Posts Tagged ‘meditation’

Being Jewish

Monday, November 20th, 2017

Goody jpeg

Goody photo by Todd

“The writer of any work, and particularly a nonfiction work, must decide two crucial points: what to put in and what to leave out.” Annie Dillard

My therapist asked me if I would be willing to let go of the concept of good and bad. I suppose good and bad might be two concepts, but since we can’t have one without the other, I’ll go with good and bad being a duality. I told my therapist I was certainly willing to try to let go of the concept of good and bad, and for the last week I have been hyper-conscious of my use of those two words, as well as my virtually reflexive good/bad judgments about events and things and people, including little old me.

As an editor of my own work and the works of others, and as one who has endeavored to help many people with their writing, I would say the one word that writers use most profusely and to the detriment of their writing is it. Indeed, if you want to improve your writing in almost no time, take a recent page of something you’ve written and circle all the its and replace them with words the its are standing in for. I think you will be pleased by how much more interesting and informative your prose becomes.

I bring up it because, though I’ve long known and suggested to other writers that using words such as bad and good in our writing is almost always less effective than using more incisively descriptive words, I now realize that in my thinking and feeling and talking, I constantly use bad and good instead of saying and feeling and thinking what I more deeply feel and think.

So ever since my therapist asked me if I was willing to let go of the concept of good and bad, whenever the words bad and good come up in my speech and thoughts, I replace them with words that come closer to expressing the feelings I was trying to express with those more general words.

For instance, this morning I had an email from someone in Los Angeles who was curious to know why my book Buddha In A Teacup is not readily available in libraries in Los Angeles. I did some checking and found my correspondent was correct: Buddha In A Teacup is a non-presence in most Los Angeles libraries. I did some further checking and found that Buddha In A Teacup is only available in a few libraries scattered across America.

My initial reaction to this information was This is bad. But because I am retraining my brain/mind/spirit to replace bad with more incisively descriptive terms, I came up with, “The absence of Buddha In A Teacup in thousands of libraries across America made me sad for a moment, but the absence of the book in libraries isn’t bad or good. The absence of my book in libraries is in the nature of things at this moment in time.”

“There are two kinds of comedy. One involves putting people down, having fun at their expense. The other recognizes that each of our lives is equally absurd.” Donald Montwill

For reasons I can’t readily explain, letting go of the concept of good and bad seems to be making me more comfortable with being Jewish. As I explained in my last two articles, my recent return to therapy after a thirty-year hiatus has prompted me to delve into and accept that I am Jewish despite not knowing my mother and her ancestors were Jewish until I was twelve, and despite not knowing until I was forty that my mother’s lifelong pretense of not being Jewish profoundly shaped my self-identity.

This delving into being Jewish has prompted me to write articles about my discoveries and share those articles with you. Writing and posting these articles has been exciting and scary and funny and fascinating. I’ve had several responses from other people who did not learn they were Jewish until they were adults, and I’ve had responses from people who have always known they were Jewish who told me, in so many words, “So what else is new?”

And now that I am retraining my brain to replace good and bad with more specific descriptors, I have, on several occasions, found myself being Jewish, which is unlike any feeling I’ve ever had before. Being Jewish, in the way I’m being Jewish, is so deeply satisfying I’m tempted to say the experience is reminiscent of satisfying sex, but that would be misleading so I will resist the temptation.

What do I mean by finding myself being Jewish? Here’s a for instance. (By the way, the preceding sentence fragment feels ultra-Jewish to me, at least the way I hear myself saying Here’s a for instance.) I’m having a conversation with Marcia about the menu for our upcoming vegetarian Thanksgiving supper with Bill and Sally and Sal. As Marcia and I converse, I’m aware of a subtle shift in my accent and the enhanced ease with which words are coming out of my mouth. This shift is so subtle, I don’t think Marcia realizes, as I am realizing, that I am being Jewish. What’s more, I can feel that as I am being Jewish, I am wonderfully relaxed and, dare I say, more sure of myself. Yes, I dare say I hear a confidence, an ease of expression, and a different grammar defining my speech—a Jewish grammar accompanied by a slight Jewish accent and a full-body enjoyment of being Jewish.

What is Jewish grammar? You’re asking me?

Dan Siegel, a psychiatrist who is a pioneer in the field of neurobiology, frequently talks and writes about how the words we repeatedly use/think to describe ourselves to ourselves and to other people, create templates in our brains that dictate many of our subsequent thoughts and feelings and beliefs. In other words, if I tell myself “I’m a terrible singer” a hundred times a day for ten years, I will probably not pursue a singing career. Oh I might pursue such a career, but chances are better I will become an electrician or the owner of a hat shop.

