Examined Life

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.

Examined Life: Reclaiming sacred spaces in the Digital Age

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 Do you remember the last time you stepped out into nature or simply had a moment of silence to reflect on what it means to be alive? First, you felt this all-encompassing awe and wonder. Then, the sobering recognition that this feeling is the exception, not the rule, in our daily lives. That’s because we have all lost our minds. Of course, humans have been losing their minds since forever. The problem is that we’ve now lost the places to which we once went to recollect them. We’ve lost our sacred spaces.

Sacred spaces are places where we go to be alone with our thoughts and feelings, and contemplate the wonder of existence; spaces where we gather with other human beings to revel in artistic expression or natural beauty; spaces where we break bread together, and gather to share our troubles and delights. The hiking trail, the dinner table, the arts venue, and the road trip—places that were once sacred—are all abuzz today with texting, checking in, and posting.

I hiked a volcano in Hawaii this year and had reception in the crater. Every time I go to a local live music venue, half the crowd is viewing the show through small rectangular screens. Recently, I attended a silent meditation retreat where I was surprised to see that many participants, once careful to leave their electronics at home or in the car, now had to be coerced by staff to surrender their devices in a bizarre faux-spiritual ritual. Just five years ago, I’d walk into the room to teach a yoga class in San Francisco, and the students would be on their yoga mats, quietly waiting for class to start. They still are, but now they’re on their yoga mats checking Facebook. 

As individuals, we’re not to blame. The human mind is fragile and easily misdirected by shiny, alluring, temporarily pleasurable distractions. Our devices have been engineered to fit the bill perfectly. Basically, we’re addicted—and we all know it. (Bay Area musician Cello Joe even wrote a hilarious song about it.) But what does this addiction mean, for our minds and for the future? 

Addiction, as you know, is a relationship with an activity or substance that we can’t break without serious difficulty. But though addiction is hard to end, it begins quite simply: We experience a very human feeling of discomfort—like loneliness, anxiety, or run-of-the-mill ennui—and we reach for some kind of balm or distraction. When we’re in an emotionally healthy space, we may self-soothe with community, nature, art, or exercise. Or, if we practice mindfulness, we may learn to tolerate the discomfort without reaching for anything. But if our nervous systems are taxed or we don’t have immediate access to healthy emotional relief, we reach for a quick fix. Dopamine. 

Dopamine is a happy-feeling neurotransmitter that is awesome at taking our minds off our present heartbreak or existential crisis du jour. This chemical is necessary for our brains, and is released during profound and deeply rewarding experiences through a slow and steady pathway. However, it is also released in intense and short-lasting bursts during activities or substances that offer immediate gratification. When we receive dopamine as this quick fix, we come down hard and fast, and then feel agitated until we get more. Over time, as a result of these repeated quick bursts, we desensitize to dopamine and need more and more of it to feel good—or even normal.

This is how major addictions like alcohol or gambling get going. But it also explains why, according to a recent study by a research company Dscout, the average person engages with their smart phone 2,600 times a day. While obsessive emailing and googling won’t ruin our lives the way heroin will, the addictive mechanism is similar. Our brains have been hijacked by a cyclic chemical process of which we are not in control; in essence, we have lost our minds.

In addition to temporarily hijacking our minds, another unfortunate result of this process is that, over time, it changes the brain and distorts our memory. The result: We literally forget other less immediately intense, but more meaningful and lasting, ways to access pleasure. So, we’re not intentionally disregarding those sacred spaces we once had. We’ve actually forgotten the point of them. In our inebriated states, we can’t see any reason to protect them. 

But it’s essential that we do. 

Smart phone addiction poses a very special kind of problem for those affected (i.e., most of us) because device abstinence is simply not an option for most people. Our phone, as you’ve likely noticed, is not just a phone—it’s our whole life in digital form, and it’s very hard to logistically do without. According to a recent study by Hackermoon, only about 50 percent of phone time is used for texts and calls. The rest of the time, we do questionably useful things (like watch videos, engage with social media, and play games), as well as essential and practical things (like get directions, send emails, track our bank accounts, pull up our boarding passes, and even, ironically, meditate). For the first time in history, all of the facets of our entire lives—the necessary along with the potentially addictive—are completely interwoven. So, while you might nobly desire to curb your dopamine-spiking social media-posting habit, you still need to use your calendar. Since it’s all in one place, it’s nearly impossible to visit the calendar without also visiting social media. And then you’re back in the loop of distraction.

