The Trauma Narrative

CW: Childhood abuse
This is a post about my journey through and healing from trauma. I’m going to describe some things I’ve experienced that have induced trauma. Most of this is in Stage 1, so skip that section if you are sensitive to descriptions of childhood abuse.

Stage 1. Initial Pain

When I was a child, my parents spanked me a lot. The spankings I experienced were not the common idea of spanking – they were significantly worse, done with a strip of rough leather (the ‘wisdom whacker’) designed for this purpose and to not leave permanent marks, and usually sustained a 8-9/10 on the pain scale for 10-30 seconds.

Spankings began when I was a toddler (as an infant they slapped my arms) and were warranted for any number of things, such as not saying “Yes mom” or “Yes dad” when spoken to, for interrupting an adult, for screaming loud enough to worry the neighbors during a spanking, for delays of even a few seconds when responding to being called to receive a spanking. They happened often; I distinctly remember setting goals for myself to obey so well and so quickly that I wouldn’t get any spankings for one whole day.

My father worked from home, and I was homeschooled for all my educational years (minus a 3-month stint in public highschool, from which I was removed because I had access to computers without parental supervision), and so his power over me was absolute.

He had narcissistic personality disorder and was emotionally abusive. When I was a teenager, he secretly installed recording software on my computer. He would often force me to stand still in front of him for ~15-60 minutes as he berated me and made me admit that I was lazy, rebellious, disobedient. He would pinch the skin under my chin and pull my face close to his as he yelled at me. He told me often that he would break my will by taking everything I loved. At one point when he took everything I loved, I was so distraught I became depressed and stopped showering, combing my hair, or smiling, and he forbid me from being unhappy, that my ‘pouting’ was a display of rebellion towards him, that if I continued he would force me to clean the house morning to night, every day, until he broke me of it. Everything he did was driven by the goal of breaking my will so that I would obey him regardless of how much it hurt me. He succeeded – he eventually destroyed me so thoroughly that I voluntarily cut contact with my best friend and only source of emotional support (who did not break any rules in himself; he was Christian, and all our discussions were pg rated, it was just that our conversations were unsupervised) out of desire to be obedient to him.

He was abusive to the rest of my family, particularly my mother, who was submissive, gentle, kind, terrified of him, and believed divorce was a sin. He used to trap her in rooms when she tried to escape and pushed her, until one day he pushed her in front of us kids and she called the cops. He stopped the physical violence after that, but he was no less rageful or skilled at twisting her words and convincing her that she was wrong.

At the time, I thought most of this was normal. I felt huge amounts of pain, but I thought this amount of pain was normal.

Stage 2. The Symptoms

Once I left home (and refused to see or speak to him), I started noticing effects from my childhood. A partner roleplayed ‘angry’ during sex and I had a violent panic attack. I was uncomfortable being touched or hugged. I absolutely refused to let anybody else touch my computer, ever. I was emotionally shut down, unaware of my feelings. I was deeply, cripplingly insecure. Obedience towards rules and authority was a compulsion for me; I obeyed confident strangers quietly and without question and physically could not force my body to do things like hop a deserted turnstyle even when I was going to miss the train and my friends were upset with me because they wanted to catch the train and why couldn’t I just walk past the stupid imaginary line?

But I did not view myself as having been traumatized. I did not view myself as a victim, and I did not view my father as abusive. Abusive was a weird word. He’d done some things that made me very upset, sure – but that? He didn’t starve me or slap me in the face or anything. I generally felt okay inside, besides being angry. I was a fine, normal human being, I liked hanging out with friends and I was pretty happy overall.

I also didn’t recognize that what he’d done was abnormal. I vaguely thought most people’s fathers were kind of equally as shitty, and if they didn’t appear to be so – well, mine didn’t either, to the outside world. People loved him – my father sometimes would hand me the phone where a fan of his would tell me how lucky I was to have him as a father and how I should trust and obey him more – and so when I saw other people admiring the qualities of fatherness in other fathers, it didn’t disrupt my worldview.

This stage lasted about a year.

Stage 3. Trauma

It started with little things – casually mentioning an aspect of my childhood to a new friend and seeing them recoil in horror, or reading essays about people going through things milder than I had and calling it abuse. I started to pick it up from TV shows, from discussions around consent, from seeing people nonviolently communicate difficult things with each other.

I started to realize that what I had been through was considered “very bad” by society (although of course by no means the worst – many kids have had way worse childhoods; we knew a family who chained her daughter to the bed all day, my parents were lenient by comparison) – that I could tell people honestly about my life and they would be disgusted, because it was abnormal.

Before I had just been in pain, with symptoms like scars – but now I began to feel that I had been deeply violated, that a great injustice had been done, that I was a true victim of an abuser. I took on the narrative that I had been deprived of some fundamental human right by an evil man. I started having semiregular nightmares of my father coming to kill me, or me killing him.

This is what everybody else believed. It was easy to agree with them, because it put me in a position of authority and power – I was an authority on suffering, now, because I had gone through the thing stamped by society as “bad.” I had power because I adopted a frame where I could explicitly label what I had gone through and pull it out when needed in conversations, as a piece of my identity, and a shortcut for gaining sympathy and support from people around me.

The way I say that sounds a bit like I’m dismissing it, but I don’t mean to. I think those things were very useful and I’m glad I had them.

But – I was in pain all the time, much more than Stage 2. I called in sick to work on father’s day because all the celebrations and cards and advertisements were too triggering. I would often go to bed and fantasize about saying everything I’d ever wanted to say to him, with him unable to shut me up. “You should have loved me,” I would scream at my image of him – a false image, because it wasn’t shouting over me to drown me out – “You were my father, you should have loved me,” and I would cry myself to sleep.  I was full of a constant rage towards him so intense it made me sick, insane. I could feel it in my chest, hot and tight, every waking moment of the day.

This stage lasted about five years.

Stage 4. Healing

It was probably around my 20th acid trip. I was alone and I took maybe 200ug or so, and listened to the soundtrack of the Fountain.
I relived my past, played in detail every single memory I had held on to so tightly, in as chronological order as I could. It was agonizing, and I sat there and sobbed.
It was different here, though – on acid, narrative was dissolved. I was not a victim, I was in pain. I just hurt, and hurt and hurt, and it passed through me and sliced me open over and over again and it was so exhausting and it wouldn’t let me go.

I was on a timeline, and eventually my memories rolled one into the other into my leaving home. Here my agony abruptly turned into sheer ecstasy. I remembered how good it felt to be free – to be able to run to the store at 2 am if I wanted, to talk to anybody I wanted, to have the friends I had, to contact all my old friends I’d lost, to watch any movie, listen to any song, make any facial expression, to be upset – visibly upset! I’ve never been able to talk or write about this without crying.

I remember looking around the room and feeling myself fill it – all the possible sets of actions I could take without fear, and I was so grateful I thought I might fall apart. What was there to be afraid of, anymore, now that I wasn’t locked in a box with a monster? This was the deepest joy I’d ever felt, and I thought – if I could give this experience to anybody else, I would do whatever it took. Any amount of suffering would be worth this.

And then I realized that that’s what my father had done to me – he’d given me the ability to experience life with such ongoing lightness, and what he’d done had been worth it. All I’d been through had been worth it. If I could go back in time, I wouldn’t change my life at all. This pain was mine, now, chosen by me, held by me deliberately, and nothing about it was wrong.

This experience permanently and completely cured my hatred of my father and eliminated my daily suffering and rage (It also, incidentally, destroyed most of my motivation, which I had to rebuild from other sources later on).

This experience did not cure my symptoms – some of my anxieties listed in stage 2 were eventually cured by MDMA use, some of them faded with time, and some I still experience today.


