Skeptical About Mindfulness.

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Okay, so that title is likely a little misleading. I find mindfulness to be an interesting practice; potentially very useful in the world that we currently live in. Sources of stimulation and distraction are so common, and so often engineered to reward your brain for engaging with them, that it’s often impossible to resist the temptation to distract oneself with these things.

But as I’ve followed some of the trends in modern american mindfulness practice, things have started to look a little grim.

Mindfulness is a meditative practice intended to improve mental control; over time, the practice is said to allow one to become more resistant to distractions, and to maintain an awareness of one’s place in the universe. It is said to make people happier, healthier, and less vulnerable to stress, anxiety, and their attendant illnesses.

There is value here; in a world that is so full of distractions, in which we see so many people falling victim to compulsive thought patterns, there’s a great deal to say about being able to acknowledge thoughts without judgement and then calmly redirect one’s focus. I practice a limited amount of mindfulness meditation, and have found that it helps me a great deal.

But then corporate america got a hold of it and suddenly it became a productivity hack; a way that employers could get more work out of their employees while paying them less money.

It also fell into the hands of the Cult of Positive Thinking (more about the Cult of Positive Thinking in a later post), and became the answer to unlocking happiness.

The thought behind each of these uses is that misery and stress and unhappiness comes from within, and that if you are mindful, you can shake off these shackles.

The implication, of course, being that you are the one responsible for your own misery and not outside influences. If you are unhappy, it is your own fault.

There are several problems with this. First, mindfulness meditation is not and never has been a panacea. Second, much like attempts to breed the stress gene out of pigs for commercial meat production, it relies on changing the behavior of the victim rather than improving conditions that cause the victim’s misery in the first place.

I’m here to tell you that misery has a place in the modern world; that your work stress has a rhyme and a reason, and that all of us would be better off improving working conditions (here in the US, but also all over the world) and living conditions than we would be simply focusing on our breathing a few minutes a day. The stress we experience reading the news provides impetus to change the world in real, positive ways.

If your job is so difficult and so stressful that you cry at your desk, that’s not your fault. It is the fault of your employer demanding ever climbing levels of productivity for the same or dwindling pay. Studies show you can inure yourself to the emotional impact of these demands using mindfulness to some extent, but in the end you’re still getting paid less for more. Nothing has changed, other than the fact that you’ve become more pliant, more passive, and more productive.

If you breed the stress genes out of pigs, the conditions they endure in confinement meat operations are still deplorable. Nothing has changed, and what’s being done to them is still wrong. Pork producers are simply better able to do it without ruining the meat. The bottom line increases, and everyone involved wins but the pigs.

The revelation that happier workers are more productive workers should lead to an improvement in working conditions. It should lead to increasing pay. It should not lead to a corporate mindfulness mandate.

And that leads me to my second point: mindfulness meditation is not a happiness pill.

It has never been a happiness pill and was never intended to be one. This is a simplification of the practice to make it fit into the good/evil, black/white duality of a society based on judeo/christian tradition (more about the damage this duality does in a separate post, sometime in the future). It’s dedicated to awareness, and is not concerned with your happiness. And awareness has a dark side.

I mean, every aspect of human existence has a dark side, and ignoring that doesn’t eliminate it.

A friend shared this article with me regarding negative impacts of mindfulness meditation from The Guardian, and I found it really fascinating and utterly unsurprising. The word “mindfulness” is translated from a sanskrit word meaning memory. It is about awareness, and as a result some of the things that you will become aware of aren’t terribly pleasant.

This is a risk that comes with self-knowledge.

And this is what the resilience (resilience, not happiness) that mindfulness is said to bring is supposed to help with. Mindfulness is to help you be better at being human. It’s not supposed to make you happy, or productive, and it must not be used as a replacement for human decency or for global justice.

For further reading on corporate mindfulness, I found this article from Salon.com really informative.

 

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Capitalism and Divergent Thinking.

For the purposes of this post it is important to note that when I refer to “capitalism,” I am referring to Big C Capitalism.  Also, it is worth noting that I am an idiot, that I am not an expert in any field, least  any of the ones that might relate to the following piece, and that I failed Psych in college.

