July 30, 2008

By saying less today, I will gain more...

Blood on the Ground

I don't want to talk to you anymore,
I'm afraid of what I might say.
I bite my tongue everytime you come around,
'cause blood in my mouth beats blood on the ground.

Hand over my heart, I swear I've tried everything in my power.
Two weeks and one hour I slaved, and now I've got nothing to show.
Oh, if only you'd grow taller than a brick wall.

From now on I'm gonna start holding my breath when you come around
and you flex that fake grin, cause something inside me has said more than twice
that breathing less air beats breathing you in!

I don't want to talk to you anymore,
I'm afraid of what I might say.
I bite my tongue every time you come around,
'cause blood in my mouth beats blood on the ground.

Hand over my mouth, I'm earning the right to my silence.
In quiet, discerning between ego and timing.
Good judgement is once again proving to me
that it's still worth its weight in gold.

So from now on I'm gonna be so much more wary when you start to speak
and my warm blood starts to boil,
that seeing you is like pulling teeth and hearing your voice is like
chewing tin foil.

I don't want to talk to you anymore,
I'm afraid of what I might say.
I bite my tongue everytime you come around,
'cause blood in my mouth beats blood on the ground.

High fives to better judgement. By saying less, I will gain more.
Low twos to you, my fickle friend who brought the art of silent war.

So, I'm still riffing on the remorseful theme begun in my last entry. That episode involved a failure to act. This particular drama revolves around the failure to refrain from action. During a conversation in which I was debating whether to stir up trouble in a message board thread, a friend told me "there's a difference between impishly perverse and straying into malicious territory".

Of course, it's not like I don't know this already. But having it pointed out by a friend made it sobering. My mouth (or, here on the intarwebs, my fingers) more than occasionally gets me in trouble. Driving in traffic, at message boards, even sometimes at work, my shadow overtakes my persona and acts out. Snarled curses at the steering wheel, sarcasm intended as humor that comes off merely as snide, general snarkiness that slips out like verbal diarrhea. But I'm in my 40's, for crying out loud. Shouldn't I have gained the maturity and experience to control these urges? And yet, perhaps it's not so shadowy after all. There's heredity at work behind these nasty impulses. I grew up with parents who consistently reverted to sarcasm and insult to deal with stress or conflict (and still do). My brother and I quickly learned to do the same. It's probably no wonder that writers such as Ambrose Bierce and movies like Dangerous Liaisons are favorites of mine. But at this point in my life, I don't want to be that way anymore. As another friend recently wrote at her own blog:

"It was a place I needed to go to survive... Even when I no longer required it, a piece of me remained, inextricably tied there. Finally and cautiously I moved beyond it. I haven't fully examined what it means to live where I now reside, joy is still sometimes elusive and love even more so, but I am happy to be here. These old feelings have awakened in me a desire to move further away from them, to continue to search out experiences of joy and light"

Sometimes it seems that this behavior is worse during times of worry, stress, or depression. I've overcome the slothful symptoms of depression I wallowed in over the past winter/spring, is this how it's manifesting itself now? In a dropping of my guard, lowered vigilance that allows bitterness, resentment, and spite to roll off my tongue disguised as wit or righteousness? Or, again, am I just fooling myself? Am I just afraid to admit that I'm too weak to control myself?

Could this be the face of my shadow?

In another discussion prompted by the post at that other friend's blog, she talked about the realization that being alone isn't good for her. As she put it, her usually full schedule is "a concerted effort to get out of myself." Maybe that's my issue, as well. I've generally chalked my solitary ways up to misanthropy, but maybe there's more. I've always known that I sometimes don't play well with others. Don't get me wrong, I fully enjoy the time spent with friends and the things we do together. But the only time I feel true contentment is in solitude. Working, driving in traffic, any situation in which ego can be involved, sets me up for the slip into shadow land. In brooding the other night over not helping a person in need, I stepped back at one point and watched myself. It dawned on me that the contentment I find in being alone is perhaps due to the fact that, with no other people to deal with, there are no stumbling blocks for my ego. By myself, I don't have to worry about intention or whether I'll say or do the right or wrong thing. But in escaping to solitude and avoiding those challenges, there's also less opportunity for growth, isn't there? There've been times in the past when I've considered doing some sort of volunteer work to get out of myself and away from my own ego. Literacy, in particular, is an issue close to my heart and I've considered learning to tutor. But do I have the patience for it?

