Good Things Come to Those Who Don’t Wait (For Death)

This costs nothing and means everything when you're gone.

This costs nothing and means everything when you’re gone.

We’re all going to die. Not necessarily soon, but eventually. I hope that doesn’t come as a surprise.

We have to remind ourselves sometimes, especially when we’re being unreasonably harsh, either on ourselves or toward others we know and love. Denial about the inevitable keeps the poker flame well-lit, especially when life is spending a little too much time in the fast lane.

When we’re in that head-space we’re not really enjoying the gift. Sometimes a bucket of cold, hard truth can snap us out of the ignorant funk.

It’s easy to lose sight of the big picture. You’re so wrapped up in the process of ‘doing’ you forget yourself.  You forget why you’re so engrossed, but since you’re in it, you’re in it. Even if you know you’re being a shithead, you don’t know how else to operate to get you through.

You believe you are what you are; that fundamental change is impossible and you’re stuck on the path you put yourself on long ago. You’re going to react as you’ve always done, even if sometimes you wish you hadn’t, because it’s got you where you are.

There’s a pang inside you suggesting something’s not right, but you can’t figure out what it is or how to shift gears. You’ll stay on your hamster wheel even though it may be crushing your spirit and literally killing you. Don’t wait until you’re facing death to come to realizations needed to stir change.

Think about death. It will help clarify what needs to change in time for you to reap the benefits in your life. Maybe you’ll spread some of the grace from your awareness to others who could use a kick in the ass. You won’t regret it when you are really about to die. You won’t regret it now either, if you can get going.

Because you’re still living like a teenager who thinks they’re going to live forever, small, insignificant problems are amplified in your mind. Let’s say you’re running late. Not late to save a dying patient on an operating table, but late for a meeting. Late for a haircut. Late for work at your office job.

You’re worried about inconveniencing someone, how that makes you come off in their eyes. You fear your boss sending you a passive aggressive e-mail for not showing up to the office on time. Your boss needs to get a grip too. Since you’re going to die, you shouldn’t be so afraid to tell them that.

But you worry about those things because you take your mortality for granted. Those worries translate into self-absorption – pressing into the world so firmly as to make it align with your neurotic vision of where everything ought to be. It sucks you dry, and your dessicated spirit sucks the life out of others around you.

Today, it’s because you’re late. Another day you got in a fight with your spouse, or someone didn’t give you what you thought was your entitlement. Someone took umbrage with you for no good reason. It’s always something.

You jump in your car, speeding through town like a maniac. You zip past school zones, cut people off, weave in and out of traffic. You don’t let the buses into traffic. They’re carrying dozens of passengers who are too poor to own a car, or who are trying to keep their SUV off the roads to spare the earth a few metric tonnes of extra pollution.

You give people the finger, honk your horn, blast through red lights, and flout public safety. You text to say ‘you’re on your way’ as if everyone else’s life depended on it. You’re a total menace to society. Why? Because you are late. Or you’ve just got to see the text that’s come in. Those incoming texts or tweets are always so riven with epiphanies as to make risking your total destruction worthwhile.

Perspective has been lost. It’s made you wilfully ignorant of the serious harm you invite on others because you cheapen life with your habit of forgetting about where it’s all headed. If that isn’t your intention, perspective needs to be re-acquired. Here’s something: you won’t care about any of the things that get you riled up when you’re dead.

Holding hands silhouette

Laugh. Dance. Play. Love. Fall in love too, even if there’s a risk. Do these things because the intentions are pure and simple. They make life remarkable.

When you are facing death the important things crystallize. Why wait? Put yourself in that head-space now to sharpen your thinking.

You will see how important it is your kids know you really love them. It will matter you have great, loving relationships. It will matter if you can look in the mirror and honestly say your presence on this planet is, on the whole, mostly positive. It will matter how you treat others, including strangers.

The only way these meaningful things can really resonate in your life is if you invest your time and energy in cultivating them now. Later may never come if you die unexpectedly.

It’s two o’clock in the afternoon and you get an urgent, out-of-the-blue task from a higher-up saying they “need” that such-and-such thing done by tomorrow at noon. You know he’s been sitting on the issue for weeks. Now it’s come to a head – your head, in fact.

You know in your heart the demand is extremely unreasonable. You know you’re going to be at the office until late and maybe have to do the work at home when you’d rather be tucking your kids into bed. The idea the higher up doesn’t care fuels your fire. Say something. Don’t just say “yes.” Let them know what they’ve asked of you. Maybe they genuinely weren’t aware.

Stand up for the quality of your precious life and for that of others. Be brave. It’s a cliché but one that is all too suffused with truth to flout, especially when it’s your life on the line. When we’re facing death, all bets are off with fear. It doesn’t help then and it isn’t helping now.

It’s time to stop allowing yourself to become so apoplectic because of others. After a point, your outrage becomes more your fault than theirs. Try to be more measured in your righteous indignation. You’re going to die soon and you don’t want to go out like that – with your head swirling in acrimony. As Mr. T says “pity the fools.” Let people try to make their problems yours because they’re ignoramuses. Don’t let them succeed.

Ensure people respect your life in their dealings with you. Those who constantly violate your boundaries have to be met with the sound of your feet walking in the other direction. This will keep your sanity safely from their crosshairs. You are worth it.

If a person’s bad behaviour is uncharacteristic figure out what ails them and turn their tactics into an opportunity to enlighten. Let people have a bad day without making it worse by reacting to it poorly yourself. Nobody is born a jerk and a fool. Everyone is capable of change eventually. And sometimes, a fool needs a hug.

Living in the world as if it was your last days is liberating. You’ll say and do things that really, really matter and won’t waste your energies engaged in pointless battles with those facets of our wealthy, privileged Western existence that unconsciously spread misery. You won’t waste your time in places or with people who are disrespectful, ignorant, or foolish. You’ll feel sorry for them as you expunge them from your richer, fuller life.

The new-found lightness of your existence will be the graceful foil in their angry, ignorant faces. Gandhi stared down centuries of colonial rule with ahimsa, so you can probably withstand the indignities in your relatively fortunate life.

If you can’t help allowing things and people getting under your skin, or if you try to dominate and control your surroundings your life will become decidedly smaller for it. The legacy you’ll leave behind will be full of broken bridges and an earth scorched by so many misdeeds necessary to chase the pointless goal of cupping the whole world in your greedy, selfish hands.

Meanwhile, there are so many tangible, meaningful things that command your attention and withstand your neglect. Focus on the meaningful things in your life as if you’re never going to see them again. Don’t wait for the doctor to tell you you have cancer to start getting that done.

When you are fully conscious of how precious your life is, the potentially negative entanglements you are so easily hooked into are easily ignored. When someone you love says or does something hurtful, your heart will quickly trump your fragile, injured ego. Instead of reacting in defense and making things worse you’ll ask “are you okay?” swinging the whole encounter in a totally different direction for the better. When your child is out of line, instead of reacting with scorn, imagine it’s the last encounter you’ll have with them and let that guide your next action.

Your ego takes a back seat when you’re focused on doing what matters to make your remaining days on the planet peaceful and joyful. You will walk the earth differently if you think “maybe this will be the last,” and will find a way to enjoy things, even if they are unpleasant. At least you’re alive to have an opinion either way; a privilege deprived so many millions every day.

Make the time.

Make the time. It costs nothing and its value is infinite.

“Okay, so I’m supposed to act like my death is imminent. Do I go and quit my job and travel, climb Mount Everest, buy things I’ve always wanted, go skydiving, and exist on credit? I have responsibilities,” you say.

What a fucking cliché. You have what you need to make your life what you want it to be right now and still respect all your obligations. You aren’t obliged to live in a four thousand square foot home and make a million dollars a year. You aren’t obliged to spread insensitivity, greed, and acrimony as you set about to conquer the world. Your mind is still beholden to the common idea that the most sophisticated being in all of the natural world was evolved to amass wealth, subjugate the planet, and buy stuff.

