Category Archives: questioning assumptions

Realizing My Own White Privilege

screen-shot-2017-01-26-at-10-06-34-pmNotes from a talk delivered in January 2017

I was asked to give a talk to the January meeting of the Business Women’s Round Table, due to my having received the Q Award at last year’s Quadruplicity conference. I didn’t know where to start, so I went back to basics: I started with the here and now, the year it’s been since the conference, the time we’re in right now.

The first thing to say is thank you to the BWRT for the Q award. It was huge, not just for me, but for the gay women in our area for whom this was a big symbolic statement about the ability to be accepted by the mainstream. It was also important for the whole lgbtq population. And it gave visibility and credibility to Cville Pride. While I definitely felt personally proud, the lasting feeling was that this was an honor earned by and gifted to the whole gay community; I just happened to be a representative.

What followed the Q award last February was an odd year. Before New Year’s, it seemed like everyone was decrying 2016 as the worst. But for me, it was more like the Paula Abdul song, two steps forward, two steps back. Like, there was the Pulse tragedy – awful. But then the vigil here in Cville – over 600 people showed up – a beautiful statement of support. There were killer clowns on the loose – but there was Ken Bone at the presidential debate. Our beloved dog got diagnosed with cancer, was given 18 months to live – but then we started spending more time with him, and now we’re going to get a puppy. I got married to the love of my life in a fun and gorgeous celebration – but none of our parents showed up or even want to talk about it, because they don’t “agree” with our “lifestyle.”

And there was the local, controversial issue of the Lee statue.

But this isn’t about the ideologies at war. And don’t worry – I’m not trying to argue one way or the other here. But what happened was the beginning of a personal and painful revelation that is still continuing.


We’ve had the annual Pride Festival in Lee Park now five times, and I’ve lived in Cville since 2001, and truly, I figured my position on race and the Confederacy were “correct.” I was and still am all about taking the sucker down. 

But I had never actually heard what it could feel like to see the Lee statue and other images as a person who was black. It never occurred to me that doing so would make it look any differently.

One of my best friends grew up in Georgia and had the confederate flag waving around and symbols used very much as symbols of oppression. Mind you, she wasn’t hellbent to have the thing removed – you get used to it, she said.

And that’s what killed me. She wasn’t horrified by it, like I was. She was used to it. She was used to constant reminders that she lives in a culture that deems her a second-class person because of her skin color. She’s numb. And I felt very dumb.

One of our mutual friends very adamantly reveres the statue and his idea of tradition and history – and told us this, with a sense of panic almost, a sense of threat. She didn’t fault him. I’m used to it, she shrugged. I talked to another friend, and another, and heard the same thing – yes, I see it and I see it as a symbol of oppression, of slavery, of a congratulatory Amen to a system that persecuted people like me. But I’m used to it.

I wasn’t used to it. I felt broken apart on the inside. I cried. It’s one thing to acknowledge, from a conceptual distance, how race or disability or age or anything else affects a person. It’s another to feel oppression from the inside.

I didn’t want her to be used to it – to anything left around out of laziness or erected out of will – that at all reminded her that she lives in a place where people believe and are tolerated in their beliefs that there was something justifiable, laudable, honorable at all in a fight for a way of life whose crucial key was the enslavement of people based on their skin color. And that honoring that is more important than honoring the experience after.

I grew up in California and I will confess that I was a Martin Luther King Jr fan and all my friends were a rainbow of colors and ethnicities and I came to Virginia and thought all this Southern black-white stuff was old and ridiculous and I had an arrogance to me that I didn’t even see that I was beyond racism. Not to mention, as an advocate for equality for LGBTQ people, I thought, isn’t it obvious that I am for social justice for everyone else, too? I thought that was a given. I didn’t just have black friends, I’ve dated black women! Talk about impeccable credentials. Right?

Another definitive experience that i’ve mulled over in my mind. During a Human Rights Commission meeting, I was presenting a proposal to look at bringing together nonprofits and other organizations addressing sexual violence, mostly against women, and I was not getting support from a few women of color. This pissed me off. Not only because they are also women, but because women of color statistically experience rape and sexual assault much more than white women. If it was a cause they should care about, this was it. And yet they were glaring at me. I was livid.

I said something and tensions rose and at a peak moment, this one colleague of mine, in a fury said to me, “You don’t know what it’s like to be born with a black face. From day one, to be treated like you’re lesser than everyone else.”

I actually held my tongue. I was very proud of myself. I was also righteously indignant. I hate when people play that popular game, Who’s More Oppressed? After all, who really wins? Who wants to win? I whined and complained. In my mind, I DID compare the black and the gay experience. Yes, you can’t necessarily hide your skin color; but when you can hide your identity, you carry a burden of silence that can be internally toxic. And sure, maybe racism oppresses you, but does your family kick you out for being black? And anyway, whatever our difference, don’t we share a marginalized status in society? Do we have to choose one over another as more important?

Whatever the right or wrong of my internalized arguments, what I wasn’t doing was actually paying attention to what this dear woman was telling me. For her, there wasn’t a way to separate out being a woman from being black, and I was doing that, unintentionally, with my proposal. I could do it; why couldn’t she? Again – and this was the crucial false obstruction –  it didn’t occur to me that looking at things from her perspective would make anything look different.

And I should know better. I have found, over the last five or so years, that my audience as a voice for LGBTQ equality isn’t a bunch of homophobic meanies, but all the people in this area who see themselves as liberal and accepting and don’t care to discriminate and wonder what the big fuss is all about and don’t see how their cushion of privilege separates and defines their perspective.

I had a coworker say to me, There’s no racism in Charlottesville. This white, male, straight, upper middle class, UVA-educated bro nice-guy with a fulltime job, a house, kids, intact family, looked around and didn’t see it, and HE wasn’t a racist, of course, he was a democrat. So why were people complaining? HE didn’t care if I was gay, so why all the fuss?

I was interviewed last year by a reporter who told me how some of her best friends were gay men, so she was ‘in’ on the LGBTQ experience. But I shook her up when I told her about the times that I am afraid to call my wife my wife because I don’t know what kind of reaction I will get. How, even in this blue bubble of Charlottesville, I constantly have a security camera inside my head, watching out, scanning the situation, determining if I’m in a safe space or not. My mother kicked me out when I was 16, and even though we’ve somewhat reconciled, when I got married this last June, she only sent her regrets. That people get fired and beat up, in our area. In Louisa, the gay kids wanting to march with a rainbow in the homecoming parade have faced rocks being thrown at them, and when Cville Pride started planning to support them, a lesbian family who lives in Louisa begged us not to come, because they were afraid it would expose them even more to their already hostile neighbors.

I tell these stories, because I want you, I want people who don’t know, to know and understand why I do what I do, why I am as open and vocal as I am about my sexual orientation, even though I could, if I wanted, keep it under wraps. Because I don’t want tolerance. I don’t want acceptance. I want understanding.

And what I finally realized was that that was what was wanted of me from my friends of color. What I hadn’t done, for all my well-meaning intentions, was see things through their eyes. It was like putting on a pair of glasses. The world looked very different. Through the stories told by my friend, by Brian Stevenson, in a book about the violence experienced by LGBTQ people of color, and I entered into the exercise of empathy. Entering another person’s skin.

Of course, that is the thing. We can’t enter another person’s skin, subjective experience, etc.

We can’t put on a different identity and walk through the world and say we’ve got it. So what do we do? Sometimes activists stop there and leave the fact that we all have limited subjective perceptions as a barrier that no one can overcome. Some people stick with the ignorance, then. This lack of transference becomes a barrier, a divide.

But I think there’s more. I think there’s another way.

Because I believe that, no matter what, we human beings DO share suffering, love, joy, shame – different amounts, different reasons, different shapes – but the essence of being human is something all of us knows.

In October, I met with the Jewish youth group and discovered that some of them also had moments of deciding it was better not to ‘come out’ about their identity – like times when other kids were making anti-semitic jokes  – it didn’t feel safe. I had no idea.

After the election I was, like many, full of grief. I felt wiped out. I got pretty depressed. On the one hand, I wasn’t surprised; and when people started to organize to fight for people’s rights in a Trump era, like many, I was a bit affronted – people have experienced the negative affects of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. before Trump. It’s nothing new to us to feel afraid. I was pretty angry and annoyed that somehow NOW people were ready to rise up and fight.

But then I was listening to a radio show. People from around the country calling in, reporting that, since the election, they had seen more violence, more anti-Semitic vandalism, felt more afraid. But then there was one voice. It was a Hispanic, gay man living in Savannah. And he spoke about this fear, but then he said something else. “I didn’t understand the people who voted for Trump, but then I realized, they are afraid. And I know what it’s like to be afraid. So – I get that. I get fear.”

And that changed me. It woke me up. I was feeling so rejected and threatened and rebuffed by the election. Kind of how my mom makes me feel.  But I was only thinking about my own experience, and I was letting barriers of experience stand in between me and people I view as not like me.

Which is why women, I think, tend to be more open to people different than themselves. Not because we inherently have more tendencies to empathize, but because we are encouraged to practice and develop it as a skill throughout our lives. And while I think at times we are faulted for this, seen as weak, even among ourselves, I think it is not only a strength but it is the key and critical quality that we as individuals and as a nation need to favor if we are going to grow together and not apart. We need to reframe it – empathy – as powerful.

Maybe empathy becomes weak when we think mistakenly that only one voice can be heard, only one vision followed. And that is our downfall. When our understanding becomes a way to lower our expectations of other people’s behavior – boys will be boys! – giving excuses and pardons to disrespect or to those in power – when we don’t speak truth because we don’t want to offend or disturb or cause problems – our empathy is not then a strength, but the mat we are laying down on. We have to hold people accountable.