There’s really only one antidote to this insanity, and that is the practice of discernment. This is the art of intentional choice-making, and it has played a major role in every great social and spiritual movement since the dawn of time. To practice discernment, we have to orient not to the short-term pleasure an activity might yield but instead to the long-term more profound benefits of any given action. Healthful eating over ice cream, the fragile life of the planet over quick financial gains, our long-term relationships over short-lived affairs: These are all acts of intentionality, not impulse. In this way, discernment is at odds with addiction because it is less about an immediate dopamine reward, and more about living a meaningful life. 

The practice of discernment is essential to protect our sacred spaces, which are, in turn, the best places to develop deeper discernment because we can notice, in those spaces, how awesome it feels to be free. Quiet, tech-free spaces give us access to the most essential parts of ourselves; if we lose these spaces forever, we’ll eventually forget what it is that we have lost, and thus have no hope of recovering it. We must establish times and places where we simply turn off technology (both the useful and the pleasure-seeking aspects). Think of it as rehab or detox for your mind. And if that doesn’t sound attractive, think of it as a time to dream and engage again with wonder and the infinitesimal space of consciousness that is your birthright. 

Our lives are deeply interconnected, which means we are all responsible for creating these spaces together, whether it’s the dinner table, the retreat center, the basketball court, or the yoga studio. Create social contracts with friends, family, and colleagues to put technology aside for a meal, a meeting, or the whole weekend. Make the bold choice to leave your house without your phone when you’re walking your dog or going food shopping, and just be present to the mundane miracle of existence. Invest in a cheap flip phone (I have one for just this reason) that can be your emergency contact number, so you’ll have no excuse not to turn off your smart phone at night, at meals, or on your days off. Most importantly: When you make the choice to power down, notice how empowering it feels; the imprint of that feeling will encourage you to develop more discernment.

And remember that sacred space is not only an external construct. The space of your own mind is also sacred, and—with some effort—can be maintained even when we do use technology. This takes a different type of discernment. It means that each time you reach for the phone, you pause for a moment and check in to see if you actually need it. If you do, stay focused on that purpose and don’t allow yourself to be pulled into another app or screen. And if you don’t, consider reaching for something else. Like a feeling of freedom. Like the understanding that it’s okay to be exactly as you are in this moment—lonely, anxious, fatigued—without checking out in the digital abyss. Reach for space, itself, and then abide within it. In moments like these, saying no to technology is saying yes to your relationship with all things sacred, including yourself.

Examined Life: The subtle power of ‘me too’

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 It seems like every day another wealthy, powerful man is in the headlines for harassing or straight-up assaulting multiple women, each scandal seemingly larger than the last. To male onlookers, it might seem like there’s been some weird upsurge in sexual violence perpetrated towards women in recent years. But women know that’s not the case. This stuff has been going on forever. The only difference is that now women—at least some of them—have enough power to report it and be taken seriously. On the one hand, we should be celebrating the little victories, like outing people like Roger Ailes and Harvey Weinstein. On the other hand, it feels like we’re slowly moving a huge boulder of silence and shame, and the result is an unearthing of millions of cockroaches. It’s gross and uncomfortable to watch it all.

Like many people, when I logged in to Facebook last Sunday, expecting the usual baby announcements and vacation photos, my feed was full of posts—by women I knew well, women I didn’t know well, and women I barely knew—all writing #metoo as their status. Some left it at just that, others created a visual meme, and others recounted disturbing stories of sexual harassment and assault. It took a moment to understand what was happening. Then, I felt a growing ache and rage inside. Was it possible that nearly every woman I know has been harassed or assaulted?

Emboldened by the bravery I was witnessing, I posted my own Me Too, sharing the multiple experiences of groping, objectification, stalking, and harassment to which I was prey both as an adolescent in New York and later as a grown woman in San Francisco. While it felt liberating at first to share my story, I soon became overwhelmed by the vulnerability of the action, the memories of the experiences, and some of the responses I was seeing (both to my post and elsewhere). The next day, I chose to delete it. I’m glad I shared it, but I couldn’t keep looking at it. And that means it still has a pull on me. It has a pull on all of us.