Shame on you for steadfastly believing something so ruinous to your well-being and your relationship with the important people in your life; not to mention the planet and all the creatures on it. If you were dying tomorrow you know you wouldn’t spend your last days shopping or amassing more wealth.

You would want to share your precious love with those who care about you. The other things you typically fret over would slide off your consciousness. The beauty in the multitude of simple, little phenomena in your everyday life will not escape your notice. The need to acquire luxuriant adornments vanishes in an instant because you know they add nothing truly meaningful to your life.

Here is something to be afraid of: dying before you really, truly lived.

There is good news to be plucked right from the heart of the bad. You’re a homo sapiens, the only creature capable of pondering its own death and with the capacity for insight on how to chart the wisest way forward. You’re running late in the exercise, but make your steps a little more intentional from here on out, you dig?

So think about your death. It will help transform a life too often mired in the small and pointless into one that is infinite and rich with meaningful experience.

Ambling Mind, Meet Full Moon

Full Moon ManThis morning I was sitting in quiet meditation as I do most mornings. Well, I was sort of sitting. More like squirming. And cursing under my breath, having another heated argument with myself.

Okay, I wasn’t really squirming as much as bouncing and jerking around as if I’d jumped on the back of an unbroken mustang and it was way pissed I was there. He would not relent, that testosterone-laden young buck, and I could not find that place of stillness despite all my efforts to hang on.

“What the fuck is going on?” I angrily mused. Another one of the Six Perfections I am nowhere near perfecting – Patience.

This is not really the best tone for one’s inner voice when practicing shamatha-bhavana – cultivating calm abiding – when thoughts arrive to invade the mind. If anything the angry reaction just compounds the disruption of a relatively minor thought.

Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind

Should I be ashamed that I still have a “beginner’s mind” after almost eight years of meditation? Sigh.

Yeah, yeah. I ain’t Suzuki.

This morning thoughts raced in my consciousness like a meteor hurtling to earth, displacing the still, glass-like waters of my peaceful lake at dawn as it left a massive crater on impact with the ground. A giant cloud of ash and soot sent waves of discomfort throughout my body and mind, leaving them tense, twitchy, and agitated as hell.

You’re supposed to return to the breath when thoughts arrive to draw your focus away. You’re not supposed to suppress the thoughts as they come. It’s okay to notice them, to acknowledge them passing your view. You can even say ‘hello’ as they pass by, as you would in passing sweet elderly people at the park.

What you don’t do is entertain the passing thoughts. You don’t change direction and start walking wherever it is they’re going. You don’t yell at them indignantly as you do at speeding cars racing down your quiet side-street. You don’t say “what the fuck is going on,” that’s for sure.

I know this, dang it. I’ve been doing this stuff for years. Geez.

Mr. Zafu – my meditation cushion. Somedays it’s my saddle, and instead of meditating, I go for a ride on the mustang that is my ADD-infected mind.

But some days it can be really, really difficult. I have ADD. It’s a miracle I can sit at all, let alone abide my breath.

Sometimes, it is calm, exactly what you’d expect when meditating. It feels as though I am sitting at the beach watching my children swimming, on a beautiful summer afternoon. I am reading a favourite book, sitting under the shade of my umbrella, listening to leaves humming as they are grazed by a gentle breeze. Seagulls heckle each other, hovering joyously above the landscape, waiting for a six year old to trip and spill her bucket of French fries in the sand, scavenging an easy meal as she mourns her lunch.

Ahhhhhh. Shamatha-bhavana, indeed. This ain’t so bad.

Suddenly, a bunch of obnoxious hooligans arrives on scene to mess with my bliss. I hear the unmistakable buzzing sound and two-stroke insanity of small watercraft. It’s like twenty-one gun salute of buckshot, instantly killing the chorus of seagulls; a raiding party of lumberjacks cranking up their chainsaws to fell the trees and silence their beautiful hum. The morons, incapable of handling machines they’ve been cavalierly allowed to use in a public swim area, narrowly avoid colliding into children who swim oblivious to the danger lurking in their midst.

Then I secretly wish there were Great White Sharks in the fresh lakes where I live. Those runts wouldn’t be so happily endangering the lives of small children then, would they?

They say I’m not to be so easily pissed off by the douche-bags possessing my thoughts. I have to return to the breath. Just like that. It was such an awesome day at the beach. I have a right to be mad at those jerks on jet-skis, those meteors, those wild, untamed mustangs I deign to ride.

Usually, in spite of myself I am able to do just that. To remain relatively unmoved by the arising thoughts. To re-direct back to the breath. I get a clear mind for about a minute or two, maybe forty-five seconds. That’s the longest spell of peace my ADD-addled mind allows before it gets restless and invites a jungle of macaques promising a year’s supply of bananas to come and throw their shit in my mind.

This morning, the monkeys arrived a little more randy than usual. Their all night binge slapped me in the back of my head, punched me in the gut, and shoved bunches of bananas up my ass. They left me with taut shoulders, a wincing stomach, and clenched hips and butt-cheeks. To add insult to injury, they also dragged their elephant friend along, and he sat on my chest, leaving me nearly breathless.

I was pitching and rolling on my meditation cushion, as if sitting on a white-water raft about to plunge over Niagara Falls. My arse was nominally in contact with my cushion, my ischial tuberosities afraid to fully acquaint themselves with Mr Zafu.

All my tricks to fend off the worst house-guests in history were futile. I tried several Pranayama breaths, as I do hundreds of times in a single Mysore practice. Nope.

Samavritti breathing – equal counts inhale and exhale. To a count of twelve! If I don’t pass out first, it’s bound to get me back on track.

Ha Ha, it is to laugh, little Buddha. Mantras. Nope. Count the damn breaths. Nope, not quite. Tickle the roof of my mouth with the tip of my tongue. ‘Gawd dang, that feeels weird!’ I’m just wincing, now.

Time to bring out the big guns. Kapalabhati breath. Suck it, rogue-like, ambling mind. You’re going down!

Vanquished again. But my sinuses were clearer than they’ve been in days. You know, the smell of defeat isn’t all that bad.

Then my timer goes off. What?! It’s been twenty-five minutes already?! No way. Let me check that iPhone’s not wonky.

Ischial Tuberosities, also known as "sit bones." These are the bones that one is theoretically supposed to make contact with the ground when sitting. In my case, I'm usually too taut in my shoulders and hips, so I sit on my hamstrings instead.

Ischial Tuberosities, also known as “sit bones.” These are the bones that are theoretically supposed to make contact with the ground when sitting. I’m usually too taut in my shoulders and hips to do that, so I sit on my hamstrings instead.

Usually, this tango with my mind goes on for about ten minutes before I can settle in to a relatively steady routine of calm meditation and violent distraction. Today, distraction landed a Mike Tyson hook square in my meditation’s temple, thirty-eight seconds into the fight. I remained in the ring only because I lay in unconsciousness for the remaining twenty-four minutes, twenty-two seconds.

What the fuck?!

I went through the items on my post-meditation checklist. I am not stressed about work. Things with my partner are awesome. I am not displaying any symptoms that may be distant early warning signs of cancer, this week. I slept okay, I think. I had some off the wall dreams, actually. I was naked with an erection, the opening scene in my fantasy was looking good. Until I looked around in my dream and realized I was boning in a public place, again, which made the whole thing pervy. It’s hard to feel good about yourself when you’re constantly having a dream that makes you want to turn yourself into to the cops when you wake up. So I just repress it, which usually works.

Wait.

What day is it?

Cripes, it’s a Full Moon.

That’s why I wasn’t rushing off to go to my Mysore class today. Those weirdo Ashtangis don’t practice on full moons, for some arcane reason. I assume the meat-loving schlubs like myself who do Mysore yoga are the only ones totally unaware of why this is.

When people ask about it, I just say something to stem the implied ridicule in the question like, “hey, the tides react with extremes on a full moon, and we ARE, like, ninety per cent water, so …” Usually they shake their head in agreement with something in that statement. It saves me having to give a real answer, which I don’t know.

This is the mantra I typically do. It's the mantra named after Amitabha the bodhisattva of compassion which is what I need when I am cursing myself during a lousy meditation session.

