I would characterize my experience of the year 2008 as: my holding a fierce determination to "change" my life in some radical way, come hell or high water, for better or for worse, often in a blind thrashing-about kind of manner.
I will elaborate.
The year began in Jacksonville, Florida, alone, lonely, and confused. Then it continued on in Jacksonville, with family. From mid-March on the experience was a wild cross-country excursion of (in my own mind, at least) epic proportions. In late October, I turned 30, adding an additional layer of meaning & importance on all of this for me.
I write now from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, awaiting my new life to begin tomorrow - literally. Perhaps this sentiment of the heart is one that I have carried with me all throughout the year, coloring the whole experience everywhere I went: My new life begins tomorrow, somewhere else.
For the sake of posterity, and for my own aging memory, I will briefly list all of the places that I have been in 2008:
Folsom, West Virginia
Warm Springs, Georgia
New York City, New York
Acorn & Twin Oaks Communities, Virginia
Takoma Park, Maryland
Canton, New York
Rural southeast Ohio
Mieggs county, Ohio
Vashon Island, Washington
Ann Arbor, Michigan
This list is roughly in chronological order for the year. Many of the places in the list I went to multiple times throughout the year and I did not bother to write them out more than once here. To qualify for the list means that I spent the night there and had a reason for going there. There are a number of places that I was planning on going to this year, and that I wish that I went to - such as the San Francisco Bay Area, New Orleans and Las Vegas - these I will have to forever keep in the "I wonder what would have happened if..." pile.
I went to all of these different places in search of meaning, purpose, and direction in my life. I have gone to all of these places to see where I can be.
The funny thing is that I did this same thing (with a somewhat different list) the year before. And the year before that. And the year before that. Ad nauseum.
In fact, I have a long tradition now of going out, seeking my meaning, purpose and direction in other places. It's my own yearly pilgrimage. I believe the novel thing for me now is to find these things in one place over an extended period of time. And that is exactly what I intend on doing in 2009.
Every year has it's own themes, I believe, and here are some for this one.
Deeper meaning of Nonviolence
In 2008 I read a number of books. The author who had the biggest impact on me this year by far was Mohandas Gandhi. I was also affected by reading a book by a Buddhist monk on "the Noble Eightfold Path", a book by a Buddhist nun on doing social work during wartime Vietnam, "Island" by Aldous Huxley, and "A Confession" by Leo Tolstoy.
Altogether, these books have helped me to see nonviolence in a different way than before. Both inside and out, I see how this is a beautiful value to strive towards. I also see the importance of having a living faith in God to back it up - to sustain it, to give it energy.
Reading these books, I am left with a renewed inspiration and commitment to live out nonviolence in my own life.
Straightedge by not brahmachari
Inspired by reading Gandhi, I have considered and toyed with the idea of taking the vows of Brahmacharya. These consist of refraining from consuming intoxicants, caffeine, sugar, animal products, and spices in one's diet. Sexual desire is also curbed. In place of all of this, there is daily prayer & meditation, periodic fasting, and a general focus on & devotion to God.
In September and October I took some vows in hopes of becoming a brahmachari. By November they had mostly fallen apart, broken & disregarded. One thing did come out of all of this, however - I became Straightedge.
Straightedge is a lifestyle that came out of the punk rock scene which consists of abstaining from drugs, alcohol, tobacco, eating meat, and engaging in casual sex. The definition of "straightedge" is debated a lot, but this is how I define it, and this is how my life has shaped out - with ease.
There were times in my past when I could not have imagined that I would not desire meat, marijuana, and sleeping with whoever I found attractive - and now these desires have all just slipped away. I am grateful for that.
I still do desire the path of Brahmacharya - I want that in my life. The time-period this year where I was living up to my vows was a time where I found a particular kind of peace & contentment that I really enjoyed. I see Brahmacharya as best being done in steps, in increments, instead of all at once.
So this year, beginning on New Years, I renounced caffeine and sugar once again - and I have the headache right now to show for it. My intention is to gradually eliminate animal products and spices from my diet, and to establish a new daily routine once I have moved into my new home which includes regular prayer and meditation. I would also like to engage in fasting on a periodic basis, in a context other than riding a Greyhound bus or being broke.
The intention behind Brahmacharya, for me and in general, is to purify one's mind & body and to re-direct one's attention to that which is truly important - devotion to God.
Service to others, changing the world
My deep desire for a long time has been to be a positive contribution to others and to help to bring about meaningful social change (revolution or otherwise). I don't think that I've been that good at it.
This year I volunteered at a Vipassana Meditation course - twice, at two separate locations. These experiences, and the ethic and context in which they are done, "dhamma service", gave me a new insight into how this kind of service can practically be carried out. Most importantly, the spirit behind this way of doing service was made clear to me, experientially, beyond just books & writings. I am grateful for these experiences, and hope to embody dhamma service more & more in my life.
Now, thanks in part to the recommendation of some friends, I am joining a Camphill community as a volunteer for a year - 2009. Camphill has a policy that they call the "80/20 Ratio" for their volunteers - that is, 80% of one's time, energy, and attention is to be spent on serving others, and 20% on one's self. In the context of a Camphill organization, I have faith that this is a good structure to aid me in carrying this out.
Grounding out, moving forward
The ironic thing that I find now in my life is that in order to move forward I need to stop traveling. I already have plans for this, like I mentioned. More than anything, I want to build myself up as a solid and capable person. In order to do this, one needs a solid foundation and a steady hand.
I have certainly learned, the hard way, what the lack of all of this is like and what it results in. Now, I want to take concerted steps towards what the positive is like. I want to see what the previously-missing qualities are like when present, in practice.
What this entails now for me is going to Camphill. Beyond that, it can look like more volunteering at Camphill communities and/or Vipassana centers. It can look like me going back to college to complete my degree. It can look like me going abroad to teach English. It can look like me getting a normal job or getting married.
All of what I do with these "next steps" I think are best done when planned out, thought out, connected with my needs & values, and surrounded by adequate "spaciousness" through regular meditation, silence, & stillness.
I want to increase my capacity to serve others, and I want to grow & develop as a person as well. If anything, 2008 has been a series of "trial & errors" with different people, places, conversations, and series of events unfolding with the same themes threading through them all.
The Obama election and the responses to it from both the NVC scene and the anarchist scene have all given me hope for the future. Most important, though, is realizing that hope can be found from within myself and that there are practical skills to use to do it.
There is much to be learned.
To positive growth, development, health and well-being!
Happy New Years!