Love. Life. Practice.

Personal Development with Gray Miller

what are you not doing?

Writing…is a sordid beast that feeds on your pride and vomits only exhaustion and self-loathing.  - Alex Vance, found via the most excellent Brain Pickings

It’s kind of amusing when you choose to procrastinate by reading twitter, which leads you to an essay by a writer on the two basic species of that particular craft. Specifically:

The difference between a Not Writer and a Writer is the difference between someone who could write and someone who does. A Not Writer is someone who experiences blocks and obstacles and timing issues and lets them prevent him or her from actually writing. A Not Writer may certainly be creative, insightful and capable of writing lyrical prose, but most of the time they’re too busy Not Writing to get any Writing done. That’s such a shame, such a waste, and that’s the reason I so often deploy Tough Love upon those who ask for advice.

It’s like all of Steven Pressfield’s advice pressed into a nutshell, and if you have any aspirations towards being a writer, I do not suggest you read the multi-part essay that Mr. Vance has written. If you have any aspirations towards being a writer, in fact, what I suggest you do is STOP SURFING THE INTERNET AND WRITE.

On the other hand, if you just want to read about writing, they’re very entertaining, insightful, and even funny. But the question is: why limit it to writing?

Overworked and Underdone

To misquote a fun game from Comedy Sportz, what are you Not Doing right now? What is that thing that you keep saying you’re going to do, that you think about doing, but that you keep being busy Not Doing? It’s another way of saying: What’s your excuse? It’s not a pleasant thought, either, because you basically have to face a cold equation:

If I’m Not Doing that thing I want to Do, than is what I am Doing more important?

No idea if this is true. But it's comforting.

No idea if this is true. But it’s comforting.

It’s entirely possible that it is! Raising children, feeding the dog, caring for your family, watching the next Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., these are things that definitely can be a priority over that thing you’re Not Doing. And it’s also quite true that just because you’re Not Doing it now, you won’t Do it later. Procrastination is not a sin, it is a productivity strategy.

However, allow me to suggest that if you are Doing something that is so important that it makes you Not Do something else – make sure you Do it well. Make sure you Do it with your complete attention, so that you can get it Done as soon as possible.

Because you need to stop Not Doing that thing you want to Do before time gets Done with you.

You could also do worse than to check out some of the articles of Mr. Money Mustache, as long as your Not Doing anything else.

why cheat when you can win

“If you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’!”

That sentiment, from one of my favorite close-combat instructors, is an incredibly useful mantra when in a struggle. It’s a reminder that in some situations, the only rules that matter are the ones that matter to you – and that playing by your opponent’s rules is giving them a pretty hefty advantage.

What about when your opponent is yourself, though? What if the battle you are fighting is the battle against binge eating, for example, or simply the struggle to eat more healthy in a world full of bad influences and temptations? In that situation, where you’re your own enemy, does cheating work?

lunch

At least it’s not broccoli (shudder!)

Many diets think so. Several years ago I went on the Abs Diet, pretty strictly for several months. Aside from a particular weight/situp regimen, it also has very specific low-carb diet suggestions – some of which have stuck with me (still love snacking on almonds and cranberries!). It also had a “cheat” meal – a meal once a week where you could eat anything you want. I remember planning that meal around my social schedule: “We’re going to have barbecue with Karl thursday night, that’ll be my cheat meal.” I remember looking forward to blissing out on ice cream sundaes on those meals, before grimly resuming my exercise and diet the next day. Tim Ferriss’ 4-Hour Body has a similar timed “cheat” day, and so do many others.

Which is why articles such as this one by Dick Talens (via Maneesh Sethi) exist: The Ultimate Guide to Cheating: Planning to Fail. Don’t worry, you don’t have to read it if you don’t want to, I’ll get to the point.

WORDS. They Have Meaning.

The gist of the article is the idea, backed up by scientific evidence, that two people who “break” their diets in exactly the same way will have entirely different results based on their mindset.

 If you “plan to fail” then you lose anywhere from 1-3 days of progress; however, you eliminate the risk of failing epically.

