Aren’t I actually a Buddhist, a pagan, a witch, an animist…
I love tea ceremonies. I love hugging trees and talking to them.
I’m a doctor. Wait but…aren’t I actually a healer?
Aren’t I also a teacher?
I’m a runner. But what happens now that I’ve hurt my knee and have to walk?
I guess now I’m a walker.
I think instead of the I am phrasing, it’s better to say that I’m a human who…
I’m a human who Jews, who doctors, who runs, and walks. Who meditates and listens to dharma talks. Who hugs trees, lights incense, drinks tea, helps people with medical factoids and prescriptions and also listening and empathy. I’m a human who friends, and sons, and grandsons and boyfriends.
There’s a book called God is a verb. Identity is a verb, too, I think.
Each of these hats might come off, and when they do, that’ll be painful. But I am larger than any individual hat. If someone makes fun of my hat, I’m sure I’ll be angry. Maybe I’ll even fight them.
But I’ll keep it in mind that this identity or that one is one of my many hats, it’s something I do, a facet of my spirit expressing itself. It’s not me, in entirety.
You can almost always find someone else’s shaming at the kernel of your own belief that there’s something wrong with you…It’s not like you can get rid of shame, but it’s like foreign object that landed in your system. ‘I have to carry it around, but I don’t have to think it’s me.’
A. J. Bond
I just had a session with shame educator A. J. Bond, and realized: “Holy shit, shame has been a major player in my life.”
I came to the session with a seemingly small example: feeling bad about throwing away some old chicken soup.
A. J. told me about how shame works:
A person learns that situation X is shameful. This learning comes from either directly from another human, or from society. In my chicken soup example, my grandma learned that wasting food was bad because she grew up during WWII, during a time of tremendous food scarcity.
Person 1 transfers the shame to person 2. In my chicken soup example, my grandma modeled not wasting food. My mom told me a story of seeing my grandma eat all the breadcrumbs one time after she sliced bread.
Person 2 passes on the shame to Person 3. When I was growing up, my mom modeled not wasting food, and I internalized this lesson. Which brings me to feeling bad about throwing away chicken soup.
Not all shame is unhealthy; often, shame gets us to behave in prosocial ways, following the ten commandments and all that. However, shame can also disconnect us from ourselves.
I brought up an example to A.J. about feeling shame about being a “bad friend” because I didn’t them back immediately. A.J. asked me: “What do you think is an appropriate amount of time to text a friend back?”
I scratched my head, and eventually said: “12-24 hours…if longer than that at least tell me that you got the message and are thinking about it.”
With my friend’s text, the shame was telling me that I had to reply immediately. The shame was disconnecting me from my true beliefs.
Shame can keep us from pursuing our values and taking care of ourselves. If we are feeling toxic shame, we think that we are somehow “bad.” If we stay in this feeling, we won’t believe that we deserve to pursue our values.
The term “wholeness” has always been confusing for me, but I think I get it now. If I imagine myself as a national park, shame is the overzealous park ranger that blocks off areas with signs that say “DON’T GO HERE!” I want to build trails to these places — these shameful streams, mountains and forests — and link them back into my wholeness.
To sort out my authentic values from the beliefs that I’ve adopted due to shame, I journaled about themes like money, physical appearance, and family, noting where I felt shame. A.J. said that a tool to get through shame is anger. Authentic anger gets activated when boundaries are crossed, when appropriate responsibility isn’t taken. Finding the anger can be a way to beat back the shame, so that I can more clearly see what my real values are.
Where is the magic?
Is it in the past?
Spilled milk seeping into the carpet
Never to be tasted again
Or is the magic
In the future?
A shiny snapshot in our mind
Is the present moment
Just grey boredom?
And watery soup?
Or is there magic here, too?
Mary Oliver once asked herself
"Have I admired sufficiently,
the little hurricane
Of the hummingbird?"
It's high time
Yesterday, I sat in a Manhattan café, eavesdropping on the conversation of a pair of young women. One of them was a performer in the theater scene.
Here’s what I overheard:
I want to date someone who makes a lot of money, because I don’t want them to be as poor as me. And I want them to be creative, but they don’t have to be in theater. Like, maybe they do photography on the side. I want to meet someone in real life, not on the apps…my friend actually texted me if I want to meet one of her friends, and sent me his profile. But I didn’t go. He’s 35, and has grey hair and wrinkles. I don’t think I’m ready to date a full-on man….
Later in the day, I visited with some friends, who told me about a talk they went to on the topic: “What is work?” My friend told me that her takeaways from the talk was that if your work has a few of these qualities, you are doing well:
Meaning (= contributing to something outside yourself you find valuable)
Control over your hours/work environment
Growth / learning potential
Connection to the end-product
At a point in the talk, there was a dance performance, and the dancers were asked: “How does dancing for money affect your enjoyment of dancing.”
The dancers said that they get less enjoyment, because they have to conform to other people’s projects and have to worry about making a living.
Joseph Campbell and Elizabeth Gilbert give roughly the same advice: follow your bliss, follow your interest. Mainstream media, by putting high-achieving people on magazine covers, roughly re-enforces this advice. There’s a name for this tendency: exceptionalism.
We are shown stories of people who are extremely rare specimens, and we subconsciously begin to compare ourselves to these folks. This is a recipe for dissatisfaction with life.
99.999% of people striving to become movie directors won’t be Tim Burton, the Coen Brothers, or Quentin Tarantino. When I worked in Hollywood, I met many people who came to the town just like me — bright-eyed and ready to make art. In many cases, they were better writers than me. In LA, I met good writers working day jobs designing DVD boxes, as secretaries, as assistants. Meeting these people was a big reason I didn’t pursue film as a career. I saw that if pursued filmmaking, I might end up as the next Tim Burton, but more likely, I would end up like these folks. I chose not to play the Hollywood game. I didn’t love the artist’s life enough to do it for my main source of money.
It is a very rare person who is able make money for their bliss, and this often comes with hang-ups, including anxiety about what other people will think about your next project. After many years as a successful cartoonist Bill Watterson, the creator of Calvin and Hobbes, dropped off the face of the earth, and took up painting:
I’ve done what I can do within the constraints of daily deadlines and small panels. I am eager to work at a more thoughtful pace, with fewer artistic compromises.
John Frusciante, the guitarist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers did the same. Here’s what one of his collaborators said:
John’s in a different place right now. He’s in a place where he couldn’t care less about putting things out or about something being a product. He’s living by different standards right now with a different philosophy, so he doesn’t want to be a part of anything that he knows is going to end up being a product.
The central feature of “work,” it seems to me, is that you get paid for it. And so, because you are partially being motivated by money, you are not 100% able to follow your bliss. If, for a time, your bliss = what you get paid for, then you are very lucky. You are exceptional. For the vast majority of people — plumbers, secretaries, medical assistants, you name it — bliss and money are probably not so aligned. Even so, the work can still be meaningful and growth-inducing (see the bulleted list above).
What looks like mediocrity might actually be wisdom
What looks like mediocrity might actually be a conscious choice to pursue a balanced life. Choosing NOT to be an amazing X (scientist, actor, artist, doctor, etc…) but simply a competent X frees up time to spend with loved ones, enjoy nature, deepen one’s spirituality. Choosing to stop searching for the “perfect” partner can fee up time for building a good connection with an actual human being.
In The All or Nothing Marriage, Eli Finkel writes that an important part of successful marriage over the long haul is being able to reduce expectations for your partner during tough times. The young theater performer I quoted above is looking for a set of high standards to be met. She might find someone who checks all these boxes, but at some point, her partner will get grey hair and wrinkles, and she’ll have to dial down her expectations.
In Buddhism, there is the concept of a “hungry ghost.” These are often drawn with big belly, a small mouth, and a thin neck. They are never able to satiate their hunger, despite constantly eating.
If our expectations are consistently greater than reality, we become hungry ghosts. After reflecting on the “What is work?” talk, my friend said that she feels more peace about her job. “I like the people I work with, and that’s good enough,” she said.
It seems to me that the “follow your bliss” advice should come with an asterisk:
We should not expect our work or relationships to be 100% bliss. We should not have such high expectations that we become a hungry ghost. We should, instead, seek to make our expectations conform to reality. This is one crucial ingredient to inner peace.
Note: This post is a continuation of a line of thinking I’ve been exploring here for years. See this this, this, this and this post for prior versions of my thinking on this topic.
The other day, I came across a profound sentence in the most unlikely of places, the biography of a personal trainer whose nickname is “The booty builder”:
As I read this profile, a big question entered my mind: what is spiritual health? We talk all about mental and physical health these days, but not really spiritual health.
I am reading a book right now called How to think like a monk by Jay Shetty. In the book, Shetty talks about four levels of motivation, which function on a hierarchy: fear, desire, duty, and love.
Here’s a nice graphic that gives some examples of these motivations:
Hierarchies make me think of the psychologist Abraham Maslow, whose famous pyramid was turned into a sailboat by the psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman:
In Kaufman’s model, we need a secure foundation of the boat before we can truly love and serve others. We need to feel a sense of physical safety, social belonging/intimacy, and have a healthy self-image. Maslow’s big insight is that physical and mental health precede spiritual health. You need a secure hull before you can sail.
I like this quote from the Indian sage Shantideva:
All the suffering there is in this world arises from wishing our self to be happy. All the happiness there is in this world arises from wishing others to be happy.
However, the language is a bit confusing. “Happy” is such a vague word. I would update the quote as follows:
All the suffering in the world arises from exclusively being motivated by desire and fear. All the meaning there is in this world comes from service.
This isn’t to say that desire and fear-based motivations are bad. I think we need a sense of pleasure in what we do if it is to be sustainable.
This is the first “annual review” I’m posting publicly. In the spirit of this blog, it’s mostly a note-to-self, but perchance you might find something useful to chew on here, too.
Intellectual learning is all fine and good, but easily slides off the duck’s back, the Teflon pan, or what have you. It takes feeling learnings in the heart for them to really take hold.
So, without further adieu, a few of my heart-learnings, from 2022:
It was meaningful to take little actions, to create small experiences, that made the world a bit better. I can’t “fix” anything: my family, the environment, geopolitics. All I can do is little actions that make things a little bit better. Cooking a meal for people. Exercising after work. Hanging a “You are enough” sign up in our neighborhood. Hosting a writing group every month. Organizing a trip with my grandma and family. Lighting the Shabbat candles, both in person and on zoom. Helping my patients. Giving kind words and physical gifts. Calling a friend going through a thing. Showing up, in little ways, for people.
“Finding my people” was deeply healing. During this year, I felt less alone, less like a freak, because I found my people, in these places:
General neurology. I went to a session at a conference about “general neurology” and had an aha moment: I see myself as a general neurologist. I was brought up in residency thinking that the best way to go was to specialize, but I like all of neurology, and psychiatry too. It was nice to know that I’m not a freak. It was nice to hear people speak who also identify as general neurologists, and who are having meaningful careers.
Dancing, and the embrace of my body. I’ve often thought I danced crazy: without rhythm or form. But this year, different people have complimented my dancing. “You dance from the heart…you bring people joy…thanks for bringing the energy on the dance floor…You’ve got it” were some of the things I heard. This acceptance made me feel more OK in my dancing and in my body.
The immigrant experience. Growing up, I felt like a fish out of water in suburban Buffalo, NY, but didn’t really know why. After talking about the immigrant experience with friends who are also immigrants, and also watching / reading some good art on the matter (e.g. the movies Everything, Everywhere, All at Once, Turning Red, the play The Far Country and the book Call Me American) it makes a lot more sense to me why I felt “out of water.”
Experimental Judaism. I got involved in Lab/Shul this year, and this has given me peace in my relationship with Judaism. Lab/Shul’s tagline is: God-optional, everybody-friendly, and artist-driven. These are values I totally vibe with, and have found missing in my experiences with Judaism previously. It feels awesome to jew in a more fluid, inclusive, and experimental way, and realize there are others who also see Judaism this way. Previously, I had thought of Judaism — the religion I was born into — as a thing to get “right.” Now I see Judaism as a vast well of practices that can be applied to enhance the beauty and meaning of my life. Culture should be in service of the human experience, not the other way around.
Life art was an empowering lens through which to see the world. I have been following the work of artist Jonathan Harris for a while, and this year, I listened to a talk he gave on life art. Culture is like a vast garage sale: there’s plenty of good stuff there, but also, lots of old junk. I don’t have to buy all the old hats at the garage sale — I can choose the hat or two which bring joy, take those home, and mix them into my own funky wardrobe. A life-art case study: on January 2nd of this new year, I did a ritual for myself. First, I did a fast. Towards the end of it, I felt like doing a tea ceremony, so I broke the fast early despite a part of me wanting to “do it right.” I then wrote down things that didn’t serve me on slips of paper, burned them and put the ashes in soil. I planted some seeds in this soil, with intentions for the new year. In this way, I combined a Jewish ritual (fasting on the 10th of Tevet / January 2nd) with a Chinese ritual (the tea ceremony) with a new-agey paganish ritual (burning what didn’t serve and planting seeds), creating my own new year ritual, my own little piece of life art. Other examples of life art this year were two solstice celebrations, a tea ceremony by a creek with my brother and Wonder Wander 2022.
Models — both real and in media — helped me see more possibility in life. Listening to podcasts, reading books, and ultimately meeting people who embody values I admire is a powerful way to change my life. Not the least of the influence of these models was getting a tattoo, something I never thought I’d do because of a Jewish taboo against the practice. In 2023, I’ll be doing a four month sabbatical (inspired by a podcast on sabbaticals). I’ll be going to live on an eco-village called Dancing Rabbit and do some clowning with Patch Adams (two ideas that came from books I read: The Unsettlers and Gesundheit). In 2022, I deepened my relationships with friends who serve as models for various things I want to embody: developing a stronger connection with what feels good, taking leaps of faith, play, awe in nature, and creativity.
I want to show up for people. A few weeks ago, I was having a really tough time and a friend came to my side and held my hand. This was true friendship. The thing I ultimately fear, underneath everything, is being alone. I think this is universal. “I am never alone and I reach out for support when I need it” is a great affirmation to say to myself. I want to return the gifts I’ve been given: I want to show up for others, as people have showed up for me.