This is the mantra I typically do. It’s the mantra named after Amitabha, the bodhisattva of compassion, which is what I need when I am cursing myself during a lousy meditation session.

Now, I think maybe there’s something to this whole business of a Full Moon not being good for practice. I sit in meditation nearly every day, so I notice when a session is particularly shitty. Today was a side-show, as was my frenetic morning routine.

At one point this morning, I got confused about what to do first – make the coffee, get dressed, or have breakfast. So I did them all at the same time. I almost got into three accidents on my way to work. I had coffee grounds and jam in my underwear, which I didn’t discover until much later on.

Then, instead of immediately getting to work once I sat down at my cubicle, I started writing this blog post. Aha! A Full Moon makes me too frazzled to get my work done. But I procrastinate on a quarter, half and seven-eighths moon. Maybe it’s the moon just being there. I wonder if I could get a doctor’s note for this work-disrupting disease related to the moon’s existence.

This is going nowhere.

I asked my cubicle neighbor if she slept well last night. After shaking off her puzzlement at the question, she did mention her sleep wasn’t great. She then said she was snappy at her son, and extra bitchy in her e-mails this morning. She started talking about her drive to work before I cut her off and said, “I think I’ve got enough, thanks.”

Three people called in sick – on a Wednesday. A Wednesday! It’s cloudy outside, too. Could it be they are really sick? Were they barking at the moon a little well into the wee hours? Hmmm.

Another office colleague returned from her morning coffee having gone on a buying binge, grabbing one of every on-sale “food” item at a drug store chain. She generously shared her bags of sodium, sugar, preservatives and other nominally edible toxins with her appreciative colleagues. There was an explosion of excitement as we stood around stuffing our faces with carcinogens, significantly shortening our life spans. What a care-free breakfast gathering it was!

"You wanna marinate, b*tch?" "No, Mr Tyson - Meditate"  "Marinate on this - " As his left hook smashes into the temple of my meditation session.

“You wanna marinate, b*tch?”
“No, Mr Tyson – Meditate”
“Marinate on this – “
As his left hook smashes into the temple of my meditation session.

So, it may be there is something to this “Full Moon” business, after all. Or maybe I’m just grasping at straws to find a suitable excuse for another crappy meditation session. The idea there’s no reason at all for my ineptitude, besides the fact my mind is like a six year old tripping out after a gummy-bear binge, sucks. That just leaves me with trepidation at the thought of many more unexpected rides on the mustang when all I want is to sit on Mr Zafu for a pleasant ride in a canoe on a serene lake at dawn. Full moon it is.

Ambling mind, I’d like you to meet full moon. Full moon, meet my mind. Something tells me you two know each other.

Those Little Hands

Three angels, three red balloons In my twenties I was extremely disparaging of children. I viewed them as loud, selfish, obnoxious, energy-draining parasites. I’d cast aspersions at families for spoiling my meal by bringing their disruptive children to a restaurant clearly not meant for families. I’d secretly denounce parents who couldn’t stop their kids behaving like baboons in public.

The poorly-dressed, overweight, bleary-eyed dudes sauntering like emasculated eunuchs from their minivans, and frazzled mothers in sweatpants and stained shirts were horrific sights to my decidedly yuppie eyes. There was nothing to recommend having children of my own.

In my early thirties I jumped off a cliff to spite myself and had children. Twins, no less. Like most men, I repressed my ambivalence about the idea of kids and hoped for the best.

Sleepless nights, colic, croup, flu, fevers, diarrhea. Trips to the emergency room. Teething. Crying. Lots of crying, at the most inopportune time – at two, three, and four in the morning – then not at all while I was sleeping at my desk at work.

Everything about being a new parent was an affront, an insurmountable challenge. I was not one of those people seduced by the propaganda that fools would-be parents into believing in the unqualified bliss of children. I had low expectations going in. The reality at times felt worse, which I did not think possible. I chalked it up to the sheer physical exhaustion of caring for new-born twins.

When my children were three they were both diagnosed with autism.

Obviously, I was incredibly distraught. It forced so many changes in our family life, in our careers. Our aspirations for their future were hazy, but feeling grim. Children were beginning to feel like my life’s ruin. I became an impatient, self-absorbed, and sometimes caustic parent.

I was disgusted with myself, especially for how habitually I projected negativity in my mood into the manner I related to my children. I had been subjected to that myself as a child, and I vowed I would not repeat it. Then I found myself unconsciously repeating it.

I expended tons of energy to change, a process begun eight years ago, and continues today. My perspective has fundamentally altered, which in turn has transformed the way I parent my children. This doesn’t make me an amazing parent; I am just better than I was, and trying to get better.

I am more in tune with my own emotions, which makes me less rigid in outlook, more able to deal with adversity. Both are paramount for emotional stability when raising children, and for getting through the challenges in a typical adult existence. It seems flaky, but my consciousness was opened by my efforts.

Some of my old, hardened views about reality are either completely gone or really relaxed. As a result, a broader range of experience is allowed to enter my awareness than before, which is a welcome, if unexpected result. I imagine this to be similar to how a child experiences life as it comes.

Now, as I look into the adult world myself and others have created I can’t so easily ignore how tragic the view is. With my eyes a little more open I see adults who are too often indifferent, cruel, selfish, and greedy.

Joyous BubbleIt is the guile we each possess in our minds that has unleashed this state of affairs.

Guile is the capacity to act with self-serving, often malevolent duplicity. It shouts down the voice in our heart that wakes us to the suffering in our surroundings and compels us to reduce it or, at the very least, to not compound it.

Children lack guile. For a time, at least, they don’t have egos to necessitate its existence. Only when we parents begin to push our children to acquire certain specific identities, to adopt attitudes that are completely foreign to their hearts, do they begin to gain an understanding of its utility in their own lives.

Adults, on the other hand, possess guile in abundance. It is a central feature of the adult ego in an individualistic society; one that sends us all too close to the thin edge of sociopathy. It propels our wants to be craven, our motives self-aggrandizing, our actions toward the detriment of others.

Guile is the narrative the clever among us craft to make our transgressions appear principled and virtuous. We can explain, justify, or brush off ethical lapses, burying the malfeasance in our behaviour beneath layers of high-minded rationalizations. It is a by-product of a society obsessed with economic success to the detriment of our human spirit.

We adults lie, cheat, and steal, but in ways that make what we’re doing appear to be something other. We are “getting elected” or “increasing the bottom line” or “reducing our tax burden.” There is always the shibboleth of a greater good to lend an air of nobility to self-serving, specious motives.

On a day-to-day basis, most of us are not purposely engaged in misconduct. We’re just going about our day, the best we can. As we proceed, we step over the homeless, snicker at the poor, or blame the minorities for their role in being persecuted by those charged with protecting them.

All the denials and obfuscations we entertain allow us to believe the issues vexing our societies are beyond our capacity to influence. Somehow we cling to the delusion their prevalence does not say something contemptible about ourselves, who collectively have the means to address it, but do nothing instead. The lack of awareness ensures we will continue to hone our mastery of ways to exploit fellow human beings to fatten our wallets.

We are not all directly responsible for creating this reality. Yet we easily allow ourselves to be bribed, sweet-talked, or distracted away from applying our moral compass to determine our standing and change course if we don’t like where we’ve come. As we are lured further into the the gutter by the pursuit of greater wealth, each of us becomes less able to deny our agency in perpetuating the misery of so many others in our midst.

We are compelled by guile to defend the direction we are heading against appeals to change, perhaps spurred on by guilt for having ignored so much suffering to get where we are. It smothers our imagination with the notion that it is too late, or too naive to turn away from the only path we know.

Happy MeadowsThere is no greater exemplar for the place of guile in our collective hearts than the countless self-preserving reasons we postulate to justify the hoarding and concentration of our society’s wealth. Guile clings vigorously to ideas that legitimize the moral failings in organizing principles that countenance gross inequalities, and softens our judgement of the wanton acts that established this state of affairs.

