- Don’t give a fuck.
- Learn proper form.
- Drink wheatgrass and/or other green foods.
- Go meatless.
- Grow long hair and/or a beard.
- Find the right shoes.
- Or no shoes.
- Leave your technology at home.
- Lose the Lycra.
- Run when you feel like it.
- Take naps.
- Drink a shit-ton of clean water.
- Get a roller. Not that kind of roller. The foam kind.
- Get naked.
- Down with coffee, up with green tea.
- Take a sauna.
- Find your drishti.
- Eat less, run more.
- Work less, run more.
- Maintain creative indifference.
- Maintain creative fidelity.
- It’s OK to walk.
- Think like a child.
- Stand up.
- Do something else.
- Lose your boss.
- Take your time.
- Relax. Breathe. Have fun. This is your Original State.
I stood at the empty lectern, in the empty room. Dead quiet, but the echo of spoken words, questions, and laughter, still in the air. I had just worked my umpteenth book signing. The audience members, after chatting with the author and getting copies of their books signed, had left; to scrape the ice off their windshields and drive home to their hearty soups, red wine, and public radio.
The author and her colleagues, other writers and friends, had also left, after giving each other directions, and asking, “Should I follow you?” to the place they were having celebratory drinks and nosh. I had been profusely thanked, then left alone. I would say “abandoned” but that would imply that I was ever part of the thing that I had been jettisoned from. Of the tribe of writers I longed to belong to. I could see their campfires from the cold scrub grass, but hadn’t yet been called into the warmth of their circle.
I realized then that I never would be invited, that I had to bust my way in, announce myself, and that only one thing would allow my entry: the work. Wishing wouldn’t make it so. Waking up and hoping that the completed text had magically appeared under my pillow while I slept? Not likely.
I have stories inside myself that I need to get out and the only way to get them out is to do the work. The work all the other writers had already done. The hard work of building something brick by brick, word by word. The long silences, the blank white pages, ghostly and death-like. The terror that is whiteness that Melville understood so well.
Donald Barthelme, in his essay “Not-Knowing”, said, “It’s appropriate to pause and say that the writer is one who, embarking upon a task, does not know what to do.”
This is the constant state of being for the writer. Not knowing. All the time, not knowing what will come next. And being Ok with that. Accepting it, embracing it. You might have control over all the other facets of your life, but if you are a writer, you don’t have control over this. You might know the time and the place when and where you are going to write. You might even have a pretty concrete idea what you’re going to say. But as soon as you sit down in front of that blank page, that flashing cursor, you don’t know.
I’ve finally started my first novel. I know a little bit about it. But of most of it, I have no clue. I don’t know how it will end. I don’t know the title. I don’t know what my next sentence will be, or what my main character’s name is. But every day, I’m doing the work.
In Buddhism, we speak of sitting with things. With anger. With sadness. With hunger. With pain. With happiness. Sitting there with whatever it is, right there in your hara, that sweet spot where all strength comes from, right behind your belly button. We sit with our fear of what the future holds, of what our next words will be. We sit with it, whatever it is, the not-knowing, and then it passes, and we begin again, reborn in each moment.
It’s OK not to know, as long as we resolve to at least start the journey to find out.
The place I work sends out a little electronic newsletter every day to its employees. Included in these e-missives is news about my employer, but also little snippets of “wisdom” culled from popular media outlets currently in favor. Self-help stories that warn you about the dangers of sitting all day, about the benefits of using a stand-up desk, or the stress-busting effects of taking a short nap or brisk walk at lunchtime. While in actuality you are expected to sit all day at your old-fashioned, stroke-inducing desk, scarf down lunch while continuing to work, and where any noontime exercise is viewed as lack of commitment.
Recently, a story in Forbes magazine told us about the three surprising reasons we should stay at a job we hate. Of course we should, because if most of us don’t stay at jobs we hate, the folks at Forbes, and the millionaires and billionaires they coddle, will have nothing to write or read about. The miserable of the world create and sustain the wealth of the ruling class. We mustn’t quit, but instead accept our misery as a path to self-realization. How wonderful!
