Friday, March 26, 2010

Getting Out Of "Getting Into It"

The last few days, I've found myself fully involved in a protracted squabble with an assortment of online friends about the merits (or lack thereof), of the Health Care Bill that passed this week.

I have taken the less-than-popular stance that the bill does more harm than good, and is worse than having done nothing (don't worry, I'm not becoming a right-wing extremist; I favor a more progressive solution than this one).

In the last week or so, I have devoted countless hours to this back-and-forth skirmish of ideas. 95% of the discourse was respectful, though there were a few heated moments when that respect waned a bit.

After all that discussion, I haven't changed my opinion, and I begrudgingly admit that I probably haven't persuaded anyone else to change theirs (though my arguments were so clever and persuasive, don'tcha know?). I don’t bring this up because I want to continue the argument here (please, let’s not!), but rather because I want to explore my inclination to engage in argument.

Jonathan Field's recent blog post "Provoking Fights and Revealing Your Dark Side" got me thinking about my propensity for conflict, even though - as Jonathan points out - it can sometimes cause that knot in the pit of your stomach to tighten. Jonathan also mentioned how draining these heated arguments can be.

I've always enjoyed a good political discussion. Yesterday, I got into it with my neighbor, who loves Sarah Palin and Sean Hannity, and condemns the health care bill because he thinks it favors lazy people on the dole. Yesterday, he admitted he is enjoying a comfortable retirement thanks to his Social Security, VA pension and VA health care. I told him that he needed to rush to the VA hospital and get a wheelchair because he doesn't have a leg to stand on. It was a satisfying quip, but my neighbor didn't change his opinion because if it.

The problem is: lately, I've been searching out - and engaging in - these confrontational discussions more frequently than ever. After some self-examination, I've come to a few conclusions:

1) A possible explanation: I always get a little edgier at this time of year. Spring is almost here and I'm anxious for the warm weather to stay, but the alternating periods of mild and cold leave me more testy than usual. Don't worry, I'm not going to blame my behavior solely on the weather - it's probably the least of the contributing factors here.

2) A more likely explanation: My plate isn't piled high with work these days. I am lucky to have enough work to take care of my needs, but during the last 18 months, I rarely work a long day that leaves me weary, yet satisfied as a result of a job well done. I miss those busy yet productive days, and I notice that these online arguments provide me that same feeling, even though I know on some level that it's a ruse. I could have worn myself out doing something that would have been much more productive in the longrun besides "Face-debating".

3) An even more likely, but less-comfortable-to-face explanation: It is so much easier – and a lot less risky or scary – to gripe about problems rather than create and implement solutions. Yes, the health care bill directly affects me, but I have very little control over it. Squabbling about it helps me avoid working on local, personal solutions that could have a greater impact on my life.

4) A universal explanation: Arguing is drama! It’s exciting! Sometimes, I choose the knot in my stomach (AKA drama), over boredom.  Boredom (AKA peace), is a tough state for we humans to tolerate for long stretches because it's - well - boring! That's why the most popular shows on TV have nothing to do with peaceful abiding - they're all about conflict and drama. We often say we yearn for more peace and contentment - until we get bored, and then the impulse to shake things up rears its head.


I know my tendency to enjoy a good argument will never completely disappear. However, I'm learning to be mindful of the proportion of time I devote to arguing vs being productive or peaceful. When the conflict gets to be too much, as it did this last week, I know something is out of balance, and I need to find ways to get back in balance.

There will always be ideas and actions I disagree with – whether generated by the lawmakers in Washington or my conservative neighbor. I may feel powerless to change these things, but I do have the power to choose whether to argue or engage in some more peaceful endeavor.

Criticism is pointless unless it leads to a solution. That's why this quote by George Bernard Shaw is at the bottom of every email I send out (I put it there more to remind myself than to share with others!): "Some men see things as they are and say, 'Why?' I dream of things that never were and say, 'Why not?'" Finding time to find the answer to questions like "Why not?" will only happen when I let go of the drama. I'm learning that when my criticisms exceed my pursuit of solutions, I'm once again out of balance and need to find equilibrium.

Sure, there will still be time for spirited discussion, but I also need to devote plenty of time to activities like watching the hickory tree bloom, finding out what Rebecca learned at school today, kissing the back of Beth's neck when she least expects it, – in short, replacing contentious moments with more moments filled with contentment and peace.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Meditation: Clearing the Murk

If you've been reading my blog, you know the last couple of years have brought some dramatic changes my way. During this time, I have been searching for the answer to the question "what do I do next?"

