Tag Archives: Buddhism

You can take the boy out of the skepticism…

“What happens when a hesitant Buddhist of little faith and great doubt joins an eminent guru and a group of devotees on a pilgrimage to the holiest sites in Buddhism?”

DoubtStrip

Such was the first line of a pitch letter I wrote to an American Buddhist magazine about a month before leaving for India and Nepal. I got a cautiously encouraging reply – “Send it along,” an editor said, “but I should tell you that we don’t usually publish unsolicited personal accounts.”

That was two years ago. I never did send anything along, because I could never finish any of the now several versions that are scattered about my desk and hard drive in various stages of assembly and disrepair. There was no shortage of things to say about the pilgrimage, but I could never find a satisfying ending to any of the tracks I started down.

Reason being, I had no idea what happened over there in northern India. I still don’t.

In fact, I’m not sure anything happened at all.

Which I thought for a while could be a story in and of itself, though I didn’t know for whom. Probably not the magazine I’d originally queried, for while many of their stories describe staggering, radical shifts in perspective, they still want things to land back on a certain affirmation that “Buddhism” – an established lineage is best, but even some New Age/”spiritual” derivative thereof will work – is the ultimate destination of existential wanderings and crises of faith.

I didn’t spell it out in the original pitch letter (I knew better than to sound too earnest-gee-willikers), but it was just this kind of internal alignment that I was hoping for. Multiple moments of transcendence culminating in a fundamental shift in consciousness that answered my questions, resolved my doubts and banished my hesitancy.

I know, I know – expectations schmeckschmeckschmations. But I felt too green and too unsure to approach the pilgrimage as an “aimless” devotional exercise, as pure homage.

I went hoping to bolster my faith, and that didn’t happen.

Instead, it was simply a great trip. A fascinating trip. A beautiful, educational, laughter-filled trip.

The endless Gangetic Plain, with its patchwork of agriculture fields and hardwood forests and fruit trees, was as moving a sight as I saw. Houses built to Stone Age specs with a pit latrine out back, no running water and buffalo patties drying on their sides sported satellite dishes and wi-fi antennae. I watched funeral pyres consume corpse after corpse one night down the ghats in Varanasi, and then, five hours later, rowed past men going for their morning swim as I headed out to see the sunrise from the river. I rode along a precariously-cliffed and pencil-thin highway into the foothills of the world’s tallest mountains (in what was apparently a gravity-defying omnibus). I sat in caves where men have lived, been enlightened (and not), and died meditating for five millennia. I could fill a week’s worth of blog posts raving about the food I ate – the momos, the thukpa, the curries, the samosas, the fruit, the fruit, the fruit.

IndiaStrip

But as for the holy sites themselves, I was underwhelmed. And not just by the juxtaposition of the largest assemblage of the most pathetic, pitiful examples of malnutrition, poverty and sickness you have ever seen with silk-robed monks and camera-wielding tourists, myself included, seeking Serenity and Inner Peace at a cost that could radically transform the lives of a good portion of the former. (That, like the food, is another few posts altogether.) And I don’t mean the ordinariness of the ruins, either – I can find ghosts in a parking lot, and these sites, with their overgrown decay and exotic surroundings, are certainly conducive to summoning specters. Don’t get me wrong – it was nice enough to be in Deer Park where Siddhartha first “turned the wheel of  the Dharma,” to see a descendant of the Bodhi tree under which he realized all that Dharma, to take in the views from Vulture Peak where he talked about the emptiness of all that Dharma. But I did not feel anything approaching the kind of inspiration I was hoping for – and that some on our trip were quite obviously and vocally experiencing.

SiteStrip

Above all, it was my traveling companions that interested me the most. The Estonian developers who recalled Soviet food shortages and the long lines for bread, the Peruvian’s last ditch effort to find love before getting her to a nunnery, the surveilled Chinese who slipped his “documentarian” minders for a night on the town in Western gear (pearl snaps and cowboy boots, no shit), the Salinger-worthy German…triad?…family?, the Russian merchant marine, the Swedish ex-con. I was equally fascinated by the life stories of our Tibetan monk guides – the humble meditation master, the vainglorious steward, the reluctant tulku, the gregarious, obsequious, aloof, worldly, kind, naive, austere and elfin others. What brought them to Buddhism was interesting (what it did for them less so – and, surprisingly at first, we rarely talked about it), but more than anything I wanted to know about their lives, about their routines and their foibles and their loved ones and what they were reading and where they liked to go in the fall, on winter mornings, on the first day of spring.

This should have been a clue, right, that I’m still more interested in people than in imagined states of mind. But it didn’t sink in right away.

The thing is, I’m a Western, post-Christian secular humanist (that’s less a label than a string of adjectives), and while some of the time I want to give into the magical thinking that dominates our cultural ethos – because hey, who doesn’t love a good fairy tale, and it’s the easy way out of a lot of tricky situations – I’m consciously against the kind of fantasticality that has precipitated both the endless cycles of fad New Age spirituality and 2,000+ years of self-serving interpretations of our mythical Judeo-Christian-Muslim heritage.

And the problem is, Buddhism is built on the same thing. Exceedingly ritualistic Tibetan Buddhism especially, but every lineage to some extent relies on a dogmatic origin story replete with mystical and magical beings, goings-on, reincarnations and transmissions. (Don’t let’s get started on karma this week…)

When it’s first explained to you – really, until you go looking into it for yourself – it’s easy to believe the American dismissal that Buddhism is “more a philosophy than a religion.” I thought so for many years, and I thought it was a philosophy with benefits – the kind I was getting from/supporting with the metaphysics and pseudo-philosophy of Tim Leary and Terence McKenna.

That is, I was looking for a trip.

I was seeking out a mystical experience without, as a teenager, the perspective to know that a) it was along the same spectrum of what I found so objectionable in the J-C-M model, and b) mysticism is not an end in and of itself.

I chased that Truth-Through-Altered-States model for about a decade, until there was only alteration, and decidedly little insight. In the wake of all that, I’ve redoubled my commitment to a kind of applied humanism. Rediscovered it, would perhaps be a better way to say it, for it’s the one idea that makes sense to me, that, to borrow a phrase, arises spontaneously both during meditation and throughout the day.