The world today, more than any other time in history it seems, is overstuffed with barbarism. Young girls are being raped and set on fire. Schoolchildren are daily butchered by firearms in classrooms and shopping malls. A scum of plastic offal the size of Texas is floating in our oceans. Polar ice is melting but countries are rejoicing because now new shipping lanes will be opened up so that more needless plastic shit can be sent around the world and consumed even faster. Faced with this, how should we act?
My own sensibility veers towards a rejection of the world. Most days, I would love to turn the other cheek forever. Not from my friends and family, whom I love, but from almost everything else.
Corporate optimists love to say we are making progress towards a more equitable, sustainable world, but instead, everywhere we look the cup of the rich gets fuller and larger in order to hold more and more wealth, as the bowls of the poor remain parched. There is no trickling-down, and there never will be. Who would voluntarily give up wealth? Resources will diminish, the wealthy will build their gated Elysiums and their floating mega-yachts, as the poor are left to battle it out amongst themselves for stale crumbs and squirrel-meat. We’re all kidding each other if we think it will be any different.
As artists, we write about our despair not because we want people to feel sorry for us or give us money. When Melville wrote about the white whale, he wasn’t asking us to take up a harpoon. All we want is for people to know that there are other ways of being in the world. Hear my story, take it into yourself, keep as much or as little as you like, and keep going.
There has to be a third way, a middle way between despair for the future of our fragile, rocky, rainy earth, and the corporatist advice of Forbes magazine and TED talks. As if some savant in fancy jeans and an untucked $350 shirt, walking around with a Bluetooth headset on a cushy blue carpet could solve our problems. Like if we listened hard enough, the secret key would finally be discovered to the hidden tomb of reason.
There must be a poetry of sanity. There must be an ethic of individuality, of listening to the voice of your own reason, and rejecting the advice of so-called experts.
One way might be to simply live within our own habits. When I look around at my own life, I don’t have a lot of distractions, and I consider this a blessing. My work habits are efficient and organized. I suppose it helps that my idea of a good day at work is leaving with fewer than five emails in my inbox. It seems that if I always shoot for this goal, I win. I focus on results and not processes. I prepare today’s rice for tomorrow’s gruel. I fold my workout clothes into a pile and set them atop my running shoes for tomorrow morning’s trip to the gym. I don’t have a lot of clothes. My entire wardrobe neatly arranged would reach a height of about eighteen inches. I like tea, books, music, walking, swimming. I can go away for the weekend with a small backpack and the clothes on my back. I’m never bored because I always have a book with me. I enjoy technology but really don’t care if my cellphone dies, even though it never does. I’m lucky not to have any tricky dietary restrictions, and am in good health for a middle-aged husband and father of two. I’m usually broke, but I expect to be. A twenty-dollar bill is as good as striking the lottery. I like being alone, but also feel most alive when engaging in deep talk with dear friends; not about what we do, but about what we love.
A radical Buddhist idea, and one I believe, is that if we change ourselves, the world will follow. Current corporatist wisdom holds the opposite to be true; that governments and organizations must be changed and disrupted for the world to be saved from self-destruction. That we need specialized leaders with futurist visions to take us there. That if only we all go green, Eden will magically appear.
But as artists of our lives, we hold that our own individual responses to the world are the only ones that should, and really can, matter. No TED talk has ever changed the world yet, and I doubt one ever will. Me taking the time to find my quiet writing space, to exercise my inborn creativity, however imperfect and unschooled it may be, or to mindfully boil water for my cup of tea, are far more lethal weapons against both the overwhelming problems of our time and the fake advice foisted upon us to solve them. Folding your clothes for your trip to the gym, or painting a picture, writing a poem or singing a song, making your tea, soaking your beans for the soup tomorrow, is the only valid response to death.