So far, I haven't found that answer, and every time I search, my brain feels as murky as an algae-choked lake. The fact that I haven't yet found the clarity I seek has led to frustration, because I am eager to get on with the next phase of my life.

I had tried meditation many times in the past, but hadn't been able to stick with it. That changed in January when I discovered the Winter Feast For The Soul. During the Winter Feast, participants are asked to commit to 40 minutes of meditation for 40 days, which for 2010 began on January 15th.

The Winter Feast provides daily online guided meditations that I found invaluable. I chose the Insight Meditation series offered by Philip Jones. Each day included a 10-15 minute talk about Insight Meditation, followed by a 20-minute period of silent meditation. Though the 40-day Winter Feast has concluded, Philip Jones' series is still available on (where it will remain for one year). Philip also continues to offer a weekly talk and meditation at the same location.

It was the impetus I needed. I made the commitment, hoping I would be able to stick with it this time. I'm proud to say that with the exception of one very long and busy day (when I was a judge at my daughter's Odyssey of the Mind tournament), I have meditated every day since.

Often in my life, I focused my energies on challenging and improving the external problems we face in the world. Conversely, most meditation practices are based on the philosophy that the most effective way to change the world is to begin by changing within. This makes perfect sense to me - how often have we heard the phrase, "You can't change others - you can only change yourself."?

Another thing I've learned from my own journey of personal growth is to celebrate the improvements while acknowledging that I still have a long way to go. Meditation is helping me continue on this path.

I didn't know what to expect once I started meditating regularly, but I hoped for increased inner peace, happiness, and a better sense of clarity and direction. I know better than to expect results within some random, predetermined amount of time. I am learning to accept my rate or progress - both my triumphs and stumbles - without judgement.

I am learning to be more mindful, not only when I meditate, but also during my daily life. The changes are subtle and gradual. On the positive side, I find myself enjoying brief moments when I am more aware and accepting of the present moment, which can be liberating and joyful.

I also discovered that the practice of meditation - as with any similar discipline - is littered with speed bumps, hurtles and even roadblocks!

Lately, quite a bit of anger, resentment and discontent have bubbled up to my field of awareness. Some of these feelings originate from situations I thought I had already confronted and released - apparently not!

I caught myself replaying scenarios in my head - everything from old disappointments, resentments and failed relationships, to my recent financial downfall. All of these old stories renewed my agitation - not exactly the lake of clarity, tranquility and happiness I sought!

I think these feelings are re-emerging because the daily practice of meditation is helping me become more aware of the parade of thoughts that march through my head at any given moment. Previously, it was all background noise. I didn't pay much attention to the thoughts as they went by, and I seldom remembered them. But I know that this subterfuge of negativity (or "unskillful thoughts", as they are described in Insight Meditation), had to be affecting my "conscious" behavior.

Lately, I catch myself in negative thought - and behavior - all too often. At a dinner party last Saturday night, I became aware that my conversation consisted primarly of griping about the status quo and telling harrowing stories that I hoped would impress fellow party-goers. I caught myself doing it, but to my dismay, I couldn't stop.

It's not pleasant to face, but I am becoming acutely aware that I am still far more narcissistic than I care to be. I don't listen to others as much as I would like, and I rarely rise above my internal stream of negative chatter long enough to allow for a give-and-take of more positive ideas that might bring more peace and joy into our lives.

Needless to say, I initially found all these revelations about myself very discouraging. But then, I remembered something from when I first learned to play the fiddle.

When I began to play Appalachian fiddle, I quickly discovered that listening to as much fiddle music as I could get my hands on was just as important to my development as actually playing the fiddle. I not only needed to train my hands and fingers to move the bow and note the strings precisely; I also needed to train my ear to hear the fine details within the music.

On a few occasions, my ear progressed more quickly than did my technique. When this leapfrogging occurred, I was suddenly able to hear glaring mistakes in my playing that I couldn't detect previously. At first, I perceived that my playing was getting worse, and became very discouraged. Then I realized that it wasn't that my playing had worsened, but rather that my hearing had improved.

That led to an important insight: "Hey, now I can hear some of the mistakes that I previously didn't even know I was making. If I can hear them, I can fix them!"

