Tag Archives: insight

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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Better Than A Haymarket Riot

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haymarket_affair“Another Labor Day post?” you wonder.

“Why’s it so late?” you ask.

Being as I wasn’t working on Monday, you’d think I could’ve gotten it together to write a few hundred words about the work I wasn’t doing, right?

Well, I had better things to do.

That’s not to disparage this blog or your reading of it, by any means, because I like this blog, and I love that people read it. After ten months and a couple dozen posts, to have a bunch of people “following” At The Wellhead and writing back via comments and emails is pretty rad.

But, it’s not my first love. My first love is Erin (awwww, I know, I know, but she really is) and yeah, I spent a lot of Labor Day lounging around with her, which in and of itself is always a treat. It’s extra nice these days because we don’t actually get that much time together. Some of you know how that is – Erin’s a management consultant, so she travels all the time, and when she is home, I’m writing, she’s yogaing, I’m running, she’s taking care of all the bs you can’t take care of from the road, we’re both housekeeping and we’re planning a wedding together. (And messing with the cats, of course.) We’re also fortunate enough to have a ton of really good friends that we love spending weekends with, together and separate, here in the Valley and up in Ventura and down in LA and all over god’s green amuhrica, really, so a ton of our time is taken up doing that.

E.g., I’ll see Erin for a few hours one Sunday evening between now and September 19th. So kickin it when we can is très important.

As most of you know, my second love, and the one I was laboring over on Monday, is writing fiction. As I’ve written about before (and here, too), writing’s a labor of love that’s much heavier on the labor part than the love. Or it’s more like a slow-burn, high-elevation, macro-type love, as opposed to pure-joy-every-minute type love, and it requires a LOT of labor.

MurakamiRunningBook(Though at the same time I don’t mean to overstate how “hard” it is – even ultra-marathon-running Haruki Murakami says that writing is physically challenging, but I’ve never understood that. But I also haven’t written eight hours a day for nine months to start and finish a novel, so what do I really know? If you’re interested in this idea, you should read Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. Great book on running and writing – on doing anything that requires discipline and the long view, actually.)

Anyway, as often happens after I spend large chunks of time writing several days in a row, I was wondering while setting my alarm Monday night what the hell I’m doing with my life in this job.

It’s a day job. I like it well enough, I work with good people, it’s relatively interesting, and it affords me plenty of time to write. Well, more time than a lot of the jobs my college friends and ambitious peers have, but it’s not even really enough, let alone “plenty.”

I was wondering at what point what we spend most of our time doing becomes what we’re really doing. I insist that writing isn’t a hobby, but that’s because it sounds and feels reductionist to call it a hobby, like building model airplanes or collecting stamps (though true philatelists would take serious umbrage at that comparison). Luckily, society has deemed writing an art, and elevated it to the status of a higher pursuit that many human civilizations for the past 5,000+ years have considered sacred to varying degrees – a conduit to the divine, even – so I feel relatively comfortable saying it’s more important than my day job.

http://www.allartclassic.com/pictures_zoom.php?p_number=25&p=&number=CAM025

Yep, this is pretty much how seriously I take myself.
Pic: AllArtClassic.com

This even though my job is practical in the extreme – we make sure water comes out of faucets in 10,000 homes and is sprayed on 2,000+ acres of some of the most fertile ag land in California (nbd). And, it’s my only source of income, which is important because we live in a money-based world (to employ a technical term).

Most of the people I work with didn’t go to college. Burdened with neither debt nor this weirdly destabilizing and neuroticizing ambition, they’re pretty content in their jobs and the various hobbies they have outside work – lots of fishermen, lots of hunters, dirt-bikers, RVers, campers, gamblers, barbequers, movie buffs, cigar aficionados, concertgoers, a couple musicians. And they just do what they do because they like doing it and don’t worry too much about the implications of their actions or their “sociopolitical non-action” or whether or not they’re making or leaving their mark.

icebergDon’t get me wrong – they’re not simpletons or noble savages. They have their shit to deal with, and their interests are wide and their understandings of the world deep and some of them are dedicated to a lot of things outside of work, but to a certain degree, they’re parking in the shade. It’s a pretty cush gig – at least, not a whole lotta what you call whip-cracking. Plenty of people would love to have this job, and most everyone here is to proud to, and most of them are grateful for it, “especially in this economy” and all that. So it seems kind of reductionist of me to say, “Meh, it’s just my day job, whatever, it’s not even a big deal.” That’s where my self-confidence and goals (daydreams) and discontent tip into arrogance. And I find myself there quite often.

