I’m starting a venture called Heartwards, a small business offering personal training for integrative health and wellness.
This is the first time I’ve mentioned it here. I’ve mentioned it to a few friends and others in my networks, but otherwise it’s a very nascent thing.
Now I can mention it elsewhere on the socials and Kokoro 心 Heart and feel like it’s been mentioned before. It won’t be weird if you hear me refer to ‘Heartwards’.
I’m definitely not yet at the stage where I’m doing anything like formal marketing, but it definitely won’t fly if I don’t tell anyone about it. So here’s a banner, which is already out-dated as I develop and re-develop content trying to explain exactly the service I want to provide:
It feels weird, to be honest – starting something like this. I’m doubting myself, wondering why I think I should or could be someone to offer these kinds of services to others. I’m not the healthiest Jimbo on the block. I mean, I’m pretty healthy – much healthier than I was 20 years ago. I’m healthier than many, and less healthy than many others.
The answer(s) I always come back to are:
by supporting others to step into ownership of their wellness, I will strengthen the sense of accountability for my own wellness;
by teaching others, we deepen our own learning;
to be of service doing something I feel passionate about
by developing holistic-lifestyle training plans for others, I will be able to develop one for myself
Another reason for doing this is that I’m developing the sort of service I wish I could find and afford. Kind of like an author writing the book they want to read. I haven’t been able to find or afford a service like this, so I’m developing it myself – it’s easier to justify developing it for others than it is to justify developing it solely for myself.
There’s a lot more to it than that, but this is just my first public mention of the idea. I won’t go into much more detail here-now, because a) I’m giving up nicotine today and therefore am feeling super vague and fuzzy and weirdly noncommittal and b) I don’t intend to publish a lot about this until it’s more developed. I will publish here if doing so motivates me or helps to justify developing the content, structure, ideas – because publishing here will mean I feel less like I’m operating in a vacuum.
Otherwise, I’m really just mentioning it here so it doesn’t feel weird for me when I reference it in future posts.
I can share a bit of the content I’ve been developing for the business plan.
Our vision at Heartwards is a healthy and sustainable world, where every individual, group and institution is able to cultivate and promote genuine happiness and wellbeing, no matter the challenges we face. We believe a healthy world arises out of healthy minds, and that everyone can reduce suffering and increase happiness.
Our mission at Heartwards is to help facilitate this healthy and sustainable world by equipping individuals, groups and institutions with the resources, knowledge, means and support to cultivate the holistic/integrative health and wellness we need to cope in a world that seems increasingly difficult to navigate. Based on the Pillars of Wellness, we do this by providing one-on-one coaching and accountability support, workshops for groups, in-person and online courses, and resource packages for groups and individuals wanting to develop and maintain lifestyle practices that support their holistic/integrative health and wellness. We help our clients consistently and sustainably prioritise eudaimonic wellness (flourishing) rather than continuing to pursue hedonic pleasure even though we know it leads to suffering rather than happiness.
Our “unique selling proposition” is that Heartwards takes the cliche, happiness comes from within, and turns it into applied eudaimonics. That means we provide clients with the tools and skills they need to actually connect with this elusive treasure that is already within us. By meeting clients where they are at in their busy lifestyles, we help them to become sustainably accountable for their most-important priorities.
Our work is underpinned by the belief that spiritual awareness and health is the foundation of all other experiences of health and wellbeing. Bodhi’s background is Buddhist, but there doesn’t need to be a label from Eastern theological philosophy for us to understand that every individual shares the same deepest aspiration:
to be free from suffering and meet with the causes of genuine (inner) happiness
It is our goal at Heartwards to support others in the spiritual journey that facilitates the sort of wellbeing upon which all other wellbeing is founded – and this is our USP: we don’t mince around and try to leverage the wish for riches or professional success or to live your full potential to entice clients to our products and services; we go straight to the source and help individuals to activate a yearning they already know is there but cannot quite yet identify … the wish the be happy and free from suffering.
on accepting reality for long enough to learn adaptive coping mechanisms to replace maladaptive ones
because Possum inspires and motivates me to be a human animal capable of adapting to the urban environment that has displaced us from our natural habitat
I am disappointed with myself at the moment and doing my best to not berate myself over and over because I know that would be maladaptive.
I had a couple of drinks last night while making dinner and listening to Paul Kelly. So far so great, I was feeling good and not trying to drink my pain away as I learnt how to excel at for the last 30 years in our culture.
Actually I did have a persistent headache, but I wasn’t experiencing intense emotional pain. I felt I was coping pretty well with our stressors and was safe to have a wee tipple. I was treating the booze a bit like paracetamol, a kind of experiment. And I felt like getting a buzz on. It felt healthy, and it was, compared with how I’ve abused substances in the past, so I can say truthfully that overall I’m making progress with becoming less dependent on exogenous hedonic pleasure for that false and fleeting sense of well-being it brings.
This kind of thinking helps me to curb the self-flagellation.
Thing is, I’m supposed to be on a self-initiated three-month “sobriety binge”. I want to subject myself to coping with reality without external crutches like booze and weed and Minecraft and see what comes up, what I learn, how I manage. I’ve done these sobriety binges before and they’re great, like a detox, very illuminating.
What started as a few healthy drinks to get a buzz on and curb a headache turned into Nikki and I sharing a bottle of vodka. Still not such a great big deal in itself. We didn’t drink a bottle each, which is something. I feel confident we will not relapse so far that we are doing that again, once or twice a week.
We are making progress with becoming less dependent on exogenous hedonic pleasure for that false and fleeting sense of well-being it brings.
We didn’t get so intoxicated that our perceptions fucked out completely, causing us to do anything we deeply regretted, as we have done in the past. Of course I value the Buddhist precept recommending that we not intoxicate self or others, lest we become unskilful and cause harm. I also value the Middle Way, and am less likely these days to exploit the teaching of “moderation in moderation”, to justify excessive binges that result in immediate harm and then days and days of regret and shame.
So there is progress being made – I am becoming Possum, the great urban adaptor. I am proud of myself and of Nikki and I am immensely grateful that I share this journey with such a committed alchemist as my wife. We are learning that there are ways of transmuting suffering into joy and that idea is feeling less and less abstract and esoteric and inaccessible as we draw from the courage to actually implement the ideas and test them, apply them.
