Category Archives: Essay

…We Now Face Death

Join me in saying goodbye to one of my favorite professors, who unknowingly had a profound impact on my recovery and my life.

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“Having been born in this life as we have been,
we now face death.”

Perdue1

Dr. Daniel Perdue, 1950-2013

That was the very first statement Dr. Dan Perdue made to the religious studies classes he taught. He would go on to explain that, no matter the differences between the many religions of the world, what they all have in common is that they are concerned with what happens to us when we die. His specialty was Tibetan Buddhism, but he also taught general survey classes on eastern religion. He was one of the most interesting, wise, and challenging professors I ever had, and though he never knew it, his classes had an indelible impact on my life and played an important role in my recovery.

When I heard that Dr. Perdue had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last year, I and many others wondered how he would face his death. Though he had devoted his academic career and spiritual practice to such questions, no one wants a fatal diagnosis, especially at the age of only 63. As a man who had taught classes the world over and developed many close friendships here in Richmond, he sent out mass emails in August to update everyone on his condition. A friend forwarded me the first one, and I mistakenly thought I had gotten on the mailing list for future emails.

Following his passing on November 18, I re-read the first email and realized he had stated he would send out another. And so it happened that I didn’t read his second email until the day before his memorial service, billed as a Celebration of Life.

I was surprised and touched by what I read. The jovial man whom we all thought incapable of anything but a gentle, happy disposition shared that, in his late twenties and early thirties, he had struggled with substance abuse and depression. In August 2013, he wrote:

I think I did not adequately value my life. I reckon that I wasted nearly a third of it/about 20 years… On many days, especially between the ages of about 27 to 33, I thought of suicide… In time, I gave up on the idea of suicide, but I sort of symbolically threw myself against the wall, drinking and smoking too much and practicing unhealthy habits. Perhaps seeing the scope of what was to come for me, one day completely out of the blue, Kensur Yeshi Thupten said to me, “Toenyoe, happy people don’t drink and take drugs.” But I did. It was a sort of petit suicide, day by day for years.

During his service, someone shared what many of us had all thought at one time or another – a suspicion that Dr. Perdue was actually a bodhisattva, so committed he was to teaching, to the Dharma, and how he built friendships everywhere he went. His apparent struggles with depression and substance abuse made the accomplishments of the second half of his life, as well as his demeanor and attitude, all the more impressive.

Yet I was touched on a much more personal level to hear of the suffering my professor endured, because when I took my first class with him in early 2004, I was suffering immensely.

My eating disorder was arguably at its worst. Truly, I probably should have been in a hospital instead of a dormitory. I was near my lowest weight. I wasn’t sleeping well, and it was in those quiet moments trying to fall asleep at night that the mental chaos and physical pain anorexia had wrought was hardest to escape or ignore. I was miserable, unable to think or function well from the malnourishment. I often thought of suicide. This is not something I have often shared publicly, but in the wake of Dr. Perdue’s last testament, I see no reason to censor this fact.

And so it was that as he began his lecture on eastern religion and the nature of suffering as he always did, there is no way that Dr. Perdue could have known about the Hell I was living in.

“Having been born in this life as we have been, we now face death.”

As he began the introduction to Buddhism, he started with the first of the Four Noble Truths: the truth of suffering, or dukka (dukka is also translated to mean anxiety, stress, and dissatisfaction, among others). The truth of suffering is that we all suffer.

We all endure hardship.
We all get sick.
We all experience loss.
We will all eventually die.

It’s in our nature to try and minimize displeasure and to maximize comfort – human nature is hedonistic on a very basic level. We all put on coats to avoid the discomfort of being cold, for example. If there is one thing that every living thing has in common, it is our capacity to experience suffering.

Perdue went on to explain that, as Buddhism understands the world, there is nothing in our fragile lives that cannot result in suffering – even things that we enjoy or are inherently pleasurable. He offered the examples of ice cream or even sex. Even things that bring us pleasure, done in extreme excess, may result in some mental or physical pain.

I was intrigued. I had never contemplated the world in this way, and one of the support groups I had started attending had a spiritual component that had become a giant roadblock. Others in the group who had a belief in God sailed through it, but my agonistic and at times atheistic disposition seemed incompatible.

