Both/And > Either/Or

I think a lot about “straddling the paradox” and choosing both/and rather than either/or when it comes to people – especially those who trigger me and whom I’ve developed as villains in my ego-driven scripted storylines.

It’s so easy for me to do an extreme zoomed-in close-up of the negative, focusing only on the flaws that I love to exaggerate and exploit to justify my judgment. But the reality is that in most cases, there is complexity and nuance that I’m overlooking (usually on purpose, because how else could I keep the narrative going that they’re the enemy?) and within those details are our shared humanity and my ticket out of obsession and resentment.

I would certainly appreciate it if people, especially those I’ve wronged or have received an unfavorable impression of me, would apply both/and to see my good parts as well as my flaws and mistakes.

I’m just as complicated and contradictory as any other human, and nobody wants to be lumped into a static definition that doesn’t allow for growth and development and healthy change. I am a work in progress – just like the people whom I’ve frozen in my perceptions of their past.

Either/or isn’t always accurate or fair; I will practice extending the empathy of both/and.

Fixation

I’ve been struggling with old programming lately – the obsessive loops of fixation and comparison; the fantasies of confrontation and vindication.

I know this is my ego flaring. I know this is because I have not made peace and chosen acceptance, which would result in resolution. I know this is because I am feeling bad about myself and worried about the future so I am comparing both up and down to feed that insecurity and anxiety.

While I am logically aware that this is the perfect time to practice self-compassion, what’s happening instead is that I’m punishing myself for these thoughts with harsh criticism for being envious, petty, selfish, and weak. This is fuel for these mental projections, which thrive off my shame and self-loathing.

How do I get out of my head and into the moment? How do I stay there? How do I keep from wandering back into the muck of my mind? Or if I do slip in, how do I slip out just as quickly with as little damage as possible? How long am I going to keep fighting with myself? Do I have to live with these patterns and obsessions forever? Is that how I’m wired?

Maybe part of my suffering is the struggle to be free. Maybe that’s simply not an option and I have to learn to coexist with the ego and its fixations. To disconnect from the concept of enemy; of The Other.

To make peace. To choose acceptance.

Insecurity

We all experience the feeling of insecurity, and the way through is to face the present moment; the reality of right now.

Our minds are wired to compare and programmed to seek control – it’s an old evolutionary tool designed to keep us safe. Unfortunately it often doesn’t work in our favor, producing critical better than / less than comparisons, and churning anxiety about what’s out of our control – which is everything besides our own behavior.

We can face reality at the very moment our insecurity and anxiety peak.

Breathe, deeply and slowly. That’s real. Notice your surroundings; feel anchored to where you are standing or sitting. That’s real.

Bring yourself back to right now – we can find comfort and grounding in the facts of the present moment (outside of our heads) rather than getting swept up in the what-ifs of insecure thoughts.

Subjective

A humbling exercise is to pause and ask ourselves “Is my perception accurate?”

Short answer is: nope.

We experience everything through our own unique lenses of bias, projection, ego, and personal experience.

All of us operate from subjective realities, and the key to productive communication and healthy relationships is to negotiate that subjectivity – and not to coerce others into thinking or behaving our way… the “right” way, so we believe.

You haven’t lived my life and you’re not in my head (lucky you, haha) so how can I expect you to see and process things the way I do?

It comes down to this: we don’t need to agree and sometimes we won’t even understand, but we do need to validate and respect.

Shared Impermanence

The concept of impermanence keeps creeping into my life.

It was the subject of a few recent passages in the Buddhist and Taoist collections that I read every morning. It was the first thing I saw in the library last week, as the theme of Mary Pipher’s new memoir. It was the salt in my daughter’s tears when summer camp ended, and it’s the ache in my heart when I look at her and wonder where the last decade went.

It can be kinda crazymaking to consider that change is the only constant; that we’re always in this weird transformative flux of evolving towards our expiration.

It’s hard to say goodbye to the status quo we took for granted, our youth, our health, and our loved ones. The upside is that impermanence impacts everything, including shitty situations – they too shall pass.

When I overthink all of this and existential dread kicks in, I remind myself that change is a biological imperative. Every cell in our body, every cloud in the sky, every stone on the earth, every wave in the sea, every single moment is fleeting – it’s up to us to find beauty, joy, meaning, and purpose not in spite of but because of our shared impermanence.

The Middle Path

The ideal mind is open, accepting, and nonjudgmental.

If only that was our default!

Let’s be real – usually the mind is conditioned, calculating, and easily triggered.

One of the juiciest baited hooks that I chomp down on time and again is political propaganda – signs and stickers that to me represent ignorance and hate. When I see them, I instantly leap to criticism and condemnation.

Sometimes I’m able to catch myself in mid-judgment and tell myself that I don’t know anything about the people displaying the name and slogan that are so triggering to me. Maybe these people are really kind, maybe they’re going through illness or other hardships, maybe they’re afraid.

It doesn’t mean that I condone hateful words or actions, but I gain nothing by harshly judging complete strangers. Said another way: I do not condone prejudice, discrimination, or abuse of power and I believe that getting stressed with vile thoughts about “the enemy” doesn’t help anything.

