Friday, April 24, 2015

Lost in Thought

I've been reading a book (by fits and starts) called Stillness Speaks, by the writer Eckhart Tolle. As coincidence would have it, it was featured on the recently released April issue of The Sun Magazine. What is to follow is pretty heady, I will caution you up front. This isn't a light read, for sure. :-) This has been a tough week for me and I simply don't have the energy for a new post.

The human condition: lost in thought.

Most people spend their entire lives imprisoned within the confines of their own thoughts. They never go beyond a narrow, mind-made, personalized sense of self that is conditioned by the past.
In you, as in each human being, there is a dimension of consciousness far deeper than thought. It is the very essence of who you are. We may call it presence, awareness, the unconditioned consciousness. In the ancient teachings, it is the Christ within, or your Buddha nature.

Finding that dimension frees you and the world from the suffering you inflict on yourself when the mind-made "little me" is all you know and runs your life. Love, joy, creative expansion, and lasting inner peace cannot come into your life except through that unconditioned dimension of consciousness.

If you can recognize, even occasionally, the thoughts that go through your own mind as simple thoughts, if you can witness your own mental-emotional reactive patterns as they happen, then that dimension is already emerging in you as the awareness in which thoughts and emotions happens. This is the timeless inner space in which the content of your life unfolds.

Prejudice of any kind implies that you are identified with the thinking mind. It means you don't see the other human being anymore, but only your own concept of that human being. To reduce the aliveness of another human being to a concept is already a form of violence.

Dogmas, religious, political, scientific, arise out of the erroneous belief that thought can encapsulate reality or the truth. Dogmas are collective conceptual prisons. And the strange thing is that people love their prison cells because they give them a sense of security and a false sense of "I know."

Nothing has inflicted more suffering on humanity than its dogmas. It is true that every dogma crumbles sooner or later, because reality will eventually disclose its falseness; however, unless the basic delusion of it is seen for what it is, it will be replaced by others.

What is this basic delusion? Identification with thought.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

A Few Words about Backstabbers

I must confess, at the outset, that I only have the energy to relay this sordid tale one more time. The last three days have been a strain but today I am able to sweep away some of the feelings of disappointment and betrayal. I find it difficult to comprehend what has transpired, how some people could feel threatened enough by me to resort to the tactics they did. What they did defied Quaker principles, namely that of Integrity, and religious beliefs as well, which is why I am extremely hurt by the decisions some chose to make.

Let me back up. Writing posts like these can often backfire. They often make the teller look petty and vindictive, no matter how justified the emotion and reason behind it. People question motives, which is only fair. Let me set some parameters first. My motive is not to make my Meeting look bad or to shame others, but rather it is to show what happens when long-standing concerns and problematic people are not confronted directly. In a universe where no one is held accountable for his or her deeds and actions, this is one of the consequences that can result. At the moment, I am firmly entrenched on the moral high ground, and will retain it as long as I keep to the high road. But I better not leave it.

After the exposition, here are the details. A man from my Quaker Meeting, the place I worship every week, the place where I have formed friendships, built groups, served as part of the leadership structure, and given numerous vocal ministries, contacted me a month ago. He told me he wanted to be my friend and wanted to point out the concerns some held about me. It wasn't fair, he said, that people would talk behind my back and never let me know their true thoughts. Quakers, as a whole, are often far too scared and intimidated to be confrontational. Many of us wrongly associate it with violence, or it unnerves us somehow.

Because of this, what he said had some validity. I at times court controversy because I hold the Meeting to a higher standard than some would prefer. I am aware that I rub certain people the wrong way at times, but I try to smooth over the rough edges if I can. The issue, among many, is that I am rarely provided an opportunity to be social and to speak with those who may have issue with me. DC culture, as I might have said before, is full of people who are high achievers intellectually and academically but have very poor social skills. If we aren't communicating, we're not the same page. And if we're not on the same page, misunderstandings are inevitable.

