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Empathy for a Teenage Werewolf

April 10, 2014

[Spoiler Alert: If you have not watched the season 3b finale of Teen Wolf, go no further. Come back later.]

They killed Allison on Teen Wolf. Okay, it may seem ridiculous, but I’m grieving for this television show and it’s really interfering with my functioning today. I can feel it physically in my body, a weight on my heart and behind my eyes. The funny thing is, Allison was never my favorite character, but she was the love interest of the protagonist, Scott, and best friends with some of the other characters. I’m not grieving for Allison so much as grieving for the grieving of the other characters. And although I know intellectually that this is fiction, my body can’t tell the difference.

This semester I’ve been learning Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy, created by Richard C. Schwartz, which includes its own psychological model. The model is not designed to reflect any kind of physical or ontological reality, but to reflect felt experience and use imagery. It uses metaphor to figuratively ‘re-parent’ and heal wounded parts of our psyche and literally ‘rewire’ parts of our brain. The reason metaphor and imagery can rewire our brain is because our brain doesn’t know the difference between a perceived thing ‘out there’ and an imagined thing ‘in here.’

By imaginatively ‘going back’ to those points in our lives where we were hurt and doing for our remembered selves what we wish someone else had been able to do for our actual self at the time, we heal the trauma rather than relive it. We can retrieve those lost parts of our self from the dark places where they are trapped, not all at once, but little by little. At least, this is the theory of how IFS works. We’d have to do therapy in an MIR machine to be sure, but scientists have a pretty good handle on neuroplasticity now and therapists have a pretty good handle on the outcomes of IFS, so it isn’t so far-fetched to posit how they work together.

As the latest season finale of Teen Wolf demonstrates, my heart doesn’t care all that much if Allison, Scott, and the rest of the pack are fictional or not. The same thing happened earlier in year, with the fourth season of Downton Abbey that actually caused me to stop watching the show entirely because I felt so traumatized by the events. It’s the reason I don’t care for horror movies and thrillers. Real life is hard enough, thank you, and without the healing connection of a relationship with a real person the stress just isn’t worth it for me.

When real people hurt, we have real ways to heal through connections to the people around us. Our imaginative ability makes those connections possible, too, because it allows us to figuratively put ourselves in the shoes of others, to empathize with the stories they tell us, and feel compassion. When that connection happens between two live people, it is restorative. When it happens to characters, where do we go for solace?

Since childhood, I have used my imagination to make a happier ending, even before I knew that it might actually be rewiring my brain. As an adult, I also spend a lot of time reminding myself it’s not real and using my practice to refocus on the relationships with people around me. My heart will be a little heavier today and that’s probably a good thing, because it means I have the capacity to empathize and connect. Teen Wolf is just heart exercise for the race that’s always about to begin.

The (Dis)Connection Drive

April 1, 2014
Lost in a Crowd by Keoni Cabral via Flickr.com

Lost in a Crowd by Keoni Cabral via Flickr.com

Too many people were crowded into too little space, jostling one another. Kids were talking, squealing, parents yelling, couples laughing. I didn’t like it and I could feel my body reacting, becoming tense.  It was dark, crowded, and loud – three conditions I never like separately and can scarcely tolerate in combination. I let go of Colin and hung back as he joined the crowd around the octopus tank. My senses were open wide, as though I were trying to track everything going on all at once, but it was overwhelming. I tried to focus on some colorful sea anemones, but then felt vulnerably unaware of everything else, so I gave up. I tried to feel my breathing, but quickly became distracted when I  lost track of Colin in the dark crowd. Every nerve felt wired, every cell on high alert. We’d only been in the aquarium ten minutes.

I have too many memories like this. More than I can count. I don’t remember when they began. There was no singular formative experience. My entire family avoids crowds, so it may be inherited, either genetically or culturally (likely both). I’ve read some of the latest research on Highly Sensitive People (HSP) and introverts, and it sounds a lot like me. It tells me what is happening in my brain during those experiences, but it doesn’t make them stop.