If I think it’s wrong that people dehumanize others, then I shouldn’t do the same to the dehumanizers. I don’t want to contribute to the problem… so I’m trying to stay on the middle path.

I can support the causes and values that I feel are righteous without losing my integrity and peace of mind. This is the work (and it never ends): disrupting reactions and thought patterns that are unkind and unhealthy, while giving myself the space and support to slip up, try again, learn, and grow.

Facts > Fear

Bedtime can be particularly challenging because without the distractions of the day it’s just us and our thoughts… and often those ruminations are far from pleasant and cloud our perception of reality. The other night I realized that the inner monologue running through my mind was a really nasty narrator.

That wasn’t my real voice; that wasn’t the real me – not the rational, wise, kind person that is usually behind the wheel and interacting with others.

It was my ego – my fragile, fearful ego.

When the ego feels threatened, it will: assign the role of “enemy” to the threat; focus on faults and flaws; magnify and exaggerate the danger; insert its own conjecture in the absence of details; create and fixate on thoughts that support the belief of the threat.

It creates what-if scenarios to prepare itself for how to defend and retaliate if/when its fear comes to fruition. And for the paranoid ego, it’s really an inevitable when; not a potential if.

In this attempt to protect itself, the ego actually weaponizes its fear against us and colonizes our minds with its delusions and looping thoughts.

So how do we deal with this destructive nutjob living rent-free in our minds?

Acknowledge that it isn’t you and it isn’t true.

Don’t take the bait; if you already bit the hook, let go by: getting curious; considering nuances; seeking opposing views to your thoughts; being flexible; trusting what you know is true – choosing facts over fear.

Impermanence

Our ego relies on mooring in the constructs it has created to deal with the fact that very little is within our control – which often means we diminish uncomfortable reminders of mortality.

When we are confronted with the stark nature of impermanence, we feel unsettled.

Ego wants everything we love (or at least everything we’re accustomed to) to last forever.

Ego wants to feel substantial and solid, with no surprises.

But this is in contrast with nature and existence itself, which is a constant cycle of change, degeneration, death, and renewal.

This is so hard to stomach and surrender to… but releasing our resistance and accepting the inescapable (change, aging, illness, and death) allow us to become active participants in our fleeting, precious lives.

Acceptance

When an uncomfortable emotion such as anger, jealousy, or fear arises, there are a few steps we can take to manage it mindfully.

First, we simply acknowledge that the feeling is (temporarily) there. “Ah ha, I’ve been triggered. My heart is pounding; my cheeks are hot – this feels like jealousy.”

Then, we accept the emotion. We’re not judging ourselves for feeling that way or labeling the emotion as “bad,” or trying to dismiss, deny, or wallow in it – we allow it to be without our resistance. “I can sit with this for a moment; it won’t kill me and it won’t last forever.”

Finally, we soothe and release the emotion. “This person triggered my old fears of being betrayed and abandoned. But there really is no threat here, it’s just in my head. I’m going to keep breathing deeply – my heart is already settling and I’m starting to feel calmer.”

It takes practice for all of our lives to just let it be; the acceptance of discomfort is the key to our freedom.

Space

There is a space between myself and my thoughts, and in that place, I observe with curiosity.

I’m aware of the patterns and loops; the fixations and stories. Rather than automatically believe them, what I’m striving to do is pause, notice the mental habit, and remind myself that a thought isn’t a fact or an accurate representation of reality.

It’s not helpful for me to believe a mental construct, often created by my ego to serve its needs.

And when comparative criticism starts to creep in, I interrupt the process and ask myself if I’d want someone thinking that way about my daughter. Taking that approach further, I remind myself that everyone has a child inside, and I think about that child’s fears, needs, and feelings.

This practice of pausing, observing, and replacing judgment with empathy helps to open my heart.

Inclusion

I saw a woman’s recent reflection that “violence is never ‘proof of love’.” She then updated her post to share that she was told by other women that this was “not [her] conversation to have.” This has sparked a fire of indignance within me.

Gatekeeping is the antithesis of inclusion.

Everyone deserves a seat at the table and the respect of being seen and heard. We all bear the scars of the institutions and individuals who have abused their power to discredit, disqualify, shame, and silence those perceived to be beneath them. We are still actively working to heal and reform these injustices in our societies, schools, workplaces, homes, and hearts – there is no end to this fight to flip the power dynamic and ensure that all are included.

This includes taking the “horseshoe” approach to community and conversation, keeping a space that is open and inviting to all with no exceptions. No one is granted divine authority to judge and dictate who should be allowed to participate, speak up, and share their mind – especially about a topic such as violence that impacts every human being.

If a person tries to silence another, they are attempting to exercise power over that individual. This is weaponized ego, and has no justification or place in the framework of empathy and inclusion.

Dukkha

The First Noble Truth in Buddhism is dukkha which means “difficult to face.”

This refers not only to the suffering that is an inevitable part of life, but also to our uncomfortable emotions and troubling thoughts.

Too often we take detours – we avoid, deny, numb, repress, or lash out rather than live in the experiences and feel the feelings that cause us fear and pain.

If we summon the courage that is inside all of us, we can remain open and curious about what our emotions and mental loops are trying to tell us, and we can face life itself in all its unpredictability and impermanence.