world. We are taught not to work with the sole expectation of achieving a goal, that the means is the end, and yet the Boddhisatva vows commit the sangha to relieve all suffering everywhere.
How can the world be simultaneously obviously, painfully fucked up and also just as it should be? How can we accept this non-binary without becoming cynical? Without believing that if this is the way it’s supposed to be, we are therefore meant to be miserable, greedy, tortured, imprisoned, violent, starving? I don’t think that’s the point.
Then there is My Dog. I have never used the word Perfect so easily as with this creature. Nothing else seems apt. She is moody and cold and stubborn and lazy and Perfect. There is no contradiction there; it’s simple and obvious. Her perfection doesn’t mean I don’t get annoyed with her, and her occasional brattiness doesn’t mean she isn’t perfect. Perhaps you have the same experience with your cat or your child. I’ve never felt that way about a human, even my favorite humans, and I don’t know whether it’s because I have some unattainable ideal in mind or no ideal at all. Perhaps it’s a failure of my ability to truly love human beings with the same generosity and vulnerability with which I love non-humans. Do I know them too well? Or the species too well? Perhaps that is the problem – trying to hang love on reason. Not in the love is irrational sense, but in the love is beyond rationality sense. Love is a spiritual pursuit, not a material or intellectual one. Perhaps, as such, it can withstand all apparent contradictions. And my neurotic, cat-like dog can be whatever she wants to be, and still be loved and perfect.
This is the only non-binary, nondual reality I can affirm as true rather than just believing it possible. I choose to see it as a jumping off point rather than a limitation. And I do want to take that leap, because something in me thinks that if I can really embrace nonduality, interconnectedness, bothandness, acting with integrity and wisdom will be a hell of a lot easier.
When you don’t love yourself, trust yourself, value yourself, whatever you want to call it, you over-invest in the judgment of others, either to confirm your worthlessness or make you feel better, depending on your mood and the occasion and, I suppose, how fucked up you are by the treatment that blinded you to your own beauty.
I’ve worked on the “love yourself” thing. I tried brainwashing myself with guided meditations specifically targeting people raised by narcissists. I tried a form of EMDR therapy. I even tried to read one of Louise Hay’s books (she of the mirror work fame), on the recommendation of a lovely young woman I met at a retreat. The pages were darkly colored & shiny, and therefore hard to read, and the content pissed me off, so that didn’t go far.
All this is to say, I Am Working On It. However, I am observant enough to know when I am being treated differently, and I don’t like it. I’m not yet at the place where I can let it go with grace, but I can trudge through it with intellect and compassion. Maybe this will help those of you out there who, like me, aren’t yet within spitting distance of the self-love mesa.
I attended a nonviolent intervention training recently, as part of my anti-racist, community engagement, minimize the police personal agenda. It was great, and really helped me feel like I could intervene to reduce the danger in some harmful situations without putting myself at unnecessary risk. The two main trainers were both very good- knowledgeable and engaging and charming and all that – but one of them called me out three times while never casting any shade on any of the 35 other people in the class. The first one was weird – referring to me as “the girl with the purple hair” (girl? and it’s multicolored, thank you), they “pushed back” on the appreciation I expressed with the first step of the process they were teaching us: Observe, and how I thought it was a good way to keep us from jumping into knee-jerk, evolutionarily obsolete reactivity. They said that, on the contrary, some of our instincts were good, and we shouldn’t shut those down. It contradicted what they had just told us, I thought, but I didn’t feel any question or explanation was welcome. The second shutdown was not worth conveying and I only enumerate it because of the other two. The third was after we were discussing what we learned from the role playing section, when I said it was good for me to get past my sometimes debilitating intellectual assessment of The Right Thing to do, and just try to help out where I could, wherein they jumped in and told the class what I had said when I first engaged, as an explicit example of how very Not Right it was. No other person’s actions were recounted by the trainers.
It was super weird, folks. I think the weirdness was amplified by them never looking directly at me when they were critiquing – there was no connection to me, no shared joke with me, no evident empathy for me, just strange commentary. My own issues amplified it as well – they were Black, and I’ve always put far more weight on any perceived antipathy from a Black person than a White (still that haunting ghost of a belief that Black folks are inherently superior to White folks), and therefore their opinions of my hold more weight; and of course, I cannot honestly say that I love myself, accept myself for who I am, believe I am enough, so that insecurity makes everything worse.
If I did believe I was enough, none of this would have bothered me or been worth writing except as an amused anecdote or flip observation about human nature. It didn’t hit me physically, or only subtly – this negativity wasn’t a crushing blow – but it did bother me a bit, and did stay with me, so here’s what I came up with to work myself out of it:
- It wasn’t personal. First things first. If they didn’t like me – and that’s a big if – that has nothing to do with me. I could have looked like someone they disliked or talked with a phrasing they disliked or believed something they disliked. If I accept that my own aversions are the result of my own circumstances and suffering and not the fault of the thing I’m averse to (which is an essential to my Buddhism), then I have to believe the same when the situation is reversed. And even if they disliked every observable thing about me – my looks my words my tone my ideas my movements – it doesn’t make any of those things wrong. Finally, that’s not even me, “the most inner part, entirely free of disease,” the me that matters. It’s hard for me to believe all the above, to internalize it. Every time someone I respect – for good or petty reasons – appears to dislike me, I feel worse about myself. When they like me, I feel better. It sounds natural, but why? We know how fucked up & fickle everyone is. If they like me today & didn’t yesterday, does that mean I was an inferior person yesterday? What if they had just lost a friend or were in pain yesterday? What if their ex looked exactly like me? To place our self worth in the hands of humanity is to let it slip through their grasping fingers.
