Tiny Revolutions №15: The Burdens of the Self

they've never been heavier

I’ve always been active in places where people interact online. From my earliest days in Prodigy and AOL chat rooms to the many, many hours I spent on the craigslist open forum in the early aughts to the professional Slack groups I’m in now, I’ve just always been interested in seeing what people talk about when no one’s looking.

Recently in a forum for women who work in tech, I came across a thread where people were debating the veracity of this quote:

“The quality of your life ultimately depends on the quality of your relationships . . . which are basically a reflection of your sense of decency, your ability to think of others, your generosity.”

This is, of course, a quote from Esther Perel, a psychotherapist who is having quite a moment right now. I’ve linked to her podcast, Where Should We Begin, before — it lets you be a fly on the wall of her couples therapy sessions and is incredibly illuminating whether you’re in a relationship or not.

Her message is so simple and so true that it’s shocking to me that anyone could disagree. But some of the people in this forum did, which seems like a sad and fitting commentary on this here era of late capitalism.

Because there’s no way around it — having good relationships takes work. Sometimes a lot of it. And if you’re focusing large swaths of your time and energy on making a living, as many of us are, you can see the problem. We’re constantly being torn in different directions and it never feels like enough. (Hence why I like to drop links in this newsletter about how it’s ok to just do nothing.)

On a more positive note, Esther has a new podcast out about work, because, shocker, relationships are pretty important in that realm too. I haven’t made it through the whole season yet, but something she said in the prologue episode stopped me in my tracks:

“In the old model [of work] you knew what was expected of you. The rules were clear, the roles were clear, the boundaries of every relationship were clear, the hierarchy of every relationship was clear, and now everything is up for negotiation. Everything is a conversation. So you have a lot more freedom, but you also have to continuously know what you think, what you want, what matters to you, where you want to go, what’s your next goal, where you want to be, how you want to scale. The burdens of the self have never been heavier. That’s the tradeoff.

The burdens of the self have never been heavier. Wow. I don’t think there’s anything I can add to this except to say that it’s nice to have an expert name and give credence to the free floating pressure to constantly have things figured out that surrounds many of us in 2019.

So yeah, I’m just here to give you another reminder that it’s OK to not have your grand plan mapped out. You’re in good company. I hope this weekend you give yourself permission to take a break and just exist for a while. You certainly have mine.

And now for some links…


Who Are You Without the Doing?

“You have to completely conquer the feeling that there is something fundamentally wrong with your human nature, and that therefore you need discipline to correct your behavior. As long as you feel the discipline comes from the outside, there is still a feeling that something is lacking in you.”

This is a short but powerful podcast episode by writer and thinker Jocelyn Glei.


Offered without comment.


Three Methods for Working with Chaos

Pema Chodron young Diedre Blomfield Brown

One of my life’s greatest teachers is Pema Chödrön, the Buddhist nun who embarked upon her spiritual journey after throwing a rock at the head of her cheating husband. Her book “When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times” has brought me so much comfort over the years that I keep a copy by my bedside and have been known to give it as a gift. Here’s an excerpt from the book that’s a great one to bookmark.


Here’s a fun way to spend five minutes — a quiz that will tell you about your “creative personalityso you can better understand how to tap into into it.

(I got “visionary” and it told me to collaborate with “thinkers”, so if you’re out there and you want to work on something together, hit me up!)


“If I had a penny for my thoughts I’d be a millionaire”

Paul’s Boutique turns 30 this year, and still sounds fucking incredible.


A poem for Thanksgiving.

Finally, thanks for all of your kind replies to the last edition — I’m grateful for all of you, and I’m glad to be back.

😘

Sara

p.s. If you liked reading this, please share it with someone else and have them sign up here.

p.p.s.

Tiny Revolutions №14: One Continuous Mistake

but you just keep going

Hello! It’s been a while. Spring became summer. Summer became fall. You and I have taken approximately 4,838,400 breaths since the last time I published an issue Tiny Revolutions. (That’s seven months of breathing according to this math.) Did you ever imagine you’d done anything four million times, much less in only seven months? Me neither.

