International Batman Day!?

Happy International Day, Batman!

Or should I wish you a Dark and Brooding one instead?

I read somewhere that May 1st is unofficially Batman Day, because that was the cover date on the issue of the comic he first appeared in. But I’ve since seen March 29 and Sept 15 thrown around, so I have no idea.

International days are like a secular version of the feast days held in honour of saints, so the yet-to-become-widespread observance of Batman Day is appropriate given Batman’s prominence as a cultural icon and first among superheroes.

It’s 80 years since Batman was first published, and his mythos has become as well-established as Sherlock Holmes or King Arthur.

Despite forgettable renditions in the current crop of DC films, Christopher Nolan’s 2005 trilogy set the bar high in our appreciation of the Dark Knight’s story.

But why does Batman hold such lasting appeal to us?

It’s partly because Batman began as a detective, in fact “the World’s Greatest Detective”, invoking deductive genius in the vein of a Holmes or Poirot.

But this was quickly subsumed into a more literal crime-fighting role, as Bruce Wayne’s martial-arts prowess, cutting-edge technology and unlimited finances allowed an otherwise “ordinary” man to become a legitimate superhero.

So is it all just an excuse to beat up bad guys? Not quite.

Batman is a vigilante with a moral code more reliable than Gotham’s law and order. Nolan’s trilogy drew on this theme of a city’s own rottenness and corruption, absolving us of qualms about vigilante action by a morally upright individual.

Batman is, above all, a character we trust as a symbol of higher justice within an unjust social order. And we trust him because the Dark Knight’s typically non-lethal terrorising of violent criminals is inspired by his own tragic experience of crime at a young age – witnessing his own parents’ murder.

In that sense like Tony Stark’s Iron Man in the rival Marvel universe, a tragic and traumatic event serves as the awakening to a moral order within a fallen world and gives the hero his purpose in life.

Genius intellect, untold wealth, and cutting edge technology are given a higher meaning and value because of an irrefutable moral conviction we all understand.

Antihero elements

Yet the darkness of Batman’s character also serves his longevity in our culture. He turns the tables on Gotham’s criminals with a somewhat questionable modus operandi of striking fear into their very hearts.

Using fear against those who prey on the innocent is a staple fantasy of revenge, but in Batman vengeance is transformed into a higher calling. As Bruce Wayne is told by his teacher in Batman Begins:

“A vigilante is just a man lost in the scramble for his own gratification…But if you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal, and if they can’t stop you, then you become something else entirely.”

Vigilante or something more, since the Dark Knight’s existence is always conditional on the failure of the justice system around him he remains “the hero Gotham deserves” through its own failings.

In that sense Batman himself is a consequence of Gotham’s faults, a city that murdered the philanthropists intent on saving it, setting their orphaned son on the path of vigilante justice.

In the end I’m an idealist, so it’s Batman’s idealism that most speaks to me. Perhaps that’s why I’ve always struggled to take seriously the “no one is above the law!” protestations in the superhero genre.

Accusations of unjustified vigilantism aside, Batman is obviously a good guy and I think we all relate to the idea of someone with so much talent and so many resources dedicating it all to saving ordinary people.

So live on, Batman! Hopefully future incarnations will live up to the character’s full potential.

The feeling of freedom

I saw some kid sitting against a fence by the bus stop waiting for his bus.

Seeing him there alone and waiting, somewhere to go but no hurry to be there, reminded me of a feeling I used to have.

The feeling of freedom. The freedom of no cares and no worries, walking out into the world and feeling existence surround me.

Feeling my own solitude against the world. The isolation and potential of nothing I need to be doing.

Having kids, a home, a wife; people and things to come back to. Yes, they tether me. But they don’t have to.

Freedom is a mental condition. Driving a car can feel like freedom, or it can be a tense, white-knuckle experience.

You can relax behind the wheel and hit some kind of zen-like trance where everything feels connected and flowy.

So why not relax behind life? Loosen your grip on the reins or the wheel, take your foot off the brake. Trust your instincts, trust the journey, trust the flow.

The world is still completely free. It never changed from when I was young and solitary.

I’m still alone, but I also have people I care about, and do you think that’s not part of the flow too?

