Further Comments on Happiness

Drawing in part on some of the points made in Sara Ahmed’s book The Promise of Happiness, which I just reviewed in the last post, as well as current events there are a few more points about the topic of happiness I wish to touch upon.

Self-help books are full of advice about attaining “happiness” but many of them don’t define what they mean by “happiness”.

What does “happiness” even mean in common parlance? Ask a dozen people and you’ll get a dozen answers. Words like blissful, relaxed, stress-free, joyful, carefree, comfortable, ecstatic and peaceful would possibly be used. The problem with these is they don’t really refer to anything. They have no relation to one’s context. They are states of being that seem to be achievable in isolation or that is the way they come across in these books and other media. 

The thing is we don’t live in isolation. We live in an incredibly complex matrix of circumstances, environment, history and relationships. We are wholly dependent upon this matrix for our very survival and are wholly interdependent with it.

The happiness in isolation prescription we are so often offered is at best a placebo. At worst it is a lie.

I can think of at least 10 things I’d want before I would choose that kind of vague “happiness”. Here’s some of them:

  • challenged
  • inspired
  • ethical
  • focused
  • creating
  • aware
  • empathetic
  • insightful
  • doing meaningful work
  • having meaningful friendships and relationships

These are just random off the top of my head. If I were to make up some of those false dichotomous choices, “Would you rather be _____ or happy?” with the blank filled in by one of the above, I’d choose any one of the above and probably about 20 other things first.

In case I haven’t explained myself adequately here’s something further. Happy in relation to what? If you look at the list I provided at the top there’s relation explicitly obvious or implicitly implied in each one of them. This is what I mean:

  • challenged [by something]
  • inspired [by something]
  • ethical [ethics is only an issue when it comes to relationship]
  • focused [on something]
  • creating [something]
  • aware [of something, be that environment or whatever]
  • empathetic [only comes up in relationship]
  • insightful [into something]
  • doing meaningful work [work by its nature involves relations of some sort]

These all underscore the relational nature of our existence. One could, I suppose, turn all this inward, but one might become so self-involved the ability to even function in society would possibly be compromised.

Chati Coronel wrote this on Twitter a while back:

nothing marks your territory. you don’t end with skin

This kind of isolated state of “happiness” that is so often offered as some kind of panacea to the ills of the world is blatantly anti-realist. That is to say it is delusional.

Happiness as an industry may be at its zenith in the United States. Though it is increasingly being sold elsewhere as well. Those who don’t take to this sale may be labeled “happiness averse”. That’s a complicated and loaded term. It presupposes happiness is a principle goal and that it is something to be highly valued, maybe even the highest value or goal. “Happiness aversion” is not the same as depression or somberness although that implication is also conveyed. That is to be expected from the Western psychological framework which presently does seem to be drunk on it’s own positivity kool-aid.

There are purported differences between cultures on what kind of emotional goals and environment are preferable. In the article Why Happiness Scares Us the author writes:

Aversion to happiness exists across cultures, especially those that value harmony and conformity over individualism, recent research suggests. The findings challenge the Western assumption that everyone is aiming for a life full of unremitting joy. …

Comparing happiness between cultures runs into the problem of how different people define the emotion. …

Some cultures think of happiness as a loss of control — fun, but destructive, like being drunk, Weijers said. Others believe extreme highs must be followed by extreme lows, as revealed by proverbs from many nations. In Iran, people say that "laughing loudly wakes up sadness." In China, a cheerful person might be warned, "Extreme happiness begets tragedy." In English-speaking nations, you might hear, "What goes up, must come down."

Islamic cultures value sadness over happiness, Weijers said, because sad people are seen as serious and connected to God. Artists might fear that soothing their emotional torment will destroy their creativity (and, indeed, creativity has been scientifically linked to mental illness). Activists might see happiness as complacency and seek to rouse anger, instead.

I dislike the phrasing "conformist" with regard to culture though. It is the article writer that uses it while the quotes from study authors use "collectivist" instead which I think is more accurate. "Conformist" denotes a certain authoritarianism (either by hierarchy or social pressure-one could easily say the same about hyper-individualist cultures in terms of influence as well) which I don’t think is necessarily correct in these circumstances.

Some of the characterizations of cultures here suffer from the same problems that the “Culture and Personality” theoretical trend in anthropology did. The idea of “national character” or particular traits belonging to people with particular genetic configurations leads not only to stereotyping but the kind of reductionist viewpoint that underlies a lot of racism. It comes down to phrases like “They’re all like that” or “Have you heard this Polish/German/blond/Jewish/Arab/African joke?” relying on some stereotype or whatever without any examination of contexts, material or ideological, or outside influences such as colonialism and so forth that may have had some causal effects on people in a particular region or circumstance. [Sara Ahmed’s book covers a lot of that too.]

What I’m saying is that these kinds of studies, even if they get some statistically significant data, become popularized and will just as often be misinterpreted or re-framed both the issue and the results to accord with dominant ideology, just as the author there has done with substituting “conformism” for “collectivist”. “Conformism” is a highly negative value in a hyper-individuated culture, hence the people who are “happiness averse” are characterized in an even further negative light. The writer’s biases come to the fore.