Dr. Alane Daugherty said we have two main drives, the fear drive and the connection drive (or bonding drive). They can operate consecutively but not concurrently.  The fear drive is ruled by cortisol, commonly known as the stress hormone. The connection drive is ruled by oxytocin, known as the love or trust hormone. Both are rooted in the limbic system, the older parts of our brain. The fear drive protects us and prevents harm. It kicks in quicker and stronger because it needs to. The connection drive restores us and creates a supportive social structure. It is slow, but steady, the was communities are built. Each drive only works when used at exactly the right time. When we try to connect with someone who is not trustworthy, we get hurt. When we unnecessarily avoid something out of fear, we hurt ourselves.

All my life I’ve reacted to crowds with the fear response. They are a threat. I am driven to dis-connection, to get away or make myself smaller and hide. What must it be like for people who feed off the excitement of others, like sports fans and concert goers, people who feel connected to the group or the team? Is it the same kind of energy coursing through their nerve endings, but with the opposite charge? Is that sense of belonging healing to them? I want to know and it makes me sad to think that I may never find out because my brain came out of the factory wired backwards.

I’m not afraid of people. I love people. I’m very social and I love connecting, which helps me in my work. I just prefer smaller groups, one-on-one settings, quiet gatherings, and orderly classes. In those settings, my fear drive can relax and my connection drive kicks in. In Susan Cain’s book on introverts, she points out that it is a mistake to call introverts ‘antisocial.’ We’re just ‘differently social,’ and, actually, that’s a good thing. The trait would not have survived so long if it were not useful. This makes me wonder. Maybe I have a strong fear drive in response to crowds, but maybe it also means I have a stronger connection drive in more intimate situations?

These are the things I try to remember when I’m standing in the corner with all my nerves on end. Not broken or backward, just different. I can’t play football either, but I can analyze a spreadsheet full of data better than anyone’s business. Just different. These are the things that get me out of the corner, that get me over the otter exhibit at feeding time despite the crowds pressed up against the glass. That, and a boyfriend who, after losing me once, refuses to let go of my hand and stands directly behind me as a buffer against my own fear response. Connection beating dis-connection.

Holding Secrets, Holding Sacred

March 11, 2014
Post card received by Post Secret, an online blog that people send anonymous post cards to with their secrets. (postsecret.com)

Post card received by Post Secret, an online blog that people send anonymous post cards to with their secrets. (postsecret.com)

People tell me things, deep, painful, secret things. It’s part of the work of chaplains, why we exist. We are the conduit of their unburdening. This is a beautiful function of the human connection. Can you imagine it: healing a little just by sharing? How marvelous! We do it all the time, every day. When we tell our boyfriend how our day was, or complain to our best friend about our boss, we are healing through sharing through connection. We need each other to witness our lives and we witness for others. But because this is such a powerful need, we are sometimes afraid to share and afraid to witness the deep, hard, suffering parts. We don’t want to risk the connection. These are the burdens we keep and carry as secrets. We bottle them up inside. Or we bring them to chaplains and healers.

I didn’t understand sacred until this. Places were beautiful, even glorious, but not sacred. Objects were important, treasured, but not sacred. Ideas certainly were always worth arguing over, never sacred. But this, the connection, the healing, the unburdening, and sharing in the secret sufferings of others – this is sacred.  To enter into and be with someone in their suffering, to see their burden, share their stories, and accept as a sacred blessing the deep, painful, secret moments of their lives, it is a holy thing. With all the suffering and darkness, also comes the light. Our greatest pains come wrapped in layers of hope. We hoped for love, but found rejection. We hoped for life, but found death. We hoped for success, but found failure. The flame dims to a flickering candle, but does not die. As we spin meaning from the story, the hope rekindles in a new way. To share in this is sacred beyond words.