Capitalism loves homogeneity.  It’s no mystery why… packages that are all the same size and shape are easier to stack, store, and ship.  Financial predictions are easier to make based on things that are produced and sold all the same.  Shipping is cheaper.  Mechanized production is much easier, making the item in question even cheaper to manufacture.  One look at the dizzying variety in our grocery stores shows that despite all the different packages, we’re really looking at six different kinds of kidney beans, four different kinds of canned tuna, and a few dozen different kinds of bread that more or less taste the same.  Meanwhile the real variety is absent.  Each aisle contains countless versions of the same handful of products.  It turns out that it’s not all that difficult to acclimate consumers to this homogenized range of products, either… even our films have their formulas.  Screenplays must hit certain spots within specified time frames in order to be considered for production in Hollywood.  Almost any film is possible, as long as it follows the formula.

Capitalism values homogeneity in its people as well.  Oh, sure, job descriptions will tell you that managers are looking for creative thinkers, but the fact of the matter is that creativity involves risk by nature, and to capitalism, which pursues profit, this risk is not an opportunity but a cost.  When things are unpredictable, efficiency declines and costs go up.  In fact, every large, successful company really only needs in between one and ten “innovators” and then an army of robots to carry out the wishes of those innovators.  The fact is that for now, it’s easier and cheaper to employ humans to fill those roles.  Even so, a firm hand is kept to ensure that these people, these biorobots, remain within their designated parameters. Capitalism also offers a reward for this conformity.  We are told that if we follow the rules, and work hard, that we will be rewarded with prosperity.  Since most people in the post industrial landscape lack the means to scrape their own living from the earth, this is a pretty good deal for most citizens, and honestly it does a better job of making sure everyone is taken care of than homesteading would.

Even our own brains reward conformity.  Social conformity, in a primate with essentially no natural weapons, was a matter of survival for nascent man.  Social conformity made the group work, and the group was the weapon.  It is our social nature, after all, that turned us down the large-brain side of that particular fork in the evolutionary crossroads, and as far as I’m aware we’re the mammals with the most complex and highly developed social structure on earth.  This is what the big brain made possible, and a part of that is the ability and the desire to conform to social norms.  To feel as though one belongs to a group is a necessary feeling, rewarded with the impression of safety and warmth.  In fact, experiencing the fear of death can inspire greater urges to conform in us.

This is seen not just on an individual basis, but also on a broader scale.  Societies tend to fluctuate on a cultural spectrum, from collectivist to individualist, based on the level of prosperity being experienced.  Individualism is preferred when times are good; with survival needs taken care of, attention can turn to individual choice and self expression.  When times are lean, societies tend to pull together to ensure that the needs of the society are met.

In contrast to this urge for conformity that is encoded into our societies and indeed, into our very brains, we also experience a strong need for self-expression.  This need is considered a part of the need for autonomy as enumerated in the three needs in Self-Determination Theory… autonomy incorporates both the need for agency in one’s life and outcomes as well as the need to act in accordance with one’s self.  The nature and origin of the self have been discussed and studied by people far, far brighter than I, and I won’t have time to go through that in any depth at all, so I’m inclined to skip that conversation entirely and just say that for the purposes of this discussion, the self is a thing that we all have, and it is made up of all of the traits that make us who we are.

So we have a natural, intrinsically motivated desire to act in accordance with the self.  This desire is so strong that it overwhelms the risks of such authentic actions, and at times the biological urge for conformity… all for an action with no tangible or external reward.  It is an action which is its own reward; in fact the existence of an external reward can undermine the value of the act of self expression by preventing it from satisfying our need for autonomy.

This is not just a desire that we have for ourselves; we also seem to seek out authenticity in other people.  We cast about in the world, desiring not just authentic action and authentic expression, but authentic experiences, authentic interaction, and the chance to witness authentic expressions of self from other people.  We are moved by these interactions and expressions because they touch something inside of us, something that is terrifying and wonderful.  Authenticity plucks a string inside of us, and we vibrate in sympathy.

The truth is, existence as a human being is often a horrible burden, and not just in terms of practical stressors, like money or food or emotional security, but due to the fact that we bear up under great personal responsibility, the kind of responsibility that only a thinking creature gifted with free will can know, and exist in a continual state of imperfect knowledge.  We are creatures who conceive of the world, but who are incapable of conceiving a world without us, and still are cursed with an understanding of our own mortality. Is it any wonder that so often we retreat from authentic expression of the self into the comfort of the group, the safety of the homogeneous?  We relinquish responsibility of doing and instead sit back and watch.  We lunge for the carrot and in doing so accept the yoke.  It’s so easy to do, especially in a world that wants, needs us to be consumers, and will offer us pretty much anything that we think might bring us even a moment’s comfort.

