Barefoot Zen?

Barefoot Zen?
Namaste, Y'all...

Saturday, May 26, 2012

My Hometown

Walking through downtown Decatur today, amid the bustle and shine of the Arts Festival, I'm reminded of a thousand tiny things I love about this town.  Why we were drawn here, why we've stayed.  

It's an eclectic little place, brimming with independent stores and restaurants, straining to retain its idiosyncratic identity as the demands of life in America stand on the outskirts, beckoning, threatening to smother us with its polyester and mortar. 

We've got a children's bookstore on the square, a couple of laid back coffee shops that still serve small and large instead of tall and venti.  There's a CD shop that stays open, we are most certain, out of defiance, and there's a New Orleans themed sno-cone eatery.  There are more great indie restaurants than you can shake a soup spoon at, a pair of yoga studios, and multifarious specialty shops that get by, somehow.

Everything, these days, comes with the suffix of somehow.  

As much as it feels like we live in our own little Mayberry bubble here in Decatur, this town has felt the effects of the past five years as much as any on the map.  Businesses have come and gone, and growth has been slow.  While no one likely wept over Ruby Tuesday's going away - in fact, some of us danced on its foreclosed roof - most all felt the blow of Watershed deciding to leave Decatur for the the promise of trendy Buckhead.

We're a citizenry that roots for the little guy, the underdog, the shop owner who knows us by name.  We don't mind the occasional chain if it's not obtrusive, but when we can, we go out of our way to look out for our neighbors who chose to make Decatur their business' home.  

Our politics run the gamut, though we're known as a blue spot on the map - there's a lot of diversity here.  Lots of nationalities and lifestyles, a healthy representation of generations. Plenty of churches, a Buddhist meditation center, a mosque just on the outskirts, Quakers.  Who has Quakers anymore?  We do.  

But, we're also constantly reminded that "progress", and I put big, hefty air quotes around that word, is imminent.  We've got a Wal-Mart that is all but a done deal in our backyard.  We've got a light rail line being proposed to run right through the biker-and-walker friendly streets.  We've got chain stores lining up to seize property that no one was interested in three years ago (because wherever Wal-Mart goes, after all, the sheeple follow).  

There's earnest trepidation about what all this will mean for our small town lifestyle, our trendy-and-indie status.  It's a tapestry of close-knit neighborhoods, adorned with individuality and distinction.  So, what happens when the world starts to eat away at that?  What happens when that convenience many secretly want becomes...too convenient? 

The good fight is being fought to protect against, or perhaps inevitably, peacefully co-exist with the machinations at our doorstep.  We're a small town that thinks too big to ever be wholly consumed by consumerism, to ever let our annual Book Festival take a backseat to the two rows of shitty paperbacks that Wal-Mart tosses onto endcaps between their Xboxes and "Now That's What I Call Music Volumes 1-42" CD catalogue.  You can build around us, but you can't unearth our roots.  

So, today, as I walk around an Arts Festival that seems as at home here as Picasso in Paris, I'm reminded of the words to a song that seemed written for Decatur, though I'm sure the fella who penned it had a few square blocks of his native New Jersey in mind:

Here everybody has a neighbor
Everybody has a friend
Everybody has a reason to begin again

My father said "Son, we're lucky in this town,
It's a beautiful place to be born.
It just wraps its arms around you,
Nobody crowds you and nobody goes it alone

And, as he reminded us in a song some two decades earlier, "This is your hometown."

Today, I'm really grateful for that.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Ode to Jack: An Open Letter to Jack Kerouac

Dear Jack,

It took me too long to find you, and for that I'm eternally sorry.  I'm one of those late bloomers, someone who stayed too close to the farm for too long and it took some discomfort and some courage to get out there on the open road you so eagerly invited us to ride upon.

So, I was close to thirty when I read it.  You know the one.  The scroll that sent you into orbit and made you an avatar overnight.  The one that put you on the map, Smiler, and the one that started you down a road to ruin.

It took me even longer to step out beyond the beatnik - God, you hate that word, don't you - ok, the beatific fray and get to know you all casual-like.  To sit down with a good cup of black coffee and really listen to what you wanted me to hear.  Eyes open, ears perked, mouth shut.

It wasn't the lure of the open road, but the cries of the open soul you were trying to get me to react to, but I'd have none of it.  To me, it was all about the hip and the hep, the birth of the cool, the everlovin', never-ending rhythm of the tomes and the poems and the rhyming and the times.  Romancing the stoned.  Digging it because it was cool, not because it was true.  Birth of the Fool.

It got so you couldn't take a piss without someone setting it to a backbeat and calling it a beat poem.  You couldn't answer your door without some young girl wanting to screw you or some cat wanting to share a drink with you, or punch you in the stomach just to say, "Yeah, I brawled with Kerouac."  Everyone wanted a piece.  It got so "The Road" was more like a prison.

Disciples were born - hundreds of them - and they took some of the weight off, and put other fetters on.  The spotlight might've shifted, but now someone else was 'the new Kerouac' and you were 'whatever happened to...'

What happened was you crawled into a cave, Lawrence's place out on Big Sur.  You were transcontinental, riding that California zephyr to somewhere you could just go and be again.  A place to chop wood, take a walk, and write.  Write like there was no tomorrow, because for the first time, it really seemed like there might not be one.  At that point on the map between despair and disaster, you realized the only hope was to disappear.  One fast move or you were gone.  You had to escape for a while, because that glint of hope and promise and the spark of enthusiasm in your eyes all dimmed because so many others had to feed off of them.  Your spark, their fire.  Their desires, your demise.