My ability to relate to other people is the sole metric by which I measure the state of my soul.

It’s easy to get seduced by magical thinking, and it happens to me all the time. I mean, it spurred a trip halfway across the globe. I wouldn’t trade having taken that trip for any exotic luxurious tropical vacation in the world (though I might trade a second trip to northern India for any of those), but nonetheless, that’s a big spur. But when push comes to shove, I don’t have the stomach for it. No matter how I try, or what I try, when it comes to the ritual and the theogony and the cosmology of dogmatic Buddhist lineages, and the process of advancing along their (Middle, yes, but also strict and narrow) Path, I can never seem to shake the wariness, to suspend that last ounce of disbelief necessary to really believe in, say, the Pure Land. Some say I’m simply unwilling to give up my “intellectualism,” that my “skeptical pride” stands between me and truth/true freedom, that my refusal to accept magical interpretations of the universe is simply another regrettable, nefarious manifestation of ego.

Perhaps it is, I don’t know. And I never will – and “there,” as sayeth the Dane, “is the rub.”

However, I do know that I no longer believe in the intrinsic value of mystical experiences. I know people have them, and I think they can be useful, but they’re simply phenomena and it’s what we do in their wake that imbues them with meaning.

In the same way, I don’t eschew ritual, or even prayer. I think they’re important aspects of any discipline. I just have a different idea of how they function than the standard “religious” line. That I try to look at Buddhism – the practice of a set of meditative techniques and the application of a certain philosophy of life and mind described by a man called Siddhartha – through a distinctly humanistic lens strikes many people as an arrogant and convenient adaptation of something far wiser and greater than I, that really I have no business monkeying with. And hey, maybe – but that’s the privilege and prerogative of the convert, now isn’t it?

Pic:  Theoi Greek Mythologygreat site, btw

Pic: Theoi Greek Mythology
great site, btw

What I get out of meditating and lopping off the various Hydra heads of my ego is an increased ability to communicate, to interact, to participate in The Web of Life. That’s part of the reason I can’t go in for a seven-hour meditation session of tantric commingling with a wrathful yidam. I mean, if that’s important to you, go ahead. But what happens when I do it, is I disappear into myself. It’s wholly narcissistic. My teachers would say I’m doing it wrong, or more likely that I still have too much karmic baggage and am yet mired in too much confusion to engage in such involved practices. Whatever the explanation, I get wrapped up in how cool it is that I’m able to transport myself to some other mind-dimension, and I lose sight of the goal, the reason, the purpose of the practice.

Which is training this deluded mind and opening up this hard hard heart. Or UN-training the mind, if you believe that the essence of mind is pure and that it is the experiences we blindly carry out before living intentionally and in a state of awareness that do the initial, decades-long, lifelong training, which is in confusion.

And to do that, I need to make sorties into the enemy territory of my ego. Quick, precision strikes that get me back into the real world before my ego catches on to what I’m up to and sends in the quicksand. Twenty minutes a day on the cushion is just right these days – give me too much more than half an hour inside my own mind, and I’ll start redecorating the place. With DayGlo paint.

Amongst the living and the real, I can see whether or not what I’m doing has any effect on or in reality. Because ultimately, that’s my aim – to affect reality. To contribute positively to the lived experience of others. Some days – most days – that may mean not affecting things very much at all. Which laissez-faire-itude, if you’re an egomaniac like I am, can require serious amounts of self-control. The honing of which in turn demands a disciplined practice. Which brings us back to sitting. Purposefully. And living intentionally.

Neither of which necessitates magic.

A lot of the conviction that’s on display here comes, I wouldn’t say directly out of the pilgrimage I made two years ago, but certainly by way of it. Which is the ironic thing about it, right? I went to the holiest sites in the Buddhist religion under the assumption that doing so would strengthen my faith, deepen my appreciation for a certain ontology and clear away some of the obstacles I was facing to a better understanding of myself, the world around me, and my place in it. It turns out that’s exactly what happened, just not at all in the way I wanted or expected. Which goes to show that what I think I want, or what I want at a certain point, isn’t always what I need.

Which makes it sound like the answer to that question way back there at the top is a line from a Stones song.

Which I’m perfectly okay with. 

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Abandon All Hope

This post was born out of a response to Scott P. Carroll’s blog, Thoughkryme.  Check it out.

Thanks, but…

For the last year that I’ve been submitting stories for publication, I’ve looked at (the growing mountain of) rejection letters as proof positive that after a decade+ of talking BS, I’m actually doing the deal. I write something and send it out, they send it back, I send it somewhere else. Then I write something else. “So,” a wise man once wrote, “it goes.”

I’ve set high bars for disappointment (24 rejections per story before I’m allowed to fret), which has helped, and I do my best to put the various slush piles out of my mind as soon as I submit.

But I got a slew of rejections this past week, and there’s no denying, in the upwell of hope at seeing “Slice Magazine” in my inbox or an SASE in my mailbox, that I’ve been living in expectation and even, I’ll admit, a bit of fantasy.

I don’t mope about the “Unfortunately…” or “However…”, and I do take comfort that they aren’t employment rejections. I was out of work for a lot of 2009-2010 and it. is. horrible., so by comparison, what’s being rejected of mine is an indulgence.

But, it’s also what I want to be doing.

I’m in love with a good story and the truths a good story can tell – about an author, about a character, about life in general – and I write my own stories because I want to see if I can pull that off, if I can make something worth falling in love with.

At the same time, I don’t think I could write in a vacuum. I’m not that Emily Dickinsonian – part of me thinks that part of pulling it off is how many people are pulling it off the shelf.

I write what they call “literary fiction.” All that really means is that it doesn’t fit neatly into a genre – sci-fi, crime, romance, etc. There’s an ongoing and contentious debate over genre fiction vs. literary fiction, how the former is mere formulaic entertainment and the latter pretentious navel-gazing elitism, that the former gives audiences what they want and the latter is True Art that attracts audiences, and what that all means for writers and readers and literature and writing and blah blah blah. It’s all relative and not all that interesting.