Another thing that was in that article:

..most nations in the past defined happiness as a factor of good luck and fortunate circumstances. Modern American English, however, stresses happiness as an internal mood, something more innate to a person and his or her character than to the external world. Bolstering the evidence of this change, the researchers [using Google’s n-gram stats]  found that mentions of a "happy nation" have declined over time in English-language books, while the phrase "happy person" has been climbing steadily.

This atomization is interesting. With the rise of capitalism and emphasis on hyper-individuality, particularly on the “individual consumer” (now you know why they want all our data), those amorphous things that had previously been seen as collective, that is in people having “a share of the nation’s wealth” be it material or not, has really changed. People used to be psychologically and emotionally invested in creating better communities even if it was of no direct immediate benefit to themselves because they could see that in the long run living in an environment where people cared for one another was a lot less stressful than one where it was “everyone for themselves”.

This is an unfastening of communal bonds, a destruction of the commons, not just material commons but intellectual and emotional. It is often even anti-community where community is seen as a collective project.

Can someone be “happy” while they step over people sleeping on the sidewalk? Can they sleep well knowing kids in the next neighborhood are hungry? If they can, are these the people you really want to be associating with? What happens when your luck runs out? Are they going to be the ones on your doorstep offering to help you?

If you want to join the happiness brigade however but can’t quite fake it well enough yet, you can always go for a makeover. Or at least a few Botox shots.

In a recent New York Times article, Don’t Worry, Get Botox, professor of psychiatriy, Richard A. Friedman, suggests that getting Botox shots to ward off unhappy facial expressions can help cure depression.

This is another facet of the individuation of the field of psychology and psychiatry. Even things like family therapy and milieu therapies are taking a back seat to these individual approaches. Some of this is due to the rise of cognitive therapy and theory particularly in the form of the cognitive-behavioral approach. Interestingly that is the approach through which most “mindfulness” is being inculcated or subsumed into psychology.

In CBT (cognitive-behavioral therapy) the gist is that your thoughts make you sick. Change or challenge your thoughts and things can get better. It is proven to work to an extent. I’m not going to deny that because I’ve used this approach personally. And it works as far as it goes. It doesn’t change your circumstances however or the kinds of things in the world that continue to trigger anxiety and/or depression. If one is in a lousy marriage for example, say with someone who has a serious addiction or abuse problem, CBT is not going to solve that. It may help re-formulate a response to the situation, or not. Likewise if one is in a crappy job CBT isn’t going to improve that no matter how much one’s mood improves while doing that crappy job.

This folds back into the discussion of ideas like “the happy slave” or “domestic bliss” in Ahmed’s book. Not only is it delusional to think that people in oppressed conditions are happy about it (remember that opinion the Bundy guy had about black people being “better off” under slavery—this is the kind of rationalization that is used for that) but that they *should* be happy about it.

On the [Western, convert] Buddhist happiness industry front we then get smarmy books about how to be a happy worker by adjusting ourselves to our oppressive conditions rather than overthrowing the bosses or making a stand for better working conditions or something else that would disrupt the status quo. The happiness industry is all about preserving that status quo. It’s not about “liberation” or anything else of that sort. It’s about being a better drone.

One can be a good little economic soldier and carry out all the little meaningless duties required of a good consumer-citizen. Take the pills, get the shots, do the exercises, comply with all the treatment regimens, talk the self-talk and so on but THEN WHAT? Well you die and somebody else gets to occupy your slot in the machine.

Professor Mark Fisher wrote an excellent post about the current neoliberal economic situation and his own depression. In Good For Nothing he states:

The dominant school of thought in psychiatry locates the origins of such [depressive] ‘beliefs’ in malfunctioning brain chemistry, which are to be corrected by pharmaceuticals; psychoanalysis and forms of therapy influenced by it famously look for the roots of mental distress in family background, while Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is less interested in locating the source of negative beliefs than it is in simply replacing them with a set of positive stories. It is not that these models are entirely false, it is that they miss – and must miss – the most likely cause of such feelings of inferiority: social power. The form of social power that had most effect on me was class power, although of course gender, race and other forms of oppression work by producing the same sense of ontological inferiority, which is best expressed in exactly the thought I articulated above: that one is not the kind of person who can fulfill roles which are earmarked for the dominant group.

Anyone who’s had a taste of depression is familiar with the feeling of powerlessness and helplessness that comes with it. Even if a person hasn’t gone into a full scale depression vestiges of it that can still float into one’s consciousness. Some of the reactions can reach into that delusional sort of “I control the universe” The Secret kind of thinking.

In a recent interview with Mark Fisher, the interviewer wrote:

Deal or No Deal throws randomly selected amounts of money at randomly selected people. Yet the entire message the show insists on the precise opposite: that individual decisions – a simple yes/no to the Banker – can somehow make a difference.

Mark calls this magical voluntarism – “the belief that it is within every individual’s power to make themselves whatever they want to be”. Magical voluntarism is the dominant ideology and unofficial religion of contemporary capitalist society, he argues, pushed by reality TV experts and business gurus as much as by politicians.

~The politics of depression: Mark Fisher on mental health and class confidence

In further explication writer “sometimes explode” wrote on the Libcom blog A reply to Mark Fisher on magical voluntarism. He furthers the concept of “magical volunteerism” and places it in a larger context.

This is the image of the consumer as a soul able to emit desire-transmissions into a receptive universe, and implies an entire metaphysics built around Loreal’s insistence that “you’re worth it”. Mark Fisher is quick to point out the core political problem here: if you fail to find work, pay your bills, get that holiday/car/pair of trainers, it’s because you didn’t want it enough. This implies a deficiency in your ability to desire or, in the language of the Secret, to emit frequencies into the universe.