What happened? Well, for one thing, I needed a break from thinking of myself as a depressed person. That may or may not be true at any given moment, but I found it a heavy mantle. “Hi, I write a newsletter about dealing with depression.” Try saying that out loud. See? Depressing.

It wasn’t just that though. In my last dispatch I mentioned that I was going on my first ever silent meditation retreat with Angel City Zen Center. It was weird and hard and profound and all the things you might expect sitting in silence with strangers for a few days would be. I’ve since stuck with Zen-style meditation (zazen), and I’ve found I really like it. I go to the center most Saturday mornings for the group meditation and for the talks too.

There was one recently that was inspired by this quote from Dogen Zenji, who brought Buddhism to Japan in the 13th century, and is basically the Zen master’s Zen master:

“A forward step is a mistake, a backwards step is a mistake, one step is a mistake and two steps are a mistake. Therefore, [action] is mistakes at every moment.”

I needed to hear this.

The talk took place after an hour of sitting zazen, and really just a few days of feeling plagued by some stubborn old narratives rolling around in my head about how I have spent my life chasing the wrong things. You know, your typical ‘road not taken’ stuff — fill in the blank with your own issues — combined with just good old-fashioned self-doubt.

The reason I’ve stuck with meditation — and Zen in particular — is because it makes such a huge difference in whether I get caught up in these narratives. Practicing zazen teaches you that thoughts come and go like weather. Sometimes they’re pleasant, sometimes they’re not. You’re not bad for thinking shitty thoughts about yourself or others just as you’re not good for thinking overwhelmingly positive thoughts -- you’re just a human with a brain and thinking is what brains do. (I think this is an insight that is useful whether or not you meditate regularly, though the more you do, the more obvious this truth is.)

However, one thing meditation is not great for, in my opinion (and I’m open to being debated on this front), is writing about your life. Writing requires narratives. You need a good story to hook people.

And that seems to be at odds with what I’m trying to do by sitting zazen, which is not tell myself a story about my past, my present, my future. To just be, and to act in accordance with my essential nature.

So yeah, even though I’m kinda mad at myself for not writing this newsletter in seven months, I figure I can just start again. Life being one continuous mistake and all.

Now for some stuff I found interesting recently and that you might too.


In an Age of Knowledge Work, Emotion Regulation is a Superpower

“It turned out that he and I shared a similar concern: we thought that our angst was a source of power that pushed us to higher levels of accomplishment and skill. I argued, hotly, that being hard on yourself was an incredibly effective method for getting results. I wasn't completely prepared to let go of it as a tool for self-improvement.”

I really enjoyed this essay, which is about finding the line between being pushing yourself to perform to your potential and flagellating yourself for not accomplishing more. This is a lifetime worth of work, in my opinion. But it’s work worth doing. And today’s economy being what it is, odds are that the livelihood of anyone who’s reading this depends on it.


The Big Decision Spreadsheet

This is a crowdsourced list of suggestions for what to do when you need to make a big decision and you can’t figure out how to move forward. Some of these are great and some of these are kinda 🤔, but part of the fun here is just seeing how other people think.


Here’s a nice guide HuffPost put together on therapy — how to tell if you need it, what it entails, how to get it for cheap, etc. I can see this coming in handy with the holidays approaching.

How to get better at handling stress during the holiday and beyond

(Please enjoy this incredible stock photo I found)


An interesting read from Wired on why rich people are such dicks.

Researchers have concluded again and again that the single most reliable predictor of happiness is feeling embedded in a community. In the 1920s, around 5 percent of Americans lived alone. Today, more than a quarter do—the highest levels ever, according to the Census Bureau. Meanwhile, the use of antidepressants has increased over 400 percent in just the past twenty years and abuse of pain medication is a growing epidemic. Correlation doesn’t prove causation, but those trends aren’t unrelated. Maybe it’s time to ask some impertinent questions about formerly unquestionable aspirations, such as comfort, wealth, and power.


