On this site, I talk about how to handle relationships, overcome challenges, fears and the like. I tell stories about how I deal and have dealt with these various situations. I paint the picture that I have prevailed and am prevailing in the face of it all. And if I can do it, you can too! I even give instructions how.
There are many peddlers of personal empowerment like me. We are not sages, just guys and girls who’ve discovered a modicum of personal freedom and want to share our experiences with the world. Our central tenants are overcoming fear, explosive self-expression and abundant living.
But there’s a trap with producing and consuming personal empowerment: it’s that freedom isn’t an end in and of itself, it’s a means. We overcome fear, explosively express ourselves and start living abundantly so we can get lots of dates, be famous and make lots of money.
This is a sort of spiritual Chinese handcuffs: the more we focus on becoming free so we can achieve the goals that elude us, the more we substantiate our lack of freedom. We perpetuate the notion that free people don’t get nervous, they aren’t obsequious and they certainly aren’t broke. Until we are those things, freedom will be out of our grasp. Freedom and happiness forever remain something out there, in the future, when; not something here, now.
What if freedom became our ends, not our means? What if freedom looked a lot different than what we thought it did? What if it happened in a cubicle or looking at your flabby body? What if all our indicators of freedom were false? What if we could be free now with our never-going-to-be-famous, inhibited, broke-ass selves? How might that change our day? What excuses would that take away?
Self promotion is a funny thing. While most of us are dying for attention and recognition for who we are and what we do, when it comes time to actually show who we are and what we do, we demure. We don’t want to be thought boastful or self-important. We want to wait until our work is ready to put ourselves out there.
The truth is we don’t share ourselves because we don’t want to be judged. We don’t want anyone to question our awesomeness, so we keep it to ourselves, pets and small children. We value maintaining a fragile sense of self–one that cannot withstand scrutiny and judgment–more than contributing something meaningful to the world.
In December, my wife and I got married. We had a novel approach to having a wedding and we wanted to share it. The NY Times covered it and it eventually made its way to Huffington Post and Gawker. The latter website deemed it, “The Most Obnoxious, Do-Good Wedding Ever.” One Huffpo commenter remarked of the wedding,
It was grotesquely obnoxious. It was taking people who feel socially obliged to attend and shoving your pet ideology down their throats. If you think it was affirming, substitute right-wing fanaticism for this left-wing fanaticism.
You know what? Despite this vitriol, my wife and I are okay. We still got married. The people at the wedding still had a great time. We still believe we helped people rethink weddings and marriage.
Our time on earth is too short to withhold ourselves, guarding ourselves from judgment and scrutiny. The world is going to judge you no matter what. Neither you, nor your work are ready for public display. Fuck it. Show us anyway.
In 2010 and 2011, 2 of the coldest years in New York City history, I lived in a house with no heat. When I got home at night I put layers on. My around-the-house uniform included long johns, fleece pants, double wool socks, a t-shirt, fleece pullover, heavy wool sweater, parka, a scarf or two and a hunter’s cap. I slept in the same outfit under a sheet, a fleece blanket, a light cotton blanket I never bothered removing from the summer and four thick, down comforters.
In an incident I chronicled in this blog, my pipes froze, forcing me to perform midnight, 30-degree, water-cascading-from-the-ceiling household triage. Shortly thereafter, my landlord (a very loose designation) shut the pipes off. It had become so cold that the water in the toilet froze, forcing me to concoct creative waste removal operations. Because there was no drinking water, I walked around with jugs to fill when I had access to running water.
I lived this way partly because I was convinced that I was being spiritually tested. I was proving that I could find peace and meaning in the face of really uncomfortable circumstances. And I achieved that. I developed a physical and spiritual toughness, cultivating an ability to cope–and occasionally thrive–in harsh conditions.
But it was uncomfortable. Without so much as a fireplace, I was living in conditions that a neanderthal would probably find intolerable.
So why did I do it?
There was the spiritual thing, which had more than a trace of truth to it. Though the spiritual test conveniently coincided with diminishing savings and nearly nonexistent income.
