The Ocean’s Wrath

2015 has been a little rough and tumble so far. The state of my health has deteriorated significantly lately – arthritis is making basic mobility pretty difficult, even bathing, getting dressed, etc. My lovely lady Liz is a huge help, both in practice and in boosting spirits.

Liz and I love inaugurating new little traditions. Our New Year tradition is to take a midweek road trip south to visit the Oregon coast. The off season is quiet, dark, isolated, and full of that grungy, misty northwest charm.

Last year we stayed in Astoria, but this year we stayed in Cannon Beach; more expensive, but faces the ocean directly. We massively look forward to our annual trip to take in the fresh air and get out of the city for a bit. Liz and I are on a mission to “take in” the Northwest together as much as we can while we’re here.

Before going, I had watched The Coast, a mini-documentary about a young man confronting issues of mortality through surfing on the coast. I was enchanted by the little flick, and how well it captured the beauty of the rugged coastline which feels so isolated and violent – at least, to this New Englander. Increasingly disillusioned with hypocritical Buddhist teachers, I found myself looking at the wild with reverence, seeking truth in nature itself, and hopefully something that would teach me how to beat arthritis or, at least, figure out how to coexist with it peaceably.

The highlight of our trip was Ecola State Park; here, the Lewis & Clark Expedition heard of a beached whale which a local native tribe was harvesting blubber from; they sent a contingent to gather some as well and replenished their supply. It’s not hard to imagine the wonder those first American explorers felt while looking out on the rugged rocks and smooth swashes of sand, covered in bristling spruces and buffeted by raging waves. It’s obvious navigation is all but impossible off the shore. A lighthouse, affectionately called Old Tilly locally, sits just off the coast inactive, too difficult to maintain against the elements. The park seems to sit on a battleground between Ocean and Earth.

The Oregon coast in wintertime.
The war between water and rock showed me a lot. Waves battered rock and wore it away over years, and rain soaked and saturated earth, making the excess crumble away in landslides big and small; vegetation had to adapt, or go with it. Right on the coastline, the trees looked like they had endured a natural nuclear blast. Some were almost destroyed by erosion and had exposed root structures. But they clung on, and grew into the earth. There are a lot of broken, malformed, and misshapen trees, but this is what gives the gnarled stands of Sitka spruces so special, and what makes the landscape here feel so invigorated.

Not too much further inland grew old-growth forests, hidden from the ocean’s immediate onslaught. Taking advantage of the safety and ample supply of water, little mosses and ferns and whatnot grow liberally on dead, fallen trees, those plowed under by the whittle and decay of time, wind, water, the forces of nature. Though beautiful, incredibly powerful.

Ecola State Park - Forest - Geoffrey L Bonn

In the end, I think I did get the lesson I was looking for. I learned to respect the force of nature, and respect the force of arthritis within my own body while responsibly pursuing treatment. It also made me realize that the time may be now to acknowledge that my joint health could be improved by moving somewhere warmer and drier; i.e., leaving the Northwest. I hate the idea of leaving my adopted home, but alas, you have to respect the force of nature in your own body.

As the many plants and animals found creative way’s to adapt to the Ocean’s Wrath, I will find creative ways to adapt to my Illness’s Wrath, adapting and reforming things to make it work and proceed with wonder. To remind me of all this, I pulled a little clump of lichen off a branch, which now sits on my shrine as a reminder.

Thus the Pacific gave me my main object of contemplation for the year – adaptability! And boy am I glad to have my lovely lady to have shared the journey with.

Update on the Struggle

It’s been a while since updated, what with holidays, projects, and standard smoke & mirrors of chronic pain. I had also hoped to do a Crusader Kings II playthrough with my Floridian shield-brother Blue, but there have been some technical difficulties there. So a simple life update then.

