Unless you’ve been living alone in the woods for the last few months, you’re well aware that it’s peak political season in the United States.
An election at it’s basic level is a decision, and this idea about the power of our individual, everyday decisions courses through the entire premise of mindfulness. Every day we have a decision to either live in the present or dwell on the past, to learn and grow or stifle our evolution, to get up every morning and conquer the day or roll over and let it pass us by.
A political election requires a decision too, a far less intimate but just as important decision.
At the root of all these decisions is love and fear. It seems simplistic at the face of it, but in reality it’s a complicated struggle between our two most extreme emotions. Too much love and our decisions rely on sentiment instead of reason. Too much fear and our decisions are rooted in distrust and anger. Too much of either makes us unmindful---when we lean too far in any direction we eventually fall over.
A decision based in love or fear is complicated, but usually, hopefully, the result ends up somewhere in the middle---in compromise.
I like to think of these two sides as the classic angel-and-devil-on-the-shoulders meme.
These two little shoulder emotions battle in our hearts and minds all the time. Love tells us to live in the present and accept the beauty of right now, while fears holds us back to worry if we'll ever live up to our past triumphs or live down our past mistakes. Love opens up our mind to accept new ideas, while fear shuts us down to pine after an imagined ideal. Love pushes us to use each day to its full potential, while fear triggers the warm safety of procrastination.
In politics, love and fear fuel another set of decisions. Love leads us to engage and educate our friends, while fear makes us to lash out and insult. Love encourages us to care for our fellow man no matter what their race, religion, or orientation, while fear demands we entrench ourselves, draw deeper into our ideological bubble, and refuse to give an inch. Love requires us to protect our earth for generations to come, while fear whispers lies of doubt around climate change science and encourages a business-first attitude.
When we sit down to decide which candidate to support, we yet again look to love and fear for assistance. Love tells us to vote for who we’re most enthusiastic about and most aligns with our ideals, while fear tells us to vote against the candidate we find troublesome, or even dangerous.
Now before you say it, I know, that was just a long list of overly simplistic, cut and dry, black and white decisions.
In real life we don’t just listen to either the angel or the devil, we hear both. We make good decisions, we make mistakes, we figure things out, and then ultimately we find the best path lies somewhere else. I often call it balance or compromise. Buddhists call it "the middle way"
These when the two competing emotions come together.
We can live in the present while also using the past to inform it. The middle. We can hold on to our values and ideals while staying open to life’s ongoing lessons. The middle. We can have a productive day and also take some “me time” once in a while. The middle.
In an election, we can make a voting decision based on both love for a candidate that moves us forward with progress, as well as fear over the dangerous regress the alternative will usher. The middle.
On the issues, love can focus us on our commonalities instead of conflicts, while fear reminds us to speak out loudly against dangerous demagogues. The middle. Love can rightly attract us to peace, equality, and fairness, while fear demands we fight directly against racism, xenophobia, and homophobia. The middle. Love can urge us to protect and rebuild our environment, while fear reminds us that political leaders who deny the existence of climate change are steering us toward catastrophe and must be stopped at all costs. The middle.
My love for every interconnected living thing on this earth and my desire to make it a better place, leads me to vote for Hillary Clinton. My fear of the destruction, treacherousness, hatred, and bluster that has and will undoubtedly continue to rise from her chief opponent, leads me to the same conclusion.
Both love and fear, meeting in the middle, for progress in America.
As someone taking the time to read the blog, I'm making a few assumptions about you.
#1, I assume you’re ravishingly attractive. No seriously, the inner beauty you craft through mindfulness almost always exudes an outer beauty of cool self-confidence.
#2, getting to the real point of this piece though, I assume you're interested in improving yourself, being more present in the world around you, and making that world a better place. Basically, you believe in progress. Individual, social, political progress.
But progress isn't an easy topic to define. Coming from their own individual starting point, everyone undoubtedly develops their own idea of what progress means. Those differences make the path of progress a challenging and uncertain one to follow.
But in the end we will always move forward.
In my own mindful world, progress fluctuates. One day I’ll do a hike, spend a few hours writing, maybe actually publish an article, check off a bunch of to-do list items, cook a healthy dinner, and get to bed at a reasonable hour. Then the next morning I’ll oversleep and waste the day on Facebook. My own progress ebbs and flows.
I won’t pretend to know what's happening day-to-day in your world, but I’m just going to go ahead and make another assumption, that you experience days very similar to mine. Otherwise, why would you be reading up on ways to find more mindfulness in your life on this blog? Everybody’s individual progress ebbs and flows too.
Interpersonal progress follows the same pattern as well. All relationships come and go, grow or wither over time. The more time we spend getting to know different people, the more we change, the more they change, and the more the relationship between the two changes. Sometimes it changes in a way that draws you closer. Sometimes, you drift apart. The progress of interpersonal connection also ebbs and flows.