Michelle Obama exemplifies this kind of strong kindness that doesn’t stoop to the threats and assaults of haters. It stands up to them and refuses to fight back in the same manner. She remains grounded in her truth, acknowledging other’s, and not feeling like one version has to win.

So I am challenging myself and all of you to develop your empathy, your strong empathy, to live a while in someone else’s story, to find the emotional connections with your fellow human beings. Read books, listen to podcasts, watch movies about/by people different from you. Go to events outside your comfort zone. We have to find a way to connect as humans, to have compassion and empathy for others’ experiences while completely honoring our own.

And we have to give each other a chance. There’s a lot of bashing going on right now on the Left – a lot of resentment, it seems, against do-gooders, mostly white women, who are trying to stand up for others without a lot of input from those ‘others.’ I personally understand what it’s like to be included in forums for women that ultimately leave me out – because the straight experience is just so different from the gay one.

And it feels crappy to have your experience labeled as an “issue” that’s on the appetizer tray or the buffet, for activists to choose to digest at a particular meal.

But as much as I want these people to understand my experience, I have to understand and ultimately forgive them because of theirs. It is annoying to have to educate the straight majority about the queer minority. All the time. Coming out every day multiple times is exhausting.
Yet I would rather be exhausted and annoyed while helping to enlighten and learn and be in relationship with people than off in a self-created, insulated ghetto. Not to say there aren’t times when all I want to do is be with LGBTQ people. But I can’t say I agree with all the judgment of others for not seeing all of their ignorance. I certainly have been ignorant. She who is without sin cast the first stone…

MLK, Jr Day: Challenge

It’s a season of battles: Political candidates, football teams, actors up for awards; our mlkdayreality shows are all competitions, people battling to be the best designer, weight-loser, bride, chef, hottie, etc.; the markets are battling; — we reward people, honor them with money and attention, who beat everyone else out – threaded throughout is this theme of competition and winners and losers.

So, of course, Trump has supporters. He is the natural consequence of this perpetuated ideology (hierarchy, capitalism, aggression, patriarchy, hegemony, anthropomorphic dominance, Cartesian dualism, materialism). Our laws gird the system: Developers can buy their way into neighborhoods and destroy communities. People can live in poverty, and we are not responsible.

And, then there is someone like Martin Luther King, Jr., who asks us to consider equality, invites us to passive resistance, challenges us to choose the poor and the weak over the strong and mighty, requires us to check the ethics of our hearts for another way of interacting, thriving, surviving.

So, we honor his memory and dream (and those who enacted, propelled, supported it) with this day of – and let’s face it, many of us like the ideas he talked about but have no idea how to live them out in any sustained, concrete manner. We have no structures for cooperation and consensus. Unless we drop off the grid, we are forced to participate in a deeply competitive system.

That is not to say that pockets of another way of being do not take root. I’m glad that people like Wes Bellamy​ and Brian Wimer​ are working to build communities and create solutions that are not top-down but engaging…

All of this rambling philosophizing to say, let’s celebrate MLK Day by, in whatever ways we can, considering ourselves as part of a whole, not as individuals struggling to beat each other out for limited resources. Reconfigure the equation of ourselves in relation to neighbors, coworkers, communities, countries, the earth, prisoners, enemies, crooks, impoverished, elite. Look for ways to shift priorities. Find others who will join you in doing the same. What resources can we share? How can we take responsibility and promote wellbeing for all the kids, not just our own? Who can we invite to dinner? What policies would benefit the whole city, not just our corner, our commute, our goals?

I don’t know the answers. I just know we can’t each change it on our own. We can’t just each sit on a high horse of do-goodedness and check “I’m awesome” off the list. That’s nice that you eat organic. Now make sure that others can afford to, as well. I’m glad you avoid Walmart; now how can you help others afford to avoid that, too? I’m glad you’re not racist; but how often do you hang out with and listen to people of a different color and background? Do you understand your heterosexist privilege?

Charlottesville is awesome. We have so many nonprofits and projects and initiatives aiming to do this hard work! All I know is, it’s not just what we do, or where we donate our money, but how we live and interact with each other that shifts society. And it seems to me, we have an uphill battle – so let’s stop fighting and battling it – let’s use the Force! – because even “fighting” and having hate for those who oppose us engages us in the dialectical relationship.

Listen to MLK, Yoda, Jesus, Lao Tse, the Buddha, Aung San Suu Kyi… learn to love each other as you love yourselves.

40 Things I Learned by Age 40

self-reflectionHere are 40 random things I have learned by 40. And no, this is not exhaustive. And yes, this is totally cheesy.

  1. You can’t make other people happy by being miserable on their behalf. Do not feel guilty for feeling happy.
  2. Trying to make other people happy might seem like a benevolent motivation, but usually masks a fear of the weight of other people’s sorrows. It’s not your job to make other people happy.
  3. Happiness, as Pharrell Williams posits, is indeed the truth.
  4. The truth will set you free, sure, but that doesn’t mean truth turns things easy. Freedom does not equal Easy. Freedom just means you can make choices, and you know you can make choices.
  5. People do the best they can with what they have – with what choices they think they have. When you judge other people’s choices, remember you don’t have the same information, background, and context they do. Don’t judge. Think you’d make a better decision in that person’s situation? You wouldn’t.
  6. You can’t think yourself into becoming enlightened or realized. Yes, you can visualize scoring baskets, but you also have to work your muscles, train your body, spend hours of sweat and pain on perfecting your game. You also can’t think yourself out of an emotion. Your mind is powerful, but it can’t work by itself. The mind-body-heart connection requires attention on all levels for full expression.
  7. Before you worry about how things Should be, make sure you understand fully how things Are. You will usually be surprised to find out you have a lot to learn.
  8. My favorite quote, from Howard Thurman:

    “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

  9. My other favorite quote: “Laughing hysterically amid deepest woe.” Being a Gemini doesn’t mean I’m two-faced; it means I enjoy the surfaces and the depths, the sorrows and the joys, the extremes of experience.
  10. I am a really sensitive person, hypersensitive, even. My mother is like this, too – able to pick up on the emotional currents coursing around but needing to remember that I can’t  tell what other people are thinking, no matter how smart or sensitive I am.
  11. Acting without thinking or thinking without acting – neither is a helpful route, neither better than the other. I realized this when I was 12.
  12. Wu-wei, man; wu-wei. Not doing means you are moving with the currents of life, not forcing them, controlling them, resisting them. Going with the flow. “Hold on loosely, don’t let go. If you cling too tightly, you’re going to lose control.”
  13. Labels are powerful for your identity. But like anything else, they should be self-created, and they should always be treated as what they are – labels. You can peel them off and toss them when they lose their accuracy.
  14. Accepting who you are doesn’t mean you give up at trying to be the best you can be; it means you start with reality, with compassion and awareness, and grow from there. That way you really change, as opposed to banging on yourself with a crowbar of madness.
  15. Everyone is crazy. Really.

