Examined Life

Examined Life: Replace existing normal

So, here we are.

I finally did my laundry. It had piled up from a week of vacation, followed by a week of social distancing, followed by two weeks of shelter-in-place. It felt normal, doing my laundry. The detergent and quarters, the wash and spin, folding my dry towels and sheets. It felt normal, that is, until the bathing suits that I hung up to dry. I’d worn them in Hawaii. But now … now, I’ll have no use for these bathing suits, for so many things, for quite some time.

There is a prompt I used to often see on an old PC when something went haywire with Microsoft Word. It would pop up in the center of the page and say, “Replace existing normal?” Lacking the tech savvy needed to understand the true meaning of the prompt, I’d often laugh to myself and exclaim aloud, “Yes, please!” Who doesn’t want to replace their existing normal at one point or another? And then, of course, I’d click “No,” terrified of losing the contents of my hard drive. Now, in this current moment, it’s the same concept, really—but it’s no longer a question. The existing normal has been replaced. And there’s nothing we can do about it.

In the new normal, there are the bigger things that some of us have lost: Work. Income. Physical connection with loved ones, in-person connection with communities. In some cases, our health. In some cases, the lives of friends or family members. There are the smaller things that some of us have lost: The freedom to gather. Visits to our favorite restaurant or wine bar. Toilet paper stocked in the toilet paper aisle. Food shopping without fear. And though most of us who are housed feel gratitude for simply having a place in which to take shelter, there’s no denying that, as a city, as a society, no matter how much baking we do or dog-walking or Zoom-calling, things are, in a most surreal way, undefinably different. 

The first week of the new normal, the primary feeling I experienced was a tight clenching in my chest, like a hand reaching through my body, trying to pull the recent past back through myself, so I could step backwards into it. No matter the apparent practical reality that appeared in front of me—employers shutting down, loved ones forgoing pre-planned visits to California, doors shuttering down the whole Divisadero corridor where I live, and Depression Era-reminiscent queues a block-length or more in which folks were waiting for bread and rice—there was a part of me that didn’t agree with this new world. It wasn’t an ethical disagreement; my reasoning mind knew, of course, we needed to shut the city down in the face of the pandemic. It was, instead, a disagreement of the will, of expectation and routine. A disagreement of the now, of the future, of the heart.

I grieved a lot those first days, in between hours spent transferring as much of my business as I could to an online platform. I wept between pleasant (socially-distanced) strolls with a friend, and howled while fumbling through new technological tools I never wanted to learn but now feel grateful to comprehend. I sat happily with my meditation teacher in a virtual gathering, and then despaired at the thought of being sequestered 3000 miles away from my 95-year-old grandmother. I felt the deep familiarity of community seeing my students in my online offerings and my colleagues in my (now virtual) weekly writers group. And then I shuddered to hear that my hometown of New York City is being completely hijacked by this plague.

For two weeks now, I’ve been floating between the old normal and the new normal, between comfort and fear, and familiarity and grief, holding tight and letting go. At the time of our city’s shutdown, I was about to launch a new website. Many folks I know were about to open a play or a restaurant, were hoping to conceive or preparing for a medical procedure, were about to get married or divorced. If this situation brings about any realization inherent in our lives, we can notice that we are all, always, on the verge of something. And now, overnight, we’re all on the verge of something else.

Humans are engineered, potent viruses aside, to experience emotional flux. In Buddhist philosophy, there are “three marks of existence.” They state that human beings (our personalities, ages, opinions) are constantly changing; external conditions (weather, safety, environment) are impermanent; and suffering  results when we deny the truth of the first two. And so all of us, even in the best of times, alternate—sometimes swaying like ocean flora, and other times rebounding like ping pong balls—between the two extremes of understanding and misunderstanding, of holding tightly to our lives as they are and accepting the change that inevitably comes.

All of us, even those with strong mindfulness practices, are being pulled hither and thither, from resistance to acceptance and then back again. The question isn’t about how we can practice some kind of unrealistic non-attachment in a world that’s on fire. The question is, more simply: How can we ride the waves?

The waves between the old normal and the new normal are large and jostling. They take us in a matter of seconds from the empty shelves in the grocery store to a gratitude for trees, from the overfilled ICUs in the hospital to a heartfelt connection with a friend that once again makes us feel whole.

There is a part of us that is confused by the waves, and wants us to feel just one thing. But that’s not what the ocean wants. Rather, we’re going to grieve and accept and delight in a rotating fashion. We’re going to try to reach back into the past, and then land in the present, and then despair or fantasize about the future, and do it all over again. We’re going to be there, and then here, until here becomes there. And the point is that this is okay—and that knowing this is okay is actually the practice.

So, here we are. 

Examined Life: A year to love for no reason

Photo: Haraldlepisk via Pixabay

Spiritual teacher and author Ram Dass once wrote, “It is important to expect nothing, to take every experience, including the negative ones, as merely steps on the path, and to proceed.” This is one of the hardest teachings for us humans to grasp: We are instinctively locked into the habit of making often disastrous meanings out of every event that happens, or doesn’t happen, in our lives. 

But this is a particularly good moment to consider the words of Ram Dass—in part because it’s the new year and we’re all reflecting on what our path actually is, and in part because the teacher who gave voice to them just left us this past December, at the age of 88. 

Ram Dass was the author of the acclaimed book Be Here Now, a square-shaped compilation of drawings and handwritten wisdom teachings on presence, which has since sold more than 2 million copies and has forever changed the landscape of Western thought and spirituality. Born Richard Alpert, and later named Ram Dass (Servant of God) by the guru Neem Karoli Baba, he led a full and inspiring life. He studied psychology at Stanford and taught at Harvard; he was a pioneer of the LSD movement; he was queer and spoke about it publicly, which few spiritual teachers have; and, despite the fact that he was the survivor of a major stroke in 1997, which left him in a wheelchair and with permanently affected speech, he taught and led retreats up until the very end of his life. 

When he could no longer travel, he was often video-conferenced into large yoga gatherings (I was lucky enough to be at a few of these) to grace us with his glorious smile and, as a result of the stroke, brief but potent words of wisdom. Ram Dass wrote 13 books in total, and reportedly gave all of his royalties to charity. His spoke at the Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park in 1967, and made the Bay Area his home for a good part of his life. To be in his presence was to be with a person who truly was “here now.” The day he died, December 22, was the day after the winter solstice—the first day of the year that the light increases—and the first night of Hanukkah, a Jewish holiday knows as the Festival of Lights (Dass was Jewish by birth). He lived his whole life orienting toward the light, and he died the very same way. 

His advice to take each thing that comes into one’s life as a step on one’s path is not only an instruction about acceptance, but also a contemplation on meaning: The meaning of all things, he is saying, is simply the journey to awaken, an experience he often spoke about as residing in a permanent state of love. 

As we step into the new year, many of us are trying to make meaning of it all, though not always so successfully. That’s because meaning-making often happens unconsciously, and not necessarily to our benefit. 

For instance, some event occurs and your brain, based on a split-second analysis of your past experiences and fears, makes a quick decision about what that event means about your current life situation—and even about you as a person. Let’s say your new romantic interest ghosts you, or your latest job interview turns into a dud. Rather than taking these things at face value, our minds often make meaning out of them, telling us we’re certain to be alone and unlovable, or broke and unemployable, forever. This is the kind of meaning-making your therapist warns you against, the connecting of dots that don’t necessarily have a connection. Other animals do this kind of meaning-making, too. My cat and I were evacuated from my apartment this past May because the house next door was burning. Now, every time a fire truck comes down the street, my cat looks at me wide-eyed, terrified that I’m about to shove him back into the cat carrier, and drag him out onto the street at 2am.  

Another more conscious, but still limiting, way we make meaning is by intentionally placing a specific type of importance on a concept—like an annual event or rite of passage—and deciding what it should mean. For instance, many religious traditions are celebrated to signify the child becoming an adult. Or, when the new year comes, we give it the meaning of a time to turn our lives around (“2020 is going to be a great year! #newdecadenewlife #yesto2020 #2020mybestyearyet!”)