You’ll find the same order in the world of political progress. Empire’s come and go. Sometimes the Republicans are in charge, and sometimes it’s the Democrats. Laws are passed and laws are repealed. The politics of power and the issues of the day are constantly in flux
I’ll use a recent example: a few short years ago marriage equality for the LGBTQ community was a divisive issue for most Americans, and a hot potato issue for most politicians. These days a decent majority of Americans support it, and for anyone in the liberal-to-moderate realm, it’s the expectation. You even have the current Republican presidential candidate name-dropping “LGBTQ” in his nomination acceptance speech. That's progress too, but at the same time his party’s platform calls for roll back of all LGBTQ protective laws, marriage equality included. You can bet that if the tide of power shifts in their direction the rights we now take for granted will quickly evaporate. The progress of politics ebbs and flows.
Despite all this---the constant change, the victories and failures, from an individual to a national scale---we eventually move forward.
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Dr. King was speaking about the politics of civil rights in the United States, which itself saw various ebbs and flows over time. From kings and queens of their continent, to slaves in a far off land; breaking the chains of slavery, to persecution by segregation; obtaining voting rights, to literacy tests and poll taxes that block those rights; the Civil Rights Act banning discrimination, even while racism continued (and continues). The progress of civil rights, like all politics, like our individual and interpersonal growth, ebbs and flows.
But in the end it flows forward. There is marked improvement of conditions, of equality, of fairness, of liberty over time. Maybe progress doesn't always move as fast as some of us would like, but it still moves. The arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, eventually.
We're all somewhere on that arc of progress. I have a lot of work left to do on myself, but I’m slowly getting there. I hope you are all in the same boat---advancing, improving, or at least making an effort. Each relationship moves forward, sometimes into calm waters and sometimes more treacherous, but always evolving. And in politics, even when conditions seem hopelessly unjust, off in the distance there's a glimmer of hope... progress.
Knowing and accepting that life won’t be perfect, that everything won’t go our way, that we will run into both fast lanes and road blocks---that knowledge is power.
This is the way progress goes, sometimes it ebbs and sometimes it flows, but always it grows.
Your ideal life doesn't come tied in a neat bow.
There's no FAQs to tell you how.
It's not on Amazon Prime.
You won't find a sassy Etsy design.
There is no steaming it on-demand.
No overnight shipping at hand.
It doesn't magically come in a dream.
It’s not dependent on likes or memes.
There is no app for that.
You can't get help from web support chat.
You won't stumble across it on a Pokemon hunt.
Real life takes effort, sorry to be blunt.
Your ideal life is up to you.
It's completely determined by what you do.
Each day is a choice that you can make.
So get off your ass and make it, for chrissake.
There's a real, fascinating, sometimes frightening, but ultimately beautiful world out there. Then there's a fake, surreptitious, sometimes comforting, but often crude digital world.
I think you can tell which one I prefer based on that description alone.
Both worlds are populated by actual people. In one world we see those people face-to-face, usually forcing a level of civility, politeness, and kindness. Not always, but usually. There are jerks, douchebags, fools, and a few dangerous psychopaths out there, but mostly when we're in-person we're nice to one another.
In the other world we see people through an avatar, a social media mask, removing nonverbal forms of human communication like facial expression and tone, usually stripping away the norms of tact and empathy in the process. Usually, but not always. There are kind, caring, and loving people all over the digisphere, but looking through a screen sometimes puts blinders on our otherwise exceptional eyes, leading to crassness and cruelty.
Every day most of us encounter both worlds. We watch as digital communication implodes into friend-on-friend Facebook wars (and maybe sometimes we even participate), before having a real world friend-on-friend lunch that restores our faith in humanity.
I ride the same roller coaster: I usually try to be an advocate instead of an argument, but sometimes I fail. I also make an effort to connect for real with my friends and family as much as possible, but again, sometimes I fail.
I was recently tested on both fronts when I received an abrupt blast from my distant past. Someone took the time to send me an angry message and then promptly blocked me so I couldn't respond. Beyond the fact that my interpretation of events couldn't be more different from theirs, I wasn't able to explain myself or to possibly apologize for any hurt I caused so many years ago.
There was the social media mask, staring me in the face and resorting to anger, but not willing to let us talk it out like real humans.
I may never truly understand this strange, new, loud-but-noncommunicative digital world, but my goal is to survive and be kind in it.
When given the chance, we should opt to spend our time in the real world, the present, as much as possible. But when we do dive into the murky digital world, we can bring with us the same civility, cordiality, and conversation we typically use in the real one.
The ability to hide behind the digital mask is physical, we're literally separated, so it was bound to change us. But maybe with a little extra effort---giving that update, comment, message, or block a second thought---we can act more mindfully about it.
We can learn to treat our fellow man like they're standing right in front of us, even when they're actually miles away.
The way I see it, you have two options for your existence: live your life, or live your life in fear.
There’s a valid evolutionary reason we feel fear and anxiety. In our caveman days we developed these emotions as a form of protection. The fear of death, injury, or pain triggered our defenses, thus lowering the chance of death, injury, or pain.