Empathy is important to cultivate. I often get deep into my own world. It’s important, and not always natural or easy, to try to understand the experiences of others. This is something I want to cultivate.
Composting the old is something I started doing, and will be a life-long path. Any relationship, and life in general, is a dance that’s happening in the now. To keep dancing, it’s important not to get stuck in old steps. This year, I paid off a debt to consciously let go of negative feelings related to a scam, let go of an artifact from an old relationship, donated books and cleaned house. I want to live in the here and now, in the newness. This requires composting the old logs to create space on the forest floor for saplings to grow. Periodically, we need to call in the fungi and the fires. Learning to compost will be a life-long spiritual path for me.
A short note to my current self, from my future self at the end of 2023:
In 2023, I’ve felt my body, felt my heart. The specific experiences didn’t matter as much as my heart-connection. Because I’ve moved from the heart, the things I’ve done have felt right. I’ve waited, waited in the heart place, for the right next action to show itself. My practice has been emergent. I’ve asked myself: what is nourishing for my heart? What can I do? I’ve let go of rigid rules and embraced empathy, service, spontaneity, play, delight, fascination, beauty, inspiration. I’ve lived my life as a work of art, a blank canvas on which to paint. My practice has been different every day, and so, it has been alive. I’ve acted when the heart spoke, and not before.
This weekend was the first time, in a long time, that I’ve given myself a proper day of rest. A Sabbath.
I invited my friend Alex to New York City for Shabbat dinner, and he said YES! We spent the day slowing down together.
But the day wasn’t all lollipops and rainbows. Like any other day, there were moments of darkness…
Alex and I sat in a restaurant as the rain drizzled outside. The waiter brought us our platter of Ethiopian food. It was time to wash our hands and dig in.
“Where’s the bathroom?” Alex asked.
“It’s out of commission,” said the waiter. “A pipe burst and it flooded.”
“Is there any other bathroom we can use?” I asked.
“You can try next door.”
I went to the restaurant next door, but they were closed. I came back and told the waiter the news, asking if he had other ideas. He racked his brain, but came up with nothing.
“I don’t know what to tell you…” he said.
What? went my internal monologue. How can this place not have something as basic as a bathroom. I kept quiet, but my face did the talking. The stink bubbled from my eye.
“You can use the hand sanitizer,” said the waiter. I looked at the bottle suspiciously: it had antibiotics. Then I picked it up to take to our table.
“That’s for everyone to use. You have to leave it here,” admonished the waiter.
The nerve! I thought.
But ultimately, after a few minutes, I forgot about the bathroom. Alex and I started to talk and eat. Our conversion was vast and meandering. After a while, it wandered into a dark place, casting a negative light on someone we knew.
“We’re bonding by othering,” Alex pointed out.
Shit, I realized. He’s right.
“When I was 23, I spent a summer working as a fireman. Everyone on the crew made me the odd-man out,” Alex said.
“I felt terrible about myself constantly, so I would repeat to myself: ‘I am not a bad person, I am not a bad person.’ Anyways, the summer ended and I got over it, but it sucked…
“A few years later, one of the people who had bullied me invited me over to his house. He’d moved up in the ranks, had a house, his wife was pregnant. He took me into his man-cave, and gave me a can of beer. He looked me in the eyes and said: ‘A few summers after you left, I became the manager of that fire brigade. The squad made me the bad guy, just like we made you the bad guy. I felt really shitty about myself during that time. I want you to know that I feel bad about the way I made you feel. I’m really, really sorry.’
“It was an honest apology, and we both felt great afterwards,” said Alex.
Suddenly, it dawned on me: “I think I want to apologize to the waiters,” I said. “It’s not their fault that the bathroom flooded. They aren’t plumbers. They’re just working a shift…”
So, before we left the restaurant, I went up to the waiters and said: “I just realized that I was putting out a pissy energy earlier, and I wanted to say I’m sorry. Also, the food was really good.”
The waiters’ faces softened. “It’s all good,” they said. And something in me softened too.
On the way back home, Alex and I listened to a meditation in the car. Over the speaker, Ram Dass’ voice told us where to point our minds:
“[There’s] a quality of radiance coming from your own heart. Now imagine everybody in this room has exactly that same place in the middle of their heart…All of us, the same, in that way, and yet so different in all that surrounds that heart. If you knew that in every human being there was that quality of spirit and truth and that’s what you focused on when you met another person, how different would that be?
Now expand to all the people you came upon today. In the subways, on the streets, in meetings, in offices, in bed. At the dinner table, at newstands…and think of each of those people as another point of light, as a container containing an essence, a quality of softness, of caring, of warmth, of light.
Think of the people you’ve interacted with today. Think of how often, how frequently or infrequently you remembered the light that is in the center of the container?
Sometimes the container is so opaque that you can’t see the light. People say to you, ‘I’m the container, and when you remember you say to them: ‘No, you’re the light.’
Now look at yourself through today. How often did you remember that light that is the center of your being? How often were you quiet enough, or was there a pause long enough, for you to remember. Because unless you can see your own light, how can you truly see another’s? For it takes a light, to know a light.
Who did you meet today? Did you meet partners or children or parents or business people or people asking for money or social workers or kids or trouble makers or politicians or newspaper vendors?
Is that who you met? Or did you meet the light, in all of its various ways of being contained?”
Listening to the meditation, I saw how frequently I miss the opportunity to see people’s light, their wholeness. Sitting around the Shabbat table on Friday night, I saw the people across from me as all beautiful. I saw their light. This moment of seeing was a rare glimpse, not where I live.
Even on a very relaxed Saturday, I had othered an acquaintance in casual conversation, as well as the waiters in the restaurant.
Alex and I walked down the street, and we saw maple trees shedding yellow leaves.
“There could be two trees of the same type, but one is shedding its leaves and one isn’t,” said Alex.
I was reminded of another Ram Dass quote: how people don’t judge trees for being tall or short or misshapen, but we judge people all the time…
There’s an idea from stoicism called “the dichotomy of control.” The gist is that we can’t control if the bathroom is broken or if we have a negative reaction to someone. But we can control if we seek to see the light in others and ourselves, or not.
The new year is approaching. This is usually the time I start thinking about my past year and how it went. I’ve been very diligent, the last two years, about reflecting. I would look at “Annual Review” templates online, and ask myself a million questions about my year. Now, having done these reviews for the last two years, I’ve realized that the million questions are really all versions of the same one: Am I living well?
Let’s back up a bit: what does living well mean?
A common metaphor for life is a graph, with many ups and downs:
The X axis is “time,” but what is the Y axis?
I used to think that the Y axis was something like experience. Now, I’m starting to think that the Y axis is something else…
When the Dalai Llama was asked if he was afraid when Tibet was captured by Chinese soldiers, he said, “Yes, I feared I would lose compassion for my captors.” This is a very profound quote for me, because the Dalai Llama did not fear an unpleasant experience or outcome, he feared succumbing to bad intentions, to a loss of compassion.
Living well, for me, is about having good intentions. I see intention as the Y axis of life. I could be in prison, but if I am cultivating good intentions, then I am free. Conversely, I could be eating fabulously flavored Ethiopian food and hanging out with my friend all day, but if I’m badmouthing people and sending off pissy vibes to the waitstaff, then I’m in a mental prison. I’ve lost my compassion.
We overemphasize the external in our society. The goals accomplished, the beautiful experiences. Good intentions, seeing the light in ourselves and others – this is not instagrammable. But intention is the measure of goodness in life. Without good intentions, we are in hell, even though externally, it might look like heaven.
I’m such a slow reader. Take Emerson’s essay on self reliance. That essay, which is about 20 pages long, took me about two years to read. Because each paragraph I’m like: “Whoa! I got to take that and see if I can apply that in life. See what the reverb of life is back to me if I’m looking through that lens. Which takes me a couple of months before I can read the next paragraph.”
I have this idea kicking around in my head that “I don’t read enough.”
This idea comes up when I hear about “big readers,” like this one who read 187 books in a year.
I think back to myself in 3rd grade. I read 40 books that year. School was painful, and I retreated into the world of books. I’ve never read as many books in any year since. Not even close.
It’s true that I really would like to read more.
But there’s another, more important truth: I don’t integrate enough.
I want my reading to make my life richer. If I consume, consume, consume, but don’t integrate, then I’m a hungry ghost, using the short-term dopamine hit of “learning something” to feel good for a moment.
“Intellectual stimulation” is an apt phrase. There is a short-lived pleasure that comes from noshing on a new idea. But true nourishment comes from digestion.
I want my reading to change me, to seep into my soul, to become part of who I am. That’s an alchemical process, and it happens slowly.
Take the quote on the index card above. I can read it a thousand times and still not be done with it.
Let me return to it, again:
What we care for, we grow to resemble. And what we resemble will hold us, when we are us no longer.
I see this as a quote about values, and how values are really the only thing that lasts.
When I first read The Overstory, I highlighted this quote. Then I wrote it in a letter to a friend. Then I wrote it on an index card for myself. Now I’m writing about it here.
By returning to the quote, again and again, I’m increasing the chance it will color my world.
I love what McConoughey did with Self Reliance. Sipping on an essay for two years…that’s something. It’s a counter-cultural act in a culture that loves to celebrate hitting metrics.
The integration isn’t easily summarized in a pithy metric. Getting a more positive “reverb of life” is a feeling, an alchemy, a transformation.
Put another way, words are fingers, integration is the moon.
I had a therapist who said that she distrusts anything that promises “quick results.” At the time, I was contemplating taking a 6-week, $6,000 self-development course.
I didn’t end up taking the course. I’m now working with meditation teachers who talk about “slow spirituality” as an analogy to the slow food movement. I do a weekly meditation, listen to a weekly dharma talk. There isn’t a promise of quick results.
An image comes to me: carving wood. Whittling. Sanding. Working slowly, and eventually creating something beautiful.
Here’s to slowing down the ingestion of ideas, which are so plentiful these days. And here’s to spending more time playing with them in our lives.
It’s a well-worn cliché that two basic energies motivate all behaviors: love and fear.
Ram Dass had a different lens on the dichotomy. He thought the two basic energies were love and power.
I would like to add my take on the matter. I think the two basic energy sources are fear and stoke.
“I should clean my apartment” is a fear that if I don’t clean, my apartment will be overrun by cockroaches.
“I should order these lab tests” is a fear that if I don’t, something bad will happen to my patient.
On the other hand:
“I want to clean” is based on stoke, excitement about having a clean place.
“I want to order the lab tests” is based on stoke for getting my patient better.
I think of fear like fossil fuel energy. It’ll get you from point A to point B, but in the long-run, the planet, and the human, will burn out.
I think of stoke like green energy: it’s sustainable. A person running on stoke is able to keep going, and won’t burn out, because the enthusiasm is self-generated.
My mom recently told me about her friend’s daughter who refused to do something because “she doesn’t want to be doing things out of guilt.” This is wisdom. In the short-run, succumbing to guilt-based action allows one to avoid feeling guilty. But in the long-run, the person is left doing things powered by guilt (a form of fear), and not by stoke.
Abraham Maslow called fear the deficiency realm. The buddha called it habit energy. Whatever you call it, it’s a mode of consciousness that likely evolved for our survival. The alarm bells are ringing, the boat has a leak, and you are frantically trying to plug it before it sinks.
Maslow called stoke the “being realm.” The buddha called it freedom or true nature. In this mode of consciousness, we are generous and operate from our love, our interest, our stoke.
I pray that we can all change our life energy source, as much as possible, to stoke.
A practice, like going to my local mycology group meetup and learning to see the mushrooms that have been hiding in plain sight, in the local park.
A phrase, like “concrete jungle.” If I look at New York City through this lens, then I’ll tune in more to the concrete, the stench of the summer garbage, the traffic…
An attention machine can also be a person, a place, a prayer, a poem, a profession, a pet. Anything, really…
Dynein and Kinesin
It strikes me that life is a miracle.
A patient of mine has progressive neurological symptoms that have left her disabled at a young age. After much testing, we diagnosed her with a defect in dynein, one of the proteins that’s responsible for moving cargo in the nerve cell. Here’s an animation of dynein walking, transporting cargo down the long length of an axon (sometimes more than 3 feet!):
We humans might tell different religiousmyths, wear different religious hats, have different skin colors, have different proportions in our faces and bodies, but we all rely on dynein (and it’s cousin kinesin) to move stuff around our cells. If we didn’t have these proteins, then our nerves wouldn’t work. Ditto for all other animals.
The spirituality of molecular biology!
All animals are alive thanks to the miracle of dynein and kinesin.
I want to start a very specific and strange gratitude practice:
I’ll report back on how this goes, in the comments!
Some of my Attention Machines
I met a guy the other day who was wearing a bunch of rubber bands on his wrists.
“What do they mean?” I asked.
“That’s always changing,” he said.
For him, these bracelets are attention machines, and he’s constantly cycling through new meanings for them, depending on what he needs in his life. And this guy is in his 70s!
Here are some of my current attention machines:
Complaining bracelet. I’m wearing a bracelet that represents not complaining. Every time I complain, I change the bracelet to my other wrist. The bracelet also is made of beautiful stones, and reminds me of the beauty of nature.
The artist date. The past few months I’ve been going through a book called “The Artist’s Way” with a friend. One of the exercises that the book gives is to have a weekly “Artist date.” The purpose is to restock the creative pond with fish, so to speak. Lately I’ve been thinking of my morning drives to work as artist dates. My attention is being tuned to look for opportunities for artist dates in daily life: maybe a walk in the woods by myself is an artist state? Maybe my evening run is one too? Maybe chopping vegetables is not a chore, but a mini-artist date? Changing how I think about the things really does make a load of difference.
Birthday poems. My mom has been writing my brother and I birthday poems ever since we were little, and lately I’ve gotten into this too. This is a great attention machine. Doing a creative project for somebody every birthday takes a lot of effort, but you get out when you put in.
