The Suffering of Everyday Life

During the time that I was married, I subjected my wife to a litany of jokes involving obscure references to my various interests. I am fairly (but not entirely) certain that this was not what caused our marriage to deteriorate. Over the last year or so of our marriage, one of my go-to comments was to utter the phrase, “this is dukkha” in annoying or unpleasant situations, which would invariably elicit a roll of the eyes. Although I employed it as humor, it was always in a situation where I actually recognized the workings of dukkha in a mundane situation.

four noble truths

The first of the Noble Truths is often translated as, “Life is suffering.” The Pali word “dukkha” is somewhat problematically translated as “suffering” in many places. There isn’t really a perfect translation in English for the word dukkha, but I have seen it translated as “stress”, “unsatisfactoriness”, and “anxiety”, as well as the common, “suffering.” All of these definitions seem to have an element of truth to them, but the full sense of the word is complex, and plays out in our daily lives in several different ways. It is also closely tied to another Pali concept, “tanha,” which is often translated as “craving”, “desire”, or “thirst.”

Everybody Hurts

Some things just hurt. Pain and discomfort of all kinds are just part of the package deal that we get with the gift of human existence. We stub our toe and it causes physical pain. Someone treats us unkindly and it makes us feel bad emotionally. We lose someone we care about or watch an important relationship deteriorate, and we feel sorrow. These kinds of experiences are inevitable, and in the moment we will feel a kind of pain or suffering when we are confronted with them. There is no avoiding this kind of pain.

Where we really begin to feel suffering is through our desire that things be other than they are. We crave pleasant experiences, and we feel aversion toward unpleasant ones. When my wife told me that she was unhappy in our marriage, I naturally felt sorrow and pain. This pain was unavoidable. It was when I wallowed in my desire for things to be different than they were or when I chose to try to avoid the reality of my situation through heavy drinking that I really experienced dukkha. When I reached the point of being able to be mindful of my grief, and accept it, that was when I began to see my suffering diminish somewhat.

The Things That Happen (and the Stories We Tell About Those Things)

Another form that dukkha takes – probably my personal poison of choice – is through the stories that we build on top of our lived experiences. The unpleasant experience that we have had just isn’t bad enough, so we pile onto it with self-recriminations, self-pity, and various other forms of self-torture.

Personally, I have long specialized in a form of this that involves feelings of guilt and shame. I do or say something that I regret, and then proceed to replay the incident in my head over and over, telling myself what a fuck up I am, or that I’m a bad person. I have generally liked to mix in obsessions about what other people are thinking about me, despite the fact that nobody is spending as much time thinking about me as I am.

There are a number of different ways that these mental formations can manifest themselves. Thoughts of anxiety, inadequacy, and judgment all add suffering to our daily lives. We relive uncomfortable events that are sometimes years in the past, or build out anxiety laden scenarios set in the future.

As we practice mindfulness, we can learn to recognize these mental formations for what they are, mere illusions created by our minds. Through that recognition, we can learn to observe the arising of the thoughts, let them play out and pass away, rather than giving them energy to run on a constant loop.

reaching out
Photo freely given by David Monje on Unsplash

You Just Keep Me Hangin’ On

Sometimes our suffering isn’t produced by negative experiences, but by our relationship to pleasant ones.

Everything in and around us is constantly changing. Nothing is fixed. This can become a cause of dissatisfaction when we experience something that we like, and try to cling to that experience. I’ve written about this a little bit previously.

On some level, we know the experience won’t last, but we try to keep it going anyway, and we suffer when it goes away. Not only that, we generally don’t actually enjoy the experience as much while we are in it, because we are so stressed out about the prospect of it disappearing.

This expression of dukkha can show in both insignificant and more meaningful situations. Sometimes it might be something as mundane as enjoying the warmth of the sun on a fall day, then becoming frustrated when clouds move in. Other situations might be more impactful, such as being in the middle of the euphoria of a romantic relationship, only to suffer as you watch that relationship come to an end.

If we can learn to be present in these situations, we can enjoy them while they last, without clinging to them as they pass away. I can say from personal experience that this isn’t easy, but my meditation practice has definitely helped me be more present moment-to-moment, and to cling less. It also helps me to be aware of the suffering that I experience when I do cling, and to pull out of the nose dive more quickly when I do indulge that clinging.

This is Dukkha

Although I am still very much a baby meditator and mindfulness practitioner, I have seen that there is a path out of the suffering that we experience every day. The most important step for me has been learning to identify dukkha as early as possible. Although I have joked about it, that moment of saying, “this is dukkha” is the important one. Recognizing that we have moved beyond the normal pain of an experience, and have entered into clinging, aversion, or harmful story telling; that is the moment when we have the ability to respond skillfully, rather than simply reacting mindlessly.