My passion project right now is writing a memoir, detailing my ten years or so in the New Kadampa Tradition, including becoming a monk, with big idealistic goals and declining health. It wasn’t a very pleasant time, in hindsight, ineffectively trying to ‘pray away’ my arthritis in isolation and giving everything up for my faith in an all-out effort to ‘purify’ my illness. Things got weird, and worse, and eventually my faith gave in when nothing worked. It became too much to hear of “what heavy negative karma!” Being seen as a physical ball of negativity exhausted me. I walked away disillusioned, disabled, quite literally broken, and worse yet blamed and stigmatized for all my failures.

Calling it my passion project makes it sound rather masochistic, as writing it feels like pulling teeth, but I know the story needs to go out to the Western Buddhist world. Buddhism in general enjoys public goodwill; and to a great extent, this is cloaked in Orientalist fantasy, and Anglo-American teachers swoop in to take their places as lineage successors. The traditions growing in the West now deserve scrutiny on ethical grounds, just like Christian churches like Mars Hill. Perhaps this project will, in the end, lead to responsible reforms in the youthful Buddhist branches of the ancient, gnarly tree of the Buddhadharma.

The Seattle Bubble & Civic Excellence in Cities

This week I’d like to talk about the Seattle Bubble and what it does for our local civic awareness.

Out here in Seattle, we get used to our strange idiosyncrasies, our liberal politics and information-saturated opinions. When I moved out here, I had a sort of west coast culture shock, but eventually settled in and adapted to the very-distinct Seattle way. Such a fascinating city nestled in such a stunning environment is easy to sink into. After living here for a few years, I now see everything through the Seattleite lense; super-informed on everything from the international to local level, progressive, tech-savvy, and slightly sarcastic.

Locals call this the Seattle Bubble; we are somewhat aware that our city is different, disconnected from the norms of the American Heartland. We might be on the fringe, but we also live on the forefront of innovation. Our city and what it means is the Seattleite’s obsession. Outlanders come visit, think we’re cute like a Portlandia spin-off, and leave the Emerald City with not much more than happy memories.

The Seattle Bubble is a fascinating phenomenon which I believe can be found in any major city. It manifests from a city’s attempt to know itself and exert its identity. In the 21st century, which will probably be known as the Age of the City, young, ambitious, rootless folks congregate to urban centers in droves to find work, love, and themselves. Across the US and across the world, small towns, rural communities, and post-industrial wastelands feed urban centers fresh blood, and the city is where that process unfolds, in this case, Seattle.

Cities are dramatic, cosmopolitan places, where all the disparate elements of society come together and are forced to hash out their issues. Seattle is no exception at all. Our liberal politics regularly rams into the big money of local tech giants, as anyone who reads our snarky weekly The Stranger knows. Local events like a building getting knocked down for new offices (cough*Amazon*cough), a questionable police action, proposed cuts to public transit, or the rollout of a new bike rental service will prompt discussions across the city, in offices, at bus stops, in shops, and in homes. Everyone lives so close to one another that we are forced to discuss the political ramifications of massive cohabitation. We cannot run from it; our neighbors live, breathe, and commute right there next to us.

I love the Emerald City spirit that feeds into its own manias, but retains a degree of self-awareness to make fun of its own ‘bubble’ – but in particular I think this particular, local civic awareness should be nurtured and fostered in cities of all sizes. National policy debates fall down logical rabbit holes too quickly, because they are completely disconnected from a world of particulars. Cities are places of massive change, change seen in rising rents, fluctuating crime rates, and migration movements.

Change is best enacted when carefully planned for, not when haphazardly responding to unforeseen events. In The Republic, Plato undertakes to describe an ideal city, which he dubbed ‘Kallipolis.’ Similarly, each urban community should undertake to discuss what it means to be the best city, and how to respond to the countless new developments of the 21st century. Too often our leaders wait until something goes wrong to address a social problem.

Urban politics aren’t as inaccessible as national politics. Particularly after this month’s midterm elections, it’s hard to find hope in the US federal government. A stacked Republican congress and a lame duck Democratic president seem as unlikely to cooperate as Nicki Minaj and Iggy Azalea. Urban politics starts with conversations, and when these conversations begin to form public opinions, then private deliberations have formed the beginnings of a grassroots movement.