Another possibility would be to find a local sangha. That indeed might be what I need. I wrote at the beginning of this year about how I felt I had made some progress in my attempts to follow the Buddhist Eightfold Path:

1. Right View: "to see and to understand things as they really are"
2. Right Intention: "commitment to ethical and mental self-improvement"
3. Right Speech: "to tell the truth, to speak friendly, warm, and gently and to talk only when necessary"
4. Right Action: "to act kindly and compassionately, to be honest"
5. Right Livelihood: "one should earn one's living in a righteous way and that wealth should be gained legally and peacefully"
6. Right Effort: "1. to prevent the arising of unarisen unwholesome states, 2. to abandon unwholesome states that have already arisen, 3. to arouse wholesome states that have not yet arisen, and 4. to maintain and perfect wholesome states already arisen"
7. Right Mindfulness: "to be aware of the process of conceptualisation in a way that we actively observe and control the way our thoughts go"
8. Right Concentration: "wholesome concentration, i.e. concentration on wholesome thoughts and actions"

Sounds fairly simple, doesn't it? But now I think that Buddhism for me is like kicking drugs or alcohol. I'll find something, some book or magazine article, that resonates and wakes me up for a bit and I'll go along fairly well, making headway in forebearance and letting go of ego. But then I'll fall off the wagon and the dark nasties will begin poking up their heads and taking over my thoughts and speech. Perhaps, like a junkie, I need to admit that I can't do it alone and go find myself a meditation center or sangha where I can re-commit to the Path and have reinforcements to help keep me on it.

A final confession: I have to admit I've been hesitant to write about these things. I want to be honest here, and there is value in exploring these issues in writing. Blogging is free therapy. But I've begun to develop relationships with the handful of people who read these entries, and I do worry that confessional posts of this sort will affect their opinion of me. Then again, perhaps they can help me. The conversations we have are another way of getting out of myself and seeing things from another perspective. And, as my friend did with her comment the other night, they can remind me of what constitutes Right View and Right Speech. Maybe together we can share some "high fives to better judgement".

July 28, 2008

Tales from the Dark Side

I remember a conversation I once had with a former friend. We had gotten onto the subject of the duality of human nature, something that's been a thorn in my side over the years. Without going into specifics, I mentioned to him that I was troubled by the contradiction of dualities in my own personality, and he responded that he often felt the same. He went on to describe how he was often surprised that he could have both a creative side and a more cerebral, scientific side. At that, I took an internal step back and then allowed the conversation to just peter out. He didn't grasp the darker aspect that I was referring to, and I wasn't comfortable bringing it to light with someone who might not understand.

Today something happened that's upheaved that duality in an unsettling way. After leaving work this evening, I was rushing along the sidewalk, swerving and darting around slower pedestrians as I usually do. As I approached the corner at which the subway station's located, I saw a man brace his arm against the wall and lean forward. At a quick glance, he appeared slightly disheveled in his baggy jeans and t-shirt, and a bit on the thin, almost sinewy, side. I kept going, thoughts focused on my day off tomorrow, and the idea of getting out for some play-time on a summer day. Rounding the corner, out of the corner of my eye, I think I saw the man fall over to the ground. No, I know that I saw him fall. But I was moving too quickly, was mere steps from the escalator and momentum carried me along. I made it all the way to the turnstile before the thought hit me that I should have stopped to find out what was happening to him. But, caught up in my rush, I again kept going, assuring myself that there were so many people on the corner, surely someone else helped him.

But the scene keeps coming back to me. I should have stopped. Even once I was down in the subway station, it would have taken moments to head back up the escalator to make sure that someone was helping him, or to check on him myself if no one else had. Should I have? Can I be so sure that someone else of the dozens of people on the street stopped to help him? Someone must have.