  16. You never arrive. We get in the habit of thinking we will get to a place of accomplishment where we can finally relax, when it’s the opposite; you have to create your place of arrival, peace, here and now, or it’s not gonna happen.
  17. I am not better than anyone else. This is a freeing thing to know. We are all of us deserving of a stoning and of grace.
  18. Compassion is truer than judgment.
  19. Prayer works. I don’t understand why. I don’t even like saying prayer “works,” as if it’s a gum ball machine that takes quarters and delivers on its promise to dump out a lollipop per coin. I don’t think god is sitting around playing on his gameboy until you pray and get his attention and if you beg hard enough he’ll put down his soda and give you a dollop of luck. No way, Jose. So I don’t understand it, but I know that there is something that happens in prayer, whether it’s about changing the person praying or connecting energy or intersecting one’s heart with someone else’s, but there is power there. And I trust it. Same goes for chakras.
  20. God comes in many forms – most of them, human-made. In fact, god comes in every form of every living and nonliving thing. Also, I don’t think you can define “god.” I think what we call “god” is often a stand-in for other operations and motivations, or moments of awe. That’s ok. I read something recently about how mystics aren’t afraid of pantheism. I like that. Animism, too. I feel like I can be a total atheist and a mystic at the same time.
  21. Being alive is a freaking mind-blowing miracle.
  22. There’s no such thing as a long life or a too-short life; it’s quality, not quantity that tells us about what is wasted, what is worthwhile. Sure, it’s neat to celebrate longevity and anniversaries, and I admire century-old turtles and ancient trees; but I also delight in the month-long frenzy of fireflies — they are not any less important or vital for their brevity. (Love you, Charlotte.)
  23. da truthWe are all connected. There is no such thing as the singular, island-isolated self. So be happy for others who are happy! Feel empathy for those who are sad! Their joy is your joy, their sadness and suffering is your sadness and suffering.
  24. On the other hand, we are born and die utterly alone. We are responsible for our own happiness, our own actions, our own choices. Learning to live with that loneliness, while knowing, too, that we are permeable, and never alone – that is tricky, but worth it.
  25. Transience. Yes, it’s true, you can always depend upon the fact that however sad or happy you are feeling, the feeling won’t last forever. However, also –  it probably will return. Cycles.
  26. The true challenge of having children is not about sleep. All this stuff about getting your own sleep or getting them to sleep is just a ruse to hide the truth so that it really gets you good: Children become mirrors that force you to face your own inner children, your own childhood, your own past. Children make every mistake, frailty, weakness, gap, problem within you bare and exposed and ready to take you down if you don’t deal with it. If only it were just about sleep!
  27. The best cure for loneliness is communing with trees and grass and hydrangeas.
  28. Focus on what you want, how you feel, and your own gratitude; stop worrying what others want from you, what they feel, what they have that you don’t.
  29. Everyone was once a tiny, vulnerable baby. Even Hitler.
  30. Everyone suffers. (Even the snotty privileged.)
  31. Angry, mean people are acting out someone else’s anger and meanness. The most appropriate reaction when someone treats you badly is compassion for whatever they have been through that you can’t see.
  32. IMG_2388Everyone is beloved. Everyone is potentially the mouthpiece of god (or truth, or the dharma – everyone teaches us something, whether they want to or not). So listen.
  33. All of this is utterly ordinary. All of this is totally sacred and holy. It’s not either/or but both/and.
  34. There aren’t any black and white rules. There’s no single mantra that covers every situation. There’s not a dictate you can trust to get you through every hard path. I mean, there’s the Golden Rule, the 10 commandments, the 8 fold path, yadda yadda. But life trumps all the rules. All you can rely on is following your heart. Love is the ultimate rule. I think. You have to take things as they come, in context, look at the rules, see if they apply, use them while they work, ditch them when they go against what you know is just and true and loving. But you have to determine that yourself. It’s a pain in the butt.
  35. Best Woody Allen quote ever is the definition of comedy. “Comedy is tragedy plus time.” Yes, yes it is.
  36. “Enjoy life. This is not a dress rehearsal.” Dad’s big yellow button that he had over his desk and I now have over mine.
  37. There’s no such thing as: a) bad things happening for a reason, b) god giving you as much as you can handle, c) good things coming to those who wait, d) god helping those who help themselves, e) a silver lining existing in every cloud. You can’t use a pat little phrase to bandaid over the pain and suffering in this world. Don’t try it on other people, either.
  38. Sometimes, you just have to pay attention to the superficial stuff. Believe me, clothes and material wealth and what you look like and how you carry yourself in public – these things do not reflect your inner character or have any correspondence to your value as a human being. However, we do live with each other in society, and these things do matter. Now, some people take them WAY too seriously (some people take everything way too seriously), and truly, facing death you know that nothing deserves the kind of serious attention we pay fashion and outward appearance etc. BUT how we treat ourselves and show self-respect – it’s like using a code, and we do have to know that whether we follow cultural norms or not, we can’t escape the code, we are always in the conversation. What you wear, what you choose to say, is your choice. You ARE communicating. It is not other people’s fault for not knowing the depths of your soul but judging how you feel about things based on the cut of your skirt and if you brushed your hair today.
  39. boyThere is a difference between loving someone – accepting them as who they are – and allowing them to behave in a way that harms you or someone else. Also, unconditional love is really hard to practice, but it is the ultimate and best goal any of us can strive for. And that “love the sinner, hate the sin” thing? It’s utter, un-Jesus-like crap.
  40. Don’t ever forget that you will die someday. And then play, work, love with all your heart, knowing it’s not yours to keep, but it’s yours! P.S. I am terrified of death. I don’t want to die. Getting older has not erased these feelings. I merely live with them. Death sharpens the knife edge of my life; it hurts, but it keeps me sharp and usable.

And a few bonus Trite Things that Stick With Me, Too:

  • Show up for your life.
  • Know what matters to you and honor it.
  • Forgive yourself often, and laugh at yourself freely.
  • Regrets are boring.
  • Being bored is boring; get over it.
  • Comparing yourself to others is a waste of time. Be happy other people find happiness or fulfillment; it is good for others to succeed, do well, find joy. It doesn’t take away from your joy, nor does it mean you have to become that person to find it.
  • It’s often not about you. Don’t make it so.

Now to the next 40 things to learn!!!


“Happiness is the Truth”

The Thing About Happy People

People who are truly happy are not smug, self-satisfied, complacent. They are not hoarders of happiness. They don’t own it. It’s not guarded territory. They don’t see themselves as part of an elite club with a difficult entrance exam. Truly happy people don’t need to do anything to be happy, or work hard to achieve it; it’s effortless. It’s free. And yet they aren’t lazy or irresponsible. They aren’t chewing themselves up in angst, beating themselves up for inadequacy, comparing themselves to others, worrying about end results. That isn’t to say they aren’t compassionate, caring, invested in outcomes or others; it’s just that they have achieved the simple yet often elusive Taoist sense of wu-wei, doing without doing, acting without trying, being without striving.

Happiness is infectious. No one begrudges a happy person her happiness. There’s no lording it over others, no strutting. There is, as Pharrell Williams exemplifies in his song, “Happy,” exuberance; there is full enjoyment of the bliss. But true happiness is a constant invitation, a pair of open arms, an ungated community with ample room for any who would enter.

Happiness does not diet. There’s no limited servings. It’s not rationed, saved for later, cut into manageable pieces, but stays whole. You dive into it with your clothes on; you don’t take a cautious sip.

[Confession Digression: Sometimes I am very jealous of Happy People. Why are they so damn happy? It’s ANNOYING. Annoying because they are Happy and I am Not. Ok. Back to the regularly scheduled programming…]

Happiness, a Privilege?

I think of this, because I worry about enjoying my privileges. I worry that I can afford good food and special fizzy water; I worry that I go to the gym and yoga class and get massages. I have a Kindle and buy books and send my kids to horse camp. I feel like I am indulging in unnecessary, trivial activities that are not fair, not available to everyone, that I am rubbing it in the faces of others, that by enjoying my clothes or nice wine that I am no better than the millionaire buying a third plane or a second mansion, when others are starving and cold and homeless and lost and jailed and running for their lives.

That is: I am scared to let go and be happy.

I’m scared that to do so is immoral.

I can imagine someone responding to this saying, It’s not your fault you are where you are; abstaining from what you can afford doesn’t help anyone else; you’re not bad for enjoying yourself or making choices for better things.

Yet, that’s the devil’s voice, isn’t it? I am wary that if I give myself a pass to enjoy the things I can afford to have, I have wiggled out of acting with a moral compass; I’ve excused myself.

Again: I am disgusted by people with so much money they waste it on truly worthless, useless things. I am not a Kardashian. But at whatever level of the economy I exist, whatever pittance is my income, I am afraid of behaving like one.

None of us can really afford to be Kardashian. We don’t exist on this planet alone. If you believe, as I do, that we are all family, interconnected, part of the whole, then consuming more resources than you need, taking more than your share, wasting what is precious – these are all not just selfish and immoral acts but ultimately impractical and harmful to you and your interests – someone else’s suffering eventually comes to you, your descendants, your interests.

The Moral Questions


How do I act responsibly with my privileges, while others suffer?

How do I enjoy myself while others are suffering?

How can I be happy when others are suffering?

I’m not sure these are the same questions. Or the right ones.

They are the ones that come.

Money & Happiness

Certainly, happiness is not owned by people with privilege. We all know that. Money doesn’t buy happiness. True, deep joy can be experienced in profound ways by people in concentration camps, by the deeply impoverished, as much as by hermit monks, shipping magnates, housewives. Just go watch the musical “Annie.”

But anyone who has been poor or enslaved will also tell you that parading around on a “money doesn’t buy happiness” float does not mean that money or privilege or freedom do in fact buy some really crucial things that preclude one’s ability to be happy. (Again, watch what happens in “Annie.” Expensive tap-dancing.)

Is having adequate food, shelter, clothing, and care really a question of happiness, though? Isn’t happiness extra? A dessert? Something only rich and privileged people can afford, accrue, earn, pursue?

Famous ole’ Maslow seemed to suggest this when he posited his hierarchy of needs – you know – because it’s a hierarchy. You have to eat before you can blink your third eye.

Be Happy, No Matter What?

Sure, we can learn happiness, practice happiness — all the recent research seems to say so. We can all take responsibility for our own happiness. We can stop blaming others or the system when we feel unfulfilled and empty.

But it’s one thing to say that we should all be fully realized buddhas, and then our circumstances won’t matter, so really the onus is on you to be happy, get over yourself. And it’s quite another, I think, to then tell a starving, beaten child that she needs to get over herself, buck up, and think pleasant thoughts. It’s all in your head, sister. 

That is, for sure, the Privileged Get-Out-of Responsibility-Jail-Free Card.

What if we make the following distinction?

Happiness, true happiness, is an internal state. That is, there is the spiritual matter of happiness that does not rely on externalities.

What we would think of as the external state creates comfort and well-being, which is not the same as happiness. It’s not just external, but applies to the emotional and psychological world, too.

And when we are weighing our own happiness, we cannot compare it to our own or anyone else’s comfort; they are not the same commodity or currency; they don’t share an exchange rate. In “Annie,” the light shining from the titular character does not originate in anything but her hope; it shines when she is a dirty, lonely, orphan child as much as when she is rich and adopted.

But what sets Annie apart from the other orphan girls IS her happiness, which is not based on externalities.

Yet who can begrudge the other orphans their desires for comfort and belonging?

Is Annie an imaginary figment or a true evocation of the spiritual ideal, attainable to all?

Crucial here, in this possible model, is not a relationship of “higher,” more valuable spirituality vs. “lower,” less important physicality.

Rather, I see them as mutually impacting each other and possibly in flux as to how much attention they receive and impact they are having on the whole person.

Why Do We Care About Suffering?

The thing is, if we think of happiness as being unyoked from comfort, then why do we moral beings care or worry about alleviating the physical suffering of others? If happiness is the goal, and it is obtainable despite discomfort, why worry about the latter at all?

Even more to the point, if we know that life is suffering, why do we strive to eliminate it? Wouldn’t getting rid of suffering take down life, too? Isn’t it necessary? What is the goal, here?

I’m not sure the ultimate relief from all pain is the goal. Learning how to offer compassion, comfort, cradle, care for one another in our pain – that is part of what we do, in our becoming. It is not a matter of solving a problem, fixing a leak – it is a process, a way of life, a manner of being. It is being part of the balance, pain and joy.