Practicing mindfulness helps us to be more aware of our internal temperature. We can see when we are starting to feel things going sideways with our disposition and can examine what is going on. Are we desiring something we don’t have or experiencing something we don’t want? Are we clinging to something that is going away? Are we creating movies in our head that are exacerbating an unpleasant situation? Once we’ve recognized the situation, we can accept things for what they really are and let go of the mental baggage that we are bringing into our experience.

This is all part of a growth process. I am more often able to recognize when I am causing myself unnecessary suffering than I was when I started on this journey, but I still find myself often succumbing to it. The more time I spend practicing the Dharma, the more skillful I become. The important thing is to keep practicing, and when I experience periods that feel like failure, accept those as a part of the path and begin again.

All of Life is My Practice

Things are going really well. I’m feeling fully present in the moment, mindful of physical sensations, my thoughts, and my feelings. I am calm, and I feel a wonderful sense of focus. Then the bell sounds on my Insight Timer app, signaling the end of my time on the cushion, and the beginning of the real work.

It took me a while after beginning my meditation practice to realize that I couldn’t really compartmentalize my daily life from my practice. I still lose sight of this truth frequently. I had a pretty rough weekend last weekend, filled with a relapse of some bad mental habits that I had generally seen diminishing over the last year. I really let my monkey mind go wild for several days in a row. I have been dealing with the chaos of some fairly major life changes recently, and although I have been staying consistent with my seated meditation practice every day, I have let a lot of the supporting mindfulness activities that I’ve been practicing slip. The results were several days of wall-to-wall mental proliferation, the likes of which I haven’t seen in a couple of years. Let me tell you, it didn’t make for a very pleasant experience.

plastic monkeys
Photo freely given by Park Troopers on Unsplash

Although I was somewhat aware of what I was doing during my weekend dukkha-fest, at no point was I truly mindful. I watched my mind pinball around, hurtling from one anxiety to another. All the time I kept telling myself that I needed to be mindful, but never worked up the intention to actually practice mindfulness. It wasn’t until Monday morning that I woke up and realized, “you’ve been driving yourself crazy all weekend, and it’s time to stop.” Monday was still a little rough, but I consciously focused on being present throughout the day. I would catch the monkey starting to get a little rowdy, and I’d turn my attention to it, watch what it was doing and be mindful not to feed it. Several times I watched as my anxious thoughts arose, noting that “this is insecurity” or “this is anxiety”, than observe as they slowly played out their half-life and passed by.

I have had more times of struggling with my emotions and anxiety throughout the week, but I have also had some really nice moments of awareness. The important change for me has been to purposefully bring my practice off of the cushion again. Our time on the cushion is training to strengthen the muscles that we use in the real practice, which is our lives. Just sitting will not get you anywhere in the liberation game if you allow the work to stop there. It’s out in the world where we find the real opportunity to experience freedom from our suffering. All of our life is our practice.

Something Different

I sit on my bed, staring off into space, listening to the sound of the seconds tick away on the clock. I am supposed to be writing, but at the moment, I am thinking about how I’ve never owned a clock that actually ticked before, and wondering why I have chosen to have one now. My street is strangely quiet, with just an occasional barking dog or tweeting bird breaking the silence. 

I wish my windows let in more direct sunlight. I’m afraid that my one houseplant is going to die from a lack of sun. It’s a begonia that I planted from clippings taken from one of my grandmother’s ancient plants she had when she was still alive. I feel like letting this plant die would somehow be like letting my grandmother die again. She put so much of herself into her plants, and now I’m watching as one of her last remaining progeny slowly wilts under my unskilled efforts.

Writing.., right. What am I going to write about? I have a list of topics to work on for my blog, but I seem to be blocked every time I start to work on one of them. I’m not feeling in the best headspace for writing about meditation right now. I’ve been practicing every day, but I have been pretty distracted. I also haven’t been sleeping very well, so there’s that. I just have to plant my butt in my chair and sit until some words start flowing onto the page.

Photo freely given by Florian Klauer on Unsplash

Man, she has an amazing smile. She looked incredible in that dress the other night too.

Ahem. Writing. Writing. Writing. I need to write something. Maybe I should just start writing random words and see what happens. Geranium, motorcycle, onomatopoeia, Montgomery…

I’m going to check Twitter real quick. I’m tweeting about my creative block. Pretty soon one of my Twitter connections suggests I try edibles. It’s 9:30 in the morning. I don’t know if edibles right now would really be a recipe for success for me. I don’t really partake in cannabis that often, so the effects are always a bit hard for me to predict. I could either become super productive and get a lot done, or I could grab a bag of chips and some salsa and get absolutely nothing done.