- It doesn’t matter. Why do I care if this person likes me? Because they’re competent? The likelihood I’ll ever see them again is fairly low, the likelihood their opinion will have any bearing in my life extremely low. Am I just trying to rack up points? Why does this person’s apparent dislike count any more than the apparent rapport among the group of people I actually spent time with during the training? My self-ranking is like chess.com: I get a tiny bump for getting something right, and a big penalty for getting something wrong. Yeeshhiiiiiit.
- What if it was a lesson? I don’t typically get targeted in situations like this. It’s definitely not unheard of (I had at least two White, female, self-proclaimed “feminist” teachers go after me because they felt threatened by me – one even flat out said it), but it’s not common. I’m smart enough, I try to be agreeable, I’m respectful of others. But so are lots of LGBTQI, Black, disabled, indigenous, immigrant, and other folks who get shot down in petty situations all the time. Maybe it was just my turn. Maybe others learned something by this trainer’s tactics. Who’s to say.
- What if they were having a bad day? It didn’t look like it, but what do I know? Maybe they were hangry. If so, the impact was terribly mild, and I can handle (if not quite enjoy) a little bit of weirdness, which brings me to
- What if I took the fall for someone else? I know I’m off in the deep end here, but what if a target was inevitable for some reason and I got lucky? That means someone else was spared as a result, someone who might not have a practice or level of self-awareness to process it, who might have reacted by treating themselves or someone else badly in response, or disrupting the training in a negative way, having a chilling effect on everyone.
Anyway, every experience of being isolated, ostracized, harmed, or embarrassed in any way is an opportunity to increase my compassion for the countless creatures that go through that every day, and to share the ongoing struggle with all of you. I long for the day that I don’t have to work myself out of it, that moment I react to someone’s hatred towards me the same as I do to someone’s hatred of a species of flower. Until then, practice.
Peace, joy, and enlightenment to all of you,
I work for a nonprofit that serves people with disabilities. It has been an enormous educational opportunity for me, in the mind and the heart, especially the last few years as we’ve been putting more internal focus on understanding the history of disability rights and models of “dealing with” people with disabilities. This has had the added benefit of broadening my awareness of ableist language online and in print. (Y’all know I’m a word nerd.) Like every time another layer of scales is removed from my eyes, it’s a positive, but still mixed, blessing. Not mixed: recognizing the irony when a woman criticizing what she perceived as a fat joke on The Onion’s twitter feed called it offensive and “lame.” Taking the moral highground requires a bit more diligence, ma’am!
A word called out as having potential to offend folks with disabilities and their friends and associates is “idiot”. If you’re not deep diving into disability or etymology, you probably define this as something like “a person who is not smart” and something idiotic as “unwise”. The fact is, these common definitions of the words idiot and imbecile long precede the so-called medical classifications below. I don’t believe any words should be expunged from the language, certainly not because they were once associated with wrongheaded medical terms. But I do think one should know whereof one speaks, so to that end, here is the bullshit ranking of “defective mental development” from a little over a century ago.
Idiots. —Those so defective that the mental development never exceeds that or a normal child of about two years.Edmund Burke Huey, Backward and Feeble-Minded Children, 1912
Imbeciles. —Those whose development is higher than that of an idiot, but whose intelligence does not exceed that of a normal child of about seven years.
Morons. —Those whose mental development is above that of an imbecile, but does not exceed that of a normal child
You may also be familiar with the illustrious Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ infamous statement in Buck v Bell (1927) that granted the right to ultimately sterilize thousands of people without consent: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
You can understand the painful potential of these words. But at the risk of appearing insensitive, the pain is not my primary issue. The Right Speech element of Buddha’s Eightfold Path encourages you to consider the following questions before you speak (… write, tweet, post):
- Is it true?
- Is it helpful?
- Is it kind?
- Does it contribute to harmony?
- Is the timing right?
(Folks mostly refer to the first three. Harmony is a tough one to determine, but as a standup comedy aficionado, I love that timing is included.)
My objection to the way I hear these words being used today (and have used them myself) is less about kindness and more about truth. The too-common and too-casual use of the term Idiot to describe people we don’t agree with is increasingly grating on me. I admit I don’t always fight it, in part because it’s so pervasive and slips so easily into casual conversation, but I do balk when friends refer to anti-vaccers as idiots, for example. Because I think it’s inaccurate. People who believe a certain thing, as illogical as that thing may seem to us, don’t believe it because they have some overall intellectual failing. They believe it because people around them believe it; the sources they go to for information believe it; they don’t trust the people who are trying to convince them otherwise; or sometimes, maybe, because they were never taught critical thinking skills. But none of those circumstances are examples of stupidity: they’re examples of humanity, or bad luck. There is nothing inherently lacking in those people – they came to their beliefs by accidents of location, wealth, association, etc. just like all the rest of us. It’s also illogical that “stupidity” would have led folks to one belief unless “intelligence” likewise led all other folks to the opposite belief. There are widely varying degrees of intellect and comprehension on all sides. If you don’t think there are sheep-like, intellectually lazy Democrats and Progressives, you’re choosing not to see it.