My new favorite newsletter is one that focuses on a virtue that is in short supply these days: civility. The Civilian breaks down complicated political issues in a easy-to-digest, non-partisan, non-biased way. Each issue has a simple hand-drawn graphic followed by an essay, and each issue takes about 5-7 minutes to read.

Ahem, this may also be helpful with the holidays approaching. Sign up here.


“What we accomplish in the marathon of life depends on our persistence, our patience, and an ability to see ourselves as we really are.“

Love a good ode to the late bloomer.


A good tweet.


Speaking of not being productive.

I’m headed off on another meditation retreat this weekend up at Mt. Baldy Zen Center, where no less than Leonard Cohen was once a resident monk. Wish me luck. I’ll try to write again soon. In the meantime, send me a note, tell me what’s what.

Thanks for reading.

😘

Sara

p.s. I am on the hunt for a new gig! If you know of a cool opportunity for a communications/marketing/content strategist, holler at your girl. Or if you just need a writer, I might be up for that too.

p.p.s. If you know someone who you think would like to join this tiny revolution, please have them subscribe here.

Tiny Revolutions №13: Check Yourself Before...You Know

tell me how you really feel

ice cube GIF

I recently broke up with someone. It had been a short but intense relationship: the kind where we went immediately from being total strangers to spending almost all of our free time together. This is extremely unusual for me, but I went with it because it felt right—right up until it didn’t. We fell apart even faster than we had come together. It was messy and confusing and painful when it ended, but it was absolutely, completely finished.

And what I noticed in the immediate aftermath was that the emotion I felt the most, even more than sadness, was fear. An intense, cold fear. Of being alone. Of sleeping alone. Of confronting the huge vacuum that opens up when you break up with someone. Those lazy weekend mornings when you used to lounge about drinking coffee together until you went about your day. And then all the nights after.

As I approached the first weekend after it ended, I found myself in a tailspin, wondering how I would fill the hours and convinced that I was doomed to eternal solitude.

But then something pretty great happened. I had the presence of mind to pull my head out of my ass and asked myself how I was *actually* feeling right at that moment. Apart from the assumption that every day after this would bring me a step closer to dying alone and having my corpse picked at by my dog before the neighbors found me, what was really going on?

Yes, there was loneliness. Yes, there was sadness and disappointment. There was shame, because here I was, dealing with another “failed” relationship. But there was also relief, because there was a reason it had ended. And there was gratitude—for making it through an intense situation and remaining intact. There was even a tiny glimpse of hope that maybe one day there would be a relationship that ended on a less fraught note, or maybe didn’t end at all.

I was able to remind myself that there would be so many more moments, if I could just remember to actually be there for them. The fear that I was feeling only had a small amount to do with reality — it was my anticipation of the loneliness itself that was harming me and causing me to suffer. And so it felt like a choice — either stay worried about the future or keep returning to right now. What’s actually happening as opposed to what might happen.

I’m writing to you from a sunny spring day with a light wind that’s floating the sweet smell of jasmine my way every so often. What’s present for me right now is gratitude that I get to experience this beauty and that I get to write about it, and that you are reading about it. I’m a little bit lonely. I’m a little bit sad that I don’t have anyone sitting across the table from me with a reassuring smile. But that’s just something that I’m feeling right now. Maybe I won’t feel that way tomorrow. Or maybe I won’t even feel that way in 20 minutes.

Onward.


I’ve been thinking (and reading) a lot lately about how researchers are discovering more and more about how the diversity of the microbes in your gut impacts your mental health. Blah blah blah probiotics, the intestinal biome, etc. But it was kind of a lightbulb to read this article about how for all our focus on eating fermented foods and drinking kombucha and the like to get more probiotics into our systems, we might be overlooking something even more important: the necessity of eating enough fiber. It is fiber, after all, that feeds the microbes. So eat your beans.


Need help making a decision? The body never lies.