Now I’m starting to hear some activity outside. It’s Sunday, so the restaurants next door to me are generally pretty busy for brunch service. A women is cackling like a bird from one of the nearby patios. She seems to be having a good time, based on the frequency and volume of her laugh. Man, she is really going at it. I don’t know that I’ve ever laughed as much as she is.

I close my eyes and take a deep breath in, and then a deep breath out. I open my eyes and place my fingers on the keyboard. I stare at my screen. I look down at my phone. “No!” I admonish myself, “You are not here to send text messages or tweet, you are here to write.”

Photo freely given by Michelle Tsang on Unsplash

I pick up my phone. I scroll for a minute, then turn off the phone and return to my computer. I look up at the tree outside. The wind is blowing a little, making the leaves sway like I do when I’m listening to music while on edibles. Maybe I should go to the shop and get some edibles. I haven’t had one in a while. Who knows, maybe it would inspire me.

Seriously, I have to focus on writing. I go back to my notes to see if I can find anything that I could be working on right now. I want to get three posts out this week, but at this point it would be nice to even get one done. Let’s see, I could do the one about compassion and confrontation. Or, I could try my hand at the clever title involving a papancha pun. That’s some inside baseball shit that I don’t think I have fleshed out enough to work on yet. There has to be something here.

A group of birds are singing and fluttering around outside my window. It won’t be much longer before fall weather hits in full force, so I hope that they are enjoying the last gasps of sunshine and warm temperatures. I’ve already started to see a few early adopter trees getting ahead of the game and starting to shed their leaves. It seems a little agro to be dropping leaves right now, like the trees are purposefully trying to rub it in our faces that summer is over. I know, it’s a great demonstration of impermanence and everything, but come on.

I shake my head a little and look back at my computer screen. My hands are starting to tingle a little bit from having been resting on the keyboard in the same position for two long. I stretch out my fingers, pop a couple of knuckles, and replace my hands on the keys, ready for action. When I think about it, this whole process has been kind of like meditation. I focus on writing, then I get distracted over and over again, but I keep coming back to my writing. Okay, nice try with the simile there, but it’s a bit of a stretch, don’t you think? Well, I’m not writing anything else right now, so I might as well write about that. Maybe it will at least get the juices flowing. Who knows, maybe I’ll post it. 

Then I can go get some edibles. 

Changing My Relationship With My Mind

I am not my thoughts. It might sound dramatic, but this simple combination of words might have saved my life.

There is a voice that speaks to each of us from within our own minds. This voice speaks with authority and certainty, often building superficial edifices atop the foundations of our lived experience. These stories that the voice crafts can take on a variety of tenors, but for many of us, they tend toward rumination on our inadequacies and mistakes. This is the voice of our inner critic, and for most of my life I have believed that this voice was me.

Early in my life I was taught to neatly divide the world into dualistic categories. Things were either right or wrong; righteous or sinful. I first noticed my inner critic as the voice that would let me know what a worthless sinner I was. “Man, you are a horrible person,” the voice would tell me. “I can’t believe you are thinking about that.” My inner critic extended beyond my moral failings, however. The voice would churn over whether something I had said had caused someone to dislike me. It would criticize me for my appearance, and for not being “cool” enough. It even paralyzed me from taking certain positive actions, because I would craft some long chain of events that my action could set into motion.

There have been a couple of times in my life when my relationship with this voice has taken me into a dark place. Once, in my early 20s, I was struggling with loneliness and some really difficult circumstances, including a brief period of homelessness. Into the void in which I felt trapped came the voice, telling me that I was a fuck up who had ruined his life, and that I would never escape from this hole. It told me that all of my friends had left me because they couldn’t stand to be around me anymore. I believed every word that the voice spoke to me. Thankfully, things did get better, and I came out of the experience without harming myself too much.

A couple of years ago, when I first started having real problems in my marriage, the voice took me to a dark place again. I had built so much of my identity on this relationship, that I began to lose myself when things began to crumble. The voice began to tell me that I was going to live the rest of my life alone. It told me that I wasn’t worthy of anyone’s love. I heard the phrase, “I hate myself,” repeated on a nearly constant loop. This time, I began to think that everyone’s life would be better without me in it. Again, I believed every word that this voice spoke to me.

