Winter 2023 Blog Update (Part 6 of 6) ~ Media Recommendations List

If you’re interested in followup resources to explore some of the themes I’ve covered in my Winter 2023 Blog Update project, I invite you to review my media recommendations below.

Throughout my freelance writing work, I’ve contented myself to helping other people with little concern about financial compensation for my time and energy. Nowadays, I’ve grown more appreciative of my boundaries. In respect for the tremendous effort I’ve dedicated to this humble blog offering, I kindly request your consideration. Besides investing in your own wellbeing, any purchase you make would help honor the work I’ve done so far and support more work to come. I also welcome comments of any kind. Feel free to reach out to me through your preferred platform: Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.

Emotional appeal aside, dear visitor, thank you very much for your attention—I don’t take that for granted. Until we meet again, please continue your journey into greater heights (and depths) of your being.

Please note that my list includes affiliate links from Amazon. I may earn a small commission if these items are purchased using the links I have provided. 

Media Referenced in my Blog

I have listed the following media in the order that they appeared in my blog.

The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness, and Healing in a Toxic Culture 

Book by Gabor Maté

The Path of the Warrior-Mystic: Being a Man in an Age of Chaos

Book by Angel Millar

The Bhagavad Gita (Translated into English prose with an Introduction by Kashinath Trimbak Telang)

Book by Vyasa, translated by Kashinath Trimbak Telang

Tao Te Ching

Book by Lau Tzu, translated by D. C. Lau

On the Decay of the Art of Lying 

Book by Mark Twain

Man’s Search for Meaning

Book by Viktor Frankl

Musashi’s Book of Five Rings: The Definitive Interpretation of Miyamoto Musashi’s Classic Book of Strategy

Book by Miyamoto Mushashi, translated by Stephen F. Kaufmann

Marcus Aurelius – Meditations: Adapted for the Contemporary Reader (Harris Classics) 

Book by Marcus Aurelius, translated by James Harris

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings Boxed Set: The Hobbit / The Fellowship of the Ring / The Two Towers / The Return of the King

Book set by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Book of Equanimity: Illuminating Classic Zen Koans

Book by Gerry Shishin Wick

Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself

Book by Kristin Neff, Ph.D

The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself

Book by Michael Singer

King James Version Holy Bible

Sacred religious text

Media Not Referenced in my Blog

Because the following media were not referenced in my Winter 2023 Blog Update project, I have provided some context as to how they relate to the preceding text and why they might matter to you.

Triggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts – Becoming the Person You Want to Be

Book by Marshall Goldsmith with Mark Reiter

Marshall Goldsmith is an executive coach with a passion for helping individuals and organizations create positive behavior changes. Co-authors Goldsmith and Reiter both acknowledge at the outset of Triggers that living in the world with other people inevitably implies the potential for conflicts. It’s essential, therefore, that we learn to manage our individual triggers so we can cultivate healthier personal relationships in addition to achieving greater business success. For people unfamiliar with the mental health term “trigger,” Healthline defines a trigger as: “something that affects your emotional state, often significantly, by causing extreme overwhelm or distress. A trigger affects your ability to remain present in the moment. It may bring up specific thought patterns or influence your behavior.” Because triggers are deeply rooted in patterns of behavior, changing our triggers implies changing our habits. Changing habits, however, is hard. In order to help us, Goldsmith and Reiter offer a system for tracking our progress towards our goals. Since a trigger, in the authors’ estimation, can be either positive or negative, our challenge is to create triggers in our lives that encourage the changes we want while deterring the changes we don’t want. Goldsmith and Reiter also propose a conceptual model about the lifespan of a behavior cycle that underlies our tracking system: trigger-impulse-awareness-choice-behavior. When we are triggered by a personal belief or something in our environment, awareness acts as the buffer between an impulse and a choice; that kind of awareness functions like an act of mindfulness, creating a spaciousness around our reflexive instincts where our informed, responsible agency can best enact itself. 

Force Majeure

Movie by Ruben Östlund

As the sole movie entry in my media list, Force Majeure earns its company for good reason. With the depths of a psychological character study, filmmaker Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure tells the story of how a single passing conflict between spouses can disrupt an otherwise perfectly happy marriage. The catalyst for the relational disruption occurs when one spouse’s primal instinct betrays them in a misguided moment of self-preservation, casting doubt, thereafter, upon their integrity. At its core, this is a moral tale: The interaction between spouses tests each other’s convictions, leading them to question their assumptions and beliefs about their relationship. Highlighting ambiguity within morality, even where one spouse has valid reason for criticism and concern, the way their reconciliation is pursued turns into an obsession, betraying the very thing that they cherish the most. The title of the movie carries its own depths of meaning. Merriam Webster defines force majeure as: “1) superior or irresistible force; 2) an event or effect that cannot be reasonably anticipated or controlled—compare act of god.” Sometimes acts of human will can occur as unpredictably as forces of nature. We can be bound to that which we intensely pursue or avoid—either way leads to obsession. It’s our reckless force of will that can trigger a landslide within our lives and within the world at large, causing unforeseen consequences. Fortunately, reconciliation remains possible for people who can approach their truth with an open mind and heart, building their lives in good faith upon the raw earth exposed after a passing avalanche is cleared.

Mastering Confrontation: Become an Expert at Effective Communication. Master the Art of Dealing with Conflict

Book by Robert Hunt

The theme of conflict management is at the beating heart of this Winter 2023 Update blog project. Short of people who have gained spiritual mastery of themselves, navigating personal conflicts remains an unavoidable part of most people’s daily lives. Studies show that people spend nearly 3 hours per week engaged in some form of workplace-related conflicts. And that’s not even accounting for conflicts we engage in with families and friends in our free time! Even if the statistics are exaggerated, it’s still startling to consider that we are so poorly equipped by default to advocate for our personal needs. Robert Hunt’s Mastering Confrontation: Become an Expert at Effective Communication. Master the Art of Dealing with Conflict makes a convincing case that we waste precious energy fighting with people with whom we should be communicating in more meaningful—i.e., both more effective and peaceful—ways. The premise behind Mastering Confrontation is that our view of confrontation influences our approach to it. Instead of confrontation being something best avoided, ostensibly because it necessitates subjecting ourselves and other people to criticism that may lead to embarrassment and hurt feelings, we can view confrontation as a catalyst for positive growth. When the value of confrontation is disentangled from our hang ups with it, we can approach confrontations as an opportunity to learn more about others, fuel innovative new ideas, and develop solidarity through collaboration. Of course, not all issues can be resolved fairly, so Hunt also details how to discern when it’s time to quit. But before we call it quits, we can all empower ourselves through developing a greater appreciation for patience and active listening that will make us not only more effective communicators but also more peaceful human beings.

The Art of Everyday Assertiveness: Speak Up. Say No. Set Boundaries. Take Back Control.

Book by Patrick King

Patrick King’s The Art of Everyday Assertiveness: Speak Up. Say No. Set Boundaries. Take Back Control. serves as a fitting counterpart—in spirit—to Robert Hunt’s Mastering Confrontation: Become an Expert at Effective Communication. Master the Art of Dealing with Conflict. To be clear, both books address the issues inherent in navigating interpersonal relationships. Furthermore, both books advocate for healthier modes of communication in our human affairs. But whereas a conflict often implies a differing opinion or belief held by multiple parties regarding a mutually agreed upon issue, the issue of personal boundaries is often more encompassing in its applications, less overt in its manifestations, and doesn’t necessitate the awareness or buy-in of multiple parties. Boundaries, simply put, are something we create by and for ourselves for reasons that are entirely our own. King explores a variety of strategies that people can use to manage healthier boundaries in their lives, including cognitive behavior therapy and exposure therapy. At the most basic level, however, the main tool for implementing boundaries in our lives, after we are clear about the underlying issue, is assertiveness. In a brilliantly simple way, King places assertiveness as the ideal mode of communication along a spectrum ranging from aggression on one end and passiveness and passive aggressiveness on the other end. For people inclined to overcorrection, we are cautioned that being assertive is not incompatible with being accommodating and agreeable. Rather, being assertive is about appreciating that nobody else is entitled to our precious time and energy. It’s never too late to ask for what you really want and gain respect, from yourself and others, in the process. In an effort to make his teachings actionable, King offers a 28-day assertiveness action plan to jumpstart both the chronically overwhelmed people pleasers along with those who just need a little tune-up. If saying no to people is often a challenge for you, like it has long been for me, then The Art of Everyday Assertiveness may be the text that inspires a much-needed life transformation. 

The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom (A Toltec Wisdom Book)

Book by Don Miguel Ruiz

Those who don’t like to read, or don’t have time to do so, will find a sympathetic author with Don Miguel Ruiz. Don Miguel Ruiz has dedicated his life to sharing the wisdom of the ancient Toltecs, an ancient people of southern Mexico who were known for their great knowledge. Avoiding the pitfalls of both New Ageism and academia, Don Miguel Ruiz writes without pith or pretense, trusting that the wisdom he shares is intuitive enough to resonate with readers viscerally, striking simultaneously in the brain, heart, and stomach. The main argument underlining The Four Agreements is that our lives are governed by the agreements that we make. An agreement is an arrangement that we make with ourselves, and for ourselves, about how we live in accordance with the roles we adopt in the world. The four agreements include: 1) Be impeccable with your word; 2) Don’t take anything personally; 3) Don’t make assumptions; and 4) Always do your best. These agreements also imply stories we craft about ourselves and the world. Oftentimes, we don’t reflect upon where our stories come from and what purpose they serve us. Furthermore, our stories lead to self-perpetuating narratives that can limit our growth potential. But we always have the right and responsibility to question the stories we hold to be true. We have a choice to make between choosing a path of suffering or liberation. 

The Perfectionism Workbook: Proven Strategies to End Procrastination, Accept Yourself, and Achieve Your Goals

Book by Taylor Newendorp, MA, LCPC

Perfectionism isn’t a theme I addressed explicitly in this Winter 2023 blog project. Yet it complicates the relationships I have shared with many people in addition to my professional and creative projects—including this blog project with its laborious two-year conception. For me, perfectionism is most likely a habit I picked up from my upbringing, finding myself under the influence of demanding figures in my life. Whether I was chronically struggling with my math homework or improperly attending to my house errands, I seemingly chronically fell well short of other people’s rigid standards. Eventually I grew up and realized that it was my responsibility to question the narrative voices from my past that I had been choosing to believe and continue carrying with me—like luggage with someone else’s name on it. But before I can accept myself as I am now, someone whose self-worth is independent of my egoic strivings, I have learned the necessity of accepting the damage caused by my counterproductive narratives, recognizing the signs of their toxic influence, and then taking steps to change my thinking patterns and behaviors. Although I tend to avoid workbooks, because it’s easier to read theories than it is to reflect upon how certain concepts apply within my life, Newendorp succeeds in creating purposeful exercises that inspire actionable steps for creating changes within one’s life. It helps that Newendorp has a background as a clinical therapist and offers grounding approaches to implementing mindfulness and cognitive behavioral therapy practices. It’s never too late to get off the perfectionist treadmill and find peace that isn’t conditioned upon one’s accomplishments. 

Wholeheartedness: Busyness, Exhaustion, and Healing the Divided Self

Book by Chuck DeGroat

So many people around the world are experiencing burnout these days, and often unnecessarily. Therapist and pastor Chuck DeGroat makes a moving case in Wholeheartedness: Busyness, Exhaustion, and Healing the Divided Self that the drive for busyness so common in contemporary cultures has been misunderstood and misdiagnosed. The kind of busyness DeGroat examines can’t be medicated or alleviated by an occasional vacation. The kind of busyness DeGroat refers to is deeply existential: It is born of a divided self and begets yet more division. Readers who are open to the Judaeo-Christian tradition will find a gentle voice grounded in a Biblical worldview supplemented by a background in psychotherapy and psychology. Implicit within DeGroat’s position is that we all struggle in the aftermath of our disunion with God, misidentifying ourselves with our own vain labors. One person prides themselves in their worldly knowledge; another in their stock portfolio; and yet someone else in their acts of philanthropy. But try as we might, we are fighting with fire—our acts of production won’t redeem us; lasting peace of mind and being can’t be gained through our own devices. Only rooting our identities in wholeheartedness, in alignment with our higher being, or, in DeGroat’s belief system, in alignment with God’s Word and Spirit, will bring us a lasting grounding that can’t be counterfeited. Because good ideas and inspiration aren’t always enough, Wholeheartedness includes chapter exercises to work through for those who like a little homework. Readers who are agnostic or secular will still find much that is compelling in DeGroat’s work. Ultimately, since we all inevitably fall short of ideals, including the ones we set for ourselves, the concept of wholeness is relevant enough to apply to human nature as a whole. 

Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation

Book by Parker J. Palmer

At 115 pages, Parker J. Palmer’s Let Your Life Speak is the slimmest book in this media list, making it the perfect leaflet to be read in a gently bustling park one warm spring day. But Palmer’s lived wisdom shouldn’t be downed in one casual sitting; it speaks all the more clearly and profoundly when it is slowly savored. With a career spanning a doctoral education in sociology, community organizing in Washington, D.C., and long-term residency in a Quaker commune, Parker has lived with curiosity and compassion in response to personal failures, setbacks, and battles with depression. Key to letting our life speak is first separating the difference between a profession and a vocation. While the former is often motivated by a paycheck, to the end of supporting one’s primal survival drives, Parker outlines the latter quite poetically as the alignment of one’s greater being with the greater good of humanity, “True vocation joins self and service.” A vocation is really an expression of one’s life calling. Presbyterian minister Frederick Buechner deepens the definition, suggesting that true vocation belongs “where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep needs.” The titular phrase in the book ,”Let your life speak”, is a traditional Quaker instruction about living in witness to the deep truths that are particular to each individual. For Parker, finding the right calling involves finding companionship—a kind of union which is neither romantic nor religious. In our own way, we are called to rise to the type of service that we can’t help doing for ourselves in addition to others. Although our individual journeys all differ, the drive towards a common end binds us all together.