Here’s an attention machine that I haven’t integrated, but would like to:
Saying “good morning.” I frequently get called out for not saying “good morning” at work. I show up to work and just get right into business. I’m in my own world. “Good morning” or “good afternoon” gets us to pause. It gets us to realize that we are on the planet and there is a particular position of the sun in the sky. “Good morning” is an attention machine I could use a bit more of in my life.
The coolest thing about attention machines is that we have the power to engineer them.
In the words of the punk band Crass:
If the programme’s not the one you want, get up, turn off the set It’s only you that can decide what life you’re gonna get
I would update this lyric to be: if the attention machine is not the one you want, engineer a new one.
Here’s an example of this attention engineering, from my own life:
I recently noticed, chatting with a friend, that we had great word-play chemistry. We set up a commitment to do a periodic phone call where we just play with words. I think there isn’t enough play in my life. It feels nice and fun and free to have this phone call exist as an attention machine for the purpose of play.
Here’s a homework assignment: do an inventory of the attention machines in your life, as I did above. Some of them might not be serving you. Some of them might be serving you very well. Don’t underestimate their power.
The objects in our lives can seem unimportant: a coffee maker, a wrist watch, a bird feeder…who cares?
Well, the things we include in our lives have ripple effects, even the small ones.
A coffee maker in the kitchen makes it more likely I’ll drink coffee.
I could replace the coffee maker with a teapot. Or a bong. Or an aquarium.
It’s not the most practical to have a kitchen aquarium, but it would definitely change where my attention goes…
I recently replaced a wonky shoe rack with a functioning one. Now I no longer shout expletives every morning because my shoes have fallen into the crevasse behind the rack. Replacing the shoe rack was a small act of attention engineering.
Holy moly, life is our canvas on which to paint. Attention, oh attention, shine, oh you shine. If matter is made of atoms, then consciousness is made of attention, and attention is sculpted by attention machines.
I pray that we can all use our attention well, in this life.
When Michelangelo started carving David from a block of marble, he had nothing but a vision. Over years of labor and artistry, he removed marble from that block, and turned his vision into reality.
This process of carving — saying yes to some parts of the marble, and no to other parts — strikes me as a great metaphor for a life lived consciously and artfully. When we enter this world as babies, we are multipotentiate, like blocks of virgin marble. Over time, we whittle down the marble block of our lives, we become something.
I used to have a lot of dread about this whittling process. In college, I wrote this poem:
Ode to the Unambitious The arrow of your life is not locked, yet Thoughts within your mind still freely swim The key to make you speed has not been turned, yet You look up at the tall plants as a seed You have not been pressure-packed and shipped, yet There is no single place you want to be Wishes that stream out from you have not been capped, yet There is no need for practicality You stand above the helpless souls Who kick their way to some small goal My friend, you watch the arrow sway And delight at the directions
Looking back on this poem, I see several dysfunctional views within it.
There’s contempt in this poem for people who commit. My college self looked at his ambitious classmates as purely selfish careerists, “kicking their way to some small goal.” Some of them probably were. But among them were also the Michaelangelos of the world: engaged and joyful people, working hard at the things they loved.
Hoarders hold on to material things for the sake of safety, because letting go is scary. But, if your house is to become beautiful and alive, you have to say no to certain objects from your past that no longer serve you.
Living in a state of eternal childhood — where all the doors are perpetually open — is impossible. The arrow of time marches relentlessly forward, until death.
The singer Jeffrey Lewis puts this beautifully:
Your looks are gonna leave you
And your city’s gonna change too
And your shoes are gonna wear through
Yeah, time is gonna take so much away
But there’s a way that you can offer time a trade
You gotta do something that you can get smarter at
You gotta do something you might just be a starter at
You better do something that you can get better at
Cause that’s the thing that time will leave you with…
You have no choice you have to pay time’s price
But you can use the price to buy you something nice
Something you can only buy with lots of time
So when you’re old you’ll blow some whippersnappers mind
At the end of life, I think it’s better to have created a life of beauty, a life that will “blow some whippersnappers mind,” than to have stayed in an undifferentiated state. It’s better to die having become a David than to die having stayed an uncarved block of marble.
Updating my view on commitment
I have a teapot that I find very beautiful:
To produces such a fine piece, it must have taken the potter years of training to develop her talents. One day last year, I nestled this teapot in my hands and felt into the love and hard work that the potter must have committed to along her path. I visualized the lineage of artisans who developed the necessary techniques: gathering clay, throwing it with a pottery wheel, bending bamboo. I was in awe.
Seen through this lens of art and beauty, commitment is not just something for the purpose of “productivity”; it’s something that can make our lives more beautiful, can make us feel more alive, can make our souls sing.
Last night, I went to a sound bath in an old bank building. It struck me how beautiful the building was. Everything, from the wallpaper in the bathrooms, to the mandala on the ceiling, showed artistry and love. We rarely see such care and commitment in our buildings these days. This makes them cheaper, but less beautiful.
People 1,000 years ago walked among squares with marble sculptures, domes, stone arcades, and past village churches with gardens kept by the clergy that lived there. As a matter of life, some walked through what constituted art on the scale that people today, even very rich people, may never experience. Penthouse decorations are a poverty compared to a peasant walking daily under the stone arcades to the marketplace, or children witnessing daily the blacksmith work magic with iron and flame. Modern art is a forgettable trinket compared to the ancient man’s solace of cathedrals and temples. Their creators, his own ancestors perhaps, were long gone, and yet the works remained and worked upon him, as they work upon some of us still.
I recently read an essay by David Perrell which makes the point that that commitment can unlock value in our lives. For me, “beauty” is a more inspiring word than “value,” so here’s my tweak on Perell’s mental model:
This brings me to the question: if commitment is so great, then why am I so afraid of it?
The answer: I have unconsciously held onto a fairly regressed view of what commitment means, a view that says:
Commitment means becoming just like everyone else, giving up my dreams of making the world a better place. If I commit to things, I will become boring, a selfish conformist, another soul-dead company man living in a box made of ticky tacky.
What this view gets right is that making choices is indeed scary because we can’t know their outcome. The root of the word “decide” is caedere, which is Latin for “to cut” or “to kill.” The pain of “killing off of possibilities” brings up a part of me that wants to hold onto everything, because it is afraid that if it lets go of some things, it will be left with nothing.
But if I want to make my life into a beautiful sculpture, I will have to cut off swaths of marble and discard them. Hoarding objects and experiences, and the related state of being addicted to novelty, will not lead me to a life of beauty. It will lead to a hoarder’s house, shallow relationships, and notebooks full of ideas that have never been tested in the world.
Committing to sculpting the marble block of my life into a specific vision will take a leap of faith. It’s scary because I don’t know if the resulting piece will be beautiful.
But I know that refusing to commit to things out of fear will definitely not lead to beauty.
I’ll close with this quote from Perell:
Whatever your tolerance for commitment is, raise it.
If today you’re comfortable committing to something for two hours, try committing for a weekend. If you’re comfortable committing for two weeks, then raise it to two months; once you’re comfortable with two months, raise it to two years; and once you’re comfortable with two years, raise it to two decades. It’s okay to start small. All big things do.
Except that I want to change the last line slightly:
It’s okay to start small. All beautiful things do.
A while back a friend expressed her sadness to me, and I replied by telling her something I read in a book: “Look at people who have much less than you, and are happy.”
My friend was not thrilled. She said something to the effect of, “Stop with that toxic positivity.”
Yesterday, I met someone who had been a competitive runner, placing highly in state-wide races. Then he suffered a heart attack. Thanks to modern medical care, he not only survived, but was able to get back to running. There was just one problem: he was no longer competitive. His running decreased from 30+ miles a week to a third of that. Runs that would normally be no sweat were a struggle now.
“People — my wife, my cardiologist — tell me to quit complaining. That I’m lucky to have survived. But running was something I did for so long. It was part of who I was,” he said.
I am reading a book called Call Me American, a memoir of growing up in Somalia during a bloody civil war. This passage is striking:
…At that point, I was not unhappy with my life. Life in Somalia was harsh, but it was all I knew.
Abdi Nor Iftin
Saying that life in Somalia was harsh is an understatement. Death was a daily threat from rebel soldiers. Beatings came regularly at Iftin’s school: one day, he was hung from his arms while his teacher beat him on the back, for eight hours. There was also severe malnutrition. At one point, Iftin’s feet swelled up from the lack of protein, and they needed to be pricked to drain the fluid.
How is it that Iftin was not unhappy in these circumstances, whereas the well-to-do man who lost some of his weekly running mileage was suffering. What gives?
Our brains have a circuit that detects a negative change, a downward delta. When this happens, we feel the pain of grief. It matters not that there are others who have it worse off, or that there are still so many things in our lives that are awesome.
We need to feel this pain of grief, and let this emotion complete its cycle. Ironically, by avoiding the pain of grief, we can’t move forward emotionally. As Eva Eger says, you need to FEEL to HEAL.
The coping strategy I offered my friend was not helpful because it was a form of avoidance. Essentially, I held a view that “bad feelings are a problem, and I must make them go away.” Now, my view is more nuanced. I sometimes wonder, if in certain cases, tools like stoicism can be used maladaptively. For example, it would not be appropriate for me to advise the man who lost his running abilities to meditate on losing his arm or his wife. Yes, that might make him temporarily feel better, but he needs to actually feel his grief so that it doesn’t get stuck in his system.
Here’s to welcoming grief, a painful but much-needed visitor, into the house of our feelings!
For a long swath of time, I venerated the prickly side of life, and wasn’t really aware of the importance of the gooey side. Richard Feynman was my hero. Oprah Wintfrey? Not so much.
That’s changing: these days I’m realizing that quite simply, the feels are all over the place. We can’t avoid them. And a lot of the time, they run the show.
Yesterday I was going for a run. One of my practices while running, is to spread good vibes by waving indiscriminately to people. This usually goes over well and I get smiles and waves back. Sometimes, ear-budded people ignore me. But yesterday, I waved to a guy in his car and was met with a blank stare and then an aggressive gesture of “What the f*ck are you doing.”
I felt a full-body unpleasantness.
Then my mind swooped in to try to save the day. It unleashed a torrent of thoughts: What’s wrong with him? Why’s he such a Grumpy McGrumperson? Let’s send him some loving-kindness…
Then I realized: I was feeling shame. Wait a second…Maybe I’m in the wrong here?
I turned around and saw that he had been stopped at a STOP sign. I had the right of way. He had gotten upset at me for delaying his trip by 10 seconds.
I once heard someone say that “guilt is a useless emotion.” That seemed wise back then, but my thinking has changed. I no longer believe that there are “useless” emotions, in an absolute sense. Every emotion is helpful in certain contexts, and unhelpful in others (credit to Albert Ellis for this insight). All emotions likely evolved for a reason.
Each emotion could have a book written on it. This emotional intelligence business will be a life-long path, so anything I say about it today is in no way definitive, but let me say something, regardless.
I’ll call it, the F.U.C. practice of emotional intelligence. I have a hard time remembering acronyms, which is why I kept this one short and profane, so it’s easy to remember 🙂
Here it is:
Feel(F) — Often, this is the hardest step. In my story above, I didn’t want to feel the shame, and my mind went immediately to blaming the driver and then, a split-second later to sending him loving kindness. The motivation was avoidance. As my mediation teacher told me, “You really have to slow things down.”
Emotions in themselves are not dangerous, and are impermanent. If we let the body experience their energy, they will pass. If we don’t, they will get stuck and we won’t be able to move past them.
So feeling feelings is important to allowing them to flow and to continue to feel alive in life. The alternative is to be stuck in paralyzing loops of emotions that keep coming up, and keep getting repressed. Repressing emotions is a huge energy suck. Been there and done that.
Also, naming the emotion is often helpful, because when you name it, you have a better handle on what you are dealing with. For instance, when I named my unpleasant full-body feeling as shame, and admitted to myself that that’s what I was feeling, it became less scary. I had read a book about shame, and understood that it is a common human experience. Thus, it went in my mind from being this big scary vague shadow that I had to avoid, to being a clearly-defined unpleasant thing that happens to everyone.
Understand the Context (U.C.) — This is what I did when I turned around and saw the STOP sign. This helped me see that my feeling of shame wasn’t appropriate in this context. Now let’s say that there had been no STOP sign, and I did run in front of that car like a suicidal deer. Then my shame would have been appropriate.
Here’s to continuing to give a F.U.C. about being on the path of growing our emotional intelligence, for the rest of our lives!
P.S. If you don’t like my acronym, there are plenty of G-rated ones out there (e.g. RAIN, RULER).
No birdsong on the moon
There's no birdsong on the moon
And no smell of urine
Coming from the litterbox
There's no leaves up there
And no insomnia
Zoom out in time
And you'll see
That the Buddhists
And the physicists
Am not a thing
But a happening:
Cells and molecules
For a moment
Before dissolving again
Is the same:
Rock and dust
Coming together for a cosmic flash
To their next appointment
Beowulf and Australopithecus,
Plato and Jesus,
The blood that gave
Nutrition to your retinas
Was a very similar blood
Of the full moon
Registered by your photoreceptors
Back in the day
Is quite similar
To the white spotlight
Beaming into my eyes, tonight
Humans of yesteryear,
I think it would be hard
To find common ground
For conversation with you
The TV shows
Have changed so much
Except the Moon Show
I think we could talk about that
Both ten thousand years ago
People might be dying
Far from other humans
But with the moon
Keeping them company
Then and now
The same thing
As they become
To have something
To keep us moored
Is an illusion
You've been a great companion
All these years
Yes, everything is a happening
But some happenings
The moon doesn't know
That you slept through its eclipse
Its grand performance
That you are now
Angry at yourself
Yesterday, a friend was late
I missed the yoga class
But, while waiting
Got to see
The lichens on the tree
Brilliant green and cool blue
Can we really
Miss out on anything?
Only if we believe
That this moment
Everything that we need
This morning, as I lay in bed, I thought about the whole universe as one big work of art.
What if we saw each of our lives as little works of art, inside this big artwork?
Art can be so many things: painful, disturbing, transformative, funny, but it usually strives for beauty. Beauty is hard to define, but in the context of living life, I think that beauty comes from being more deeply yourself.