As an idealist and a civic philosopher, I would like to see the anonymity of city living gradually, conscientiously replaced with a civic awareness, where each citizen may not necessarily agree with or even like each other, but see that substantive conversations need to happen so that the right decisions are made for the greater good.

That’s it for this week! Next up: a friend and I play through Crusader Kings II and form our own wily Viking dynasty. I’ve wanted to post some gaming goodness here for a while. Stay tuned, intrepid bloggers!

Free Education For All

Earlier this month, the German state of Lower Saxony decided it would no longer charge tuition for university, making tuition fees a thing of the past at all German universities. To Americans, who now often end up indebted for decades for the right to education, this might seem like a socialist pipedream. However, this isn’t exactly a political decision, but a social decision.

As The Independent reported, the German government wants to give access to higher education to all their citizens, not just the wealthy; in effect they want to foster greater social mobility.

What is incredibly inspiring about this story is hearing how government ministers are actively concerned for the betterment of young people, no matter their background. They don’t buy into the American delusion of an inherently even playing field, where everyone can just pull themselves up by their bootstraps and make it big. While the US government idly lets its young citizens flounder in underemployment and take on debts akin to indentured servants, Germany doubles down on their massive public investment in human talent.

Their government appears to want all people develop their skills, without significant barriers to access; they recognize a skilled society as being in the public interest, and the state’s moral responsibility to act. They see the good in the working class having access to education if they want it; they even offer tuition-free education to foreigners. What a great way to attract international talent – happy foreigners with fresh, marketable skills will likely stay on in Germany and further improve the economy.

Germany may not have the same fierce, almost competitive individualism as America (pardon the gross generalization), but they know how to take care of their people and take responsibility for their prosperity. Its schooling system and pragmatic choices have lead it over the past decades to become the most solvent economy in Europe.

What the US needs to do is drop its pride for a moment and consider what our practical economy can learn from other countries around the world. We face stagnation. One thing I’ve learned from long bouts of illness; see the silver linings in the downtime, and better yourself. If the US is to really recover in the long run, it needs to focus on two things: education and entrepreneurship.

An entire generation in crippling debt will only prolong the stagnation we have, and inhibit spending and investment. Firstly there should be an expansive debt forgiveness program to deal with pre-existing debt, especially with those in debt over $25,000.

Secondly, legislatures should put caps on tuition fees. Universities need to be held accountable for the ridiculous charges they are levying against young people; their should be a reckoning of social responsibility here. Such high rates ought to guarantee a job in the real economy, but they do not; in fact, most majors do not directly correlate to any real sector of the economy.

If universities are to continue to be relevant, they should teach skills transferable to the jobs market; and the best way to do this is in apprenticeship programs that bridge classroom theory with technical proficiencies only found in the workplace. Northeastern University already does this with its blended co-op program; in their final semesters of school, Northeastern students work with partner companies and learn on the job. This should become a model for future education.

By reducing the financial burdens of higher education, young people will have more freedom to move, buy, and build. The public ought to form start-up incubators with open access. The government should no longer shy from having any hand in economic development; it cannot do the work itself, but should be the primary agent in opening doors and putting people together. We subsidize marriages with tax breaks because two people are more effective working together in tandem, than struggling each on their own. Isn’t it also in the public interest to help put people together to make great products and offer excellent services?

Progress will never come with a hands-off approach; that is what Germany’s inclusive approach to education can teach us.

Computer Zen

Cleanliness is next to godliness. Tidy surroundings make us feel better and less stressed. Today I’d like to talk about how we can extend this orderliness to our web browsers and improve our individual user experiences to optimize computer time, nurturing a measure of computer zen.

In my Buddhist training, I learned that one of the main preparatory practices were cleaning. It was actually an explicit part of our meditation manual.  Our teachers urged us to see for ourselves how meditating in a neat, orderly space was always better and more relaxing than meditating in a mess. That makes sense; the mess would only remind you to clean and a half million other things to do. Put work stuff on your desk, put clothes in your closet, dishes in the sink, and then just sit down and relax.