He goes into some depth discussing the origins and history of this kind of attitude within the psychotherapy milieu. The point of contention is what to do about it. Fisher suggests a more mainstream approach while sometimes explode takes a more radical tack. The whole piece, along with Fisher’s is well worth a read. Comments are also good.

So those are the tangents.

Somatic Experience of Grief

-a dispatch from the grief process

They awaken, always wide awake:
Gautama Buddha’s disciples whose
mindfulness, both day and night,
is constantly immersed in the body.
– Dhp 299

Somatic means of the body. I haven’t encountered much in the study of grief in popular media, self-help or psychology that deals with somatic reactions to emotion. Maybe I haven’t looked hard enough, I’m sure there are scholarly articles on it, but what I mostly see that’s popular is addressed primarily to emotion and thought and pretty much ignores the body. If we look at the well known Kübler-Ross model, there’s nothing in there (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) that even mentions the body. Her theory originally dealt with the dying person themselves but has been greatly expanded to cover grief in general in numerous different circumstances such as relationship breakups or traumatic life events that are not potentially fatal but bring significant changes or in dealing with one’s own grief over the death of loved ones, etc. Even in the criticisms of that model and in alternative models there is very little that covers the somatic aspect. For example in Kubler-Ross and other Approaches many valid criticisms are made (some of which I’ve mentioned before) but nothing is really mentioned about the body.

These models and their criticisms originally were developed to revolve around the dying person. That person’s body is dying, not their mind, not their thoughts, not their emotions or whatever they constitute themselves to be psychologically generally, yet no mention of the body appears.

How weird is that?

How can one possibly integrate the death and grief experience without addressing the body which is where the vast majority of it is centered?

The overlooking of the somatic component is changing, with things like Somatic Experiencing as a therapy for PTSD for example but it’s not really all that mainstream and some people call it “pseudoscience” because of the current lack of empirical studies of it. [Neuroscientists where are you on this? Sounds like something that could be a rich field of study.] Some of the techniques are similar to treatments for phobias for example. Those have pretty good empirical evidence so I’d call these specific techniques “unproven” rather than “pseudoscience” at this point.

Then there are various mindfulness courses that include some somatic element, but it doesn’t seem to be emphasized that much. [Maybe I’m wrong about that or maybe some emphasize it more than others.]

With all the lying on the couch staring at the ceiling that I’ve been doing, I’ve had time to notice a few somatic things.

For the first day or so my reaction was all in my head. Just mentally trying to grasp the situation, to “get my head around it” was most of the feeling. A lot of mental confusion and a lot of emotion generated and going in all kinds of directions.

Then it seemed to sink into my body. What an awful feeling. Like near drowning. It happened very suddenly. I was walking and then it felt like my heart literally dropped into my feet. I had to grab the back of a chair because I thought I was going to faint. It was like my body suddenly became lead and I could hardly move. I had to sit down and sat there for probably an hour before I felt stable enough to move.

Sometimes you see on news reports people just collapsing when they react to some tragic situation.  It was exactly like that.

Then came anxiety. All kinds of it.

Anxiety brings most of the attendant somatic symptoms from extreme emotions. Breaking out in a sweat. Hands shaking—yesterday was so bad I spilled my tea all over the place as I was trying to pour it in the cup. Weakness. Feeling faint or nauseous. Dizziness. Heaviness of the body. Numbness. Stiff neck. Sore back. Certain physical reactions seem to accompany certain memories or emotions.

[As I write this it is one week exactly, almost to the minute, since the last time I spoke with him. It was around 18 hours later he died. That thought brings with it a heaviness that makes it very hard to breathe. It’s like an enormous weight is crushing the center of my body.]


[I had to take a little break there.]

I don’t spend all my time currently writing blog posts though it may seem there’s a lot of production going on here. I can type really fast. As I said mostly I’ve just been lying on the couch and staring at the ceiling. Sometimes with the TV on but mostly not. Then I take an hour or so to work on a blog post, then do the minimum of household chores, make a meal, take a little walk, talk on the phone if necessary, then resume the position on the couch. If I had an outside job I could probably maintain long enough to put in the necessary appearance and go through the necessary motions. But there would be lots of bathroom breaks so I could keep pulling myself together.

Here’s a thing that pisses me off.

If our western societies were built around human needs rather than the demands of market places dictated by profit for the few and servicing their greed, everybody would get this kind of time to deal with their human situations. No one would be “expected” to turn up at work ready to go the day after their loved one dies, or their baby is born with difficulties, or their house burns down, or they’ve just been diagnosed with cancer, and they’d be allowed to take a little time to be of support to someone else who is dealing with their human situation if necessary.

I know having the time to deal with this and write about it is a luxury a lot of people don’t have.


Anxiety and writing-I mention this in more detail in another post (which is upcoming) but it deals with a lot of the physical symptoms of anxiety and things such as fight or flight responses.

Somatic psychology deals with mind-body issues and embodied emotion. ‘the study of the mind/body interface, the relationship between our physical matter and our energy, the interaction of our body structures with our thoughts and actions.’