I recently heard this talk by the artist Jonathan Harris, in which he presents the perspective of seeing your whole life as a work of art. Here are three questions to ask yourself, inspired by this talk:
What are your routines / practices? These give your life a structure. Some of mine are running, intuitive walking, drinking tea, reading novels, and writing.
What are your ceremonies? These are communal rituals that bond you to others. I am working on having more of these, but right now they include co-watching TV, shabbat and other Jewish holidays, and birthday celebrations. I’m dabbling with doing rituals tied to full-moons / solstices as well. Last full moon I swam in the ocean, which was pretty awesome.
What are your spells? Harris talks about spells as transformative rituals that can turn one thing, say a painful pattern or stuckness, into something else, something beautiful. I’ve never really thought about casting spells in my life, but I’ve heard people describe such things. A friend of mine told me how she once supported someone going through a divorce by making this person write a letter to her ex-spouse, and then send it off in the ocean in a bottle. Harris offers many beautiful descriptions of spells in his talk. On my blog, I transcribed a conversation with a friend where I talked about playing with Palo Santo and crystals, but Harris makes a good point: spells are more effective when tied to the actual stuff of your life. Harris ties many of his spells to the farm he grew up on, which is a beautiful place but has many shadows and painful ghosts.
At this point in my development, I clearly see that my job here on earth is not the achievement of any specific objective, immortality project, or predefined story. Rather my job is the continual alignment and re-alignment with that which is the most true for me, following my medicine way, growing the tendril of my life in the most Dan-like direction.
Realizing the finitude of my life’s tendril, and my lack of ability to control the future after I die, is humbling. My major immortality project might crumble (I’ve seen this happen to folks). Or, while driving home from the dealership in a brand new car, I could get a call that I have incurable cancer (I’ve seen this happen too). Life all around me is showing me its true colors. Insecurity is a feature, not a bug, of being in human form.
Vlad Putin might be playing the empire game, and winning, for a time. But his empire will fall one day, as all such things do. Ozymandias all around!
My fundamental beliefs:
I will die.
I don’t know when.
I can’t ultimately control the ripples my life will leave for the future.
The best way I can be of service is to make the tendril of my life in the shape of the truest me.
These beliefs echo stoicism: worry about what I can control (the shape of my life), not what I can’t (what happens after I die, my lifespan).
This post was a major philosophical breakthrough for me. The above words summarize my “job” here on earth as I see it, my minimal viable philosophy, the root vow of my life.
All I can control is the shape of my remaining life’s tendril. This gives me hope and a feeling of empowerment.
A little mantra for myself: I vow to make today Dan-like to the max (DLTTM)!
This post is based on a conversation with my new friend, Ethan Maurice, who I met at a retreat he created called Wonder Wander. I recently read Ethan’s 2021 Annual Review blog post, and the following sentence stood out to me:
I shed a bunch of emotional baggage from the pandemic as well, feel more “spiritually expansive” than ever before, and again relish in the bulk of my days.
Specifically, the phrase “spiritually expansive” resonated deeply. In the fiber of my being, I know that I want to cultivate this expansiveness in my life.
I’m sharing our conversation here in hopes it can be helpful on your own journey towards spiritual expansiveness.
Ethan: How is life 3 months after Wonder Wander?
Dan: Not as good as Wonder Wander! I’m comfortable, but I spend a lot of my time in a low-level angst. It feels like I’m not aligned in my life. I know there is something more, but I don’t know what that is. It feels like there’s a “pebble in my shoe.”
E: Yeah, I’ve been getting more comfortable too. After five years living a really frugal travel lifestyle, I’ve been in Phoenix for a couple of years now and am weary of creature comforts creeping into my life. I have this intuition that says: “Ethan, be careful here, don’t get too used to this.”
I worked at a country club pool once. One day a week, the waiters had the day off. I was the bearer of bad news for these wealthy guests that they had to walk like fifty yards to place their food order. They would get so upset.
It was the story of the princess and the pea: the more comforts we have, the less tolerable discomfort becomes.
D: I read your 2021 review, and was intrigued by the phrase “spiritually expansive.” Can you tell me about what that means to you?
E: I almost died at 16 [from meningoencephalitis] so life for me doesn’t look like it’ll stretch on and on. This makes it easier to be grateful. This time I have with you or my parents or my brother is finite and precious.
When I feel bored, I know the boredom isn’t real. It’s just that I’m looking at the situation wrong. I’m getting better at remembering and returning to this fundamental realization.
I also try to cast awareness much further out than my physical self: imagining the scale of the earth compared to the universe and realizing all these experiences are happening on this tiny speck in space.
Both ways are a means of popping out above the ego’s storytelling and mind-chatter at least a few times a day:
D: I loved what you wrote about John Frusciante. If I had to sum up that post, it would be “channeling.”
E: Yeah. That interview connected a lot of things that I hadn’t connected before – its creativity, interest, flow, presence, and oneness, all included in a single perspective. I’ve been very interested in interest lately.
If you pursue your interests, you get effortless presence and flow. I previously thought of pursuing one’s interests as individualistic, but now I see interest as this natural, universal pull, like the twig of a tree, reaching out towards the light.
D: It reminds me of the quote:
“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
Perhaps pursuing one’s interest is a moral duty. I’ve never thought of it that way before, but perhaps it’s our duty to both the world and to ourselves to come alive…
I took a train yesterday and I got this vision that there isn’t one “good life.” Instead, there are actually many, many possible lives that can be equally awesome, and very different from each other. The way to get to any of them is by channeling one’s interest:
You might have a very fulfilling life as a monk, or having 5 children, or as a real-estate photographer.
But you won’t have a very fulfilling life if you ignore your interests and instead become a slave to expectation, which is what many people do because they are scared (myself included):
E: Totally. The quote that hit me hardest from that John Frusciante interview is, “if you don’t follow the interests inside you that compel you to do things your life will just gradually lose meaning until you’re old.”
Fears and expectations seem to me the main drivers of away from interest. But if we navigate by interest, there seems a vast possibility of different, awesome lives for us to find and lead.
D: I really liked your post about the limits of rationality. Of late, I’ve become more open-minded to things I used to think were bullshit.
E: Me too. I honestly used to think meditation was woo-woo bullshit in college. A few years later, I was somehow convinced to do a vipassana meditation retreat, and was like “Oh wow! There is definitely something here.” Now, I’m not as quick to just dismiss something that millions of people are into. They must be getting something out of it.
D: Yeah, I feel the same way about astrology. Humans are tribal, and forming tribes around dates of birth is kind of genius. It unites people of different cultures and creeds in a peaceful way: you don’t see the geminis trying to kill the virgos.
And astrology gets people to think about the stars. I’ve recently started playing with meditation with crystals and chakras too, cleaning my crystals with Palo Santo. I think of the smoke as love or good intentions and the crystals as people in my life, and I bathe the crystals in smoke.
E: These things are more profound than I used to think. They are ways of pointing our awareness to something beautiful.
Spiritual Expansiveness will mean something different for every human being. Here’s what it means to me, right now, in 2022:
Cultivating good intentions towards others beings.
A permeating feeling of gratitude for the gift of my existence in a vast and largely lifeless universe.
Awareness of my interdependence/connection with other beings, all that I have received, and continue to receive, on a daily basis. Naikan is a great tool in this department, that I’m trying out these days.
Seeing everything as holy, including getting stuck in traffic, confusion, resentment and shame, but also, the beauty of sunsets and laughter with friends. As Modest Mouse put it, being “in love with all of it.”
Symbols and rituals are powerful tools we can use to sculpt our brains in the direction of spiritual expansiveness. Journaling, communing with nature, chanting, prostrations…there are 84,000 (or more) doorways to enlightenment, as the Buddhist saying goes.
And as Thich Nhat Hanh teaches, it’s spiritual expansiveness we are after, not an attachment to the pointers. A silly poem I wrote on this topic.
P.P.S. Thank you Ethan for being an awesome fellow traveler on the path of expansion and aliveness.
Using symbols and rituals to consciously sculpt the grooves in our minds
I think that everyone, whether they call themselves “religious” or not, subscribes to certain religions. It’s just that some religions are more conscious than others.
For example, today I saw a rabbi sitting in his car at a rest stop. His long beard and kippah were symbols of Judaism, a spiritual religion.
He was also wearing a wristwatch, a symbol which reveals that he subscribes to “clock time,” a secular religion (see Sapiens for some great discussion on how we humans invent shared systems of belief, and how this has helped us become wildly successful).
I recently read this article, which inspired me to play with consciously choosingsymbols to include in my life.
This picture has four symbols I had with me today:
The first, a wristwatch, primes me to be both mindful and anxious of the time. This symbol is included in my life largely due to necessity/social conditioning rather than conscious choice.
The other three symbols, however, I consciously chose to include in my life in order to prime certain thoughts:
The circle necklace primes me to think about cycles, impermanence, inclusion, and listening.
The marble reminds me that I’m a little speck of dust on a floating space orb. It reminds me to connect with gratitude for the miracle of existing as a conscious being in a largely lifeless universe.
The conch shell primes me to remember the strangeness of my human form, no more or less strange than a mollusk in a shell. I also think of death when I look at this shell, because of an experience I had when travelling:
I was picking up a beautiful big cone shell and carrying it for a while. Then, a giant mollusk emerged, stinging proboscis swinging wildly. I avoided the dagger, and put the shell down. The mollusk was cute as hell, with two protruding black eyes on stalks.
With the help of google, I confirmed my suspicion: cone shells are extremely poisonous. They use their dagger to kill fish, and have killed many people. If the snail had jabbed me, I’d be very sick at the least. Cone shells are known as “cigarette snails” — gallows humor that if you get stabbed, you have enough time to smoke a cigarette before death (an exaggeration but fun nonetheless).
Our minds get better at thinking about whatever they think about repetitively. Thoughts are like ski trails in our minds, becoming more ingrained with every repetition:
The power of symbols comes from priming this repetitive thinking. So let this be both a warning and an encouragement:
P.S. A related post about the Jewish ritual of tefillin. We non-believers need our symbols and rituals, too!
P.P.S. A poem on this topic:
The brain Is a great forgetter That’s why We need mantras We need songs We need holidays Every month Week and year We need rituals We need songs, again We need to Play them Again and again We need poems Prayers And we need to Learn them by heart And say them To others And to ourselves When we wake up And drive home And go to bed
We need this To remind us To keep us out Of the gutters Of our minds We need help All this help To remember
This poem was written after a spontaneous spiritual awakening that happened one morning in my college dorm room, when I was 18. At the time, my brother was getting quite into LaTeX, a math markup language. I thought of “TeX” as pure information, without the added layer of “font” aka conceptual thinking / stories. Later in my meditation journey, I’d come to name this quality as “Just This”-ness (or beginner’s mind, that zen is big into cultivating).
The Beauty of TeX
I found the truth this morning
The truth about the brain
The neurons had aligned themselves
And exploded all the same
They showed me that there was no truth there
Not in cells and lines
Not in food and molecules
Not in sands of time
Three dimensions are so easy
Teaspoons of this, you make a cake
And I meet the man at a quarter to three under the olive tree
But that’s the vital lie, that makes us jittery
I don't know if it's kids or adults
When it starts to kick, or if you come with it
And life’s a struggle to unstick
The lie that keeps you combing hair
And brushing teeth and thinking “In a year, where will I be?”
While pencils turn on the page
From writers to mathematicians
And people turn off the truth
And turn on televisions
Because the brain is a machine
That lives in another place
But we keep it here
Mapped to scratches, aches
And worry and delusion
I'm only just outside all this
On the corner, but I see where it’s leading.
And I bring it to you, beaming, loud and clear. Over the Beauty of TeX. Text without the visual attached, the tone of voice, just pure kernel of idea. And through TeX I bring you math which stirs an image in that place. And through TeX I bring you poetry, which does the same, but more ambiguously, but still just one thing at one time for one person, so perhaps it's as sure as math. But anyways, TeX is a candle, and around it's infinite darkness. So please, now that you've seen it, I'll put it out. And of course to keep this whole thing going we need our hair and teeth and paychecks and sense of security.
But don't get too caught up in it, friend.
The game of superglue mapping has claimed too many.
I need to rush off now, and do some of it myself. But it's worth finding your way around the infinite no-place. Put the goldfish in the water and let it go.
I don't know how many roads your brain has to take you from where you are now. But hopefully one will circle around the whole colossal thing. And it will see itself. And realize that it is free from this here world.
Driving along the road I smell
A burning smell
Traffic backs up
I curse the traffic gods
I think about a new job
A new life
In a new place
With no traffic
Then I see
The cause of the traffic:
A mangled sports car
Is the driver alive?
I wouldn't be surprised if not
Suddenly, the bit of water
On my windshield
Abraham Maslow said
That having his heart attack
During my commute
I smell a burning smell
But this time, it's just
Run of the mill air pollution
Do I curse it
Or do I say
Thank you Lord?
As doctors we think
There is a glass wall
And the tragedies we see
This glass wall
Keeps the blood from splattering
On our faces
Keeps us from realizing
That it's the same blood
Running in our veins
The glass wall
Keeps us humming along
Going home and putting
That big sterile house
Out of our minds
But if we think about
The people we leave there
The young woman, newly married
With newly-discovered lymphoma
Or the young man who went weak
Stayed at home for 2 weeks
And came in
Finally to find
A brain aneurysm
If we pause and imagine
If we stop and breath
We can put our hands through
The glass wall
That our lives are always
Houses of cards
Come crumbling down
Sooner or later
There's always a gust of wind
Living with this knowledge
So we build walls
But sooner or later
These walls melt away
And when they do
You cherish the now
You cherish your patients
They are brave souls
How do I get out of the mind
That is looking over the wall, covetously
You know, mind, intellectually
That a million souls would love
To have your
Lot in life
Yet you peer over the wall
If only my keyboard had a different type of switches
Then the buttons would click so melodiously!
