I’m Not the Only One: The Ubiquity of (Super)-Heroism

It’s Not Just Me: The Ubiquity of (Super)-Heroism

One thing I have heard over and over in the last few months is, “Most people are not selfless. Most people don’t spend their time fighting for other people”.

Now, every time I say this, it is often directed at me and my beliefs. It is telling me, at the best, that most people are not like me.

I try to be as heroic as I can. I have had that dream. And I know that can come off as arrogant. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. I’m trying to defend and promote an idea of hope, love and compassion that I know for a fact I am inadequate to defend and promote. Everyone is. The fight is beyond any one person, or even a thousand people.

But I have taken an inventory of my interactions and I have found that that claim, that most people are not selfless, is utter and complete horseshit.

In the last month alone, these are a fraction of the people I have interacted with (and I am being vague about them in order to protect their privacy):

*A human rights reporter who has endured tremendous costs to try to make people see the problems of sex trafficking in Africa and elsewhere
*A happy and centered friend who is playing fewer video games because he is trying to make a social media site that will promote activist behavior

*A Christian woman dealing with physical health issues and loss who is still not only there for me but for her friends, and is engaging with people on Reddit

*A software designer and anarchist who is trying to be the best father possible and the best activist possible with limited resources

*A Catholic psychiatrist who still is finding aspects of the human condition of pain and reaching in

*A homeless activist

*A programmer and manager who arranged a dharma talk to try to bring hope and freedom from pain to others

*A Buddhist writer and scholar who taught people about freedom from pain

*A Christian man who works with the elderly and protects his homeless friends

*A female-to-male transgender person who is not only raising a child but also working at an LGBTQ center

*A formerly Christian, now atheistic conservative who has protected victims of assault even as he has struggled with depression and who routinely volunteers at a food bank and elsewhere

*A woman operating a wonderful store in the Pacific Northwest who has turned her struggles with depression into compassion for others

*A spiritual healer

*A man struggling with depression, cynicism and anger who is trying his best to create stories that entertain

*A man who has helped his friends repeatedly and has become burnt out when they did not turn around

*A man working on video games who has been massively supportive of me and offered to do whatever he could to insure I kept fighting

*A den mother who constantly brings compassion and joy to everyone in her life even with immense challenges

*A Salvation Army USA employee who keeps his Facebook notifications on even as he sleeps because he needs to be there to respond to crises

*A woman who has gone to Latin America to teach and volunteer

These are my friends, my family, and they are even strangers. And even the people who tell me that most people suck are the people who are on this list. This doesn’t count the people whose blogs I’ve read in the last month who try professionally or with much of their free time to make the world a better place, people like Michael Albert, Tim Wise, and dozens of people on all sides of issues on Twitter. It doesn’t count people I’ve met less recently, but still within the last year, like the woman who transitioned from ecological activism to being an EMT.

These are totally ordinary people. They have pain and confusion. They find themselves going to church or to dharma talks or to therapists like everyone else, to find guidance and love. They find themselves grappling with belief and faith and what is right to do every day. They face moral dilemmas and I am sure they falter and make mistakes in the face of those dilemmas. Many will become burnt out and quit, and they are still heroes for having tried in the first place.

In fact, even some of the angry activists I’ve interacted with who have hurled slurs at me were in their own (unfortunately destructive and closed-minded) way trying to improve the world.

I can speak to myself without fear of undermining my own confidences, and what I have done to try to help my neighbors has included writing resumes for free for people who needed it, volunteering to clean up a space after said dharma talk, writing blog posts to try to interact with people, and trying to inspire dozens of individuals to keep fighting and not give up. I have dealt in the last few months with others’ suicide attempts (both successful and unsuccessful), with others’ illnesses, and many other events that have certainly been immense challenges.

And it has been the best part of my life.

The math simply does not justify cynicism.

There are millions of people out there who are soldiers, civil rights attorneys, reporters, spiritual healers, doctors and nurses, therapists, support group leaders, pastors and preachers, monks, self-help teachers,  activists (professional and amateur), and inspirational speakers. There are millions of people who work in non-governmental organizations, labor unions, charity groups, and so forth.