Best to just focus on the task at hand. Everyone works differently; me, I can hardly ever multitask well. Isn’t it interesting how our obsession with superhuman multitasking skills appears to have risen at the exact same time as our global stress epidemic?

I must admit I spend a fair chunk of my day on my computer. Trying to manage computer use always seems like a struggle; we live in the Information Age and feed off factoids. My disability waylays my body but not my mind, and my curiosities end up unleashed upon the internet. However all this networking, research, and so on has drawn a large shadow of its own; overwhelming confusion.

The computer screen can become a pretty messy place. My browser can hardly seem to go longer than a minute without building up at least five tabs. Messages come in from email, Facebook, and Steam, like turbulence that always seems to find new ways to creep into my user interface. Everything just turns into a rabbit hole, I cannot decide in the end what to read more later, or what might not be worth it, so a huge pile of tabs builds up that begins to feel like a mental smoke bomb.

The practice of order should be applied to everyday computer activities. Mindfulness of daily habits should not be limited to a meditation space or some isolated corner away from the. If we are consuming information, then the manner of absorbing it is all-important if we truly want to learn anything. If we consume food without control, then we’ll get health problems; the same is true for information. We need to pay attention not only to what we’re doing, but how we’re doing it.

Bookmarks. Use them. Categorize them in your bookmarks bar. Put them in folders divided by interest, topic, or arena of your life. Make as many folders as you want. Merge, create subfolders, and throw out the redundant. Sort them in order of importance first, and then experiment with different layouts over time. Most internet browsers are pretty flexible and allow you to customize them. Use that to empower your user experience. Personally I like to make tinkering with bookmarks a Monday ritual; it helps readdress my priorities. I move things around by order, hide the time wasters, and go into a random folder and delete a bunch of clutter.

Kill time wasters. I like to delete bookmarks to the worst time wasters and bury necessary time wasters in a subfolder. This is important. Self-awareness is the most important element in self-discipline. If you’re not aware of the problem, how can you fix it? This lays you open to addressing your own faults, so it requires honesty and some bravery.

Full screen mode is your friend – just press F11. Log off social media, put your phone on airplane mode, and put on headphones. You must know when to deny external stimuli. Give yourself some mental space. When external stimuli recede, its far easier to concentrate and communicate clearly. Be mindful of your own mind.

And of course, the key to computer zen: don’t forget to unplug when you’re done!

Tech Havens

This week, I contemplate technological change. It’s hard not to do so from time to time, living in Seattle, where you can’t throw a latte without hitting an Amazon, Microsoft, or Google employee. I love the passion for innovation here, and that is part of why I love living here. There is a passion for excellence in technology, as well as culture, medicine, and social progress.

America at large, however, suffers from a deficiency in science and technology. We need more science educators, and we also need more flexibility in our schools to adapt to the changing face of technology. Abiding by outdated curricula has created a massive skills gap in the US workforce. Something serious needs to be done about the state of our education system.

As is the American way of balance between public and private sectors, entrepreneurs filled the void. Now a whole new generation of programming schools has arisen, such as General Assembly, Code School, CoderDojo, and more, who break the educational paradigm and offer coding ‘boot camps’ and remote schooling opportunities, some including a guarantee of employment afterwards. This is an amazing development. The competition between these schools is giving rise to some high quality content available to anyone who’s curious.

There’s also the exciting development of Singularity University in Silicon Valley, a for-profit university which is built to foster collaboration. The school acts as an incubator for small start-ups by tech-savvy inventors, innovators, and entrepreneurs, and in exchange for their role in putting all the different parts of the puzzle together, they ask for a stake in the companies which come out of their campus. It is a clever way to keep the school running for future classes and perhaps even generations of ambitious inventors.

