Loving Life, Loving Death

When I was five, a strange puzzle dawned on me:

“All people die… and I’m a person… so… uh…”

I remember that day vividly. I walked down the street to play with a friend two years younger than me. While we piled rocks in his garden, I looked up at him and said “Do you realize you’re going to die someday?”

His mother overheard, looked at me and kindly but firmly said “Don’t tell him that.”

I always found that strange.

I came home, still stewing on this, feeling like something really didn’t make sense about this logic. But it really seems relentless!

I walked up to the kitchen where my parents poured over paperwork on the dining table. My eyes barely reached over the countertop. I hooked my fingers on the wall and leaned over the metal line between the carpet and the kitchen linoleum and asked:

“Hey Mom… am I going to die someday?”

Mom turned and looked at me, first with alarm flashing across her eyes, and then kindness. She walked up to me, kneeled down, gently squeezed my shoulders, and said:

“Oh, no sweetie! People think everyone dies because everyone gets old. We’ll get rid of aging before you get old. And even if we’re wrong, if you die before then, we’ll just bring you back, because we love you.”

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The Great Mirror

Many years ago I had a pet cockatiel named Pandora. She was a very sweet bird. My partner and I picked her out because when we reached into the bin of little birds, she ran up and hopped right on our finger.

We would let her fly around the apartment. She loved landing on my partner’s shoulder and trying to eat her jewelry. Mostly she just wanted to be wherever we were.

But she hated the other bird that lived in the bathroom.

You see, best as she could tell, there was this huge window in the bathroom. But every time she tried to fly through it, this other bird would suddenly fly out of nowhere and smash right into her!

Of course, that was really her reflection. But she couldn’t recognize it. She just hated “that other bird”.

This is typical of most animals interacting with their own reflection. In fact, most animals can’t recognize their reflection, best as we can tell. (Read the Wikipedia article on “the mirror test” if you’d like more nuance.)

I catch glimpses of this in myself sometimes. Once I was staying the night at a friend’s house out of town, and I needed to visit the bathroom in the middle of the night. As I walked through the hallway I jumped: there was someone in the room next to me! It took me a moment to realize that my friend had a mirror set up in his study and that my own reflection had spooked me.

Given some time to examine it, though, we humans can always recognize that we’re looking at our reflection. We don’t stay confused like other animals do.


Well… actually, sometimes we do stay confused.

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There is no “away”

A number of years ago I saw a sign over a trash can that read:

When you throw it away, remember: there is no ‘away’.

It struck me because I realized: Some part of me really did believe in “away”. Of course, if I gave it any conscious thought, I knew that my bit of garbage would end up in a landfill or something. But in the moment of tossing it into the trash can, there was a subtle intuition that seemed to say, “And now that thing is completely gone from my reality.”

I’ve been reflecting on this recently, and I’ve come to suspect that this little intuition holds the key to creating an exquisite world. It looks to me like a rather stunning degree of our suffering comes from misplaced faith in “away”, which leads to trying to solve problems by finding ways of ignoring them. If we just choose to notice when we’re doing this, even if we don’t yet know what to do differently, I’m pretty sure magic happens.

I’d like to sketch that vision here.

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This makes no sense

There’s something odd going on with the human race. If we look at it as a collective whole like it’s a single organism, it seems to act like a traumatized child.

I bet you’re familiar with what I’m trying to point at. Let me pull up some examples:

  • Climate change. The situation here doesn’t make any sense no matter where you stand on the issue. Is it a real problem? If so, then we’d better damn well get our act together and address it, which needs to include emotional support for those who seem to be in denial. If it’s not real, then there are a lot of people who are terrified of an illusion, and it’s important to understand why and bring compassion and care to their situation. But instead we have a situation that’s a bit like a parent slapping their child as their answer to the child’s crying about the kitchen being on fire. This is bizarre madness.
  • Mandatory jobs. If you want to live in the modern economy, you have to earn money. Why? Because… well, that’s just how we do it. As more jobs get automated, more and more people won’t have work they can do. And the current answer is… oppose technological development? More job training? We know that isn’t going to work in the long run. And yet here we are, strangely trying, basically ignoring the inevitable. Why not pool our thinking together to come up with a better solution? Well, because you can’t earn money that way.
  • Forcing children into bad education. It’s a trope for kids to hate school. But we pressure them — with actual written law and police enforcement — to attend. How do we get children, who are naturally curious and engaged in learning about the world, to hate going to a place that’s nominally about learning? It might have something to do with how schools systematically crush creativity, or how we’ve known how to teach math well and in an interesting-to-kids way since the 1970s but can’t seem to get anyone that matters to care about that.