Failing epically.” Is it just me, or is the hyperbole rising in here? Here’s my question: if these diets are so difficult to maintain that you have to break them on occasion in order not lose them entirely…then is the problem actually with the people on the diet or with the diet itself?

Or, to put it another way: if, in order for the diet to succeed, you have to ignore it every once in a while…why is that cheating? How is that failing?

Or, to actually get to my point: why do we use words like “cheating” and “failing” to describe it? Words are powerful things; if the system is set up so that the only way to “win” is cheating, then there is something wrong with the system. I suppose there could be an argument that there is a mischievous joy in “getting away with it” when you break the rules of the diet – but if we’re trying to play with our brains in that kind of way, why stop at some negative feeling?

“…And therefore those skilled in war bring the enemy to the field of battle and are not brought there by him.” – Sun Tzu

If you choose a route that requires you to cheat, to break, to “plan to fail”, I suppose that can work. Personally, I’d rather look at it as winning. I’m not breaking my diet – I’m planning on celebrating my hard work and discipline in the time-honored human fashion of a feast! Having rewarded my body all week long with healthy eating, I am now going to reward my tongue and every delicious bite of ice-cream-hot-fudge-skittle-truffle-banana-lava-cake will be a reinforcement of just how awesome I am at my diet!

Of course, a truly Enlightened soul wouldn’t be “fighting” the battle at all – which is most of what Sun Tzu actually talked about in The Art of War. But for those of us who still need the illusion of struggle to trick ourselves into right action, I think it’s time to stop playing other people’s games.

Who needs to cheat, when you can just win?

finding the courage to do what is necessary for love

The Fine Art of Avoidance

A few years back, when I was just starting to hit my stride as a presenter on subjects like interpersonal communication, I had a bobble. Well, let’s be fair, it was a miscommunication which led to an absence which led to an assumption which led to anger which led to confrontation – all with another presenter at the same event.

To our credit, we managed, through our seething, to talk through what had actually happened, and realized pretty clearly where the original misunderstanding had occurred. We also saw how it had escalated into a Big Deal, and how the Big Deal had disappeared once we came to a place of mutual understanding.

Unfortunately, neurochemical creatures that we are, we still had all that anger flowing through our bodies, even though rationally we knew there was no reason for it. I remember clearly sitting across the room, staring at each other, until finally she said “You know, we teach this shit – you’d think we’d be better at it.

Nope. I’m afraid not. If there’s one thing that every personal development blog ought to have in the heading, it’s “Consider the source.” We are all of us every bit as fallible and human as the next blogger, and in some cases moreso, in that horrible way that overconfidence makes you more vulnerable.

Fwd: How Not To Manage An Introvert ? - Những Điều Không Nên Làm Khi Quản Lý Nhân Viê n Có Tính Cách Hướng Nội

If we all had these, perhaps life would be easier?

A Mirror Darkly

There are, however, occasional advantages to being a student of human nature and habit change. Because I’m constantly analyzing and observing and categorizing behaviors in myself and others*, sometimes I can recognize traits in others that I also find in myself. If that’s a good trait, hurrah! If it’s not, though, then it’s up to me to figure out how to change it.

Example 1: I had a roommate who had the infuriating need to be the authority on whatever subject was being discussed. If he wasn’t, he would fake it, and if he couldn’t fake it, he would change the subject to something he was an authority on. It made for some pretty awful conversations. I’m not sure how many years it was before I realized that the thing that I really disliked about the habit was something that I did as well. Happily, that’s a very easy trait to get rid of, and at least once in any conversation I remind myself: Shut the BLEEP up and listen, Gray.

Example 2: After my second divorce (what I affectionately call “The Big Breakup”) I did not handle things terribly well. I pretty thoroughly embraced the role of “Broken Man” and “Tragic Figure” and a few other icons. This lasted a couple of years, in fact, until one evening when I was driving from D.C. to Baltimore with a friend who had also gone through his own Big Breakup. His had happened decades before, and he had absolutely perfected the role of Tortured Soul to the point where it was irresistible to a certain type of woman. It’s hard to make relationships last in that kind of environment, though, and so he’d gone from relationship to relationship, each one validating his role as The Man Who Loses. I remember looking at him, my friend who I liked, and thinking I don’t want to become you. It wasn’t easy, but whatever road I’m on, it ain’t that one anymore.

