Monday, September 24, 2012

Busy Semester

Don't expect many blogs in the next couple of months--this semester I'm trying to pull off a mad sprint to finish early in the SFSU premed post-bac program while also working part time and doing EMT training. One motivation for this plan is to prepare for next year, when I'll be working and applying to med school, and another motivation--probably the more important one, personally--is just to see if I can handle the workload and stay sane. Succeeding at the challenges ahead will give me some confidence that medical school and residency will be manageable.

Only two weeks into this crazy schedule, I'm experiencing an emotional rollercoaster ride. Initially, it was exciting to push myself beyond my comfort zone academically while also taking on new professional responsibilities and some leadership roles. It felt great, actually. Empowering. Like I'm finally figuring out a pragmatic and creative way to match my needs and abilities to the opportunities available. In that regard, I have no doubts that this is the right track.

This was last year's meal of choice.
It has only gone downhill.
However, with the challenges of multitasking and striving for achievement, all my beloved zen composure has gone right out the window. I had to stop going to Young Urban Zen, I barely find time to meditate, my thoughts are scrambled, my patience is nowhere to be found, my diet is terrible, anxieties and frustrations pop up everywhere, and I keep catching myself acting rudely and arrogantly toward friends and loved ones. It's like I'm turning back into a 4 year old.

To a certain extent, this was expected. We don't actually solve problems; we just turn old problems into new ones. I'm turning my old problems--being bored and restless--into new ones. I'm not bored anymore, but that came at the cost of becoming rather unpleasant to others.

However, there's some benefit to a change of pace. Old habits that went unnamed in easier times became so visible that I had to pay attention to them. The crazy thing that I'm feeling this week is that, no matter how proud I am of myself or my actions, I end up feeling ashamed soon after. In some previous posts about fear and The Blahs, I've alluded to a feeling of doubt that creeps into my mind soon after I get excited about something. It's a lot like shame. Maybe they're the same.

The cycle in
progress, Las
Vegas c. 2005
The mind tends to oscillate between extremes. Suzuki called these oscillations "mind waves." The more proud I make myself, the more ashamed I'm going to feel when my mind rebounds. The pride has a real object; the shame doesn't. It feels like the shadow of the pride, perhaps arising when the neural circuits for one emotion get tired and the opposite feeling is perceived, like the phantom spot you see after you look at a bright light. The phantom shame still burns like a real feeling and I get defensive about it, and that compounds the feeling. If I act on it, I will start creating situations to be ashamed about, and then it becomes real. I have plenty of memories of this cycle from the past--some indulgence in my arrogance, then the let-down, then the shame, then the craving to get F'ed up so I could stop feeling ashamed, then the getting F'ed up, then the stupidity, then the real shame, then the scramble to find something to be arrogant about so I could overcome the shame... and so on indefinitely. 

Sure, it's natural to feel shame after acting arrogantly, but my shame is never in proportion to the rudeness of my behavior; it's in proportion to the intensity of the pride that I felt. That's why I suspect it is a shadow feeling rather than a genuine emotional reaction.

The problem with being really busy and suffering from shadow feelings is that I don't take enough time to recognize that these feelings are not real. Instead, I keep charging forward, acting on illusions, getting defensive for no reason, twisting relationships up into a big jumble of knots, spewing emotional chaos everywhere I go.

Where is the control point? In moments of pride. It has to be that. I've been haunted by shame my whole life, but I've also been arrogant my whole life. The arrogance comes first. It is the cause. This is a wake-up call for me to do something about it.

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Purpose of This Blog

In the first 30 Zen Snacks posts, I've hit on some big topics: sexuality, attention-seeking, egotism, the meaning of it all, fear, happiness, livelihood, quantum mechanics, wannabe filmmakers, and that most persistent of problems--The Blahs. These posts in particular do a good job of expressing my spin on Zen practice.

While feeling out the purpose of this blog, I've realized that most of the posts are clearly written for one of two audiences: my friends who have tried Zen or my friends who haven't. Posts written for my Zen friends, aka the "believers," tend to discuss topics that commonly come up in a visit to a Zen Center or in discussions about Buddhist values, beliefs, etc. Posts written for my friends who have little or no interest in Zen, aka the "skeptics," tend to be psychologically or scientifically themed, avoiding explicit discussion of Buddhist ideas. Some of these posts are philosophical, but many are intended to be down-to-earth observations that could be useful to anyone interested in understanding human nature a little better.

In almost all of the posts, my take is to present nebulous spiritual or ethical ideas in practical terms and remove the mumbo-jumbo that makes Buddhism seem impractical or exotic. I personally believe that the teachings of Buddhism are purely practical, and mystic interpretations are largely made in error. I also believe that Zen has nothing to do with rock gardens or robes or lotus flowers; in one sense, the most sincere practice of Zen is to take a good look at what's right in front of you, whatever that is.