The Enneagram of Discernment: The Way of Vocation, Wisdom, and Practice

Book by Drew Moser, Ph.D, with Chuck DeGroat (Foreword)

The Enneagram of Personality Types is an ancient conceptual model for assessing the nature of human personality. I find the Enneagram to be more humanizing than the more clinical psychology standard of the Big Five personality test. In contrast to the Big Five’s data-driven approach, the Enneagram envisions a more subtle perspective of human behavior that is equally deep yet more fluid and hopeful. Of course, a human being is far more complicated than any test can fully account for. But it still helps to orient one’s understanding around objective insights. What makes Dr. Drew’s book unique, within an ever-expanding forest of Enneagram literature, is its focus on the implications that personality has for decision making. Sometimes embracing our strengths involves appreciating our weaknesses. Through introducing nine questions designed to illuminate one’s vocation, calling, and passions, The Enneagram of Discernment balances an intriguing mixture of fields ranging beyond psychology into neuroscience, theology, and spirituality, providing practical wisdom that can help us cultivate greater awareness and meaning in our lives. Better yet, when we are grounded in a fulfilling vocation, our increased wellbeing also pay dividends in our personal relationships. The more we gain through self-love, the more we have to offer other people.

Transitions (40th Anniversary Edition): Making Sense of Life’s Changes

Book by William Bridges with Susan Bridges

I am certainly not immune to the allure of prestige. Yet in the era of the Information Age, when reactionary consumerism seems to drive so much of our palette preferences, it’s easy for me to become cynical at the accolades fawned upon cultural classics old and new—especially the best-sellers. Considered one of the all-time top 50 best self-help and personal development books, William Bridges’ Transitions (40th Anniversary Edition): Making Sense of Life’s Changes transcends my cynicism, proving itself to be a timeless treasure with universal appeal. Every culture throughout humanity seems to have its heroes and bards who comment upon change as the essential matter of life. Try as we might, encountering change in one’s life is unavoidable. However, like the theme of conflict, change often suffers from bad optics requiring a deeper appreciation. Changes, as the promotional copy for Transitions reads, can bring both opportunities and turmoil. In Transitions Bridges reframes changes as portals between dynamic stages in our lives that are full of activity: The Ending, and The New Beginning. And in between these two stages lies another transition: The Neutral Zone. We have the right to feel lost, lonely, and confused in The Neutral Zone. That’s normal. But without the dual curse and blessing of this overlooked desert territory, without taking time to wander through the twilight wasteland where coyotes and cicadas thrive, we can’t emerge with a new vision, new goals, new dreams with which to guide us next. Seen from this vantage, transitions, whether personal or professional, serve as memorial celebrations of the valuable, and unavoidable, changing seasons that make up our colorful lives.

As helpful as the above media resources have been for me, and may also be for you, a list can never encapsulate the dynamic needs of a single living person. For a deeper voyage into the realm of transformative life resources, I highly advocate for a holy trinity that has been especially beneficial for me: cats, counseling, and yoga and meditation.

Cats. Love them or hate them, the world is obsessed with the domesticated feline. In a way, the fandom rivalry between The Rolling Stones and The Beatles reminds me of the modern clash between dog and cat lovers. Excusing some studies demonstrating the possible link between IQs and pet preferences, we can obviously be fans of both types of furry companions; our tastes certainly don’t need defending—check out a more humanizing study about the demographic differences between dog and cat owners as expressed in character traits like extroversion and creativity. Pet preferences aside, adopting a cat is like inviting an agent from an alien civilization into your house to shock and seduce you into awe and submission. They come to you, and leave you, solely on their terms and, throughout their stay, remain largely resistant to your influence. Caring for a cat is a meaningful lesson in unconditional love and acceptance inspiring equal parts humor and grace. For those who have minor feline allergies, there’s always air filters and medication.

If you value personal interactions with other human beings that meet you as you are currently, I highly advocate consulting with a professional therapist. Unlike turning to close friends and family who are biased in their relationship with us, a therapist can offer objective feedback and emotional confirmation in a way that is both compassionate and dispassionate. There is no shame in asking for guidance and talking through issues in real time. Quite the opposite. Reaching out for support takes humility and courage, and, when we do so, sends ourselves the message that we are worthy of the time and attention. For general purpose counseling, consider getting started with BetterHelp. BetterHelp offers a range of counselors from a variety of backgrounds along with scholarships for people who have financial hardships. For an intimate experience combining insights from neuroscience through ancient wisdom, I highly recommend life coaching by Jade, the 5D coach. Encouraging wellbeing for all, Jade offers a complimentary coaching session along with an ever-growing catalog of inspirational knowledge videos.

The market is flooded with free meditation apps and Spandex-clad yoga videos. While I believe that any kind of deep breathing and mindful movement of one’s body is a net gain, there are some tools and techniques that are worth learning more formally. The Isha Foundation, founded by spiritual leader and humanitarian Sadhguru, offers a wide range of yoga and meditation workshops. The Inner Engineering course is a good starting place. And The Art of Living Foundation, founded by spiritual leader and humanitarian Gurudev, also offers courses. The SKY Meditation course is their signature entry-level course and is backed by clinical studies confirming its effectiveness in reducing stress, anxiety, and depression. For people who are religious but skeptical of spiritual traditions or practices that are foreign to their own, Gurudev makes a delineation that is especially relevant for orthodox Judao-Christian believers: “Prayer is asking or thanking God for something. Meditation is listening to God.” These tools are not mutually exclusive. While Gurudev’s observation reflects my own practices, people who are more humanistic and prefer to avoid anything with a whiff of spirituality can still benefit from yoga and meditation even if these practices are approached as purely mechanical tools for the mind and body. Take what you wish from the experience.

Lastly, if you are looking for an alternative or supplement to the above resources, consider taking an online character assessment test to receive some insight into who you are as a person. The Big 5 Personality Test is an industry standard within the field of psychology. It’s a good place to start for people who have more data-driven minds or like having an abstract subject quantified in a visual way. Consider taking the Big 5 test here. However, the Enneagram is my personal favorite. It takes a more wholistic view of human nature as an integration of emotional drives, defense mechanisms, and communication styles that conceives of every person as a combination of strengths and weaknesses. Consider taking the Enneagram test here. As American historian and philosopher Will Durrant puts it, “Knowledge is the eye of desire and can become the pilot of the soul.” Everyone benefits when we pilot our soul with deeper (and higher) awareness. Imagine what the world would look like if we looked ourselves in the face and said with real conviction, The sky is the limit!

(The featured image is used by courtesy of Janko Ferlič on Pexels.)

Winter 2023 Blog Update (Part 5 of 6) ~ Current Challenges Continued: The Wisdom of Moving-through-ness

Ultimately, our lives end for us all with an unavoidable stage right exit—Death: The end of our physical existence as we know it… An ocean crossing scales with the wind…

We are carbon-sparked stories pulsing in the cosmic filament strung through space and time. When we are gone—awakened, perhaps, in some other side of consciousness—someone may take care to memorialize our lives with an obituary. If our lives are especially profound, perhaps they may receive the special honor of a statue or biography. Ultimately, who’s to say how to evaluate the worth of a human life. 

This need not be grim. Don’t reach for the gothic wardrobe yet. The pharmacy-fueled emotions wired to our survival instinct are not required prescriptions for our illuminated being. On the stage of life, we don’t need to understand how or why we shine to make a lasting, meaningful appearance. There is no dress rehearsal. Forget the curtain call. 

Whatever neighborhood, nation, or galaxy we come from, our personal growth should be motivated not because we’re aspiring to collect an achievement or surpass someone else, but because any movement forward might as well be driven into greater heights (or depths) of our awareness. 

If this all sounds a little mystifying, it may help to contemplate our journey with applied realism. Understanding that it’s easy to distort our evaluation of ourselves and rationalize our progress, Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl warns us about putting our ends before our means, “… self-actualization can only fall into your lap automatically once you have fulfilled a concrete meaning, done the best of a situation. Then you actualize yourself as a byproduct.” Fortunately, we don’t need to survive a death camp in order to experience transformative meaning within our lives.

Throughout the history of humanity, the world’s diverse religions and spiritual practices have offered profound wisdom with which to guide our lives. Beyond the sacred texts, the spark of the divine exists everywhere. Even the field of military philosophy can instruct us about how to live a better life. The Book of Five Rings, written by the legendary Japanese swordsman, Miyamoto Musashi, discusses martial arts strategy in a way that is equally relevant for everyday civilians. Cutting to the existential quick, he sums up the warrior’s philosophy without pretense, “Generally speaking, the Way of the warrior is resolute acceptance of death.” Likewise, it seems to me, the Way of the wise man involves resolute acceptance of one’s mortality, the inevitable departure, while pursuing the greater potential of our shared humanity—and divinity.

Musashi’s reflection about the philosophy of the warrior continues, “The Way of battles is the same for man to man fights and for ten thousand a side battles. You must appreciate that spirit can become big or small. What is big is easy to perceive; what is small is difficult to perceive.” The battlefields of the warrior and wise man may differ in terrain and tactics, but they share a common characteristic: The method we use to measure the movements of our spirit influences how we conduct ourselves on the battlefield. 

Some appreciable differences do exist, however, between the lives of soldiers and civilians. While the goal of the warrior is victory, the defeat of an opposing power through attrition or cunning, the wise man aspires to peace through harmony, a goal that can only be realized by surrendering to a purpose greater than one’s survival instincts. 

The types of conflict that we confront are more or less universal. Even though societies have changed throughout time—consider middle-class life in 21st-century U.S.A. versus aristocratic life in 2nd-century Rome—human nature largely remains the same. Ancient Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius, the last of the Five Good Emperors of Rome, commanded an empire by day while reflecting by night on human nature. In his bedside journals (which were later published posthumously as a book, Meditations), Aurelius wrote insightfully about how the governance of others can function as a natural extension of ourselves: “To grow together like fellow branches in matter of good correspondence and affection; but not in matter of opinions. They that shall oppose thee in thy right courses, as it is not in their power to divert thee from thy good action, so neither let it be to divert thee from thy good affection towards them.” The ancient Roman philosophy of Stoicism promotes self-governance as a central virtue within their system of ethics. As responsible citizens, we have a duty to conduct ourselves in conscious attunement with the world. Stoics believe that choices, not passions, should lead our lives. Pleasure and happiness are byproducts of willed virtues; they are not passive experiences to be pursued in isolation. When we abide by the disciplines of logic and self-control, we can prevent needless suffering—physical, mental, and emotional—that we cause ourselves and others.

Elsewhere in his journals, Aurelius introduces an ethical concept he calls meekness. Meekness is a virtue at odds with the Western concept of power as control over other people. Instead, meekness implies a transcendent control over ourselves, “… meekness is a thing unconquerable, if it be true and natural, and not affected or hypocritical. For how shall even the most fierce and malicious that thou shalt conceive, be able to hold on against thee, if thou shalt still continue meek and loving unto him; and that even at that time, when he is about to do thee wrong, thou shalt be well disposed, and in good temper, with all meekness to teach him, and to instruct him better?” It’s not easy to respond with love to the world’s ill intentions. We understand this implicitly. What we don’t grasp with equal conviction is that we each have a bountiful kingdom within us that can be led, and misled, only by ourselves. While world-appointed authority employs power as a means of leveraging control over other people, genuine power is unassailable by the world’s authority, resting securely in the birthright of its sovereignty. With an iron-clad claim to the throne, we are tasked with overseeing peace and order within the kingdom of our soul. 

Whether we abide by the meekness of Stoicism (also referred to as temperance), the equanimity of Buddhism, or the divine grace of Christianity, each school of thought grants a person freedom through practices of self-awareness and self-control. When we experience resistance between ourselves and the world, we are wise in not yielding compulsively to our triggers or passions. Instead, conflicts can encourage us to liberate ourselves from ourselves—even, or especially, in our lowest moments.

Although our lives are all inseparably connected, our growth is always our solitary right and responsibility. We cannot change other people. It’s hard enough to change ourselves. Nevertheless, we can influence change in the world through the nature of our interactions with it. 

In contrast to the conflict-free life that we may prefer, every battlefield upon which we stand offers us an opportunity to grow alongside other people. In The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, a J. R. R. Tolkien fantasy novel which has been adapted into a contemporary movie, a large cast of characters are pressed to the limits of their faith and courage, repeatedly forced to discover themselves anew in order to succeed in their journey. The lead character, Bilbo, is an unlikely hero among a group of adventurers who all set out to save the world from an expanding empire of monsters. In a moment of vulnerability early in his adventure, Bilbo confesses to the wizard Gandolf his hesitation about going into battle, “I have never used a sword in my life,” Bilbo says. Gandolf, wise as his beard is gray, responds first with compassion, “And I hope you never have to,” before adding a crucial qualification, “But if you do, remember this: True courage is not about knowing when to take a life, but when to spare one.” 

