Saturday, November 23, 2019

Wisdom

In Japanese, as best I understand, the biblical Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil could also be rendered as the Tree of Wisdom. I like that.

As I see it, the moment described in the myth* of Adam and Eve where they are tempted and eat of the tree is not the theological breaking of relationship described as The Fall nor the source of "original sin" as it were. Rather this ingesting  of the truth of the difference between good and evil was always a necessary step for humanity to take. To develop as humans from the awakening to pleasure in a perfect Garden, to the reality that the opposite of pleasure also exists, was always a result of the evolution of choice.**

The Fall was rather the moment in which the relationship between the human and divine was shattered, when shame entered the equation and blame became the solution rather than dealing with the pain. Biology at war with Consciousness. Divinity and Carnality. The lesson we had to learn in order to embrace what we could become if we were willing to face the fear.

That lesson has taken us, as a species, on a trajectory. We can trace that path through our stories, both the fictive histories and historical fictions. The framing narratives we tell to explain how this division began within us, as well as the overarching path we've walked since. It is a path fraught with pain, evil, waste, horror, suffering, oppression, disease, and death. It is also filled with art, beauty, wonder, connection, sacredness, and life.

Good and Evil. Writ large and small. Fractal-image reflected in our bones.

The wisdom of the trajectory, is that we cannot escape the pain of the moment when chaos rips order away into death and decay. Entropy do as Entropy do. Given but our stories as shield against the night, can we tell one that finds the channel of Good within the raging river of Evil? Can we find the path emerging from our great gathering narratives that leads us towards more Good and less Evil?

This is the question that sits at the beginning and the heart of the Abrahamic religions. How can we cope with this knowledge of good and evil?

I believe that in the Japanese translation of the Abrahamic texts we learn to see that this divide is wisdom. The Tree wasn't a trap. It wasn't a god making petty rules to entrap his petty playthings. The Tree is our myth of knowledge-gaining placed where it ought to be in our meaning-making stories. As we gain knowledge we must pay the price of wisdom. We must hold the pleasure and pain of that knowledge. We must develop as individuals and as a species by growing our capacity to release and process the pain that is blocking us to more and greater pleasure.

On this trajectory we, as a species, have move from violence and inequality to a much more just and equal world. Yet it is still rife with corruption, inequality, greed, and harm to the most vulnerable and historically oppressed. It is two things. It is both/and.

Wisdom.


--

Damn Knowledge!
what fruit
teaches evil
from good
unto
death

what death
to desire
and suffering
leads
to illumination
of the
damned
knowers






_______________
*in the sense of collective-story of worldview-explanation/inculcation
**whether one ascribes to creative or evolutionary sources for all of existence, it cannot be denied that systems, cultures, and biological processes respond to their environments with successive iterations. Choice, as a biological-sociological construct also becomes more refined to its environment with successive iterations.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Fictions

I recently read the book Sapiens for my local book club. If you haven't read it, I highly recommend it! Among the gems scattered throughout the book is the concept of inter-subjective fictions.

So things can, of course, be subjective. You like beets. I think they taste like rotten dirt. Subjective. There can also be things that are objective. The speed of causality in the universe is 299,792,458 m/s. But between the two is this notion of inter-subjectivity.

Something that's inter-subjective is not based in objective reality (i.e. we can science the shit out of it), but is rather a mutually agreed-upon story that allows for us to cooperate. Money is a great example of such a story. We all agree that a coin or a bill or some bits can be traded for things like food and shelter, not because those things are objectively worth anything, but because it's a useful story that lets us trade things way more efficiently. So too the fiction of a political structure allows us to organize people to do things that would otherwise be impossible.

In fact all of human culture is based on interlocking, overlapping, sometimes contradicting, and always evolving inter-subjective fictions. These are the stories that echo through our society, but more than that, they're the stories that shape our brains and bodies to their reality. We tell stories about what a real man/woman is or what a real American is or what success means or what beauty means. We tell stories about the jobs that are important and the ones that are disposable. We tell stories about the people that are important and the people that we think are disposable.