Contemplating Dr. Perdue’s words, I slowly began to wonder if there was anything that we could experience in this life, in this world, that we could indulge in that would never result in suffering. If it could be identified, then maybe it could offer me some direction – something bigger, greater than myself that I could take refuge in.

I continued going to the group and attending his classes. Buddhist teaching and recovery programs were not so different: both emphasize, in varying capacities, the practice of compassion towards oneself. While I can only speak for myself, as far as I am concerned, without loving and forgiving oneself, there is no recovery. And self-forgiveness requires that we love ourselves unconditionally. Similarly, a central part of Buddhist practice is learning that compassion, practicing it inward, and then turning it outward. One day, it hit me so hard that I wondered how I never saw it before. I realized that there was something we’re all capable of experiencing and indulging in that will never cause us to suffer.

Unconditional love. Or, to put it another way, love without condition. This means we love others without wanting or expecting anything, including love, in return. This initially feels contrary to human nature, since there isn’t always an immediate or obvious benefit. Sometimes people mistake this idea of love without condition as a circumstance which might allow or encourage someone to stay in an abusive relationship, or to be taken advantage of. This is not the case.

Rather, it allows us to approach individuals and situations with the compassionate understanding that we all suffer. Just as Dr. Perdue had no idea the immense suffering I was experiencing in that first class with him, any person you encounter has their own burden. The positive regard he had for every one he encountered, though, created a circumstance where his compassion and love of life was infectious. He once said that, while he had never had any children of his own, the university gave him more children every semester.

After describing his substance abuse as a petit suicide, Dr. Perdue concluded his email with the following:

…Let me just say what I say at the beginning of the Asian Medical Systems course, “Don’t do as I do. Be smarter than me.” I have never been a model of health or how one should use a good life.

So, please use your life well. It truly is like having a bucket of gold dust with a little hole in the bottom. I know that we tend to see the value in something more, when we are about to lose it. Maybe that’s why I’m saying this stuff to you. But, I have understood the truth of the value of life for a few years now. When I look back over my life now, I see it as one of extraordinary value… How lucky I was! … It will be hard to equal the value of this life.

I cannot help but get a little choked up every time I read that last sentence. If it was not for Dr. Perdue’s class, it’s impossible to say how my recovery would have gone. Ten years since that first class, I only wish now that I could express my gratitude to him.

Despite many hardships, I find myself agreeing with his final sentiment. Though I (hopefully) still have many years, it truly will be hard to equal the value of this life.

Thank you, Dr. Perdue. I’ll see you on the other shore.

You can read Dan Perdue’s full obituary here.

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Secular Spirituality, Atheism, and Recovery

If you’ve been through recovery, I’m wondering – how has your recovery been impacted (positively, negatively?) when the recovery culture dialogue turns to the almighty? It seems to happen a lot, and there’s a lot of faith-based stuff out there. And if that helps you recover, then I’m all for it! Everyone’s recovery will look a little different and be unique to them, and hope can be found in many different forms.

But for nonbelievers, the prevalence of religious language in recovery can present an additional hurdle – I know it did for me. Early in my recovery, before I got into more structured group therapy with a counselor, I was attending Twelve-Step groups that focused on eating disorders/disordered eating. I couldn’t recommend them for everyone, but it was what I needed at the time. I had hit an all-time low, and a friend told me about a group that met less than two miles away from where I lived downtown. I went the very next day, desperate for anything that might assuage the constant misery and physical discomfort I was in.

I honestly thought that I was going to go there, they would tell me what to do, I would do it and I would get better – just like going to the doctor and getting a prescription. I quickly found out that that wasn’t the case. But what I did find was a new perspective and a sense of hope – the people there spoke about their struggles with honesty and clarity, as well as an unexpected humility. One of the things emphasized in all Twelve-Step fellowships is admitting you don’t have control over everything, and as you work through that it can really give you some room to breathe. However, part of that admitting you don’t have control everything (a notion that often clashes with our Western sense of independence and individuality – but I challenge you to sneeze with your eyes open or to prevent the sun from setting) is turning that control over to a “Higher Power.”

Ugh.

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Fit, or Fitting In?

Well, this is an interesting follow-up to the ‘fitspo’ discussion last week. Sarah Robles, the top weight-lifter in America, is bound for the Olympics and can barely pay rent.