Even if only 10% of these people are effective, motivated practitioners, that is still likely millions of deeply selfless people. Some of these people might champion causes I disagree with or are on the other side of, but it is unquestionable that they care.

Then consider those people who work in customer service professions and try their best to bring a smile to peoples’ face. Consider those people who pick up hitchhikers or help jump someone else. Consider those people who are writers and creators who are trying to make other people excited and happy and joyous. Consider the comedians and actors and directors who participate in bringing people enjoyment and stimulation. Consider those scientists and academics who research not just to satisfy their own curiosity but also to solve problems. Consider those engineers who try to solve problems that directly impact everyone.

In actual point of fact, it’s not the minority of the population who serve others. In a post-industrial service-based economy, a massive section of the population is directly engaged with each other.

To all of these heroes, I say:

Thank you.

You humble me.

It is easy for me to get up and try to be heroic. I am immensely happy and centered. I have been blessed with great fortune. I can quit and my life will still be fine. I am not only sociologically privileged, but I have incredible friends, a wonderful support network, and immense resources to entertain me.

But other people get up out of darkness and pain every morning, and they fight alongside me with so much skill and power I am just staggered.

I hope I get to meet hundreds more of you, and share how our superpowers work. I hope I get to inspire thousands or even millions of you to keep fighting skillfully, compassionately and tenaciously.

Because bringing someone in pain a smile, bringing someone who is scared a feeling of safety, wrapping someone up in a blanket who is cold…

Those are the only superpowers worth having.


How To Be Better at Your Religion

How To Actually Be Better at Your Religion

I hope that everyone reading this blog has found something that they believe, whatever it is, that helps keep them warm at night and dedicated in the day. Unfortunately, I know most have not. I have become so saddened recently at seeing how few people believe in something truly great, let it into them, let it transform them. But the beautiful thing is that there are so many options for us to embrace. Taoism, Buddhism, Sikhism, existentialism, humanism… there are wonderful philosophies and moral teachings that we can let into our souls and change who we are. (And “soul” could be a real thing or a metaphor for our deepest mind; I have no idea).

Of course, this isn’t anyone’s fault. Finding a truly great belief system requires testing that belief system against reality and against our minds. It requires really hard work. We have to have both the confidence to try something new and the humility to change it in response to evidence. That’s a difficult balance, and no one, myself certainly included, does it correctly.

Yet, no matter what you believe, no matter what God you do or don’t worship, there are some values, some beliefs, some norms, we can reject. Here’s some of them.

#1: Don’t pretend that your philosophical or religious tradition is the untapped wisdom of the entire cosmos.

If you believe that your religion or philosophy has all the answers to the complexities of life, you are insulting the hard work of everyone who is trying to find those answers. The Bible does not have answers to quantum physics. Taoism does not provide clear solutions to ethical dilemmas in medicine. The Hippocratic Oath doesn’t help us in our marriage. This world is so big and so complicated that we will always have to find answers. I get that that’s scary, but pretending otherwise is irresponsible.

If there were some wisdom out there that truly was infallible and applied to all contexts, we would have a perfect world right now. It’s not a controversial empirical fact to say that we still understand so little about human psychology, let alone the universe. This isn’t to say that scientific progress has been worthless. In fact, scientific progress is part of the noble part of human nature. To understand this world is to understand that which matters.

#2: Don’t let your religion stop you from fighting evil.

It’s all right to believe in an apocalypse. But if you wouldn’t fight tooth and nail to stop that Armageddon, then you are an asshole. I know that sounds harsh, but there’s no two ways about it. Perhaps one can accept that there is prophecy that says that non-believers would be cast to lakes of fire, but that prophecy says nothing about you.

Too many people I have spoken to are willing to smile at nuclear proliferation or biological weapons or global warming because it’s just the prelude to Rapture or something else. What God would want someone in their heaven that would so callously dismiss suffering?

#3: Don’t let your religion make you not look from side to side when you cross the road, as Gregory House put it.

Perhaps there is an interventionist God who will protect you. That doesn’t mean that you should test that. Your brain is a functioning organ. You have fear instincts for a reason.

It’s rather like the joke about the man who keeps turning away aid from drowning, saying that God will come help him. God did, through normal and natural means.