Creating positive intentions for the new year is an age-old practice predating even Instagram, and it can be useful to apply meaning to the new year as a way of orienting ourselves to a brighter future. But things, of course, don’t always go as wished. For instance, in 2018, on New Year’s Eve, I spent the night meditating up at the Zen center in hopes of having an auspicious year. After midnight, I celebrated with other meditators by taking turns ringing the giant bonsho bell, each with our own chosen intention in mind. It felt so important at the time, but I actually don’t remember the intention I made that night. That’s because, on January 4, my appendix ruptured with major complications, and I forgot most of what I’d intended for 2019 as I fought one infection after the other for the next 12 months. As Ram Dass once said, “Our plans never turn out as tasty as reality.”

When our plans turn out differently than we hoped, as mine did, we might question if anything has meaning at all. We might, in fact, get nihilistic real quick. But true meaning can be found even in the greatest disappointment. That’s not to say we have to agree to the old turn of phrase “everything happens for a reason.” Meaning is not the same as a reason. A reason tells us that there was a point, a master plan of some kind, that created our misfortune. Meaning doesn’t do that. Rather, and usually after we’ve had time to grieve, meaning allows us to accept that the event did happen, and then allows us to give the experience context. The meaning I found in my own experience was a lesson in courageousness. Meaning gives us a path to walk on, a place to sit our weary bodies, a landing pad for our heart and our hope. 

With some mental or spiritual training, or a hit of unexpected insight, we can open to this type of meaning-making—one that is more conscious and highly developed. We can use reflection (rather than reaction) to create meaning for an event or situation that has already transpired. Ram Dass always spoke about his massive stroke, which hit him at only 65, as a teacher and an inspiration that made him wiser and more empathetic. Opening to this meaning of his situation enabled him to place it in a context that would benefit his life, and the lives of others. 

We can also apply meaning to orient us toward how we want to live, regardless of circumstance. Ram Dass was known to spend hours reciting the mantra “I am loving awareness.” Every talk he gave and every book he wrote had only one true message: teaching others how to be a conduit for love. Love wasn’t temporary or personal to Ram Dass. Love was just … love. In his book Be Love Now, he wrote, “Unconditional love really exists in each of us …. It’s not ‘I love you’ for this or that reason, not ‘I love you if you love me.’ It’s love for no reason, love without an object.” Love was his life’s meaning.

It’s hard to know what 2020 will bring for each of us, for the world at large, for the planet itself. It will be both significant and insignificant, prosperous and failing, uplifting and devastating. It will be all things. So, rather than simply setting intentions for the coming year, why not consider what we want our lives to mean, and let our actions come from that place as best as we are able, day by day, moment by moment? Perhaps a deeper meaning will arise, one that feels so much juicier than a goal or resolution. Maybe we’ll learn to lead with courage or wisdom or even love—for no reason at all. 

Examined Life: On shaky ground

EXAMINED LIFE We are, none of us, on steady ground. This is a spiritual truth, but it’s also increasingly become a practical truth, especially in San Francisco. Things we once counted on here can no longer be counted on. If you’re new to town, this may not be relatable. But if you lived here before 2010, you know the eerie feeling that things are disappearing all around us. 

It seems like every place and person we’ve ever loved has left or is perpetually on the verge of leaving, mostly because the city has become livable only for the wealthy. There are now articles and web pages documenting these strange times, in which we watch our favorite tea houses, bookstores, bars, and restaurants close on a weekly basis due to rent increases. For the last several years, there’s also been a mass exodus of people we love hightailing it to other places in the state or country where they have a shot at an affordable rent, raising children above the poverty line, saving for retirement, or buying a house. Those who remain are a motley crew of folks who either work in high paying fields (predominantly tech), have a spouse that works in a high paying field, or are desperately clinging to a rent-controlled apartment as if it were the edge of a slippery cliff jutting out over the Pacific, their fingers dug in tightly as they stare down at the long drop below. 

I moved to this city nearly two decades ago, running away from snow, subways, and a mess of complicated feelings that were woven into the landscape of my New York City childhood. At the time, San Francisco was a magical unicorn town in which anything could, and would, happen. When I arrived, I knew one person in the whole city, and he was someone I’d merely had a conversation with once on an airplane. He let me stay in his house for two weeks while he was gallivanting at some weird party in the desert. By the time he’d returned, I had a room in an apartment for $380 a month. Two weeks later, I had three new best friends and a great job as an arts writer. One of my new friends gifted me an old car, which was a big help in my commute to grad school. To me, this felt like a city of riches in the most bohemian sense. The rainbow flag that waved at Castro and Market was like San Francisco’s Statue of Liberty, beckoning not only the queer community, but all of the country’s misfits and runaways. The city felt like home.

I don’t know if runaways still come to San Francisco, but it does feel like San Francisco has run away from itself. Living here for so long is like being in a marriage where your partner has changed beyond recognition and you’re left with the task of assessing whether or not to stay married. The discrepancy between the haves and have-nots widens by the day: The city’s homeless population has reached historic proportions, as have the rental prices of the insufficient amount of housing units. 

It’s hard to know what to make of it all, so sometimes we try to forget it. While waiting for the housing bubble to burst, we take long bike rides through the trees in the Presidio and then drown our sorrows in a cup of organic chia pudding. Or we takes trips to places outside of San Francisco to remember what it’s like to pay less than $30 for lunch.

But at the end of the day, everybody is always talking about leaving. They may not be leaving, but they are talking about leaving. They are talking about who left. They are talking about when they might leave, and what they might do when they leave, and where they may go. These days, my heart sinks every time a friend tells me they have something to tell me. The news is always that they are moving.

First world problem, sure. But that doesn’t mean our livelihoods and communities aren’t at stake. This incessant uncertainty about our future whereabouts causes strain on our relationships and on our nervous systems. (The situation is, of course, further complicated by questions raised by climate change: Will California soon go up in flames or fall into the sea?) It can feel like we are living on an internal treadmill, perpetually running toward possible solutions, but never actually getting to a destination.

So what to do in this time and place of transience? Should those of us still here, but not raking in enough to live comfortably, keep hanging on to the edge of the cliff? Should we leave? Should we take a poll on Instagram? 

In a way, these aren’t the right questions to ask. We may wind up staying and we may wind up leaving. But so long as we still choose to stay in our marriage with San Francisco (despite the fact that it’s more impatient lately, and charges too much on our credit cards), we’re going to have to adapt to this strange new world. Part of that may look like taking action to right social wrongs, like campaigning for more affordable housing, working in social services, or reporting on the realities of economic inequity. But the other part is equally important: We need to check our own beliefs around what we truly require to be content and joyful. We need strategies to wring what we still love out of this town, while we are still here, independent of what our future holds. 

If we believe we can only be happy in a place that is less transient, we can look at that assumption and ask what skills transience teaches us. If we believe that our self-worth rests upon economic parity with our peers (and thus compare ourselves unfavorably), we can remember that our lives are worth more than our paychecks, and that all beings age, get sick, and die, regardless of their financial position. If we believe that a home is someplace we (or those we care about) stay forever, we can remember that humans are naturally nomadic, with a history of packing our lives onto our backs and meandering around the mountains and valleys and streams of this planet.

Personally, the profound changes to this city over the last several years have changed me. They have, at times, broken my heart. But more significantly they have matured me into someone who can better roll with changing circumstances. They have schooled me on the hard lessons of letting go, being flexible, and rebuilding community during a time in my life when I’d thought I would be more settled. They have taught me to be grateful for fleeting things that I know will change (a ladybug on the back of my hand, an afternoon walk through Alamo Square park, a day where my body feels strong walking up these hills) rather than focusing my gratitude solely on perceived fixed things that I fear will change (a stable community, the last whispers of youth, a rent-controlled apartment).

They have taught me that we are all equally terrified about something, regardless of our financial situation, and that we must be open to sharing these fears so that our relationships can transcend beyond economic class. They have taught me to remember my own wandering heart, and spend more time living now than living in an imagined utopia where conditions always meet my expectations.

