Cogs in the Machine

A few months ago a Buddhist magazine contacted me to ask if I would respond to a reader's question. The reader asked about having constant anxiety, and always feeling like she/he didn't do a good enough job.

When I was attempting to answer this question, I realized I already knew the "correct Buddhist answer," which is something akin to "feel what you're feeling, notice what's going on in your body," etc. etc. But when it comes to self-hatred, I want more help than that. So I took a risk and wrote a more creative response about self-hatred and work. The magazine didn't want to publish my response, so I'm publishing it below.

It's not a perfect response by any means. In fact, I would probably answer the question a different way if someone posed it to me again. I would write about radical self-acceptance. But it's interesting to consider what magazines and publishers consider worth publishing. What is attractive, commercial, sanitary, sexy, and palatable, and what is dangerous, subversive, too political, not "Buddhist enough?"

What are the limitations of our creativity, critical thinking, and spiritual growth? Who decides what the boundaries are, and how far we are allowed to push? Who decides what is and isn't wisdom? If something is not attractive to the mainstream, does that make it more or less true?

My answer to the reader's question:


Some worry is a natural part of life; stress has an evolutionary purpose because it helps us escape from danger. However, if you are constantly worrying and this is interfering with your ability to work, sleep, or enjoy things, you may have an anxiety disorder. If this is the case, a therapist might be the best person to help. Cognitive behavioral therapy in particular is useful in helping identify maladaptive thoughts and replacing them kinder and more realistic ways of relating to yourself. Running and other aerobic exercise is also quite useful.

I’ll be honest with you—after an important job interview or after I’ve turned in a rough draft of an essay, I usually feel I have performed poorly (even though I am a good writer!). For the next few days I am often flooded with intrusive self-critical thoughts and even feelings of shame. Of course, meditation is helpful for seeing that self-criticism is just a thought and not an ultimate truth. It’s good as well to have a trusted friend, spouse, or counselor to share these thoughts with. Externalizing and verbalizing self-criticism is important because more often than not, an outside party can recognize when you are exaggerating or being too hard on yourself.

But it has also been useful and therapeutic for me to study the history of capitalism and to see that the very real and painful ways I relate to myself as a worker are historically contingent. Capitalism is an economic system but it is also the way we have been taught to relate to ourselves, to work, and to our own value. Quite simply, we have been taught that our value is determined by our work and our production. Yet capitalism has not always existed. It emerged in the 18th century when factory owners were trying to figure out ways to control workers. They instituted policies such as coming to work on time, breaks, and disciplinary control. These were all new; human beings have always worked but we have not always been valued as means to create profit. Ursula LeGuin wrote, “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin with art, and very often, in our art, the art of words.” Art, writing, and political resistance are important ways to counter feelings of self-hatred born of being a human within capitalism.




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