Do not look for rest in any pleasure,
because you were not created for pleasure:
you were created for joy.
And if you do not know the difference
between pleasure and joy
you have not yet begun to live.

Thomas Merton is so smart.

Happiness is the deep realization of happiness’ independence from anything else along with the interdependence of all things, both internal and external. Joy is the fountain of god-ness that springs within and without, surrounds and holds and encompasses and fires throughout the universe. It is both everything and nothing because it is everything. It is god and not-god.

Happiness is for sure not a commodity to be owned by me or anyone else, however privileged or underprivileged or what. That, I can see.

But  I still haven’t answered my question – because my question really is about the comforts and pleasures of the world I live in (1st world, middle-class urbanity) and how I reconcile my experience and enjoyment of these with the lack and suffering of so many others.

Thinking. Thinking.

And then it hits me, that I’m too wound up in the end result, in the fixing solution.

The question of how to be is not about how to solve and what to do but how to be.

The question is not how to be happy. 

The answer is happy, to the question of how to be.

Joy is a moral imperative, I think, once you wake up to the reality of being.

Happiness is what happens when you give up trying to do things for the sake of having results you think will satisfy whatever you believe you lack. Happiness is the default state of a person who is awake to the preciousness of what is.

Pointless Acts

I remember I used to think my parents were so stupid for boycotting Dole products because of their questionable (evil!) corporate practices. What good does that do, I asked, under my breath, as they picked out their canned pineapples (canned fruit – whatever!). I was a teenager. I adored my parents but I felt sorry for them – not only would the two of them not buying Dole fruit have NO effect whatsoever on the problem, but really, what corporation had clean, unbloodied hands?

And I ask that myself in the grocery store, often: How can I even think I can buy food in a grocery store and not be participating in / supporting / condoning corporate and state practices that impoverish, enslave, harm, working people here and abroad? Not to mention environmental pollution? Political manglings? How do I have any righteousness at all if I am not off the grid?

Is going off the grid my only answer? And then what am I proving/achieving? I cannot solve poverty, end sex trafficking, resolve wars by washing my laundry by hand and trying to pick up enough farming know-how from wikipedia to not starve.

The answer is that there is no answer at the end of the book.

The answer is really the Way, in the way we practice and behave and choose.

I also used to get really irritated by the Buddhist nuns who, to fulfill their vows of killing no living thing, wear masks when they sweep so they don’t breathe in and inadvertently murder flies. That’s nice, but limitless numbers of living organisms that we cannot see live and die on and in our bodies all the time. There is no way to touch the earth and not cause harm.

And yet, that is how they practice their intention – imperfect in the result, yet perfect in its practice.

Does that make sense? My parents and their boycott – maybe no effect whatsoever – yet their practice, their choice – the execution of a choice out of compassion and justice – how elegant, how moving (and notice how I am still thinking about it, all these years after).

We can never, ever know how our actions impact the world. We really can’t. Good intentions can lead to hell and bad intentions can lead to heaven. Good actions can have bad results, bad actions can cause good things to happen. A small act can have a large effect, a big move can change very little.

We cannot control the results.

Suddenly, I am all about Thomas Merton. He says:

“It is useless to try to make peace with ourselves by being pleased with everything we have done. In order to settle down in the quiet of our own being we must learn to be detached from the results of our own activity. We must withdraw ourselves, to some extent, from effects that are beyond our control and be content with the good will and the work that are the quiet expression of our inner life. We must be content to live without watching ourselves live, to work without expecting an immediate reward, to love without an instantaneous satisfaction, and to exist without any special recognition. “

– from No Man is an Island

We can only choose the manner of our input and interaction with / within the living, ever-changing system.

We can act from a place of love, compassion, hope, and justice, and practice these things.

Thomas Merton quotes Chuang-tse:

 “My greatest happiness consists precisely in doing nothing whatever that is calculated to obtain happiness . . . Perfect joy is to be without joy . . . if you ask ‘what ought to be done’ and ‘what ought not to be done’ on earth to produce happiness, I answer that these questions do not have [a fixed and predetermined] answer” to suit every case. If one is in harmony with Tao-the cosmic Tao, “Great Tao” — the answer will make itself clear when the time comes to act, for then one will act not according to the human and self-conscious mode of deliberation, but accord­ ing to the divine and spontaneous mode of wu wei, which is the mode of action of Tao itself, and is therefore the source of all good.
The other way, the way of conscious striving, even though it may claim to be a way of virtue, is fundamentally a way of self-aggrandizement, and it is consequently bound to come into conflict with Tao. Hence it is self-destructive, for “what is against Tao will cease to be.”

  • “The Way Of Chuang Tzu”.


Final Thoughts – for Now

It’s an elusive thought, but there is something important to say here (and yes, Merton talks a lot about this, too) about how knowing and growing our own hearts and spiritual selves is crucial piece of acting as a loving being in this world and of knowing god.

I often ask myself, What is here? What is before me? What is tugging at my heart?

In an effort to avoid heady intellectualizing over distant peoples it would feel good for my ego to go save, I try to ground myself in the Here and Now and the Real. And from there, practice love – the feeling, the intention, the action – toward myself, toward the others around me, those in my heart.

It may be for someone else the way to live out their moral imperative and virtue is to go off-grid, to become a monk, to join the Peace Corps, to give all their money away to the poor.

It may be for someone else to grow their own food and find a way to avoid corporate greed.

It may be avoiding certain products. Not because you win anything that way. But because you find you can’t buy them and still feel ok inside. Others – you let go.

And we make those choices, don’t we? We make the best choices we can make with what we have and what we know. And ultimately the only person who knows whether those are the right choices for us is – ourselves. I may go to Walmart and that may be the best choice I can make with my budget, my time, my responsibilities – knowing what I know about Walmart – while never darkening the door of Chik-fil-A. And that may look like a contradiction to you, like laziness or greed. But for me, that may be where I am right now – and that’s what I can do.

If I am following the call within my own heart, I am less focused on what it looks like externally – my do-goody actions – and more on what is required for the virtue and righteousness and principles activated within – the right speech and right relationship there…

And oddly, there is happiness in that – in letting go of the Shoulds and the burden of the world’s suffering – the guilt and the fear of not doing the right thing – of not being able to do the right thing – the anxiety of it – that is not going to motivate one to act out of love.

I find my own path involves small things that are very hard things. Like staring at a banana peel and contemplating about my love of the earth vs. my laziness at walking to the compost bin.

Mindfulness means avoiding habitual escapism. It doesn’t mean I don’t ever give my mind a break. Finding the right balance of attention – hold on loosely, don’t let go! – and being is – a growth point.

But I want to walk in peace and act in love, however that is for me, without any worries or attachments to the results. This is not, by any means, an easy way out. It is a way in – a way into integrity and authenticity. A way that is full of mishaps and mistakes. A way that is about our (dynamic) relationships with ourselves and others and god, not about our duty or job.

 Enjoying This Ride

Ultimately, I cannot say that I know much about the right way to react to this world, the time and place I am in.

What I do know is that my time here is limited, and it would be the biggest slap in the face to this gift of Being Here to not embrace it, however messy it is.

There’s not any reason to be happy. No reason at all!

So let yourself be happy. We are here! We’re alive – for now – and that is, in itself, you are, amazing.

The Moral Crisis of Modern Privilege & Guilt: Questions

mary bubble head
Mary the BubbleHead: A Solipsistic Halo? Buddha, just chillin?

I’m in the bread area at Walmart. My white-middle-class-intellectual-liberal conscience is throwing a fuss: This bread is not organic or locally sourced. Walmart is the Evil Empire. The sobs of Asian factory workers leak from every mass-produced clothing; the American jobless population’s fruitless sweat beads on every plastic widget. And on top of all that, I’m looking for bagels for my children, probably promoting a lifelong unhealthy affection for and dependence on empty carbs and leading them to a life of sloth and obesity. But, then, at least they get fed. Do I have a right to be picky?

This is what happens to you, in contemporary America, in a small, liberal college town, that blue-voting blip in a sea of red. You vacillate between guilt about your privilege (like the fact that you drive to work) and heady highs when your hippy-ish, utopian ideals get validated by a trip to the local yogic health foods store.

White people problems. Middle-class woes.

We make fun of ourselves. We self-deprecate. We try to laugh, but we’re all distinctly uneasy, because we have it too easy, and feeling uneasy itself feels like something we have to do but that is also part of the problem. Part of the dis-ease.

Post-Yoga Flux: Satisfaction, then Shame

One minute, you go to yoga and feel good about connecting your mind and body and getting closer to self-realization that’s so much more spiritually developed than anything your mother or grandmother, in their constrictive, pre-feminist structures, could achieve. Then you flood with shame, aware of how ego-centric your spiritual pride makes you seem, how your ability to pay for and attend a yoga class (covering childcare, too) is a damn privilege, and images of people going to the gas chambers or beating beaten in a burqa underscore the sense that your gleeful, post-yoga rush is perhaps utterly meaningless and ridiculous in the face of the daily trials people (and animals, and trees, and children) are suffering, right at this moment.

Children are starving in Africa (or working in the diamond mines, or being taught to use bazookas on their family members), and I’m proud of myself for some deep breathing. Really.

Values of Privilege

It’s hard to live your values, because it’s expensive to do so. But the fact that you have these “values” is in itself a point of privilege, the result of higher education and book-learning and radical online magazines. The fact that you could choose to act on those values, ever, even just once, to buy organic, for example, is a privilege. Going to Walmart, joining the masses to cut expenses because you can’t always afford to shop at Whole Foods, not unless you sacrifice your gym membership, feels like selling out in all sorts of ways, and the economically disenfranchised folks in line with you don’t give two shits that you are here, and really, who does? Your peers get judgy, or your own internal virtue-meter dings, but then, are you making your choices based on peer pressure or on your true values?