And there’s also this: San Francisco, with its earthquakes and gold rushes and boho vibes and unpredictable weather patterns never made any promises to me. It doesn’t owe me anything. It took me in and nourished me when I was young and adventurous and eager to create art and community and a new life. And now, in its updated version, it’s teaching me new lessons about flowing with change and releasing expectations. Of course, I enjoy lessons about art more than lessons about resilience, but they’re equally important. San Francisco never vowed to be a friend—to any of us. But it has always been a teacher. 

When our bodies break down

EXAMINED LIFE No one plans for sickness. We plan for busy schedules and vacation time and meeting deadlines. We plan for school and for retirement, for weekends and for seasons. But we don’t build time into our lives for the possibility of a broken leg, a bout of bronchitis, a surprise tumor, or a bursting appendix. I certainly didn’t.

But at the start of January, as I was heading into a particularly busy month of work, I found myself up one night for many hours with intense abdominal pain. The next day, I went to the doctor, specifically stating that I thought I might have appendicitis. I was diagnosed instead with a virus, and sent home with an antacid. I spent the following two weeks in varying states of agony until, finally, another doctor agreed to send me for a CT scan. Turns out, I did have appendicitis and had been walking around for two weeks with a partially ruptured appendix and a resulting massive intestinal infection. 

During the weeks of my pain and confusion, I was riding on a surreal merry-go-round of sensations, emotions, and mind states. There were moments in the day that I could place my attention elsewhere, and focus on my work instead of my health situation. But in other moments, I would simply be in so much pain, I could do nothing but seclude myself and cry. Other times, I would feel the strange voice of gratitude reminding me that, despite how bad I felt, at least I had a safe place to feel it. Sometimes, I would give over to self-pity. Then, a voice would emerge in my consciousness telling me to stop feeling sorry for myself, only to be followed by another voice reminding me that it wasn’t necessarily self-pity to note the fortitude it took to be with and bear my pain. 

I both raged at and deeply cared for the different voices as they each had their say. In my most lucid moments, I would start to see my pain as an undeniable presence in my life that I had no control over, but that I had to share space with. My pain was not an optional guest in the house of my body; it lived there and it was speaking to me—often in the wee hours of night, when I had no choice but to listen. 

During one particularly rough evening, a strange feeling came over me. I was in so much pain, that the pain itself became a wonder that I had to bow to. I could feel its waves and pulsations, but could do nothing more than witness them. Something in me shifted from trying to subdue my discomfort to simply meeting it, like I was meeting the stranger of myself. Perhaps it was my future self or the estranged child that I once was, or the lucid and awake part in each of us that shows up in times like these to meet us and to carry us. In that moment, I knew not what was happening to me. The questions floated through me like tiny bubbles in wild ocean foam. Might I die from this thing? Might I have something uncurable? Might this never end? But as each one bubbled, they’d quickly dissolve again, and all that was left was some deep and primal form of surrender. It doesn’t really matter because this is how it is. 

In times of intense experiences of physical suffering, we are catapulted into the rawest revelation of the truth of our existence, the recognition of the contract we’ve each signed, unknowingly or not, with life, itself. This contract, which we agree to upon our passage into this world, states that, in our lives, there are two things that will undoubtedly happen. The first is that, one day, we will each die. The second is that we will each experience bodily suffering at the hands of an illness. Many other wondrous things will also likely occur, but it is these two wonders of which we can be certain. 

The thing with contracts is that we often don’t think about them unless we need to. You may sign a contract for employment with a company, but until your first expense reimbursement request gets denied, you may not read the clause about a monthly cap on spending. Or you get a new credit card, but not bother to look at the late fee policy until, oops, you accidentally miss a payment and get charged the cost of a small island. In the same way, when we are ill or facing the possibility of death, and decrying its unfairness, we have to pause and remember this sacred contract we have with life, and the terms we agreed to. 

This doesn’t, in any way, relieve responsibility from the people and institutions that fail us in a health crisis. I have very strong emotions around being dismissed (and charged for it) in our troubled health system, and I’m not alone in my experience. It is wholly appropriate for us to speak out against unjust conditions. But it is also undeniable that, for each of us, there will be moments in our lives when our suffering is too large for righteousness, when there is no fight left within us. In those moments, what we really need is refuge. 

It doesn’t feel good to watch our own bodies break apart and break down; at times, we may view it as a punishment or a curse. But when we do so, we miss the very essence of our humanity. Just as manifestation is our birthright, so is dissolution. In essence: We were made for this. 

When we remember this truth, a courage rises up to help us hold it. When we face our own physical suffering and humanity, we enter a room through which every person ever born has passed, a room in which all of our daily troubles (from relationship anxieties to the never-ending questions about our life purpose), as well as future concerns (like career goals or insufficient retirement savings) evaporate, and all that is left is that fiercely awake, undeniable presence. We remember, in these moments, that every moment might be our last; we are reminded of the awe inherent in our brief and precious lives. 

Moments like these remind me that while a peak experience is often thought of as a positive or ecstatic experience, it isn’t always. Rather, it’s an experience in which our consciousness is dropped like a pebble into the lake of shared humanity, and we realize the truth of our own existence. While waking up to the sacredness inherent in our bodily suffering doesn’t make it pleasant, it can offer the sweetness of surrender, which changes the way we move through the world. It reminds us that, even on the darkest road of pain or illness, when we feel hopeless and terribly alone, we are walking the path that every human walks—and we can show up to meet ourselves out there, and carry ourselves through. 

Life is hard. Say yes to that. 

EXAMINED LIFE It’s winter and it’s dark out and we’re approaching the holiday season, so … I want to talk about being uncomfortable. I like to talk about discomfort because it’s real and it’s non-negotiable, and we make most of the choices in our lives based on a perceived avoidance of it. 

Like anyone, I’ve been tasked to make some big decisions in my life. But, for the moment, I want to talk about a very small one.

Two years ago, I went on a solo weeklong vacation to a retreat center in Hawaii because I was in deep need of rest. For the first time in my adult life, I had no agenda but to enjoy the weather, sleep copious amounts, and eat good food. For the first 6 days, I faithfully toted around a worn copy of Alan Watts’ This is It from the dining room to the poolside, and read about the perfection of imperfection in between chowing on farm-to-table lasagna, petting stray kittens, and lazily paddling around in the pool. I didn’t talk to anyone because I had decided to keep the week for myself.

On my final day, while sitting in the clothing-optional communal hot tub (in which I was the only one who ever opted for clothing), I found myself in a conversation with a local guy who offered to take me on a motorcycle ride around the island later that day. I said yes (because: motorcycle tour in Hawaii!). But as soon as I walked away, I felt a pit in my belly. The pit grew larger. The more I contemplated it, the more I realized: I really didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to navigate the safety precautions, or deal with the possibility that there was a romantic intention on his part, or take away from my precious time alone on my last day there. But … I also didn’t want to turn down the generous offer, stand this person up, or hurt his feelings by telling him I had changed my mind. The Didn’t Wants blended into a well-trained but uninspiring internal chorus until there I was, laying in an old rope hammock on a sun-drenched day in Hawaii, beside myself with anxiety. There didn’t seem to be a single decent choice.

This story is insignificant because, really, who cares that I had a first-world-problem meltdown in a hammock in Hawaii over an unwanted motorcycle ride? Yet, this story is significant because it points to the fact that even in the most optimal conditions (like Hawaii and hot tubs), our minds can begin scanning for a painless solution to a problem. And when it can’t find a painless solution (because maybe there isn’t one), it will just keep scanning and scanning. For a small problem, like this one, the scanning might go on for a few hours; with a larger problem, it could go on for months or years. 

