Karma: I am not a Buddhist

Recently, I finished reading Karma: What It Is, What It Isn’t, Why It Matters, by Traleg Kyabgon. Because reading for grad school has apparently endowed me with reading superpowers, I was able to complete the book in two nights. This encourages me to question whether I would be better off using library services.

Another book, What Makes You Not A Buddhist, by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse, I tried to read several years ago, but I lost interest — largely because of the stance of its author, which reads to me as at least intending to challenge and change the reader, if not outright manipulating them. That is, I am wary of the (apparently) unspoken message, “if you want to be a real Buddhist, then you’ll do what I say,” which doesn’t strike me as an argument in my best interest.

(It’s been a while since I looked at this book; I must say that at the time I looked into it, it read as so hostile that I didn’t want to continue. Then again, Karma also read to me initially, like the author had an attitude; which I was able to set aside for a couple of nights in order to process anything beneficial to me that he had to communicate.)

There’s a limit to how far one can take identity politics; I, for one, would much rather maintain my intellectual integrity and take interest in Buddhism without feeling pressure to buy into it. At a certain point, I also believe that having and maintaining an identity as “Buddhist” goes against the ideal of letting go of clinging to compounded things. But that only really matters if you buy into the idea that clinging to compounded things instigates suffering, and that suffering is best avoided (on a grand scale).

There’s that, and the fact that I really don’t think I’m Buddhist in the first place (I take more interest in culture and folklore which arose in the same milieus influenced by Buddhism, having an East Asian ethnic background and having been included in U.S. mainland Asian-American culture, which is relatively inclusive [I hear and read that it isn’t the same way in other locales like Hawaii, where ethnic groups don’t have a shared identity as much]), so the book obviously isn’t targeted at me.

This is another time that my study of Marketing gives me some relief: I’m not in Khyentse’s target market, so it doesn’t really matter what I feel about it.

My reading of Karma stems off of having restarted The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain, by Alice Flaherty, and Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, by Kay Redfield Jamison. (Sometimes it’s easier to read about creativity, than it is to be creative.) Flaherty’s book was relatively new when I got it, having a copyright date of 2004. It’s basically been sitting around here collecting dust — probably due to the fact that it opens with an explanation of the functions of different brain regions, which isn’t the most engaging material.

Underlying all of this is the uncertainty I have at this point in my life, of how central to my identity my creativity is, or should be, or can be. There’s also the obvious (to me) fact that I’ve been watching Dragon Ball Super (don’t laugh), and there is an obvious trope of transformation in that anime.

For those who don’t know anything about Dragon Ball, it’s basically a fantasy martial-arts animated series. The main character (Son Goku, a.k.a Kakkarotto) has a consistent habit of getting nearly beaten to death and then coming back stronger, faster, etc., and discovering new heights of power which were inaccessible before he was pushed to the point where he had to break through his own limitations (or, at least the limitations he and everyone else thought he had).

On the surface, the Dragon Ball saga looks like an encouragement to youth to try hard at whatever they’re doing and not to believe that they can’t ascend to whatever height they aspire to (and beyond, to levels they can’t fathom upon beginning). I mention this because the difference in message between Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z, we analyzed in an undergrad class I took on Japanese Pop Culture; Dragon Ball Super follows from Dragon Ball Z (and I guess we’re just going to forget Dragon Ball GT ever happened).

On a different level, I’m thinking that the idea of transformation is deeper than just a pop-culture reference. I have not, however, read deeply into literary references in Dragon Ball, mostly because that’s a question I would have to find an answer to on the Web, and because I’ve grown enough to know that information on pop-culture isn’t always the safest thing to access with a computer that I want to function later.

In Karma, I’ve read Kyabgon to essentially state that breaking free of karma is to do what is not expected; to have freedom of motion that essentially breaks the script. Remaining in samsara is to remain in our ingrained habits (which inevitably coincide with pain or unsatisfactoriness [duhkha], this being kind of the definition of samsara), while the possibility of liberation lies in the ability to assume any form at any time, depending on need. This is possible because we are seen not to be inherently self-arising (there is no inherent identity), thus we depend on causes and conditions, thus when those causes and conditions change, we change.

By “form,” I’m particularly looking at the idea of the Six Lower Realms, though “form” can also be used in different contexts (for example, the “form body” and “formless body”, which I don’t really know about at this point, and which is likely not relevant to me at this point). The Six Lower realms are the Hell realm (anger), the Preta realm (greed), the Animal realm (ignorance), the Human realm (desire), the Asura realm (jealousy), the God realm (pride). Thank you, Joseph Campbell.