By turning toward suffering with the right coping skills, we are learning a lot about the nature of mind and reality and about the way these interact to form interpretations of either happiness or misery, and in that turning toward we are finding choice, the ability to choose our interpretation, to choose happiness in the midst of suffering. Just imagining that and feeling it’s possible brings a micro-moment of actual joy, an emotion that is rare for me at this stage but becoming slowly more frequent.
So far still good and actually this little story doesn’t have the plot twist that usually follows the “so far so good” trope.
What concerned me this morning was the underlying motives to drink that I was not quite aware of last night.
The motive was to get a buzz on and curb a headache, which really is not such a big deal. I’m not a crack addict or a criminal and I don’t fly into drunken rages and trash the place. I don’t beat my kid and then fuck off for days at a time to whack the pudding in the mistaken hope that this will make me feel better and then return home full of misplaced shame. I am a kind and gentle contemplative person who was raised in a materialistic culture and doing pretty well at getting off the hedonic treadmill by learning applied eudaemonics.
Sick! Kickin at goalposts I’ve set for myself and sometimes missing. But I was raised around AFL and as the joke runs, aussie-rules football is the only game where you get a point for missing!
Still, the motive was to make reality more pleasant than it was (by adding a ‘buzz’), and to avoid the pain of a headache instead of accepting that symptom as a message screaming, SLLLLOOOOOOOOOOW DOOOOOOOOOOWWWWWWWWN.
I’m still learning how to stop and do nothing and relax and enjoy just being alive on a beautiful planet.
The plan was to do our home-coming decompression meditation, have a couple of bevvies making dinner while Nikki did some gaming, then crash out early to practise good sleep hygiene as the first foundation of mental and emotional fitness.
That’s my trip these days – I’m that kind of “fitness freak”. That’s why I feel disappointed. I let myself down. But I can accept that, and start where I am with beginner’s mind.
The plan was to be responsible and do self-care. Our life has been a comet of stress lately, and yesterday was no different except I felt I was keeping abreast of it, not getting blown away by its sheer force. We pulled into the driveway yesterday feeling we had got to a place in our incessant metaphysical nattering that we could stop and just be without trying to solve the problems of the collective unconscious with the power of conscious thought alone.
Because life happens while we’re busy making plans, Nikki got a call from a friend whose daughter and our friend has been admitted to the psych ward. The family is not coping well and we’re trying to position ourselves as advocates for the daughter to help them navigate the punitive public mental-health-emergency system. So Nikki spent an hour and a half on the phone, advocating on the daughter’s behalf, which is good, this is what we want to be doing, just maybe not at 5.30pm on Friday, mere moments after we had decided to stop and just be without trying to solve the problems of the collective unconscious with the power of conscious thought alone.
The phone call was not the problem. It just kind of threw us out. The problem (for want of a better word) is not even that a few drinks became 3 and then 5 and 6 until we finished the bottle.
We had a nice dinner, Nikki did some gaming while I did some study and we went to bed watching Dead Poets Society, because I thought it would be a nice easy-going drama that wouldn’t be too stimulating and would distract me just enough to drift off to sleep. I’ve been afraid of sleeplessness since a heinous mid-week bout of insomnia.
Somehow it was 1.30am before I was able to wrench myself away from what I had somehow forgotten is a profoundly inspiring (read: stimulating) film for me. This was progress for me – normally I would eat the whole proverbial bag of chips.
I even managed to sleep instead of bouncing off the walls of my mind all night, which is sometimes what happens when I drink enough to edit the unpleasant out of reality but not enough to wipe myself out.
The ‘problem’ is I employed a maladaptive coping mechanism to deal with stress I’m almost not aware of because it has become so normalised. The problem is I don’t know how to do nothing and just be for long enough to relax on a Friday evening.
It’s not a problem exactly because these skills can be learnt.
It’s not even a problem exactly that I woke up wide-eyed and pinging at 6.30am, still with the headache.
It’s just I’m disappointed because I thwarted the opportunity to get the rest I needed and now I’m back to square-one. I was wanting to bounce back from that heinous mid-week insomnia, and instead I did maligned adaptation.
Like the possum that fell into one of Nikki’s succulents on our back deck the other night, which picked itself up and scampered away when I stepped out to see WTF that noise had been. Possum inspires and motivates me to be a human animal capable of adapting to the urban environment that has displaced us from our natural habitat. Through healthy adaptation we are able to flourish – that is what eudaemonia is all about, human flourishing. It’s about getting off the pleasure train (the hedonic treadmill) so we can stop long enough to see where we are with clear and healthy eyes, without resistance, without trying to change reality to suit our desires.
I said to Nikki when I woke up that I find it vaguely distressing or depressing that in our culture we don’t know how to do nothing, how to just relax and stop and be still. We are either being productive or entertaining ourselves or distracting ourselves or running around doing errands. And then we need to use things outside ourselves to bring the nervous system back to relax mode. Things like booze, which don’t even actually do that anyway – hence the term maladaptive coping mechanism.
Nikki and I are not employed in the traditional sense and we still manage to pull 16-hour days 6 days a week because being alive and healthy is a full-time business.
And we’re needing to teach ourselves how to de-stress from that in ways that are healthy. But we are at least teaching ourselves these skills, and it is precisely these skills that I am hoping to share with others through the business I’m setting up around Kokoro 心 Heart:
mental, emotional and nervous-system regulation
through meditation and the art of skilfully doing nothing in motion
Today hopefully there will be nothing but a long swim and some cross-stitching. [We ended up visiting our friend in the psych ward, but today today – the day of posting, two days later – we are going for a long swim. I went to a day-long silent-meditation retreat yesterday and have managed to get 9 hours sleep last night!]
[Meanwhile yesterday:] I at least am successfully not berating myself, and remembering:
S = R x r
H = R x a
S = suffering
R = Reality
r = resistance
H = happiness
a = acceptance
Suffering = Reality x resistance
Happiness = Reality x acceptance
I am accepting that this self-inflicted tiredness is where I am at, and remembering that the world as it is (with me not sleeping well in it and everything) is perfectly imperfect.