My teachers tried to prepare me. They gave me knowledge and skills and modeled the practice. They may even have tried to convey this in words, but I did not know it until now. How can you tell a person who holds so little sacred that someday she would find her holy grail? How can you tell a person who has so often felt disconnected from others that someday she would honor connection above all things? How can you tell a person that her hope will come from stories of suffering? How can you tell a person who believes only in what she can see, touch, and reason for herself that the meaning others make from their own experiences will become more precious than all her hard-won knowledge? And that all these things she would value above the most holy temple, sacred relic, or profound scripture?

Secrets have a burden. Someone leaves my office lighter, but I go home a little heavier. Their secret is now my secret, their darkness is my darkness, their suffering is my suffering. This is the key to the trust and empathy necessary for unburdening. No one will share something if it will be used as a weapon against them. It is a burden I accept willingly because it does not end with me. My secret becomes the secret of another chaplain. They honor the trust of all my shared stories just as they honor my story, because they have become one and the same. I walk away lighter. With every link in the chain, the burden becomes lighter until it is no burden at all. Through this connection, humanity can share any load. We don’t always believe it, which is why our pains become our secrets, even though our secrets bring us pain. When we share that secret, it becomes sacred, transforming from pain into hope.

It’s Ineffable, But Ain’t it All?

February 18, 2014
'meditation two monks' by h.koppdelaney via Flickr.com

‘meditation two monks’ by h.koppdelaney via Flickr.com

When it comes to explaining difficult concepts like emptiness (sunyata) or God, Buddhanature, nirvana, or atman many religions fall back on a tried and true cop-out: “It can’t be explained in words.” It’s ineffable, beyond language, something that must be known, not told. For a long time, I was perfectly content with this explanation and diligently searched for these ‘ineffable’ things where I was supposed to, in experience, particularly religious or contemplative experiences such as meditation.

I easily recognized the limitations and fallibility of language. After all, I can barely give someone driving directions from here to there, let alone directions to enlightenment. Language is purely symbolic, after all. Even ideographic languages like Chinese and Egyptian hieroglyphics are just slightly less abstract symbols. Alphabetic languages like English and Arabic are abstractions of abstractions, the sound of a word written down. Sometimes the sound resembles the thing, as in ‘plunk’ or ‘sting,’ but the written form scarcely looks the part. Moreover, words are experientially-loaded, meaning that my understanding of ‘dog’ is dependent on all the dogs I’ve ever experienced. No two people share the exact same experiences.

This being true, isn’t everything ineffable? Isn’t ‘table’ just as impossible to fully communicate as ‘buddhanature?’

Surely not, you might think. She’s gone off the deep end. A table is a table. But what table is it?

If I say “We sat at the table,” what do you envision? I know what I mean because I was there. I experienced it. Did you envision a round, wooden table with a pedestal base, painted red, with an inset checkerboard? I bet you didn’t. Yet you were probably pretty certain you knew what I meant by ‘table,’ right?

What if I told my brother, “We sat at the table in Mom’s yard,” somewhere we’ve both been? Well, that’s different, then. We share an experience that makes that table very clearly ‘effable.’ But does it? If we could take a perfect three-dimensional model of my mental image of ‘Mom’s table’ and my brother’s ‘Mom’s table,’ would they be the same? Would he remember the missing chunks taken out of the base where our dog chewed on it? Or that gouge in the top from that time I threw a rock at him?

Even if we could scan the table with one of those topographic lasers and take perfect photographs of it to depict the color and load it all in a computer that could precisely represent the table to others, would we then be able to fully communicate that table? How about the way it smells, like pine and new paint and mildew? What about how the top is worn rough in some places and smooth in others? Or the weight of it, about half a ton by my last estimate? And that’s just the physical table. What about all the associated memories, of backyard parties and winter storms piling up feet of snow until the red surface was completely buried, or that time it fell off the truck when we were moving? If we could somehow perfectly share all that, too, could we then somehow communicate ‘table?’ Or is that table, and every other table, actually truly ineffable?

So what about those other things? Buddhanature and God and emptiness and all that? I mean, at least a table is a physical thing. We can touch and see it. What about love and psychology and higher math and other things we can’t touch or see? What about Enlightenment and Salvation?

