Koan Of Shame

FeaturedKoan Of Shame

I’m a morning person. Sort of. I’ll wake up early, without an alarm, and – once I’ve shaken off the cobwebs I’m moving along. Sometimes, the dog is my alarm clock, and I’m on her bathroom schedule. Either way, I’m up. So, I might as well do something.

Lately, I’ve been working on making the best use of that time. Mostly by being still. Quiet. Doing what I can to get the internal dialogue that’s so often a part of my day to shut the hell up. Sometimes, I’m successful, and other times…well…take recently.

Much of my internal dialogue, the last few weeks, has centered around wanting to throw in the towel – to undo all of the hard work I’ve undergone in the last six months. And, when that dialogue becomes a shouting match, the impact ripples into every facet of my life.

Maybe not shouting, per se. Maybe loud and insistent. Like an intense family meeting, or my dog, when she sees a random creature she doesn’t like. Which is all the time.

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The dog. This is why I could never stay mad at her.

I like to think this isn’t my normal resting place – this deep level of negativity and despair. But, really, it’s the undercurrent that has subconsciously driven much of my life. To sum up…

Calling divorce a humbling experience is like calling being struck with a sword slightly painful.

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The only time I’ll get away with mixing Star Wars with Monty Python. Deal, purists.

I loathe failure. Which puts me in good company. I don’t know too many people who like it. I see all sorts of motivational quotes from famous people who talk about how they learned the most from their failures, and used those incidents to become successful, later on. That sounds peachy.

I wish I could say I look at failure the same way it’s pictured in those shiny motivational posters. Someone screws up, misses the big shot, doesn’t achieve the business goal, fails in relationships – repeatedly, loses their run for the Presidency, because the Electoral College favors less populated states, and 50% of the electorate decided to sit this one out.

Pick one. They all suck.

The posters would have you believe that all those people simply brushed off the dust, got back up, and did it again. And, it’s a lie.

I’m fortunate to be close to some amazingly successful people, and can tell you that, with each failure, was a period of grief. Anger. Bitterness. Self pity. Perhaps to lesser degrees, and for smaller periods of time, but no one is immune from being human.

Feelings may not be facts, but they are, in fact, real.

Lately, it’s become important to trace the feeling back to the internal dialogue that may be causing it. And, that takes a certain amount of internal quietness. Which leads me to mindfulness. And, the study of Zen. And, it hit me that my long-standing internal drama functions as its own koan – and, not in a good way.


The reason I hate failure so much is that I’m rarely kind to me. As much as I want to think I have this instant likability, I don’t like myself too much. If at all. Success becomes the fix that blunts the inner pain, quiets the negative koan. Laughs in its face and flips it the bird. It’s fleeting, temporary, and then, it’s off to the next thing.

Failure is not an option. Which is, to use the vernacular, bullshit.

My hatred of failure, and ultimately, of myself, leads me to make rash choices, react quickly, keep moving. Do not sit. Do not feel. Do not acknowledge how much it hurts. Just. Keep. Going. Dodge the demons. Fake-throw and run.

Watch closely for the fakeout

The thing about demons is they’re persistent. Patient. Crafty little bastards. And, when they finally catch up to me, they’re pissed. I guess if I was part of a pack of howling, shiftless, spawn of Satan, running after some dodgy asshole, I’d be a little miffed, too.

So, there I am, face to face with a child of Beezelbub. I’ve just laughed in his face, given him the finger and made him chase my ass. It’s not much different from when I experienced this in grade school, with real-live bullies. Except, then, I usually got my ass kicked.

This chase scene is rather Benny Hill-ish – except not bawdy or humorous.  So, maybe, not at all like Benny Hill (I just wanted to get Yakety Sax stuck in your head. Have I succeeded? Good.).

And, it’s an illusion.

First off, the wiry little fucker is only in my head. A figment of my overactive imagination. The culmination of years and years of bad thinking, picked up from a multitude of sources – each with their own set of broken agendas.

This particular lying asshole demon wants me to believe I’ll never succeed. Never get what I want. Or, it would have me believe that I’m an impostor. That any success is fake. Ready to be snatched from me at any instant.

Any screw up is merely confirmation.


The first time I confronted this, in any healthy way, my therapist told me I needed to re-frame my concept of failure. Instead, I needed to look at what I learned in the experience. And, I needed to practice self compassion. He challenged me to call out the negative thoughts as harsh. Because, they are. And, he challenged me to ask the question about the source of the thought. From where, exactly, is it coming? Why would I possibly think such a thing?