Each Lower Realm has a Poison, or klesha (if I’m correct in assigning that term), associated with it, which follow parenthetically from the name of each realm I’ve placed above. These Poisons are primarily responsible for suffering in each realm. Metaphorically, each person can be in predominantly one realm or another, and this can change at different times and in different situations.

There are also Higher Realms, beyond that of a God (getting into the worlds of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, Arhats, etc.), but they’re mostly inconsequential to a regular person. I have seen some of this belief in action in Pure Land Buddhism…but I’m not really into Pure Land Buddhism, at this point.

Sometimes faith is comforting, though, even if dangerous: those who subscribe to this form of Buddhism (the most common in the U.S.), are said to believe that through faith and mantra, they can be reborn into a Heaven ruled by an awakened being, in which it is easy to become liberated in one lifetime, oneself. (Apologies if I’ve got that wrong.) Over most of Buddhism, it’s accepted that it takes many lifetimes to achieve liberation, the exceptions that I know of being Vajrayana Buddhism (Lightning/Diamond Vehicle), which is a family of Buddhisms more than a school; and Zen (which aims for satori, or an instantaneous experience of nirvana).

In any case, I in particular am dealing with some issues of transformation. I now have my clearing to be employed as an information professional. While I was essentially an artist and writer in my youth, I find that the treatment I need for a serious and ongoing condition, in effect, dampens the amount of creativity that I observe within myself. (Of course, I’m biased: my memories of illness are in fact tainted by that illness.)

It’s fairly apparent that my mental space shifted markedly towards logic and rationality, when I began one medication in particular. I’ve now been on that medication for about 15 years. As I said before, I’m not sure if what I’m dealing with is simply not being forced to be creative, and being out of practice at being creative, or whether something within me has actually changed.

If something within me has changed, that means that I need to find something new around which to base my identity. That’s not easy, especially when in my youth, my reason to continue to survive was to create. Who am I without my creativity? Or, maybe that’s the wrong question to ask; maybe I still have my creativity, and it’s just harder to recognize, because it’s more subtle, and less forced.

Given that, even: I’m also moving more fully into my adult years, which is…kind of mind-blowing in itself.

Maybe the point right now is that I have a choice between being primarily an artist-writer, and being primarily something else that is not the same. It is, actually, like the person I was 15 years ago and the person I am now, are two different people with a continuity of memory — which is exactly the type of “rebirth” Buddhism suggests.

Of course, I also have the possibility, ill-advised though it is, to revert to my previous form by stopping medication. This would expose me to the full brunt of my illness, which — from what I’ve been told on all fronts — would only be likely to worsen in intensity over the rest of my lifetime. Given that in my twenties, I didn’t expect to make it to thirty…that’s not attractive.

The active states can be painful; or be a waste of time because of lack of clarity; or distort my judgment. A balance has to be drawn between wellness, and any benefit (like a subjective notion of my own creative productivity) my illness may happen to confer upon me.

For that matter, treatment itself confers great advantages to me that I didn’t have, outside of childhood. There are two negatives to it: one is the fact that unless I do something to counter it, I will gain weight. That’s a concern because of heart disease and diabetes. The other negative is that it changes the way I function, and I wasn’t told about or prepared for this when I began treatment.

Also, before treatment, I didn’t realize fully that I was painting and writing and drawing because I wasn’t connecting with the real world, but instead self-generating a world. That is, I had a florid inner experience which I could only share with others through writing and art.

15 years after the publication of The Midnight Disease, it seems the Internet is finally starting to catch up with Flaherty’s insights. Particularly, she mentions Geschwind Syndrome, a personality type associated with at least three families of illness which have changes in the temporal lobe as a common factor. Notably, I fit the profile for the syndrome — or at least, did. I don’t really know why; the general consensus seems to be that the traits are genetic in origin. When someone explains how genes (and probably also epigenetics, but that’s me) determine personality, then I could listen, but right now it’s just an unexplained observation.

In any case, reading about Geschwind Syndrome made me feel that it was okay for me to embrace my own Geschwind Syndrome, which is partially why I broke back into the Buddhism reading. Not to mention that I am in the midst of transformation (or at least the potential for transformation), on many levels.