Well, if I can explain in such great detail in words a table that never even existed, surely we can stop saying such silly things about these loaded religious concepts. Let’s just take it as a given. Of course, they’re ineffable. Everything is. Now let’s move on and try to communicate something more meaningful. Let’s not mistake the finger for the moon, but let’s not allow the metaphor of the finger and moon to stop the conversation. There is a great deal to be learned from experience, but human beings process experience through language, which is, perhaps, the only thing that is actually fully ‘effable.’ Language is the only way that we have (presently) to learn from the experiences of others.

What is your experience of Buddhanature? What is your table? Because I want to know. Tell me.

Making Friends with My Lazy Mind

February 4, 2014
'lazy horse grazing' by cod_gabriel via Flickr.com

‘lazy horse grazing’ by cod_gabriel via Flickr.com

There is a part of my mind that wants me to take it easy. “Relax,” it says, “you’ve worked hard. Watch another episode. You deserve it. You can work later.” This is my Lazy Mind. It is the home to the procrastination and ennui that prevent me from getting things done. When I listen to it, I feel good for a little while, but then I experience anxiety because of everything left undone. I recriminate my Lazy Mind and fight against it. In all my years, it’s never gone away. I’ve never won the fight.

Yet my Lazy Mind is not a ‘bad’ part of me. It has good intentions. It protects me from overdoing it, from exhaustion, fatigue, and burnout. It reinforces my self worth and shines a positive light on all the work I actually accomplish. ‘Lazy Mind’ is a pejorative label I’ve given it over the years because of the strong, Midwestern, Protestant work ethic I inherited. A kinder label might be Relaxing Mind or Self-Care Mind, but I don’t think it’s quite there yet. First it needs to be tamed.

The problem with Lazy Mind is the same problem with all mind – it suffers from the afflictions of attachment, aversion, and delusion. It is attached to the pleasure of relaxation, averse to the effort or work, and deluded in it’s understanding of what constitutes right self-care. Like the rest of the mind, Lazy Mind can be transformed into a wiser and more compassionate part. It wants to be tamed, to come in from the wild.

I have written in the past about struggling to create discipline in my life. Lazy Mind has a strong hand in that. My ever-changing class schedule is also another factor. I wake and sleep at slightly different times, eat breakfast and lunch at odd hours, shower whenever, do homework randomly, and so on. Yet, I still manage to get to class on time, work effectively, and manage regular study blocks, so I must have some orderly discipline in there somewhere, despite my Lazy Mind’s opposition.

People who study the formation of habits have noted a simple pattern: cue, response, reward. Your tummy grumbles (cue), you go into the kitchen a fix a sandwich (response), and you eat (reward). They say that if you want to develop a new habit (or get rid of an old one), you need to find a strong cue to prompt the behavior and then reward the behavior.

I’ve always been somewhat skeptical of this advice. (What am I? A dog?) It seems to reinforce attachment and desire rather than eliminate them. However, the Buddha said that desire for enlightenment is a useful tool, like a raft to cross the flood (MN 22), and should be cultivated. So perhaps the cultivation of good habits are a form of skillful means (upaya)? Don’t the many forms of Buddhist monasticism and ritual deliberately cultivate diligence through the formation of good habits?

My Lazy Mind resists the formation of habits that bring diligence and order. It fears being trapped into an unsatisfying lifestyle. It has good reason to fear. The most orderly, disciplined, and habitual parts of my life (public school and the few years after) was also the least satisfying. I felt trapped and lost. It was not until I radically shook up my life by going back to the university (and changing jobs and selling my house) that I found satisfaction. My Lazy Mind resists the trap of order and diligence that it associates with dissatisfaction, with not doing what I want to do.

My lack of insight into this force at work within myself has hindered me from bringing order and discipline back into my life. My Lazy Mind needs more than my understanding, it needs my compassion and reassurance. What it does, reminding me to take it easy, protecting me from dissatisfaction and burnout, these are good things. Discipline is not a trap. It can even help me to be more at ease because I can accomplish more when my discipline is good. I will work more efficiently and leave more room for relaxation and enjoyment, free from the followup anxiety and stress.

