the ignoble jerkass and Vipassana meditation

Vipassana meditation is a type of meditation where you focus on your breathing and on various sensations throughout the body with the purpose of learning how to not react to them.

The ignoble jerkass is me.

I’m referring to myself as the ignoble jerkass in part due to my failure to observe Noble Silence during the 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat I recently went on. But I’m also calling myself that for other reasons which I will get to shortly.

Vipassana meditation, as taught by S.N. Goenka, is available at various meditation centers all over the world. There are courses of varying length for experienced practitioners, but the course for beginners is always 10 days. That’s apparently the minimum amount of time for someone to learn the basics of the technique.

Either that or it’s just a nice round number they picked at random.

A friend of mine from the Peace Corps was the one who recommended I do it. He and I went through a lot of the same things while we were in Africa; stress, fixating on things, obsessing about things, and so on. He went on a retreat in America and apparently got a lot of benefit from it, and suggested I could do the same.

Initially I was reluctant. I was afraid it would turn me into a liberal hippy douchebag with no sense of humor, or worse, that it would somehow make me lose interest in writing or take away my creativity. Of course these fears are not rational, but I’m not exactly the most rational person to begin with, so what can I do.

Fortunately for me there’s a nice big Vipassana meditation center just outside of Melbourne, and that’s where I went. Seven other guys joined me there, and around 12 or 15 girls. We were segregated pretty much the whole time, and after the first evening we were instructed to observe Noble Silence, which meant no talking whatsoever until day 10.

This was hard for me. Especially when my roommate in the dorms stepped on my glasses on day 1. My first new pair of glasses in almost 10 years, crushed and broken. I had honestly meant to observe the Noble Silence strictly, but I couldn’t help letting out an “Awww…” when that happened. Still, the worst part was that I couldn’t even tell the guy that I didn’t actually care that much, which left him wondering for the remaining 9 days whether I was pissed off at him.

Out of the 8 of us guys, 3 left within the first few days. I have to admit I briefly considered leaving, but what stopped me was the realization that no matter what, I didn’t want to go back to how I was feeling before. I needed some kind of change in my life—or at least in my outlook.

And that’s what I got. Vipassana meditation is simply about training your brain to be aware of the sensations you experience but not react to them with craving or aversion. There’s nothing magical or spiritual about it; it’s like learning a new language or a musical instrument. But like both of those things, it requires a lot of practice. The purpose of the 10-day retreat is not to cure you of all that ails you, but rather it’s simply about giving you the tools you need to cure yourself over time.

It also provides a lot of insight into what’s wrong with you. In my case it showed me just how much of a profoundly negative asshole I really am, and how destructive this is to me, to the people around me, and to my relationships with them. And it was fascinating to just sit and observe my thought patterns as I tried to focus my attention on my breathing. Goenka referred to the restless mind as a monkey jumping from branch to branch.

I think my monkey has rabies.

Another interesting aspect of this meditation is that as you stop reacting to stimuli with craving or aversion, your old reaction patterns start coming to the surface. And as long as you don’t react to them, they’ll fade away as well. I experienced a lot of really intense emotions as this happened. On day 3 it was frustration, on day 6 anger, on day 7 lust (don’t ask), and on day 9 anxiety. And no, I can’t say I’m completely free from all of these things now, but it does feel like the dial has been turned down a bit.

Another interesting aspect of the course was that starting on day 4 or 5 (I can’t remember which) we were expected to practice Determined Sitting for one hour, 3 times a day. That might not be what they called it (we weren’t allowed writing materials so I’m doing this from memory), but the point was to sit without moving anything for one hour. If this sounds easy, try it yourself. If you’re like me and have a lot of muscle tension anyway, sitting in one position becomes excruciating after about 45 minutes. The idea is that you’re supposed to train yourself to treat this discomfort as just another physical sensation and not react to it, but that’s easier said than done. The whole point of the retreat was to stop having cravings or aversions, but after about day 5 I started developing an aversion to the meditation hall itself. Because that’s where the Pain happens.

Still, it was totally worth it. I may not be enlightened now, but I feel like I have the tools I need to gradually improve myself over time. And who knows, maybe one day I’ll no longer be a negative asshole or an ignoble jerkass.

But don’t hold your breath.


growth and maturity

Today I want to write about growth and maturity. Not in an economic or financial sense, because I really don’t have much personal knowledge or experience with any of that, but rather in an individual sense; the growth and maturity of an individual.

Of course I don’t have a lot of personal knowledge or experience with that either, obviously, but I’m going to write about it anyway.