We see those destroyed by addiction and mental illness left untreated and abandoned to wander the streets to fend for themselves. We possess enough to feed all the hungry mouths around the world, enough money to provide food and shelter for all the poor in our communities, and enough medicine to treat diseases we’ve licked for years. In spite of this, we choose not to share the fruits of our subsistence, allowing our wealth to be hoarded and withheld instead of used to alleviate the suffering of countless fellow human beings.

We act as though there’s nothing we can do to compel changes in corporate behaviours that too often undermine society’s non-economic imperatives: health-care, education, the environment, and human rights. By not including corporations in progressive tax systems, we effectively condone theft of society’s dividend for its investment in an educated, healthy, politically stable environment. Without any of these factors, which cost an extraordinary amount of money for society to secure, there would be no wealth to earn or to hoard.

Our withdrawal of compassion in helping the disadvantaged reflects a widespread belief their lot in life is entirely attributed to their own missteps and nothing else. This allows us to admonish the disenfranchised by touting punitive laws and policies directed at them. We criminalize, imprison, or withdraw economic supports for the underclass, addicted, marginalized, and downtrodden. The disenfranchised simply “slip through the cracks” of our collective consciousness, leaving us free to acquire more wealth and spend it feeding insatiable consumptive drives.

We focus on our careers to the neglect of our families and children; to the detriment of cultivating interesting, multi-faceted lives that include pursuits of passion as much as work. We do it because the personal wealth and status we enjoy with career achievements fulfils a deep-rooted, often emotionally pathological, ego-need. Guile makes it possible for those who put countless hours at work in demanding jobs to really believe it when they say “I am sorry I don’t spend any time with you, son, I am too busy working to support you” and not understand how readily a child sees through such duplicity.

We engage in small talk revealing nothing meaningful about ourselves or demonstrating that our range of concerns is very deep; that it genuinely encompasses the well-being of others. We embellish our successes, hide our failures, self-consciously conceal the breadth of our true humanity from others. We employ shrewdness, charm, and inauthenticity to gain the good graces of those instrumental to our aims and dismiss the rest.

Our apprehension to reveal more than the shallow surface of our lives collectively sustains the impression we are all happy and thriving, a facade that further alienates the legions who suffer; who feel ashamed, foolish, and flawed for their inability to create their own happiness. It compounds their desire to isolate and detach from others, and prevents them from reaching out for help. A society that disdains the unfortunate, singles them out for scorn as the authors of their misfortune, and ignores their concerns because they are powerless to compel our attention is an uninviting place to turn for those in the struggle.

These observations make me ashamed of the adult world many of us go about raising our children to become a part of. If this is adulthood, I say “No thanks.” I want out. This place is brimming over with guile. We grown-ups are way more rotten and misbehaved than children but worse: we have convinced ourselves we’re acting on principle.

I want a seat at the kids’ table, please. They know how to own-up when they’ve misbehaved, and say “I’m sorry.” They may be untamed, but they still lead with their hearts, which leaves them free to behave as genuine human beings.

Street SoccerChildren know the intrinsic value of fun and actively seek it out. The intention behind this motive is pure and honest. It adds something tangible to the human condition because it is energy expended in search of joy, a pursuit that does not purposely detract from anyone else’s experience of life and more often seeks to include others in the search.

A child’s emotions are raw, and they connect to them without the filtering we adults too often employ to temper the fear of confronting our feelings honestly. A child cries heartily when they feel pain, anger, frustration or indignity.

Children don’t desire objects or experiences to “get ahead.” They are moved to action by their intuition which quickly apprehends the genuine appeal of something they’ve come into contact with. A child knows when she is in the presence of beauty and truth, and does not consider reasons why she should not indulge the experience to the fullest. Their intentions arise as they apprehend reality through unadulterated eyes. Their actions to seize experiences that touch their heart is the most pure demonstration of love we witness in the world.

Because children do not repress their feelings, they are free from the cynicism we often employ to narrow the intensity of our experiences – good or bad. They don’t minimize or belittle their disappointments to guard their self-esteem, because they do not possess a concept of self. They immerse themselves in joy, and are not too embarrassed to express their delight in the moment.

When a child is angry at something you’ve done they let you know. They’ll repeat their displeasure again and again until they are certain you understand. You will know where you stand in their eyes at that moment and then, the issue will be done with. Your fundamental character will not be castigated, you will not be subjected to a passive aggressive campaign of sabotage fed by resentment over a grievance that was felt but not aired.

A child doesn’t turn sublimated feelings into rationalizations that harden their heart, foment ill-will in the mind, and steal away mental energy required to face certain hardships. They inherently know, as they endure something that brings immense pain, that it will end and be balanced by something equally joyous later on. They will not be deterred from bringing the shift about themselves, nor will they diminish their gratitude if serendipity delivers it to them. Their innate ability to be fully immersed in the intensity of feeling, without rationalizations to qualify their experience of it, is what makes them resilient.

A child doesn’t pretend to be something they aren’t and is not afraid of who they are. If a child wants to dance, they’ll dance without concern for how well or poorly they do it. If they want to be silly, they are silly without self-consciousness. When they’re excited, they fill the world with their enthusiasm and could care less if others share it.

When a child sees another cry, they can’t help from feeling disturbed, which doesn’t make them turn away. They naturally enquire to learn what has gone wrong. They try to console or comfort the aggrieved, without being limited in their compassion by the idea “there’s nothing I can do, I’m just a kid.” They know intuitively that doing nothing is to tolerate the suffering of another being, which is why they always intervene. The gesture itself goes a long way to minimize the insult because it alleviates the isolation we sometimes feel as we suffer.

Children are amazing human beings, raw and unvarnished as they may be. We adults should be so lucky to possess a shred of the innate wisdom of a child. If you filled up a theatre with five year-olds from around the world, there would be no better proof that we human beings are one and the same regardless of creed, race, or economic status. If we cared to look, we would be immediately disabused of the falsehoods we’ve relied upon to divide, rank, and organize our adult lives.

It is this insight, this perspective, that I am grateful for. I would never have learned to see the world with less atavistic eyes, had my love for my children not possessed me with the energy and will to find a way to change my view. For this reason, I am forever indebted to them; to all children. We should worship them for the infinite human potential they embody.

It occurs to me now I’m not just a parent to my children. I’m their biggest fan, and most eager student. I am here to guide them away from practical dangers and to sustain their lives until they can do so on their own. I am not here to shape them in my world view.

My children have taught me the shameful mess we have made from the gift of human life. The emotional damage we parents inflict on our children can reveal deep fissures in our own psyches. Their sensitivity to the ways we relate to them holds a mirror to the remnants of cruelty, anger, or fear in our hearts that escaped our notice. The reflection of our worst selves unwittingly trampling on their innocent spirits is nearly impossible to ignore. For me, the lesson was a watershed in my emotional development, and profoundly humbling.

If we still care about humanity, we would apologize to our children for all the indignities the guile we’ve allowed to grow in our minds has unleashed, and we would set about to make amends. Since we are unskilled in behaving with basic goodness, we must pay close attention to the standing of the world’s children. Their collective well-being is the most reliable measure of success we possess.

We adults had our moment as avatars for the human race, and we got it dreadfully wrong. It is time for our children to plot the course from here on out. Humanity’s tainted virtue on earth is redeemed when our hearts and minds are guided in their actions by the wisdom in those little hands.

I sometimes receive heart-felt apologies from beleaguered parents when their children are being difficult in a public place. I remember that feeling when my children were small – embarrassment and anxiety that my kids were ruining someone’s day. How things have changed since my days as an obnoxious upstart adult.

More than once I’ve replied to the parent “don’t be silly, and do not fret at your child on my account. They’re honest and real about how they feel, and I don’t mind.”

Playing in the rain in Bangladesh

Let’s Not Spell Away the Soldiers and The Fright, Let’s End the Violence in the Fight

Any glance at the daily media easily attests to how attached humanity is to the use of violence to solve our problems. This is obvious in the global setting, but it is also true in our own societies; on our streets and even in our homes. Every day, someone is maiming, killing, or doing serious harm to someone else. It it so prevalent as to seem part of our very nature.