Get regular physicals. Exercise. (Again, I myself need to do all of this). Make sure to protect the material environment. Don’t be stupid. Have you ever had a friend that would do stupid things because you would bail them out? I don’t imagine that any supreme entities would take that any better than we would.

#4: Don’t let it lead you to not alter your diet or lifestyle, or believe some celestial force will handle things for you.

A friend of mine told me about a story where a Christian Scientist refused to change her diet because if God wanted her to die she would.

It’s one thing to think that truly unnatural things like breathing machines or chemotherapy are against God’s will. Maybe we can even admit that the production of insulin can be a little odd.

But changing your diet? There’s nothing in the Bible that says that God wants you to eat cheeseburgers and drink soda.

We all would, in moments of weakness, love some parent to take care of us for the rest of our lives. But clearly that wasn’t what was meant to happen, because we grow up and die. We have to take our turns at being the parent, the responsible actor.

#5: Don’t think about your religion like an unchanging system.

The great philosophies of the world evolved in response to new challenges. From Buddhism to Christianity, they adapted to new cultures and new situations. Judaism’s tradition of rabbinical analysis kept updating the ideas of the past to today’s needs.

Great moral wisdom is perennial. Turning the other cheek is just as skillful today as it was in 30 CE. Meditation is empirically a useful exercise.

But we have to adapt and update ideas too.

The Dalai Lama has said that, if quantum physics challenged some tenet of Buddhism, Buddhism would have to change.

Moral teaching doesn’t have to change in response to science, necessarily. There’s a difference between empirical and normative claims. It’s one thing to say what the world is and another thing entirely to say what you should do about it. But moral teaching should adjust too when we discover new ways of thinking.

#6: Don’t use your religion as a substitute for challenging your fear, or your arrogance, or anything else.

Your religion should make you want to be better. It should not be a cover for weakness or an excuse to remain the same.

It’s easy to be scared that this world is beyond our control, and want to have someone come to our aid to protect us at all times. But this is the fear of a child. It is not actual faith.

#7: Be able to recognize that your neighbors don’t live the way you do.

Everyone is special. No two people have taken the same paths in life.

When we live in a multi-faith world, our government has to respect everyone’s way of thinking too.

That’s why government should be secular. It’s not because secularism is necessarily superior. It’s because it’s the only way everyone can get along.

#8: Don’t pretend that this world doesn’t matter.

There may be a world beyond this one. Maybe it’ll even be better. The fields of Aaru, the Elysian plains, the kingdom of Heaven… who knows what waits us beyond that veil. Or perhaps we will reincarnate. Perhaps karma will determine how we reincarnate. I have no idea.

But this world utterly and absolutely matters.

Others have the same brain as us. They suffer as we do. They bleed as we do.

Taking care of them, and allowing them to take care of us, is how we survive.

#9: Don’t pretend that there’s no perspective that can improve you.

Virtually every religious tradition agrees on this score: Human beings are flawed in the sense that we falter, change and adapt. We are perfectly designed as humans, but what that means takes some humility to explore.

If you read the Bible and it resonates with your experience of live and love, great. But don’t shut out someone else’s wisdom as a result.

I have meditated since I was in the third grade. But I always learned from everyone I’ve met. I’ve vowed to try to take something away from every interaction. I can say with certainty that that has been a policy that I have never regretted. From Kant to Kierkegaard, from Hume to humanism, from Captain America to Camus, I’ve learned from everything I can.

If you really believe in a God, all of these are contributions that are a part of the universe that It created.

#10: Don’t prey on the weak.

A corollary of #1, #7 and #9 is that we need to respect that everyone else is special.

It’s one thing to offer wisdom and insight. It’s another thing to try to turn others into ideological clones.

It’s terrifying to admit, but sometimes what is good for someone else is for them to believe something different from us.

Do you love them enough, and believe in what you believe in enough, to avoid brainwashing?

We are all diminished when someone lives life in any way but their own.

#11: Don’t let your religion eclipse your own intuition.

If you are getting a bad feeling about a group, run.

Trust your instincts. They’re there for a reason.

#12: Don’t let it make you believe in bullshit miracles.

I have heard of cases where people were convinced that an uncurable venereal disease had been cured by God. They even had tests to prove it!

Understand concepts like “false positives”. Have enough scientific acumen to be willing to explore what you say.