Apparently, some people out there are of the opinion that men today are not very mature. For example, this silly bint claims that men today in their 20s are in some sort of lamentable post-adolescent but pre-adult phase where they would rather play video games and hang out with their friends than have a so-called “traditional” life.

Which of course is pretty stupid. Stupid that she considers it lamentable, I mean.

Because so what if guys want to actually enjoy themselves? What she fails completely to mention is how many of these guys are gainfully employed. Because yeah, if they’re just living in their parents’ basement and being human leeches, she probably has a point. But if these guys are hard-working and taking care of themselves and their obligations, she really has no right to object to how they spend their spare time.

Well, if you look closely, what she’s really criticizing is the fact that these guys don’t seem to be interested in getting married. That seems to be her single criteria for “maturity”.

As a 31-year-old who has absolutely no intention of getting married any time soon, I find that pretty funny. Because I know myself pretty well, and I know for a fact that I am definitely not in a good position—emotionally or financially—to get married any time in the near future, and for me to marry someone now would actually be an extremely immature and irresponsible thing for me to do.

Which is why I proposed to a hot 21-year-old girl a couple of weeks ago. But that’s a whole nother story.

For what it’s worth, I don’t consider myself to be particularly mature. But I also don’t have any desire to be mature. I especially don’t have any desire to conform to someone else’s definition of maturity. I do, however, consider myself to be reasonably responsible. I always try to take responsibility for myself and my actions, and I generally do my best to not excessively inconvenience others with my immature antics. And yeah, I don’t exactly go out of my way to take on additional responsibilities, but I don’t shirk the ones I do have either.

But while I may not be particularly interested in maturity, I am interested in growth. Spiritual and intellectual growth, and the continuous expansion of my knowledge and experience. I have great plans for the places I want to visit, and the books I want to read, but I can’t help but observe that there’s a very specific chunk of human experience that I may end up missing out on, and as I get older the odds of me missing out on it forever are only going to increase.

Then again, sneaking into the UN building and rearranging all the countries so the representatives of the ones that hate each other have to sit next to each other and then run away before security catches me is kind of a stupid goal anyway.

There’s also the thought of getting married and having children. Because I have absolutely no doubt that I would experience a whole heckova lot of personal growth, and gain a lot of human experience, if I were to do either of both of those things. Hopefully in that order, too.

And I don’t know if it’s necessarily a good or bad thing, but I think a lot of men around my age aren’t experiencing this because they’re not forced to. With the increase in the variety and prevalence of birth control, along with the decrease in weapon-toting fathers, we’re seeing a lot less unexpected and unwanted pregnancies, and by extension a lot less shotgun weddings. So guys like me are no longer compelled against our will to “grow up” and “take responsibility” and all that other crap.

I can’t help but wonder if by not getting married and starting a family I’ve simply exchanged personal growth for a sort of hollow and empty freedom. Unfortunately, the only way for me to know for sure would be to get married and impregnate my wife, and there’s no way in hell I’m going to do that until I’m absolutely sure that I’m ready.

Plus, you know, I’d still have to find someone I actually want to marry—and who wants to marry me.

Still, despite my worry that I’m missing out on something profound, as an abstract concept I do not find marriage the slightest bit appealing. And I mean this in the kindest way possible, but all the wifey/mommy comments I see on Facebook only serve to cement this feeling. Because while I am absolutely and genuinely thrilled by the happiness my friends are experiencing, every single comment serves to confirm that it’s not something I want for myself.

At least not at the moment.

I was in love once. Well, I thought I was, anyway. Back in 2003 I proposed marriage to the girl of my dreams. Well, actually I just told her I was thinking about asking her to marry me, in order to gauge her reaction, but that’s not the point. The point is, while they were never things I’d wanted before, suddenly I wanted to get married because I wanted to marry her, and I wanted children because I wanted to have children with her. So yeah, marriage as a concept doesn’t appeal to me, but I have no doubt that if I got together with the right girl I’ll feel differently.

On the other hand, when I think about all the stuff I would’ve missed out on over the past eight years if I’d gotten married in 2003, I am so fucking glad that girl flew out of my life before I had the chance to do something really stupid. Even more stupid, I mean.

And yeah, I mean that literally. A couple of weeks after I asked her to marry me, she left the continent. Not the town, or even the country, but the freaking continent.

A simple “no” would’ve been sufficient.

why Libya?

Quite a few of my Chinese friends have asked me why America is attacking Libya right now.