On the other end of the spectrum, a handful of my friends are self-employed, either they own businesses or they’re freelancers of various sorts. These men and women definitely did not take Labor Day off. One of the (few) blogs I read regularly is Caitlin Kelly’s Broadside. In her Labor Day post, she talks about the various forms of work and how many Americans hate their jobs and what a shame that is and what the costs and benefits (which are often the same thing) are of eschewing that kind of job, job-type job for a career you’re really devoted to. Much of Broadside deals with, as Caitlin put it Monday, “how to make our work-lives both more emotionally satisfying and financially useful to our needs.” I really like that concept of “financially useful” – it sums up nicely the idea that we need to work to live, rather than living to work.

It also reminds me of what a mentor of mine says whenever I carp to him about my day job:

“That’s why they call it work.”

So few people want to do what I do on a day to day basis that they have to pay me money to do it. I have to remember this when I start to bitch and moan how “everyone else’s job is so much more interesting than mine.” A) that’s probably not true, and B) who gives a shit if it is? I’m not getting paid to be interested. I’m getting paid to do excel sheets and edit documents and determine the feasibility of this or that project. And until I’m ready to do the footwork to find myself a job that’s interesting “enough” to really devote myself to (what would that be anyway?), or unless the creative work I’m doing now somehow against all odds “pays off” in one form or another, this is my reality.

And no, my dear and sundry consciences-in-the-flesh that are shaking their collective heads at this and tsking, you’re right – it’s not, by any stretch of the imagination, a bad reality to have.

Pretty much any “job,” is like this to some extent, I imagine. As fascinating as my dad finds the human body, as rewarding as it is to figure out what’s wrong with people and help them get better, he probably wouldn’t be a doctor if they didn’t pay him. And maybe that’s the ultimate difference – a hobby, or a passion, or what you define yourself by is maybe the stuff you do that no one pays you to do. Or, if you’re lucky enough to be paid for that thing, what you would do whether someone paid you or not.

Another of my mentors, this one in the water industry, does all kinds of stuff on the side – he’s as overeducated as I am, he’s a poet, a multi-instrument musician, a super-involved father, an opera-follower, a reader, a philosopher, the list goes on – but he still loves what he does at work. It’s like one big word problem that he’s spent a couple decades figuring out. What we do isn’t that different, except for the scale of things, but if you were to ask the two of us to describe our jobs, you’d think his was about a million.5 times more interesting than mine. And that’s simply a result of a very conscious decision he made a long time ago: to apply himself to the job.

I know that my not having made that full dedication is (in addition to a distaste for word problems) part of my lifelong attitude of transience, this idea that whatever I’m doing isn’t the real thing and that the next thing, or the thing after that, will be. (No, that’s nothing to do with the Buddhist idea of impermanence, if that’s where you thought I was going.) If I move to that country, or get this job, or start doing that, or get this published, or hang out with these kinds of people, or get to that level of understanding, or if this star aligns with that one over there, then I’ll be locked in to where I’m supposed to be and things’ll really start happening and then I can be fully into it. This self-perpetuating discontent seems to be part of my DNA it’s so hard to get rid of.

Well, Chuck, a guy's gotta eat.

Well, Chuck, a guy’s gotta eat.

But I’m trying. In every other aspect of my life I do my best to live in the moment, to make what I’m doing, “what I’m doing.” And I think I’m getting better. It certainly relieves a lot of pressure. But I haven’t applied this to work.

And I’m not sure I want to.

Part of me has this thing against the principle of a 9-5, this Hunter S. Thompson (thanks Jessa!) (btw, N*O is the other blog I read and you should read it, too), Charles Bukowksi antipathy to “the work week” as belonging to squares and robots and peons. But that’s putting the cart before the horse, really. Because we all have to earn our bread, and until we can do it outside the confines of a 9-5, well, why shit so hard on it?

It’s not just outsiders and artists who are down on the work week. Shitting on the 40-hour work-week is about as American as the 40-hour work-week itself. That Four-Minute-Hour-Day-Everything guy, Timothy Ferriss (whose ancestors bought too many vowels at Ellis Island), and his ilk all present the work week and “employment” in general as this limiting factor, as something to break out of, as if your full potential cannot possibly be realized within the confines of someone else’s system.

And I fully buy into that. But is it true? I don’t know. (What’s “true,” anyway, right?)

What I do know is that meaning is a choice. I wonder how many of the 70% of Americans who don’t like their jobs have other interests that give their lives lots of meaning. A lot of you probably saw this “Haters Gonna HateWaPo article last week – it was all over facebook. It basically said that people that hate one thing are super likely to hate basically everything. Following that logic, 70% of Americans are haters. Which seems about right, between facebook and the comments on articles and the items in the news and the things politicians say and the way people respond to them. So, I’m gonna go ahead and guess that most of that 70% of people who hate their jobs aren’t spending exorbitant amounts of time or energy developing meaning in other areas of their lives. (Besides family, of course, which kinda only half-counts because that’s biological n shit.)