Therefore, like a skittish horse, I will gentle my mind slowly, letting it get used to the smell and feel of the bit and saddle, so that when I need to ride, it won’t panic and try to throw me. I start with a simple resolution: I will introduce one new habit each week, using the cue-response-reward method. As I plan these carefully, conscious of where the resistance arises, and listen to honest objections and take them seriously. Lazy Mind has its own wisdom that I can learn to recognize and appreciate.

My first habit is getting up promptly. This has always been difficult for me. Getting up in the morning meant going to a school or job I hated. But I still remember doing it with alacrity on Saturdays and Christmas (at least until my teenage years), so I know the capacity is in my somewhere. My cue is my alarm. I give myself one snooze button to come gently awake. Crawling out of bed in the cold is also a problem, so I will mount a hook much closer to my bed so I can immediately warm up in my fuzzy Jedi robe. To complete the comfort, I will get a soft pair of warm slippers. The reward is a warm cup of coffee and vegging in front of my computer for ten minutes before doing anything else. This is week one. The rest can wait.

Lazy Mind, are you listening? You take care of me very well. Now let me take care of you. We’re in this together.

Note: If it seems a bit odd that I am talking about parts of myself as though they are discrete identities, please read Introduction to the Internal Family Systems Model by Richard C. Schwartz or Parts Work by Tom Holmes. This is the topic of one of my classes this semester and it requires a great deal of inner work (no mere intellectualizing here!) that will no doubt continue to be reflected in my blog.

What Changed When I Became an Atheist

January 20, 2014
'Belief' by Sebastian Mary via Flickr.com

‘Belief’ by Sebastian Mary via Flickr.com

I officially left the United Methodist Church when I was fifteen. I hadn’t considered myself Christian for at least a year, but it took a little time to work up the courage to tell my parents I wouldn’t be attending Sunday service any longer. There was some yelling and a slammed door, but in the end the fallout was minimal. The high school classmates in my small town naturally noticed my absence. There were questions and lunch-room debates as I became notable as the school’s only avowed atheist.

But what really changed?

Not much, as far as I can tell. I think this was surprising to my peer group. I didn’t suddenly become a violent, lying, drug-dealing, anarchist slut. My moral beliefs and behaviors remained stable. I did not need God or Church to tell me what was ethically wrong. It was as self-evident to me as my hands before my face. Suffering is as obvious as it is unfortunate.

My attitudes about social issues, such as sexual ethics and gender politics, remained the same before and after. Even at fifteen, I already disagreed with my parents over the relationship between sex and marriage and on the issue of homosexuality, which was something of a surprise to all of us, as we’d never really discussed them. I think they assumed I’d naturally come to the ‘right’ conclusions, but I arrived at my own judgments independent of both their beliefs and church teaching.

Scientific rationalism remained the order of the day. Thankfully, my parents never saw any contradiction between evolution, the big bang, physics, or biology and the Christian teachings. These were just the mechanisms by which the Creator worked, as far as they were concerned. They encouraged my interests in astronomy and science fiction from an early age, and continued to do so afterward. As far as I know, they didn’t blame my atheism on science, education, or secularism, which is so often the case in the public debate. They recognized it as a personal stance fueled by a simple lack of belief.

In my twenties, I gained a more nuanced understanding of things like social, environment, and economic justice. In my thirties, I’m starting to form even more complex opinions on politics, poverty, economics, education, war, and the prison-industrial complex. At some point, I did make the switch from inherited Republicanism to become a registered independent who votes Democrat more often than not.  I hadn’t gotten around to contemplating such issues at fifteen, but I tend to think I would have come to similar conclusions regardless. They are in keeping with my nature. 

But what really changed between the last day that I truly considered myself a Christian and the next day when I honestly admitted I was not?

Relief. I remember the feeling of relief. I had a new freedom that comes from giving up a struggle to be or do something in contradiction to my nature.