In so doing, I have just made the unconscious conscious. I’m staring that son-of-a-bitch demon in his beady eyes, ready to throw the first punch.*

Jung

Right now, I’m scratching the surface – becoming aware of tiny acts of self-sabotage, in which I engage almost daily. I’m realizing that, when such a thing happens, my subconscious is screaming for help. And, this time, it’s a true scream.

Which gets me back to my study of Zen and mindfulness. A true koan forces us to examine our perception of things, abandon ultimate dependence on reason, and connect to intuitive enlightenment. I’m nowhere near there. I’m still learning how to be – to breathe in and out, and let the waterfall of thoughts simply be. Don’t try to control them, stop them or force them out. Let them be.**

Lately, that’s been more difficult. The thoughts and the feelings are strong. Fierce self hatred is so ingrained, and people fail my expectations regularly. But, every time I breathe in and out, every time I sit down and articulate things, I’m throwing a punch at that scaly, worthless demon. With enough practice, I connect. Connect enough times, and the bastard goes down. He might get up again, but I’ll be ready.

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Mama said, “Knock you out!”

*Most modern-day therapists would say the unconscious mind is not the enemy. This is a departure from Freud, who called it a storehouse of repressed thought. And, it’s a shift from those would treat the unconscious mind as a superhighway to achievement – then wonder why the constant barrage of positive affirmations aren’t working. The above links are to the same article, which gives the unconscious mind the proper respect it’s due.

**I identify as Christian, which I may discuss in later postings. The concept of Zen meditation does not conflict, at all, with the teachings of Christ. For more on this, I highly recommend Christian Zen, by William Johnston – a Jesuit priest, serving in Japan on the heels of the Second Vatican Council. Also, this app has been immensely helpful.

Isn’t this where we came in?

Isn’t this where we came in?

The difficulties of extenuating life circumstances, a need to process deep-seated pain, a comment thread on a Facebook post, and a several-weeks-long obsession with Roger Waters’s recent documentary on his three-year world tour.

It’s funny how seemingly unrelated events can connect. A quick preface…

The last six months have been full of both upheaval and stasis – none of which is happening at the most opportune times. When I want things to stay static for a moment, they change. When I want things to move forward, I get another roadblock. Rinse, repeat.

My wife of ten years and I are getting divorced. I won’t comment on details, as the legal proceedings are – for better or worse – still pending. It’s in the attorneys’ hands, now, so let the continuances…well…continue.

And, we still have a house to sell.

In that time, I’ve gone through the five stages of grief numerous times. And, I’ve gone from committing to turning the ship around to just wanting to set fire to the damned thing and jump.

The first is impossible. It’s among the most humbling of moments to read a legal document, in which a standard line states that “the marriage is irretrievably broken.” Sadly, no truer words have ever been written, concerning our predicament. It’s probably the one thing, on which, both of us agree.

The second is irresponsible and unhealthy. Which, leaves the third option: do what’s in front of me, in as much time as it takes.

I could get into all sorts of reasons why this frustrates the living shit out of me, but it wouldn’t be prudent, right now.

All I know is, recently, I found myself at a point of despair similar to where I was, emotionally, when all Hell broke loose in September. The ninth, actually – our ten-year anniversary. Thus, my several-week obsession with Pink Floyd’s The Wall, and specifically, the role bassist and songwriter Roger Waters played in its conception.

 When Syd Barrett went schizophrenic and was unable to continue as front man for Pink Floyd, Waters stepped in as chief songwriter. He was the band’s intellectual – a tortured soul, who channeled that angst into broader commentary on mental illness, politics, the music industry, authoritarianism, and – finally – his own damn demons.

Some people look to music to get them out of a specific mood, make them feel better, etc. I don’t. I’m in it for the catharsis, and it was clear I had some of my own damn demons to exorcise.

In the midst of this phase, I posted an article on Facebook, concerning a young, incendiary, conservative host who was suspended from her job.

What stayed with me was an off-tangent conversation I ended up having, related to the comment I wrote along with the post. I wrote, “Be nice to people on your way up. You may need them on your way down.” An old classmate – someone, with whom, I don’t interact regularly – responded. He agreed with the sentiment, then apologized for an incident that took place in 7th grade. He had tripped me, apparently, while I was holding a huge stack of books and supplies. I say “apparently,” because I don’t remember it. I assured him there were no hard feelings. And, truly, there weren’t. Kids are mean and stupid. Myself included. Most of us outgrow our childish behavior, and some don’t. Or, don’t outgrow all of it. Again, myself included.