A unique and deeply personal modality is forming around me through Zen training, Cultivating Emotional Balance and Somatic Experiencing.
I am learning to have an embodied mindful awareness throughout the day and it is helping me to notice those once-hidden underlying motives to avoid reality in one way or another.
Through making this unconscious conscious without freaking out, we gradually become awakened enough to accept reality and all its warts with equanimity and joy.
That’s what I believe anyway and I’m doing the experiment to see if it’s true.
During my “sobriety binge” I got tipsy and messed with my sleep – now I’m trying to respond to that with kindness so I don’t continue repeating this cycle of maladaptive coping mechanisms.
Here is a talk by Donald Rothberg called “Ten Ways of Practicing with Reactivity”, which helped me with something like an insight about a false belief I suffer from. He says that if a child’s parents get divorced, that child may believe it was their fault and because they don’t have the capacity to reframe this false belief, they may experience the cognitive distortion that any future relationship trouble is their fault. I can certainly vouch for this, and I hope I can remember this in future to prevent myself from berating myself endlessly when even the most minor disturbance occurs in my family of choice.
At that link you’ll be able to download a resource listing the ten ways of practising with reactivity, the first of which is to cultivate wisdom. Easier said than done, but Donald provides the teaching of the Two Arrows to help us get started. If someone hurts us, or if we hurt another, that is the First Arrow – if we then begin berating ourselves or ruminating on the hurt, that is the Second Arrow. If we lash out, that’s another Second Arrow, et cetera et cetera, ad nauseum. We may not be able to prevent another from hurting us, and we often are not able to refrain from acting with reactivity, but we can be skillful about how we respond after the fact.
Something we can do after the fact is cultivate the heart practices. I have been starting to do this more recently, and it really helps – if we flood our minds with compassion or forgiveness, there is less room for resentment and anger. I also use this emotional first-aid resource that I developed for myself and have shared here before.
Donald also encourages us to use relatively mundane instances of unpleasantness to practise becoming aware of reactivity. When something vaguely unpleasant happens, something manageable and not too triggering, stay with it. This way we’ll be able to start noticing when reactivity is happening and how it feels – it’s an easy-to-remember way of practising mindfulness throughout the day.
I found it interesting that he talks about reactivity in the context of dukkha, that classically unpleasant experience of suffering or dissatisfaction in the Buddhist conception of our deluded interface with reality – that first one in the Four Noble truths, that suffering exists. He says that reactivity generally manifests as either grasping or aversion, and it seems to hold water for me.
Reactivity is a thing I’ve been trying to understand and move away from, so having it placed in the context of the Four Noble truths helps me feel like the experience is held in a container I trust and have faith in. I understand that grasping and aversion cause suffering because they fuel the wish for reality to be other than it is, and now reactivity is just another way of describing an experience that falls in the attachment basket.
The above are just the bits of Donald’s talk that landed with me – check out the rest of the talk and the accompanying document if you’re interested in learning how to be less reactive and more responsive in life.
I have updated the PDF worksheet for emotional first-aid that I first posted about here, which I have designed mostly for my own use but am sharing here because it might be helpful for others. You can download the worksheet directly here, and see the Resources page for other tools that can be used for emotional self-care and balance. I have added there some resources for cultivating emotional balance:
we can start developing our emotional vocabulary with reference to the Ekmans’ Atlas of Emotions, which is associated with the Cultivating Emotional Balance training that was commissioned by the Dalai Lama. Using the Atlas can help us to “map” an emotional episode so that when it happens again we are better able to navigate it.
I use the emotional first-aid worksheet to process emotional episodes in a healthy, supported and self-guided way, as a practice of self-soothing and -regulation. Here are the .odt and .docx files if you want to modify the worksheet for your personal use. It is an ever-evolving worksheet – I have never used it the same way twice, and as I learn more about emotional balance I am adding new ideas to the document.
In this version I have added a section for reflecting on whether the emotional experience was balanced or imbalanced, using a model I have learnt through the Cultivating Emotional Balance training program, according to which, emotional balance is:
the appropriate emotion,
felt with appropriate intensity
and appropriate expression,
at the appropriate moment.
To make an obvious example, it would not be emotionally balanced to laugh manically and start peeling potatoes at the scene of a horrendous car accident.
I have also elaborated on the RAIN meditation in the Self-care section of the worksheet. This meditation helps us to:
Recognise the emotions we have experienced
Accept or Allow that we have experienced them, rather than suppressing them
Investigate the experience of these emotions, to see for example whether they have triggered cognitive distortions or whether they were balanced
Nurture ourselves, because probably we are coming to RAIN because we have experienced some affliction and if so it’s time for some compassion and forgiveness
Tara Brach has a very good guided RAIN meditation that you can find on Insight Timer here. If you don’t have Insight Timer, here is a link to where you can download an mp3.
The worksheet guides you through asking, What sort of things did you think, feel and do before, during and after the emotional episode?
Then there are some prompts for self-care and emotional first-aid you can try, and some reflection questions about things like, What are you grateful to have learnt from this experience?
I’m proud of this resource because it has helped me a number of times already when I needed to change the narrative around some event that was emotionally distressing. The worksheet is inspired by the work of Guy Winch, which was my introduction to this practice.
A not insignificant benefit of mindfulness I have noticed: when we are not mindful, our habitual mind seems to be almost-constantly making “micro-plans” … “I’d like to do get time in the garden today”, “I need to put air in the tyres later”, “I really should make sure I blah blah blah”, and because this is happening a mile a minute, soon enough (sometimes within five minutes of waking) our mind has made plans on our behalf and our day is loaded with the dreaded expectation; because we could never achieve the myriad things we imagine every five seconds, this mindless planning is an automated way of setting ourselves up for failure and disappointment, our day resulting in ten thousand micro-dissatisfactions, which accumulate over a lifetime.
One way of defining “dukkah” that isn’t as frightful and extremist as suffering is dissatisfaction, or maybe disappointment: we expected that hedonic pleasure would be satisfying in away that it usually isn’t, and then we are disappointed. Samsara, being characterised by dukkah, is inherently dissatisfying if we aren’t mindful of the way our habituated and conditioned mind creates all these micro-expectations for us.
