Monday, May 23, 2011

Deep Shit

*Trigger Warning: Discussion of suicide* 

Whenever anyone mentions a ‘true self’, “inner truth’, or “deep thought” I get wary.  I struggle with the notion of deepness in part because I don’t actually know how to define it.  The word ‘deep’ is used so often, and means something different to everyone who uses it.  I get confused when people use it, because some of the definitions I find extremely beautiful and crucial to being a decent human being, while some of the definitions I see as being an extremely powerful tool for destruction.  It’s difficult for me to tell which people are talking about.  Often, I think it is difficult to distinguish the difference within one’s own brain, which scares me.  The difference, I think, has a lot to do with attitude - not just valuing deepness, but privileging it over other aspects of life considered shallow.  It’s the difference between a relaxed softness and an anxious rule-based need for deepness. 

I’ll begin by saying that I like it when people are self-reflective.  I do think that humans have the ability to look at themselves in at least somewhat objective terms, but in a super subjective way.  Basically, I think humans have the ability to examine their emotional and mental landscapes, and figure out what would be the best way for them to move forward; by “best way”, I think I mean the way to alleviate pain and inflict as little harm as possible on both others and themselves - in a long-term sense.  But, I also don’t necessarily think that means it’s the “true” path or even that the place in the brain where one figures that stuff out is more important than the other parts of the brain. I do, however, think that the ability to self-reflect leads to the reflector being a much nicer person.  Dare I say better?  I think I would.  It’s confusing. Because on the one hand, I don’t think that people are good or evil.  I don’t even think those terms have very much meaning when we’re talking about other people.  I’m a pretty stark relativist.  On the other hand, I really do hate it when people are huge jerks.  Empathy and its cultivation is extremely important to me.  I see empathy as the key to pretty much everything, and empathy does take a certain willingness to look at oneself, a certain “deepness”.  But at the same time, why can’t we just live our lives?  Why do we have to be constantly looking for more?  I know there are distinctions here, but I can’t seem to make them very clearly.  Sometimes I feel hugely righteous.  When I see someone hurting my loved ones out of their arrogance and entitlement, I get angry.  I think that that person is objectively WRONG.  I think to myself that I know, in a Truth way, that the ability to reflect on your actions and thoughts makes you a better (in a Good way) person.  And yet, when talking about good and evil, or about what makes a bad person, that very empathy that I value so much kicks in and tells me that there are no bad people.  If someone doesn’t want to reflect on their actions, that is their right.  BUT, again, it’s not…actually.  Because one’s rights do not extend to include impinging on the rights of others.  We all have blind spots - does that make us bad people?  No, probably not, but the unwillingness to even try to keep an eye out for those blind spots really repulses me. 

So, in a way, that’s my really only Belief: that humans have the ability, and in fact the responsibility, to reflect and evaluate their thoughts, feelings, and actions, making sure they are not hurting others unduly.

From my observations, this reflection process can also give the person a greater potential for happiness.  But is it an imperative? I don’t think so.  I am disturbed by the idea that “deep thoughts” are somehow seen as inherently more valuable than thoughts deemed non-deep.  I get that our minds work on a variety of different levels, but I just don’t buy that we should be striving to get to our deeper or truer self.  It’s all valid, it’s all part of who we are.  We have a right to our vices.  More than that - we have a right to enjoy our vices without guilt, as long as they are truly harmless to other people. Things that look like attachments can be useful, beautiful.  And, I think you can develop a harmful attachment/addiction to “deep” things! 

So, deepness.  Tricky.  Sometimes it means that deep reflection that informs empathy and is our responsibility as humans.  But, sometimes it also means looking at a flower and  thinking about the miracle of life, or the way our spirits grow like a flower, or how I should be like a flower, and while that’s all well and good sometimes you need to just fucking look at the flower and think “oh hey. It’s a flower,” relax, and move on.  And, importantly, that approach is just as valid.  Just as useful.  Just as important.  We need to all just fucking relax and accept that sometimes we’re ‘deep’, and sometimes we’re ‘shallow’, and realize that both ways of being have equal potential for crushing harm (to both others and oneself), as well as healthiness and intense beauty.  We also need to clarify our terms, and avoid the harmful definitions of ‘deepness’ like the poison they are.  I have decided that I will think of all the definitions on a sort of spectrum, and have identified three main types: 