But the fact that I kept walking and so quickly convinced myself that someone else did what I should have is disturbing. It's not like I'm a stranger to my faults, I've spent time exploring my shadow and usually believe that there's not a nasty thing about myself of which I'm not aware. Like many other people, I'm easily distracted from my better nature by wants and needs or by stress. It's so easy to slip into moments in which I'm petty, selfish, angry, and uncharitable. And yet I know that better nature is there, as well. Or am I just fooling myself? This is one of my greatest fears, to be exposed as a fake, to learn that I'm not as good a person as I think I am, to find that I'll turn a blind eye when helping another keeps me from fulfilling my own wants... Despite what I've learned about my hidden, darker nature over the years, today's episode has brought me fully face to face with this fear that I've managed to avoid.

One of the basic tenets of Buddhism is that by putting the needs of others before our own, by turning our attention from constant awareness of our own self to awareness of others, we can begin to find relief from suffering. This is, of course, a gross over-simplification of only one element, but it's one of the first elements of Buddhism to which I was exposed. The moment I read of this idea, it made so much sense to me that this alone is what made me choose to explore the philosophy of Buddhism. And I have seen for myself, in moments here and there, the truth of this idea. For this concept to resonate so strongly within me, there must be at least shreds of benevolence and compassion in my nature. Right?

How is it possible that such violently opposed impulses can reside in the same psyche? From the destroyer/mother persona of Kali, to Stevenson's Jekyll and Hyde, to Anakin Skywalker's fall to the Dark Side, mythology and literature is full of such contradictions in our selves. Such duality is an element of Jung's shadow archetype. We subvert our awareness of those aspects of our self that make us "bad", convinced that we're good and ready to grasp at any justification for our occasional lapses. Is it possible to really accept and deal with those darker elements in such a way that our "good" side is not poisoned by them?

And, synchronicity strikes again. As I was typing this, I received an e-mail from my mother, who was forwarding me one of those "Thought For the Day" things. Those things are as often inane as they are insightful, so I often delete them without reading. But I took a moment to look at this one, and found it soberingly appropriate:

One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, 'My son, the battle is between two 'wolves' inside us all.

One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.

The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.'

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: 'Which wolf wins?'

The old Cherokee simply replied, 'The one you feed.'

I'm not even entirely sure why I've written about this. I'd like to think that it's because writing allows me the chance to review and analyze the motivations behind my behavior, in the hopes that such understanding of my nature will lead me to choose more wisely in the future. But is it really more of an attempt at confession? "Bless me, Blogger, for I have sinned. I ignored a man in need today..." Have I described this situation in the hopes that one of my (few) readers will post a comment reassuring and condoning me? Today's act, or lack thereof, doesn't deserve such easy expiation. But it also doesn't deserve my self-serving, self-pitying angst. Buddhism would tell me to show as much compassion for myself as I failed to show for the man who collapsed by the subway, to recognize that I acted unwisely and to use my regret as a reminder, so that next time I can respond from my better nature. But I have a feeling that guilt will win out, for a while at least. Should give me some interesting things to think about during tomorrow's indulgent bike ride in the glorious summer weather.

July 6, 2008

The Cyclism, baby!

Since the Tour de France began yesterday, it's an appropriate time to babble about cycling. I am an unabashed fan of bicycle racing in general, and the Tour in particular. Yes, I know all about the doping issues, but you know what? I find it hard to get kinked up about it. I was incredibly upset when one of my favorites, Floyd Landis, was accused of doping after winning the 2006 Tour, and hearing recently that he lost his case and the yellow jersey left me feeling sad and dismayed. But overall, I'm just cynical enough to feel that, until other sports are regulated as intensively as cycling is, these guys should be able to do whatever the hell they feel they need to. And, I'm just naive enough to believe that not all of them are doing it. And Dick Pound and WADA made such asses out of themselves so many times over the last two years that they've shredded their integrity and left me rooting for the riders. Ultimately, though, as a viewer there's no way of knowing whether the racers you're watching are doped or not, so why not just enjoy the drama? Whether it's the battle of wills on a mountainous stage, or the adrenaline of a crazy finish line sprint, the Tour is just plain exciting. (And when it's not exciting, it can be just plain funny.)

