“I like walking around cities better than in the countryside. I’m happy the trees are there, I just don’t need to see them, that’s all. I’m serious. I much prefer cities. Let’s face it, it’s actually better that we leave the trees alone; let them get along with doing their job without human interference. Cities, though: they’re full of people, and they’re the ones who need us. But we feel the opposite. As soon as we see all those people crowding the streets, filling the buildings, driving the cars, we feel aversion for them. We want to run away into the trees! It should be the other way around – at least, that’s how bodhisattvas would feel. The more people the better! Grist for their mill.”
– Venerable Robina Courtin
At the age of 50 years old, I have contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the United States government. I’m sure someone knows how much precisely, but I don’t. However, I do know it’s somewhere between a crap-ton and a shitload. My taxes have funded untold amounts of unnecessary military expenditures (and probably some necessary ones, there is no way to tell). Senators, Congressmen, and an endless string lackeys (some, I assume, were used by good people) have feasted and traveled on my dime. There has been boondoggles, pork projects, and tit for tat bargains stretching off as far as the eye can see, all on my taxes… and yours too.
For most of my life I have been told that I will likely never benefit from any of the money I’m required to pay into Social Security. I guess because someone else needed it, or something. They weren’t supposed to take it, but they did… and no one stopped them. Of course, if I get frustrated and stop “contributing” I will surely go to jail. And I still won’t ever see those benefits.
There are towns across the country with crumbling roads, poisoned water, and bridges that are more rust than metal. The bridges get upgraded less and less these days, instead they are triaged more and more. That comes out of my taxes too. And like most things, it costs more to repair this stuff than it does to maintain it, but that’s the next guy’s problem, right?
I work for a public school system, a target for any fiscal conservative. Therefore, pay increases have finally reversed direction from job performance. The same can be said for workplace morale, and parental indignation… or even staff payroll, and district budgets. Somehow this is supposed to prove that public education doesn’t work… yeah, I don’t get it either. Raises are hard to come by these days, unless you’re in Congress. Congress has never failed to give themselves decent raise, or three.
Soon Mitch McConnell and a whole bunch of politicians will vote as one (one political party, that is), to get rid of healthcare coverage for lots of people. Why? Good question. I can give you a dozen answers, all somewhat correct. But the truth is, that it’s what they been told/asked/threatened/bribed/want to do. They have also been given strict talking points by the same people who have told/asked/threatened/bribed/want them to vote this way. These talking points help them explain to you why you unconsciously want them to get rid of your actual healthcare, in favor of a really great conceptual one. And no, if they take away your healthcare, they won’t give any of the money back. Get real. And yes, you will still be required to pay the taxes for it.
So, lately I have been trying to avoid blogging about politics. It’s just too easy to wonk about this stuff, no matter where you stand politically. But, because so many people are overwhelmed, worried and anxious about losing their healthcare, this blog entry is actually doubling as a post about mental health.
Suffering is an option. An option we elect each time we read, or watch the news about politics, and the healthcare debate. But it doesn’t need to be that way.
Meditation is a wonderful tool that you can use to get perspective on these things. If you’re reading this, feel free to let me know if you think a simple beginners guide to meditation would be helpful for you. And once you learn it, they can’t tax it!
The solution to any existential problem often hinges upon how committed we are, which can be measured in how realistically we may consider other options. For some, the world never ceases to be an endless tapestry of options. For others, once they’ve made up their mind, they feel honor bound to uphold and defend it, period. It’s that solid act of decision that actually reinforces our resolve. The more concrete the decision, (actively eliminating all other options), the longer the staying power, and the more willing we become to look for ways to do what has to be done to make our original decision work out in the long run.
Let’s take marriage, for example. If you’re married and you’ve decided for whatever reason that divorce just isn’t an option for you, then are likely to put a lot of effort into other solutions when you are having problems. You will do whatever it takes to make your marriage work, because quite simply, you don’t really have any other choice (for the sake of the length of this blog entry, I am not addressing situations where someone may have to abandon their own core beliefs due to safety concerns for themselves, or others).
What I’m talking about here is a decision versus an intention. A decision is a judgement, conclusion, or resolution, that is reached after a period of deliberate consideration. Whereas, an intention is more like a plan that is forming. Decisions, by their very nature, eliminate other options. And while there they are conclusions of the mind, they are binding to the person who makes them. And they play a pivotal role in our inner happiness. How do you know if you’ve made a solid decision? Look at whether or not you are able to consider other options.
Are you married? Ask yourself whether or not you could even consider a divorce. That will give you an idea as to how committed your decision was (again, barring safety concerns, etc.)