Would any of this matter if it were just namecalling? Maybe, but not enough for me to be writing about it. The misapplication of these and similar words is both irresponsible and false. That is, it fails to recognize our inherent interconnectedness and removes us from responsibility for our fellow humans. If we write off Trump supporters or people who don’t see racism or flat earthers as inherently flawed, we fail to recognize the elements of our society and our humanity that encourage the groupthink or lack of intellectual rigor that we have decided they exemplify. If people don’t know how to recognize an illogical statement, it’s probably because the elements of logic weren’t discussed at home or in school. If they believe what they believe because their social group believes it, that’s no different from everyone else. Humans are evolutionarily designed to conform to their society – that’s what keeps us alive in a collective, thus we feel good when we agree with others and they agree with us. If people fail to easily recognize racism, it is in large part because our country has worked incredibly hard to hide blatantly racist policies and practices for the last 55 years, in particular, so that we will believe that everyone got where they are through intelligence, hard work, and good character, or didn’t get anywhere through some combination of failings in those areas. If some working class White guy with a public high school education born and bred in a rural, White area is told that Black people are discriminated against when he sees a Black President, a Black VP, Black sports stars and actors and business leaders, should we surprised when he laughs it off?
If there is a defining characteristic, a character flaw that should be called out in folks who cling to what many of us see as indefensible ideas, it is a refusal to change, to learn, to allow their assumptions to be questioned, to listen with the brain and the heart instead of the ego. Let’s call them rigidots. It’s free of any connection to disabilities in development, verbalization, or learning, and describes only a temporary state of being, not an inherent lack. And all of us are rigidots at one time or another. I’m a rigidot at least three times a day, perhaps only better than I used to be in that I often recognize it and try to soften when I do. There are antidotes to rigidocy any time folks with different ideas and perspectives can talk to the temporarily rigid like they’re not idiots, to approach them with compassion and curiosity and communal responsibility, instead of writing them off as sub-human or enemies. All terms that separate us, that mark groups of people as Others, reinforce our illusion of separateness and put another brick in the ego wall that keeps us apart.
When The Guy asked what I wanted for my 50th birthday, I didn’t have much of an answer. My big plans for a trip and a party with my contemporaries from college had dissipated with the contagion many months before.
“oh, nothing really. I mean, be nice to me, but that’s about it.”
As if this was a special request. As if he isn’t typically nice to me. What did I even mean by that? Maybe that I’d get a pass for anything shitty I did that week? I’m usually pretty nice, too – to the extent that I’m capable, so what was I actually asking for? What unpleasant scenario had a decent chance of evolving?
The person I need a pass from is me.
Hitting five-oh during COVID sucks, as far as birthdays go, as it has for so many millions of folks and many of my closest friends. So I kind of grumpily, snottily want to say Fuck It to the day. But I also want a chance to enjoy and appreciate this ultimately passive but still noteworthy achievement, so I decided to give myself the year to celebrate.
And what does that mean?
Again, the only answer I could find was “be nice to myself,” which rounds us back to
What does that mean?
Lots of folks take birthdays, holidays, vacations as a time to indulge themselves: eat, drink, smoke, fuck whatever they want, without “guilt” and that’s all fine & can be fun, but what is framed as a gift to oneself is often one you’d rather return. Drinking too much, eating too much, random sex, thoughtless purchases can all make you feel shitty. How is making yourself feel shitty an act of kindness? Or is it an act of niceness? Is there a difference?
I won’t dig into etymology here, but most of us recognize a pretty clear difference between nice and kind when it comes to other people. Nice is performative; kind is helpful. Nice takes little or no effort; kind may require something of you. Nice is habitual; kind is thoughtful. But when it comes to ourselves, I think it’s sometimes harder to distinguish. We associate indulgence with pleasure, even though the pleasure is so often fleeting, and the pain long-lasting. I’m not against fucking up and going overboard every once in a while, and I am actually thankful for the regret that keeps me from doing it much. I’m also not advising against a modicum of ridiculousness if it doesn’t seriously damage yourself or someone else. Rigidity is for the enlightened or unhappy few. But where is the kindness in those acts? Where is the love, baby?
How can I actually be Kind to myself for a year?
I am the only person calling me lazy or selfish or weak or thoughtless or disappointing or unworthy or simply inadequate. Others may think it, certainly, but if so, it’s hidden enough that I couldn’t identify who those folks are. That leaves me. I am the only one turning a perfectly pleasant day into a missed opportunity to save the world, an indulgent avoidance of important learning, a wasted chance to become better, stronger, faster – The Six-Million Dollar middle-aged woman. If I really want to be good to myself, I have to stop that.