Some popular cultural rejections of victimhood aren’t really rejections, and they redefine victimhood – for example, “I refuse to be a victim – I will not let this stop me, I’ll keep going and make my own business/marry johnny/work out all the time/experience happiness”. This views victimhood as helplessness, which is kind of a socially embarrassing state and it’s pretty safe and easy to say “No, I’m not in that embarrassing state.” I don’t mean victimhood in this sense.

What I mean by victim is the idea of being transgressed against; that some ‘rightness’ in the universe has been violated, like a sin has been committed.

I wouldn’t have been able to find healing under the narrative that I was a victim. Part of the victim narrative is an injustice so fundamental that there’s nothing that can balance the scales. It is an absolute state, and more importantly it’s a state of suffering. Suffering is when you believe something ought not be, and victims ought not be, and the nature of being a victim is suffering.

In this sense, the people around me who reacted with horror to my stories of my childhood were actively increasing my trauma and suffering.


Some tribes have nasty coming of age rituals for children. I have a belief that some cultures had ritualized sexual assault of children, but I’m on a plane and can’t check to see how true that is. Young girls are genitally mutilated. Did all the children of these cultures grow up with deep traumas? In a sense, probably not – if all the adults act like it’s no big deal, then you as a kid don’t think it’s a big deal either, and will probably never think it’s a big deal, and you’ll grow up and mutilate your own daughter the same way you were mutilated, because tradition. These people would probably strongly deny being traumatized, much like I didn’t believe I was traumatized – at least in the narrative sense – in stage 2. They also probably don’t experience the suffering that I did in stage 3, and in that sense have better lives.

Of course there are still symptoms, though – maybe these cultures end up with lower rates of trust and higher rates of PTSD or something.

The cultural narrative of trauma seems to me to be a very slow process of identifying a symptom like compulsively wearing very large brimmed hats, realizing “Hey, this is caused by forcing our children into the desert to build character!” and then saying “Forcing children into the desert is bad, if you’ve been forced into the desert you probably will have these symptoms, which are bad, and you’ve been subject to a bad thing.”

This progression does good things! It helps the society collectively shorthand agree what is wrong and right, and makes standards known. It creates a default ‘support the desert children more than usual’ mode. It makes people who shove children into deserts less likely to do that.

It also gives people who’ve gone through pain space to reevaluate how they interpret their pain, instead of ignoring or suppressing it – society won’t judge them now, or call them weak for reacting to it. This can often give people space to/encourage people to feel pain they wouldn’t have otherwise, because ‘being hurt when you are forced into a desert’ is now the socially expected thing, and to feel otherwise would be abnormal.

To be clear, I think that society-induced feelings are often just as real/valid/whatever as … not-as-obviously-socially-induced feelings. I don’t think there’s a such thing as a “natural reaction” or a “true, organic feeling”.

I know I said that people who told me my childhood was bad increased my suffering, but I don’t think they were wrong to do so. It gave me new feelings of suffering that fit the new society mold, and those feelings were real and valid.

Where I got trapped was in letting the narrative rest in a ‘true’ place inside of me. I didn’t view the new set of laws as a useful thing to set general standards of behavior, I viewed them as touching on some truth, as setting upon my head a victimed crown, long may it reign.


I know I just went from shitting on narrative to supporting it, but I’m about to shit on it again.

I don’t like how the trauma narrative is presented with so little self awareness. I feel a bit weird now, when someone comes to me and tells me about something bad that happened to them, and then I’m supposed to say I’m sorry, or how terrible. I don’t want to do the trauma-narrative rain dance, to perform society’s horror-judgement upon them.

But – doing things! Achieving change! Keeping children out of the desert! if we accept pain, then do we just accept children in the desert?
I think we can do a lot of ‘saving children from deserts’ through action that doesn’t reinforce a trauma narrative. If someone is in pain, getting them mint tea or making public the facts about what hurt the person is not propagating the trauma narrative, it’s an attempt to reduce total harm and can be done gently, without judgement, like you might put safety foam on sharp edges of furniture.
And of course, introducing the trauma narrative would probably be useful in times where there’s sufficient meta-awareness – “What’s it like, to feel like a victim?” or “What X is doing to you is very abnormal in society. People will react with shock to this information.”

Besides the practical things, of course there’s emotional support. What do you say when someone comes to you, hurting, if you can’t call upon the great Badness Designators as platitudes? There’s probably a lot of options, but personally I just want to sit down and hurt with them. In a way, In a way I feel this is another purpose of enduring large amounts of pain – it allows for joining others in their pain, a place that is often the loneliest. I want to endure the greatest agony so that I can reach others in their farthest places. This was a part of the reason why I did so much LSD – it could make me hurt like nothing else could. Pain is sacred to me, because it allows for this facet of love.

The trauma narrative feels like a rejection of the pain, because it’s a belief that the pain is somehow not supposed to be there, like it’s a foreign invader. I feel uncomfortable treating it like an invader (although I still do it sometimes because of social pressure).

There can be a lot of healing in surrendering the narrative and all the power and authority it gives you. I don’t mean that you have to abandon it entirely, it’s useful, after all – but evicting it from a place of identity inside yourself is necessary. If your wound is held open by a sense of wrongness, it will never have space to heal.

PS: Unwelcome comments include anything that frames me as a victim. Please no “I’m so sorry, that’s terrible.”

The Body of Isolation

I recently liked a boy who didn’t like me in the way I wanted to be liked. He liked another girl, and it hurt. I was more raw than usual, sandpapered down by a few recent intimacy losses. The looming pattern of it made me despondent.

I thought I would spend the rest of my life alone, understood by nobody. I would remain on the outskirts, looking in, built out of a substance made for rejection. I was in a state of itchy agitation; like I kept wanting to reach out but having nothing to grab. Life kept proving me right.

Then I did acid, 250ug, somewhat for the purpose of solving this problem. It was in an AirBnb in the woods of upstate New York, and the house was woody smelling and there was a film crew. I spent the first hours crying, staring at the camera, trying to paint; but finally I rolled outside into the rain and found myself alone. I couldn’t see into the windows, and it was a distant-feeling cold.

I felt alone out there, and I let myself feel alone. It barreled through me, where all my fears became true. My isolation became a body; I stepped into it and wore it as mine,  and it was tangible flesh, and its weight was my weight. I bent over in my body of isolation and sobbed. It was a screaming, ongoing pain that I couldn’t think around, couldn’t reason with. It hurt it hurt it hurt.

I saw that I had been trying to reduce the pain by placing expectations on other people and the world, that I wanted someone else to save me from this, to swoop in with the delicious story that the pain was wrong, as if it had been making an incorrect claim or breaking a law. And that’s what I thought, on some level – that there was a perversion of reality, that this pain should not be. And if the pain should not be, then intimacy with others is what should be, and the gap between myself and others became a burden that became both mine and theirs to resolve. Of course I’d never had these thoughts explicitly – but somewhere, deep down, that’s what had been happening.

But here, on the deck in the cliche rain, I couldn’t tell the pain that it was wrong, and I didn’t resist it. The body of isolation I wore was mine, and I wore it with agony and love. I surrendered to it, died to it, and forgot what I had been.

Usually my pain was held in a great reservoir above my head, and it was too much to feel at once, so I would open a very small drain, and the suffering arose in the narrow pressure of that release. But here I tore the reservoir open, and the pain was immense but pressureless, because there was no contrast between want and do not want. I found that I could bear it. I could bear it infinitely.

This pain should be. I welcomed it.

And against this I felt a deep gratitude for the speckled moments where I felt not-alone – in flashes of strangers on the street, the memories of lovers, the odd frustration of my family. The intensity of the isolation channeled an equally intense relief into these moments, and I imagined stars made starlike by the night.

It was as though I’d picked up a flat river-rock, and on one side was printed LOVE and the other PAIN, and that both were pressed into my fist, that they were a singular weight, that it was one thing.