The thought has occurred to me that maybe I need to embrace the person I’ve become, instead of mourning and grasping at the person I was. I’ve also realized that the person I used to be, could not take care of themselves. At this point, I’m much closer to independence, and being able to more powerfully interact with and help my communit(ies). So the potential for change that I can effect is greater, now, than it used to be. I can be a positive force rather than someone who has to be taken care of, and I’ll be a better force because I know what it’s like to have experienced this.

That’s worth it, right? That’s worth the medication, and it’s worth staying alive for. I’ve even heard from others that the loss of mandatory creativity is okay, if it means I function better.

I have just not seen writing on this topic, though I might not be looking hard enough, or maybe I don’t know where to look.

Last night I was able to engage in the design process again. I did surprise myself, because I was able to do it. Maybe my working methods are different, now; though I can still see remnants of what I used to experience while drawing (“seeing” what I need to draw, before my mark hits the page, though it isn’t a hallucination). I found that out while trying to design a new linocut that turned into a regular drawing… 😉

Yeah, maybe that’s not so bad… 🙂 I might just need to make being creative a priority in my life. I’ve found that a big drive toward creativity is not being able to stand my world unless I cause some change within it; some piece of jewelry, or a bit of writing, or a painting. I’m not entirely sure what causes this, either…but it calms me to look at what I’ve done, and it excites me to do more.

Recovery and loss

Over the past couple of days, I’ve been attempting to do some “soul-searching” as to how I got to where I am now, and where I want to go from here, as regards my career, history, and life.

This is particularly in light of neurological changes I’ve undergone as a result of long-term health issues, which have caused my brain to function differently than it did when I was a teen and young adult. That sounds like things have broken down, but the issue is more complex than that: what I’m dealing with now are long-term medication side effects, and what feels like neural rewiring. It’s much easier to live now, but along with benefits, there are also drawbacks.

This affects me majorly because of one variable: creativity. I used to base my life and my identity and my supposed future around my creativity, and in my adult years, I’m realizing that at least part of what happened in my youth, when I was extremely creative, was part of my illness (and also a coping strategy, though I don’t get into that too much, here).

I did make a post on a different blog, comparing the career paths I have set before me now. These are Cataloging/Metadata Librarianship, Reference/User Services Librarianship, and Web Development. Yesterday, after having written a bit during my lunch hour on how I even got to this point (writing has always helped me think), I made a decision. Historically, making a decision has been a very difficult thing for me, so we’ll see if it plays out.

I’m hoping to stick with Librarianship, as versus intending to put my energies into Web Development. Regardless of whether I become a Cataloging Librarian or not, I will need to understand Cataloging, so I’m heading in the right direction, there. I should also get back to reading on how to do Reference Interviews, and two books: one on serving homeless populations; the other on de-escalation. These three will be extremely helpful if I do take an entry-level job as a Reference Librarian.

This decision was based on a number of factors, but the largest looming one is that I don’t know enough Web Programming yet (aside from CSS and HTML, which aren’t really the same as, say, JavaScript) to be considered highly skillful. I also don’t know if, on my own, I ever could know enough to keep up, or even if I would need to, as Content Management Systems, as services, seem prolific (even if often a bit flawed in execution). To publish on the Web, one doesn’t need to know more than a little markup code, at this point — though it helps.

Web work is just constantly and quickly evolving. It’s a moving target, so to speak, with a lot of interlocking parts. It’s one thing to work as part of a team with a lot of members with varying and complementary skill sets; it’s another to be on one’s own, trying to do everything on one’s own, and I’m thinking that is a huge undertaking.

Yesterday, I also began searching into myself and my reasons for even wanting to become a Web Developer, and realized that my motivations were based on human connection and community, from a time when almost all of my social interactions were online (largely due to social anxiety, which the Web reinforced). They were also based on my experiences with my own identity exploration, when I felt too intimidated to openly be myself. Also, my desire to be independent, when I felt I couldn’t count on others to pull through.

At this point, I realize these are actions based on a view of an immature, out-of-control, institutional social world. (And I was in a “good” school district!) When I began at my current job a little shy of a decade ago, I expected negativity from the public, because that was what I had grown up with. What I’ve found from working Circulation (that is, in a service setting) is that most people intend to be decent, and the rest have unmet needs and ways of expressing those needs that are, “problematic,” as someone I used to know, would say.

I actually prefer that mode of phrasing to the term, “emotional labor,” which more often exemplifies what occurs when interactions are allowed to spiral out of control. (I have examples; I’m not using them.) But…I’m learning about this right now.