Stopping the running critique seems selfish. Stopping seems privileged. Stopping seems immoral. I’ve managed to turn my fairly generic childhood psychological abuse into a moral compass: the words that have formed the voice in my head – others’ fucked up ideas – morphed into a sadistic, abnegating nun disguised as a conscience. Or perhaps it has turned itself into that in an effort to stay relevant. Our egos are infinitely clever in that way. Regardless, it’s much harder to recognize a critical voice as destructive and abusive if it’s saying things you know to be true – I am privileged, I do want to do more, I will feel better if I give more, participating is the way I want to live, I don’t want to “waste time.”
It’s not the message itself that’s destructive, it’s the judgment. Oh, and the way the message is delivered. When I have my dog tell me I suck in her weird, Cartman-like voice, that’s just not cool. Even as I write this, there is a voice in my head saying, “you’re just looking for a way out … all the talk about self-criticism being destructive is just created by lazy people who can’t hack it … being mean to yourself is motivating!” But I do actually trust science, and I trust my own negative reaction to “shoulding all over myself,” and I’m ready to try something different.
I suppose it’s a kind of behavioral therapy. I haven’t been able to work on my self-forgiveness and kindness from the inside out, so we’re going from the outside in.
For now that means that whenever I say something mean to or mean about myself, I’m going to stop and correct it. Or say something nice about myself. Or something sappy like, “I am enough.” Ugh. Haven’t worked out the details yet. I’m also getting rid of the word “should” in relation to the way I live my life and replacing it with “could.” None of this sounds easy. I’ll need help, so if you know me, please point out when I’m doing it. The Guy’s pretty good at calling me out on this bullshit, but I’m going to further empower him as well.
It’s worth a try. I’ll let y’all know how it goes.
You know those things you say about yourself, tag lines that silently cling to or loudly proclaim what you believe are core, unchangeable elements of who you really are? I’ve been working on my own blurbs casually for the last decade or so; not refining them so much as trying to eliminate them and the restrictions they put on how I live my life. What are they really good for, except crafting an identity that limits my own capacity and power from inside my skin, and attempting to script what others should think of me looking in, instead of making their own determinations based on what they observe.
A standard one of mine was originally phrased as “I’m not creative.” People would sometimes argue with me on this because I was an actor, but for me acting was an interpretive art, not a creative one. Yes, I write, but I don’t write fiction or poetry and I consider the writing I do, again, analytical. I chalked this flaw up to being raised by someone who could not see reality as it was, who believed in black magic and negative energies and that my singing Bad Moon Rising on a road trip is the reason he got pulled over for speeding. In reaction, I chose to be practical, believe what I could see, and take responsibility for everything that happened to me. (Also not a great way to live, and one I’ve moved away from as well.) At some point in the too-near past I came to accept that I possess a certain creativity in thinking and looking at the world, so I narrowed it down to, “I have no visual imagination.” It’s true that I have a hard time picturing sets when I read plays, no matter the detail of the description, or really putting a face together in my mind when articulated in a novel. But I think I’ve also been turned off by the word Imagination, and haven’t worked very hard to embrace it. Partly because of the anger of that parent whenever I didn’t conjure up his idea of what I should be imagining, partly a reaction to New Agey teachings and preachings and “if you can dream it, you can do it” thinking (which is, IMHO, bullshit), and partially because it just seemed … well, like a waste of time. I mean, I’m not a real artist.
But in the social justice engagement I’ve done over the last few years, imagination has come up again and again. And I see the limits of people’s imagination really, concretely get in the way of progress. There are so many well-intentioned (eyeroll) people who simply cannot imagine an America without capitalism, without a desperate struggle for meaningless subsistence work for the poor, without fossil fuels, without police, even with racial equity. And I’ve come to believe in a version of James Baldwin’s oft-used quote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” To wit: Not every transformation that is imagined can be accomplished, but no transformation can be accomplished without being imagined.
Maybe that’s right.
Which brings me to Lennon’s famous and infamous song. It’s not one of my favorites and never has been, but I have a different understanding of it these days, informed in part by hearing a bit of an interview with Lennon shortly before he was murdered, but perhaps more from my own widening perspective. I always thought of the song as an endpoint. That the imagining was the goal. But really it’s just a necessary step. We can all imagine worst-case scenarios: our government and law enforcement systems let those nightmares shape a lot of practice & policy, for better and worse. But most of us don’t spend much time imagining significant, creative change. Maybe that’s why we keep implementing small, makeshift changes instead of restructuring the systems that created the countless small problems. Instead of inventing an energy-intensive meat substitute, dismantle corporate farming; instead of reducing some criminal sentences, create alternatives to incarceration.
Hard to imagine? Exactly. It seems worth the glucose (a term for energy usage that Roshi Joan Halifax uses regularly, and which I am stealing) to try. How much glucose do we spend catastrophizing? I read an excellent article a few years back arguing that Black writers had wasted too much of their energy writing to a White audience, defending their humanity or what have you, when they could have been writing for each other, and Imagine what they could have accomplished if they had.