This isn’t a bad thing, necessarily, but I do think that it leads to a deep and undefinable unhappiness… a sort of a sickness of the soul.  This is not to say that conformity is bad, or even that capitalism is bad.  These are just parts of being human.  But it does emphasize the importance of creative work; work often judged as not having a real place within a capitalist society.

The artist serves a purpose, in that through their actions they take on the risk and the burden of authentic self-expression and reproduce that for others to view and experience, so that everyone can feel that ahh feeling without taking on those risks themselves.  The artist reaches into what it is to be human, like a modern shaman reaching into a world of gods and devils (and indeed, I’m not convinced that art is possible without interaction with the Divine, but that’s for a different post) , and brings back meaning, and then reproduces it in a benign, non-threatening form for all to enjoy.  The artist helps to keep people spiritually whole in a terrible world.

So how does that work, arguably valuable work, fit in with a society in which all labor must be boiled down to dollars? Especially if we grant, as above, that the urge to express the self and to create are intrinsic, but can be undermined by the offer of an external reward? How is that compartmentalization accomplished?

The White Girl Blues.

I’ve been in a funk lately.  I don’t know for how long… I just had the thought sometime last week that there was a time when I was happy, and that I haven’t felt that way for a while now.  Actually, I don’t remember being myself consistently since I hit my head.  Cognitive faculty has returned, and I’m starting to pull my life back together, but I just feel estranged from the world.

I try not to talk about myself too much on here; I try to present my perspective on issues that may be interesting to other people.  I think the “diary” approach to blogging not only gets really boring, but it’s also too close.  I don’t want this to become a reflection of my identity, and I certainly don’t want to fall into the trap of thinking that every single bowel movement I have is going to be interesting to readers.  That way leads to an echo chamber, and an unproductive pit of self-gratification, and that limits or outright prevents any growth in terms of craft.  And that’s what this was put here for… for writing.  Not for wallowing in self.  I can assure you, I do enough of the latter in my spare time.

At the same time, it’s difficult to know exactly how to cope with this long period of dissatisfaction.  I feel like I don’t even have the right words to describe what’s going on, which results in confusion and frustration on the part of the friends that I’ve tried to talk to, a feeling of  regret on my end, and no resolution.

I mean, I’ve had a bad day or two before.  Hell, I’ve had some really bad days.  Days when I just wanted everything to go blank so that I could at least get some rest.  Days when I’ve wished that whatever part of my brain that was causing me to feel what I was feeling could be carved away, even if it left me a drooling idiot for the rest of my life.  But I could almost always count on myself to wake up the next day feeling better, or maybe the day after that.

Lately, though, I’ve been feeling like I’m just going through the motions of everyday life.  Output has slowed.  I feel distanced from those closest to me.  I feel hollow inside.  I feel disconnected from the world.

It wasn’t all that long ago, maybe last summer, that all it took to bring me out of myself was a particular shade of green on a tuft of grass, or the smell of wild stocks blooming by the roadside.  I could spin like a dervish through night-long revels, and wake up feeling bruised but refreshed and satisfied.  But even now, as I look out the window at this place that I usually love, with the new spring leaves of the red maple swaying in the breeze, I feel like the movement itself is a welcome distraction, but it brings me no joy.  My days are colorless, and most food tastes like ashes in my mouth.  Even the warmth and fluidity of drunkenness seems to have paled down to just a minor respite… which is a shame.  Being drunk used to be almost a transcendent experience for me.

The world turns and I am on it; each day is much the same as the last, and there is seemingly nothing to look forward to, or to move toward.

I have largely stopped reading the news, as it just weighs me down further with problems that can’t be solved; injustices about which something both must and can never be done.

And there are times at which I want to unleash my anger and sourness on everyone around me, deliberately, to drive them as far away as possible.  Not because I dislike them, or because they are a part of this problem, but just to protect them from the chaos, and to protect myself from the potential guilt and shame of involving them.

Which is insanely self-destructive.  I am undeservedly surrounded by some of the most brilliant, loyal, and supportive people that I have ever come to know in my whole life.  Without my friends, I am just an idiot, sitting around and chewing up my own brain, and staring at my navel.  Without my friends, I am nothing… a strange, unnoticed obituary.