Who knew that letting go of the concept of good and bad would result in my having several enjoyable experiences of being Jewish? Maybe my therapist knew.

Until now, I haven’t told anyone about these “Jewish moments” because part of the fun is feeling Jewish without making a big deal out of being who I am. Which reminds me of something numerous Buddhist teachers have said about meditation, and I will paraphrase what they said using what might be called Jewish paragraph construction, if there can possibly be such a thing.

So you meditate for twenty minutes every day for several years and you sometimes wonder, “Is this daily meditating doing me any good? Might my time be better spent reading cookbooks or vacuuming?” And then one day you’re at the grocery store and some schmuck shoulders you out of the way and snatches the magnificent zucchini you were just about to get, but instead of saying or thinking, “What a schmuck!” you are hardly bothered at all and you send loving thoughts to the schmuck as he hurries away with the zucchini you wanted, and then you return your focus to the remaining zucchinis, and there, partially obscured by a somewhat battered zucchini, you find a zucchini every bit as firm and beautifully shaped as the zucchini the schmuck stole from you. And you are struck by the realization that meditating every day has helped you become more accepting and tolerant and unattached to outcome, and the schmuck ceases to be a schmuck and becomes a human being with a character disorder.

Whether meditation is doing you any good is another question entirely because the concept of good is a tricky one, just as the concept of being Jewish is a tricky one. What’s so wrong with things being a little tricky? Isn’t life, after all, a little tricky? And isn’t Jewish paragraph construction, if there is such a thing, characterized by questions that are in themselves also answers?

Wrong Thinking

Thursday, September 15th, 2011

Mr. Magician painting by Todd

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser September 2011)

“Taken out of context I must seem so strange.” Ani DiFranco

One of my Anthropology professors was Nigerian, his people Yoruba. An exceptional student as a child, he was sent to school in England and eventually got his PhD from a prestigious American university. My professor married an African American woman, with whom he had two children, and when those children were five and three-years-old, he and his wife took the kids to Nigeria so they could get to know their paternal grandparents and the huge extended family that was my professor’s clan. After a few days in Nigeria, my professor was summoned to a meeting of the male elders of his clan who severely chastised him for not taking a second and third wife to produce more sons.

“You are a very rich man,” said his father, with twenty other men nodding in agreement. “You are richer than any of us, yet you shame your parents and your clan by not taking more wives. Why are you doing this?”

The professor explained to his outraged father and uncles and cousins that in America it was the law that a man may only have one wife. The Yoruba men were disgusted to hear this and shouted many insults at my professor, the gist of their insults being that wealthy American men who take only one wife are weak and impotent and effeminate and crazy.

“Fortunately this is not the law among our people,” said my professor’s father, “so we will find two more wives for you and you will keep them here and get children with them. You will send money from America and your wives will make a fine household for you here. You will come home for a time each year and get many children. And when you have finished your work in America you will live here with your wives and their children as you should.”

My professor said that he and his wife decided to cut their visit short in order to avoid the marriages being arranged for him. “You see,” he explained, chuckling, “my wife is liberated and will not share me with other women.”

“Context and memory play powerful roles in all the truly great meals in one’s life.” Anthony Bourdain

If you have never, or not in a long time, read the forty-eight-page novella Babette’s Feast by Isak Dinesen, I highly recommend the tale as a thought provoking inquiry into context, memory, and truly great meals. An excellent film version of Babette’s Feast was made in Denmark in 1987 and is remarkably faithful to the original story, so whether you spend an hour and a half watching the movie or an hour reading the story, or both, you will see what I mean about thought provoking. Along with Dinesen’s exquisite prose, what I love most about Babette’s Feast are the myriad ways in which concepts of right and wrong are revealed to be little more than the passing fancies of context, memory, and truly great meals.

“SCORN FOR JOBLESS ON RISE: unemployed face compassion fatigue as economy remains flat” front page headline and sub-headline, Santa Rosa Press Democrat September 4, 2011

The article that follows those scurrilous sentence fragments is a lengthy piece of cruel propaganda quoting various wealthy politicos from around the country who are growing impatient and angry with tens of millions of unemployed people who lost their jobs and houses and savings due to the criminal activities of banks and investment firms expedited by wealthy politicos from around the country. Published with no indication it was intended as satire, the article emphatically suggests that people receiving unemployment benefits are “leeching off the system.”

“I don’t feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from them. There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.” John Wayne

I thought it would be wrong to attribute that quote to John Wayne until I checked multiple reliable sources to make sure he really did say such a thing.