One more point on imagination, and a bit of credit to your writer. I think someone did my astrological chart when I was a child and even though (even then) I didn’t really believe in that stuff, I liked the interpretation that I was good at seeing a situation from all sides, so I clung to it. This is, of course, an act of imagination. It may be a kind of cognitive resonance, a logical imagining, but it’s still creative. I clearly passed judgment on different kinds of creative thinking and decided this one was okey dokey. Why? Perhaps because I wasn’t criticized for using this skill, whereas my other creative failings were not infrequently critiqued or diminished. It’s a skill I still prize, but one that I keep to myself more these days. Being able to understand someone else’s motivation or thinking leads some vocal parties to align you with “them:” the other, the criminal, insurrectionist, White supremacist, etc. so introducing any understanding, which is a form of compassion, is counter-revolutionary (or just plain old evil). A lot of people simply don’t want to imagine why others might think a certain way. Are they afraid they’ll be sucked into the dark side? afraid they’ll have to see the enemy as human? afraid to feel compassion for someone they have judged as “bad”? It’s a disturbing and frustrating blind spot, and an impractical strategy as well. If we don’t try to understand the other, we’ll never be able to genuinely reach out to them and make our case in a way they can hear. And I don’t believe we can succeed in resolving the enormous, wicked problems of our time without recruiting as many folks as possible.
I admit, I still feel my body tense up when someone asks me to take a moment and imagine something – when I’m on a Zoom about prison abolition or white supremacy, for example; but I try to just note that physical reaction and dive in for as long as I can stand the water. If nothing else, it can be a fun exercise. At least when I am able to silence that voice in my head telling me my ideas are uninteresting. What the fuck does she know, anyway?
The number itself is beyond my capacity for imagining. I assume others have the same problem. Reporters and folks in the public eye sometimes do a good job of contextualizing it- how many deaths per day, per second; what cities have comparable living populations; how COVID mortality compares to cancer, heart disease, car accidents; or, as the President did, how the number compares to war dead: more than American deaths in WWI, WWII, and Vietnam combined – in less than one year. He listed American war dead because that 1/2 million, remember, is just American deaths. The worldwide total is now nearly 5x that.
Compassion is a special interest of mine and how we avoid or draw out compassion/empathy is fascinating to me. I found Biden’s speech quite moving when he talked about the pain of loss, something we know he knows intimately.
For the loved ones left behind, I know all too well — I know what it’s like to not be there when it happens. I know what it’s like when you are there, holding their hands. There’s a look in your eye, and they slip away. That black hole in your chest, you feel like you’re being sucked into it. The survivor’s remorse. The anger. The questions of faith in your soul.
For some of you, it’s been a year, a month, a week, a day, even an hour. And I know that when you stare at that empty chair around the kitchen table, it brings it all back, no matter how long ago it happened, as if it just happened that moment you looked at that empty chair. The birthdays, the anniversaries, the holidays without them. And the everyday things — the small things, the tiny things — that you miss the most. That scent when you open the closet. That park you go by that you used to stroll in. That movie theater where you met. The morning coffee you shared together. The bend in his smile. The perfect pitch to her laugh.
Beautiful. Truly. What it did was artfully done, in the best sense of the word. Even those of us who haven’t had a loved one die could connect with the specificity of the images of love lost, and effortlessly intuit the pain of eternal loss, if just for a moment. Nonetheless, it connected us with the pain of the people left behind, not with the people themselves lost to COVID. “There is nothing ordinary about them” didn’t sit right with me. It may be more true that we all are ordinary, and perhaps thereby even more worthy of love and compassion. Poor, messy, fascinating, trudging little humans. I came out of that tribute with great feeling for those left behind, but only a generalized sorrow for the dead, nothing specific or tangible.
Of course, that wasn’t the goal of that address and of course, the answer to the question of how to humanize the dead is easy – listen to the people who loved them as the specific, ordinary humans they were. There’s no shortage of that if you’re willing to look for it. And there is something special about the series that NPR’s morning edition is doing. Songs of Remembrance gives one person a chance to choose a song that reminds them of their beloved and then talk about whatever they want – sometimes the song was what she always sang at karaoke, or what they danced to at their wedding, or what he taught to his choir students, or just a song that recalls that human for that particular individual.
I think the song idea is so brilliant and effective because it’s again connecting the specific to the universal, as Biden did for loss. You get funny or admirable or romantic details about the person themselves and what they meant to the speaker, but you also get to hear a song through their story. If it’s a song you know, you can see it from a different perspective or connect to the shared familiarity. Some of the songs I don’t know, but I know they are known and shared across countries and cultures and political beliefs. The contributors and their friends and family members all took the universal – a song, heard millions of times – and crafted it into something unique. We can accept the offer of that inimitable experience and make it universal again.
That is what compassion is, after all, right? That’s why Metta meditation starts with wishing yourself well, happy, safe, enlightened – starting with someone you know well, even when you pretend you don’t – and expanding out a bit more – a good friend, an antagonist; followed by someone you don’t know well, but interact with. From them you expand your good wishes out to your neighborhood, city, country, world, picking up animals and plants and such along the way. And the next time you sit, you start the same way. We don’t pretend that we can easily access a genuine concern for the great abstraction of “everyone’s” wellbeing. It takes time and work. Eventually my hope is that it will be easy, because the distinction between the specific and the general will fade away; the arbitrary, imaginary line between myself and the rest of life will blur and love for anything will be love for everything.