As for my own riding, this year started out as a hard one for me. I've said before that I'm not a terribly strong rider, but I felt that I made significant gains last year in both distance and strength and even began planning to get an upgraded bike that would help me to grow further. This past winter/spring, though, set me back much farther than I realized. I knew I had been slacking off due to stress (Hell, I only exercised three measly times in March. Three!!), but I honestly didn't feel that I'd lost that much strength and aerobic capacity until I got back on the bike. It was a serious slap in the face. Within a couple of rides, I felt like I'd gone back to square one, where I'd been a few years ago when I first decided to make cycling a focused pursuit. I'm still using higher gears than I did back then and maintaining a slightly higher average speed, but I've yet to ride anywhere near the distances I routinely did last year. By this time in 2007, I was logging anywhere from 25 to 40 miles at a time. So far this year, I've averaged less than 20 miles per ride. So it's been discouraging, but there have been a couple of rides on which I've begun to feel a re-connection to the bike, and that gives me hope that the strength and distance will come back if I just keep getting back out there. Time on the saddle is what it's going to take, and that's been the biggest challenge of all.

Today's ride, though, was a good one. I hit the C&O Canal towpath near White's Ferry for just over 20 miles round-trip. The towpath is an easy ride in that it's basically entirely flat, but a sometimes rough ride in that you're dealing with gravel, rocks, roots and mud pits. Most folks pedal along at a sedate pace, but the solitude and ease of the towpath often stimulate me to push a little harder. While today's ride was short by last year's standards, I was happy to be able to maintain an average speed of almost 15mph, and got in one sprint that hit 22mph. Any roadies who happen to read this are probably smirking at that, but y'all just remember-- the guys in the TdF could blow you on your ass. There's always someone faster than you, no matter what speed you ride. Besides, Bike Snob NYC has validated me, so there:

Another reason people are apprehensive about riding bicycles is that they perceive it as being difficult. The fact is that it’s only as difficult as you make it. Unfortunately, though, most people are completely delusional when it comes to cycling. Many cyclists think that they’re just a pair of Zipps, a Cervelo, and a few expensive coaching sessions away from going pro. Similarly, many non-cyclists don’t bother because they think it takes strength, dedication, and training to be a good cyclist. The reality is that both types of people are completely delusional—the cyclist is much weaker than he thinks he is, and the non-cyclist is much stronger than he thinks he is. So just get on the bike and have fun at whatever speed you choose. The fitness will happen by accident.

Another article I found recently that doesn't validate my riding style had a stronger impact on me:

Now that regular unleaded is more than four bucks a gallon, I don’t take the car for granted. From sheer necessity, the bike has become my primary form of transportation.

This situation has made me wax philosophic on the incredible amount of time I have spent on my bike going nowhere, just riding in big circles. Thousands of times, I have put the bike on the roof-rack, driven to town, done a loop or two with my buddies, and driven home. There were certainly dividends in the form of fitness, recreation, and good times with friends, which is significant. But now I think of the amount of calories vaporizing into nothingness that I myself have been responsible for, it’s mind-boggling. Multiply that by millions of cyclists every day and think of the heat entering the atmosphere, the CO2 we’re expiring, and the sheer amount of energy going nowhere. Yikes.

I have to admit, I'm one of those people who throws the bike on the roof-rack. Part of what I enjoy so much about cycling is going somewhere else to do it. It should be obvious by now to anyone who's read much of this blog that I take every opportunity I can get to go somewhere else. Wanderlust spurs me to drive to different surroundings than those I see every day in order to explore and view scenery that's more beautiful &/or interesting. What I need is to convince myself that the bike will allow me to explore what's familiar, to see new and different things in what I currently consider mundane. That, and that it'll help me to get over my dread of hills. The rollers within a few mile of home are just big enough to kick my ass severely. Instead of avoiding them, I should get out there, let them break me down and re-build me into a stronger rider. But I'm just not masochistic enough to look forward to that with anything but reluctance. And, unfortunately, the suburban neighborhoods nearby are less than scenic. So what will it take to break through the excuses? I've yet to figure that out, but I'm hoping for inspiration.

The lyrics of today's song have nothing to do with the subject, but the rollicking music conveys the exuberance I feel when on the bike, pounding through the mud and tree roots on the towpath. So, folks, I give you Rogues. Enjoy!