When we cultivate mindfulness on the cushion, we begin to notice ourselves creating these expectations throughout the day and it becomes easier to keep them in check.
If we have to be dualist and say that nirvana, being the “opposite” of samsara, is a state of being satisfied with what is, then it may not be hyperbole to say that by cultivating mindfulness we place ourselves in more-consistent alignment with a lived experience of nirvana which, after all, is not some other place we need to get to in time or space but more like a way of perceiving correctly where we’re already at.
By enjoying this place without loading ourselves up with expectations, we experience an abiding state of enoughness and are free to do what we can without aspiring to do what we can’t.
Point One The preliminaries, which are the basis for dharma practice
Slogan One First, train in the preliminaries (the Four Reminders or the Four Thoughts)
Reminder Two Be aware of the reality that life ends; death comes for everyone; Impermanence
considering the state of our world and minds, the idea of suicide is bound to come up eventually; I consider it great consolation that contemplating the inevitability of death is a powerful antidote for the thought of self-inflicted death
the break in-between
I am pleased to report that I have recently dropped the whole work-eat-sleep-and-shit-till-you-die routine. I have taken a financial hit to gain more time affluence, meaning more time for reflection and meditation. The mere acts of writing thoughts and engaging with philosophy and exploring our spiritual nature are things that make my life worthwhile and I hadn’t been doing them enough due to the demands of employment.
It was getting depressing, to say the least – without time for reflection or anything other than work, life’s difficulties were causing a paralysis I could only imagine solving with suicide. I don’t know how people do it for decades in a row. I guess they adjust and reconcile themselves with certain sacrifices. But I don’t want to just adjust. I want to adapt, evolve, and I want to make sure I’m not making sacrifices I will regret on my deathbed.
Regret has always been my biggest fear.
I want to adapt and evolve and accommodate the making of meaning among the demands on my time now that I’m a husband and dad. I want to set the example for my son that there is more to life than just employment, but also for all the people I encounter because we can’t go on like this, depriving ourselves of meaning because material wealth is believed to be all we need for a happy life. Clearly it’s not, because we are all in the West wealthier than ever before and that wealth has been gained through the sacrifice of our collective wellbeing. And to think the word “wealth” was originally derived from weal.
We are less happy despite our relative affluence because increased affluence makes it easier to distract ourselves from facing up to the transformative power of suffering.
A lot of us are running ourselves into the ground for the sake of material security, and in the process neglecting what hopes we can have for psychospiritual security if we gave more time to reflecting on what really makes life worthwhile. And let’s face it, death is the only thing that makes life worthwhile. The word “security” is not quite appropriate in the context of the psychospiritual journey, because on this Path there are no guarantees. I’m not talking about securing a place in Heaven, but a certain few reflections can prepare us for the end of our lives and point us toward a karmic trajectory that is going to be more favourable than if we had neglected spiritual aspirations in favour of, say, yachts!
To help with this aspiration, the second Reminder in the lojong teachings is one of those reflections:
be aware of death; remember that everything is impermanent.
Everything dies, and not just biological organisms – ideas, feelings, thoughts, moods, and situations, are all fleeting. It’s easy to say and know that everything dies, and to think of organisms. But the reality of biological death or mortality is more distant from our immediate experience than emotions are, unless we cultivate a practice of reflecting on impermanence. With our thoughts, feelings and emotions we can see how they are born, dwell for a time, and then fall away. Remembering this helps to let go of attachment – to achievement and ambition, to objects and people, but also to pride and hubris and the over-inflated ego. To illustrate this I like the image of the butterfly.
The self-destruction of the caterpillar is such a perfect metaphor about dissolution of ego attachment. As the caterpillar turns into goo before it somehow morphs into a butterfly, so the ego must dissolve before we can transform into the compassionate beasts we always were.
Reflecting on the impermanence of the ego helps us to learn and grow, because reduced attachment promotes the healthy ego we need to admit we were wrong or don’t know.
Zane and I have butted heads a lot because I have low tolerance for people who can’t admit they were wrong, and Zane lacks the healthy ego development to be gracious about his own ignorance. But when I embrace Butterfly and relinquish my attachment to the value of Socratic ignorance, I am able to swallow my pride and humble myself before his misdemeanours and try to help him understand why some of his behaviours are problematic.
When I feel frustrated with Zane’s transgressions I can try, with sufficient training, to remember that the emotions will pass if I let go of attachment to whatever identity I think has been hurt or disgruntled by the behaviour. When I am able to do this I feel an acute sense of joy because I have dropped my misguided sense of self-righteousness for the purpose of helping a young human learn how to become a well-rounded adult. And we get along better and we smile and we laugh and we don’t scowl so much and I feel good about myself instead of feeling like a goddamn grouch.
To support the renunciation of self-attachment, I have recently introduced a practice of “training in the preliminaries” to my sadhana, because the preliminaries remind me that 1) human life is precious, 2) feelings are fleeting, and 4) attachment to things that are precious but fleeting is foolish and a primary cause of suffering. Of course there are four Reminders in the preliminaries, but the third Reminder about karma has less bearing on the mitigation of suicidal ideation, so I won’t go into that here.
It is enough to say for now that when I feel like ending things because my means for coping are so depleted that I think we’d all be better off without me (which is merely the result of unresolved childhood wounds and has no actual bearing on the nature of present reality), having familiarised myself with these preliminaries helps to mitigate my wish to terminate existence. What a relief!
~ ~ ~
I had a dream after reading about karma the other day and the whole vibe was about the importance of doing the right thing(s) in life so we don’t experience (unfortunate) rebirth and go through a whole other lifetime of suffering. But what about this lifetime? if, like me, we are on the fence about reincarnation. If we could let go of attachment to our thoughts and feelings (if we could stop mis-identifying with our emotions and moods as who we are) then our current lifetime would be so much easier to deal with and there would be fewer causes of wrong thought and action. It’s easy to not accrue negative karma when we’re feeling happy and relaxed, but how often are we in those states? The whole test of our mettle as karmic consequences is the way we think, speak and behave when we are distressed.