“The brain does not honor the kind of anachronistic distinction between thought and feeling. Thought and feeling are absolutely intermingled in the brain, and so there are no areas of the brain that are exclusively dedicated to one and not the other. There’s a lot of interconnectivity.”

One of my favorite things to read about is how science is catching up to something that some people (ahem, Buddhists) have instinctively known forever: that there is no separation between our bodies and minds. Here’s a great conversation between On Being’s Krista Tippet and leading neuroscientist Richard Wright. It’s ostensibly about the role of feelings in the classroom, but it’s so much more than that. (Note: there’s a transcript if podcasts aren’t your thing.)


Dolly.


A poem for spring.

Image result for philip larkin the trees

I’m off for a meditation retreat with Angel City Zen Center this weekend, which I’ve recently discovered is home to a thoughtful and welcoming group of people. If you are curious about meditation, let me know if you’d like to join me for one of their group sits. (And regardless, wish me luck at staying silent for three days.)


Before I leave you, I have a little experiment I want to try. Will you go here and answer two short, anonymous questions? I want to know how *you* are feeling right this very moment. This will take you no more than ten seconds.

😘

Sara

p.s. Thanks to my dear friend and reader Stephanie, who supplied this photo that refers to a question I posed in an earlier issue.

p.p.s. Want to know a secret?

p.p.p.s. Thank you for reading this far! If you know someone who you think would like to join this tiny revolution, please have them subscribe here.

Tiny Revolutions №12: Sweet Relief

sometimes it really does get better

I came across an article recently about how while we have learned much more about treating depression in the past twenty years, there is still a lack of research on recovery. According to the New York Times, “in trying to understand how people with depression might escape their condition, scientists have focused almost entirely on the afflicted, overlooking a potentially informative group: people who once suffered from some form of depression but have more or less recovered.”

I’m surprised but not surprised by this. It runs parallel to all my reading about depression -- and I’ve done a lot -- which focuses on the experience. How you feel trapped and at a dead end and Churchill’s Black Dog and all that. I remember when I was first diagnosed in 2009, my aunt, a psychiatrist, looked me dead in the eye and said, “you can and will get better,” and I held on to that promise like the lifeline it was. I knew getting better would involve meds and therapy, but beyond that, ???

So here’s what it’s looked like for me this go-round. The biggest thing, this time and last? Putting an end to the chaos. In 2009 I was working an extremely high pressure job that I hated. In 2018 I was a freelancer with a failed startup and an erratic client load. In both cases, I felt completely out on a limb, with no support whatsoever, and the extended period of knowing my world could crumble at any minute was one of the biggest contributors to my depression. So I fixed that. In 2009 I was in a better position financially and I took an extended leave of absence from work. Last year I was just straight up lucky, and a full time job came along exactly when I needed it.

There were lots of other things I did too, of course. I pretty much quit drinking, at least while I was at my lowest. I went to stay with my sister and her family for a while, and then later, my parents. Again, I was extremely fortunate that I *could* do these things. Many people don’t have the option. But if I had to point to what helped the most, that was it. Otherwise it’s been a gradual process. Allowing myself to feel, and to rest, and take long walks, and to just be without enormous pressure to provide or produce or whatever. I didn’t escape entirely, of course -- I was still working a full time job -- but I did alleviate the burden somewhat.

So how do I know I’m better? That’s also been a slow process of recognition. But here are some signs of life:

  • I’m listening to music again, and with the frequency that has been normal for my entire adult life. That slowed almost to a halt during the worst of it.

  • I can come across shittiness in the world and shake it off. This is a big one -- in a more depressed state, bad news can stick to me like tar.

  • I started tweeting again. That may sound weird, but it’s almost like I feel free to speak again, and that I might have something to say — and that it’s worth the effort to say it. I have interest in engaging in a dialogue with the world in a way that I didn’t for a while.

  • I SOMETIMES SPONTANEOUSLY FEEL LIKE DANCING. My dog is rather alarmed at this development, but I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to actually feel this way. It had been a while.