#13: Above all, don’t let your religion make you a suckier person.

Your faith should make you more humble, more loving, more confident, more willing to engage, more determined to change the world, more determined to be a better neighbor. If it isn’t, then something is very wrong.

Incidentally, there’s one behavior I don’t want to add to that list.

If your belief makes you share your faith, respectfully and with attentiveness to other peoples’ space and needs, without a predatory mindset, that’s fine.

We react to door-to-door evangelists, people excited about something they want to share, with such annoyance. How dare a human being interrupt the flow of my day for ten minutes!

We should want to share with each other. We should have the confidence to give someone else a different perspective.

I get that all of these elements are hard. It can be hard to tell when we are seeing some momentary fad or aberration that shouldn’t force us to adapt ethically versus when we are seeing some trend that is sticking around. It can be hard to tell where we should draw the line as to what we want to let others do versus what we simply have to speak up about.

Neither I nor anyone else will get any of this right. That’s part of the curse and blessing of humanity: Fallibility. I am sure I have missed important principles. I am sure I have overstated some aspects and understated others. I hope that others will comment and add their ideas.

But I do know that when I follow these tenets, I feel my capability to aid others and actually live the path my faith makes me live grow.


The Emptiness of the Dharma and Practical Life Application

There are two ways we can relate to any philosophy.

We can view it as a book out there that we just relate to, just a collection of words. In a real way, even some very religious people do this. They parrot these ideas full of jargon with a limited understanding of how that might actually relate to anything real.

Or we can try to adopt it as something real. We can try to make it actually guide the behavior we have in our day-to-day lives: At work, with our family, and so forth.

This is not to say all philosophy has to be immediately practicable. Excellent epistemology, for example, may not always be relevant to someone not doing complex science. Exploring truth for its own sake is important for a variety of reasons.

I have heard many times now from Buddhist practitioners that “The dharma is empty”. For example: “A Bodhisattva cognizes all dharmas as empty of own-marks and sees them as not really existing , not totally real – uncreated”, as Buddhist Teachings writes on Twitter.

(The “dharma”, for those not up on their Sanskrit and Pali, is a complex concept, but in this context it refers to the path of Buddhism. It can also refer to the nature of phenomena and reality, which is based in uniquely Indian concepts about reality’s laws, causality and human behavior as being interrelated.)

So, if the dharma’s empty, then why do we follow it?

This is where this different practice comes into play.

When I hear that, I start thinking about what that could possibly mean in a concrete sense. And I do so based on my real, lived experience.

Ideas like this may have multiple equally valid interpretations. It is a hallmark of Buddhist practice, especially Zen koans, to provide ideas that may point to multiple different practical meanings. Truly great ideas can be applied over and over again to different contexts. So what follows is only one interpretation. But it is a practicable one.

See, to say the dharma is “empty” means that it’s not an absolutely solid system.

The inverse square rule for gravity is a very solid one. It’s not empty; it is universal and totally unambiguous. It’s the kind of rule that a computer can easily process.

The dharma isn’t like that. You couldn’t plug the dharma into a computer.

But that doesn’t make it any less real.

In fact, as we are discovering, many of the problems that we face are ones that you can’t fix with any computer as we currently understand it. A lot of problems don’t fall into simple categorizations. They rely on complicated causal models; they involve a lot of variables.

When it comes to individuals, anyone who has actually spent time working with others knows that there’s no silver bullet solution.

There’s no piece of advice that works equally for everyone in all contexts, or even in the same context.

We’re all immensely different.

To me, that means that the dharma adapts. The path in Buddhism can be very detailed and very specific, but each person will relate to it differently.

The dharma’s empty like an urn is empty. It has a shape. You fill your mind into it and the dharma dictates the shape that it takes.

My Buddhism won’t be the same as anyone else’s Buddhism. Indeed, that was rather the point of Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha.

I’ve increasingly come to believe that most of Buddhism is just practical cognitive-behavioral therapy. This isn’t dismissive. It’s an incredible fact. It means that there’s an entire tradition that for millennia explored really practical techniques for actually bringing people happiness.

Mutable, empty, adaptive, individualized… they’re all the same thing, in this context.