Wandering further into the realm of fantasy-land analogies, some video games involve battles that can’t be avoided. It’s a common incentive within some games for players to collect rewards throughout their virtual adventures. Typically players level up (or improve) their characters by defeating opponents, gaining experience points and treasure by doing so. The algorithm for payoffs is consistent: The greater the challenge, the greater the reward; adventures that culminate in battles with boss characters, opponents that are noteworthy for their special powers, are especially rewarding. That’s all good and simple in videogame fantasylands, however, conflicts in real life are not quite so clearly marked.

In the battlefield of real life, we don’t always win or lose as gracefully or graciously as we believe every hero should. Sometimes other people may perceive us to be the opposing boss confronting them in their journey. Sometimes, when confronting an overwhelming challenge, we may be wise to cast the treasure we possess to the pool of our shared humanity. Alluding to the theme of conflict resolution in everyday life, an insightful tweet by the video game developer Xbox rings as a moral call to action, inviting us to accept the times when it’s beneficial to override our ego for the greater good: “Be the kind of person who would drop epic loot after a boss fight.” 

One particularly meaningful form of treasure casting involves surrendering something precious that we idolize. Our attachment to idols can be tangible, including people, places, or belongings; or they can be intangible, including ideas, beliefs, or feelings. We can also form attachments to problematic behaviors and habits. Sometimes our idols can get in the way of our growth. Sometimes, although it seems counterintuitive, we can turn the subjects of our pain and suffering into idols, guarding them jealously.

Whatever it is that we encounter as we move through our journey of self-actualization, as author and Soto Zen roshi Gerry Shishin Wick advises us in The Book of Equanimity: Illuminating Classic Zen Koan, “We can’t heal wounds by “trying to put them behind us” or by “just moving on” or “letting go”—we have to go right into them.” 

Unfortunately, we often struggle to evaluate our wounds with equal clarity and compassion. As research professor Brené Brown puts it on The Happiness Lab podcast, “People will do just about anything to avoid pain, including cause pain.” If left ignored, unresolved pains tend to multiply, emerging all the toothier elsewhere in our lives where they are even less welcomed. 

Acknowledging the pains we cause ourselves and other people is a responsibility best braved without condemnation. A healthier approach to owning our accountability is to replace self-judgment with a more sustainable motivation: self-compassion. As self-help author Kristin Neff discusses on The Psychology Podcast, people who develop more self-compassion tend to take more responsibility about their past transgressions; not less. This may seem contradictory to some people who associate responsibility with austerity: the proud burden of power in the absence of affection. She explains, “If you shame yourself and criticize yourself, it’s not safe to take responsibility and you’ll want to blame it on other people, because it’s too painful. So what self-compassion does is it actually increases your ability to take responsibility, it increases your motivation to improve; but it does it for a different reason.” Rather than improving ourselves because we believe that we are inadequate, we can do so because we care about the wellbeing of ourselves and other people. Compassionate responsibility, therefore, involves acting in everyone’s best interest.

Furthermore, Neff discerns different types of compassion and different ways to apply them. While fierce self-compassion can help motivate us to make difficult, and necessary, changes in our lives, tender self-compassion accepts us, unconditionally, as we already are. The dance between this yin and yang dynamic recalls Carl Rogers’s insight about the psychological paradox that the more we accept ourselves the more we are able to change ourselves. Anticipating pushback from critics, Neff clarifies what’s at stake here: It is not letting ourselves off the hook, “Quite the opposite. You need to be brave and strong to say, that hurt so badly.”

Avoiding the cycle of pain also requires us to disarm various traps of self-deception that we employ for our egoic benefit. These traps often involve lowly strategies like short-cuts, dismissals, or wishful thinking. We use such traps when we try to skip the journey for the treasure. However, before we can realize moving-on-ness, the gleaming treasure we desire, we must first resolve our moving-through-ness, the uncertain journey from here to there. This isn’t a truth we can engage with the magic of intellectual abstraction. We must undergo this truth experientially, attend to its infinite upwelling beneath our finite understanding.

As spiritual teacher Michael Singer explains in his workshop, Living From a Place of Surrender—which is based upon his best-selling book, The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself—there’s invaluable wisdom in accepting our experiences as a gift. Our personal experiences are unique, unrepeatable occurrences taking over 13.8 billion years of galactic evolution to arrive at. Considering the magnitude of this scale, why would we fight against that which gave us life? When gazing at a starry sky above, how can we not feel inspired to live with greater purpose, or, at least, a little more awe?

Please take a moment to appreciate the unfolding of our existence within the history of the cosmos. How amazing! Never mind your mind; feel this miracle between your gut and heart.

As I close this sprawling monologue, I should clarify that I’m speaking to myself here, dear visitor. I have been from the start. 

While I developed this text tenaciously over the last two years, I took care to field-test the guiding principles that I’ve written about until I could embody them with some iota of conviction off the page. More than a casual blog entry, I pursued this project with zealous devotion—eventually doing several 40-day dietary cleanses and a couple of silent retreats to motivate a conclusion. 

I’d like to think that I found a little more peace and acceptance in the process. Of course, my struggling continues. However, I know that I struggle in good company. As I continue to wrestle with this blog’s themes off the page, hopefully whoever encounters this imperfect testament of my lived journey will find some value in its offering. Meanwhile: I can speak only of what I now know and believe. So, follow if you dare!

This is not a disclaimer. There’s surely a danger in appearing as an authority on a subject then failing to follow the standards that one represents. And this responsibility is even greater when the subject is life itself, or, rather, how to live life well.

Those who know me in real life should bear no surprise in my disclosure that I’m human, and, therefore, imperfect. So, where my words don’t always match my behaviors, I ask you not to hold me blameless, but to refrain from collectively dismissing the wisdom I’ve tried to express. Besides constillating thoughts and feelings into shapes we call words, it’s a slippery task separating one’s idealized message from the pains, limitations, and biases of one’s lived experiences. This is an admittance; not an excuse. We are responsible for the life we steward.

Sometimes pursuing the noble why of life—that is, the drive for meaning behind why we do what we do—requires making life-sized sacrifices. In the Bible, Jesus talks to his disciples about the sacrifices involved in following him. In Matthew 16:24, Jesus commands his disciples with a message that would constitute a career-ending speech by even the most audacious dictator. Instead of offering consolation for what ails us, and promising a brighter future with less suffering, Jesus challenges his disciples to renounce their lives in order to follow his thorn-crowned example. The life Jesus offers does not come with the taglines of extra conveniences, safety, or national pride. The cost is great. Jesus speaks boldly, “If anyone wants to follow after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” What Jesus promotes is not an obliviousness towards one’s self, rather an awareness that the pursuit of righteousness lies in contrast to one’s self-serving preferences. 

My self-serving preferences are numerous. I don’t need a legal team to protect me from this statement. Short of achieving sainthood or enlightenment—and perhaps even then—a human life contains inevitable discrepancies and contradictions. Still, this is no reason against trying to live one’s best life. Nor is this reason against sharing our humble wisdom with each other as we find it, however thorny it may be.

But we should take care. When we communicate about a subject beyond our mortal reach, like the elusive ideals with which we pursue, our wisdom can be lost in our efforts. A classic Zen image of a person standing on Earth pointing at the moon above them can remind us not to mistake our striving for the end itself. The purpose that we reference, whether in words or actions, hangs always overhead like a beacon guiding our way towards a better way of living. As Patrick Buggy puts it, “It’s never about the finger. It’s about seeing for yourself what the finger is pointing at.” In order to discern the difference, we must learn “to intuit the Real in itself.” Language is a slippery construct that both leads and misleads us. Still, there’s something irreducible within our messages, like our beliefs, that permits them a life of their own. With or without case capitalization, what constitutes the Real or True for you? How will you recognize it when you see it? And are you willing to follow it even if the cost is great? 

Wherever I have stumbled in my practice of living, wherever I have fumbled in the delivery of my messages, I request your grace. Please don’t give up on me. And please don’t disregard the moon towards which I’m aiming; salvage any speck of wisdom you can from its hazy image. I see no way out from this bind—negotiating roles as man-who-proclaims-to-know and man-who-struggles-to-follow—than building bridges in fellowship towards our continuous unfolding. 

We each choose our path onward. We each choose how to measure our growth. It matters little if we actualize, realize, develop, explore, transform, transcend, deny, or accept our inner being. It matters little if we define the core of the self as a boundless field of consciousness, an indivisible, tailor-made soul, or an evolutionary program of finite biology. What matters is how we carry on in good faith, cultivating, each in our own way, greater courage, humility, and kindness in our lives. 

So, dear visitor, here’s to many more years of open-hearted path walking. And here’s to recognizing value in our conflicts as they come, including good, clean fights when needed and, hopefully, just as many reconciliations. 

Whoever you are, whatever your struggles may be, know that you are human. You are no mere aftermath of unlikely statistics. You are something far more profound. Whether you exist as a voice of divine love or an eruption of stardust sentience, you are an unique expression of consciousness that precedes and exceeds human understanding. 

While navigating the heights (and depths) of your consciousness, tend to the soil of ancestral wisdom within you. Don’t pick the fruit of your spirit out of season; you will reap the harvest of your labors when the time arrives. Be kind to yourself and others. If your conscience is clean, round up: Accept that you’re a good person, despite a few weaknesses, and, with equal conviction, offer the same benefit to other people. 

Occasionally, the conflicts of life may entangle you. That’s okay. Unravel your attachments to attachments, especially the sticky ones, like resentment and bitterness, that hinder your flourishing. Press into the pain of loss with curiosity and compassion: You will discover grounds for healing if you persist. 

It may be tempting to idolize the aches of adversity. Instead, face them directly, embracing the changes with an open ease of being. Remember, you can move on with peace only after you move through what confronts you. The landscape for growth spans your mind and heart, yet continues far beyond. As often as possible, in troubled times and otherwise, give gratitude the wings of generosity: Appreciate the gifts you’ve been given; and befriend what should have been—we aren’t built to carry conclusions like tombstones. 

When you feel stuck, take one step forward. Again. And again. 

Careful—your soul is not an assembly line. Spend a day without chasing your goals. If they are worthy, they will still be there when you return. 

Now sit. And close your eyes.

Breathe in. Humor yourself when you are alone. 

Pause. Yes, your unfortunate haircut will soon fade. 

Breathe out. No, you can’t get your money back. 

Attention! Are you waiting for a miracle? Remember, you are a miracle: your very existence and the way you live it. 

Now go. Nobody grows by dwelling in departures.

However you find yourself strung in space and time—with or without grand design—honor your wild glowing on this earthen stage. Accept that all that you cherish will change form eventually, leaving you without your permission. Count each season as a lesson in arrivals, a blessing from an unseen host, a whispered hello among the rustled leaves above: 

You are awake… You are complete… As you have always been…  

(The featured image is used by courtesy of Tara Winstead on Pexels.)

Winter 2023 Blog Update (Part 4 of 6) ~ Current Challenges: Victims of Our Unawareness

What percentage of our time do we spend on withholds and grudges? How is that energy investing in our wellbeing? Is it helping to resolve our differences? Does it guide us onward with greater wisdom? 

After we have been hurt or wronged, we may wrestle with our perceived injustices in the aftermath: How can this happen to me? I don’t deserve this. The hardships we face may test our ties to the world, complicating our personal relationships, including our attachments to our values and beliefs, even our sense of moral righteousness.

When life disrupts our equilibrium between self and world, between desire and fulfillment, we are charged with reclaiming our freedom within the heights (and depths) of our inner being. In the best way we can manage, we continue growing by leaning into our pain with loving wisdom, separating it—carefully—from our truth. 

Before we can dress our wounds, however, we must address that which has wounded us. Moving on from our life wounds, therefore, requires that we first reckon with the past. But to venture into the unreconciled past, we must sacrifice the assurance of our present comfort for the sake of our greater future potential. 

Forgiveness is a fundamental stage in the healing process; the trouble is, forgiveness is often misunderstood as a prescriptive formula rather than a natural fruiting of spirit that occurs when we embrace—and release—our wounds with grace. Consequently, forgiveness has become a cheap word in Western cultures these days. The sloganeering of pop psychology is littered with tributes to concepts that have been worn to pieces like, forgive and forget. We recruit these twin f-words with reflexive abandon. Yet we should take heed, because if we can’t push through our pain on the way to healing ourselves, we can be left nursing a festering wound of one’s being that no doctor can relieve for very long. 

Author Lysa TerKeurst distinguishes two facets to the emotional core of unforgiveness in Forgiving What You Can’t Forget: Discover How to Move On, Make Peace with Painful Memories, and Create a Life That’s Beautiful Again, “Resentment is usually attached to a specific person for a specific incident. Bitterness is usually the collective feeling of all our resentments. But however you define these words, they are part of the same problem.” Unfortunately, there are likely no limits to the suffering we can cause ourselves and each other. Even if we feel that we suffer alone and undeservedly, our suffering is contagious; we can perpetuate it within our own lives and pass it onto others. Fortunately, the contagion of suffering often has a logical path of development that we can learn to overcome. 

It’s long seemed to me that human nature is neither inherently blameless nor corrupt. We are more often simply self-serving, preoccupied with protecting our vested interests. For the outliers among us, the pursuit of righteousness, like the pursuit of malevolence, is a life-consuming passion requiring practiced commitment. Not many rise to the calling. 

Either way, we don’t exist as a blank slate in self-isolation. Self-actualization involves mindfully acknowledging the complexity of human nature alongside the social context within which we are all embedded. 18th-century English Anglican preacher Henry Melvill highlights the intricate interconnectedness of life in his sermon “Partaking in Other Men’s Sins,” “Ye cannot live for yourselves; a thousand fibres connect you with your fellow-men, and along those fibres, as along sympathetic threads, run your actions as causes, and return to you as effects.” No man is an island—for very long. If we approach our connections with others with curiosity and empathy, we can help transcend the cycle of self-involvement that obscures our interconnectedness. 

