“Priests & nuns would make great flying sorcerers if someone would tell them that they can do it.”
Carlos Castaneda

The Second Ring of Power

Autism Labeling

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This tweet appeared in my feed:

Hey if you work in tech and you know you’re neurodivergent, please reply to this tweet if you’re willing to make yourself available to answer questions to other folks in tech who think they might be. We need to pull a chunk of us out of the matrix, which means organizing a bit.

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… and I was amazed by the engagement it invited and the comments people left (you can see them for yourself by clicking on “source” above). This was my response to it:

This makes me feel like I am getting old! I (think I) understand where this is coming from but I am disturbed and saddened by (so many) people jumping at an opportunity to identify and label themselves using a mechanistic, reductive pathological framework.

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to which the author of the original retweet replied with an invitation for others to relate:

Anyone want to help @iamronen understand why realizing you’re autistic is life-changing in so many positive ways?

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Following are some of the responses that I got that also got a lot of support (likes, retweets) from others:

My husband has been slowly internalizing that he’s not some freak from hell asshole, he’s just himself and his brain works the way it does, end of story. It’s nice to see, and it’s coming from realizing he has adhd and is autistic.

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Honestly, knowing what’s up lets me have some frank discussions with work about that tasks I will shine at vs the ones that will give me fits. So they get better productivity and I get less stress. I call that a win.

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Knowing my brain doesn’t produce enough/responding to dopamine makes basic tasks hard and it’s not a moral failing for “not trying hard enough” on my part is kind of important. I would be the same person with or without the label, I’d just be hella more depressed and lonely.

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A greater understanding among ourselves isn’t just a ‘feel good’ thing. By increasing understanding and awareness of each other we are able to produce better things, and more of them. It benefits everyone. “I wish we all understood each other less!” is a terrible business mantra.

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I’d like to try to elaborate on the source of my discomfort. I realize this is a sensitive matter, at least to the people who responded to the original thread or to my comment. My intention is not to disrespect anyone, but to offer my personal view, based on my life experience. I agree with and share most of the sentiments that were expressed by others. But I feel there is more to explore.

Part 1: Depression

In my late teens and early twenties (almost 30 years ago), I suffered. When life pushed up harder against me that suffering yielded suicidal thinking. I don’t recall ever being officially diagnosed or labeled as depressed (to my face anyway). I was treated with both psychology (conversation) and psychiatry (medication) and I have a solid retrospective impression that the framing for it all was “depression.”

I don’t have the impression that it was ever resolved. Treatment faded out and life went on. Some things seemed to work out. I got a job that became a successful career, I got paid, I met a girlfriend, I moved out to live with her … life seemed to happen … sometimes even to work out.

But the “depression” was always (and in a way still is) there in the background. During low times “depression” felt like it was breathing down my neck. The inevitability of sadness seemed to lurk dangerously close to “depression” and I carried a subtle fear that the tempting trap of “depression” was waiting for me to take a wrong step.

In fact, I believe that if I were to bend my ear today to a “medical professional” I would still be diagnosed with depression (and possibly other pathologies).

Part 2: Adaptive

Many years have since passed and woven into them was what seems like a chaotic, challenging and highly unpredictable life. The forces that have since shaped me:

  1. Failure to create a reasonably sustainable life that would not be defined by anxiety (despite what seemed, for quite some time, like a successful career).
  2. Struggling with the culture and authorities of a country for the right to be in a relationship with an immigrant.
  3. A sudden and surprising dive into a creative exploration that conjured in me a sense of deeper purpose. This was shortly followed by a slow decay into financial poverty that denied me access to the creative space.
  4. An ongoing (20+ years) immersion in study and practice of Yoga as a metaphysical, philosophical, psychological, physical and practical way of life.
  5. A pursuit of purpose that took me away from a familiar world in Israel (where I’d lived most of my life) and dropped me into rural living in Romania.
  6. An ongoing effort to create, shape, transform and generally improve my physical living environment – here in rural Romania.

When I started out my life journey I inherited a mindset and toolbox which was supposed to allow me to become a successful operator of a machine-like world. My failure (despite a sincere attempt) to live out that narrative made way for another narrative. In this narrative, I am an adaptive creature that has been shaped by all the environments (physical, cultural, intellectual, energetic) in which I have lived. I am the BEST possible outcome of a deeply complex process of unfolding wholeness.

