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New updates appear at http://sabarton.blog.com/
I hope you’ll come take a look!
Everyone has experienced anger. Everyone. You have had that moment when you thought it would be a great idea to kick someone in the head. Don’t feel bad, I’m betting Gandhi, Mother Theresa, the Dalai Lama, and anyone else you care to look up to has had that moment as well. Don’t take that bet. You’ll lose.
I have a long acquaintance with anger. Like most humans, I have acted on it. I have screamed terrible things at people, broken things, refused to do things I should have out of angry defiance. Or done things I should have refused to do. Part of the motive behind my alcoholic drinking was to drown that anger, to remove it. Like many people, I went for the quick fix of a drug instead of trying to, you know, actually change anything about myself or my life.
Now that I don’t drink, I still get angry. When I was in the habit of getting angry then drinking it away, I did a lot of things I’d call negative. I felt like I was a basically bad person, and being angry was something that bad people did.
So now when I get angry, that warped thought process surfaces again and says, “see! You’re still a bad person!” so I deny to myself that I am even angry, try to pretend that I am justified, and that multiplies it, because I know that’s not right. And that makes me angry. I am trying to be a good person. Why does this have to be so difficult? Why do I still get so damn mad? And my jaw clenches and my stomach churns and I run around the vicious hamster wheel of anger for a while until I realize I’m doing it and just… step off.
Just step off. It’s so easy to do, so difficult to think of in the passion of rage. But as the months go by, I find I am angry less often. When I am angry, I recognize what is going on faster, and I let the anger fade away into the nothingness from which it came faster. I am less angry when I am angry. And many things which would have thrown me into a frothing rant a few years ago now elicit a disinterested ‘meh.’
It can be difficult for a person like me, who is used to anger, to accept that I might be disturbed by something, that I might have reason to think something is not right and needs to be corrected or at least be discussed, and not be a terrible person. And not be angry. But it is true, and the right or wrong is not in the disturbance, but in how I react, and what I do about it.
It’s not really difficult, I make it difficult because the old plains ape still crouches somewhere deep in my brain and insists that change is bad, because it probably means that a lion has shown up or a fire is sweeping across the veldt. But it’s not difficult at all, once I do the right thing and actually use this big ol’ brain that the providence of evolution has given me.
People comment on stuff like this all the time, and there are about bounty hoobajoobillion stories and parables and sayings about it, so at first I hesitated to blog about it. But then I figured, what the heck, if it gets said so often it may be that people need to hear it often. Or the ones saying it needed to remind themselves often; this is my favorite option. Because I need to remind myself of basic things often as well. Teaching or speaking on a subject is the most effective way to learn it well.
So I’ve made it through a full paragraph without telling you what I’m talking about. That’s because people learn to love words rather than what the words say, but that’s a whole different blog. I’m talking about the ghosts in your eyeballs of course, didn’t you read the title? We all have lots of ghosts in our eyeballs, and even more in our brains. They’re not bad, they’re not good, but it is good to recognize they exist and look past them.
Consider the picture above. Buddha and the frog. I looked and I saw Buddha. Then I thought, “gee, he looks like he may be a Southeast Asian Buddha”. Then I thought the proverbial ten thousand thoughts, all of which boiled down to “I like Buddha. From his teachings he seemed to be pretty close to the Tao.”
Then suddenly I noticed the frog on his shoulder. Where was it while I was thinking all these things about Buddha? Behind the ghosts, of course.
I didn’t even notice the beautiful greenery in the background until much later. I mean, I noticed it but it was just backdrop. It was for looking at, not for seeing to me.
To most of us, the ghosts don’t even exist. They are so omnipresent that they are like I imagine water is to a fish. Everywhere and nowhere. Everything we perceive is through numberless filters. What we like, what we dislike. What we think is right, what we think is wrong. What we think is ugly, what we think is beautiful. What the words we often think in mean according to the dictionary.
What we think is important, and what we think is not important. Even what we think we should not see.
There is a saying in Zen: “Before a person studies Zen, mountains are mountains and waters are waters; after a first glimpse of Zen, mountains are no longer mountains and waters are not waters; after enlightenment, mountains are once again mountains and waters are waters.”
You can take that all sorts of ways. This kind of thinking is often cast as anti-intellectual. It is only anti-intellectual if you make it so.
There is no reason to stop thinking about what you see. There is no way to banish the ghosts.
But if you are aware of them, you can be aware of how they change your vision.