As I was washing the pots today
I thanked them
For cooking my food
Maybe that's the road
Glass half empty
or half full
You've heard it a million times
But now it sinks in
It isn't very often
That I encounter
Something totally new
Making new land
As I crunch
The decade old lava field
Under my feet
Walking towards the rainbow
It strikes me
That this primordial ooze
Is the beginning
It took some years for plants to settle it
Animals to eat those plants
In a very convoluted succession
And now I'm back
To the source of it all
In a way
I'm back to my mother
The source of all
Under my feet
Thank you for being
The first solid thing
Are crunching you now
Sneakers, you too
Are a descendant of lava
Mother of mothers
The air glows red
After the birth
I wish you the best
As you grow up
You'll have children
Of your own
But I won't get to meet them
(Written in Volcanoes National Park)
Near the path, one of the tall maples has fallen. It is early spring, so the crimped maroon flowers are just emerging. Here and there slabs of the bark have exploded away in the impact of its landing. But, mostly, it lies as it stood, though not such a net for the wind as it was. What is it now? What does it signify? Not Indolence, surely, but something, all the same, that balances with Ambition.
Call it Rest. I sit on the branches. My idleness suits me. I am content. I have built my house. The blue butterflies, called azures, twinkle up from the secret place where they have been waiting. In their small blue dresses they float among the branches, they come close to me, one rests for a moment on my wrist. They do not recognize me as anything very different from this enfoldment of leaves, this wind-roarer, this wooden palace lying down, now upon the earth, like anything heavy, and happy, and full of sunlight, and half asleep.
I’ve been working with some meditation teachers on the topic of knowing or intuitive guidance. It has struck me that I have been living my life with one part of myself running the show. I’ll callthis part the competitor.
The competitor believes in success and failure. He believes that you can win at life. That if you achieve X (e.g. grades, money, job, children, house), you are a winner and if not, you are a shameful loser. This part came online after getting bullied a bunch in my school years. If I was a loser according to my school’s social pecking order, then I could at least win at academic games, the competitor reasoned. I’ll show them!
And so, I would stay up until 4am on some high school nights, studying, pushing myself. I wanted acceptance, love, and this was the best way I knew how to get it. By memorizing AP biology facts.
In this process of memorizing stuff, I forgot something much more important: how to listen to my deepest self.
My therapist once asked, “Where do you live?” She meant this not in the physical sense of my home address, but in a psychological one. In what kind of mental/subjective spaces do I reside?
I think, for much of my life, I have been living in the bit.
By this, I mean: a hyper-rational, goal-oriented part of my brain. A part good for making lists and paying bills, but less good in making decisions that don’t have “right” answers: How should I live my life? How should I spend my time? Where and with whom?
The bit likes to convince me that I will only be OK if I succeed at the goal du jour. The bit is in a constant chasing project: learn this skill, run this distance, clean the house, have a family! When the bit is steering the ship, life is not alive.
When I was small, my grandpa Shulim and I would go on long walks around Buffalo. We would talk, explore. The world seemed safe and open. Full of wonder. All I had to do was be. This was a time pre-bit.
The bit has other names: conditioning, adaptive strategies, parts. Thought and emotional patterns that were helpful for survival at one point, that are driving the boat a bit too much these days.
In college, I read the book “The selfish gene,” and somehow, my competitor bit got the idea that success at life meant distribute my genes as widely as possible. A new objective came up.
It came from a place of fearing death. Another part of my brain, another bit, has been arguing, lately, with this as a worthy goal. If I think carefully, I can see that this objective is actually already accomplished: my genes are already diffusely distributed among all people. If I did have lots of ancestors, this would be the effective result, just generations later.
The above analysis was two cognitive bits working against another. Two bits competing. This isn’t a bad thing: it’s a useful skill to be able to challenge distorted thinking. One big cognitive distortion that’s been useful for me to get over has been the denial of death: that there is some accomplishment out there that can make me immortal, respected, powerful forever.
But getting cognitive ducks in a row only gets you so far. It doesn’t take you to joy, to living in radiance.
Radiance is always available, and it can be used to make decisions. I am practicing the simple skill of attuning with radiance now. The main distinction between the bit and the radiance is how they feel in the body. The bit feels tight, in my throat, head and shoulders. The radiance feels relaxed, diffuse, surrendered, in my heart, shoulders, throat. Radiance is having, and acting from, good intentions. Radiance is heaven on earth, available right here and now.
This year, I met a patient who was the embodiment of dying well. She hadn’t become famous, powerful, or immortal, but she felt ripe, content with how she had spent her life. She’d lived, a good amount of her time it seems, in her radiance.
We are both cosmically insignificant and cosmically significant. My patient was significant to the people she met, including me. She motivates me to continue the work of living in radiance, not letting the bits unconsciously run the show. Yes, I still might be jealously looking over my neighbor’s fence quite often, but I don’t have to stay there, I can catch myself.
I pray that you live in your radiance as much as possible, in this life.
Awake early this morning, I thought about life, about pretty much all human behavior, and I saw two major paths to happiness / contentment. I called them the default path and the alternative path.
The default path is what pretty much everyone is doing all the time.
I thought of different aspects of my life:
The size of my kitchen
The size of my muscles
The size of my bank account
The love in my life
Whether or not I am content in that area depends on if reality meets my “enough” point, wherever that is.
The problem is that we don’t think consciously about our enough point. I certainly don’t. Advertising + society + hedonic adaption tend to move the enough point toward the right, toward more. If we are not conscious, we can end up as a “hungry ghost,” always searching for more, never satisfied.
The alternative path to contentment involves moving the enough point lower. Some ways to do this:
Deprivation. For example, long-distance hiking, fasting, taking cold showers, sleeping on a mat. Once you do this for a time, you become more grateful for what you do have. A small kitchen is amazing in comparison to the kitchen that’s available while thru-hiking, for example.
Diversification (of your models). We naturally compare ourselves to our social circle. If our social circle consists of one type of person, with a clear metric of “success” and we don’t fit in to that metric, we might think of ourselves negatively. An antidote is making friends with humans of diverse cultures, ages, perspectives, life stories. There is not one way to live life, there are as many ways as fingerprints.
Gratitude. Start a jar of awesome to celebrate small moments of amazingness in life.
If you’re not good at celebrating small things, you won’t be good at celebrating big things either.
Both paths can be useful, and they both have a downside. Relying exclusively on the default path makes you a hungry ghost. Relying exclusively on the alternative path may make you not take steps to improve life. A good life, I think, utilizes a combination of the default path and the alternative path.
I woke up last night because the cat was going crazy. I started reading Be As You Are, a spiritual book by an Indian guru named Sri Ramana Maharshi.
I’d heard Sam Harris talk before about nondual awareness, and I’ve been in Zen communities where there is a lot of talk about the relative and the absolute, but it was all sort of murky and abstract.
Somehow this passage from the book made these ideas click for me:
…The belief that there is a person who experiences a state…is not true. It is merely a mental construct. The truth of the Self is that there is only jnana (reality)…
What is dualism? It’s the distinction between ego and experience. This is baked into our language:
Instead of saying, “There is fear,” we say, “I am afraid.”
Instead of saying, “There is craving for chocolate,” we say, “I’m craving chocolate.”
What is non-dual awareness? It’s taking experience as the only thing that is, not telling ourselves stories about how this experience affects a character called “I.”
For example, if the cat wakes me up, I might tell myself any number of stories:
“I’m going to be so tired today” or
“I should have closed the door” or
“The cat as an inconsiderate asshole.”
From a nondual perspective, I would just accept the bare experience of being awake at 1:00 AM, which could be anger, tiredness, excitement about having the chance to read, what have you.
Old habits die hard. And the habit of seeing the world dualistically is probably the oldest of all. So the path of awakening involves repeatedly glimpsing nonduality, true nature, the absolute, no-self, whatever one may call it. The claim of my meditation teachers is that by doing this during everyday life, moments of presence will become longer and continuous. And after a moment of presence, my job is to see it as the grace that it was, and let it fully absorb into my being.
What’s the benefit of this? Well, relief of suffering for one. Grasping the pleasant (cake and approval) and running from the unpleasant (broken arms and disapproval), can make life a drag if that’s all you do. Buddhists call it suffering. Bob Marley calls it a rat race.
A common criticism is: how can you take action without an ego? I think it’s possible that action can come from a stiller, wiser place. But I’m not sure. The only way is to try it out and see.
Anger is like coffee, but more effective. I was sleep-deprived today, but after a shot of anger, I’m wide awake. I feel it in the back of my throat. So much energy.
The bright side of anger is that it can give me energy to stand up for myself when a boundary gets crossed. I feel the need to roll up my sleeves and defend myself. Draw blood, even.
But there’s another kind of anger, a dishonest kind, that functions to feed my ego and keep me from feeling things I need to feel. Like feeling guilt and taking responsibility, for instance.
This kind of anger came to me the other day when I forgot a meeting with a friend. What was my response?
I got angry at her for not calling me!
What was this anger covering up? A bunch of things I didn’t want to feel:
Guilt about forgetting the meeting
Fear that my friend will be mad and break up with me
Shame about being a bad friend
The guilt was an appropriate feeling: I forgot the meeting. I should feel guilty. But in the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t a huge deal. Everyone forgets things. It happened to be a not cool thing to forget, but it was still part of the reasonable fallibility of humans, not evidence of my evil nature, worthy of perpetual shame. It would have been good to feel my guilt, learn my lesson, and move on.
But instead, this is what happened:
My anger got bigger and louder, to the point where it was the only feeling I was aware of.
Mark Manson talks about becoming an emotional ninja. This means being someone who is capable of identifying, feeling and learning from all the emotions, pleasant and unpleasant.
This experience taught me that I’m not good at feeling guilt. My ego doesn’t like it.
Also, I’m not good at talking myself down from fear or shame. That’s why I got so angry (more specifically righteously indignant) at my friend. So I didn’t have to feel those feelings.
Here’s to getting better! Self-awareness is the first step, which is why I wrote this post. Here’s a checklist for myself:
The next time I get angry, I should ask myself:
Is this anger covering up something I don’t want to feel, like fear, guilt, or shame?
Do I share some responsibility here?
If neither are true, then the anger is honest. I should go for a long walk, vent to someone separate from the situation, sit with the feeling, or set a boundary, but certainly not suppress the anger. It will change into something else eventually, as all emotions do.
It seems to me that every emotion can have these two varieties: one that’s legitimate, and another that’s covering up something we don’t want to feel.
I’ve been through my share of career angst, but today I had an interaction with a patient that made me realize how far I’ve come in answering the question: in the domain of work, what is enough?
For a long time, I had this unconscious belief that my job had to be special. I would say things like, “Yes, I helped this person, but anyone could have made that diagnosis.”
My therapist called me out on this: “Yes, but you made the diagnosis.”
Humans are deeply interdependent. If I have a car problem, a mechanic would be useful to me. In the same way, I am useful for people with neurological problems. It’s meaningful for me to help people, to do my part, even if my contribution is something small.
I derive joy from meeting diverse humans and learning about their lives. My patients give me the gift of their perspective on life, in the interstitial spaces of our visits. These stories enrich my soul.
It’s helpful to have reasonable expectations about what good work is. For me, good work threads the needle of joy, meaning, and utility. For a long time I had a fourth circle in my Venn diagram: doing something unique, something that would blow the status quo out of the water. Now I see that this fourth circle is not necessary; it’s an egoic desire to look good, to be a rockstar on the TED Talk stage.
As I reflect on my day today, my highlight was super normal: diagnosing carpal tunnel syndrome in someone who needed surgery, connecting with a him and hearing his story. There are other meaningful things I want to do in the future, like environmental work. But that’s for the future. Today, as I reflect on a simple hour with my patient, I know that my work was enough.
Reflecting on 10 years with, and 25 years without, my grandpa, Deda Shulim
This year marks a quarter century since I’ve been without Deda (Russian for grandpa) Shulim. Quarter century! When I think of my current life dilemmas in comparison to that block of time, they seem positively insignificant, like flits in the ocean water. So much has happened in 25 years.
It feels strange to be writing a piece about Deda in English, a language he did not know. And it feels good to be writing this. How did those ten years affect me? How did they shape the next 25?
Deda was 88 when he died, at our home in Buffalo. He only lived in that house for a few years, and they weren’t the best years. He would mostly stay in bed all day, with a giant radio that could pick up Russian stations. He was becoming less mobile those years. Spending more and more time in bed. Going up and down the stairs was getting harder with each passing season.
He said our house was a “Zal,” which roughly translates in Russian to “gymnasium.” By US suburban standards, the house was normal-sized, not extravagant, but it was unheard of to have such a large house in the USSR.
I’ll always remember that he made me feel safe. I was bullied in elementary school, and I would come home from many tough days, crawl into the crevice between him and the bed, and just read. In 3rd grade I read 40 books. I’ve never read that many in any year since. Pretty much all of them, I read in that crevice.
After Deda died, I divided time into two parts: Before and After. I would especially cherish the physical items from Before, as if they were imbued with Deda’s spirit. After the funeral, I returned to his bed and lay there in the crevice, but it was different without him there. Still, I smelled him on the sheets and that made me feel calm.
I thought with sadness that as I got older, more and more things would be from After. This was true of physical things, but it was true of memories too. As I got older, those memories of him would become less used, and smaller in proportion on the hard drive of my brain.
I strived to keep the memories of him alive after he died. For many years, I had a ritual of going into his room and saying “spokoynoy nochi” (good night in Russian) to his empty bed, as I had done the night before he died. I would visualize his face to remember him before I fell asleep.
As the years progressed and I got busier with high school affairs, I would still go into his room and wish him good night, but I would do this in a perfunctory manner, saying “spokoynoy nochi” from the door quickly, and then get back to my homework. I was getting farther from my youth.
As the years progressed, we re-modeled his room, gave away his bed, and I stopped the doing “spokoynoy nochi” ritual.
Deda had spent his entire life being frugal and saving, only to lose his life savings in the runaway inflation that happened when the USSR collapsed. In the US, he was still frugal, saving pennies in a yogurt cup in his drawer. He would eat all the leftovers, making a soup that to me seemed unpalatable, a mix of things like carrots, fried potatoes, and hot-dogs.
