Monday, July 31, 2017

How does one improve at self-improvement?

Self-improvement can be an act of self-love, but it often involves actions that border on self-rejection. In order to improve myself in some aspect, I need to use self-critical analysis-- to assess what I’m currently doing, to judge that against some standard, and then to apply effort to do better. A lot of negativity can come out during that process-- the assessment can descend into nitpicking and negativity, the judging into inadequacy, and the efforts into perpetual dissatisfaction. The toxicity of self-critical analysis can lead to: anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, poor self-care habits, self-injury, poor relationships, etc. (There’s toxicity in lack of self-critical analysis, too-- just off the top of my head, narcissism and being an asshole).

Which is to says that one can be bad at self-improvement, and thus the question: How does one improve at self-improvement?

I’m having trouble organizing my thoughts, so I’m going to just provide some bullet points, grouped chronologically (in terms of my thought process);

Set I
  • Let yourself be bad at some things.
  • Let yourself be mediocre at some things.
  • Never judge yourself as a whole because of some aspect of yourself.
Set II
  • If you’re not getting satisfaction from the effort itself, you’re not going to find satisfaction at the end of the effort either.
  • As much as possible, set your own standard for excellence, and set it based on the intuition I’m calling “just feels right.” In this regard, one can choose freely among the standards that appear to be set by others.
  • Related to this internal standard, establish an intuition called “enoughness,” one which signals satisfaction (and thus the end of striving after success) or asserts acceptance (and thus the end of striving because effort has turned into punishment).
  • What’s needed is the development of a safe ‘place’ of self-love and acceptance. Without this anchor, efforts at (and attitudes regarding) self-improvement can veer towards the toxic. Just as I need to practice the thing I’m trying to improve, I have to balance it with practices of self-love and acceptance.
Set IV
  • As always, discernment and rhythm are the keys here. Discernment to tell the difference between contentedness and complacency, and between self-criticism and self-abuse. Rhythm to alternate between the striving and sitting needed to make changes while practicing self-acceptance.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

“Things that end are less meaningful/valuable than things that persist.”

The biblical book of Kohelet (aka Ecclesiastes) opens with the line “Hevel Hevelim, Kol Hevel,” or “Hevel of Hevels, All is Hevel.” Right-- so what’s Hevel? The most direct translation is “vapor”-- think of breathing into the air on a cold morning. “Vapor of vapors, everything is vapor!” is the best translation, and never one that you’ll see in a English Bible. Based on how Kohelet then talks about life and the world, it seems like the “vaporousness” of things is a reflection of their transience.

But in most translations hevel is read as: vanity, futility, emptiness, meaningless, pointless. There’s an additional interpretation happening in these translations, based on this implicit principle:

Things that end are less meaningful/valuable than things that persist.

So: I think this principle is very problematic. I also agree with it. Herein lies the struggle.

Doesn’t Last = Less Valuable
Toys that break. Food that isn’t filling. Games that are only fun once or twice. Friends who flake or bore. Odd jobs. An insight that was moving last night but now feels cliche.

At the risk of being redundant and laying out the opposites: Lifelong hobbies. Nourishing food. Lifelong friends. Careers. Lasting realizations. Missions. Home.

Value and stability/longevity go together! Dependability, to me, is a major factor in a person/thing’s value.

Time and Suffering
With all things being subject to time, this conflation of persistence and value is ultimately damning to life. No, wait, let’s flip it-- life mocks our conflation of persistence and value, with time (and ultimately death) seeming to rob anything of lasting value.

I’ve been thinking about it this summer, in regards to both mundane and large-scale matters. I’ve been having a lot of summer fun while waiting for my job to start, and every so often in a moment of joy I’ll think “This is great! But what will it mean once it’s a memory?” What will be the value of previous carefree fun once I’m too old to enjoy anything? Or I’ll think (catastrophize, really) about future political and environmental upheavals, and wonder about the meaning of present peace in the face of future loss and devastation.