I aspire to be a good Buddhist when it comes to this stuff. I do a lot of meditating, and I am intimately familiar with how anger works in the mind, because for a long time I was an angry, cynical individual. Collective violence is a macrocosm of the individual, angry state of mind. The intelligent, educated, and skilled orators are expert at finding clever ways to mask the raw anger beneath ideas and polices that require violent action to see them through.

It is easy to lend support to actions that result in death of innocents when you do so from the extreme comfort far, far away from those who suffer for the violent policies you advocate. It is easy to wax polemic in ways that perpetuate deadly exchanges between enemies when done passionately at quaint dinner parties in suburbia or in heated exchanges on university campuses.

I am not a pacifist. Not exactly, at least. I don’t believe the world’s conflicts are always solved with group hugs. I studied war history in graduate school. My take on violence, in general, is this: if someone is coming at you with an axe, then your efforts to spare your life, by taking the attacker’s life if need be, are rightly viewed as necessary. This goes for when someone is pointing a gun at you with the intent to shoot.

I am an ardent supporter of the men and women who serve in our nation’s armed forces. This is not to say I agree with militarism, but I do believe there’s nothing more noble than to volunteer to serve your country without questions asked. These brave souls have made a career of training and sacrificing to defend their country and people, at risk of death. Given that, there’s a responsibility to see to it their lives and their skills are not unnecessarily employed in ways that dishonour the noble intentions compelling them to sign up.

There are some who claim to be “pro-military” but spend much of their rhetorical and political currency trying to spur politicians into armed interventions for dubious foreign policy aims. In this they cheapen a soldier’s life, as well as the lives of those living in the places they intend to do battle. They also place soldiers in the unenviable position of being the muscle to enact policies that dishonour the integrity in their decision to enlist. It is difficult to read the stories of former soldiers who are ashamed of their service because of the excesses they witnessed among their colleagues who were war-stricken and fearful. We should never have put them in that position. Ever.

Men in suits – politicians, the policy wonks – seem to have no qualms about using soldiers as pawns for their own global pet projects. In so doing, they are advocating killing, and dispatching proxies to do their bidding for them. Worse, they are flouting the responsibility to employ the armed forces in a way that prevents their death – that is, by not sending them where they don’t belong.

Any person who has studied military history knows that armies are made to fight ugly battles in the context of chaos and the constancy of death. They are not purpose-built to “nation-build” or “promote democracy” as many pundits, both left and right, seem to believe. To suggest armies are rightly used for these aims is to espouse delusion.

For example, the US mission in Iraq was doomed to fail, not because Saddam Hussein was a stellar leader, but because there isn’t a single example in the history of human kind where a war caused an instant, positive political shift in the circumstances of the polity left to endure its consequences. Clausewitz, be damned.

In the past, we weren’t as naïve or stupid enough to fight our battles for such nebulous purposes. Prior to the 20th century, militaries were used for nation-building, indeed: imperialism, colonialism, revanchism, and outright plunder for economic aims – to benefit the nations who dispatched their armies. For God and Country they went. This seemed worth the soldier deaths at risk, and there was little care for the “civilians” killed in far-flung lands.

We used armies for craven ends because, well, armies were, and still are, made of soldiers armed and trained to kill. When they weren’t fighting battles in the fields – where it was soldier against soldier with civilians watching unharmed on the sidelines – their more dubious missions seemed like reasonably good uses for armies at the time.

In the early 20th century the League of Nations and then the United Nations were created. It was a codification of a collective international belief that the old aims for dispatching armies were illegitimate in a world made of sovereign nations. The mutually suicidal, nihilistic reality fashioned by the possession of huge nuclear arsenals on both sides of the Cold War also helped keep the lid on military adventures of the old kind.

But today there are a bunch of baby boomers who grew up in the most prosperous epoch in human history. They never personally experienced the horrors of living in a state of total war like their parents. Since colonialism and imperialism were rendered illegitimate causes for dispatching armies, new ideas to fudge the rules were needed. So the lofty aim of “spreading democracy” became the stand-in for “imperialism.” Military interventions to “topple ruthless dictators” became the pseudonym for colonialism.

We don’t have to go back to the misguided revolutionary republican idealism of Napoleon Bonaparte to gain insights into how stupid and impractical using violent means to spread such political ideals is. Hey, I love democracy too. It’s just that, well, you can’t really craft one with the explosive power of tanks, surface to air missiles, and strategic bombing sorties. These are just antiseptic ways to gloss over repeated instances of killing people, which isn’t the best underpinnings for an ethically robust political order.

We needn’t go so far back in human history to make the point. Every single US military intervention from Vietnam onward – direct or by proxy – was grossly unsuccessful in achieving their objectives. The adventures failed to achieve the dubious, illegitimate aims of installing stable, if fascist, US-supporting regimes as much as the well-intentioned ones of toppling unco-operative dictatorships.

Only the first Gulf War was successful, but it was a UN-sanctioned intervention to defend a powerless nation against unprovoked attack. It was successful precisely because its objectives were limited and strictly military in nature: pushing the invading army back to its own agreed-upon international borders. That success should have taught us something lasting about fighting wars in the future.

Aside from unrealistic military objectives, the poor long-term success of many interventionist wars betrays a terrible lack of wisdom their theoretical adherents share. Humans, being what they are, tend to prefer internal machinations to combat the skullduggery of home-grown tyrants among them. Prolonging the misery for a home-grown plan is always better than a more immediate solution imposed by an outside force. It’s not hard at all to imagine how Iraqis or Afghanis would be mistrusting of a bunch of exotic soldiers parachuting in after having blown their country to pieces and saying they’re there for “goodness.”

I feel for modern generals. They have the most thankless job of all the senior bureaucrats in a democracy. They’re expected to prepare for and succeed in the most politically controversial adventures their political masters can fabricate. In my country, they must do so on a limited budget, with aging equipment and insufficient supports to help those who are charged to fight those battles cope with the traumas they face in theatre; situations that are unlike any their fellow citizens could even imagine.

Their noble sacrifice in signing up to serve is dishonored as they are dispatched like mercenaries and left to suffer alone the psychological scars of the horrifying experiences. Think of the massive perceptual shift asked of a soldier raised in Canada, Belgium, or Australia who is dispatched to a place like Afghanistan where they are engaging people like the Taliban who believe in a pre-medieval global order and cheapen human life as such.

All of us have a cousin, friend, or loved one who serves. It maddens me to think they’d be sent off to die or to suffer the psychological torment of having taken lives – all for sake of some political agenda with a very limited chance of success in the end. Secretly, I bet most generals take the same position as me, the pussy-footed Buddhist, when it comes to the utility of the armed forces: fight battles that are vital to your actual survival and no more.

The mission in Iraq, and others like it in the decades before, put soldiers who believed they were doing something noble into the unenviable position of being perceived as thugs and plunderers in the countries they were dispatched to occupy. Yet I will say those who have died in such missions have not done so in vain. They died trying to serve their country. That willingness to sacrifice gave their life more meaning than any citizen could hope to achieve.

The blood of the soldiers’ deaths is on the hands of those who sent them to battle without fully appreciating the realities of what is involved in such a mission. They sent people to kill and be killed for objectives that they should have known would not succeed.

The sad reality is, this true of nearly every decision to employ lethal violence to solve our problems. They do not work, even if we dearly wish to cling to the belief they do. The argument against killing is as much moral as it is practical, which is surely no coincidence, but an axiom which makes most decisions to employ violence for political aims reckless and inhumane.

The moment one has to start getting into rationalizations of why the killing of innocents is an unpleasant consequence of “necessary” violent actions, one leaps into an ethical abyss. Any human being who claims moral high ground from whatever pulpit they happen to stand upon, but then speaks from there to extol lethal actions to make amends, or to advance some specious doctrine or other is engaged in something reprehensible. Any demagogue who claims killing “infidels” or “occupiers” is a worthy pursuit – for God, for justice, or other alleged grievances is a fraud. Anyone who can ramble off their coffee-shop diatribes about the justifiability of actions that inevitably kill innocents is being a fool.