Of course, I was anxious about coming out. Atheists are one of the most distrusted groups in the United States, according to a study reported in USA Today and other news outlets. I think this was just as true when I was fifteen as it is today. Despite that, declaring myself was a great relief because the truth is that I was never a ‘believing’ Christian.

As early as the age of five or six, I remember thinking something was wrong with me because I did not “feel Jesus’ love” in my heart. I never met an angel or witnessed a miracle. I never felt “God’s grace” or any type of accompanying presence. The universe was big and mysterious and magical (metaphorically), but I loved astronomy magazines far more than the Bible.

The older I became the less rational the Sunday stories sounded. If God loved his creation, why did he kill every living thing with a flood just because a few humans were behaving badly? Who created God, anyway? And if God made me this way, he really ought to have know that I wouldn’t be a very good Christian, right? I had too many questions that “good Christians” didn’t ask.

My friend Jake used to tell me I was a good Christian anyway, because I was a good person and God is the source of all that is good. I couldn’t be good without God. Maybe so, but in my experience, most Christians don’t see it that way. Nor did I, actually.

Life went on. When I was twenty-two, I bought a book by Thich Nhat Hanh and realized I was a Buddhist. I didn’t convert, I just gained a new vocabulary.

In some ways I’m not a very good Buddhist either. I’m a Mahayana Buddhist who vows to seek enlightenment for the sake of all beings, yet I don’t believe in the celestial bodhisattvas that millions of Buddhists all over the world pray to for supernatural intercession. I have no more experience of Amida Buddha than I have of Jesus of Nazareth and no more belief in the bardo than heaven.

However, I think all of this is beside the point. First, I feel as though I had the same nature as a Christian, then an atheist, and now a Buddhist. I’ve changed a lot, of course, both as a matter of time and of religion. My beliefs, habits, responses, and much more have changed, but my what psychologists might call my underlying “temperament” has remained remarkably stable. Therefore, I my reactions to experiences are very similar.

Second, I hang around with Buddhists and Muslims and Christians and atheists and pagans who, despite remarkably dissimilar beliefs, behave in very similar ways. Most everyone disapproves of violence and greed and favors love and altruism. We quibble over the details, but I’m always amazed at the vast areas of agreement on the most basic fundamentals of ‘good behavior.’

I know this may sound shocking, but I truly don’t believe ‘beliefs’ are as important as we assume. Rather,  we are predisposed to think, feel, and behave in certain ways and we endorse beliefs that give meaning to those modes of being. This predisposition may come from genetics, biology, culture, or karma. (The first three may be part of the fourth or not.) Of course, this is a belief about beliefs, a theory that applies to itself. Belief does have an influence (which I hope to explore in a future post), but I’m more interested in what influences belief to begin with.

A belief can give hope, provide resilience, and enhance optimism in the face of terrible life circumstances. However, if we are already predisposed to have hope, resilience, and optimism, then we will naturally find a belief to explain these things. Likewise, a belief can let us feel hopeless, worthless, and cynical about our circumstances, even when they aren’t that bad. But yet again, the affect comes first. We already feel hopeless, worthless, or cynical, so we tell ourselves a story about why this is or ought to be so. This story becomes a belief that reinforces our natural tendency. Buddhist teaching endorses this idea in an explanation of six personality types and their underlying tendencies.

In their ability to reinforce and perpetuate existing affective states and cognitive concepts, beliefs can be either helpful or harmful. Each personality type is often paired with corresponding practices to help bring balance and relieve afflictive emotions. These practices are based on cultivating beliefs in contradiction to one’s natural tendencies. For example, if one is naturally cynical and quick to anger, meditations on loving-kindness, compassion, and the essentially good nature of all beings would be the antidote. New beliefs supplant existing beliefs that arise from the nature, or temperament, of the person.