It’s not my efforts or worry that keep the world going. My heart won’t stop beating if I let go nor will I forget to take my next breath.

If I’m tied down, let the ties do their work! Relax and know that nothing I want will drift away or be lost.

I’m just another ingredient in this beautiful medley. Counting heart beats or following my breath, I’m free to be just a piece of this grand composition that is living me.

That’s what freedom means. Life is loving me and not an atom of my whole experience needs my work to hold it in place.

And on the contrary there are many many wonderful things waiting to join in if I just give them the space to enter, and my willingness to appreciate what they bring.

Killing the Buddha

If you meet the Buddha, kill him. – LinJi

The basic dichotomy of melancholic spirituality is that we are prone to despair and we require faith in providence to see us through.

But lots of spiritual teachers accentuate the suffering and disappointment in life, as if they are keen to get us disillusioned with worldly happiness and craving something more refined.

Buddhism hits the ground running with the first noble truth, frequently rendered in English as “life is suffering”, but with the more nuanced translation of “dissatisfying” also on offer.

In hindsight I don’t think melancholics need to be encouraged to view life as intrinsically dissatisfying. I don’t think it serves us to take such a negative principle on board as the premise of a spiritual path.

Killing the Buddha

The Zen Koan about “killing” the Buddha is a warning against religious idolatry, sanctimony, and the kind of spiritual practice that forgets the real meaning of the Buddha in favour of an image or a vision.

But today for me it means letting go of spiritual principles that don’t serve me – no matter how esteemed their author or noble their pedigree.

Is life suffering? No. Is life dissatisfying? No. It might have felt that way at times, but thinking there was something intrinsically negative about life and existence only made me feel worse about it.

Life is meant to be happy and joyful and satisfying, and if killing the Buddha helps me get there, I’m sure he won’t mind.

Raising happy children

It’s actually not difficult, since children are naturally happy and find happiness easily.

All you really have to do is not actively undermine them and you’re already ahead.

I took to heart some painful lessons from my own childhood, and so with my kids I make an effort to:

Not belittle them, their efforts or their interests.

Not criticise, pick on, or draw attention to perceived faults.

Not mock, ridicule or laugh at them.

Limit the harm

We aren’t perfect. I get angry, frustrated, and can be petty or stubborn.

But I make an effort to limit the harm my bad mood might have on my kids.

I apologise to them, and explain that even if they’ve done something wrong, they aren’t to blame for my mood.

Sometimes our reactions as parents can be remarkably childish. It’s important to admit that and apologise rather than dig in and get defensive.

Focus on happiness

As part of my own efforts to be happier I’ve taught my son the “feeling game”, which is basically about finding good things to focus on rather than bad ones.

He’s taken to it with enthusiasm, and will even remind me of it when I’m frustrated or tired.

He has learned through his own experience that focusing on the wanted aspects of life is far more enjoyable than whining about the unwanted.

I don’t think we have to be perfect to be good parents. But I hope at least that my kids will grow up with a clear sense that happiness is accessible to them, and that my honest admission of my slip-ups and shortcomings on this path will aid them in their own journey.

Empty your cup

Yesterday I started tidying the kids’ bookshelf. It was a real mess, with new books having been piled horizontally on top of the others making it almost impossible to retrieve one without triggering a book avalanche.

There wasn’t enough room for everything so I moved onto the parents’ bookshelf hoping to make some space.

An intellectual house-cleaning

Wow! There were some really old books in that shelf!

I don’t mean hundred-year-old treasured volumes. I mean books that represent a part of me I no longer want or need to hold onto.

Textbooks on Neuro-philosophy from my Honours year that were horribly bleak when they first came out and are now outdated to boot.

Books on orthodox Catholic philosophy and theology from when I thought that perfect intellectual formation was the key, as if the answers to life’s questions could all be found via sufficient mastery of the Summa Theologicae.

A couple of new-age and qigong books from people I now know are basically charlatans.

Incredibly abstruse texts on philosophy of language and parsing religious relativism from my PhD studies that might as well be treatises on theoretical physics for all the interest they now hold for me.

The tome-like “Zen and the Brain” I ordered from America back in the early 2000s which I hoped would give me some kind of objective guide in my search for spiritual insight.