As much as I need that contact, whenever I try to reach out, I fail to make contact.  I fail to feel that connection in my chest that tells me that I’m not all on my own.  I’m not sure why.  This thing, this contact, is what I do.  It’s what makes me happy, to be able to connect with people and offer a smile or a joke, or whatever insight or foolhardy advice I might have on tap that day.  It’s what I do to bring value to my little community.

And I just can’t do it, for whatever reason.  Not right now.  It’s like hands almost meeting, but separated by a pane of glass.  The desperation and the yearning are there, but the comfort of company is not.

I think it’s folly to expect that someone else can lead me back to my old self anyway, but I keep hoping that if that feeling happens, that feeling of connection, maybe I’ll remember.

It’s so self-indulgent, this unhappiness.  It’s so much like sitting in my own stink just for the safety and comfort of it.

I want to push all of my belongings into a pile, and set that pile on fire.  Then I want to walk out into the woods, and find somewhere to sit until the tree roots and the scavengers take me.  It is taking so much effort just to be a participant in my own life that I hardly have the energy to write anymore.  Even watching television, a common escape strategy, feels hollow and ridiculous.  I feel like I’m locked in a prison, the manufacture of which I recognize as my own, but that I neither remember constructing nor locking up.

Maybe it’s just that this has been a cruel and hungry winter.

Maybe I’m forever changed by one blow to the head.

I’m writing all of this down, not as an outlet, not as a cry for assistance, and not as a plea for attention.  I’m writing it out perhaps as a way of being able to reach out and grasp my own hand; to make some kind of contact, and maybe to find that little light that used to be me, that used to carry through my days with a buoyancy that I faintly remember but no longer feel.

God help me.

 

 

 

The Profound in the Profane.

In advance of my trip to Bhutan, I have finished reading The Divine Madman: The Sublime Life and Songs of Drupka Kunley.  It’s always wise to know at least a little bit about the culture of a country that you’re going to visit, I think, and it’s safe to say that Drupka Kunley has had his impact on Bhutanese culture.

In fact, in the Paro valley it is not uncommon to see phallus motifs painted on the whitewashed houses.  Wooden penises are erected in crop fields as scarecrows, and carved wooden penises are hung in new homes as a part of a housewarming ceremony.  And all of this ritualized significance of the penis in Bhutan can be traced back to Drukpa Kunley.

Kunley was a Buddhist saint from Tibet who traveled extensively in Bhutan.  He is called the Divine Madman, and the Saint of 5000 Women.  He traveled as a beggar, he consumed large quantities of alcohol wherever he went, and is said to have deflowered Bhutan’s virgins.  He is perhaps the greatest instance of the trickster archetype that I’ve encountered in Buddhism, though I really wish we had a different word to describe this role; I find that in modern western culture, the trickster has been whitened and sanitized into a sort of a jolly figure… the harmless prankster. Coyote with his flute and whatnot.  Drukpa Kunley was indeed jolly at times, but the trickster is also a dark figure in religion, literature, and even film, and I think that the whitewashing does the role a tremendous disservice.  The trickster’s darkness, its anger and hate and sin, all serve a purpose, and to eliminate those qualities robs the archetype of all of its meaning and humanity.  Sadly, this is a thing that happens all too often in modern western culture; the sanitation of humanity.

I have to say, I loved this book.  And when I say that I loved this book, I don’t mean that I thought this book was pretty cool, I mean that it provided an anchor to a part of me that has been lost in doubt and sadness and fear for a period of a couple of months and brought it back to the surface.  It was a part of me that makes me very happy, and I hadn’t even noticed how far away from it I had strayed until I felt things coming back into focus.  Not because I’m religious, or because this was a religious text, but because the book speaks of a man who sees things just similarly enough to how I do to remind me of what’s important in life.

Kunley was often drunk, lustful, and angry… not traits one might expect to be cherished in a Buddhist saint.  But the Madman used these things to reveal the greedy and prideful nature of the townsfolk and especially of the primary structure of power; Buddhism itself.

In Lhasa, he sought to test the local lama, and went to the temple. Once there, he found the local monks engaged in metaphysical discussion, and presented them with his own flatulence, asking “what came first, the air or the smell?”  The monks became furious.  This was Kunley’s lesson in humility; the idea that their lofty discussion has as much validity as his own farts.

He asked to gain an audience with the lama and was told that he would need to provide an offering in order to do so.  In response, Kunley said, “If it’s absolutely necessary, I have this fine pair of testicles given to me by my parents, will they do?”