The man who spoke to me set off my suspicions immediately. I didn't trust him for a second, but I was curious to know what angle he was trying to work. He kept asking me to have coffee or lunch with him every week or so, and I obliged a few times to see if I could discern what I was up against. But after he confirmed my suspicions, which didn't take very long, I told him I would only be willing to meet with him if we didn't talk about problems in the Meeting. He'd been e-mailing once a day and suddenly his communication stopped abruptly. That was the smoking gun I'd been looking for all along.

He was an emissary of a group of people or perhaps even a committee, duplicitously funneling information back to other people. Other Friends had earlier alluded to their behavior and intentions by indirect ways weeks before, which is partially why I knew what was going on behind the scenes. I assume the intent was to drive me off with enough pressure or to hope I'd say something incriminating that could be used against me. For the record, I told him what he wanted to hear, and I am thankful that God gave me the insight to recognize what was going on from the very beginning.

This was not exactly a well-run organization. It was so poorly constructed and disguised that the rest of the Meeting knew exactly and nearly instantaneously who was to blame and the tactics they'd chosen. Now it is time for the Meeting to determine what to do next. Meetings tend to want to brush things like this under the rug, and I suspect this may be the preferred course of action here. But in any case, it's out of my hands.

Liberal Friends don't do discipline very well. Often the pushback they experience should they even try is extreme. Many people join who don't ever want to be told they can't do something. Our founder, George Fox, began the faith because he had issues with authority and didn't want to be told what to do, either. So this impulse is hardly unique.

It is this extreme individualism that makes many people think that obedience is tantamount to being controlled or repressed. In fact, obedience to God means a recognition that our ways will always be imperfect and that God's ways are the best course of action. And a reliance upon God, or if we prefer, the Divine, rather than a reliance upon humankind will always be superior and satisfying. Those who do not recognize this are in for a very challenging, confusing life.

I'm not sure precisely what made this motley group find me so threatening. In their own minds, maybe they thought they could make me conform to their own standard. Maybe I used too many big words and illustrated large concepts that they didn't know. Maybe they were threatened by my outspoken ways and my ministry. I'll probably never know for sure, but if you will pardon me one instance of unrestrained anger, I do have to say that it takes a kind of cowardly gall to resort to a thing like this. Without resorting to hyperbole, I was contacted by someone I should have been able to trust under completely false pretenses.

I have a hard time believing what happened. But one of the tough lessons I've had to choke down is that I've been lied to my whole life. We've all been lied to in some way. We're told that adulthood is a preferred state that we should all aspire to emulate and that, once we reach a certain age, it will fit like a glove. In reality, adulthood is hard, just as hard as belief, which is why people run away from it, not towards it. In many regards, the behaviors I have just described are very childish and they certainly aren't part of anyone's definition of proper religious behavior.

So yes, Virginia, even people of faith make major mistakes and have substantial flaws. People of faith can be very hypocritical. But I take this lesson as a reminder that religion is an ideal and it is easy for any of us to go off the rails. This is why we must examine ourselves and not confuse the God we worship with our own selves and our ego. The beginning stages of belief are not refined or accurate. Some of us mature beyond it, and some of us never do. Take that as the ultimate lesson.

Monday, April 20, 2015

An Open Letter to Activists

Enclosed is an open letter to activists and true believers alike. Continue the good work you are doing, but recognize that being a standard-bearer comes with its share of grief. If you see your role as the person who makes people a little uncomfortable from time to time, accept it gratefully, but know that your path will always be difficult. Most people don't work as hard as you do, nor do they want to work as hard as you do.

I speak from experience. My honesty and activism has threatened some who take my words not as wise guidance, but as a personal attack. No doubt you have experienced some of the same yourself. Criticism can be shockingly cruel, as is common on the internet, or it can take the form of those who talk behind your back and will not confront you to your face. I've experienced both forms, and I bet you have, too.

