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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I Finally Got a Kindle.

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I know, it seems crazy, right? That a person who writes in part for e-readers would not own one.

I have tried to take part in the ebook revolution, really I have, but without a dedicated reader I have found it nearly impossible. Reading on a cramped phone screen was almost painful, and much too distracting to do for any length of time. Reading at home on my laptop suffered the same distraction problem, except more so, as the laptop is where I do my work, my writing, and my schoolwork.

A few days ago, I finally broke down and ordered a Kindle Paperwhite. I wanted something that wouldn’t be constantly connected and offering the siren’s song of social media and the internet constantly. A kind of walled garden for reading. And, I thought, at $139.99, it would pay for itself in savings on books in no time!

I am delighted by it. It is just small enough that I can (barely) cradle it in one hand, yet large enough that it’s comfortable for someone raised on mass market paperbacks to read; the user interface is so easy to learn that you almost don’t even need the tutorial that appears on startup. The display, with its adjustable backlight, is suitable for any light level and doesn’t cause the kind of eyestrain that a computer screen or a phone can.

In short, I love it.

I can read in bed now, without needing to have a light on. I can read while cooking or eating without having to weigh a book open or (gasp!) break its spine to get it to lay flat.  I can read in the bathtub (the touch screen functions through a ziploc bag even, so I don’t have to worry about ruining it), and perhaps most importantly I can read on the bus to and from classes.

This is the real game-changer for me. As I’ve gotten busier I’ve noticed my recreational reading time dropping off precipitously, and as a writer, continuing to read is vital. You learn craft from reading books; sometimes you learn what to do, sometimes you learn what not to do, but it’s all learning, and it’s all necessary. So turning the thirty to forty minutes that I spend on the bus every weekday into productive time is the perfect way to get my reading back.

I can carry dozens of books with me wherever I go on this one slim little device. It fits in my purse, and it fits in my jacket pocket. I will be able to take it traveling with me, and when camping I will no longer need to waste headlamp batteries on reading before bed. Wouldn’t want those batteries to run out on a trip to the latrine, after all.

And speaking of batteries, the battery on this thing lasts literally for days. I don’t even have to think about charging it, which is a revelation for someone who frets constantly about her phone battery.

I started out my Kindle adventure by re-reading Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, and if the reading suffered at all for having been on a screen, I didn’t notice. I chewed through the novel in chunks of thirty or forty minutes at a time over the course of a few days; slow for me, but much more than I’d been reading pre-Kindle.

I still prefer paper books, don’t get me wrong. The feel of them, and the beauty of them (the flexibility demanded by the ebook format reduces your opportunities to create beautiful books) still charm me in a way that ebooks just can’t yet. But this experience has mostly cemented my vision of the reading future as one that includes both e-reading and paper books… but now, I can leave my paper books at home, and still read to my little heart’s content no matter where I am. The sheer convenience offered by ebooks isn’t something that paper books can match, and isn’t going to just go away.

I have always been astounded by claims that ebooks are declining (they aren’t) in popularity; owning a Kindle only makes such claims more obviously ridiculous than they seemed in the past.

And if you haven’t yet, my friends, join the ebook revolution. You have nothing to lose but your chains.

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 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.

 

 

The Gift.

I was handed a gift yesterday.

It’s a sheet of heavy paper like the kind you would find used as packing inside a produce box.  It was folded in sixths, and it has writing scrawled all over it.

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A coworker found it inside the mailbox at work, crammed in next to the bundle of newspapers.

“I thought you’d be interested,” he said.

“Why would you think I’d be interested?”  I was wide-eyed, turning the heavy paper over in my hands.

“Because it’s bizarre,” he replied.

I kept it.  Folded in its original sixths, it fits in my shoulder bag.  The writing on it is frantic, and difficult to read in places.  What is legible are the writings of a crazy person.  These artifacts aren’t always easy to find, and they certainly aren’t commonly handed to one in ones place of work.  In tone, the writings remind me of the writings a roommate once left behind in my trashed apartment after threatening to kill me and forcing me to spend a week sleeping on my brother’s couch.  His opus was scrawled on the walls of the unit and on the acrylic cutting boards in my kitchen in ballpoint pen… one of the cutting boards just had “PTSD” written all across it.  The content of this is different, and separated from me by the gulf of unfamiliarity.  I intend to work on transcribing these individual paragraphs scattered across the paper over the next few days.

Now you might ask, and understandably so, why such a thing might be considered a gift.

The work of the writer, and the artist, is based in truth.  We take what we know, and we strip away from it the identifying factors, and turn our story into mankind’s story.  This removal of identity is key, because it depersonalizes the information and makes it both safer for us to share, and more digestible and useful for the audience.  The poet depersonalizes his truth similarly, but using a different strategy… he relies on the lyrical structure to turn it into a kind of incantation.

And nobody tells the truth as they see it more boldly than a crazy person.

Sanity versus madness is not  a binary condition; no creature with our level of emotional engagement and self awareness can be cognizant of its own death and be called truly sane.  We are ranged along a spectrum from the mildly neurotic to the completely insane.  Sanity is the measurement of one’s rationality, of one’s awareness of and attachment to the outside world.  A person may take the same pieces and put them together in a different way, or one might be using different pieces entirely from those that the rest of the world uses.  Either way, this constitutes a breakdown in the ability to draw correct conclusions from stimuli.

When people write like this, they are so overwhelmed by these thoughts that they seek to control them by putting them to paper… the thought is that if they can arrange them in some way, categorize them, group them, that one might slow their repetitive litany.  The thoughts themselves are perceived as the danger, rather than a symptom.  And in committing them to paper, the person in question is writing down what is most important to them at that moment in time.

In this sense, the writer is laying down truth of a purity that the rest of us have a difficult time mustering… because we fear the truth.

I think we all fear the truth on some level… we lie to ourselves, we maintain fantasies about ourselves, our lives, and our futures.  We sometimes live in fear of being found out, of being exposed.  The honesty with which one must write exposes one… it creates an emotional intimacy, which is also a vulnerability.  And so, we write in code; poetry, novels, and short fiction.  Or we transmute the truth into a visual form that can move the viewer’s heart; it can expose them to the truth without putting them in danger.

This is one of the great paradoxes of the artist… that we must strive for truth and at the same time carefully avoid it.

This is not a bad thing, really… we obviously cannot be vulnerable to everyone who reads our work.  I don’t know that there’s any way for one to live as a social mammal with that high level of personal investment and emotional risk.

But the insane recognize different dangers.  The pressure of racing thoughts and compulsions poses a greater existential threat than the risk of emotional injury from the outside world, a world that already largely rejects them.  And so, they are able to commit their thoughts to writing with a much higher degree of honesty.  Some of what they will write will make a kind of sense; some will not.  But there’s a jagged purity to it all that we can learn from.

In addition, these voices normally disappear… they are thrown away and rendered illegible rather quickly by the process of decay, never to be reproduced by the writer who in all likelihood already exists in a state of marginalization.  Was it an accident that this paper ended up in the mailbox at my work?  Probably… who knows?  But once I have these words transcribed, they will be one more little voice, however deranged, that has a slightly longer life than it would’ve otherwise.  Maybe it’s silly of me, but I think that’s actually kind of important.

These words are a verbal representation of someone’s mind, someone’s soul… no matter how broken.  And that gives them weight.

I’ll post what I can after I’m done writing it all down.  Probably next week sometime.

 

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.