But, because I am the kind of person that can over-analyze a plate of food, I asked myself why. Why didn’t I remember the incident? The likeliest reason: 7th grade was part of a year that included other deeply traumatic events. It was bad enough that I was in a new school, with new people to make fun of me, because of how I walked (the product of a mild form of Cerebral Palsy) or talked (the product of a precocious childhood, surrounded by adults, and a well-above-average reading comprehension level). It was even worse that I was one of the working-class kids from Rock Hill, all of a sudden surrounded by the old money of South Webster Groves. Money and status were important to me, at the time, and dad had made it clear that we were on our way up…until October 1983.

That was when my parents announced their divorce. My dad was both my hero and champion; home was safe. Irrational as it was, I was afraid I wouldn’t see him again. Also, he was the sole breadwinner. I’m sure you can figure out the very real impact that had on my day-to-day life. Really, though, this isn’t about a decision my parents made, especially now that I find myself in a similar boat. This is about how I coped with it – or didn’t. How I internalized horrible beliefs and attitudes about myself, and the world around me.

At the time, I convinced myself and others that, really, I was fine. I wish I had been more honest.

I responded, in part, by comparing myself to others who I thought were worse off – so that I could feel better. I became less invested in studies and more invested in being liked. Or, at least, not hated. And, I built my own wall – only to have it become my eventual, and repeated undoing.

After decades of unhealthy coping mechanisms, followed by occasional fits of growth, I realized that I was capable of being that right combination of witty, charming, intelligent, personable.

I learned that I was capable of casting vision, coming up with a plan, and sticking to it – while allowing some of that plan to change, if needed.

I learned that I could persevere, no matter how bad it felt, and how many times I wanted to throw in the towel.

I learned to do what I love and love what I do. And, I learned that there are any number of things I can do – both vocationally and as hobbies – that fulfill my core passions of art and activism.

Slowly, I am learning to be okay with me.

Every once in a while, however, I get hit with a curve ball. Someone says or does something critical of me – especially in a public or semi-public forum – and immediately, I’m that kid who would get humiliated in public on a daily basis. It’s confirmation of my worst fear: that I am not worthy of being valued, liked, accepted, loved. That I am an impostor, and my success can be snatched up at any given moment.

And, while those new incidents take me back to a familiar place, the lessons to learn are new. The first having to do with holding seemingly contradictory beliefs in tension. It’s possible for an incident to feel very familiar, and in parallel, recognize that it is not the same. At least, that’s what my therapist said. I’m told that this tension of beliefs is a critical first step to breaking the familiar narrative – one that keeps me in the role of victim and justifies any number of bad decisions.

The second lesson deals with my unconscious beliefs about safety, security and trust. They developed before my parents’ marriage blew apart, and shaped my reaction. Today, those unconscious beliefs continue to shape decisions – good and bad. The more I’m able to make the unconscious behavior conscious, however, the better off I am in the long run.

As part of my quest for safety, security and contentment, I still look for hope in the external. And, that isn’t necessarily bad. But, externals can change in an instant. Frankly, it pisses me off that these things come from within. Historically, I haven’t had the faith that I could pull off such a feat.

Every once in a while, any number of my well-meaning friends who share the same faith as me point out that I should seek hope in the eternal. While those individuals are correct, I still want to punch them.

I’m overdue for another reading of the book of Job.

What I do know is that the last 40-something years of operating the same way haven’t worked.

Six months ago, I came up with a plan – much of which is on hold until the divorce is final. But, this – writing – is part of that plan. I have no expectation as to where it would take me. Only the goal that I would improve over time. For me, that’s huge.

And, it’s confirmation that the best thing I can do, today, is stick to the plan, do what’s in front of me, and keep things moving – at whatever pace I can. To never sacrifice direction for speed ever again.

I’ll never slay my demons – not permanently. I don’t think that’s really possible. But, I can rise above them, day by day. And, sometimes, it’s important to protect myself from their intrusion.

I just need to be careful that the wall I build doesn’t close me in or swallow me whole, so I can still deal with the difficulties of extenuating life circumstances…

Sunday

Sunday

I am a person of faith without a church home. I’ll get into that in a later post, but for now, let me share what I’ve recognized in the meantime.

The teachings of Christ are real to me and valid. The institutions responsible for shepherding the flock have serious issues.

Stepping away from institutional groupthink has forced me to come to terms with my faith on a much more personal level. It’s forced me to be more open, less concerned with being right, more concerned with being true to myself.

Because of other issues relative to my personal growth and development, it’s been important to seek and accept professional help. I’m lucky that my therapist received his MSW from a local Jesuit university, and is familiar with the delicate balance of incorporating some form of spirituality in a plan toward mental health and emotional growth. The two are not incompatible, after all; and, in my opinion, both are necessary – essential, even – for holistic change.