I believe that these instances of curated innovation are incredible opportunities, and that the US should do its best to adapt to economic realities and support the development of technology. The key to fostering this collaboration is through partnerships, particularly between the public and private sectors: enterprises built on federal and state grants, individuals coming together to meet a public need. One way in which the US should invest in development is setting up incentivized tech havens.

Technological advancement in the US is highly local; Silicon Valley, Los Angeles, and New York join the Seattle Metro area as the giants of American technological progress. Many rural and suburban areas are hemorrhaging young people, who flock to urban areas. Simultaneously, there is a lot of unused infrastructure from the collapse of American industry; empty mills in the Northeast, refineries in the Midwest, or factories in California. These vacancies seem like natural places to set up shelters for the next generation in advancements.

What would a tech haven look like? Probably something in the line of Songdo, South Korea’s progressive tech utopia slated for completion in 2018. Whether it’s a minimalist, modern design, or something else may actually be secondary to its function – a local mecca for scientists, engineers, data analysts, inventors, entrepreneurs, programmers, writers, and more.  I think the following would be essential, though:

  • Startups pay no taxes for the first two years. In return, the startup is legally bound to remain in the tech haven for six years.
  • Offices are provided in campuses, which provide both privacy for each company, and common space to meet, relax, etc.
  • Ample green space, bike lanes, and recreational activities.
  • A community center with a forum, theater, cafe, and gaming center.
  • Housing has rent control to prevent tech-associated gentrification.
  • Private citizens are engaged in their local issues. Public officials are responsive, curious, and invested in progress most of all, where a Leslie Knope is probably mayor.
  • There are both public and private schools; private schools are incentivized and the public school curriculum is written to emphasize science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

Of course these are just ideas and guidelines. Each tech haven should serve as an incubator for technological progress, but also mirror its own citizenry and embrace social awareness. Perhaps some tech havens ban gas-operated cars; perhaps some build a massive solar farm; perhaps some block out social networking software from 10pm to 6am in an effort to combat insomnia. The opportunities for social experimentation are endless, and intentional avant garde communities such as these could provide us with great insights.

Imagine if each state in the US set up one tech haven in a small city with free space and sufficient infrastructure and resources. Let’s take, for example, Massachusetts – Boston is traditionally considered the ‘brain capital’ of New England, let alone Massachusetts. Perhaps Boston would not be the best place for a tech haven, as it is already saturated. What if a tech haven were instead set up in Worcester, a post-industrial city with low rents and many old industrial buildings? Offering cutting edge STEM education to the local working class would also create an incredible opportunity for social mobility in a struggling area.

Imagine if states like Alaska, Nevada, or Michigan were to establish similar tech havens in their own has-been cities? Every state has them. If each state were to do this, they could halt the brain drain that comes with urbanization, and make a bold investment in their state’s future relevance in the 21st century. More local centers of development would also let smaller startups take their lumps, grow, and flourish in a smaller environment with less competition and costs, that shut down in other cities. It will also tap into the vast human resources resting, waiting in suburban America, unreflected in the unemployment statistics that discount them because they do not actively seek work any more. All those people grow restless in the wake of this Great Recession of ours. We need work – and there is no shortage of problems to solve.

A national movement embracing tech havens may sound like a futuristic pipe dream, but ZBS believes that we need to find creative ways to proactively adapt to the future; our economy, society, politics, and even environment are changing around us. We are obligated to respond. As Annalee Newitz explains in Slate, dystopian sci-fi stories should not be ignored as tangential tales of Earth gone wrong; they should serve as road signs for different future outcomes to consider practically.

No More Zero Days

Like a surfer, I’m riding the waves of my unhinged arthritis, just going with the rhythm. An immune system like this makes you learn to adapt to the rhythm of life. I’ve been learning how to really go with the flow like Lao Tzu this week.

However, just ‘leaning back’ does not sit well with me. I have an innate ambition. Furthermore, through living with so many physical limitations, I’ve found that having purpose in day-to-day life is a mentally toxic situation. Humankind was built to create, evolve, and interact with the wide world around us, if even in small ways.