The use of humor in teaching these lessons is essential; through humor, one can transgress against accepted societal norms, but the status of Kunley as a beggar and a stranger made that transgression non-threatening to the social order, as it came from a man with no standing or social power, so that it could be laughed at.  Laughter triggers a release of dopamine in the brain, a neurotransmitter strongly associated with the reward system in the brain.  This system has developed over time to encourage behaviors that make survival more likely; laughter itself is theorized to be a reaction to a relief from fear; a bush rattles, and one discovers that it was the wind rather than a predator.  The tension is broken, one feels relief, and the laughter signals that it is safe.  This is true through all stages of life.  In infancy, a child laughs at a game of peek-a-boo, because they have not fully developed a sense of object permanence and when the parent or playmate disappears, there is a moment of fear and discomfort.  When the playmate reappears, there is relief, and then laughter.  This reward system, which is the same system that drives us to eat and to have sex, is one of the most powerful behavioral motivators that we have, sometimes culminating in addiction.

Kunley was a womanizer, said to have five thousand consorts.  Kunley’s ready engagement with lust despite being a Bhuddist saint is a thing that he claims as his own due to his own attainment of Buddhahood.  On his way from Tibet to Bhutan, he seduced a man’s wife with this song:

“It would seem by the size of your buttocks

That your nature is exceedingly lustful

It would seem from your thin, pert mouth

That your muscle is tight and strong

It would seem from your legs and muscular thighs

That your pelvic thrust is particularly efficient

Let’s see how you perform!”

In these acts, we see an acceptance of carnality as a facet of humanity, as well as the breaking down of societal norms.  The goal of Buddhist practice is a kind of transcendence beyond earthly wants and pleasures, beyond emotions such as pain, anger and sadness.  I don’t see these as worthwhile goals for humanity; they are unattainable, and the establishment of unattainable goals by people in power is a means of control.  During even this period in history, the lama/peasant relationship and Tibetan Buddhism itself were just such establishments.

Though the book contains a great deal of misogynist overtones, one must accept in the reading that Kunley was a product of a time in which women were essentially property, to be taken at will by whoever had the right to them at the time.  I think that it’s important to not throw out the baby with the bathwater; I think that these stories are applicable to the modern day.  With their refusal to accept the corrupt nature of established authority, their determination to see the world as it is and not as we wish it to be, and their acceptance of human nature in its entirety, including it’s gross, carnal, and sinful aspects, I see friends whose genius and insight I envy.  I see a divinity accessible to all, and not just to those willing to engage in denial of self and of the world.  I see a world of beauty, brilliance, and determined compassion.

I see a world as viewed through my own eyes, and it feels like homecoming.

 

 

Dogs That Walk Like Men.

I have a small problem.

It’s a truckload of men that bark at me while I’m on the street.

Now normally I wouldn’t consider this to be any big deal.  I’ve had men shout at me while I’m walking around town frequently.  They yell things like, “dumb fat bitch,” and “move it fatty,” you know, things like that.  It’s a pretty common thing… it happens to women and particularly to fat women a lot.

But this has been the same group of guys, three times in about a week.

It’s starting to feel a little threatening.

The first time it happened I was out on Pickett Bridge.  It’s near my work, and it’s a place where I can go on break to get out of the office, to look down at lovely Whatcom Creek, and to drown the worries of the day in the sound of rushing water and the meditative act of smoking cigarettes.  It is, however, along a road, and this black pickup truck full of guys in their twenties rolled past, and they barked at me.

I don’t mean that they shouted, or made some kind of abrupt noise.  I mean they barked at me, like dogs.

The second time was later that same day, and the third time was today.

I was walking home from work, and they honked as they drove past me.  When they ended up stopped at a stop light and I caught up with them, they started up their barking again.  It continued as I walked away from the road into a parking lot.  At the time, I wanted to get out of the situation… now, looking back, I wish I had just videoed them on my phone, and taken down their plate numbers.  I hope that next time I have the presence of mind to do just that.  And if I do, I will file a report with the police.

I don’t know why they chose barking, specifically, but I’m willing to assume that it has something to do with my weight.  There’s a certain kind of man that views a woman that doesn’t fit into their definition of “attractive” as an affront.  Because that’s what women are for.  We’re there to be pretty, to be thin, to be what men want.  Men define our femininity, our beauty, and our sexuality.  Because to them, our femininity, our beauty, and our sexuality are for men, not for women.  Because we aren’t really people.  We are objects.  And if we don’t fit in to what they think beautiful and feminine is, then we are a broken object that does not serve its purpose.

