Sonder

Sonder — noun. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.

The sun was just beginning to set as we walked up to the big double doors of the small venue. March had carried spring in tow, threatening to blossom into an early summer. The soft, warm air was a balm to my soul. The rays of sunlight falling below the skyline did a lot to soothe my seemingly constant inner agitation.

Unlike most buildings that remain ever frigid with artificially cooled air, breaking through the threshold of security exposed a room that was even warmer than the outdoor air. So many bodies packed so tightly together, waiting in eager anticipation of the show that was about to begin any minute, produced a strong human scented heat.

Drinks in hand, we found our place behind the sound booth. I couldn’t help but glance again and again at the beautiful human at my side. What a joy to be here, with him. To see him smile, to hold his hand, as we waited together happily. The first band, one neither of us knew, was just beginning to set up.

As the first chords rang out through the theatre, the loosely packed crowd began to swell and tighten, threatening to suffocate me. I felt the hair on the back of my neck rise as my heart resisted this perceived danger and discomfort. A few deep breaths and it was all okay again. A swirling sentiment of togetherness and companionship swelled within me. These people are all here, filled with hope and happiness and most likely alcohol, just like me, and right now, in this moment, I love them all.

Without the distraction of songs that held personal meaning for me, there was a budding curiosity that took hold. What a beautiful thing to see this small opening band standing in the spot light, living their dream. How lovely it is that I get to be here to see it, to support it. That we are all here, this crowd that is my family for one sensational night. Tears tottered on the edge of my eyelids. Each song felt like a message being sung just to me, just for my partner and I, as we swayed gently together in the darkness.

Somehow I ended up liking the opening bands even more than the headliner. While the main band played, I found myself becoming listless and distracted. How long had we been here? How many more songs would be played? Just as I began to fidget and fret, I shifted my focus back to my new family, this crowd of perfect strangers. I was overcome with that strange love once again as I watched them in rapturous, animated, happiness. What might these songs mean to them? What story brought them to this band? What is the significance of this night in their distant, unknown lives?

I was overcome with the fascinating reality of the many lives that pass by me everyday unnoticed. The feeling of connection and disconnection tangling around me simultaneously. The mystery hidden behind the eyes of my fellow humans. The heart opening experience of reveling in the joy of others we do not, nor will we ever, truly know.

As we filed quickly out of the crowd and stumbled down the packed streets to the car, my heart felt fuller than it had in a long, long time. It held a precious lesson to itself in silence. There is always happiness if you’re willing to look for it. There is no difference between my own happiness and that of another. Sometimes it’s just as enjoyable, perhaps even more so, to share the pleasure of another, especially when we find ourselves struggling. Human connection is a strange, magical thing, and the other party may not even realize it’s happening.

Feeding the Bad Wolf

A grandfather is talking with his grandson:

“I have a fight going on in me,” the old man said. “It’s taking place between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.”

The grandfather looked at the grandson and went on. “The other embodies positive emotions. He is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. Both wolves are fighting to the death. The same fight is going on inside you and every other person, too.”

The grandson took a moment to reflect on this. At last, he looked up at his grandfather and asked, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee gave a simple reply. “The one you feed.”

Cherokee Parable

One of my favorite podcasts recites this parable at the beginning of every episode. I’ve always loved this story, even if it does get a bit annoying hearing it every single time I listen to “The One You Feed.” Still it’s always interesting to hear what each guest has to say about it. My favorite spin so far is from a guest named Steve Hagen.

Hagen made the distinction that it is not just about which wolf we feed, but what we are feeding them. We still have to feed the “bad” wolf. We feed it kindness and love and compassion, the same as we do for the “good” wolf. For me this is such an important thing to remember. While the parable of two wolves is profound and inspirational, it can also be the first step on the path toward toxic positivity.

We all have these two conflicting sides inside of us. It may not always be as simple as “good” and “bad” though. It might seem straightforward enough to starve the bad wolf, imagining eventually that dark side of ourselves will lie down and die. It’s much harder to comprehend and accept, that although we may dislike aspects of our character, we need both of these wolves. Ultimately they are both a part of us. To truly heal and grow, we have to make peace between the many facets of ourselves and learn to integrate them all into a cohesive whole.