It means that no one can teach you your own dharma. They can teach you how theirs worked, and from enough experience know the steps, but it is going to vary totally.

Bruce Lee’s wisdom is helpful here. Lee knew that every martial art for every person was going to be different. He knew that there could be no strict, locked forms.

The dharma is the same way. It’s a technique of not having a technique.

There’s a liberation in this. It means there’s no “wrong” way to do Buddhism, ideological purity of some traditions aside.

For me, the dharma became part of my superhero code. I read the description of the bodhisattva vow by Chogyam Trungpa and I saw vindication of what I was trying to do. It meant I could stop thinking about my work to be heroic and my Buddhism as separate. My dharma is about being the best knight or the best superhero I can be. It means finding a way of living that way in a modern world where people may need a Professor X more than they need a Wolverine.

Until we have a much better understanding of human psychology and social psychology than we currently do, enough to fulfill the dream of psychohistory, this kind of “empty” practice will have to do.


How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Positivity: Positive Tactics, Faith and Psychological Barriers

As I engage with people on Twitter and Facebook, promoting everything from gun control to hope to Buddhism to anti-capitalism to anarchism, I am finding that virtually everyone has an opinion and they are overwhelmingly negative.

So many Twitter feeds are full only of confronting the other side. Expressing anger, pointing to facts that they imagine somehow will transform the entire discussion.

This kind of activism does need to happen, of course. People do need to be convinced. Sometimes someone is unaware that a problem exists. Other times, a partisan may be convinced to change their position to some degree by new data.

Still, you can enter these spaces online (and offline) and feel that you’re in a noise chamber. Everyone is yelling, no one is changing opinions, and you simply back away from the acrimony.

See, there’s two few basic assumptions at work here, all of which need to be challenged because they are not only inaccurate but so obviously inaccurate as to be clearly greatly flawed cognitions.

#1: People just don’t understand that there’s a problem. If they understood the problem to a greater level of granularity or just understood the magnitude, they’d act.

#2: If I just keep yelling about the problem, I’ll engage other people. I’ll totally change their mind. It just takes one factoid, one time we interact with them. And if their mind doesn’t change, they’re idiots or ideologues.

Anyone who has actually had to work with real human beings knows that these are both false assumptions. They are utterly misplaced and deeply dangerous.

I have never met a single person who has asked me, “Fred, you keep seeming to mention these bad things. I can’t think of something in this world that needs fixing; why don’t you direct me to them?”

Pick up a newspaper, read a blog, or just talk to your friends and you’ll perceive a dozen things to fix.

Maybe a conservative might see different problems from a liberal. Maybe someone with a political science background will approach an issue from a different paradigm than someone with a psychological background. But no one on the planet isn’t aware that there are serious problems in the world.

Here is one of those truths that is at once horrifying and liberating: There is no amount of granularity you can give a problem that will inspire action. There is no magnitude that will prompt a response.

If someone is about to face execution and there is nothing they can do, they are very likely to simply eat their last meal and try to enjoy their last days.

Getting social change to happen is not a matter of telling someone about some problem, whether it’s gun violence, homelessness, discrimination, racism, or war.

It’s a matter of lowering the psychological and practical barriers to action. Fear, anger, selfishness, apathy… they all have to be dealt with.

It’s a matter of inspiring people to have hope.

I have found that the same processes that I have used to encourage people suffering from serious pain to hope again, to try to seek out professional care and support groups, to acknowledge a problem and work on it, are the processes that will engage people to act.

As for the second assumption, there is a great sense of entitlement in just thinking that if someone hears some incredibly novel or witty characterization of the problem that they’ll come to your way of thinking.

It does happen. But if someone changes their opinion on a truly important issue because of one tweet or blog post of mine, I will get worried about their mental health.

People don’t just adopt their opinions because of FOX News, or because of bad high school education. They adopt perspectives because of entire lifetimes that make those perspectives resonate with experience.

That means it takes time, and trust, to transform the way that they think.

In an upcoming chapter of Skillful Means, I discuss the idea of finding the shortest route to psychological change. We have to have the humility and patience to operate from within someone else’s framework and convince them that, even within their framework, they should change their belief. If we want to make a Christian accept evolution as a hypothesis, it is simply not skillful or appropriate to begin with trying to make them hardcore atheists. Maybe we can just try to convince them that the Catholic Church accepts divinely guided evolution.