Our minds do all this scanning to avoid pain. But, of course, we can’t avoid pain. We all know that our bodies and feelings are engineered to get hurt, that the loveliest conversation with a close friend can make us feel lonely when it ends, and that snow and clothing are pretty when they are new and disdainful when they are dirty. Even if you’re fortunate enough to have a body that is generally in good working order, it still gets uncomfortable. Every time you shift your position in your seat, you’re doing that because your body hurts. Same when you change positions when you sleep. Hunger is painful. Overeating is painful. Being alone is painful. Being with people is painful. Experiencing injustice is painful. Unintentionally harming someone else is painful. If you’re a morning person, evenings are painful; if you’re an evening person, mornings are painful. If you are a depressed person, knowing that pain exists is painful. If you are an anxious person, thinking about how much more painful things can get is painful.

And yet, we spend the bulk of our lives searching for a path where we won’t feel pain. Unpleasant feeling? Eat a cookie. Drink a beer. Binge-watch Stranger Things. Say something mean about someone else, and then say you meant nothing mean by it. Order some edible antioxidant face cream on Amazon. Lie instead of facing the truth. Pick up your phone to see if you got a new message. Put it down. Pick it up again. Put it down again. Eat another cookie. You’d think all of this running from pain would lead to a happier life, right? But unfortunately all it means is that we continue to have unpleasant experiences, with the addition of a lot of unpleasant running. 

Of course, sometimes we are in immediate danger (or the train is leaving the station) and running is appropriate. But what if, the rest of the time, we take a moment to grok the fact that it’s all going to hurt, and decide for ourselves which type of pain we want to take on? When we look to the future, we often hold two possibilities: one of hope for joy and pleasure, and the other for fear of loss and uncertainty. What if we looked to the future and held the possibility of choosing the discomfort of discipline, growth, and possible rejection over the discomfort of feeling unfulfilled, stagnant, and isolated. 

What if we stopped to realize that the most important things in life quite predictably hurt? Paying attention hurts. Loving someone deeply hurts. Committing to a project that may or may not be successful hurts. Waking up to meditate every morning hurts. Being a good parent hurts. Turning off your electronics for a day hurts. Disentangling yourself from a toxic job or relationship hurts. Standing up for yourself hurts. Standing up for others hurts. Closing a door so a new one can open hurts. Lots of important things hurt. If we understand this on a visceral level, we can deliberate less, and make wise, if uncomfortable, choices. And there’s a bonus: If we can tolerate the pain inherent in the thing we are choosing, we can also experience the pleasurable feelings of decisiveness, courage and integrity that accompany a good, but hard decision. 

Thinking back on that day in Hawaii, my mind’s real flaw was believing there should be an easy answer, an option that didn’t hurt. When I finally stopped searching for a choice that was painless, I was able to see that I only had three painful options to choose from. One was to go on the motorcycle ride I didn’t want to go on. The other was to simply not show. The third was to go to the meeting spot and tell this person I had decided to spend my last evening on the island alone. 

I chose the third one, which means I chose the pain of disappointing someone over the pain of doing something I didn’t want to do and the pain of lacking integrity by ghosting. And yeah, it did hurt—I don’t like to disappoint people. But it also made me summon the courage to be authentic and truthful, which was profoundly pleasurable. I then took a spacious solo drive around the whole region and watched the sun set over the ocean, my mind relaxed and free. 

As we move toward the end of the year—into holiday parties, the glory (or lack thereof) of family communing, and the reckoning of a year coming to a close—many of us will be tasked with decisions small and large. Will you avoidantly pull the cover over your head in the dark morning hours, or will you face the pain of rising and meditating or exercising before work? Will you drown in a bottle of wine any unsettled feelings about the year, or will you face them head on with reflection and wisdom? Will you choose the pain of hiding in your phone during a difficult conversation with someone you care about, or will you choose the pain of trying to connect despite the difficulty? Even if you’re not changing jobs or moving this year, you are constantly making decisions. Instead of always searching for the option that doesn’t hurt, choose the option that most aligns with your values. And be prepared to feel some pain and grief—and then a taste of freedom.

Examined Life: Power, patriarchy, and the imperfect guru

It’s the end of an era, albeit a very short one.

In 2014, Against the Stream (ATS) Buddhist Meditation Society—an organization founded by counter culture Buddhist teacher Noah Levine—opened a local center in San Francisco, offering a beautiful new space on Folsom Street that soon became one of the most popular places in the city to practice meditation. ATS’ mission revolved around the notion of acceptance of all people, especially folks in recovery from substance abuse and others who felt they didn’t fit in with the more mainstream Buddhist communities. But this past weekend, after a 5-month independent investigation conducted by an attorney specializing in workplace harassment, ATS deemed, in an email to its community at large, that there was substantial evidence to conclude that Levine had violated the ATS Teacher’s Codes of Ethics by way of sexual misconduct. 

The letter stated that the board of ATS removed Levine as a teacher. However, as a result of the controversy, which started in March after a woman accused Levine of assault (other accusations followed, though the details of them have not been made clear), the organization has lost teachers and tremendous private funding, and has gone financially belly-up. After only four years, the heavily attended San Francisco center is closing, along with all other centers and affiliated ATS groups. In the year of its 10th national anniversary, it looks like Against the Stream will be completely dissolved, a devastation to practitioners, teachers, and support staff of the organization. Levine has been denying and continues to deny all allegations of misconduct. In a statement he made during an August 27 Facebook Live video, he says that he has been promiscuous in recent years, and has slept with a married woman. But he also states that this behavior has been entirely outside of the spiritual community and does not represent misconduct. 

With his tatted arms, prior life of addiction, and rough-and-tumble je ne sais quoi, Levine, now 47, became a cult figure in the growing meditation scene after the success of his first book, Dharma Punx. He later wrote the book Against the Stream, which led to the opening of his meditation centers where practitioners assembled, and ATS-branded jackets that said “Meditate and Destroy” were sold and purchased. He also created a national nonprofit AA-like recovery program called Refuge Recovery, as well as a for-profit substance abuse treatment center under the same name in Los Angeles, both modeled after another book he wrote called Refuge Recovery. Through ATS, Levine, who is the son of the late Buddhist teacher and author Stephen Levine, is credited with bringing Theravada/Vipassana (Insight) Buddhist teachings to a whole new generation of practitioners, and for saving the lives of countless people who got caught in the throes of addiction. And now, he’s also credited for engaging in sexual misconduct with women.

This is obviously not the first story we’ve heard about the sexual misconduct of prominent teachers in Eastern spiritual communities who have reached so-called “dharmalebrity” or ”yogalebrity” status. In the Buddhist world alone, there’s been a trail of sexual misconduct by former male “gurus,” including Joshu Sasaki (Zen), Chogyam Trungpa (Shambhala), and the current scandal involving Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche (Shambhala). In the yoga world, we’ve witnessed the same behaviors with Amrit Desai (founder of Kripalu), John Friend (founder of Anusara), Bikram Choudhury (founder of Bikram Yoga), and, most recently brought to light, Pattabhi Jois (founder of Ashtanga). For most of these teachers, the allegations made came from women embedded in their spiritual communities; in Levine’s case, it’s still unclear how much of the allegations were from students versus non-students. (As a note, there is an additional criminal investigation underway being conducted by the LAPD.)

A quick scouring of social media in the ATS community right now shows a mix of anger, grief, and absolution. Some people want to take Levine down, others want to forgive him in light of all the people he’s helped, and others want to leave the door open to forgiving him at some point—but not yet. Some believe he did great harm; others believe he shouldn’t be judged for things that went on outside the sangha (Buddhist spiritual community). The conversations are intense, and creating a rift in a community that was once brought together in the name of compassion and wound-healing. 

A big question at the fore is around what constitutes sexual misconduct. Though there was an initial allegation of nonconsensual sex, many of the allegations have revolved around this teacher’s behavior on dates and on dating apps. A line of defense from both teacher and students has been that Levine is only human. Which is true. And it’s also true that all of the teachers above, including Levine, chose to take leadership positions in systems that specifically revolve around ethical codes of nonviolence, wise speech, and wise sexuality; to teach doctrines that support a human being’s ability, through dedicated practice, to refrain from responding unskillfully to distracting stimuli and urges; and to teach about the importance of upholding community values, in part by modeling them in their own lives. So, inside the sangha or out, why do teachers keep betraying their own supposed values when it comes to the treatment of women?

It comes down to power. 

