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The Astral Pipeline Book Club

I was 126 pounds with bones sticking out of my face when I was removed from society in 2005. Barely a man, a broken pitiful thing, enslaved by addiction, financially destitute, I would’ve been homeless if I didn’t have such a sweet momma. As the saying goes, I didn’t get arrested… I got rescued. It took a minute to get the crack smoke from between my ears. There might still be a little swirling around in there to be honest. Lord knows I’ve made my share of questionable decisions over these last seventeen years. Many of you who have done time with me can attest to this. But if you know me, then you also know how focused I am on change. On maximizing my ability and efficiency… as a man, as a writer, as an inhabitant of Planet Earth.

The late great Bo Lozoff once observed that major life changes generally happen in the form of wide round curves as opposed to sharp turns. That has definitely been my experience. Change is a gradual thing. Still, there have been moments of truth along the journey, individual decision points that have contributed to the metamorphosis.

Quitting smoking in 2009 was massive for me. All my life I’ve been taught I was powerless over addiction. In juvenile programs, in twelve step meetings, by my father who was battling demons of his own. Cigarettes had me by the balls since elementary school. Kicking nicotine at age 35 made me realize that, contrary to popular belief, I was not powerless, I was powerful. After that, I started kicking all kinds of bad habits. Just because I could.

Another element is the workout. Will is definitely a muscle. I don’t know about you but if I don’t work mine, it’ll get soft and flabby. Just like a neglected bicep. Nobody grabs a pullup bar and automatically levitates. We have to tell our muscles “perform this task.” For most of us, it takes a while. But if we stick with it, and keep showing up, one rep becomes two, two become five, and five become ten. This process doesn’t just build muscle, it builds grit… and, inevitably, will.

Then there’s this writing thing which has taught me discipline and structure and how to delay gratification. Believe me: there is nothing instantly gratifying about the lonely journey of hammering out a novel. You spend years writing longhand on your bunk, pouring everything into your workโ€”all your love, all your pain, all your hopes and fears and life experience, only to have it earn an Amazon ranking of 2,000,000 and go largely ignored by the literary world. Then you do it again. And again. Not because you’re a pain freak but because you believe in yourself and the importance of the stories you tell. Because you have a vision and refuse to give up. This has been both game-changer and soul-shaper for me.

Another milestone occurred when I realized that I had to be my own father. My dad was a good man who loved good music, good food, and a fat joint. He was a blast to be around. But he was never a father in the conventional sense. And he never got around to teaching me how to be a man. In many ways he was a child himself till the day he died. Twenty years after his death, it dawned on me that there was a little kid inside of me who never learned impulse control or what it meant to live honorably. That young man is now my responsibility. It may be a bit late, but I’m raising his little bad ass right.

Finally, there’s the books. Not my books. We’ve covered that already. I’m talking The Untethered Soul by Michael A. Singer, The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, Focus by Daniel Goleman… Books by masters on the pursuit of self-mastery. Seekers, Philosophers, Holy men, Gurus, PhDs. In 2019, my friend Shonda and I began reading this select genre of books together from 2000 miles apart and messaging about their impact on our daily lives. A convict and a work-from-home mom. A year later we began calling ourselves the Astral Pipeline Book Club. This year we’re inviting our friends to read along. If you’re passionate about getting the most out of your time and energy, your relationships, your body, your brain, then look no further… Youโ€™ve found your people.

The secret of the middle way

The options are pretty clear-cut: either support defunding the police or support the murder of unarmed black men by law enforcement. Vote for Donald Trump or hate America. Throw Molotovs with antifa or march in lockstep with white nationalists. Kneel during the anthem or high-five George Zimmerman.

With all the publicity that the extremes have been getting, you would think that the radical left and xenophobic right are the only two paths available. Yet everyone I knowโ€”black and white, free and imprisoned, Republican and Democratโ€”falls somewhere in the middle. You may have an uncle who attended a Trump rally, but do you honestly know anyone who is hellbent on initiating a race war? There may be some peaceful protesters in your orbit, but how many people do you know that are talking about blowing up police stations? (WTF)

Iโ€™ve always considered the extremes to be polar opposites. Distant outposts on a straight line. At the far left would be communism, take a step toward the center and thereโ€™s socialism, another step and thereโ€™s liberalism, another step and weโ€™re squarely in the middle. Keep moving right and thereโ€™s conservatism, another step and thereโ€™s nationalism, one more step and we arrive at fascism. Of course there are gradations and degrees of each ideology but I figured that, at least on a rudimentary level, the line was an accurate model.