Wondering if your decision to stop drinking is going to work this time? Look at how often the option to drink realistically presents itself. People who continue to attempt recovery, yet constantly relapse, have to live in this reoccurring nightmare as they search for a reason to hang their repeated stumblings upon. It was no accident that the authors of the 12 steps thought it best to shoehorn in the 3rd step, and its binding decision, prior to the real working part of their program.
Even thoughts of suicide could apply here. Many people have the thoughts, but far fewer act on them. Those who are still with us were willing to still consider other options during a critical time.
Suffice it to say that what I am getting at applies to all of us, especially in our bigger moments of weakness. We all have moments of doubt, but those who have made a binding decision are granted a little voice that tells them, “Sure, taking some other path may ease my suffering, but I can’t do it, it’s just not an option. There’s got to be something else I can do, someone who can help, some way to get through this.”
The fear of acting on something always comes before we act, it is a crucial moment that we pay little attention to. We don’t usually experience fear when we act, it almost always exists within the anticipation of action… beforehand. If we were to recognize the moment that exists prior to our actions as the crucial window that it actually is, we can learn to harness its power, because it is there that real decisions get made. And those decisions have the power to reduce the suffering we might have exposed ourselves to, had we not made sure we considered everything before we actually acted.
Yes, we know you people like iPhones!
Yes, we know you other people like Androids!
Yes, we know Apple stole some ideas from Android!
Yes, we know Android stole some ideas from Apple!
In the constant attempts that are made to divide us into groups, is there nothing we won’t end up at odds about if we aren’t paying attention?
One of the problems that can come with depression, anxiety, and isolation is the insane internal dialogue that develops. Let’s face it, living the majority of one’s days inside of your own head leads to some weird shit. And your internal dialogue can go haywire.
“I should really stop sitting here like this. I need to go outside. I mean, it’s beautiful out. Maybe I’ll go for a walk…”
A full hour passes, during which you have binge watched two more episodes of Everybody Loves Raymond, which you’ve already seen a half dozen times.
“I really should go out and walk around like the rest of the sheeple, pretending to enjoy the birds and half dead trees. Seriously! Don’t people understand that the reason the leaves are turning those colors is because they’re having the life choked out of them by the rest of the tree as it decides that they no longer need to live. It’s fucking barbaric! Maybe I can take in a few animals trying to eat their young too! Fuck this, I’m getting a drink.”
You get off the couch and go to the kitchen with the hopes of getting a beer.
“Shit! I only have 8 beers left, that’s not going to get me far, and it’s only 10:00 o’clock in the morning. I’ll be just drunk enough to get arrested by the time I need to go get more. I suppose I could just go now. But what if I see someone from work at the store and I’m buying beer this early? I guess I could drink the tequila I still have, there’s plenty of that. But it’s 10:00 o’clock! Who drinks tequila at 10:00 in the morning?!”
At this point your brain tells you that if you have a shot and a beer, you can make both last longer, and it’s more socially acceptable because there’s beer involved.
A couple of hours and a more than a few drinks later, food becomes an issue.
“I need food. I can’t eat anymore pasta, I just can’t. I suppose I could go down to the Mayberry House of Pizza and get a chicken finger sandwich… But what if she’s there? We went there once together and she knows I go there. Maybe she still goes by there just to see what kind of loser I’ve become. I know she and her friends probably still sit around and laugh at me. God! I’m such an idiot! Why did I have to say that?!”
Mind you, that thing you said was pretty normal, and two years ago. But, you’re still fixated on it, because you’re sure she is. And so, you finish all of the beer, and most of the tequila in the house and start drunk dialing your ex, and that guy you used to work with years ago, because it seemed like you guys really seemed to hit it off.
After 5 phone calls, 3 hang-ups, and the threat of a restraining order, you throw the phone against the wall and break it. You then scream into a pillow, and pass out on the couch. You wake up in the middle of the night with lines imprinted on one side of your face from that corduroy pillow, and no memory of why your phone is smashed and you can’t get it to turn on.
I’m thinking you get my point. Solitude and isolation are not inherently bad, in and of themselves. But it’s obvious our minds are where all of the damage can come from. Why do you think people are more than willing to seek medications that can slow this kind of thinking down, or that magically increase the positivity of your mood, and the thoughts generated from it.
But, what did people do before these medicines existed? Are we more somehow genetically susceptible to this kind of mental deviation these days, or are we just less capable of dealing with it? What did people do before? Where did they turn to without our script-writing-pharma-gurus? If we look back to a time when we relied on an oral, rather than a written transfer of knowledge, did we have a ways we used to help each other when someone went off the rails for a little while?
