2c the shiny me


“Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

Today’s entry is inspired by a bit of dialogue from, “Return of the Jedi.”

Luke: Search your feelings, Father, you can’t do this. I feel the conflict within you. Let go of your hate.

Darth Vader: It is too late for me, son…

Luke: Then my father is truly dead.

Countless times, every morning, people ask, “How is it going?”  Nine times out of ten, I reflexively grunt back the obligatory, “Good.”  Once in a while, I will briefly do a quick self-assessment of my state of mind, before grunting, “Good.”  Same answer, but at least I thought about it.

When I am by myself and I really think about how I am, more often than not, I define myself as an emotional state.  I am OK (or more truthfully meh).  I am angry.  I am mad.  I am depressed.  I am disappointed.  I am unworthy.

Hmmm…I think I am seeing a trend.

Emotions are like asteroids in a gravity field.  Stuff gets clumped together.  Peebles becomes stones.  Stones become boulders.  Boulders become mountains.  Mountains become asteroids and asteroids become planets.

At its very core, a planet might have started out as a diamond or a nugget of gold.  But the planet is not defined by the initial bit of matter that started it, but by what predominantly makes it up its surface.  If you are surrounded by granite slabs, you are granite.

That is where I find myself.  I have always had a dark side.  But for much of my life it did not define me.  I was happy, funny, silly and a good friend.  But life took me through some rough territory and I allowed my environment to start to shape me.  Over time, my surroundings began to change me until now I am so corroded by anger, depression and despair that it defines me.

Like the quote above, I cannot let go of my hate because I feel that it is too late (that sounds like a Jesse Jackson quote).  My solution has been to binge, medicate and watch TV.   I eat and eat and eat.  I take enough antidepressants to choke a horse.  And I immerse myself in a world of television make believe.  Then when I am exhausted, I go to sleep.

I wear my unhappiness around my waist.  If left to my own devices, it will kill me.

Somewhere deep in my core, is the person I once was.  Choking between layers of fat is the best version of me.  But I cannot free that person.  He is imprisoned.

I need a power greater than myself to show me the way back.  I do not know who or what is out there, but I am calling and begging for help.

Help me.

Network Marketing


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When I was about 25, my boss invited me to a breakfast with “local business leaders.”  I was kind of honored.  I thought he might be sponsoring me for the Rotary or Elks club.  Everyone was dressed in business attire.  We arrived a few minutes late, but the guy who was speaking was very inspirational.  I was trying to figure out what “club” this was.  But since I was late, I put that question aside.  I figured I missed the introduction. 

The next guy got up and was equally dynamic.  He was talking about how he had made a substantial fortune using something called “network marketing.”  That was the first time I had heard that term.  I was intrigued.  He was drawing diagrams with concentric circles.  When he got the last circle, he used the dreaded word…Amway!

But my boss assured me that Amway was an outdated concept.  This was not that pyramid scheme my parents had warned me about.  This was a new paradigm.  I bit.  I should have run.  My parents told me it was a waste of money.  But I knew better…  

…Six months later, I moved.  I did not leave any forwarding information. 

It was in fact: a pyramid scheme.

But I am nothing if not naïve.  Fast forward twenty years later.  I was burned out on religion.  I was twisting and torturing my mind to hold on to my faith, but failing miserably.  Then a friend came along and started talking to me about the “nones.”  People who were spiritual but not religious.  Really?  Go on…

And so it began.  My 2 year attempt to re-brand my Christian faith into a new paradigm.  But wait you say, “Isn’t that the same ‘Ole Time Religion’?” 

Why no!…

…No, this is completely different…

…The clergy are not the drivers…

…This is about people…

Until…

…until its not.  At the end of the day, it is still about putting butts in the seats.  It is not about building up people.  It is about drawing a crowd and getting their money.  And if you do anything that threatens the bottom line, you will be tossed aside like a bad penny.

It is my own fault.  I let the parasites in.  I believed the hype. 

It stung like hell, but I think I am getting back to some sense of normalcy. 

Next post….12 steps to free your mind.