I was wrong.

Itโ€™s not a straight line at all. Itโ€™s curved like a horseshoe. With each extreme on either end, far closer to its ideological opposite across the way than the middle which resides top center. The extremes have much more in common with one another than they share with those in the middle. This is true in every movement. Racial, political, even religious. Radical Islam and hardcore Christian fundamentalism share the similar concept of a harsh, unforgiving God, the same disdain for progress and science, the same subhuman treatment of women. Even though they are sworn enemies. The leftist idea of defunding the police could just as easily be pushed by the paranoid right, suspicious of government overreach and martial law.

Rabid fervor and intolerance are identical out on the fringes. Just check out those wreaking havoc at the protests. Can you differentiate one side from the other? Bloodlust cancels out any motive or cause and the violence hums on a frequency all its own. From the firebomb hurling neo-right to the cop car flipping far left to the police cracking skulls with batons. Extremes.

My own life is a study in extremes, although not in any of the aforementioned ways. But on a personal level. Drug abuse, risk taking, crime… The middle was strait-laced and boring. People were partying on the edges. Vibrant life was pulsing out there. I kept getting sucked in. But life on the extremes is unsustainable. Iโ€™m lucky to still be alive.

I was a decade into this prison sentence when I stumbled upon the secret of the middle way. I found it in Michael A. Singerโ€™s brilliant book The Untethered Soul, a book that changed my life. In his explanation of the Tao, the invisible thread that passes through everything, he uses the following analogy:

โ€œA blind person walks down a city street with the use of a cane. Letโ€™s give that cane a nameโ€”itโ€™s the seeker of extremes, itโ€™s the feeler of edges, itโ€™s the toucher of yin and yang. People who walk with the use of that cane often tap from side to side. Theyโ€™re not trying to find where they should walk, theyโ€™re trying to find where they shouldnโ€™t walk. Theyโ€™re finding the extremes… The extremes create their opposites, the wise avoid them. Find the balance in the center and you will live in harmony.โ€

Hard to argue with that.

The radical choice of militant kindness

The first lesson every young man learns upon entering the prison system is that aggression is king and violence is law. The traits that are valued in the real worldโ€”honesty, generosity, friendlinessโ€”are viewed as weaknesses in prison. Weaknesses that are pounced upon and exploited. Survival in this world depends on at least the perception of brutality and if you’re not particularly brutal, you had better be a damn good actor.

So that’s what I’ve been doing for the last 22 years. Acting. Acting tough, acting hard, acting cold. Acting as if I don’t see the loneliness and sadness and brokenness that surrounds me. Why? Simple: Fear.

In 1992, a scrawny teenage version of myself looked around at the savage world of prison and said to my mind, “Help! I don’t wanna be jumped or stabbed or raped or beaten to death by abusive guards. I wanna make it back home in one piece!” And my mind, amazing babbling problem-solver that it is, said, “I got this,” and went to work on building a wall and posting the ultra-sensitive ego as a sentry to ward off any potential threats. My job was to act. And act I did. I spent so much time acting that I almost lost myself inside the faรงade that was supposed to be protecting me. Almost.

But looking at prison through the eyes of a 40-year-old man is a much different experience than seeing it through the eyes of a scared little 18-year-old kid. And recently, after decades of fortifying this hardened exterior and living with a conditioned mindset that places toughness over all other attributes, a series of books, films, and extraordinary people have wandered into my life with an unmistakable message: there is nothing more honorable, more radical, more standup than the path of kindness. Especially in such a hopeless world.

Suddenlyโ€”no, not suddenlyโ€”gradually, I wanted this more than anything else. Militant kindness. Love without fear. A wide open heart. For someone who has spent years coveting the appearance of fearlessness and physical strength, the concept of kindness, regardless of consequence, was a revelation. A last shot at a life of meaning and authenticity. I wanted to get back to the me I was before all of this acting BS began, back to the kid I built these walls to protect.

Kindness. It seems like such an easy choice. But a crazy thing happens when you drop your guard and step from behind that icy standoffish barrier: people become comfortable around you. Comfortable enough to open up, to confide in you, and occasionally, comfortable enough to hurt you. Or at least say things that are damaging to your ego. But that is what we want, isn’t it? It’s what I want. This lonely half-life of keeping the world at arm’s length for a false sense of safety and to defend the ego is a fool’s game and the exhaustive struggle to continue propping up an illusion is not only cowardice, it’s treasonous.

Only kindness matters.

[This post first appeared on malcolmivey.com 10/30/14 and was featured on Huffington Post on 11/29/14.]