Kohelet expresses his skepticism about lasting value with the question: “What profit?” meaning, you get the value of the moment, but no lasting value. My own bleak way of expressing this idea is the phrase “No redemption.” I mean this in the sense you see on soda bottles, as in “CA Redemption Value.” “No redemption” means there’s no trade-in value. A moment cannot be traded for another. What nourishes me today cannot nourish me tomorrow because it’s been eaten already. Nothing can be regained. Loss is loss is loss.

If “Things that end are less meaningful/valuable than things that persist”
Then being subject to time involves a lifelong battle with meaninglessness and despair.

I’ll briefly map out five (somewhat overlapping) solutions to overcoming this existential issue.

Overcoming Time through Eternity
I see this as the most (western) Religious response. If the world of passing things is full of despair, seek out eternal things! All things must pass, but not God, or the soul, or any other being/item from the spiritual realm. On a secular level, the closest I can get to this is meditation, at least those meditations in which I try to identify with those things (air, earth, time) that will, at the very least, outlast me.

Overcoming Time through Savoring
This is the response of Positive Psychology. Yes, things do not last, but our power to appreciate, our power to look back and then carry forward can be cultivated. As I learn from David Abrams, the past need not disappear entirely-- in trees, the past is always contained inside the organism (as rings). With intentionality, I can re-member the past into my present experience, and wring further meaning and value.

Overcoming Suffering through Rebellion
This is the response of Existentialism (and particularly Camus). The world won’t satisfy our built-in desire for lasting meaning? Fine! We’ll find meaning/value in the absurdity. We won’t depend on stability. We’ll manifest meaning through acts of defiance/courage in the face of a tragic world.

Overcoming Suffering through Acceptance
Despite my lack of extensive learning on the subject, I still call this the Buddhist response (probably influenced by Alan Watts). Transience is only a problem for people who grasp, so stop grasping! Let time be time.

My personal journey out
Personally, I think the way out (and something that is touched upon in several of the above solutions is the task of Overcoming the Conflation of Value and Stability. As I just said, transience is only a problem for people who grasp at value, who think that value is lost if it can’t be held firmly in hand.

The tasks, then, are to: Find value despite/within that insecurity. Find value without assurance that it will continue. Find value in small things, and in brief encounters. Not just in the dependable but also in the random and sporadic. Have faith that loss is not total loss of value, but a clearing away for the value that follows upon loss.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Hello readers:

Today I have a special guest blogger: Yotam Schachter. He is also doing personal/professional work on spiritual practices without using the name/concept God. As in previous posts of mine, you'll note that he's also exploring which words generally associated with God (such as soul, prayer, and divine) could still be useful outside of an explicitly Godly context. Enjoy!

Most of the time, I don’t believe in a God who can be influenced by prayer, or who loves me any differently from anything else. I do believe in Hasidut as a spiritual path, and I am exploring the notion that I can walk that path by substituting for the term God something like “All of myself other than my immediate conscious ego.” Call it my Soul, perhaps: All of my awareness, past, present, and future, other than my ego at this moment.

The relationship I strive for with my Soul is one of love, humility, gratitude, and occasional influence – much like the Hasidic relationship with God. Practices like hitbodedut carry over seamlessly. The unification of divine aspects, the redemption of fallen sparks, and the pursuit of dvekut all translate. In prayer, I try to bring about alignment between my ego and my Soul – sometimes by easing the grip of my ego, and sometimes by reconciling divergent forces within my Soul. I choose to affirm that by calling upon my Soul to serve the principles and communities I value, I increase the odds that my future actions will have the best possible impact.

Encountering the non-egoic vastness within me as though it were the Hasidic divine in this way, I feel like I do when I believe in God: Loved, welcome, and of service to the world.