After a particularly rough patch last month, I found a great personal philosophy on Reddit by user ryans01, who dubbed the practice “No More Zero Days.” I’ve tried to make this part of my daily practice. It has not let me down at all.

This philosophy is a powerful productivity tool. Its primary point is this: do not let a day go by where you accomplish nothing. In ryans01’s words:

Rule numero uno – There are no more zero days. What’s a zero day? A zero day is when you don’t do a single fucking thing towards whatever dream or goal or want or whatever that you got going on. No more zeros. I’m not saying you gotta bust an essay out everyday, that’s not the point. The point I’m trying to make is that you have to make yourself, promise yourself, that the new SYSTEM you live in is a NON-ZERO system. Didn’t do anything all fucking day and it’s 11:58 PM? Write one sentence. One push-up. Read one page of that chapter. One. Because one is non zero. You feel me? When you’re in the super vortex of being bummed your pattern of behaviour is keeping the vortex going, that’s what you’re used to. Turning into productivity ultimate master of the universe doesn’t happen from the vortex. It happens from a massive string of CONSISTENT NON ZEROS. That’s rule number one. Do not forget.

Our super-competitive, superficial general society believes a ‘lack of failure’ as the best success. Our media deceives us as to the true source of greatness. Greatness begins with small steps, and they generally start from the bottom, along with a ton of mistakes.

In the last weeks, my medicine has stopped working, steroids have flushed through my system, my sleep has been compromised, my pain has skyrocketed, dropped, and skyrocketed again, and then of course there’s the matter of work and money.

This is a lot of flak to deflect while trying to pursue a number of goals. So my favorite practice is now two-fold: to accept and adapt. I accept, knowing the moment is what it is, and that the only logical response is joy; I adapt, seeing what really needs to be done, what my body and mind are capable of, and doing whatever I can for the day. Perhaps it is working on some writing, reading a book, meditating, learning a foreign language or new code. The most important thing is not doing nothing!

Everyone can pull some important lesson here, and make a small change in their lives to get some new momentum going to an old, neglected goal, or ignite a new spark. If you can have No Zero Days with disability and chronic pain, then perhaps you will become a superhero – anything is possible!

You can read the Non Zero Day subreddit here.

Sims 4 / Self-Awareness

This week I’d like to review and discuss the Sims 4, but an update on my latest health developments.

The guerrilla war of rheumatoid arthritis is getting ratcheted up this week. My source of Orencia samples seems to finally be drying up. It’s just as well, as my immune system seems to ignore it now. Not only will this fall bring a change in the climate, but my physiology. Time to buckle up and practice acceptance – and adaptability!

To deal with the worsening arthritis, I’m on a personal/medical leave at my job. The distinction is pretty meaningless since either way, I can’t get paid for it, being part-time. I’m pretty sure I’m going to have to resign from it; the demands of downtown customer service are probably too much for someone with severe arthritis. It’s not easy to admit that it’s severe, but it is. Thus the next job will hopefully involve telecommuting. I have the ability to work some, but preferably from home, without having to battle the city and keep a poker-face through a rising tide of bracing joint pain. Ah, arthralgia does pair nicely with a fine fibromyalgia; perhaps God is a sick cosmic sommelier, like a primordial Seth MacFarlane.

September has so far been a month of reflection, a reorientation to goals more in line with my experience, goals, and manner of being. I will not thrive in a highly competitive office, a brutish public school, or in organizations resistant to change. Such a total re-evaluation is important though somewhat nerve-wracking.

As luck would have it, my Lovely Lady got the brand new Sims 4 through a friend, and has let me play it over the past week. Well-timed serendipity is delicious! Together we set up our avatars and started spawning our dream family in no time at all. She still misses Sims 3 and its massive amounts of content; I am intrigued by the new dynamic design of moods and their impacts on certain activities. The Sims seem far more ‘alive’ than in Sims 3. Sims discuss freely over meals, sipping drinks, joking and socializing freely, without the awkward robotic positioning that drove me and others mental in Sims 3.

