Monthly Archives: February 2013

The Century of Self

Instead of watching The Oscars last night, I watched a documentary about the father of the American propaganda machine and applied to some international reporting jobs. My friend Molly informed me there were a lot of guys resembling Thor who won awards, so I almost regretted this decision, but the documentary alone was worth it. It explains how Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, invented most of the advertising tactics that penetrate our poor helpless craniums via the media today: product placement, associating products with feelings, even the acceptance of Freudian theory itself. I always thought Freud’s theories seemed too stupid and self-involved to have been accepted by academics, and it turns out I wasn’t wrong. But I guess it at least got people thinking about psychology. The fact that they made it to the beginning of our Psych 101 texts though is indicative of the kind of leverage Bernays had in the world.

Enjoy.

H/t Sheida Jafari for recommending this!

In which The Millikan Daily gets a new look

ImageLast week my designer friend, Grace Ng, told me that the previous color scheme of white text on a black background made my blog hard to read. My first impulse was to shrug off this criticism, but then I thought about it for a few minutes. I knew she was right, so why did I want to keep it?

I think perhaps my dark theme was a reflection of my lack of confidence as a writer. No need for that anymore! I’m finally finding my legs with freelance writing, and it feels wonderful.

So, I thought I’d brighten up the place. How do you like it?

The I Ching For Dummies

I was over at my Belarusian friend’s apartment after doing yoga, drinking kale smoothies and talking about self-improvement, and we started talking about our childhoods. I told her some of the highlights of mine, about my fractured relationship with my mom, and she looked at me and said: “You say that Americans complain a lot even though they don’t have real problems, but I don’t know what’s worse — living next to Chernobyl or growing up like that.”

ichingSo she started telling me about the I Ching, AKA the Book of Changes, a text based on ancient Chinese teaching which I guess is the equivalent of the bible in terms of how people study it and use it to guide their lives, though it has nothing to with a god. She said that perhaps it could help my mom shed some of her negativity if she read it. I told her I didn’t think she would be receptive to anything that wasn’t Tea Party propaganda, but she brought it out and started flipping through it to show me. It was thicker than the DSM and had so many lessons in it that you were supposed to roll dice to determine which lesson you would read daily. I don’t know what kind of face I made when I saw it but she’s very perceptive, so she went and retrieved a much smaller book. She handed it to me with a smirk and said in her thick Eastern European accent, “Ok how about this? This is like the I Ching for dummies version.” Now we were talking. I flipped it over and read the back of it:

Universal laws govern everything. Several of the laws form a path that leads to the achievement of goals. In every case, those who follow the path to the end achieve their goals, overcome their fears and get what they want. Most importantly, they discover who they are in relationship to the Universe. The perceive a brand new Universe – a treasure chest. Whatever you do now, whatever you now believe, whatever your current circumstance may be, you are perfectly equipped and fully capable of fulfilling your needs and desires. You can have what you want. This book will direct you along the path and create within you a new self image.

I told her I was still skeptical that my mom could be helped by anything or anyone, but she told me to take it and read it myself because maybe it would help me. I opened it and felt better after reading the author Wu Wei’s comment before the book even started: “Because you are reading this, be aware that the Universe, in its complete awareness, has brought you together with what you need. It means you are ready.” So when I packed my bag to go into the city that night, I opted for the I Ching over the The Bell Jar.

I’ve never, ever been religious. I dismissed the idea of Santa flat out as soon as I heard the notion that he was watching me all the time, along with the other supernatural entities. I’ve also never considered myself “spiritual”. To me this word was associated with those southern baptist churches where the people pretend to have seizures because the “spirit” is inside of them and hallelujah and what not. After a few pages of this book though, I finally realized what all the new-agey hipsters in Brooklyn meant when they talked about “The Path” aka “The Path to Spiritual Enlightenment”. Upon this realization, I supposed I was alright with being “on it”.

Not to get too existential about all of this, but reflecting about this in terms of authoritarian symbolism where God is a mentally contained father figure, it’s not surprising I didn’t take well to monotheistic religion with all of its baked-in paternalism, not having a father and all. Now being 26 and considering this Taoist idea of the Universe being an all-seeing, all-knowing entity that produces us and constantly surrounds us, comforting us and steering our destiny for our personal benefit if we are obedient to the teachings of the human sentinels that deliver its messages — it kind of feels like how I would imagine it feels when loving parents hug you.

It’s always been logic and rationalism and reason in my mind, and ultimately, solitude. I’ve always been sort of jealous of people who can delude themselves into thinking that some supreme being is watching over them, taking care of them and making their decisions for them about how to live. But I’ve always said I’d rather be uncomfortable than deluded. Is it delusional to think that the universe cares about me? The author of this I Ching reader basically admits that it is, and says things like “think about a task you failed to complete in the past and imagine yourself completing it. Then imagine yourself completing it and think about it again, knowing you completed it. Even though you didn’t, if you tell yourself you did enough you’ll have peace of mind.” Is delusion the path to happiness, and if so can it be learned? Should it be?