For many years now, I have been attempting to starve my bad wolf. Ironically, this hateful energy, even when directed towards hate itself, does the exact opposite. The parable never really gets into what precisely it means to “feed” these wolves. The “bad” wolf is being fed from the very bitterness we feel towards it. In the same sense, if we try to disregard it and ignore that side of ourselves completely, it becomes more depraved and more unpredictable in its desperate attempt to avoid starvation. A hungry wolf is a fearsome animal indeed.

Labeling one side of ourselves as bad, and the other as good, is doing a disservice to the complex tapestry we call life. Saying that we have a bad wolf elicits feelings of anger and self-hatred rather than equanimity. It’s our job to befriend both wolves and find harmony within the chaos.

The Fight of Two Wolves Within You | Dean Yeong

Scorched Earth

Wielding knowledge like a weapon
I was a foolish warrior
Gathering sources and citations
I will shake you from this sleep

But the heavy lidded would not rise
the passionate tides of my pride
crashed silently against indifferent minds
I languish, froth, and writhe

Open wounds in salty water
there is no healing here
neurosis turned necrotic
consciousness confined quickly corrodes

Uncovering the empty container
of human empathy
mankind's compassion reduced to crumbs 
on kitchen counters

The swelling heat of unrequited rage
from years of fanning flames
burns behind tormented, tearful eyes
consumed in dancing tongues of frustrated fire

The elemental nature of my indignation
once extinguished, leaves only damp ashes
soggy reminders of sparks of joy
suffocated hopes gone up in smoke
Scorched earth by arcipello on DeviantArt

Managing Sudden Change

There Are 5 Common Anger Styles. Which One Is Yours? – PureWow

Change is scary. Especially when it’s unexpected. Sometimes even a good change can cause extreme levels of anxiety when it happens suddenly. Today I find myself struggling with that kind of change. All week I have been eagerly awaiting the weekend. I desperately needed a full day to rest and recharge. I have been feeling so overwhelmed and ungrounded. I was so happy that the weekend had finally arrived so that I could just relax and do some boring housework.

However, last night, out of nowhere, my boyfriend tells me that a few of his friends are going to drive down to the city near me tonight and wants us to hangout tomorrow. I felt my breath catch in my chest. I was filled with horror, dread, despair, and anger. How can he expect me to drop everything and see him on such short notice? How can I possibly get out of this? How can I mentally bear to go another full week with no chance to emotionally and energetically recover? I want to scream, to cry, to hide myself away, to disappear completely.

Amidst this already chaotic swirl of emotion I also felt immense guilt and shame for my involuntary reaction. The anger that I was initially directing outward at him for being “inconsiderate” was now turned back on myself for being so rigid and ungrateful. I was ashamed of my inflexible, violent nature. I couldn’t help thinking about the way a “normal” person would have reacted to the same surprise. An impromptu chance to see someone I love who I haven’t been able to be with in over a month? What an amazing opportunity! How fortunate! How exciting! That’s probably what most people would think. The layers of unwanted, uncomfortable emotions I was already feeling were condensed even more tightly around my heart by this realization and the guilt that it produced.

I spent all morning in a brutal battle with my own thoughts and feelings, arguing with myself, making excuses, imagining hateful words to spew at others and myself for the injustice of any inconvenience to my incredibly easy and privileged existence. My yoga class was undoubtably terrible earlier. I felt like a fraud, unworthy to lead my class with such a childish inner torrent raging inside of me. “None of this will matter at all next week, next month, next year.” I keep telling myself that. I keep reminding myself that at the end of my life, would I really be happy making a decision to sour this unexpected chance to be with my beloved simply because my house would have to remain uncleaned for yet another week? What is going to matter on my deathbed? Sundays spent in monotonous home maintenance or moments shared with those most important to me? Obviously the latter. So how can I still feel so unsafe inside?

Mental illness is not rational. That’s what it always comes down too. I can’t expect to explain away these feelings. I must make peace with the fact that logic and reason won’t make these thoughts and emotions go away. I have to accept them. I have to sit with them, watch them, get curious about them, learn from them. Instead of doing that, I busily flew around my house this morning trying to leave for my class on time after waking up late, planning a detailed message to send to my boyfriend. “You need to account for ‘x’ if you want ‘y’. I need this, this, and this, so I can be comfortable. These are all the ways in which you need to accommodate and tiptoe around my anxiety and OCD.”