Inflated Picture vs. Navel-Gazing

And does it matter, really? You’re one person making one trip to Walmart, maybe 10 trips a year, at the most. Sure, you know it adds up. But are we going to stop the downfall of civilization – or rather, civilization’s crush of the environment, followed by self-implosion – by avoiding Walmart? How big-picture is one supposed to look? Can the picture get so big you hold yourself accountable for nothing? Can your viewpoint skew so internal and self-focused that you are utterly narcissistic and blinded by your own introspection to your connection as part of the larger whole? What should the scope of our perspective be? How does one see oneself, one’s choices, actions, within the larger landscape?

Too Much vs. Too Little

And who has created this landscape? Is it even real? Our vision of the world is a fabricated clutter of televised images, crammed infobites, a cacophony of voices. But not representing everyone’s voice, everyone’s face. We can’t consider the suffering and experience of even every ethnicity in the world. We can’t hold it all in our hands, our minds, our hearts. We have too much knowledge, and we are too ignorant. We are overwhelmed to the point of chaotic worry or dulled, blurry thinking; it’s too much to learn, reflect upon, care about, act for. But then, we have a responsibility to care, learn, and act; to turn away, shut down, drop out – that’s for LSD users, not for responsible citizens of this damaged planet. Creating bubbles around ourselves, boundaries that include only the subjects with which we are familiar, that are digestible to our particular background and understanding is easier, but it’s also an act of privilege and escapism, of moral abandonment, turning away from people in need.

It’s a moral crisis.

The narratives of How We Got Here and Where We Are Going may differ in detail, but the basic understanding that We’re Screwing it Up and There’s No End in Sight seems generally accepted.

Pacifism, Activism, Realism?

Do I meditate for peace? Do I pray for healing? Do I try to boycott amoral corporations? Do I choose one issue to focus on? Do I worry about my local community, or do I put energy into the global one? Do I stay in the moment or prepare for the future? Do I accept things as they are and go with the flow, or do I rally for social change, revolution, restitution?

Do I worry too much about How to Be in the World? About Living My Values and What to Do With My Life to make it worthy, useful, helpful, not wasted space?

Am I even asking the right questions? 


Beyond Concession: What Same-Sex Marriage Teaches Us

I’ve been trying to put my finger on it for a long time.

Last night, we were watching all the news coming out of Alabama – after the state supreme court judge ordered all the probate judges in charge of marriage licenses to ignore the federal district court’s ruling that struck down Alabama’s same-sex marriage ban, sending the state into chaos.

Some judges were marrying same-sex couples. Some were not. Some were avoiding marrying ANY couples.

And then there was this article, by a Baptist minister, Ellin Jimmerson, who was given the honor of officiating the first same-sex marriage in Huntsville.

Rev. Jimmerson’s Facebook explanation of why she endorses same-sex marriage is mostly a restating of the arguments we’ve heard from liberal religious leaders for a while:

  • Marriage in the Bible took all sorts of forms, including polygamy, widows forced to marry their brother-in-laws, etc. That is, there is no Biblical basis for the form of marriage we reverence today, so to tout it as the only and ultimate one actually contradicts said text, history, facts – all those inconvenient things.
  • If God is love, then certainly relationships formed in love should be recognized.
  • If God loves everybody, that includes gay people, and therefore Christians should love them, too, and get over their “moral” hangups.

None of this is earth-shattering. But then one line struck out like an ice pick to my soul:

…the state of Alabama will move as a people even further down the road of love as the only legitimate basis for marriage.

And that’s it, that’s what I’ve been trying to crystalize for a while now: Accepting the legitimacy of same-sex marriage is not about Christians or other moral gatekeepers letting gay people into their holy space.

Same-sex marriage does not challenge Christians to allow gay people in, does not ask them to loosen up their rules a little, expand the definition of marriage, make room for more people to get married.

Rather, same-sex marriage asks us to view relationships as holy and good when based on love. Only. 

No, we don’t want in your marriage club. We don’t want you to change the rules to let us in. We want you to come OUT. Stop defining marriage as good, allowed, holy, Ok, acceptable, etc., because of the rules it follows. Define marriage as good because it is full of love.

Stop looking the other way when a married couple harbors domestic violence. When a father abuses his children. When a man disrespects his wife. When there is no love, just respectability. Stop judging people for getting divorced. Stop criticizing people for whom marriage becomes a small cell of hell in which they are trapped into roles and rules that damage their spirits.

The Gated Community of Marriage

And that explodes the little special gated community of righteous straight married people. The walls of Jericho are torn down. Because God is asking us to judge every relationship, not by its form, not by its externality, not by what rules it follows, but by the love within it.

Sound familiar? If not, I refer you to Jesus. He was a bit of a rule-breaker, law-smasher. His love was fierce and revolutionary. He didn’t just pity the prostitute, he befriended her. He didn’t just allow his betrayer to hang out with him, he made him a close compatriot. His spirituality wasn’t about following the Sabbath and all the other Old Testament dictates on who you could talk to and who was holy and who was not.

Love vs. Power

Of course those in power quaked. Because living a live guided by love and not rules enforced by rulers undermines hierarchy and allegiance to the state. It asks people to think for themselves and listen to their own hearts, following the laws of love above all else. Above the rules of the land.

Love is not owned by Christianity. It is not governed by any one religion’s legalese. And certainly some judge in Alabama is not going to use his laughable “power” to crush it.

I see the issue of same-sex marriage as asking humanity to evolve, as one way that we can go deeper, broader, and get closer to the truth of who we are, by understanding that what we do in life should be governed, not by expectations or conventions or peer pressure or religious dictates, but by what is true in our hearts. The current Pope is a great example of someone defying convention and following the true meaning of Jesus. We are to love one another – not avoid offending one another.

And when we are asked to hate another tribe, another country, another nationality, another race – when it is status quo to fight and inflict suffering on others – we are asked to rebel and listen to the still, small voice that asks for our allegiance to the goodness we all were born with, in our bellies, in our hearts.

Thank you, Rev. Jimmerson, and all of you in Alabama and around the world who are listening. You are brave, and you are showing the rest of us what it looks like to truly live, and to live truly.


God’s Love & Resenting the Prodigal Son

seedIt starts off with a mental exercise.

This exercise does not require a belief in God – “god” in this instance is a useful shorthand delivery-system. You can replace “god’s love” with “the Buddhist proposition that anyone can become enlightened and become a Buddha” or the general idea that every person you come across was an infant once, an innocent baby presumably loved and cherished by a parent or caregiver.


However you think of it -with a general, generic humanism or a passionate ecumenical Christianity -I’m munching over what happens when we perform the exercise of considering our fellow human beings – those we love, those we pity, those we despise, resent, avoid, ignore, adore – all of them as worthy of love and happiness as much as we each believe ourselves to be.

It’s not easy; It’s hard enough, some days, for me to think this of myself, due to in-built bar of adequacy I never achieve, a holdover from childhood that I have to vigilantly dismantle, repeatedly.

But then, I do, I get there. It feels great! I bathe in the loving glow and flow of Presence, Spirit, the goddess, God, the world. I pray, I meditate, my heart opens, and from this generous and tender place, I can extend compassion and agape to the worst sinners, knowing they come from a place of pain themselves.

I feel like a Buddhist rockstar. Jesus would totally give me a thumb’s up. I imagine Baby Hitler weeping. I extend an invisible embrace to the Isis terrorists. I feel so magnanimous and filled with uncaged love for oppressors and victims alike.

The Hardest People to Love

But then I run into that person at work who seems to disdain me.

That unimaginative drone who denies my sparkly individuality.

The callous, superficial manager who  seems to care more for wealth accumulation than personal growth.

The boring, mean people who just seem to fill space.

I close up like a Venus fly-trap chomping a mosquito. Suddenly, I resent God and her abundant love. COME ON, god; you love him, too? You love her, too? They don’t have a spiritual bone in their bodies. They aren’t even interesting enough to be cruel. I can love the Really Bad Guys. I can forgive the tortured and torturing. But petty, dull, boring, successful, normal people who watch the Superbowl and live in split-levels? That is too much to ask.

Hating the Prodigal Son

So this is where the exercise of compassion really gets difficult. It reminds me of the Biblical story of the prodigal son. I’m the good son who sticks around and sacrifices sewing my old wild seeds to be loyal and good, the long-suffering child whose heart is in the right place, who struggles with my place in the world, who cares about others, who keeps her dreams of adventure under my pillow.

And then the boring asshole shows up. He’s not particularly sorry for taking off. He’s cavalier about it all, really. It’s not like he’s gone and really suffered and learned his lesson by the time he shows up after abandoning the family to go have fun. He just shows up, out of money. He’ll probably take off again. His soul is an old penny, his brain a dull heel on a cheap shoe.

But still, our parent loves him as much as he loves me. Like, really loves him. Adores, cherishes. And I am so pissed. It seems unfair. He gets to be so lucky, do what he wants, and is still loved. And I’m just supposed to be rewarded by knowing the love all this time, the relationship, in and of itself.

Just thinking about this story makes my lip curl.

The Dumb Smart Kids in High School

When I was in the honors program at high school in California, the competition was steep. It seems like every week or month we were all checking our GPA rankings, the top ten being listed outside a teacher’s door. The other cliques at school spent their energies on frosting their bangs and showing off new trendy clothes, boyfriends and girlfriends and parties, but we were competing for the title of Smartest.

The guy who seemed to consistently occupy the top slot had a bowl cut, was pudgy and spotty and I found him to be numbingly moronic. I tried asking him Deep Questions one day, and all I gleaned from him was that he wanted to make enough money to buy a BMW someday. He played the trumpet and had a crush on the Hot Smart Girl all the nerdy smart guys were after, but there was nothing poetic or intellectually challenging about him at all.