Ok ok, so I’m on-board with making peace with the past. But here’s the thing that will take some serious concentration. This book tries to teach you to not be phased by upsetting things by telling yourself that everything is perfect because you’re here now, on this path leading you to better things despite the seemingly unpleasant things that happened in the past, because it couldn’t have happened any other way. This was the universe’s plan for you all along, so why get upset when bad things happen in the future, because the universe has your back like it always has?

I see what they’re doing here. I get it. It’s unproductive to be mad and dwell on fucked up things because it will only make things cascade into worseness. But like, the guy playing some stupid Zynga game at full volume next to me in the coffee shop today while I was trying to work? I suppose Wu Wei would look at him and think he was perfect! He’d probably thank him and then thank the universe for putting him on the stool right next to him. My first thought? “Excuse me, but I’m trying to follow the path to spiritual enlightenment here and you’re in my fucking way, so please move.”

Am I doing this right?

Not yet, but hugs from the universe feel nice so I guess I’ll keep trying.

Content

Contentedness is not a feeling I know well. Typically when I’m happy, I get scared wondering when it will end. But I’m just pretty content now that I’m feeling healthier than ever. My yogi, Ira, believes all ailments come from a lack of love. I have been very sick for the last 10 years, propagated by the fact that I’m a pro at acting like I’m ok when I’m not. I’m strong, but I have my limits. If there’s one thing that reiki is good for, it’s acknowledging that the sick should not treat the healthy — they have to recover before you can level up and heal others.

I’ve been thinking about this metaphor lately, which I kind of hate because it involves a Disney movie. But there’s this scene in The Little Mermaid where Ariel is heading down into Ursula’s lair to sign her voice away in an act of dumb sacrificial romance or whatever. She swims over Ursula’s garden where there’s all these things that look like seaweed but are really just shriveled up mer-people:

ursulasgardenAs Ariel swims over, they kind of extend out to her. At one point I think one tries to grab her fin and she shakes it off with this spooked expression. And that’s kind of what it’s like sometimes in New York. It’s not like Ariel doesn’t want to help all the “poor unfortunate souls,” it just takes her a while to understand how they came to be that way, why they can’t be blamed for their condition, and how to help them. The plan ultimately means swimming past them for the time being and coming back to help them later.

On helping yourself so you can help other people

The night I heard the news of the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, I did what I used to do to cope with stress — dissociate using any kind of chemical I could find. I went to the store and bought a pack of cigarettes after not smoking for two months, and went to my local bar where I proceeded to get wasted. I always liked going to this bar alone because on any given day it was inevitable that some interesting person would come along and strike up a conversation.

That particular night I found myself seated next to a man from Sierra Leone. After a few martinis, I wound up confiding in him that I felt like the scum of the universe that night because an earthquake had just struck Haiti, the bodies were piling up, it was possible that my family there was hurt or worse, and all I could do was sit in the comfort of my life in New York, in this bar, and worry about it. I told him I wanted to be on a plane there doing something to help, but instead I was sitting there not helping anyone, especially not myself.

He sort of chuckled and in a very wise old man way (even though he was only 25) took me to look here: he was from fucking Sierra Leone. Most of the people there live in poverty, there are civil wars and violence all the time and people generally live in fear. It wasn’t until the Blood Diamond came out that most people in the US even heard of the place, which is an indication of how little foreign intervention they get there. He told me wants to do so much to help his family and friends there all time, but he was sitting right with me and not feeling guilty about it at all. Why? “Because that’s all anyone wants, is the ability to because to just sit somewhere and not have to worry about anything in that moment. It’s all my family wanted for me,” he said. And then he told me something for the first time that I would hear many times over the next few years, which is that you have to help yourself first if you want to have any hope of helping other people.

I struggled with this concept at first because on the one hand it sounds like rationalization for laziness and selfishness. But when it comes down to it, it’s just accurate at a very basic level. That’s not to say that you can’t always be helping people. I help people when I can and love doing so. But in the past few years I have found myself overextending. I tend to attract people who try to take advantage of my compassion, who perhaps haven’t quite figured out how to sever the parental ties and look for mothers and fathers in other people. They look for it in me because they see me as independent, someone who “has her shit together,” and they cling for dear life hoping I can help them be the same way. And I want to, and part of the reason I work so hard is so that someday I will be able to, but sometimes I just can’t. But I’m terrible at saying no to people when they ask for help, so sometimes I try and try and it drains all my energy from my very core, and I turn into this listless shell who can’t even walk to the corner store let alone address an international crisis. I am independent and I probably do have my shit together more than the average 26-year-old living in New York City, but I am that way because I have to be. I don’t have a safety net like so many of my peers, so when I fall, it really hurts. I can’t afford to fall anymore.

So don’t worry if you hear me going on about raw food and meditation. I’m not joining a hippie cult or something, although the yoga studio across the street could pass for one. I really just want to try everything that crosses my path to be healthy, so I help other people in the biggest way possible while I’m still able, and I’m really grateful for the people who are able to help me do that right now.