Example 3: Recently I learned of a couple of friends of mine who broke up. I won’t go into any details; suffice it to say that the person who initiated the breakup did so in a very ungracious way. Breakups suck no matter what, mind you, there is no “good way” to break up unless you’re Gwyneth Paltrow. But that person was particularly cruel and uncaring, and the saddest thing was that I believe I understand why. I believe there was a point earlier in the relationship where a difficult conversation about love needed to take place. But it’s a difficult conversation, and it’s easier to put it off, to keep in inside.

And then the next thing gets held inside, and the next opportunity is missed, and you hold that inside too, until there’s this big ball of Unsaid throbbing inside your head, which often feels like Trapped. My friend, I believe (this is all supposition) reached a point where too much was Unsaid, and the only way out of Trapped was to rip everything down, including my other friend. It was a very sad story.

I don’t want to do that. Shortly after learning that, I took stock of my own situation, and recognized that there were some of my own Difficult Conversations that I’d been keeping to myself, because it’s easier to do elliptical and watch Supernatural and write personal development blogs. But I could see, quite clearly, how avoiding this difficult conversation about love could lead to Unsaid and Trapped and I, like any other human, might head into that land of Ungracious Actions.

I had the conversation. It was difficult. It was scary. But it happened, and things got easier. There are more conversations to be had, and there’s no certainty other than that they will happen. But that one path, the one that led to the kind of pain my friends went through – perhaps that was avoided.

Do What Is Necessary

Easter is a time commemorating the recovery from tragedy. Of life after darkness. Regardless of your religious affiliation, I hope you will take a moment this weekend to take stock of your own loves – for we all have many, right? Pick one, pick a few, but be honest with yourself: is there something that you’ve been avoiding doing? Some conversation, some action, some long-avoided task that has been sitting there in the Undone section of your brain?

Why not give it a break? Scary, yes, I know. Do it anyway. Because if you’re going to love, you might as well do it right, and that means doing what is necessary, even when it’s scary and difficult.

Good luck. Happy Easter.

memorials are for the living

Life After Death

A few years ago, we thought my Dad was going to die. He had an unexplained malady, they were going to try and operate, but frankly it didn’t look good. However, he had time to get his affairs in order, to talk to all of us kids about various items he was leaving behind. He did a very good job of both preparing us for what seemed likely to happen, and also setting an example of a man brave enough to face “what dreams may come…”

I, on the other hand, did something fairly selfish. You see, while I don’t exactly make it a secret about being polyamorous, I also hadn’t been quite forthcoming about the true nature of relationships I had at the time. I got it into my head that he needed to know about them.

The truth was, I was the one who needed him to know. It was important to me, and so I told him, and I suspect that he would have preferred not knowing. Or, at least, not having it pointed out so thoroughly.

As it is, the surgery revealed that things were not nearly as serious as we feared, and so my father is still alive and well today. And there have been no real repercussions from my deathbed confession. I have, however, learned that part of being a responsible and loving person is knowing when to simply keep your mouth shut. At some point I will have to face death again – his, or someone else who I love. I hope that I will do better.

The Unbearable Inadequacy

Recently a very dear friend of mine lost his father in a tragic and unexpected accident. I can’t even pretend to know how he feels. Empathy, as I know it, involves telling someone you have some common understanding of what they are experiencing.

But I don’t. I tried to find some way to communicate something to comfort him, because I love him, and I know that this must be terrible. For all my writing, all my research into happiness and empathy and compassion and love and life and practice, I did not know what to say. My family has a tendency to mask our pain with humor, but I didn’t want to fall into that habit of avoiding the issue.

Really, what right do I have to intrude on his grief? It is a solitary and intimate place, and no one can feel what he is feeling. The best I was able to do was to witness it, as much as possible from hundreds of miles away. I never knew his father, but I have known this comrade through some of our worst times and some of our best.

I wrote what I knew: that his father had raised a son who I could love as a brother, as a friend, and who has been such a positive force in my life that I can’t imagine what it would look like without him.