As a result, I’ve been reading a book, lately, called Christian Zen, by William Johnston – a Jesuit priest, serving in Japan during the early 70s, on the heels of the Second Vatican Council.

Because mindfulness and meditation are becoming part of my daily practice, I’m using this app. It makes the practice super easy. It was recommended by a good friend, who just started a new blog. He’s better at the whole blog thing, so you should check it out.

I suppose I should get all “churchy” and read my Bible, but I haven’t been feeling it – aside from a recent re-read of the book of Job. I might do that, again, under the current circumstances.

Suffice it to say, the last six months have involved a tremendous amount of personal upheaval, requiring me to come face-to-face with some truths about myself. Some good, some not so much. All necessary, as the same time period has brought about an unprecedented amount of personal growth. I just wish it could be less painful, sometimes. I may get into more details when I can. For now, it’s inappropriate.

The Rules Of Engagement 

The Rules Of Engagement 

Some thoughts as I reconsider connecting with the online circus.

1) I haven’t worried nearly as much about what other people think. That’s a good thing. I will say that, since I’ve started writing on a regular basis, I’m obsessive about view counts.*

2) I miss out on important info, like weather updates. And, I miss seeing what my friends are up to.

3) There are alternative sources to get news updates (both Apple and Google have apps for their respective operating systems). But, Facebook knows me oh so well (curse you, algorithms). I know I’ll see what’s most important to me, when I have time to look. The other readers take a little more effort.

4) The “unfollow” button is useful.

5) Sharing a news story gives friends an idea of what interests me. But aside from that, what value does it add?

6) Twitter has its own universe. Not as organized, incredibly disparate, but entirely immediate. This is best exemplified when a major news event happens.

7) Twitter’s immediacy is also its downfall, as immediate information ought not be mistaken for accurate information. This, too, is best exemplified when a major news event happens.

8) Twitter’s disparate nature can be controlled by grouping followers into lists. But, that takes work. Facebook’s algorithms, for better or worse, do much of that hard work for you.

9) Google does many things well, however, in the realm of social networks, it simply hasn’t found an edge.

10) No social network can fully replace the value of coffee and conversation with a friend Lately, I’ve been enjoying this place. This morning was no exception. When the dust settles on my current situation, I hope to enjoy more outings.

*Incidentally, yesterday’s post was most viewed, with the majority of referrals coming from Facebook, but no small amount from Twitter.

It’s Not You, It’s Me

It’s Not You, It’s Me

Dear Facebook,

We need space. Indefinitely. And, let me be clear, it’s not you, it’s me.

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Seinfeld had the best riff on this, but I can’t seem to find it, anywhere. Ohwell. Emma will always do.

I know you’re used to all the attention. Depending on the day, your founder is either the most astute entrepreneur on the planet or the most irresponsible millennial alive. They even made a movie about the guy – scored by one of my favorite artists. The score won a Golden Globe and an Oscar – but, you know, Nine Inch Nails was going to be just a fad. Sorry, I went all fanboy on Trent. I go fanboy on people, sometimes. It can cause problems.

Anyway, the real answer about Zuckerberg is that he’s a smart, lucky young man, who worked hard and succeeded. He’s using that wealth for social good. A fellow human – for me, anyway, Facebook. You’re not a human. You’re a community, with its own set of challenges – something even your creator admitted, recently.

The problem is how I act in that community. Not all the time, and not with every move. First, the good:

  1. I’ve reconnected with a lot of old friends. It’s been so wonderful to see how everyone’s lives have evolved – friends from grade school, high school, college. Many of us are far-flung – especially the college folks. And, some of us are just a couple of streets over. So incredible how that works. And, I wouldn’t have done it without you.
  2. It’s become my newsreader. I stay caught up with current events and politics on every level, thanks to you. And, I get to read more in-depth stuff, when I have time. I wouldn’t be anywhere near the level of well-read or informed without you.
  3. I have family scattered throughout the US. I wouldn’t have much contact with them, at all, were it not for you.

There’s more, I suppose. But, I’ll start with those. And, it’s not all roses and dog videos.

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Not a video. Eventually, I’ll get the upgrade that allows me to post those. For now, enjoy this GIF (pronounced “Giff”…I don’t care what the creator says).