One of the members of the book club, reflecting on this part of Sapiens, remarked about how depressing it is to think that all of human culture is nothing but stories. I see it as exactly the opposite. The realization that it's all just words is incredibly liberating to me. Because, as is said in the rabbinic tradition, words create worlds. We can change our words and change our world.

Every word you speak is filled with creative magic. Every word you write adds to the story of humanity that we're all telling together, in real time. Every word you receive into yourself becomes a part of your magical toolkit, for good or for ill.

It's easy to let our magic fall unheeded, to let our creative power be swept along in the stream of the stories that brought us all to this place. It's easy to let the story replace the reality, and to confuse the subjective and malleable with the objective and immutable. It's easy to reiterate the same words and recreate the same world.

But you have magic in your words not meant for ease and comfort, but for courage and passion, for a full, beautiful story that resonates with wonder and delight. You have a story and a world that only you can breathe into existence, and that can only happen if you choose your words and the worlds you create rather than retelling the same, old, hurtful myths. 

immutable past
unknowable future
choose
now

Monday, October 28, 2019

Perspective

The most important perspective to be able to take is second-person equal.

I'm a writer so I spend a lot of time thinking about perspectives. The same scene reads vastly differently from a first-person present-tense perspective versus a third-person past-tense perspective.

That we have perspectives at all is a mystery, for perspective is another way of saying consciousness and the hard problem of consciousness is really hard. That you observe is an astounding thing that has no currently known explanation in physical, observable phenomenon. No one understands how your brain turns neurotransmitters and synapses into you.*

But what we do with those perspectives is even more astounding. We start, at some point in our early lives, considering the first person perspective: our own. We see ourselves, for the first time in our lives, as an "I" in that we can name our desires and actions. "I want," is a statement of perspective.

And at some point, maybe when we utter our first word, our perspective has grown to include the existence of a second person. Mamma or pappa or nanna or geegee or whomever you identified with your first word became your second perspective.

Then, after language skills have developed sufficiently to receive the concept, we're introduced to the third person, someone we are only told about by someone with us. Santa Claus or a relative never met are virtually the same in the mind of a child who has just learned the concept of a third person perspective.

From there, though, it tends to accelerate quickly, especially for readers. From those three starting perspectives there is an infinite variation of ways to take them. We've already hit first-present and third-past, so we can add tense, but there's also distance. Is it a third-person near perspective (as if the camera were over the shoulder of the character)? Or is it third-person omniscient (with the narrator flitting from mind to mind at will)?

As we grow we tend to settle into the most comfortable perspectives. This is normal. After a period of huge growth in connections, our brains suddenly shed lots of extraneous pathways, once in early childhood and once in later adolescence. After periods of intense discovery our brains then choose the most useful pathways to focus on, and discard the rest. Our brains use between twenty and twenty-five percent of our body's energy despite being five percent the mass. Efficiency is a big problem and it's solved by looking for homeostasis. Whatever neural pathways lead to the least disruption are prioritized. These are the patterns that get baked into our behavior. These are the perspectives that we stop questioning after a while. They become the default.

But here's the kicker. Unless you learn to take the perspective of another person, as fully as you are able, it is almost impossible to learn.

The double-bind is this: unless we expend lots of neurological energy (i.e. emotional labor) we can't take a new perspective, but without expending that energy there's no way we can find more efficient pathways that could ultimately be more beneficial.

It's easy to default to what's comfortable. Usually a lot of first-person past (I should have done that thing already, damnit!) or second-person present imperative (move, IDIOT!) or third-person future (they're gonna get IT!). Not much first person present. Not a lot of just being.

And that's rough because that's usually the most efficient perspective, the most beneficial neural pathways. If we're running the perspective of what our past self should have done or what the person across from us is supposed to be doing or what someone we don't know might do we have absolutely zero control over that situation. That's wasted energy. Your brain is supposed to be efficient, but it isn't very smart. It just churns away (I shoulda done this, you're doing it wrong, they can't figure it out).