The other reason is this: People can put up with some pretty lousy shit if they believe their behavior only impacts them. I can be miserable when I believe I’m the only one who’s subjected to it. I can live in a freezing home if I’m the only one who has to bundle up. I can let my personal hygiene fall off in tragic ways if I’m the only one smelling it.
What changed–the reason I type without gloves on a January night–was that my life became about more than myself. I got a girlfriend, girlfriend became wife, wife will one day be a mother. The guy who was okay porting collected rainwater from the roof to flush the toilet had little or nothing to do with being a great boyfriend, husband or father. It’s not that one is wrong and the other right–they’re just two different people.
In an ideal world, my motivation would be purely intrinsic, the voice of God would speak through me, divining me an intuitive wisdom that shows me the way of strength and goodness. Every so often, that’s how it goes.
More often, my motivators are extrinsic–something I cherish outside myself compels me to step into a bigger role. I want A, but A is not possible as long as I’m being B.
Let me clarify one point: I’m not promoting betraying oneself. The changes I’m referring to are aligned with who we are (our intrinsic motivation). The guy who got a job, a heated apartment and wanted to take care of others is more aligned with who I am than my previous incarnation as Nanook of Brooklyn Heights.
With these thoughts in mind, consider:
Name an extrinsic motivator in your life. Preferably this is something you want to have or have but are not feeling fulfilled by (e.g. relationship, job, goal).
What way of ‘being’ is preventing you from having this situation work? For me, I was being lazy and proud. Lazy about creating income and too proud to admit that I didn’t enjoy hanging around a sub-zero living room.
What impact are you pretending doesn’t exist by holding onto this way of being? For example, saying you don’t care about something or want something when you really do.
What way of ‘being’ could make the situation work? In my case, I had to grow up–or ‘be’ responsible.
Take one action today inside of this way of being.
When I was 14 I had a huge crush on Michelle Pockock. She was 5’8″, had black hair down to her butt, dark, button eyes and a small mouth with thick braces. At the time, I had no experience with women and was pretty much a nonentity in my high school’s social hierarchy. Despite these handicaps, I managed to invite Michelle back to my house one afternoon. I got her into my bedroom. I remember sitting there at the edge of my bed, talking about nothing. It was the perfect setup for a makeout session. And yet…I did nothing. I did not kiss her, touch her or even hint at the depths of my passions.
Later, she joined the debate team right after I did. You could say she followed me. We had many the overnight trips that lent themselves to secreting away. Michelle and I did none of that. Perhaps frustrated by my lack of initiative, she ended up hooking up with this short, pudgy-faced douche named Kirk–a Junior who boasted that he plucked her virginity to anyone who cared to listen.
Sure, I was clueless in a way common to 14 year-olds (though this cluelessness had a long half-life). Perhaps Michelle didn’t actually like me and that’s why we never hooked up. But I believe there was another phenomenon at play; a phenomenon that thwarts plans and intentions to the present day. I was being right. In this case, I was right that she was not interested in me. Had I not been so certain about my unattractiveness, had I entertained the possibility that she liked me–a possibility affirmed by countless actions on her part–I would have made at least one move. Sure, I might have been wrong. I might have made an ass out of myself. But I wouldn’t have wondered what would have been.
I’m happy to report that I’ve come a long way in the last 21 years with my relationships to women. Though far from completely evolved in this area, I acknowledge a few possible reasons why, for instance, my wife finds me attractive.
Nonetheless, there are many areas where I cling to my righteousness. In fact, wherever I feel stuck or disempowered, wherever I fail to take action, wherever I suffer, somewhere underneath it is the determination to be right: I am being right that something is not possible; I am being right that a situation is untenable; I am being right that a person can’t change–a particularly malevolent influence when that person is me.
What if we could all be a little easier with our relation to being right? What if we could accept that all of our knowledge, the basis of righteousness, is inherently limited, and therefore an unreliable barometer for what is and is not possible? Often, this new relation doesn’t even necessitate action on our part, just a willingness to entertain possibilities outside the scope of our knowledge.