Our energies are constantly pulled in opposing directions and dissipated. I’m advocating a return to quiet, to natural wisdom, to protecting your energies for the things that really matter in your life. Making art, like life, requires all we have. To live fully, to burn up your life so that there are not even ashes left over requires great skill. We need to know when to fight and when to rest. When to shout and when to shut up. Find your natural habits and stick to them. Just because something exists doesn’t mean it must be accepted or used. Don’t fear your own voice. Be contrarian.
Create your art and your life new every day. Even if you need to retreat to an imaginary coal-fire with your pot of tea and your cat, do it. The Woolfian room of one’s own can be anywhere. I’m lucky that mine is a space close to home, quiet and well-lit, with a sink, access to fresh water and a pretty good tea stash.
No one will hand you the space or the time or the materials to create the work of art that is your life. You have to fight for your art, and your life, every day. It helps to have a sanctuary, but mostly all you need are your energies and a sharp axe. Time and materials. Because if you want firewood, or just a pencil, first you need to chop down the tree.
image: Keri Smith
People often stop me on the street and ask me what the key to all my happiness is. No, they don’t. But if they did, I would tell them: Impermanence. The idea, the truth really, that nothing lasts. Buddhism teaches us that all our human suffering is caused by our constantly chasing after things that don’t last. Relationships, feelings, thoughts, ideas, music, gastric pleasures, tropical vacations, our pets, even our lives.
This sounds pretty depressing, right? Only if you look at one side of the equation. Impermanence is actually a great gift that allows us to be born anew every day. True; joy doesn’t last, but neither does anger. Satiation doesn’t last, but neither does hunger. Pleasure doesn’t last, but neither does pain. Happiness doesn’t last, but neither does sadness. You can see this working in your own life. Are you the same person you were yesterday, much less a week, a year, ten years ago? What of all those things that pissed you off last week or last night? Do they bug you still, or have they too passed away?
Right now, all over the world, people are killing other people because of ideas. Not because of politics, or hunger, or religion, although all those things seem to be real. They are killing each other over ideas. When ideas, which are just thoughts in our heads, manifest themselves in the real world, and we act on them as if they were permanent objects, we cause each other great suffering.
A question I like to ask myself is: In a hundred years, who will remember the point of my anger? There’s the story of two Zen monks, travelling along a muddy road after a rainstorm. The older monk sees a wealthy lady carrying packages who is trying to cross the road. The old monk, without hesitating, picks her up and carries her on his back. Setting her down, she huffy away, not even thanking him. The monks continue on their journey, and after a few hours of silence, the younger monk says, “Why did you pick up that woman back there? We’re monks. We’re not supposed to touch women. And after you helped her, she didn’t even thank you!” The older monk replied, “I set that woman down hours ago. Why are you still carrying her?”
What are you still carrying? Set it down, now. Your journey will be so much lighter.
One set of workout clothes, one empty mayonnaise jar, one plastic garbage bag, one slightly-crazed helping of enthusiasm. This is my plan, probably minus the mayonnaise jar (I use an actual water bottle) and the plastic garbage bag (too crinkly and distracting). Starting this morning, I kicked my Tastykake habit to the curb and began my early-morning sessions at my local Y. I set my alarm for 4:15 am, turn on the coffee, slip into my gym clothes, and am on the indoor track, with some Radiohead in my ears by 4:45. I run/walk for 45 minutes, do some planks, relax in the sauna and head home by 6, to wake my sleeping family and get ready for my work day. This has been my habit on and off for the last five years or so, but winter, especially around the holidays, always seems to knock me off course. The body wants to hibernate and pack on the pounds for a long sleep, but we have to resist the urge. I quit drinking almost six months ago, and had an overly-optimistic idea that this fact alone would allow me to magically shed weight. But I made up for my steady diet of wine and beer with other substitutes, namely root beer, pizza, and slice and bake cookies. And the occasional box of swirly frosted cupcakes.