And so, you tried to wear a jovial cap and make it all seem ok, but the only way to do that was the dharma and the drink, and the drink started to win.  The world drank you dry, and so you responded in kind.  But Big Sur became as much a dark cave as a retreat.  The damage had already been done.  A snail across a straight razor, a slow painful sinking into the desolation for our beat angel.

What drew me to you, and still does, pal, is the heady mix of the profane and the sacred, the search for truth in a world tattered and frayed by our own turpitude.   You may have been the King of the Beats, but you were also a Dharma Bum.  Freight trains and detours and Catholic guilt and girls with long silky legs, Charlie Parker on the bandstand and something cold in a glass.  There was swagger and wonderment and hunger on the page, and that's because you lived it.  Some of us cowards don't, but you did...until it caught up with you and you ended it.  Not like Hemingway or Thompson.  There was no gun blast to signal the tintinnabulation of the funeral bells.  No, this was a slow, sinking suicide by drowning.  Drowning inside a bottle we put in front of you and you opened.  Drinking deeply from the chalice of life, then deeper still from Diablo's bottomless jug.

But writers have the distinction of never really dying, because they leave this trail for us to follow, and it's a living, breathing trail of words and pages and dreams and murky journeys that take us through muck and confusion and fear and eventually, if they did their job right (and you did, kid), out into the light of day, out into a warm sunlit field sparking with enlightenment and Elysian song.

I don't give a flying f what Capote said about you.  Who was he anyway?  No, I look down the road of what you left us and I see your brother, the sea, and the subterraneans the and dharma bums and Maggie and Mexico City and scattered poems and visions and towns and cities.  Orpheus emerging and lonesome travelers finding a home.  I see a Book of Dreams.  I see Allen and Gentleman Bill and Lawrence, I see Dylan and Kesey and Dr. Thompson and Pynchon and Robbins and Bangs and Murakami and Waits and Shepard and Miles and Trane and Diz.  And they're all smiling, Smiler.  They're all smiling because you put a little fuel in all their tanks for their Road.

And mine too.  Mine too, Memory Babe.

You never signed on to be larger than life.  You just wanted to live it all.  Live it all with gusto and gratitude.  But so did we, and some of us - most of us - lacked the courage, so we clung fast onto your coattails as you flew down boulevards and blind alleys.  I'm sorry if our endless enthusiasms slowed you down, but it was a hell of a ride.

I'm headed up to Lawrence's cabin sometime soon.  The one where you wrote "Big Sur".  I'm headed to Jack Kerouac Alley and the City Lights Bookstore and the streets where you wandered looking for a good sandwich and a smoke.   I'll probably romanticize you a bit.  That's what I do.  But I'll do it honest.  Like an early morning in China and I'm five years old in beginingless time.  If all of life is - as you said - a foreign country, then I hope to get acquainted and inspired by some of the ones on your map.

I assume the invitation is still open, one Dharma Bum to another.

You once said "I hope it is true that a man can die and yet not only live in others but give them life, and not only life, but that great consciousness of life."

I'm here to tell you it's true, Dreamer.  You tapped into something primordial and true and alive in the ever-present now, and you spread it around like some sort of Bodhisattva Johnny Appleseed.  And I just wanted to say "thanks".

See you under that empty sky.

As ever,


Zen Toon: That's Karma

Karma is a word that gets thrown around a lot in popular culture.  I hear people say it all the time, and considering less than 1% of Americans are Buddhist, you've gotta figure it's treated more as slang than sacrosanctity.

There's actually a slippery misunderstanding about what karma is, and it's an easy one to make.  I am currently reading a terrific book called "Dharma Road", penned by a Buddhist cab driver from Austin, TX (how's that for genetic gumbo?).  His name is Brian Haycock and he does a terrific job of tying a lot of the tenants of his beliefs into the metaphor of cab driving, the open road, and his daily, fleeting encounters with people from all walks of life.  It's a satisfying read and worthy of your time if such things are on your radar.

He reminded me that karma isn't about winning the lottery because you did nice things for people in your day-to-day life, nor is it the universe conspiring against you if you've done something against its moral code.  There's really no 'other' in karma, it's just you.  It's the cyclic set of dominoes you tip that come back around to you.

Here's what Brian says in his book:

Karma is not  "a cosmic system of rewards and punishments, meted out by some ultimate power far beyond our understanding...Karma is simply the law of cause and effect. Karma has been compared to planting seeds.  If you plant an acorn, an oak tree will grow.  If you plant a garden in the spring, you'll be eating fresh vegetables in the summer.  If you plant seeds of hate, hate will be the result.  If you plant seeds of loving-kindness, loving-kindness will grow within you.  

On a personal level, karma is psychology.  Our personalities are formed by karma.  Our thoughts and our moods are impermanent, but they don't just vanish.  Other thoughts and moods arise from them.  Over time, our thoughts form a pattern, and this pattern guides our thoughts.  We fall into habits.  We think a certain way...and before long, it's the only way." 

That's it.  The way we behave and react starts a course into action, and that course comes back around to us - not because God deems it, or the universe has subjective sway in teaching us a lesson - it happens because we created the track.  We paved the road for it to go a certain way.