These were just the ones that popped to mind first. I could have gone into how we’re electing leaders of state that half their nation deeply hates or fears, or how we know that corporations have a frightening amount of unchecked influence on politics and law, or how there’s something deeply wrong about us having cures for diseases people still die from.

The point is, our system is broken. This isn’t hard to see. It roughly works for now on some basics, like making sure most Americans get food. But there’s some good reason to think even that will break down soon too.

The odd thing is, this is easy to see. It really doesn’t take much hard looking to notice that the way we’re collectively going is both twisted and unsustainable.

So why are we still doing it? Why aren’t we collectively paying attention and changing course?

The second best answer I’ve heard so far is “Moloch”. Which is to say, we just can’t help ourselves. Even if everyone knows there’s a better way, people who move toward that better way are at a disadvantage compared to people who don’t. The result is a tragedy of the commons that everyone can predict but no one can stop.

But I don’t think this quite answers the question. Moloch applies only if there’s no trustworthy way of coordinating. You’d think that with literally the entire modern world at stake, we’d pool resources to do something like an open-source Manhattan Project on solving the problem of having trustworthy ways of coordinating.

But we aren’t.

Which suggests that the problem is even deeper. It’s in something like our willingness to look at the problem in the first place.

We actually see this when it comes to life insurance or estate planning or planning for retirement. People as a whole are neither dealing with these end-of-life issues, nor are they looking at these systems to critique them. As a whole, we ignore them.

The same thing comes up with homelessness. Any one homeless person, we might care about. But there are too many for any one person to meaningfully care for. There are a few saints who are blessed with the ability to care for those in need without feeling overly burdened. But for most of us, the answer is to sort of stop paying attention. I see these small villages of camping tents under bridges in Berkeley and Seattle, and I know perfectly well what they mean, as does pretty much every other person who sees them. But most people ignore these — or consider them inconvenient.

I’m hoping for a world where enough people light up, look around, and pay attention for us to take a collective deep breath and start really addressing the mess we’re in. We could actually build a utopia — but to do so, we have to stop ignoring that where we are isn’t that.

And I don’t mean rise up and get mad as hell. That’s demanding that others notice what’s going on — what I’ve referred to before as giving away your power. If everyone’s doing that… then no one is paying attention. That’s perfectly useless.

The question I find most interesting here — most critical to our survival and thriving as a species, really — is why we choose to ignore these things. Why do we just accept that our jobs suck but we have to do them? Why do we react to the increase in divorce rates by both repeating the same “happily ever after” love stories and also half-jokingly saying that marriage is hell? We know this isn’t okay. So why do we just whine? Why not pause what we’re doing, look around, and collectively acknowledge that this makes no sense? Why not articulate our prayer for a better world, acknowledging that we don’t yet know what that world looks like or how to get there?

Citing logic like “Moloch” really can’t answer the question. That explains why we behave how we behave once we have given up on paying attention.

Where did the giving up come from?

I have a guess. It’s probably wrong, but it’s at least an interesting wrong. It makes the problem more precise if nothing else.

I’m about to go on a weekend trip with some friends. I expect this will affect a bunch of what I want to say here. I hope to come back and share my guess, or whatever it transforms into over the next week.

For now I just want to pose the question, and welcome you to notice that there’s something important going on here.

Because seriously, if we could all just start looking around and notice what doesn’t make sense and vulnerably acknowledge that to each other, that would go a long long long way to making our future a whole lot more bright.

Power makes a terrible gift

Recently I was part of an online chat with other yoga practitioners. The topic of “owning your power” came up. I think there’s a lot of confusion in the world right now about what it means to “own your power”, but the sentiment seems to be something like: “Stand for what you believe in, speak up, choose your direction in life, and don’t let others decide your path for you.”

Pretty much every time this topic comes up, I see a very specific puzzle appear. Here’s a paraphrase of one person’s struggle with it:

I want to own my power. But there’s someone in my life whom I care about and who’s stuck in their ways. I’m scared they’ll get hurt if I stand my ground and speak my truth. What do I do?