Most of all, I just don’t feel like I’m in a state of emergency constantly. I’m not ecstatic every day, but I can breathe. It’s not like I missed any of these things when they were gone. The creep of symptoms is one of the most insidious things about depression — bit by bit you lose yourself.

I hope to be here for a good long while, but I’m just trying every day to appreciate and enjoy it regardless. And I want to spread the word to anyone who’s in the middle of a hard time that it can happen to you, too. That there is hope.

Season 4 Starz GIF by Outlander

Onward.


Do you know what elation sounds like?

Here’s a weird and pretty much NSFW audio map of vocalized human emotions. Unless you are home alone, I suggest headphones.


How my journey with depression goes back thousands of years

Enjoyed this short essay about the loooooong history of depression with examples of medical accounts from the Ancient Middle East.

“The wealth of sources for the Cuneiform medical tradition provide a unique opportunity to explore some of the earliest known expressions of human suffering and offer a reminder that we are not alone in trying to find ways to describe our own experiences of suffering, and to treat them.”

Also:

“Reliance, for example, on bodily metaphors like that of the heart (libbu), suggests that there was no separate category for mental health and illness and, accordingly, that there was no special stigma attached to mental distress. The physical and mental were continuous in a way that removed the need for added stigma.”

So 5,000 years ago we weren’t as blanketed in shame about our mental ailments, huh? Got it. Here’s hoping we can tackle that one.


Speaking of destigmatizing mental health issues, I found this tweetstorm about living with ADHD brave and interesting.


A tweet that is true:


And some lyrics that are true:

“And the less I seek my source for some definitive
The closer I am to fine”

Here’s a good read on the occasion of the 30th (!) anniversary of the Indigo Girls’ “Closer to Fine.” I was in 7th grade when this album came out, and they were the first band I saw in concert without my parents. It’s funny to watch this video now and see both how of its time it is, and yet timeless too. I hope the girls are proud.


Maybe you need this today:

breathe in help GIF

That’s all for this time. But tell me, are there signs you’ve noticed that indicate that you’re in a pretty good place, mentally? What are they?

😘

Sara

p.s. If you got this far, and you liked what you read, I’d appreciate it if you shared with a friend who might too. They can subscribe here.

Tiny Revolutions №11: The 10 Year Challenge

Hopefully we're all "better" than we were

Me in White Sands, New Mexico, in 2009.

2009 was the year I learned to meditate. I took a class at the Shambhala Center in Eagle Rock, in the easternmost reaches of Los Angeles. I attended one of their free introductory classes on a weeknight after work, and in a quiet, dusty room with the hushed noises of the 134 freeway in the background, I learned that my thoughts didn’t necessarily mean anything -- that they were just thoughts, things that came and went, not unlike the weather. And that I didn’t have to believe them.

And thank god, because being tortured by my thoughts is sort of my jam. My first reaction to meditation: “Why did no one tell me this before?”

I’d like to tell you that this was a turning point in my life. And maybe it was. But not how you’d think it would be. Reality is never so pat. In a perfect world, I would have become a devoted student and practitioner of meditation, and I would have headed off — or at least mitigated — many more years of self-hatred and disappointment.

But no. My introduction to meditation was actually when things got interesting, because while it gave me a way forward, it also showed me that I had such a long way to go. And I was so drained then that I didn’t think I had it in me.

So instead I had what one might call a breakdown. I took a leave of absence from my job and I got adequately medicated and I went to a shitload of therapy. And eventually I got better.

What I didn’t know in 2009 that is abundantly clear to me now was how absolutely married I was to there being only one way to be OK in this world, and it was more or less the way most god-fearing Americans do it -- get educated, get married, get a job, get a house, get some kids. For a variety of reasons both inside and outside of my control, my life hasn’t followed that structure. And yet I clung so tightly to this story that, the older I got, had less and less to do with my reality.

I am, at heart, a deeply conflicted person. I was raised to live one way and I live another, and while it is the only way I can live (believe me, I have tried otherwise), it is hard to not still measure myself by the yardsticks of my childhood.