It’s not as if Shakespeare and Dickens and Hemingway never catered to an audience. Those were different audiences, ones that appreciated a higher degree of art in their entertainment maybe than is appreciated today, but it was still just people looking for entertainment.

Anyone publishing regularly in magazines from WWI through the ’70s was making real money — by writing the kinds of stories that would sell. Fitzgerald was part of the 1% in his day, and sold single stories to the New YorkerHarpers, etc., for the modern equivalent of $10k, $20k, even $50,000, but was always hoping to get off the hamster-story-wheel and just go write what he really wanted to write. And because Hemingway was the progenitor of the kind of modernist writing that’s still successful and held up as the sine qua non of American storytelling, we sometimes forget that it was considered at the time less “literary,” influenced as it was by his journalism and influential as it was on pulp and dime.

PapaVSzombie

Be that as it may, nowadays genre audiences are the bigger audiences, and the money’s in genre fiction. Zombies, sex, and crime-fighting sell much better than do meditations on the infinite by neurotic, idiosyncratic characters.

In fact, hardly anyone writing strictly literary fiction makes a living doing it. Even Toni Morrison and Russell Banks, who’ve won awards galore and had their books turned into movies, still teach. Even Philip Roth – Philip fucking Roth – taught most of his life. And now he’s retired from everything. And thinks that within 25 years, novel reading of any kind will be “cultish.” More good news, thanks Phil.

A mentor/friend of mine is telling me all the time, “Stop writing that stuff no one reads and write a few crime novels. Then you can do whatever you want.” There is something to be said for this, of course. Cormac McCarthy started out writing his own kinds of work – Outer Dark, Child of God, Blood Meridian – that earned him much critical acclaim but a relatively small following and very little money. Then he wrote The Border Trilogy, a set of western romances that included All The Pretty Horses, and he exploded, and they put Matt Damon and Penélope Cruz in the movie, and he got even bigger, and now that he’s back to writing the macabre and weighty stuff he started out writing, it has an audience. You think those studios ever would have made and paid for No Country for Old Men or The Road without All the Pretty Horses? Even though they’re much better books? No way.

Because why not have a picture of Penélope Cruz on your blog?

Because why not have a picture of Penélope here? It worked for McCarthy.
From: fanpop.com

But, it takes me long enough to write the stories I’m currently writing, between working full time and living a halfway-social life, and it’s not as if there’s any kind of a guarantee that if I write Westerns I’ll get published – “Ah, Prichard! Horses At High Noon, huh? Finally! We’ve been waiting for you to come around here’s your check and meet your driver and there’s the key to your Upper West Side pied-à-terre!

Besides, it’s not as if it’s so easy to just go write a Western. Like Mark Axelrod told the agent who thirty years ago slapped a Bond book on the table as an example of what Mark should be writing,

“If I could write Fleming, I wouldn’t need you.”

What it comes down to is waiting, pure and simple. And working while you wait, of course, but most important for me is having the patience to wait while I’m working. I take issue with Malcolm Gladwell’s reductionism, but I think the 10,000-hours-to-master-something rule has its utility. For a guy like me, whom intrinsic literary genius obviously evades, it’s a reminder that the only path to better is practice – a whole hell of a lot of practice.

Luckily, I know that

grueling, incessant work = success

From David Collard's blog, Salvēte!

Swimming is a Beckettian endeavor: so brutal you have to laugh not to drown in your own tears.
From David Collard’s blog, Salvēte!

I know it’s not always strictly true, but as a distance swimmer, you internalize this concept to a profound degree. Swim practice wasn’t “fun,” and neither is the act of writing – the part where you “sit at your typewriter and bleed.”  But those long, hard, pre-dawn and post-dusk hours when others are in bed or laughing or relaxing, and you’re do something harder than they are, whether it’s in the pool or wherever within you that your artistic crucible resides — those hours do something to you, and for you. They’re a process, and it’s process that makes us who we are. Being a distance swimmer was about 0.05% the handful of miles I swam in meets throughout the year, and 99.95% the endless miles I swam in practice.

Same with writing – pages published comprise only a minuscule part of the work that went into making them – not only the story or book itself, but the “trunk manuscripts,” too, as Beckett called them, the horrible scribblings that should stay in at the bottom of a trunk forever.

That Beckett was ever bad is easy to forget when all you want is to be good and to be good now. But impatience breeds either freneticism or procrastination – neither of which contributes to anything positive – and staying on top of that requires work.

Thus the mantra:

I will never make a living writing.

It may sound pessimistic, but really it’s about humility instead of egoism, about realism instead of fantasy, about not putting the money-and-accolades-cart before the workhorse, about knowing my role instead of assuming I’m entitled to things that I don’t deserve (like that Alexander Maksik novel).

What’s that? Is there a Buddhist tie-in for all this, you ask?

Why, yes there is.

“Abandon any hope of fruition” is a lojong slogan, one of the Seven Points of Training the Mind. About it, Trungpa say:

…you should give up any possibilities of becoming the greatest person in the world…

…otherwise, you could become an egomaniac.

In other words, it is too early for you to collect disciples.

That is, no one’s going to read my stuff, let alone love it, until it’s worth reading and loving. And I should forget the fantasy that I’ve already earned an audience by thinking of a story, and remember that it’s some unpaid intern reader slogging through the slush pile that’s determining my fate.

My buddy Dave takes "A pastime is its own reward" to a whole new level.

My buddy Dave’s garage. Epitomizing the idea that 
“A pastime is its own reward.”

The tie-in to real life – your life – anyone-who’s-not-a-writer’s life – is that this holds true for everything.

E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G.

If it’s a passion, just go do the shit out of it. Practice finding out what it can make of you, not how it can make you look. Don’t tell me about how good you are at your job, or how much money you made last year, or who’s looking at your stuff, or what kind of car you drive (you know don’t care about that action), or how great your kid is, or what place you got in your triathlon. Nobody cares! Just do your thing, and do it well, and when it comes up of its own accord, what people will care about is what it’s done for you and what it’s made of you.