For exercise, he would do morning calisthenics and squeeze a rubber O to work on his grip. But mostly, he’d walk. At one point, I remember him losing balance and scraping his face on a solo walk. He started to walk less after that.
He’d go to the Shul on Shabbat and pray. I loved going with him, to both the Shul and long walks around Buffalo. Our walks would last hours. We’d see and experience so many things: hills, sumac trees, his friend who was missing a leg. And we’d talk. I felt the same sort of feeling talking to my grandpa as in that crevice between him and the wall: fully accepted and supported.
One of my first memories is walking in the woods with my grandpa, back in Moldova before we left. There was a burned car in those woods, and a dirty stream that someone was swimming in. I remember a green pocket knife that I lost.
Lately, I’ve been getting into meditation, and one of the things that I’ve been playing with is finding a mental refuge, a place that makes me feel safe. I think that Deda was my first refuge. I feel grateful that I had him in my life for 10 years. He gave me a space where I felt safe and supported.
My childhood was filled with difficulties, but it was made bearable by having Deda around. When he died, this was a huge loss, more than I realized at the time.
Now that I am an adult, I feel the need to return to this crevice between Deda and the wall. I feel the need to start saying “spokoynoy nochi” again. I’m realizing that even though Deda is gone, I need not go through life with an attitude of steely toughness. I can have a refuge once again. In my mind, I can always return to the crevice in Deda’s bed, between his body and the wall, whenever I feel lost and exposed in the world.
The term “non-attachment” has always confused me, because it seemed synonymous with:
Being callous or cold
A state of idiotic, lobotomized bliss
Not being engaged in life
On a walk this morning, I had some flashes of insight, which made the term make a lot more sense. I want to share them here.
Attachment to Identity
A few weeks ago, I was taking an outdoor shower in a beautiful retreat center on the big island of Hawaii, and I was pissed. Why? Because my girlfriend put my clean clothes in the wash. Why did this bother me so?
This was a waste of resources
This was bad for the environment
The fact that I was so angered by such a small thing revealed that I was grasping very tightly my identity as an environmentalist (and my related identity as a frugal person who doesn’t waste). As I think back on this moment, it dawned on me that I have parts of myself that are deeply attached to certain identities, and can get quite upset when these identities are threatened.
Attachment to Outcome
Attachment to outcome is super common for me. When I was making the artwork above, I scoured the apartment for an eraser to get rid of the pencil lines. But I didn’t find one. I got angry. I was attached to the outcome of finding an eraser.
The host of this podcast talks about having a traumatic brain injury and how his attachment to the outcome of feeling good made him suffer much more. When he let go of this, he was able to accept that he was feeling crappy, and then the healing process started.
If I am not happy, I will concern myself with doing something that encourages joy.
“But if I’m not attached to outcomes, won’t I stop caring about excellence? Won’t I condemn myself to a life of mediocrity? Won’t I stop accomplishing things?”
These are common anxieties of the ego, but they are not true, because we can take the energy we were wasting on grasping identity and outcome, and invest it into the process. Process happens in the here and now, and it’s all we have control over.
Caring about process is empowering. If we feel down, we should go for a walk, exercise, or give a friend a call. It’s just that we shouldn’t expect that after doing these things, we will feel 100% better. In the words of Modest Mouse, “work a little harder, work another way.”
All too often, my suffering comes from wanting people to be a certain way. I just walked past the house of my friends who moved away in 2017. Part of me still wants things to be the same as they were back then, with them living in the neighborhood. But this is not possible. Change and impermanence are facts of life. Sometimes change brings beauty, and sometimes it brings pain and grief, and that’s OK.
If I try to force the future into the shape of the past, it won’t work. I’ll start trying to control things and people, I won’t stay current with reality, and I will be constantly disappointed.
When I went to Wonder Wander 2021, I implicitly acknowledged that these people were their own people, had their own lives. I appreciated them for who they were, and did not have specific rigid expectations for how they ought to be. I can take this open energy and apply it to all my relationships. People will disappoint if I expect from them an overly specific outcome.
All this is a path. I believe it’s the best path forward in life for me.
In honor of my mom’s 62nd birthday, we took a wander around Buffalo, NY.
Buffalo is where I grew up, and is where my mom, dad and grandma live. After many years away, Buffalo is still the place in the world that feels the most like home for me.
During our wanderings about town, the universe brought my mom and me in contact with three inspiring humans, who each taught us lessons about life.
So, without further adieu, I introduce you to David, Tobias, and Dale…
Part 1: David’s kind words
“You are an environment that functions inside a larger environment.
So everything that goes on in you is important.”
What creates a sense of place?
For me, one answer is constancy over time.
Like the regulars who, when you come back years later, are still there and recognize you. When I landed in Buffalo, I took a stroll down Allen street, peeped into bars, and chatted with humans. Despite COVID, The Pink is going strong in its delicious filth.
“This place is still the same!” I remarked to the group of day drinkers at the bar.
“It never changes,” the bartender said.
Next, I came to Intersection Cafe, which used to be called Cafe Taza back when I lived here. Despite the name change, the vibe and people were still the same.
David was still there.
David has a traumatic brain injury from being shaken as a baby. He goes to Intersection daily, filling up massive paper cups with coffee and drinking it out of a straw. Coffee cup after coffee cup, cigarette after cigarette, the day passes.
In my exuberance, I snapped a photo of him. Then, feeling bad, I asked him if that was okay.
“You should have asked me first, because I would have said NO!” he said.
I felt a rush of shame.
“In fact, I’m surprised that you were able to get a photo,” he continued, “Because that usually cracks people’s camera lenses.”
“Yes! My phone is heating up and about to explode,” I returned, finally picking up on the dry humor.
David plays word games with himself, seeing how many small words he can make out of big words (see the photo above). He has a heart of gold. In Yiddish, you’d call him a mensch. From a Buddhist perspective, he’s a bodhisattva.
Some people spread good in the world through tangible acts. David does it through words. I wrote down a few phrases that came up as David had coffee with my mom and me, in hopes that they will give you some new eyes on the world.
Here is David’s dictionary:
“Keep it going!” This is what David said to my mom when I told him it was her 62nd birthday. I love the playfulness of Keep it Going! as a birthday greeting. I don’t know why, but it feels so jumpy and alive.
“What’s the worst that could happen? I don’t know… the world blows up?” I love this phrase because it underscores how small our ups and downs are in comparison to the whole wide world. Something about this soothes my anxiety, reminds me that my fears can be put down. It’s a funny way of talking about the cosmic perspective.
“Precious cargo.” “This coffee shop used to attract a lot of bikers, and they didn’t like to wear helmets. I used to tell them: You are carrying precious cargo.” David said, and pointed to his forehead. The brain really is freaking precious cargo. All our memories, loves, hates, proclivities, stories are housed up here. It’s the most precious cargo we’ve got.
“Work for demons” “When I see young people working at this coffee shop, trying to figure out what they will do, I hope people can find work that they enjoy, and they don’t have to work for demons.” Then David changes his voice: “Here, embezzle this money…heee heee heee,” he says in an evil voice. Then he takes on the body of the worker, makes his hand into a gun and faux-shoots himself. Compromising one’s ideals is a sort of death.
“Intellectual indigestion” “The news gives me intellectual indigestion,” he says. This sums up perfectly how I feel with information overload in the modern world.
“Re-motivation” “I think that burnout is terrible. Every doctor, policeman, nurse should have a therapist. The work is not normal! And sometimes you need re-motivation, to remember why you went into it.” When David asked me about my motivation for doing medicine,it took me a while to “locate” my altruism, to remember that I was in medicine to help people. The phrase “re-motivation” normalizes the experience of losing touch with the reasons for why you are doing something. Similar to losing focus on your breath in meditation, the only thing to do is to gently re-focus and begin again.
Part 2: Tobias has Enough
Since time immemorial, people have been asking the question, “What is enough?” Meeting Tobias provided as close as I’ve ever come to an answer.
Tobias was middle-aged and bald, a fairly nondescript white guy in a t-shirt. He was sitting in front of Hoyt Lake at sunset, playing beautiful music on a mandolin. This perked my ear, so I walked up to him and complimented his sound. The conversation flowed easily, and soon hellos morphed into his life story.
Here are some excerpts:
“I’ve always done something artistic,” he told us. “I started off playing music, travelling up and down the East Coast. But after a while, you get tired. The crowds get younger, and stupider, like I was when I started playing. So I took a job at a lumber yard. For the last 20 years I’ve been making furniture and flooring. Now I’m retired and I just play for fun.”
“My family is Hungarian, but I’ve never visited there. I think Europe would feel like home. I don’t think I’ll get to Europe in my life, but that’s OK. I’m 63. That means I’ve only got 40 years left to live. I don’t have enough money to go to Europe. I spent all my money on stupid stuff, like guitars and drugs. I did a lot of drugs before I was 25, but then I quit. I don’t even drink now. I do drink coffee.”
“I pick up old furniture from the garbage and restore it. The other day, I picked up an old wash basin from the trash. I sold it to an antique dealer for $100. It was beautiful, with a gold inlay. Artists must all have OCD. Otherwise they wouldn’t spend so much time working on stuff. We can watch paint dry.I paint something and 8 hours later, I’ll still be looking at the paint.”
“When I was 17, I had my first kid. And my daughter had her first kid at 15, so I’m a great-grandfather.”
“I live on the West Side [of Buffalo]. People judge the West Side by the worst things they hear. Like there was some gang-related shooting and people think everyone who lives there is bad…”
“There are no races. We are all Homo Sapiens. There should be one global government so we don’t have wars.”
Sitting there, on that lake at sunset, with his mandolin, chatting with strangers about everything from his own story to his vision for society, I could feel that Tobias had nowhere else he wanted to be. Such a relaxed vibe. Not trying to go to Europe, or make a buck, or get a high. He’d been there, and done, or not done, all that. Most importantly, he was satisfied with how it had all played out. He had many more years of simplicity ahead of him: playing music, restoring furniture, watching paint dry and taking satisfaction in the moments. Tobias was a living embodiment of enough.
Part 3: Dale’s Instant Karma
I’ve always resisted cosmic accounting systems, be they in the form of Santa, heaven and hell, or the law of Karma and reincarnation. They all seem so carrot-and-stick: don’t do good for its own sake, do good to get points, redeemable for a present from Santa come Christmas or a roomier seat on the Afterlife Express (a.k.a. heaven, if you’re on the Abrahamic train, or reincarnation as a higher life-form if you’re travelling on the Eastern line).
But when my mom and I met Dale, and I heard him talk about karma, something in me softened.
Dale is a professional jazz musician, but we didn’t know that. When he called out to us, he was just a regular-looking guy standing by his car. My mom and I were rolling my grandma in her wheelchair down a hill at Delaware Park.
“Roll the chair backwards down the hill,” called Dale.
“You know the trick!” I exclaimed.
“I took care of my great-grandparents, since I was the only one in my family who could,” he told us.
“I worked one day per month playing music for NBC, and the rest of the month I was free. I would drive up to Buffalo after my gig and for the rest of the month I’d take care of them.”
Dale told us about his life as a jazz musician:
“My parents told me, if you want to be a musician, you have to play every instrument. They thought they’d scare me off, but they didn’t. I learned it all. I’ve been all around the world. Hawaii. You name it.”
“The best place I’ve ever played was Biloxi, Mississippi. The clubs there close for just one hour a day. I would play all night, sleep for a few hours, then go out and listen to music all day and then play all night again. I don’t have any savings. I plan to work until I die…”
“When I was working at NBC, I wanted to take care of my great-grandparents. I decided I didn’t want to be selfish. If you are putting good energy out into the universe, good energy will come back. It might not seem that way, but it will.”
One way to see this quote is that the motivation for doing good is receiving good back at some point in the future. I call this the “carrot-and-stick reading of Karma.” But another view is that simply in the act of giving, you are getting the good energy back, right then and there. This collapses the distinction between selfish and selfless, and is similar to the Dalai Lama’s quote, “Be selfish, help others.”
And so it was with us: my mom and I were simultaneously putting out and receiving good energy by taking my grandma out on a walk.
As an added bonus, this action connected us with Dale, a jazz musician quite unlike us in demographic details or lifestyle, but who shared a common humanity. For he too, at a different point in time, had pushed an elderly family member down a hill. And he showed us the right way to do it: backwards!
Part 4: Who inspires you, and why?
It’s common advice that to discover our values, we should look at who we most admire. In this piece, I went a step further, and wrote an essay. The writing process forced me to think deeply about why I admired David, Tobias and Dale. I also posted this piece in a writing group called Foster, and two generous souls gave me feedback that helped me to go even deeper.
The amount of time I met each of these people in real life was as little as 20 minutes; most of the insights came out in the writing and reflection.
When someone’s behavior or way of being inspires us, we get a hit of awe similar to the feeling of seeing a magnificent mountain or sunset. We are witnessing something bigger than ourselves. There is a gap; we are not the way this person is, we are not yet who we most wish to be. And this person is a living, breathing proof showing us that yes, it is possible to be this way.
It’s one thing to abstractly stare at a list of values on a page: words like “kindness,” “generosity” and “gratitude.” It’s another thing to actually meet people who embody these values. That is what changes you. You meet somebody for twenty minutes and go, holy shit, I want to be like this.
Not long ago, my girlfriend and I were staying at an AirBnB. In the midst of dishwashing, she broke a glass pitcher. Ryan, the owner of the AirBnB didn’t get angry or want any compensation. He let it go, saying, “It’s already broken.”
I felt myself seething inside, but when I saw his reaction, I softened and didn’t lash out. Holy shit, I thought. I want to be like that. I don’t want to be so attached to things that I forget that broken dishes are small potatoes in the grand scheme of life. I don’t want to seethe for hours about them. It doesn’t do anyone any good.
So yes, before this moment I might have said that I valued “putting people over things,” but at that moment, it wasn’t true. I was feeling the opposite. It was only by seeing how Ryan responded that I saw a new possibility, a new way of being.