It was hopelessly inadequate. It always will be; that is the nature of death, I believe, that we who still live simply have to do the best we can until time makes it somehow easier to bear.

Requiescat In Pace

“Rest in peace.” I have to tell you that this doesn’t mean what you think it does. There’s this idea that it’s somehow wishing those who have passed away a pleasant journey, or hoping that they have finally laid down the burden of life.

But it’s not that at all. If life were actually a burden, most of us wouldn’t cling to it so tightly, even when we’re miserable in it. I’m not saying it’s impossible for death to look more attractive to some – we all know that happens.

As far as we’re concerned, though, once someone is gone there is nothing but peace for them. We are the unquiet ones, trying desperately to reconcile the world that was with the world that is. We are the ones who want things to be different, and the rest we so desperately seek is the acceptance that somehow they are not all gone.

That’s why we have memorials. And they can come in many forms. About a month ago, my friend Bob in Hawaii went into the hospital for what we thought was a routine procedure. It turned out to be anything but, and he never came out.

I have been honored to receive some of the tools he took joy in, along with a few of his remaining cigars, and a shirt with a funny saying on it. I treasure these, and I honor his memory by thinking of his gruff laugh and his ready smile and his wicked humor. I try to be the person that he saw me as, worthy of a great deal of his valuable time and energy and friendship.

But it’s not for him. He’s gone. It’s for me, make no mistake. It’s still a selfish act, whether it was saying what wasn’t needed to my father or saying what doesn’t help to my friend or saying goodbye to Bob in my head as I smoke a cigar.

Memorials are for the living.

Troubled Times

the benefits of scheduling & blowing it off

Yep, I make my own hours.
I can choose to work whichever 23 a day I want…
- any freelancer or entrepreneur, ever

The Freedom to Be Disciplined

One of the most useful lifehacks I’ve made in the last year or so was the decision to have a schedule. That may not seem to be much of a decision to most of you reading this, but understand something: nobody tells me what to do. There is no HR department to give me a dress code; no time clock to punch, no accumulated leave. I don’t have an accounting department working out metrics, an IT department scheduling upgrades or backups, and most of all, if I’m sitting at my desk zoning out, I don’t get paid.

Heck, some of the time that I stand at my desk and type furiously (like right now) I’m not paid either.

That might sound wonderful – and it is – but it’s also a burden and a responsibility to myself. I could (and have) just let the day bring what it would, taking time to exercise whenever I wanted (or not), choosing what projects to work on when, looking for new work when needed. I’ve done that, and it’s possible to get by on it…but only just barely. And I found that it didn’t really push my goals forward.

Aztec/Mayan Calendar

If google calendar looked like this, it might be more motivating…

The Calendar as Playground

I’m lucky enough to have an assistant who will do my schedule. I told her “I want to have this many hours a week of video editing, this many doing systems administration, time for working out every day, a half-hour for correspondence…” and so on. Certain weekly meetings, such as a sitrep with a partner on the left coast, are automatically scheduled.

Which means when I sit down in the morning to look at what I’m doing during the day, I get a few things:

  • I get something different – maybe starting the day with video, or with writing, or something else. She changes it up.
  • I get the same thing – I can see where I’m getting things done. I get the sense of forward progress on my goals, that yes, I am doing something meaningful.
  • I get to just ignore it completely.

That last part is probably the real thing I love about being self-employed. If my daughter calls me up and needs an Emergency Grandpa, odds are I can shift things around and be there for her. If I have a client that needs me to suddenly focus on a site or project, I can do that. I told my assistant early on that one of the primary reasons I want her to make me a schedule is so that I can have the pleasure of ignoring it completely.

You Will Have Fun Whether You Like It Or Not

I wish I could say that I used that “play” option as much as I should. Instead, it usually ends up more like this – a day when I have more writing to do than I expected, so I am cutting short my lunch break to get a head start on it. I also have yet to get over the guilt of not starting work until 9am (I’m usually done with morning protocols by 8) and trying to knock off by 6 or 6:30. And then not work into the night.