…And even though she’s the U.S.’s best chance at an Olympic medal, she’ll never get the fame or fortune that come so easily to her fellow athletes — in part because, at 5 feet, 10.5 inches and 275 pounds, she doesn’t fit the ideal of thin, toned athletic beauty.

“You can get that sponsorship if you’re a super-built guy or a girl who looks good in a bikini. But not if you’re a girl who’s built like a guy,” she says. The 23-year-old from California became the highest ranked weightlifter in the country last year after placing 11th at the world championships, beating out every male and female American on the roster. On her best day, she can lift more than 568 pounds — that’s roughly five IKEA couches, 65 gallons of milk, or one large adult male lion.
(full article)

The thing is, if you passed Sarah on the street, a lot of people might make assumptions about her health based on her height and weight, and I doubt anyone would assume she was an Olympic athlete. She’s a prime example as to why I can’t stand that ‘fitspo’ crap – it promotes very narrow ideas of health, fitness, and attractiveness. If ‘fitspo’ is about motivation to work out, why isn’t there any with Sarah Robles? After all, she’s pretty damn fit!

Eat healthy and work hard, and you might be on your way to the Olympics, just like Sarah Robles!

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Uninspired

Hi, internet. Sorry I’ve been absent lately. I’m taking a summer class (for the first time in four years!) and, in addition to my regular job, it’s a lot of work. I’ll try to get posting again on a somewhat regular basis!

Currently listening: Have Heart - Songs to Scream at the Sun
Currently reading: Women and Politics

There’s something that has been bothering me lately. Around the time that Tumblr announced they would be actively screening and banning accounts & posts which promoted self-harm and eating disorders, I noticed a new trend.

Fitness Inspiration. Or, ‘fitspo’ for short. A little background: the type of stuff Tumblr was taking aim at (although how effectively they’ve implemented this policy is arguable) was content that actively promotes or encourages eating disordered behavior. Images of emaciated people, usually women, emphasizing characteristics of being extremely underweight that are circulated by “support” communities for eating disorders, but all they support is the continuation and reinforcement of life-threatening disorders.

The average person sees this crap and they are appropriately upset by it. However, it was quickly replaced by ‘fitspo’. This, it seems, is perfectly okay with the average person. Images of female athletes doing physically demanding activities, extreme yoga poses, or close-ups of some stomach muscles accompanied by some “motivational” captions.

On the surface, it may seem harmless enough, encouraging people to exercise and to eat well. Exercise is good, right? Food is good, right? As a runner, I can’t disagree with either of those sentiments. I enjoy exercising, I sleep better when I’m active, and I make sure to eat in a way that supports all the activity I do because I want to make sure I’m giving my body what it needs.

There are two things I don’t really ever look at, though: the mirror and the scale. Here’s why.

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The Sun’s Always Rising in the Sky Somewhere

Currently Listening: Against Me!: The Disco Before the Breakdown

I recently talked about how punk rock and sobriety had a big effect on my life, and the appeal that punk had because of its foundational ideals of acceptance of all people. Black, white, gay, straight, fat, skinny – there wasn’t any room for to judge people over such superficial things.

That doesn’t mean people didn’t bring their own prejudices and insecurities into radical or punk communities. It’s easy to say, “We stand for this,” but being ‘not prejudiced’ against a given group or type of person isn’t as simple as saying you aren’t racist/homophobic/transphobic/sexist and then denying all responsibility when you end up doing or saying something which actually happens to be prejudiced.

That’s because not acting or thinking in prejudicial ways is a process that evolves as we erode our own ignorance. You can be well-intentioned in your ideas and words, but that doesn’t always mean you don’t do or say anything that isn’t offensive to someone – particularly something you have zero exposure to or experience with.

This week sees one well-known punk musician coming out in a very public way over a matter which will put a lot of these issues to the test. Tom Gabel of the band Against Me! (yeah, they spell it with an exclamation mark) has a six page interview in this week’s Rolling Stone coming out as transgendered. She (Tom) will be changing her name to Laura Jane Grace and doing hormone therapy. She and her wife will remain together. It’s all over the internet already, so I won’t bother repeating all the same details that are available everywhere else.

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The Unlikely Connection Between Punk Rock, Sobriety, and Eating Disorders

Currently Reading: Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Suzuki Roshi
Currently Listening: Minor Threat’s Complete Discography

Along with people being surprised that I used to have an eating disorder (“Really? You?”), I also get surprised reactions when I tell people I don’t drink.