SteinbeckSocialismI have to imagine this results in part from a very American sense of entitlement. We’re taught that self-employment is the key to happiness, or at least that it’s the full embodiment of the American ideal, and that it’ll bring us riches and a sense of self-sufficiency unrivaled by the drudgery and servitude of working for someone else. One of the more nefariously defeating Myths of America is that everyone can and should make his own way to greatness in the world, when really that’s just simply not possible, for a panoply of reasons we all know by now (right? Right).

If haters really are gonna hate, and, obversely, lovers are gonna love, and if despite our natural (or nurtured) predisposition to hating or loving we can learn to do the other, then it’d seem to follow that we should go ahead and train ourselves to love – or at least like or appreciate or apply ourselves to – something we spend 25% – 30% of our waking hours doing.

If the conscious application of this reasoning to all other aspects of my life over the last few years is any indication, then all those aspects of my life would probably benefit – too, again, more – from me going ahead and giving 100% to my job. Or at least something more than the 17% – 47% or whatever % it is I’m giving now.

If you can’t be in a job you’d love, honey, love the job you’re in.

That’s CSN, LLC, in case you were wondering.

I’ll leave you with this famous bit from Seamus Heaney‘s long poem, “From Station Island,” in remembrance of his recent passing. You might’ve seen it.*

And suddenly he hit a litter basket

With his stick, saying, ‘Your obligation
is not discharged by any common rite.
What you must do must be done on your own

So get back in harness. The main thing is to write
for the joy of it. Cultivate a work-lust
that imagines its haven like your hands at night

dreaming the sun in the sunspot of a breast.
You are fasted now, light-headed, dangerous.
Take off from here. And don’t be so earnest,

Let others wear the sackcloth and the ashes.
Let go, let fly, forget.
You’ve listened long enough. Now strike your note.’

.

And that, friends, is your (few days after) Labor Day takeaway.

http://thegazette.com/2013/08/30/iowa-city-mourns-acclaimed-poet-seamus-heaney/

Pic: Iowa City Gazette, oddly enough.

*Hat-tip LB

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In Defense of Hallucinating

hallucinate (v.)
c.1600, “deceive,” from Latin alucinatus, later hallucinatus, pp. of alucinari “wander (in the mind), dream; talk unreasonably, ramble in thought,” probably from Greek alyein, Attic halyein “be distraught,” probably related to alaomai “wander about” [Barnhart, Klein]. The Latin ending probably was influenced by vaticinari “to prophecy,” also “to rave.” Sense of “to have illusions” is from 1650s.

So the idea’s been around a while.

In common parlance, we take “hallucinating” to mean seeing/hearing/experiencing things that aren’t really there, usually as a result of ingesting a psychedelic drug. Or, in the parlance of my youth, “tripping balls.”

Well, there’s schizophrenia, too, of course, but I’m not about to tackle that in the same post as peyote…

There are lots of opinions about psychedelic drugs and the taking of them, the two ends of the opinion spectrum probably being those who think that it’s a ridiculous activity to engage in because they’re perfectly happy to have their feet firmly anchored in reality and have no need whatsoever to experience any “illusions,” thank you very much; and those who think it’s the be-all and the end-all and the key to unlock humanity’s mystical cooperative harmonic future.

A) Those of you who haven’t imbibed any psychotropic compounds and think you’re escaped the world of illusion – I mean, honestly? We’re still playing that what-you-see-is-what-you-have game? With all we know about reality and space and science and politics and secrets and cover-ups and religion and recession and rock’n’roll and just EVERYthing? There are SO many more pervasive and sinister hallucinatory palls that have fallen, at various points, over our lives and culture than any fleeting thing a few micrograms of LSD can produce on the smokescreen of your mind.

“Fleeting” leading us to:

B) The actual illusions of psychedelic experience aren’t real illusions, really. They’re metaphors or examples – gateways at best and nightmares at worst. Those feelings of interconnectedness and bliss? They’re just chemical euphoria. I’m with George Harrison, who said that ultimately, it’s a false insight that psychedelic drugs give you, just the tip of the iceberg, and with Alan Watts, who in explaining why he stopped partaking said,

“Once you get the message, you hang up the phone.”

The message, of course, being that the entire world we live in and what we call reality and the metrics by which we deem a life a “success” are by and large delusions.

This idea has been so widely disseminated over the last 60 years since people like Harrison and Watts, etcetera, popularized these old-old ideas that to repeat it is almost passé. As in, I know that the majority of you all are somewhere in between those two extremes and thinking, “Gee, thanks, Prichard, but I saw The Matrix. What are you getting at?”