“She’s the kind of girl who climbed the ladder of success wrong by wrong.” Mae West

When I was eight-years-old I saw the movie The Horse’s Mouth, starring Alec Guinness, after which I knew what I wanted to be: a writer, director, and star of movies about strange and marvelous people. I have subsequently seen The Horse’s Mouth many times, and the movie remains a marvel to me.

My mother grew up in close proximity to Hollywood and her mother’s best friend was the wife of a famous movie director. My mother was a Drama major at UCLA before giving up her theatrical ambitions to attend law school, pass the bar, and postpone practicing law for twenty-five years while she raised four children. For reasons I never fully understood, my mother felt it necessary to try to burst my movie career bubble every chance she got, and her primary means of doing so was to cast terrible aspersions on anyone in the movie business I dared reveal my admiration for.

According to my mother, all successful female stars of stage and screen, without exception, succeeded not through their talents as thespians, but through sexual escapades with people of wealth and power; and all successful male stars were either promiscuous homosexuals or unscrupulous bisexuals. According to my mother, all but a very few successful actors of both sexes were alcoholics, and many were drug addicts. She never revealed where she got her information about the stars of stage and screen, and since she did not read gossip magazines or watch television, the implication of her fierce certainty was that she had firsthand knowledge of these immoral people. But how, I wondered, did she come by such knowledge unless, while I was at school, she spent hours on the phone with operatives in Hollywood and Manhattan?

I remember one evening in particular when I was fifteen and had recently won a small part in a school play—my first step, I hoped, on the road to fame and fortune, and my mother, fortified with several martinis, was excoriating yet another of my favorite stars with a history of sexual depravity and opportunistic backstabbing.

“Oh, come on,” I protested. “Are you saying that no movie star has ever succeeded because they were talented? They’re all whores and crooks? What about Fred Astaire? Ginger Rogers? Jimmy Stewart? Claudette Colbert. Alec Guinness? The Marx Brothers?”

“Ha!” she said bitterly. “Little do you know.”

“We made too many wrong mistakes.” Yogi Berra

On September 4, 2011, our beloved San Francisco Giants lost most ignobly to the Snakes, otherwise known as the Arizona Diamondbacks, and fell seven games out of first place with only twenty-two games left to play. We were poised to win that game, but then lost, and as we lost I felt in my bones, as opposed to in my brain, that we no longer had any hope of making the playoffs and returning to the World Series. I think we had good enough players to catch the Snakes, but not the right managers. I won’t say our managers are bad, for they are the same fellows who skippered our team to the World Series and won it all last year. But I do think they were the wrong managers this year because they were not creative or prescient, nor did they win the close games through guile and daring, all of which they were and did last year. Or so it seems. I could be wrong, but I don’t think so.

“Things are as they are. Looking out into it the universe at night, we make no comparisons between right and wrong stars, nor between well and badly arranged constellations.” Alan Watts

In 1970, in the hour before dawn, I climbed to the top of the monumental Pyramid of the Moon at Teotihuacán (near Mexico City) and made the acquaintance of four French travelers who had spent the night atop the pyramid. Our shared ambition was to watch the sun appear to rise out of the Pyramid of the Sun across the great plaza from us.

I write “appear to rise” in deference to Buckminster Fuller who cautioned us not to use expressions such as “the sun rising” or “the sun going down” because he felt such usage reinforced a wrong view of how our earth, in relation to our sun, actually operates. The earth spins us into light and spins us into darkness in relation to the sun; the sun does not rise or fall in relation to us. Bucky also pointed out that when humans first began to fly in airplanes, they spontaneously and accurately coined the expression “coming in for a landing,” rather than “coming down for a landing” because there is no up or down in space. Bucky fervently believed that the more truthfully we describe reality, the more successful we will be in developing a regenerative relationship with the earth and Universe.

So the sun appeared to rise out of the massive Pyramid of the Sun, the third largest human-made pyramid on earth, and the appearance was a stirring sight, indeed. Then, not long after the earth had spun us into sunlight, a tour bus arrived and shattered the quietude we had so enjoyed. The bus door opened and several dozen American tourists disembarked, their voices so loud and the acoustics of that amazing place such that we could hear the words they spoke a mile away. And the loudest voice came from a man reacting to the majestic Pyramid of the Sun. “That’s it?” he bellowed. “That one right there? What a let down. The ones in Egypt are so much bigger.”

“The pendulum of the mind alternates between sense and nonsense, not between right and wrong.” Carl Jung

There is a wonderful story about the current Dalai Lama visiting America for the first time several decades ago, before he was better acquainted with the American psyche. His Holiness was taking questions from a group of meditation teachers and their students when a man asked the Dalai Lama for advice about how to overcome low self-esteem because this man’s struggle with low self-esteem was seriously impeding his meditation practice.