In time, you may find that you see both the ghosts and the frog exactly as they are.
I have no words to explain any better than that.
The story of Job from the Bible has always been a disturbing one to me. When I was a spiritual seeker and checking out the various details of the (this is obviously an official count) eleventy brazilian religions and sects of religions available to the well-informationally-connected human being today, it presented me with two possible lessons: 1) stick it out, things will change and 2) you’re pretty helpless, puny human, hahahahaha.
Look, as a 12-stepper, I understand the value of looking at a situation and carrying on through adversity. There are things you can do right now to make things better, and there are things you can’t change right now. Those, you need to accept and keep on truckin’. Sometimes you can mitigate them. Sometimes you can move on and do other things that make the negatives irrelevant. Sometimes a negative is only a negative because you fixate on it. Don’t like your hair? Stop dwelling on it. Change it, or don’t change it, or shave it all off like I do. But you can’t change the fact that it grows the way it does, so move on and address another aspect of your bad hair day.
That’s all very nice, but what about poor Job, left hanging in the first paragraph? It’s a nice story from one point of view. Guy has nice life, guy loses nice life, guy hangs in there, guy gets nice life back. Persevere. There’s a good message. But there’s a creepy side, and if you consider this story you should get that side of it too, and take that lesson as well. A cautionary moral.
Job clearly had Stockholm syndrome. Others might identify it as battered spouse syndrome. Here’s a guy who loves a powerful authority figure. The powerful authority figure then murders the guy’s whole family, destroys all his material possessions, and tortures him continually for years. At the end, the powerful authority figure stops torturing him, gives him new material things, and a new family. OK, set aside the WTF factor for a moment. Yes, I know, a new different family from a guy who can perform resurrections. Because who needed those old worn out unfashionable family members, here’s all new ones. That part reads like a paean to modern consumer culture. But set it aside.
What is the moral, now that you’ve taken a look at it? Especially considering the whole situation is the result, effectively, of a casual bet. A bet with an omniscient figure who already knows the outcome, mind you, making the whole trial irrelevant.
The moral is, he hits me because he loves me. One day he’ll stop hitting me and everything will be wonderful. It’s not a good lesson.
Now: please forget about the existence of the religions that have that tale as part of their tradition. Consider the story, and the lesson.
Pity the protagonist. He gets half of the message. He kept on trucking, and that much is good, but he did nothing himself to improve his situation. The story relies on a literal deus ex machina to create a happy ending… that isn’t really so happy when you think about it.
When things go wrong, you have two choices. You can do what you can to better the situation, or you can suffer helplessly until an external agency bails you out.
I know which one I choose.
So, I’ve been thinking about an old Buddha story for a while. I’m almost certain it’s a Buddha story. I could look it up in about 15 seconds and be sure, but I don’t think it’s really relevant. I’m going to call the participants ‘monks’ and ‘the head monk’ because frankly, it doesn’t alter the story one bit if it was Buddha or not, and I don’t think Buddha would mind.
I’ve been thinking about this story on and off for a long time. I think I was somewhere around 25 when I first read it, so that’s *cough cough* years. What? 15. I said 15, what did you hear?
Here’s the backbone of it: a bunch of monks are sitting around in a field waiting for the head monk to come and deliver a talk to them. They have been hanging around for a while, and the head monk seems to be running late. They are beginning to get a bit anxious; they are expecting some really heavy enlightenment stuff to be laid on them today, and they’d like to get on with it and be, like, all enlightened and stuff. Finally, the head monk shows, and sits down before them. The monks lean forward, waiting for his words, but the head monk just sits there. And sits there. Now the monks are getting sort of fidgety, but they do their best to wait patiently. Finally, the head monk lifts up a single flower. The monks look at him blankly, waiting for him to speak. One of the monks smiles. The head monk smiles back. The monk who smiled is recognized by the head monk as a being of great enlightenment as a result of this.
Now, I thought I understood this story for a long time. The head monk was saying, hey, here’s the one guy who got the point I was trying to make. He understood, and his deep and profound perception is therefore rewarded with recognition.
I think I didn’t understand. Maybe I understand now.
All the monks had an expectation. They were all acting according to their expectation, all seeing the situation through their expectation, getting impatient waiting for the big talk they were going to get. Even smiley was acting that way, getting all fidgety wondering when the talking was going to start.
He was just the only one there who was living in the moment enough to stop holding on to his expectations and enjoy the sight of a pretty flower for a moment.