I’m keeping an eye on the future,
An eye on the past,
And the present in my pocket
Just in case I need a door…
Into a brave new world
Where all solutions end up with my head
Buried to my neck in sand.

Enough, enough bowing down to disillusion!
Hats off and applause to rogues and evolution!
The ripple effect is too good not to mention!
If you’re not affected, you’re not paying attention!
It’s too good, too good, not to have an effect.

I’m keeping an eye on the pulse,
An ear to the track,
And penance in a locket
I’m dropping from the highest floor.
When it hits ground
I watch it smash to pieces.
Songs of liberation echo from the dust, the dust.

Enough bowing down to disillusion!
Hats off and applause to rogues and evolution!
The ripple effect is too good not to mention!
If you’re not affected, you’re not paying attention!
It’s too good, too good, not to have an effect!

Enough, enough, enough, enough, enough!
Enough bowing down to disillusion!
Hats off and applause to rogues and revolution!
The ripple effect is too good not to mention!
If you’re not affected, you’re not paying attention!
It’s too good, too good, too good… yes.

July 5, 2008

Thinking so much differently

I've begun to accumulate unfinished drafts of blogs: a business trip to Las Vegas a month ago, a recent weekend in Philly, babblings about cycling... In working on each, I've suddenly reached a point at which I've wondered what the fuck kind of bullshit I was spouting, and why? I have nothing new, original or profound to say, really. Does anyone? Centuries of writers have said it all before. So those of us saying it now are just repeating the same stuff, except that some of us fake it better than others. Some have a way with words that makes it sound new and fresh, or that reminds us of how profound such rambling thoughts can be, or that's at least entertaining. Every now and again I fancy myself to possibly be a decent writer, or at least one of those who can fake it reasonably well, but in the moments in between I'm sure I'm just fooling myself.

Sitting on the square at Fells Point earlier today (literally, as I had forsaken nearby benches in favor of the curb), watching the masses of tourists who sprouted out of nowhere when the overcast skies suddenly cleared, I couldn't help but question (yet again) the concept of inter-connectedness. In my shorts, t-shirt and hiking boots, I blend visually with the crowd, yet the association ends there. I feel no kinship to the young lovers, young parents with infants and toddlers, older parents with teens, or to any of the middle-aged folk who would be my chronological peers. Worse, I have little to no interest in being connected with any of these strangers, yet at the same time I wonder just where that leaves me in this paired-up, species-perpetuating world.

My Buddhist readings tell me that this sense of separation is an illusion, a construct of my mind. The "self" that feels so alienated from the crowd does not truly exist, it's merely a story we tell ourselves, a costume, as it were, that we wear for our time on the stage. And when I think of what's beneath the superficial surface, when I imagine the muscle and bone and organs that make us all up, I do see that we are indeed all the same. But that mental construct, that "personality" that we each create, is a strong force. The thoughts, feelings, and actions of that creation cause us to not only feel separate and different, but cause others to often perceive of us in that way, as well, and to treat us accordingly.

Pardon Me

A decade ago,
I never thought I would be,
At twenty three,
On the verge of spontaneous combustion.
But I guess that it comes
With the territory,
An ominous landscape of never ending calamity.
I need you to hear,
I need you to see,
That I have had all I can take,
And exploding seems like
A definite possibility to me.

So pardon me while I burst into flames,
I've had enough of the world
And it's people's mindless games.
So pardon me while I burn
And rise above the flame.
Pardon me, pardon me.
I'll never be the same.

Not two days ago,
I was having a look
In a book and I saw a picture of a guy
Fried up above his knees.
I said, "I can relate,"
Cause' lately I've been thinking of
Combustication as a welcomed vacation from
The burdens of the planet Earth,
Like gravity, hypocrisy,
And the perils of being in 3-D,
And thinking so much differently.

So pardon me while I burst into flames,
I've had enough of the world
And it's people's mindless games.
So pardon me while I burn
And rise above the flame.
Pardon me, pardon me.
I'll never be the same.