Books complaining about the decline of Western civilisation, marshalling the proof that the world as we know is falling apart in all new and exciting ways!

Whether these books were on apologetics and philosophy or mysticism and prayer, they each represent part of my search outside myself. A search for identity, a search for wisdom, a search for inner peace and happiness, a search for empowerment through knowledge or spiritual practice.

Getting rid of these books is like allowing a space to open up for new things in life. Not likely new books, but a new approach. Nor new answers but a new receptivity to what life is offering me.

Because the only reason for keeping a big old textbook on Philosophy is to have it there, on the shelf, as if to advertise my intellectual inventory.

Not a single person has ever inquired, and with good reason. I kept those old books on the shelf but they weren’t active in my life. I was presenting them to others, but even I didn’t value them anymore.

Empty your cup

“Empty your cup” is a popular martial arts idiom derived from a Zen proverb.

It means that we can’t learn something new when we are already full of our own opinions and ideas.

It’s become cliché but I think it fits well with another popular saying “when the student is ready the teacher will appear”.

What does this mean in practice?

For me it means that yesterday I got rid of all the “answers” sitting on my shelf, all the tomes of dead wisdom and intellectual esoterica that I’ve been carrying around as part of my identity, like a sticker saying “ask me about my philosophical background!”

And these non-answers, like the proverbial overflowing tea-cup, kept me from receiving actual answers and insights and wonderful coincidences.

So this morning as I walked home after dropping my son at school I bumped into a friend and enjoyed a conversation that was a perfect match for where I am at today.

There was more satisfaction in receiving that answer, like a sign-post along the way, than I could ever have found digging into my old resources searching for wisdom.

Besides, I’ve already become what I was looking for in many of those books. My personal knowledge and experience outstrips what one might gain from rereading them.

So with a great appreciation for irony I’ll end with a quote from the long-dead Zhuang-zi, translated by the also-dead Thomas Merton:

The men of old 
Took all they really knew
With them to the grave.
And so, Lord, what you are reading there
Is only the dirt they left behind them.

Weight loss and happiness

It’s been over a year since I published The Weight-Loss Paradox: an enlightened approach to body weight and diet.

I reread the book recently and what struck me was how intense it is. It’s like a concentrated dose of all the principles and ideas that helped me lose weight and change how I was eating.

Reading it again helped me get back in that mindset, and to appreciate what an intense period of reflection it was.

Ultimately any major behavioural change requires a lot of focus and energy. What made this approach work for me?

Above all it’s about clarity – clarity of purpose and clarity of method. It’s much easier to commit to a path when you know for certain that this path is the right one.

Looking back on it, I can’t say that it’s the definitive approach and I doubt that any approach to diet and weight loss will work if you can’t find it within yourself to focus and change.

It doesn’t matter how straight the path if you refuse to walk it.

In hindsight what I would most like to explore in greater depth is the relationship between our motivation to change, and the need to find sources of happiness other than eating.

I touched on it in the book, but my own motivation was already well established by that stage. For people who are reading, rather than writing, the book – is it really enough to just look for alternative sources of pleasure and enjoyment?

I think next time around I would make this question more central, because I don’t think it’s a coincidence that eating too much goes hand-in-hand with insufficient sources of happiness and enjoyment.

Many of us think we would be happy if we lost weight, but it’s likely the other way around: we would lose weight if we were happy.

And to achieve happiness we need something more than just a change to our eating habits.

What if we made happiness central to our lives, trusting that issues like body weight and lifestyle choices would gradually shift?

After all, over-eating and being overweight are not the happiest experiences in life. As I get deeper into positive-thinking it seems obvious that we overeat partly because we don’t know how to treat ourselves better.

From “never enough” to “always more”

I’ve been searching for answers for more than 20 years and I wish I could tell you how many times I’ve thought “This is it! This is *the* answer I’ve been searching for!” only to find myself searching again within days or even hours as the euphoria of discovery dissipated.

I kept searching even though searching began to feel less like a journey and more like a compulsion. I can’t help but search, and I continue searching even when I know that no answer will ever be completely satisfying.

But what if “complete satisfaction” is an impossible goal in the first place? Better yet, what if this never-ending search is not a bug but a feature?