1. Deep Looking.  This is a term I got from Bassie, my beloved atheist-buddhist boyfriend.  I think Buddhism, in it’s zen philosophical friendly secular form, has a pretty good way of dealing with “deep” stuff.  I don’t actually know very much about Buddhism.  As I said, Bassie considers himself a secular Buddhist.  I’ve read some Pema Chodron, and some Thich Nhat Hanh, and have found both extremely helpful, and full of extremely wise insights.  I intend to learn more, and develop my own meditation practice informed by what I learn.  My brief foray into Buddhist thought has also always been fraught with this problem of terminology.  As mentioned, I tend to have knee-jerk reactions to terms like “deep”, or “enlightenment”, and the like.  But, I’ve found that Buddhists are remarkably chill about their deep stuff.  The purpose of meditation is not to take you away from yourself, or even deeper into yourself (which for me often does mean away, a feeling of being “higher” or something), but to actually just be in yourself.  All of yourself.  Sitting quietly present.  It’s the process of acknowledging where you are, and sitting with that, even if where you’re at is “fuck this deep shit. TV is fun”.  You listen to your thoughts but don’t do anything about them one way or the other - you accept them.  You observe them.  You look.  The act of looking can shift them, but it’s not an intentional weeding of thoughts.  Action with non-action is an incredibly powerful concept.  This is the kind of self-reflection that I think is useful, even crucial.  Deep observation of the whole self, both deep and non-deep.  We need to know what’s going on inside of ourselves, and be ok with it, and make our decisions (whatEVER they may be) knowing where we’re coming from.  

2. Deep Thinking.  At it’s least harmful, this kind of deepness is just kind of silly.  At its most harmful, it is the beginning of an alienation that is integral to a very bad dynamic (see #3).  I think what I’m talking about here is most succinctly defined as overwrought academic philosophizing.  Generally, it comes more from a place of self-aggrandizement than actual interest in figuring some stuff out.  “Look at how smart, special, and transcendent I am,” kind of thing.  I don’t actually have much to say about this topic, to be honest, mostly because it just doesn’t currently interest me much.  It annoys me, but doesn’t really bother me in an active kind of way, save that I think it can lead to more harmful ideas about deepness.  I do think that this kind of thinking often is couched in the assumption that “deep” is better than (and opposite of) “shallow”, or, more pointedly, “mundane”.  In this case, it allows people to feel superior - to look down on other people for not being as special and deep.  Not all people who engage in deep thinking act or feel superior, but in my experience they are rare (and, frankly, much more into Deep Looking than Deep Thinking).  Deep thinking, in my mind, also includes the assumption that by thinking deeply we can come upon Truths of the universe.  For the most part, I just don’t buy it.  We can come to some truths about how we work in the universe, but not much beyond that.  In my experience, relying on deep thinking as a way of reaching Truth with a capital ‘T’ ends up with people thinking they have more truth, or truer truth, than others; that they know what is unquestioningly the “best” way to go about life.  Our brains are changing, flawed, human.   They can tell us something about our own changing, flawed, human journey, but I doubt that I can learn anything objectively, universally true about things outside of myself solely by sitting and thinking about them really hard.   Another major problem with this way of thinking is that it sets up the dichotomy that leads to what I term “deep fighting.”

3. Deep Fighting.  This is the most harmful version of “deep” stuff.  It’s not just harmful, it’s paralyzing.  It’s the idea that we have an ‘inner’ mind, or self, and an ‘outer’ mind, or self.  The inner mind is meant to change the outer mind.  The inner mind is thought to be truer and better, where the outer, “natural” self is lesser and bad - an object requiring destruction.  People wage spiritual war on parts of themselves as a result of this kind of mentality.  I cannot accept that this is in any way healthy.  I cannot see how it does anything but create a turmoil that is impossible to escape.  Quite the opposite of Deep Looking, Deep Fighting does not encourage integration - it actively pulls the mind apart, alienating people from parts of themselves.  I am not the only one to have noticed this, but it makes me angry that people will acknowledge the pain and suffering related to such ‘reformation’, and yet continue to advise and counsel people to willingly enter the battlefield.   Swedenborg talks about the inner and outer minds, and discusses the pain of temptation.  He talks explicitly about how that pain is a necessary part of being reformed.  Many people do, literally, frame this process in terms of spiritual warfare.  I am nervous about pointing out actual instances, because it’s such a sensitive topic, but there’s this one post that has really stuck with me.  Now, I’ll start by saying that the writer is a minister in the New Church who I have heard nothing but good things about.  He seems pretty cool, a smart guy, and a good minister.  This post, which I first read last year, encapsulates so many things I had been thinking - I thought I was the only one who saw the connection between “fighting temptation”, or reformation, and a deep feeling of hopelessness and despair.  In my community at the time this was written, many people had recently taken their own lives.  Here, Mac tries to understand where the feeling of despair comes from that is sometimes at the heart of suicide:

“Spiritual despair is when you are faced with the impossibility of your own redemption. When you look at your own dysfunctional behavior and at evil you discover in your own heart and cannot see any hope of change. Despair is often the final stage of the spiritual trials we call temptations. Spiritual despair causes you to feel like you’re drowning, like you’ve been punched in the gut, like you’re trapped under the ice, like you can’t draw a breath and soon will suffocate if you can’t manage to somehow escape the flood and suck in some air. In despair, things that once seemed certain–the existence of God, the love of friends, the value of life–fall to doubt and even rejection.”

This rings so painfully true.  I agree with every word of this, to my core.  It’s so true, and so heartbreaking.  Again, I hesitate to point to this post critically, especially seeing as Mac wrote this from a place of grieving for a dear friend.  So I want to be clear: I am not criticizing this post itself, and I am certainly not in anyway meaning to criticize the writer.  I am criticizing the system.  I am pointing to this post because I agree with the premise so whole-heartedly, but the conclusions made and the answers offered in the New Church (and much other religion) make no sense to me, and seem to be perpetuating the problem.  

One of the responses to this despair is that it’s unpleasant, but neccessary.  As the post points out, “Over and over you will see references to spiritual rebirth as a result of spiritual struggle.  And know that hell wouldn’t need to attack so fiercely if heaven wasn’t just around the corner,” and “The great things in life only come after struggle”.  It’s the old “no pain, no gain” adage.  I flatly disagree.  I do not think that great things only come after a struggle.  I think that change does often include a certain discomfort, but not intense pain - not completely engulfing hopelessness.  You can change with softness - in fact, I would argue that you can only change with softness.  You have to be kind to yourself, to nourish yourself.  I think many people in the New Church would even agree with that, but there is no system in place to help foster self-nourishment.  The teaching is to just accept the Lord’s love.  What does that even mean? It is so useless to me.  It’s like telling someone with a mental disorder to “just stop”, or someone with anorexia to “just eat more food” (and then “oh yeah, but don’t binge and get fat either”). How is that at all helpful?  It doesn’t actually do anything to change the system that creates the misery.  I can pretty much guarantee that every single New Church person in despair can point to the passages that say everyone is loved by God - but it doesn’t alleviate the feeling of despair.  That was my experience, anyhow.  If anything, it made me feel worse, because I couldn’t feel myself getting better; I couldn’t just accept the Lord’s love.  I couldn’t accept my own love.  Surrendering, ostensibly to God, just left me in a pool of darkness, at the mercy of my own hatred.  Along the same lines, another response to the despair phenomenon by the New Church is that it’s a lie, that “it’s a nasty trick”.  This completely invalidates the feeling of despair.  You shouldn’t be feeling like that, it’s just you falling for the hells.   You don’t really need to feel like that, or even worse, you don’t really feel like that.  Just stop listening to those thoughts, those feelings.  Fight harder.  This way of thinking is alienating, and it doesn’t help.  It fosters shame, hatred, and frustration, without offering any real way out.  It’s mental self-injury.  It’s harmful, and wrong. 

The post also says that “Despair sets you up for the next temptation, shatters your resolve so that you backslide into behaviors you had been trying to break free from. Like going on an eating binge just because you slipped once in your diet, despair can trigger a series of decisions that themselves lead to even more despair.”  I think this is an interesting metaphor.  One of the things I’m really interested in these days is the fat acceptance movement and the idea of intuitive eating.  The premise behind intuitive eating is that dieting of any kind is unhealthy and screws up our internal, natural ability to know how to nourish ourselves.  That if we eat whatever we’re in the mood for, eventually our impulses to backlash against the dieting will calm down, and our instincts will lead us naturally and softly to eating a variety of healthful foods.  Yeah, you might eat only cake for a week, but after a week you’ll be like “Oh Man. Carrots would be awesome right now.”  I think the same thing will work spiritually.  If the diet isn’t working, stop dieting.  Try to stop attaching moral designations to thoughts and feelings.  Quit the whole thing.  GET OUT.  