For thousands of years, society has known that power corrupts. Now, science has proven that power actually alters the structure of the brain. While it’s easy for most of us to see that a short-term feeling of power can make us less sensitive to our environments, according to recent studies reported in The Atlantic, holding a long-term position of power in society actually creates “functional changes” in the brain that make people less empathetic and less risk-averse. Even if someone rises to power as a result of admirable desires to do good in the world, the very attributes that helped bring them into a position of power (let’s say, emotional sensitivity and an ability to connect with others) are frequently lost when that position of power is achieved. We’ve all heard the expression “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Now the neuroscience bears it out. 

So are some male teachers entering the field of spiritual teaching because they want to have power over others? Or does the amount of power they are given, as they rise up the ranks in their status, change them in ways that turn them into abusers? 

Because the system of patriarchy has already put men in a place of power in society before they even step into a “power position” in an organization, it’s not an easy call to make. It’s likely that the brains of any privileged group already have some power-influenced brain dysfunction. That being said, if we look closely at many of the abuses in these systems, they happened after a teacher reached a certain level of popularity that made them feel utterly invincible. And the people and structures around them—colleagues, followers, book publishers, and now social media channels—help to maintain that illusion.

I’ve known many a modern spiritual teacher who “changed” after becoming seen as an “important teacher.” Suddenly, the once humble and articulate talks about monitoring one’s ego and checking one’s reactive impulses become an avenue for the teacher to strengthen their own ego and become blind to their own reactive impulses. When the teacher’s financial wellbeing comes into play, the situation becomes further complicated. What began as a love affair with the dharma—the philosophy and practice of the tradition—turns into concerns over how many students were in the room, how many books were sold, and how many people signed up for such and such retreat or training. As the mailing lists and the book sales grow, so does the mirage of importance, and with that, these teachers—consciously or unconsciously—try to maintain status through various avenues, including sexual harassment, inappropriateness, or abuse.

It’s important for there to be teachers. Without them, there are things we can’t see about ourselves. The meaning of “guru” is often translated as “one who dispels darkness.” But we have to get smarter about how we create modern spiritual community, and how we monitor our teachers. As a community and a society at large, we have to understand, deep within our bones, that no matter how much light a person sheds on the lives of others, no one is invulnerable to becoming altered by power. The Buddhist teachings, themselves, tell us that all things—including the human mind—are impermanent and always changing. We would do well to put some of our faith and trust in a good teacher, but we are foolish to do so without restraint. The teacher, no matter how charismatic or perspective-changing for the student, is in a human body with a human mind that is perhaps trained in some way, but still vulnerable to deep dysfunction.

As someone positioned as a teacher in the local yoga/mindfulness communities, I, too, feel broken about the dissolution of Against the Stream. What’s heartbreaking about this particular betrayal is that Levine positioned himself as a leader not only in the world of modern Buddhism but also in the world of social justice. And yet, at least according to the reports, he still took inappropriate actions that negatively affected others. 

Moving forward, we need better structures in place to check the power of the teachers and leaders of the community. These structures need to consist of a diverse group of people who have nothing to lose or gain by outing someone in a powerful position. Each spiritual community needs to have specific guidelines about what is and what isn’t permissible in the community, and the teachers should be held to the very highest of standards—inside, but also outside, the community as they are setting an example for students as both a teacher and as a lay person. More women need to be in positions of spiritual leadership, and more men need to step aside so there is room for them. All leaders should be monitoring one another closely and holding one another accountable for anything that might even suggest a slip in conduct. (While not all sexual misconduct is out in the open, someone else usually knew it was going on and chose to ignore it.) As a culture, we also need to let go of the fallacy of savior. We can learn from our teachers, but ultimately, as each one of these situations reminds us, we have to save ourselves.

One of the many wonderful things about ATS as a community is that they actually did have specific rules of conduct (which Levine had been part of engineering), as well as a board of directors that was willing to enter into this investigation. In another, less principled community, the incidents may have continued to be buried under the rug. (Though Levine has said that he believes the board did not handle the situation well, and believes their verdict to be unfair.) 

At the end of the day, a much-loved organization is dissolving. From the looks of it right now, the other ATS teachers will continue to offer their teaching, just not under the umbrella of ATS. Also, Levine currently plans to keep teaching meditation at his Refuge Recovery treatment center in Los Angeles, as well as on retreats and via livestream. There’s no doubt more details will continue to surface as time goes by. For now, it’s an incredible disappointment for many that it’s the end of an era for Against the Stream. Hopefully it’s also the end of an era for the age-old power structures that enable spiritual teachers to cause harm—intentional or no—to the very communities they claim to serve.

Examined Life: Far to fall

EXAMINED LIFE Author Anne Lamott once wrote, “My mind is a neighborhood I try not to go into alone.” It’s a pearl, but of course it’s also a joke. No one gets to avoid the sketchy terrain of the mind. It’s not simply a rough neighborhood; it’s an ever-changing neighborhood. One moment it’s safe, and the next moment it’s dangerous. And the next moment, who knows? Place this instability in a culture that insists instability stay under wraps, and you might wonder why anyone is surprised when the news breaks about a celebrity suicide. Our world of hidden broken hearts and public smiling faces can feel very hard to live in.

As both a longtime writer and meditator, I’ve been engaging intimately with the rocky terrain of mind—and in conversation with others doing the same—for as long as I can remember. In my explorations, I’ve had profound moments of delight and unspeakable moments of despair, and I’ve learned that, although beautiful at times, the psyche is a wild and delicate flower. In some of us, it’s even more delicate because of traumatic history, genetic neurodiversity, or both. But, in anyone, predictable it is not.

It’s been a couple of weeks since the deaths of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade, which is a lifetime in our current news cycle, but this country is experiencing its highest suicide rate in decades, and I think we need to continue the conversation. When the news first broke of their suicides, the big question on everyone’s tongues was (and always is): How could someone who has so much prestige and/or money do something so incomprehensible? Within this question lies two major false assumptions—that happiness is born of fame, and that suicide is incomprehensible. But we silly humans keep asking the question anyway, hoping to finally get an answer. 

Perhaps a better to question to ask is: To what unreasonable expectations are we holding our heroes—and ourselves? Many of the people we revere are those who utilize their deep sensitivities in their life’s work. But as much as we laud the results of the work of these individuals, as a society we do not care for their wellbeing. We do not value their work unless it makes money or catapults them into popularity. If they do manage to achieve any position in society, our culture of celebrity demands they achieve more. If they fall short, our culture shuns their neuroses and shames their missteps. 

We want our heroes to be a beacon of light for us. We don’t want them to be poor, depressed, or hermetic. We want to believe they exist in a permanent state of exuberance and fulfillment.  We haven’t found that for ourselves, but we want to believe it is possible for someone—and that maybe a little of their heightened state will rub off on us.

But this level of expectation is unreasonable. No one actually holds up to it. Some people have enough social support and inner stability to stand their ground against the waves. But for many people, the shame inherent in not being enough proves to be one of the most painful emotions a human being can experience. It is the pain of a deep, primordial fear of being ostracized from the tribe. And when that pain can no longer be endured, people—reasonable people—will look for a way out. It is not incomprehensible to feel this way; it is the human condition. We are wired to avoid or pacify pain, and that’s exactly what draws people to addiction. It’s also what draws people to suicide. Most people who kill themselves don’t want to die; they just can’t bear anymore to live.

In a society predicated on the goals of life, liberty, and the pursuit (i.e. chasing after) of happiness, we have now unwittingly engineered the concept of celebrity in every field, from fashion designer to novelist to school teacher. Celebrity culture, regardless of the field, means a constant need to sustain an image. Even public figures who are trying to lead authentically can struggle because a public image needs to be constant, and the true expression of authenticity, by its nature, is always in flux. The public doesn’t know what to do with flux. 