I think that's the stage I'm at with my meditation, which gives me hope. If I'm more attuned to the stream of negative - or "unskillful" - thoughts in my head, I'm in a much better position to attend to them - and eventually, release them.

If I can release the toxic sludge of fear, frustration and insecurity from my stream of thoughts, I can make room for more skillful thoughts that embrace insight, creativity, peace, acceptance, connection and happiness.

I'm not "there" yet. Fortunately, meditation is also teaching me that I won't get "there" until I replace the question "What do I do next?" with "What do I do now?"

Right now, in this moment, I choose to examine the ugly obstacles currently in my way, because they provide the insights I need to see today.

With each passing day, the lake gets a little less murky.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Time is Wealth

Though bleak, Bageant's article also contains an implied upside: history provides a valuable wake-up call for us all if we dare to heed it. Still, Bageant's article lacks any solution that might help us supersede centuries of economic repression.

What struck me is Bageant's claim that no matter how much we yearn to shed the confinement of material possessions, none of us want to be part of what he calls the "We don't own shit society".

I'm the first to admit, the thought of being a "have-not" often makes my stomach a "have-knot". But today, I ask the question: "What is so awful about not owning a bunch of stuff?"

I am beginning to see a glimmer of a kind of freedom that I could enjoy independent of material things.  The only way to obtain this freedom is to shed the mindset that says, "If I don't have impressive possessions, nobody will take me seriously, nobody will think I'm a success, nobody will perceive me as valuable, nobody will be my friend, etc., ad nauseam."

That  mindset - the limiting, middle class mindset that neurotically asks "what will the neighbors think?" -  is the main obstacle that initially prevented me from acknowledging - and enjoying - the benefits of my new lifestyle. 

As my bankruptcy proceeding nears completion, I find myself asking, "What will my personal recovery look like?" At first, I pictured it as a reacquisition of all those material goods I lost: a spacious, stylish home, a deck surrounded by trees, matching dinner plates, a late-model car, vacations, electronic devices.

Sure, I'd love to have all those things again. But a new question has invaded my internal discourse: "What will the reclamation of all that stuff cost me?

Artist Willem de Kooning once said, "The trouble with being poor is that it takes up all your time." I have lost a home and have had to tighten my belt dramatically. I eat a lot more rice and a lot less meat. I only shop for necessities, and even those must be bargains. I may have lost all the trappings of a middle-class lifestyle, but oddly enough, I don't consider myself to be poor. There's one significant perk I have gained during the downturn: the luxury of time.

When my graphic design business was at its most successful, I worked 70-80 hours a week. I was on a first-name basis with the nice people who cleaned my office at 1 a.m. I had bought into to the system so completely that I wore my workaholic lifestyle like a badge of honor. I was constantly stressed, I ate poorly, and worst of all, I felt guilty if I took time off to try and enjoy myself. 

25 years ago, I equated spare time with not earning, and not earning with failure. What the hell was I thinking?

Today, I enjoy every moment of spare time my new lifestyle affords. I linger outdoors in the middle of a mild day, sitting in the sun and listening to the birds. I like being able to write a blog post or pick up my fiddle when the mood overtakes me. I have ample time to spend with my family - my precious girls Beth and Rebecca. I meditate every day. I breathe slowly and calmly. If rebuilding my financial life means sacrificing these things, forget it.

Everyone has heard the saying "Time is money". I'm beginning to appreciate an alternative quote attributed to a Surry County, NC musician named Paul Sutphin: "Time is music". 

Appreciating the extra time I can now afford has transformed the rhythm of my lifestyle into one that supports my health and happiness. I'm still working out the kinks, but on the good days, I find balance - buoyant, blissful balance. That's music to my ears!

It doesn't mean I've given up on regaining some of what I've lost. Hopefully, I will. But if I do increase my level of material prosperity, I pledge that it won't be at the expense of my newly-found treasures, balance and time.

My revised definition of freedom entails 1) releasing any material wealth that no longer serves me and 2) not giving two fucks about appearances. I use strong words because I think it'll take a fair amount of belligerent defiance on my part to live this declaration.

It's time to embrace only what works for me, and if my lifestyle appears odd or disheveled to those looking in, so be it. If need be, I'm perfectly content to be the guy wearing second-hand clothes with a big smile on his face.

16th-century English metaphysical poet and clergyman George Herbert once said, "Living well is the best revenge". I think Herbert understood the opulence of spare time and the catharsis of self acceptance.