There's another double-bind though. In order to really take the first-person present perspective, to really be here and present in this moment instead of scattered across immutable time, you have to learn to give up all your other perspectives and take someone else's.

Your brain really doesn't like this because all of the pathways, the patterns that were baked into us as babies and children, feel like the self. These are the neurological bones and sinew of the ego. They are the stories that we've told ourselves since before we understood what stories are, so they feel like our marrow. Giving up these old stories feels like dying. Your brain responds with a panicked firing of the fight-or-flight response because core systems are being challenged.

Or that's what happens the first time. It gets way less traumatic as you get used to it. It gets to be quite fun, even, because of the learning it can unlock. But the first time it feels like your heart is breaking and you'll do anything you can to stop it. And, like chicken pox, it's way better if you get it out of the way as a child.

This moment of taking another perspective is when you see someone else as having an interior life that is equally valid and complex and mysterious and beautiful and melancholy and unnamable as yours. It is a second-person present tense equal perspective (you too?).

The number of your own pathways you need to willfully shed in order to make space in your brain for the concept of another who is just as flawed and just as uniquely perfect as you will affect the intensity of the fight-or-flight response. So if you just have one pattern challenged, one perspective is taken and replaced with a person, that is a terrifying, but possible experience. But when it feels like every pattern you've developed to get into your adult life is suddenly in question, things can get intense.

Perhaps you've heard of this phenomenon by another name: male fragility (or white fragility or cis fragility or ableist fragility, you get the idea). If you have somehow gotten into adult life without having to take the perspective of women or people of color or LGBTQ folk or neurodiverse and differently able people, then it will really fucking hurt for you to admit to yourself and others that they are human beings that are equally unique and beautiful and worthy with you. Sorry. Don't blame me, I'm just the messenger.

But you've gotta do it. I do to. It's so hard to take another perspective when you've grown up in a society where yours is the default. I grew up where white, straight, able-bodied and male was the default. So TV, movies, books, school, life, everything was from my perspective. Holy efficiency, Batman! I didn't have to do any of that dumb perspective shifting if I didn't want to!

I didn't have a friend or know anyone who was out as a gay man until 2003 (A.D.). I grew up kinda sheltered in my perspectives. It felt like dying when I started peeling back the layers. But it is the only possible way to learn.

If you keep running the same patterns, the same pathways, you maintain homeostasis, but you can never find a more efficient set of patterns. You have to do the work, to learn to deal with the discomfort of the fight-or-flight response the brain triggers as the ego dies. But on the other side is the best perspective of all: second-person equal.

Because that is the only perspective that can love you. That is the only perspective that you can love in return.

I believe heaven is second-person equal, present-tense, mutual-gratitude eternal perspective. I believe heaven is something we can work to create right now. If we're willing to change perspectives.


---------------------------
*I believe that consciousness is an emergent phenomenon. That's why we can't see it on MRIs or point to it in autopsies. It's not within the circuitry of our brain but is the greater-sum of the individual parts.


Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Growth

I've always been drawn to ultimate causes. Growing up I was often stuck working on a puzzle of one sort or another. I soon lost interest in replacing cut-out shapes in a picture, because once I saw the process in its totality I couldn't see the point.

I'm the kid who smashed open watches to figure out how they worked, and who mixed random bottles of stuff in the medicine cabinet for science experiments. I asked why? and how come? and why not? and I wonder if? about almost everything.

I'm also the kid who was picked on for being different, for farting in class (I was cleverly nicknamed "Fart King." We were not amused.), and mostly for never knowing when to shut up ("teacher, didn't you mean to assign us homework?" yeah, I was that kid too). So I started learning how to read people, to understand the puzzle of their perspectives: why did they bully me? how come when I complied they didn't stop? why did they not leave me alone? and I wonder if I can outsmart them?

The ultimate cause was not my flatulence, nor my helpful reminders to the teacher. I took a long time trying to figure out exactly what happened. I didn't know how to solve the puzzle of being enough for them. But I kept watching and learning the pieces of the puzzle.