That’s what the schedule does for me: it is that soothing balm to my workaholism, so that at the end of my “free” days I can still feel as though I got something done. That’s more important than you might expect; one of the biggest problems with doing the kind of work I do is that unless I am doing it, I do not get paid. There is no salary, no secondary income. The result of that is a constant nagging worry that I could do more; I could be working right now, and besides, Gray, if you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?

HACK YOUR SCHEDULE

What is the point of telling you this? Hopefully it’s not taken as either bragging or whining; that’s not the intention. The point is to say that the reason the schedule helps me is because I make sure that it serves me rather than the other way around. Really all it takes is a bit of a perspective shift to make it go one way or the other; that job that you “have” to go to? It’s subsidizing some other part of your life that you value (at least, I hope it is). So it’s not the job – it’s the “home support activity” or the “awesome car payment system.” And you can schedule in the rest of things as well.

How about adding “lay in the grass and look at clouds” to your weekend for 1/2 hour? How about actually putting in your calendar “WRITE: 1/2 hour” every morning after you walk the dog? Too long? Try 15 minutes. Heck, try 5. Mornings not working? Try the evening. Take a smaller lunch hour.

The point is: change it up. We all have schedules of one kind or other. The question is, are we going to let them decide what we do? Or are we, instead, going to decide to do them?

For a different view of a similar subject, I highly recommend Chris Guillebeau’s “Dominoes” post.

don’t let social media trigger you

Loving Enough to Feel Unloved

Ah, the joys of Facebook. Through it, I got to see my cousin’s daughter dance a happy-birthday jig. I got to read about the crossroads of Must and Should. I know just how many people Like LoveLifePractice. I can suck on the Gravy Hose of status updates and UpWorthy and Salon all morning long, if I like. Has ever a tool been so effective at making us feel as though we are connected?

Even when we really aren’t?

Case in point: a friend recently called me, wisely reasoning that I was a “safe” call to make before she made the one she wanted to make. She’d just read on Facebook that someone dear to her was about to go on vacation – and that vacation was NOT to visit my friend.

She’d always said she wanted to come see me. And now this! She’s going to freakin’ [REDACTED] instead! Now I see just how much she cares about me…”

There was a lot more to the rant. It was, in fact, quite an impressive rant. It included the valid recognition that she’d just stopped smoking, and therefore was mad at everybody. As I mentioned, she’s a smart cookie; I was the safe call.

To be honest, I was careful in how I talked. Those Quitters can be scary in the first few days…

Taking It Impersonally

As we talked, I managed to help her remember some things she already knew – namely, that there’s really no logical relationship between “I’m going on vacation” and “I love you.” Especially when it wasn’t personally directed – it was just a “Yay! I’m going on vacation!” status post, a shared joy intended to increase the smile quotient of the world by some fractional percentage.

My friend realized that she was choosing to be furious over the situation – which is not necessarily wrong (I’m furious about Chief Justice Roberts recent ruling, for example, and that’s entirely justified). But there’s a big difference between choosing to be angry and believing that someone is making you angry.

I got to watch a beautiful thing: I got to watch my friend choose not to be angry. I got to watch her recognize the chain of logic that had led from Vacation to Unloved was made of tissue paper. I got to see her recognize that really, what was underlying the whole thing was that she loved that vacationing Facebook friend a whole lot, and missed her.

And then it got better.

The Lonely High Road

Fine, I won’t be mad,” she said. “But I’m gonna talk to her. I just want to hear her say it. After she promised to come visit me, I want to hear her say that [REDACTED] is more important than me.”

Do you really think that’s fair?” I asked. “Is that really what taking that vacation means?

My friend realized that she was looking for some acknowledgement of her pain, some way to share it, because shared pain is lessened. That, in fact, was why she called me, and yes, it helped. But calling her friend for any reason other than saying “Have fun!” would be selfish.

Sure, it sucks when you can’t see people you care about, and you see them going off other places. But we’re all adults; we get to go where we choose, and that’s that. There’s no super-agenda. There’s no nefarious plot to ruin your day. There’s no hidden significance to choosing to go on vacation, especially as it relates to how you feel about your friends.