Here’s a homework assignment for you, should you choose to accept it. The next time you find yourself feeling all warm and fuzzy after interacting with someone, stop and journal. Write down what happened, and ask yourself what in that interaction was inspiring. Think long and hard. This is how we mine our lives for our values.
Humans are mimetic, meaning that we mimic others. This truth comes out in many oft-repeated quotes. For example: “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with” or “Be careful with the company you keep.”
By reflecting deeply on our social interactions, even and especially on our mundane ones, we can keep the people that we most admire close, even if we only meet them briefly. As I’ve tried to show in this piece, these small moments can be golden, for within them are the seeds of who we want to be and become.
But as with any seed, care is needed. For me, writing is helpful, and I’m planning to keep a log of inspiring interactions that can serve as seeds for essays like this one. You might find a different way that works for you. The crucial ingredient is to stop and ponder your inspiring moments long enough to let the everyday saints into your heart, so they can do their work in there.
This is my first time writing such a review, and my first time sharing it publicly. Also, this is my first blog post in about 5 years. I’m excited to be rekindling this blog.
When I first started reflecting on 2021, I thought about how I’ve fallen way short of my wishes for the year. My conflicts did not magically dissolve. But as my friend John beautifully put it: “Might it be that not being able to be true to our values all the time creates the necessary and healthy conflict we need to progress in deeper understanding of who we are?”
One of the lessons I learned in 2020 was that making meaning takes time and work, but is worth it. Writing a long review like this is a form of meaning-making, writing therapy, even. I feel better about the last six months after having written this.
My word for 2021 was nourishing. So, how’s it going?
Some things that have been nourishing to my soul so far this year: travels, reading, writing, getting into a “groove” in my job, slowing down, embodiment and starting a shabbat practice.
One realization I’ve come to is that life is a lot more fun when I see it as an adventure rather than a checkbox. It’s easy to get into the checkbox mentality when living in an intellectual monoculture of people who think the same way as me, strive for the same things. My competitive / comparative / “I am deficient” neurons seem to light up quite easily in these circumstances.
Travelling gets me out of the checkbox mindset by illuminating alternative lives and the vastness of the world. Even meeting new people at a party can have a similar effect. This past 6 months I’ve met expats and natives in St. Thomas, board game enthusiasts in Philly, musicians living the van life in Acadia National Park, and a 14 year-old-anime enthusiast at a Christmas-in-July party.
On the work front, I have found a groove in the outpatient world. I love connecting with people and hearing their stories. I’m filled with wonder at the diversity of people I get to meet, the diversity of worlds I get to enter. I’m realizing that you really cannot judge a book by its cover. People are so unique: if you keep asking questions, they will tend to surprise you.
Outpatient work feels like travelling at times. I’m like a cab driver or barber in that I get to hear many different people’s stories. With less time-scarcity and interruptions than inpatient work, my compassion for people’s suffering can blossom. I’m somewhat of a neurologist, somewhat of a counsellor, and this mix changes depending on the patient’s needs. At times, I find myself daydreaming about pursuing therapy or environmental work or teaching, but for now I’m very grateful to find work that pays the bills, is energetically sustainable, gives me a sense of wonder, puts me in flow, and helps others.
I started reading physical books this year, a different experience than listening because multitasking is impossible when reading (though I do on occasion see read-walkers!). Some standout books so far: Existential Psychotherapy, The Choice, The Dispossessed, The Alchemist, On Friendship, Love and Will, Designing your Life. I also started watching more shows. I’ve enjoyed Crazy Ex Girlfriend, Tuca and Bertie, Shtisel, Soul, Shrill. It’s been great to co-watch and discuss.
It has been challenging but rewarding to practice slowing down this year. Some things that have helped me slow down: making my calendar more airy (leaving space between things, doing less), outsourcing laundry, cleaning, and taxes (I’m lucky and grateful to be able to do this). I spent quite a bit of time this past 6 months toying with “productivity systems” and they all seem to be glorified versions of the dictum: write it down. Over time — and it does seem to be taking a lot of time — I am developing a trust that the pieces of my life are accounted for in the system, and most notably, I will be OK.
I started writing with more regularity this year. In my blogging days I got sucked into the dark side of online writing: seeking likes. I realize now that what I enjoy most about writing is its ability to help me connect the dots of my life. I also enjoy interacting with people about my writing. Thank you to anyone who replied to my emails.
I want to let go of the idea of developing an online following/monetization. I have a main career that I’m reasonably happy with, so there’s no reason for me to stress out seeking a side hustle, as fashionable as that may be these days. Here’s to embracing my identity as an amateur writer who makes no money but enjoys writing.
Getting in touch with my body was a major theme of the first half of my year. I started many movement practices: running, free movement, HIT workouts and Yin Yoga.
Running is a liminal space where “the body moves and the mind grooves,” in the words of Henry. It is so easy to get caught up in the screen-world, the world of other people’s ideas. On a run, I love to experience my ideas and emotions bouncing up against each other freely. It’s a great space for daydreaming. It’s also nice to practice loving-kindness on runs, silently wishing strangers well as I encounter them, and sometimes cheering them on with a smile or word of encouragement.
I’ve also enjoyed alternating running with high intensity interval training workouts. Sweating is surprisingly fun and enlivening. Especially followed by a cold shower in the summertime.
Cory Muscara terms the “pain box” the place where we stay because we are afraid of discomfort. By moving towards the experiences of discomfort, a greater array of life is possible to explore. Cold showers / running in the rain are simplistic ways to demonstrate this to myself. I skinny dipped in cold ocean water in Maine – initially uncomfortable both physically and socially. I “faced my fears” and felt great. I don’t think I would have done that without the prep with cold showers.
Free movement is something I’ve done in various forms before (AcroYoga, Contact Improv, Ecstatic dance) but I realized that the simple practice of listening to my body and moving where it wants to go is great for feeling embodied. It’s amazing how much joy I can feel in a few moments of this free movement. It’s a similar feeling to doing improv exercises. Both help dissolve rigidity and help me enter an open, curious, joyful head/heartspace.
Related to embodiment is not self-medicating. For instance, if I get bad sleep and avoid self-medicating with coffee, I might be more motivated to optimize my sleep. I started the year with a bit of exuberance toward drugs when I read Carl Hart’s Drug Use for Grown-Ups and gleefully watched Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia. As the year progressed, I saw several young people hurt by opiate overdose, including one young man who died in a heartbreaking way. To be sure, drug testing, decriminalization and stigma reduction can save lives, as seen in Portugal. However, it seems to me that any mind-altering substance can become a distraction from the project of living a good life (as the Greeks knew). I’m grateful to have discovered Focusmate as a tool to help me focus on boring work, which helped me avoid using stimulants as a crutch. Wim Hof put it best: “Get high off your own supply.”
I did a workshop called VIEW. The workshop was marketed as revolutionary, but really, it wasn’t. That said, I learned some useful things: don’t have emotions at people, ask how/what questions from a place of curiosity. Notably, at one point I rigidly applied this mindset in a context where it did not fit, which taught me that context really matters. It seems that I default to being a “diligent student” around personal development. But life is not AP biology class. Real personal development involves cherry picking what works for me, and judiciously applying the good stuff in the appropriate context. As my mom wrote to me in a poem when I graduated high school: spit out the junk and gulp down what’s right.
I also got back into meditation, after several years away from it. I re-entered the practice more flexibly than before. I listen to a smattering of guided meditations, and occasionally do silent meditations. I dived into self-compassion meditation, and it has been a jarring experience to see that my self-talk is often quite cruel.
I’ve tried many new things the last 6 months that I’ve let go of: expressive writing, Obsidian, yoga practice, “learning in public.” For a time I was filled with a verve and vigor about these things, but they have not stuck. Maybe I’ll return to some of these in the future, and maybe not.
The phrase for the next 6 months is activechoosing.
I realized this year that I have been outsourcing my decisions to an “expert” (e.g. coach or therapist). By and large, I have chosen the life that I have. It is ultimately me, not some credentialed consultant, that must actively choose what’s in my life.
I want to be engaged with my life, not somewhere in my head thinking of some better fantasy reality. Another way to phrase engagement is going from between to in, from FOMO to JOMO, from decision paralysis to choosing and letting go.
I painted the above watercolor of myself running to represent what engaged, active choosing feels like. When I start a run, I am excited. I choose to do the run. I commit and go for it. I want to bring this active choosing to more areas of my life.
One tool I think can help is a prototyping mindset, which means wholeheartedly trying something out (grokking a choice as the book Designing Your Life puts it) and seeing how the choice lands experientially.
Things I’m excited to explore / keep exploring in the second half of 2020:
“That was when I realized I was losing consciousness. All right then. At least I had held on long enough to do some good.”- Lauren Olamina, from Octavia Butler’s novel, Parable of the Sower
Today at work, my patient’s husband was a prison guard on Riker’s Island. He told me about his job. The prisoners on Riker’s are often kids that get into toxic habits and instant gratification. Gangs, crime. The more perverse your offense, the greater your respect on the island, he told me.
“I’m having fun with it,” he said. “I was an electrician first. When you’re blue collar, you try to get a good pension for your family. I’m pretty grounded in my morals and beliefs, so I do well with the kids. Some of the guards use an excessive amount of force, but it’s not as bad as it was. That said, some of the officers really should watch their backs on the outside.”
“When I break up a fight, the kids pretend to hate me, but later they thank me, especially the weaker ones. They don’t actually want to fight and I give them an out.”
“This is my second career. I’m not taking this job that seriously. But I like it. I think I’ll leave the place a little better than when I found it.”
As he spoke, I wasn’t really listening. I was focused on getting out of the room. Getting my work done. Only now, pouring over these memories of the day, six cups of tea deep on my porch, the meaning and beauty of the story gets to sink in.
So often, our consciousness is closed. It has to be, I guess, so that we get work done. But sometimes, we have to chip through the eggshell of goal-orientedness that surrounds our brains and let the beams of light stream in.
In zen, a koan is a question where the answer is not words, but a state of awareness. The awareness, now, is the lighthearted, practical attitude of the guard, and of Lauren Olamina as she is bleeding out. The guard is doing what he can in a deeply troubled world. That’s the journey we all take. Hopefully at the end, when we lose our consciousness, we can all have the feeling that we’ve held on long enough to do some good.
The photo is from a small wedding I had the joy to attend a few months ago
We go through life and all it’s strife, and we learn about things and we learn about ourselves. A big part of learning about ourselves is learning what we like. We are wired differently and sometimes we like different things.
So here is stuff I’ve noticed that I like:
1. Direct experience. I spent 3 hours today on the internet with a simple question: Is the flu shot a good thing? Came across a paper saying no, then a few blog posts (1, 2, 3, 4) saying the guy who wrote the paper was wrong and bad and not an expert. At the end of the experience, I still don’t have an answer about the flu shot, but I have an insight:
You can only know something by counting your own beans. By this I mean, you count flu-related harms and you count the effect on the harms of the flu-shot, and you make a conclusion. And this takes a whole lot of work to do yourself.
“See I have the advantage of having found out how hard it is to get to really know something. How careful you have to be about checking your experiments, how easy it is to make mistakes and fool yourself. I know what it means to know something…I see how they get their info. I have a great suspicion that they don’t know. They haven’t done the checks, the care. And they intimidate people by it. I think so. I don’t know the world very well. But that’s what I think.” – Richard Feynman
People on both sides of any issue are arguing and arguing, calling names, but really it comes down to disciplined, often tedious, work.
But because time is finite, you have to trust your friendly neighborhood scientist to count your beans for you. To count the flu shot beans and write them up in a pdf file that gets distributed to doctors who then gently nudge their patients to do what the file says. That’s how medicine works: “A hierarchy of trust.”
I don’t like it. I like to be close to the earth, mining my own truth.
This is only possible for a few truths, because life is so short, and mining is such hard work there’s no way around trusting others. In the olden days we just trusted others to do some work for us, like farming and making clothes. Now we trust people at desks to farm knowledge. Maybe I belong as a scientist so that I can at least mine a few truths in my life…Or maybe I belong as a farmer.
I was walking down the street and saw some grapes. I picked them. It was a lot more fulfilling to me to eat these fresh grapes than drive to a store and pay for food with the papers I got deposited in my bank for doing certain tasks in the hospital.
I guess, be it in data or in food, I like being close to the source. Being part of making the thing and not just trusting that the truth or the food gets delivered to my door by some expert.
2. Spontaneity. Skipped yoga today. Poo you, plans. “It’s good to exercise, it’s good to do this, it’s good to do that.” It’s good to take the plans and ignore them. To do what flows. It feels good to be a time anarchist.
3. Aesthetics. I poured my tea into a jar. The tea was pretty cloudy yellow-green. I looked outside. The leaves made a gradient along the branch:
I pointed this out to my roommate, who said he hadn’t noticed it.
I like pretty things. Going down the stairs in my house, the sun peering through the blue stained-glass window gets me high in the mornings.
4. Dalai Lama Goop. Basically he advocates a compassion for all people. A concern for all people, no matter their walk of life. After reading the argumentative name-calling-type posts of anti-vaccine people vs. pro-vaccine people, it just becomes very clear that the world needs more Dalai Lama substance in it.
Dalai Lama goop agrees with me. It’ll take a lifetime of work to be able to secrete more of this stuff inside my brain.
“If I didn’t have you someone else would do…If I might conjecture a further objection love has nothing to do with destined perfection, the connection simply grows over time like a flower or mushroom or guinea pig or a vine or bigotry or a banana. And love is made more powerful by the ongoing drama of shared experience.” – Tim Minchin
My family went to Costa Rica. We had disasters. We had good times. We watched people tell stories. We veered off the road and got lost in the fog on a steep cliff. We got scared together and we turned back and we survived.
We were on an adventure. We saw the same crazy stuff. We watched the same movies. And we grew closer to each other
So if you want to improve your marriage or friendship, go on a really uncomfortable road trip or skydiving or go to a bad restaurant together, just as long as you have a shared experience and are forced to turn to each other and say: “This is a crazy movie, right? It’s not me who’s crazy, right?”
And they’d say, “No, you’re not crazy. I’m seeing the same thing. This is a crazy movie.”