Luckily I was too rushed to send anything until I had had a chance to calm down a bit. On my long drive to the studio, I had time to think. Is it really right for me to insist the people in my life enable me to continue on being enslaved to my unhealthy sense of control? Why should anyone else be burdened by these irrational “requirements”? That wouldn’t be good for them or for me. Once again, I was trying to mold the world into what I think it should be, to make every moment suit my personal preferences. I was placing the blame on the event (a sudden change of plans) instead of on my inner reaction (discomfort, anxiety, anger.) I can’t manipulate the world around me in a way that will shield me from these emotions. What I can do is learn how to tend to the emotions themselves.

Everything that we initially view as negative, irritating, or upsetting can ultimately be transformed in our mind into an opportunity for self study and inner growth. It’s easy to say that I want to be enlightened, that I want to find inner peace, but it’s much harder to be given the chance to cultivate that peace and enlightenment. It’s moments like these, the instances that cause avoidance and rejection to rise up inside of me, that are my greatest lessons, my greatest opportunities to practice being who I want to be.

Earlier this week, my friend at work accidentally dropped a mug on my favorite bowl and broke it. A few years ago, this would have devastated me. I may have even cried. Definitely would have harbored a silent anger and resentment toward my friend. Yet that day, after an initial jolt of disappointment and irritation, I saw an opportunity present itself. Instead of focusing on myself and my misfortune, my focus shifted to my friend. “She must feel so badly,” I thought with compassion. In that moment all I wanted was for her to know that I still felt nothing but love for her. That was what mattered, not an inanimate object.

Even though I’m not sure she fully believed me, I quickly told her that it was okay. I told her that I had been taught recently that we should perceive everything we have in this life as already being broken. That way we can enjoy it in the moment, and still be able to let it go when the time comes. I thanked her for giving me the chance to practice non-attachment and letting go. And I was thankful, surprisingly. I was even excited to witness the inner progress I had made. I genuinely wasn’t upset. I was actually eager to use this moment for my spiritual growth, to turn it into something much more valuable than a silly bowl.

Now I see that moment as preparation, a warm-up, for this weekend. Can I also practice letting go of my plans and the way I think things should be? Can I learn to embrace change instead of immediately rejecting it? Can I actively teach myself that I will be okay even when things don’t go the way I thought they would? These are all questions I have to ask myself today, ways in which I must now challenge myself. This weekend is a spiritual gift, even though it may not look like it right now.

I am going to be grateful. I choose to be grateful. I am going to stop being so upset with myself for the fact that it is a hard choice to make. Instead I am going to be proud of myself for even having the option. Not long ago, this choice wouldn’t have even been available to me. I would have been so lost in my immediate reaction that I would have completely missed this chance to shift perspective. Now thanks to my yoga practice and all the hard work I’ve been doing for years, I am able to see more clearly. I am more easily able to observe the storm inside myself without being sucked into it. The storm is still there, even as I write these words, but I’m going to sit with it for awhile, with compassion, with empathy, with curiosity, and with love.

How to Stop Your Mind From Wandering During Meditation | Psychology Today

Empathy for All

I consider myself incredibly lucky to work in such an interesting field. Psychology has always fascinated me, but actually working with kids and families in my community has broadened my horizons even more than I could have imagined back when I was still in school. Given that I’ve struggled with social anxiety for the majority of my life, it seems strange to me that I would have such a good time working is social services. However, I’ve learned to be more fascinated than fearful of people. Even so, I also believe that I am on the autistic spectrum which I feel gives me an interesting perspective on interpersonal matters. I have always been able to set aside my emotions around a subject or situation fairly easily and act based on logic and facts rather than my feelings.

I’ve learned throughout my life though, that this analytical character of mine can often be seen as cold and calculating by those around me. Many times I have offered up an opinion about something that seems perfectly logical to me, but has been terribly shocking and offensive to others. For instance, a recent conversation I’ve had with a friend at work sticks out to me. We were discussing the idea of legalizing all drugs and illicit substances. We both agreed that at face value, this seems like a shocking and unethical idea. I think most people have a gut reaction to this proposal that causes them to condemn it right away. However, I have read the research on this idea from countries where similar policies have been implemented. It came as a surprise to me, but legalizing these substances actually has the opposite effect than you would expect. Rather than more people abusing drugs and overdosing, there are less instances of this behavior. This is because people are more easily able to reach out for help. There is less of a stigma surrounding drug abuse. People that use are also able to do so more safely than they are when it’s illegal, which results in less instances of overdose and infection.