In the end, my friend took what I called “the High Road.” It’s a lonely road, because few people take it. In fact, to be honest, we figured that the Facebook Vacationer would almost certainly not have taken the High Road. But because my friend is powerful in her love, she was able to rise up to those lonely heights and just Let. It. Go.

It was impressive. I, myself, have a hard time taking the High Road as often as I could.

But my friend?

Damn, she looked good up there.

too much or just right connection

The Augmented Self at Rest

Credit where credit is due: I first considered the idea of the “Augmented Self” during a conversation with my good friend J.P., a stage manager extraordinaire from Toronto (among other things). He and I were discussing how often we are carrying on simultaneous connections through various media – the instant gratification of a face-to-face conversation with various other kinds of gratification extending outwards via chat, text, or email (in order of delay). At the time (and forgive me, JP, if I misquote) he said something along the lines of:

It’s not that I need to be connected all the time. It’s just that sometimes, when I’m connected in the right way, I can feel more myself than when I’m not.

I’ve always loved that phrase: “I can feel more myself…” That’s what personal development is all about, right? The tools we use to connect over distance – from the pen and paper through Google Hangouts – aren’t evil in and of themselves, they are simply tools, and can be used (at least, in JP’s case) to enrich his life by keeping him connected with others.

Like me. Many’s the time he and I just suddenly pop into each other’s lives, like a virtual Kramer/Seinfeld, just to share some thought or question. He’s at the airport, I’m I my desk. I’m at the airport, he’s backstage. Quick connection, say what we want to say (or just hang out) and then disconnect.

But What About Being Present, Gray?

I hear you! Doesn’t this idea of having a virtual connection take away from the Good Buddhist practice of being present fully in the moment? Isn’t that what we strive for?

Yes, but – I am hazarding a guess that you don’t necessarily always need to be fully present with whatever’s right in front of you. For example, I don’t need to sit there and watch the task bar change color bit by bit as a video is rendering. My mind can be more usefully engaged – and before you say “use the time for some personal reflection” (which is something I would probably say, too) let me put forth the idea that if you shift to “personal reflection” that is no less a distraction than “outside connection.”

Further, let me make another suggestion: if you have significant connections with people, places, or events that are far away, and you have the tools to still be present in some manner with them – aren’t you actually being more present as your authentic self if you maintain that connection?

Let Me Give an Example (or two)

I was a horrible person a long time ago when I was engaged to a lovely young woman. I had actually proposed to her after dating for a year, and wisely, she had said no. She then proposed to me a year later, and wisely I said no. But after three years of dating, I wanted to make sure that my next proposal was going to work.

So I played a very dirty trick. At Thanksgiving Dinner – with my father, stepmother, sisters, and daughters all there – I planned to pull out the ring. Not only that, I put my biological mother on speakerphone in order to have her “present” when I popped the question.

Now, here’s the question: was the moment made better or worse by that virtual presence? Ignore the emotional manipulation involved in putting my poor fiancée on the spot; as I said, I was horrible. But with all the facetime, video conferencing, etc that goes on – are we really worse off?

In another instance, I was part of a performing troupe here in Madison and we got a great gig. Then we got another great gig in Chicago the same night. We realized that we could do both gigs if we split the troupe up – but it was the first time we’d done that, and one of the gigs was a bit of a step up for the whole group, and we were nervous.

I remember that night exchanging many text messages with my fellow performers both here in Madison and in Chicago as both gigs were triumphantly done with outstanding skill. I remember the sense of exhilaration and pride I felt as not only the people I was with but my friends hundreds of miles away all made our art. I felt more connected thanks to the immediacy of things than I would have if I’d heard about it later.

How Much is Enough?

I’m not saying we shouldn’t unplug – by no means. In fact, tune in next week for an essay on just how much I think we need to unplug at times. What I’m saying is that there is a power to choosing what to focus on – whether that’s choosing to watch TV, text your friends, skype your daughter, and surf YouTube all evening, or spend an evening in a sensory deprivation tank with everything but your ears turned off, listening to Peter Gabriel’s Passion.

It’s all a matter of degree, and the only person who can truly decide whether you are augmenting or distracting from what’s important is you.