What I've come to learn is the power of shifting perspective for sparking growth, the pain of releasing the position of pride and power of having an unchallenged perspective (it feels like dying--in part because it is using our own brains to simulate someone else's), and I learned the blindness of having a perspective that is never challenged (as is the case for the people at the top of societal hierarchies of power in our culture just now).

I was trying to articulate this idea to my friend and he said I should package it and make a million dollars. The name I came up with: How to Get Better at Feeling Bad Faster! He said it wouldn't sell because that sounds like hard work and a bummer. "Yeah," I countered, "but hard work is the only way forward."

I already confessed to being bad at marketing, but I'm really good at puzzles--and ultimate causes. The only way I see to solve the puzzle of our fucked up world is to grow, and the only way I know to grow is to get better at switching perspectives. And that shit hurts--at least at first. But with patience and practice, it can become natural to move through the little deaths of being wrong and come to see the world through different eyes.

               the only way out is through
                         death's dark valley
                              blindness
                                   fear
                                                                 at last
                                                                                     seen
                                                                      named
                                                       and known
                                   in the unknowing

     "a seed must die and fall to the ground before it can amount to anything" ~Yeshua

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Balance

Rachel O'Rourke said of me from the stage at her SPARK women's empowerment summit, by way of introduction and to explain why I was the only man in s theater filled with three hundred women: "James has this beautiful blend of masculine and feminine energy." Those words seeped into my flesh, a reflection of a hope that I couldn't yet name. Rachel named the truth of me, out loud and in public where I couldn't hide.

Like Jacob wrestling the stranger-god until he was blessed with a limp and a new name, I would not let go of seeming contradictions in my faith, my work, and in myself. I have always seen paradoxes as puzzles. The harder they are the bigger they hit of brain candy when the tension releases into the wonder of a both-and synthesized from patience and creativity! Holy fucking shit!

In trying to be a good pastor and a good Christian I took the words of Jesus seriously, that to love my neighbor I must love myself, and to love myself I must love every human as my neighbor, with special care from the privileged and powered given to the marginalized and oppressed.

I took seriously the tension between justice and mercy, truth and love, contained at the naming of the power of the Hebrew divinity and their child Yeshua. I took seriously their claim that I bear the same divine image, as do all my neighbors.

And so I wrestled. I tried to "contain and constrain meaning," which Pádraig Ó Tuama says is the "tense vocation of language," in his sexy Irish accent. For a time I worked on my Grand Unified Theory of Love. I had formulae! I tried to math the shit out of love.

It didn't work out. But I kept trying.

First I had to learn to love myself, and after a hard day at the grocery-mines, as a customer-service emotional cum-dumpster for another thousand or so reactive, wounded people on behalf of a toxic corporation that engaged in less-than-ethical-but-still-technically-legal negotiating practices, that's not easy. For me yoga cleared space for me to hear myself, to practice loving myself (well just liking myself was a challenge at first, but my body basically refused to move after my first shift at the grocery store, so I had to like myself enough to get to work the next day). But that space, sometimes only thirty minutes in a whole day, gave me a sense of balance and progress that I could return to again and again.

I finished my first thirty-day challenge on the Yoga With Adriene YouTube channel on my fortieth birthday. It was on YouTube and at home because I was too steeped in the toxicity to dare go to a public yoga class (that's still on my goals list). I felt like a puppy with a life preserver. I barely made it, but Adriene held space for what I could handle at the time. She taught me the wisdom of meeting my appropriate edge.

Pema Chödrön taught me the wisdom of stillness and meditation. Brené Brown taught me vulnerability and courage. Sara Bareilles taught me to be brave, and Qveen Herby that I'm beautiful. I steeped myself in wisdom gleaned from books from the library consumed along with microwave burritos while sitting outside the corporate greed-factory on my union-mandated breaks.

Mostly I learned from the ancient wisdom of my wife when I had the courage and patience to listen. As I worked to love her I could listen and hear truths that she felt safe enough to name to me. Truths about how women have to cope with pressure and fear every day because of toxic men. First it was Earl, the creepy guy who hit on her when she was eighteen working at an office for the summer in college. I wanted to fight Earl (confession, I've still never come to blows in anger, the closest was a shirt-grabbing match that got very shovey and slouchy).