The infiltration of celebrity culture has now entered the spiritual world. On the upside, this means more people have access now to ancient practices like yoga and meditation than ever before. But the downside is that we’ve created an image of our spiritual teachers, like we’ve done for our artists and athletes, which can very rarely hold up to reality. We use expressions like “big-time Buddhist teacher” or “Yogalebrity,” placing well-known teachers on precarious pedestals. Thankfully, some teachers have used their platforms to invite a deeper sense of acceptance around the challenges we all face, but those sentiments, too, can eventually become part of an image they must sustain. Those of us who have pursued life paths as contemplative teachers and healers—which require time for quietude and reflection—have been pushed by our extroverted culture to brand ourselves and sell our images, stoking the winds of ego and distraction even as we teach about the importance of extinguishing them. 

In July, it will be the one-year anniversary of the death of Buddhist teacher and author Michael Stone. Stone, who called British Columbia his home, died from an accidental drug overdose. Stone was a revered teacher who taught globally and authored multiple books on Eastern spirituality. And he had bipolar disorder—but none of his students knew. 

When the news broke that Stone died—and moreover how he died (the details of what happened were courageously offered to the public by his wife, Carina Stone)—many people were shocked. How could such a young, revered teacher die from an unintended overdose of a drug he bought on the street? How could he be teaching about mindfulness and liberation when he was suffering so deeply from demons in his own mind? 

Some of the teachers, however, were having a different conversation. We were having a conversation about pedestals, the human frailty of mental states, and shame. We were wondering how we might have acted in Stone’s shoes, each one of us wrestling a demon of our own, walking the tightrope between authenticity and privacy, personal transparency and a commitment to modeling appropriate spiritual life while in the public eye.

While I wished Stone had felt able to share with his students his personal struggles with bipolar mind states—especially to help students who struggle with similar states, themselves—I also understand why he didn’t. In our culture, offering that kind of admission is taking a big risk. We humans are a tough crowd. 

Today, it’s not only people with large followings who are subject to the culture of celebrity—it’s all of us. We can all be a hero for a minute or an hour. We have free and ample space to self-promote not only our businesses, but our personalities. On the one hand, how liberating! On the other hand, what price do we pay for this liberty? Strong mental health in today’s world has become equated to those among us who have resilience to or comfort in a world of extreme extroversion, ambition, and self-congratulation. The rest feel off-kilter in this culture, straddling desires for a private life with the reality that a truly private life is no longer possible. 

When we talk about solutions for living skillfully with intense mind states, like depression and anxiety, it’s of course important to include all the modalities available to us today; practices like yoga and meditation, therapy, medication, community, and eating healthy can all be of huge support for our mental health. But the big elephant in the room is that we are ignoring the conditions of the very soup we swim in. If, as a society, we don’t make space for a conversation about how our cult of celebrity—even when we’re at the “top”—often serves to exacerbate our inborn shadow feelings of despair, unworthiness, and shame, then we are missing the point. Societal pressure to endlessly produce, and a culture bound by devotion to external recognition by the masses, won’t save a single one of us. We need to think long and hard about what will.

To start, we can choose to show up more authentically in our lives, in our work, and on our social media platforms—especially if we are in leadership positions—and stop presenting as heroes. We can also learn to be more aware of the expectations we are placing on our own heroes. We can have open conversations about the detriments of comparison and shame. And we can remember that, within each one of us, lies a neighborhood we’d rather not go into alone—and that we don’t always have to.

Examined Life: Don’t just sit there—listen

EXAMINED LIFE As I was walking to class the other night, the sky suddenly changed from picturesque puffed clouds to torrential downpour. I had no rain gear or umbrella, so I picked up the pace to a jog so as not to get drenched. Fully aware that slipping on the pavement moments before I had to teach would be an undesirable occurrence, I began focusing intently and saying to myself, with each step, the words “don’t slip.” Thankfully, I didn’t. 

It got me thinking: Imagine how different our important conversations would be if we could take on a similar “don’t slip” mantra while engaging in them. But, we generally do just the opposite. The conversations we’re having—in person, online, in emails, and in texts—are often scatterbrained, agitated, and reactive. During this time of societal chaos and technological distraction, we’re “slipping” a lot. We may have diplomas and driver’s licenses, but when it comes to communication, we’re far from mastery. That’s because we aren’t taught interpersonal communication the way we’re taught soccer, legal arbitration, or physics. In fact, we aren’t taught it at all. 

The importance of communicating with intention is an aspect of all major spiritual traditions.  Buddhism touts the importance of wise speech. The Ten Commandments tell us: “Thou shalt not lie.” The New Testament states that “In the beginning was the Word … and the Word was God.” Don Miguel Ruiz, the author of the Toltec wisdom book, The Four Agreements, emphasizes being “impeccable with your word.”

But we are not impeccable, not with our speech or our listening. We have more ways to communicate than ever before—which means more ways to miscommunicate, too. What can begin as a small language misstep can quickly escalate into an argument, the end of a relationship, or violence. And language, when misused, is often a major form of systemic oppression. We can do better, but we need some schooling.

What we need to understand is that thought and emotion precede language. Though we’re all familiar with the common use of the expression “I spoke before thinking,” what really happens is we speak too quickly after thinking. For example, when we hear something we don’t like in a conversation, an aversive thought immediately arises about that thing. Then we become fearful or defiant, and our nervous system becomes agitated. Now, chemical changes are occurring in our bodies to assist in fight or flight. And then, in this basically drugged state, we speak. 

As babies, it’s natural and fitting to communicate from this place of emotionally-charged safety-seeking. Maybe even cute. As adults, it’s irresponsible at best, and destructive at worst. We become aware only of getting our immediate needs met, like toddlers, though those needs are less about eating and diapering, and more about attaining or maintaining a position of control, righteousness, or status in the dynamic in which we find ourselves. A lot of harm can be done when we communicate from this state. A lot of, well, slipping.

Are You Talking or Listening?
As the practice of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) teaches us, there are two roles in every conversation: Speaker and ListenerYou cannot play both roles at once (though if you grew up in New York, like I did, you might try; that’s an unofficial third role called Interrupter). It may feel stuffy or forced to consider your role in every moment of a conversation, but if you practice this over time, it becomes less like a game of chess and more like a relaxed tennis match. Roles will switch multiple times throughout the conversation but that’s always through a shared (sometimes even verbalized) agreement, so that each person feels fully heard. 

When you’re in the Speaker role, try to stay rooted in your body, with part of your attention below your neck, even as you talk. In this way, you stay focused and embodied. Speak slowly, when possible. Check for cues from the Listener to see if what you are saying is landing the way you’re intending it, and if it isn’t, try another way. Remember that mindful speaking is not the same as writing a persuasive essay. You’re not in conversation to defend your position (and if you are, it’s a great way to alienate people); you’re in conversation to connect.

If you’re the Listener, try to actually listen. Mindful listening has one intention: to understand the other person. If we listen merely as an obligation while we’re waiting for our turn to talk, or because we think the other person will give us something (a new job, a free drink, or an upgraded social status), we’re consciously or unconsciously trying to manipulate them—but we’re not listening. Learning how to deeply listen is a skill and practice, and has to be done again and again. 

Learn Self-Regulation
Generally speaking, we tend to regret things said in a moment of fear, anger, or contraction. That’s not a surprise. When your emotions are running high, your cognitive and rational abilities are running low; that’s simply a fact of our engineering. It’s kind of a design flaw, but evolution didn’t allow for a species recall, so this is what we’ve got. To make things more inefficient, we often don’t realize when our emotions have taken over because they hijack our brains. Ever notice how you are always 110 percent right when you are angry? Then, when you cool down, you realize you were more like 15 percent right (which is not a lot of right). How right you are didn’t change, but your adrenaline levels did. Some people stay angry all the time just so they don’t have to contend with the come down, but you don’t want that for yourself, and neither do I.

Our emotions are important for connection, but we don’t want them running the whole show. If we make an intention before a conversation starts, to engage with it slowly and with complete awareness, we can be aware when we are flooded by an emotion. For instance, if you’re talking and your face gets really warm or your heart starts racing … stop talking. This is a good moment to take a few breaths and regulate your system until you can speak calmly again. If you can’t calm down, it’s OK—simply tell your conversation partner that you do want to finish the conversation, but need a break because your nervous system is overwhelmed. Meditating (outside of conversation) is a great way to practice feeling emotions, naming them, observing the sensations that arise with them, and learning to regulate the physiological effects they produce. War, by the way, is a product of mass communication between dysregulated nervous systems. So learning how to stabilize your own nervous system is a radical act. 

