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As I mentioned a couple posts ago, I lost my beloved little dog Simon a week ago last Saturday. He was eleven and a half years old, as far as I know, and he was a corgi-american esquimo mix, as far as I know. I adopted him when he was about a year and a half in April of 1997, so we spent a little more than ten years together. He was my constant companion, through road trips to California, to life-changing cross-country moves, unemployment, over-employment, bad boyfriends, good boyfriends, Simon was always with me.

He was a funny little dog, my brother still refers to him as the gerbil. He was one of those dogs whose behaviors are more “foxy” or even cat-like. He was affectionate and sweet, but very self-contained. If was in trouble he wouldn’t slink or show submission, he’d just kind of eyeball me. As soon as I broke eye contact, he’d be right back to jumping around in circles. I though I’d mastered the art of repressing, but Simon had it all over me. Simon was a really good dog though, so there wasn’t much cause for yelling. Other than occasional trashcan dumping or kleenex chewing, he was amazingly low maintenance. But he was really good company.

I always had a clear impression that Simon thought he was much larger, and much more butch and masculine dog than the reality (a precious little fluffy girl dog). He loved to romp with big dogs, and despised being picked up. He enjoyed a good cat-barking-at, although he did get his ass seriously kicked by one once. After that, he kept his distance for the barking. Once, we were coming up the stairs in my apartment building, and there was a cat lurking on the other side of the rail. Simon darted around to chase it, but when it didn’t retreat, he came back around to the other side of the rail and barked at it through the bars. That was my Simon.

We spent our first summer together at my parents house while my boyfriend at the time was away on an internship. My parents had just gotten Amber, a sumo-big golden retriever puppy. While she lumbered around, Simon would dart in and out, baring his teeth and sneezing ferociously. Yes, sneezing. It was one of those things. Amber would generally respond by drooling all over him, leading to Shaun’s next nickname for him, “Slime-on”.

I have hundreds of stories, all of which are utterly entertaining and riveting to me, and maybe a select few other insane dog people. But here’s the gist. Simon was a light in my life when everything else was dark, or worse, when it was utterly cold and gray. And he was there with me sharing my joy when I was happy and content. He never ran out of love, or silliness, or affection. I wish I had given him a fraction of what he gave me, and I would do anything to have back all the moments when I took him for granted.

I think one of the great tragedies of death is the surplus of love we’re left with. When you really love someone, it doesn’t matter that they’re not there anymore to receive it. So I’m left with all this unspent love for my little companion, and it just aches. Beyond the shock of losing him so quickly, beyond the daily pain of having to re-learn how sit at my computer without him pressed against my leg, or lie in shavasana after yoga without him lying next to me licking my arm, or putting on my tennis shoes without him going apeshit because it means there’s a remote possibility that he’s getting a walk, there’s just this irrational, impossible desire to have him back long enough to give him some of the vast amounts of love that will forever remain unspent.

Be at peace, petite chien. You are loved.

Machiavelli and Ethics

When someone calls an action “Machiavellian” it tends to imply that person acting is doing so entirely out of a desire to acquire and retain power, without any regard to ethics. The thing I’ve always found so interesting about most unethical behavior – political, financial, social – is that in the best of situations, it’s generally a wash. That peon you’re screwing over to win favor with your boss – she might be your boss in five years. Not too bright, Machiavelli. That social program you’re shutting down? It might be saving your budget this year, but the problems it causes are going to cost taxpayers much more than what you’re saving. That river you’re polluting to save yourself the cost of upgrading your plant? You’re going to have to pay the piper eventually, whether it’s when legislation catches up and you have to pay to clean it up, or you get your ass sued off for giving a bunch of people leukemia. Somehow, I don’t think that Machiavelli was such a short-term thinker. A fast power grab today is not a good idea if it permanently tarnishes your reputation in the future. I think you can be a heartless bastard and still understand this fact.

I think the orientation towards long-term thinking is the rational side of ethics. We’ve so divorced ourselves from the “softer” side of our humanity in regards to work, that it’s sometimes difficult to argue for ethical, respectful behavior. There seems to be a gulf between what is “professional” and what is “ethical”, and I’ve spent a lot of time over the last two years contemplating why this may be. I have some theories, but they’re not ready for prime time.

What I do know is that I can make a damn fine argument for behaving ethically to the most self-interested person on the planet. The thing is, I’m a fairly big fan of the free-market economy, in theory. But that economy is currently so short-term focused, that ethical atrocities seem to be taking place unchecked. If we could all pull our heads out of our collective asses and look down the line a few years, we might come to understand that instant karma may not get you instantly, but it is going to get you eventually. So the next time you humiliate an employee just because you can, or you vote against a needed social program because you don’t want to pay $200 more in taxes per year, think about the potential long-term cost of those actions. Machiavelli would be proud.

Brief Update

The last couple of weeks have been pretty intense, so most of my philosophizing has been going on off line. In short, my dog Simon passed away last weekend, and I quit my job this week. Both rather life-changing events. One necessitates much weeping, the other much scouring of on and off line publications for gainful employment.

I don’t have the heart or strength yet to write a fitting tribute to my little dog. He was an awesome dog, I miss him all the time, and I’ll leave it at that for now. Peace.

s'more thoughts

I’ve been reading a book called Healing Through the Dark Emotions, by Miriam Greenspan. It’s pretty cool, because it validates a lot of my own synthesis of the things I’ve learned from experience and study. Humans, especially modern American humans, have a tendency to run away from emotional pain. Back in the day, when our culture was less secular, we rationalized pain by saying that God was punishing us for our sins. Nowadays, we pathologize it and claim that not only are we suffering because we’ve done something wrong (not eaten right, not exercised enough, not prayed to the right God), but that suffering itself is dangerous to our health and should be eradicated. Newsflash, people, suffering is unavoidable. Also, life is terminal. Not happy facts, but facts nonetheless.