After discovering this data, I was fully on board with legalizing all drugs. Even though my emotional reaction to the idea remained unchanged. It still felt like a bad idea, but I was confident in the science enough to overlook my personal biases. However, when I shared this information with my coworker, he refused to change his position on the matter. I asked him, “So you’re still against it even if it results in less drug abuse?” This seemed so interesting to me. That even highly intelligent people will often side with their emotions rather than the facts.

A similar discussion came up the other day at a meeting with people we work with on cases of child abuse. We began discussing the idea of virtual child pornography or child sex dolls. Of course the idea is repulsive. Everyone’s initial reaction is of disgust and condemnation. Yet, I remain convinced that if there is data that shows these things lessen the likelihood that actual children will be abused, then I think they should be allowed. I’m not aware that there is any such data. It could very well be the exact opposite. But even in this hypothetical situation, no one else would agree that this should ever be legal. Even if it stops children from being abused. Once again, I was left feeling amazed at the irrationality of these smart individuals.

I am careful to watch what I say, lest I upset anyone, but a lot of the time, I don’t find it as easy to condemn the alleged perpetrators as I feel I should. Obviously child abuse of any kind is inexcusable and all measures must be taken to protect children from these offenders. However, this doesn’t make me incapable of still feeling sorry for everyone involved. After all, a lot of pedophiles were once the innocent victims. This obviously doesn’t justify their crimes, but it does somewhat explain them. We are unable to just cast these people out of society. The fact remains that putting them in prison for ten years doesn’t solve the problem. They are very likely to go on offending as soon as they are released. The science has shown that as upsetting as it is, pedophilia is a sexual orientation. It is something that cannot be changed. These people must learn how to control these urges and understand that although they cannot control their thoughts, they are able to control their actions. If they are considered monsters by society for their thoughts alone, why wouldn’t they give in to their urges? There needs to be an effort to rehabilitate these people, not just punish them.

Often we will interview a child because they have been abusing other children. We won’t ask them about what they’ve done, rather we try to ascertain whether or not something has happened to them that is causing them to act out this abuse on others. I think it’s very interesting that when a child hurts another child, we still feel empathy and compassion for both of them. It makes me wonder at what point we draw the line. When does a troubled child become an unforgivable adult? Does the limit of our compassion end at eighteen? Why do we make that distinction?

I find it hard to make sense of this divide, even though I do feel it viscerally within myself. It is much easier to vilify an adult than a child for the same crime. At the same time it seems illogical to arbitrarily make a decision that someone isn’t culpable at 16 but they are at 18. How exactly were they expected to “fix themselves” now that they are legally an adult? This atmosphere of shame and condemnation only makes it harder for the “undesirables” in society to seek help. Apparently in the U.S. you may be reported to the authorities for even mentioning you feel sexually attracted to minors to your therapist, even if you’ve never acted on those urges.

At the end of the day, despite our feelings on these difficult matters, we need to act and make decisions in a way that results in the best outcomes for society as a whole. Sometimes it may end up to be something that at face value seems counterintuitive. But we’ve got to learn to look past our emotional impulses and trust the data. I certainly don’t know all the answers to these very challenging questions. I just hope that we can be objective and open as we continue to search for those answers.

Photo by Alex Green on Pexels.com

Growing Pains

Perhaps many things inside you have been transformed; perhaps somewhere, someplace deep inside your being, you have undergone important changes while you were sad.

Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

I think a lot of people who suffer from depression, anxiety, or other mental illnesses often have the impression that these disorders have wasted days, months, even years of their lives. I certainly have been feeling that way, this year especially. Looking back on 2020, it seems like I didn’t accomplish anything. The whole year flew by in an isolated haze of anxiety and self-destructive behaviors. And I don’t think I’m alone in my view of this year given the global pandemic and the negative mental health consequences many are experiencing because of it.

The other day I stumbled across the quote included above, and it helped me to challenge this perspective. Perhaps the many days that were shrouded in depression and anxiety weren’t wasted after all. I mean, I certainly would not be who I am today without them.