I hadn’t really expected that reflecting on impermanence would lead to reflecting on attachment and karma, but (lack of) awareness of non-permanence seems now to obviously underpin our (misguided) notions of identity and how we behave from that identity. When we are attached to a fixed identity, we suffer – when we are more loosely defined by a fluid identity rich with non-attachment, suffering is more easy to bear. When we are suffering less, we karma better.
Also, including these Reminders in my sadhana has helped me to see that they are each complements of the others – it is hard to think of rebirth without thinking of karma, and hard to think of impermanence without thinking about clinging, et cetera.
The reading that informed the above-mentioned dream was about the Buddhist perspective on suicide – tabs I had open from a recent post referencing the monk on the Rage Against the Machine cover – and the author made a very resonant point that suicide is almost always a result of a serious case of mistaken identity.
We mistake our thoughts and feelings for who we are, when what we are is really the vast space wherein that identity manifests temporarily and always in flux. We shoot ourselves in the head because we think that’s where our suffering comes from, tragically unaware that among that very hardware is the toolkit we can train ourselves to use for the mitigation of that suffering. Recognising the non-permanence of our thoughts/feelings is among the first steps in escaping the suffering caused by mistaking our mental/physical body as what we are.
I’m starting to sound like a broken record now.
A first step in recognising the non-permanence of our thoughts/feelings is the cultivation of mindfulness, supported by ethical conduct and leading to the experience of wisdom.
~ ~ ~
I pulled the blood-death card out of a tarot deck the other day, and was pleased because I take death to represent change more than anything else and I need some change – we need something to break and die to bring this period of turmoil to an end. I mean that in a personal or domestic as well as in a global sense. I need a break – we all need to be given a break for a while, but that’s not going to happen. We cannot put life on hold while we repair the damage we have caused.
Meanwhile, suicide is not an option, though my afflicted mind subjects me to considering it anyway.
There is potential for psychotic break, by which I mean a break from illusion, but I want to hold that at bay for now, work on the container I need for that to not spill over into spiritual emergency.
We can’t afford a holiday.
Where to next then? Maybe that break between thoughts – the space in-between, where stillness resides.
How to get there? I’m not sure that question is the purpose of this post.
I know I was pleased when, after pulling the blood-death card, I checked in with this lojong-writing practice and was reminded that Slogan One, Reminder Two is about awareness of death. Death as a meditation object. I’ve been thinking about this lately. I understand or believe it’s a powerful practice – for one, to awaken awareness of Reminder One, the preciousness of human life as an unsurpassed opportunity for liberation, but also as a motivation to be fully alive in the present, fully present in this life.
That’s a golden thing – something to be pleased about, to be sure to be sure.
Yet … I had been avoiding this meditation – as I avoided tonglen, the practice of exchanging oneself for others, a central meditation of the lojong teachings. These are practices that make me feel uncomfortable, just to think about. Perhaps for that reason entirely, they are exactly the practices I should be stepping into. But I have so much discomfort already – it seems like folly to actively seek more … but I sense a paradox here.
The discomfort I am currently experiencing due to tenancy issues outside the bounds of my control, it is base mundane banal … profane is the word I was looking for. The discomfort I would face in these practices has a much-more sacred vibe about it. By embracing existential or psychospiritual discomfort – by turning toward it as the kid in Stranger Things turned toward the monster he faced in the Upside Down – may the discomfort of profane angst evaporate. By confronting the sacred reality that all including life is impermanent, may our afflicted attachment to profane suffering fall away, allowing us to finally live.
So there’s that: confronting the uncomfortable existential truth of death and impermanence may be a root-cause treatment for the discomfort of relative or profane suffering; may we experience equanimity in the face of samsaric daily life by embracing our opportunity to practise enough virtue before an untimely death. This is how McLeod describes the teaching – let’s call it the vinaya argument, the argument from ethics or virtue.
He adds as well the reminder that after death, nothing but the results of virtuous or nonvirtuous actions will remain. As we say (but may not truly know without a death-contemplation practice), no material/profane gains can be taken with us through the grave. The death-scientists of Ancient Egypt may disagree with this, I dunno. They put coins on the eyes of the buried for reasons I don’t understand.
Whatever the result of any potential dissonance between the Buddhist and the Egyptian view, this Reminder buoys me in my recent decision to prioritise wellbeing over traditional employment. The decision was to sacrifice material wealth to gain more time affluence – to have more time for the contemplation of reality, so that I might die poor and happy instead of poor and unhappy, which is where the employment path was leading me. I was told by Nikki just now that when I was quitting my job I said it was partly because I wanted more time to contemplate death. Sounds like something I would say!
I’ll think on this some more over the coming weeks, and maybe I’ll add an edit to this post.
Meanwhile, do you have any guided meditations or other teachings you can recommend for the contemplation of death? And/or the practice of tonglen, of exchanging oneself for others? Absolute bodhicitta sounds very cool, and Shantideva assures us that this is the fastest Path:
They who desire shelter quickly For themselves and for all others Should use this sacred mystery, The exchanging of oneself for others
Imagine how screwed you would be if everyone died!
I noticed upon waking this morning that I almost immediately began worrying, and I was able to bring myself back into the present of the body, which was a relief. It’s frustrating that my habitual tendency is to worry, because I know it just causes suffering, but I feel like it was a small win today to recognise that and make an effort to respond skilfully using some of the practices I have been taught.
Afterward I reflected on how the mind really does create (our interpretation of) reality and if we can become more aware of our habitual thought patterns and do the work of editing them, we can change (the way we perceive) reality, and by changing that perception we may as well have changed reality because the state of our perceptions determines our happiness and wellbeing more than the state of reality actually does.
This is my current understanding of what people mean when they say our thoughts create (our) reality: our perceptions are more real than reality itself. I understand this is something taught in Buddhism … “mind is the forerunner of all states” and “perceive all dharmas as dreams” … but I’m curious to know what the modern psychology and neuroscience says about this.
It could be the difference between happiness and suffering, because whether we are happy or suffering depends on our relationship with / interpretation of events, does it not?
So my affirmation today: remain mindful as much as possible, and know that awareness of thought patterns empowers me to choose how I feel; negative thought patterns do not have to be allowed their habitual free reign.