But as I watched Silver Linings Playbook for about the fourth time a few weeks ago, I realized that it doesn’t take much to change your life’s course. One of the reasons I think I’m a Buddhist is that I don’t really believe in the soul. I’ve never been convinced that there is some kind of inherent, untouchable me-ness to me. I seem instead to define myself simply by my likes and dislikes. In this age of self-curation, this is what most of us do, I think. The ever-present facebook “like” is the defining gesture of our day. I’ve always had a weak sense of self, easily swayed by other’s beliefs and actions, which may explain why at such a young age I believed that drinking would make me cool. I followed other people’s examples and twenty years went by, unthinking. I’m still swayed by three-star reviews in Rolling Stone. Almost any criticism of a work of art that I love will make me second-guess myself. And yet, works of art can inspire me for my own good. My weak self also responds to motivation. Like the kid I was who actually believed he was Han Solo, so I also, even in adulthood, find it easy to take on the character traits and motivations of others. Bradley Cooper’s character in Silver Linings, with his minimalist approach to better health, inspired me to put down my bad habits, don the metaphorical plastic bag, and get out on the road. Or at least the indoor track.
The larger theme here is really: what makes us who we are? If our true self only materializes when it bumps up against things we either like or not, then might we be less fixed than we think? But if we are more than our likes and dislikes, then where is that immutable core of our self? If one day I’m sitting on the couch eating an entire pizza and drinking three A&Ws, but the next day I’m in workout clothes running before the sun comes up, which one is the real me? Or do we refine our life as we live, burning off the excess baggage until we become a fine-tempered instrument, beyond birth and death? Maybe the reason I’ve always been drawn to the details, fictional or not, of other people’s lives, is my belief that if I just adopt a few utilitarian rules, I can finally refine myself. Maybe I think a pair of old gray sweats, a water bottle, some running, and a little enthusiasm will be enough to turn the corner on my lethargy and self-sabotage. Or maybe it’s late, and I should just go to bed. The coffee is ready to brew, and 4:15 am comes early.
This guy is not the Buddha. He may be a Buddha (because anyone has the capacity to become enlightened), but he’s not the Buddha. To me, he looks like a fat guy with a carrot hanging around his neck who forgot to finish getting dressed and is really stoked that he found these tennis balls in the bushes. Likewise the other images that folks refer to as “happy Buddhas.” You know the ones. The fat Asian-looking gentlemen with their shirts open to the naval, looking like they are auditioning for The Biggest Loser: Saturday Night Fever Edition, sitting in half-lotus, heads thrown back in uproarious laughter. Again, not the Buddha. The Buddha is not some kind of jolly, clean-shaven Santa Claus meant to make Westerners feel good about themselves. His head isn’t meant to be a lawn ornament. My Christian friends: imagine a world of gardens full of severed Jesus heads, parked between the rhododendron and the mums. My Jewish friends: think how you’d feel if you saw the decapitated noggin of Moses displayed in the clearance aisle of TJ Maxx.
Maybe you’d feel the way I did when I snapped this pic in the clearance aisle of TJ Maxx:
I’m really not as offended as I sound, even though the dharma teaches us that Buddhist images, for them to be authentic, must be made by actual Buddhists. Truth is, I’m a lazy Buddhist. To prove it, I just ate a delicious jambalaya for lunch. With chicken and andouille sausage. Definitely not allowed, especially since I’ve taken vows.
Maybe it’s for the best that all these images, false and pious, are floating around. Maybe just hearing the name “Buddha” will cause someone somewhere to become enlightened, or by reciting Buddha’s name, like the Pure Land school believes, we can attain rebirth in a place that will allow us to attain nirvana. Stranger things have happened, sometimes just by washing our breakfast bowl.
The truth is, I am a happy Buddha. I’ve spent many, many hours inside numerous zendos and meditation halls. I know firsthand that most Buddhists focus way too much on the “life is suffering” part of the Buddha’s teaching and not as much time on the Nirvana part. Buddhism asks us to constantly reflect on how we are keeping our mind at any given moment of the day. Are we being wise and prudent and slow to anger? Are we practicing non-attachment (which is totally different from not caring)? Are we using what the Buddha calls, wonderfully, “skillful means” to negotiate life’s daily difficulties?