Eleanor Rigby


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Last Sunday, I attend a new church for the second time. During the sermon, I found myself thinking, “Why do I do this?” 

Why indeed.

I can think of dozens of “Why nots.” But I am running short on “whys.”

The only thing I could come up with is that I am lonely. But is it worth the emotional investment?

No answers…just questions.

Attachment and Engagement


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Here are thoughts for a rainy day from a practicing agnostic Christian Buddhist. I have been struggling of late with the third noble: suffering is the result of attachment. I think what I got hung up on was the antonym of attachment: detachment. Detachment denotes aloofness. Visions of a monk in a cave come to mind. That mode of being for me is completely unattainable. I cannot follow in the footsteps of the Buddha and just dump my family and traipse around the countryside searching for enlightenment. That kind of behavior would not only increase my own suffering, it would inflict it upon others.

Upon further reflection and a bit of poking around others blogs, I think I see the flaw in my logic. The opposite of attachment is detachment. That kind of thinking is dualistic, which Buddhism frowns upon. In all things, it is good to look beyond the extremes and focus on the “middle way.” Attachment is grasping, making a fist to hold onto what one owns or desires. It is not actively fleeing from anything; instead, it is not trying to possess what belongs to no one.

The reason I bring this up is because of issue my family is going through. My wife’s tenure at her job is coming to an end. To say it is a messy transition, would be an understatement. I have been raging for weeks and not really understanding why. I have been living in a pattern of avoidance. I wanted people to “do the right thing.” I kept expecting to behave in a typical “by the book” fashion. The more things degraded, the angrier I got. I had convinced myself that mine was the only way of seeing the situation and those holding a contrary view were just selfish. I thought in my arrogance that if I could just get people to see “the big picture”, everything would be resolved. The more I wanted to be understood, the angrier I got. The harder I tried to meditate the more my thoughts focused on perceived injustices and my own view of the situation.

On top of everything, her resignation had to be kept secret. This made the whole situation intolerable. We had to tell many half-truths and avoid other people all together. I felt dishonest in all of my interactions. But finally last night, the damn broke and the principle participants were told.

I feel like a huge burden has been lifted from my shoulders. The secret is out. And finally, I can focus on my own spiritual shortcomings. Upon reflection I can see that I have been wrapped up in how I expected others to behave…grasping, clawing. I had to let it go. I can’t fix things. I cannot make people see things my way. Things are what they are. And that has to suffice. This is a fixed point in time. I will probably always remember it. But this moment will pass. The lost relationships will hurt. But new relationships will be forged. I have to release what was never mine and wish all involved peace.

I am not there yet. But I am well on my way.

Hilarious


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When my son is in the hospital, my wife and I take shifts staying overnight with him.  That way there is always one coherent parent present when Drs and nurses come by.  In this last 6 day stint, Monday was one of my nights off.  When I got home I was so keyed up, I had to watch TV for a while before my mind would relax enough that I could sleep.  I watch several comedy specials on Netfliks.

One of the specials I watched was Louis CK’s “Hilarious.”  One of his bits was about Americans and their insistence on complaining while living in paradise.  He was joking about what a miracle cell phones are; but that Americans constantly gripe about them being slow or not working properly.  You have an amazing piece of technology.  But instead of being in awe, you nitpick over slight inconveniences.

As I drifted off to sleep that night, I realized how whiney I can sometimes be.  When my son is in the hospital, I bitch and moan to myself about how seeming unfair the universe is.  But I miss the lesson of how incredibly lucky I am.  I have access to a world class health facility.  I have amazing doctors and nurses working round the clock to transform my son’s broken body into a working whole.  I have great insurance that pays the bulk of my costs.  I have a job with generous vacation that allows me to be present at all of his surgeries.  I have constant access to the internet where friends and family show their love and support.  I have a strong marriage with an incredible woman.  I have a caring extended family.

In short, I have nothing to complain about.  Nothing.  Yes, my family was dealt a rough hand, but we have all of our bases covered.

