Much of my writing here thus far has been of the lament/angst/ennui/maladaption sort. When I prepared for my first meeting for evaluation, I had to fill out a long form about my health and personal history. One of the first questions asked what I hoped to accomplish as a result of my visit.
I’ve been thinking today about what I imagine a more adaptive, less frustrating life must look like. In my teens and twenties I spent a lot of time thinking about the golden era to come when I would figure everything out, find my thing, get my groove on, and arrive at my real life. I imagined in order for this to happen, I would need to be married, have a house, have a career, a nice computer, a stylish-yet-practical car. I have all those things, though not exactly the career I imagined, and don’t feel terribly different.
What I do want is clean energy of the mental sort.
I trust myself most completely in a clean energy state. This is a state where I think clearly, I do things that at my core feel important and the right thing to do. I don’t do things because I think my colleagues, my teachers, my parents, liberals, Marxists, students, a cool writer I just read, or poetry editors think I should. They come from a place of positive energy, not grasping, cover-my-ass, make everyone happy, worrisome place.
I grew up being a people pleaser and often feeling conflicted. I wanted to make my parents and teachers happy and at the same time have a lot of cool friends. That’s a fundamental conflict. To paraphrase P.T. Barnum, you can’t please all the people all of the time.
Conflictedness is a symptom of my “gift” of seeing things from many angles at once. Thinking about the most basic decision about my teaching, for example, can produce anxiety. Do I do what students want? What I think is best for students? What I think I can do without too much procrastination and worry? What the promotion committee will find attractive? Some new-fangled idea that’s stimulating my need for novelty? When you have awareness of other people’s reactions constantly and want to be liked, it is hard to do something unpopular. When you work in higher education, someone will always criticize you for your work.
I think most of the time, I make such decisions in order to avoid failing and avoid criticism; I am worried about my image.
Likewise, when I write, I often feel that conflictedness. My students are driven crazy sometimes by the conflicting advice they’ve heard about writing. Writing is so subjective, especially poetry, that I can hardly put a line together without imagining what three different teachers/writers/editors I’ve worked with would say to criticize it.
And the whole idea of creation, that whole Romantic “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” thing that we have Wordsworth to thank for, relies on the welling up of emotion to overcome inhibition of expression that seems a recipe for unhealthy mind, especially if you’re the inhibited sort. I’ve written from that place many times before, and it is exhausting working myself up into that state in order to write (not exactly “spontaneous” if I have to work at it, right?).
Last night, for example, I got into a state fueled by stress, lack of sleep, and extra caffeine and Excedrin and became convinced that the way forward was to write an epic poem about the holographic principle set in virtual reality. I still think it’s a pretty cool idea, but yesterday I was ready to devote the next year to writing it.
Better writing, and better thinking, come from a more clear-headed place. The messy unconscious does have it’s place, but I’m interested in cutting out the vain, self-conscious, and ultimately self-loathing streak from my process. It’s true that a little bit of self-questioning prevents one from being arrogant, but I’m off balance.
This morning I feel a bit more calm. I had a relaxing morning. Sent the kids to school, slept a little bit, and sat for meditation. I arrived at my clean energy state. I feel calm and focused, not mind-reeling, gonna spend three hours teaching myself about quantum mechanics while playing chess and drinking three Cokes kind of of energy. Clean energy allows me to both keep the long view in perspective, not worry needlessly about my classes coming up this afternoon, and just to work on what’s most important, maybe while humming a tune.
It’s an elusive state, however. It feels great once I’m here, but habit sends me worrying, sets my jaw to clenching, starts me on the path to either working frenetically or frenetically avoiding work, sets the negative self-talk in motion (“you should have done this earlier, why can’t you just do what you’re supposed to do, why can’t you just be a normal grown-up . . .”).
The opposing force of this clean energy, then, is mania, allowing my intellectual cravings and emotional grasping full rein over the day’s events. It’s not clean energy because I feel somewhat dirty after the fact, somewhat used up and diminished, slightly embarrassed for having let my monkey mind rule the roost. I’m not advocating a sort of repression of that part of the self. Try to tamp that down and it will find some other outlet. Instead, when I am in a good state, I practice mindfulness from the Theravada tradition: acknowledge that part of mind, in a slightly bemused way, like “there you are, crazy Jon” and it settles down. Mindfulness of emotion, for example, is the opposite of denial. It is full acknowledgement of feelings and cravings and desire that arises seemingly from nowhere. A meditative state is not an emotion-free state; it’s a place of observing the self.
I am no expert at meditation nor Buddhism. My experience is just listening to podcasts, reading books, sporadic meditation practice on my own, occasionally attending a meditation session in Second Life (yes, virtual meditation is a real thing) and the five minutes of meditative breathing we do at the beginning and end of the yoga classes I go to.
As I started to wind down on this post, I checked my email, and received my daily dispatch from Tricycle. It seemed to fit well, as the emails often do.
We Must Grow Weary of Craving
We’re stuck on feeling like a monkey stuck in a tar trap. A glob of tar is placed where a monkey will get its hand stuck and, in trying to pull free, the monkey gets its other hand, both feet, and eventually its mouth stuck, too. Consider this: Whatever we do, we end up stuck right here at feeling and craving. We can’t separate them out. We can’t wash them off. If we don’t grow weary of craving, we’re like the monkey stuck in the glob of tar, getting ourselves more and more trapped all the time.
That’s an awesome quote, but I don’t know why Buddhism is so anti-monkey.