I still wear the body of isolation, and with it is an ongoing pain. I can feel it settled into me, every day, like a cradle – but the body of isolation is also the body of love; a rotating mask, each bolted onto the backstage of the other. It is the isolation which allows me love, and love which allows me isolation. I am suffocated by gratitude.

I found out I wasn’t immortal shortly before I turned 19. I’d been religious, so I assumed death was a just a transfer to heaven. Losing my faith meant I had to face the fact that my identity would end, and it was terrifying for many years.

Then I heard Alan Watts frame it as such: When we imagine dying, we imagine something like being locked in a dark box forever and ever. But once we imagine the experience of being dead, then we’re not really imagining death at all.

Experience is the only thing to be afraid of, and being dead isn’t an experience. If we are afraid of a non-experience, then at some level we are imagining an experience.

I think about this when it comes to the Great Isolation. I don’t mean the Great Isolation in inability to find intimacy, in being ejected from the tribe, or in standing outside alone in the rain. I mean it in the sense of perpetual solitude inside your own mind; that no matter how much you love someone, it will always be your projection of their understanding; that this is a dream, that you alone are the one who generates the experiences you have of being understood. “Isn’t it lonely?” people ask, when I describe my solipsism. The fear of undertaking the Great Isolation is the fear of loneliness.

The body of isolation is the body of love, and this body needs an Other to exist – much as you cannot feel love without an Other, you cannot feel isolation without an Other. And so, if you feel lonely when you imagine the Great Isolation, then you are not truly imagining the Great Isolation, much as if you feel afraid when you imagine death, then you are not truly imagining death.

Loneliness is not terrifying. It’s not some great existential shadow or a condemnation to a psychedelic hell – it’s just the other side of love.


So Says Crazybrain

You are in a room built out of your framework of the world. The beliefs you can describe make up the walls, and the beliefs you can’t make up the floor. The ceiling is a mishmash of memory, patterned like dreams.

In the chair in front of you sits Crazybrain. It looks just like you. You’ve stared at its face way too much.

“You’re back,” you say. “I was hoping you wouldn’t come back.”

“We need to talk about your rejection of reality thing,” says Crazybrain. “You can’t delude yourself forever, you know that.”

“I’m not deluding myself,” you say. You remember the chalk words “you are beautiful and worthwhile” scrawled on the sidewalk outside the post office from earlier today, and the memory flashes briefly on the ceiling.

“I am beautiful and I am worthwhile.” You don’t have to look up to recite it.

“No,” Crazybrain sighs. “You have no true value to offer to the people around you.  You are not as intelligent, interesting, or creative as you hope you are. Everyone around you knows this. They simply tolerate you, usually out of politeness but sometimes out of pity. You are an outsider in their world. You are a secret embarrassment.”

“But that’s not true,” you say. “They reassure me about this. They hug me and smile at me and invite me over to things. Joseph even gave me a really heartfelt compliment the other day. And Alex bootycalls me at least twice a week.”

“Come on now. Of course they would hug you and smile at you and invite you over to things. Social pressure is intense. You yourself sometimes smile at and hug people you don’t really like, and I know last month you extended Jill an invite to the acroyoga workshop even though she’s really annoying, so what makes you think they’re not doing that to you? How many compliments have you given that you didn’t really mean? And you should know better, trying to use Alex as an example. Alex is using you out of lazy arousal and possibly for validation. You aren’t special, you’re food – and you offer it up willingly because it’s a cheap way to feel liked and accepted. You can’t achieve that on your own merit, because you don’t have merit.”

It would be easier to fight Crazybrain if it were cruel, but it isn’t. It feels gentle, matter-of-fact, almost parental.

“This is insecurity,” you say. “People talk about insecurity like it’s silly, so I know this must be silly. This is a thought loop. This is stupid to believe.”

“I knew you would say that,” says Crazybrain. “Of course you would try to rationalize this away – that’s exactly what a self-deluded, dishonest person would do who wants to believe anything but the truth. People say insecurity is silly, but they say that only when insecurity is actually unfounded. You know, deep inside, that there are things you actually need to conceal. If people knew what you were really like, you would be alone. You can feel that deep clench of fear when you look at yourself, how can you be so stupid as to think anybody else would like something so terrible?”

“I don’t believe you,” you say, believing it. “And even you just saying this is ruining things. People don’t like insecure people, and you whispering this in my ear is turning me into the person that nobody wants, that I don’t want. People love confidence, ease, grace. I need to be that. I need to be that so they will like me, for real.”

Crazybrain laughs. “Even now, your drives are dependent on what they think. Even at your very core, your desires to escape insecurity come from insecurity. If you were actually a valuable person, you would never have even started thinking this way.”

“Then I need to be independent of what people around me think,” you say.

“Why do you want that?” asks Crazybrain.

“So that… so that they value me,” you say, weakly.

“So that they value you,” Crazybrain says, and shakes its head. “You can’t climb out of this hole. The more you try, the more you fall.”

You know Crazybrain is right. No matter how much reason you throw at it, you are trapped here with a voice that carries the weight of true knowledge, and your fight against it is just a symbol of your weakness.


  1. The Call to Truth

Crazybrain is a tricky thing, because it’s constructed a bit like a disease that’s evolved to propagate when our own ‘immune system’ of reason tries to get rid of it. More rationality does not make people more likely to be secure. This is how on some level I believe I am unattractive, despite having spent 5 years making absurd money as a camgirl. Hell, even as I wrote that, I can hear Crazybrain in my head whispering excuses (makeup. lighting. you were fake. people felt sorry for you.).

Crazybrain can live only in that room built out of your framework of the world. There is something inside your network of assumptions, about the way you process beliefs, that allows it to be so horrifyingly convincing. Crazybrain feels separate from you and what you want, but it grew out of your own network of roots. Shooting at it won’t help – you have to find the roots and sever them.

The roots that keep growing Crazybrain’s is the call to truth. Crazybrain triggers your desire to know what’s really going on, via your assumption that there is this true external world that we can uncover. We imagine that we are half-blind, feeling our way through an accurate reality that we can only sort of touch. Crazybrain is so convincing because we feel that it is less blind than we are.

The problem is that “knowing what’s really going on” is, at its heart, a sensation. To feel as though you have any access at all to an ‘external world’ – that this is even a possibility at all – is fundamentally a feeling that happens inside your existence. A little shock in the right places in the brain can convince anybody of nearly anything, and that internal feeling of “knowing” – in the same way Crazybrain knows – would be equally as convincing from the inside.

We use the feeling of “knowing” to guide us because we have little else to – but it’s easy to forget that at no point do we actually hold any truth, nor can we ever. The idea of holding truth is fundamentally nonsensical. We have the sensation of belief, the sensation of prediction, the sensation of control. Getting caught up in the idea that we could ever know what’s going on in any sense is what gives Crazybrain such power.

Crazybrain appeals to your belief in “the truth” – so stop believing in truth – or at least suspend it, as a framework you can put on or off depending on its usefulness. Transitioning to a mindset where you believe what is most functional, even when it’s hard, is death to Crazybrain. 

“Nobody likes you,” says Crazybrain.

“That is not a useful belief to me,” you say. “Neither of us will ever really know what’s going on, because the concept of ‘what’s really going on’ fundamentally makes no sense.”


  1. Character On A Shelf

It is before your birth, and you’re standing before a vast wall of books. Each book is a character. The book doesn’t detail the type of life – location, parents, job, school – but rather the internal experience of the character. Is the character optimistic? Is it sad? How does it react to things?

You choose the book of a peaceful, graceful character, at ease with themselves, without fear. How would that character respond if Crazybrain appeared in their mind? 

You are going to die. Is this the character you wanted to live?

“Nobody likes you,” says Crazybrain.