What I’m getting at is the difference between knowing about something and knowing something from experience. Which, if you’ve read many of the two-dozen or so posts here At The Wellhead, you’ll know is a pretty big deal for me – and a much much much bigger deal than I used to think it was.

One of my favorite Notes On Existence is a well-used bit from Frank Zappa:

Remember, information is not knowledge;

knowledge is not wisdom;

wisdom is not truth;

truth is not beauty;

beauty is not love;

love is not music;

music is the best.

I absolutely used to think gathering information would make me wise, and once wise, I’d manifest beauty and truth and love and music wherever I went. This is a simplification, sure, but not a gross over- one.

Get it? Pic: Exiled Surfer

Ha! Found this at: Exiled Surfer

How I’ve changed from that to whatever I try to be now is a long story of baby steps and nearly imperceptible (or at least forgettable) shifts in perspective. It certainly wasn’t the direct result of psychedelic drug use – or any kind of single, white-light, burning-bush experience. I don’t go in for those, or really trust too much anyone who does.

I go in instead for the long, slow smolder, the repetitive, grinding plod. Which is another of the differences between taking drugs to have (and at the same time break through) illusions – or meditation-retreating or fasting or Primal screaming or TMing or Orthodox-mystic-trancing or Gestalting or whatever the mode of de(con)structing – and living on the other side of them.

Living on the other side is hard. At the very least, it takes effort and determination and perseverance.

Sliding back into illusion is easy. That’s why most everyone stays there.

The actual shattering of preconceptions – whether LSD-induced or otherwise – is simply information. It can feel like a whole lot more than that. It can feel like what you thought was the solid earth is really nothing more than shifting sands in a vacuum. And maybe it is(n’t). But even so, that’s still just information, and there’s a real problem in getting stuck in information and confusing a simple glimpse of a different way of thinking with an alternate but equally permanent reality. We all know people who get stuck in that in-between space – those very nice but vaguely superior and ultimately despondent burnouts who love to tell you what you’re doing wrong and what life should be about and how it should be lived but don’t do much more than swallow another pill to get back there for just a little while. It’s like commuting to Wonderland.

Knowledge, as opposed to information, is answering the attendant “So What?” to an insight, whether you saw it with a head full of acid or gleaned it during meditation or realized it as you turned a corner and saw a peach tree in bloom. What it means for you that the world is all shifting sands in a vacuum can only be answered via a process, by seeing what happens when you apply the implications of that shifting-sands understanding to your daily life and behavior and your interactions with other people.

Wisdom comes from living long stretches of time in that application. Or at least I assume it does, as it’s only been a little while that I’ve been trying to apply principles to my life. Well, ones of any redeeming value, at least.

But at least I’m no longer under the illusion that you can just know about things. That’s the problem with being arrogant and precocious and young, right? You think you know, and if there is anyone around to tell you you’re wrong, you can’t hear them. And if you’re lucky/spoiled rotten by life in general and there are no real consequences to your delusions, there’s really nothing to show you you’re wrong.

The advantage to living in such a house of cards, though, if there is one, is that it’s a massive and very fragile illusion, so when it does finally topple, you have no other option than to seriously readjust. It’s not like, “Huh, roads are really just strips of asphalt stuck onto the surface of the earth. Roads qua roads don’t have any inherent meaning at all! Crazy.”

It’s like every assumption you’ve ever made about who you are and how you function in the world is shown to be a fiction and a fantasy and a lie you’ve been telling yourself since the day you realized you could lie.

I’m not saying this wouldn’t have happened to me if I’d never ingested any psychotropic compounds. I know plenty of people who’ve had their minds blown and universes rearranged without such pharmacological aids. I also know people who’ve eaten enough psychedelics to shuttle a herd of buffalo to Alpha Centauri, yet are still as square and deluded and clueless as Paul Ryan loving Rage Against the Machine.

Besides, that little world of mine was hardly sustainable…

Yet – and here comes, finally, the whole “defense” part we started with – hallucinations are effective metaphors. And to declare, in case you missed the implications earlier: by “hallucinate,” I mean all those illusion-shattering techniques out there.

It’s those very fleeting illusions, paradoxically, that unsettle what we think of as solid ground.

Those glimpses – I don’t want to say of true reality, but maybe beyond what we think reality is or was – make it easier to remember that the structure of our daily lives is just an arbitrary, man-made structure. It makes the scaffolding easier to see. Because if you know, walking around every day, that the reality you’re experiencing is as flimsy as the sights and sounds and sensations brought on by a bite of San Pedro cactus (or a deep meditation or whatever), well, maybe you’re the tiniest bit less likely to get sucked into some nefarious greed-riddled illusory hellhole.