It is acceptable and understandable to be hurt. A rejection of any message is difficult for those who see the world as it could be. Daring to challenge others is in some ways a lonely task. Charges of zealotry will often follow, but we can help ourselves if we leave room for levity and even criticize ourselves when necessary. Too many worthwhile movements have collapsed when paranoia and wounded feelings have been turned inward.

When this subject is raised, I often return to a passage in Martin Luther King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail."
There was a time when the church was very powerful. It was during that period that the early Christians rejoiced when they were deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was the thermostat that transformed the mores of society.
Wherever the early Christians entered a town the power structure got disturbed and immediately sought to convict them for being "disturbers of the peace" and "outside agitators." But they went on with the conviction that they were "a colony of heaven" and had to obey God rather than man. They were small in number but big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be "astronomically intimidated." They brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contest.
If we are the early Christians of today, we must balance our expectations. With much effort, we might wipe away the stain of today's evils. But we should also expect personal suffering to result from it. This doesn't mean that it is acceptable for us to receive anonymous threats from small-minded bullies. But what it does mean is that, until our stated crusade concludes, we're going to be someone's target. And, though I hate to say it, crusades take a very long time.

What I'm talking about is mostly keeping our purpose in perspective. My constant refrain is to point back to who and what we are. If I say that we are flawed creatures, this is not to excuse inappropriate or injurious behavior. The reason many of us return time and time again to houses of worship is to be reminded of our imperfections.

As I have said, this vocation is necessary but promises pain. We can't speak to everyone, as much as we wish we could. We may never know precisely what impact we make towards others. If only our allies and friends would make their opinions known in the same direct, instantaneous way as our enemies. This is why perspective is crucial, else we burn ourselves out or grow bitter.

Find a strategy to preserve your sanity and never deviate from it. I know many people who have done noble, enviable tasks, but are left thin-skinned from years of persecution. One has to take stock of people like this with grudging praise, even when they are difficult personalities. Burning out like this is not the way I personally would go about it.

Go where your heart leads you. Never forget why you took up the mantle you did, and where that reflects upon you. Go deeper than that. Examine your motives from a psychological perspective. Knowing yourself will serve you well when it comes time to put your boxing gloves on again. And it will help you deal with the enemies that you'll always encounter along the way. Stay strong.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Quote of the Week

"The very moment a workingman begins to do his thinking he understands the paramount issue, parts company with the capitalist politician and falls in line with his own class on the political battlefield."- Eugene Debs

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Saturday Video

They tried to make me go to rehab
I said, "no, no, no"
Yes, I been black
But when I come back, you'll know, know, know

I ain't got the time
And if my daddy thinks I'm fine
He's tried to make me go to rehab
I won't go, go, go

I'd rather be at home with Ray
I ain't got seventy days
'Cause there's nothing, there's nothing you can teach me
That I can't learn from Mr. Hathaway

I didn't get a lot in class
But I know we don't come in a shot glass

The man said, "why do you think you here?"
I said, "I got no idea."
I'm gonna, I'm gonna lose my baby

So I always keep a bottle near
He said, "I just think you're depressed."
This, me, yeah, baby, and the rest

They tried to make me go to rehab
But I said, "no, no, no"
Yes, I been black
But when I come back, you'll know, know, know

I don't ever want to drink again
I just, oh, I just need a friend
I'm not gonna spend ten weeks
Have everyone think I'm on the mend

And it's not just my pride
It's just till these tears have dried

Thursday, April 16, 2015



Today, a close friend of mine would have turned 34. He died two years ago from a severe, and rare form of brain cancer. He developed a large tumor behind the optic nerve of the right eye, which as it grew and swelled in size, eventually rendered him partially blind. Chemotherapy was nominally helpful. Though it did shrink the tumor to a fraction of its original size, sadly, the disease was too powerful, too greedy, and it eventually took his life.