Those who see virtue in violence to effect lasting political change prey on the total, absolute, collective ignorance to the realities of what is involved in such actions. And in large part, they succeed. Shame on all who allow it, for lacking a sense of history and humanity that, if heeded, would easily compel our thinking to change. Shame on us for our lack of imagination, for our inability to come up with solutions to human problems that do not constantly entail the death of children and innocents in the achievement.

Worst of all, our addiction to violent solutions perpetuates the idea that killing for a notion, an artifact of a delusional mind, is a legitimate intention for a sentient human being to possess. It never is. I’d like to see any man try to convince a child otherwise.

To borrow from Robert Graves, our use of violence too often requires us to “spell away the soldiers and the fright” in our minds when it comes to armed warfare. It’s the way we’ve made it a palatable solution in our minds. I wish we’d take greater pause after counting the dead, and commit to sacrificing no more lives in violent actions that so not work and demean our humanity.

174 and 1/2 Steps To Be Thin, Happy, and an All-Around Amazing Human Being in Under Two Minutes

Okay, the title is a little dishonest.

In reality, I’m not going to give you any finite number of simple steps toward anything. This is a cliche I don’t mind employing from time to time: nothing worth doing is easy.

The gist of my title piggybacks on the blogging trend in vogue these days. Every article is fashioned into a list, with the aim of grabbing the attention of a culture who seems collectively to have the attention-span of a six-year old. This is completely benign when it comes to the subject of the “10 Child Stars Who Still Look Like They Did When They Were Child Stars” or “15 Ways to Get Laid, Paid, and Never Be Afraid.”

But I have some serious reservations when this editing approach is employed to articles attempting to give serious advice to those who feel their well-being suffers. I understand perfectly why there are dozens of web sites catering to the legions out there who feel fat, lonely, miserable, or otherwise unfulfilled in their lives. I was, and to a degree still am, one of those people. I think the intentions behind all the advice columns out there are noble, and I still regularly consume many of these myself.

However, there’s a danger in framing the solution to overcoming some serious problems as if it was “Easy as 1-2-3.” The solutions aren’t that easy. I understand that, to reel people in who are feeling not great about themselves, you have to think of ways to get them in the door with offerings of hope.

I’m not sure false hope is much of a sinecure for any despair these people feel. And it seems to me these editors – because I bet the bloggers didn’t write their articles this way – are sacrificing the self-esteem of people who genuinely suffer. They dangle dubious promises of hope with blogs edited down to an unrecognizable husk of their original depth to increase readership which feeds advertising revenue and blah, blah, blah.

What happens? People who are suffering read the 10 steps to happiness, try them out for a week or two, inevitably fail, and then ask “what the fuck is wrong with me?” The simple solutions have added a section of naysayers to the stadium of negative self-critics already in their head. It’s another nail in the tattered self-esteem of anyone who has struggled with an issue that has dogged them for years.

The truth is, the things we need to do to get out of our ruts vary widely. But the ruts we are in are all rooted in the same issue: a distorted mental view. Because we are all human, and most of us have a mind, we tend to face certain shocks to our psyche in the same way.

That’s where things went south for most of us. We need to find that nugget of pathos, put it in our hands, smell it, and get to know it. Then, and only then, can we start to build a new road for all the spheres of our lives where we may, or may not, be succeeding. New eyes driving a new road can also lead to new perceptions of our “failure,” something few of these blogs ever touch upon.

So, here is my list. The list of things, the nugget, beneath every big issue written about in the self help industry: abuse, depression, anxiety, body image, relationships, career, and happiness. Wait for it …

1. Your Ego

Here is another list of what you can do to change this:

1. Tons of Fucking Work

Easy as pie right? And with fewer ingredients too.

I realize, these lists are a hell of a lot less appealing as blog titles go than “Eight Ways to Liberate Your Soul.” Let’s try it out, “You Have to do Tons of Fucking Work To Figure Out Why Your Ego Keeps You: Depressed, Eating When You’re Not Hungry, Sabotaging Your Chance of Having a Good Relationship Because It’s Choosing the Wrong People to be in Your Life, Choosing Goals That Are Vapid, Shallow, or in Disharmony With Who You Are, and Acting In Ways You Know for a Fact You’ll Regret Later On”

Wow. That is a long title. I bet folks will probably not be crashing the server of the blog-site where that article was posted.

Now, I’m not a PhD psychologist whose articles are edited down by some dude with an MFA from Fordham. I’m not a “Life Coach” or Yoga teacher. But I have been meditating for eight years and doing yoga slightly less. And I’m also not giving you any lists. I’m just sharing my realizations about this stuff because I did a lot of hard work to get them.

I don’t meditate sometimes. I meditate every day, except when I don’t want to. I do retreats where I don’t read, talk, telephone, or anything other than meditate, and they suck a lot. But they work, magically.

I do Mysore yoga, which doesn’t allow me to compare myself to the rest of the class as I pose. I basically force myself to be with myself. All the time. It sucks sometimes too, but ditto above about working, magically.

That stuff is way harder than reading a list, for sure.

But now I know my ego. All I have to say is “that little fucker.” He’s the one who purports to act on my behalf before I can intervene with wisdom to stop him. He’s the one telling me I am not good enough all the time. And now I also know where he placed all the shit he couldn’t, wouldn’t, or was too scared to deal with.

I understand the reasons why he did those things, but it’s kept me emotionally swinging in the dark, which screwed up many parts of my life. I know how he rationalizes his dysfunctional way of dealing with emotional turmoil in the same way: avoidance, denial, distraction, defensiveness, posturing. I know he sprung out to protect me at an early age against some pretty deep emotional traumas.

I’ve seen how the same single pile of emotional shit seems to stick to the bottom of my shoes, and is there no matter where my ego goes. But it was the SAME emotional pile stinking up every sphere of my life.

Dealing with that one pile would negate having to deal with what appeared to be separate piles in ostensibly separate parts of my life. That would obviate the need to remember the self-help blog list for my eating problem, another for my sad problem, and another for each of my partner, mother, brother, best friend, boss, and co-worker problems.

Added up those lists are about 174 things, plus a 1/2 because I don’t care so much about one of the things on one of the lists that could make my co-workers like me. That’s a lot of things to remember. It’s a lot of compartmentalizing of a human being. It re-inforces the lie that we are somehow capable of switching ourselves on and off so easily without any residual damage to our psyches.

The switch-off leaks out if we don’t address it. Ask any professional who regularly attends crash scenes, a soldier in a war-zone, a police officer, a social worker about swiching-off or compartmentalizing. It’s bullshit. To a very small degree, this amount of dissociating from ourselves to function in certain spheres is functional. Until it becomes pathological for the infinite ways we try to shield our emotions with our egos.

That’s a lot of big, fancy-pants talk. Ego? What’s that? I bet you’re wondering where the easy part comes, right?

There is no easy part. There never was, nor will there ever be, particularly if you are in your mid-life and have been dealing with your issues for a long while. There are some ingrained perceptions and distortions perpetuating your problems. Your ego – the persona most of us tend to identify with, that generally perceives the world and then behaves accordingly – has kept you where you are because he has been doing the mis-perceiving and distorting of your reality. He’s done the best he can, but it’s time to give him the shove-off if you’re stuck dealing with the same problems.

You cannot just take a list created by some random blogger’s “happy mind” and stuff it in your ear so your mind will adopt all the perceptions, and feelings, and outlook that combine to make the blogger’s happy view even possible. Your ego will easily reject all the foundations upon which that list is built. It will want to place you back in the zone it is most comfortable, which is outside the mental bounds the list springs from.

Something in your mind sees the attraction in the list. So, the work is, you need to get behind the ego and see your mind for who and what it is and what you really are. You are not the things your ego says you are.

Throw away the lists and find a way into your mind. For me, that was meditation and yoga, for you maybe it’s therapy or something else that removes you from the nutty world your ego put you in. If you don’t retreat from that place to a demilitarized zone, your ego will continue in the dysfunctional tactics it evolved to defend you.