The Sims franchise gets some flak in gamer circles for producing, essentially, a digital dollhouse program. Maybe I’ve been in those circles at times. I felt that the Sims 3 was interesting, but mostly object-centered. Now that Sims 4 has pulled back and redesigned the game around emotions and social interactions, I think it functions a lot more realistically. This balance is very important and, to me, restores the legitimacy of a dollhouse game.

Many video games have a violent premise. The Sims is so strange in that it’s about the mundane, the day-to-day. Illness, disability and unemployment are lacking to me; perhaps this and the cartoonish aesthetic soften the edges of this seemingly ordinary life and remind one that this is in fact a game. A dark part of my mind wants to see mods that add more of the unpleasant realities of life. Tragedy doesn’t make for the most fun, it’s true; I just yearn for a way for a brave enough game to break the taboos around disability, beyond Katawa Shoujo.

There is great worth in playing Sims 4. It engenders a bit of self-awareness. I love Total War: Shogun 2, but it’s not often I’m preparing to defend Osaka Castle. The Sims 4 allows me to act out my dreams, seeing what my life would be like with total freedom from arthritis and its complications. It shows me how to balance things in various stages of life; how a career can impact a family, how a career can detach someone from their life’s goals, and more. I get to flirt with the idea of a career in the tech industry and raising three kids. These are important things to think about.

For a great new model of interactions and aspirations, I’d rate the Sims quite highly, perhaps 4 ½ stars. If the launch version were more stable and had more content similar to what Sims 3 had already accomplished, I might have been tempted to give it a full 5!

Dignity

This week’s topic is human dignity.

Dignity seems to be in short supply these days. It is shocking that in modern times, with so much apparent advancement, that we feel so little dignity. Perhaps that explains the jealous nostalgia towards the displaced Native American or Tibetan; we think they had dignity in those old, lost eons. We yearn for old ideals, and feel eminently uncomfortable in the present. We are okay, but could be far better. So many of us feel like disappointments to our parents, grandparents, or worse of all, our peers, the irredeemable American archetype.

In Alain de Botton’s Status Anxiety he speaks of the expectation of success. Many of us feel compelled to succeed in some grand fashion. American success stories are so naturally repeated in media circuits that we neurotically beat ourselves into a frenzy to lust after advancement and success. Some say fortune is earned, while misfortune is chance. Fortune must be equally rooted in chaos as misfortune. There are some laws to be extricated from the chaos, which should be shrewdly acknowledged to prevent disaster. Our universe is madness and mayhem, however, with our human world changing at lightning speed. There is no control.

Like so many, I get stressed – to be exceptional, yet also to fit neatly within the margin of error for normalcy. Mockery follows deviation, the invisible enforcer. Every time someone chafes at the ‘weird,’ ‘awkward’ or ‘uncomfortable’, they are having a reaction to something not within a very narrow margin of normal. It does not give one huge insight to notice this; in fact, it only shows timidity. This neurotic habit of self-control is an irrational response to the lack of control we have over the world around us. And besieging our nerves like this is an absolutely horrible way to go after our goals.

After college you expect to get a stable job with financial security in order to lay the foundations for a family, inheritance, business empire and so on. I graduated in 2007, right when the Great Recession sunk in. My masters in teaching and hometown connections got me a lucrative gig teaching social studies at my own high school, back in humble Connecticut. And yet my background in philosophy and international studies left me feeling like I had more work to do, more to explore, a greater understanding to achieve and many more communities to reach out and touch. Somewhat furtively, I became a Buddhist monk while teaching civics to suburban kids – I’d start the day off in a shirt and tie teaching about the Federalists and Republicans, and end the day in maroon robes making prayers to Buddha Manjushri.