“Spiritual despair is when you are faced with the impossibility of your own redemption. When you look at your own dysfunctional behavior and at evil you discover in your own heart and cannot see any hope of change.”  Why, then, don’t we give up on the whole idea of redemption? The idea of evil? The idea of temptation?  How can anyone in good conscience counsel troubled people that the key is to willing enter into the process of fighting temptation, when they know that it will end in deep despair? It makes me so livid.  I have been in that place before, and it is a state I would not wish on my worst enemy, let alone my dearest friends.  Even if surrendering to God’s love worked, I would never want anyone to endure this state for even the briefest moment.  So much can be lost in that small moment.  Many of my loved ones have attempted or contemplated attempting suicide.  At least half of the people who are really close to me have been there at some point.  I live my life in fear that I will lose them.  Sometimes I go into periods of slight paranoia, where every time my mom calls my heart skips a beat, terrified that she will tell me that someone I love has taken his or her life.  Deep fighting is taking casualties - it is making me watch my loved ones as they gasp for breath, unable to accept any comfort I might offer.  First of all, let’s start working on ways of getting people out of despair that are actually effective.  Secondly, we cannot stop there - let’s start working on ways to prevent violent despair in the first place.  We need to stop Deep Fighting, get rid of the dynamic entirely; it is killing people, every day.  I am furious, and scared. This is not a matter of philosophical pondering to me - it is a matter, literally, of life and death.  


  1. I'm really glad you started this blog.
    I'm really bad at communicating.

    Some poorly edited thoughts:
    On empathy.
    Two concerns. First are we talking about empathy as an ingrained aspect of our being? Good because it's biological? In which case there is plenty of evidence to suggest that we are not built to empathize with more than a handful of people in our immediate tribal ring. We simply are not capable of truly empathizing with strangers etc. Of course this isn't really true is it? (Although there are aspects of the idea worth considering).

    How about if it's voluntary? If this is the case than we MUST define the limits that we wish to extend it to. One often says "we're all human" and justifies empathetic boundaries extending that far. But how arbitrary really. We first have to actively create the idea and boundaries of what a human is and then apply our empathy to that. We find the biology=good equation hidden inside "we are all human" and on top of that we discover that human =/= biology.

    So do we extend our empathy to all life? Setting aside the arbitrary limits of "life" we still quickly find ourselves either immobilized or wracked with guilt. We cannot exist with causing "harm" to something. You get where this is going.

    So my point is that when you find yourself in righteous anger you may be simply not empathizing because this person, in their difference from you,at least for the moment, has found themselves in the unfortunate position of falling outside your arbitrary (though necessary) boundaries of empathy. Your anger is neither righteous nor wrong. It just is.

  2. On depth of thought:

    The metaphor of depth in the mind may need to be retired. At some point it was likely useful as analogous to difficult thought but it is the curse of all difficult arts to be co-opted aesthetically by opportunists. One finds a "deep thinker" using certain phrases and finds they can pass themselves off (to themselves as much as others) as deep by simply repeating them. Deep thought now consists primarily of having the right conclusions more than the right approach.

    Am I a grumpy old man already?

  3. I love this. It's crazy how many times while reading this I said to myself, that is exactly what I've been saying or trying to say. Over the last year I've embarked on a self proclaimed crusade against shame/guilt in ever form, in an attempt to replace it with extreme acceptance. And I don't just mean acceptance as in, accepting people, but even just accepting that things are the way they are instead of trying to convince myself they are something different--i.e. becoming an atheist. It's been really terrifying to find out how much of my motivation in life came from my own shame and guilt.

    One of my favorite things in reading this post is the tension between a rejection of the ideas of right and wrong (or good and evil) yet the inability to escape the language of it. You say "should" like its a dirty word, yet can't escape phrases like "we need to." To me, the most exciting thoughts that people around me are having are connected to this cycle of constantly rejecting the idea and language of absolute meaning or purpose, and then being drawn back in by our own tastes and desires.

    As far as I can tell, as soon as we want something, our mind creates meaning in our lives. For some people this process happens fundamentally once, when they decide on some absolute ethical code that they want to become the epitome of, and then shape all the meaning in their life around that idea. But when you give up absolutes, at least for me, I'm tossed into a torrent of creation and destruction of meaning, shaped by the inconsistent sensations of taste and empathy.

    And in a strange way it makes my life much more meaningful. When I thought there was a grander scheme or ultimate purpose to life, than my role was relatively insignificant, but when all the meaning in my life can be enjoying a bowl of soup with a friend (for some reason I've been obsessed with soup aesthetically, recently) I get to experience being huge and significant.