In the spirit of not being right, here are few things to think about today:
Name an area where you are suffering or lack power.
What do you know about this area that keeps you from taking action or finding peace?
What would be possible if you were wrong about what you know?
Practice being wrong. Take one action that corresponds with your newfound wrongness. Step outside the boundaries of your knowledge.
Emily Dickinson wrote the famous verse, “I dwell in possibility.” Unlike the famous poetess, many of us dwell in limitation, using the past as our main referent for the future—i.e. because we’ve have never done it in the past, it will not happen in the future.
Possibility on the other hand allows for unprecedented realities. Something that has never happened can happen simply because it’s possible. We might not know how it will happen, but when we acknowledge the possibility, we are more likely to take the action corresponding to realizing that possibility.
For example, if we think being physically fit is impossible, based on the fact we’ve been unhealthy our whole lives, we won’t do the things necessary to be fit. Conversely, if we believe being fit is possible, even if we don’t know how, we can figure out ways to realize that objective.
There is a dark-side of possibility however. It’s what I call “the narcosis of possibility.” The easiest place to see this is at 12:15AM after a few vodka-sodas. You invent a possibility, like starting a business. You can’t wait to start making it happen. The dude on the next bar-stool is going to design your logo. Any-fucking-thing is possible!
You wake up the next day with a vague recollection of what was so great about your idea. You try to muster the enthusiasm of the night before but are preoccupied by thoughts of coffee, eggs and Law and Order reruns. You think of your lack of business skill, money, etc. Fuck it. It wasn’t that good an idea anyway. Reality trumps drunken possibility once again.
This phenomenon is not limited to buzzed brainstorming. Many sober minds have conjured great ideas that do not withstand reality. We get psyched about a project, relationship, fitness plan, etc., but we fail to deal with things as they are in reality. We don’t acknowledge our level of business training, our emotional maturity (or lack thereof), our state of health, etc. Instead of developing these things, we become overwhelmed by the gap between possibility and reality, often doing nothing. There are others who use willpower and force to bridge that gap—these people can make things happen, but generally at the expense of their health and happiness.
Sometimes we can’t admit that just because something is possible, it doesn’t mean we should do it.
Other times we create a possibility aware of the realities we’re dealing with. It’s something we’ve considered well. We have an idea and plan to carry it out. But once the plan is in motion, we don’t ask ourselves often enough, “Is this working?”
Lest I be too abstract, I’m writing about myself. I started this blog 6 months ago based on the possibility of writing for a living. This idea was pure, uncut possibility. According to the past, I had no reason to believe I would make it happen.
I love the writing part and the feedback I’m recieving. I love processing my life and helping others process theirs. But I haven’t been dealing with a couple nagging realities: I don’t love not making money or working in isolation. I’ve been trying to will these things out of my reality, but I can’t seem to do it.
Sure, it’s entirely possible I can make money if I refine my plan. I could find more ways to engage people. I actively do both these things.
But the truth is I’m not dealing with reality. I want to be better at working alone. I want to be more of a self-starter. I want to be one of these people—who seem so numerous on the internet—who through pluck and Twitter, amass great followers and fortunes. But in reality I am not these things—at least not right now.
I have to assess where I’m at, based not on the narcotic effect of possibility, but on the sober truth of reality. From there, I can create a new possibility.
The new possibility I’ve created is to continue to develop my writing, but with more human contact and steadier income. There’s an ancient tradition I am going to employ to remedy this situation. It’s called a job.
Maybe if Emily Dickinson took a similar approach, she would have left her bedroom.
It’s important to note that deviating from an original possibility is not killing it. In fact, sticking to the original plan would kill it. My new possibility affords me self-expression through writing, supported by the stability and relationship building of a job.
Here are some things to consider for yourself:
What possibility in your life is being thwarted by reality? In other words, name a dream—one you may or may not be taking action on. Within that dream, what realities are compromising your ability to take action or enjoy acting? For example, you want to date, but don’t do so because you have trouble being open with potential partners.