There is power in fiction to illuminate themes operating IRL that would be too difficult to digest if they were articulated directly in forms like non-fiction or journalism. Fiction gets into our subconscious in ways that more-direct narratives would block by causing us to constrict in fear, shame, resentment, et cetera.
*some spoilers below*
In the last two posts about The Fifth Season I reported my progress up to where Essun had picked up with Hoa, Damaya had been broken into line by Schaffa and Syenite had begun to encounter the corruption and perversion at the heart of Yumenes’ exploitation of orogenes.
The themes were on point and building around the shift in narrative we need in our culture if we’re to survive the demise we are facing as a species:
all civilisations/empires eventually fall and we might be watching that happen around us IRL;
earth-centric traditional societies with immense power/wisdom and ancient traditions are feared and hated as the unknown, and simultaneously exploited as an illicit “use-caste” by imperial/colonial/European force;
by creating (or at least encouraging) fear of the other, the leadership have a divided people, which is much easier to manage manipulate and control for nefarious purposes than a united people (by creating a problem, the leadership can swan in and be seen to solve it);
the problem of the masses being educated solely for the purpose of making worker drones;
the ideology that the people are unable to manage themselves and therefore need government (and that they need protection from a threat manufactured by encouraging fear of the other – fear-mongering);
the gross immorality of a Big Brother state, with Yumenes surveilling the people through the node-maintainer stations;
the power of the elite to manipulate the telling of history – the treatment of stonelore in the Stillness seems very Orwellian;
the State in its hubris is catalysing its own collapse.
In light of this laundry list of disturbing themes, the radical resistance glowing in Alabaster is encouraging. Despite my reluctance to foretell plot developments, I suspect he is the unnamed man who caused the shake (the Yumenes Rifting) at the start of Essun’s narrative and the end of everyone else’s. His influence on Syenite, “making her question all the assumptions she’s grown up with”, is the most inspiring theme for me, and seems to flag the presence of a motive for such a resistance as violent as that shake.
A massive part of the Kokoro 心 Heart project is about questioning the half-buried beliefs and narratives that dictate our thoughts, feelings and behaviour, in the hope that we can rewrite a better future than our past seems to foretell. For me, such a project is the ultimate hero’s journey. And Alabaster might turn out to be the man who caused the shake, but Damaya:Syenite:Essun is obviously the hero in this trilogy, and I’m thrilled to be in the audience while she performs the role of this archetype through investigation of truth and reality rather than through the brute force represented by numpty Marvel “heroes”.
As her reluctant guide and mentor, Alabaster is leading the way by trying to reconcile what he knows about his potential compared with what he has been told by society is his purpose. He has a access to a capacity and potential for orogeny that no one in the Stillness even knows about, let alone understands, about which he says:
“I don’t even know what I’m capable of, Syen. The things the Fulcrum taught me … I had to leave them behind, past a certain point. I had to make my own training. And sometimes, it seems, if I can just think differently, if I can shed enough of what they taught me and try something new, I might …”
And then “He trails off, frowning in thought”, which I find endearing because it romanticises how much time I spend doing the same face 🤔 What he is learning about his own capacity, along with the role of stone-eaters in the mystery unfolding in the Stillness, has to do with a “new” but-actually-old and progressive worldview that has long-been supressed by the power elite, but is emerging to challenge the narrative of the Stillness’ dominant scientific paradigm.
Sound familiar? There’s a parallel here with all the “new” sciences emerging today: the new physics, the new biology, the new mathematics (but not New Math?). By today I mean the last half of the twentieth century, but these things take time and a half-century is still just a blip really.
I love the overall metaphor that’s operating in The Fifth Season, and the awareness of what such metaphors catalyse in the subconscious of readers. IRL we know that the age of Western industrial capitalism cannot sustain itself indefinitely – that the greed engendered by its ideologies will eventually cause civilisation to eat itself unless a true civilisation emerges through the cracks, in the same way so-called weeds emerge through the cracks of dystopian pavement. The orogene are the “weeds” in this case.
And I don’t mean that in a disparaging way at all: I love weeds! And there’s no place, in our globalised economy that was always a global ecology, for denouncing one “plant” (read: human) over another because we humans believe we know better than Earth about where plants (or humans) should or shouldn’t be. There’s no place for denouncing one anything over any other anything, considering the limited capacity for perspective in the ream of ordinary human consciousness.
Demeaning orogenes at the same time as exploiting them for their other-worldly power is just the classic repugnant hypocrisy of elite power-mongers who must belittle and control others to feel good about themselves. It’s pathetic and we know this from our own experience of power-elites in Western culture, but what do we do about it?
One thing we can do is work on our own internal narrative to inoculate ourselves against the argument from the will to power: learn to cultivate self-worth and self-compassion, so that we don’t take our pain out on others or exploit them or the planet for the pleasures that would distract us from suffering; empower ourselves through interior cultivation of virtuous faculties, so that we are less tempted to play the elites’ power-games and less susceptible to their manipulative devices (e.g., advertising).
And if this process of inner-change feels painfully and frustratingly slow to the point of being futile, too-little too-late, we can take inspiration from Alabaster, whose fictional journey to overhaul his conditioned beliefs is the real work he’s doing in the Stillness. And we can rest into a faith that Gaia knows what she’s doing (this is where the concept of faith begins to make sense to me – not faith in some personal god or even in the teachings of a humble buddha, but in the machinations of a cosmos inhabited by Gaia).
In The Fifth Season, Father Earth knows better than the Fulcrum why the orogene have the power that they do, and the antagonist we most need to fear (in my reading of the metaphor so far) is our own ignorance of holistic planetary and cosmic systems that we so blithely fuck with in our hubristic anthropocentric way. And Father Earth is angry!
Do we live on “a planet that wants nothing more than to destroy the life infesting its once-pristine surface”, or does it just seem that way because our meddling is causing the planet to react in the same way a human body would react to an organ gone cancerous? Or the way an orogene reacts instinctively when threatened! Either way, I appreciate the reminder in this book that “human beings are ephemeral things in the planetary scale”.