Until then, I am grateful to read and listen to these tributes and cry for the beauty and loss of the achingly human connection to another human, and recognize in their words and music that the love doesn’t die when the body does, and hope that they hear it too.
I have so much to say about this book that I haven’t been able to write anything at all (well, that and the cast (#2!) on my wrist have been complementary barriers).
I loved this book and needed it. In the same way that A Field Guide to Getting Lost found me when I had left all my friends, gotten divorced, moved to a new city, and was underemployed; How to Do Nothing was kind enough to come out in paperback after I signed up for a year-long Socially Engaged Buddhism course, and had kicked off an effort to reframe my life through a lens of conscious, compassionate behavior, rather than the political chaos, urgency, and lonely echo-chambering of 2020.
Jenny Odell’s work isn’t long, but it’s quite expansive – a feature that some readers have found wacky, incoherent, or exhausting (good old Goodreads), while also hitting many of 2020’s best of lists. I won’t malign its detractors, I understand where they’re coming from, but I would also posit that her wide-ranging topics are cohesive under the banners of anti-capitalism and mindfulness.
I’m sure many of you like Capitalism, or parts of it. I see some benefits, too, but Capitalism is built on competition, production, and growth, which are generally weakened by communal support, contentment, and “doing nothing”. Advertising appeals to jealousy, self-loathing, and unhappiness; social media appeals to all those plus loneliness and binary thinking. I feel those brief moments of satisfaction when I jump in to endorse a fiery political opinion on Facebook, quickly followed by a physical grossness, much the same spike and dip I feel when eating refined sugar, which I’m also minimizing these days. For me, it’s essentially an excess of reaction – my critical mind is overwhelmed with judgement of every post I scroll past. Right or wrong? Genuine or performative? Good person or bad? I could give you a long list of Buddhish explanations of why this is generally unhelpful to our and humanity’s development and happiness, but the clearest deterrent for me is the feeling in my gut. I don’t know if I’d be aware of it if I hadn’t been meditating for over a decade, and maybe that’s why so many of us remained hooked on not only social media, but self-righteousness, anger, and judgment. The addictive nature of those behaviors in turn make it difficult to step away from them, stop, and center ourselves in the world, so the spiral into anxiety, conformity, and misery continues unabated.
If I had to sum Jenny Odell’s book into two words (and since I’ve just set that standard, I now do), I’d go with Mindfulness and Curiosity, in that order, though it’s more simultaneous in practice. All conscious change starts with awareness – whether that’s of a habit we don’t like, or a goal we want to reach. The greater the awareness, the more likely the change will stick. This is why people put reminders of diet motivations on the fridge, or download apps that check in on them. Our brains will always revert to the easiest, more immediately satisfying, most habitual thing if we don’t pay attention to what we’re doing and why. It’s the simplest and hardest thing in the world, because we’re modern humans wired for a short, constantly life-threatening existence that simply doesn’t apply to the vast majority of us anymore, and the imbalance makes us miserable. I do like the idea of Attention over what many perceive as the more ethereal mindfulness. It implies something more active. Odell’s subtitle is Resisting the Attention Economy, but it’s more an act of engagement than resistance, and a real, volitional something instead of nothing. By choosing to direct our attention to things that are outside of the economy, that do not generate wealth or power, we engage in an act of revolution.
I honestly found the whole idea ridiculously exciting.
She doesn’t end with attention, though. Attention is also a starting point for a better world (my squishy words, not hers). If we paid attention, would we know our neighbors? Would we change our jobs? Would we check our email every ten minutes? Would we keep stumbling through our lives, zombie-like, if we recognized how many other options were out there? Odell has a background in visual art, which I definitively do not, and her examples of disruptive art in the world were excellent windows into something I’ve been thinking about a lot – the life-sucking power of habit and conformity. Two examples: in the Twin Cities a few years back, some entity placed giant picture frames in strategic locations in the State & National Parks. It was framed (ha) as a photo opportunity – a way to get Instagram-obsessed youngsters to notice the great outdoors, I suppose, but in a more general sense it was marking out these non-productive spaces as worthy of notice. The beauty of nature which a lot of us seek to create in our own home with giant posters or representative paintings are actually all around us for free whenever we direct our attention towards it, but we are such creatures of goal-oriented habit, that we don’t notice them unless we recreate the style of the recreation and bring the picture frame to the source of the picture. Humans are hilarious.