When I was a kid, I was briefly fascinated with those chapter books where you chose your own adventure.  " Turn to page 13 if you want to go into the haunted cave, turn to page 24 if - instead - you want to climb over the cave and onto the 1200 foot high narrow ridge."  Thankfully, none of these books really had unhappy endings.  You never made a choice that took you to,  "So, you chose not to save Jenny and now her blood is on your hands.  Live with that, Skippy." or "Well, way to go, now you and your friends are dead.  Nice going, Dr. Livingston."

But in real life, karma is much like these books, and the results can sometimes be much more painful than the dalliances with death in those adolescent reads.  When we cut someone off in traffic and give them the finger, karma doesn't pay us back with a random wreck down the road.  Karma gets us when we carry that unchecked anger forward to the next intersection, into the office, or our family dinner table.   Karma sneaks up on us when we realize that the person in the parking lot with their hood up isn't going to scam us out of money, or toss us into their trunk.  They just need a jump start.  You give them one, you turn down their kind offer to give you $10, and you go on your way, with a heart more open and trusting as a result of your good deed.  You got someone else back on the Dharma Road.  And you start finding ways to do these kinds of things more often, because it feels too good not to.

When we gossip, it's not that the person we gossip about cosmically hears it and decides to sabotage us within our own social circles.  No, it's more insidious.  We find if we can bad mouth someone a little bit, we can do it a lot.  It becomes easier, and they - inexplicably - become more distant to us.  Then we realize we never meant for there to be a wall between us.  If we're enlightened enough, we realize the wall in question was something we built, and we work to bring it down.  If not, it just gets higher, and we find ways to build more in other relationships.

I am much closer to being a candidate for Attention Deficit Disorder than I was ten years ago because I choose flit from Facebook to Twitter to email forty times a day to break up my work day.  That's karma.  Not Mark Zuckerberg's karma, but my own.  If I opt to just focus more, or maybe meditate, rather than surf, I start the process of reversing that karma.

Karma is just the stupid and/or cool shit we do everyday that boomerangs back because that's what boomerangs do.

So, when John famously sang, "Instand Karma's gonna get'cha", he wasn't offering up a curse or a blessing, just the pragmatic human equation that what we do, say, and think stays with us.  As Jason Robards said in "Magnolia", "We may be through with the past, but the past ain't through with us."  That's karma.  We can put it behind us, but a cause set in motion has to complete itself, and sometimes - if that cause was a negative one - we have to work extra hard to stop those dominos from tumbling and set them right again.

The best I can surmise from teachings and personal experience, the best way to keep karma in check is simple Awareness.

Awareness allows us to minimize that karmic damage, and maximize the good.  Awareness is the key to making sure the seeds we're planting are the right kind.  Awareness is there to assure that, like John also sang, that "we all shine on, like the moon, and the stars, and the sun".

So be careful out there on that Dharma Road.  Check your rearview and keep another eye on the road ahead.  Both hands on the wheel, and remember, each turn we make is our own decision.

That's Karma.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Handling Hatred

You've probably seen it by now, it's gone viral after all.  A North Carolina Baptist preacher, saying his solution to the gay marriage controversy is to round up all the gays and lesbians and put them inside electric fences (separated by gender, of course), drop food via helicopter for them and just wait for them to die out, then there will never be a gay person on the earth again (huh?).  In his mind, this solves the "problem".

Two fallacies come to mind here:  (1) that's about as loving and Christ-like as Hitler's "great solution" and (2) I don't think he understands that gay people are born from consummation by straight people.  Must've missed that biology class when he was out on a field trip to prove the earth is only 6000 years old.

I refuse to give the guy any more free press, so I am not posting the footage here.  Suffice to say it's a pretty sickening thing to watch, but if you want to see the video, it's on YouTube.  And CNN.  And Huffington Post.  It's out there, as are this pastor's hateful beliefs.

However, my reason for posting this is not to talk about how much I'd like to drop this dude from a helicopter into the mosh pit at a Streisand-themed Cirque du Soleil show.  No, I'm sure we all have our thoughts on how we'd like to school this dude, but I'm gonna try not to go there. Much.

Instead, I'd like to ask how one reconciles compassion for the compassionless.  When I first commented on this mess on Twitter, a likeminded Buddhist Tweeter (hey, there's a fun phrase) asked me, "So here's the Zen koan in all this:  how do you find compassion for this guy?  Because mine runs out long before it gets to his ilk."

I'm with her.  I could sit for a lifetime and ponder that one.  Yet, it's exactly these folks who likely need to not be repudiated with an eye-for-an-eye mentality, mostly because that's their forte.  What catches them off balance and makes their conscience start to blossom is when you respond to their hate with something resembling....(gulp!)

And that's the hardest thing in the world to do.  Forget Everest, this is the summit we're charged with scaling in life, and I'm not sure more than a few handfuls of folks have managed to pull it off.  In fact, most of the ones who were on their way to such noble heights were murdered and martyred by guys like this one.

And yet, men and women like this pastor are the very same people that need their frighteningly hardened hearts softened, their venom-encrusted eyes opened.  And I am at a loss - for him, for Westboro Baptist Church protesters, for Islamic radicals, for anyone who walks through this world so filled with hatred for a group of people based on different dogmas or desires.  Where do we begin?  It's easy to vent with an anonymous comment on the internet.  Yours is bound to stand out above theirs, after all, because it will utilize correct spelling and grammar.  But that's not the answer either.  I've tried it.  It makes me feel better, until one of them writes something back aimed at me - typos and all - and then the serve and volley has begun.  We just keep this circle of samsara going, and these sharks feed on our righteous anger as much as we feed on their close-mindedness and misspellings.