“I’ve got one life, buddy,” you say. “Neither of us know what’s really going on, and living with you in my head is not the life I intend to live. This is not the character I chose to be. This is not the experience I desire, and so I absolutely reject this.”


  1. Through The Fire

Give in. What are you afraid of? Let it consume you.

Crazybrain threatens you with being alone, with loss of your friends, your status, with tearing you away from love.

So let it. Don’t fight. Nobody actually likes being around you. There is nobody on earth who could know who you are, fully, and embrace you. You will lose everything you love. You will never find someone who will make you feel whole. You will suffer. So let yourself hurt. Don’t fight it. Don’t feel outrage, injustice, anger – just pure, grieving acceptance. This is the way the world is, this is the way you are. Relax into it. I really like doing this exercise on high doses of LSD, which I recommend if you feel ready for it.

If you feel as though you’ve hurt all there is to hurt, try to imagine something worse, and then hurt more.

Be cautious of resisting, because this might amplify the fear. If you find yourself struggling, ask yourself – what am I resisting? What am I afraid of? Actively seek for the parts that are avoiding that plunge into cold water, and push them in.

Crazybrain works through fear, and the thing we fear is pain – of seeing something about yourself that hurts, at other people rejecting you – so the only way to stop fearing is to hurt. Confidence comes from grief.

And hopefully, after the hurting runs itself dry, we might notice the small ways in which we do connect with people, and feel gratitude, and the ways in which we don’t connect, feel sorrow. Sorrow is inescapable, so don’t try to escape it. It’s okay. Sorrow of loss is the thing that gives us the ability to feel gratitude with connection. They are paired, bonded together, and like two sides of a stone, they are the same.

Holding that stone is infinitely more tolerable than fear.

“Nobody likes you,” says Crazybrain.

“I am ready to be alone,” you say, in agony.


  1. Look At Me

Your Crazybrain is not the only Crazybrain. Most other people are walking around with Crazybrain lounging in a chair inside their head.

You are not different from others. You are a creature in a world writhing with other creatures begging to be seen. Look at me – writing songs, earning money, giving birth, wearing fashion – they are all done to be seen.

You have the power to give people what they want, so badly. You know what it’s like to want to be seen by others, and so you know exactly how valuable that gratitude is. It’s gratitude you can generate. You can be the person to others that Crazybrain says doesn’t exist to you.

And so, when Crazybrain opens its eyes and starts whispering powerful sanities in that little room, turn it against itself. Yes – you are insecure, and longing – but so is everyone else.

“Nobody likes you,” says Crazybrain.

“You whisper this in the ear of humanity.”, you say. “You drive everyone to their knees – and even if you aren’t wrong for me, I know you’re wrong for them, because I know I can love them. And so I will love them.”


  1. You Have No Choice

Free will is an illusion. Scientists can predict choices you’ll make before you make them, and given perfect knowledge of the universe, we would know exactly who would say what, why, and when.

Sure, maybe this is a useless concept in general, but against Crazybrain it is a weapon. Crazybrain functions on judgment – on the feeling that you are not what you should be.

“You should be better, kinder, smarter, hotter. You are not, and you are a failure.”

The reason this feels convincing is because our minds assume we could have been something else. This is an illusion. Your mind was going to fire the way it always did, your feelings cascade in the most predictable pattern.

Every part of you is exactly as it should be, because there is nothing else it can be. Every sensation is reasonable, rational. The things about yourself you don’t understand can be understood – there is a perfectly sensible explanation for literally everything you have ever done, even if you don’t know it. How can you judge a simulation for acting out code you can read?

So why have shame? You are a bubbling forth of perfection.

“Nobody likes you,” says Crazybrain.

“Anyone could have been the one to live my life,” you say. “It just happened to be me.”



“Me Too”: on Sexual Assault

I want to preface this by emphasizing that I in no way want to trivialize experiences people have had as victims of sexual assault. All feelings are valid, and it’s ok to feel hurt even at something that might seem trivial to others.


People on my Facebook and Twitter are posting “me too,” which is meant to indicate that they’ve been victims of sexual assault. The comments talk about how rampant abuse is, and I’ve read many anecdotes over the last few days of experiences that have left people living in a state of fear. “The world is not safe for us,” seems to be the message.


I felt weird and confused, because I have never felt this, despite having been a sex worker and living in a lot of different cities. I’ve generally felt quite safe my entire life, and never really witnessed this systemic harassment that I see people talk about. I don’t know what’s going on – how is it that everyone’s getting abused around me and I’m left untouched and ignorant to this? I started to write a post about this.


But then I remembered – I actually was a victim of sexual assault. There were many instances in my life that might qualify – I was molested as a child, stalked and chased in deserted streets, groped at a party, forced into a handjob despite clearly and repeatedly saying no, kissed without consent, and I once had to physically chest-kick a man out my front door who’d followed me home after I drunkenly flirted with him. Also let’s not forget catcalling whenever I go outside alone wearing anything form-fitting.


So, I could also post “me too,” if I wanted! But posting it still didn’t feel right. Remembering these things didn’t make me feel less safe – in fact I had actually completely forgot about a few of the events up until this point. I never really considered them an issue.


I think this is because very few of the events made me feel afraid for my life or well being. The forced sexual contact was really annoying and uncomfortable, but I wasn’t afraid they would hurt me, and I think on a gut level I don’t view ‘having my hand shoved onto a dick’ as much different than ‘having my hand shoved onto a forearm.’ It was mostly uncomfortable because of social anxiety – I wasn’t sure how to effectively communicate without ruining my social ties later on.


The only thing that left lasting impact was being chased through Istanbul’s deserted streets by a hooded man – to this day I have trouble walking alone at night, even in safe areas. But I never really considered this part of a systemic problem – I don’t know if he wanted to rape or mug me, but both of those things seemed equally physically threatening, and I know several other people who’ve been mugged, most of them men, and I sort of classed it as just an unfortunate thing that happens sometimes. I never once thought of this as having to do with rape (or mugging) culture, and more thought of it as “sometimes psychopaths get born, and sometimes I’m in the wrong place at the wrong time.” I don’t feel like a victim.


I have a weirdly high resilience to these experiences, but I don’t want to insinuate that those who don’t are weak. I did not choose to be unaffected, and it’s likely that the reasons for this are random factors in my childhood, or a genetic balance of brain chemicals, or something different and unknowable. I am not stronger, I take absolutely no credit, I just happened to find myself in this position.


But with the “Me Too” campaign, I felt a pressure to view the things that had happened to me as part of this ‘systemic abuse’ narrative, as important somehow, as something I should be more upset about. Was there something wrong with me for being so unaffected by sexual assault? Should I get more angry? The idea of offering up my experiences as part of the cause felt sort of appealing, like it granted me special status within this storylline.


And the problem here is that if I did choose to label my experiences as something important and troubling, that I would become unhappier and more fearful. People who view their experiences as important and troubling seem to also have a lot of distress associated with it, and it seems like it would be an improvement if they could reach a mental state where they no longer saw them as important and troubling.


I’m not at all saying they are failing by “Me Too”ing their experience, only that the state of “Me Too”ing is more unpleasant than a state without labels – and more importantly, that the “Me Too” program might actually increase the amount people feel their experience has been traumatic for them. I’m reminded of my experience leaving home. I was raised a homeschooler in an incredibly sheltered environment by an abusive father. The experience itself really sucked, and was very uncomfortable, but I did not assign it a special label. I didn’t know that my experience was special or important – until I left home and started talking to people from the outside world.


People reacted in horror when I mentioned things from my childhood that I thought were normal and common. They said things like, “are you okay? How are you coping?”. As I integrated with my new culture, I took on the horror they felt about my childhood. I started to feel angry at what I had gone through, and this caused me pain at least as great as the experience had been itself. I felt like I was living with a gaping wound in my chest. I felt injustice and crippling rage and suffered through nightmares for years. I defined myself as a victim, and thus I felt like a victim.