In other words, there is hope for change. The change lies in coming into direct contact with who you are. Then you can start to walk the earth with a mind that is more objective in its view of things, including how it views yourself and your place in all of this.

But it takes work. It took years to get into the problem and it will take years to get out of it. This shouldn’t be a source of discouragement.

That’s the other thing I really, really hate about many of these easy-peasy self-help articles. They are just another insidious voice in the Western rhetoric that puts little gadflies in our heads about how easy conquering all the problems in our life should be. That idea is an accelerant for low self-esteem, because it is false and bound to fail. People offering self-help advice should not be putting a recipe for failure in the hands of people with poor, vulnerable self-perceptions.

After eight years, the massive shit-pile I discovered in my self-study isn’t gone but it is smaller, more manageable. I can step around it most days without having it stink up my behaviour in all the facets of life I have to juggle.

That’s progress, and that is reality. It is one hell of a lot better reality than the one my ego saw before I started doing the work. In order for it to stay that way I will have to keep at it; life and my ego created the pile before and they could do it again.

The work of overcoming my problems forced me to cultivate lasting habits, and disciplined practices that I don’t need to remember from a list. The functional habits I have are based in perceptions crafted by my mind, for my mind. I promise, you can go and get your own better mind too, with some considerable effort.

So I lied. I am going to proffer a list.

Three reasons your hard efforts to heal are worthwhile:

1. You

2. Your loved ones

3. Humanity

Inner Peace. Who Wants a Piece?

In my early-thirties I became increasingly curious about spirituality and other practices that appeared to offer the promise of calm and inner peace. I’d spent most of my life mired in distractions, chasing achievements, self-improving; always fighting the feeling that I was late to the party and came wearing the wrong outfit. If I wasn’t spending late nights on the job to make my mark, I was frantically trying to raise my intellectual bar higher to cultivate an urbane mind to pad my accomplishments. I was a classic Type-A personality of the species hubris overachieveritas academicus. I was bright, clever, and capable, but also chronically unhappy, anxious and agitated. I never felt relaxed and constantly battled the urge to psychologically slip out of my own skin.

This is my old attitude. It's still kinda funny in an asshole-ish kinda way.

Sarcasm is hilarious – so long as it’s not you who’s pissed off enough to be unleashing it all the time.

I was aware of exotic “new-agey things” like yoga and buddhism, and attracted by the sense of calm and groundedness it offered, but was skeptical. I believed people who were outwardly calm were seething cauldrons of rage just waiting to boil over – like me. I was convinced the world was going to shit, that it was ruled by thugs, thieves, and troglodytes, and that all with a conscience were right to be pissed off about it. The idea of “mindfulness” and dubious fitness trends like yoga were soothing antidotes for personal setbacks, but weren’t contributing much to end the insanity I perceived as the undoing of the human race. It never occurred to me then that the locus of my perception of insanity, my grim outlook, was at the heart of the problem.

Today, I accept many things are beyond the grasp of reason, especially in human affairs. I don’t presume my mind is capable of accurately diagnosing the world’s ails or fabricating ideas to fix them. That project is flawed in intention and doomed by its very design. I aim to be one less active part of the problem by taking steps to become more mindful of how I conduct myself; a task which must necessarily begin by banishing a half dozen pathologies from my mind.

In my twenties, I was unknowingly doing my best to soil the planet with well-intentioned, but objectively dodgy ideas and conduct. These days I do my best to apply mindful restraint to prevent the unleashing of my culturally pre-ordained sociopathy on the world. I am aware of habits of mind that influence my perception of things, which leans far too readily to the grim and cynical. I began to let go of trying to fit the world in my mind and force it to unfold according to my plans. It’s made for a much more calm and peaceful existence, and yoga and meditation are what brought me to that place.

Before I took up the practices I would have easily tried to intellectually shake down a Buddhist or a yogi to debate them about the virtues of their “religion.” I mostly thought of spiritual leaders like the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, and Desmond Tutu as good people on the whole, but fatally flawed in a way that simply had been well hidden from public view. I gave them props for spreading a positive message – the left-of-centre ideologue in me was attracted to the rebellious, emancipatory spirit of “Free Tibet” – but I wasn’t buying what I they were selling. Christopher Hitchens’ bilious assault on the alleged fraud of Mother Teresa’s crusade against poverty was emblematic of the kind of cynicism I harboured about “spiritual” movements, which I viewed as one of many in a string of dangerous assaults on reason.

As much as I thought sitting on a cushion doing nothing but “relaxing” and putting my legs behind my head was – logically speaking – ridiculous I was still intrigued by the promise of inner peace to fully discount the ideas. By my mid-thirties, when life had handed me a few more disappointments and unexpected turns than I anticipated, the abysmal coping mechanisms of my “reason” had me desperately craving a piece of the Peace I heard was within my grasp but did not really believe. I may have been suspicious of the Dalai Lama, but his happiness and radiance, in spite of living in exile and witnessing the cultural genocide of his people, suggested he was doing something right. It seemed worth a try.

My initial curiousity was piqued by falling into an old habit: I did a lot of reading about buddhism, meditation, yoga, and mindfulness. I bought some buddha statues and put them around my home. I bought a couple yoga videos and went to a hot class or two. I even contemplated getting a buddha tattoo. I listened to Dalai Lama talks on CDs. Like a good North American I started the process of spiritual exploration by cultivating an identity around my sense of what it meant to be a peaceful dude without actually being a peaceful dude. However, the same basic message of the books I dug into over pints of beer and bags of chips was unavoidable: practice, practice, practice. Don’t read, don’t ponder, don’t muse and banter about meditation or yoga, they implored. Do a regular, disciplined practice.

I felt initially that this kind of approach was too soft to achieve much. Plus, I was reluctant to fully embrace being nice and mellow as a way to smooth over my abrasive persona. My ego had hardened around the idea that it was me against the world and I was apprehensive about softening the armour I’d put up, especially in my line of work at the time. I didn’t want to be a tree-hugging pushover. I was also an ardent rationalist, genuinely frightened of becoming a blinkered bliss junky. My identity was caught up in the idea that there was virtue in being a skilled, consummate critic. To a degree, maybe there is, but I found that it just dug me deeper and deeper into a pit of negativity that was difficult to crawl out of when I wanted relief; when I wanted to not be angry and indignant, to let loose, just for while.

In spite of my negative, cynical self, in 2006 I gave yoga and meditation a real college-try. I haven’t looked back. Sure, there have been ebbs and flows in the regularity of how I practice. I am a quick-fix Westerner, after all.

Certainly, I’ve slipped into old habits of negativity – they were thirty-some years in the making. But I’ve stuck with it and the practices have changed my life for the better. I am happy to report that I can still reason and judge, I just do so with a more open mind and come away from the exercise without being singed by a seething cauldron of outrage.

This Work is no Walk in the Park

Even now, seven years after exploring a meditation and yoga practice the thought “what

Marichyasana A. At first, me getting into this pose was like trying wrestle a wild boar to the ground. Now it's just like trying to hug a galloping pony.

Marichyasana A. At first, me getting into this pose was like trying wrestle a wild boar to the ground. Now it’s just like trying to hug a galloping pony.

bloody good is all this?” still creeps into my mind. The doubt is especially intense at six in the morning at Mysore, when I am falling over balancing on one leg while holding the other suspended in the air by the toe (Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana). My pride is shaken when, from across the room, my instructor catches me stealing a furtive glance at the sublime curves of the down-dogging yogini in front of me and quietly, calmly exclaims “look at your nose, Edmund.” Many mornings as I struggle to get my arms to wrap behind me and around my knee and fold into a forward bend (Marichyasana A) I muse about the relative attractiveness of sleep in my cozy bed and curse myself for the decision to come so early to a room of organic farts, sweaty, unwashed bodies, and the amplified Darth Vader din so characteristic of Mysore class.