    I'm rambling, and failing to say what I'm trying to say. So instead I will say: I love this--I think your wonderful--most of my thoughts are about empathy these days--good night.

    P.S. @Curtis, who ever you might be, you are, in fact, a grumpy old man (mostly because, a couple of times, you started sentences with "One s")

    P.P.S. I'm excited to read your other entries, both past and future. Thanks for making my life more fun and interesting.

  4. Curtis: I definitely would go with the empathy as voluntary thing. I like what you're saying about the boundaries being pretty arbitrary. It's one of those paradox things where I know I can never be completely empathetic with everything, or else I would not be able to move, but at the same time I have to try to extend my boundaries of empathy. I'm really not sure why I feel driven to do that, other than, like I said, I really hate it when people are jerks. I hate it even more when I'm a jerk. I hate it even, even more when I only realize I've been a jerk after the fact.

    "So my point is that when you find yourself in righteous anger you may be simply not empathizing because this person, in their difference from you,at least for the moment, has found themselves in the unfortunate position of falling outside your arbitrary (though necessary) boundaries of empathy. Your anger is neither righteous nor wrong. It just is."
    I actually find that super challenging and incredibly comforting at the same time. So...thanks.

    I also COMPLETELY agree that maybe we should just get rid of the notion of "deep" thought all together. It means so many different things but at the same time really doesn't mean anything. Interestingly, touching on Dylan's point about language, reading back on my older posts I realized that I used the word "deep" or "deeply" in almost every single one. What a weird thing.

  5. Dylan: Yes! You have touched on exactly my problem in my head right now. So I'm going to do some rambling of my own. I apologize if none of this makes sense, or is at all consistent.

    "I'm tossed into a torrent of creation and destruction of meaning, shaped by the inconsistent sensations of taste and empathy." *nods* it's confusing. And awesome. Basically, just: yes.

    As my language betrayed: I'm struggling right now on whether or not I do believe in Right or Wrong. My answer totally depends on the day, the context, and my mood. For a long time there I'd say no - that there is absolutely noting Right nor anything Wrong. But then there's the issue of human rights.

    I feel like you have all the right in the world to hurt yourself, but you do NOT have the right to hurt other people. Is the person Evil? I don't even know what that would mean. Burn in hell? Then no, not evil. Is the act wrong and need to be stopped for the protection of the other person? I would argue yes. That it is wrong.

    Maybe what I'm rejecting is the idea that people themselves are either good or evil? Or the idea that an act in and of itself is either right or wrong? I just don't even know. I guess the difference is that it's relative. There are "good" ways of acting and "bad" ways of acting, but they are completely relative, with that relativity hinging on whether or not they take away another person's rights. But then we get into the question of rights and who defines THOSE, and if it's even possible to really be autonomous and/or unharmed. Maybe all I'm doing is redefining right/wrong in my head in completely useless ways, or in very useful ways. Or maybe it honestly just doesn't matter, because we're all just going along one way or another. But I still feel like I should - er...want?- to try to create a world that is more pleasant for the disenfranchised.

    So...yeah. Confused. But pretty happy with the confusion.

    Love your crusade for acceptance! Takes a lot of guts, that.

    Both Dylan and Curtis: You are so great. Loving all of your thoughts.

  6. Also, a thought: is it possible to empathize with someone, and still seriously disagree with them? I think it is, but I'm not really sure what to do with it.

  7. If you want to look into some crazy neurobiology stuff relating to empathy, read about "mirror neurons." Basically the theory, backed by considerable evidence, is that when you empathize with someone--say, watch their hand get bashed with a hammer--your brain fires almost identical neurons as when your hand gets hit. So I think, in a very real sense, empathy is the capacity to blur the line between a sense of self confined to our being and a sense of all sentient life as self.

    And then it gets really freaky when you start thinking about the fact that our "self" is really a complex system of small parts working together, and in a very similar way, we are just a single person functioning as a part of a larger society that we depend on for our needs. Basically, as soon as you let go of the idea of a soul, where the "us" starts and ends becomes pretty ambiguous.

    Sorry for rambling.

    I guess, I think of empathy as primarily emotional and visceral, not very cognitive. So I don't see any thing keeping me from fully empathizing with someone who I disagree with completely. As long as I consider their feelings and senses real, I can share in them. In fact, I can even do so with fictional characters--people in the western world probably spend more time empathizing with fictional people than real people.


  8. Coolest thing ever. For real. Will look into mirror neurons.