That all fell through. I moved to Philadelphia then Seattle to work for my tradition and bring Buddha’s enlightening message to the urban masses. My sponsorship was suddenly cut off when my autoimmune condition worsened. Arthritis drained away a lot of my energy, and by now the damage to my joints was becoming very severe, and my pain levels began going through the roof. This experience in Buddhism, the New Kadampa Tradition in particular, was extremely disappointing, and not just because of such egregious lack of compassion.

Now, a few years after that mess, I am quite happy in my little domestic sphere with my lovely lady. It’s a safe space. Over the past few years I have worked back from complete disability, programming my own gradual rehabilitation, and keeping up the good fight like a scrappy wrestler. A year ago I started working part-time at the YMCA to make ends meet and put myself back in the active labor force.

With a masters degree, hugely diverse experience, and the competence to manage a small team, I stew in a part-time job downtown parked close to the minimum wage. There in the downtown business district the income gap is most apparent. The bottom 1% of society are there panhandling next to the top 1%, elite executives in faultless suits. It’s like I start talking to the suits in my imagination, and they tell me I’m a fool for believing this spiritual hogwash, and that I deserve all my misfortune. There isn’t a lot of respect in our nation’s dialogue these days, so of course this is my perception – ostracism and indignation. Perhaps that shadow-executive in my head is an aggregate of decades-long programming, like a Mara of the 21st century.

But dignity is not rooted in money, prestige, or success. It must come from somewhere deeper and purely human, not the mere approval of the average person. That is a finite resource and won’t bestow authentic dignity, but a momentary sense of accomplishment. Dignity believe comes from inner goodness, especially goodness sustained in adversity. One may be slighted yet keeps their head held high. One greets each day anew, freshly, with ambition and joy. From sustaining that goodness patiently, one can become dignified, even when in second-hand jeans held up with a torn-up old belt, accented with worn-out sneakers and a 10-year old jacket.

The theme of the week so far has thus been reclaiming my dignity. This is a difficult area for me. Like many other drifting underemployed 20-somethings, I sometimes struggle with self-esteem, and need to take time to process things to revitalize it after a tough week of pain, disappointment, or depression.

I have to tell myself: there is an uncommon nobility in a spiritual pursuit. Only direct experience would confirm a cynic’s lazy suspicion of a contemporary Buddhist tradition. Despite being blacklisted by my old temple community, I made Seattle work, made new friends and reconnected with old ones, and found love in the process. I have a wonderful cultural scene which I can partake of whenever I have energy – and I do! In the past year I’ve been to a sumo show, an astronaut’s tall tales of outer space, and the best Oktoberfest outside of Germany. Without a lot of money, I have devised ways to keep myself sharp, polished, and practicing my skills. I try to bring joy and meaningful discovery to my relationships. Every day I resist oblivion and fight my war against arthritis’s scourge. I think that deserves a bit of dignity.

We all need to do this kind of meditation from time to time. Buddha probably didn’t want us to efface ourselves into oblivion, but to empower ourselves, by empowering our Selves.

For every person out there, there is a struggle to endure, as nobly as possible if you can – and each will find their own dignity there. It will flow from patient forbearance; not from being gifted fortune at every turn. Transgressions are forgiven and transcended as forward is the best direction. It flows from treating each person you meet as someone with a struggle, a valid struggle. How could real dignity reprimand the unfortunate?

Real dignity recognizes the good of human nature – everywhere, in both self and others.

An Introduction

Hello blogosphere,

Welcome to the Zen Battlestation, a blog of philosophy and life’s best practices. I lived as a Buddhist monk for 3 years after studying philosophy in college. In a world that frowns on a contemplative calling, I tried my best to make my bread with an idealist’s calling in philosophy and social outreach.  For over 15 years I have been living with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis.  In spite of general ambivalence to the chronically ill, I have been fighting for peace, happiness and prosperity, storing up little kernels of wisdom and keeping the fire of hope alive. Why not?

To be brief – the Zen Battlestation will post a reflection once week. I hope these expositions will help you brave readers find some spark to improve your way of life or learn something about your fellow earthlings.

That’s all for now!
– ZBS