I like to think about how a snowflake falls through the atmosphere. Every gust of wind, change in humidity, change of direction, change of temperature, contributes to the unique shape of a snowflake. Similarly, I believe, my passage through life has shaped me. But, of course, this metaphor is incomplete. It leaves out a sense of agency. It does not account for my felt experience, that to a certain extent I am able to intentionally, willfully navigate my life.

Part 3: Source

When I subscribed to the notion that “I was depressed” that came with a bunch of implications:

  • I was “broken” – it was my state of mind and chemistry of brain that was flawed.
  • Therefore “I that was broken” was also what needed “fixing.” Psychotherapy would fix my mind and medication would fix my brain chemistry.
  • As long as “I was broken” there were places I didn’t belong and things I shouldn’t do: I needed frequent psychological evaluations to make sure it was OK for me to drive a car.

Through it all there was a subtle finger pointed at me as being the “source of dysfunction.”

Back in 2010 I wrote this reflection about depression & suicide. I don’t recall what prompted the reflection or why I chose to write in the 3rd person, making it come across as an intellectual theory – it isn’t … it is me speaking from my personal experience. In it, my framing of depression has shifted and I ask what if depression is viewed as an illness of society itself rather than of its individuals?

In my body, as I sit and write these words, cells are dying and new cells are born in a natural cycle of life. When that cycle falls out of balance my body becomes sick. If a society is viewed as a living organism? What does it say about that society when individuals come to the conclusion that death is preferable to life? What does it say about that society that the number of such individuals is on the rise? How many individuals can a society lose in this way for it to become crippled?

Part 4: Oppression

My experience and understanding of the world (or at least the western part where I have lived) is that it is in dire condition. The word that came to me and stood out of the many adjectives that asked to be spoken out, is oppressive.

I am trying to hold that word as a physical reality. Imagine me shaking your hand: too soft tells you something about me, good firmness tells you something else, too firm can start to feel … oppressing. I feel oppressed when a force is applied to me in such a way that it infringes on my sense of freedom.

People can be oppressive, but so can the cold. A fast-moving conversation can be oppressive. The noise and bright lights of heavy traffic can be oppressive. Interacting with a bureaucrat can be oppressive. A schedule can be oppressive. Money can be oppressive. Technology can be oppressive. Rejection can be oppressive. There is plenty of potential for oppression, on top of which we have the human capacity to intentionally enact it.

The world I lived in was fast-changing and came at me with great force … it felt very oppressing. I was better able to appreciate the degree of oppression I experienced in the world when I stepped away from it and moved into a life of retreat. The contrast afforded to me by silence and isolation made the world I left behind seem even louder and more oppressive. That impression is reinforced whenever I step out of retreat and poke my head back into the world.

It seems to me that a healthy individual response to an environment that is experienced as hostile can take the form of something like depression. It is a graceful response to a poisonous offering. It says: thank you, but I prefer not to eat. It is a rejection of hostilities. It also seems reasonable to me that the agents of hostility would view this rejection as pathological.

Part5: Healing

I believe that in accepting the framing that “I am depressed” I do both myself and the society in which I partake a grave injustice. I allow a lie to persist in place of a truth. I allow a misdirection to creep in and that misdirection leads to incorrect efforts.

“My depression” was never healed and I don’t believe it can be healed. Trying to do so, I believe, is as effective as standing in a pile of shit and trying to meditate the smell away (<— a hint about how I feel about modern mindfulness). To make the smell go away step out of the pile of shit.

In retrospect, it seems that there was a fork in the path of my life. I don’t remember ever encountering an explicit fork, but it does seem like there was one and that I went one way and not the other.

One path is now only a hypothetical. I imagine that in it maybe I was “successfully” treated for depression. I am medicated, I have a job, I have a place to live and a mortgage to go with it, I am married, I have kids, I get to have family dinners, I go on vacations. I also am somewhat numbed, a bit bored by a sense of a dulling repetitive cycle that doesn’t seem to go anywhere but is reasonably comfortable so … I default into it. I feel like my perception is a bit cloudy, I feel that there is more to me then what I have become. Sometimes I even take a workshop to try to tap into it. Maybe I meditate a bit every day. Yet, despite my efforts, I feel that there is a deeper, more subtle, more vibrant, more subtle me which I don’t have access to.