Sometimes I’ve been doing body scan meditation in the Vipassana way. [I’ve done Vipassana retreats in India a couple of times.] Here’s a link to something about that from Buddhanet 11. Investigating the Body’s Reality. From that piece:

For many people one’s sense of the body is not so much the qualities we are actually experiencing such as sensations, temperature, heaviness, etc., but more its form and shape – the body image. You could hardly say this is a reality, rather it is imaging – a misreading that creates an illusion. While at the same time, most of us are unaware of the identification we make with the body, not to mention the more obvious identification with the internal narrative, our story, as well.

Here is the whole series from Buddhanet Vipassana Retreat. It is also available as a PDF

Important article about PTSD

I get a lot of people searching this blog for information on PTSD. It’s one of the top search terms that leads people here. I don’t write about it much but have once in a while. That shows you the paucity of information out there if this obscure blog is one of the Google hits in the first few pages of listings. There is a notion that Buddhist practice can be of assistance to those suffering PTSD. That can be true but there are a lot of caveats I’d add.

PTSD doesn’t just affect the person who experienced trauma. It affects everybody around them as well. Here is an excellent new article on that.

Is PTSD Contagious? from Mother Jones magazine. Read it before you continue here. I’ll wait.

Those who are around people suffering from PTSD will recognize themselves immediately. From the experience of having been the partner of someone with severe PTSD for 12 years I acknowledge the veracity of this article. It is contagious. It conditions you to view life in a completely different way. It is stressful and can become debilitating. It takes a very long time and a lot of work to recognize how that conditioning happens because it is very insidious. [No we didn’t get divorced because of PTSD but because he wanted children, which he now has with his second wife, and I didn’t. People ask that when I mention how come I am familiar with the topic so I’ll save someone the trouble.]

The effects on those around PTSD sufferers is something that we all need to become aware of because PTSD is far more common that many people realize. It’s not something that just happens to military personnel but also to police, doctors, nurses, rape victims, accident victims, prisoners of any sort, refugees, children who are bullied or otherwise abused, victims of assault and other crime…in general people who have experienced trauma.

In any social matrix (family, club, work place, school class, sangha, etc) if one or more people are experiencing PTSD symptoms, and in any large group there is a likelihood that there will be at least one or two people, this will to some extent begin to generalize to the group. That is one of the reasons we all need to get more education on the subject.

From the National Institute of Mental Health:

What are the symptoms of PTSD?

PTSD can cause many symptoms. These symptoms can be grouped into three categories:

1. Re-experiencing symptoms:

  • Flashbacks—reliving the trauma over and over, including physical symptoms like a racing heart or sweating
  • Bad dreams
  • Frightening thoughts.

Re-experiencing symptoms may cause problems in a person’s everyday routine. They can start from the person’s own thoughts and feelings. Words, objects, or situations that are reminders of the event can also trigger re-experiencing.

2. Avoidance symptoms:

  • Staying away from places, events, or objects that are reminders of the experience
  • Feeling emotionally numb
  • Feeling strong guilt, depression, or worry
  • Losing interest in activities that were enjoyable in the past
  • Having trouble remembering the dangerous event.

Things that remind a person of the traumatic event can trigger avoidance symptoms. These symptoms may cause a person to change his or her personal routine. For example, after a bad car accident, a person who usually drives may avoid driving or riding in a car.

3. Hyperarousal symptoms:

  • Being easily startled
  • Feeling tense or “on edge”
  • Having difficulty sleeping, and/or having angry outbursts.

Hyperarousal symptoms are usually constant, instead of being triggered by things that remind one of the traumatic event. They can make the person feel stressed and angry. These symptoms may make it hard to do daily tasks, such as sleeping, eating, or concentrating.

It’s natural to have some of these symptoms after a dangerous event. Sometimes people have very serious symptoms that go away after a few weeks. This is called acute stress disorder, or ASD. When the symptoms last more than a few weeks and become an ongoing problem, they might be PTSD. Some people with PTSD don’t show any symptoms for weeks or months.

Additionally from Casa Palmera Mental Health facility:


Prolonged exposure to traumatic events can result in C-PTSD, or complex post-traumatic stress disorder. Survivors of prolonged physical and sexual abuse, hostage situations, religious cults and prisoners of war are all examples of people susceptible to C-PTSD.

The symptoms of C-PTSD are similar to PTSD, but also include:
* Persistent feelings of depression
* Problems controlling feelings
* Preoccupation with suicidal thoughts
* Self-injury or self-mutilation
* Explosive or inhibited anger
* Compulsive or inhibited sexuality
* Amnesia or hyperamnesia regarding the traumatic events
* Episodes of dissociative behavior
* Preoccupation with the perpetrator
* Seeing the perpetrator as all-powerful


Following the traumatic event, children may exhibit signs of confusion or agitation and show intense fear, helplessness, anger, sadness, horror or denial. Children who experience repeated trauma will dissociate, or numb their emotions to deaden the pain.