His family has chosen to keep his Facebook page active and, like a kind of shrine, I have visited today to pay my respects. The icon has been changed to a majestic image of a rainbow. It’s an appropriate choice of visuals, I have to say. Though I wasn’t quite sure what to say, I’ve left a comment for him in any case. 

I wonder, in terribly 21st Century fashion, if you can read comments posted to your Wall after you die. I wonder if they restrict Instagram or Twitter in heaven, but allow Facebook on a conditional basis. I wonder if you're able to reach back into your physical life, before you became soul and spirit, or if there are far nobler tasks to perform.

I may have a bit of survivor’s guilt. The two of us both suffered from bipolar disorder. I sought treatment, he largely did not. When I was a senior in high school, the depression hit hard and did not let up. I spent three months in the hospital receiving the treatment of last resort, periodic shock therapy. At the time, I was a heavy cigarette smoker, and my friend arrived at visiting hours every day with company and a fresh pack.

Minus the cigarettes, my parents were touched by the gesture. No one else had bothered to visit, but in honesty, I had not exactly advertised my location. Before my own series of intense treatments, which eventually rendered me nearly catatonic and my speech nonsensical, I had been too ashamed to reveal where I was. The news eventually got out, as news always does, but my classmates were uniformly supportive and sympathetic, much to my surprise.

My continued existence was miraculous. Had I not been hospitalized when I was, I likely would have died by my own hand. I was already making plans to end my own life and a failed attempt had gotten me where I’d been. Bipolar disorder and depression is a genetic condition, a product of bad luck, not self-abuse. I was not taking risks with street drugs or feeding an addiction. Though causes don’t exactly matter anymore, as for my friend, no one is entirely sure.  

The news about my friend’s cancer spread with the same swift speed. By then, we’d largely grown apart. I’d started a new life elsewhere. Out of the blue I got a call from my sister, who stressed the severity of the condition and that the diagnosis was terminal, at which point I began to see if could resume contact. I found him eventually, learning that he’d been on his own search to find me. By then, the cancer had already taken hold. Brain cancer causes the sufferer to be forgetful, confused, a little like Alzheimer’s. He couldn’t remember my last name but had kept trying.

Though I resisted at first, I knew I needed to say my goodbyes. Much to her credit, my mother browbeat me into a final meeting during a visit home. It was a five minute drive from my parents' house, where I grew up, to his parents' house, where he grew up. I knew the route by heart, expecting a familiar black Labrador retriever to bound from inside the residence. Lamentably, I was told she had passed on a few years earlier.

He was a wreck. By then, he couldn’t walk without the aid of a cane and could only make his way up and down stairs with assistance from someone else. Words seemed to spill out of the side of his mouth, rather than project crisply into the air. He knew he was going to die and had coined a largely incoherent rationale for it, part theological, part pop psychology, one I was grateful I misunderstood. So long as we were talking about music and pop culture, I could pretend that we were a couple of kids back in school.  

I stayed an hour, spoke briefly with his parents, updated them with my progress, and drove away. Four months later, he died. That day, I lost my greatest champion. A true friend is someone who keeps you from getting your ass kicked. Years earlier, I’d run up against a jealous boyfriend with a gorgeous model for a girlfriend, and his paranoia nearly led to blows. My friend had defused the situation neatly and it was never an issue again.

Friendship evolve over time. We had been inseparable once, then I went in one direction and he chose another. Two roads diverged in a yellow wood/And sorry I could not travel both  He’d needed me more than I’d needed him. I’d recognized that we were growing apart before he did. Maybe he never recognized, even to the end.

He was my biggest fan. But any of us who have cultivated admirers and well-wishers know that who we are, really, is rarely what someone else sees. At the beginning of a relationship, our lover is perfect, unsullied, unflawed in every way. Some of us see the cracks and the fissures earlier. He idealized me because he saw dysfunction everywhere in his own life, in his own family. I was a buffer between constant conflict with every issue brushed under the rug. Or at least that’s what I choose to believe.