So, the bad:

  1. I’ve needed to do much more fact-checking, when I see a link. And, I need to avoid the most clickbaity of clickbait. This isn’t all you, Facebook. This started with e-mail chains – the thing that one person always sends us with the latest conspiracy theory or damning evidence, regarding a public figure. But, here’s the thing: fake news may have helped elect the current guy in the White House. And, that was spread primarily through you, Facebook. It took a while for your creator to hold you accountable. But, eventually, he did.
  2. Speaking of political posts, don’t you wonder about how divided and polarized we’ve become as a country? Of course you don’t. Because, you’re not a human. I wish you could see what’s happened, and the role you might be playing in it. Again, not all your fault. The divide began long before the first friend request. But, I’m not sure you’re helping. I’ve blocked more people – including old friends and relatives – over heated political discussions and diverging opinions on social issues. Somehow, I – and we – have forgotten that we are more than our opinions…no matter how strongly we hold them. And, sometimes, that means we lose the opportunity to connect with someone who really matters to us, in real life – because of some stupid thing they posted online.
  3. Drama. Too. Much. Drama. Sometimes, it becomes tempting to have it out with that one person who posted something you didn’t agree with. And, then, it becomes an all-out public slug-fest. The thing is, we always feel more entitled to slug it out, when we’re hiding behind a screen. I wouldn’t dare lash out in some of the ways I used to, if I was looking that same person in the eye. We might still disagree, but the tone stands a better chance of being civil.
  4. Vaguebooking (known as Subtweeting in the Twitterverse). Facebook, your presence in the universe encourages something else – a safe place to overshare. But, is it? Of course not, so we’ve developed the art of the vaguebook – the share that’s directed to a specific, unnamed person, but could also pass as a standalone post that others might find amusing. Of course, if there are others familiar with the specific target or situation, those folks find it even more amusing. It’s high school, all over again. Childish, insecure bullshit. I’m a middle-aged, grown-ass man. You have a problem with me, you come to me. But, wait…I’ve done it. Because, I’ve become part of the problem.

You see, Facebook, it’s really not you. It’s me.

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The truth is, I’ve also destroyed friendships – or damaged them in ways that aren’t easily reparable. Nothing is worth that, Facebook. Not even you.

In short, I need to take  a step back and assess things. What’s the best use of my time? How can I use this as a platform to communicate and connect, and eliminate the other narcissistic tendencies that come with its use (my narcissism is the real problem)?

I need to call my family members, read books, clean my house, and see my friends in real life.

It’s not forever. It can’t be. Ironically, you might be one of the best places to promote this blog. So, we’ve got to come together, at some point. Redefine the relationship. Put things in their proper perspective.

Until then, I hope you’ll understand the need for distance.

E.

What’s In A Name?

First and foremost, some clarity, regarding the blog’s name. Don’t Panic is a reference to The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, NOT the Coldplay song. Don’t get me wrong. I liked two albums of theirs. A Rush Of Blood To The Head, in particular, got me through a rough patch in 2004 (I seem to have lots of those). But, no, my love for Coldplay ended when they released their follow-up to X&Y. The album has a title so long, I can’t even remember it. You might have read about the lawsuit related to one of the songs.

I blame Gwyneth:

Oh Chris…what In God’s name were you thinking?

Don’t Panic was on the cover of Ford Prefect’s guide. Ford was an interstellar traveler, working for the guide’s publishing company. His job was to update the guide, in his travels. Kind of like a Trip Advisor for the Universe. But, cooler. Much cooler. And, not at all accurate. His words for Earth, by the way: Mostly Harmless. I wonder if he would say that, today?

Not harmless…but the man bun is a nice touch.

It should be noted that The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy is one of five books within the Hitchhiker’s Trilogy. Yes. Five books. It’s called a trilogy. The late Douglas Adams got a little carried away, I suppose. But, that’s what happens when you’re British, irreverent, and developed a cult classic. I guess.

From the book:

“It is said that despite its many glaring (and occasionally fatal) inaccuracies, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy itself has outsold the Encyclopedia Galactica because it is slightly cheaper, and because it has the words ‘DON‘T PANIC‘ in large, friendly letters on the cover.”

Simply put, I need to be reminded not to panic. Because, I do. A lot. It hasn’t always been that way. Fear of everything is a learned skill acquired over time – at least, for me. It’s one I’ve mastered, and insofar as skills go, it’s pretty useless. On a skills spectrum, it probably ranks somewhere just above Pig Latin or Underwater Basket Weaving. Though, if the latter were really a thing, it might be cool.

I got nothing…

So, while topics will likely be all over the place (It’s my blog and I’ll do what I damned well want), the overarching theme will be how I’m unlearning that fear, a day at a time. In so doing, it would be great to find out I’ve impacted others along the way. It won’t be for everyone, and for those folks, I wish you the very best.

I’ll bet the dolphins predicted 2016…