Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Demon of Doing Well

by Miki Kashtan

Some time in May, it became clear to all of us at BayNVC, the organization I co-founded in 2002, that we were in such financial difficulty, that even after laying off three of four remaining administrative employees, including the executive director, we were facing a significant debt, much of which was to me or in my name (you can read more about what happened, and how we are responding to this crisis, here). This came at a time when I was very depleted and in need of a break from responsibility. The level of crisis I felt was acute, sharp, visceral. It affected me physically with unprecedented intensity of stress. One of the more challenging aspects of my experience was the utter sense of helplessness, seeing no way in which I could make any choice that would attend to the magnitude of the crisis and still attend to my longing for balance, for a way to care for myself.

Taking on responsibility for the whole is part of how I respond to crisis, personal or otherwise, so it’s no surprise to me that it took four weeks to envision a different path forward, one I could embrace with integrity, which took me towards releasing myself from responsibility. It took another four weeks, and much inner work, both conscious and unconscious, to regain my sense of freedom, to see a way that I could focus on what was most important to me with far less cost. Meanwhile, the most immediate initial ripples of the crisis were subsiding. Fundraising efforts and other ingenious ideas were beginning to bear fruit. The group of collaborative trainers working with BayNVC coalesced into a sweet community forging a way forward together, making decisions that made sustainability possible. Some conflicts that emerged during the transition were dissolving, and new opportunities began to emerge.

Then, one morning, I woke up feeling good. The sense of crisis was gone. I felt back in my life, full of energy and a sense of possibility. Challenge was still there, and it didn’t detract from this fundamental sense of well-being. Then, immediately in the wake of this lovely feeling, I was filled with dread about the next bad thing that was going to happen. This experience filled me with sadness, even though I understand the many experiences in life that created this expectation within me. The sadness is not because I have any illusion that there could ever be good times that would just last forever. Rather, I was sad because I wanted to be able to enjoy my well-being while it lasted instead of losing it right away because of the fear of losing it later.

It became a matter of significance to come to an understanding of what this dread was about, and I did what I so often do when I want to gain deeper insights, which is to talk to people. In the course of these conversations I learned, only to mild surprise, that the experience of doing well has a few other peculiar challenges associated with it.

Being Present to Our Good Feelings

As trite as it may sound, it bears naming that it is in the nature of being a living organism that we have a preference for good feelings and want them to continue indefinitely, and that we have an aversion to bad feelings and want them to go away. This is what makes my dread so easily understandable. This understanding, however, tells us nothing about how we can respond.

For many years, I have practiced and taught others how to stay with difficult feelings. I have engaged in this approach for so long that it takes almost no effort for me to relax the tension that surrounds grief, despair, or shame - the ones I have come to grips with - and remain in a flow. I have come to see that, for myself at least, bliss means having no resistance to the flow of life through me, whatever form it takes. I am still working on staying that present with fear and especially with helplessness, my very least favorite feeling.

It’s a whole other frontier to reach for presence in response to some form of happiness. The dread I talked about has generally been intermittent when I am doing well. More commonly I recognize something else, almost a giddiness, a form of getting lost in the good feeling. It’s been years since I first noted to myself, with some surprise, that this way of being lost in the delight is just as far from presence as the numbness that used to be my primary protection against feeling pain of any kind. I also realized that choosing presence when I am numb and uncomfortable is much easier than choosing presence when I am carried away by some ecstasy. The painful feeling itself can be a wakeup call. What would wake me up when I am giddy with excitement? What would remind me to stay present when the sweetness of intimacy envelops me to the point of almost disappearing? I have done it, I have chosen to bring myself to presence, to being with, to breathing fully, to being  full witness to my pleasurable feelings. It’s almost physical work to do so, coming to this plane of reality from being lost in the giddiness of it. I have never once regretted it when I was able to do it.

Feeling “Good” by Being “Bad”

Aiming to reach a state of mindful presence while feeling happy, and engaging with people about how they respond to the challenge of intensity of happiness, has also uncovered a complex dynamic I have seen and not understood: why it is that there is a kind of glee that I see when people reach for some unhealthy food, or egg others on when they do, or a kind of response I have encountered when there is talk of attraction or sexuality.

I don’t have confidence of having understood this phenomenon in full. I have some inkling about at least one aspect of it. Both Catholicism and some branches of Protestantism have streaks of idolizing suffering. If suffering is the path of a “good” person, the way of purifying the soul and achieving grace, then I can see why, culturally, there would be a pull to rebel against it, and enjoy “sin”, engage in semi-forbidden pleasures and assert good feelings through that. It’s as if -- and I do hear people say it, in so many words -- anything that’s “good for you” cannot be fun, be it food or relationships. Fun, then, becomes associated with being “bad”, throwing away any restraint, and giving oneself over to the pleasure.

This is another reason why becoming present when feeling good can be challenging. It calls for engaging with the source of the pleasure, integrating it, being whole with it, letting it fill our entire awareness, and maintaining the fullness of our being. In my own limited experience, I have found this kind of pleasure, when I am able to reach it, deeper and more satisfying, and without the giddiness I ultimately don’t enjoy.

Making Sense of Life

One of the most human needs I am aware of in myself and others is the endless desire to understand how life works. In brief moments, I have felt envious of animals or very young babies, who are simply there, in the very moment in which something happens, without showing any sign of trying to make sense of things.