And perhaps this is the classical Hasidic divine after all. My Soul blends without clear boundary into my biology, my relationships, and my environment, part of a diffuse web of mutual influence. The question of theology becomes an appraisal of the strength and coherence of that web: if my prayers can influence the weather, and if some form of higher guidance can influence me, then my Soul is a foyer to the house of a living God. If not, then the foyer is enough.

Monday, July 24, 2017

I'm not an atheist...

I’m not an atheist, but it appears that I’ve talked myself into a damn corner on the topic of theology.
Without revelation, all theology is negative theology
Revelation, to me, is the only thing that can provide legitimacy to beliefs about God. Whether God is, what God is, what God wants (if God is indeed the kind of X that has the capacity for wants)-- without revelation, I don’t think it makes sense to talk about any of those things.

And, again, I’m not an atheist; I just don’t believe in revelation. Every provided example of revelation appears to me like a human act of interpretation, specifically one that is tainted by its humanness. The provided record of revelation reads like historical product, political propaganda, wish fulfillment and revenge fantasy, selection bias, ethnocentrism, etc.

I believe that any serious belief in God must be accompanied by a theory of idolatry. I believe that any approach to God must provide an account of what it means to be wrong about God. In this regard, I’m not so different from other monotheists (ripping off Dawkins here), in that any possessor of a ‘true’ revelation will usually be ready with arguments for the falsity of other alleged revelations. But without the possession of a ‘true’ revelation, I only have arguments against.

So I’m not saying I don’t believe in God; I just think that everyone (who attempts to provide positive content to the concept of God)  is wrong about God.

With revelation, our inadequacy is overcome through relationship

Thanks to Rabbi Aviva Richman for teaching me this passage. The summary beneath it is mine.
To what may the matter be compared? To the case of a king who had a friend. The king said to him: “I want you to know that I shall dine with you. Go then and make preparations for me.” His friend went and prepared a common couch, a common candelabra and a common table. When the king arrived, there came with him ministers who encompassed him on this side and that, and a golden candlestick preceded him. His friend, seeing all this pomp, felt ashamed and put away all that he had prepared for him, as it was all common. Said the king to him: “Did I not tell you that I would dine with you? Why did you not prepare anything for me?” His friend answered him: “Seeing all the pomp that accompanied you, I felt ashamed, and put away all that I had prepared for you, because they were common utensils.” “By your life!” said the king to him, “I shall set aside all the utensils that I have brought, and for love of you I shall use none but yours!” So in our case. The Holy One, blessed be He, is all light; as it says, “The light dwells with Him” (Daniel 2:22). Yet He said to Israel: “Prepare for Me a candelabra and lamps.”
tl;dr - Human light literally cannot hold a candle to divine light. Human understanding cannot approach divine reality. And yet, with God’s revelation, human concepts and words are given dignity. God’s desire for relationship overcomes the overwhelming reality/power/status gap between God and human.

This is what separates me from my apophatic heroes-- Maimonides and Meister Eckhart. For all of their negative theology, they believed in revelation, and this allowed them to want to stay within their religious institutions and to find meaning and legitimacy in liturgy.

This damn corner
I miss my previous relationship with God. But I believe that that relationship cannot exist without revelation,  and I can no longer believe in revelation. Source criticism, naturalism, and psychology have ingrained in me an inescapable skepticism about any alleged revelation.

If there is such an X as God, I can only hope that Silence is, indeed, considered praise.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017


Maybe sacredness isn’t the right word; maybe it’s a little too strong. I’ll describe the sentiments involved, and then see if another umbrella term fits. Sentiments like: I want to be a force for good in the world. I want to make a positive difference in people’s lives, and when I have a client come in for counseling, I want to make a positive difference in that individual’s life, no matter who they are or what they’ve done. Each person has a story and dignity, and I want to honor and help them cultivate those things. And I also want goodness for myself. I want to live a life with purpose, love, and pleasure, and hopefully have that kind of life for as long as possible. The human spirit is a wondrous thing, and it is a tragedy for that spirit (as it manifests in any individual or group) to be diminished, demeaned, corrupted, or destroyed.