Some mornings I fantasize about driving back and forth over my zafu cushion as I sit in the wee hours, the sleep still in my eyes, with feet that have ceased to exist and knees that feel like they’ve been through a New York Yankees batting practice. I feel my frustration starting to build as I obsess about my grocery list, remember bills I have to pay, and re-hash conversations where I wish I’d said something more poignant, more funny to score points (usually with a woman who is much too young for me). I find myself repeatedly humming the same annoying jingle, or realize I am mentally masturbating on the image of the yogini in front of me at yesterday’s Mysore class and feeling embarrassed for having been busted by my teacher.

My timer rings and I have to fight the feeling of failure about the fact that, over the past thirty minutes, I’d had maybe three minutes of darn good focus on my breath and twenty seven in the jungle swinging from tree to tree, beating my chest and throwing shit like the unruly monkey my mind happens to be. The success is that I sat there. I got those three minutes, which is better than nothing. I also became a little more familiar with what makes my little Curious George throw shit and get jumpy. It’s insight I can use later on.

This inner-focused, meditative stuff is maddeningly difficult for me, and I’d bet its probably so for most constantly distracted, perpetually busy North Americans. It was much easier training to run half marathons than it is to sit and focus on the breath and mindfully set the body in various poses. It was hard to keep up a good practice when I was suffering emotionally during the early stages of my separation and sobbing in a perpetual state of semi-catatonia.

This is all to say that sometimes – often, frankly – it isn’t easy work. Yoga isn’t just “stretching” – especially if you choose Ashtanga or Vinyasa Flow. Meditation isn’t just “thinking.” Meditation definitely is not as glamourous as the posters of a peaceful saffron-robed monk sitting serenely in front of a giant Buddha statue in an exotic Asian locale. Yoga is not as glitzy as the photo-shoots of air-brushed naked toe-sock-wearing yoginis depict. Both are a lot more gritty than that in reality. There’s pain, and sweat and lots of frustration. There are tears, anger, and eventually, laughter.

Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana (Extended Hand to Big Toe Pose). Okay, I'm an Ashtanga purist in saying this, but she should really be holding her to and looking to her right, but you get the idea, the pose is an ego killer and makes for some fun times in a crowded class. Try it and see.

Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana (Extended Hand to Big Toe Pose). Okay, I’m an Ashtanga purist in saying this, but she should really be holding her toe and looking off her right shoulder, but you get the idea, the pose is an ego killer and makes for some fun times in a crowded class. Try it and see.

I am grateful for the serendipity that got me sun-saluting on the mat and sitting on the cushion; that compelled me to give it a try and to stick with it when at first it really sucked. When I was lamenting the fact that my life had turned to shit back in 2006 and I wanted to hurl myself off a bridge, instead of blanketing myself in booze or addiction I just said, “what do I have to lose with this buddhism and yoga stuff?” I started to regularly roll out my yoga mat at home and practiced to yoga videos from a box set that someone had given as a gift. We didn’t really do yoga and I remembered looking at the DVD box set thinking, “Isn’t Muriel Hemmingway an actress, and who is this Rodney Yee guy with the really long, healthy hair? What are these two waifs going to teach me about fitness?” I gave it a try anyway.

At the same time, I started going to dharma teachings and soon signed up for meditation retreats. I sat for a meditation session daily, no matter how short. For the first time in my life I started to experience genuine calm, even if only ephemerally. Old habits die hard. I wasn’t a walking dove and giving hugs to the homeless, but I could see changes in the way I was coping with things that had, in the past, sent my mind in a cycling frenzy.

I am glad I had the faith to just try it and stick with it, even though “results,” whatever I thought they’d be, were hard to come by. I am able to say without any equivocation that, if I had not spent the previous years cultivating a robust meditation practice before I separated from my wife in late 2011 I would not be writing this article today. I’d be in a pine box, or dust in the wind. I simply did not have a positive outlook or any functional method to bring me out of my tendency to stew in the cycle of negative thoughts and emotions that so easily germinated in my mind. When I first separated from my wife, a woman I’d been with eighteen years, the seeds spawned in my emotional garden were of the hemlock variety.

Negative thoughts and emotions still arise – that will never change – but after I’d taken up yoga and meditation I no longer instinctively repressed them under the din of activity or distraction. Nor did I get so wrapped up in them for as long as I had before. I became more able to confront my strong emotions about things and just let them be without needing to “do something” about them. It was extraordinary progress in my level of self-awareness and emotional growth.

I won’t tell a lie, I’m not even close to being the next buddha. I am still far too enamoured of bacon and the taste of other inhumanely slaughtered flesh tearing to pieces between my teeth; I am still neurotic, slightly compulsive, and just a tad more indulgent than I should be because of my Attention Deficit Disorder. I’d have to bribe someone on high to claim just a sliver of real estate on the spiritual pedestal. I am too flawed to be a sage, and I’m just fine with that. There aren’t any bodhi trees where I live anyway, so I’m out of luck.

At the same time, I am much less a slave to my neuroses and the dysfunction they perpetuate than I used to be. I am not the negative person I used to be, nor am I so easily attracted to other negative people. If I can change, anyone can. The change can occur without over-reliance on anti-depressants and psychotherapy, which leave you with wait gain, a loss in libido, and quite a few bucks lighter in the wallet. The point I want to make here is that there is something else to try. Work at it, and give it time, and see what happens.

Two months of unlimited yoga classes at my studio costs just a little more than one session with a shrink. Meditation is free – other than the one-time cost of a cushion – and a dharma class costs whatever you want to offer in terms of dana. These are modest investments for sake of one’s well-being and much more assured of results than anti-depressants and shrinks alone.

Carve just twenty minutes away from tweeting, facebooking, porn-surfing, gaming or any of the multiple distractions you’re using to titillate your stimulus-craving mind and use the time to sit in meditation. Instead of beating your body into submission at the gym or on the track, try yoga a few times a week; maybe repair some of the damage you’ve done to that vessel of yours because you’ve subjected it to so much stress and mindless activity.

Instead of hiding under the blanket of meds and psychoanalysis, go on a scavenger hunt. Suss out your demons and look them square in the eyes. See how they look when you’re not running away. All you’ve got to do is sit, or hold a pose and attend to your breath; wait for them to make an appearance. When you’ve done your sessions over and over again with your demons trying to spook you out of your practice, the realization that you’re okay, that you’re still in one piece, will diminish the their ability to mess with your mind. You will win, in your own way. Your monkey will be off your back and on your leash, I just know it.

Just Have Faith – In Yourself

What's it gonna be? Mindless distraction or meditation?

What’s gonna be better for ya, Snooki or meditation and yoga? It’s like the choice between heroin and a fruit salad, isn’t it?

Just do the practices and see for yourself, preferably without fettering your experience with a bunch of expectations about what it’s all supposed to be about. Most of us are conditioned to see every thing we do in the world instrumentally, in terms of how it suits our aims. Not everything worthwhile can be quantified and evaluated like a capital investment, and neither can we apprehend everything that is worthwhile in the world from the jumping off point of our own minds. It’s all really about the process, which you have to allow to unfold as it does for you.

It’s difficult to believe this at first because the practices are deceptively simple and yet extremely difficult in the application. They have to be done with energy, effort, and focus – end of story. Yoga and meditation aren’t rightly approached as part of an ego-project to chalk up another achievement – that of enlightenment. They are, simply put, transformative in such a profoundly positive, impactful way for each who practices.

The only faith required for this practice is in yourself and in the process. If you don’t have a clue what that process is, find a teacher and follow their instructions with diligence. A cautionary word of advice for anyone coming to the practice on the promise of a quick fix: that attitude will be the greatest hindrance to your practice. There is nothing to “fix”. You’re lost, not broken, and the rescue mission is going to take time, especially if you’ve been running away from yourself for a long while.

Practice to free your mind from the layers and layers of conditioning you’ve been subjected to your whole life, that have sent you grasping into the world with endless desire in your heart. You are not the sum total of your cravings and reactions to the frenzied drama of modernity; you are not the hungry ghost of your conditioning. The practice of looking closely into your body and mind will gradually unearth the human being you really are. Aren’t you the least bit curious to know who that person is, after all these years?

Dalai Lama on Love and Freedom

It’s wisdom we all feel in our hearts is true, but it takes practice to actually live this wisdom in our lives everyday.