By David Guy
At the heart of all existence lies a question: why is there something instead of nothing? Why, in an infinite universe, is there an infinite universe? It is simultaneously the most mind-boggling of all philosophical questions and not a question at all. It’s more like a fact. We exist and don’t know why. We don’t know why we’re here or what this is. We don’t have a clue.
The existential anxiety this question reflects is at the core of human existence, and much that we do is an effort to avoid it. But no matter how frantically we work, how wildly we seek out pleasure, how far we sink into oblivion, the mystery is waiting for us. We create the greatest work of our lives, look up as we finish, trying to take some satisfaction in it, and the question sits there and stares at us.
Tibetan Buddhism says that when you die you enter a passage between two existences known as a bardo state; you see a brilliant shining light, and a fainter soothing one. [Trungpa, Vol 4, p. 108] Most people opt for the soothing light, which is the world of samsara. The brilliant light is overwhelming, and too frightening.
It is like saying you could merge with God—though the Tibetans don’t use that word—or opt for a normal worldly existence. Most people opt for the world. God is too much for them.
These two possibilities are available all the time (every state, from the Tibetan point of view, is a bardo state. Life is a passage between two existences, as is death). There is this bright shining moment, completely open. And there are all the repetitive soothing addictive things we do to avoid it. The present moment stands before us, but we persistently choose the lesser light.
The Tao Te Ching describes this situation in its first canto (which, according to Ursula LeGuin, contains the entire work). It mentions these two possible reactions to the mystery, open seeing of the moment and the hankering after desire that avoids it.
So the unwanting soul
sees what’s hidden
and the ever wanting soul
sees only what it wants.
These are different ways of confronting the reality, but the reality they confront is one.
Two things, one origin,
but different in name,
whose identity is mystery.
Mystery of all mysteries!
The door to the hidden.
According to the Taoists, there is no distinction between common reality and ultimate reality. There is just reality.
We say ‘God knows’ or ‘God only knows,’ and St Paul, for one, held out the hope that there is an answer to this mystery and that we will someday see it. But I sometimes wonder if God’s awakening to the cosmos might be similar to ours. God may wonder why He’s here as much as we do. That’s the kind of question that would have driven me crazy when I was younger. It haunts me even now.
But perhaps from the standpoint of pure being there’s no mystery at all. Knowing is not the point. From the state of pure being, the reason for being here is apparent. To be here.
My sister spent her life trying to figure something out. I don’t know what it was, and I’m not sure she did either. Another way to phrase this would be: she spent her life trying to feel comfortable in the world. She was raised a Presbyterian but converted at some point to psychoanalysis, which became her religion. She actually did a full round of analysis, with different analysts, three separate times. She was involved with her third analyst—who was helpful to her in her final illness—when she died of cancer at age 70.
She was eight years older than I, didn’t have much time for me when I was young, but we got close when I was in my thirties and she in her forties. She was trying at that time to pull back from work with her second analyst, a woman, but the analyst insisted that was an act of avoidance. It was the same way she had pulled back with her mother; now was the time she should stick with this if she ever planned to. She was close to a breakthrough. (I couldn’t help noticing that this woman was making a shitload of money from my sister.) Sally, as she had in the past, stayed in analysis.
One day I was out visiting bookstores and happened to see her on the way to her appointment. She didn’t see me, so I got an unvarnished view of my sister driving off to see her shrink, to practice the only religion she ever believed in. You might have thought she’d be radiant with happiness. She looked as if she were driving off to face a firing squad.
Why do you put yourself through this?I thought. Why don’t you give it up?
There was something she had to find out.
Years later, when she was dying of lung cancer, I visited Pittsburgh and we had one really good conversation, about the simple things all people our age talk about, how we were doing, how our children were doing, our grandchildren. For once she didn’t bring up the various issues with our parents that had tormented her all her life, and had been the subject of her analyses.
Five days before she died, I paid one last visit. By that time she slept almost constantly. I sat in the room and watched her breathe. I tried for a while to breathe with her, because I’d heard that is helpful, but most of the time I just watched. It was pure existence, just lying there breathing.
It was the most peaceful I’d ever seen her, the first time she hadn’t had a line of tension in her brow.
Children, it would seem, have no such anxiety. They begin in a wordless state, only experience what is right before them; they are—as we say—bundles of energy, crying at pain, laughing at delight, passing long hours without much going on. The breathing of a child is a marvel, a completely spontaneous whole body event, no blockages at all. The gradual acquisition of language is a huge task, along with all kinds of motor skills. Children have plenty to occupy them.