What new possibility could you create if you dealt with reality as it presently exists? Using the above example, based on your lack of skill, you could create the new possibility of being supported, getting a dating coach or asking someone who is romantically fulfilled to find out what he or she does.
Take one action that based on this new possibility right now.
First off, I’m trying to realize my dream of writing for a living. I’ve been at it for 6 months and I’m not making money. I’m not broke as I earn money from other sources and have savings to draw off for living expenses. I also have a supportive girlfriend, family and friends. But I am afraid I won’t be able to realize my dream. If I don’t, it’ll mean I’m a loser. It’s a big, horrible problem.
Another problem is my diet. A couple months ago I started practicing the Paleolithic diet, which suggests that humans are not genetically set up to consume domesticated foodstuffs like grains and sugar. The diet mostly consists of eating vegetables and meat—no grains, no legumes, no processed foods. I was doing good for a while, but my girlfriend and I started holding community brunches every Sunday. Between 10 and 30 people show up each week, each contributing dishes. The brunches have been great, but I’ve had trouble not consuming grain products. It’s been tough to get back on track the next day. My blood sugar fluctuates quite a bit and sometimes (like now) I feel a little lightheaded detoxing from the sugar. If I don’t stick to this diet, I’ll be a flabby, energy-deprived loser, which is an awful problem.
I have communication problems. My phone was broke last week, which was a huge clusterfuck. I relented and got an iPhone the other day. It works great, but I can’t seem to figure out how to sync my Google calendar with with my iCal for realtime updates. I’m afraid I’ll put an appointment in Google and it won’t sync with iCal (or vice-versa), which might cause me to double book or something. People will think I’m a flake. My life will unravel around me.
I have housing problems. My girlfriend and I are discussing moving in together. We want a nice place in Brooklyn, preferably around Park Slope or Cobble Hill—two beautiful, tree and brownstone-lined neighborhoods. But we also want someplace to duck out on weekends in the country—maybe something in the Catskills or in Pennsylvania. We’re not sure where we’ll live or how we’ll make the country thing happen. Without quiet, spacious homes, we might not achieve inner peace and enlightenment, which is a pretty significant problem.
I can’t think of any other problems at the moment, but I’ll post them in the comment section when I do.
If a problem is a flame, significance is its oxygen. No significance, no problem.
This is easy to see with problems as as shamefully bourgeois as mine—the kind of problems most of us deal with. We have no “real” problems. Most (if not all) of us have computers, which puts us ahead of at least 85% of the world’s population in wealth. We are reading a blog, which suggests we’re on the younger side and are probably relatively healthy. We probably live in America or some other first world nation and enjoy a stable, non-violent society. The majority of problems that occupy our consciousness are probably pretty trivial, centering around ourselves and our unmet desires.
A fraction of us have problems that seem inherently significant. Terminal illness, major health problems, death of a close friend or family member, eviction, impending or realized poverty, etc. We believe there is no spin on them that would make them insignificant.
But what if nothing had any significance outside of the meaning we give it? Let’s take terminal illness as an example. It seems inherently significant, but, as Chuck Palahniuk writes in “Fight Club,” “On a long enough timeline. The survival rate for everyone drops to zero.” We’re all going to die. Every important figure throughout history has lost against some form of terminal illness. Why are we or our loved ones so special? What if death had no significance?
I’m not suggesting we deny that things have meaning to us. For example, we might decide ending war has meaning (surely a higher caliber issue than syncing calendars on an iPhone). But what if we recognized that the meaning and significance we give something is ours, not the thing’s? Believing this, we could act and whether we achieved the results we wanted or not, it would not mean anything about ourselves or the world.
The worst part of giving significance is that it often compels us to not act at all. The results have such grave implications, so we just avoid the issue altogether. For example, we won’t submit that manuscript or ask that girl out because if we don’t receive the result we seek, it’s significant. It might confirm that we are the losers we think we are. Better to do nothing instead and not receive confirmation.
What if we could just act without making the problem or the results significant?
With these these thoughts in mind, consider the following:
List the big problems in your life?
What meaning do you give them? For example, not getting a raise means you aren’t valued or important, or not getting a return call from a girl you like means you’re unattractive.