The Dalai Lama had never heard of low self-esteem and was perplexed by the question. After someone explained to him what low self-esteem was, the Dalai Lama went around the room asking person after person, “Do you have this?” And when all the Americans admitted that to one degree or another they suffered from low self-esteem, the Dalai Lama proclaimed, “But this is wrong thinking. You must stop thinking this way.”

Psychic Leeches

Thursday, August 19th, 2010

“The truth is not ashamed of appearing contrived.” Isaac Bashevis Singer

The other night I caught the last twenty minutes of a spiritual talk show. My initial positive reaction to the guest speaker morphed into disaffection when I realized he was one of those guru types who believes he knows everything and nobody else has a clue. He also had zero detectable sense of humor, which always makes me wary, even when someone is talking about the collapse of the global ecosystem, which is what he was talking about, among other things. Then he said something about alien abductions and aliens invading earth disguised as humans in order to take over the planet and wipe out all the Homo sapiens because we’re destroying the earth and these beings from other planets want Earth intact because she’s such a rare and groovy planet in the vastness of space.

Alien takeovers are not my cup of tea, so I turned off the radio. I wanted to dismiss the guy as a wacko, but instead recalled a passage from Carlos Castaneda’s posthumously published book The Active Side of Infinity, which I recommend as a novel if you can’t buy it as a memoir, and who knows, maybe it is the truth. No matter. The passage I recalled was of Don Juan giving Castaneda a glimpse of a huge slug-like alien that had, indeed, invaded the earth and feeds on stress-induced human emotions, notably fear and sorrow and rage and anxiety.

And that reminded me of the Mayan shaman Martín Prechtel’s fabulous talk on Grief and Praise in which he says, and I paraphrase, that the spirits of the dead are nourished and vitalized by our tears. He means this in a positive way, for in the Mayan view we are in reciprocating relationships with the spirits, which is how multi-dimensional reality maintains its balance. Don Juan, on the other hand, assured Castaneda that these alien psychic leeches are definitely malo.

“It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious.” Oscar Wilde

I used to think a psychic leech drew energy from us and gave nothing good back. I thought psychic leeches were typically hysterics or dead beats or drama queens, depressed, selfish, greedy, and exhausting to be with. Little did I know.

Some twenty years ago I was invited to join a small meditation group. There were six others in the group when I became a member. We met every other week in our host’s commodious living room, a fire burning in the hearth. We sat on the floor in a circle and meditated for an hour, after which we shared thoughts that had arisen during the communal silence. And then we would have supper and socialize.

The group became extremely important to me; these twice-monthly meetings providing me with a rare few hours of sanity and calm in my otherwise insanely unsettled life. Occasionally someone would invite a guest for a time or two, and if this guest then wished to join the group as a permanent member we had to be approve them unanimously. Within six months of my joining, two members left us and two new members were added.

One of the original members, I will call him R, only attended every second or third gathering. I found when R was not present my experience in meditation was always noticeably deeper. Indeed, in his absence, I felt the group often shared a remarkably deep communion. By contrast, when R was there, though our experiences were not unpleasant, we plumbed no great depths.

On a cold November evening, I arrived to find that R was in attendance and had brought a guest. A friendly woman of fifty, D was, by her own admission, overjoyed to be with us. Eager to please, she had brought a lavish feast of sushi and teriyaki salmon to thank us for allowing her to attend.

We arranged ourselves in a circle, our host performed a brief welcoming ceremony as was his custom, and we settled into quiet. And I immediately felt as rotten as I have ever felt. I had never in my forty-some years had a headache, but now my head was throbbing, my bones were aching, and it was all I could do not to groan in despair. Was there a gas leak or something toxic burning in the fire? When neither proved to be the case, I reviewed my recent food intake for possible sources of food poisoning.

I opened my eyes. Everyone was sitting perfectly still. Was I the only one feeling so miserable? And though I had no logical reason for thinking D was the cause of my distress, I knew she was. Never mind that beatific smile on her face, I was certain she was making me violently ill. Yet despite this intuitive certainty, I insisted to myself that I must be experiencing what meditation teachers say every practitioner eventually experiences: the painful truth of egoistic suffering.

By the end of our meditation, I was a sweaty mess. During the sharing-our-thoughts phase I said nothing, nor did anyone else say much, save for D who gushed about this being the happiest night of her life, and R saying that D’s presence had decided him not to quit the group because he was finally happy with the group dynamic.

I found it impossible to stay for D’s feast and had to restrain myself from screaming bloody murder as I ran out the door. The cold air was a salve, and after a few minutes in the winter chill I laughed aloud at my stunning shift from misery to joy. Indeed, so enormous was my relief, I told myself my misery couldn’t have been caused by D and must have been caused by…me.