There will be an unexpected flower somewhere in your life today. There always is. Will you be able to smile?
Please keep reading, I didn’t just put this here just to piss you off. I promise.
As an Atheist, I am a bit of an anomaly in the rooms of 12-step recovery. Normally in meetings, it is good etiquette to keep the references to one’s own spiritual choices to a minimum; we’re not there to evangelize, we’re there to share our experiences with addiction, our strength and hope in recovery. But of course, the subject does get touched on. It’s sort of unavoidable, since 12-step recovery revolves around the concept of a higher power and having your own personal spiritual renaissance. Usually, when the subject of a meeting involves the whole higher power thing, I end up referencing my Taoism rather than my Atheism.
Recently, I broke with that tradition, and met with a very positive reaction. So I thought I’d share a bit here too.
When I slouched into the 12-step program, I was pretty mentally beaten down. A long-time Agnostic, I did not really expect to find sobriety there, but thought I might pick up some useful tips on staying sober on my own. A lot of it made sense, though, and I saw a lot of happy, smiling people who looked nothing like the grim, teeth-gritting, self-denying, white-knuckling, unwillingly-sober-through-sheer-necessity people I expected to find. I heard someone share about their higher power being a popular stand-up comedian, and someone else share about their undefined, “there’s something, but I don’t think any human really knows what” Agnostic-style higher power.
So I thought, OK, maybe I can find a place here.
I was right, but not the way I thought. Over the last 3 years and change, I’ve given the whole schmear a lot of thought. And recently some more pieces have fallen into place.
Like I said, I came into the program as an agnostic. I prided myself on my intellectual open-mindedness, and I could not in all honesty present any evidence that there was in fact no deity of some sort out there. I still can’t. I also can’t prove there are no leprechauns living behind the garage, or that the tree in the backyard exists when nobody is looking at it. So what?
When I arrived as an Agnostic, I think my Agnosticism served a couple of odd functions for me. One, it preserved the possibility that there was something out there that could come and save me from my addiction to alcohol. If I could not be free of it here on Earth, perhaps I could be free of it in the next life, whether it was via some heaven or via reincarnation. Two, I needed the god-slot open for myself. I seriously expected the people around me to anticipate my needs and wants. To come save me from addiction with no effort on my part, to provide me with money and things, to give me a place to live, to compliment me and appreciate me no matter how crappy my behavior, to listen to me and do what I wanted them to. I wanted to be worshiped, I wanted the world to acknowledge my status as a special little snowflake and place me on an altar. I had to believe in the possibility of a deity, because I essentially assumed that I was one. Yeah, I agree. Pretty warped. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t sitting around thinking, “gee, I suspect there might be a god, and I’m it!” But that was the attitude I took into the world with me every day without really examining or understanding it.
Third, it enabled me to be an all-purpose people-pleaser. If you had a religion, I could tell you that while I didn’t share it, I sure did think your beliefs were possible and I would think about them. If you were Agnostic, I could tell you I agreed with you. If you were Atheist, I could tell you that I thought religions as framed by humanity were silly things, too. It covered all the bases.
So how did I make it from Agnostic to Atheist while participating in a 12-step program that has the word ‘god’ on damn near every page of the literature?
Because the program boils down to a couple of simple concepts. Be unflinchingly honest with yourself, about yourself. Figure out what it is that you really believe in; how do you think a decent human should act and think? Once you’ve figured that out, act on it. Every day, always doing the best that you can to act in accordance with your beliefs.
When I got honest with myself, I had to admit that I was not in fact an Agnostic, that I thought all human religions and deity-concepts were the product of superstition, and of making up answers to unanswerable questions. Self-honesty demanded that I acknowledge my own basic Atheism. So how did all of this fit in with the 12 steps, with their surrender to a higher power and asking that higher power to remove addiction and other negativity from the self?
Pretty easily. Am I powerless over my addiction to alcohol? I tried tons of different approaches to drinking alcohol. I tried drinking different kinds, rationing it, consuming it only at specific times or in specific places, drinking with other people, drinking alone; I tried studying the psychology of addiction and internalizing what I learned.
None of it worked. It seems that despite the best of my personal efforts, I stay sober best with some community, some support, some reminders of what addiction is like, some purpose attached to addiction outside myself, such as assisting others in their efforts to recover. If I did not identify with philosophical Taoism, the simple operation of cause and effect according to its own rules, I think I would call my higher power the fellowship of AA. Because being part of a support group has been a huge part of my success in remaining sober. I am grateful for the support of my family and friends, but it is that support coming from people who know what my addiction was like from the inside that provides the foundation.