At the same time, I feel like some of these posts were just written to justify myself in the face of friends who know me to be a (usually) rational person and wonder why I'm messing around with "spirituality."

At the end of the day, I point to the empirical outcome of Zen practice: it helps me feel good, act kindly, connect with others, and manage responsibility.

Every once in a while, it also helps me realize something that I find cool.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Blahs

The Blahs
Hands down, I think the most difficult emotion to deal with is ennui, aka The Blahs. The Blahs are what you feel when your life is safe and comfortable, when you have everything you need and many things you want, yet you feel numb emotionally. It's what spoiled teenagers are feeling when they mope and say, "Life sucks." It's what you feel the morning after, or the week after, or the month after The Most Awesome Thing Ever actually occurs.

Other emotions, like fear or annoyance, give you something to work with, but The Blahs give you nothing. At least when you're angry you know what you're angry at and you can get to the bottom of the situation just by going on a walk or counting breaths and letting some productive course of action pop into your mind. The Blahs, on the other hand, don't make any sense. They just drag on for days, making you feel emotionally numb but at the same time uncomfortable, and they don't present any means of escape.

Drama Kitteh
We really want to escape that vague, crappy, numb feeling. A lot of times, the desire for an escape manifests itself in the form of a sudden craving for some excitement, which, I suspect, motivates a lot of maladaptive behaviors. People start fights, go to war, get drunk, get high, overeat, watch reality TV, and start all kinds of drama in their attempts to escape The Blahs.

The general strategy for escaping The Blahs usually centers around the pursuit of some immediate stimulation. That's a simple, direct solution, and it seems to work--for a while, at least. In the short term, a little bit of excitement creates some relief from The Blahs: some feeling, good or bad, which is preferable to no feeling at all. However, when the source of stimulation ends, what happens? The Blahs come back with a vengeance!

No matter how hard we try to maintain the excitement, we eventually get numb to it, and The Blahs come back. That's just how our minds work. If you smell a rose for a minute or two, you'll temporarily lose the ability to smell it. The same thing happens with all objects of our attention.

If you don't recognize this pattern, you can easily fall into a habit of endless cycling between The Blahs and temporary thrill-seeking. I think this is a particularly stressful lifestyle because the emotional discomfort of The Blahs is directly proportional to the intensity of the excitement that precedes them. Put another way: the higher the highs, the lower the lows. In this lifestyle, the more effort put into "escaping" The Blahs, the worse they get. People go crazy trying to top their last thrill, only to find that they feel even worse.

I've experimented with a "Buddhist" approach to this problem by attempting to slog through The Blahs, using meditation in place of thrill-seeking. It took some easing into it since habits are really hard to give up. I gradually extended the amount of time that I could go before indulging in a habitual craving, and I gradually learned to diminish the effort I put into the thrill-seeking phase once the indulgence began. How gradually? It only took, oh, about two years to start making a real difference with some of my most persistent bad habits.

Invasion of the Bodysnatchers:
Not an accurate depiction of a peaceful mind
Part of the resistance to quelling emotional extremes stems from a widespread fear, indoctrinated in us by Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, that emotional detachment would be an awful way to live. The reality is that, in spite of all the effort I've put into calming my mood swings, I still have a rich emotional life. Emotions don't go away. The "Buddhist" approach can't make your feelings vanish any more than it could make your nose vanish. What it can do is redirect your effort away from behaviors that cause extra distress.

The good news is that this approach works. I can vouch that my life has improved from it. It got easier to sustain this effort over time as I noticed the unhappiness of The Blahs was decreased by this effort, so there is a positive-feedback aspect to this approach which is encouraging.

The bad news is that The Blahs still come back. For sure, they're not as destructive or unbearable as they used to be, but they still suck. And, I'm afraid to say, they seem to be an intrinsic feature of life. Some days you feel crappy, and that's how it is.

Perhaps meditating all day every day is the solution. I would not be surprised. However, as I've considered in a prior post about livelihood, this would be the ultimate dick move because it would require that you neglect your ability to help other people just so you can get all blissed out.

So the challenge that I see in life is to walk a fine line between two extremes. We have to live with recurring Blahs, neither giving in to addictive, self-destructive, dramatic cravings, nor trying to tune out completely using Buddhism or anything else as an excuse to be indifferent.

What's significant about this view is that it portrays The Blahs not as an uncomfortable and pesky transition between the emotions we want to have, but as the mental battleground in which we wage our most important fights to stay strong in the face of destructive forces like apathy, numbness, and uncertainty. It is our response to The Blahs that determines the overall structure of our emotions, and by extension, our lives.