I went to bed that night a few hours earlier than was my habit and slept like a stone for fifteen hours. I woke in the early afternoon feeling totally discombobulated. Did I have the flu? That would explain why I felt so horrible during meditation. Yet I had no symptoms other than exhaustion. Oh, well, I told myself. These things happen, though they had never happened to me before.

D was at our next gathering, gushing about how happy she was to be in our circle, how this was her dream come true. And, yes, she’d brought another fabulous feast. We took our places in the circle. Within a few minutes my head began to throb and my bones to ache. So I jumped up, grabbed my coat, and ran out the door, murmuring, “Not feeling well.”

I was absolutely entirely totally freaked out. I was also sad, for now I would have to quit the group. I didn’t want to be the lone vote against D. The others seemed fine and chummy with her. Too bad for me. I’d had a good run. Don’t cry over spilled milk. Ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, babe. Etc.

The next morning, as I was rehearsing my resignation spiel, the host of our group called and invited me to go for coffee. We settled down in a cozy café and I was about to announce I was leaving the group, when he asked, “What do you think of D?”

“Um…I…she…”

“Made you sick,” he said, completing my thought. “Made everybody sick, except R.”

I was so relieved to learn I was not alone in my suffering I could have kissed the guy, only he wasn’t my type. “How does she do it?”

“She’s a psychic black hole.”

“A psychic black hole? You mean…”

“I’ve encountered a few others,” said my host, a seasoned psychotherapist, “though none so extreme as D. Seems impossible until you experience it. Friend of mine holds group therapy sessions at Esalen, and he says these kind of people are drawn there like flies to honey.”

“But what’s actually going on? I didn’t just feel drained, I felt invaded and poisoned. My bones ached and I was half-dead the next day.”

“That’s what’s going on,” he said, nodding. “The poison renders you defenseless so she can suck your life force. Or something like that. Defies belief, but it happened to you, right?”

To our collective relief, R was the only person who voted for D to become a permanent member. Terribly offended by our rejection of his friend, R quit in a huff, after which a year of marvelous communion ensued.

Two times in my life since then I have experienced what Ross Perot famously declared of Clinton’s NAFTA, “that giant sucking sound” as my life force was guzzled by beings who appeared on their surfaces to be regular old human folk. Do I believe psychic leeches are aliens? Well, that depends on your definition of alien. From another planet? I resist that idea. Surely we have all the ingredients for growing emotional vampires right here at home. Tibetan Buddhism refers to these beings as hungry ghosts. No matter how much they consume, their hunger can never be appeased. But why was R immune to D? Perhaps he and she were fellow aliens, or at least vultures of the same feather.

(This article originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser, August 2010. Todd’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com)

Ergo Ego

Thursday, July 8th, 2010

(This piece originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser July 2010)

One of my favorite stories about my ego takes place on my fortieth birthday, October 17, 1989. I am riding my bicycle down L Street in Sacramento on my way to a meeting, consumed by thoughts of how absurdly fast the years seem to be passing and how I’d better sell a book or a screenplay pronto or my wife will leave me and I’ll end up living in the bushes by the American River. Suddenly, just ahead of me, dozens of people pour out of a big office building onto the sidewalk, and the first thing that pops into my head is, “How did they know it’s my birthday?”

As I ride by the crowd of people, I wave to them and many wave back to me. I smile, and they smile back at me, and I feel marvelous. And so it continues, block after block, the people pouring out of buildings to greet me as I ride by. How wonderful! I can almost hear them singing Happy Birthday, when, in truth, a great earthquake is shaking northern California and collapsing bridges and roadways in San Francisco and Oakland, while my ego is deftly converting the catastrophe into a celebration of me.

A common misconception about Buddha is that he declared the ego a great enemy of enlightenment and a primary cause of suffering. I heard this proclaimed adamantly by several neophyte Buddhists before I began my own studies of cogent Buddhist dharma; and since I had been acculturated to believe that having a big ego was bad, that egotism per se was a scourge, and that the worst thing a person could possibly be was an egomaniac, I accepted this erroneous representation of Buddha’s take on the ego. Sadly, a number of well-known Buddhist and New Age teachers still promote the wholly unworkable notion that the ego should be battled and defeated, and, if possible, eradicated entirely. But if so, how would we order lunch?

The teachers I prefer, those who speak calmly from decades of study and serving others and practicing meditation, do not advocate trying to kill the ego, but suggest we will attain to greater happiness if we develop a clear understanding of what the ego is and what the ego isn’t; and so armed with this understanding we might live more consciously and harmoniously with our egoistic tendencies.