When I was younger, I used to think bad experiences ruined you. But now I sort of think those experiences are what create the best among us. Has there ever been a truly inspiring, talented human being that has not known great suffering? While there is certainly a lot we lose in times of despair, I think we also gain quite a lot.

Personally I think I would be insufferable if not for the hardships I’ve dealt with in my life. I would be much more arrogant, selfish, and coldhearted. My struggles and suffering have humbled me considerably. They have given me immense empathy and understanding. Things I don’t know if I would have developed otherwise.

These times of depression and doubt were important, crucial even. The suffering we feel is simply growing pains. It is a needed dose of tough love from the universe. It makes us stronger, wiser, more caring. On the surface it may appear that this time is being wasted, but underneath significant changes are taking place.

This realization may not make these times in our lives any easier, but I hope it can at least provide some small comfort. Days spent in bed feeling defeated are not days wasted. Allow yourself this time. You are not broken. You are not ruined. You are not a waste. You are growing. You are healing. This suffering is a burden, but it can also be a blessing if we choose to learn from it.

Your worth is not determined by your ability to be productive. There is value in every experience, not just the pleasurable ones. So try to be gentle with yourself. It’s okay to spend a year resting. Take as much time as you need. It is not a waste.

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Humans Aren’t Bad, Our Systems Are Bad

The more I read of Daniel Quinn’s work, the more I start to embrace humanity’s potential. As I’ve stated in other posts, I’ve always felt a stronger kinship with other species than I have with my own. It is hard to feel as loving toward humans when we are constantly bombarded with news and real life examples of people at their worst. It makes us start to believe that humans must just be inherently flawed, selfish, ignorant, violent beings.

However, learning about the ways in which the societal systems we’ve built up throughout the centuries affect us is beginning to change the way I see my fellow humans. We are all the product of our environments. I do believe we have free will to a certain extent. But the choices we can make are limited by a lot of factors. A major one of those factors, I’ve come to realize, is our society itself.

Now I believe that if humans were still living within the same structure of community we once did, a more natural one, we would be just as innocent and lovable as other animals. I may even believe that other animals could become as disturbed as humanity is if placed in the same detrimental systems we’ve placed ourselves within.

I hope that this new perspective will help me be more gentle and loving towards other humans. Now that I can clearly see the bars of our collective prison, it’s harder to blame anyone for their poor choices or violent actions. In reality, crime, poverty, severe mental illness, famine, corruption, these things are not natural parts of humanity. They don’t reflect who we are as a species. They are merely the symptoms of a larger problem. Our systems. Our systems of government and the ways we have all been conditioned to live.

I have felt like a victim of these systems for so long. I’ve desperately wanted to escape into the forest and leave this life behind. Live close to the earth as I feel we were all meant to. Yet for some reason, I didn’t think that was a normal desire. I felt like an outlier. That most people were comfortable and happy with the way humanity has been heading. And maybe a lot are. But that doesn’t change the fact that my instincts turned out to be right. We aren’t made to live in this way. It brings out the worst in us. It makes us hurt one another. It causes mental illness, aberrant behaviors, endless suffering, subjugation, environmental devastation, mass extinction, war, hunger, disease, death, etc.

I can no longer find blame in any individual now that I see the true error of our society. One that no one person created or decided upon. One that was thrust upon all of us. One we feel powerless to change. One we wouldn’t really know how to fix if we wanted to at this point. We are all in this mess together. And it’s no one’s fault. I don’t have the answers to these problems. I don’t even really believe we have enough time to fix them before we’ve damaged the earth beyond the point at which it can support us.

What I can do is be kind while I’m here. I can stop seeing the worst in people. I can stop harshly thinking “they should know better,” “they should be better.” Instead I can acknowledge and focus on the good, that glimmer of animal innocence inside all of us. Instead I can think “thank you,” “you are doing your best with what you’ve been given.” Because in the end I do believe that’s true. We are all doing our best. The fact that hasn’t been good enough for me a lot of the time made me think humans were the problem. Now I finally see that is not the case.

From now on when I see another human, I’ll think about Pitbulls. They are not bad dogs. They are not mean dogs. They are simply a product of their experience and their environment. And just like with Pitbulls, even the ones trained to be dangerous, I will love them anyway.

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