The path I did seem to take was to stay stubbornly true to some inner guiding voice. It never felt like some heroic choice, it felt like I had no choice (and it came with a price). It was difficult because the inner voice seemed to place me on a path of friction with “reality”. It was difficult because when I felt weak or confused I was tempted to think of myself as crazy.

To cope, I learned to assume (even if it sometimes felt like I was only pretending) that I am a special being, sensitive, intuitive, thoughtful and considerate. I came to view the tensions I felt inside were an indication that I was out of alignment with my environment.

Part 6: Environment

Which brings me back to the snowflake … and how I believe my unfolding through life is different. I don’t just float through my environment, I am able to act on it and affect it: I can re-organize a room, I can paint a wall and hang a picture, I can move closer to or distance myself from people, I can change what I eat, I can change my occupation, I can choose a hobby, I can change what I wear, I can change how I move, I can change how I breathe, I can change where I live … and all these changes to my environment, in turn, act on me … change me.

I have come to believe that if I want to induce change in myself, the best point of leverage is to tap into the same unfolding dynamics that shaped me so far. If I am a result of all the environments through which I’ve lived, then if I want to affect my continuing unfolding I should change the environments in which I continue to live.

The path that I did end up taking (in that retrospective fork in the road) drastically changed my environment. Sometimes it felt that the only things that I got to keep were peeing in the morning and breathing (though that too wasn’t obvious in the beginning). So far it has landed me in a life of isolated retreat. It is not easy, not obvious and definitely not for everyone. However, it is the life I have been able to produce and sustain while remaining true to myself, relatively peaceful and mostly free of eroding anxiety.

This is in stark contrast to my father who’s was made up of different choices. If he and I both encountered a similar fork in the road, he took the other path.

Part 7: My Father

Late in life, my father was diagnosed with some kind of attention-deficit disorder. When reading a book he has to read the same paragraph five times (if he is lucky). He only reads headlines in newspapers. He has a hard time following characters and story-lines in movies (that have them). He is stubborn and quickly loses his patience. It takes him a great effort to respond briefly to an email (writing is difficult for him). Since my father does take some medication I am guessing that his brain chemistry is considered “not normal.”

My father is a son of two Holocaust survivors. He emigrated in his teens from an eastern European climate and culture to the young and immature country of Israel … in the middle-east where both the climate and the culture are hot. His family had only themselves, the clothes on their backs and the “privilege” (for which they waited over a decade) to be allowed to leave their home country (but not to take anything with them).

My father inherited a world where he needed to survive … which he did , successfully. He worked hard, struggled to make ends meet, to get everything that needed doing done. He had a first child of three (me) and then, during my first year on the planet, he disappeared for 6 months to fight in an existential war. That was long enough for me to reject him when he came back. He moved his family to yet another country where (I guess) he thought their chances of a better life were … better … and then moved us back when it turned out the “winnings” were a mixed bag of results.

My father was an engineer, he worked initially in electronics and later in software. In most of the work environments he experienced he ate shit that others dished, but he stuck through and provided for his family. Today he is retired and living comfortably with my mother (they are alone because my two sisters and I all left Israel).

Last year he suffered a spine injury that required surgery. After his surgery, I went to Israel. The circumstances turned out to be a unique opportunity for my father and I to meet around Yoga. My knowledge and skills were no longer just a distant curiosity for him, they pertained to his situation. Our spirals brought us into alignment. When I left he continued his yoga-based therapy with my Israeli teacher.

After he accumulated some practice time under his belt, we had a conversation where something more subtle began to emerge. He came to realize that he has a strategy which he employs in meeting life situations. His strategy is intellectual, rigid, forceful and aggressive. It surfaced because it isn’t very good in Yoga practice. This was a significant realization for him because he assumed that things were just as they were. He didn’t realize that he has a strategy, that there even is a strategy or that maybe, just maybe, he can change his strategy.

When that strategy is applied to reading, my father encounters a word he doesn’t know, he gets stuck. He has to stop, look up the word, understand what it means and brings it back into context. It makes for slow and frustrating reading. The strategy does not allow for continuous reading where flowing context gradually brings clarity.