Children will exhibit many of the same symptoms of PTSD as adults do, but with the following exceptions:
* Worrying about dying at an early age/anxiety about death
* Acting younger than their age (e.g.; clingy or whiny behavior, thumbsucking, etc.)
* Repeating behavior that reminds them of the trauma. For example, repeatedly playing in a way that re-enacts the trauma.
* Regressive symptoms (e.g.; bed-wetting or losing speech or motor skills)
* Freezing (sudden immobility)
* Separation anxiety

Other sources of information:

I mentioned conditioning at the beginning of this piece. For those with STSD (Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder) conditioning is how the symptoms begin to manifest, through the daily rituals and reactions that accompany PTSD symptoms in one’s loved one. When one becomes used to their partner waking up from nightmares, sleep becomes fragmented and lighter. When one becomes used to checking someone else’s psychological status in case a hospital visit may be needed, one starts reading everyone from that perspective. When one is in the company of another who sees the entire world as a threat one starts to examine the world through a similar lens. When one becomes used to checking their own emotional and psychological status in order to thwart an inappropriate reaction to someone else’s fear, introspection can become almost obsessive. When one is frequently and abruptly alarmed by a loved ones erratic behavior, hyper-vigilance, startle reactions and anxiety become constant.

The reasons for the manifestation of symptoms are different between PTSD and STSD. One has not experienced the same trauma as the loved one. But one becomes very defensive and protective of that loved one. When you see their pain daily you want to prevent anything more from hurting them. You feel the need to intervene in all their interactions. You feel the need to stand against any criticism of them. And if they ever act out in a violent way due to their fear then one has some trauma of their own to deal with. This can cause a lot of internal conflict, both wanting to protect someone and feeling the after effects of personal trauma. It can get very complicated.

One other thing I notice among those I know with PTSD is the tendency towards denial. Denial is an attempt to regain control of the situation and of the person’s thoughts and emotions. It is a poor coping strategy because it does not address the problems which then continue. Confrontation of this denial though is not only pointless because it only causes the person to distance themselves further from those who would support them but can also further traumatize the person. As a loved one, if the situation is stress inducing for you, take counseling for yourself and reach out to community support groups (for military personnel veterans departments may have some suggestions), do research and modify your own reactions to their behavior. If you can remain calm and open during a time your loved one is experiencing symptoms, this may assist the person in feeling more secure and comfortable in talking about their issues. If you react with agitation, excitation and stress-based reactivity the situation will escalate and not be resolved. This is part of the PTSD syndrome. It tends to reinforce itself in ever larger circles.

These situations can be very complicated to resolve. Some kinds of mindfulness training can be beneficial if it is supported by counseling. I am not an advocate of pharmaceutical approaches to mental health issues generally but if someone is feeling really out of control initial use of some drugs may be helpful as long as it is supported by counseling, self-help techniques to relieve stress, learning further coping skills, community/family support and education on the causes and available treatments. Unfortunately a lot of people only go to their doctor, get a wrong diagnosis from a 10 minute interview (ie social anxiety disorder, depression, bipolar, etc) and get a prescription for something which doesn’t help much.

One important thing I want to point out is the difference between mindfulness and hyper-vigilance. I’ve seen some suggestions that mindfulness is similar to hyper-vigilance. It is not. They are very different modes of attention. Mindfulness is fully attending to the present situation. It is reality based and unmediated by out of control emotions, projections of threat or re-emergent memories of past trauma. Hyper-vigilance does not attend to the present situation realistically. Instead hyper-vigilance attends to fear and potential psychologically manufactured threats in the environment whether the environment is safe or not. Hyper-vigilance is seeing every situation, through a filter of fear and anxiety, as a threat. The hyper-vigilant person does not relax enough to be able to attend to the present and accurately assess the situation. The ability to reality-test does not fully function. Sometimes cognitive behavioral techniques can help with that and sometimes mindfulness training can help with that provided the instructor is aware of the situation of hyper-vigilance and is knowledgeable about PTSD. That is the biggest caveat to undertaking any sort of Buddhist technique to help with PTSD symptoms.

Other caveats include:

  • denial. “You are Buddha already.” therefore you can’t have those problems. This “Buddha already” is problematic in far more ways than just denial of psychological issues but that is beyond the scope of this post. [I’m trying to curb my tendency to go off on tangents so maybe I’ll address it in a future post]
  • positivity. Not really a Buddhist approach but one that does occasionally creep in, the positivity approach simply exhorts people to “banish the negative”, “be positive” and shies away from dealing with any actual problems. It often gets mixed in with “The Secret” type notions. The “what you think manifests” or just by believing something it shall come to be. Also known as wishful thinking or Magical Thinking which has as much of a history in the West as elsewhere—see Magic (paranormal)—theories of adherents for more. You cannot wish PTSD away.
  • dismissal. of trauma based hallucinations, flashbacks, etc as “delusion”, “a dream”, “makyo” etc. A person’s subjective reality is their reality and has to be deal with as such.
  • catharsis. I have read some Buddhist teachers advocating meditation as a way to face trauma and be present with the feelings that arise. This is dangerous if there is no psychological support in place to deal with the fall out.
  • breaking through. This is an extreme form of catharsis. A few seem to think that prolonged retreats or intense sessions of meditation “through the pain” will somehow break the hold of PTSD or other psychological distress. This is also dangerous. For example a brilliant young man recently took his own life—Aaron Swartz held to the idea of “leaning into the pain” in order to overcome it. He suffered from bouts of depression in his life. [He wrote about it here Lean into the pain-if you read it notice that some of the impetus for “self-help” and “self-improvement” is very similar to what some Buddhist teachers put out, particularly those who do large group training and related sorts of seminars. People like Arianna Huffington are even praising the approach on her Google plus profile after his death.] While Swartz was not a Buddhist, nor did he have PTSD, as far as I know, this type of approach to any sort of psychological difficulty is problematic and has appeared intermittently in some Buddhist circles.