What if these problems had no intrinsic significance? What if not getting a raise or not getting a return call meant nothing? They lacked significance.
In what ways would you act if the results of your actions lost their significance? What if getting rejected was not significant? What if dying was not significant? How might you act if these were the case?
Choose one action you’ve been avoiding because of its significance and take it now.
In the summer of 1997 I rode my bicycle from Boulder, Colorado to Seattle, Washington to Portland, Maine. It was an epic journey. I hated almost every minute of it.
The problem was that I wanted to say I rode across the US more than I wanted to ride it. This dubious motivation made me want the trip over before it began. I wanted the medallion of cross-country tourer. Most of the countless hours in the saddle were spent listening to the nagging mantra, “Am I there yet?”
The only times I enjoyed myself were during the hardest moments. There were a few mountain passes in the Washington—Rainy, North Cascades and Sherman—where I scaled 20-plus mile passes in rain and 40-degree temperatures. The conditions were so consuming that I couldn’t focus on the fact that the ride wasn’t over. As cliche as it sounds, when I became absorbed by the journey, not the destination, I actually had a good time. Continue reading “You Will Never Get a Break”
About 7 years ago, I was training to be a personal fitness trainer. My gym assigned prospective trainers like me to “floor shifts.” If you belong to a gym you see floor-shifters shifting around the gym floor. They are supposed to help out, get towels and schmooze with customers. These workers are paid peanuts, have little to do during their shifts and usually open the gym at ungodly hours until they get their training certificates and can take on clients. The crappy pay, work and hours is meant to separate the wheat from the chaff—the people who really want to train and people who just want a job. I was chaff.
I had good reasons why I quit the gym: I made much more money at my other job (I did); their training method was stupid (it kind of was); gyms promote superficial fitness, not health (they do). But another reason for quitting revealed itself. It didn’t matter what I was doing. I always found reasons why something sucked. Personal training, acting, modeling, cooking, school, girlfriends, friends—I quit all of them for good reasons. It wasn’t an episodic issue, it was a systemic one. I was a quitter.
I realized that I wanted to be more than a quitter and a dabbler. After the gym episode, I started a program of recovery from quitting, carried out in a pretty straightforward way: I stopped quitting things and finished many things I had started (I got geeked out on transformational workshops for a while too).
But that recovery took time. It took a while before the old evidence was displaced by the new. I had to show up to relationships, jobs and other commitments for a while before I was able to fully experience myself as a committed person. With any major change, there is a period between letting go of what you don’t want and creating what you do. Which brings me to the present.
Most of my “adult” life has been spent primarily living for myself. Sure, I’ve shown up and committed to relationships and institutions, but I always made sure I had enough emotional or physical distance that our needs weren’t completely intertwined. I wasn’t going to let anyone or anything drag me down with them.
I’ve had great times living this way. I’ve been mobile and flexible. I’ve slept well and gotten plenty of exercise because no one impinges on my schedule. Since I have minimal material needs, I haven’t needed to make much money or work too hard. I’ve been able to change my life instantly without all that messy explaining one must do in close relationships. For example, I can go vegan overnight because no one else is eating from my fridge.
But something happened 9 months ago. I met a girl. I like the girl. The girl wants a family. In order to be with her for a while, I had to be on board. Continue reading “Man-Child Manifesto”
I’ve been sick for the last week, which is tough for someone who identifies with being a hot and healthy dude. No, I don’t make a lot of money (or almost any). I live in a dump. I lack accomplishments, awards, degrees beyond a bachelor’s (and it took me a while to get that), but gosh-darnit, I’m healthy. I get sick maybe once every 3 years (and it’s usually mild). My bowels move freely. My nasal passages blow like wind over a Himalayan ridge. My skin is clear. My midsection is taut. My limbs are long and strong. My fingernails are hard and free from bites or dents. Random people frequently tell me things like, “You look like you take good care of your body.” So when that body shuts down—even partially—it fucks with my identity.