But it’s easy for us to take that healthy reaction of caution to an extreme, especially in this age of digital information over-saturation, especially given the news media’s tendency to focus on calamity as a ratings booster, and most especially when we’re hit with a personal tragedy.
12 years ago today my younger brother, plagued with blood clots, laid down to catch his breath and never got back up again. 5 years before that my father, plagued with high cholesterol, went out for a run one afternoon and never ran home. In my years before all that, I was always a bit of a worry-wort, lying awake in my central California home fretting over the possibility of the "big one" casting us off into the Pacific, or of an inescapable house fire, or of an alien invasion (seriously).
All of this, especially the untimely death of two of my closest family members, could have lead me to a very fearful life, becoming increasingly risk averse so as to avoid all of the many real and imaginary dangers of the world. While I do carry a decent amount of this worry with me to this day---and believe a little fear-induced caution can lead to wiser choices---I make a concerted effort to let go.
Because really, what is the point of living if you spend your whole life holed up in a mental bunker of fear?
There are truly dangerous people and things out there. My community, LGBTQ folks, are often the target of violence. I go hiking a lot by myself and so every time my mother learns of a bear attack she sends me an email of concern. Even with that, my risk of danger is low compared to the many places in the world held hostage by terrorists or the underprivileged communities held hostage to an overreactive police force and straight up bigotry.
But in spite of all that, when the moment comes that I lie down and never get back up, I’d like to at least know I lived life to the fullest while I was standing. I want to know that I wrote down every word, that I helped every friend, that I loved, that I cried, that I followed my dreams, that I lived while I was alive.
On this anniversary of my little brother's death, the lesson is to live with passion, joy, and love, just as he did in his time on earth. On the occasion of a seemingly neverending parade of deaths around the world, the lesson is to live mindfully in the present, because who knows what might happen tomorrow. The lesson is that life is too short to waste it constantly worried about death.
The lesson of death... is life.
According to Google, "journeyman" isn't an entirely popular word these days. It probably conjures up ideas of a union electrician apprentice---that is, if it conjures up anything for you at all. The word more or less means “someone who is educated on a topic, but isn't quite an expert. An amateur.” You can see how this might have negative connotations.
And yet, here I am using that word in various blog posts and on my Instagram/Facebook/Twitter. I use the term liberally to describe myself, and I also use it to describe everybody else as part of a larger world view.
Not long ago a friend questioned me on this practice. Was I cutting myself short? Was I cutting the world short?
But I don't use the word "journeyman" in any traditional sense, I use it as a mindfulness shortcut. It's a metaphor for the journey of life, the journey we are all on.
The more on-the-nose way I use journeyman is to denote travel. I dubbed my month-long trip across multiple western national parks my “Journeyman Trek”. I use #Journeyman👣 on social media to denote whenever I go camping, climb a mountain, or use my passport to cross a border. That’s a play on the word, and I like being mildly clever that way.
But the primary way I use the journeyman is much more of a philosophy. It's a figurative journey, a mental and spiritual journey, not a literal journey.
It boils down to this: life isn’t static. No one, not a single individual human being, stays in one place their whole lives. Everyone is constantly experiencing, learning, and growing.
For those of us who keep an open mind, this isn't some abstract concept. We expect to take in new ideas and experiences and allow them to mold our understanding of the diverse world around us.
Even those who appear rigid in their beliefs will change, simply due to the passage of time, in small but still meaningful ways. Time leads to experience leads to knowledge.
Even those who seem stuck, in a job, relationship, or any other circumstance, are only as stuck as they believe themselves to be. In all but the extreme circumstances, the experience of being stuck teaches you how to become unstuck, and then it's up to you to use that lesson.
When you look back on your life, it's almost impossible not to see some way in which you've grown, and that's your evidence that this "personal journey" people talk about isn't theoretical, it's tangible. In the progressively hopeful way I choose to see the world, that is just a given.
So if we’re always changing and gaining knowledge, is there really such a thing as an expert? Expertise is only the collection of knowledge you've gathered in a particular subject up until now. There are no know-it-alls, because as soon as they've learned "all" there is to learn on a subject, a new discovery will turn that knowledge on its head.
“Expert” doctors once used leeches to cure illness. “Expert” astronomers once believed the entire universe rotated around the earth. Knowledge evolved and those “experts” reverted to journeymen. And that isn't to discount the noble efforts they made in their profession, it's just to readily admit that knowledge is never finite.
Today’s “experts” will meet the same fate, because in a few years the next big idea will inevitably turn that knowledge on its head.
Each and everyone of us will meet the same fate as well. We think we know all there is to know about a friend, for example, until we learn something new or see a different side that turns our perception of them on its head.
Accepting that tomorrow is both an unknown and the product of every experience you've had up through today, that's how you start to live in the present. That is the intersection of mindfulness and the journeyman.
Being a journeyman isn’t something negative, it’s our dynamic reality. Or at least it's the dynamic reality I try to accept in my quest for enlightenment through mindfulness.
The more we act as the students, the amateurs, the journeymen of life, the more mindful we become.