So pay attention. As much as you can afford to, anyway.

when your practice fails

Control Issues

Now that you’ve all read about my Morning Routine (both here and in other places) it’s obvious that I’m on the fast track to enlightenment. Why, if you squint slightly you can see the beginning of a halo forming around my head (it helps if the sun’s behind me). And obviously if I have the temerity to write a personal development blog, I’ve already got the personal development down, right?

In case you missed it, that entire sentence was written in what we professional designers call “sarcasm font.”

If I didn’t think it would be counter-productive (and somewhat self-indulgent) I would list for you all the ways my personal practice has failed me over the last week or so. The engine of my practice has been sputtering like a muscle car with water in the fuel line – it looks pretty, but it doesn’t seem to be getting me where I want to go very efficiently.

Stressmonkey, Ho!

The "William Blake" Instagram Filter makes for some interesting selfies...

The “William Blake” Instagram Filter makes for some interesting selfies…

I recently had a change in the medication my doctor prescribed to deal with some thyroid issues. The pharmacy tech asked if I was aware of possible side effects, and I rattled off a few of them that I knew of. She nodded, and I felt pleased that I was a self-educated patient.

Except: what I’d actually rattled off were the symptoms of what could happen if I didn’t take the medication. Weight gain, depression, fatigue. Hey, I’m a middle-aged self-employed male on the tale end of a Wisconsin winter – those three things are what I cope with all the time, no problem, right?

Over the next few days the slings and arrows seemed to fly fast and furious: I’d be triumphant about work, then suddenly exhausted at the mountain of to-dos. I’d miss friends and loved ones terribly, but want to be left alone. My partner seemed to go out of her way to say and do things that just infuriated me, and even during some of the good times like going to a movie the feeling of her holding my hand almost drove me out of my mind with don’t touch me!

In short, while I was meditating twice a day, journaling, exercising regularly, and doing well with my diet (including a carefully-managed splurge at an ice cream shop) I was one Big Ball of Stressmonkey.

“The Unknown Unknowns”

Bless Donald Rumsfeld and his way with words. You already guessed, right? Turns out that the web is full of people asking WebMD and other sites what they should do about their “sudden mood swings”, “irritability”, and “hypersensitivity to touch” that often accompanies the kind of titration of this med that I’d just had.

Of course, I found this out as I was cooling down from losing my temper over a pretty ridiculous mishap. I had at least had the presence of mind to remove myself from the situation, before my mood caused more collateral damage. But sitting there, reading on my phone about all these similar situations that other people had experienced, I felt betrayed.

Not by my doctor; they had given me a list of possible side effects. Not even by my own loss of control. No, I felt betrayed by my practice. I meditate, I exercise, I’ve even been doing damned yoga; and now, right when I needed it, a little 250 microgram change in medication sends it all out the window? What’s the point, if that’s all it takes to send me off the rails?

“Practice makes perfect. But nobody’s perfect, so why practice?” – George Carlin

One possible explanation is that I’m not practicing correctly (“Bad Buddhist! No cookie!” as one old friend used to tease me). However, that kind of puts us back in the whole achievement/never-good-enough kind of loop that is pretty antithetical to practices like zazen and yoga. There aren’t Zazen Sit-Offs or Yoga Smackdowns.

Instead, perhaps the perspective to take is this: how much worse would I be if I had no practice? And does knowing both the feeling of practice and (now) the feeling of those mood swings happening give me better tools for dealing with it in the future?

The answer is yes, it does. But even that’s not the point. The point of practice is not to get better at anything, or for life to improve, or for that stylish aura to appear around your head. No more than the point of my meds is to make my mood swing wildly, my body to sweat uncontrollably, or for me to suddenly look remarkably like Jared Padalecki.*

The point of both the meds is to make me healthier. The point of practice is to recognize life as it is – not as it could be, not as I want it to be, not as it was. Life as it is. Yes, some people also experience calm, joy, serenity, a thousand-mile-stare and a tendency to eat more fiber from sitting – but your mileage, and mine, may vary.

When your practice fails you, it might be worth it to check your expectations. And then do some yoga, pull out your journal and a nice pen, or just sit there for a while.