Another version I often hear goes something like:

I find myself going along with things my husband insists on, just because it’s easier than arguing with him. I’m scared that we’ll just fight more if I own my power and push back. I love him and I want our relationship to be strong, but I hate myself for crushing my own voice.

Yet another that I’ve heard from more than one teenager:

My mom drives me nuts. I want to move out. But if I do, I think it would really hurt her. I’m worried she’ll get depressed and maybe even do something drastic to herself if I leave. I don’t know what to do.

The struggle is something like, “How can I be empowered when that might hurt people or relationships I care about?”

I think there’s a clear answer now. It just isn’t very widespread yet. That’s in part because there isn’t a lot of clarity about what “owning your power” means. So attempts to share the answer often sound strange or callous or impractical.

But I think the answer is immensely practical, deeply compassionate, and very, very needed today.

I’d like to try my hand at sharing it here.

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The Coming Age of Prayer

I want to talk here about humanity’s future — about the “Age of Aquarius” or the “Global Awakening” or the “Singularity” or however a given person wants to name it.

I’m going to use the framework of chakras to do it. I like the framework. I’ve been using it for something like 25 years, and I really enjoy how the modern yoga community has embraced it.

But I think there’s a recurring confusion about the fifth and sixth chakras. It’s a necessary confusion, all part of the process. And, I think we’ve reached a point where we can shine some light on what’s going on.

To talk about this, I’m going to assume you know basically what chakras are. You might be able to get the gist of it by reading this post anyway. But if you find you’d like more background, maybe start with this blog post. (I really appreciate Brett’s orientation to chakras, and really her whole spirit around yoga. For what that’s worth!)

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Why “yin”?

People keep asking me what “yin” is, as I use it. And why I think it’s important.

The really short and maybe unsatisfying answer is “Read this.” I think of yin as more like bicycle-riding than like understanding facts or theories. If I were to describe good bike-riding, I might do best by pointing at people who are trying to ride bikes and saying “That person is doing well because of X, and that other person is doing poorly because of not-X, I think.” That’s what I tried to do with my post on grieving well.

But people who have read that post still ask me about this, which makes sense. A lot of the main ideas of yin are buried or implied in that post rather than stated directly.

So, I’ll try to be pretty direct here, to the extent that I can.

(Trigger warning: references to death, child mortality, and losing faith in religion. Nothing gruesome — but if it doesn’t pull your heartstrings then I haven’t done my job. And some of the things I link to might be harsher.)

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Looking into the Abyss

Sometimes I’ll hear a conversation flirt with acknowledging really terrible things in the world. Someone will bring up how people are starving to death in parts of the world, or how children are sold into slavery and often horribly violated and abused, or some other wicked thing that should not be. And at that point, sometimes, I’ll hear someone say something like this:

“I try not to think about that too much. I’m afraid that if I do, it’ll be too much for me to handle.”

I want to point at this question of what we can or cannot handle. I think this is a really important question. I suspect that what we believe we can endure guides what we can and cannot clearly see; after all, if looking too closely at (say) our own mortality would destroy us, maybe it makes sense not to look. If we want to see everything in our lives clearly, on the other hand, maybe we first need to know we’ll be okay after we see whatever we find.

So, how might we come to endure whatever we find?

Well, in short, I think there’s something wrong with the question. I think we already can endure whatever we find. What I think we need instead is a sort of skill with trusting this fact about ourselves.

I know this is a bold claim. Some horrors do seem to shatter us. People do, in fact, seem to experience psychological trauma and get triggered. If we can already weather any hellish storm, why do we sometimes break?

I think it’s because we misperceive our relationship to horror.

I think it’s because “endurance” might be the wrong word.

I suspect it’s because we try to look away.

Continue reading “Looking into the Abyss”

The art of grieving well

In this post, I’m going to talk about grief. And sorrow. And the pain of loss.

I imagine this won’t be easy for you, my dear reader. And I wish I could say that I’m sorry for that.

…but I’m not.

I think there’s a skill to seeing horror clearly. And I think we need to learn how to see horror clearly if we want to end it.

This means that in order to point at the skill, I need to also point at real horror, to show how it works.

So, I’m not sorry that I will make you uncomfortable if I succeed at conveying my thoughts here. I imagine I have to.

Instead, I’m sorry that we live in a universe where this is necessary.

Continue reading “The art of grieving well”