The point of remembering our proximity to illusion – our immersion in it, really – is not, as many people would first assume, a kind of nihilism. In fact, it should engender quite the opposite experience. Once you move beyond the smug teenage-angstyness of “seeing through everybody and everything,” being a child of illusion, as Trungpa would put it, is a way to pare away what doesn’t matter from what really does.

And what really matters?

Well, that’s for you to decide. And question and break through and redecide and requestion and rebreak through and…and…and…and eventually just float on.

I for one have no idea what “the real thing” is, whether there is one or whether it’s just layer after layer, illusion after illusion, turtles all the way down. That doesn’t matter so much. What does matter is the seeking to break through, the not abandoning doubt for the comforts of an easy faith, the continual testing and investigation of the things that aren’t working for you, and the perpetual appreciation for those that are.

This was the strangest of these cliché inspirimages I could find.

This was the strangest of these cliché inspirimages I could find. Pic: 99 Venus

It’s a way to keep your ego in check – because the ego’s all about illusion and delusion and telling you that what feels comfortable is better than what gives you the eerie uncanny existence shivers – and a way to keep that flywheel of gratitude spinning.

I realize this may border on a Keith Richardsian advocation of drug use,* but I don’t imagine too many of you are likely to run out and eat an eighth of mushrooms this afternoon after lunch instead of going back to work.

Though, now that I think about it, some of you maybe should.

You know who you are.

Wait – actually, no, you probably don’t.

Which is probably part of the problem.

Gah.

.

What have been some of your illusions over the years?

How’d you get through them or past them?

IF YOU’VE NEVER EXPERIENCED ANYTHING LIKE THIS AND HAVE NO IDEA WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT, SEND ME AN EMAIL.

WE’LL CHAT.

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* I recently read Keif’s memoir, Life, in which he’s always saying stuff like, “Now kids, don’t try this at home, but heroin, if you use the best stuff, and use it with just the right amount of highest-quality Merck cocaine – that combination allows you to stay awake for about week at a time, which is basically the best thing you can ever do for yourself, creatively speaking.”

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Drive Like A Man

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I’m really not a very good driver.

It’s once a week at least that I get that sour-stomach, adrenaline-blood-tingle reaffirmation of the Buddhist precept that death comes suddenly and without warning (let alone a courtesy honk). I drive a minimum of 80 miles a day on the 101, so I’d like to say these things are just par for the rush-hour course, but most of them are my fault.

I first suspected this conductive ineptitude around age ten, when I sensed Big Al’s reluctance to let me drive the boat, even in the open, calm, deep-water back bays of Lake of the Woods. It became painfully obvious (literally) the next summer when I slammed the Grumman into the dock because its imminent approach freaked me out and I couldn’t let go of the throttle on the 10hp outboard. I’m clumsy at best on a John Deere Gator, a liability on a jet ski, and a veritable threat on a forklift. I can ruin a hedge and make onlookers scatter just by climbing into the seat of a ride-on lawnmower. Snowmobiles flee before me of their own accord.

Pic: www.midamericaauctions.com

Deceptively death-trappy. For reals.
Pic: www.midamericaauctions.com

And forget about dirt bikes – my friends all kicked ass on them and I couldn’t even shift out of first. Seriously. And I’m talking 90cc Hondas that like blind eight-year-old girls get around on just fine.

I’ve been in stupid wrecks and dumb fender-benders and gotten hit turning left in front of people and sticking too far out into traffic. I’ve knocked side mirrors and crushed my passenger door against a telephone pole taking a corner too tight. Hiding beer at 17 (the worst possible time to do something stupid), I three-point-turned my way into a bush and every Austin-Powers-point-turn-attempt after that to extricate myself just wedged me deeper and deeper. I’ve even rear-ended my own mother driving like a reckless jerk.

A lot of this has to do with my serious spatial awareness problems, for one. Not “serious” as in I have some advanced neurological deficiency, but as in I’m just plain bad at knowing where cars or other objects are and how fast they’re coming or going. This contributes to an already high level of anxiety over the fact that I’m hurtling a ton.5 of metal around white and yellow lines that seem more or less arbitrarily scrawled across expanses of slick black pavement – or whatever the vehicle at whatever speed on whatever surface.

But I’m also competitive, and impatient and retaliatory, which can make me forget my anxiety altogether and pretend I’m Ayrton Senna (great biopic of him, by the way) — like I did Tuesday evening through Decker Canyon.

I mean, if anything's gonna bring out your Niki Lauda, this is gonna bring out your Niki Lauda. Pic: flickr user digammo

If this don’t bring out your inner Niki Lauda, you ain’t got no inner Niki Lauda.
Pic: flickr user digammo

Despite this overwhelming evidence of my crappy-driverness, it’s not an easy thing to admit.

I’ve been thinking about the implications of this admission, though, and it seemed worth writing about.