One gift of meditation practice is to slowly and surely become more familiar with, and less worried about, our mind chatter, that incessant broadcast of thoughts that sets the tone and cadence for our personal realities. We eventually experience a quieting of this mind chatter, though not by attempting to willfully shut the chatter off, but by bringing our attention to the chatter and discerning it to be meaningless mental noise and nothing substantive. Through meditation, otherwise known as sitting quietly with no other agenda but to sit quietly, we may allow the chatter to weaken and even cease so we may experience other kinds of perception and feeling.

The first many times I meditated, whether for five minutes or forty minutes or two hours, my mind chatter never let up and I despaired of ever experiencing a moment’s peace, let alone a noticeable step toward enlightenment. And then I learned from my readings of Pema Chödrön and Joseph Goldstein about Labeling. By naming this mental blabber, it would, indeed, dissipate for a time before being replaced by some other species of chatter.

For instance, during meditation I might find I am endlessly amending a grocery list mixed with thoughts of oil gushing in the Gulf of Mexico. Tiring of this redundancy, I say to myself “Thinking”, and by merely labeling these particular thoughts, I experience their dissolution into thoughts of a friend who is seriously ill. After hanging for a time with this new array of troubling thoughts, I label them “Worrying” and those thoughts fade away. And so on.

This mind chatter is not merely the sound of the ego, it is the ego. In Mark Epstein’s extremely helpful book Thoughts Without A Thinker, the title is both the fundamental Buddhist idea Epstein explores as well as the ultimate answer to myriad questions about who and what we are. Buddha, if I’m interpreting Epstein correctly, would have responded to the famous pronouncement by Descartes, “I think, therefore I am,” by suggesting gently and with no attachment to being right or wrong, “Thoughts compose an illusion of self you only think is thinking.”

Abstract stuff, to be sure, but useful if this reorientation helps us take ourselves less seriously, i.e. less egocentrically. There is a less abstract Buddhist insight which most thoughtful people eventually experience in their lives, whether Buddhist or Christian or Jane, and that insight goes something like this: each of us is totally unique and not a bit different than anyone else. Both true. Not just two sides of the same coin, but true simultaneously.

Another favorite story about my ego has recurred dozens of times in my life. This story has to do with the phases of creating a novel or a musical composition or any product of the imagination that may consume months or years of my life.

Phase One: Inspiration

I wake with, or am struck by, a vision of something I am absolutely certain is the greatest story/melody I (or anyone) has ever conceived of. This certainty is so strong, the voices of doubt in my subconscious are entirely drowned out by what I take to be the roar of an adoring universe, and I work in a state of ecstatic determination for hours or days or weeks until the tide recedes, and I am left with a rough draft or a rough song that, as I come to my so-called senses, I realize may not be any good at all. But there she is, born of my ego overwhelming what some might call a cooler head.

Phase Two: The Work

Once my initial sense of having discovered the holy grail of literature and/or music has departed, I understand that this imperfect thing must be greatly improved upon if I hope to capture even a fraction of the greatness of my original vision. More often than not, after a day or a week or a month of work, I admit to myself that I’ve been self-duped and it is a far far better thing to deep six the thing than keep beating a dead horse. Unless, for reasons never fathomable to my conscious mind, my ego has a big investment in my continuing the work, in which case flashbacks to the ecstatic conception recur again and again whenever my interest and certainty flag to the point of giving up the ship. These narcotic fumes from the original phantasmagoric overwhelm are parsed out by my ego to trick me into thinking another few thousand minutes of focused work will bring the shapely goddess in her full grandeur out of that lump of clay.

Nearing Completion: As my work on the book or music draws to a close, I am seized by the sense, often alarmingly visceral, that I might die before I finish, that all my work will have been for naught and my fabulous creation will never be born and never seen by others. This sense of extreme mortality has nothing to do with my age. I experienced the feeling of the nearness of my death when I was a teenaged playwright and I experience it today in late middle age whenever I am about to complete the writing of a book or the recording of an album of songs. Happily, I am not experiencing such pangs as I write this essay, though having just written that I now feel reluctant to get in a car until I’ve sent this off. But I digress.

What could possibly be the ego’s purpose in scaring me so profoundly as I near the end of a lengthy creative race, so to speak? Is it to obviate the ever-rising doubt that what I’ve created might be a pile of doo doo? Perhaps. But I think it is more to supply the momentum of urgency to surmount those final multitudinous obstacles to completion.