Because if you’re constantly talking about something, then you’re always in the fruition – the realization of a project, the fulfillment of a plan, the end of something. I get it – there’s so much pressure in our society to be accomplished, to have succeeded, to have success. To get and live in the payoff. But who really wants to be in the end of anything? What are you doing then, besides just sitting around?

Abandoning all hope of getting anything out of what you’re doing keeps you in the doing and out of the end.

But wait – if you’re always conscious of having to consciously abandon hope in order to achieve that hope, then are you really abandoning it? Is there some guy in the sky with a clipboard waiting for you to officially abandon hope so he can tick your Has Abandoned Hope check box and get the Fates to start weaving up your accomplishments?

Of course not. It’s not causal. It’s just a tactic, one part of the strategy to

get yourself out of the way.

Practicing humility along the way – a side-effect of telling yourself you’ll never amount to anything – helps develop gratitude when (if) something does happen instead of that sense of entitlement or getting what was coming to you.

Anyway, I’m wrapping this up.

Don’t hope.

Do work.

Be a badass.

The end.

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Spontaneity

I don’t mean the it’s-8-o’clock-on-a-Monday-let’s-get-in-the-car-to-Vegas!! type of spontaneity.

spontaneity

I mean the kind where you’re ready and able to be open and engage with anyone, anywhere, no matter what is happening.

How many times have you gotten the opportunity to talk to someone you really wanted to talk to — and totally screwed it up?

Exhibit A: Eric Kandel.

In 2006, when I was working at the Dana Foundation in New York, I helped put on Eric Kandel’s conversation with then-chairman (and dearly departed) William Safire at the 92nd Street Y. I read the galley proof of Kandel’s book In Search of Memory (which you should totally get) and did what side research was necessary to help develop interview questions, and in so doing fell in love with Kandel’s work. And, I’m not gonna lie, I fell in a little bit of love with Dr. Kandel, too.

Eric-Kandel-Laughs-e1271530014222

I mean, right?

You get the sense that he goes through life with this smiling attitude just by reading his book, and then you find out he really is laughing all the time and I mean be still my heart, man, he’s just a total joy.

I knew that after the event at 92Y, I was going to have the opportunity to say hello and ask him to sign my book, and I agonized about what to say for days and weeks. It wasn’t going to be the time or the place for a long drawn-out conversation on how Kandel’s work was affecting my perspective, but I did want whatever I said to be memorable and interesting and smart. Okay, brilliant.

So the event was over, we got the place more or less broken down, and Dr. Kandel was still there talking with a couple stragglers who, luck would have it, turned to leave just as I came up.

“Dr. Kandel,” my manager said, “meet Ian. He put together your questions, did research, bugs everyone in the office because he won’t shut up about you, blah blah blah,” everything to goad me on, but aside from “uh, good job up there tonight,” nothing, not one thing, that I’d planned to say came out. I walked away feeling sure that Dr. Kandel was thinking, “Well, the world needs ditch-diggers, too.”

Which happens over and over and over whenever I meet someone I have half an interest in meeting, whether it’s something anticipated like Kandel or something out of the blue, like running into William H Macy or Cate Blanchett at a stoplight (don’t even ask).

It’s akin to the feeling of regret I wrote about a couple weeks ago, where after you’ve failed to say something you absolutely should have, you’d do anything to have that moment back, but it’s not quite the same. That had to do with knowing full well in the moment what you should say and consciously not saying it because you can’t handle the vulnerability it requires. This is about not having a clue about what to say in the moment because too many thoughts and emotions are running through your head.

Which is what I mean by spontaneity – being able to relate openly and unabashedly with anyone, anywhere, anytime.

The stuff that runs through my head at such times is laden with the ogres and trolls of ego, with misconceptions about who I am and who I want to be and how I want to appear and how I’m sure I must look, and the neuroses that attend to the distances between those four Shades of Ian.

I do this because I don’t trust myself to just be “myself” – whatever the hell that is – at the drop of a hat, or any other time, really, and so I get tangled up trying to figure out how to present.

I like to imagine myself as a composed, imperturbable, unflappable person, but the truth is I feel like a little kid in these – honestly, in most – situations. I think of my dad, and I think of some of my friends’ dads, and that’s what unflappable looks like to me. I mean, when was the last time the cat got Clint’s tongue, Coop, am I right?

Imperturbability seems to come from a combination of knowing who you are, and being in general not all that impressed with people.

There are two ways to achieve this level of equanimity – through arrogance and through abandonment. Though I have a feeling the uber-arrogant are never quite as comfortable as they come off. Or they’re sociopaths, which is a different post altogether.

sunyataTrungpa would say that you abandon your ego by developing compassion, and that one of the ways compassion develops is from sunyata, or emptiness. That can be a confusing concept if you haven’t been introduced to it, so for the purposes of this suffice it to say that sunyata implies “no ground” – that is, none of the ideas you have about yourself-as-you-are OR -as-you’d-like-to-be have any basis whatsoever.

Where do those ideas come from in the first place? you start to wonder.

They come from other ideas, which come from society and memory and impressions and dreams and hopes and fears fears fears and not from anything actually solid. So they don’t actually mean anything or have any actual basis in reality. Which after a time frees you from trying to be, well, anything. It frees you from TRYING, and allows you just to be – to be whatever the situation calls for.

Besides which, Cate Blanchett, I guaran-effing-tee you, is NOT worried or even thinking about what kind of person you are. Ever.

If you can get those two ideas down – the conviction that we are always on shaky ground and the humility that no one cares – then you can begin to realize that the person you’re so intimidated by isn’t all these things that you and the world at large have built them up to be. In that moment, that person is nothing more than just a lump of flesh, decaying and rushing towards death at more or less the same speed you are. And thus can be dealt with as you are. However you are. Not as some other, whatever other, version of you you’re not.

So, then – how do you put into practice this notion of emptiness, how do you develop your compassion, how do you shrink and slay and shatter your ego if you’re not a Buddhist?