Example two: B & I stopped at a coffee shop in an outlet mall on our way out of town last year, and as I was walking back to the car, sun bright and delicious blended matcha in hand, I had an impulse to pirouette. I didn’t, and subjected Ben to a philosophical theory on conformity and oppression when I closed the door. I was focused on racism at the time (as I often am), and interpreted in part as the dominance of a repressed White European culture (particularly the Scandinavian influence here) that sees any act that might call attention to yourself or disrupt norms as morally questionable. I still believe that, and believe it manifests in a racist way, since many cultures would embrace physical outbursts of joy, etc. But Odell calls attention to another aspect of nonconforming behaviors: they wake people up. We can make an hour’s drive from work everyday and remember none of it, but if we narrowly avoid an accident, those moments are emblazoned on our memories, and our actions at the time are present and fully conscious. Trauma certainly wakes us up, but a simple act of nonconformity, of creativity, of whimsy can do the same. Acts of disruption become acts of love, an invitation to stop and be in the world at that moment. As much as we shun this behavior in others (even being the only person in the movie theatre laughing at the dark comedy can be isolating), we also crave it. I would also argue that we need it, that unless we shake up the quotidian we don’t even see the maze we’re trapped in, and without recognizing it, we’ll never break out. Let me call back to White Supremacy for a moment and point out that pretty much everything that is considered “normal” in the US is a White cultural norm, so allowing these standards to remain unchallenged is itself a racist act. Who knows what other options are out there? I can feel my muscles relax just thinking about it.
So, less of a book review than a mulling over mainstream society, but I have to credit Odell for helping me explore and articulate it. If you’re looking for a how to get off social media, this isn’t what you want. If you want some ideas on how to consciously craft a better life for yourself and your people, I think you’ll get a lot out of it.
Okay, that’s a little misleading. I am starting a year-long training on Socially Engaged Buddhism next month and was asked to submit an essay on why I am participating and the social justice work I do. Here’s ’tis:
I think of myself as a philosophical and spiritual Buddhist. I’ve been meditating regularly for a decade. I don’t practice any religion, but I’ve read enough (mostly Western) Buddhism to feel I have a grasp on what it’s offering, and what I’ve understood resonates as true – that clinging and aversion create suffering, that putting shoes on your own feet makes more sense than trying to carpet the world, that emotions should be felt and acknowledged, but not sanctified or given a leadership position; that the vagaries of the world can’t hurt you much of you can get to a place where you recognize your own learned, egocentric, knee-jerk bullshit.
At the same time, I write and talk and facilitate discussions on & occasionally protest about race and racism and I know how important it is for Black people, in particular, to have space where they can express anger after hundreds of years of being forced to counter a false stereotype and actual threats to their lives for having genuine emotional reactions to abuse. And I think it is important to hold the country and individuals accountable for causing pain, even when it’s not intentional, or at least not consciously so. And in theory, at least, these seem to stand in opposition to my Buddhist beliefs.
As a pseudo-Buddhist (or Pseu-Bu) and a former door-to-door fundraiser, I believe in “assume good intent.” I know how the expectation of rejection creates negativity in a very real way. But I totally understand and have defended the reasons why that is not always possible, and perhaps not even best, when confronting White people’s harmful words and actions; that it may be important for White people to experience the pain that has grown out of their complicity in White Supremacy. Maybe it’s just fine that they feel discomfort when faced with the consequences of their actions, intentional or not. Maybe the best thing isn’t always the kindest thing. I get all that. I don’t even object to BIPOC folks acting out of anger, as long as it’s not violent.
But I only accept this behavior b/c it is a reasonable response in an unreasonable world & a racist, genocidal, cruel, unfair country. If those circumstances did not exist, these behaviors, while perhaps educational and cathartic and rightfully disruptive, would simply be creating more suffering.
I am not saying I need to reconcile these – one of the big hallmarks of White Supremacy is either/or thinking, and Eastern philosophy seems to allow space for apparent contradiction as well. But I want the support, I want better understanding of the foundations of my beliefs, and I would like to be able to understand, defend, and articulate them well (and from a place of love).
I also don’t think everyone has to agree or have the same role in social justice movements. Folks can have myriad approaches to activism. While I believe hate is the wrong path, that acting in anger is only the right move by accident, that sucker punching a White Supremacist during an on-camera interview or screaming Fuck the Cops is ultimately counter-productive, that doesn’t mean those things are wrong in every context or that there may not be a place for them. Some people oppose violence in any circumstance, whereas I believe in self-defense and protecting others when necessary, especially for women, people with disabilities, & BIPOC folk. I respect complete non-violence, but for me it isn’t always the right path. One of the things I love about the Buddhism I have studied is that there are no absolute rules. I love the story of the (as I remember it) Buddhist monk on the ship who kills the murdering pirate who tries to take over, not only to prevent the inevitable loss of life, but to save the pirate himself from further self-torture.
In part, I’m looking for spiritual and philosophical reinforcement. And to better trust myself to make the right decisions for me. And to have patience and love for my fellow White liberals when they typescream “if you’re not outraged youre not paying attention!” and “if this doesn’t make you cry you don’t have a heart!” The policing of and sublimation of emotions is such a quick, easy, cold, infantilizing approach to dismissing our fellow humans.
I know that the best practice is meditation practice, and if I could take a bullet train to enlightenment and drop that ego, I probably wouldn’t even need this. Short of that, I am hoping a better, intellectual understanding and community and education will help me speak and perform my own truth – not without a willingness to change, but without shame or fear of confrontation and challenges from groups I feel compelled to defer to.