So, what’s the concept I’m gesturing at? The “sacredness of life”? Or maybe more broadly and vaguely, that there’s such a thing as “importance,” that things can “matter.” Life has worth; it’s worth the effort; reverence and responsibility are appropriate reactions to living. We should take ourselves and each other seriously. Life can be a sacred task.

“Sacredness” then? In googling it, the fifth definition “sacrosanct” and its synonyms “protected, defended” felt appropriate. Life is worth protecting, defending, and I’ll say further: nurturing, fostering, etc.

I try to keep it to myself but I’m a pretty morbid person. I think about death when I think about career, money, children, or the climate crisis. Like other folks, I have morbid thoughts while coming up or down (or in turbulence) on a plane. When I consider my life as a whole, I often reflect on the (incessant, if you can imagine) inner monologue that is so much of my personality, and then am quickly struck by the vast ocean of silence that is the time before and after my little life. More recently, I’ve noticed a new pattern-- when I kill a bug in my home (usually as swiftly as possible), the thought comes “I wonder if that’s how I’m gonna go.”

In both the plane and bug situations, my thoughts are framed by a keen awareness that I am not in control of so many forces that determine the length or brevity of my life, and that whatever might kill me is likely to be something impersonal, like a disease, an accident, or an eco-socio-political event. Even if (hopefully not) I am killed by something personal, it would still reflect the smallness of my existence-- that my desire to live was just one thing, and the other person’s one thing (desire that I not live) was enough to trump mine.  

Even without getting morbid, the fact that I (or any individual) am basically nothing occurs to me often, although mostly that’s been happening more since I moved to New York City. I’m on the train, and we stop for 30 minutes because 10 stops away somebody got on the tracks. Thousands of individuals have their goals suspended because one person’s story is getting in the way. The train is often the site of these humbling thoughts-- it’s difficult to hold onto one’s sense of self-importance when in a crowd of people all tightly holding on to their own senses of self-importance.

Ok, so, individual nothingness established. What, then, do I see as an adaptive approach to this nothingness? I don’t want to call it complacency, resignation, or defeatism, so I’ll call it “letting go.” On the plane, I take a look at my life so far, and I think “well, that will just have to have been enough.” On the train, I think “Huh, I guess I am only one person.” I let go of the assumption that I’m in control or that I matter outside of a very small sphere of personal contact. It’s humbling, and I breathe into it, and in this manner facing my smallness does not evoke rage or despair.

Sacredness and Nothingness
The stance of sacredness engenders great care, striving, and fear of loss (of life or meaning). The stance of nothingness engenders letting go and allowing for loss.

Both stances feel authentic, are responses to very salient dimensions of living life as a human. And, it appears, both stances are in direct competition with one another.

The graceful approach to these stances, as far as I can tell, is holding both well in their own time, and vacillating between the two in a manner that doesn’t cause too much existential whiplash. I think I try to effect that gracefulness by seeing the two stances as a rhythm rather than a battle, a dichotomy seeking balance, no different than wake/sleep or work/play.

How do you make/find balance between your own sacredness and nothingness?

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Social Style and Self-Judgment