“People imagine enlightenment will make them incredibly powerful. And it does. It makes you the most powerful being in all the universe- but usually no one else notices.”
- Brad Warner

love thy neighbor

Attack of the Rapturists

So first of all, if you haven’t already watched it, you should take some time out of your day to watch this video:

I confess to being a little embarrassed to admit it, but I cried when I watched it. I still don’t know exactly why. Something about the amount of care that this woman was getting, not just from the people doing the prank but from her teachers, her co-workers, her friends. They all speak of her in this video with such love and affection and respect. Maybe it was the way she never seemed to feel entitled to the good fortune – going so far as to insist on splitting the $1000 tip with her co-workers. Seriously, who does that?

Maybe it had something to do with the fact that she existed in this sea of love – even with the crappy car, the hard job, the struggles of teaching yoga (you all know how I feel about yoga) and helping others recovering from eating disorders. I don’t know why exactly the tears came to my eyes, except that it was such a beautiful series of events for her, all occurring one after the other.

Is there a point to be made here? Maybe not. Maybe it’s just the old Spider Robinson adage of “Shared joy is increased.”

But wouldn’t it be awesome if we could all create days like that for each other.

Be a rapturist – the backward of a terrorist. Commit random acts of senseless kindness, whenever possible. – Spider Robinson, “Off the Wall at Callahan’s”

what is your battle cry?

Come on, you sons of b****es! You wanna live forever?”
- Daniel Daly, Motivational Speaker

I'm in the upper left, making my War Face, circa 1989.

I’m in the upper left, making my War Face, circa 1989.

I have a guilty pleasure, which I can cheerfully lay at my Dad’s feet. I enjoy some pretty violent movies. I was raised on spaghetti westerns, weaned on Dirty Harry and cut my eyeteeth on Arnold and Sylvester. I’m not the only one; there’s a reason my older younger sister used to practice in a ballet studio with a large portrait of John Wayne on the wall.

And I’ve done my share of passing it along – as I armed my middle daughter years ago to go and participate in the live-action-role-playing Ring Game (a re-enactment of Lord of the Rings done every year here in Madison) she asked me if I had any advice. “Come back with your shield,” I told her, “or on it.”

Huh?” she said, quite legitimately, and I explained that was the way Spartan mothers had said goodbye to their sons before they went off to battle. She was inspired enough to actually be named one of the most “hard-core” players that year (that windy, cold, rainy year…). In fact, they gave her whatever role she chose the following year, which is why I can claim to be the father of Arwen. Which either makes me the lead singer of Aerosmith or the star of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

Fill Your Hands, You Sonuva -”
- Rooster Cogburn, Equestrian

But enough pandering to the film geeks amongst my readers. The point is that I went to a very bad movie, one that was embarrassingly filled with glorified action sequences of violence and brutality painted over with a thin veneer of honor and duty and then dusted with a fine gloss of historically inaccurate heroism and sadly inadequate feminism. I won’t even honor the movie with a name; it would be like describing the last time I ate a twinkie. There’s really nothing redeeming about it.

Except. There was this one part, a climactic scene, in which the leader of one of the armies watches her troops engage their foes. She sees some fall; she sees some triumph; and finally, she’s had enough, and she draws both her swords and screams:

“I am not here to be a WITNESS!”

…and charges into the fray.

That, frankly, made the entire movie worthwhile. Because I leaned over to my partner and whispered “That is a good battle cry.” Not that I have anything against witnesses, mind you. But just imagine saying that every day, before you walk out the door. Before you go to your job, before you enter that classroom, before you open up your computer. Imagine, as the bard says, taking arms against a sea of troubles and oppose and end them.

There are lots of great battle cries – Stan Lee’s “Excelsior!” comes to mind. Some are not so good – “Remember the Alamo!” pretty much relies on the fact that you actually won’t. “Confusion to the enemy!” and “Dum vivimus, vivamus!” are two of my favorites from the realm of science fiction. Ok, yeah, and also “By the Power of Grayskull!”, but I’m kinda biased.

What’s the battle cry for your life? What gets you to charge into the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune? Trust me, you need one. Because, as both Sergeant-Major Daly and Marshal Cogburn will tell you, fortune is a…

Well, you get the idea.

 

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