Well, you start by doing something for someone else. For your wife or your kids or your parents or your sibling who never does anything for you or that guy at work you can’t stand or that woman at the market who you don’t know anything about except that she wouldn’t know a good deed if it smacked her in the face like a tennis racket. You do these things and you put other people ahead of your own needy little needs, once a day or once a week or even just for once in your entire life, and you’ve started to cherish  your own ego a little less. You think, “That good deed didn’t come from the guy who I think would sweep Cate Blanchett off her feet at a stoplight. Where did that come from? Who did that come from? Who’s this person that does good things for other people and makes their life a tiny little bit lighter?”

gollumDo more things for more people more often, and you’re practicing not cherishing yourself more and more. And the less you cherish yourself, the more you realize there’s no self there to guard so jealously and get so worked up about – let alone multiple selves to completely freak out about – so there are way fewer walls or fences or obstacles of any kind, really, between you and whoever you happen to run into.

Which means that the next time you look up from your phone to find you’re standing next to Cate Blanchett, you can relate to her with spontaneous compassion – as a simple person, in other words.

You can be patient with your mom. You can be generous of spirit, even with that malcontent at the grocery store.

This carries over into the other kind of being-ready-to-say-what-you-mean, because in the process of preparing your soul for baring at a moment’s notice, you’re also preparing it for baring no matter what the risk. To the extent that spontaneity and vulnerability combine, you become tougher and tenderer. Tenderer, because you’re laying your heart open, and tougher, because there’s nothing that can come of it that you can’t handle.

And in case you’re thinking, “Those men he mentioned earlier, those paragons of the virtue he’s making out of unflappability, those white Baby Boomer American men, they didn’t do any of this touchy-feely pseudo-Buddhist crap. Why’d he even bring them into it? What’s he talking about?” True, they didn’t get to be the way they are by practicing lojong and reciting mantras. They got to be the way they are by having seen a thing or two in their day, and realizing through those experiences that in so many ways we’re all the same – just lumps of flesh heading towards destruction – and because of that, they’ve abandoned any pretense of uniqueness, in themselves and in others, and it’s like, “You’re a lump of flesh, I’m a lump of flesh, let’s see what we can make of this moment. Ready go.”

So yeah, that’s an option. Just keep your head down and do your thing and be generally nice to people and probably you’ll wind up a sage old dude/womanequivalentofdude. All this I just rambled about is just a way to be conscious of what’s happening to you, and to maybe speed up the sageness a little. If you’re interested in that.

If you’re not, go ahead and be uncomfortable as a whore in church next time you see Cate. No skin off my back.

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To Be or Not To Be “Yourself”?

We all like sayings to live by, but sometimes

aphorisms are a pain in the ass.

needlepoint

They’re supposed to be laconic little piths of life-knowledge that you can digest and recall (and regurgitate) at a moment’s notice. The sayings Grandma needlepoints and frames and hangs above Granddad’s rocker – which homey image is how they’re supposed to make you feel. Complete. Earnest. Well-Intentioned. Striving To Be Whole.

Whole Already.

But they’re not so straightforward as they seem. At least, not to the extent those who repeat them endlessly and unprovoked would have you think, as if they’re the answer to every last one of life’s little (and even major) problems.

Most of the time, they pose more questions than they answer.

The origins of these sayings are often obscured or ignored or simply unknown. Such is also the case with their contexts, especially in the aphorism compendiums that litter the feet of Christmas trees and other present-loci the world over, such as The Viking Book of Aphorisms that Auden edited, or the Native American Wisdom Collections you find in the gift shops of the natural wonders of the American West, or Zen-Thought-A-Day, or The Approachable Vedas.

Or the many varieties of Shakespeare Quotations.

Thus the Bard’s “To Thine Own Self Be True,” which has been much on my mind of late.

It’s become a self-empowering phrase, one that rat racers use to maintain their identities against the onslaught of gray-flannel-suitism, that yogis use to justify the (often ridiculous) cost of yoga studio membership, that people in recovery from everything from cancer to Catholicism to divorce to drugs use to reinforce that you are important, that you matter, that you are beautiful. That you are more than the disease and/or more than a victim and/or more than whatever it is that ails you. That whatever other people think of you, or require of you, or want you to be means nothing compared to what’s inside you and what you know in your heart of hearts you are and should be doing.

Trungpa would say it means not letting other people lay their trips on you. (But then he’d laugh and say, “That’s assuming there’s a self to lay trips on, which of course there isn’t. There aren’t even such things as trips! It’s all an illusion haha!” So, maybe he’s not so much help in this one.)

Not that any of these interpretations are really bad, obviously. If they work for people, if they’re a help, then good.

But back to “To Thine Own Self Be True.” If it appeared on Jeopardy, a lot people would askanswer, “Who is Socrates [or Some Other Ancient Greek]?” because the phrase is often emblazoned above a Greekesque profile or some esoteric/occultish symbol, like a triangle or an eye or some sun rays or an ankh.

Those that do know it comes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet often forget (or ignore or don’t know) its context:

This above all: to thine own self be true,

And it must follow, as the night the day,

Thou canst not then be false to any man.

What act it’s from (I.iii) is hardly important to most people. Neither is the fact that this is the last advice Polonius will give his son Laertes, who’s off on some business (ad)ventures and won’t return to Denmark before his windbag father gets himself killed for eavesdropping on a paranoid and borderline/depressive Hamlet.

Also not that important, when we’re talking about how the phrase functions in daily American life, is the rest of the bit. Old Polonius is basically saying that if you don’t lie to yourself, you’ll never have to lie to anyone else, and not only will you not have to, but you won’t even be capable of it.

Within this advice is the conceit that it’s better not to lie to people or take advantage of them, and that you or we or Laertes or at least Polonius is aiming for “better” or “right” behavior, just as Grandma’s needlepoints implore you to do. But all that pesky functioning-within-society bs is neatly done away with by the amputation of the aphorism’s surrounding lines, and we’re left with something intensely focused on — just as we’d have it since The Me Decade, when that culture of self-care I describe above really solidified — the self.