I would not have been able to heal without shedding my label and the narrative about what I had gone through. The label and the narrative helped me adjust to my new culture, but it also locked me into suffering. I no longer consider myself a victim, and as a result I no longer suffer like a victim.


Now, I’m not necessarily arguing that people shouldn’t have reacted in horror. I think probably rejecting my upbringing as ‘deeply not right’ was super important for integrating into a healthier perspective, and I think to some extent suffering from an updated narrative was inevitable – but I do wish deeply, at some point, that someone would have told me to not make it special. I wish someone would have told me that I should feel and process whatever pain I need to feel, but to refuse to give it an identity, to refuse to make it part of me. I wish at least one person would not have reacted with horror. I wish someone had told me this didn’t need to be a story about the poor abused Christian girl who must feel the way a poor abused Christian girl should feel.


And in the same way, I sort of want to reach out to the people saying Me Too and I want to tell them that it’s okay to hurt, but this doesn’t have to be anything special. It can just be pain, and then healing. I’m afraid that the cultural attitude that sparks Me Too will lock people into the pain.


Please realize I’m not necessarily making an argument against the “Me Too” campaign. It’s very possible that the benefits are greater than this cost, especially in a world where sexual assault is a hidden harm – but I wanted to introduce the concept that going about it this way might also have a cost. I don’t know if Me Too is a net benefit or not, but I see nobody discussing the potential downsides, and I feel a cultural pressure not to. There’s a reason I’m posting this here on my blog and not on my social media.


It’s just, despite having a list of ways in which people have sexually abused or harassed me, I am happy. I don’t feel any urge to label those experiences. I don’t feel afraid, and I feel completely free. I want others to know that this is possible, and that maybe one path is by rejecting the urge to put those experiences into a storyline that designates them as special.


I just read a comment on an Uber fundraising page for a lady with cancer. It said, “Uber should provide healthcare for all drivers instead of doing gofundme pages!”

I’m not here to debate whether or not that would be better, but rather to point out a phenomenon of sacrifice-blindness.

My friend sent me an article today about a kid falling out of a window on LSD. She doesn’t like that I do LSD. I told her that LSD was really safe and that more people fall out of windows on alcohol. She said,

Frequently we point out things that are Good Ideas Motivated by Goodness, such as:

*Everyone should have access to health care
*Nobody should fall out of windows
*Avoid war no matter what
*Jobs should pay enough to cover all basic financial needs
*Terminal illnesses should be researched and cured
*Nobody should be racist
*Our culture should be protected from criminals
*We shouldn’t have our freedom infringed
*Provide the homeless with housing
*We need more after-school programs
*Employers should provide medical benefits to employees

I don’t disagree with the desires expressed by all these things, and I suspect almost nobody would. If I could press a button and magically everybody gets health care without any cost to anybody, I absolutely would.

And I don’t mean to make this an argument against the individual ideas expressed. Whether or not universal healthcare should be instituted is a whole different idea. What I am arguing is to eliminate sacrifice-blindness.

I am on a birth control that puts me at significantly increased risk for stroke. A few years ago I would have never considered taking this birth control, because “avoiding all things that increases health risk is a Good Idea Motivated by Goodness.” Good health was paramount above everything.

But really? Above everything? Even all the positive benefits the birth control pill gave me? By blindly accepting this rule of Goodness, I failed to consider what I was sacrificing to follow this rule – medication that would improve my quality of life. And once I stopped to actually consider the practical results of the options I was facing, my choice changed.

Preserve Human Life No Matter What is a frequently touted Good Idea Motivated by Goodness, but we don’t act according to it. We drive our families around in cars, putting them at risk of car accidents and death. Realistically speaking, the law we follow is more like Preserve Human Life As Long As It’s Mostly Convenient For Us.

And this is fine. Outlawing LSD to preserve safety might be a Good Idea Motivated by Goodness, but it ignores the sacrifice made for this – human autonomy in their own safety and all of the benefits of LSD.

Now, you can look at this evaluation and make a choice, and I’m not going to tell you you’re wrong. If you’re fully aware of all of the things you are sacrificing in order to gain “nobody falls out of a window,” then I cannot blame you, and now our discussion switches to one of personal value.

With the example of Uber and medical benefits – would it be a Good Idea to make Uber provide benefits to its employees independent contractors? Yes. But what would we be sacrificing in order to make this happen? Would this raise the cost of Uber, making Lyft a better option and putting Uber drivers out of business? Or making it less affordable for poor people in communities to have easy transportation? Or raise the barrier of entry for people who want to be Uber drivers, thus reducing the number of potential income sources that a desperate person might need to feed their family? Would requiring Uber to give out healthcare actually end up hurting poor communities the most? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe even if it did, it would still be worth it. But whatever our final choice, let’s not be sacrifice-blind.

I find that in the majority of political discussions I see, parties from all sides engage in sacrifice-blindness in pursuit of touting Good Ideas Motivated by Goodness. I suspect that if everyone knew exactly what would be sacrificed if their idea was actually perfectly implemented, people would agree with each other much more often.

Losing Pride

When I was very young my parents attended a church where, during worship, women would praise dance with streamers in the back. I thought the women looked like princesses and I wanted to do it too. When asked my mom if I could, she said yes – but I needed to understand why I wanted to do it. Was it because I wanted to look pretty and have people like me? Or was it to worship God in selflessness and humility? She said if I wanted to do anything out of pride and selfishness, that I should not do it. After thinking about this, I chose not to dance.

Christians have a whole set of vocabulary and cultural ideas to deal with this idea of modesty, which is entirely foreign to a nonreligious mindset. An action is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ depending on whether the pleasure you get out of it is filtered through “for God” or for “self gain.”

This underpins clothing (why would you want to dress flashy? how does that glorify the Lord?), charity (if you attach your name to gift giving, that glorifies yourself, you asshole) to spiritual success (don’t claim responsibility for walking the righteous path, you sinner, God did that). My particular denomination went so far as to say that claiming responsibility for ‘accepting Jesus into your heart’ was too much, that God did that too – that salvation had nothing to do with you, fuck you you incompetent adamspawn.

This has a lot of psychological effects, such as fusing together the feeling of ‘pride’ and ‘shame,’ or keeping you in a constant state of failure because self-motivated pleasure is so easy to feel, or destroying your ability to think any thoughts that place yourself in a position of authority.

(Incidentally, this is related to the Christian argument about morals – they say no matter what moral outrage we feel towards God’s actions in the Bible, we are unjustified, because God is the ultimate arbiter of morality. To claim that our judgement takes precedence is a prideful act, fuck you, inherently depraved scum.)

But this can also feel subjectively pretty good in a way that’s difficult to describe to someone who hasn’t experienced it. Surrendering is cathartic. I’ve seen many Christian people (myself included) sacrifice incredible amounts and live in holy pain, enduring it stoically because it is ‘God’s will.’ I used to view these people as victims, but I’ve come to realize that they have what I call ‘martyr syndrome’ – engaging in surrender because it (ironically) gives them a sense of achievement. Pride results in uncertainty of self worth, which can be very anxiety inducing. Christianity takes this stress of agency and redirects it into simple uniform submission – pain with a purpose. This is what some Christians mean when they talk about finding peace in the Lord.

It should be clear how negatively I feel about the Christian mindset in general, but there is legitimate benefit here. The effect of anxiety reduction and a sense of purpose is pretty huge, so they’re doing something right, and I recognize strong parallels in the psychedelic experience.

I think the Christian issue is not exactly their obsession with sacrificing pride, but that they do it in such a way that emphasizes taking on the responsibility of sin.