Since Andrea and I have been married we've worked hard to create a container with intentional check-ins and practices, she has grown in trusting me with the, as she calls it "training" that women pass on as wisdom for navigating the bullshit of the patriarchy. Her gift of sight shared with me has taught me both the naming of the bullshit and the ruining of most movies (because now I can't not notice these things!).

I was trying to enact courage and wisdom, to show up for life as it is rather than as I think it ought to be. And it was the hardest, best thing I've done. It led me to touch the darkness in me that I thought would consume me. But it only blinded me to truth I didn't want to name about myself and the world. Truths about my codependency and fear, about my masculinity and femininity, about my sexuality and relationships, about the privilege I benefited from but wouldn't name.

By journaling daily, doing yoga, practicing meditation, going to counseling, reading constantly, and finding creative outlets (poetry and the Irish tin whistle), I've cultivated a practice of pursuing wisdom and courage. From there I've gradually learned what it looks like for me to take the next best step towards love (I don't know what's beyond the next step because the future where our choices commingle has yet to be made).

It is taking me years of work to disentangle from all the bullshit I'd accepted growing up about how men and women, boys and girls ought to be. I learned early the risks of being soft and loving beauty. I gathered armor to hide the parts of me that were deemed to girly, sissy, pussy, gay, faggy, and queer. And over time my flesh grew into the shell, it became me because I never took it off. But the same armor that protected also suffocated my heart. Anger--besides humor the only acceptable male emotions-- superated from the chinks in my carapace, splashing hot acid on those around me.

But piece by piece I've been peeling away the hardened residue of toxicity, and releasing the patterns that served me when I swam solely in the waters of white supremacy, Christian fundamentalisms, and patriarchy. I'm not done; I'll never be done. The work is in seeing, naming, challenging, and releasing the currents of toxicity, competitive othering, and obligatory self-harm that keep me from swimming in the deep oceans of love.

Over the course of two years since leaving my job as a pastor I've had to release my identity-of-value that I thought made me worthy. I've had to sit with the grief of losing the dream I'd pursued for thirty years, since I first preached as an eleven year old (I talked about what it feels like to not fit in). But my wife and my counselor have helped me to see that dream could use some unpacking and updating. But first I had to see it for what it was: a story I was telling myself.

Seeing our patterns and the stories we tell to reinforce these patterns is the first step to growth and love. Once we see them we can name them for what they are. The dream I built is not my destiny or even the only way to tell my story; I can tell new stories now.

Naming the patterns brings them into the light and shows what's mine to own and what's not. Some of my patterns are pushed by the flow and currents of society, culture, and family. Some are driven by my own stories trying to make sense of a chaotic world. When I name what I see I can disambiguate my internalized white supremacy, sexicm, and homophobia, for example, and begin to move away from the larger societal and cultural currents that reinforce those patterns in me.

Challenging these old untruths is a fight with gravity and entropy; it is ancient and unending. It is to walk into the wilderness, to be unraveled and dismembered, it is the surgery to remove the exoskeleton of fear and shame only to stand naked and true in the searling light of love and acceptance.

First is self-love--naming the truth of your worth into existence, not based on the stories of competitive self-harm or worth based on achievement--by which you allow others the space to love you.

And in that space of love, given and received, we can release the ties of that pattern. Our stories are about how we get love and belonging. Mine was to be a pastor and church planter so I would be loved, so I could earn my belonging. Now I'm learning to write a new story that seeks balance instead of dominance, and finds love in authenticity rather than achievement. It's a story that has echoes of the old one, but resonates with new power. It is a story of wisdom and courage in pursuit of love. It is a story that continues to unfold.





(if you're grateful for these words please let me know)

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Leap

I bought this website not really knowing what to do with it. Perhaps I still don't. But it has always seemed odd to me to have a website with my own name on it, but not really have much of me on here.