There’s likely a few more I could come up with but I’m sure you get the idea. The point is using Buddhist techniques as assisting in healing PTSD has to be done knowledgeably, carefully and that this is not the same as simple self-improvement or self-help.

So if you know anyone struggling with PTSD first educate yourself on the topic and then advocate on their behalf. That’s the two best things you can do for them. It will help you too, especially if you are close to them and beginning to experience some of the same issues.

Soap Opera Redux

I can’t put that kind of dramatic blog post up and then leave people hanging. So here’s the aftermath.

This emotional stuff is a lot of work. [More than doing union negotiations all night.]

Sleepless night for some.

Confrontations. But no more shouting.
Getting it all out on the table.
Crying involved.
Radical honesty. [That’s how trust works. Even in the midst of the sensation of betrayal. Sometimes you have to dig hard to reach it.]
Fear. Anger. Apologies. Regrets. Guilt.
All the emotions.
Displayed like fireworks.
Then to pick up the debris.

Mend that which has been rent apart.

When someone has been your friend for 20 years it’s necessary.

Discussions. Compromises. Agreement.

Each accepting.

The burden of change.

No other choice.

Like on a long journey through the mountains.

We have to carry on.


Or we’ll all die on the mountainside.



I do wax poetic under the strain of a lot of emotions. In any case the night has been an exercise in harm minimization. For everyone, larger context included. Someone’s heart is not to be broken. Everyone would have preferred this all fell out in a different way. But that was not the reality of it so we all have to deal with what’s there not with preferences.

The easiest thing to do in these scenarios is to run away. Drop the situation. The knee jerk like I said.

But in that there’s “no benefit” as the I Ching says. That’s the I Ching as philosophy not as some prognostication device. I Ching…Book of Changes. Full of useful change related philosophy.

The point of “no blame” is most useful to work with in conflict. That’s often the biggest thing to deal with. It’s where most people seem to get stuck.

I mention the I Ching. Trying to fathom the meaning of the circumstances. Bringing the emotional, psychological, intellectual and material into relationship and alignment—that’s what meaning does. A work in progress—that’s what life is. Continuous painting and scraping of the canvas.

Here’s a little piece on the philosophical nature of the I Ching. From this PDF document

Four Primary Virtues
• Four primary virtues are attributed to the hexagrams, but not all
hexagrams have all four
• Virtues: yuan (create), heng (nourish), li (benefit), zhen (rectify)
• The four virtues are manifest in nature and are the roots of
human morality
• Humans should strive to emulate the virtues of Heaven and Earth

Create, Nourish, Benefit, Rectify. Four virtues that are useful to keep in mind in any kind of relationship especially when there’s problems.

So after going over a cliff one picks themselves up, dusts themselves off and tends to the bruises, their own and others, as best they can.

Here’s two trigrams that express the situation. Yesterday and today. One has to work through all the parts of a situation which is why I like the idea of these trigrams. Nothing is a simple thing, isolated. Everything is a combination of many things interacting continually with many other things. (The dharmas, with a small d)

I don’t prognosticate so we’ll just have to wait and see what tomorrow brings. [Text is from the Wilhelm-Baynes translation.]

The trigram above – K’AN – the Abysmal, Water
The trigram below – KEN – Keeping Still, Mountain
200px-Iching-hexagram-27.svg27.The trigram above – KEN – Keeping Still, Mountain
The trigram below – CHEN – The Arousing, Thunder
Called Obstruction Called The Corners of the Mouth [Providing Nourishment]
The hexagram pictures a dangerous abyss lying before us and a steep, inaccessible mountain rising behind us. We are surrounded by obstacles; at the same time, since the mountain has the attribute of keeping still, there is implicit a hint as to how we can extricate ourselves. The hexagram represents obstructions that appear in the course of time but that can and should be overcome. Therefore all the instruction given is directed to overcoming them.


OBSTRUCTION. The southwest furthers.
The northeast does not further.
It furthers one to see the great man.
Perseverance brings good fortune.

The southwest is the region of retreat, the northeast that of advance. Here an individual is confronted by obstacles that cannot be overcome directly. In such a situation it s wise to pause in view of the danger and to retreat. However, this is merely a preparation for overcoming the obstructions. One must join forces with friends of like mind and put himself under the leadership of a man equal to the situation: then one will succeed in removing the obstacles. This requires the will to persevere just when one apparently must do something that leads away from his goal. This unswerving inner purpose brings good fortune in the end. An obstruction that lasts only for a time is useful for self-development. This is the value of adversity.


Water on the mountain:
The image of OBSTRUCTION.
Thus the superior man turns his attention to himself
And molds his character.

Difficulties and obstructions throw a man back upon himself. While the inferior ma seeks to put the blame on other persons, bewailing his fate, the superior man seeks the error within himself, and through this introspection the external obstacle becomes for him an occasion for inner enrichment and education.


Six at the beginning means:
Going leads to obstructions,
Coming meets with praise.

When one encounters an obstruction, the important thing is to reflect on how best to deal with it. When threatened with danger, one should not strive blindly to go ahead, for this only leads to complications. The correct thing is, on the contrary, to retreat for the time being, not in order to give up the struggle but to await the right moment for action.

Six in the second place means:
The king’s servant is beset by obstruction upon obstruction,
But it is not his own fault.