This was my state of mind when I first discovered meditation. I want to be clear from the beginning, I don’t believe that meditation is a panacea that will solve all your problems. The truth is that I should have pursued help during this period of my life. I wallowed in this state for nearly a year, when I probably could have eased some of my suffering by going into therapy, or at very least opening up to some of the people around me. That being said, one of the first things that I learned as I began to meditate did completely change my life. In fact, given the trajectory that I was on, it might very well have saved my life. 

When I first heard the phrase “you are not your thoughts,” I felt like I had come into shelter from standing in the middle of a tornado. I broke down in tears. The realization that this voice that had plagued me my entire life was just a thought, and that I could just acknowledge its presence and watch the words fade away without accepting them as truth, was liberating in a way that I had never experienced. I didn’t create these thoughts, they just sort of happened to me. Why did I take ownership of them? Why did I believe these thoughts?

I began to practice noticing when the voice started to speak to me. I worked on not trying to fight the voice, but just to notice it, watching it live out its half-life and slowly fade away. By not pushing it away or latching onto it, I noticed that the voice seemed to lose a lot of its power over time. The thoughts didn’t completely go away, but I didn’t feel owned by them as often. 

Whenever people ask me about how meditation has benefitted me, it can be hard to know what changes to attribute to my practice. My life has changed in a lot of positive ways over the last couple of years, but I don’t think I can specifically pinpoint what things have caused my growth in different areas. I have read a number of really great books from a variety of perspectives that have informed my thoughts recently. I’m also just a little older and have benefited from lessons that experience has taught me. The one thing that I can definitely attribute to meditation, however, is the relationship that I have with my inner critic. The ability to less frequently attach to this voice has helped me be more compassionate with myself. I don’t really catch myself descending the downward spiral like I used to. When I do start to listen to that voice berating me, I tend to catch myself before I get too far along the path of self-judgement and recrimination.

The Practice

I am not an expert on meditation, so this is just me sharing what my personal experience has been. This is the basic practice that helped me initially. I’m happy to discuss this further with anyone, so please feel free to comment below, email or tweet me if you have questions or comments.

I have found that having a regular meditation practice is a key component to strengthening the ability to notice the thoughts as they arise. The basic concentration practice that I used was simply to focus on the feeling of the breath going in an out. I start of with a soft mental note of “in” on the in breath, and “out” on the out breath. Eventually (sometimes within a single breath, sometimes longer), you will become distracted by a thought popping into your head. This might take the form of thinking about a situation at work, fantasizing about that person you have been thinking about asking out, or thinking about how uncomfortable you are on your cushion; it can be any of the countless thoughts that come into our minds throughout the day. When you notice that the thought has arisen, note it softly as, “thinking.” Then return your focus to the feeling of your breath. Repeat as often as necessary. No need to judge yourself or get frustrated. This is how meditation works for all of us, so no reason to beat yourself up, no matter how often you get distracted.

After establishing this practice, I started to apply the same technique off of the cushion. Throughout the day I might notice that my inner critic has made an appearance. When I noticed that old voice chiming in again, I just noted that I was “thinking,” took a beat to watch the thoughts play out and disappear, and then moved on with my life.

My hope is that my experience can help someone else who might be experiencing the same thing I did. May you have peace and live with ease!

31 Day Precept Project Wrap-up

This month didn’t exactly go according to script (whatever that means,) so I didn’t end up posting very often about my month-long project of focusing more intensely on the Five Precepts. To be honest, I wasn’t as active in examining some of the precepts as I had intended to be either. My practice turned out to be a little more focused on some stuff that I had going on in my personal life, so some of the energy that I had originally planned to spend on this project got somewhat diverted. That being said, I did want to do a wrap-up on the project, and what I will be taking away from the experience.

First Precept

The First Precept is focused on abstaining from killing, and I chose to adopt a vegan lifestyle as a part of my work with this precept. There were some accidental lapses in this effort early in the month, but I managed to be more consistent after the first week or so. I found that taking this step felt really good. I experienced a lot of joy in knowing that I was eating in a way that caused less suffering and did less damage to our planet than I have at various points in my life. In regard to my practice, I can say that adhering to this commitment generated more mindfulness about the choices that I made in regard to my diet. I intend to continue to eat in a similar way, but have decided to ditch the label of vegan. I haven’t felt that it was useful to build this layer of identity on my food and other purchasing choices. I will eat a plant based diet and prioritize purchasing goods that involve as little suffering as possible, but I don’t think I need the vegan label.