Like religion, atheism comes with its own form of arrogance. Both are convinced that they are correct, and both are sure they can prove the other wrong. Our history is primarily defined by the periods of influence each has had on civilization. In many cities the struggle is demonstrated in the architecture of our major cities, cathedrals and cloisters on one side, sky scrapers and law firms on the other. Amazingly enough, all of it was built by the same kinds of humans, with the same capacity for intellect, and the correspondingly, the same propensities for neurosis or serenity. Every bit of it, from the massive structures, to our internal conditions, comes down to where, and if, we seek direct our minds.
But how do we direct something that seems to rule our days, and direct our thoughts? How can we take such a powerful part of us and bring it into accord with our higher self? How can we control it, rather than the other way around?
Isolation is tool, much like a hammer. And like a hammer, it’s only called for in one case out of a hundred (also people are apt to reach for it before any other tool). Why even those who aren’t mechanically inclined have a hammer standing by, just in case they need to fix something. However, isolation, like a hammer, is also a tool you should never use on yourself… It’s a bad idea. Even people who love isolating when they’re upset will advise you: Never, ever do it!
Isolation shouldn’t be confused with solitude either. To me isolation denotes self-sequestering for the purposes of emotionally withdrawing from as many things as possible. Whereas solitude, while also self-imposed, is usually sought for much heathier reasons. Solitude speaks of retreats, walks in the woods, or just getting away from it all. Isolation, on the other hand, is emotionally and physically withdrawing from the world out of pain, misery, and self-absorption. When we isolate, we like to think of ourselves as brave little monks, single-handedly battling with our inner demons, not some clinical depressive subsisting on pizza and fruit punch in a back room somewhere. To me, the difference completely lies in our inner condition when we choose to leave the company of others. A while ago I tried to capture my thoughts in a far more succinct method than blogging on it, so I wrote it in haiku. Why? Because I could. I’m not sure whether or not it works for you, but I liked it well enough that I’m going to put it in here:
becomes solitude with work
on the internal
Like many of the other reactions we have to negative emotions when they crop up, isolation has its uses. But also like those other reactions, they can be harmful when allowed to dominate the landscape of our emotional reactions. The mind contains great power. It gives us the power to create art, and comprehend science. It can be a valuable companion, giving us sound advice and insight when it’s behaving, but if it’s not finely tuned it can cause great damage.
During the 19th Century when railroads were king, the steam engine was the work horse. The power that drove these engines were their massive boilers. A boiler would build up so much pressure, that when harnessed, it could pull the engine, the cars, and their entire contents over mountains. The trick was, of course, keeping the power harnessed and under control. Because that same power, if not controlled, had the ability to completely destroy the very same engine that it was meant to serve (see above photo).
The mind is essentially the same way. Most of us can barely grasp how powerful the mind is because we live so closely with it, that we actually think it is who we are, rather than it really just being one part of us. And when the mind is not tethered or controlled, and it’s allowed to go anywhere, do anything, and say whatever the hell it wants… it is capable of great damage.
When kept in isolation, the mind only has one target, us. And while sometimes it may seem as if we’re concentrating on secondary targets (sample of actual internal dialogue: “I’ll show them! They can’t treat me like this!”), in fact what’s really happening is that our mind is pulling us back into another internal battle, simply meant to elevate our ego. The part of the mind that tells us there is a separate “me” does so because it believes its job is to help me feel more unique than those other people. Notice I didn’t say that we are better than them, just that it wants to make us think we are unique from them, we are separate. And when we feel separate from the rules that guide others, then they need not apply to us. It’s as if we are subconsciously saying to ourselves, “I am better than you, and therefore I can’t do what’s expected of me.”, or maybe, “I am worse than you, and therefore I can’t do what’s expected of me either.” And so, we isolate. And while we isolate, we reinforce the walls that we’ve built to surround us and protect us from others. We see the pain coming from their actions and words, but in reality, it comes from our own reactions to the things we find objectionable. Suffering is an emotional hell that we construct, and it is built using the worst fears we have about ourselves.
And when (if) we finally emerge from our self-imposed prison, and begin to talk to one person who don’t hate entirely, we realize how starved we have been for human contact. In time, we may also see that not only do we function better when we are around others, but we also see that our lives take on meaning. And meaning begins to emerge in our lives when we start to lose that intense focus we’ve had on ourselves and begin to point it back out at the world. And it’s this absence of self-centered focus that reveals the final evidence that we are not alone. We are not unique. We are not an individual. We are part of something much larger, and if we are willing to learn what, we need never go back into isolation.
By my count I find at least three questions I’ve left unanswered. They are: How do we tune our mind? How do you tether a mind? How do we learn that we are part of something much larger? Since the answers to those come from future blog posts in this series, before closing I will let someone much wiser than I give you some idea where we are headed.