No, somehow we're supposed to rise above the dreck and the vitriol and represent something more noble. But when you see such ignorance being spouted with such arrogance, how do you reach for the dharma instead of the tire iron?

Don't look for an answer here because I don't have it.  Most of us don't.

They say that after this video went viral, the church's phone lines were constantly busy, his home machine was full, and his email box began to bounce back missives.  One can assume they were all flooded - some with sick little cheers of support, some with equally twisted threats of violence, and hopefully, somewhere in there were some people who broke through the extremes and spoke with measure and mindfulness.   And maybe, just maybe, one of them said something so full of truth and compassion that won't let this guy sleep at night until he thinks things through a bit more.

I guess the best I could hope for if I got sixty seconds on his voicemail would be to tell him about some of my lesbian and gay friends - many of whom share his faith - and all of whom want the same things out of life he wants:  to be treated fairly, to have a chance to raise a family, to be looked at without harsh judgment, and to not be told they are excluded from freedom or a shot at whatever they define as salvation.  Doesn't sound like too much to ask, but there always seem to be a group of people bent on denying others these opportunities.  It's usually the same group of people.

How this fella is gonna get to the other shore across a River Styx of his own making is beyond me.  My job is to get myself there by not giving into the baser emotions I feel about him and others like him.  I can't fix him.  I can only make me a little better by recognizing his bile as baggage, his hubris as suffering.

People like this make the journey difficult.  But they're out there.  And how we handle them can change the entire spiritual landscape.  If not for them, at least for ourselves.  But it ain't easy.

No one said it would be easy.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Zen Toon: Our True Selves

Today's Zen Toon addresses something I've been struggling to come to terms with at the newly minted age of 45.  I could let it slide up until I hit this number, but there's something about inescapably being in the midrange of your forties that forces you to look at some things:

*I'm closer to official retirement age than I am out-of-college age.
*That bald spot is getting bigger, and Rogaine is my unapologetic friend.
*Running a half-marathon five years ago was perhaps the mountaintop in my rear view mirror in terms of my running game.
*I get to work twice as hard to stay half as fit.
*Things hurt for no better reason than "I slept wrong".
*My parents are turning 88 and 87 this year, and the prospect of that scares me.
*Small fits of insomnia are creeping in for the first time.
*I've been at the same job for 20+ years now.  Am I staying put?  Is there even an option?
*I've pretty much become the person I'm going to be.  Or at least I think so.

Yet, it's climbing the daily mountain to face these things - the realities, the disappointments, the fears, and yes, the subtle joys and surprising subplots - that make it all ok.

The guy in the yin-yang shirt probably hoped to find someone else when he got to that high spot in the Tibetan mountains:  someone more carefree, someone less buttoned down, someone who wasn't shrouded in the chains of conformity, yet, there he is.  Briefcase, tie, coffee.  Check, check, check.

I was on an acting gig in Chicago a couple of years ago and - for the first time, really - asked myself 'what if?'  What if I had followed that urge in my mid-twenties to find an apartment there, knock on the door of Second City until they let me in, and devoted myself to being a single, carefree actor in pursuit of a high profile career?  Well, my first mistake was thinking 'carefree'.  I don't know any carefree actors.  Hell, they're all in therapy and debt.  They're happy, good people, but that tightrope walk wasn't for me.  I lacked the moxie at 24 years old.  I lacked the verve and the chops.  It would have ended like an improvised version of "Midnight Cowboy", I'm afraid.  And, sadly, that's how Second City alumni Tina Fey missed out on the chance to become Mrs. Tommy Housworth.

Then, as I walked down the endless Chicago avenues, I realized what that guy at the top of the Tibetan mountains really looked like:  a dad, a husband, a writer, a little league coach, a sort-of runner, a son finally figuring out how to relate to his parents, a slightly balding dopey looking dude who was completely and utterly content with what he'd found on his search, foibles and all.

The climb up the mountain is an important one and one we all must take.  But when we get there and take a close look, it's our job to be very accepting of who we find.  There may be things we want to change or enhance, but the fact is, the climber and the 'true self' are the same person.  That wanderer in the yin-yang shirt and the five o'clock shadow reads Kerouac, goes on a daily spiritual quest, has youthful ideals and dreams he's determined to finish before dawn, and still rages against the machine in his own respectful manner.  And you know what?  So does the dude in the suit.

We are both, the seeker and the sought.

Put 'em together and you've got True Self.

Put 'em together and you've got you.




Tuesday, May 22, 2012

That's Funny...You Don't LOOK Buddhist!

I've hesitated before posting this article more than once, but I thought it would be a good idea just to have here as a point of reference for folks who may wonder what the hell I'm thinking and why I found myself led down this path.

It started formally in 1997, so this isn't a new phase or anything - it's just a final decision to embrace what I've been quietly and not-so-quietly trying to practice for years.  But it's puzzling to anyone who knew me as the Youth President of a prominent Southern Baptist Church, or the student at the fancy Southern Baptist College.  Heck, I've never even broached this with my own family for fear of the dominoes it would set into motion.

To be clear, the link below is NOT about why Buddhism is better than anything else.  The headline is meant in total jest, but the writer gets a lot of things right, in terms of what appeals to me and what has drawn me to this philosophy (not religion, but philosophy) for the past fifteen years.

If you're interested, here's the link:
10 Reasons why Buddhism is Better than your Religion.