For most of my life, I’ve believed that one’s masculinity was linked to what proportion of one’s blood was gasoline. Driving’s a skill, and a super-macho skill, and I wanted it. Bad. I grew up on Steve McQueen movies, and that image of Bullitt in his 1968 Mustang GT fastback is about as Marlboro Man as they come for me.

But, Q.E.D., my blood-octane levels are actually pretty low, so this Steve McQueenism is actually responsible for 83% of my lifelong feelings of inadequacy.

bullit

Thanks, Steve.
Thanks a lot.

The incomparable Jim Blaylock once told a group of us that his father used to say, “The more letters a guy has behind his name, the less likely he is to be able to change a tire.”

Now, despite having bought a Chilton AND a Haynes for every car I’ve owned, I’ve yet to loosen so much as a single nut under the hood of my own car, and I know what Jim and his dad mean by that. (I do change my own tires, though. Really. They’re, uh, not under the hood.) I’ve mentioned this before At The Wellhead, but it’s apropos here, too, so I’m repeating it: Tom McGuane, author of Nothing But TomMcGuaneBlue Skies and Ninety-two In the Shade and liver of the outdoors life described in his essay collections The Longest Silence and Some Horses, said in the intro to the latter that he never wanted to be “one of those writers with soft hands,” and he obviously accomplished that and set the bar about nine times as high as I can reach on a stool.

Plenty has been written about the legacy and pitfalls of this mantle of American Literary Macho, a primogenitor of which was ole Papa Hemingway himself, so I’m not going to belabor that point any more than to say this whole driving/cars thing fits into a much bigger fucking massive morass of expectations and preconceptions that I don’t remember picking up but that I’ve clung to and that has influenced my behavior and worldview for as long as I can remember.

But anyway, this post was supposed to be about getting beyond all that,

and I’m happy to report that I’m starting to see the benefit of copping to my sanguinary-octane deficiency. Driving and fixing cars is simply not my path to rough-hand macho-sleek-chic masculinity.

In fact, maybe – just maybe – über masculinity of any kind’s not what I’m after, after all.

Which is probably another not-shock to people who know me, but let’s all take a second, shall we, to remember that most of the time we’re the last ones to know the most obvious things about ourselves.

Practically speaking, this awareness may keep me from spending an absurd amount of money on, say, a Bugatti. Because despite how amazing it’d feel to have a thousand-and-one horses under my feet, I’d not double-clutch or whatever you have to do with that ridiculous of a car and drop the tranny, or hit the gas like it was my Jetta and bury the thing in a brick wall fifty yards away before I could turn the wheel (à la Grumman), or try to take curves like Jeff Gordon and end up Misty-flipping off that bend by La Piedra.

Alright, alright, it’s probably not only awareness that’ll keep me out of a Bugatti, or any other $1.6MILLION car. But it may keep me from thinking, say, a $200k Jaguar, or anything over 400 horses, really, is a smart buy. I just don’t have the minerals for that kind of car, and while I’m as susceptible as the next guy to the incessant luxury-is-better consumer-culture McLaren Group onslaught, I know that it’s an ultimately vapid juggernaut, and maybe I can avoid being crushed by it by bowing out of this particular leg of the Macho Race.

I’ll do plenty of stupid things in my life, make plenty of bad decisions based on insecurity and fear and vanity, but hopefully it won’t be the car that’ll get me.

Beyond practicalities, giving up an entire set of criteria by which I’ve measured and found wanting my masculinity is a taste of freedom. It probably never should have been a part of how I saw myself, a metric by which to measure my inadequacy, but it was. I know a lot of people get and make a lot of meaning out of cars and driving – some of my best friends have rebuilt cars from the ground up. They take great pride in it and it’s part of who they are. I think Brent’s amniotic fluid was 91 octane.

But it ain’t me, babe.

To have the fact that for me it’s empty and has no actual bearing on my life or who I am dawn on me is pretty amazing. It’s energizing and motivating and rewarding and makes me feel like I’m connecting, somehow, to What Really Is.

I know it's a Socrates quote, but check out Cornel West

I know it’s a Socrates quote, but check out Cornel West‘s take on it if you have some hours to spare.

This chink in my faux-masculine suit of armor is an example of the kind of preconceptions I’ve been reexamining of late. It’s an example, but it’s not actually one of the things I’ve been actively picking at. Which is also indicative of this Examined Life process – most of the time, whatever insights or breakthroughs or satori or whatever you want to call them I have are not things I’ve been looking for. I don’t choose which walls I end up tearing down. If I try to, it’ll never come.

What I do is just do the work. I read and study and sit and practice dharma –

and I wait.

For what or how long, I never know, and I’m constantly wondering if I have missed or am missing something. And then when something finally does happen, it’s not what I expected at all, and sometimes the dawning of it takes a really long time.