I can think of no more conducive medium for channeling interconnectedness than love. In the ancient Hindu scripture Bhagavad Gita (meaning “Song of God” or “Song of the Lord”), the god Krishna advises the Pandava prince Arjuna about life philosophy during an epic battle. The battlefield strategizing serves as a moral analogy for defining courage in context of our response to a world that has hurt us. Krishna explains, “If you want to see the brave, look at those who can forgive. If you want to see the heroic, look at those who can love in return for hatred.” Love, in many ways, is life’s ultimate battleground. Yet when we are confronted by ill-will, we so often fight with love instead of living for it. Which one is more heroic?

Before we slump into moral verbosity, we should puzzle upon what it means to live one’s life under the influence of love. As 6th-century BC Chinese philosopher Lau Tzu says, a man known for his contributions to the anthology of wise sayings known as the Tao Te Ching, “Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.” Lau Tzu continues, suggesting several values that can help us channel love within our relationships, “Simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures.” 

Indian guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, known by his honorific title of Gurudev, has much to say about love. Gurudev explains the role of forgiveness, as an expression of the spirit of love, in times of conflict, “The readiness to forgive and ask for forgiveness is a sign of strength. When you take responsibility for clearing up a misunderstanding or conflict and create harmony, it reveals your broad-mindedness and magnanimity.” Gurudev illustrates how we are all casualties of the mistakes that we perpetuate: 

“You do not plan your own mistakes. They happen because of a lack of awareness or because of stress in the mind. If you do not plan your mistakes, what makes you think that others plan their mistakes? 

When you do not have compassion for others and forgive their mistakes, you tend to seek revenge and get into a cycle of negative feelings. 

Forgiveness protects the mind and spirit from the poison of negativity.” 

While forgiveness can help alleviate our pain and suffering, the balm it offers is always temporary. The trouble is, forgiveness tends to isolate the perceived victim and culprit from a wider web of human engagements. The process of redemption, therefore, may labor in limbo until we round up to the perspective that we are all interconnected. From this more compassionate bird’s-eye view, we can appreciate the universality of the cycle of pain that we inherit. Gurudev explores a way through this bind:

“Forgiveness can never be complete. When you say, “I forgive”, you think the other person is a culprit. However you do it, a little bit still remains. It’s not complete. But when you see the big picture that the culprit is also a victim, a victim of his/her own mind, ignorance or unawareness, compassion arises from within you.” 

Angel Millar also advocates for a position of dignity in The Path of the Warrior Mystic: Being a Man in an Age of Chaos, “If a parent or childhood friend hurt you, it is not because he or she was uniquely evil and powerful but because that person had his or her own unresolved emotional issues, or perhaps even psychological issues, which probably began during childhood. Understand that this person did not act out of strength, but out of weakness.” 

Whatever issue we confront, whatever hurt we experience, it’s rarely, if ever, personal. By failing to resolve our wounds, we cling to them, thus strengthening and preserving them; as the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung warns us, what we resist, persists. Contrary to the grain of the egoic self, relating to other people with compassion doesn’t imply ignoring the wounds that we have received; rather, meditating upon the physics of interpersonal relationships inspires contextual awareness, helping us detach our truth from our pain. Love then allows us to exercise compassion without pretense, bridging the gap between our mutually wounded hearts in a union of equals.

The way we describe our experiences matter, influencing the way we perceive them. Our language has a life of its own. Like love, truth is a simple word with a dense history. On one hand, both love and truth have left a trail of broken hearts and bodies throughout humanity; on the other hand, they have also spawned new life forms and civilizations. In the West, we tend to think of truth as a fact we can plot on a spreadsheet or a cause we can champion on a ballot. Equally shallow, we think of love as a fountainous feeling that we attempt to contain—for our benefit. But perhaps neither truth nor love are terminal outcomes as much as endless processes of becoming. 

We may never discern where truth and love begin or end. Nor may we ever discover their chemical compositions. That’s okay. We are still enriched by their guidance. However, harnessing the influence of truth and love for the betterment of humanity requires that we first confront the nemesis guarding the gate to our potential. 

We are that adversary. We must mind the creaky bridges leading to the buried treasures we seek. While we’re all well aware of one obvious gatekeeper, malevolence—a nasty mountain troll responsible for horrendous crimes against humanity—there are more subtle goblins creeping in the hedges that ambush our consciousness—consider the arrogance of certainty, the insecurity of fear, or the self-pity of hopelessness.

If we must be kept up at night as we are wrestling with the burning questions of our existence, it is best to be haunted by a specter that conspires to delight or instruct us, something we can’t quite shake, but in whose company we are vitalized. Of course, what we invite into our minds we also invite into our beds. Although we don’t always choose what comes knocking at our door, we always get to choose whether or not to welcome the visitor inside—offer it some tea; then wish it farewell. 

However sensible we may be, the integrity of our truths can be compromised by the way we express them. While whole-hearted truths are made honorable when driven by devotion and buoyed by awareness, half-truths are full of triggers and extra baggage that eclipse their well-meaning message. 

A half-truth is a troublesome response to one’s self and the world, a blurred mix of as-it-is-in-itself with as-it-is-in-my-likeness. A half-truth is linear and personal: a transaction we command in the moral economy that can be bought or sold with our earned worth. 

A whole-hearted truth is cyclical and trans-personal; it’s a self-transcending experience that fuels and consumes our inner being. We manifest whole-hearted truths in our lives through service to a noble purpose that frees us from our perceived limitations: The price of admission is an intractable sacrifice of who-we-once-were in service of who-we-can-yet-be.

When our attention slips away from our whole-hearted being, we allow ourselves to succumb to the laws of market transactions. All is not lost. Or at least we are never lost for long if we can gain new ground during the trials that we encounter. As things go awry, we are wise to ease ourselves away from the weight of our past expectations and back into the presence of our weightless agency. 

Of course, the pursuit of truth requires courage as much as strength. But truth is best served on all sides when we embody it with kindness and humility. Without humility, truth is a hungry lion unleashed in a library—a terror and a public menace; without kindness, truth is a tower waving in the face of grace—a reckless force collapsing upon itself. 

More problematically, our truth can be corrupted when shaped in our image. It’s a unique tragedy of humanity that the things we do for the sake of truth can be as destructive as anything we do out of ill-will. As American humorist Mark Twain observes in On the Decay of the Art of Lying, “What I bemoan is the growing prevalence of the brutal truth. Let us do what we can to eradicate it. An injurious truth has no merit over an injurious lie. Neither should ever be uttered.” Enacting our truths at all costs may demand a cost that we can’t afford. Rather than brooding like moral tyrants over who is right or wrong, then justifying our actions in our favor, we can share our truths with authenticity without forsaking compassion.

Lest we forget, we are capable of compassion even in the darkest of times. Viktor Frankl, a holocaust survivor known for his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, shares a humbling awareness he had while detained in a concentration camp; instead of fellow prisoners judging each other’s suffering in contrast to their own, Frankl offers a different perspective, “…the ones who seem to suffer less should not look at the others with contempt but look at the others with compassion and look for anything possible to help the others.” Clinging to the singularity of our individual experiences can prevent us from rounding up to a bird’s-eye view of an issue. In such cases, relating to each other through the indivisibility of our shared humanity pierces through the conditioning of merit-based moralities.

Encountering a world that seems contrary to our own will and understanding is inevitable. The temptations to yield to our ego triggers are numerous and effortless. Yet our ego only desires to protect us. The growth of our inner being requires that we confront the illusions of self that prevent us from transcending our perceived limitations. 

In challenging times, it’s helpful to recognize the hidden opportunity: If life is a lesson that we can learn to love and love to learn, do we approach our experiences as walls that enable our inertia, or as wings that empower our expansion? Along the way, perhaps it’s best that we find ourselves shocked in the wilderness that is our freedom (and responsibility), awake in the flesh (and spirit) of our becoming. We are who we are. But if we stop at that, we’ll never know who we can yet be.

(The featured image is used by courtesy of Francesco Ungaro on Pexels.)

Winter 2023 Blog Update (Part 3 of 6) ~ Lessons Learned: Conflict Management

If we live long enough, it happens to us all: The world, full of cold indifference to our golden-calf agendas, infiltrates our beating heart with its ragged claws—and pulls. With a single gesture, the ego is uprooted, leaving our bare awareness of self throbbing in monolog: “Feel! CONNECT!! Change! GROW!!”

Eventually, we all stumble into conflicts that trigger us, challenging our self-awareness and self-control. It’s inevitable. For the sake of clarification, my use of the term conflict encompasses a spectrum of adversity ranging from simple stress to complex trauma, including any degree of pain, discord, or loss of peace in our lives. Regardless of the context that inspires conflict, the essence of conflict management involves addressing the friction or tension between ourselves and our environment arising from an unmet need, desire, or expectation that we possess. 

There is no end to the ways we can be challenged at work or home, personally or professionally, through words or actions, rightfully or wrongly, intentionally or otherwise. Conflicts are not exclusive to high-stakes scenarios: being mugged in a street; contesting legal custody of one’s kids; struggling with a terminal health condition. There are no conflicts too ordinary to challenge us: slow service at a restaurant; a flat tire on the way to work; an unreciprocated gift we’ve given someone. Ultimately, any event—or non-event—can be experienced as conflict. 

Encounters with our fellow human beings can be uniquely problematic. There are many situational factors to consider when evaluating interpersonal conflicts: people’s motives, communication styles, temperaments, backgrounds, etc. It’s complicated. Although far from comprehensive, I’ve explored a handful of conflict resolution methods below that we more commonly encounter in daily life. Relevant to my recent adventure abroad, the examples used to model each method are inspired by experiences I had with roommates and neighbors while living in Spain. 

As much as the people I encountered in southern Spain excelled at appreciating the immediate carnal pleasures of life, they sometimes fell short of appreciating the potential consequences of their actions. I found this to be true in my engagements with larger bureaucratic systems as well as my engagements with individuals in my daily life.

Pushing into my zone of vulnerability, the examples of conflict encounters that I’ve listed below typify a recurring challenge that I had in Spain while living with people who did not share my same level of conscientiousness. Because certain regions of Spain still observe the siesta tradition—in which people enjoy napping in hot, humid afternoons—they tend to stay up much later. It was common, therefore, for me to struggle with neighbors who were quite restless (read: disruptive) throughout the night. 

After reflecting upon my experiences, I should acknowledge a proverbial truism that applies here: If we can’t change our environment—which is even less likely when living as an outsider in a foreign country—then we must change how we respond to it. This doesn’t mean that we should ignore our environment or dispense with having preferences for how we’d like to shape it; rather that we should be mindful about how we manage our interactions with it.

Within that relational framework, I offer up my life as an illustrative model meant to inform as much as entertain. As trivial as the following examples of my domestic life in Spain may be, hopefully they serve their purpose, demonstrating the underlying conflict resolution principles in question.

  1. DEFEND / ATTACK. In this mode, when we perceive that we are under attack, and a reaction is warranted, we take direct actions to defend ourselves, which is, by definition, another form of attack. The difference between an attack and defense can be ambiguous, often hinging upon the subjective experience of our motive for engagement and method of delivery. Either way, this mode involves rising to a level of formal engagement with someone over an issue that we experience that is compelling us to respond. Considering the cutting nature of the defend-and-attack method, its ethicality and efficacy is highly dependent upon the integrity of the people engaged in the conflict. 

My third apartment was conveniently located within walking distance of the high school where I worked. However, it was inconveniently located between an underground parking garage and a restless upstairs neighbor. Because the apartment floors were marble, the sound of footfall was amplified dramatically at night. I eventually wrote a letter to the neighbors above me, perhaps unreasonably, complaining about the hard-heeled shoes that one of the tenants seemingly used exclusively when inside their apartment. The letter resulted in an awkward confrontation with my two neighbors at our doorstep: a middle-aged man and woman indignantly defended the accusation of their disturbing the neighborly peace. After heated negotiation led by my roommate, who assisted me with my faulty Spanish, the neighbors maintained that nobody in their house owns any formal footwear or stays up late at night. They then marched away proudly, the female neighbor’s hard-heeled shoes clicking with every step. My problem never improved.

  1. IGNORE. In this mode, we pretend like the catalyst for conflict never happened. Ignoring is like the ground force militia of conflict styles. This method benefits from being easy, or at least simple because it requires little energy investment. For a while, it can give us the illusion that the issue doesn’t even exist. It can also be a statement that the issue is your problem, not mine. Ignoring can be an ideal response in some cases requiring self-awareness and self-control to disengage from an encounter that may be more consequential if we confront it. 

My fourth apartment was right in the heart of a lively downtown neighborhood. The centralized location was an exciting change of pace. Everything I wanted was within easy reach: grocery stores, bakeries, a bustling row of restaurants, even a trolly. Although I adapted fairly well to living in a bedroom beside my doctor roommate who worked night shifts, I struggled (again) with my upstairs neighbors. I eventually delivered a noise letter plea to my upstairs neighbors about their late-night routine involving TV binges and group socializing activities. I understood that they had a right to their fun and festivities, but need it be so uproarious and so frequent? I never heard back from them. My problem never improved.