If not, by all means, move on happily.

I love writing about it, but I am not here to convert or influence anyone.  This blog is not about trying to get people to become Buddhists, join Fitwit, run barefoot, or eat more leafy green vegetables.  I'm just a guy who loves to write and writes about what he knows, what he might sorta know, or the things he wants to know more about, using this space as a playground for that exploration.

If any of it reeks of platitude or preachiness, please know that's never the intent.  Am I gonna take swings at Hardee's and Pat Robertson?  You betcha.  That's like walking past a piƱata the size of a Buick and not going for the candy.  But I try to keep my sense of humor and open-mindedness, while keeping the judgmental tone in check.  When I falter, I am sorry, but there's as much as an attempt here to be a satirist as there is any kind of pseudo-sage.

So, with that, I leave you with Waylon Lewis' "10 Reasons Why Buddhism is (NOT) Better than your Religion".  Because it's not.  But I'm glad to have found it - and somehow keep coming back to it.  If you wonder why, here's a fun way to learn more without having to go to the library and figure out how to spell "Thich Nhat Hahn" on the computerized catalogue.

Namaste, y'all.

Zen Toon: That Thing You Do

I love today's 'toon because it's a reminder that we've all got 'our thing'.  Whatever it is:  addiction, proclivity, hang-up, habit, annoyance, fetish, foible, or fixation.

It's sorta like writer and poet Mary Karr once said, "A dysfunctional family is any family with more than one person in it."  It's our nature.  We're dysfunctional.  Some people take pills for it.  Some people pray.  Some meditate.  Some put all the discarded dots of paper from the hole puncher into perfectly stacked groups of twelve in a drawer to maintain order.  Not that there's anything wrong with that...

Normalcy is, to some extent, abnormal.  The world may know our neuroses or tendencies, or it may be our own little secret, but it's there, and how we deal with it says a lot about who we are.  Some people keep depression at bay, others battle anxiety with the fortitude of Gallahad.  Some stare at the ceiling at night, wrought with worry, others can't stop sleeping from the enormous gravity of it all.  Some obsess over money or sex, others over health or loss.  And addictions.  Oh my, there's one for every conceivable want in the world, and a seemingly endless supply to feed the collective monkeys on our sentient spines.  The world is our Wal-Mart and we've got what we mistake for unlimited karmic credit.

Perhaps even harder than coping with whatever our own personal hang-ups are is having empathy for others when we don't know what their everlovin' deal is.  When I know a friend or family member is struggling with something, I try to cut them some slack.  But how do I behave with someone who is working a nerve or seemingly intentionally lighting a fuse when I don't know their circumstances?  Most of the time, I'm not so inclined to extend the same lovingkindness (bodhichitta) to them...until I think, "I have no idea what they're going through, but they are likely wrestling with something."  Even then, it ain't easy.  No one said it would be.

When I was in college - and this is a huge confession, so sit down and grab some furniture - I was addicted to..."The Young and the Restless".    Aside from the considerable baggage that comes with that, one of my big frustrations was how characters would have some big secret (I'm dying, I'm struggling, etc) and keep this noble silence about it.  I would find myself yelling at the TV, "Nikki!  Just tell Victor you've got a tumor!  It'll change EVERYTHING!  Damn, girlfriend."  Plot lines and problems that could be resolved in minutes were dragged out for months because people were too proud to beg, or share, or simply be.

I later joined a "Real Men Don't Watch Soap Operas" 12-step program and I am proud to say I'm 24 years sober.

But I did learn there are some people who are like these characters in real life.  They don't wear their hearts and their battle scars on their sleeves, but you've got to assume they've got them.  No one gets through this life without them and if they do, well, that's a thing to pity and have empathy for as well.  The woman in this cartoon is obviously not going to have a lot of company, after all.

Insecurities abound, and uncertainties rattle our ribcages until we can't land on just one thing to obsess over.  The world makes sure we've got plenty to keep on our minds.  If your own personal windstorms don't assure that, just turn on a 24 hour news network.  They'll remedy that whole 'peace of mind' thing you've got going in a News Flash Minute.  It's no wonder we're overstimulated and overmedicated.
It's telling that now, when I meet someone who seems like they are even keel and at peace, I don't ask myself how they stay centered, I think, "I wonder what meds they're on."

So, just remember, you're not alone in your quirkiness, your lostness, your what-the-hellness.  Whether you're 12 stepping or one breath at a timing it, white-knuckling it or whitewashing it, perhaps the best thing to do is accept that you're a vulnerable messy number in the very human equation of this world, and that is incredibly beautiful and fragile and fun.

Chris from "Northern Exposure" said it best, so I'll let him:

There's a dark side to each and every human soul. We wish we were Obi-Wan Kenobi, and for the most part we are, but there's a little Darth Vader in all of us. Thing is, this ain't no either-or proposition. We're talking about dialectics, the good and the bad merging into us. You can run but you can't hide. My experience? Face the darkness. Stare it down. Own it. As brother Nietzsche said, being human is a complicated gig. So give that ol' dark night of the soul a hug. Howl the eternal yes! 




Monday, May 21, 2012

Emptying the Trash

Today's Zen Toon is a reminder as to why I should meditate every day.  It has as much to do with the practicality of life as it does with any spiritual practice.

See all that stuff pouring out of this dude's head?  Banana peels and soup cans and fishbones?  I'm toting around bags of that stuff.