“Really? Never?”

Nope. When I was 15, some of my friends started experimenting with drugs and sneaking downtown to parties to drink with older friends. I didn’t share their intrinsic interest in trying these things, but eventually went along and participated a few times because I was starting to feel left out. My lack of interest in substance use often translated into not being invited to hang out, because people knew I didn’t want to be around it.

After a few times giving it a shot, I decided I really had no desire to ever partake in any of it. I didn’t like not feeling like myself, and I didn’t like the way people acted when they were intoxicated. For a little while, this made me feel like an outcast. I think some of my friends felt judged by my decision, which wasn’t intentional but was sort of unavoidable.

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Success & Failure

Currently Reading: The Body Project by Joan Jacobs Brumberg
Currently Listening: On The Impossible Past by The Menzingers

We don’t always reach our goals. Sometimes that’s because they weren’t realistic to begin with (I swear some day I’m going to keep my eyes open while sneezing) and sometimes it’s because things just didn’t work out.

Following my successful half marathon last November, I planned on running the spectacle that is Richmond’s Monument 10k. If you’re from RVA, you know the race well whether you run it or not, because if you aren’t participating in it, the 10k probably ruins any and every attempt to navigate the city until well into the afternoon. Continue reading

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Striking a Nerve

I ran across something really amazing on Tumblr last night that was originally posted by Andrew Sullivan and I really wanted to do a post about it. Rather than summarize it, I’ll just quote the whole thing:

You struck a nerve with this one, as I was just discussing this very thing a few weeks ago with a group of high-school freshmen in my English class. We were discussing homosexuality because of an allusion to it in the book we were reading, and several boys made comments such as, “That’s disgusting.” We got into the debate and eventually a boy admitted that he was terrified/disgusted when he was once sharing a taxi and the other male passenger made a pass at him.

The lightbulb went off. “Oh,” I said. “I get it. See, you are afraid, because for the first time in your life you have found yourself a victim of unwanted sexual advances by someone who has the physical ability to use force against you.” The boy nodded and shuddered visibly.

“But,” I continued. “As a woman, you learn to live with that from the time you are fourteen, and it never stops. We live with that fear every day of our lives. Every man walking through the parking garage the same time you are is either just a harmless stranger or a potential rapist. Every time.”

The girls in the room nodded, agreeing. The boys seemed genuinely shocked.

“So think about that the next time you hit on a girl. Maybe, like you in the taxi, she doesn’t actually want you to.”

It makes so much sense that I’m surprised it’s never been spoken with such clarity before now. Most of the men I’ve known who were homophobic were also more likely to engage in womanizing, catcalling, or other macho type stuff (although I realize that kind of behavior isn’t limited to the stereotypical frat boy). Turning the tables on that isn’t just about “eww that’s gross”, it runs way deeper than that.

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The Great Somewhere Else

So, it’s been awhile since I posted. After the non-stop posts of February, I took a hiatus which ended up being a little longer than I planned. Thanks for your patience!

the past week I was riding along on tour with my friend’s band. I got the whole week off work and we had dates in DC, Philadelphia, and New York City. A number of unexpected problems the day before we left almost prevented us from even leaving town, but we were finally on the road Sunday afternoon and made it in time for the first show. Everything was going fine until the van broke down about 20 miles into Maryland. After a couple hours standing in the heat on an exit ramp and a couple more at a mechanic, there wasn’t any other choice but to try to get back to Richmond. They ended up renting a van to make it to the rest of their tour dates, but with all of the instruments there wasn’t room for non-essential people like myself.

Talk about a buzz kill. I had the whole week off work and didn’t really feel like going in, but I didn’t want to waste vacation time either. I ended up taking a day road tripping to visit a friend, and spent a lot of time with another friend who’s moving cross-country really soon, so it wasn’t a total waste.

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Smash Your Scale (And Anything Else Holding You Back)!

Note: this post keeps things vague, but still references eating and weighing a lot. If that kind of thing is triggering, please take care of you and use your own discretion. Also, I’m on Tumblr now, so there are even more ways to stay up to date on posts!

Most people probably don’t realize this, but the avatar on my blog of the smashed scale isn’t some stock photo I found on the internet. It’s a picture of the actual scale I actually smashed seven years ago in the alley behind my first apartment while I was still in college – February 2005, to be exact.

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