  1. EVADE. Evasions are tricky, elusive modes of conflict resolution. They can involve sleight of hand deceptions that seem pulled out of a magician’s top hat—watch your wallet, guard your back, and stay vigilant. Sometimes we can leave an encounter with someone feeling like we’ve won, or at least feeling like we’ve been heard and our position considered, but later discover that we’ve been misled into turning our heads away from our issue and settling for some slick non-resolution. When our attention is redirected, we can become subjects of someone’s performance. At its best, an evasion can be used as a preventative measure, anticipating a conflict that might arise in a way that motivates a thoughtful response through an action or non-action. Like the conflict resolution mode of ignoring, the legitimacy of the evasion mode is dependent upon context and intention. 

For my fifth living arrangement, desperate for a simpler living arrangement, I found a one-bedroom apartment on the top floor of an apartment complex. As usual, there were surprises. My landlord didn’t inform me that the building had an attic floor above my own with two apartment units on the rooftop. During my first weekend, I discovered that my roof-dwelling neighbors were twenty-year-old boys who, not surprisingly, loved to party. Over the first few weeks, I approached the upstairs neighbors twice with noise complaints. When I spoke with one of the young men about my issue, he invited me, both times, to sit down and join in their festivities. He was always friendly; he was also quick to evade the discussion about his party-loving nights, redirecting me to their food and fun. Although he eventually promised to be more mindful of my quiet time request, ultimately, my problem never improved.

  1. DEFLECT / PROJECT. In this conflict resolution mode, we turn one issue into fuel for another issue. This mode pairing is particularly devoted to re-directing criticism from ourselves to someone else. Although I’m pairing together the methods of deflection and projection, they are subtly different. As Berkley Well-Being Institute explains via the insight of psychologist Sigmund Freud, “Deflection is similar to projection, in that it involves putting a negative focus on somebody other than ourselves. But when a person deflects, they are consciously aware of the negative characteristic in themselves, whereas in projection, this awareness is not present.” To the extent that these defense mechanisms both fail to accept accountability for legitimate criticism, they tend to be underhanded.

For my sixth and final living arrangement, I found an artists’ community on the outskirts of the city. Our backyard bordered a lemon field, and a nearby bike trail ran for miles alongside a meandering creek. All of the roommates generally got along together well; however, one roommate didn’t quite fit in our harmonious community. The misfit roommate was mostly unemployed, isolating herself in her bedroom where she talked for hours on the phone every day, often late at night. More problematically for me, she defied the house rules regarding indoor smoking. When I confronted her, informing her that her second hand smoke was traveling through the ceiling and into my room, she immediately denied the accusations. Then, perceiving herself as a victim of environmental circumstances, she countered with the argument that I’m not a perfect roommate myself. Despite her critiques, her deflections sidestepped my issue and my problem never improved. She was eventually kicked out of the apartment by my landlord due to a variety of reasons besides my own issues.

  1. ACCEPT. By far the rarest method of conflict resolution, acceptance isn’t for the meek or faint-hearted. Acceptance isn’t a matter of merely nodding one’s head in agreement; it can’t be evidenced by verbal approval or lack of resistance. It is demonstrated directly by someone’s changed behavior. Acceptance requires a fundamental humbling of one’s being: the surrendering of one’s ego, with a degree of grace. This method involves equal parts strength and flexibility, adapting oneself to a world that challenges and prompts us to change. Acceptance, as noble as it appears, requires one caveat of caution: sometimes people can accept something too easily, quickly, and submissively without fighting to represent the truth that they believe in. Considering that human nature is more complicated than textbook generalizations can encapsulate, even acceptance requires moderation based upon context.

I had only one confrontation with a neighbor in Spain that ended positively—or, at least, that was received sympathetically. In my fifth living arrangement, in the one-bedroom apartment, my next-door neighbor coughed compulsively in his apartment, on the other side of my bedroom wall, without end. At night, it was easier for me to sleep on my living room sofa. Desperate for relief, I wrote a letter to my neighbor explaining my predicament. A couple of days later, my neighbor surprised me by knocking on my door to introduce himself. He was also an English teacher: a British expat who had been living in Spain for many years. He was sincerely apologetic about the disturbance, explaining that the hacking was due to an autoimmune disorder; he apparently couldn’t afford the proper medicine required to treat his condition. He promised to be more mindful of the coughing. Additionally, he loaned me a floor heater to use for the upcoming cold snap in southern Spain. Although I continued to hear him at night, I could tell that he was doing his best to keep it quieter. And his best was an improvement which I greatly appreciated.

The above list of conflict resolution methods is hardly comprehensive. For those who prefer a little more substance, Healthline offers a list of the top 10 defense mechanisms along with a helpful overview of how they work. As Kentucky Counseling Center puts it, “Defense mechanisms are a normal part of our psychological development. Whether they are used to avoid unwanted thoughts or deal with anxiety, defense mechanisms will always be a part of our everyday life.” Some of the ways we regulate our emotional balance in moments of conflict may involve subtle acts of manipulation of one’s self and other people. Then there are other ways we rarely think of as defensive; humor, for instance, can be a very dynamic defense mechanism.

As trifling as my case examples with my neighbors may seem—trust me, I still cringe when I review them—it’s vital to accept our truths with genuine compassion. In the West, displays of vulnerability, even in cases where displayed in a way that is respectful and respectable, tend to be associated with weakness. While we appreciate the complexity of flawed characters in literature and cinema, we don’t tend to have the same interest or tolerance for character complexity in real life. 

I get it. It can feel risky to share our gems of vulnerability with people. We know so because we’ve been hurt by doing so before. It’s also revealing. Vulnerability requires letting one’s guard down in order to be present, as we are, owning our authenticity, with a world that cannot ensure our safety or security. When we toss our gems to the world, we never know how they’ll be used. Sometimes we find them later on in unlikely places. Sometimes they appear in the mouths of serpents we confront, wielded with the intent to harm us. Who among us hasn’t been caught with a belly full of gems that don’t belong to us? We have all been that serpent before. 

Regardless of the issues we cough up—or choke down—we often associate conflicts as problematic times in our lives. This association seems logical when our experiences with conflicts often involve the triggering of primal emotions such as anger, disgust, fear, or sadness. However, our emotions cannot be simply labeled as either good or bad and then categorically dismissed. As Mark Bracket puts it on Brené Brown’s Unlocking Us podcast, emotions are “signals to approach or avoid” something in the world. As such, every signal has a message to send us.

Anger is a particularly urgent, energy-intensive response commonly evoked when we feel the need to react to a challenging, or possibly threatening, situation. The emotional drive that underlies anger may be embodied with some degree of displeasure or annoyance. Though often misunderstood in strictly hostile terms, every shade of anger points the same way: towards action. 

Hungarian physician Gabor Maté has spent much of his career studying how the brain’s biological programming occurs in a lifelong interaction with the environment. Drawing from the research detailed in his book The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness, and Healing in a Toxic Culture, Dr. Maté explains the nature of this interaction on a variety of popular podcasts: The Joe Rogan Experience, The Tim Ferris Show, Impact Theory, and Rich Roll—choose your favored host, or listen to them all; we neglect this subject at our peril. Dr. Maté explains that our immune and nervous systems are entwined with our emotional command system: the integrated network negotiates responses to our environment for the sake of our safety and wellbeing. The process involves an endless balancing of boundaries between our individual selves and the world. In each case, the role of boundaries remains the same: “to let in what is nurturing and healthy and to keep out what is dangerous and toxic.”

Although we have an individual responsibility for our wellbeing, Dr. Maté rebukes our social environments for interfering with the healthy development of our minds and bodies. Unfortunately, life is full of conflicts that not everyone is currently prepared or willing to face. The trouble is that unreconciled wounds fester into trauma. And the traumas we inherit during our upbringing—from our families, communities, and nations—influence our health and wellbeing later in our lives. Unless the underlying traumas are addressed and integrated into our psyches, then they will persist, disconnecting us from our authentic selves. Warning: This is not woo-woo psychobabble that we can afford to dismiss with cynicism. The chronic suppression of our emotions will, eventually, manifest as bodily pain, distress, and disease. To raise the stakes, since traumas are contagious, they can be transmitted to other people. In conclusion, Dr. Mate advocates that we cannot, and should not, separate our emotional life from our physiological life.  

Within humanity’s evolutionary history, our emotions have been programmed into our physiological systems for a purpose. Although our primal emotions sometimes get branded as immoral scapegoats, they have historically assisted us in adapting to unpredictable environments. 

Even in the 21st century, we have good reasons to consult our emotions for guidance. Our emotions, along with our intellect and instincts, are a fundamental part of who we are as human beings; they can either aid or hinder us in our development. Likewise, the conflicts we engage in reveal to us the nature of our psyches—including how we relate to what we hold dear in our life—exposing us to forces of resistance that can help us better understand ourselves and each other. 

As informative as our emotions can be, they should not be followed blindly. We are wise to pause during moments of conflict before giving our emotions free rein; however, sometimes we experience lucidity only after a conflict has ended. Apart from the guidance of various self-reflection methods—such as meditation, prayer, and journaling—it can be helpful to seek additional support by consulting with an objective third party. In the court of law of human nature, we are not inclined to act fairly and effectively as a simultaneous judge and jury, lawyer and witness. 

When we turn to the counsel of other people, we should be honest about what we truly desire. Are we seeking validation of our feelings or objective feedback? Although validations and feedback are not mutually exclusive, they have different natures. It may be difficult, therefore, to find counsel that is equipped to satisfy these two desires in an effective way simultaneously. 

Regardless of our contribution to a conflict, the validation of our emotions nurtures a basic need for human connections. In times of need, it can feel like no small miracle to be simply seen and heard as we are. In contrast, invalidating words and actions dismiss our emotions as inherently wrong or neglect to acknowledge them at all. Unfortunately, chronic invalidations of our emotions may be linked to mental health issues. At its foundation, relating to our emotions in a healthy way requires mindful awareness of how we conduct our interactions with ourselves and other people. 

Besides seeking a compassionate witness for our emotional wellbeing, receiving objective feedback from other people can help us untangle the wider context of a conflict from our individual role in it. Good feedback considers all sides of an issue and prioritizes the situational truth from an impartial position with dispassion. The focus should be on revealing to us what we can’t see or appreciate on our own because it’s obscured by our individual bias. As a consequence, while feedback can expose us to valuable new insights that may be beneficial for our growth, some feedback may be contrary to our own will or understanding, making it difficult, therefore, for us to accept. 

To complicate matters, not all feedback is equally true and beneficial. The type of counsel we seek influences the type of feedback we receive. As John Lencioni cautions in Emotional Intelligence 2.0: Learn to Master and Improve your Social Skills and Emotional Agility, for a Better Life, Success at Work and Happier Relationships, “Choose your third party wisely. The people you invite to help you shouldn’t have a vested interest in the situation.” We often turn to friends and family in times of need, relying on them to comfort us. However, our dearest familiars may be biased by their affection for us, preferring to spare us the potential pain caused from sharing their hard-to-hear truths. 

Additionally, it’s natural for us to seek confirmation from people who share our background, value system, or worldview. By doing so, we can sway the response we receive in accordance with our subconscious bias. Keen to the corruptive power of human motive, Lencioni continues his cautionary appeal, “You should also avoid someone you know will simply agree with you. While their support feels good, it keeps you from seeing the entire picture. Sitting down with a potential devil’s advocate may irk you in the moment, but you’ll fare far better having seen things from a unique perspective.” It’s good to have some variance in the feedback we receive. If the majority of people agree with us, or with each other, then it may be a sign that we’re either trafficking in mathematical proofs or front-loading our inquiry for our self-serving benefit. 

Besides the type of people we seek feedback from, the way we narrate our side of an issue also influences the type of response we receive. In How to Decide: Simple Tools for Making Better Choices, former professional poker player Anne Duke explores the tools and techniques of better decision making. Poker is a game that is all about risk, where decision making carries immediate consequences. Good feedback, Duke concludes, begins with good questions, “You want to be careful about the way you frame the question, because the frame you choose can signal whether you have a positive or negative view about what you’re trying to get feedback on. Try to stay in a neutral frame as much as possible.” 

Regardless of who we’ve sought counsel from and the way we’ve framed the question for consideration, we must still turn inward within ourselves to reflect upon our contributions to the issue in question. Finding a healthy perspective involves balancing responsibility for our role in a conflict (nothing more nor less) with compassion for ourselves and others. 

Human nature is complicated. Sometimes we judge what we hold most dear to us the harshest. One moment we’re turning to our beloved family and friends for comfort. The next moment we’re tearing them apart. If we’re not careful, when our conflicts escalate, it can feel like we’re leading a battle between nations that are defying the U.N.’s protocols for ethical warfare. Our engagements on these domestic battlefields can be especially conniving and ferocious. 

Occasionally we’re lured by dirty tactics to get our way. We’ve all been there before. Sometimes angry outbursts result in childish name-calling. Other times resentments drag up sideline issues from the past. It’s never dignifying or productive. We deceive ourselves if we justify such tactics as acts of “tough love.” The problem is, when we retaliate with psychological nerve gas, we allow our headless emotions and heartless logic to take us hostage. In the process, we compromise our moral integrity. 