It’s not an atypical story: so many millions of us leave the places we are from to make their lives in a city far away, among people whose values more closely mirror our own. You can see that drama writ large in American culture. Indeed, it feels like the quintessential American story -- to have the audacity to abandon familiarity in search of something better. Particularly when, as in my case, the familiar isn’t unbearable, but more of a suburban sameness that, while not terrible, just never really appealed to me.

And the reality is that sometimes the gamble pays off — we read about those stories all the time — but sometimes it doesn’t. And you can’t ever know whether it will. My own search for a life that suits me is still a work in progress, and there are so many days when I wish I had taken a “safe” road, but I didn’t. I couldn’t then and I still can’t now, and I just have to live with that. And I’m acutely aware that if I had, I’d be wondering what would have happened had I struck out and cast my fate to the wind the way that I have now.

What I have noticed, however, is that the less it feels like the gamble has paid off, the more depressed I am. Last summer felt like a dead end, personally: I was broke, in bad shape professionally, unhappily single, precariously perched in every possible way. But things change and fortunately they changed for the better.

The searching mind isn’t one for easy answers, and that’s a hard thing to come to grips with when you are a type A. I’ve always been ambitious and by my very nature I want all the goddamn answers and I want them now so I can bend the world to my whim. But that’s not how it works.

So if anything, my 10 year challenge has been to try to reconcile the facts of my life. There’s medication and there’s therapy and those things are helpful, but ultimately it is meditation that is critical. Just reminding myself every day that there is nothing but the present moment. And that each moment is new.

Despite almost every message we get in our daily lives about all the ways we could be better, we’re all fine. You and I are alive and we write and read emails and exist in relation to each other and just by virtue of that fact, we’re performing a hire wire act and that is A LOT. That is ENOUGH. The point of life is just to live and that’s it. Some days it’s bad and some days it’s not so bad and some days it’s fucking great.

As a side note, I’m feeling a lot better these days. So much so that I’ve been asking myself if I want to keep writing a newsletter about living with depression. Because once you’ve escaped quicksand, it’s not something you want to spend a lot of time thinking about, you know?

But I’m going to keep going and trying to evolve this format. If you have ideas for things you’d like to see me write about, please let me know. And thanks for being along for the ride.

And now on to some things that have inspired me lately…


I thought planning nothing would allow me to do everything, but in fact I just did nothing.

I loved this piece by Darcie Wilder, a young writer I admire, about the importance of establishing a daily routine if you’re a freelancer or gig economy type worker. Being a certain type of young and cool New Yorker, she took her experience to a pretty extreme place (up all night, avoiding going out, etc.), but I recognized a lot of the deleterious effects of dealing with large swaths of unstructured time.


Follow Friday

For those of you on the ‘gram, one of my favorite feeds of late is Nitch. It’s basically just short profiles of famous thinkers and their associated wisdom. This post is a prime example of what you can expect.


Speaking of people who’ve known all of the above…

Image result for quincy jones

One of the best things I’ve watched recently is the excellent documentary on Quincy Jones on Netflix. There’s the music, of course, which is wildly impressive, but even more impressive is the man. Watching his trajectory from poor kid from the South Side of Chicago to Broadway arranger to big band leader to film composer to music (and film) producer to media and broadcasting mogul is pretty astonishing. His foibles with women and his family, which are many, are never far from the forefront, but somehow you never doubt his heart. It’s an inspiring portrait of a great American who struggled with his share of demons and roadblocks but never lost hope in the process.


Um ok:

But maybe one day we’ll cure depression by fixing the microbiome? Go science!


Never forget what we’re up against


So, in the words of the late, great Mary Oliver:


And in case you didn’t know how I feel about us all:


Have a great weekend, y’all. Watch the Super Bowl if you must, but definitely eat some fuckin’ nachos.

😘

Sara

p.s. 10 years is nothing. Take it from John McPhee:

“A million years is the shortest time worth messing with for most problems”

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