One of the biggest challenges the human species has faced, ever since we invented morality and gods, is to be able to explain why good things happen and why bad things happen. One of my favorite stories from the Hebrew Bible is the story of Job, the man who was as righteous as anyone, and who lost everything -- his wealth, his home, his family, and ultimately even his own health. His friends kept insisting that he must have sinned, or else why would God have brought all this calamity on him. In the end, Job emerges victorious, as it becomes clear that God was only testing him (never mind my feelings about a god that must test his subjects, as if he doesn’t know).

Nowadays, we have other theories about why good and bad things happen. It there is anything that’s difficult for us, I believe, it’s to accept that we have very little say in the matter; that what happens simply is what happens. We want to believe that there is rhyme and reason, that our actions, and perhaps even our thoughts and intentions, can bring about the reality we seek.

Unless we consciously choose to cultivate humility, doing well, especially over an extended period of time, can then easily lead to a form of hubris that somehow suggests that our own actions have created our well-being. The dark side of this belief is that calamities, even illness, befall people for a reason. Any of us who have had a serious illness has no doubt encountered well-meaning people who suggest that we can heal by having positive thoughts, or, worse, that we brought it on ourselves by our thinking.

In this moment, I am more concerned about the challenge of the good times. It’s easier, I think sometimes, to overcome the guilt and see it as nonsense, releasing into tenderness and a sense of pure tragedy when we are suffering, than it is to release the subtle hubris that claims we “earned” our good feelings -- be it by being “good” as the older mythologies have had it, or by being “positive” or “doing our work” as our modern day mythologies suggest.

How do we then enjoy the good feelings and cultivate humility at the same time? I have found, for myself, that gratitude, deeply practiced, is an amazing antidote to hubris. Gratitude reminds us of mystery, of the bigger picture that we are just a speck in, of the impermanence of everything. I have no doubt that we can affect what happens to us to some extent. I equally well believe that our power in that way is limited. I want to keep increasing my capacity to open to all of it, to be grateful and accepting of all that is.

Savoring Life

As life would have it, within a couple of days of having that good feeling and that sense of dread, I fell while walking on a trail I love in the hills near where I live, where I walk several times a week. I was deeply shaken, thinking to myself it may be a sign of aging, and worried that I might have broken my thumb in my dominant hand. Then, a week later, we learned that my sister’s current treatment for her cancer doesn’t seem to be working.

Alongside, many things are continuing to work well for me. Our debt is now 40% of what it was two months ago. The transition is unfolding with a great deal of trust and beauty for me. I am enjoying the people I am working with most closely and that team is expanding. Extraordinary opportunities are opening up to me and to BayNVC. My sister is doing well physically and new options are opening up we didn’t know about earlier.

This is how life is. Birth and death. Flowering and decay. They all happen at once. I want to enjoy in full and mindfully the good times, and to accept and savor the bad times. I want to be here, in life, in all its glory, mystery, joy, and agony, neither resisting nor holding on.


  1. Thank you so much for this. I resonate deeply with the realities inside your words. The questions, the processing, the awarenesses, the conclusions (or lack thereof) - the very cells of my body say 'amen.'
    I have a wonderful sense of shared reality and connection, reading this. I really appreciate your candor and your clarity.

    -see you soon in Nashville...

  2. yes a nourishing cells join yours with a soft and grateful amen

  3. Miki, your last several essays have taken on immense topics that open readers to questions of "what makes us wag." I think all can feel that these questions and observations require stretching the mind beyond mere intellect into the heart's territory of inspiration, intuition, insights, and inner guidance. Any sincere steps one may make in this enterprise can initiate rising above the age old mental habits of judgment and claims that you well describe in this piece.

    A friend sent me an article yesterday about a therapist who searched since early childhood for 40+ years to achieve and maintain feelings of bliss he had experienced while at the same time suffering debilitating depression. Through his efforts and grace he has come "know" that what he has sought is found in meeting life's opposites with equanimity.

    The following are the lyrics of a song I composed a dozen years ago:

    For Each Hill

    For each hill there is a valley
    in this world of duality
    For each “in” there is an “out”
    For each “sinful” a “devout”

    There are good times and the bad
    and sane times and mad times
    Still so many lives are spent
    avoiding what the world’s about

    There is youthful and there’s aged
    times we’re free and times we’re caged
    There is black and white and gray
    It goes on day after day

    And if we will just accept it
    not fight it but expect it
    then we’ll find we can happy
    when we walk in wisdom’s way

  4. I enjoyed reflecting on this myself. I have in the last year felt that giddiness more than I can remember in a long time, if ever. I have enjoyed it a lot! Welcomed it as counterbalance to much anxiety and depression in the preceding years. However, I have received feedback reminding me that this side of me is not necessarily the side I want to be dominant or the first impression. That comment along with this post reminds me that there is a center in me that is bigger than any of these "parts" -- the part that can observe rather than the parts that get caught up in giddiness or in anxiety and overwhelm. Which when I think about it deeply, have some similarity, a feeling of being taken over by the emotion instead of being grounded in my being. I love this invitation to be more aware and to choose how to be with whatever emotion arises.

    I also want to say that aside from cultural expectations and norms, there are neurobiological factors at play. Sarah Peyton knows much more about this than I do! I do know that the brain is wired to pay more attention to things that go wrong than to things that go right. That is adaptive for survival. Things that go wrong could kill us, while things that go right "only" enhance our life. In addition, people who tend to experience more depression will often have a shorter "boost" from something pleasurable than other people. This has been shown in brain studies at UW-Madison. It has also been shown that mindfulness and empathy can have a profound influence on the brain, so these things don't have to be seen as unchangeable. I personally am interested in the many different lenses through which we can explore any of these aspects of ourselves!