While I am still hit or miss with my decision to sit everyday, come what may, what has changed for me is how I look at the practice itself.  I usually greeted the cushion with one of the following mindsets:

1)  Look at me.  I'm meditating.  Yep.  I'm pretty cool.  Got my shit togetha!

2)  Aw, crap.  I can't focus at all.  I don't just have a monkey mind.  I have a monkey jumping on the backs of wild horses in the middle of a stampede mind.  I suck.

3)  Squirrel!

I am pleased to say that I have - at least for the moment - made progress with these trappings.  It's been a long road to let go of some of the ego that makes me want to make myself feel important for meditating, or make myself feel rotten for not doing it well.

Ego - in Buddhist circles - is not necessarily thinking too much OF yourself, but rather thinking too much ABOUT yourself.  It's not conceit as much as self-absorption.  Too much looking in the rear view mirror - for beauty or imperfections - and you miss a lot of lovely scenery...and you just may well run off the road.

The lesson I've finally come around to, after years of on-and-off practice, is that anything you grasp is holding you back:  pride, judgment, mental inventory, guilt.

Sitting is just sitting.  You have a thought, you label the thought, you let it go and you go back to the breath, which is just a methodology for keeping the clutter out and being simply present.

So now, when I sit, I don't try to stop the floodgate of thoughts, and God knows I don't try to analyze them, because that would be messier than asking a 3rd grader to explain Joyce's "Ulysses".

Here, for example, is where my head went just yesterday during a brief part of my AM sitting at the Shambhala Center:

"Breathing in, I am aware I am breathing in.  Breathing out, I am aware I am breathing out.  Breathing in, I am a...did someone just come in and sit right behind me?  I wonder if I know them.  Don't look.   Doesn't matter.  But they are right behind me, and I'm sitting on my knees.  That means they have to sit with my bare feet right in front of them.  Sorry.  Oh well, their choice.  Plenty of places to sit.   I should go to Kroger on the way home, we need lettuce.  Not romaine, but iceberg.  Or maybe the Farmer's Market, but not on Sunday, I mean geez.  But their pimento cheese is so dang good.  We need more of that, too. But that place is nuts on the weekend.  Weekend...week...week.  What do I need to do this week?  I've got speeches to write, and a conference call with Blue Cross tomorrow...did I put that on my calendar?  Calendar...we've only got a short time before vacation and we've got so much to get done.  I really like "Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat".  How did I miss that Dylan song all these years?   Why do people say he can't sing?   His voice is really well suited to his music.  Not saying he's Pavarotti or anything, but...I should tell Grady the Braves held on to first place.  And he's got a game today.  What time do I need to get him to the park?  Aw, shit.  Meditate, dude.  Breathing in, I am aware I am breathing in..."

That's a stream of consciousness mess that would've made Spalding Gray gasp for air.  But here's the difference.  I used to think any meditation session that included that kind of mental meandering was a disaster.  Now I see it as real progress.  Some days you sit and have the kind of clarity and focus that perhaps opens a door or two.  Other days, you're simply emptying the trash.  But given how much trash clutters up our minds - mine, at least - that's all one needs to ask of the experience.  The more you do it, the sooner you are able to lasso those wild horses and rein them in again.

For me, it's meditation.  For you, it might be prayer, running, knocking the ever-lovin' crap out of a punching bag, or just a stroll through a nature preserve.  We all have our way of clearing our minds - we just have to commit to it.

Whatever empties the trash.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Today's Zen Toon: Learning to Suck (It Up)

I was in the middle of a moment of what felt like real frustration yesterday.  You should know that I and yard work don't get along very well.  Well, outdoor manual labor and myself have a very tenuous relationship, but yard work in particular is something that shortens my fuse, it seems.  I'm not very thorough, and when I hit an impasse, I often think, "Hell, that's good enough" and leave a project half-done.  If the devil is in the details, he and I are likely never going to cross paths while I have garden gloves on.

Yesterday, it was pulling up a buried tarp we'd laid down underneath the kids' now long gone swing set.  The tarp was weighted down by layers of sand, soil, and straw, and I wanted it up as easily as it went down some ten years ago.  Illogical, but there you have it - life should be easy, right?

Nah, not in the stark naked reality of things.

Here's the extra bit of special sauce in this glass of whine:

I was listening to an audiobook while I was working.  It's called "Dharma Road" by Brian Haycock.  The guy is a cab driver in Austin, TX, and he has written a book that turns the teachings of the Buddha into metaphorical experiences that relate to his journey on the road as a taxi driver.  It's quite entertaining, and a great new perspective on the Eightfold Path (or as he calls it, The Eightfold Highway).

While I was cursing at the hardened soil, and the endless layers of muck that were causing me to have to alternate between rake, hoe, and spade in an unrelenting pattern, he was talking about complaining.  About how easy it is to fall into thinking our lives are so hard.  He was having a rough night - few riders, low fares, and shitty tips.  But as he drove through a neighborhood, he saw homeless people, and reminded himself he had a cab to drive, a home to go to, and - even though he has to work 80 hours a week - the means to buy the next roast beef sub.  Then he went to the next layer of appreciation:  gratitude for being born in America, when he could've easily arrived on this earth in Darfur or Baghdad.

I got it.  I knew it already, heard it a million times - "I once complained because I had no shoes until I met the man..." - yep.  Nothing new, just simple and true.