“Enlightenment, for a wave in the ocean, is the moment the wave realizes it is water. When we realize, we are not separate, but a part of the huge ocean of everything, we become enlightened. We realize this through practice, and we remain awake and aware of this through more practice.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
If you or someone close to you has ever experienced depression, then you know it’s not a joke. And I’m not talking about just a bad mood or a bout of the blues here. No, I’m talking about that debilitating 1,000-pound cloak of self-loathing and uselessness that settles down for a long, long stay. So, if you, or someone you love has experienced it, then you know it’s a very real, very powerful thing. You also know that it can destroy anyone, or anything, in its path.
At best, your relationships can suffer. Unfortunately, many of them just fall apart and end. Even the best of friends can only take so much before they have to save themselves. It’s not what they want to do. But since their sense of self-preservation is so much healthier than the sufferer’s, they want to help, but regrettably, end up having to save themselves.
Jobs are, at best, difficult to hold down. Sometimes if you are lucky enough to have a job that doesn’t require you to interact with too many people, you can hide for a while. But, because the lack of motivation gets stacked higher and higher with layers of bland apathy, even the most essential jobs begin to feel menial and pointless. And of course, none of this is good for long-term employment.
Sleep is either a constant friend that offers hours of relief and seclusion, protecting you like a fur-lined leather cloak with outfacing spikes. Or, if you are really cursed, sleep becomes a fleeting joke. A whispered promise of escape that is always just out of reach, waving to you from the far banks of some distant river.
And then there’s always the food problem. For many, there’s really no point to eating since they don’t have anything remotely resembling an appetite anyway, even for their most favorite dishes. And with that, of course, comes the weight loss, the ill-fitting clothes, and the omnipresent questions about your well-being. That is, unless you are the type who gets their comfort from food, and lots of it. For those, a normal serving size doesn’t exist. The only question they have is, “How much you got?” This self-imposed-prison is all around them. It lurks in the daily nourishment we take for granted. For them though, food is like a rogue tiger – large, fierce, powerful, and stealthy. And fighting against it only seems to prolong the inevitable.
And the thing is, this kind of depression doesn’t lift on its own, and it can hit almost out of nowhere. I say almost because I firmly believe that if you dig deep enough, with enough tools, you are bound to find a source… or even many sources.
For whatever reason though, we depressives actually seek to make things worse for ourselves. We begin listening to sad, depressing, or angry music. We keep our feelings to ourselves, our noble goal is to try not to spread our mood to others. Yet, even by those very same actions, we reveal to everyone precisely what our mood is. And then of course, someone reaches out to help… and if we even bother to acknowledge their offer, it’s only to turn it down. But when no one offers, we’re offended and sullen.
Even though there are probably a number of ways to get out of this deep funk, by virtue of our thoughts, actions, and body language, we almost guarantee that the only thing that will help us, sits squarely on our own shoulders. And that, is both a blessing and a curse.
There are ways though. Stay in touch for some posts on solutions, very soon.
When I originally set out to write this blog I did so knowing that it would never be done on any regular schedule. I also knew it shouldn’t be singular in its scope. One of the reasons I refused to be bound by those kinds of boundaries was because I saw the problems I have had with structure when I had started other blogs, or when I wrote for various publications with deadlines. And one thing had become crystal clear to me from those experiences: Being locked into a single topic, or timetable is the quickest way to destroy creativity. Inspiration can’t be shoehorned into a schedule. In fact, inspiration was to be The Middle Way’s only guiding principle.
My mistake began when I selfishly assumed that since this is my blog, I could write about whatever the hell I wanted to. And while that’s true to some extent, there’s an inherent problem with that assumption. The cycle of the written word isn’t complete until it has been read, therefore the writer is no more important than the reader in this format.
And so, The Middle Way suddenly took a sharp left turn, and went political for a while. The problem is that when people subscribe to a blog that professes to be focused on spiritual principles and the path of least resistance, they probably didn’t do so hoping to see if someone figured out a way to make politics a means to that end. Not to mention there’s no shortage of political bloggers in this world, so my adding to the vitriol instead of offering a solution was nothing short of base treachery. For that, I feel I owe many of my readers an apology.
Most of us spend our days in Saṃsāra without being aware of it. Once we begin to seek enlightenment, we find that our suffering is at its most palpable just prior to our awakening. For myself, I find that when my mind is finally able to break the surface, only then am I able to observe out of what destructive cycles I had been reacting.
And it’s that that realization that lead me to this post. Because, awake or asleep, there’s one thing I know for sure. Going forward, most of us are going to need ways to accept the things we can’t change, to courage and presence of mind to change the things we can, and the knowledge and compassion to know the difference.