When that strategy is applied to watching a movie on TV (as my parents still do) my father has a hard time recognizing characters. He will try to figure out who is this, where were they before, what did they say. Every moment of stuckness distracts from the movie that is continuing to play (it’s TV there is no pause button).

This strategy manifests as behaviors that generate and accumulates confusion, impatience, and anger … and I wonder what such an intellectual and emotional diet, over decades leads to? I suspect that it leads to artifacts and symptoms that we point to with labels such as autism and ADHD.

Part 8:Autism & ADHD

I believe that when we look at our present-day brain chemistries (or other biological indicators) and find measurements that we classify as autism or ADHD (or other pathological labels), what we are really seeing are cumulative biological responses (a few small indicators we like to pick out which I doubt aptly represent our deep complexity) that echo an impression of the life we’ve lived. If we seem to be able to group ourselves (in increasingly growing numbers) around sub-optimal indicators, that seems to warrant an inquiry into what seem to be flawed environments.

If a bunch of flowers in your garden bed withered and died, would you wonder what is wrong with the flowers? Or would you wonder if maybe they are not suitable for their growing conditions? Or maybe the soil itself is unhealthy?

I believe that when a human being lives in a fast-moving, aggressive, hostile and oppressive environment, depression, autism, ADHD seem like sensible (normal?) outcomes (as do psychopathy, blood pressure, heart failure and cancer).

I find it interesting that the categories of autism and ADHD seem like complementary responses. Autism seems like a kind of turning inwards as avoidance of excessive oppression. ADHD seems to stem from unprotected exposure to the excessive, oppressive intensity of the world, resulting in sensory overflow that strains and breaks attention.

I did not know what “neurodivergent” means (see the first tweet mentioned at the beginning of this post) so I looked it up and arrived at the Wikipedia page for Neurodiversity. I resonated with the notion of neurodiversity, it seems to be on a similar vibe to my belief about environmental shaping.

As I was writing this I realized a tension in the terminology: neurodiverse and neurodivergent are not the same. Neurodivergent seems to literally imply that there is some kind of baseline of “normal” from which there can be an assessment of “divergence.” I do not subscribe to this view. I do not believe there is a “normal.”

I agree that the framing of “there is something wrong with me” is primitive and flawed. I agree that a framing in which your place in the whole makes sense is better and healthier. I can relate to a sense of relief that can come from learning that you are not alone. However, I still cringe at the labeling because I believe that, as with my depression, it places our individual and collective attention in the wrong (or at least less effective) place.

Consider a case (given in one of the response tweets) where you discover that you have difficulties meeting the demands of your work – this can be just your “average” work anxiety or something more severe – bordering on what can feel like autism or ADHD. If it is framed as an “individual” issue, the situation is addressed as such:

“… lets me have some frank discussions with work about that tasks I will shine at vs the ones that will give me fits. So they get better productivity and I get less stress

What if you assume that you are obviously (according to the view of neurodiversity) unique in your abilities, sensitivities, and needs? What if you assume that, by extension, so is everyone else? What if you assume that in some qualities you are more sensitized then others (and that in other qualities others are more sensitized then you)?

If that is the case then maybe the difficulties that you are experiencing are an indication of a compromised quality in your workplace environment. Your special sensibilities are not a handicap, they are a gift. You are not autistic, you are an antenna that is highly sensitive to vibrations that create stress and oppression in human beings. You can still have the same “frank discussion with your work”, but now the discussion isn’t just about you and your needs and your productivity. It is about making the workplace better for everyone. How can we change the work environment so that everyone will experience less stress and be able to shine?

Part 9: Intimate Activism?

Note: I did not anticipate this section when I started out on this reflection. I was surprised when it emerged and took on a life of its own!

Can a shift from “something is wrong with me” to “something is wrong with my environment” point to a kind of intimate activism. Can we engage in a meaningful effort to heal the environments we inhabit daily? What if we embrace the embodied tensions we experience as invitations to improve the more intimate and familiar environments that directly affect us?

I would like to continue to embrace the example of “autism” in a workplace:

The “autistic” label on an individual invites “treating the individual” as a solution. To some extent, individual treatment may help to meet the onslaught of forces that come from the environment … but it is, for the most part, a losing battle … a diminishing cycle for the individual. But if it is possible to have a conversation with the work place and adapt to individual needs there may be some improvement … a reducing of the oppressive load:

But what happens if we also move the label:

This re-framing seems ti invite a bigger picture … what about the others?