I remember in my own case staving off anxiety when I was a child of four, the sudden fear I felt when I was alone in the bedroom and it was dark. I used a rudimentary kind of sexual fantasy—a fateful choice, as it turned out—to distract myself. But when I reached the age of ten, as I vividly remember, the anxiety broke through.
I went through night after night when I couldn’t sleep. Two hours, three hours, I lay in bed stark staring awake. I would come out from time to time to check in with my parents, let them know I was still awake. One time the Jack Paar Show was on. Another time it was over.
The problem I had encountered—I don’t know if this was the cause of my anxiety, or just what came up when I couldn’t sleep—was imagining what would happen after I died. I had been raised in a Christian household, taught that when I died I would go to heaven, but there—of all places—my problems began.
I pictured a verdant scene, some beautiful pastoral landscape. I may have been influenced by the movie “Green Pastures.” I pictured myself sitting on a porch type swing talking to my grandmother, both because she was my favorite person and because I figured she’d certainly be dead by the time I was, though she was alive at the time of the fantasy. We were looking down on a valley, and talking.
I didn’t, as far as I remember, think of the thousand logical problems that followed from this imagined scene. (What age was she? What about me? What if she were talking to her own grandmother as well? How old would that person be? What if I lived to be older than she, and showed up looking that way? She wouldn’t even know me!) I focused on the fact that the conversation would last forever.
We’d talk forever? What if we couldn’t think of anything to say (after about half a day)? That seemed likely, since nothing would be happening. What would we do with all that time? The idea of forever sat there in all its vastness.
I felt the same way about endless space. I assumed that when I died I would be able to soar off wherever I wanted—that made sense, since I would be a spirit—and wondered what it would be like to keep going and going and going and going. If the universe was infinite there were no boundaries, and if there were no boundaries there was really no location; at least that’s the way it seemed to me. You were never really anywhere.
Endless time, endless space. Those two things terrified me. Years later, when I read the famous sentence by Blaise Pascal (“When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in an eternity before and after, the little space I fill engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces whereof I know nothing, and which know nothing of me, I am terrified”), I thought, Hey, man, I can relate. I felt that way when I was ten years old.
I have written about this moment before, focused on what my father said and did when I went to him. What strikes me now is the moment itself. It seems to be a human rite of passage. We wake up to the fact of an infinite universe, and our miniscule place in it. We see that we will someday die, and have no idea what that means.
I think something like that is what the Buddha went through when he was 29. It seems strange to say that I went through something at ten that he went through at 29, but in the legendary story of his life his father occupied him with sensual pleasures when he was young so the prince wouldn’t ask the deeper questions. I don’t believe that story. Probably the Buddha went through the same experiences all young people do. But perhaps he was so surrounded by luxury that he was distracted from deep reflection.
All of that changed when he was 29. The legendary story claims that he first encountered sickness, aging, and death at that age, which is utterly preposterous. But it is not preposterous that he saw those things deeply for the first time. We never know when that might happen. The birth of his son might have brought about such deep seeing. The experience of watching life come into being—that miraculous event—often reminds us how fragile it is, how little we can protect it. I had panic attacks after my son was born, have talked to other men who had the same experience.
The Buddha’s leaving home was one of the most remarkable events in a long remarkable life. We all, at some point, confront our mortality, what the Buddha called the fact of impermanence, but most of us sweep it under the rug, drink it away, something. The Buddha didn’t. He abandoned his wife and son, abandoned a life of comfort and luxury, and went off to live as a homeless beggar. He had the courage to live from his deepest feelings.
His quest was typical and exemplary. At first he consulted spiritual adepts, men who were considered true experts. He was an apt pupil and learned their techniques, reached as deep a meditative state as possible. That didn’t help him with his fundamental question. He moved on to ascetic practices, far more extreme than what most people try, but it is common to think that if you try harder, push endlessly, you’ll reach some final truth. The Buddha took that behavior to its ultimate end. He nearly starved to death.
His quest at that point, supposedly after years of trying, was an utter failure. He had taken meditation and ascetic practice to their extremes and hadn’t found what he was looking for. His spiritual community abandoned him, thinking he had given up. He sat down as an ordinary human being, a man facing the simple fact of existence. He abandoned technique and sat. He had reached the state all practitioners finally reach, just giving up. Total flop, as Trungpa Rinpoche says.
I don’t believe anyone knows what happened on that long night, or period of days, when the Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree. Various stories surround it. But as anyone knows who has practiced meditation even for a short time, the experience is utterly unpredictable, can’t be put into words. It is as elusive as life itself.
What we do know is that, at the end of some period of time—some say one night, some 49 days—the Buddha found the answer to his question.