And yet, he was deemed smarter than me.

I was deeply, deeply rankled.

I found every opportunity I could to step up on the soapbox of my own high self-opinion and lecture my fellow lemmings about the distinction between “intelligence” and “intellectualism.” I did not even try to conceal my disgust for their grade obsession, their lack of imagination and lack of philosophical query.

Of course, beneath this all was my own ego’s dismay at not being considered the smartest, not being recognized for my mind at all, and for not being the object of the nerdy boys’ affections myself. It was enough to feel at the bottom of the social stratosphere within the genpop of the high school at large – but to be outdone by peers just as stupid within the honors program was beyond galling.

At the Heart of Hatred…

I was lonely. I didn’t fit in. And, like other misfits and outcasts, I sought something to claim as special for myself to balance things out. I elevated myself as better and different and deeper and more virtuous than the rest of them. Although, the truth is, had the ranks of the cheerleader elite or the honors upper crust opened for me, I have a feeling the sense of belonging would have muffled my bitter critique, soothed my wounded self-esteem.

That’s the thing about the son in the story, the good one who stays behind. You can sense his jealousy of the prodigal brother; and wonder, if given the chance, if he would have also left the homestead for sunnier pastures? Did he stay out of true loyalty and love for his father and family? Or did he stay out of self-pity, fear of the unknown, obligation, a desire for approval?

If not true duty and love, his reasons for staying weren’t genuine reflections of character and virtue, but excuses; so of course he resented his brother’s celebrated return. When you act out of love and truth, your heart doesn’t clench when someone else shares in it, joins it, begins to participate. Your welcome lacks hesitation. The ‘good’ brother is not only petty, but he’s there for the wrong reasons. He’s not really ‘good’ at all.

My high school resentment was likewise misdirected; I wielded my judgment against my peers out of hurt. Had I been as aligned with intellectual curiosity and soulful pursuit of truth, I would have probably seen beneath the adolescent hierarchies; I would have probably ignored it altogether.


And now, decades later, I’m faced again with the reflection of my ego in the character of the ‘good’ son. I feel under appreciated, left out, my intellectual abilities ignored, my spiritual heft unequalled, and I fall into the same trap of casting myself as more worthy than the others. Poor me.

Funny how you can “grow up” and find yourself right back where you started.

The fact is, what high school measured was grades, and I wasn’t wrong to criticize the system for measuring intelligence in a very simplistic, single-faceted manner that reduced our potentials to numbers and did not account for talents and gifts that could not be quantified.

Similarly, the working world values and rewards behaviors that do not require intellectual strength, talent, character; be on time and punch the clock and finish the report and say Yes to those in power and you will get your paycheck and the office regard.

Questioning authority, kicking up a fuss, innovating processes, infusing projects with new angles and creative ideas – this is where I excel, and it’s not the kind of thing that the status quo smiles upon. I think outside the box and the inside is usually where They want you to stay.

Turning it Back on Myself

All of that being true, my desire for reward and recognition speaks to something very low about me about which I am not proud. I criticize others for being superficial, yet my longing for outward praise is as superficial as it gets.

True love, duty, mission, passion is its own reward.

And as for a lack of imagination – well, I can’t claim insight and depth if I can’t see past the dullness of the smart guy, the selfish manager, past the snotty attitudes of the cheerleaders, the coworkers. Even the most privileged of us suffers. It is the human condition.

One thing I have gained since high school is the knowledge that I have no knowledge of what is actually going on for people. I don’t know their heart of hearts. And clearly, I don’t always know my own.

We each occupy our own space and follow our own path and to judge another is to claim a place above them none of us can really occupy.

The good son cannot resent the father’s love for the prodigal son without looking at his own stagnant heart. Maybe he needs to take off for a while and try to find what’s real inside him, not just what appears to be good.

The world’s judgment aside, I have to believe that within each human heart is the whisper of the still, small voice.

And I have to forgive others – and myself – for the fact that, most of the time, we ignore it.

Even me.

Most of all, me.

And yet god still loves me, abundantly. Welcoming me home, over and over, and calling for me to join the celebration, where we can relish the fact that no matter what our sins, our path, our place, no matter how dumb, boring, dull, mean-spirited, judgmental, self-pitying, elitist, snotty, callous, superficial we are, we are always loved, and called to feel it.

Driving in Cars: The Contemporary (Spiritual) Dilemma

20141112_152726What Driving Does to Us

It’s a commonplace conception (at least with the multiple voices in my head – which, I assume, represent the ideas of all the authors and dharma teachers and comedians whose words have stuck in my mind and morphed into oozy thoughts, globs of ideology that seem indigenous) (ok, I digress- ) – I say this mostly because I can’t recall where I’ve heard it before, and I can’t claim I came up with it on my own, and, cherry-on-top it seems obvious, doesn’t it – that in our contemporary world, the fact that we drive in cars, often alone, in these reinforced machines that expand and toughen our singularity as we individually move from point A to point B, (points known only to our vehicular instance), attempting both to flow with traffic and to battle, beat out all the others around us – that driving in cars, our main American mode of transport, instills in each of us:

  • reinforced, steel-plated sense of ego and individuality made all the more fractious by the fact that we have no way of talking to the people in the other cars;
  • A feeling of being able to act as if we in fact are the car (witness the nose-picking, as if we are invisible inside) and therefore can act with impunity and anonymity (despite tell-tale vanity plates)
  • The tendency to conflate/mash the identity of the person driving the car with the car, as in “that car just cut me off,” so we’re constantly de-humanizing the other people with whom we’re interacting
  • The habit of performing in a reductive environment of social interaction that spills over into other formats and arenas – unable to really see each other’s faces, masked and muffled by the machine, communicating through lights and honks without reading expressions and physicality of others, the subtle methods of communication common to all animals, our vision of understanding another’s intentions towards us is reduced to surfaces, often misleading ones, lacking context (that lady swerving just heard her son tell her he’s being bullied at school, but all we see is a car interfering with our progress forward) – and we take this to school, church, work, stores, etc.
  • Instant reactions, not thoughtful responses: In the car, we make rash decisions and inferences, because we are governed in this environment by dictates of speed; we have to, for safety, unlike a conversation, a walk on the stairs, the silent slug upwards on an elevator, there’s not room to pause, reflect, listen, question one’s assumptions, ask for clarification to understand the meaning behind another’s actions.
  • The habit of thinking of others with aggression, since driving is War. The set-up is, by its very structure, antagonistic, fractious, embattling; one does not achieve one’s individual goal by collaboration; kindness wins karma, perhaps, we hope, but not concrete, immediate or even delayed reward (letting someone in before you while stopped in line behind a red light, for instance).
  • Singularity, not community, as the prime value at play on the streets. There’s always the underlying, nagging sense that if these other cars were not here on the road, we would have the freedom to do what we wanted, go the speed we like, in the direction we desired. Traffic is the presence of other cars, and is undesirable; the ultimate fantasy for driving a car is not in a communal drive-along but to be on an empty stretch of highway with no rules and no one else to interfere with our trajectory.

Car-driving does not reinforce community, produce empathy, instill compassion, connect strangers, require interpersonal communication, foster collaboration or teamwork. No. Car-driving causes us to spew negative invectives against total strangers. We curse other people, and it’s okay because we’ve depersonalized others into machines. It’s ok – right? They can’t hear us.

We grow angry, sweaty, furious as other cars insult us, disrespect our presence on the road, interrupt us, cut us off. We want to hit, hurt, run over others. “I should have just slammed into him.” “I should have let him hit me.” “I could ram her right now.”

Car-driving is like a boxing free-for-all, without any punches actually pulled (mostly). It breeds aggression. We experience hatred for and direct disgust towards total strangers because of how they are driving. We crash against each other, we cram and maim and kill animals and others, we are volatile and violent as we drive these instruments of death around, living the American dream.

The Trap of Freedom: The Car-Cage

It’s the contemporary condition: The very thing we built to create ultimate freedom, personal liberation, ease of transport, comfort of personal, individual interior – answering the headache and qualms of slow buses, other people’s stinky breath, having to share space on a train, cramped with crying babies on a plane – this car, this cradle of civilization on wheels, this capsule of comfort – has become a cage.

What was meant to provide a personalized experience saving us from the hassles of communal travel ends up trapping us into an isolation that cuts us off from our own humanity, leaving us angry, lonely, baring our teeth like animals at our own tribe.

At least when you ride the bumper cars at the fair, you can interact with the people you’re gleefully smashing – faces exposed, screams heard.

We have no sense of the effect we have on others with our actions. When we cut someone off, or let someone in, there’s only our own imagination to let us know what might possibly be occurring for the other person. The driver. That car.

The thing is, we can decry this contemporary situation we’ve managed for ourselves all we want, but for those of us living in mid-sized cities where public transportation is spotty, commutes too long for bikes or walking, we’re stuck in our vehicles.

As much as I’d love to ride the bus to work everyday, I have to get my kids to school and be on time, and that would never happen here.

An Opportunity for Enlightenment?

It struck me this morning, in the car, that we have an opportunity here. Or that we should at least take the situation as such.

If the car is an extended, reinforced, inflated, insulated, armor-like model of our personal ego and sense of singular self, then we must go with that and start to approach driving with the same kind of compassionate intention we might practice in our sangha, church, yoga class, meditation, prayer. Perhaps the challenge is that much harder because of all the barriers I listed above, but then that, too, may prove valuable, a catapult to even greater realization about the myth of separation than what we’ve had before.

The myth of separation I mean as what we hear from all the spiritual paths, the myth that each of us is separate from god, from each other, from the world, from our own bodies. Think of the Cartesian dualism we have inherited in the West, but that clearly has caused division and strife for people in the East, too, else the Buddha wouldn’t have had anything to talk about.