Me Too didn’t start as a hashtag. Social justice activist Tarana Burke got the idea for the movement in the mid1990s when she was a youth camp director in Brooklyn. After finding herself speechless upon hearing a camper’s horrific story of abuse, she realized that it was important for her to find a better way to connect with abuse survivors. This revelation led to her starting a movement in 2007 called Me Too, primarily focused on communities of color, in which survivors connected with one another through empathy.

This movement was recently amplified when, on October 15th, actress Alyssa Milano posted on Facebook a request that women who had been sexually harassed or assaulted write “Me Too” as a social media status. Within 24 hours, women chimed in from the US to Latin America to Pakistan. For about 48 hours, it was hard to see anything on social media but thousands upon thousands of Me Toos.

And then it all disappeared. In part, that’s a good thing—no sane woman can look at this stuff every day and keep on keeping on. But we should also be concerned. These stories are people’s traumas, and the first step to healing trauma is for the survivor to feel valued and heard, preferably for longer than a 24-hour news cycle.

Also somewhat concerning is that not everyone fully understood the point of Me Too. Many people were incredibly supportive, but some remarks from other women, while well-intentioned, missed the mark:
a) Why are we making this about women? Men are responsible for this behavior. They should be posting apologies rather than us outing ourselves!
b) Why are we saying all men are evil? Some men are great, like my husband and brother, for instance. #besthusband
c) Why are we bringing negativity into our lives? Let’s think positive, ladies!
d) This never happened to me but so sorry it’s happened to so many people. [sad face]

Here’s why these responses aren’t helpful:
a) Me Too is an empowering movement for survivors. Yes, it’s important that men, as a group, stand up and show support for the expression of these stories. But blaming and shaming men is not the point of Me Too. Absolving women from shame is.
b) Me Too is not saying that all men are evil. It’s not even saying that all abusers are evil. It is saying, however, that we live in a culture where objectification and assault are still widely acceptable. When you turn this issue into a platform to talk about your wonderful relationship, you lessen the healing power of Me Too.
c) Telling a trauma survivor to stop trippin’ on her trauma and get it together is an unskillful and potentially triggering response. Me Too is about being honored for your story, not criticized or minimized for it.
d) Cool, glad you’ve been one of the fortunate few who’s never been harassed or pawed, but voicing that in this context is Me Neither, not Me Too. (Also, it’s pity, which is not empowering.)

Me Too is about being heard and seen, believed, and supported. Much of that support comes from empathy. Empathy creates community. Community creates numbers. And numbers create organization and change. For many of the millions of women who posted Me Too, it was the first time they admitted that someone copped a feel, asked for a sexual favor, rubbed a penis up against them in a store, made an inappropriate comment about their body, or assaulted them on a date. That admission is a huge step and the most empowering immediate response, as Burke points out, is empathy from fellow survivors. The second most empowering response is a commitment from men to deepen their comprehension and re-attunement. (And I have seen a lot of just that, which is encouraging and moving.)

As a teacher in the yoga and mindfulness community in San Francisco, I am asked by women who are just starting to tell their stories of gender-based oppression and abuse how to reconcile this owning of their pasts with contemplative practice. They are pointing to an understanding of the Eastern religions that we are not our stories, that our stories are merely an aspect of ego mind, and that to be liberated, we must let go of our stories. And, sure, technically that’s true. But for most people, you have to come to terms with your past before you can release it. You can’t root out the cockroaches if you don’t unearth them—though they will be there regardless.

For most people, there’s not some super highway of enlightenment that takes you from trauma to nirvana overnight. You can’t transcend the self if you have a fractured sense of self in the first place. The work for many women (and all abuse survivors) is to develop that healthy sense of self, to learn how to love all of you, even your wounded parts. We need to tell our stories until we no longer need to tell our stories, and that will be when we feel fully heard.

I think of every brave woman who posted a Me Too story, most of them probably sitting alone at their computers, typing their heartbreak and fury onto a screen, desiring to be held by community and released from shame. In a recent tweet, Burke wrote that the Me Too movement was intended “to not only show the world how widespread and pervasive sexual violence is, but also to let other survivors know they are not alone.” She went on to call it “empowerment through empathy.” In other words, the empathy is part of the action. And it’s a part we can own. It reminds us we are in this together, and that makes it a superpower. I believe you. I see you. Me too.