Trungpa and no-self Buddhism/Eastern-philosophy-in-general aside, the problem I’ve been having with this aphorism of late is: to which of mine myriad selves am I supposed to be being true? Especially considering what Thomas L. Masson, Life’s late-19thC literary editor and an ironic fan of aphorism himself, had to say about it:

“‘Be yourself’ is about the worst advice you can give some people.”

falling_downBecause I often find myself acting in a way I would not describe as imitation of the better angels of my nature. And not just acting that way, but enjoying it. Feeling as if I’m good at it, or would be, or once was and could be again. I live in a major metropolitan area, so traffic is a concern, and an instance of this, or provoker thereof. But I’m not just talking about violent fantasies (I mean, come on, we all know I hardly have the stones or the stomach for it) – I mean everything.

Procrastinator.

Liar.

Taker-of-the-easy-way.

Glutton.

I’m also – like most people – in some ways juggling several different identities, wearing several different hats.

My anti-social Jack London hat fits really well and I feel really good when I’m wearing it, but should I really drop out and go find a sea-bound frigate upon which to weather some storms and develop some character? The other selves that have recently made some really awesome and exciting life decisions and are gaining traction in some pretty exciting areas would probably have something to say against that.

On a more positive note, some days I feel like I’m pretty good at my 9-5, and could, if I really applied myself to it, make something of myself in that world, long-term-career-wise. But sometimes I want to go back to teaching, and feel like I’m better at that, or “made for” that. Other days, I just want to get a manual labor job so I can move during the day and think at night instead of coming home already brain-tired and carpal-tunnel-sore (violins!). Or become a National Park Ranger. Or build furniture.

How much of life, after a certain point, is picking a person to be and sticking to it and developing one’s “self” within the parameters of the person you’ve picked to stick to being?

Is that being/becoming an adult? Or is that selling out? Selling short? Or just one way to live?

How do you know when you’ve reached that point of choosing?

How do you know how much of one part of yourself (a pinch?) and how much of the others (a dash? a dab? a handful?) to tip into the mix?

How do you keep it in mind that life’s a process, a progression towards a decent recipe? And that everyone else is experimenting, too? That we’re all just a bunch of amateurs knocking about the great big test kitchen of life?

How do you pare away the false selves, the selves others have made for you, and know the right one(s) to be true to?

What does it mean to “be true”? At what cost – to yourself, to others?

See what I mean about posing questions?

Then again, aphorisms fall into the category of Folk Wisdom and Common Sense, which like religious instruction doesn’t reward (or stand up under) too much critical inquiry.

Meaning, shut up and just go with it.

Whatever it means to you at any given time, if it catches you in a moment of passion or despair and helps you maintain a measure of equanimity, then take it for the momentary respite it is and leave the worrying-it-to-death alone. I guess.

What sayings do you live by?

What sayings do you despise?

How do you keep them straight?

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Channel That

I was driving back to my quiet little seaside hometown the other day, and I caught myself thinking, “phew, that was a crazy six weeks,” as if they were a period in my life that had ended and I was heading back to a quiet little seaside life.

sherventuraoaks

But no, those crazy six weeks are my life now.

Two things about this:

One – it’s not that crazy.

Two – I wouldn’t have it any other way.

To qualify Two: sure, if I could have book contracts instead of an 8-5 and a place in Malibu and a pied-à-terre in NYC and another in Milan with toilets made out of solid gold instead of a two-bedroom apartment in the San Fernando Valley, I’d probably go ahead and have it that way, but let’s be reasonable.

And as far as One goes, I don’t really want to complain because I’m not working multiple jobs, I’m not broke, I’m not a single mom, I’m not at all lonely, I’m not unhealthy-and-uninsured, I’m not disenfranchised or powerless or oppressed or any of those those legitimately difficult things so many people deal with everyday – most of whom do so with much more equanimity and grace than I muster in the face of, say, two long workdays back-to-back.

That being said, this is my life and these things are my parameters and within that and those, I’m feeling a little stressed out.

I’m a (secular) Buddhist and someone who’s trying to live a quieter and more conscious life, both of which counsel gratitude and perspective, so I work on those things when and how I can – and believe me, I know how much I have to be glad about and grateful for – and I try to reverse or at least slow the entropic tendency of my life and mind and universe.

levimeditation

You should sit in meditation twenty minutes every day,
unless you’re too busy.
Then you should sit for an hour.

But I’m also a writer, and at the risk of sounding trite, I think writers thrive on neurosis and chaos and, as my friend Laura Bassett put it, “strife and uneasiness.”

This also needs a qualification – writers’ characters thrive on neurosis. And that’s a distinction many authors fail to make and/or maintain.

About a decade ago, I was talking with Stephen Railton about American authors’ propensity for debauchery, dissipation and just general bad behavior – in particular, we were talking about Faulkner’s tenure at UVa and how rumor had it that any night of the week, you could find the man drunk somewhere in Albermarle County – and Prof. Railton said, “it makes you wonder, do you have to be that fucked up to make good literature?”

He didn’t mean intoxicated-fucked-up – which they got, plenty, but with how hard those dissolute men worked and the quality of what they produced, you hardly call them lushes – so much as maladjusted-fucked-up. But I certainly equated one with the other while kind of just hoping (okay okay assuming, arrogant bastard that I was) that the quality work would come without the hard work.

But it turns out I’m not interested in staying intoxicated for forty fifty sixty years while I try to write, and now that I’m, let’s say, less concerned with intoxication than I used to be, two things have happened: I’m less interested in maladjustment, and the work is getting better.

One last qualification, this one on “less interested.” I’m less interested in being maladjusted, but more interested in investigating maladjustment and using maladjustment. Which is what brings me to the crux of this post/thought:

How do you stand close to the (ring of?chaos fire without getting burned?

It’s like that Modest Mouse song, “Bukowski,” where Isaac Brock is saying that “…every night turns out to be a little bit more like Bukowski and yeah, I know, he’s a pretty good read, but God, who’d wanna be…such an asshole?”

..

The simple answer is

CHANNEL IT

right?

Put it to good use.

See it, watch it, breathe it in, but stay on that jetty while the storm is surging.

And yeah, sure, that’s what I try to do, but how that actually works, how you take the stress of moving to a new town and commuting longer and finding new friends and maintaining old friendships and starting a blog and navigating the crazystupid world of social networking and finishing a novel and trying to sell stories and working out and reading and cooking and foodshopping and doing my taxes (jesus I need to do my taxes!) and meditating and doing the other things I do on top of generally freaking out about the state of the state nation world not to even mention my place in the fucking COSmos at large – how you take that stuff, and instead of letting it bowl you over, jiu-jistu that shit into a character and let that character do something decently productive with it, is what I’m interested in.

