By John Lee Pendall
I’ve tried really hard to have my cake and eat it too, but what I really need is an emotional and intellectual fast.
As the Lexapro wards off my depression and anxiety, it becomes clearer and clearer that I’m higher on the Spectrum than I thought, and I have to learn how to live with that. I’ll be honest, nothing’s really helped.
I’ve studied and practiced dozens of religions, sciences and philosophies in-depth for almost 20 years, and I’m still just as confused, miserable and self-loathing as I was when I started this journey. Nothing sticks because all of it requires at least a little bit of faith. Even reason depends on our faith in reason.
It doesn’t even matter if a view or method seems to be helping me because it’s impossible for me to tell whether it’s actually the method or just my belief in the method that’s really to thank. I can’t just believe. I’m a pessimist, a Cosmicist, and I’m an Aspie (and I’ve even doubted all of that).
The hard lesson I’ve definitely learned—and life tried hammering it into me over and over again—is that I have to control my passions. I hyperfixate on things, and that’s unavoidable, but if I get too excited about something, too happy, blissful and energized, then I eventually get overstimulated and meltdown.
Autistic meltdown and burnout is, hands down, the worst thing I’ve ever experienced, and I was once at a crime scene where my friends’ blood and brains were dried on the walls. And I used to have a friend who always listened to ska music, which was almost as bad.
I don’t know how to describe it (and this applies to ska and an autistic meltdown), it’s more than panic and depression. It’s like if your whole reality—each sight, sound, thought and feeling—shattered into sharp shards of glass spiraling through space. And, oh yes, they cut. That chipper birdsong can be like a jackhammer jabbing into your ear canal. Your inner monologue stops making sense and you can’t speak. Everything falls apart and collapses inward and you have no control.
Then comes the crash—burnout. Once I basically slept for 24 hours straight, only getting up to hydrate and take care of the cats. Then I just lied in bed, trying to distract myself from myself with shows I’ve watched a thousand times. There’s a sense of agonizing alienation and de-realization, and the desperate need for everything to be different than it is. There’s no hope, and survival is just a habit.
Then ya come back up. Sometimes it happens after you’ve recharged your batteries. Sometimes a warm word from a loved one can do it, or even a dialectical thought that sweeps in and shifts the mind in a different direction.
I treasure the in-between times, when I’m just in the middle. Not good, not bad, not happy or sad. Not even content, really. Just me, just myself.
Then I get passionate about something or someone again, and it all starts over. It’s a hard truth, but I have to learn to breathe and be nonchalantly present instead of passionate. In other words, I have to practice detachment.
We usually translate viraaga as non-attachment because detachment is kind of a negative term in the West. But, I don’t mind being negative, and I encourage pushing back against the Cult of Positivity whenever you can. The pressures of positivity can kill.
Detachment gets to the point, it doesn’t soften the blow or muddy the waters like non-attachment does. Grow a backbone—Buddhist teachers translators—stop painting a happy face on a tradition that’s founded on the principle that life sucks ass and that the highest good—parinirvana—is basically eternal oblivion.
Seriously, just stop it. If you’re reading this and working on another flowery manuscript of Pop Buddhist feel-goodery, just stop. We’ve already read it a thousand different ways and we really don’t need another list of reasons why we should all hold hands and sing “What A Buddhaful World” around the campfire.
Anyway, I have to be detached, not because of the reasons Buddha talked about like impermanence and emptiness, but because passion makes me suffer in and of itself. This is kind of cool because “passion” originally meant “suffering” and, “the state or capacity of being acted on by external agents or forces.” Hence the Passion of the J-Man.
I can’t do what Mahayana Buddhism asks me to; I can’t be an expression of emptiness, of totality or Buddha-nature because then I lose my fucking mind. I feel at peace, I feel like everything’s Just So and Perfect as it is. Instead of serving as a foundation for a good life, that kicks my passion into gear, I get overstimulated, collapse, and want to die.
This doesn’t mean that life has to be without love and joy. It just means I have to change the way I relate to positive feelings. I have to let them go and not dwell on them. We all know that dwelling on the painful stuff is unhealthy, but dwelling on the good stuff can be unhealthy too.
In the Buddhist sense, dwelling on the good shit is unhealthy because everything changes; we’re eventually going to lose whatever it is we’re dwelling on and that’s going to suck. For me, it’s because dwelling on the good stuff over-locks my CPU and then I have to go into power saving mode until I have enough energy to go on living.
Mindfulness of the here and now, self-awareness, and using a tidbit of pessimism to keep me grounded is the way for me to find that precious, rare, elusive balance. I think I sorta threw a little Taoism at ya just now.
As for my ever-present ally, doubt, all I can say is that it comes and goes, but my sense of being a being doesn’t come and go with it. That means that doubt and certainty are both separate from me. I can experience doubt and certainty, but I can’t be doubtful or certain. If I could, then I’d come and go with them.
I’m alone. Solitary. The things I feel are just as separate from me as the lamp on my desk, some dude named Jeff in Detroit, and Uranus. We share the same moment, and depend on the same natural laws, but Jeff doesn’t feel full when I eat, and Uranus doesn’t even know what is going on.
In order to find some kind of equilibrium in this world, I have to learn to let it be that way. I have to let thoughts and feelings pass just like they’re the stars cruising across the sky. When Orion sets, I have to let it set and not go chasing after it like I’m an arrow flying through the dark.
That’s standard Pali Buddhism, really.
But for the sake of basic sanity, I have to reject the, “No clinging to self-views,” part of it. I have to go the essentialist route and truly own myself and see this sense of “being an individual” as the one thing that’s mine. It won’t always be mine, but for now it is. For now, I am.
So, there we have it: a hodgepodge of Buddhism/Stoicism, pessimism, skepticism, Taoism and existentialism. It’s like a buffet of various under-cooked lentils, but it seems to work for me. I tell ya, I’m must happier when I’m mildly unhappy than I am when I’m passionately engaged with the joys of life. I’m much more me, and that’s all I’ve ever wanted to be.
And the best thing I can do is breathe.
Editor: Dana Gornall