But here’s the upside to all of this.

If you have a great alternative, it doesn’t matter what side someone is on. They can embrace it.

I am a pareconist and anarchist. I don’t like capitalism. I look at the costs of capitalism, from ecological damage to the promotion of war to the way that the market tears down everything sacred to the way that people in markets are effectively bought and sold, and reject it.

But if there were no better alternative, if all I could do was have capitalism as it currently was or replace it for a Stalinist dungeon or feudalism, I would be forced to accept those flaws. As Michael Albert has pointed out, I’d have to accept it like someone has to accept gravity.

Conversely, someone can love capitalism. They can love the benefits that they perceive it has, rightly or wrongly.

But if I pitch them parecon, and they find that parecon has all the benefits they like and advantages in addition, it doesn’t matter anymore. Now they are compelled to accept parecon. And with a proper engagement, that moral and logical compulsion can become a psychological commitment.

I work on drawing someone a picture of the future they’d like to wake up in. When it comes to parecon, I try to make them think how nice it’d be to come to a workplace where everyone all participated as equals, where everyone had a fair mix of tasks, where no one was forced to do the “bitch work” as it is so often put. I try to make them imagine what it’d be like to be able to decide what happened at their office instead of passively waiting for misinformed memoranda from above that was not based in an understanding of what happened on the ground. I try to make this as concrete as possible.

What all this means is simple:

Always, always try to focus on the positive.

Ask yourself, “Would anyone who isn’t already on my side totally buy this argument? What aspects of their worldview might prevent them from engaging with this? What facts might I be assuming that they may honestly not know, and not have really gotten a chance to learn? Am I using any jargon that might turn them off?” (Yes, like parecon, which is why I tried to explain some above).

All of my favorite political activists did this. Dr. King, Noam Chomsky, Tim Wise, Barbara Ehrenreich, Peggy Mcintosh, Michael Albert, Howard Zinn… they all were (or are) positive people. They vary tremendously in terms of approach, style and belief, but they all try to give specifics that engage people.

Think of the people who truly inspire you. Are they really the angry polemicists? Or are they the people with a vision that made you think the world could be better?

Above all, have faith that tomorrow can be better than today. Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, Dr. King, Barack Obama, and Gandhi, all incredibly different and even opposed people, all believed that it was the people who were crazy enough to see the world change who would actually see it do so.

True change requires the terrifying moment of having faith in someone else’s nobility, that they can transcend their prejudices and accept a better way. It even requires having our own humility to know that our own idea of the better way will change over time. I understand why so many people would prefer to snipe across party lines, ensconced in safe fortresses of ideology.

It just won’t lead to a sunrise over a better world.


Tonglen and the Secret of Empathy

Mother Theresa has one of my favorite quotes, “I have found the paradox, that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love”.


There’s a Buddhist exercise called tonglen. It’s a complex concept, but at its most basic, it involves taking in the pain of others and putting out our own strength.


This idea seems somewhat paradoxical on its face too. Buddhism is a philosophy that seeks freedom from pain. Why would it advocate giving out the strength that we use to fight pain and taking in others’ pain?


On the most basic level, the idea is ethical training. So many of our interactions in society and life are fundamentally pathological, oriented at taking from the other. We interact with people who bag our groceries, and they are as an aperture of a machine to us. We can be kind or we can be cruel to them, but either way the interaction is for our benefit. We demand and need services. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this: We all do need our own things to survive and thrive. But it’s vital to also be able to think about the other and their needs.


But every time I do tonglen practice, I find myself energized. Sometimes I find myself shivering in warmth and joy. It feels like warm water under my skin, like stepping into warm sun after being frigid.


How could this happen? How could letting in darkness and pain be good? How could breathing out our strength be useful?


There are many answers, and they all stem from a similar source.


When I breathe in others’ pain, I remind myself that I am not alone in this world. Others suffer as I do, smile as I do, are joyous as I am. Instead of being an island of cognitions separated from others, I am in fact immersed in them. I am not the only one facing challenges, which means there is not some massive cosmic injustice being perpetrated against me and only me.