Be Aware of the System We Live In
If you are male, white, hetero, wealthy, cis-gendered, or able-bodied, you may not notice how oppression arises in conversation dynamics. But it does. If you find yourself in a dialogue with someone who faces systemic oppression (even if it doesn’t seem to relate to the topic at hand), be extra aware of how much space you are taking up in the conversation, and how you are taking up that space. The words mansplaining and whitesplaining point to an unconscious attempt by those in positions of societal power to take the reins of a conversation simply because they are used to doing so. You may not think you’re dominating the dynamic, but you might be anyway.

Communicate Empathically
Let’s say a person has come to you to talk about a difficult situation in their lives, like their dog is sick or they had an argument with a co-worker. Look at the below most common responses. Which is closest to your go-to?

  1. It’ll be OK! It could be so much worse! (insert heart emoji)
  2. That totally reminds me of the time when I …
  3. Are you sure that’s what really happened?
  4. What you should do is …(insert your sage advice)

These may seem like fine responses, but if you look closer, you can see that a) completely dismisses your friend’s emotions, which makes her feel small; b) feels like a way of relating, but in actuality simply reroutes the attention to yourself; c) doubts your friend’s sanity, which is not helpful (unless you really do doubt his sanity and then it’s still not helpful); and d) advises your friend, even though she has not asked for advice—and likely doesn’t want any. 

So, if we can’t smooth things over, narcissistically hijack the conversation, interrogate, or advise, what are we supposed to do? Responding to a friend or relative in distress is a privilege. You are not being asked to fix their life. You are being called upon to be present with their suffering. Start by patiently listening until they are at a stopping point. Then, let them know you hear them and can see how hard this is for them. You can also ask caring questions, like “How did this part make you feel?” or “Tell me more, if you like.” 

If you want to offer support, ask your friend what kind of support would be helpful. And then make sure your conversation partner feels complete with what they shared before changing the subject. How you respond can dramatically change a person’s experience in the conversation—and in their lives.

If this all sounds like a lot of work just to communicate, that’s because … it is! But consider this: We’re a bunch of animals walking around on a giant rock floating through space, with very little understanding about how anything really works, and the main way we have to make connections with one another is through language. What could be more important than improving how we use it? (Insert rainbow or hug emoji here.)

Examined Life: Love and the lost art of friendship

Photo by Linda Castleson

EXAMINED LIFE We all know when it’s here. The chocolate hearts, the smell of cut flowers, the pink and red greeting cards and stickers and advertisements promoting dinner specials, couples massages, and just about anything that can, in any way, be connected to Eros. Modern culture (and capitalism) has gone off and running with this annual celebration of romance, which likely originated in a barbaric Ancient Roman fertility festival called Lupercalia before catapulting into commercial popularity (via Hallmark) a couple thousand years later. Today, Americans collectively spend close to 20 million dollars celebrating the Love Holiday, which makes some of us happy and some of us sad and some of us wondering if there might not be a better use for the 20 mil. But there is one thing on which we can all agree: Everyone knows what’s up on February 14.

And we’ve always known. Since we were young, we’ve learned that romantic love is the pinnacle of social experience—that you’re incomplete without your prince/princess/better half/missing piece. But the anecdotal suffering that this fairytale perpetuates for the partner-less, along with current sociological research, suggests we’re placing too much emphasis on romantic love—and not enough on friendship. The dollars tell the same story. Americans spend money on the things they care about, and we’re not spending millions of dollars to celebrate our pals each year.

Deep social connections have always been important. Historically, our species lived in tribes, and becoming disconnected from the tribe could result in your demise. In spiritual practice, close community has always been valued strongly. In Buddhism, the sangha (or community of practitioners) is considered to be just as important as the teachings. Today, studies show that social integration is one of the most important factors for a healthy and satisfying life, for both single and married folks. And we also know that a lack of solid friendships increases the risk of depression and suicide. Remember when Elvis sang, “I’m so lonely, I could die”? It wasn’t hyperbole. For many people, loneliness and isolation can quickly devolve into a precarious life-or-death situation.

Light social connections, of course, are easy to have. Personally, I have 1,134 friends. On Facebook. You may have less or, if you’re more of an extrovert than I am, you might have a great many more. But of those gobs of likers and political-posters and joke-makers and meme-sharers, how many of those friends are really … friends? That’s not to say acquaintances aren’t important. We benefit from having good coworkers, fun activity partners, and friendly neighbors; these connections contribute to the fabric of our interconnected lives.

Real friendships, however, are different. Like marriage, real friendship is a contract. You may not sign an actual paper (or have to pay lawyer fees if the friendship doesn’t last), but we’d be a better functioning society if we took our friendships more to heart. And friendship has been a lost art for some time. CS Lewis was bemoaning the devaluation of friendship in his 1960 tome The Four Loves, way before social media, quite literally, changed the definition of the word “friend.”

So, what is a real friend? It may sound hard to quantify, but here are five basic principles to embody—and look for—in a true friendship.

  1. Dependability and kindness Yes, this is number one because it’s that important. Good friends show up for one another in a consistent, open-hearted way. They stay in touch and check in if they haven’t heard from the other person in a while. They’re happy to sacrifice their own personal comfort to care for one another in a time of need. They return calls and messages quickly, and show up to—or inquire about—important events. They feel comfortable asking for reasonable favors. They care deeply and are present in one another’s lives.

  2. Authenticity and devotion You want to be able to be yourself around a real friend, and vice versa. That means sticking it out through hard times. A real friend won’t break the friendship contract because the other person is suddenly depressed or ill or acting neurotic. A real friend stays the course. There’s a positive-thinking theory that says we should only have successful friends who challenge us to grow, but guess what? Depressed friends challenge us to grow, too! From a Buddhist perspective, having friends who are experiencing success will teach you to have mudita or sympathetic joy; caring for friends who are going through a hard time will teach you karuna or compassion. Also: Studies show that positive thinking is more contagious than negative thinking in friend circles. If you’re in a good place in your life, consider it an honor to be there for a stressed-out friend, and lift them up. (Of course, if a friend is no longer dependable or kind, that’s a different story, and you may have to reevaluate the connection.)

  3. Evolution Friendship, like any important relationship, presents an avenue for developing oneself. That development might be emotional, creative, physical, or intellectual, but the sign of a true friendship is that you are evolving within it.

  4. Dedication despite romantic relationships Even if you are in a secure relationship with a wonderful partner who fills all the roles of best friend, lover, and advisor, you still need friends. For one, studies show it’s good for your marriage to have friends! Plus, there are people out there who need you. Friendship is an essential way of contributing to the world in which we exist. And if you’re newly in a relationship, remember: Your friends still need to feel needed. So, even if your partner shows up for all the trials and tribulations in your life, ask your old friend to show up, too. And return the favor whenever possible.

  5. Shared value of friendship In order to have strong friendships, both people must value the sanctity of friendship. You may think you do, but there’s likely one item on this list you could work on—and probably one you’d like a friend to work on. If both of you value friendship, you can have a conversation about your friendship contract and work together to strengthen it.

If you’re feeling lonely and isolated, it may very well be that your real friend ability and/or your real friend supply is depleted. Check in with yourself and ask if you’ve been showing up in the way you value. Then, write down the names of the people closest to you, and consider the above list. How do they fare?

Oftentimes a friendship is failing because the two friends no longer have the same friendship needs. Having unavailable friends can be worse than having no friends at all—and take a toll on your self-worth. If you feel like you’re showing up more than your buddy, you’d do well to have a talk; if that’s not successful, consider moving away from the friendship—or at least, holding it with less importance—to make space for another committed friend to come into your life. Everyone should have at least five real friends (near or afar) who are willing to invest in the connection, and if you’re spending a lot of time hurting over an unavailable or unkind friend, you’re missing out on time that could be spent investing in a new, more available friend.