These are the kinds of themes that lead us to the shift in narrative we need around our culture if we’re to survive the collapse we’re going through as a civilisation. The political elite in society pursue power and control because they are deluded in the belief that their worldview should be imposed on others, unaware that laws of karma and the machinations of the cosmos around them are unfolding a process they could never comprehend – the will to power arises from a deeply existential insecurity and inferiority complex, a deep frustration that we might never know the truth so we are better off manufacturing and propagating a truth that serves our deluded interests. I’m not even joking. When we understand this, we can begin to feel compassion for those who wish to exert power over others, knowing this wish is essentially psychotic.
So that’s where I left off with my last post about this excellent and (truly) epic sci-fantasy novel, which I am reading as slowly as possible because I want to savour it, imbibe those themes, steep myself in what the story is saying about the narratives we need to look at in our society. (I didn’t cover the whole psychosis idea in my last post, but this is the reading that’s beginning to emerge for me from The Fifth Season.)
Since my last update, Essun has been following Hoa’s lead south to find Nassun and they have picked up with Tonkee, the commless Seventh University trained transgender geomest who seems to be tagging along because of her fascination with Hoa. In the process of meeting Tonkee, Hoa has proved himself to be the most-bad-arse kid in the Stillness by turning a kirkhusa into crystal.
They have continued south and bumped into Ykka, who is harbouring the Stillness’ largest comm of orogenes and stone-eaters, underground in a network of old mineshafts that reminds me of the sandstone underground cities of Cappadocia in Turkey, and yet more mystery is being alluded to – apparently orogeny can be used to build, maintain and power systems of infrastructure, not just keep the fault-lines of Yumenes stable. This hints at the potential for benevolence in the orogenes’ power, though prior to now in the history of Sanzed the unknown force of orogeny has been feared and therefore loathed as malevolent. Ykka seems to know otherwise, and is making a stand to demonstrate this.
And Hoa has found a friend – the stone-eaters are fucking wicked, to allow myself the use of a term from 90s Adelaide boganalia. Ykka has manipulated him to acquiesce at the orogene comm, by threatening to reveal what the stone-eaters are up to if he doesn’t accept her command and authority. I suspect the stone-eaters’ plan is something like the aliens in The X-Files 😉
Syenite has encountered a stone-eater as well, in a development of epic proportions that I found hard to put down even though it was past midnight when I was reading these sections. Her and Alabaster have arrived in Allia, where Alabaster gave a deputy governor a very gratifying dressing down for her blatant bigoted rudeness. He nearly got poisoned to death, probably not for this act of conscientious subordination, but probably for his connection with the obelisk in the harbour – he’s still speculating about this himself. Through witnessing how he used supplemented orogeny to extract the poison from his body, Syenite has learnt something she didn’t know she’d need to know about connecting orogeny to the deadciv obelisks.
While Alabaster was out of action, Syenite has managed to raise the damaged obelisk, replete with embedded stone-eater, from the harbour of Allia’s caldera. This unexpected development has raised alarm bells among the Fulcrum’s Guardians and perhaps the stone-eaters are curious as well, because now Syenite and Alabaster are on an island, thanks to Alabaster’s stone-eater friend, Antimony. An island that’s not only independent of Sanzed but run by orogenes. This is like a dream come true for the revolutionary Alabaster, but I suspect it’s the precocious Syenite who is going to be the one to own the dip-shit Fulcrum incumbents because the age of elitist tom-foolery slash blatant unscrupulous exploitation of the Other has come to an end.
As Syenite and Alabaster approach the community on this island, they discuss their confusion and uncertainty about the role of stone-eaters in the paradigm shift underway in the Stillness, and Syenite thinks:
A stone-eater is a thing that defies reason – like orogeny, or deadciv artefacts, or anything else that cannot be measured and predicted in a way that makes sense.
They can “move through rock like it’s air”, which makes me think of how little I understand about Einstein’s spooky action at a distance.
But it’s not really the Fulcrum incumbents that are the problem – the ~shadow government~ of Guardian factions are the ones with the real power, which they are guarding well by keeping secrets behind a loose brick in the Fulcrum.
Which brings me to Damaya, who has passed her first year at the Fulcrum and we’ve seen something of the “order to life” in that institution: the pecking order and the social politics (synonyms?); Maxixe, Jasper and Crack have had their come-uppance for bullying Damaya. To be honest, the chapter where this unfolded was anomalous in my opinion, out of place and dictated more by the author’s need than by the narrative’s need, but then, who is one reader to say a narrative needs this or that? Which is more important when it comes to reading a text: the author’s intentions, the reader’s interpretation, or the narrative itself? The narrative, I would say: the author’s need and the reader’s desire for meaning mean nothing alongside the life of its own that a narrative assumes once it is loose in the wild.
What am I trying to say here though? Simply that this chapter felt contrived compared to the way the author has unveiled the rest of the narrative. This chapter, in trying to establish the socio-political world of the grits at the Fulcrum, broke the fourth wall for me. It made me realise I was being told a story, where previously I had felt like I was encountering an alternative universe where themes related to our IRL issues were being played out. It’s an exposition problem, essentially, but I don’t want to unpack that here because this is a progress report not a critical essay. There are exposition problems elsewhere in The Fifth Season but they are fewer and less problematic than so much other sci-fantasy, so at this stage the text still falls for me in the category of literary-genre fiction, which is where I like my reading to inhabit. So that’s good!
Damaya has noticed Binof and they have transgressed to find the hidden space at the heart of the Main building. They have been caught by Timay, who has been killed by Schaffa because she slipped a gear and started wigging out, I think because she neglected to maintain her connection with her orogene charges. There is something mysterious being alluded to here and I like that – the suspense, I suppose you could call it, but I feel that’s a bit vulgar when we’re talking more about skilful world-building than we’re talking about a well-plotted (but otherwise vacuous) thriller. The murky political role and purpose of the Guardians is coming unveiled in the Syenite narrative as well. There are secrets that may have been forgotten since those who knew them are long-dead. But up-starts and underdogs will discover the truth and undermine the elite whose power is built on the sandcastles of delusion. Even Binof, a child of the Leadership, has clued on to the fact there are dubious holes in the history of Sanzed, and secret decisions that might have been adaptive in antiquity, but have now become maladaptive. And Damaya knows that something is off about the way she’s being treated during her “education” at the Fulcrum.
I can’t explain it better than that – that’s just a sense I have about the themes being articulated between the lines of fiction here.