I met Swami Vidyadhishananda a few years ago, and the one thing I asked him was how best to make reparation for harms done. His advice was not to seek people out, but instead to

“prepare your heart to be spontaneous.”

He didn’t tell me how to do that, and I wasn’t about to sign on to the S.E.L.F.’s 90 minutes of mantra practice a day every day for the rest of your life to find out, but that advice has become something of a guiding light, and these mini-satori along the way – like this whole driving thing – are sustenance, like cups of Gatorade on the marathon route.

They’re also proof that you’re laying the groundwork, priming the cosmic pump, so to speak, so that you’re ready to recognize and receive the lessons when they do come at you – spontaneously or otherwise.

At the same time, I realize this one realization isn’t anything all that special. A lot of people don’t give a shit about cars or driving or anything like that, and it doesn’t affect their sense of self and never did. It’s certainly nothing new to redefine masculinity or reject it altogether. Mick’s been singing about men and their different cigarettes for 50 years.

And yet, this discovery process has to be repeated forever anew because no matter how many times you’ve read about it, it’s not the same as experiencing it. And each of us has to grow up on his own, right? And write his own manual based off trial and error.

Which is what this blog has become in a lot of ways. The narration of my own coming-of-age-story.

So file this one under Get-Over-Yourself-Turning-Points, I guess, or Sunday Afternoon Satori.

What’s one of yours?

When did you realize things weren’t quite the way they seemed?

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Lest History Pass Us By

Image

This post really has very little to do with Korea, except as an example of what I’m going to talk about and for the fact that its inspiration happened while I was there. I wasn’t even really in Korea, at that – I was layingover in Incheon Airport outside Seoul.

Plus, I like the vintagey, beat-up-cracked-paint flag image and thought it looked nice there right there at the top of the page.

Anyway, I was in Incheon Airport, wandering aimless and tired through one of the food courts when I saw a man that made me think about history and my place in it. Or lack thereof.

He was a Korean guy, probably in his late 50s, well-built, handsome and healthy-looking, wearing a nondescript, light gray military-type cap – one of those floppy things with a short bill – a long-sleeve red shirt under a quilted, gray, down vest, and squareish bifocals. His arms were crossed loosely over his chest and he was leaned back in his booth with his legs stretched out under the table in front of him, totally at ease. He was looking at me, smiling, and he looked like a man who would be at ease anywhere, under any circumstances.

Something about that imperturbability, his obvious physical strength and good posture even in his reclination, his confidence – he didn’t look away when I saw that he was watching me – and probably to a certain extent that hat, made me think he’d been a career soldier. Before my imagination could go spiraling off too far into BourneLegacyLand, historical perspective tripped a switch and my thoughts were shunted onto another line, and his life, his 30-year military career flashed before my eyes.

Imagine what this guy would’ve seen in fifty-some-odd years. When he was born in the late-1950s, a few years after the Korean war, his country was worse off financially than countries in West Africa, and today it has the 15th largest GDP in the world. And as a soldier stationed on the 38th parallel working his way up to captain, maybe even as high as colonel, he would have seen some shit, boy. Espionage, assassinations and acts of terrorism, nuclear threats, isolated clashes and full-on battles, abductions, exchanges and escapes. He’d’ve known every American and Brit that mattered, and every Russian and Cuban that he wasn’t supposed to. History would have played out at the base of his watchtower – at his very feet! – and he would have taken part in it, maybe even had a hand in steering some of it.

And now, in the aftermath of that exciting career, while grabbing a beer before heading to Sydney or LA or Monaco or wherever, he sees me, a funny-looking 30-year-old American with a traveler’s backpack looking like an overgrown kid on a field trip, and smiles.

Not a smile you’d give someone, as a greeting or a show of friendliness, and definitely not a come-on. He was smiling to himself about me, it seemed, or at me, like you do at a kid straining to help his mom carry stuff into the house that’s too heavy for him, as if I were playacting as a man, and it was amusing.

(Let’s inject a little reality at this point – he probably didn’t see me and was smiling at some pretty girl behind me.)

And I realized, right in the middle of that food court, that compared to a Korean soldier, compared to a lot of people, really, even here in the US, I’m kind of outside history. I’m swept along by it, obviously – I live in a volatile time in a country that has its hands in a whole lot of that volatility. But I’m not so much IN it as pulled along in its wake. I may report on its effects on the human condition, via fiction, and if the gods deem me worthy maybe someday a few people will read those dispatches from my literary foxhole, but they’re going to be way after the fact – I mean, Tobias Wolff said it takes him 25 years to “catch up to places I’ve been.” And I may try to stick some band-aids on some of the lighter wounds history has inflicted as it’s torn through time, by volunteering and helping out my fellow man where and when I can, but I’m not doing much to ward off history. I’m not affecting anything. I’m not really all that involved in anything, at least to the extent that a man who’s spent his life in the Korean Army is.