Descartes Before the Car

What could be more Cartesian than a car? It’s the quintessential expression of the idea, a physical metaphor of the idea that our soul/brain drives our bodies, completely separate entities, one steering the other, hoping to be liberated from it. The postmodernists saw us like this, trapped in our brains, unable to truly find language that could make it from one brain to the other. Just like the way we’re driving in our cars, unable to speak to each other, trying to interpret what is meant by the signals we send.

And yet! This situation is, quite literally, manufactured.

So let’s break it down. (Step out of the vehicle, ma’am!)

(I once had a book called Zen Driving. I never read it. I thought it would make a funny gift for someone. Sigh.)

Don’t Take it Personally

We all tell stories in our head. We do this in the car, out of the car, in the bed, in the cube, everywhere. Someone offends us, and we take it personally.

At the office, a coworker fails to invite me to lunch with others. It feels like a snub. It’s obviously a snub. To me personally. I feel offended, hurt, left out, annoyed.

It’s the same as being cut off in traffic. Why did that car do that to ME? We rage. As if that car was doing it deliberately to inflict suffering upon us. Obviously, and you know this, you’ve done it to others: When you’re driving and you do something rude to someone else, it’s not because you are directing a blow at the other car in a personally directed act of attrition. no. You’re in a hurry. You’re pressured by time. Deadlines. Picking up your kid. You aren’t paying attention. You miscalculate. You don’t see in your blindspot. You do what you think you have to do to make it on time. You are not a mean person. You are not an uncaring, disrespectful, selfish asshole. But in the balance of Offending the Anonymous Driver in the Car vs. PIssing off Your Boss Who Pays Your Salary, who are you more worried about?

The car situation asks us to not take the actions of others personally, and when put side by side, seems even easier to do than in the context of the coworker at the office.

So imagine the coworker is in a car, too. And in a way, she is. She has her own personal self-identity built on suffering and separation surrounding her, encasing her like the metal bones of a sedan. She is making choices the same as the driver. You may not know what those were. We could imagine that the frisson of self-importance she felt when inviting people to join her for lunch overwhelmed her usual self-pitying lack of self-esteem so much that she almost doubled her delight in leaving you out – not because of you, particularly, but because she herself feels left out so much that doing it to someone else feels like she’s boosted herself up.

That’s just a story, though. I don’t know what the real one is.

But it is unlikely that the story is about a personal attack on me.

Nix Assumptions

And so, how do I handle it? If I choose to be hurt and offended and angry, based on actions without any true knowledge of intention or cause or context, it is like being a little cussing person in a car. No one hears me, no one cares, and the only person suffering is me – alone in my car, having a temper tantrum, blood pressure rising, heart contracting, breath shallow, fists furled and beating against the steering wheel.

I could also just let it go. (Give it to God, they used to say.) For me, it helps to imagine a scenario that would explain it, but it’s not necessary to invent a reason to excuse/justify/help forgive the offending car or coworker. Take your own selfhood out of the story, the equation, the interaction. Remember. You are just a car. Another vehicle. This is not about you. But about that person negotiating traffic. That coworker navigating her own internal and social needs and desires.

In this way, if we can understand the nature of car interaction, we can understand the nature of our interactions in general. No need to take any thing done to us personally at all. Everyone drives around like they’re in a car. Personal consideration rarely comes into it, because we don’t even see the other people behind the wheel. We just see obstacles at the green light, competitors on the highway.

Driving as a Spiritual Practice

20141229_125249Practicing compassion while we drive, seeing ourselves as connected and whole despite the appearance of utter separateness in antagonistic warfare and competition is hard – but what a good way to sharpen and hone this art form of head and heart? Forgiving each person in each car who wrongs you on the road becomes a practice as holy as rubbing prayer beads or meditating on your pillow. You can choose to:

  • Soften your heart where it would harden.
  • Breathe instead of curse.
  • Slow down instead of speed up.
  • Approach your travel with care and mindfulness, and see what happens.
  • Turn off your radio. Put down your phone.
  • Enter the road with the intention of perceiving all these racing, dashing cars as an illustration of how seriously we can take our selves, to our detriment.
  • Offer kindness without reward and offer it up to the whole. Receive kindnesses from other drivers gratefully, with an open heart.
  • Remember – these other cars contain real people.

And remember that those real people in those cars – and all the people in your life, from your family to utter strangers – share with you desire for love, also suffer, also dream. We share blood and genes, we breathe the same air, our electrons dance around each other, our fates are intertwined both on local and global scales. We depend on one another, we effect one another, in intricate ways, many of which remain unseen, but are no less real.

We are separate people, but we are also completely connected, part of the whole, the web, the world. You cannot ultimately pick yourself out and put yourself in a car or a space capsule or another brain or a computer and isolate your “self.” We are not separate, not totally.

The Lens of Compassion

What’s interesting about this whole exercise in how we perceive and treat and relate to others in our daily lives – with whom we have possible conflicts of interest at all turns – is that the principles of spiritual insight (whether through Buddhist compassion or Christian ‘love your neighbor as yourself’) can be applied through the lens either way

  • While driving, understanding that there are actual humans in those seemingly inanimate cars
  • In daily life, understanding how we all tend to act as if we are encased and buffered by those anonymous car shields, separate, disconnected, in each other’s blind spots

And either way, we are motivated to:

  • Not take things personally
  • React, not with anger and indignance, but with compassion and empathy
  • Remember we are all connected, despite appearances
  • Treat the cars/people/others gently and kindly

I will say that I’ve been practicing driving mindfully for a few years. It does not always work, and it certainly never works when I have passengers or am not the one driving. I’m still working on that (other people are stressful!).

My Own Testament

But I treasure my time in the car. I treat it like meditation time, prayer time, moments to hear the quiet, and the rush of traffic sounds ocean-like, and I practice feeling boundless love for the other beings rushing around me, all caught up in their hurried flurries, worried and stressed and distracted and depressed and utterly human, lovable, forgivable.

On really long commutes, poems and story ideas come to me while I’m driving, and I jot them down (carefully).

And a couple times I’ve even been struck by the beauty of the world around me so much that I’ve felt a certain satori one only thinks of happening on a Zen retreat – a feeling of pervasive sacred joy, encompassing me and everything within and without me.

Life is a Highway

When my dad died, I found a spiral notebook filled with titles – chapter titles for a book he was imagining based on driving and cars as metaphors for spirituality. I think of him, deep in contemplation, rock on the radio, cigarette in his pouty mouth, and I totally understand where he was coming from.

Some days, things seem so screwed up I could give up on humanity – understand that we’re killing ourselves with our polluting cars, our disastrous conceptions of ourselves and our planet as separate and totally not equal entities, our ravaging and raping of nature, our dangerous game against the climate.

But my tendency to hope has its own stubborn bent. There’s something really beautiful and tender about my dad finding God while driving, smoking, swearing at the other cars (yes, yes he did). If we are to find a way out of this, we must follow Jesus and the Buddha, and start right where we are. It’s our only choice and our best chance, really.

Even if that’s sitting in a shitty, gas-guzzling car.




Where the Light Is: Another Buddhism vs. Christianity Moment

Inner lightbuddha-and-jesus1During meditation/prayer time this morning, I was struck by a contrasting set of spiritual conceptions about the individual (believer, follower) and others (the others), a relationship that in religious language often gets expression through the symbolism of light:

The Christian Missionary Position: In this conception, the believer thinks: Jesus is the light of the world. The rest of the world is in darkness. I have Jesus, I have his light, my mission is to go out and spread his light around, turn on all those off switches, plug in everyone’s soul lamps; the Others Out There in the Darkness are all bad, ignorant, sinning, empty, lost. This light from God will save these people.

The Buddhist/Hindu/Taoist Way: In this approach, the believer thinks: Buddha said, “Make of yourself a light.” We are all lit with the same light of Life; whether our light visibly shines or not depends on whether we have cleared away the obstructions of false identity, ignorance. We all have the potential to be lost in the deceptions of what is real, what matters, blame, judgment; we also all have the potential to be free of these deceptions, to know the light within ourselves, to share with others through compassion, lovingkindness, acceptance, insight. My mission is to help people find the awareness of the light that exists within them; to know Love that already exists and is abundant.

In the first way, light comes from god and must be given out to a dark world.

In the second way, everyone has light, and it’s everyone’s job to find it and let it shine.

The first conception, of course, has been the inspiration for all kinds of missions, crusades, invasions, beheadings, power-plays on the part of the True Believers bringing light to the dark, sinful world.

The second conception may bother Christians. (Jesus said, I am the way, the truth, and the life; certainly we are not ALL these things; to say we all have light in us already implies we might all be… which would be a heresy…)

Buddha set himself up as an example that anyone could follow, emulate, become. We are all potentially enlightened. In the Hindu culture, God is within and part of all of us. The sacred connects us all.

Jesus we read as the Son of God who was to be worshipped, not emulated; he was a singular instance, God in the flesh, unlike the rest of us – God’s children, but not God incarnate… but wait. We are also asked in various parts of the Bible to understand that, as a human being, and through communion and love, Christ made his light available to all – in fact, I feel you can use Christian language and logic to see that the actions of Jesus point to a reality where we can all participate in the spiritual realm, and that in fact, when we are waking up to the awareness of the things that really matter – like Mary Magdalene, washing his feet – she’s performing an act of sweet holiness, not out of a religious dictate she’s following, but out of love in her heart – we are lit from within.

Maybe falling in love with Jesus turns her on (that sounds so wrong!) – maybe discovering the love of God is what can open up our light. It’s a very different mechanism than meditation, yoga, mindfulness, balance practices – OR IS IT? Through meditation, do we not find, also, Love?