Second Precept

This was one of the Precepts that didn’t get as much focus as I had planned on. I did spend some time working with it, especially in regard to thinking of less obvious ways that we take what isn’t freely given in our everyday life. I found that I could include diet in this Precept as well, as it seems pretty clear that animals are not freely giving us milk, cheese, honey, etc. I also considered the fact that there are several ways that sexuality can be tied into this Precept. The #metoo movement demonstrated the long history in our culture of women having their agency, dignity, and emotional and physical safety taken by men.

Although I spent a little time working with this one, I feel like I would like to continue to dig deeper.

Third Precept

The Precept involving sexual misconduct was another one that didn’t get as much attention as I had planned. Other than thinking about how this also tied into the Second Precept, I didn’t really make it much further than I had in my original post about it. This is definitely one that I feel needs to be explored by all of us, given what has been going on in the world. I plan to spend more time working with this Precept as well.

Fourth Precept

The tough one – abstaining from false and malicious speech. This one was a bit of a mixed bag. I did actually spend some time working with this Precept throughout the month. It’s a difficult one to undertake, but is also one of the most accessible, due to the fact that we all speak quite a bit everyday.

Over the last month, I’ve observed how much I talk about other people. I haven’t ever really considered myself to be a gossip or someone who talks about other people behind their back, but in watching my speech more closely, I noticed that I do actually talk about others quite a bit. Sometimes it’s joining in a conversation about someone, and sometimes I initiate it. This is especially problematic in cases where it involves people I work with. I manage a team of people, and I realized that even off-handed comments about my staff can be damaging. I am beginning to more often take a moment before speaking to examine whether what I am about to say is appropriate, but I know this will be a longterm project.

Fifth Precept

I probably spent more time working with the Fifth Precept than any other. This Precept involves abstaining from intoxicants. From a surface perspective, I did not drink or use marijuana during the last month. This was actually a powerful experience, especially as I was dealing with some difficult emotions. I found that removing the option to numb myself with substances greatly impacted how present I was with my emotions. Additionally, I slept better and felt more clear headed, which made my morning meditation a much more focused experience.

I also explored the idea of using my meditation practice as an intoxicant, and practiced mindfulness in this area. I also recognized early on that I can often use technology as an intoxicant by spending hours watching Netflix or playing video games, as well as by allowing myself to get sucked into mindlessly scrolling through Twitter or Instagram. I actually found staying away from alcohol to be far easier than remaining mindful with my social media use.

I have decided that I intend to keep my use of alcohol and marijuana to a minimum moving forward, although I am not completely eliminating them at this point. I plan to only drink when I am with other people, and to limit myself to one or two drinks in those situations. I want to keep a close eye on this, however, to see how this fits on me. If even small amounts of drinking are going to inhibit my practice, I don’t find that a worthwhile trade.

I don’t consider the end of this project to really be an end at all. I plan to continue to explore and practice with all five of the Precepts, but in a more organic way. I feel like this project was a good way for me to launch a more serious practice in this area, and I can honestly say that I experienced a great deal of insight over the last month. I look forward to continuing to follow this path and seeing where it leads.

Feeling Gratitude For Suffering

A couple of weeks ago there was a video that was making the rounds on social media from an interview that Anderson Cooper did with Stephen Colbert on CNN. The video was one of the most genuine human interactions that I’ve ever seen on television. Both Cooper and Colbert have had to deal with a lot of pain during their lifetimes, stemming from loss that they suffered when they were young. I was moved to tears as I listened to these two men discuss grief and suffering.

In the video (which I have posted above and recommend you watch,) Anderson Cooper asks Colbert about a quote from a previous interview, in which he said that he had, “learned to love the thing that I most wish had not happened…,” and went on to say, “what punishment of gods are not gifts.” When asked if he really believed that, Colbert answered that he did, and beautifully stated why. “It’s a gift to exist and with existence comes suffering. There’s no escaping that.”

I have had an (almost) daily practice of journaling for a little while now, which I always begin with listing three things that I am grateful for. It feels weird to list a painful experience on a gratitude list, but part of the practice is to increase the scope of our awareness of what we can feel grateful for. One of the things that really stood out to me in the Colbert interview was when he said, “If you are grateful for your life…, you have to be grateful for all of it.” It doesn’t mean that we have to want those things to happen, but it is worth contemplating that it is only by an extraordinarily improbable and fortunate accident that we even exist at all, and a part of that gift of existence is suffering.

Photo freely given by JORGE LOPEZ on Unsplash

There are two specific aspects of this idea of gratitude for our suffering that I have been thinking about recently. One of them is compassion and empathy. Our suffering can add a layer of understanding of what other people are going through. When we are willing and able to discuss our suffering, it can also create a safe place for others to open up about what they are going through. Stephen Colbert puts this really well in the interview –

“What do you get from loss? You get awareness of other people’s loss, which allows you to connect with that other person, which allows you to love more deeply and to understand what it’s like to be a human being if it’s true that all humans suffer.”