Well, that helped. Incubus in 80's rock band regalia on Mad TV (go back and watch the video) brings a smile to my face, no matter how deep into dukkha I've allowed myself to descend. Plus, I've been wanting to write about this song for a while. It's still one of Incubus' most powerful songs, and the perfect soundtrack to a dark mood. Cranking the stereo and shouting out the chorus is one of those wonderfully cathartic experiences that music so frequently provides. Yet, as with so many of Brandon's lyrics, there's a sense of hope behind the frustration and angst. It's not a suicidal song by any stretch. While it seems to promote immolation as an escape (figuratively, if not literally), the line "pardon me while I burn and rise above the flame" implies a phoenix-like renewal. The explosion of emotional "flame" is a cleansing one that allows a return to a more sane, balanced acceptance of the world's burdens.

So what's behind my latest (surely temporary) batch of depression? Crappy, unpredictable, overcast weather on the three-day holiday weekend, for one, making it tricky to go out and hike, bike or kayak. The possibility of getting rained on is one thing. I'll hike in rain because I only have myself to dry off and clean afterwards, but I'm none to keen on cleaning a wet, muddy bike. And kayaking is not a terrific idea when there's a supposedly high probabability of scattered thunderstorms. I can think of a dozen excuses to not get out and do something on grey days such as we've had this weekend. I practically had to force myself just to drive up to Baltimore for lunch today. So, not only am I suffering from endorphin withdrawal, I've begun to suspect that I may also be susceptible to S.A.D., though it seems to affect me any time the sky is overcast rather than just during winter.

Additionally, work has been incredibly boring again and the tea-shop/restaurant idea is back on the table. I finally got the 2007 financial statements from the owner of Shaharazade's, along with an explanation for the delay (waffling as to whether they really wanted to sell, then a family crisis that re-convinced them that they do need to). So I'm back to hunting for a financial advisor to help me figure out whether this thing would be financially feasible (especially in the current economic climate), and to wishing I had someone who could help me figure out whether I'm prepared to deal with the non-financial aspects of it.

On top of these other things, it seems that Incubus is apparently planning to take a very extended break now that they've finally ended 1 1/2 years of touring for their last album, Light Grenades.

"I'm of the mind to say it wouldn't be a bad thing to disappear for a year or two years," [Brandon Boyd] said. "A lot of people would say culture moves too fast and you need to remind people, but I would argue there's not any rush. Maybe they'll be a sex scandal or an arrest or something to keep us in the news."

While I'm happy for the band to be exploring different territory and learning new things, I feel as if I'm losing my muse. No Brandon for one or two years? There damned well better be a sex scandal or arrest at some point, though I think I'd much prefer a new book. In the meantime, I'd better begin exploring some new territory, myself. To that end, I recently picked up some new music: The White Stripes Icky Thump and The Essential Leonard Cohen.

I've wanted to get into White Stripes for a while now. There's something about their sound that's very appealing to me. Icky Thump's been in the car cd player for a week now. It's great, creative, fun, cool-sounding stuff, though I doubt either Jack White's lyrics or voice will ever move me in the way that Brandon's do (Edit: I should know better than to make such predictions).

It's actually thanks to Brandon that I gave Leonard Cohen a try. During a radio takeover of Philly's Y-Rock radio station, he played Cohen's So Long, Marianne and described Cohen as "one of the coolest mo-fo's out there". A glance through a book of Cohen's poetry in a bookstore confirmed that the guy is, indeed, pretty damned cool. The man's not only a revered songwriter, he's also a poet and novelist, and spent several years in seclusion at a Zen center. His lyrics are wonderfully beautiful, and his voice is flat-out sexy (later tunes are sung in a much lower, more gravelly pitch than earlier pieces like So Long, Marianne). But the music that accompanies his songs, unfortunately, does nothing for me. It's a product of its period. The acoustically rendered tunes are ok, but those with lilting female backing vocals just sound so very dated. I may just have to get into Cohen's books and leave the music alone. Or, maybe that's something Brandon should do during the band's hiatus, an album of Leonard Cohen covers, done Incubus-style...

It would appear that I can still spout a tremendous lot of bullshit when I get going. Being in a black state of mind seems to make it easier. Perhaps tomorrow the weather will allow me to get out on the bike and "burst into flames" and get back to normal.