I started this as a place to market books. I suck at marketing. I think I wrote a blog about that a while back, but I'm too lazy to find it and link to it. That's the marketing bullshit that I suck at. It all feels like a hustle, a scam that if I just get good enough at it I can make it big.

I get that same feeling about a lot of things. Like there's a carrot hanging on a stick that's just out of reach. Like if I just pull harder on my bootstraps I'll earn my worth.

I feel like that about marketing, about working, about writing, about being a man, about being married. I've felt like that about being a preacher, a student, a non-profit leader, a union member, and a farmer.

That feeling is in the air I breathe. It's the pollution that I've taken in through its ubiquity.

Earn it. Be a man. Don't be a pussy. That's gay. Walk it off. Give it to the Lord. Queer-bait. Focus on your results. Live up to your potential.

Mikey likes it! I'm a Toys 'R Us kid! G.I. Joe, GO JOE! And now, GIRLS JUMPING ON TRAMPOLINES! And now, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous! Are you Ready for some FOOTBALL!!!

I'm working on letting go of the bootstraps.

I like walking barefoot better anyway.

A huge part of why I suck at marketing is that I've never been good at bootstrap-curls (or regular curls, or other kinds of exercise for the practice of self-aggrandizing competitive-self-harm). Please never feel sorry for me, I was born into the intersection of so much privilege, very near the top of the social pyramid-scheme we've constructed. But I was also at the bottom of my local pyramid, crushed under the weight of being the most not-enough one in the hustle-for-worth-and-value. Picked last at life (my particular and particularly privileged experience of life). I learned early and often that I couldn't try hard enough to fit in.

But damned if I didn't keep trying. I just tried at things I was better at (like words and ideas rather than bodies and balls). I got really good at the hustle, just my version where I cultivated this image of myself as an intellectual, author, preacher, soon-to-be church planter (that never did pan out, I ended up killing way more churches than I started). And one by one those hustles led to the same failure as when I tried to wear the teal Nike tracksuit to seventh grade to impress the kids who'd been teasing me about my Ross: Dress for Less(TM) apparel. It wasn't that I didn't comply with their rules, it's that I can never comply with rules that change.

I learned that about fashion at twelve years old. It took significantly longer to learn the same lessons about marketing ebooks or planting churches. But in the end it turned out to be the same fucking scheme. I was just better at it so it took longer for me to realize that there's no way to win when the game requires that some people must be less-than, othered, dehumanized, so that others can be more-than, insiders, celebritized.

I've spent the last two years learning how to walk away from the ashes of my failures as a preacher, author, church planter, and non-profit leader. I've spent the last two years trying to wash off the poison that had seeped into my bones. I've spent the last two years trying to learn how to love myself when I spent the previous thirty-nine learning to hate every offending part of me (of which there were many).

Now I hope to spend the next moments of my life learning how to share the love I've been cultivating in myself. I hope this website can be a place for that. Whatever form it takes.

(if you're grateful for this post click here)

Thursday, September 19, 2019

So THAT'S what that's called!

I'm a communication coach!

I didn't know for the longest time what to call myself. I tried "speaking coach" or "speaking and writing coach" and it just felt cumbersome, but at the same time what I am meant to do. So that was awkward. I'd finally found this thing that resonates with me so deeply, but I didn't really know what to call it.

It's called Communication Coaching (I found out). And I know what you're probably thinking: how good a communication coach could I be if I didn't see what was obvious.

Pretty damn good, it turns out, but that's for you to decide. Here's my pitch:

I didn't see what was obvious because it was too close to me. I missed it because communication is something I do without thinking because I've been honing this skill-set my whole life, and professionally for two decades. I don't think of myself from that distance so I missed something that's obvious from a different perspective.

What I bring to you is a different perspective from your own story so you can better hear what it is that you're trying to say. I missed "communication coach" because I lacked perspective. You are, without a doubt, missing something key to your own story because you lack the perspective necessary to articulate it. Let me use intellectual humility, empathy, and my years of experience to help you name and tell your story!

Whaddya think?

To find out more you can clickedy-click on the shiny new link up above!