The first thing I do is go into diagnostic mode. What caused this? Was it hanging out with all those kids? Was it mold in my apartment? Was it my recent penchant for eating loaves of white bread (this is my #1 theory)? Was it negative thoughts and fear?
While I don’t think it’s a bad idea to examine why I got sick (especially when it happens so rarely, making it easier to discern the cause), once sick, the cause becomes less urgent than recourse. With sickness, as in all things, there are 2 ways of dealing:
Resist it. I can get pissed off at all the things I can’t do. Maybe I try to labor through these things, pretending as if everything is cool, meanwhile protracting my recovery.
Surrender to it. I can accept that my body is still vulnerable to sickness. I can accept that all of my plans and designs for taking over the world are subject to the vagaries of nature.
While I don’t want to overstate the significance of my sniffles, my health can be likened a bit to the Japanese tsunami. Both illustrate how the best plans and precautions can be unexpectedly and completely undermined by forces of nature. After all, I’m not some sedentary layabout. I ride my bike everywhere. I do pilates. I make sure to eat raw vegetables every day. I get adequate sleep. I freaking meditate. And I still got sick.
Japan wasn’t Haiti. It had a modern infrastructure. I’m sure it was as prepared as any highly-populated, seismically-active, island nation could be in dealing with an 8.9 submarine earthquake. And it still got its shit rocked.
I believe that what is good for now is good for later. This principle holds true for every system. Taking care of my body has immediate and longterm benefits. Cleaning my house provides a nice place to live now and keeps it from deteriorating later. But at some point and time even the best systems fail, whether that system is respiratory or solar. It’s what the Buddhists call impermanence. All phenomena arises and disappears (and I dare any reader to provide an exception). Rather than trying to ensure that our various systems never fail and getting pissed off when they do (i.e. resisting), wouldn’t it make more sense to learn how to handle this essential failure? This is not giving up, it’s surrendering.
Giving up is when you stop washing the dishes in your sink because you think, “Why bother? Everything is going to shit anyway.” Surrendering to their impermanence is happily washing those dishes, knowing they will one day break, but content with the brief satisfaction they bring you now (and you’d just assume have a clean eating surface).
No home, a big duffel in hand, a bigger backpack on back, I headed to the uptown 1 train to crash on my buddy’s couch. My body felt like a plucked tuning fork. I heard every car honk, every splash when wheel hit puddle, felt every distant train rumble, smelled the dankness of cold-moisture and curbed garbage, saw every glimmer off the pavement, every swirl in the florescent lights in the train-stop.
The train arrived. I sat and pulled out my notebook. I had just broken up and everything was still and clear. What had brought me to this place was clear—all the lies, all the needs I suppressed. I was done. I had needs. I wrote down what I needed. Someone who listens. Someone who likes reading in bed (or at least appreciates that I do). Someone who is openminded. Someone who cares about the environment. When I rattled off a couple pages of these things, I wrote out a declaration that for everything I listed, I would be willing to deliver the same thing.
I arrived at the 116th street stop. A light glaze covered the bricks of Columbia’s campus walk. I gulped in air. I hadn’t breathed in a while.
I called my mom and told her what happened. I apologized for lying to her (something I would do a lot of in the coming days). Dishonesty cannot be not contained. Lying in my relationship made it easier to lie to friends and family. Since talking about my relationship was dooming it, I quit talking or showing up.
I got to my friend Chikodi’s place. It was 1AM. We talked for a couple hours—about what happened, what went wrong, what was possible now. 2 years of dammed energy were released. There was no way I was going to sleep, so I pulled out computer and started to write.
It’s almost 5 in the morning, I can’t sleep. I just broke up with _____. I’m laying on a friend’s couch. I’ve very little idea what’s next—just a clearer idea of what will no longer be [doing my best imitation of Neo at the end of the Matrix]….I was just thinking about you. How I’d love a lover who I would be excited to have you meet. _____ was never that, and I’m sure it drove a fissure in our relationship….I’m sure there was an invisible but palpable toll on our connection, that everything had to be filtered through the lies that maintained my appearance of emotional and spiritual health. It just wasn’t there…the health that is.
So to long health in a short life.