I found my gratitude.  Thank you to my family.  Thank you to my friends.  And thank you to the dedicated professionals that work at Children’s National Medical Center.  I am in debt to the generosity of others.

Taming the Smoke Monster


1

Zen and Ben, they rhyme, that is about the only thing those two words have in common.

Not exactly true, but finding inner peace is not one of my strong suits.

I have moments, fleeting moments of insight.  I cannot imagine what true enlightenment would look like, but I can achieve several minutes of peacefulness if I really work at it.

My meditations most recently have focused on visualizing myself above my body.  My goal is to be the objective observer.  When I am successful at focusing on this existential existence, I am able to release a lot of the anxiety that presses against me every day.

I imagine myself floating a few feet away and I try to observe what “Ben” is doing.  I will say things to myself like, “Wow he seems really angry. That is not me.  That is a body experiencing anxiety.”

It may sound simplistic, but the effect is pretty profound.  When you partition off part of your brain to be a simple observer, that proxy is able to calm the “real” person down.  As I distance myself from my body, I am able to shut off some of the physiological reactions I have.  The adrenalin pumps shut off and eventually the hormones already in my system burn out.  The real trick is knowing when to begin meditating.  9 times out of 10, I just experience the anxiety…OK rage.  But it used to be 10 times out of 10.  So 1 is something.

The Black Hole


Deep inside of me there is a black hole.  It is a malevolent mass of pure evil.  Were it to be freed, I might be capable of doing unthinkable things.

Usually, it is under wraps.  It is buried so deeply in my psyche, that under normal circumstances, I cannot even access it.  But under prolonged stress, like the last 5 months, it bubbles up close to the surface.

I don’t have to say or do anything.  But the people around me know it’s there and can sense its presence.  My boss, my wife and my kid have all seen it.  I am sure it raises the hairs on the back of their necks.  My hands shake, my teeth are clenched and I am barely able to speak.

It scares me that there is something so negative inside of me.  I feel out of control when it surfaces.  I am able to control my actions, but just barely.

I have a lot of compassion for those who find themselves in the criminal justice system.  I know that given the wrong set of circumstances, I too could be in their shoes.

The Long Slog


Most days, VACTERL is just a pain in the ass.  It’s just time consuming and it wastes your child’s time, your time and family time.  There is a checklist of tasks that you must worry about every day, which normal families take for granted.  But over time any set of tasks can become routine to the point that they just become background noise.  This is how it has been most of my child’s life.  It is our normal and for the most part, we are happy.

But periodically, life is disrupted by a major crisis.  There is a new set of tasks that MUST be performed to prevent dire consequences.  Some of these crises are predictable others are totally random.  It is in the midst of these major crises that despair can set in.

I am in moving through one of those periods right now.  We are working through a painful procedure and a long road of challenging physical therapy.  Sometime it is just unbearable to watch your child go through excruciating pain.  While his peers are dealing with the loss of a soccer game, my kid is learning to walk again.  It rocks your world view and it is a drain on the soul.

The day after my son’s latest surgery, I got a call while I was eating in the hospital cafeteria informing me that my closest friend at work died suddenly of a heart attack.  Add to that problems at work in general and you have the perfect storm.

Fortunately, I have learned that these times of despair are transient.  As bad as I am feeling, as disappointed I am with the world and my problems, I know that this is not forever.  Things may suck for another month, another quarter or for a year.  But eventually balance will be achieved and some measure of happiness will be a part of my life.

Joy may be elusive today.  But at some point it will be in my grasp again.

The Swinger


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When my son was first born, I was on the cusp of going into the ministry.  Because I was quasi clergy, I felt that I had to put a positive spin on everything.  I said obnoxious things like, “thank God this happened to us.  We have the resources and a strong relationship.  We can deal with this.”  Or, “God is good all the time.”  I tried to be publically upbeat.  When we were in the hospital or at doctor’s appointments, I was always upbeat and even joked with nurses and orderlies.  I avoided any public display of emotion.  Only when I was completely overwhelmed would I let it come out.  (One notable example was when I was in the hospital gift shop.  I was getting something, I do not recall what.  The cashier asked me how my baby was.  I burst into tears and left without making my purchase.  I avoided the gift shop the rest of the stay.)