My Social Preferences
I see the conversation as the most fundamental social unit. To me, all relationship begins, ends, and thrives on conversation. I enjoy deep meaningful conversations that develop, that delve, that gain momentum. I also enjoy more lighthearted fare-- topical, cultural, comedic riffing, etc. My favorite conversations are the ones that feel organic, that find their way through topics and through personal passions, with equal engagement by its participants. My favorite people are the ones with whom this seems to happen organically and consistently. These are people who both share some part of my range of interests, and who are about as skilled and motivated as I am to ask questions and self-disclose.
Then there’s a number of conversations I stay out of, either for lack of interest (sports, reality TV, most material culture, etc.) or distaste (cliche conversations, arguments in which I or the other party are not well-read on the subject, etc.). If someone tends towards those kinds of conversations, we don’t end up as friends.
I find that I’m not that into parties, whether I have many, few, or no friends at them. At a party, I’m likely to talk to one person at a time, and find myself unsure what to do in between those one-on-one conversations, and at a certain point I’ll just leave. (Of course, if alcohol is involved, this changes greatly.) Depending on the quality of relationship or quality of conversation, I’m often anxious during those conversations, unsure if the other person is wondering when it will end, or myself also wondering where this is going, when it will end. I’m very unlikely to talk to strangers there unless I am new to the area (and therefore have to make that effort), playing host, or drinking. My favorite social events are structured, even content-driven (cultural academic spaces, themed gatherings, etc.).
If I am around a conversation with more than one person, I’m likely to split off one person into a separate conversation. If that’s not an option, I’ll usually just observe, not desiring to engage in the attention-seeking strategies required to take the floor, or I’ll ask follow-up questions of others but not actually weigh in. And I’ll get disappointed or annoyed when others just weigh in and never ask follow-up questions.
There are a lot of social gatherings in which I see the socializing as an afterthought. In high school, I was very active in a non-school based youth group, so I saw school mostly as a place to learn, not socialize. When I used to be religious, I would go to shul to pray fervently, and then not really understand why there’d be a social gathering afterwards-- I thought we all came here to talk to God! Even when I invite people to go to concerts, it’s also a strange experience, since my primary reason to be there is to enjoy music, not to make conversation.

Introversion and Self-Judgment
Based on the above description, I think I’d be called an Introvert. Most people who identify as Introverts embrace the label, seeing the social style described above as healthy and fine. I can see that perspective, and yet I find myself with a lot of negative self-judgment for being like this. Here are the various ways I might judge myself or feel inadequate:

  • People who enjoy parties are having more fun! Wouldn’t I like to have more fun?
  • Shouldn’t I be starting more conversations, especially with strangers? Am I not friendly enough? Do I lack a natural curiosity about people? Am I too self-centered?
  • Are my interests too narrow? Shouldn’t I have more topics that I find interesting? Shouldn’t I be more well-read on the things people want to discuss?
  • Why don’t I have the interest/skills to be start or join larger conversations?
  • Am I an introvert because I lack the social skills to get even more enjoyment out of being with people?

Growing out of It
This topic is an example of the personal limits/boundaries paradox. The pains of being limited turn into suffering when I vacillate between accepting and challenging the limitations. What is the appropriate path of growth here? I keep wanting to ask “Can I grow out of it?” but I’m ambivalent about which “it” to grow out of:

It = My particular way of socializing
It = My habit of judging myself harshly for my particular way of socializing

So that’s the struggle as it currently stands. I imagine, vaguely, that the solution lies somewhere between the two. I know this harsh judgment doesn’t help much, and yet I also know that it’s a deeply ingrained habit. I also think that the ability to check in with myself, to identify my social desires independent of any internalized/imagined peer pressure, is an essential skill and practice to develop.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Managing Monomania: Addiction, Monotheism, and Monogamy

Monomania is a fixation on a single thing. Addiction is a fixation on a single substance or behavior (or in the case of polysubstance abuse, a fixation on a single state-- intoxication). Monotheism is a fixation on a single god. Monogamy is a romantic fixation (ideally, a mutual one) on a single person.

I appreciate the appeal of monomania-- there’s a simplicity and elegance to orienting one’s life around a single point. I’ve always been drawn to the romance of monogamy, of having a person I can call “my one.” And people say that finding one’s drug of choice is like falling in love-- just ask Paul McCartney. When I was still religious, my monotheism inspired theocentrism, with all things coming from God and directing thought back to God. Monomania helps to organize the self, relationships, and time by providing a single foundation for understanding and motivation.

There’s also danger in monomania, and here is where my observations need to be more nuanced.