Coming Together (???)

The end result of both is Holy Illumination. 

Ignorance and deception banished by knowledge and truth.

I feel that my version of spirituality – my hybrid mix of Taoist-infused Buddhist Christianity with a Goddess-oriented – accounts for the potential of all of us, to discover our capacity to see, to love. I don’t believe that we have to read about the Buddha or Jesus to discover the sacred. After all, those self-identified in totally divergent ways, they were not end results, but ways, paths to God, fingers pointing at the moon.

This Little Light of Mine

I can’t resolve these two very different ontologies at all. They are quite opposing ways of viewing divinity. It’s all that immanence vs. imminence that I should remember from school days but don’t.

But I’m not sure that is as crucial as one might think.

Wherever the light starts, I believe, feel, experience, and know that it is in my heart, glowing, and that is is both part of me and of “God” and that those embers burn in all of us, because we are all part of the same body or earth or family or however you want to think of it.

And when I follow my lit heart, I inevitably am led to the Love that has always mothered me, called to me, invited me to open to the world and shine with all my might. And to see it in others.

The light envelops us, all around us. This sweetly painful and painfully beautiful world of which we are part, this life that is our shared gift. This light welcomes us, all the time, to turn both inward and outward towards the truth.

Following Your Heart

As often happens, an insight blossomed out of an old complaint.

I used to hate it when people said, blithely, “Follow Your Heart.”

Such a pat answer! Applied to so many situations!

Indecisive about the menu? Follow your heart!

Got cancer? Follow your heart!

Don’t know how to end a relationship? Follow your heart!

Grieving because your village got raided and plundered? Follow your heart!

It’s the main lesson of most Disney movies. If the lead character would just follow his or her heart, there’d not be a lick of trouble… afterall, what matters is that you find romantic love, no matter what that means losing, giving up, not gaining in the process.

So, “follow your heart” is always handed out like a simple panacea, a slim little pill of wisdom, just swallow it down and do it, and your dreams will come true. Or at least you’ll be able to pick between steak or chicken.

Follow Your Heart: Huh?

The implications of the phrase I parse out as follows:

  1. It’s easy to do
  2. t’s a quick thing
  3. There’s other parts you could be following that aren’t as desirable
  4. Your heart always tells the truth/It’s the right thing to do

Let’s look at each of these and decide if we agree.

Problem 1: It Ain’t Easy

Hearts can have complicated messages beaming from them, unintelligible yoda-esque phrases, half-baked fortune cookie lines, SOS signals that seem urgent and pressing but lack crucial details to help identify source and solution.

The heart babbles, the heart murmurs, the heart mumbles, the heart bleats, the heart stutters, the heart mutters under its breath, the heart speaks in foreign languages, the heart curses in pig latin, the heart uses antiquated codes formulated in-utero and lacking translation.

In short, in order to follow one’s heart, one needs to know what it’s saying.

It’s the same as learning about your body’s language – what different pains mean, what the stomach grumbles desire. You train your muscles, you explore the edges of flexibility, the limits of your strength. You learn what’s possible, what’s not. It may be the body you are born with, but not only does that not mean you understand your body utterly from the get-go, but the body is, needless to say, always changing (because of time, in response to stimuli). You don’t get to a final lesson. You’re always needing to pay attention to your body’s shifting requirements.

The heart is no different. Understanding it’s language takes practice, inquiry, research, time. Time spent measuring its syntax, deciphering its grunts and groans. Even if it seems your heart is speaking clearly and articulately about a preference, desire, or passion, it is worth listening deeper and over time –  to all the voices in your heart. It can be polyvocal. You might find a tender fear beneath the strident confidence; you might uncover uneasiness within a monologue that sounds at first unquestioning.

Do you want chocolate, or are you lonely? Are you lonely, or do you just inhabit a memory of being bereft? Is that ache a need, a want, a supplement, a cover-up, a fear in disguise?

It’s like learning to listen to the forest. At first you think you’re just hearing birdsong; then you pick up, from paying attention over time, the whisper of leaves, the rustle of tails, the tweaking of twigs, the bleat of tree frogs.

The problem of understanding your heart can only be addressed by learning to attune yourself to its rhythms and cadence through patient practice.

Problem 2: The Knee-Jerk Heart

And that takes time.

“Follow your heart” seems to suggest a rapid instinctual response without pause or calculation. It’s like “going with your gut” when you’re doing improv – you say the first thing that comes to you, you don’t edit or judge before speaking or acting. This is an effective technique for arousing and fostering creativity. Word association on paper, too, or free writing, is a trusted method for finding your voice as a writer. Don’t think – just write – and you’ll skip around the censors in your mind who only want to serve up appropriate, approved (read: boring, corporate, superficial) material.

But while creativity can be a helpful tool in life, I would suggest that when it comes to making big decisions  or dealing with hard experiences, it’s not time to rely solely on improv and first thoughts.

Reactivity can bring forth creative insights and imaginative fodder, but it can also let loose knee-jerk responses activated by anxieties and prejudice and other immature impulses.

I am not advocating that we ignore our first emotions and responses; I am advising that to truly follow one’s heart requires that we take those and pause. That we listen to to what our hearts says off the top of its head but then go deeper, and find out what else is there.

That first knee-jerk reaction may be raw and true – but it may not contain the whole truth. Just as with good writing, you take that freewriting draft and use it to write more. You go back and explore.

Problem 3: The Heart Lacks a Head

Which leads us to the other implication of “follow your heart” –  “but not your head.

Now that’s interesting. Somehow the “heart” – the emotional center – is meant to tell us something true that the “head” – site of logic and critical thinking – would not be able to provide.

In Disneyland, Ariel “follows her heart” by giving up her voice in order to try to get the guy she’s hot for to like her. The guy, Eric, doesn’t follow his heart because he’s confused by Ariel’s voice coming out of another girl’s body. Somehow her actions are prized, his are not. Snow White, poor thing, never really gets how in danger her life is and just chomps down on any old apple that comes along, not thinking at all, but I guess she followed her heart because the prince gets her, even if she is a little bit of a ditz.

I would like to posit (or rather agree with other wise folks who I can’t think of to quote right now) that separating out the head and the heart from each other at any time is probably not the best way to act and behave as a human being.

Maybe we need to rethink what we mean when we say “heart.” Infatuation – is that the heart? Considerate kindness? Angry passion? Are there hot hearts and cool ones? How do we define this imaginary place within ourselves, what are its boundaries, what territory of emotion and thought does it cover exactly? Because I’m not totally sure.

There is a kind of wisdom in the heart that comes when you pause and wait, listen and attend to what is there – the stirred waters settle and clear. This clarity of vision into one’s center and source requires both our emotions and our thoughts – and bodies, too! – to be present and available but neither dominating or in control. The awareness that can see into the self at this depth does not flow from just the heart or the mind alone.

In my experience, which is really all I’m attesting to here anyway, I find this sense of awareness and presence when both my heart and mind have had time to react – flush and flood with hormone rushes, hasty conclusions, initial judgments, rash associations – and I’ve acknowledged them, and held them with compassion. And then there’s more to the story. There’s more to notice. By paying attention to it all and sustaining that sense of attention, I access the deeper awareness. I get to the point where I can hear my heart fully.

And decide – as a whole self, with all my parts – what do do next.

Problem 4: Doubletalk and Silence

I think back to times in my life where I didn’t know what to do and certainly felt like my heart was no leader,but either conflicted and torn or inscrutable and silent.

I wanted to “follow my heart,” but my heart was either contradicting itself or just not saying anything at all.

I was not paying attention. If I had really intended to follow my heart, and it was conflicted, then I needed to stop, and make no decision at all. My heart was in a conflict, a war – why? Instead of tending to that, I got frustrated with it for giving me mixed messages. I fought it. Resisted.

And when my heart was silent – well, again, instead of beating it like a dead horse – I needed to listen to that silence. If my heart had nothing to say, then that gave me a sense of direction. Stop. Wait. Look and listen.

Instead of stopping, however, I usually lunged forward and floundered headlong, shaking my heart like a broken compass, trying to make it work while I got lost. I didn’t want to wait. I wanted to be moving. I wanted to FOLLOW it, move, dammit, not just sit around and wait for it to do something.

I wasn’t paying attention to my impulses. I didn’t notice that I was afraid of what my heart would say.

Follow Your Fear (Reptilian Brain)

And in that fear was something I wasn’t listening to at all. And, ironically, by not listening to that fear, I was following something that I might have been misnaming my heart, quite blindly. Fear being an indicator that one is reacting from the stored fight-flight-freeze impulses coded in the amygdala or reptilian brain, the part that bypasses the rest of your brain in reaction to stress. The part that doesn’t really THINK.

Which makes me think: Maybe “follow your heart” does mean – act on the first emotion, the fast immediate easy emotional feeling true feeling that comes up – don’t stop think or feel any deeper. This is like traveling the highways through towns but never the street roads and side streets to actually see where we are. We follow the heart’s angers, crushes, fears, dislikes; we don’t give ourselves a chance to hear and follow what else is there within us, which can only be heard when we offer care, attention, space, and time to the whole, the core.

Because when you don’t listen to everything, and when you’re just acting on impulse, you’re not responding as a whole self, you’re not bringing everything into consideration as you make choices of what to follow – and whether to ‘follow’ or move at all.

So perhaps, instead of following one’s heart, we should think of Listening to Yourself. Know Thyself. Princess Ariel, Snow White – stop running around following your heart like a couple of chickens with your heads cut off. You spend all your time running away and towards pain and desire without even knowing anything about either. Knowing what’s present allows us to make choices that are neither rashly harmful or rationally painful. Disney princess, learn to meditate!