Many friendships will come and go over time. Just because you and a friend are in a deep friendship for part of your life doesn’t mean it will last forever. But with care and commitment, some friendships can last a long time, even a lifetime. And on Valentine’s Day, that’s just as worthy of attention as a capitalist version of Lupercalia.

Examined Life: New Year’s resolutions … good practice or delusion?

Photo by Karen Macklin

Welcome to Examined Life, our new column that explores the intersection between politics, culture, and living mindfully in the Bay Area and beyond. 

EXAMINED LIFE No one knows exactly how long the concept of a New Year’s resolution has been around but evidence suggests the Babylonians, some 4,000 years ago, made annual resolution-like promises to the gods that they would clean up their acts in the year to come. Of course they wanted to clean up their acts—we all do. We all want this year to be the year we finally get out of debt, improve our health, get married (or leave the disappointing person we’re married to), have more sex (or less sex with the wrong people), eat fewer cookies, start the great American novel, or learn to paint/play foosball/play paintball.

Generally speaking, the resolutions people make at the beginning of the year are good, even if often self-centered. Sociopaths aside, we all have the same basic desires: safety, peace, and contentment. But instead of practicing feeling safe, peaceful, and content, we instead go after external goals that we believe—and often without evidence—will lead us to feel safe, peaceful, and content.

It usually doesn’t work. For one, our resolutions usually ask us to accomplish a large and significant thing, often without a realistic game plan, and without taking into consideration the conditions that have made this goal to date unachievable or the myriad of unpredictable obstacles that will arise in the yet unrehearsed year to come.

But let’s say you do actually “manifest” the thing you want—which means you applied some effort and external conditions (i.e., environment, societal privilege, upbringing, luck) were agreeable to your cause. You can be sure that, after you nail that resolution, another desire will immediately become apparent. I know people of all walks of life who have set intentions for the new year and, after dedication and hard work, achieved them only to realize that a) they didn’t actually want that thing, b) that entree came with unappetizing side dishes and/or c) that thing was awesome for a minute—or maybe even a year—but did not (surprise!) bring everlasting fulfilment or protection from suffering.

This incurable dissatisfaction you have with your life is not your fault—it’s part of your organism. You are wired with a nervous system that tells part of your brain to always be on the lookout for danger (i.e. finding a new problem once you solve the old problem). As such, there is a 100 percent chance that—even if you quit smoking, drop 50 pounds, stop recycling your exes, start practicing yoga, make gobs of money, or finally delete your Facebook profile—you will still find issues with your existence that need fixing. Your life will still be hard. You will still, at times, be lonely. You will still fluctuate between a desire for more stability and more freedom. You will still be afraid to die.

Does that mean we should just give up? Are resolutions a waste of time? Should we should just sit back, drink a bacon milkshake, and go through the motions as we pollute our bodies, the airwaves, and the planet with toxicity of every possible type? No, people. It’s a good thing to want to be better, do better, and, especially, create a more sustainable, kinder world. And the somewhat arbitrary marker of January 1 (no offense, Gregorians) is as good a time as any to take stock of your life.

Making resolutions (or intentions, as yogis and meditators like to call them) is not the problem. The problem is the type of resolutions we make and the unrealistic results we expect from them.

To start, we make grand resolutions. That’s because we don’t think that attempting to change small, unskillful habits or unhealthy mind states are resolutions worthy of a place on our annual New Year, New You Bucket List. But creating small skillful habits of healthfulness, cleanliness, and kindness have more impact on our daily well-being and are more likely to train the very circuitry of our brain that gives us any agency at all over our larger life situation.

On top of this, we subconsciously expect that if only we can achieve this one thing, our lives will fall into place. But the truth is that if we achieve this one thing, we have simply … achieved this one thing. The other areas of our life will still be whatever they are, and in flux regardless. If we want truly to be happy, we have to do more than achieve resolutions. We have to come to understand the part of us that wants, and will always keep wanting, no matter how much we have. We have to love that part. And we also have to see just how silly it is.

For a moment, pretend you are a cute little kitten. Now think of your ultimate happiness, the future result of getting all the things you want, as a laser beam cat toy. As the light keeps changing place and direction, you chase it all around. But even when you put your paw on it, it cannot be caught. That’s because, little kitten, it’s not even a thing. It’s just a light. There is nothing to catch. When you realize this, you will eventually get bored of the laser, which has no real promise, and start looking around at what’s actually in front of you. And life will suddenly get a lot more interesting.

During the last week of 2017, I set out on a solo road trip from Miami to Birmingham to see some friends, visit a retreat center, and get some reprieve from the cool Bay Area winter. I was met with a number of disappointments, including car rental troubles, poor GPS mapping, a bizarre cold front in the south, and the news of a cat-sitter gone MIA. In the planning of the trip, I never would have imagined standing in a two-hour queue to retrieve my car in Miami, driving through frigid rain in Central Florida, or having to secure a locksmith while in Alabama to break into my San Francisco apartment so my cat could be rescued from uncertain conditions one day before NYE.

And yet, each time I experienced some setback in my travels (and they frustrated me, for sure), if I stayed open, some unexpected delight eventually appeared. In fact, some of the best memories from the trip—swimming with manatees in Crystal River, attending a dharma talk with Michael Singer in the forests of Alachua, and running around laughing in below-freezing weather in Birmingham with a dear friend on New Year’s Eve—were unplanned, indirect results of not getting what I wanted.

So, I ask this question to you, to me, and to the aforementioned laser-obsessed kitten: What if we really never will get all the things we want? What if we won’t even get half of them, even the ones we think we REALLY want? Sometimes this feels like a scary thought, life being short and all. We want the things we want. And yet, if we sit with the unavoidable truth of this, some relief begins to arise. If the dangling carrot of ideal conditions is only an illusion, we can stop postponing our lives until the imagined day that every single thing lines up perfectly. We can resolve to open to the wildness of our lives, and travel through the unexpected detours with curiosity and wonder. We can live our lives in present moments … and not simply in future resolutions.

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An Intention-Setting Short List

Instead of making your usual resolutions this year, consider doing just these 5 things.

  1. Clean up your relationships. Take responsibility for your shortcomings. Replace resentment for others’ shortcomings with an understanding that “failed” relationships are simply the result of two people having differing needs in any given moment of time. Recommit to the healthy relationships. Let go of the unhealthy ones or, at least, let go of your unmet expectations around them. You’ll be amazed at how much space this opens up in your mind and heart.

  2. Create intentions around ways you want to feel, instead of things you want to accomplish. For instance, instead of resolving to get a higher paying job, which may or may not be in your control, spend time contemplating, journaling about, or meditating on the quality of abundance. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still send out applications and go on interviews; it just means you’re not leaving the possibility to feel abundant in the hands of unpredictable conditions. (It also means you’ll show up to the interviews more confident and less desperate.)

  3. Start a daily gratitude practice. Yawn, I know. But this is brain training of the highest order. At the same time each day, write down a few things you feel grateful for. If gratitude feels hard to muster, use the word appreciation. If that feels difficult still, simply write down anything you received over the course of the day, as minor as it may be. (A funny text from a friend; a smooch from the dog.) Noting what we presently have, even as those things change daily, tames the ever-wanting part of us and strengthens the part of the brain that experiences contentment.

  4. Create a new skillful habit (or two). It can seem tempting to go big or go home. But grand or nonspecific resolutions don’t usually bring real transformation to our lives. Instead of resolving to be neater, consider starting a practice of making your bed each day, the moment you get out of it. Instead of resolving to start meditating daily for a half hour, consider doing it for three minutes right before breakfast. Small, specific resolutions like this—which are linked to things you’re already doing—have a higher success rate and have a positive effect on every day of your life. Check out Stanford researcher BJ Fogg’s new Tiny Habits program for more support.

  5. Stay open. Be less attached to a specific outcome and more available to what life serves up. Some of the best things that happen to all of us are a result of not getting what we wanted.