The problem of a behavioral addiction is that it drains resources (time, money, energy, care) from the many, many behaviors that are needed to create a healthy balanced life. The problems of a substance addiction are the same as behavioral, plus the direct/collateral physical/emotional damages of substance use. If a person can use a substance or do an activity in a safe and balanced way, they do not have an addiction.

How does this imbalance arise? One way of telling the story of addiction is that the addicted individual finds that the drug meets certain essential needs better than any other resource could. Nothing brings them as much joy, relief, confidence, hope-- as powerfully or as quickly-- as the drug does. No wonder, then, that any stressor-- sadness, tension, insecurity, despair-- leads them right back to the drug. If a drug appears to be the answer to every problem, the drug will become a problem.

Within this particular narrative of addiction, what then is needed for growth and healing? More tools for meeting needs. New loves. Belief that intoxication is an ineffective response to the conditions of life or, at least, belief that intoxication as the only response is not enough.

Among the potential problems of monotheism are theodicy and chauvinism. With theodicy, a single god is overburdened by the task of establishing and maintaining a good and ordered world. The monotheistic believer faces a lot of anguish, trying to hold the world together with one god in the face of chaos and evil. With chauvinism, that one god must be defended/promoted as best among all other possible one-god, multi-god, no-god scenarios. The monotheistic believer must hold a triumphalist/imperialistic stance towards all people and situations in which the one true god has not yet been recognized and respected, a stance which can engender arrogance and violence.

How does monotheism get so firmly established? One possible narrative is that the one-god belief itself is rooted in a fixed desire for order and authority in the world, or a desire for absolute/ultimate meaning in life. Any other theological scenario (including no-god) offers an intolerable amount of uncertainty, powerlessness, or meaninglessness to the individual and community.

Within this particular narrative of monotheism, what is needed for growth and healing? The problems of chauvinism might be addressed through humility and pluralism. With humility and pluralism, uncertainty can become a theological virtue rather than a failing. The problems of theodicy might be addressed through inclusive monotheism such as Kabbalah offers, so that an underlying unity is expressed and not threatened by real/apparent divisions in reality. (Of course, polytheism and atheism are also live options, but likely not to the committed monotheist --- however, death-of-God theology as expressed in anatheism or the ‘God above God’ might work). With inclusive monotheism or these other options, the experiences of powerlessness and confusion about meaning become part of the holy work of authentic living.

The possible problems of monogamy include loneliness/boredom, conflict/abuse, and cheating. Loneliness/boredom stem from the attempt to have a single partner satisfy one’s every social need. Conflict/abuse stem from the attempt to force that partner to satisfy those needs. And cheating is the illicit attempt to violate the exclusivity of monogamy.

Unlike the sections above, I want to jump directly into the discussion of how people temper monogamy to keep it from becoming toxic. They do this by minimizing the categories in which exclusivity is required, usually down to just sexual exclusivity. A couple which can abide an opening of intellectual intimacy, social intimacy, etc., outside of the relationship, face far fewer of the challenges of expecting one person to be all things for one person. The monogamous romantic relationship can then exist in a constellation of social relationships, with the stability of primacy rather than the isolation of the solitary.

How do these different topics shed light on one another?
The active themes across all of these topics are: Needs, Relationships, Exclusivity, and Organizing Principles. In monomania, the partner, the god, or the drug are used as sole organizing principles, the exclusive means or relationship through which needs are met. In each scenario, the monomania can be loosened and its toxicity defused through diversification.

I put these three together because, no doubt, you (the reader) have different feelings about each one, and yet I think that they shed light on one another. Personally, I endorse monogamy for myself, while rejecting the commitments of monotheism, and being sporadically tempted by the allure of addictive behaviors. What makes exclusivity attractive or useful to you in some situations, but odious or damaging in others? Of these monomania which appeal to you, how do you manage their problematic tendencies?

*Thanks to Mimi Arbeit and Natalie Russ for some of the major insights that led to me writing this piece.