Friday, August 10, 2007

Chop wood. Carry water.

I know I haven't been posting any Buddhist / therapy / mind / spirit stuff lately. I had a chat with a friend today, though, that was pretty cathartic, and with only a little reformatting (and some vocabulary cleaning - hi, Grandma!) it seemed like a pretty decent post.

Friend: I have a random question for you, and you don't have to answer it right away. I'd genuinely like your thoughts on it, though, because I'm in the throes of some what-am-I-doing sort of mental anguish. (Anguish is a strong word....)

How do you winnow away all the distractions to determine what it is you truly want to be doing with your life?

Nice light fare for the afternoon. :)

Me: How odd, this is what I've been thinking about a lot lately too. Anguish is a strong word, but ennui and existential despair kind of merit it sometimes. My strategy so far has been to focus more intently on my meditation practice and my yoga.

I'm in a pretty rough patch of it right now. It's the first time I've really tried to meditate more diligently on a very frequent basis. I'm experiencing a lot of insight, but a lot of it is, as you describe, a winnowing-away. It's challenging, because I have begun realizing how much of what I do is just motivated by habit, and insecurity and is fundamentally distant, inauthentic, and insincere.

I'm finding myself enjoying socializing less, especially with friends with whom I've realized I am often sarcastic or "cordial", i.e. pleasant but not terribly intimate. And then the difficult part these days is not resenting those people, or feeling irritated when I interact with them.

This extends to my job. I am beginning to realize that I often do not enjoy my job. At the same time, I am questioning whether the problem is the job itself or my approach to it. There are strong parallels with dating: I wondered often, when dating Erik, whether I should break up with him and search for a "more compatible person" or whether the lacking thing was my perspective... whether I should stop thinking about the personal compatibility as the thing to maximize, and instead think of myself as fortunate to have a relationship in which to work diligently.

I found this the other day, while searching for the zen saying it begins with: "Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water; after enlightenment, chop wood, carry water."

I really like it. I'm trying, slowly, to apply that to my life. I have realized that I become depressed -- despair is a better word -- when I procrastinate, when I don't work hard.

I read an article in Outside magazine once about a female professional climber on whose refrigerator hung a little sign that just said something like, "LIFE IS HARD WORK. THE SOONER WE REALIZE THIS, THE BETTER." When I first read the article I took that to mean that we should make our peace with the necessity of working hard, and not procrastinate, because there's no avoiding it.

Recently I came to a new understanding of that: That even if it could be avoided, I wouldn't want to. While working hard is unpleasant in an immediate way, just like eating brown rice when there's ice cream right next to it, if I don't work hard, I become totally miserable, I feel like I'm wasting my life. I'm sure I'll have another random insight in a week that will refine this significantly, but right now, my impression is that it's not worth me worrying after the "meaning of life" And that the meaning of life is just to point myself in the right direction and work really hard, every moment of every day. And that if I do that, I won't lapse into ennui because I'll be working too hard, and being too mindful.

I suppose that's not a direct response to your question. That said, in terms of "winnowing away distractions," I have to admit, the instruction there is... meditate. It always bothered me when my teachers would say things like that. "Stop thinking about what to do and just do it. Just meditate, and it will bring contentment and peace, you don't even have to understand how, certainly not right now."

I like to analyze and so that kind of instruction frustrated me.

But I must admit, the more I meditate, the more insight I find, the more peace I experience, and the more beauty I see. The weird part is, my actual meditation sessions are just like lightning storms in my head. I get brief moments of clarity, but no bliss, no realizations during the meditation.

It is a practice without epiphany, I mean.

There's no "peak experiences" with my meditation. The clouds never abruptly clear. I never have a breathtaking view of open sky. It's just that gradually, steadily, I become more mindful, I see things more clearly. I remember reading once that epiphanies cannot be trusted because they are so personal; they cannot be shared. I resisted that then, because epiphanies seem so exciting. But I realize more and more that they are just like orgasms, or ice cream. Pleasant sensory experiences. Just like working really hard every moment of every day, or eating tofu and brown rice when I could be eating ice cream, I think the real win with meditation just comes from that slow, gradual, completely underwhelming, non-peak, non-epiphany kind of experience.