I am increasingly finding the sensation of pride to be unpleasant – not by judging it to be terrible, but naturally. It’s just happening. I think I enjoy it less because I feel more aware of how fragile it is – that it only exists in contrast to my surroundings, and thus that I am wholly dependent on my environment, which I cannot control, in order to have this feeling.

For example: I draw a nice picture and people tell me I’m a great artist. I feel good and I want to show even more people the art because I love to feel that people are impressed with me, and like me, and want me.

Emboldened by the praise, I take my sketchbook and go to an art convention, where I am surrounded by serious artists. My doodles are nothing in comparison. I see how unskilled I am, and so does everyone else, even if they’re nice about it. Nobody values me here, and I feel embarrassed that I thought I was worthy enough to attend.

Where does ‘pride in my work’ lie, then? In myself and my work, or in the contrast of my work to my environment?

This is a pretty obvious example, but it occurs all the time in microscopic ways, every time we feel a desire for anything that furthers a pleasurable sense of our own identity – when we make a joke people laugh at, when we dance at a club, when we wear clothes we like. All of these things exist in contrast to our environment just as much as my sketchbook did, but we don’t notice it because our environment doesn’t change enough to show us the difference. If I’d never gone to the art convention, I would never have noticed that my pride for my art didn’t actually come from my art.

Really, everything we like about ourselves is formed by comparison to environment. If we dropped you into an alien planet with an entirely different value set, your sense of self-value would become completely different.

So when we feel pride, it’s not about us, not really – it’s about feeling better than our environment, which depends on what the environment is. Not on you.

Dwelling on this can create a pretty neutral feeling when ‘doing impressive things.’ It makes the thing feel not impressive at all; it’s just a thing, being done. The impressiveness is all about perspective.

I’m using all this as a very roundabout way of saying that this can be applied to shame as well. In exactly the ways we are prideful when we do better than our environment, we feel ashamed when we do worse, and more importantly, they are contingent. To invest in contrast is to invest both sides of the contrast – that’s what it means to invest in contrast! Any feeling of shame you have is what allows you to feel pride. It is the price you pay for that joy.

If you do have a desire to eliminate your sense of shame, of self-criticism, of failure, then know that you cannot do so without also eliminating your sense of pride. If you decide that enduring the presence of self-worth anxiety is worth it for the joy of the pride you feel, then congratulations – your shame is serving you by giving you purpose to your pain. This is an absolutely valid decision and I equally admire and love people who choose this as much as I love and admire those who don’t.

If you decide it’s not worth it, then trying to reduce a sense of failure by emphasizing your sense of pride is rather amusedly self defeating. It may feel like it works, sort of like we imagine driven businessmen may have done it all because they want to prove to themselves that they’re worth something – but they did not succeed by eliminating the anxiety of failure. Saying that being successful eliminates failure anxiety is sort of like saying running from a bear kills the bear. You may be going an impressive distance, but you wouldn’t be running if there weren’t a bear.

Anyway my main point is that if you have this idea in your mind that you want to ‘accept yourself’ and ‘forgive your failures’ and ‘don’t feel ashamed,’ then you have to equally lose the thing that makes you value yourself for your success.

The Christians got it half right – they somehow identified some peace in the loss of pride, but instead of going about it naturally they codified it into a law and tried to slam it into people. The tendency of religion (and culture, and people) to figure out something nice and, in trying to communicate it, turn it into a Serious Law, is really consistent and impressive. I need to write about it.

So in summary: It’s all the environment, man. Your genes, your upbringing. You had no influence in what sperm got into your mom’s egg. You are a biological process that got pooped out into an inevitable universe, a fatty tissuey boney body that’s typing some shit on a computer, thinking that ‘it’ is doing it all, that ‘it’ is making the importance, the impressiveness. What else could have happened, really?

Yes, And I Like It

Sometimes I come up with reasons about my behavior based on my childhood. “I must be overly compliant and afraid of authority/rulebreaking because my parents were authoritarian,” I think. This is a rationalization that gives my behavior meaning – there was a cause (authoritarian parents), a reaction (whatever emotional responses that had – fear, desire for love, etc.), and a lasting effect (compliance). It is a story about myself, not from a cold, distant perspective, but from the inside, from my own mind – what it feels like to make decisions.

This is a narrative that has been very useful and intuitive, and led me to things like dealing with my overcompliance by reminding myself that the world is not my parents, or forgiving myself for overcompliance by identifying the concrete cause of exposure to authority. Overall, the story of “authoritarian parents caused my compliance” is one that has helped me gain control over my actions. Because it makes sense and has worked so well, I think it is true. How could something work so well and not be true?

Imagine my surprise when my Mom read to me notes she had taken about me as a toddler, prior to any age I remember. “Very compliant,” she had written. “very concerned about pleasing those around her.”

The fact that I was displaying these traits before any serious parenting happened was a huge blow to my idea that my parents caused my compliance. Gone was my image of a plucky three-year-old getting the fire snuffed out of her. (Now, of course my story of authoritarian-compliance could still be true, as my parents physically disciplined me as an infant. I can’t know – but the point is that for the first time I seriously considered that it might not be true.)

This instance, among many others, really divorced me from the idea that I was tapping into some sort of ‘actual truth’ when I made up explanations for why I was the way I was, particularly when the causes in question were unclear, complicated, or a long time ago.

It also sort of reminds me of a sensation I had after a long and strange dream. When I tried to communicate the dream, I found that much of it was too ethereal to capture in words – so I described it as best I could, an abridged version, forcing tiny bits of narrative to cover up the gaps I couldn’t explain adequately. As I recounted the dream, I could feel the memory fading and being wholly replaced by the story I was telling – deeply, in the way I believed it. It was an odd sensation, to sense something untruthful become truth to me, but I realized that was the only way my brain could hold on. This tale was now the only access I had. I would have felt uncomfortable, except I realized I had probably done this countless times in the past without knowing it.

In fact, I probably was doing this constantly – not just with dreams or childhood tales, but with every story I told myself about why I did the things I did. In the translation of my life to words in my memory I was inevitably engaging in a lie, because narrative can never be the same as the experience.

Everything I thought about myself and my own identity was subject to this. I had the feeling that my ideas about myself were “true” because they proved to be both useful and elegant – but then my idea about authoritarian-caused-compliance was both useful and elegant, and it probably-possibly wasn’t “true” at all! I could not know, and if something is impossible to know then it is just as good as not existing at all.

Ultimately, “who I was” felt like a story I had created in my own mind to make sense of my surroundings. A useful story, an elegant one, but still a story.

This concept of self-as-a-story, as specifically different from self-as-definitely-real, places identity in the realm of self-creation as opposed to world-creation. Doing this grants us agency and is a core for a lot of theories of healing and emotional growth.

Once you buy into the idea of self-as-a-story, once you integrate it as a deep belief, it becomes easier to accept new stories specifically for the purpose of giving direction to your life and identity. A lot of people have a strong negative reaction to this idea with the sense that they are lying to themselves – but the sense of “lying to yourself” arises from the idea that you think you are ever capable at having a truthful narrative. You are not. No idea you think will ever be true, and so you might as well make it functional.

The sense of “lying to yourself” also arises when you are consciously saying one thing and your subconscious is saying another. If you believe deeply, your subconscious will be aligned, and it will feel like truth. If you feel the sense of lying-to-yourself when trying to accept new stories, then that means you haven’t believed deeply enough yet. Beliefs are malleable, and we can learn to use them like clothes, switching them out as is appropriate for the occasion.