But, I will occasionally be asked by a fellow 12-stepper, how does this work? How can you have the craving, the addiction lifted from you if there is no deity to do the lifting? How can you pray for help if there is nothing there to help?
For me, that has the smell of a fine (if overly lengthy and complex) Zen koan. How indeed? How can I describe the simple act of meditation with the intention of doing nothing other than seeing the unfettered world, free of illusions or my own assumptions, how it works, how its parts flow together, where they are moving, what my place in it at this moment is, and moving with it? How can I describe the act of seeking accord with the unknowable Tao, which has no sentience, no purpose, which does not even exist?
I can’t, but it works for me.
Multitasking has become something of a source of pride in modern culture. If you’re working on six things at once, you are showing that you can be productive, and that is very important. And it gets to why multitasking is seen as so important a skill to master: appearance is valued over substance, the image over the substance.
As a person who once took pride in the ability to multitask, I think I can safely say that less got done when I multitasked, not more. What got done, did not get done as well. I was constantly off track, constantly picking up something I had half-done and trying to figure out where I was going with it.
Look, it is just reality that you will start some things and not immediately finish them. Maybe you’re working on a large or detailed sketch or painting. Maybe you’re trying to write a book. Maybe you have a lengthy project to deal with at work. It’s my opinion that looking at having this bigger project on the back burner while you deal with other, smaller things that come up (like the rest of your life, maybe?) as multitasking will just screw you up.
The names we give to things are important, in that they influence how we deal with them, what we actually do. If I call writing my memoir, for example, part of a multitask while I go about cooking dinner, loving my family, writing the occasional short story, and dealing with work, I will try to think about all of these things at once, all the time. I will feel harried, trying to juggle a flock of disparate thoughts. I will feel overloaded. I will begin to panic at some point, feeling that I am missing something. Everything will suffer. Including my emotional health. And when your emotional health starts to slip, your physical health does too.
But… stress is the image of success. We see it all the time in movies, on TV, on the news, in accounts of politicians and celebrities. They’re stressed out because they try to do everything at once. We say they’re stressed out because they’re successful. We see and believe that they are successful because they’re stressed-out multitaskers. We begin to believe that if we duplicate that stress and overloading, we will be successful, too.
When I drop the multitasking mindset, though, things go more smoothly. What gets done gets done better. When I stop believing that stress brings success, I stop looking for ways to stress myself and look instead for ways to be productive and happy. It is important that I do not see inactivity as a stress reliever. That belief is part of the stress-multitasking-success myth.
By understanding how I work well, I work well. Funny how that works. It doesn’t mean I don’t have more than one thing going on in my life at a time, nobody’s life works like that. It means I devote my attention to the one thing I am doing at this moment and do not accept that somehow trying to keep everything else in my mind at the same time will be helpful. It will not.
It will screw me up royally. I have seen the proof in my own life.
There is a serious tendency among humans to want to worship. I’m not just talking about religion, though of course when I say ‘worship’ that’s the first place the mind goes. I’m talking about a general love of authority in general.
For one thing, we are descended from troop primates. Primitive humans and proto-humans roamed over the Earth in extended family clans. We like it that way. Nice cozy group with a clear leader, that’s how the ‘higher’ primates roll. We replicate it fractally, by which I mean at all levels and in all aspects of our lives. Our families have leaders; even if the family is a cooperative one, there is almost always one voice that trumps the others when the chips are down. When the extended family gets together, there is a patriarch or matriarch. We have a boss at work, and when you consider your boss and the others at his or her level, that group has a boss also. Our cities have mayors, our states and provinces and territories have governors, our nations have presidents and prime ministers and whatnot. Then they go to the UN to listen to the Secretary-General. As a 12-stepper I attend a group led by a chairperson, that group is part of a district and there are a couple of layers of organization above that. Our religions and philosophies have various layers of leaders who look to the founders of those belief systems. Soldiers look to generals who look to heads of states, as well as to the great strategic minds of the past. Even a temporary group coalesces around a leader-figure. A 15-minute conversation at a coffeeshop will have a clear conversational leader.
So what the hell does this have to do with my title, you ask? Because when we look for leadership, especially when we feel we truly have a need for leadership, we have a nasty tendency to take it too far. An author in the Zen Buddhist vein who I respect as well as follow on Twitter, @BradWarner, brought this to my attention in one of his excellent books (I forget which one) when he wrote about a follower of Buddha who asked the respected teacher if it was permissible to climb a tree to escape a charging elephant. Mr. Warner’s opinion of that question was that the asker was being a damn fool (not his words, but that was the sense of it).