I have no confirmation now. In the weeks and days before his death, we spoke by phone and text on a regular basis. He confirmed many of my earlier suspicions: the alcoholic father, the dismissive, self-absorbed older brother, the mother desperately trying to hold it together in a typically Midwestern sense of stoicism. It is the story of many and it explained why he stuck to me like a burr to a woolen sock. Though I could not bear to correct him, I wish I was the person he thought I was.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Dry Drunk (Part 4)

Part 3 of "Dry Drunk" is posted here. This is Part 4.

A work of fiction

Back in high school, my eccentric, but nevertheless lovable English teacher tried to diagnose me, to explain away why her star pupil had stopped making superlative grades and had plunged downward towards a confusing mediocrity. My problems had become well-known among the faculty, and I think one-by-one they were trying to find a way to keep me alive. She employed a French phrase I have forgotten, but I remember the translation well. Look for the woman.

I am tempted to dismiss that notion as quaint, until I realize how true it is. Or at least how true it was for me. With me, there’s always been a woman in the mix. A born pursuer like me always knows his options and carefully weighs action with chance. I’m a strange combination of smooth and awkward, a skill set that has served me remarkably well. If I really wanted something, I could make it happen, and in her case, it didn’t take me long. Even with my best days past me, it was nice to know I hadn’t lost everything.

She self-consciously cocked her head to the side frequently, as if she didn’t believe me. Tall and lanky, she admitted she was the in-bed-at-ten type usually, but had tried something different for once. At a glance, I could tell she’d once been an athlete, either a basketball player or a volleyball player or both. She pulled her perfectly straight hair downward, around her face, with a few strategic hairpins and a lot of willpower.

She was a working class girl from a small town and never got caught up in the professional scene. It would have never occurred to her. Instead, she was a manager in a grocery store, proud of her efficiency, supportive of those who worked one rung down, employer of a few stock phrases to be dusted off for small talk. I won’t lie. I wanted her from the minute I saw her. What I saw was home, personified, and for some reason, after running from it for years, home is exactly what appealed to me most.

I’d been coaxed to play a set by a friend, along with some other nefarious characters, which I saw for the most part as an old timer’s game, full of out of shape athletes chucking air balls well past their prime. Oddly enough, when it was my turn at the mic, some of those old rhythms came back, and with it a few starstruck admirers lingered, like the old days. I saw her saunter my way, all elbows, knees, and shoulders, and I hoped she wasn’t inquiring about the location of the bathroom or any number of inane and demoralizing requests.

She was a gentle soul, and after a few shyly delivered inquiries from both sides she told me her age. Forty years old and never been married. A life story in a sentence. By then I was only a few years younger myself. Though downplayed slightly, there was purpose to her talk. She wasn’t an appreciative but glancing blow, the sort I used to get all the time from women being blown every direction at once, like chaff in the middle of a windstorm.

Her was the reason I was here. Her was where I was belonged, despite my efforts to trade up and redeem my starting point through hard work. In the end, we were tired of being alone. We’d both come from places where the default was to get married at twenty-two and have three kids by the time thirty came calling. That approach clearly never worked for either of us. And though she never vocalized it, I could sense loneliness acutely, like sonar. Her hair was thin, her complexion was pale, and I only hoped I was the proper antidote.

I hid it from her for a long time. I even kept it mostly under control, but my job had me travel and I went on benders when she wasn’t there. I didn’t call when I was too drunk, too thick-tongued, and at first she thought I was avoiding her, until she realized I was too embarrassed to subject her to relative incoherence.

Mostly I thought about her the whole time I had to be away. I craved that skinny, lean, freckled body. The more perplexed she was that I wanted her, the more it motivated me to ask for more. It kept me awake at night when I was away, remembering the calm logic she used when forming her thoughts, so familiar, such a strange tranquilizer. I loved her, loved staring those tender brown eyes full in the face. In my prime, it would have been seen as incomprehensible if I’d fallen hard for the girl-next-door, but times were different now.