Now, I don’t think of myself as skittish.  I have never once been afraid to walk the streets of this town at any hour.  It’s my town, it’s my home, and I have as much right to its space as men do.  I’ve been held up at gunpoint twice in my short life.  And this, regardless of the fact that there’s no explicit, verbal threat, is also threatening behavior.

The truth is, women kind of live under constant threat.  I remember when I lived in Salem, Oregon, I worked about five blocks from my apartment, but I had five different routes to take home because I had a problem with men trying to follow me home from work… in vehicles and sometimes on foot.  The vehicles were the easiest to deal with; you just sort of get away from the road.  Walk through yards.  Go where they can’t go.  Walk around until you’re pretty sure they’re gone.  At the time I was leaving work at six in the morning, so it was pretty easy to tell when someone was targeting you.  There’s not a lot of traffic for them to hide in.

We are targets.  We deal with behavior from strange men that is designed to make us feel less-than frequently.  Even men with no intent to attack us, but just seem to want us to know that they could, at any moment.

It’s a way for them to reinforce a structure of power based on gender… a structure with men at the top, and women at the bottom.  As long as we feel as though we are under threat, they know the structure is working.  As long as we feel small, weak, and unempowered, it is easier for men to extract what they want from us… whether it’s compliance, service, attention, smiles, or sex.

These acts are threatening because they precede acts of violence.  They don’t ALWAYS precede acts of violence, but they don’t have to in order to carry the threat of violence.  The violence itself only needs to come into play a handful of times following this kind of street harassment for it to be an effective threat… because we cannot tell by your appearance whether you’re going to hurt us.  We just know that women sometimes get hurt by men who behave this way.

And I want to make clear that I’m not contending that all men who engage in this kind of street harassment are going through this process consciously… but they are acting out a series of rituals that make up a specific culture of masculinity.  And it’s a specific culture of masculinity that victimizes women.  That threatens women.  That hurts women.

Of course, what they really want is for women to react the way that I reacted today.  To slink away, without standing up for ourselves.  They want this behavior to be acceptable, and it will continue to be acceptable as long as women stay quiet about it, don’t react, and don’t report.  It will also continue to be acceptable as long as men don’t talk about it, don’t speak out against it, and just stand on the sidelines shrugging and saying, “well, I don’t harass women on the street…”  As long as the “boys will be boys” attitude persists, women will continue to exist under threat of violence.

And so, next time, I will stand up.  I won’t shout, or threaten, or swear.  I will quietly stand there and video them on my phone.  I will write down their license plate number.  I will file a report with the police.  And I will make the video available online.

Because if we don’t highlight this kind of shitty behavior, it will never stop.

A Low-Stakes Gambler.

It’s finally spring, and love is in the air.  It seems that not a day goes by that I don’t hear about personal romances or relationships from my friends.

This is a subject that I find difficult and awkward to talk about, but I’m going to do my best.

I admit that as I follow the threads of my friends’ love lives in as much or as little detail as they choose to provide that I feel a little bit of envy.  It’s not that I want a relationship… my life is in no kind of shape to share with someone else at the moment.  I have nothing of value to offer, and all of my time and energy is being directed to other things at the moment.  It’s not difficult to say that I would be a terrible and neglectful partner… at least, right now.  There are some things I miss about it, though.

Like the feeling of someone else touching my face.  Have you ever thought about this?  Like, really thought about it?  There’s a kind of tenderness associated with touching someone’s face… it is the location of some very vulnerable machinery.  The eyes, the nose, the teeth… broken teeth are a horror of mine from childhood… and behind some astonishingly fragile bones (the bones of the face are some of the most fragile in the skull), the brain. The face is an area of the body that we are instinctively obliged to defend.  Allowing a touch on the face is an act of trust, and to touch someone’s face is to invite intimacy.

It’s also not that I couldn’t have a relationship, or at least a reasonable simulation of a relationship.  There’s not a lack of male interest, and I’ve demonstrated a capacity for going through the motions in both of my previous relationships… time spent with men who didn’t love me and who I didn’t love, but who served as surrogates for a time.  I was able to vent my instincts for taking care of others, and they had the opportunity to feel flattered and virile.  There are honestly more parallels between the two relationships than I would like to think about, though the second was handled with a great deal more guarding of boundaries on my part.