In his book, The Believing Brain, Michael Shermer spends a lot of time describing the experiences of people who believe they have encountered angels and aliens, had out-of-body or near-death experiences, and endorse psychic powers or supernatural forces. Shermer clearly labels himself a skeptic, which is not to say he has no beliefs, only that he believes these things are impossible rather than possible. His book is a good source of information on some of the latest brain science, describing in detail laboratory experiments and brain disorders (either through injury or chemical imbalance) that may explain these otherwise fantastic experiences. I take the book with a healthy dose of salt, yet it does shed some light on my own experiences.

Shermer describes many states that I have also experienced, such as lucid dreams, hallucinations, deja vu, and curious bodily sensations. When a person has an experience like this, they tend to form a belief to explain it and then stick doggedly to that belief. Where my personal natural tendency comes in to play is that I have no need or desire to interpret these experiences mystically, spiritually, or supernaturally.

For example, I only recently realized that many of these types of experiences belong to what Buddhists describe as nimitta (read more here). I often have them while on the verge of sleep during meditation, when my mind blends samatha with moments of lucid dreaming on the borders on hallucination. This never particularly bothered me and I felt no need to explain it (which is why it took me so long to associate them with this conceptual category my meditation professor went on and on about). Likewise, my life-long habit of vivid dreams, often kinestheic and/or in third-person, has never particularly needed explanation (although I have learned to be mindful of what my dreams tell me about my waking stress level).

This tendency is indicative of a personality trait that could best be described as a higher than average level of comfort with ambiguity and/or a lower than average level of need for certainty or explanation. I see this tendency expressed in other behaviors, such as a lack of competitiveness, willingness to explore new places, and try new things, but also a calm disposition that eschews excessive risk-taking or thrill-seeking behaviors.

Therefore, I don’t believe beliefs are that important because I’ve never particularly needed them to explain things. This also means that I don’t particularly mind when people believe other things. Belief in God, Jesus, Ganesha, Avalokiteshvara, Amida, or any other deity or supernatural being is no skin off my nose. After all, God is just as plausible as an explanation for the origin of the universe as the big bang is, given that I have no personal experience of either. I’m much more interested in what other people do and belief only comes into play when it influences behavior. I judge beliefs by their utility, rather than veracity, seeing as “The Truth” is such a hard thing to come by anyway.

So what changed when I became an atheist? I had more free time on Sunday mornings, more interesting debates over lunch, and I felt better about myself. That is all.

What would change if tomorrow I suddenly became overwhelmed by a belief in God? Well, I’d have less free time on Sunday morning, another set of interesting debates over lunch, and I’d probably, once again, feel better about myself for an entirely different reason. But that is all, because I’m essentially not a belief-driven person. (I do have strong beliefs; I’m just not that interested in whether they are ‘true.’ Again, more on this in a forthcoming post.) I’m not claiming that this is or would be the case for every type of religious conversion for every person.

I no longer describe myself as an atheist. I am at best a non-theist. I think the entire question of God is simply the wrong question. And with so many fascinating questions out there, I’d rather not spend too much time on that one.

To Be Like a Ghost

January 15, 2014

I used to travel a lot on my own. Spring break would come around and I’d pick a destination, a place I’d never been or somewhere I’d seen a dozen times before. I would be like a ghost in that place, drifting past other people who scarcely noticed I was there.

I always wanted to see what was around the next corner, so I would walk a lot. I watched the people move, the squirrels play, the flowers turn their faces to the sun. I’d listen to the wind in the trees and feel the cold or the warmth or the fog; it didn’t particularly matter what the whether was. I was just collecting the experience. I’d come back with photos of trees and clouds, vistas and buildings, gardens and castles, but scarcely a person in any of them.

I might share a “Good morning” or “Good evening” with the odd passerby, or even sit down for an entire conversation with someone I only knew by their first name. At the end, I might know their greatest dreams and deepest fears, where they grew up and who they loved, but I never needed more than a first name. And I’d go back to where I’d stay the night, alone again and happy for it. Like one of the Buddha’s disciples, going forth into homelessness and forgoing all attachments.