I spoke to an old eccentric guy at the book section of an op shop during the time I was reading the chapters I’m reporting on here, and we talked about the power of fiction to illuminate themes operating IRL that would be too difficult to digest if they were articulated directly in forms like non-fiction or journalism. Fiction gets into our subconscious in ways that more-direct narratives would block by causing us to constrict in fear, shame, resentment, et cetera. I’ve written about this before in reference to books like The Call by Peadar Ó Guilín and The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar and it’s one of my favourite things ever, the way fiction does this.
Damaya seems to have been rescued by Schaffa, but she must now pass the first-ring test to prove that she is useful enough to justify her being retained at the Fulcrum despite her potential for rogue volatility that could jeopardise the delusion of the elites’ power. And she has chosen her “rogga” name Syenite, so that’s unfolding.
I made the mistake of glancing at a fan wiki early in reading The Fifth Season and someone mentioned that Essun, Damaya and Syenite are all the same person, but I’m yet to read when Syenite takes on the name Essun. Essun has mentioned her aptitude for assuming new identities, and I know she was someone else prior to the ten years she spent at Tirimo, but I’m not rushing to connect the dots with her and Syenite’s trajectory – I like to experience the author’s expertise at doing this to me, the dear reader, and I wouldn’t want to deprive you, dear authors, of the thrill of wondering when the penny will drop.
Overall I’m enjoying the novel very much. One insignificant short-coming is that for me I’d like to see more of how the Season of Essun’s narrative is impacting the world. It is said that “the all-encompassing horror of the Season is still a shock that no one can cope with easily”, but apart from the kirkhusa turning into carnivores and a stream of now-comless refugees on the roads, the horror of the Season has not really been illustrated. It may be that the Fulcrum fell along with Yumenes during the Rifting in the north, and this will likely result in the demise of the human race, but we only suspect this through Essun’s deductions.
This short-coming doesn’t detract at all from how much I am enjoying the book – it’s just something I would enjoy reading more of. The main thing is that the themes are on point: the age of Western imperialism is coming to an end, and we can facilitate the transition from an exploitative to a collaborative culture by cultivating inner narratives that go against the grain of the overculture’s self-interested ideology.
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I wasn’t going to drop an affiliate link until I had finished it and could confidently vouch for it, but I’m going to take a punt: The Fifth Season by N K Jemisin.
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The affiliate links in case you missed them in the post and would like to purchase anything you’ve read about here:
The Call by Peadar Ó Guilín, an almost literary genre-thriller about fairies seeking vengeance for being exiled from Ireland.
The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar, a brilliant magic-realist novel about the Islamic Revolution of 1979, and “a family caught in the maelstrom of post-revolutionary chaos and brutality that sweeps across an ancient land and its people”. I have a review I wrote somewhere on another computer, which I will publish here soon.
I am enough; I come back to the present through my senses whenever I remember, and by doing so I gradually become more and more aware of reality, more grounded in the present, less fixated on the past or the future.
There is an internal narrative telling me that I need to be doing more of one certain thing or another – more productive, more efficient, more materially secure, etc,
but this is not all there is, not the whole story. Mental training, emotional resilience, psychological integrity … these are things I need to prioritise as the foundational prerequisites of holistic wellness.
I’ve been prioritising what I call “happiness habits” lately and it’s doing me well. I have a routine of rituals I do each morning, and a few other must-do’s each day, but otherwise I’m trying to refrain from having expectations other than this in my day. The situation with our co-tenant persists, which makes it hard to do much each day. Sometimes if all I can manage to maintain is my meditation practice I am happy.
I was talking to Nikki the other day about how much a regular practice of compassion meditation is helping me cope with our situation, and we talked about how such foundations must be built before anything else, and I really appreciate that.
I’m proud of having got myself to a place where I’m actually feeling pretty good among the pretty shitty situation we’re in with our co-tenant. I made the affirmation this morning that
I will keep up with observing the basics and not have majorly high expectations of myself to do a lot more
because I understand that’s where we start to go wrong in our culture: we try to achieve all this stuff because we think we need to prove ourselves, but in doing so we neglect the practices of being that would have us feeling worth without having to prove ourselves;
all motivation/intention must come from a place where we already recognise our inherent worth, otherwise that motivation will become tainted by the wish to be validated by others and we’ll be chasing this forever without satisfaction because no amount of external validation can fill the void where our self-worth should be;
anything we achieve to supplement our self-worth is going to suck worth out of the worth-economy, whereas anything we achieve from a sense of inherent self-worth is going to contribute worth.
I wrote about something similar recently, in a post called “on self-esteem as a precursor for achievement …” where I mentioned how societal expectations drive a lot of us to be always achieving, never satisfied to just exist and accept ourselves for our inherent worth.
I didn’t go into how we might cultivate that sense of inherent self-worth, but I’d like to drop a few thoughts here because a big part of the narrative shift I’m contributing to with Kokoro 心 Heart is about internal self-talk, which is where our sense of worth (or lack thereof) begins.
I believe the path to a sustainable and harmonious future on this planet is paved by creating a culture of individuals who are internally sustainable and harmonious. Because individuals create culture as much, if not more, than they are influenced by culture. We are culture, and the future is determined by the state of our present.
One way we can begin to create that culture of internally healthy individuals is by looking at our own self-talk. For me, there are some essential meditation and contemplation practices that are indispensable in healing my negative self-talk, and they are:
I spend some time each day reflecting on and practising these, and sometimes I find it hard to justify the time because I feel like I should be achieving something else … anything else, just not wellbeing.
But that’s absurd, and there’s a logic to be understood here: no amount of external achievement can satisfactorily supplement the sense of worth that comes from laying the foundation of these practices first; so the foundational practices need to come first, and are justified on these grounds.
Anything extra I can do, after I have done these exercises, is just the cream on top. If I have a really productive day, that’s just a cherry on top of the cream. Please excuse the shonky metaphor, but without that foundational cupcake we’re left with just a handful of whipped cream and a slimy glacé cherry.
The understanding we live by is arse-about in Western culture: we live for the external, and neglect the internal. But the internal is all that exists. This is a fundamental aspect of the narratives we need to change in ourselves and thereby our culture.