Stephen Colbert

The second aspect of gratitude for suffering that has been on my mind is the growth that our suffering can bring about. Although I wouldn’t put my experience on the same level as the trauma that Stephen Colbert and Anderson Cooper are discussing, I have experienced suffering from the loss of my marriage over the last couple of years. As painful as that experience has been, the last year has been the most productive period of growth in my life. I can honestly say that I would not have experienced that growth without the suffering that I endured. My experience lead me to examine my life and to seek insight into what had happened and how I could skillfully deal with my pain.

The act of gratitude toward those experiences that are painful is counterintuitive, and it isn’t easy, especially before we have had time to put some distance between ourselves and the source of our pain. It is, however, a practice of tremendous love toward ourselves and toward others. We acknowledge the miracle of our existence, and the gift of everything that comes with it. We free ourselves to move forward in acceptance. We make ourselves available to serve other people, all of whom share in the suffering inherent in being human.

Practicing the Second Precept Through Veganism

When I first set out to spend the month of August delving more deeply into the Five Precepts of Buddhism, I had associated adopting a vegan lifestyle as being primarily about working with the First Precept, which has to do with abstaining from killing any living being. As I’ve spent the month examining the Precepts, I have begun to see that other precepts might also argue for a vegan lifestyle.

The Second Precept is a guideline that calls for abstaining from taking that which isn’t freely given. As with the other Precepts, there is a simple way to look at the Second Precept, and there is a more complex way of looking at it. A simple reading would say that this guideline is about stealing. However, if you think of all of the Precepts as being prescriptions for non-harming of ourselves and others, this guideline starts to take on more nuance. I covered some of the initial things that I was considering when I started the project in an earlier post, but I have found several other ways of practicing the Second Precept over the last month, including how it relates to my diet.

flock of chickens
Photo freely given by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

Most of you probably already know that in addition to not eating meat, vegans refrain eating any animal products, including milk, eggs, cheese, butter, and even honey. From an ethical standpoint, animals who are raised for dairy products in commercial farming environments are just as mistreated (possibly more so at times) as those who are raised for meat. You don’t have to look too hard to find videos that will show you images of cows with infected utters and the like from being hooked up to milking machines. Along the same lines, egg laying chickens on commercial farms often live in inhumane conditions, just like those raised for meat. There is little doubt that these animals are not freely subjecting themselves to this treatment. Things become a little more fuzzy when you look at animals raised in more humane environments, like many local farms. I can’t really say how the well-treated cow views being milked, but at the very least there is a question of whether that milk is really freely given.

Regardless of where my diet ends up at the end of this project, I have found a lot of value in the amount of attention that a vegan diet requires. It has made me honestly consider the impact of my diet on all living beings, including myself. I haven’t really purchased any clothes this month, but there are also things to consider in relation to this arena, beyond just avoiding leather. Regardless of whether you are vegan or not, I believe that this kind of mindfulness of our actions can lead us to make better choices, both for ourselves and for our fellow beings.

On Tyler Durden and Identification With Things

Warning – I wanted to give a heads up that this post includes a couple of f-bombs, in case anyone is offended by such things.

fight club soap

You are not your job, you’re not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You are not your fucking khakis.

Tyler Durden, Fight Club

Identities are a tricky things. The way that we identify ourselves can come from a variety of sources, from genetics and biology, to upbringing and cultural factors, to our jobs, to the identities other people foist upon us. There are countless points of origin for the various pieces that create this person that we view as ourself. I want to look at one specific aspect of this today, and that is the identity that we cultivate based on our things.

For better or for worse, one of the formative works of fiction in my early twenties was Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. I had already begun developing an interest in philosophy when I first read Fight Club, so I was immediately taken by the obvious nods toward Nietzschean nihilism. There’s a lot that I could say here about the fact that me discussing the philosophy of Fight Club in my twenties was also a vehicle for identity creation/reinforcement, but that’s a story for another day.

There are a lot of quotable lines in Fight Club, but the phrase that probably most often runs through my head to this day is, “you are not your fucking khakis.” This line is the punctuation of the longer quote above, and it’s a pretty simple distillation of one of the repeating themes of the book, that the things we own will end up owning us.