It was about that time that I turned a corner on my work.  I was able to pull a sizable amount of tarp out from beneath the bed of dirt and sand.  Once it broke free, other parts freed up more easily.  I still had hours of cleanup ahead of me, but my perspective changed.  This wasn't so hard after all.  Certainly not worth the energy it took to stifle curse words from neighbors and my 11 year old son playing nearby.

A few years ago, I tried an experiment.  There was a book called "A Complaint Free World".  It came w/ a little purple bracelet that you switched from wrist to wrist whenever you caught yourself complaining.  The goal, of course, was to go a week, and eventually a month, without complaining and see how it affected your life and the lives of those around you.  I did pretty well, but abandoned it when things got frustrating, much like I often do with yard work.

I would say that, even though most of us see ourselves as pretty positive folks, we can chalk up 20-30% or more of our daily conversation as complaining.  Complaining about our circumstances, about the behavior and opinions of others, or about the world at large.  Believe me, if you look around, there's plenty to bitch about.  But it does us little good. It just feeds upon itself until we make ourselves and those within earshot pretty miserable.

The solution, of course, is two-fold:  Bark less and wag more, as the dog loving bumper sticker says.  Verbalize our complaints less often and show that much more gratitude when we do choose to speak.  Buddhists call it "right speech".  Americans call it "Suck it up".   Either term is applicable.  Life comes with its fair share of "unfair".  How we handle our daily doses help determine who we are.

"I complained because I had no shoes, until I realized the ground beneath my feet felt pretty good.  So then I shut up about it."

Apparently, the Dharma Road is filled with detours into pine straw, sand, and dirt.  But if we have the patience to dig it out, the journey continues.

Dear Pat (An Open Letter to Rev. Robertson)

Dear Pat,

Recently, you advised a viewer to destroy a friend's Buddha statue which she keeps in her home, alongside many idols that symbolize her Christian faith.  Presumably, you feel the presence of the Buddha statue somehow makes an otherwise holy altar somewhat less than, so she has a right to take her friend's property, shatter it and, likely, the friendship as well.

But that's a presumption.  I don't know your real intention with your recommendation, any more than I know your true intentions behind such previous statements as these:

"Just like what Nazi Germany did to the Jews, so liberal America is now doing to the evangelical Christians. It's no different. It is the same thing. It is happening all over again.  More terrible than anything suffered by any minority in history."

"A condition like this will bring about the destruction of your nation. It'll bring about terrorist bombs; it'll bring earthquakes, tornadoes, and possibly a meteor." –Pat Robertson, on "gay days" at Disneyworld

"(T)he feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians."

"I'd like to say to the good citizens of Dover: If there is a disaster in your area, don't turn to God, you just rejected him from your city. And don't wonder why he hasn't helped you when problems begin, if they begin. I'm not saying they will, but if they do, just remember, you just voted God out of your city. And if that's the case, don't ask for his help because he might not be there." --Pat Robertson, after the city of Dover, Pennsylvania voted to boot the current school board, which instituted an intelligent design policy

"It may be a blessing in disguise. ... Haitians were originally under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon the third, or whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, we will serve you if you will get us free from the French. True story. And so, the devil said, okay it's a deal. Ever since they have been cursed by one thing after the other." –Pat Robertson, on the earthquake in Haiti that destroyed the capital and killed tens of thousands of people, Jan. 13, 2010

I thought it best to print your actual quotes so nothing could be taken out of context.  Remaining non-judgmental here isn't easy.  There are a number of things you say in the above statements that make me want to scream or take you to task.  But, I'm not sure that will do any good, for you or for me.

Instead, I'll simply speak to you about this most current comment, perhaps the most banal one to address, given the ramifications of the ones above.  But, let's start with baby steps.

The Christian faith is not at war with Buddhism, or any other faith or non-faith for that matter.

Buddhism is a belief system, a philosophy, actually.  It does not have a god as part of its dogma.  The Buddha was a human being who lived and died, who sinned, who walked the earth trying to figure out how to make his and others' lives better.  No one who has a Buddha statue, or bows to a Buddha figure, is worshipping it, if they have any understanding at all about Buddhist teachings.  It's simply a sign of respect and a way to acknowledge gratitude - not necessarily to the Buddha as a man, but to the teachings as a pathway toward being a better person.  Many Christians have a great respect for Buddhist teachings, as well as Islamic, Hindu and Jewish sacred teachings and texts.  I know you don't, as you've indicated that even those within the Christian faith - Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians, etc, are evil by nature.  Here was what you said, precisely:

" You say you're supposed to be nice to the Episcopalians and the Presbyterians and the Methodists and this, that, and the other thing. Nonsense. I don't have to be nice to the spirit of the Antichrist. I can love the people who hold false opinions but I don't have to be nice to them." 

My guess is you're not crazy about Catholics either, so your definition of "Christian denomination" is a pretty limited one, apparently.  

I am truly sorry your view of God comes from such an angry, divisive place.  I don't begin to assume I know the mind of God - or even the nature of God - so I can't carry the swagger and assuredness you seem to have.  On one level, it must be nice, knowing you are right and others are wrong.  Well, perhaps nice isn't the word, but it certainly makes one feel...superior.  What I am not sure about is how much good you are doing your own cause.  

I know a lot of people - myself included - who wrestle with their faith because of the way leaders such as yourself take the teachings of Christ, interpret them into something myopic and misanthropic, and then tell us your view is the only view.  It makes me think that following your prescription of faith won't make me a kinder or more Christlike person, just one that pities everyone who isn't as enlightened as myself.