Yeah, that’s how they phrased it.

There’s basically three ways for me to respond to this: 1) Repeat the president’s official justification, 2) Explain why I think it’s happening, and 3) Widen my eyes, point to something just behind the person asking me and say, “Holy crap! What the hell is that??!!” Then run off when they turn around to look.

I usually take option 3.

But it is interesting to see the Chinese reaction to the situation. Because for me, my first impulse is always to support the plucky freedom fighters against an authoritarian and totalitarian regime. Especially when the leader of said regime is a thoroughly unrepentant douchebag.

That’s why I support the protesters in Wisconsin, anyway.

But as far as Libya is concerned, I really liked the idea of a revolution initiated and spearheaded by the people for the purpose of overthrowing their corrupt dictator. But when it started to look like they were going to be brutally crushed unless they got some external support, I was fully in favor of said support.

The Chinese don’t really understand this. As far as they’re concerned, each country should handle its internal affairs on its own, without external interference.

Hard to imagine why they feel that way.

But aside from the, ahem, obvious reasons of self-interest, it really is a fundamental part of the Chinese cultural outlook to avoid meddling in the affairs of others as much as possible. Contrast this to the general “Yay freedom” cultural outlook Americans tend to have.

Well, depending on who happens to be in the White House, apparently.

Yeah, it seems kind of funny to me to watch various individuals accuse each other of hypocrisy due to their various stances on the current situation. After all, how does one justify supporting this current action if they condemned the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and conversely how does one condemn this current action if they supported overthrowing Saddam?

The similarities are striking. After all, both involve attacking an oil-rich country in the Middle East ruled by a malevolent dictator who has no problems with massacring his own people and could, in theory, be a threat to America or American interests and some point in the future.

Also, both have the color green on their flags.

But there are also some very important differences. For one thing, the current action in Libya is the result of a UN resolution, while the legality of the 2003 Iraq invasion is still debated. But more importantly, with Libya our help was requested, both by the rebels themselves and by the Arab League.

In the interest of honesty, I’ll admit that I was strongly against the invasion of Iraq, while I’ve already mentioned that I support the current action in Libya. In my mind, this isn’t a contradiction because we’re coming to the aid of a group that has asked for our help, much like France and the Netherlands came to the aid of the American Revolutionaries when they fought the British for the right to drink coffee instead of tea and to get rid of all the superfluous vowels from our language.

Such is my understanding of the American Revolution, anyway.

Still, all this really proves is that human beings are good at rationalizing things. I would love to see a stable and democratic Libya allied with the United States in the future, but that outcome is by no means guaranteed. And I can’t pretend that America is doing this for purely altruistic reasons. After all, if we really cared so much about the lives of innocent civilians, why did we do nothing to prevent—or even mitigate—the staggering loss of life in the Second Congo War? Now you might argue that in the late 1940s we were just coming out of World War II and the Great Depression and were in no position to get involved in a war in Africa at that time, but if that’s your reasoning your knowledge of history is as bad as mine, because the Second Congo War started in 1998. And as of 2008, 5.4 million people have died because of it—mostly from disease and starvation. Had you even heard of it? I hadn’t until I came across the Wikipedia article while I was looking for something else.

5.4 million people, by the way, is only a little less than the current population of Libya.

So yeah, America only intervenes in conflicts when it’s convenient and in our own selfish interests, but that’s pretty much true for every country. After all, China doesn’t exactly continue to unconditionally support North Korea because they just love their wacky antics so much. But at the end of the day, I still support the action in Libya, even if it is a little hypocritical of me to do so. I really hope it ends up being a positive step for both the people of Libya, and the perception of America in the world.

For a much better analysis from a much brighter and funnier guy, I highly recommend Scott Adam’s post on the same topic.

salt, bananas, and nuclear power plants in Japan

So what do these three things have in common? Well, they’ll all kill you if you eat enough of them. And regardless of where you are in the world, it’s not terribly likely that any of them are going to give you cancer.

I’d love to explain this in detail, but the fact is, I’m not an expert on radiation. Or bananas. The best I could do at this point is just take stuff off Wikipedia or other random websites and add my own biased viewpoint and pretend like I knew what I was talking about.

Which, apparently, is what most media sources in America are doing.

Seriously, I am extremely disappointed by how the American media has reported events in Japan. At one point CNN had a neurologist discussing the situation at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant as if he were some kind of authority on the matter. And yeah, obviously a neurologist is an expert in neurology, but to be perfectly blunt the guy knew about as much about nuclear power and radiation as, well, me.