He considered not teaching at all. He seemed to feel that what he had learned was one of those things you could only experience; there was no way to talk about it, or explain it. But talk he did, for the next forty-five years. Something persuaded him that human beings were suffering so much that they needed what he could teach, even though he was likely to be misunderstood.
He began with impermanence, the fact that set him on his quest. He took the thing that most troubled him and made it the cornerstone of all he taught. Impermanence is the first thing we see when we meditate: not only are we not one solid thing, we’re all over the place, moment by moment, thoughts flying through our minds, feelings through our bodies. We can’t find anything in that constant flow of experience that is permanent. That leads to the next fact of existence, which follows from the first: there is no abiding self. We are not a solid existing personality, as we think. We are a random mass of thoughts and impulses. We can’t find anything permanent in all of that.
But the central mark of existence, the one which became the most important of the Noble Truths, the most brilliant single concept in all the Buddha’s teaching, is the fact of dukkha, often translated as suffering but more accurately rendered unsatisfactoriness. Life is characterized by this quality, and that is where our problems begin. The Buddha isn’t saying that a lot of life is unpleasant, or that life kind of sucks. He’s saying that all existence is shot through with this quality. Dukkha characterizes everything.
What the Buddha captured with this concept was the central fact of being human: we are limited beings with unlimited aspirations. There is some final thing we want—true happiness, ultimate security, to understand why we’re here—but we can never have it because nothing is final and no experience ultimate. All we have is that ongoing flow. I want to be free of what’s troubling me, want to be over it, but I never am. All I reach is the next moment, moving at the same rapid pace and just as unpredictable.
Obviously, when we break our leg or get diagnosed with cancer, we suffer. But we also suffer when we just had the greatest meal of our lives, because we wish it could have been slightly different, or want a little bit more, or want a cigar and some brandy, or want to make love but our wife doesn’t want to. There’s always something,as my mother used to say. It is the nature of human existence to be in this state but to want that state. That’s what dukkha is, being here when you want to be there, even if the two states are close. People suffer enormously over the smallest things.
What’s the solution? Be here and don’t try to be there. Just be here. That’s the thing human beings have enormous trouble doing.
One reason is that, when you’re just here, sitting under the Bodhi tree doing nothing, the mystery of existence—the fact that we’re here and have no reason why—stares us in the face. We’ve finally stopped running. There it is.
What the Buddha saw is that the running itself is suffering. We suffer if we run and suffer if we don’t. It’s the proverbial rock and a hard place.
The Buddha’s answer to this dilemma was: Live that.Live out that central paradox. Don’t try to escape it. Craving (the second noble truth) is the cause of suffering, that endless wish to be in some state other than the one we’re in; the cessation of craving (the third noble truth) is the answer. This teaching isn’t rocket science. The fourth noble truth is a way of living your life, characterized by the word right, which the Buddha applied to all kinds of endeavors, right view, right thoughts, right wisdom. The particulars aren’t as important is the principle itself: right means not too much this way, not too much that. Not too luxurious, not too ascetic. Not too loose, not too tight. Not too obsessive, not too relaxed. The key to the eight is right mindfulness, which is at the center of everything the Buddha taught. You have to remember to do it.
It isn’t an answer like: here’s the answer to your question. It’s like: here’s what to do in this situation. Here’s the way to live. It doesn’t answer the question Why? It answers the question How?
That’s all we’ve got.
But if you live in the right way, Why disappears. How becomes the answer to Why.
Soto Zen takes this structure of Buddhist thought and reduces it to a single thing, sitting zazen. That sounds simplistic, and of course the writings of Eihei Dogen—the founder of Soto Zen—are voluminous (and mysterious). Yet in a certain way all the fascicles of the Shobogenzo(his great philosophical work) are footnotes to the “Fukanzazengi” (his zazen instructions, which do not appear in the Shobogenzo and are largely stolen from an earlier Chinese teaching), and are mysterious precisely because they describe what Dogen learned in zazen. It’s the same problem the Buddha had when he was deciding whether or not to teach. You can’t understand what he’s saying unless you’ve had his experience.
Or as my teacher once said, “If you want to understand Dogen better, you need to sit more.”
The central text of Mahayana Buddhism, the Heart Sutra, does away with the Buddha’s teachings altogether; after it has told us we have “no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind,” it also wipes away the four noble truths (“no suffering, no origination, no stopping, no path”) and anything they might lead to (“no cognition, also no attainment”); in the absence of all these things it advises us to rely on prajna paramita, translated as wisdom beyond wisdom.
Prajna paramitais one of those terms that people define differently. Again, it has an experiential quality, can’t be pinned down. I get my understanding of it (as I think everyone does) from sitting, can only describe it in my own way.