Ordinarily it s best to go around an obstacle and try to overcome it along the line of least resistance. But there is one instance in which a man must go out to meet the trouble, even though difficulty piles upon difficulty: this is when the path of duty leads directly to it – in other words, when he cannot act of his own volition but is duty bound to go and seek out danger in the service of a higher cause. Then he may do it without compunction, because it is not through any fault of his that he is putting himself in this difficult situation.

Nine in the third place means:
Going leads to obstructions;
Hence he comes back.

While the preceding line shows the official compelled by duty to follow the way of danger, this line shows the man who must act as father of a family or as head of his kin. If he were to plunge recklessly into danger, it would be a useless act, because those entrusted to his care cannot get along by themselves. But if he withdraws and turns back to his own, they welcome him with great joy.

Six in the fourth place means:
Going leads to obstructions,
Coming leads to union.

This too describes a situation that cannot be managed single-handed. In such a case the direct way is not the shortest. If a person were to forge ahead on his own strength and without the necessary preparations, he would not find the support he needs and would realize too late that he has been mistaken in his calculations, inasmuch as the conditions on which he hoped he could rely would prove to be inadequate. In this case it is better, therefore, to hold back for the time being and to gather together trustworthy companions who can be counted upon for help in overcoming the obstructions.

Nine in the fifth place means:
In the midst of the great obstructions,
Friends come.

Here we see a man who is called to help in an emergency. He should not seek to evade the obstructions, no matter how dangerously they pile up before him. But because he is really called to the task, the power of his spirit is strong enough to attract helpers whom he can effectively organize, also that through the well-directed co-operation of all participants the obstruction is overcome.

Six at the top means:
Going leads to obstructions,
Coming leads to great good fortune.
It furthers one to see the great man.

This refers to a man who has already left the world and its tumult behind him. When the time of obstructions arrives, it might seem that the simplest thing for him to do would be to turn his back upon the world and take refuge in the beyond. But this road is barred to him. He must not seek his own salvation and abandon the world to its adversity> Duty calls him back once more into the turmoil of life. Precisely because of his experience and inner freedom, he is able to create something both great and complete that brings good fortune. And it is favorable to see the great man in alliance with whom one can achieve the work of rescue.

This hexagram is a picture of an open mouth; above and below are the firm lines of the lips, and between them the opening. Starting with the mouth, through which we take food for nourishment, the thought leads to nourishment itself. Nourishment of oneself, specifically of the body, is represented in the three lower lines, while the three upper lines represent nourishment and care of others, in a higher, spiritual sense.


Perseverance brings good fortune.
Pay heed to the providing of nourishment
And to what a man seeks
To fill his own mouth with.

In bestowing care and nourishment, it is important that the right people should be taken care of and that we should attend to our own nourishment in the right way. If we wish to know what anyone is like, we have only to observe on whom he bestows his care and what sides of his own nature he cultivates and nourishes. Nature nourishes all creatures. The great man fosters and takes care of superior men, in order to take care of all men through them. Mencius says about this:

If we wish to know whether anyone is superior or not, we need only observe what part of his being he regards as especially important. The body has superior and inferior, important and unimportant, nor must we injure the superior parts for the sake of the inferior. He who cultivates the inferior parts of his nature is an inferior man. He who cultivates the superior parts of his nature is a superior man.


At the foot of the mountain, thunder:
Thus the superior man is careful of his words
And temperate in eating and drinking.

“God comes forth in the sign of the Arousing”: when in the spring the life forces stir again, all things come into being anew. “He brings to perfection in the sign of Keeping Still”: thus in the early springs, when the seeds fall to earth, all things are made ready. This is an image of providing nourishment and cultivation of his character. Words are a movement going from within outward. Eating and drinking are movements from without inward. Both kinds of movement can be modified by tranquility. For tranquility keeps the words that come out of the mouth from exceeding proper measure, and keeps the food that goes into the mouth from exceeding its proper measure. Thus character is cultivated.


Nine at the beginning means:
You let your magic tortoise go,
And look at me with the corners of your mouth drooping.

The magic tortoise is a creature possessed of such supernatural powers that it lives on air and needs no earthly nourishment. The image means that a man fitted by nature and position to live freely and independently renounces this self-reliance and instead looks with envy and discontent at others who are outwardly in better circumstances. But such base envy only arouses derision and contempt in those others. This has bad results.

Six in the second place means:
Turning to the summit for nourishment,
Deviating from the path
To seek nourishment from the hill.
Continuing to do this brings misfortune.

Normally a person either provides his own means of nourishment or is supported in a proper way by those whose duty and privilege it is to provide for him. If, owing to weakness of spirit, a man cannot support himself, a feeling of uneasiness comes over him; this is because in shirking the proper way of obtaining a living, he accepts support as a favor from those in higher place. This is unworthy, for he is deviating from his true nature. Kept up indefinitely, this course leads to misfortune.

Six in the third place means;
Turning away from nourishment.
Perseverance brings misfortune.
Do not act thus for ten years.
Nothing serves to further.

He who seeks nourishment that does not nourish reels from desire to gratification and in gratification craves desire. Mad pursuit of pleasure for the satisfaction of the senses never brings one to the goal. One should never (ten years is a complete cycle of time) follow this path, for nothing good can come of it.

Six in the fourth place means:
Turning to the summit
For provision of nourishment
Brings good fortune.
Spying about with sharp eyes
Like a tiger with insatiable craving.
No blame.