The comparing yourself-to-others bug is a dangerous bug. A nefarious bug. Here are two little cases in point:
1. I worked in a clinic on the west side of Buffalo. This clinic helped a lot of refugees. I thought: how great it would be to help so many people. And I started seeing my path as one that would need to have this big splash in the world, help a lot of people. I would de-value paths that didn’t directly help a lot of people.
2. When I first read Richard Feynman, I thought: whoa, this guy is really creative, he really gets into the deep truths of the universe. And I thought: how great it would be to be to learn mathematics and find out new parts of nature. And I started to de-value parts of life that were not science.
I have a patient being treated for cancer. She has a chihuahua that she misses. She thinks of her chihuahua when she goes to sleep.
She wants to get out of the hospital so she can be with her chihuahua. But in the meantime, she smiles and is really nice to everyone taking care of her.
It’s OK if the things you do are simple, if they don’t make this big glamorous splash.
“I used to think that if you write a book that people read in 50 years that’s better than if you write one that lasts only a little while. But now I’ve realized that nothing lasts. I believe we are material beings. When we die, we are gone. We only exist for a short time in other people’s memories. Pretty soon those people will die and no one remembers you. So any meaning in life can’t be from any idea of permanence. It has to come from something that’s moment-to-moment. I know that I feel pleasure and pain. Not just physical pleasure and pain, but intellectual, philosophical pleasure and pain. And when I help someone, I feel pleasure. When I insult someone, I feel pain. So I try to do things that, in the moment, bring me deep pleasure. That’s where I am with meaning.”
And one from a song by Jeffrey Lewis:
I hope that the art school enjoys your big drawing of ruins
We’ve all got good things to do and it’s good when we do them
To frack, you take a metal tube and drill it under the ground 10,000 feet. You then blow up a plate of shale and you liberate the gas underneath the shale. The gas comes from plants millions of years old. Same idea with oil. That’s what runs our computers and farms and cars and widgets galore (that’s what’s running this blog post).
That’s what our whole civilized experience is based on: creatures that have died long, long ago.
I didn’t argue with the pro-fracking geophysicist man. You learn a lot more if you are curious, and you don’t try to force your opinion on people. He knew a lot more than me about fracking anyways.
I learned the problems that can arise with fracking (the cement around the well leaks, the detergents need to be disposed of, the drivers disposing the stuff sometimes flush it out on the side of the road to save themselves a trip to the treatment plant).
I listened and learned a lot more than I would have learned had I beat him over the head with my pre-formed opinion.
But my opinion is still the same: I don’t care about fracking. I don’t care about global warming. I don’t care about any one specific issue. I just think our whole capitalist game is flawed.
Here’s my opinion, that I didn’t tell the geophysicist guy. This is a blog, a soapbox, so I think I’m fine preaching here:
We modern humans are short-termites, chewing on our wood way too fast. Optimizing for colorful sparkles in our limited lives, not realizing that it’s possible to keep living on this rock in a sustainable way if we just cool it a little.
The earth is getting eaten up by us as we race with each other.
As we sprint around the track, focusing on winning, the track gets torn up.
But in the cosmic motion picture show, earth is just one planet out of many, many. It’s OK if we mess it up. Still, we can’t really leave our planet, so why not try to keep it a little tidier?
A few years back, my brother and I were taking a long walk at night in a snowstorm. The roads were illuminated by orange streetlights.
Where did the energy for these lights come from? I asked myself. Then the answer came: this suburb was burning the plants and animals that had lived on the very same land millions of years ago.
And the burning process was happening very fast.
In a way, these dead things were being resurrected to light the snowy streets.
What’s the difference between people in the first world and those in the third world? I would argue that one big difference is first world people (myself included) are obsessed with control.
Control is the default setting that has been wired into us from day one, living in this push-button “first-world” civilization.
I was driving the other day, trying to meet a friend, and rain started. It was a hell of a rain. Streets getting beat down by sheets of water from overhead.
But for me, instead of standing in awe of the rainstorm, I just got frustrated. This will slow me down, make me late. This rain that 100 years ago would have meant crops would have had water now meant nothing to me. Just something I could zip through in my hermetically-sealed car.
Our cult of control is pervasive, present in nearly every part of our lives.
Some more examples:
Death isn’t a natural part of life, it isn’t celebrated. It’s something to be battled against with medical interventions, which sometimes bring their own brand of suffering.
Hunger is remedied by prepackaged protein bars.
Tiredness is medicated by coffee.
Lawns are kept green by calling the guy who sprays and fertilizes.
Even in the day-time, we put blinds on the windows and use electric lights.
And this is how we live. But it wasn’t always like that.
^ ^ ^
In Japan, there is the concept of wabi sabi. Roughly, this is an appreciation of imperfection. For the transience of life. A wabi sabi bowl is one that has cracks. And the cracks are beautiful.
In the first world, we don’t appreciate the beauty of the cracks.
^ ^ ^
Here’s one for you: Organic apples are not apples that have “organic” stickers. Organic apples are apples that have worms. Unless humans intervene, apples will have worms. I’ve seen it with my own two eyes, I swear, it’s true. Wormy is the natural state of apples.
But somehow, somewhere, we decided that apples should be worm-free. And by golly, we’ll blast ’em up with chemicals until they look just right.
The crappy thing is that by trying to control it all, we suffer. In the wabi sabi perspective, we shrug our shoulders and say “Shit happens, that’s life.” But in the control perspective, we are so, so serious. The apples are shiny and the streets are clean and we get so much done it’s true, but the catecholemines rush through our vessels and harden our arteries and mess up our brains.
^ ^ ^
My friend Greta and I were talking about natural building the other day.
I’ve been thinking about why it’s important for me to have natural building materials (e.g. unfinished wood, straw) visible inside my house. You could say: what’s the big deal. Who cares?
I think it’s a constant reminder that I’m just a part of nature.
Some people say “I keep G-d in my heart.” But I flip it and say to myself “G-d keeps me in his heart.” It makes me think that I’m not so big and important. That I’m just a little part of this world.
What’s the difference between intentions and goals? Here’s a story that hopefully illustrates the point:
Let’s say that today, I have the goal to go to the gardening store and get onion bulbs to plant in my garden. Underneath this goal is an intention: to be closer to nature, to be more self-sufficient.
Now maybe, on the way to the gardening store, a three headed monster pops up out of the earth. The monster provides me with secret seeds that when planted will lead to an ecological utopia. If I am focused on my little goals, I will say to the monster: sorry, no thank you, no time. I have to buy these onions.
But if focus on my intentions, maybe I can let go of my goal and take the seeds.
The fantasies our brains dream up are just so flat and boring compared to the unexpected realities that come. When we fetishize and grasp goal number 1, we shut off possibilities 2, 3, and 4.
Mainstream society often worships fame and money and looking good. It’s hard to be free from wanting these things. One way to wash the dirt off your intentions is to state your intentions publicly. If you write your intentions on the walls for everyone to see, then you are more likely to adhere to them.
For example, with this blog I had the desire for fame and money for a time. But then I wrote my intentions for the blog on my about page. When I get side-tracked, I can read this page and say to myself, “Oh yeah, that’s why I am doing this.”
Pure intentions are useful
Let’s face it, we can’t control outcomes. But we can control our intentions to an extent. And having good intentions is quite useful. Here’s why:
1. Intentions give you a general direction to walk. It’s helpful to have a direction when you set out walking, or you can end up in some pretty dark swamps.
2. Intentions motivate. As a doctor, I work in a stressful environment. Sometimes in the rush of things, I forget why I’m doing the job. So I write my intentions down on a card. I tape this card up above where my white coat hangs. It puts me out there. And it motivates me to study and to listen.
3. Intentions help you understand why you want what you want. Sometimes, the goals we have come up unconsciously and cause stress. Focusing on intentions helps deconstruct them.
Recently, I had this goal come up in my head: “I want to have 2 kids.”
“Why do I have this goal?” I asked myself. Here were some things I thought of:
Some of these are my real, deep intentions. Others, I think, are intentions that passively diffused into my head and they don’t feel good for me. So I can now start the process of purifying these intentions, washing off the dirt.
Also, I need to trash the specific goal. Maybe 8 kids or 0 kids will be in my future, but as long as I’m walking roads guided by my intentions, then I’m walking good roads.
Trash your goals
In college, I saw people growing up too fast, going towards careers like little packages travelling down pneumatic tubes. I wrote this poem about it:
Ode to the Unambitious
The arrow of your life is not locked, yet Thoughts within your mind still freely swim The key to make you speed has not been turned, yet You look up at the tall plants as a seed You have not been pressure-packed and shipped, yet There is no single place you want to be Wishes that stream out from you have not been capped, yet There is no need for practicality You stand above the helpless souls Who kick their way to some small goal My friend, you watch the arrow sway And delight at the directions
If we don’t grasp goals, and instead have clear, but general, intentions, then we we can walk the journey with delight. We know generally where we are going, but where we end up will be a surprise.
The key to all story endings is to give the audience what they want, but not the way they expect. — William Goldman
To shake things up a little on this blog of visual meditations, here are some audio and gustatory-meditations:
I went to a mindful eating dinner last night.
The leader of the dinner said: “For the next 5 minutes, eat your food slowly. Think about where it comes from. Think about the land, the farmers, the truck drivers, the stores, the cashiers, everyone. Savor the textures, spices, sounds, smells.”
And that meal lasted forever. At some point, my brain said: “Gorge! This food is healthy and tasty and you should get more!” I noticed this but didn’t move on it.
In and out of mindfulness I went. I noticed a lot about the meal. The rice was the best rice I ever had – vinegar notes and crackly sounds between chewy grains.
This morning, I tried to replicate the exercise. I ate an apricot. Then a carrot with almond butter. I really savored them.
I wasn’t hungry at the end of the small meal. But somehow my brain said: “Gorge! Or you will be hungry later.” And I gorged, out of fear.
It strikes me that I often can’t remember things. Like what I ate, or whether I closed my car doors or locked up my bike.
This is a symptom. It’s a symptom of lack of mindfulness. Of not paying attention.
Getting lost in thoughts is great, but constant fear-based thought loops that prevent perception of the world are bad news bears. Why? Because life is memory:
If you don’t remember your life, it’s like it never happened. – Derek Sivers
So mindfulness is not some new agey thing for hippies with too much time on their hands. First of all, it takes 5 minutes. Eating takes 15 minutes, let’s say. Five of those minutes can be spent eating mindfully. Same goes for any other activity.
I love the angry tone of this Modest Mouse song, which is really about mindfulness I think.
My interpretations are in parentheses:
The ocean breathes salty, won’t you carry it in? In your head, in your mouth, in your soul.
[Pay attention to the ocean. Let it in to your sensory organs – to your head, mouth, and soul.]
Will you tell me what you saw and I’ll tell you what you missed
[Hey Dude, Tell me what you saw. Nope. You missed a lot, because you weren’t paying attention.]
For your sake I hope heaven and hell are really there, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. You wasted life, why wouldn’t you waste death? You wasted life, why wouldn’t you waste death?
[If you aren’t present during life, then I hope you get another life. But I wouldn’t hold my breath that this will happen.]
You wasted life, why wouldn’t you waste the afterlife?
[And even if you did get another life, you’d probably waste it, because you are in the habit of wasting your life.]
So now it’s time to practice mindfulness. It’s time to get in the habit of NOT WASTING LIFE.
If you miss the here, you are also likely to miss the there. If your mind is not centered here, it is likely not to be centered just because you arrive somewhere else. – Jon Kabat-Zinn
When I come before the judges of the heavenly tribunal, they are not going to ask if I lived my life like Moses or if I lived my life like Abraham. They are going to ask if I lived my life to be the best Zusha’s could be. – Rabbi Zusha
I feel like I met Buddha the other day. He was overweight, wore bright Hawaiian shirts, and owned a hostel in a touristy part of Costa Rica. His name was Conrad. Here’s a picture.
I don’t know why I thought he was Buddha, but I did. He wasn’t particularly ascetic. I’m sure he loved life’s worldly things. But I just got the feeling he was living really true to himself.
“I left California. Everyone there is so busy and obsessed with stuff. Nobody enjoys life,” he said.
Yesterday I walked the path my dad and I often walk. I was barefoot. I thought: life is good. I have enough food to eat. And I have time to do something pointless: go for a walk. Pointless as in: not directly involved in the process of getting food. For a minute, I felt like Buddha.
Then we visited my family friends. This couple is loud and boisterous. They have 2 dogs, 2 cats. They yell at each other in comic ways.
Husband: This dog is so old and sick…but he doesn’t die.
Wife: Just like you!
Husband: Me and the dog will both die at the same time, so then you can have just one funeral!
Wife: Do you think I’m planning a funeral for the dog?
I think this couple are enlightened too. They are perfect for each other and they come alive when they fight. They watch crappy TV shows, don’t live very healthily, but something about them, I don’t know, they are just real.
I feel like life’s enlightened ones aren’t the gurus spouting wisdom. They are the real people that I happen on unexpectedly. I can lift a log and find some grubs and monsters that are maybe ugly, maybe hairy and slimy, but they are perfect. No airs. Just fitting their shirt perfectly. Fitting their life. Living their truth.
“Since I first wrote it [The Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency], the book has certainly gotten about. I have traveled in at least dozens of countries since I wrote it (to say nothing of four continents), and in every one of them people have come up to me with their copy to sign. I have been delighted to find wine stains on the wine-making pages, and good, honest dirt on the gardening pages.” – John Seymour
Theory is fine and dandy, but practice is where it’s at.
You have to do things, not just philosophize and “understand” things.
My goal this vacation is to get my copy of the Complete Book of Self Sufficiency covered with wine and dirt. I’ll be taking pictures, and will post them below when they are taken.
Kimchi I made (with guest appearances from my mom’s zucchinis and my dad’s home brew kombucha):
A towel holder, made by my dad (mostly) and me:
My dad turning wood on his lathe:
Gardens I worked on weeding at the mind-body retreat in Ithaca (Travis Knapp was the main garden master – check out his soulful music.):