Greenspan (and the Buddah) believe that accepting suffering is the path to greater awareness, and a more fulfilling, awake, meaningful life. Greenspan thinks we’re medicating ourselves into numbness and through avoiding our own pain, we blind ourselves to that of others resulting in things like emotional and physical violence.

I tend to concur. When I’m feeling scared or upset, I want to fix or eradicate it somehow. I often blame myself for suffering and try to find some way I caused it. This means that I’ve absorbed the idea that I can somehow prevent myself from suffering (that there was something I should have done differently), and I hurt because I’ve made a mistake. This seems pretty pointless, as a good portion of the time we don’t cause our own suffering. Lots and lots of things that cause us to suffer that are unavoidable. I think that the idea of personal responsibility and personal power is great for helping you focus on your goals, but it’s fairly shit for dealing with suffering. Suffering is a fact, and it doesn’t matter if you brought it on yourself, your neighbor brought it on you, or it was an earthquake. All suffering deserves compassion, and I think that at least some of the people who espouse personal responsibility in this way (Stephen Covey, I’m talking to you) do so to not only avoid their own pain, but to inure themselves from the pain of others.

It’s not that we shouldn’t reflect and learn from our mistakes. I just think that in the moment that we experience emotional pain who or what is to blame is not so relevant, and the search for the source is a way we avoid the experience. After the storm has passed, reflection is a good idea and helps give meaning to our suffering and allows us to feel compassion for others. But in that moment, I think the best thing to do is actually check out that storm – is it rainy with sorrow, or full of jarring, bright, scary lightening? Not all pain feels the same, I feel fear in my stomach sometimes, and grief more in my back. Greenspan talks about the value of checking in with the body when we feel emotional pain and letting ourselves experience it rather than fight it. It’s tricky, but when I have managed to do so, I’ve generally come out the other end a little wiser and much calmer.

While this may seem a bit of a jump, I think the topic actually relates closely to leadership and ethics. Leaders have responsibility to those who follow them, whether it’s a transactional relationship (like a job), or a transformational relationship (like a priest or teacher). If a leader has no relationship to their own suffering, then the organization they lead can become a reflection of that inner disconnect.

In modern companies, fear is often viewed as an undiscussable and taboo emotion. To show fear is to admit weakness, and in our patriarchal organizations weakness is not tolerated. So the leader who not only hides their fear from others, but also from themselves, has no little incentive to experience compassion for the followers who feel fear, trepidation, or insecurity when facing a challenge. A culture then emerges where fear is banished from what is espoused, creating a powerful undertow that erodes at the morale, relatedness, and development of employees, and damages the organization as a whole. I believe that in this way unsurfaced and undiscussable emotions create entropy that organizations have tremendous difficulty diagnosing, let alone overcoming.

Thougths on personal ethical responsibility

“As soon as we lose the moral basis, we cease to be religious. There is no such thing as religion over-riding morality. Man, for instance, cannot be untruthful, cruel or incontinent and claim to have God on his side.” – Gandhi

This encapsulates for me the issues I’ve struggled with in Buddhism. Gandhi, a Hindu, points out that the teachings of one religious leader or another never, ever, trump morality. If you behave in a way that is immoral (or unethical) you are acting against the will of your spiritual practice – REGARDLESS of what your pastor, priest, rabbi, or guru says.

I had a personal falling out with Shambala after I read some of the details of the founder’s behavior. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche did some seriously unethical things in his life. He was promiscuous with his followers, he was known for being verbally abusive, was a raging drunk, and he even encouraged and condoned the promiscuity of his HIV-positive successor, resulting in several people becoming infected. Rinpoche did some amazing things in his life, too, and a lot of his teachings are really wonderful. Now, if you follow Buddhist teaching, everyone is allowed to be a fuck-up. Fucking up is part of what it means to be human. But in my estimation, he took this a step further, and found a way to conveniently sanctify his screw ups. He claimed that a guru could behave in an irrational, abusive, and destructive manner towards his student, if he felt that the student needed that experience to progress in his or her personal growth. He called this “crazy wisdom.” Uh-huh.

Let’s review Gandhi’s quote again, shall we?

“As soon as we lose the moral basis, we cease to be religious. There is no such thing as religion over-riding morality. Man, for instance, cannot be untruthful, cruel or incontinent and claim to have God on his side.”

So do non-theistic Buddhists have a loophole because they have no God to answer to? As a non-theist, I’m going to answer with a resounding “no.” If anything, we non-theists should understand with perfect clarity how important it is to strive to be ethical and compassionate in our lives, since we don’t have a strong belief in a post-mortality cosmic spanking or reward. What you do on earth matters, because as far as we know, it’s all we have. If you’re unkind, cruel, or abusive towards another person, no matter how “enlightened” you are, I don’t believe that it’s justifiable. I’m not saying that you can be a teacher and never hurt someone’s feelings. We’re not talking about being truthful, we’re talking about being deliberately hurtful.

Since the Buddah said that the first noble truth of life is suffering, I believe that life presents us enough opportunities to suffer and then grow, without some crazy-ass guru screwing with us. Call me crazy. Just don’t call me crazy-wise.

There are countless examples throughout human history of a movement, religion, or organization deciding at some point that it supersedes the boundaries of morality. We all know, in retrospect anyway, that the Spanish Inquisition, the concentration camps, and 80’s hairstyles were all fundamentally wrong (okay maybe not the last one, but you know what I mean).

I had a point here. What was it? Oh, right. No matter what you believe, you don’t get a golden ticket that says you can turn your ethical decision making process over to someone else. And even if you think you do, you don’t. Whether you have to answer to a God at the end of your life, or just your own conscience, your actions are your own.