If we care to contribute to the positive growth of someone or something, instead of plotting for our egoic benefit, we must first confirm that we love our subject whole-heartedly. Our love, like our truth, need not be unsoiled or uncomplicated to reach for higher peaks (or deeper valleys) of our inner being. Our love does benefit, however, from being hospitable. When navigating conflicts, I’ve coined a term to describe a conceptual model for relating to each other in a way that merges clarity with solidarity: rounding up

In rounding up, we respond to an issue by building bridges to other lives that differ from our own, spanning the gap between individual selves. Rounding up takes a bird’s-eye view of a subject that cultivates harmony through highlighting our shared connections. As a type of mindfulness practice, this large-scale perspective requires discipline to implement without blind idealism; if taken to an extreme, it can gloss over valuable differences in our identities that contribute to our collective diversity. However, at its heart, bridge building is the basis of redemptive human abilities such as empathy, compassion, and altruism. 

Neel Burton clarifies the emotional basis of this noble triad in Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions, “Compassion, or ‘suffering alongside’ someone, is more engaged than simple empathy, and is associated with an active desire to alleviate the suffering of its object. With empathy, I share your emotions, with compassion I not only share your emotions but also elevate them into a universal and transcending experience. Compassion, which builds upon empathy, is one of the main motivations of altruism.”

In contrast, rounding down burrows away from our universal grounding and into the diverging particularities of our individual selves. Rounding down takes a worm’s-eye view of an issue that highlights differences of our identity including demographic criteria such as education, nationality, religion, gender, etc. This inward-scoping perspective is especially helpful in alarming us to righteous indignation about glaring inequalities in the use and abuse of collective resources and opportunities. However, if taken to an extreme, rounding down can accentuate the divide between ourselves in a way that generates alienation and ill-will.

To be clear, both our similarities and differences are worthy of consideration, providing equal sources of concern and celebration. Balancing bird’s-eye and worm’s-eye views is an ambiguous judgment call. The human psyche relies upon both perspectives in order to stay well-grounded and well-rounded. Neither view is right or wrong; the connection between them is deeply complex, perhaps even contradictory. The challenge is discerning where to place our weight when we are traversing uneven grounds. 

With that said, during times when the world is experiencing intense polarization, surges in cultural extremism signify that we may be off balance collectively. As malaise and outrage have become chronic symptoms of global disharmony, it’s tempting to ignore or fester in our differences and wounds. Instead of reacting compulsively, invalidating people with whom we don’t agree, or seeking comfort in siloed groups, we can adopt a less visible—or, at least, less visibly appealing—sensibility: the middle path. The middle path skirts prevailing moral extremes, inviting us to confront an issue with clear-eyed candor while still celebrating faith in open-hearted renewal.

We are all magnetized by a past and future on a path that is unique to each one of us. So, in moments when we find ourselves disconnected from other people, or from ourselves, it can be helpful to reflect upon what we all still have in common: Our shared humanity. 

Obviously, life isn’t always easy and conflicts are never one-sided. We may have valid reasons for feeling hurt or wronged within our circumstances. Sometimes the time and energy we’ve invested into our relationships can create the illusion that we’re entitled to compensation. We’re not entitled. We never are. That doesn’t mean that we should settle for anything less than basic respect in our relations with the world. We should not condone acts of deceit, betrayal, and aggression.

When considering the reciprocity of our relationships, our hearts attune to frequency and intention. It’s unnatural to keep count with a spreadsheet. Outside of legal courts of law, expecting a return in a particular way or timeframe will lead only to frustration and disappointment. 

Boundaries are foundations for our health and wellbeing. But healthy boundaries require healthy narratives. And our narratives can be easily misled by a web of self-defense mechanisms known as cognitive biases. These biases are systematic errors in thinking that occur when we are processing information in the world. These errors can be influenced by a variety of factors: limits on the mind’s attention, individual motivations, mental shortcuts (called “heuristics”), social pressure, and emotions. SimplyPscyhology explains the role of these ingrained error systems, “Cognitive biases have direct implications on our safety, our interactions with others, and the way we make judgments and decisions in our daily lives.” (Consulting a visual list of our biases can help us appreciate just how impressionable, if not error-prone, our default nature can be.) While we may be alert to some of our biases, many more linger beyond our awareness.

Cognitive biases can interfere in harmful ways with our relationships, undermining our agency. Biases become even more subversive when we rationalize them, building a narrative framework around self-limiting beliefs. For example, when we interpret our role in interpersonal conflicts, our ego tends to reinforce default narratives that label ourselves as victims or heroes, and other people as saviors or villains. Discerning our true role involves discerning our true intention, a slippery task requiring vigilant attention. Even after we uncover our errors, we’ll need humility to accept the truth as we encounter it.

As usual, when it comes to implementing our life principles, it’s often easier to indulge in extreme beliefs and behaviors than to maintain balance in the middle. To reason through an answer abstractly on the sidelines of life can be done at our comfort and convenience; it’s much harder to disengage from reigning passions or mindsets when we’re tangled in their grip.

Engaging with life deeply will inevitably expose us to challenges, especially in the realm of human relationships. Fortunately, many of the challenges we encounter can be effectively addressed by managing our individual expectations and boundaries. Executive and organizational coach Anne-Marie Marron defines the terms of boundary management and delineates between internal and external boundaries. Elizabeth Earnshaw, licensed marriage and family therapist, examines examples of boundary needs and offers guidelines for accessing our inner voice to create the changes we want. And Tom Karl, founder and CEO of the evidence-based self-help site R1 Learning—an organization inspired by personal Tom’s background with addiction—addresses our underlying belief about our self-worth and the role of boundaries in our relationships. Regardless of the authors’ differing backgrounds, the varied resource agree in union that boundaries begin with self-awareness and are the rightful expression of self-care.

But boundaries aren’t one-off, one-size-fits-all. They need intelligent application and on-going upkeep. At its most basic level, a boundary represents an either-or dichotomy: an entrance or an exit: embrace or release.

While it’s possible for us to be overly permissive with our boundaries, saying yes so often that we fall into a sacrificial well of martyrdom, we can also be overly rigid with our boundaries, saying no so often that we erect a calloused wall of disenthrallment. Idling into either extreme can be equally toxic. Unlike the realm of mathematics, where equations can be resolved with certainty, cultivating balance in one’s life is an ever evolving process—it’s not a condition that we can attain conclusively. 

Indian spiritual leader Sadhguru reminds us that moving on from life’s challenges is not about forgetting the bad things that happen to us in order to appease moral principle. With that said, we must discern the differences between living in our memory versus living in the present experience. Why do we choose to suffer what no longer exists? After we have been hurt, we are confronted by a decision between carrying on wise or wounded. Is it not wiser to use our intellect for us rather than against us? 

In self-help circles, there’s a buzz phrase about merely “letting go” of the parts of our life that are no longer serving us. In light of such platitudes, Sadhguru cautions against letting go of our intelligence for the illusion of enlightenment. To surrender the very instrument that empowers us would be not only foolish but self-destructive. If we are seeking solutions rather than solace, then whatever issue we are addressing must be managed from within ourselves with conscious awareness.

At the end of the day, as indifferent—and sometimes even hostile—as the world may appear, the responses we receive are rarely personal. We are wise to appreciate the programming behind our ignorance and pain. After we have cleared space in our minds and hearts to bring our presence to the present, then we can press on with awareness and grace. If discernment is the compass, integrity is the map. Each step of our journey falls always on our side.

(The featured image is used by courtesy of Tetyana Kovyrina on Pexels.)

Winter 2023 Blog Update (Part 2 of 6) ~ Reflections About Living Abroad

In November 2019, I moved from the U.S.—in San Diego, California—to Spain in order to teach English as a foreign language. I worked for two years as a cultural and language assistant in Murcia—in the southern heart of Spain—while surviving primarily off of a government living stipend. After relocating to the U.S. in September 2021, I want to take a moment to reflect upon my experiences of living in a foreign country.

Several months after I arrived, the COVID-19 pandemic struck the world and eventually reached Spain. Despite the unfortunate global crisis, I decided to remain in Spain and make the best of it.

Traveling internationally takes courage, not to mention patience, persistence, and humility. Living abroad is certainly not the same as vacationing abroad. If that sounds like an overstatement, it’s hard to convey how revolutionary an active encounter with a foreign culture can be. If one approaches the experience with an open mind and heart, the influences of travel may linger long after one returns home: challenging one’s life preconceptions while inspiring a greater awareness of oneself and the wider world.

If you haven’t yet crossed a border into a different culture, The Portable Wife offers a generous sampling of quotes about traveling that might—hopefully—inspire you to apply for your first passport. Reflecting my experiences in Spain, the following quotes illustrate the intricate dance between risk and reward, confrontation and celebration, that colors the spirit of a traveler.

“Splendid to arrive alone in a foreign country and feel the assault of difference. Here they are all along, busy with living; they don’t talk or look like me. The rhythm of their day is entirely different; I am foreign.”

—Frances Mayes

What I found appealing in life abroad was the inevitable sense of helplessness it would inspire. Equally exciting would be the work involved in overcoming that helplessness.

—David Sedaris

If I’m an advocate for anything, it’s to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. Walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food. It’s a plus for everybody.

—Anthony Bourdain

When it comes to crossing a body of water to walk in someone else’s shoes, I owe a debt of gratitude to travel documentarian Anthony Bourdain who embodied such active curiosity and compassion in his world-wide adventures. In my own humble way, I endeavored to channel Bourdain’s spirit during my two years in Spain. As I wrote about in my winter 2021 blog update, I remain privileged to have indulged my culinary curiosity, visited such beautiful places, and met so many wonderful people. But while the majority of my expat teacher colleagues were charmed by Spanish culture, many of them looking for a way to live in Spain permanently, my experiences, in contrast, were different. 

To start with, weathering Spain’s administrative processes thoroughly taxed my prized patience. In contrast to the easy-going nature of daily Spanish culture, I experienced Spanish bureaucracy, at times, as calloused and temperamental.

In 2021 I made six trips to the local immigration office to renew my Spanish visa. Each time I received inconsistent instructions from different staff about which documents and taxes were required. After paying the wrong tax initially, my request for a reimbursement was rejected due to failing to file the proper paperwork.

Before I decided to return to the U.S., I also had problems re-applying for a third year in the English teaching program in Spain. After submitting my teaching application online, I was informed that I had checked a wrong option within the application system, an error that couldn’t simply be amended, thus requiring that I repeat the entire process anew. 

Dangerous conjecture alert! I can’t help wondering if the bureaucratic undertow systemic to 21st-century Spain may be a carryover from the nation’s former glory days as a reigning world sea power. Perhaps the battle-ready swords brandished by the Spanish armada in the 16th century have been buried under mountains of administrative paperwork: the hunger for new global conquests replaced by the zealous control of its own governmental functions. 

My questionable humor excused, when I wasn’t wrapped up in administrative red tape, I tangled with Spanish culture in other ways. Although the people I encountered in Spain certainly face their own struggles, in my experiences, their carefree lifestyle—for better and worse—seems to be carefully programmed for dissolving all obstacles to immersion with the present moment. The trouble is that sometimes people differ about how to live in the present. And sometimes our differences become the source of our conflicts. As the Frances Mayes and David Sedaris quotes from above relate so movingly, the challenge then is adapting to the resulting sense of helplessness that the assault of differences inspire.

Living in a foreign country is a stimulating reminder that we are all influenced by differing personal and national histories. Our histories program us to identify with particular behaviors and beliefs, preferences and priorities. We further identify ourselves by our attachment to cultural and psychological narratives, only some of which we are conscious of and have chosen. By nature we tend to take our programming for granted, if we’re aware of it at all, until certain experiences—like trekking through Northern Spain with strangers during a global pandemic; like waiting in the immigration line a sixth time to reconcile missing paperwork—shock us into a deeper state of self-awareness.

Fortunately, there are tools other than traveling abroad that can provide us insight into who we are as people and, perhaps, why we are the way we are. Character assessment tests, for example, help measure how we interpret the world, including how the particular patterning of our thoughts, emotions, and motivations influences our interactions with the environment. Out of all the existing personality systems, I’m particularly fond of the Enneagram. The American Journal of Psychiatry defines the Enneagram as, “… a personality theory describing nine strategies by which the psyche develops a worldview and relates to self and others. Each of the nine “types” has a basic fear, basic desire, and predictable behavior pattern in times of stress and security—all of which shape motivations underlying behavior.” 

Within the Enneagram, the nine character types each have their own strengths and weaknesses, perspective values and oversights. No character type is better or worse than any other; each type grows by learning to develop the potentials unique to its range within the character spectrum while also exploring the potentials unique to other types. This strategic growth process persists, unresolved, throughout our lifetime.

Although it’s highly inadvisable to characterize a national culture as a whole, I believe Spain’s worldview and coping strategies share many qualities common to an Enneagram Type Seven character type. The Enneagram Institute describes Sevens as Enthusiasts, the busy, fun-loving type: “Sevens are extroverted, optimistic, versatile, and spontaneous. Playful, high-spirited, and practical, they can also misapply their many talents, becoming over-extended, scattered, and undisciplined. They constantly seek new and exciting experiences, but can become distracted and exhausted by staying on the go.” 

In contrast to Spain’s party-centric, easy-going nature, I share many qualities common to an Enneagram Type One character type. The Enneagram Institute defines Ones as Reformers, the rational, idealistic type: “Ones are conscientious and ethical, with a strong sense of right and wrong. They are teachers, crusaders, and advocates for change: always striving to improve things, but afraid of making a mistake. Well-organized, orderly, and fastidious, they try to maintain high standards, but can slip into being critical and perfectionistic.” 

In order to balance the energy I exert in pursuit of my ambitions, home has long been important to me as a cherished space for rest and recovery. During the nearly two years I spent in Spain, I lived in six different apartments, averaging one new place per season. I can’t help feeling that the record of my living arrangements reads like a cheeky outtake from a Charles Dickens dramedy. 