I have to agree. We have a tendency to this damn foolishness, every one of us. It is up to us not to indulge it. But I see it constantly. People follow their leaders too closely, ask for guidance in every tiny thing, forsake their own good common sense because it is very easy to find it too difficult to use it. It’s much easier to ask a leader how much and of what you should eat, when you should work and how much you should play. It is, to take a modern example, much easier to look for a warning label to tell you what not to do; to tell you it is not a good idea to try to stop a running chainsaw with your hand (a real warning from an owners’ manual) or to stick an eggbeater up your butt and twist (not a real warning, but I would not be too surprised to see it one day).
Leader-figures are a good source of information. Following a good leader can be very helpful. Like all things, though, you must find proper moderation on your own.
Responsibility is yours, no matter how much or how little you like it.
This coloring page from, I’m told, the 1950s is the avatar of… whatever you call it. Marketing to use the old crass term, or branding in the slick new parlance. It’ll be something else in a few years when the shine wears off of ‘branding’.
It illustrates the basic principles beautifully: get them while they’re young, of course, but more to my point, “create excitement”. This is apparently a buzz phrase. Create excitement. I’ve even seen it in training guides for management sorts, supposedly teaching them how to get the employees… er, ‘associates’… to do whatever it is they’re supposed to do. Advertisers are big on the concept, and of course you can read all about it in whatever spam/networking blog post du jour is being waved under your nose.
It’s pervasive enough that sometimes we try to do it to ourselves. Well, I try to do it to myself; I guess I can’t speak for you. You’ll have to read the rest of it and tell me. When I do it to myself, it brings the failing of this method of advancing things to light.
And that is that enthusiasm is not something that you can fabricate mechanically like knitting a sweater or painting a sign. Feel-good motivational speakers, cheerleader-type gurus, and marketers of all stripes will try to tell you it can be.
The really tricky part here is that it can look that way. For example, from time to time in 12-step recovery I hear people say “fake it until you make it”. Some people do affirmations, writing or saying over and over the things they want to do, or to have happen to them. Some people meditate, seeking enlightenment. And it is very common to speak, and I think think of it, as a mechanical process. If you say this or do this over and over it is like stacking bricks, and once you have stacked enough bricks you will have built the edifice you have been dreaming of.
Well, you may eventually build the building. But it won’t be the way you think. You’re not mechanically doing anything. You’re not fulfilling a formula, that once the components are in place you will achieve your goal. The point where I realized this was a point of frustration for me. I really thought it was how it worked, and the old resentments began to boil back to the surface. The world really is unfair, is adversarial, and if I cannot build the me I wanted to, it’s all worthless.
Creating excitement is kind of the microwave dinner way of doing things. Yes, you can have the heat of being enthused for a little while, but it fades quickly and you wonder what you were doing at all. Don’t get me wrong, it has its place, in the short term. Looking back over my life, I see that I relied heavily on the create excitement method of doing things. It left me ill-equipped to do some very simple things, like not abusing alcohol in my case, or sticking with a worthwhile pursuit.
The lasting way to do things looks a lot like creating excitement, which only adds to the potential for confusion. You do them. You repeat them. You look for what is pleasing or fulfilling in them. You find what you enjoy in them and enjoy it. When you are doing something that is to be lasting, like staying sober if it is needful for you, or making a life with family and friends that is happy and productive for all, sharp excitement is your enemy. It makes promises in the heat of the moment that do not stand the test of time. It transfers quickly into other excited emotional states, like rage or anger or bitterness.
Do not create excitement. Be good to yourself and others. Seek to appreciate what you are doing, and do it as well as you can. Acknowledge your errors and enjoy your success. Feel your natural emotions and do not try to grab hold of them and intensify them by dwelling on them and calling them inadequate. Simply experience them; do not dam them or rush them.
I am not saying that you shouldn’t have goals or thoughts or emotions, or that you should avoid these things. I am saying that if you have found a path you wish to walk, rushing back and forth and shouting about what you are doing will soon leave you exhausted. Look around. You will see plenty of beauty without dashing around frantically, you will share more with a smile and the pointing of a finger than with a spate of hyperbolic speech, and in the end you will have walked farther than your hyperactive counterparts.