This wasn’t any kind of life-changing realization, whereupon I made some sort of resolution to change my ways and change my place in the world and become a global doer. It wasn’t any kind of surprise either, and I’m not upset or disappointed  – it’s not like I was under the delusion that I WAS having some impact, or even that I was aspiring to have some, or that I suddenly realized I wanted to be a mover and a shaker and a framer and a founder. I know some people who are doing such things and some who want very badly to be doing such things and hope with all their hoping power to do such things in the future. I don’t put too much value on either approach – move and shake, if that’s your thing, or don’t move and don’t shake. Go do whatever floats your long-tail boat. History and the world are big enough for all of us. 

I’d spent the previous two weeks in a few parts of Thailand, and I was feeling pretty good – about life, about the world, about myself – in that bittersweet end-of-an-adventure way, when you wish you’d planned a longer trip but since you didn’t and you’re heading home anyway, you’re pretty happy about it. Part of me wants to be a perpetual, professional adventurer, a travel journalist extraordinaire, another Paul Theroux, and these two-week adventures both get me going and set me to wondering about my life. The only problem with getting out to see bits and pieces of the world is the awareness doing so engenders of just how massive and wonderful the world really is, and how much more of it there is than the tiny corners you toil toil toil away to make the money to take the modest trip to see. You run into other travelers from all over the globe, and as one of their favorite topics of conversation is where they’ve been and where else they want to go, by the time you’re wrapping up your holiday, you have a mental list of about twelve-dozen places you need to see in the next year and no idea how you’re going to get to one of them.

I’d just finished Chuck Palanhiuk’s Invisible Monsters, and reading CP always puts me in kind of a funky mood w/r/t to the unwieldiness of modern existence, and IM is no letdown in that respect. And I’d just started Midnight’s Children ahead of the April US release of Deepa Mehta’s film version. The two books probably helped set the stage for this kind of thinking, especially Midnight’s Children, which is narrated by a guy born on the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947 – the date of India’s independence from British colonial rule – and whose life both reflects and is inextricably intertwined with the development of the newly independent India. The guy’s whole life is a historical moment. He’s in it, all the time. (The movie’s been getting only so-so reviews so far, but Rushdie wrote the screenplay and apparently likes the movie. I think this is the third time in as many posts I’ve mentioned Rushdie. I’ll knock it off.)

It was on top off all this, the traveling and the reading, that I was struck by a vision or a version of a single man’s improbable but possible history. I guess it was the magnitude of it that made an impression, the surreality of this particular confrontation with the profundity of my anonymity and smallness in comparison with the immensity of history. It was a visceral feeling, like I used to have in a recurring childhood nightmare of swimming happily along underwater only to suddenly discern, rising towards me from the murkier depths, the shadowed enormity of a blue whale – the same feeling I’ve had on the dock at the base of an aircraft carrier or cargo ship, craning my neck to see some sky and keep my hyperventilation at bay.

I’ve been thinking since that encounter what to make of the whole thing, and I suppose there are some takeaways, or could be some. I could become involved in history, or at least try to get an up-closer view, find a place on a campaign or go to work for an NGO. I could employ one of the well-known tactics for fighting discontent – shrink my scale and focus on doing good, local work – and by that rubric, the argument could be made that I am doing something for some people, or am part of something being done for people, through my job at work, helping to lay the foundation for a more water-wise Ventura County. I could assume that someday, if or when I go back to teaching, that I’ll have a positive effect on the minds of the next generation, which maybe sounds kind of presumptuous but isn’t that far-fetched – there are half a dozen men and women I could name at a moment’s notice, teachers I think about really quite often, who’ve played a significant role in the placement of various yellow bricks in my life’s road. Subscribing to the Great Man Theory (I don’t), I could think about how few people really are involved in history, and take solace in being one of the innumerable, ultimately insignificant Drifters In The Wake of History – a tactic I employ pretty often for a lot of different things.

But for the most part, after these last couple days thinking about that Korean guy (or using the image of him to think about myself, I suppose), I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t really want any big lessons. It put my angst and anxiety and ego in momentary check, and sometimes that’s as much as a person can ask for. Imagining that man’s life for a few moments and mulling over it since has been fun, and it gave me something to write about.

Anyway, that’s what I thought about on my way home from Thailand.

What I did in Thailand will likely be the subject of the next several posts, but I want to sort my photos first, and by doing so my thoughts. Come back soon and check it all out. Better yet, subscribe to or follow At The Wellhead and let me (or this fancy site, actually) tell you when something new is up.

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