Which I guess is what the process is all about. Which is why it takes forever, I guess, and why there’s no guarantee it’ll work well or at all.

Which is why Faulkner said The Sound and the Fury was a failure.*

Zulfikar Ghose was talking about this the other night when I went and saw him at the Fowles Center.** Not about Faulkner, but that the main motivation to write is – HAS TO BE – the simple desire to create something that didn’t exist before, to convey some sense about the world as precisely as we can. “We simply create, and we see what happens.” All method or whatever else people read into creative work after the fact is secondary.

Like with everything, just do the work. Don’t worry about how you’re going to do it, just do it. Worry about how you did it and what it means later. If you worry about that at all.

But the question remains:

How do you separate layer upon layer of life’s crazy-ass chaff from that sweet, sweet wheat?

Yeah, I mean you.

Whether you’re creative or not, it doesn’t matter – we all de-stress and refocus somehow.

So tell me – how do you keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs?

http://featuresblogs.chicagotribune.com/talking_pictures/2010/05/dennis-hopper-nobodys-candycolored-clown-.html

Hopper pretty much was a pair of ragged claws
scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

*Saideth Faulkner: “[The Sound and the Fury] began with the picture of the little girl’s muddy drawers, climbing that tree to look in the parlor window with her brothers that didn’t have the courage to climb the tree waiting to see what she saw. And I tried first to tell it with one brother, and that wasn’t enough. That was Section One. I tried with another brother, and that wasn’t enough. That was Section Two. I tried the third brother, because Caddy was still to me too beautiful and too moving to reduce her to telling what was going on, that it would be more passionate to see her through somebody else’s eyes, I thought. And that failed, and I tried myself, the fourth section, to tell what happened, and I still failed.”     – from the UVA Faulkner treasure trove 

** Karen Tei Yamashita is coming! Karen Tei Yamashita is coming! April 15th. You should totally be there. (I know I know, the flyer on the site says April 22 but it’s wrong.)

Hat tip to the badass HuffPoQuill-wielding

Laura Bassett for giving me the advice, title, and general notion for this post.

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Danger and Doubt

Does this look like a face that embraces danger to you, or does this look like a face that embraces danger?

MHK

I saw Maxine Hong Kingston read and speak Monday night at the John Fowles Center For Creative Writing at Chapman University. (If you’re in SoCal, check out this spring’s awesome Asian-American lineup, which includes Karen Tei Yamashita.)

Kingston was wonderful, all five-foot-nothing of her peeking out from behind the lectern, reading from The Woman Warrior, The Fifth Book of Peace, and I Love A Broad Margin to My Life.

She talked about love as a vital force, about how we may not be able to prevent a war next week or next month or next year, but if we live our lives in love today, we can “save battlefield lives a century from now.” She recalled Viet Cong and American veterans meeting teary-eyed decades after trying to kill one another, and talked about the comfort of Alice Walker’s hands and hugs during protests. She invoked Hua Mulan and Athena and the heroines of Leo Tolstoy in calling upon the strength of women to save the world from war.

All that was wonderful and inspiring and uplifting and vintage Kingston.

And then she said something surprising. In response to a question about influences on Tripmaster Monkey – His Fake Book, a trippy San Fran tale of a sixth-generation Chinese poet named Whittman Ah Sing (it’s rad, you should read it – find it at an Indie Bookstore near you), she talked about the people she grew up with and the people she went to Cal with and knew in the Bay Area then and after. She talked about how cool the men were then, in the ’50s, ’60s and early ’70s, how the new language that was being created to talk about psychedelic experience and political experience and modern experience in general was being coined and spoken by men – they were enfranchised, they were the powerful ones, they were the leaders, they were the creators and receptacles of cool.

That might sound like the beginning of a “feminist” rant, but it wasn’t. She said that the men of the Beat generation, the men coming out of World War II and going into Korea, the half-generation after that, the boys and men facing the draft for Vietnam – during this time, these men produced more good writing than women, because, Kingston said, “[women] weren’t in danger. And you really need danger to write novels.”

No, for all you whose dander is suddenly up, in fact she did not mention the different kinds of “danger” that women endured throughout not only this epoch but for most of human history, nor did she invoke the struggles various other minority groups faced during this time. It was an impromptu response about her life forty, fifty years ago. Maybe she’s reached an age or a stage in which she’s over it, but she didn’t seem upset by the fact that that was the way things were. And we all know that Kingston’s thoughts have been with and her actions on behalf of those marginalized groups for most of her life and career as an author and public figure, so don’t get your PC panties in a knot over her saying that men wrote better novels for a few years because they were in danger. It’s interesting.

Besides, I’m not nearly as interested in the context of that sentiment as I am in the content.

Do we really need danger to write novels?

To write anything?

To DO anything?

There are those who would answer a resounding “absolutely!” but there are also those who would answer an equally emphatic “absolutely not!” I know examples of both. I took classes from Alicia Kozameh, an Argentinian writer of enormous impact who spent part of her three years’ imprisonment in the infamous El Sótano (“the basement”), who said that her mind was never more free than when she was locked up and under perpetual threat of being desaparecida. (This is not to say, by any means, that she would rather be back there, scribbling on dirty napkins in El Sótano, instead of living in LA and teaching at Chapman. I think she’s plenty fond of being out of jail and away from danger — and she’s no less productive.) And check out this story from the NY Times about Murong Xuecun,  a Chinese novelist who’s heavily censored and risking his life to criticize that censorship in his country – novel writing may never be this risky, this dangerous, or this important in the US.

But then there’s John Cheever, for instance, who was rich and wealthy and white and American and pretty much never faced any danger, besides maybe an excess of single-malt Scotch whisky. And let’s be honest, a lot of people in the US and Canada and the UK and Western Europe write from a position of security, if not downright coddled luxury, and a lot of them produce perfectly brilliant, insightful, incisive commentaries on humanity.