I arranged my first living situation before I arrived in Spain; however, my naivete enmeshed me in a sort of indentured servitude to my host family. The mutual arrangement involved a barter: I would provide various household support for free rent. Yet it ended quickly with a disagreement about the terms of our agreement. 

After that initial misjudgment, I avoided prostrating myself to the rule of unwritten contracts, but I had recurring problems finding a peaceful place to live.

My second apartment was wonderful, except my roommate had a daughter, God bless her, with a rare genetic disorder involving uncontrolled bouts of screaming. 

My third apartment was sandwiched between a parking garage below the apartment that was busy by day and an upstairs neighbor who marched restlessly around in her apartment at night—each stiletto-heeled footstep a cold, hard slap on the marble-floored hallway above me. 

My fourth apartment involved living with a young Spanish doctor who worked night shifts along with a party-loving Italian doctoral student who loved to drink and womanize. Additionally, I had neighbors above who hosted loud social events most evenings. 

My fifth apartment featured a rambunctious party-loving family on the attic floor above me who drank and smoked themselves into a stupor routinely after work. Then there was a British next-door neighbor, poor guy, who spent his waking hours in various states of respiratory distress. 

And my sixth apartment was quite ideal on the surface, I lived in an artists’ community on the rural outskirts of the city. However, I struggled, initially, with an unemployed Moroccan roommate who smoked defiantly inside her bedroom; her second-hand smoke traveled through the ceiling between our adjoining wall, leaving various organs of mine burning, throbbing, or dripping throughout the week.

Every time I moved, I had an opportunity to exercise flexibility of spirit along with faith that something better would come along. The struggle, of course, is addressing one’s struggles in the present tense when they loom overhead like a fatal bird of prey. In response, throughout my life, I’ve sometimes dressed my hardships with a compound of stubborn grit and defensive skepticism. But a healthy perspective sets the foundation for a healthy transformation. It’s thanks to my struggles, and not in spite of them, that Spain served me so well as a stage for self-exploration.

As a whole, I believe that Spanish culture is distinguished by its laidback passion. I found Spain to be a country where a soft hedonism rivals the rigors and rituals of Catholicism. In the agricultural region of Murcia, where I lived for nearly two years, there are more lemon trees than weeds. People walk slowly, talk loudly, and eat, drink, and smoke with great frequency.

In Murcia, locals throw around one phrase frequently, no pasa nada, which they conjure like a spell of protection when facing anything that threatens to derail one’s momentum. In practice, the phrase seems to suggest a casually dismissive meaning: don’t worry about it, it’s not a problem. But translated literally, the phrase glitters quite differently, meaning nothing happens, a carefree attitude dismissing actionability: you carry on with your life, and I with mine. (After my initial resistance, I eventually gained a certain respect for this outlook—depending on whether I was on the giving or receiving side of its expression.) 

In Murcia, elderly women shuffle down the street cradling loaves of bread like national treasures. If you get in their way, you may be bludgeoned by a bread crust the size of one’s shin bone. Look out!

In Murcia, grizzled men puff cigarettes idly on sidewalks, speaking with gravelly voices finely tuned by years of tobacco devotion. Rather amusingly, the lead protagonists in English movies imported to Spain are often dubbed using the voices of these alpha males. If you’re ever visiting Spain, check out their version of Singing in the Rain. It’s bizarre.

When not dodging human obstacles in public, I spent the early 2021s nursing a painful knee condition. A freak sporting accident from a decade ago created a meniscus tear that had slowly degenerated over the years. My first encounter with a Spanish physician was a frustration for us both; the man had little patience for my half-articulated questions, my dense cloud of Spanglish eventually leading to an equally dense cloud of cursing from the doctor who briskly escorted me out of his office and into the care of the surgical ward admin. 

Even though I had concerns about the dependability of the system supporting me—case in point: hospital staff would sometimes leave their phones off the hook in order to avoid answering them—I decided to move forward with my much-needed surgical operation in April 2021. Despite my challenged experiences, I’ve been able to recover steadily since my surgery and I’m grateful for the healthcare system that financed my operation. One year after my surgery, my knee continues to show signs of healing.

After living abroad for nearly two years, in light of a global pandemic still raging in 2023, and all of the uncertainty that has normalized in our lives, it’s time to lay to rest my travel muse, for now, while I pursue new personal and professional developments. Yet I returned to the U.S. with mixed feelings. While I returned as a proud U.S. citizen, I also returned with some heated critiques.

I remain critical of the rampant consumerism within U.S. culture. In the U.S., people have grown accustomed to collecting personal belongings with compulsion, if not abandon. We accumulate. Even homeless people lug around shopping carts teeming with their precious cargo. In contrast, people collect experiences in Spain: intangible, fleeting moments that exist only when shared with—and between—people. 

I also remain critical of the divisiveness of the political landscape within U.S. culture. The collective culture is heavy with warring ideologies competing for our allegiance. There is no issue too small to tear families and friendships apart. If you attend a social gathering where some variety of opinions is present, notice the table talk: It will take more than a magic show to clear the air after a deep-dive into controversial topics ranging from vaccinations to gun control. In contrast, disputes in Spain could always be resolved with a little humor and, more than a little, food and drink. 

I’d like to believe that no individual or nation, no culture or philosophy, is untouched by vulnerability and virtue. I tend to think that our angels are wedded to our demons—except our demons are often misused or misunderstood angels. We are equal in design. We are equal, though we hardly recall it.

However we negotiate the divide between what we are by influence of nature versus nature, there are some things in life that can (and should) be changed; there are other things that can (and should) be accepted. It is wise to discern the range and role of our agency. Whoever and wherever we are, how we care to live is vitalized by how we express our attention. John Tarrant, director of the Pacific Zen Institute, instructs us about the life-giving power of attentiveness: “Attention is the most basic form of love. Through it we bless and are blessed.” With attention, life is nourished and sustained; without it: life dwindles in decay.

Life will go on with or without us. In the here-and-now journey of the everyday, no passports are needed. We are all visitors invited to delight in this trembling moment together.

(The featured image is a photo of the painting English Ships and the Spanish Armada, August 1588 by an anonymous 16th century painter. The image exists in the public domain by courtesy of Wikimedia.)

Winter 2023 Blog Update (Part 1 of 6) ~ Updates & Recent News

Greetings, visitor. It’s been over a year since my last full update and now (*sighs*) it’s time to say goodbye. 

Although I don’t yet plan to shut down my website, this is a formal laying to rest of my grand blogging intentions. Since I began my website during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, my blog activity has been sparse and sporadic. There’s a good reason for that: Life is short. 

In general, sustaining a website—or any internet presence with half a pulse—requires active commitment. When it comes to the relational nature of internet content, like anything else in life, it’s far easier to consume than create it. Unfortunately, in today’s fast-driven, information-saturated marketplace, we are simultaneously drowning in content, yet oblivious to its value.

During my recent entry into blogging, it became increasingly clear to me that over the last seven years, I’ve spent an enormous amount of time and energy supporting the work of other people at the expense of supporting my own essential needs. 

Prior to the work I’ve done for my blog, my freelance writing projects focused exclusively on promoting worthy communities that I cared about: non-mainstream artists; small, local businesses; and even humanitarian causes. I often worked for free or cheap, content to hone my craft of writing while sharing my work with an audience. 

For the first time, my website gave me full permission to explore my personal life and work as the main focus of attention. However, despite the change in subject matter, I still found myself subject to the same domestic tyrant: a people-pleasing perfectionism that has outgrown its welcome. 

As I enter my 40s, it’s time to take a break. It’s time to make some changes. How this process is managed begins and ends with me.

At this point in my life, optimism can feel forced or faked in the wake of repeated setbacks. However, we are not born into minds and bodies that desire to afflict us. Hope remains essential for carrying on with grace and dignity. Without hope, we complicate life by succumbing to counterproductive mindsets and lifestyles. 

When the world appears to be more complicated, we must approach it with greater simplicity. One way we can promote simplicity within our lives and within the world is by taking better care of ourselves. Paul Conti traces this issue to its roots on the Good Life Project, “Good mental health is always consistent with simplicity and simple principles. Once they become too complicated, we’re straying away from good mental health.” 

Straying too far from simple principles can leave us lost and exhausted. While I exit a decade of my life, I find myself wading through a midlife transition, peering through bruised clouds for signs of providence. And yet, there’s a paradox to being lost: Directed by our self-preservation instinct, we tend to look for familiar things in unfamiliar places; instead, when we are lost, we must surrender our attachment to security, accepting that only the unknown can now lead us home.

As someone who has spent a lifetime searching for security, perhaps I’ve grown dependent upon decoys in the world to mask feelings of personal insufficiency. In hindsight, I’ve long hounded mirages of self-inflicted ambition, striving tirelessly to convert my fleeting self-esteem into abiding self-worth

Presently humbled, I confess that my well-being is worth more than my worldly success. I’m ready to brave the awareness that our self-transcending state of wholeness—or oneness (or whatever lens expresses one’s higher or deeper being)—isn’t a willed condition that can be bartered by our deeds. No amount of crystal rubbing will balance life’s equation for us. Our belongingness to the cosmos within and beyond our flesh is unconditional, embedded in the very core of our authentic being. We accept our given nature through the simple truth of being alive.

I’ll say it at the beginning, and I’ll repeat it at the ending: We are a pulsing consciousness: now here, for now, on visit.

Before I am a creator of any medium, a scholar and outdoorsman, a brother and son, a friend and citizen…simply put, the sum of any demographics: I am a human being. I require no credentials. I meet all qualifications. And the same can be said about you, dear visitor. Please remind yourself of who you are. Then live according to your guiding values—moment by moment—again and again. 

It seems to me that being an awakened human being, first and foremost, involves cultivating a whole-hearted appreciation of our shared humanity. We exist in existential transit between states of arrival and departure, charged as an irreplaceable gift from and to the present. While we are awake, we are called to make it something joyous.

For now, I’d rather be cat-satisfied with the little joys that saturate daily life. The wily cat within me prefers to scrounge for scraps in the back alley; lacerate a ball of yarn into tatters; lounge on a windowsill conversing with birds; then groom itself silly before curling into sleep. In short, I’m ready to come and go of my own free will. And why shouldn’t I? Life is a limited edition experience. I intend to steward mine more wisely.

As I rise to the calling, I’m ready to drift in shape and direction in search of greater clarity, balance, and peace. In honor of my whole-hearted being, I wish to spend more time resting; enjoying the company of friends and family; and getting back into working on my own creative—offline—projects. 

Regarding my plans for this website, I still intend to share a few stray projects before my indefinite hiatus: an article about my first Camino de Santiago trekking trip through Northern Spain; a music-themed retrospective article about my life during the 2010s; and lastly, a street photography collection I captured during the two years I lived in Spain. 

Eventually, in the more distant future, I will consolidate the rest of my freelance writing portfolio, photography, and music in one centralized place on this website. When I am better grounded, and can return to acts of service in moderation, I may, possibly, host my themed multimedia blog curating the work of others. 

Meanwhile, considering that many of my online projects thus far have fallen short of my projected timelines, consider my Fall 2020 Blog Update, it’s safest to say that whatever I do from now on will happen whenever it happens…or not at all. If you’ve enjoyed any of my work so far, consider following me on social media—Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram—to help me bring future content directly to you. 

But pause right there. In the crazed Information Age of the 21st century, when so much of our lives now take place online in negotiation with interactive networks, we are often commanded by friends and strangers alike with a common refrain to like, share, and subscribe to their content. In contrast to this cultural undertow, I request your consideration: Before you invest your attention in me, or anyone else for that matter, first confirm whether you’re truly engaged with someone who’s far more fundamental in your life: 



This line of questioning can feel elusive, splitting the center of our being like an abandoned mineshaft. How often do we overlook the goldmine within us for the sake of the cheap glitter that sparkles on the sidelines? 

The landscapes within which we roam, in planes both physical and digital, include encounters with people who have motives of their own. Some encounters appear to be friendly and beneficial; some are more toxic and problematic. It’s all the more critical, therefore, to consider where we place our attention. 

It’s easy to fall prey to the politicized drone of media anchors. When we aren’t being divided by polarizing news, we are being tantalized by advertisers selling us things we don’t need. And who hasn’t been tempted to lose themselves in social media fantasylands of their own creation? Distractions. All distractions. None of it sustains us. None of it truly has our best interests at heart. 

Instead of turning outward for fulfillment—arousing our dopamine-jacked impulse for more: more content to collect; more acceptance to earn—we are invited, at any moment, to turn inward: to return home. 

We are all born with a guiding voice within us that speaks a language that only we can decipher. Sometimes the truths it speaks are inconvenient or perplexing. Throughout our lives, we may be led to ignore our guide, favoring, instead, larger, louder, more charismatic voices outside of ourselves for help. The trouble is, after much neglect, our faithful guide eventually shrinks away, turning to quieter, simpler corners of the cosmos with which to commune.

The winding path through self-development can appear daunting. There will always be challenges—many of them—in our way. The maps we inherit to help guide our lives are often flawed or incomplete; and where they appear intact, they still require discernment to interpret. Fortunately, we don’t all have to join a secluded mountain monastery to find genuine truth we can live by. If a soul is a story in motion, then every path forward is marked by a testimony of heartbeats. 

Again, dear visitor, thank you for your interest as this site is developed—slowly—over the years to come. May the years ahead bring you the blessings you most desire, but, most importantly, may they bring you those that you most need to grow—now and beyond.

