Contexts & Containers
What rats, mangos, bipolar and addiction have in common
l. Rats 🐀☀️
It felt like the sun had chosen the lake that day, extending its arm out and blessing the surface of the water with a majestic shimmer.
The swans glided in packs of four, with two little ones trailing behind each mom and dad duo. Trees sprung out from the far right and left of our view, holding and hugging the lake in a picture perfect frame. Bow Bridge carried New Yorkers’ sunny-winter enthusiasm from one shore to the other.
I felt so present, grounded, and joyful. I noticed the intricacies of the lake’s reflection, the slight dance of the trees in the wind, the ripples and patterns the swans drew in the water.
As my eyes focused on the shoreline I spotted some kind of animal making its way through the grass. I watched intently for several minutes and finally, the mysterious movements revealed themselves… as two humongous Rats.
I fell into a mesmerized trance, struck by how the Rats’ tails wagged and waved the surrounding grass. I found myself engrossed by the shine on their coats and their simple, curious movements through the marsh. The pair moved together in unison with an interconnected, intelligent grace.
It occurred to me that if I were in the subway I might shudder, or side step to get away from the rats and their disgustingness. But in this setting I didn’t budge.
There was no denying it: these Rats were just as perfect as the surrounding scene. It was at that moment that I wondered why I’d ever been bothered by Rats at all.
ll. Mangos 🥭💋
Towards the end of 2017 I spent a month in Las Terrenas, a small town in the Dominican Republic. My girlfriend was obsessed with the mangos there – they were so juicy, sweeter and tangier than anything we’d find at home.
One day they ran out of stock in town, and so I snuck away and hiked several miles out toward a farm that I knew would have them. I underestimated the hike; my legs burned and ached the whole way there and back. It was one of the most grueling experiences of my life, and yet also one of the most meaningful.
I was in love with her. She was in love with mangos. This hike was for love. My pain was in service of the light yellow sweetness that would soon be rolling down her face and shared with my ever-so eager lips.
lll. Massages 💆♂️😩
Imagine you’re walking down the street and suddenly feel the sensation of a deep tissue massage in your back.
You’d probably freak out, right?!! Maybe cancel your meetings for the day, doom-search on google or webMD, and head immediately to the hospital? You might even find yourself trembling with anxiety and fear.
And yet, if you take those exact same sensations and place them on a massage table alongside an expert deep tissue messuse you might describe this same pain as a certain kind of pleasure.
lV. Context 🪐🌀
Rats are contextual. Mangos are contextual. Pain is contextual. Pleasure is contextual.
Everything that occurs, occurs inside of something else. Everything inside of something. Something inside of everything.
Nothing on its own.
In each moment we find an infinity of containers in both directions — all the way inwards to the quarks of the quantum realm and outwards to the ever-expanding universe.
And at every possible layer of abstraction, an infinity of stories we might live into.
Knowing this, we might pause for a moment and choose more intentionally the contextual layer in which we place our awareness and attention.
When we see a rat, we might remember the lake. When we’re eight miles into a hike, we might remember our lover. When we suffer, we might recognize our pain as a sort of cosmic massage.
We might even re-contextualize this seemingly mundane moment – this moment right now – into a profound and mysterious gift.
V. Wintering ❄️😪
I’m diagnosed bipolar.
I’ve been told there’s a chemical imbalance in my brain and as such I will likely experience mood swings for the rest of my life.
But I find this context to be both unconvincing and uninspiring, so I’ve discarded it.
I’ve rebranded my “disorder” as a seasonal way of being. I experience cold winters and warm summers. I hibernate a little deeper than most people, and I blossom brighter.
Each winter I am given the gift of digging into myself through solitude and sadness. Each summer, an opportunity to spread the seeds of bottomless love.
It’s strange that our society expects such mechanistic consistency from me. There’s nothing stable about being human after all. As with all of nature, we morph, we cycle, we are always and forever changing.
I choose the context whereby I can cherish the cycling of things, flowing with seasonality instead of fighting against it. In the winter, revering the cold, and in the summer, honoring the sunshine.
Katherine May puts it elegantly, “Plants and animals don’t fight the winter; they don’t pretend it’s not happening and attempt to carry on living the same lives that they lived in the summer. They prepare. They adapt. They perform extraordinary acts of metamorphosis to get them through. Winter is a time of withdrawing from the world, maximizing scant resources, carrying out acts of brutal efficiency and vanishing from sight; but that’s where the transformation occurs.”
VI. Addiction 🥃💊
Last year a ketamine addiction brought me to my knees. At first I was fine, it was recreational and fine…. until one day things were suddenly and definitively not fine.
I wanted to stop, but I couldn’t. Each day my body got sicker, my friends and family got sick of me too, and with conviction, my mind assured me “tomorrow.”
Thus began a series of false starts — or what one might call a series of false contexts, each one a little truer than the last.
“Okay, I’m just overdoing it. If I can find a healthy, regular cadence of legal Ketamine injections I can keep the things I love about K and discard the addiction”
A decent attempt, but I was back to daily use in no time.
“Alright, if I treat Ketamine with the reverence it deserves, set up candles, set intentions, meditate beforehand, then I’ll develop healthy use. The problem isn’t the drug after all, it’s my compulsivity”
Of course, after only one “Ketamine ceremony” I was once again snorting lines of shame in the bathroom while no one was looking.
I continued unsuccessfully cycling through various stories and contexts to try to center my condition in a place of healing.
From one narrative to the next, nothing worked.
And then one day, I found guidance. Someone helped me see a much broader context. A context so abundant and expansive, it shines as bright as the sun, illuminating both the swans and the rats that live inside my deepest depths. I’ve been sober since. Capital S Sober.
I will not speak of this context today. Some stories can’t be told, only shown. As Ludwig Wittgenstein said just over one hundred years ago, "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."
VII. Truth 🔮🧙
Postmodernists will tell you that every container, every context, every story is a societal construct. Reality is mostly what some number of people agree upon.
You might say that a beautiful rat, a mango kiss, cosmic massages, and seasonality, are all just “rose-colored glasses.” Looking at the glass half full has its place, of course, but the contexts I speak of have a more grounded and embodied truth.
As we expand our awareness into the contexts that surround us we might find what our hearts know to be true: this moment is a gift, this inhale, this exhale, this something instead of nothing.
Living inside of this gift might be the greatest context one can discover, whether on a sunny day sitting by the lake or through the grips of a harrowing addiction.