If you have read my recent posts, you know that I have been purging a lot of my possessions recently, in pursuit of a more minimalist lifestyle. There are a lot of reasons why I have chosen to do this, but one of the motivations stems from a process that began a little over a year ago, when I began studying Buddhism and started to ask myself questions about this person that I viewed myself to be.

hop tattoo

Early on in this exploration, I began to think about the identity that I was cultivating in my job and with the clothes that I wore. I manage a craft beer and wine bar, and I have always taken a lot of pride in having a carefully curated selection that included a lot of product that I actually drive across the state to procure. I would say that a lot of us take on identities based on our jobs, as they are such a large part of the way we spend our lives. I had definitely begun to build an identity based on the work that I was doing, and would always revel in the moments where people would recognize how hard I worked to bring them beer that they couldn’t get anywhere else. To further state my craft beer bone fides, I had a collection of t-shirts from all of the most hyped breweries in the northwest, and I would eat it up when someone would recognize the brewery and say something that would allow me to explain that I just tapped a keg from them that I drove 8 hours round trip to purchase. I even got a tattoo with hops flowing from a beer tap, lest there still be any doubt about what a beer guy I was.

The more time went on, the more I began to explore my attachment to this identity. Was this really who I was? Was it even really the thing that I wanted to define me? I thought about how hard I was working to maintain this identity. I reflected on how upset I got when one of my competitors got a beer in that I didn’t have, because it challenged my identity as “the guy who brings in beers nobody else has.” I was also spending a lot of time and money on the protection of this identity, which I could have been spending on things that were really more important. I realized that there was suffering and a kind of bondage in the maintenance of this identity.

This was really the contemplation that lead to my original round of minimizing. Several months ago, I went through my closet and got rid of most of my brewery shirts. It wasn’t that I thought that there was a problem with owning them, it was just that I had made the decision to stop basing my identity on this aspect of my life, and I felt like these shirts were not really serving me in this. I kept a couple of my favorite shirts, but got rid of all the rest. Not only did I find freedom in letting go of this attachment to my identity, I also found a sense of relief in the simple act of trimming my wardrobe down.

my book shelf
The tip of my book iceberg

The last couple of weeks, as I have been going through all of my things to decide what I will be taking with me in my upcoming move, I have done a major purge on my book collection. This has been the biggest project thus far in my minimalist journey. We had, literally, 100s of books. I love to read, so over the years I have accumulated a lot of them. My book purchases have covered a number of different phases, from my existentialist philosophy phase, to a brief flirtation with the idea of starting a small scale sustainable farm. As I went through the process of deciding on the handful of books that I would keep, I realized that my book collection had also served to establish an identity. I have always thought of myself as well-read, and having several bookshelves full of books confirmed that to myself, and to anyone who came into my home. Deciding to get rid of most of these books felt like a profound act of letting go. Letting go of maintaining an idea of my self, and accepting a more spacious and meaningful existence.

There is nothing wrong with owning, and even enjoying things. I still find a lot of joy in reading, and even in owning, a nice book. I just believe that we expose ourselves to a lot of unnecessary anxiety and suffering when we create an identity based on our possessions. I have found that paying attention to the relationship that we have with our things is a really important part of living a happy and meaningful life. Are we viewing our things in ways that promote satisfaction and wellbeing, or are we dependent on them to give us meaning? Our things are impermanent, and the satisfaction that they bring is even more ephemeral. Our meaning can never be truly based on such a precarious foundation. We are not our things. We are not our fucking khakis.

Speak the Dharma At All Times

I am guy who immerses himself in his passions. This can be a double edged sword. It has served me well in develop a lot of skills and interests, but it can also make me a little obtuse sometimes when I’m talking to other people. If I’m not mindful, I can rattle on endlessly about whatever I’m into, only to look up at some point and find the person I’m talking to completely checked out or doing the polite nod and smile thing. My contemplation on the Precepts this month has me thinking about this habit from a new perspective.

After my Attachment to Broken Things post earlier this week, I had a person respond to a retweet, defending their attachment to a car they had, and stating their intention to keep an old car that held some memories for them. I had a hard time deciding how to respond to this. First, it was pretty clear to me that they hadn’t actually read the post, as I never advocated getting rid of things just because they had emotional significance. My primary thought, however, was to try to talk to them about the dangers of attachment and clinging. I have personally experienced how much suffering our attachment to all of these impermanent things can cause, and I sincerely want to help other people escape suffering. I typed out and erased several responses, before finally deciding that this person was not really in the market for a Dharma lesson. In the end I just responded with the following –

After this internal wrestling match, I posted one of those tweets that is basically me workshopping my thoughts in front of the Twitterverse, and my friend Duane Toops offered a really great paraphrase of St. Francis of Assisi –

I think this is as beautiful when applied to the Dharma as it was when St. Francis applied it to the Gospel. I think that I was right in deciding that the situation I was working through was not an appropriate time for trying to hammer home a point about the Dharma. In being mindful that my words would not have been useful or timely, I believe that I was acting in keeping with the Dharma. Maybe there was a way for me to illustrate my thoughts on attachment in a skillful way, but nothing came to me that didn’t feel preachy or condescending, so refraining in that moment still seemed like the right move.