When I breathe out my strength, I see how much of it there is. I see how much I have to offer. I am a uniquely strong-willed, empathetic and positive person, but I strongly suspect others will have the same realization. When we reach past the darkness to our light, we often find that we are reaching past a membrane that is so thin it moves away from our grasp.


Human beings need meaning. We find meaning in providing a better life and a better world for each other. Tonglen practice is visualizing that process. It can remind us of the people in life we owe care and love to.

There’s a deep insight about empathy that has to be realized before we can solve the riddle of why tonglen can help the person who is doing it and not just those that their practice is trying to aid. This secret of empathy is going to be a chapter in my upcoming book, Skillful Means, as well as the basis for my book about activism, Radical Empathy.


We as human beings often think about empathy in two ways.


The more shallow way is to imagine the way we would feel in the other person’s shoes. This is a good technique, but it is from our perspective. They might feel differently in the same situation as we might. This is one of the most terrifying aspects of working with other people, seeing a fundamental asymmetry that is not defined by the situation.


The deeper way is to take on their perspective. We actually try to adopt their mindset and value system. This process can be difficult, but it can also occur at a very high level.


Indeed, the level at which this enhanced and focused empathy can occur is so intense that it can lead us to lose ourselves. It can lead to vicarious trauma, where the fact of their damage can change our worldlook. We can feel our optimism decline and our hope dwindle.


The true technique of empathy is the third path. It is the synthesis, the combination.


It’s taking on their approach, and our own.


It’s realizing that our perspectives matter, just as theirs do. Our perspective on their situation may be just as valid as their own.


We and they are not truly different in a robust psychological sense. In actual fact, all of reality is one interconnected whole. Me, the writer, and you, the reader, are sharing a moment, across time and space.


It’s not just about you and me, the monads, the individual units. It’s about the relationship, the dyad. It’s about the network of interrelationships between all of us.


That’s why tonglen feels so profound to us, when we truly care.


Tonglen is a promise.


It’s a promise that we will do everything possible to secure a better future.


In that moment, we are fighting for them. We are fighting for us. We are fighting for everyone.


Why I Do This: God Complexes And Helplessness

People keep asking me, “Why are you doing this?”

For those of you who don’t know me or don’t know what I do, “this” is being a freelance hope warrior. Inspiring people, trying to encourage political change, helping people with their problems and fears, writing material (both non-fiction and fiction) that is designed to inspire and make people think about our place in this world and the content of our heroism.

Though very few have had the courage to say it to my face, I know that many wonder or have even alleged that I have a God complex. A martyr complex, a messiah complex. Some way of dismissing what I do.

I get it. People have been burnt. Trusting someone just because they claim good motives is a good way of getting suckered.

But there’s a deeper problem.

I can admit that I have my own martyr complexes and messiah complexes. 

But I’ve always had them, and I didn’t act like this before. 

I can point to my hope.

But I’ve always been hopeful. Indeed, in my main novel series, one of the central protagonists draws upon hope and the future as a power source.

There’s a lot of factors that define what I do, have pushed me to this point.

What people fail to understand is how exhausting this work is.

Engaging with people who are hurt takes a toll. Those who dismiss missionary work or activists too quickly demonstrate only that they have not had to fight the demon of burnout.

Putting out work into the ether without immediate understanding of the rewards takes a toll.

Directing positivity into writing takes a toll. It’s part of my own tonglen practice: Taking the good in me and putting it into paper and bits.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it, and while I can say that it is the positive reinforcement of wonderful people and the knowledge that I can make a difference that keeps me going, that is very little comfort when I go to bed exhausted. 

I can talk on and on about the things I believe. Duties to others, the benefits of compassion, why this beautiful universe we live in matters.

I can even say that, far from being convinced of how special I am, I know exactly how inadequate I or anyone else is for what I would dream to happen.

So I try to condense it to this idea:

I just got tired of feeling helpless at being unable to stop suffering.

Now, if someone doesn’t believe that motivation, maybe it’s not me who has the complex.

Maybe someone who doesn’t understand that feeling of being helpless while loved ones were hurt and confused has the problem.

Maybe someone who doesn’t comprehend that defeating that feeling once and for all, never needing to be controlled by it again, needs to work on their empathy.