Now, I'm not one to talk about enlightenment, because I am a long way from it.  Perhaps further than you are.  Who can say?  I'm not even a very good Buddhist.  I don't believe in reincarnation, I don't meditate every day, and I have more "attachments" than a vacuum cleaner outlet store.  But I do remember all the things I learned from the Bible and Buddhist teachings over the past four-plus decades.  And you know what?  They say a lot of the same things.  

One thing I would imagine that Jesus and Buddha would agree on is that breaking that statue does little to resolve any religious heresy, but it will do plenty to splinter the faith of the woman who had her statue broken.  Faith in someone she trusted, and faith in a religion that she assumed would accommodate her appreciation for something outside her principle beliefs.  Destroying a statue won't save a soul, but destroying someone's faith and trust could lose one.  

But then, I don't truly know what Jesus or Buddha would say.

And neither do you. 

And that's my point.

Please stop.  

You'll suffer less, and those that are influenced by your teachings will suffer less as well.  I know you want us all to go to heaven (you do, don't you?  That's the idea, right?).  But your heaven seems inaccessible, like a very exclusive country club, rather than something closer to earth, something we can all hopefully create here before going there.  


Saturday, May 19, 2012

Be Here Now...Right After This Text.

Today's Zen Toon reflects what I think is a bigger challenge than many of us realize.  It's the gadgetry that has come to envelop us as a society.

Recently, I took Facebook off of my I-Phone in an effort to try to stop my incessant reaching for the device to see 'what's up'.  It turns out, after a couple of weeks without it, "what's up" includes such things as hawks flying overhead, the smell of gardenias, kids playing in a creek at the ball field, an amazing play at second base by an eleven year old, a pair of barefoot joggers (I'm not alone!), an "I'd Rather Be Reading Kerouac" bumpersticker that made me smile, a crane and a goose flying over Medlock Park, a sky tinted in a shade of red that no painter has ever captured.

Pretty cool stuff.

Then, last week during my daughter's softball game, I got restless.  I needed...apps!  The phone was like a syringe in a junkie's coat pocket.  Hit me up, Steve Jobs!  Fill my veins with distractible smack!  My compromise was to download an app of Dalai Lama quotes and a full-scale app that offers a spectrum of teachings on Buddhism - it's like a little 100 page book in an app.

My hope was that at least if I felt compelled to distract myself, I could do so with something that would keep me on my path of pursuing the present moment instead of veering off of it.   However, even this thinking is rife with flaws.   I sorta opted for the most positive distraction I could, but it's still distraction.  It's still choosing the ringtone of "one hand clapping" when you don't need the ringer at all.  Because there's nothing that can appear on that screen that is any more a life lesson than the crane or the hawk, or the kids in the creek, or a perfectly fielded one-hopper to second and a sky so crimson it has you hunting for God's paintbrush in the background.

There's an old Buddhist fable about a vain woman who decides she 'has it all', except enlightenment.  So, she asks the town elders where to go to find it.  They send her up a tall, treacherous mountain to a cave, where she sees a beautiful woman frocked in white.  She falls at her feet and says, "I'm here to gain enlightenment".  The woman replies, "Are you sure you want it?"   She answers, "Yes".   The beautiful woman turns into a demon with a huge stick and begins chasing her yelling, "Now!  Now!  Now!  Now!"  The tale goes that the woman never escapes this demon at her heels yelling that one simple word:  Now.

Unplugging is such a hard thing to do.  I try, I make it a while, and then I stumble.  But it's not an all or nothing proposition.  It's not the drink you can no longer have. It's just a process.  A little less convolution, a little more presence please.

Eventually, I'll get there.  It's hardly a journey worthy of an exiled trek out of Tibet or months in a Zendo on silent retreat, but it's a start for this fickle ol' monkey mind.  And when the phone on my hip vibrates to let me know Facebook misses me, I'll be too lost - or perhaps too found - in the moment to give it much thought.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Robertson: Destroy Your Friend's Buddha Statue

Note to Self:  Be sure to hide all my Buddha statues and books before having Pat over this weekend for tapas and Bananagrams.

Thursday, May 17, 2012


I've collected a number of what I'm calling "Zen Toons" from the internet this year, and I thought it would be fun to share them, along w/ a touch of personal insight.

I start with this one, not only because it makes me laugh, but because I also had to look in the mirror on this one a bit.

There are days - most of them - when I feel far from 'one with the universe', so I get a little excited when I've managed to sit at the Shambhala Center for two whole rounds of sitting (roughly an hour), or have kept a regiment of home meditation for more than a few days.  But, then I quickly get knocked off my little throne of faux-enlightenment by being reminded that the real challenge in being present doesn't happen on the cushion, it happens at my desk, in the house, and on the streets.  It's talking to my kids at the red light instead of checking my emails on my phone.  It's continuing to write that story instead of surfing over to Twitter for the instant gratification of a clever post.  It's acting with intention rather than via distraction.

It's a hard road, and I would imagine, while those who came before us had things that knocked them off of the path of consistent awareness, we as a society have managed to really raise the bar on ways to remove ourselves from the here and now.

So, perhaps we all deserve a little inner Ka-Ching! when we actually do realize we've managed to navigate our way past the many gadgets and mediums that nibble away at our mindfulness.  But don't live in that dharmic glory for more than a moment.  Like all thoughts, acknowledge it and let it go.  Because there's another moment to live fully coming right after that.  And we need everyone we can get.