There are of course plenty (the majority?) of people who live somewhere in between these two extremes – minorities, immigrants, the poor, the otherwise-dispossessed – and they of course are in varying kinds of danger –  physical danger, danger of cultural extinction, existential danger, whatever – varying amounts of the time.

books

But what about those of us who aren’t? I’m a middle-class white American with all my fingers and toes. I’ve never felt real discrimination. I’ve never been in danger of being erased or not-considered. I’ve never been overlooked for any other reason than my work or whatever isn’t worth looking at. Aside from a few dicey late-night situations, I’ve never been in any real physical danger, either. I’m registered for the draft, but honestly I probably would’ve found a way to bow outta that in years past if it’d come to it.  (Today would I go willingly? I don’t know.)

So how can I write novels? What danger did Professor Kingston use to write her books?

Her most well-known is Woman Warrior, so maybe you can guess where she picked her battles.

So we can pick our battles, then? Decide on what danger drives us? Well then, what do I got?

I think what it boils down to is that I’m in danger of becoming an automaton. A listless carbon copy. 

automatonWe all are, really, in our own ways. I don’t talk about it too much because it can sound (and get) a little batty, but at core I totally buy into the risks Wallace outlined in Infinite Jest, and those Huxley did in Brave New World, and Burgess in The Wanting Seed, and dozens of others in their own way.

I’m also, at core, a lazy bastard, and would just as soon lie about all day and every evening flicking through the “news” channels, flipping through the paper, watching B movies and reading Tom Clancy books and sci-fi and fantasy series, and, like water moving downhill, find the path of least resistance through life. I know the attraction of group think, of agreeing with my friends and the masses in general, of avoiding confrontation and debate.

But there’s something about that, some twinge at the back of my mind, that bugs me, that voice that says, “meeehhh, I’m not quite sure that’s how things go, how they should be, that that’s all there is.”

And mostly that’s it. That’s the extent of my insight – a twinge of skepticism.  Time was, I’d deal with that little voice in other ways besides writing – float it off down a river of Bushmills, say – but nowadays, I leave that twinge alone and see where it takes me.

I have little if any real conviction. I’m not a Man of Principle. But I am curious, and I do doubt, if either of those count for anything, which I think they do. I doubt a lot of things, most things even. Doubt is the most common feeling/emotion/reaction to life that I have. Sure, it can border on crippling if you constantly doubt and second-guess yourself or your writing or your purpose in life, but most things are crippling if they’re too intensely focused on oneself. For the most part, kept in its proper proportion, that omnipresent doubt is the greatest motivator in my life.

Doubt gets me off my lazy ass and in front of the keyboard. 

Some Buddhists say that doubt is the better part of faith, primarily because it drives investigation – of the world, of society, of culture and ego and the self and our behavior in response to all of these things – and it is only through such inquiry that we can learn and understand and see through the bullshit. Because in a lot of ways, that’s what life’s all about, right? We all know or feel – some of us all the time, others only every now and again – that there’s some serious bullshit going on, that there’s some game being played without our consent and definitely without our knowing all the rules.

I have a friend who’s going through some dating bullshit right now, and she’s been feeling kinda bad about how she’s been acting here and there, fending off but also buying into accusations that she’s “psycho” or “crazy” or whatever. But she told me yesterday that she had an epiphany and feels better because she “realized it’s not the actions themselves that make me feel bad, it’s that I place myself in this category of women who are by today’s standards, crazy.” She was growing tired of those “psycho” accusations, and in growing tired, started to doubt their validity, and that doubt created the space for this realization to squeak through that at least for the time being is making her reevaluate who she is and how she’s acting and who she listens to and how she lets what she does hear affect her – in short, in some little tiny way, it’s changing her life.

And that’s a profound thing, right? To realize that the games that are going on are not even real games but illusory ones, games created by people who don’t know any better, who don’t even know they’re creating or perpetuating these constructs and expectations that they’re foisting on anyone and everyone that comes into contact with them — to realize that, right up until the moment of realization, we were those people who didn’t know any better.

Have a couple of these types of epiphanies – or satori, as the Japanese would call it – and you begin to suspect that there are a LOT more to be had. You begin to doubt everything. If you let it, this can take over your life, and you’ll either go crazy or join a monastery. Or both.

But if you find a way to funnel the energy created by this kind of realization and doubt, then you’re really onto something. Some people go to church, some people volunteer or do some other kind of service work, some people quit their corporate jobs and start a raw-dairy co-op, some people take up painting or guitar or poetry or surfing or chess. Some people simply absorb it, knock a bit of the sharpness off their edges, act a little softer towards the world, react a little less. It’s like your skin gets thicker and your heart gets tenderer at the very same time.

If that sounds like Trungpa, that’s because it is.

trungpa

And these are the things that drive me to write. I think they drive a lot of writers to write. Investigative journalists doubt the story, doubt the press release, doubt the party line, doubt the soundbites. Sports writers doubt their ability to do what they’re writing about – okay, mostly they know all about their inability to do it – and that creates awe. (Or they doubt Mark McGwire’s ability to hit 70 home runs, and that creates a story…)

And I think writers of fiction write about their doubts about the nature of reality, about culture and society and love and friendship and history and our place in it. We doubt that our current explanations for those things are sufficient – most people know humanity in general’s explanations are woefully inadequate – and we think there may be better explanations, and we work out and test those explanations in story form.

And the danger (here’s the circle) to NOT doing that, to not investigating/interrogating/inquiring those twinges of skepticism, to not chasing down my doubts, is a slow slide into permanent and perpetual acquiescence. I’ve chosen writing as the thing, my form of not going gentle into that good night, and if I don’t write, I don’t do anything, and I probably sink into my couch watching some version of the Infinite Jest “samizdat.”

…Perhaps, though, it’s all (and I mean ALL) just a desire to not fade away, and it’s as much ego as anything, and what I’m really afraid of is being inconsequential — I want to make my mark. I want to prove that I was here, that I understand, that I see through…

Which is a doubt. Which will require some thought. Which is my point.

~~~~~~~~~~

What’s your danger?

What’s your doubt?

What drives you to do the things that you do?

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