Delusions of Grandeur: Here at last is the completed work. My God, I did it! I captured that original vision in all her glory. Hallelujah. Now I must share her with the world. I will make copies and send them forth. So I do, fuelled by a revival of certainty that this thing is important and good and will be a boon to mankind and womankind for generations to come. Which certainty lasts just long enough for me to release the creation far enough away from me and in sufficient quantity so that when I wake with, or am struck by, a new and powerful certainty that my creation is deeply flawed, that I missed the mark, that I could have made her so much better and more beautiful if only I had…

The truth, thankfully, is that there is no mark to miss, only the ongoing process of endeavoring to make sense of these thoughts composing the ever-changing idea of moi. Or to put it in pidgin Latin: Cogito Ergo Ego.

Todd just completed his new CD 43 short Piano Improvisations and sent it off to be manufactured before his doubts could get the better of him.

Competitive Meditation

Thursday, October 22nd, 2009

What a silly idea, competitive meditation. Yet in America all things become competitive and hierarchical as reflections of the dominant operating system. Twenty years ago the notion of competitive yoga would have been just as absurd as competitive meditation, yet today yoga competitions are all the rage with big cash prizes for top asana performers ranked nationally. An asana is a particular yoga pose. Could league play be just around the corner?

The history of Buddhism, with meditation as its foundation, is a fascinating study in what happens to a non-hierarchical, non-competitive, crystal clear philosophy when it comes into contact with different societies, each with entrenched systems of social organization and religious dogma. Because Buddhism in its purest form is not a religion, it is easy to discern how in coming to China, Tibet, Japan, and now the United States, the original tenets of Buddhism have been deformed to fit the pre-existing religious or pseudo-religious structures.

Organized religions universally feature a head priest or priests, priest lieutenants, their favored adherents, the less favored, and so on down the steep slope of the pyramid. Trying to fit the fundamental Buddhist notion of the essential emptiness of reality into such a pyramidical structure is akin to building a complicated factory in order to produce nothing. Delusion, greed, arrogance, jealousy, all of which Buddha called enemies of enlightenment, are, ironically, the building blocks of organized Buddhism in America.

One of my favorite stories about Freud, not to change the subject, is that he said to his American cohorts on several occasions before his death, and I paraphrase, “Whatever you do, please don’t make being a medical doctor a prerequisite to being a psychiatrist.” He made this plea because many promising psychotherapists in Europe, among them Erik Erikson, were not medical doctors, and Freud didn’t want to preclude this valuable source of input to the field.

Sadly, the Americans did just what Freud feared they would do, and we suffer the consequences to this day. Why didn’t the Americans heed Freud’s advice? Because greed, arrogance, and most importantly the desire to control who gets into the exclusive club, won the day. People at the top of pyramids will do almost anything to stay there, and since there isn’t much room at the top, the maintenance of the ruling elite requires the ruthless exclusion of anyone or any idea that threatens the status quo.

Indeed, our government and our entire economic system reflect this basic tenet of organizations structured as steep-sided pyramids. Ironically, the collapse of such pyramids is inevitable because without new ideas and original personalities, these systems decay from the top down. This is why Jefferson suggested revolutions at regular intervals were essential to the continuing health of any large organization such as a nation.

The worship of celebrity, not to change the subject, is a hugely important aspect of the American psyche. Americans aspire to be celebrities, to associate with celebrities, and to know all about celebrities. I attribute this particular mania to our collective genetic memory of being subjects of kings and queens for the thousands of years when members of the royalty were the primary celebrities until the Industrial Revolution spawned a middle class. Regardless of how it came about, celebrities rule our psyches, individual and collective, and American Buddhism has become a celebrity-based system, too; a happenstance every bit as absurd as the notion of competitive meditation. Absurdity, however, is another hallmark of American culture along with ignorance, racism, and senseless violence.

The historical Buddha, Gautama, so say the texts, witnessed these hallmarks of American culture as they manifested in India circa 600 B.C. and was so disturbed by the terrible suffering such ignorance and violence caused victims and perpetrators alike that he left behind his princely life and embarked on a journey, both inward and outward, to discover the root causes of pervasive human misery. And the vehicle he rode, as it were, on his quest to discover the source of suffering, was meditation.

Now here is something crucial to remember about Gautama Buddha: no one anointed him, no one taught him, and he did not belong to a lineage of teachers. Through meditation he attained enlightenment and discovered what he believed to be the source of suffering, and he did this…drum roll…all by himself.

Today in America or Japan or Tibet or China or Indochina, one would be extremely hard-pressed to find any “officially recognized” Buddhist master who would dare say that a practitioner can find his or her way without the guidance of an “accredited master”. I am currently reading for the third time Sogyal Rinpoche’s wonderful text The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying in which he repeats ad nauseum that no one can ever hope to understand the true nature of mind or really make much spiritual progress without devotion to, and instruction from, an accredited, official, bona fide Buddhist master, and to think otherwise is dangerous and foolish and wrong. In subtle ways, he contradicts this message throughout the text, yet he seems terrified to overtly suggest otherwise.