One of the ways that I have been working with the Fourth Precept, is to try to listen more and speak less. In my enthusiasm to talk about something that excites me, I have often been guilty of hearing people without listening to them. Engaging in conversation without truly listening to others makes our words self-serving and ineffectual. When we actively listen to the person across the table or screen from us, we become more aware of what words are actually useful. I have also observed an increase in feelings of compassion and empathy toward other people through more purposeful listening. We live in a time where many of us are starved for meaningful connection, which can only be found through being truly present for others.

As I mentioned in my initial Precept Project post on the Forth Precept, speech might be the most challenging Precept to practice. As with all of the precepts, the key is in being more mindful in our day to day life. Speaking the Dharma is largely done by living mindfully, and through that mindfulness we can recognize when it is also necessary to use words.

Holding Onto Broken Things

It’s Monday night, and I’m sitting on the floor of my living room taking pictures of a 1974 Gibson Les Paul Custom 20th Anniversary guitar so I can post it to sell online. I looked up the guitar and found that the color is listed as Alpine White, although I had always thought of it as more of a Vanilla Pudding Yellow. I’ve had this beautiful instrument for over 20 years, and about 15 of those years it has been little more than a heavy symbol of bitterness toward an old friend.

1974 Gibson Les Paul Custom Guitar
1974 Gibson Les Paul Custom 20th Anniversary Paperweight

It was probably about 15 years ago that I let a friend of mine borrow the guitar for a gig that he was playing at his church. This was after my time playing in punk rock bands in Denver, and during one of my many phases of contrite repentance. Both my friend and I were playing in church worship bands. I had sold my amplifier to pay for my move back home to Texas, so I was primarily playing acoustic guitar at the time. Despite the fact that it mostly just sat in its case at home, the guitar was my most prized possession. Truth be told, it was one of my only possessions of any significant value.

I still remember the phone call from my friend, telling me that he had dropped my guitar and cracked the neck. At first I thought that he was playing a prank on me, since he had actually joked about how he would make sure to use the strap locks so that this very thing wouldn’t happen. It wasn’t a joke. When I came by to look at it later, it was actually a lot worse than he had made it sound.

broken guitar neck

I immediately began to feel angry, both at myself for letting someone borrow something so precious to me, and at him for not being more careful with my guitar. He had not put on the strap locks as he was getting the guitar plugged in, and the strap had slipped from the peg, dropping with the full weight of the heavy guitar on its headstock. I didn’t lash out at him, as that wouldn’t have been the Christian thing to do, but inside I was seething.

My friend was a church worship leader, which naturally meant that he didn’t have any money. To be honest, he only gave me a passing overture of wishing he could pay me back. We had someone take a look at the guitar to see if it could be repaired, but they said that there really wasn’t much that could be done. The guitar had a solid body, so even putting on a new neck wasn’t an option. This guitar that I had loved so much was now just a twelve pound symbol of my bitterness sitting in my garage.

Over the years, I have carried this item across the country with me. I have never really known why. I have always assumed that it could never be fixed, and there really isn’t even a chance that I will get seriously into playing music again anyway. Every time I have looked at it taking up space in my garage, I have felt a tension build in my chest, and thoughts return to my mind of my old friend’s disregard for something that had been so important to me.

As I sit on the floor, listing this broken instrument for sale at a minuscule fraction of what a functional version of this guitar would bring, it strikes me that the guitar wasn’t the only broken thing that I have been holding onto. I have been holding onto the anger and bitterness that the guitar represents. In the grand scheme of life, the guitar is just a thing. It was a thing that I was attached to when I was younger, and maintaining that attachment has lead to a lot of suffering over the years. I know that it seems silly to have felt so strongly about something so small, but this is what attachment does to us. Why have I allowed this broken thing to reside in my heart?

This morning I sold the guitar, and as I did, I felt a measure of freedom come over me. I feel like I am finally disentangling myself from a burden that I have held onto for a long time. As the purchaser drives away in his silver Subaru, I wish him well, and I hope that he can figure out how to put the guitar to use in some way. May it be useful to him, and as silly as it sounds, I hope that the guitar finds a new purpose as well. Above all, may I continue to free myself from the tyranny of broken things.

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