Here I want to talk specifically about engaging a story, much like the ones we employ every day, that is not grounded in reality, but designed for function. The story is called: “Yes, And I Like It”, and it is meant to address self-disgust or variations on it.
The first step is to identify the thing you’re doing that you dislike, such as:

Getting jealous when your partner meets up with an old fling
Talking about yourself too much in social situations
Procrastinating housework

The second step is to identify, as primally and as honestly as possible, the source or reason for the unpleasantness. For some things this can be very difficult to do and take a long time. Phrasing them as self-referencing is usually the best:

I am afraid I’m not good enough for my partner.
I crave approval of my peers.
I lack willpower for simple tasks.

The third step is to respond “yes, and I like it.”

I am afraid I’m not good enough for my partner.
Yes, and I like the fear.
I crave approval of my peers.
Yes, and I like the insecurity.
I lack willpower for simple tasks.
Yes, and I like the helplessness.

The fourth step is to find a reason for why you like it.

I like the fear
Because it makes me invested.
I like the insecurity
Because it keeps me grounded, because I can empathize with others who are insecure.
I like the helplessness
Because helplessness is thrilling.

The idea here is that to change yourself you must first accept yourself, and to accept yourself you must first accept your flaws, and to accept your flaws you must view them as intentional. Not in name, not in word, but deeply, truly. You must believe the story of Yes, And I Like It. You must understand why you are the way you are.

Because if you understand why you are the way you are, you can’t judge yourself anymore.

(Another objection might be that this leads to passivity and helplessness, but I disagree.)

The concept of liking negative emotions might seem pretty silly, but the idea that we must not like things that hurt is in itself a belief we can step out of, with a little practice.

In fact, we practice it anyway without realizing it. We immerse ourselves in movies with threats and tragedies that feel real, if only for a few hours. Some of us get a little excited when bad world events happen – not because they wanted it to happen, but because badness is exciting the same way it is in movies. And I’m sure most of us as teenagers discovered we had recently developed capacity for complex emotional pain and promptly spent a lot of time feeling all the pain we could at once. Experiences of intense emotional pain while on psychedelics can lead to this sensation as well, usually much more vividly.

We already hold within our minds stories of I like this thing that hurts, even if we don’t realize it. Pain can be exciting, cathartic, or meaningful.

And so learning to believe the story of Yes, And I Like It can take that little dark pleasure and channel it into your life now. It can apply even to things outside of your own control (My mother died; I miss her terribly, and I love what the pain means to me).

Ultimately the goal is to divorce yourself from the narrative that pain is bad. Pain isn’t bad. Pain just hurts, and that’s okay.

Choosing Insecurity

I have a fear of authority and rulebreaking. The fear is so strong that it sometimes interferes with my life – I have anxiety about being in the wrong cabin in a train, trying to jump turnstiles makes my body physically seize up, and I meekly accept unfair Comcast bills.

I know myself pretty well, so I know the amount of effort it would take to fix this particular fear would be pretty huge. It might take therapy, both the sit-down-in-a-chair and the exposure kind. It would take extraordinary mental effort and discomfort on my part. Would my life be better if I fixed this fear? Yeah, probably – but a better question is, would it be worth it?

My rulebreaking-anxiety doesn’t give me trouble that often. I’m pretty happy being a rule-follower, most of the time. So – should I fix it?

I think there’s a common idea that personal growth is always the correct option, and in a way this makes a bit of sense. If there’s a problem inside of you that limits your ability to enjoy life, then fixing that problem would be better, right? We frequently heighten this idea to a nearly moral imperative – if you’re dating a shitty person who you think you deserve, then you need to break up with them and upgrade your self worth. If you are doing drugs to feel better, you need to quit and get fulfillment out of exercise and good eating or whatever it is normal people do these days.

This imperative applies even if the problem isn’t actually much of a problem. If someone isn’t a drug addict, but rather gets horribly drunk a few times a year whenever they encounter a severe emotional problem, we see that they’re not dealing with things in a healthy way. And even if their alcohol-for-emotions habit is rare enough that it isn’t causing serious damage, we know that this might not last. Emotions can always get worse, and there’s a good chance that in the future, the mild habit now might lead to serious problems down the road.

In this situation, the fact that our occasional drunkard is okay right now seems just a matter of chance – that his life isn’t okay because of his internal strength, but rather because his life isn’t bad enough to turn him into a drunkard… yet.

We could say the same thing about my rulebreaking anxiety. The fact that my life is okay right now might be just a matter of chance – that it’s not because of any strength, but rather because I have the leisure of keeping away from authority figures most of the time.

But of course we can take this idea to extreme conclusions – everything good in our lives right now is just a matter of chance. The fact we are happy and functional might not be because we have the internal strength to tolerate being insulted, but rather because nobody is insulting us. We have a thousand weaknesses hidden by everyday convenience.
And so if we really wanted to become someone who would be okay with everything, we ought to go endure torture and loss in order to reveal and deal with those thousand weaknesses.

But we don’t, because it’s not worth it. To really rid ourselves of every potential weakness would take an inordinate amount of effort – of spending every waking moment practicing strength, practicing for battles that you might never actually fight in your lifetime. Every day we make judgments about what is or is not worth it, and every day we forego personal growth because doing so would be too hard. When I make the choice not to “go to therapy so that I can hop on trains”, I’m deciding that the pain of expanding myself is not worth the benefit I would get from occasional rule breaking. It would just be too much effort for too little a reward!

Most common is lack of empathy when we overlook the great cost of self improvement in others. Years ago, I thought my friend should break up with her boyfriend and improve herself so she could get a better boyfriend – but in recommending this to her, I wasn’t taking into account the pain of loneliness she would endure by being single. When I recommended my friend to quit drinking in response to pain, I didn’t understand that he was making a value judgement in much the same way I was when I meekly paid Comcast an extra 33$ instead of protesting the unfair charge. In drinking, he was making the judgement that working to fix himself without alcohol cost too much pain for the benefit of decreased alcoholism risk.

And obviously risk assessments go wrong all the time. Sometimes people do become alcoholics, or get into abusive relationships, – but that’s what is meant by risk. If they understand the risk they’re taking, then we must conclude that the benefit they gain is worth it, for them – much as people who drive cars understand very well that they might get into an accident, but decide that the benefit they get of transportation is worth it.

And so how can we blame anybody for avoiding “fixing themselves,” even if it goes wrong? The most we can do is make sure they understand the risk they’re taking, and if they do understand, then they are making an educated decision about their own values, and “you should quit drinking” is a recommendation that comes from a position of ignorance.

And so when I say people who are monogamous are monogamous because they are insecure, I in no way mean this as a judgement. They have made the decision that going to the effort of getting rid of jealousy – of dealing with the pain of their partner spending the night somewhere else – is not worth the benefits they might gain from nonmonogamy. Maybe it would take them ten years of intensive therapy to be able to handle their jealousy – but when weighing this against “Or I could just agree to monogamy with someone who’s down and live my damn live thriving in other ways that I value”, this is an absolutely valid decision.

(edit: i should clarify that my definition of monogamy is “when you place a restriction or expectation on your partner’s engagement in sexual activity.” In a situation where two people are totally okay with their partner fucking/loving other people, but just happen not to due to lack of desire or interest in other people, I consider this just passive polyamory.)

But I think it is also useful to be honest with ourselves when we are making these value judgments. Monogamy is due to insecurity, at its heart – that your partner will leave you or that you’re not good enough, and cloaking it under the guise of romantic notions of commitment is disingenuous. My anxiety about rulebreaking is about fear, not about anything noble, or about respecting people in authority, or supporting society. It’s just me being scared. People in mediocre relationships just don’t want to be alone, people who drink during hard times aren’t doing it for fun.

We all are succumbing to weakness, and that’s okay, because we have to make judgment calls with limited resources. We should look our flaws in the face, and if we have full understanding of the value decisions we’re making, then there is no reason to be ashamed.