And if that doesn’t trouble you at all, I don’t know what will.

Honestly though, it really seems like all the “news” articles coming from American sources have been over-the-top sensationalism. For example, I read an article from the BBC about how they had upgraded the severity level of the incident from 4 to 5, which put it on the same level as the Three Mile Island meltdown. An accident that has been conclusively confirmed to have killed all of zero people. But reading the exact same story from an American source it was more like, “OMFG IT’S AT LEVEL 5!!!!! THAT’S ONLY 2 LESS THAN CHERNOBYL!!!! WE’RE ALL GONNA DIEEEE!!!!!!!! Stay tuned for more at 11.”

Great reporting, assholes.

Oh and by the way, if you leaned a little closer to your monitor to read that last sentence, you just got about as much of a dose of radiation as you’re likely to get from Fukushima.

The media just loves this story. Because I know that for me personally, radiation scares the CRAP out of me, and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one. And while the media just thrilled because these stories get them more listeners, viewers, page clicks, or whatever, the fact is, people are actually getting sick because they’re freaking out and overdosing on iodine. And here in China everyone is buying up all the salt they can, either because it’s iodized and they mistakenly believe this will somehow protect them, or because they’re afraid that any future salt that comes from the ocean will be radioactive (which is irrelevant because the salt most people buy in the store here doesn’t come from the ocean). And yeah, the salt panic in China has nothing to do with the American media, but it just shows what happens when people get scared and irrational.

For another example, check out the radiation forecast from the New York Times. The best part, of course, is the arbitrary units. As near as I can figure, the amount of radiation that is actually hitting America is at absolute maximum one tenth of what’s coming from Japan, and what’s coming from Japan isn’t enough to kill anyone, so…yeah. But to look at the picture, it’s like an inevitable wave of 16-bit pixilated DEATH is sweeping across the ocean and annihilating most of the west coast.

Ironically, one of the best resources I’ve found on this subject is from the webcomic xkcd. Here he’s posted a radiation dose chart that gives the relative amounts of radiation from different sources in a clear and straightforward manner. It really helps put things into perspective. And yeah, of course things aren’t that simple. For one thing, there’s a big difference between types of radiation, the nature and danger of various radioactive particles, and the severity of the effects, but again if I were to go into any more detail than that, I’d just be repeating what I read off Wikipedia. If you’re really interested you should just read it for yourself there, rather than getting it filtered through my intermittently functional brain.

Speaking of Wikipedia, their article on the current incident seems pretty damn good, and a hellova lot better than most news articles I’ve read on the subject.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go eat some salted bananas.

What it means to be a woman

I have absolutely no idea.

I think if I had even the tiniest understanding of women, I’d probably be married by now. Or gay. Definitely one of those two. But all I can really say for sure about what it means to be a woman is that it probably has something to do with having two X chromosomes. And a vagina. And ovaries. And having more estrogen. And boobs. And probably some other things too.

Since I don’t really fit any of that criteria, I don’t really feel qualified to talk about what it means to be a woman. And yeah, I could talk about what it means to be a woman from a man’s perspective, but I think there’s enough of that on the internet already.

I can’t help thinking it’s funny though when a man complains about how annoying, or bitchy, or stupid women in general are. I find it funny because most of the things they complain about are annoying things that people do. Not just women. The guys who make these complaints just don’t get pissed off when men do those things because they’re not trying to have sex with men.

And when I say “the guys who make these complaints” what I really mean is “me”. Because I am a bitter, bitter bastard.

I’m bitter because I’ve had some unpleasant experiences with women in the past. And while I feel that certain women have been deliberately deceitful and manipulative towards me, in the end that’s nothing more than my own personal interpretation of how things went. I’m sure if you asked the women in question they’d have completely different stories to tell.

The thing is, most of my unpleasant experiences with women were due to me not following my own guidelines for how to be a man. But since I’m such a big believer in taking responsibility for my actions, in the end I have to admit that I have no one to blame but myself for my spectacular and epic failures with women. Regardless, while it wasn’t always funny at the time, it certainly seems funny to me now. And I definitely learned a lot.

So yeah, I’m not going to talk about what I think it means to be a woman because I’m pretty sure I’d inevitably go off on some bitter misogynist tangent, and I think there’s enough of that out there already. All I can say is that I have the privilege of knowing quite a few truly exceptional people, men and women both, and I can say without a doubt that anyone who says that all men are bad, or all women are bad, is dumb.

Also, I like boobs.