The Abraham material I’ve been reading states that the whole point of life in this world is expansion. We will never be fully satisfied, because we are not meant to be fully satisfied.

Searching for complete and final satisfaction is like looking for a meal that finally and forever sates our hunger.

No such meal exists, and if we look at it negatively it means we will never find “true” satiety. But if we look at it positively it means we get to explore and create and try all kinds of different food.

Technology is another good example: I used to feel annoyed and cynical because no matter how good my computer or phone was, it would always become obsolete.

But if you love technology this isn’t a bad thing. Technology becomes obsolete because technology is always improving and advancing! The phone you have now is a vast improvement over the phone you had 10 or 15 years ago.

Both perspectives are true: obsolescence and advancement, endless hunger and gustatory exploration. But one perspective feels bad and the other perspective feels good. Which one would you rather have?

Would the same change in perspective apply to my endless search for answers? It does!

It turns out that while it feels bad to endlessly search for answers, it feels very good to be endlessly having fresh insights and understandings.

Answers that don’t last become insights that never run out. The attitude of endless searching becomes an attitude of unlimited curiosity and wonder.

Getting into alignment

The apex of so-called “positive thinking” is for your thoughts/mind to be in alignment with your innermost being. To that end, I’m putting together a series of principles or reminders to help me return to that state of alignment.

It’s a work in progress, but I thought it would be nice to share it and keep track of it in this space:

  1. if you’re feeling any negativity your thoughts are not in alignment
  2. misalignment can come from habits of thought/belief, or from focusing on external reality, which is a reflection of prior misalignment.
  3. to align it is necessary to have the intention of ‘allowing’ it, but most importantly to stop focusing on misaligned thoughts.
  4. further, detachment or ignoring of present reality may be required to allow thoughts to come into alignment.
  5. alignment is found in the absence of resistant, negative thoughts and hence in the absence of negative feelings too.

The themes of alignment, detachment, and misalignment can be found in mysticism across the great religions.

These principles incorporate the paradox that our lives improve when we stop trying to improve them. It’s our own focus on negative thoughts and beliefs that mars our experience of life.

Feeling like a different person

There’s a saying in the Abraham Hicks material that “you can’t get there from there”.

It has a couple of different meanings, but the meaning I discovered recently is that in my quest for happiness I must at some point feel like a different person.

Living with depression and anxiety for so many years, it makes sense that feeling genuinely better would also be profoundly unfamiliar.

I was so accustomed to my baseline feeling of weariness and dread that going without it almost seems fake.

But the truth is that there’s no continuity from feeling terrible to feeling good. A change in mood is like becoming a different person, and for that reason it’s not possible for the depressed anxious version of me to go along for the ride.

I kept fixating on those negative feelings looking for a solution or some means of transmuting lead into gold. But that’s not how these things work.

Negative feelings are something we create in ourselves, a by-product of the misalignment between our inner being and the beliefs or thoughts we are focused upon.

Those negative feelings don’t need to change, it’s our focus and our thoughts and beliefs that need to change. Then the negative feelings will simply be gone.

It really does feel like becoming a different person after all.

Action and Distraction

If you feel bad and use action to distract yourself, then your action will produce a result that also feels bad.

That’s why my efforts to “problem-solve” my way out of anxiety and depression didn’t work. I used intellectual effort to try to escape those bad feelings, and the promise of an “aha!” moment, the feeling of clarity and understanding, became addictive like a drug.

I’m learning now that I can change how I feel just by changing my focus.

But how is changing focus different from problem-solving or other distractions?

The difference is that it starts with acceptance of how I feel right now, whereas distraction is an abandonment of feelings in favour of activity or stimulation.

Since my aim is to improve my baseline feeling, it makes no sense to abandon and lose track of it for the sake of temporary reprieve. It’s better to feel what I’m feeling (even if it feels not so great) and see if I can gently improve it.

Otherwise when distractions end, we are just back where we started, with the added pain of having been distracted and disconnected from ourselves all that time.

And that’s why life seems to go on so consistently despite the many things we do each day. When our actions end we are right back to the feeling that inspired them. Years can go by without much change to how we feel.

Unless your actions challenge and expand you, they won’t bring about deeper change – they remain mere distractions.