Which brings me to The New Testament, not to change the subject. There is now both academic and popular support for the theory that the gospels of The New Testament were selected from a much larger body of Gnostic gospels in order to espouse the view that it is impossible for a regular person to connect with God except through an accredited, official, bona fide priest who somehow or other is linked by direct transmission to Jesus Christ. Any gospel that suggested you and I might connect directly with God through our own efforts without the intervention of officially accredited priests were simply not allowed into the anthology, i.e. The New Testament.

I may be stating the Gnostic case in an extreme nutshell, but I think it an accurate description of how a hierarchical system was imposed on the teachings of a Buddha-like being (Jesus Christ) who got His download, so to speak, directly from God, with no accredited anybody officiating. Which brings me back to Buddhism and competitive meditation.

I first became interested in Buddhism when I fell in love with the poetry of Philip Whalen in the late 1960’s. Searching for texts to explain Whalen’s passing references to Buddhism in his poems, I came across a little book, and I mean a tiny paperback of less than a hundred pages, written by Alan Watts entitled The Wisdom of Insecurity. Reading this book was more than a revelation to me; the experience rearranged my synapses. The basic premise of The Wisdom of Insecurity is that if I am thinking about the past and/or thinking about the future, I’m not actually here because our awareness determines our place in time and space; from which followed the popular expression Be Here Now.

The Wisdom of Insecurity was new stuff in America when it was published in 1949 (the year I was born) and it was one of Watts’s many attempts to elucidate the primary purpose of Buddhist practice, which is to bring the mind into communion with the present moment and thereby reveal the past and future to be illusory. Watts, it should be noted, has of late been marginalized by contemporary American Buddhist orthodoxy because he adamantly rejected the idea of official anointment and wasn’t particularly keen on formal modes of meditation. In this way, he was another of those folks who apparently “got it” without being knighted by an official of the hierarchy he helped found.

Inspired by Watts and Whalen, I continued to read Buddhist texts, contemporary and classical, for some years, and I was inspired to write a batch of contemporary short stories springing from various aspects of Buddhist philosophy. For instance, I would read about generosity, meditate with generosity as my starting point, and then write a story that welled up from that meditation. Then I’d send copies of the story to several friends, some versed in Buddhist philosophy, some not, wait for feedback, and then rewrite the story. Over the course of three years, I wrote forty-two such stories that eventually became a manuscript entitled Buddha In A Teacup, the title homage to Yasunari Kawabata’s Palm of the Hand Stories.

I made a photocopy edition of a hundred and fifty copies of Buddha In A Teacup, informed my friends I had done so, and within a few months sold all the copies for twenty-five dollars each, which covered my copying and mailing costs. Many of my readers urged me to try to get the book published, so I sent the manuscript to a half-dozen publishers of Buddhist texts in America and Canada. Reaction was swift and universal; the book was fascinating and fresh, but I, Todd Walton, was no one of even minor note in the galaxy of Buddhist celebrities, so No Thank You. To which I replied, “Is not the goal of our practice to transcend the illusion of ego and embrace the essential truth of our no oneness?”

Only one editor replied to my reply. He reiterated how much he liked the stories, and regretted that his company only published well-known Buddhist teachers armed with rave blurbs from really famous Buddhist teachers.

I eventually self-published a lovely edition of Buddha In A Teacup through Lost Coast Press in Fort Bragg, and though not a single Buddhist publication large or small would deign to review the book, Buddha In A Teacup has now sold over fifteen hundred copies and continues to gain a wider audience. People, those not constrained by the worship of celebrity or constricted by devotion to orthodoxy, love the book, and I think they do because the stories illuminate essential messages of the Buddha; that we are all on the same path, each of us seeking to become less fearful and less judgmental of ourselves and others, each of us aspiring to become more loving and generous.

In the vast Buddhist library there are many versions of what happened at the moment Buddha’s body died and his essence returned to the essential ground of being, an extremely subtle and eternal energy field from which you and I and all things arise and dissolve. My favorite version of this last corporeal moment is a poem by Mary Oliver entitled The Buddha’s Last Instruction in which his only spoken words are, “Make of yourself a light.”

And that is what I suggest you say to anyone who challenges you to a meditation contest. “Make of yourself a light,” and leave the competition to the organized and fully accredited yoga teams.

Copies of Buddha In A Teacup signed by the author are available from Underthetablebooks.com.

(This article first appeared in The Anderson Valley Advertiser in October 2009)