You see, this is kind of what I do.  I get into a lukewarm relationship with a nice enough man that I don’t have strong feelings for, and I keep that going as long as I can.  Then, once it implodes, always with me getting dumped since I’m unreasonably invested in keeping the damn thing going, I have a couple of flings to salve the sting of rejection and then launch into a two-to-ten year period of singlehood and celibacy.

I’m closing out year two of the most recent recovery phase currently.  I like it.  I like living for me, on my schedule, choosing what I do with my time.  I like not having to worry about shaving my legs or whether my partner is feeling neglected.  There’s a freedom and an independence to it that I like.

So why do I go through this pattern?

Well, that’s a complicated question that deserves a complicated answer.

I seek out relationships once in a long while for a couple of reasons.  The first is that I (and all women raised in society) have internalized messages from the dominant culture that state that I need a male partner to be whole… to have succeeded as a woman.  That can’t be all of it, though.  The truth is, we all long for that closeness, and I’m no exception.  We all want to be accepted for who we are… to know that even if we say something undeniably dumb, that there is someone who doesn’t really care.  We all want someone to whom we are close enough that we can stand close to them without worrying overly much about our odor, or what parts of our bodies are touching them, and whether they can feel or care how pudgy we are.

Some people are lucky enough to have discovered that dynamic in their partner.  I am not, yet.  And that’s fine.

I pursue the simulation of this, though, because I want to feel that closeness, that acceptance, but I also live in terror of it.  I fear giving up my autonomy.  I fear giving up even one ounce of my independence.  I also fear that comfort might rob me of my need to strive, to write, to draw, to learn, to create.  This goes into the reasons that I want to make beautiful artifacts, which really deserve their own blog post, so I will simply say that the relationships I’ve had in the past have had the effect of dampening my productivity and this worries me.  I would not want to drug myself in to a kind of spiritual stupor with a relationship, and believe me the temptation is always there.

There’s also the fact that I grew up in a culture in which women like me were undeserving of love.  This was drilled firmly into my head, but the first time I noticed it was in a film called “The Truth About Cats and Dogs,” in which Janeane Garafolo is cast as the ugly duckling character.  Regardless of what you might think of her politics or conduct, she is a very beautiful woman, and one much more in line with the modern standard of beauty than I am.  But fat women, smart women, strong women… these aren’t the ladies who get to live happily ever after.  These women are shrill, or bitchy, or crazy.  We are not biddable and cow-eyed and delicate, and these are the things, we’re told, that men like.  As far as I can tell, the thing that made Garafolo the ugly duckling is that she has facial expressions and doesn’t speak in a rising inflection all the time.  And in that, she and I are the same.  I’m just too smart, too fat, too ugly, too strange, too bug-eyed and frantic to deserve a relationship.  Too weird and too complicated and too obstinate for men to want to invest time in.  And who can blame them?  There are dozens on dozens of women out there who are prettier, more pliable, easier than I am.

But we can’t neglect the fact that I’m a low-stakes gambler.  The fact is, my goal once I meet a man that I feel is worthy of my affection is to either eliminate him from my life entirely, or to do so much work to make him my friend that hopefully any romantic feelings will naturally fade with that familiarity.  Because I know that romantic relationships break up far more often than do friendships, and I know that forcing a friendship in these situations gives me a way to short circuit inevitable feelings of jealousy that come with unrequited affections.  Sure, that’s a painful process.  But is it more painful than loving someone and watching them walk away?  I don’t know.  I just know that the one option leaves someone in my life, and the other doesn’t.

One of my flings from after my most recent relationship said to me, “you need a man who can tell you when to shut the hell up.”  I know, I know, this sounds awful on the surface.  But what he meant was just that I need a man with a strong enough personality to stand up to me, and to not let me roll over him like a freight train, which is kind of what I do to the meek and callow male.  And he’s right.  It’s a rare man who is self-assured enough to stand up to me but stable enough to weather my highs and lows with a calm demeanor.  And as long as I’m making a list, let’s say smart, funny, and sweet to boot.

If you know that guy, let me know.  Maybe he and I can play make believe for a couple of years.

 

We Are, In Fact, Our Egos.

Last summer, I think it was, a bunch of paper fliers showed up around town.  They were on white letter-size printer paper, and they had a message hand-written on them in what appeared to be highlighter:

“You Are Not Your Ego.”

ego2

This is a regrettably common sentiment among the creative types; the idea that the Id is somehow the true self and that the Ego is harmful or not a real part of you because it restrains the Id out of a sense of fear.