Can feedback from one individual become learning that effects others? What about feedback from others?

Can the oppressive nature of the work place be gradually softened? Can it go beyond being “less oppressive” to being “nourishing”?

Is it possible to arrive at a cycle where the relationship between a work place and an individual becomes mutually nourishing? Can an effort that was sickness-oriented be transformed to become growth-oriented?

But what about an even bigger picture? The work-place itself exists in an environment of its own. The work-place itself experiences oppressive forces from its environment. In fact, it is very likely that the oppression that individuals feel within a work place originate from the environment in which the work place operates. For example: how do the forces that capitalism exerts on work-places transform into forces that the work-place exerts on the individuals?

And if I continue that exploration I find that capitalism also exists within a hostile environment. For example, what kind of forces does the architecture of money exert on capitalism that capitalism then exerts on the work-place that ultimately exerts them onto individuals which causes their brain chemistry to change?

What about reductionist thought … how does that shape the architecture of money and exert forces on it that … ripple out all the way to our brain chemistry … and blood chemistry … and muscle tension … and liver … and kidneys … and heart …

… and what if by shifting the labeling from the individuals to the environment we start to have a healing conversation with the entire stack of environments?

As we awaken to these deep relationships we start to inquire how we can affect them. We recognize reductive patterns and ask how can we be less reductive? I sometimes get a feeling that this kind of inquiry leads individuals to linear (reductionist!) efforts: we take direct aim at reductionism itself. But it is so abstract, so deeply buried in us that we can’t seem to do much about it.

But what if there is a better effort … right under noses? By shifting the label and making our work-place better we may begin a change that can ripple outwards. Maybe the work-place begins to question capitalism? When enough work-places do that maybe capitalism itself will question its relationship with money and as money changes maybe it’s relationship with reductionism may change?

I realize this may sound like a fairy-tale. When I left my career, I gave up on trying. But things are changing.

Part 10: As a Yoga Teacher

The tradition of Yoga I practice and teach places an emphasis on the student. At the center of practice is never a posture or a teaching but a student. It is my responsibility as a teacher to shape and adapt a practice to fit a student. This form of Yoga is inherently therapeutic:

  • If a student is strong, healthy and vibrant, a practice will be tailored accordingly.
  • If a student has an injured knee (due to a bicycle accident) and a weak spine (due to life long neglect) then a practice will be tailored according to that.
  • If a student is a woman in her 30’s juggling a career and a family, she will be given a unique practice.
  • If a student is a young man dealing with parents divorcing that will be met with a uniquely tailored practice.
  • If a student is a retired woman dealing with a loss of a loved partner, that will be met with yet another unique practice.

… and all of these practices will continue to shift and change and refine over time as the individual changes both in response to the practice itself and the continuing arc of life.

Labels (such as depression, autism or ADHD) are of very little use to me as a teacher. They may point in a general direction but they are generalizations. They place a veil of assumptions over the uniqueness of every individual who arrives with a unique life history, unique needs, unique capabilities, and unique opportunities (all of which change over time and in response to the practice itself).

Part 11: Richard

The person who retweeted the tweet that brought this subject into my consciousness is Richard. He seems to have joined this autism bandwagon.

For what it’s worth I consider Richard to be a leader – both in his thinking and in his actions. I sometimes imagine sharing space with him. He meets and seems to touch people deeply. His candid and vulnerable thinking seems to appeal to others and his vibration is rippling into the world.

Mostly I feel alone and unable to connect with the world the way Richard does. Knowing Richard is out there, doing his thing, gives me some comfort. I feel like the world is being cared for. I feel that the soft, vulnerable, fragile and valuable ideas he carries are held well in his heart and carried effectively into the world. This doesn’t alleviate my loneliness (sometimes it exacerbates it) but it does make it just a bit easier for me to inhabit it peacefully.

Richard, I hope you understand that I sincerely feel I understand why you would label yourself as autistic. However, I also hope that you can understand why attaching that label evokes dissonance within me and why I feel a need to reject it. I embrace the sensitivities and quirks that the label represents to you … but not the label itself. I hope you understand!

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