My Mom, oddly enough, practiced Transcendental Meditation -- as did my Dad -- and she commented the other day that when she practices (she does rarely, but still apparently does from time to time) her mind is as wild and crazed as mine. Her take on it is that it's a catharsis, that the meditation helps because it is an outlet, so that you work some of that out, which is a useful way to think about it, I think, because it makes sense, then, that the benefits would come not during the practice but in the rest of life.


Saturday, June 16, 2007

I bring people together.

The other day I logged into MySpace, not something I do very often, and found a message from someone I don't know. He said I could post it on here, so here it is (names changed):
My younger brother has recently announced to us he is gay. I was devastated at first. I have been secretly studying the gay life and trying to make sense of it. Totally coincidentally and at random I have looked at your page. For what ever reason when I read your description it all clicked with me. There is nothing wrong with Gabe, he's normal for him like I'm normal for me. This is probably the craziest message you have and will ever receive, but I thought you should know that the great description you gave of yourself and your overall presentation had an important influence on someone. And how ironic the situation.
take care
We exchanged a couple messages, but really, that's the meat of it. I was kind of floored. First of all, I looked at my MySpace profile and don't really understand how I managed to do that, but I was really flattered. How awesome, to know that I somehow caused this to happen!

I went and looked at Pete's page and I have to admit, a bunch of the things about him (he's from the Bible Belt, he refers to Jesus Christ a lot, talks about the Bible, lives in the suburbs) are things that often trigger a kind of condescension in me. To be very frank, I look down on that demographic. I stereotype them as closed-minded and intolerant.

How ironic to get a message from someone who fits that bill so perfectly but who was so open-minded, and then to realize I'm the closed-minded one. Pete's behavior is exactly the right thing. He didn't deny his devastation, but instead explored it, out of love for his brother, and sounds well on his way to acceptance.

It was a good wake-up call for me: I need to approach people like Pete with the same level of compassion, even if it means dealing with my rather unflattering arrogance.

P.S. How hilariously adorable is it how he says he's "secretly studying the gay life and trying to make sense of it"? I chuckled all day at that.


Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Soon I Will Be Invincible

Wow, it's been a long time since I've updated. Sorry about that.

My friend Austin Grossman has written his first book, a novel called Soon I Will Be Invincible (here's the site). It's superhero fiction with self-awareness; it's thoughtful but also funny, very entertaining, and a fast read. Well, at least, the first two chapters were; I haven't gotten my hands on the full book yet.

He has some reading & signing dates up already and it looks like he'll be in Austin on June 20th reading at BookPeople. Show up! I'm certainly going to. It should be fun; Austin's witty and hilarious.

One particular evening that sticks out in my mind: A handful of us, including Austin and myself, were at the New World Cafe, this vegan restaurant in Oakland, and I got caught up, curious about their various foods and how they managed to prepare them vegan.

I wasn't trying to hassle the waitress but I think it came off that way.

"How do you make the Thai iced tea?" I asked.
"Oh, we use soymilk for that."
"The puddings are vegan, too?" I swear I was just asking out of curiosity.
"Yes, they're thickened with agar."
"How about the Vietnamese coffee?" One of my friends rolled her eyes.
"Oh, the Vietnamese coffee does have sweetened condensed milk. It's the one thing on the menu that isn't vegan," she admitted.
Austin looked at me flatly. "Nice work," he quipped, dryly, "Nancy Drew."

He's a clever wit and a thoughtful, funny guy, so I expect no less from his first book. I can't wait to get my copy!


Wednesday, April 18, 2007


I write enough stuff in my blog about books I'm reading, Buddhist lectures I found useful, and therapy-related musings that I figured they all deserved their own space. If nothing else, it means people who only really care about my cycling training don't have to read my latest run-on post about mindfulness and nonviolence as it pertains to Hesse, or whatever.

This will be the catch-all blog for anything intellectual, spiritual, or psychological.