How To Listen

Sometimes listening to people talk reminds me who I am. They talk about their parents, and I think about my parents and how they encouraged me to eat sandwiches crust-first. They talk about that one orgy they had, and that reminds me of that one ten-girl orgy I had in a Las Vegas hot tub. I come out of these conversation with a stronger sense of identity, with a refreshed sense of the stories that have built who I am – a drunken lesbianish, stoic sandwich-eater.

Sometimes watching movies makes me completely forget who I am. For two and a half hours surrounded by booming audio, I’m no longer Aella – I’m the academy award winning actor-character fending for himself in a brutal world with uneasy race relations. I leave the movie a bit dazed, coming back into my life like I’m returning from a dream.

Of course conversations can sometimes make us feel dazed, like movies, and movies can make us feel more strongly in touch with ourselves, but I wanted to highlight that a difference exists at all, and to identify this as a listening spectrum.

On one side is Loud Listening. This is listening we do where we involve ourselves. This is most commonly used when engaged in things like:

Banter and casual conversation: A friend at the dinner table tells their story of nearly hitting a deer on the way over, while listening you are scanning your experiences for deer-hitting stories. When your friend finishes, you start telling your story about the deer.

Emotional advice. You attend a lecture about the warning signs of abusive relationships. With each sign they list, you scan your feelings about your own relationship to see if there is a match.

Similar, personal conversation. You grew up with a crazy hoarder mother and the experience was traumatic and deeply personal to you. On a bus you overhear someone talking about their crazy hoarder mother. You instantly compare what they are saying to your own experience and get off the bus immersed in memories of your childhood.

Silent listening, by contrast, occurs when we ‘lose ourselves’ in what we are listening to; when we assume the identity of someone else. This mainly occurs in things like:

Movie watching. You forget your real life worries while caught up in the dramas of other characters.

Dissimilar, personal conversation. You meet someone who escaped from North Korea. They tell you about the censorship, terrible food, and the concentration camps. There is so much novel information you don’t think about yourself at all.

Learning to model. Your friend comes to you asking for advice with a complicated family issue. Before saying anything you ask questions to try to imagine how they feel and what their goals are, so that you can give them personalized advice that would make them happy.

Loud Listening is a function that identifies how the speaker’s ideas and experiences are different from the listener’s. This gives the listener the ability to evaluate their social status, how well society understands the listener, and how strange/normal the listener is, and so that the listener can take action to bridge that gap.

In banter, it’s identifying shared experiences and speaking them aloud. In emotional advice, it’s identifying society’s ideas about health and modifying our behavior to fit. In personal sharing, it’s a heightened sensitivity to how much people actually understand the vulnerable things we’ve gone through, in the hopes that one day we can figure out how to communicate it. Sometimes Loud Listening can be defensive, where thinking about ourselves screams out empathy we don’t want to feel, or insists we are someone who understands something we actually don’t.

In some circumstances we prefer situations where everyone is loud listening. Improv, dinner parties, teasing in first dates – we expect to be loud listened to, and we loud listen in turn, because we both actively want people to hear our involvement and we actively want to hear others’ involvement.

But the more vulnerable we become, the less useful it is to have someone else involved. When we want to be deeply understood, we want it to be through our lens, not someone else’s.

When someone tells us something deeply personal and vulnerable, the function in our mind that says how does this relate to me? shuts down our ability to empathize. When we’re loud listening to the person on the bus talk about their hoarder mother, we are imagining the situation from our perspective, with our set of emotions, and thinking things like “their experience wasn’t as bad as mine. I would have been grateful to have a mother who only saved her poop jars once a week instead of every day!”

I particularly struggle with this when listening to people talk about religious, homeschooled, or oppressive childhoods. If someone tells me about how they were homeschooled (but only up until high school!) and their church tried to guilt them (they weren’t devout enough to guilt themselves!), my brain screams at me how much worse I had it, and how I would have loved to have their childhood.

But this isn’t fair to their view at all, and when I Loud Listen I’m not empathizing with the actual experience of being a child who only knows that things could be better and now they’re worse. That experience is real and formative to them, my own life be damned. All they wanted was for me to feel what they felt.

This is where Silent Listening becomes a loving thing to practice. My feelings about their childhood come out of Loud Listening. To immerse myself in their feelings about their childhood is Silent Listening, and I think ultimately it’s all anybody ever wants in response to vulnerability.

Silent Listening is easy sometimes, when our own identities don’t spring up in the way. It’s easy for a population of suburban families to Silent Listen to a movie about aliens, because it’s not a common experience – but it’s harder for this population of suburban families to Silent Listen to each other, because everyone’s daily dramas is common and close.

Feeling common and close to someone means that probably many people feel similarly, and thus few people Silent Listen to that person. Thus the more isolated that person will feel in their vulnerability, and the more isolated they feel, the more valuable it will be to them for you to hear them. Generally speaking, the more difficult it is to Silent Listen, the more important it is for you to do so. (It’s very easy to Silent Listen to the defector from North Korea, which means they’re probably used to everybody doing it, and thus it’s less valuable to them.)

So if someone is being vulnerable, Silent Listen to them. Let’s be honest with ourselves about what sort of listening we’re doing, because slipping into Loud Listening when we think we’re Silent Listening dupes us into a false sense of understanding. Let’s not view either type of Listening as negative, but rather conduct them intentionally, so that we’re not lying to ourselves about how well we understand someone.

Let’s find the joy in trying to understand, instead of trying to be understood.

Moving Peaces

In zen, (or the thing that I’m thinking of that seems to mostly overlap with zen, I don’t want to be presumptuous), the trick to peace is to stop perceiving what ought to be as different from what is. As in – to stop wanting by realizing that you already have what you want, or something similar.

And of course as soon as we hold this as a verbalizeable concept in our mind, we fall into the trap of placing this whole thing – being zen – as a goal. Zen is “I have what I want” – and so to say “I want zen” is hilariously self-defeating.

This means that any sort of discussion about zen as a goal becomes self contradictory – in speaking about zen in any sense separate from “a current experience”, we have lost it. The concept behind this is the same sort of concept people are pointing at when they talk about unspeakability or undefinability, or ‘unasking’ in the meta sense, again usually in reference to zen.

Here specifically I wanted to explore a question which I’ve heard as a steady rebuttal in various forms in response to this idea. The question is this: “If zen cannot be a goal, and is rather about not-goal, how then do you achieve any sort of change? How does this not result in stagnation?”

In response to this I think we can look at things that aren’t conscious, or are barely conscious, or anything which doesn’t possess the sensation of goal setting. They still undergo change. Energy is in motion and reactions happen. It’s impossible for stagnation to occur.

When we usually talk about the sense of changing and goals, we mean something that carries a sense of willpower and direction. We choose a route or an end point, determine it as superior to other points, and call things that help us achieve it as ‘good’ and everything else as ‘bad.’ It is an action we impose upon our own reality.

In contrast, zen calls for the change that occurs through observation, sort of how becoming more aware of your own motivations for things can trigger self-acceptance, or how knowing a character’s backstory triggers greater feelings of empathy. In circumstances like these, observation creates change, but the change feels like it happens to us, like it’s inevitable and directionless. I do not feel like I enacted any acceptance upon myself, I feel like I just looked at myself more deeply. I don’t feel like I decided to make myself feel empathy, but rather that I just looked at the motivational parts behind a person I disliked.

I think a desire for goal-change over observation-change comes from distrusting observation-change. Perhaps we think it won’t make us the happiest, or give us what we want. Maybe it makes us feel a loss of control, and that is terrifying. Holding onto goal-change makes us feel like we have had a role in our lives, like we dictate our direction and our reality.

And from the perspective of zen, there is no judgement in that. Zen cannot be a goal, so not being zen does not mean you’ve failed.

So in summary I guess there is no point, do whatever you want. Have fun! Or don’t, whatever, zen doesn’t care.