'Posted: Private Property, No Trespassing' on Hwy 97 near Valentine, Nebraska, June 2009. Photo by Monica Sanford.

‘Posted: Private Property, No Trespassing’ on Hwy 97 near Valentine, Nebraska, June 2009. Photo by Monica Sanford.

I haven’t traveled like that in a while. There is a restful simplicity to it. Solace in being like a ghost. One can come and go as one pleases, eat and be and do as one wishes. No one ever expects anything of ghosts.

Life became busy. I left my home and came alone halfway across the continent, but it was different this time. I wasn’t a ghost. I was trying to build a new life, full of new classes and friends and teachers and coworkers. This change of location came with a host of new obligations, not fewer.

I have a relationship now. When I travel, he goes with me (and vice versa) as often as we can manage, and I love him for it. We’ve had great adventures together. But it’s different. I couldn’t even have explained how until a moment ago, when I realized I missed being like a ghost. Hard to be ghosts together, always worrying if the other ghost is okay.

For many months, I’ve had this aching desire for simplicity. It would sneak up on me, between worries about homework and housework and everything else. Between the mental clutter and visual clutter and insane schedule, I’d wish for the vital simplicity of a tiny cabin in the woods, bereft of possessions, and without neighbors for miles about. I’d long for hours of solitary walking, in city or mountains, it didn’t matter, just to be free of other people’s expectations.

But my life has never been like that, as much as I’ve occasionally wished it would be. I actually like the clutter of my little home, the jam packed bookshelves and familiar mementos. I like the friendly clutter of my social life, seeing my friends and classmates and coworkers everyday, feeling like I’m part of a community. I like coming home to my partner every night, spending Saturday afternoons out together on our little adventures to the zoo or backpacking or trying a new restaurant.

So why this new urge to radically simplify my life?

But it’s not new at all, I’ve realized. In fact, it’s something I’ve been doing for almost a decade. Every three to six months, I’d pack a bag and set off. I’d spend a week in San Francisco or Boston or Chicago, the Rocky Mountains of Colorado or Sandhills of Nebraska. Somewhere, anywhere, but no matter where, life would be simple for that briefest moment. Somehow I lost it without even noticing I’d ever had it.

I realize now, this habit started far earlier than my twenties. That’s only when I began to do it for myself. When I was a child, I remember spending a week or two on my aunt’s ranch in central Nebraska, running around in the trees with my cousins. It was a different way of raising kids, just tossing us out of the house in the morning to fend for ourselves, trusting we’d return tired and covered with dirt at meal times. We wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Then I’d go up to Valentine to stay with my retired grandparents. My dad grew up in this tiny town where a busy day involved a trip to the grocery store and the library. My grandparent’s place was on the edge of town, the last house on a two-lane highway heading west over the sprawling prairie. I remember pulling carrots out of my grandfather’s garden to feed to the horses that came to the barbed-wire fence separating their pasture from the house. I remember the wind that never stopped, the grass like an ocean, and the thunderstorms that roared through and dropped golf-ball sized hail on a ninety-degree summer day.

After that, I might go to church camp or 4-H camp or both. We’d tromp through the woods and canoe along the sandy-bottomed rivers. I never felt the slightest bit of loss at the friends I left behind at the end of each adventure, even though we’d spent the week practically glued to each other. It never occurred to me that goodbye was a sadness. The flashing moment of such friendships cut all the anxiety social strings entail.

It was the same for my older brother, except that we often went separately, the relatives swapping us out mid-summer. I realize now that this enabled my parents to spend several weeks together each year child-free. And we were happy, away from the city, spending almost all our time outdoors, no schools or teachers or even any chores to make demands on us, something new to discover behind every tree or in every mud puddle. I think that is when I learned to be a like a ghost, renouncing my life to go alone into unfamiliar places. This was a gift my parents gave me without even knowing it. A gift I accidentally lost.

I miss being like a ghost. I think I should like to leave my life behind and find again the simplicity of not worrying about what is around the next corner, the next bend in the trail. Sometime soon. But only for a little while.

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