(The featured image is used by courtesy of Tara Winstead on Pexels.)

Farewell, 2021: Happy Holidays!

Greetings, visitor!

It’s been a long year and there’s so much to share. Until I have a chance for a full update next year, here’s a brief jingle like a dash of nutmeg on Christmas eggnog.

Where do I begin?

Although I can’t claim the Grammy-winning yoni of 2021, congrats to CardiB for WAP!, I sure have a lot to be grateful for. My adventures abroad as an American expat may be over for now, but after living in Spain for the last two years, I can humbly claim numerous gifts of beauty and friendship from afar. And these awards of profound human experiences remain.

I returned to the United States in September, leaving Spain where I taught English as a foreign language. Spain was quite an adventure during a global pandemic, of which I will speak more about next year, profoundly memorable in so many ways.

I made some heart-warming new friends.

I ate some delicious food.

And I saw some stunning works of art, both natural and man-made.

Although I appreciate my time in Spain, as the global pandemic continues, I’m happy now to return to friends and family in the United States, easing back into a more stationary career on this side of the Pacific Ocean.

With a little luck and a lot of patience and perseverance, 2022 should be quite a productive year for this website. Meanwhile, I invite you to connect with me on one of your favorite social media platforms to follow this site’s development.

Until we meet again next year, you can find me on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

Happy holidays!

Fall 2020 Blog Update (Part 7 of 7) ~ What Comes Next: 2020, 2021, & 2022 [Revised]

Declaring one’s intentions can be risky. If public announcements don’t fall prey to hollow chest-thumping, they can feel restrictive, like binding contracts incapable of being changed.


And yet I’m willing to accept these risks. I know that sharing my plans can offer some direction for this site’s development. So, think of this as a provisional roadmap.

Grab a map below. Dog-ear what interests you. And plan your visits accordingly.

Editor’s Note: As of January 30, two months after this article’s publication, it’s clear that all projected projects for 2020 have been delayed. I’ve canceled the 2020 year-end podcast review and postponed several 2021 projects until 2022, including my street photography exhibit, the Discharge journal series, and the periodic music series based around non-genre-specific themes.

A Map for the Rest of 2020

First up is a long-form article I wrote earlier in the year about some of my personal and professional experiences during the 2010s, Heavy Words: Todd B. Gruel’s 2010s Reflections on a Life of Service to the Arts. The retrospective article is structured around a self-reflective narrative inspired by music albums released from each year of the decade.

Next up is an annual end-of-year review series dedicated to honoring some of my favorite music releases from each year. The lists will be structured within some fun, I hope, non-genre-specific categories that I created. In a twist to the intended norm for this series, this year’s list will feature music from the 2010s as a supplement to my 2010s retrospective article.

One of the more ambitious projects of the year is a multimedia blog series about a hiking trip to Camino de Santiago that I took during summer 2020. Even though this series is a bit delayed, and I can’t boast of hiking the entire Camino Frances route, I believe that it’s still worth commemorating that experience.

A Map for 2021

My goal for 2021 is to establish greater regularity with this website, posting on a monthly basis, ideally on the last Sunday of each month.

I’ll likely start the year by sharing my published articles. Over the past few years, I’ve had the opportunity to publish my writing in a variety of online publications. Much of my writing focuses on the arts, especially underground music. But some of my work has broader appeal, including a blog about the farm-to-table movement. Whether you find new music to listen to or a writing phrase to chew on, I’m content to showcase how one’s relationship with any discipline is developed over time with care and dedication. As always, if I can do it, you can, too.

One of the site’s wildcards is an episodic blog series promoting socially and politically conscious music from around the world. Unlike the rest of the original content that I publish on this blog, this series will be exclusively written by visitors of this site. Yes, that means you; feel free to invite your friends, neighbors, boss, even grandma. My purpose is to provide a platform for non-professional writers who have something to say about music that helps us better understand our roles as citizens of the world and stewards of the planet.

Finally, to balance the more curatorial nature of this site with something more personal, I plan on writing quarterly updates about meaningful goings-on within my life. These updates will assess the current challenges that I face along with lessons that I learn along the way. They will feature a section collecting quotes from podcasts, books, and films that engaged me during each season. I’ll reflect upon the relevance of these ideas for myself in a way that may also be helpful for others.

A Map for 2022

After I purge my reserves in 2021, I should be ready to boot up my multimedia blog, tentatively titled, Curious, The Blog, by 2022. Unlike the main blog on my site, which focuses more on my own work, this one will exclusively curate the work of others, covering subjects from astronomy to zoology, mixing literary quotes with microscopy photos, yoga videos with heavy metal documentaries. More than any other project, this blog will express the beating heart of both this website and my worldview, offering a reason for embracing the world, in face of all of its complexity and diversity, with an abounding sense of compassion and wonder.

Next up, I’d like to share some of my recent photography. Since I retired my analog camera and I’ve yet to commit to purchasing a new digital camera, I’ve been using my iPhone to shoot street photos during my first year in Spain. Working on this project has helped me appreciate how the sequencing of still images can simulate a moving image narrative similar to cinema.

I may publish a monthly series, titled Discharge, based upon my journal entries _____

I may also publish a periodic series of music lists structured by non-genre-specific categories that I created: 1) Shhh, Quiet Please!—ambient music that draws us nearer to the realm of the sacred in an increasingly commercialized world; 2) Curious and Curiouser—conceptual music that asks bold questions of art and humanity; and 3) Fuzzy Grooves—rhythmic music that makes us dance or at least sway in our chairs. 

Once again, thank you for your patience. Thank you for your interest. Thank you for visiting.

Photo taken from Public Domain Pictures.

Fall 2020 Blog Update (Part 6 of 7) ~ Lessons Learned: Conviction

After moaning for weeks about the touchy elevator in my new apartment, I eventually accepted that maybe the elevator wasn’t malfunctioning. Or, rather, if it was, it wasn’t in greater need of maintenance than my own expectations.

Granted, many of the technologies I find in Spain are either currently broken, were recently broken, or are fated to be broken soon. Over the past year, I’ve found that Spanish culture excels at living carnally in the present: food, drink, and fun, there’s a reason why fiesta rhymes with siesta in Spanish. In contrast, Spanish culture seems much less disciplined when expressing its passion for life through bureacratic systems.

And yet, to borrow a five-fingered slogan from the tie-dyed bongo drummers of the world, it is what it is. However dysfunctional the elevator may be, it is ultimately my approach to using that is inadequate. As frustrating as it may be, I can’t rely upon anyone else to fix the issue. I have to account for my own response to this reality, taking the initiative to adapt to my environment.

In my apartment, it’s not enough to press the elevator call button casually and walk away [as seen, perhaps, in the video below]. What’s required is a special touch: one must press the button firmly, hold the button depressed, and then wait for the sleeping machine to respond.

This struck me as a fitting analogy about managing life’s relationships. Whether we’re framing our connection with ideals, goals, projects, or people in our life, the essence of how we should conduct ourselves remains the same:

1) Be firm in action
2) Be committed to follow-through
3) Wait for a response from the world

I submit the above rule as a working model of conviction.

Fall 2020 Blog Update (Part 5 of 7) ~ Current Challenges: Applying Energy Management

At the sagging end of 2020, I’ve begun to appreciate energy management more practically: merging the pursuits of mysticism with science, it’s not a philosophy that can exist apart from a practice.

Despite the challenges that arose during an extended COVID-19 quarantine, I have managed to stumble forward in some ways. While confined indoors, I began a daily routine of calisthenics and meditation. More than anything else, meditation has helped nurture a non-intellectual side of my being, creating a space for stillness and silence in my life.

That’s far from saying that I’ve found any mastery in the approach to tending to my daily needs. Any sense of balance has been fleeting. Peace, a daydream. As much as my new practices have helped me, I remain a recovering perfectionist with a self-imploding work ethic.

At the beginning of the year, my glut of free time during the COVID-19 quarantine was a rush. I took pride in inking my ambitions on paper [as pictured below], carefully managing projects according to priorities, workflows, and thematic content. To keep me on task, I diligently tracked my progress along the way.

Trouble is, my initial enthusiasm was short-lived. In hot pursuit of a swarm of goals, I found myself urgently scrambling from one project to another, tirelessly striving for the satisfaction, or at least relief, that comes from reaching the next achievement. However, with little rest, reflection, or joy along the way, I burned out quickly. It turns out that one’s energy is a limited resource as precious as one’s time.

Quite frankly, at this point in the year, it feels like I’ve wandered deep into a forest without a guide. I’ve been hoodwinked by the trap of conditional fulfillment. My tangle of to-do lists now appears less like a ladder to higher ground than an ensnaring net.

Struggling to find a path through this thorny issue, I recently called upon a friend for feedback. With a background in middle management and an appreciation for systems thinking, my friend explained energy management as an approach to guiding the momentum of one’s life. I like how his view focuses on directing what’s already in motion. When in doubt, my friend encourages, do what compels you. Appreciate the mystery.

As someone who deeply appreciates life’s mysteries, the celebrated Indian author, mystic, and guru Sadhguru has his own inspiring view about energy management. In his Columbia University talk, Youth and Truth, he addresses the urgency of harnessing life’s most precious resources, offering insight that is as profound as it is simple:

“Life is just a combination of time and energy, isn’t it? Limited amount of time. Limited amount of energy. If you run into walls here and there, time and energy will go and your life will go. It’s very important you run through the door, not through the wall. Yes? Where there is openness, there you go.”


Fall 2020 Blog Update (Part 4 of 7) ~ Current Challenges: Understanding Energy Management

At first glance, my greatest challenge during 2020 appeared to be time management: What should I do with so much free time?

Not only did I have the standard summer break for people working in the teaching field, I had an additional two months off after being inactivated from my normal work duties due to COVID-19. This break seemed exactly like the gold mine I’d been dreaming of for years. If only I had the time…

Upon closer inspection, the ongoing challenge lies less with time management than energy management.

But what in God’s name is energy?

For some people, energy involves polishing oversized crystals or shuffling Tarot cards while rambling on about auras. It’s often experienced as an intuited feeling accompanied by a belief in a metaphysical force that can help guide our lives.

For others, energy is a property of matter, something that must be calculated to be understood. As defined by Brittanica, “Energy, in physics, is the capacity for doing work.” And as Wikipedia reminds us, echoing my high school science class, “Energy is a conserved quantity; the law of conservation of energy states that energy can be converted in form, but not created or destroyed.”

For me, I currently grasp the concept of energy as an enigma, something equally practical and profound. If pressed to the task of defining it, I’d puzzle it as follows. (Warning: brace for heavy riffing.)

If time is as a trans-existent void within which space emerges—the former being the-formless-what-is within which the latter, all-that-is-to-be, persists in coming forth—then matter is the visible embodiment of energy. Okay, something like that. 

Problem solved?

Not quite. This sort of heavy riffing seems like a delightful solution by evening. But it’s of little use in resolving my daily needs the following day.

In moving forward, the pressing issue remains: How can I better manage my potential for doing meaningful work to support the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being of myself and also, possibly, hopefully, of the world?

Fall 2020 Blog Update (Part 3 of 7) ~ What I’ve Been Up To

During the COVID-19 quarantine in 2020, I had plenty of free time for projects that had long been shelved due to lack of time.

This website was one of them. And yet after building it, I was not yet ready for the commitment of publishing regular content. Instead I was quickly consumed by other projects.

I spent the first four months of the year writing two articles—one ambitious retrospective article about my personal and professional life during the 2010s, including my relationship with the arts; and one career-spanning interview in celebration of the 80th birthday of an avant-garde musician who I’ve long admired, Keith Rowe.

After completing the second article of the year, I was burned out. I had approached both projects with great reservation. Due to working so intensely with the written word for five years, I had finally reached my personal limits—mentally, emotionally, and physically. Yet I pushed forward, as I tend to do, out of stubborn determination to strike off another project from my endless to-do list.

So, I figured, enough of serious, long-form writing. Why not switch up the medium for a change of pace.

I first spent six weeks editing a video for my friend’s bachelor party. It took me two years after my friend’s wedding to muster up the time for this project. I’m a man of my word, perhaps to a fault.

On a roll, I then taught myself the fundamentals of the motion graphics application Motion. I spent several weeks crawling through an online forum for technical support, fussing over this recreational project about a self-help workshop that I founded and still facilitate with some friends.

Unfortunately—surprise, surprise—my change of medium was not enough to sidestep or soften my excruciating work ethic. At this point in the year, I desperately needed an outlet that was less tedious and analytical. It was time for some simple fun: no laboring over unpaid words; no fussing over new software.

After taking a six-year break from music making to focus on writing, I felt compelled to buy a classical guitar, eager to start fingerpicking again. The audio sketches I made over summer give me some hope that there will be a new guitar-based album…eventually.

Meanwhile, feeling restless after a prolonged quarantine and burned out from my tireless to-do list, I decided on a whim to take a trip before the school year began. In early spring, with minimal planning, I headed to Barcelona with a friend for several days, then I left on my own to hike a northern route on the Camino de Santiago, a historical network of pilgrims’ routes that lead to the shrine of the apostle Saint James the Great in Northwestern Spain, for two weeks. The 12-day hike through northern Spain was a rejuvenating experience, creating space in my life to appreciate the solace of nature and joy of new friendships. The trip remains memorable enough that I plan on blogging about it soon.

I stand proudly in the back row with a bucket hat and a lopsided grin, celebrating the end of a long journey with the new family that I made during my 12-day hike through northern Spain from Leon to Santiago de Compostela. Photo by unknown passer-by.