As guys, we have it drilled into us from a young age to keep our shit together.  I occasionally would allow myself to cry in the car.  But for the most part, I just stuffed it down into a dark part of my soul.  People would ask me how my son was doing and I would give a very clinical description, sometime more than they wanted to know.  But if they asked how I was doing, I would just say, “I’m hanging in there.”  It was complete and total malarkey.

This was a recipe for disaster.  I began having road rage.  I would blow up and my employees and colleagues.  I swore like a sailor.  My face began to change.  At work I went from being the Gentle Ben to the Mountain Troll.  For the first time in my life, people were afraid of me.  My stellar career and my clergy calling quickly dissolved.  The angrier I got, the more I stuffed it into the dark place, this made me angrier.  It was a vicious circle.

Eventually things just started to disintegrate.  My world got smaller and smaller, to the point where I had just two friends at work and my immediate family.  Something had to change.  Then, quite by accident, I discovered blogging.  My first blog was all funny stuff.  I have a decent sense of humor and I wrote whimsical little stories about my life.  But every now and then I gave peeks behind the curtain.  People would occasionally be offended but for the most part they were very supportive.

As the years went by, I became more honest and graphic.  I stopped sugar coating what was happening and just went with the brutal truth.  I occasionally cringe when I read those entries.  But on the whole, I felt better.  I also started attending seminars on spirituality.  I started sharing my story in real time with other people.  What I found was that they had equally heart breaking stories with different themes.  Slowly the realization sunk in that everyone is carrying around these heroic stories of survival.  The more I told my story and the more I heard their stories, the better I felt.  I learned to embrace my darker emotions.  If I was sad, I found an outlet for expressing my sadness.  If I was pissed off, I would find a way to vent my anger.  Denying that I had these feelings was pointless and self-destructive.

So if you read my blog and you see that I am in the pits of despair, it is OK.  I am just letting off steam.  Writing is a freeing experience.  I am not always an emotional wreck.  Often I am happy.  Sometimes it is just for a moment, sometime for days.  The pendulum of my life swings wildly.  I am at peace with that because no matter the state, nothing is permanent.

So whether you’re having a great or a rotten day, don’t be afraid of it.  Recognize it for what it is and know that it will not always be that way.

Vergence, Part 3, the Practice


I start this entry by describing the best class of my undergraduate years.  It was my final semester and I was taking 19.5 units.  By that time, I had completed all my religious studies and I had only upper division psychology classes, including my thesis left.  Oh, and one pesky general ed. class.  I needed at least one fluff class that did not require much work.  Theory of drama filled the ticket nicely.  As described by my fellow undergraduates, you could take the class for pass/fail, you watch 1 movie a week at the professor’s house and then you had to make one intelligent comment about the movie, piece of cake.

This description had to be a load of crap.  Nothing could be that easy.  But it was.  And it was one of the most transformative experiences of my life.

Now I had always been a movie buff.  I never missed an opportunity to see movies when I was a kid.  Once I could drive, I routinely saw a couple of movies or more a week.  And that continued right into college.  But like most things American, I was a super consumer of movies, quantity not quality.  Actually the class’s professor was the “superest” of super consumers.  The walls of his house were covered with cinderblock shelves of VHS tapes, at least a thousand tapes with 3 movies a piece…but I digress.

Don, the professor, showed the movie and would ask people what they thought.  Here is a typical exchange:

Don:  What did you like?

Student:  I liked the character Eliza.

Don:  Really, what did you like about her?

Student:  She wanted something better.

Don:  Yes, she did.  And did she get it?

Student:  Well not exactly.

Don:  How so?

Student:  Well she ended up getting more than she could ever dream of.

Don:  I see.  Well that was nice.  Then she could go back to her normal life.

Student:  Well not exactly?

Don:  Oh?  Why not?

Student: Well, she had been transformed.