I live in Minneapolis, less than 2 miles from where George Floyd was killed. I attended the first protest and several cleanups and more protests and volunteered at the memorial and food shelves and attended online discussions about race with folks who were just setting foot on the path I’ve been traveling for decades and wrote and facilitated and taught about inequity and White Supremacy, and while this all sounds frantic & thoughtless, it was & it wasn’t. I knew this real, yet manufactured urgency was temporary. I knew I would “git my Buddha on” and transition to thoughtful, spiritually integrated action in the near future. I was relieved beyond expression when I stumbled across and attended a Love Serve Remember weekend months ago which gave me the spiritual strength to get me through the election, another path where I had given in to just doing masses of whatever until I crossed that finish line, and planning to re-center myself afterwards.
So I stopped attending unhelpful (to me) conversations on whiteness and race, sent my 100 postcards to Georgia, and allowed myself a breather at the end of the year. And one day this training showed up in my gmail. My only hesitation was the expense, but even that didn’t last long. It looks like exactly what I’m looking for – a grounding in reality and connection and a shift away from white guilt and white supremacist behaviors like urgency and perfectionism doing over being.
This very piece is practice in moving away from perfectionism, which for me blares most loudly in my writing and editing. A dog walking injury of a broken wrist makes it difficult and a bit painful to type, so I won’t be editing this to my usual standards. I am trying to let go of the idea that you (without even knowing who you are) will therefore like me less at the get-go (insert nervously smiling emoji here).
Have I answered your questions? Perhaps not entirely. Racial justice is obviously my main focus, and writing and facilitating are the main ways I focus, but I also work on food justice, and occasionally climate change, disability rights, and other issues, and am open to doing more work as I feel I can.
And with a deep breath, I dive in.
Thanks for reading,
I have a friend in the Twin Cities, a guy I performed with years ago, who is one of the loveliest people I’ve ever met. It is always a joy to see him and it is not possible for me to wish anything but the best for him. At one point he made a comment about what a kind person I am, and rather than disillusion him with the reality of my day to day reactiveness to the vicissitudes of life, I realized, yes. Yes, of course he would think that I’m a kind, friendly, loving person because I am incapable of being otherwise with him. It’s as inconceivable as punching an affectionate puppy. And I reasoned that someone like him must have a far more positive view of humanity, because they are not getting the typical blowback that most of us experience on a regular basis in our grumpy or even neutral interactions in society. And how much, in turn, that must reinforce his naturally (whatever that means) loving behavior.
Some people simply bring out the best in us. I don’t think many would argue against that, but I do think a lot of us fail to fully embrace what that means: they bring out something that is already there. My friend doesn’t make me a better person, he creates a mini-culture around him in which that is the easiest and most acceptable way to be. He brings out my goodness; he doesn’t create it. He simply welcomes, embraces, and rewards it. I am lucky to have stumbled into several gracious, generous, joyful people like this in my life.
I attended a virtual retreat with Ram Dass’ Love Serve Remember foundation back in August and this idea came up several times – how friends loved and missed Ram Dass, but that the love he evoked in them was as present as ever. Krishna Das talked about how utterly devastated he was when Neem Karoli Baba (his and Ram Dass’ teacher) died, how difficult it was and how long it took for him to recognize that the love he found in Maharaj ji came exclusively from inside of KD, that the holy man didn’t manufacture anything in him that he didn’t already possess; that the absolute, unconditional love that all of the Maharaj ji’s followers say washed over them as soon as they met was never other than what they were always capable of, indeed what they inherently, effortlessly are.
Another excellent explanation of this is in Duncan Tressell’s gorgeous “Mouse of Silver” episode of The Midnight Gospel (on Netflix), in which his dying mother assures him that the love she has for him could not possibly leave with her; that it is eternally present in the world and there for him whenever he needs it. It made me feel like we have the potential to keep generating more love in the world, filling up empty and negative space with this endlessly rejuvenating and infinite resource, restricted only by our capacity to liberate it.
There’s a moment in one of my favorite films, Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation, when the depressed of the Nicholas Cage twins brings up the time when they were teens and a girl pretended to be interested in the happier twin as a joke. But the latter didn’t take offense, and remembered his time with her fondly. He tells his brother, You are what you love, not what loves you. I always thought there was something profound about that statement, but honestly couldn’t get much of a handle on it. So an asshole obsessed with a good Samaritan gets credit for the benevolence of the one desired? But I don’t think that’s it. I think it’s the same idea as the stuff I’m talking about above. The act of love – not desire for dominance or ownership, but actual love – is what defines us. Our ability to love, to manifest love and draw out love and act out of love in the world is the best measure of what we are, what we have contributed to the world in our brief time in it.
It’s been a rough year for love. For me, anyway. I feel like I’ve been fighting against hate with almost every supposedly good thing I’ve done. So much of activism and politics is fueled by hatred and anger. I tried not to get wrapped up in it, but didn’t always succeed, and allowed what I thought was “important work” to take priority over the how of it all. With the election (almost) over and some more knowledge and experience under my belt, my 2021 will prioritize the motivation over the act, the being over the doing, to the extent that I can and as long as I continue to believe this is the path the follow.
I’ve lived long enough to know that change is the only thing I can count on, but that doesn’t mean I can’t get excited about the prospect of a stronger spiritual focus in the coming year. A joyful new year to all of you.