In contrast to the six in the second place, which refers to a man bent exclusively on his own advantage, this line refers to one occupying a high position and striving to let his light shine forth. To do this he needs helpers, because he cannot attain his lofty aim alone. With the greed of a hungry tiger he is on the lookout for the right people. Since he is not working for himself but for the good of all, there is no wrong in such zeal.

Six in the fifth place means:
Turning away from the path.
To remain persevering brings good fortune.
One should not cross the great water.

A man may be conscious of a deficiency in himself. He should be undertaking the nourishment of the people, but he has not the strength to do it. Thus he must turn from his accustomed path and beg counsel and help from a man who is spiritually his superior but undistinguished outwardly. If he maintains this attitude of mind perseveringly, success and good fortune are his. But he must remain aware of his dependence. He must not put his own person forward nor attempt great labors, such as crossing the great water.

Nine at the top means:
The source of nourishment.
Awareness of danger brings good fortune.
It furthers one to cross the great water.

This describes a sage of the highest order, from whom emanate all influences that provide nourishment for others. Such a position brings with it heavy responsibility. If he remains conscious of this fact, he has good fortune and may confidently undertake even great and difficult labors, such as crossing the great water. These undertakings bring general happiness for him and for all others.

Who knew?

[Maybe I shouldn’t write blog posts when I’m this angry but why not?]

It’s very interesting how people’s assumptions can really fuck with other people’s plans. When they start justifying their gross oversights with “I assumed you knew.” I shout, “I’m not a bloody mind reader.”

I’m trying to get at the meta aspects here without going into too many specifics so bear with me while I work it through.

Should a person have to check in with someone they are depending on just to make sure they haven’t changed their mind about a situation? How often should this be done? Daily, weekly? Should a comprehensive questionnaire be developed?

When someone complains bitterly, repeatedly about a situation they have huge reservations about, should one check with them, again daily or weekly, just to make sure they aren’t doing a complete about face on the matter?

If one changes one’s mind about something should the person they tell be a completely uninvolved third party who then happens to mention it casually in conversation to the directly involved second party who had no idea this was going on and has been going on for 2 months?

WTF is wrong with some people?

OK that’s maybe a little incoherent.

It’s a bit like this.

Suppose you have a business arrangement with someone for 5 years. They’re even like a business partner. You have been told that it is to extend for at least the next few years. You know they have another situation they are eventually going to move into after those few years and they say that they’ll let you know 6 months in advance so you can arrange to make changes. They are very well aware that you are depending on their contribution to the current endeavor.

Suppose they then change their mind suddenly. They don’t bother to tell you. You find out through some random mutual acquaintance who they’ve discussed the matter with thoroughly over all that time. You’ve had frequent contact with them during that whole time by email, phone and in person but again they didn’t mention it. (You even went back and reread all their emails to make sure) You find out now you have less than 2 months to make your new arrangements.

When you confront them they say, “I assumed you knew.” along with a lot of other weaseling around like it’s your fault that you didn’t check them frequently enough or can’t read their mind.

It would be sort of like if your spouse came home and declared they’d just bought a new house for you to live in without telling you and then saying “Well you did mention one time you wanted to move.” or if your boss at work had promised you the next permanent full time vacancy then not only gave it to someone else but demoted you to part-time and said, “Well I did tell you things would changes around here”. That’s actually the scale of it because it changes everything.

That kind of sums it up. But it’s more than business since there’s friendships involved also.

I am incredibly pissed off. This doesn’t just affect me but at least 4 other people in the short term and I don’t know how many more in the longer term. A situation of some heavy interdependence.

Now this person also expects that if the alternate situation doesn’t work out they can walk back into the current situation. That was the original arrangement which was fine before all this.

I don’t want to invest trust in this person again. There have been minor cases of weaseling in the past—that is not telling me something, small and not urgent stuff, that should have really been dealt with at the time and only coming to light when I discovered it myself, but nothing of this scale. Fucking habitual behavior hey?!!

And you know what? This person is really pissed off at me. There’s this whole tidal wave of passive aggressive bullshit coming my way right now. Why? They are assuming I don’t want them to go into their alternative situation. They’re mad at this third party for talking. They’re mad that I’m mad at them.

I don’t fucking care about this other situation. That’s not the issue. I even support this other situation and always have. But I don’t support the fact that people are getting fucked over like this, myself included. I don’t like the fact that I had to hear this from somebody else who isn’t even involved. I don’t like it that I’m going to have to be the one who has to try to explain this to 4 other people and it’s going to be really emotionally unpleasant for one of them. The results will actually break their heart. I know that without doubt. And there isn’t enough time for me to do what would need to be done to avoid that, because if there were I would do it.

It is really tempting for me to just say, “Why wait 2 months? Let’s end this right now.” and dump all this back in their lap. That’s the knee-jerk response. But there would be ramifications for innocents in that which I wouldn’t want on my conscience. I am talking specifically about a child’s welfare which I absolutely will not disrupt no matter what.


OK. Went for a walk. Ate a chicken salad sandwich. Talked on the phone to someone I miss (but not about this).

Equilibrium emerges. That all took about 3 hours.

Now the process of shuffling life around can begin.

Available options.

List making.




Reworked and revised several times.

So that’s the way it’s going to go for the next year.

Who knew?