Before I was really socializing on the Web, I was reading, as a way to connect with other human minds. I’m not sure how common this is among librarians, but I would spend a lot of time in my school library, essentially because I didn’t have a lot of friends, it was safe, and I had entertainment. I have since learned that I’m easily overloaded with stimuli, so it’s likely that I sought out quiet places.

It’s very probable that my early experiences in libraries contributed to my desire to become a Librarian.

As an undergraduate, the only things in my life that were constant were my family, my school routine, and my drive to write. I didn’t realize at the time, and I don’t think anyone told me, that what I was experiencing might be known as hypergraphia. Hypergraphia is the compulsive desire to write or draw. It’s linked with at least three comorbid conditions, including epilepsy, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. (“Comorbidity” just means that two or more conditions are present in the same person at the same time.)

I started this post, talking about creativity. I mention above that one of the only constants I had in the years when I needed to choose an undergraduate major, was my drive to write. This was also the period of my life in which I was most severely impacted by an illness which now qualifies me as experiencing (or having experienced) a disability.

I ended up majoring in Creative Writing. I also ended up beginning a medication with the goal of helping me to think more clearly, as I was considering major life changes. That was about 15 years ago.

I wasn’t told, however, that if my drive to write was a symptom of my illness, when my symptoms went into remission, the drive to write might not be as large a factor in my life. I might even find myself not wanting to write, even though I was majoring in it, and planning to become an author.

I also wasn’t told that medications which block the action of dopamine are linked to a reduction in creativity. The medication I began 15 years ago is a dopamine-receptor antagonist, meaning that even if it doesn’t reduce the levels of dopamine in my brain, it reduces its action. And, my symptoms are apparently in remission.

In the years following my Bachelor’s, I ended up gaining two Associate’s degrees (one of which is in Art) and a Master’s in Library & Information Science — the “Library” part of which, is sometimes required to become a Librarian in my country.

What I’m dealing with now is an identity shift. I used to think of myself as a writer and artist. I have a good deal of art supplies to this effect, though I’ve found that it’s easier to buy more tools, than it is to use them. At this point I’ve realized that I may now be more of an, “artisan,” or handcrafter, than an “artist.”

Having taken a few classes in Business, I also question the utility of spending time making something that’s only really aesthetically valuable. Going by the concept of, “opportunity cost,” it’s an expensive thing to do, when I could be doing something like learning another language, instead.

I think the loosening of my past identity comes from at least two separate points. One of them is that because my communication and interpersonal skills are better than they used to be, I don’t have as much intense unexpressed energy bottled up inside (which, at times, I could only express visually). The other is that I do feel like my creative dial has been turned down a bit.

I don’t know if it’s because I’m afraid to be creative, or if it’s because I have to, now, intend to, “be creative,” or put in effort to be creative, in order to do so. In the past, I wouldn’t have had a choice. It was something I blamed on the spirits — as my calling; as my job. And to be honest, I don’t really want to go back to the way it was before.

At the same time, my reason to remain in existence back then, was to create. I based my identity around that. So that leaves me with the question of who I am, now. There are other facets to my identity; I’m not entirely without a compass.

It would just make sense to stop trying, through purchasing art supplies, to reach back to that part of the person I was, who I’m not, anymore. It’s fine to try by using those art supplies, but identity can’t be bought. It would also make sense for me to stop thinking of myself as a highly creative person, and beating myself up about it and wondering why I’m not, when I’m not.

I must have the innate capacity to go back to being the person I was before (I would have to go off of medication), but doing so comes at a cost that is higher than what I’m willing to pay.

The most obvious choice going forward is to identify with my career, which is — at this point — a Librarian. I think my professional association would encourage that, though I’ve heard arguments against making one’s vocation one’s identity, as then when one loses one’s job, they also lose part of a sense of themselves.

But I’m kind of familiar with that.

My other option is to lean more heavily on my other identities, or develop a new one. Really, that last one is looking more enticing, as there is the potential for synthesis and growth. I think the key is not to depend too heavily on any one identity in particular.

But I can get back to reading, and my language practice, and studying to prepare myself for employment as a Librarian. I also have been doing some work on owning what I ignored in myself, as a teen and young adult. (I spoke about this yesterday; the difference between sex and gender, and culture and race, though I didn’t express it in those terms. I feel the hint of a need to get deeper into that.)

Aside from that, I need to be looking at jobs (including Support Staff positions, for the experience and higher pay), and learning to cook and drive. All of that looks good.

And maybe I could make some new friends, too. Having a social life outside of family and work is something I have been missing. I should keep going out when I can…