Okay, before I go on, I want everyone to know that I have no background in psychology, and in fact am a community college drop out.  It’s important to understand that I do not at all know what I’m talking about here.

Got it?

Okay, so I think that people who dispense this claptrap do it with the best of intentions, I really do.  But I feel like either a) the people who do so don’t understand Freud’s Structural Model and are using the words incorrectly; b) that it’s a side effect of an aspirational approach toward human thought and behavior that is not just wrong, but also damaging; or c) both of the above.

So let’s talk terms.

The Id, as Freud described it, is a mass of instinctual desires.  It is the only part of the structural model that we are born with.  It drives libido, aggression, hunger, all of those things that are more or less common to all animals.  It will not tolerate delayed gratification, it wants what it wants immediately and there is no reasoning with it.  Infants have no moderating influence; they are just Id… so if they are hungry and are not fed, they cry.  They cannot tolerate the conflict between the desire and the availability of the object of that desire.  I’m sure that you can see, particularly in adults, how the Id can be capable of a lot of darkness and danger.  This is why it terrifies me when people assert that the Id is the true self.

The Ego moderates the desires of the Id with reality, and seeks to satisfy those desires in the least harmful way possible. For instance, the Ego is responsible for enabling us to not just take what we want, but to purchase it instead.  The Ego restrains the Id, and as it does so, it fulfills basic and genuine needs.  Functions such as cognition, judgement, intellect and memory reside in the Ego.  The Ego is the root of conscious awareness, and of a sense of self.

For the sake of completion, the Super Ego is the portion of the psyche that internalizes societal rules and expectations. It is where morality and feelings of guilt come from.  It restrains the Id, galvanizing the psyche toward morally and socially appropriate actions.  The Ego mediates between the Id and the Super Ego.

It’s worth noting at this point that as I understand it, Freud’s structural model is no longer in use in practical psychology, or if it is, it’s generally not used in the way that it was originally conceived.  Freud had some odd ideas about human psychology that are too firmly based in gender and sexuality to be of much use in modern psychology.  Still, if you’re going to use words, you should probably know what they mean.

The fact of the matter is, we are very much our Ego.  As seen from my brief and inexpert description above, the Ego acts in a conciliatory and defensive way, and some of the strategies that it employs may be deceptive in nature, but that doesn’t mean that the Ego somehow doesn’t exist, or can be excised from the psyche.  The strategies that it employs are employed in the pursuit of fulfilling very real and valid psychological needs.  Moreover, the ego is what makes us people, rather than a collection of desires and social directives.

This idea that we are not our ego is well-intentioned, but incorrect and in the end probably damaging.  It’s a sort of a hippy-dippy notion that says that you can have whatever you want and can be whatever you want to be if you live without fear.  This on the surface is a benign statement that some may find inspirational, but it’s yet another aspect of the sort of aspirational thinking that seems to come in cycles in western culture.

The most extreme example of this that I’ve encountered is The Secret: a book and a film that propose that one can have whatever one wants through the miracle of positive thinking.  This of course leaves people dying of cancer bearing up under the burden of not having thought positively enough to cure their cancer, or the homeless person not having thought positively enough to bring himself a modicum of prosperity.

I feel like I’ve been writing about this a lot lately.  What I’m saying is this: while it might seem harmless to espouse this living without fear as an ideal, the reality is that these fears, these dangers, and these risks all exist, and are valid.  To insist that the ideal way to be is to exist outside of them is to insist that the ideal existence is outside of humanity, and this sort of thinking is why I left religion.  This view of life as a struggle toward unattainable goals sets all of us up for failure.

The doctrine of the positive thinking movement does not set us up with the tools that we need to deal with the darkness and the horror that exist in the world… instead, it seeks to distract us with work that will never be finished, like Sisyphus and his stone, and we never give ourselves the opportunity to feel and work through those feelings, and this activity, this experience and internalization and rationalization of horror is a big part of what being a person is.

People are not perfect; they were never intended to be and not one of us every will be. We are all just people; and we are all a little monstrous.  We are all terribly terribly flawed, and we are just thrashing in the mud and struggling to find or make a place in the world for ourselves.   And to expect ourselves or anyone else to be anything more than that is not just wrong… it’s cruel.

We are all our egos.