Don:  And have you ever experienced that?  Wanting something small and getting way more than you bargained for and in the process being transformed into something completely different?

Student:  Well, now that you mention it…

This exchange would commonly turn into a tearful gestalt effect where the kid’s whole life was transformed.

Don:  Who else?

Student2:  Well I liked the lighting.

Don:  Oh?…

I bring this up because memory up because as I try and incorporate my past with my future, this class serves as one possible model.

Much in the same way I consumed movies, in bulk, I think a lot of people are experiencing bulk lives.  They work too many hours, they traipse around the cities to attend their children’s activities, they eat out, they may go to church, they watch some TV, they listen to the radio, and they do lots and lots of stuff.  To use an old joke, I think most people hope that in the middle of all this shit, there has got to be a pony.

Church, Religion and spirituality is just one of the many things that we do, like going to the movies.  We go to these tightly scripted services and hope to be transformed.  But 55 minutes into it, we are already thinking about what comes next. “Where should we have lunch?  I hope it is good.”  Well it is never going to be good.  It is just going to OK at best and intolerable at worst.  But wait, in 45 minutes we are going shopping.  I hope we will find something good.

What would happen if after church the following dialogue took place?

Seeker 1:  Did you enjoy church?

Seeker 2:  No, I was bored.

Seeker 1:  Oh, why did you think it was boring?

Seeker 2:  The room was felt like a conference room.  The music sounded like pop music from the radio.  There were announcements like the local news.  And the sermon was an old rerun on TV.

Seeker 1:  Wow, that is a lot of stuff.  It sounds like what you do all week.

Seeker 2:  Exactly!

Seeker 1:  Sounds like you have a pretty mundane life.  What do you wish your life was like?

Seeker 1:  I…I…I don’t know.

Seeker 2:  Now we are getting somewhere…

For many of us Church is one of the many things we do.  It is a habit carried through childhood.  Or it might have been an authentic transformational force in our lives.  But as is often the case with transformational experiences, once the transformation is done, habit kicks in.  If you remain on the consumer side of the equation, it gets stale and becomes just one of the many things you do.

Is that the churches fault?  Maybe.  I thought so in an earlier draft/rant.  But having given it a bit more thought, I am not so sure.  I have known people transformed by Quakers and people transformed by rock concerts.  Different strokes for different folks.  Is one inherently better than the other?

Back to the movies, is the “Elephant Man” better than “My Fair Lady?”  (side note:  My wife would have a definite opinion on that statement.  I get a very different reaction when I say, “Papaplethed to meech chu your majusty” than when I sing The Rain in Spain.)  They are two very different movies with very different views of the world.  Yet both of those movies were in the class that I loved.

What made both of them great movies was dissecting them both and then reintegrating them into our own lives, using conversation.  Now in my class there were a couple of luddites who made consistently stupid comments and there were definitely movies like “Honky Tonk Freeway” that would never make the Theory of Drama Class.  But when quality movies met quality conversation, it was magic.

For the longest time, I was spiritually adrift.  I never missed more than a week of church.  I showed up and good things were happening all around me.  But showing up is not being present.  I sat off to the side.  I only spoke during the greeting time and I departed like a bat out of hell when it was over.  I got exactly what I put into it which was really nothing at all.  I was caustic and sarcastic and basically unreachable while sitting in the sanctuary.

Then one day, over one cup of coffee, I bitched for an hour about god, spirituality and the dismal state of “the church.”  The person listening said, “Your right, now let me show you how to change it.”  That conversation led to another, and another, and another.  Bit by bit, story by story, spirituality has worked its way back into my life.

I am not sure I will ever fit back into the mold of classic Christianity.  During the church services, I still rarely if ever participate beyond going through the motions.  I have become so insulated that very little gets through anymore.  But put me in a room with a dozen people who start telling stories about their lives and I will not shut up.

Maybe my life was too much “Just do it.” And not enough of “Just do it…and then talk about it with others.”  Naw, really it was more like, “Stew about it,” alone and in complete misery.

1200 words and going nowhere fast.  Say goodnight, Benji.

Goodnight!