Me, I try to keep my mind happy at all times, even though I know some days I’m faking it. Instead of waiting for enlightenment, I’m trying to make it happen, for myself and others, by actively engaging with the world. With its demons, and my own.
Someone once reminded me that in difficult situations, rarely do people find their courage, then act. Usually they act first, and in acting, find their courage. I try every day to keep my mind in a happy place, to not take things too seriously, to know that the universe has a way of allowing problems to work themselves out exactly as they should. Yes, life is suffering, as the Buddha taught. But that’s just the first truth of the Four Noble Truths. It’s not something to lose your head over.
And, BTW, here’s the real thing. Made of copper in Thailand by real Theravada Buddhists. It’s the one I keep on my dresser so I can see him every morning and remember the path that he blazed for all of us. Out of sorrow, laughter. Out of suffering, happiness. Nirvana.
This happened when I was living in Rochester, New York about fifteen years ago. My future wife and I were sharing a third-floor (and probably illegal and fire-trapped) attic apartment on a street intellectually named Harvard. I had recently purchased a used, half-rusted, lime-green bicycle at a yard sale and was using it as my primary means of transportation to and from one of my many part-time jobs around the city. One crisp early fall morning, as I was riding down Oxford Street (Cambridge Street was nearby, in case you were wondering) on the way to my shift at a funky used book store next to an independent movie theater (that served incredibly good coffee and Neapolitan pizza, strangely), a very old, very shaggy, very slow dog began to ambulate across my way. This rough beast was moving so slow I should have had time to stop or at least swerve. Sometimes people say things like “It happened so fast, I couldn’t get out of the way, etc.” but in my case things happened so incredibly slowly that my disbelief paralyzed me. Was I really going to hit a dog with my bike? Or more specifically, was a dog really going to hit me with my bike? Neither happened, because I braked and flipped over my handlebars, landing on my right elbow. Just before this happened, he looked at me. (I’m sure the dog was a he. I can still see his eyes. Sleepy. Judging.) My arm went numb almost immediately, but like the desperate wage slave that I was at the time (illegal apartments that mock building code don’t come cheap), I got back on my bike, now slightly bent in an unfixable way, and made it to the shop. All throughout my shift, as I drank excellent coffee and downed a few slices of warm, bready pizza, my elbow began to swell to the approximate size of a grapefruit. After work, I drove to the emergency room. They drained some particularly disgusting fluid from my joint, gave me some pain pills, and sent me home. A few days later, I was good as new. Why am I telling you this? That slow, mangy dog taught me a lesson. A simple lesson, but one that I needed to learn. That dog taught me to always wear a helmet. A helmet I wasn’t wearing that day. A helmet whose absence could have caused real paralysis or even death had I landed just a few feet north of my elbow. That dog also taught me a lesson about lessons. That we learn life’s most important lessons when we least expect them. And that these lessons are usually taught by unbelievable (as in, not to be believed) teachers. Like the woman I wrote about five years ago who learned the dharma from a rusty pipe, I learned the dharma of bike helmets from a stray dog. One of the towering figures of Zen Buddhism, eighth century Chinese master (and father of the modern Zen word-puzzle, or koan), Joshu, was once asked if a dog had Buddha-nature. He responded, almost angrily “Mu!” which has been translated as “No!” throughout the centuries. And yet, the Buddha himself said that all things are imbued with Buddha-nature. How then did Joshu have the temerity to contradict the Buddha? Who is right? That answer to that riddle, the entry gate to the Zen life, is still up for grabs. To this eternally unanswerable question, Master Joshu answered no. But on that day, the listless yellow mutt that crossed my path had Buddha-nature, and as I slow-motion catapulted over my handlebars, he looked up at me like he knew it.