In describing what to do with the mind while sitting, Dogen gives us some simple but mysterious words (which come from a Chinese koan). “Think not thinking. How do you think not thinking? Beyond thinking.” (Some people translate that last phrase us “Non-thinking,” but others translate it this way, which makes more sense to me.) There is the activity known as thinking, which we’re quite familiar with. There is the theoretical condition of not thinking, which we experience for brief moments and some people have experienced for much longer (I once read that Krishnamurti took an hour-long walk and claimed not to have had a single thought the whole time. I don’t know if I believe that, but the man said it). There is also, obviously, a state beyond thinking; if there weren’t, we wouldn’t be able to see ourselves thinking (or not thinking). Going to that place beyond thinking seems to be what Dogen is recommending. It isn’t stopping thought, but allowing it to be, and watching. Sometimes, in doing that, we get caught up in thinking, catch ourselves, and come back to watching. That, for me, is the process of zazen, watching thought and getting caught up, watching and getting caught up. I am also watching my physical sensations, which seem a lot fresher and more interesting than my moronic thoughts, which keep treading the same old ground. I think of the physical sensations as being in that “beyond thinking” place. They aren’t a part of thinking.
What we discover in zazen, in fact, through the years, is that thinking is actually a small part of the mind. It seemed to be the whole thing when we began. Gradually we see more and more around it.
In the same way, for me, there is wisdom, which is a human quality of living well, the kind of thing that philosophers debate and disagree on. That wisdom is a function of the rational mind and is, because of that, debatable. There is non-wisdom, otherwise known as stupidity, which is the way most people live most of the time, myself included. But there is also something beyond those two things. There is a kind of wisdom that isn’t easy to put into words. We know it but don’t know how. We can’t prove it. It is beyond the duality of human wisdom and stupidity. It is wisdom beyond wisdom.
That, for me, is prajana paramita. It’s what we discover, and rely on, in zazen. It’s beyond thinking. We go in and out of it. And we never know we’re there. When we’re “knowing,” we aren’t there.
Zazen thus becomes the fundamental human act. It is what I believe the Buddha was doing under the Bodhi tree (though, as I said, no one knows). It is not a technique, and has no technique. It is simply sitting, being a human who is stuck in this basic situation of being finite with infinite aspirations. In zazen we go to the place of prajna paramita, the place beyond thinking, and examine what it is to be human. We allow our thoughts and feelings to happen and don’t try to change them in any way. We learn what rightis, not too relaxed, not too tight. We learn to live in that place of sheer being, in the “isness” of life. We don’t do it perfectly, because that wouldn’t be human. But we do it completely. We have the full human experience.
Then we go out into the world and try to live that way.
For me, it is the only way to practice. If I’m out in the world trying to remember the eight steps of the path, to do this correctly or do that correctly, if I’m trying to remember the 59 slogans of logon training, I’m totally befuddled. But if I try to notice the feelings in my body, the thoughts in my mind, not identifying with them but just seeing them, if I try just to be present in my body and mind, I may not be able to do it all the time, or even much of the time, but at least I remember what I’m trying to do.
I’m trying to be human.
I had another essentially religious experience when I was eleven, though I didn’t see it that way then. It took me years to see it as religious. It wasn’t as earth shattering as my experience of fear. It was the kind of moment you could almost overlook.
After years at a couple of ordinary primary schools—one public and one private—I went to a new school that year. It was thirty minutes from my house, and I had to ride a school bus every day. We dressed in jackets and ties (at the age of 11!) carried briefcases. I looked like a small portly business executive. The teachers were all men; they called us by our last names, ruled the place with a demerit system, and assigned an incredible amount of homework. After years of being the teacher’s pet with a series of women teachers, I felt utterly at sea. I hated the place.
One assignment was a weekly composition. It had to be two pages long, written in ink, and you couldn’t cross out more than two words. More than two cross outs and you had to write the whole thing over. The exercise seemed pointless to me. I wrote in a large elaborate script that took up plenty of space, got to the bottom of the second page, and stopped, with a huge sigh of relief. I hadn’t made more than two errors.
I didn’t care what I’d said.
After a few weeks some grades came out, and my parents saw that I needed help. They bought a table for me and my brother to study at, instituted study hours, let us know how much money they were spending on this place. More specifically, my mother helped me with one of my compositions for English. She didn’t criticize what I had said (though I’m sure it was moronic). She went through and did a mild copy edit.
Jesus Christ!(I thought but didn’t say). Now I have to write this whole fucking thing over. That was my first thought. My second was: I can’t hand this in. Everybody’s going to know I didn’t do it. This sounds like an adult.
As I looked at the paper more closely, another feeling came over me. I saw that, though it sounded much better, my mother hadn’t done anything I couldn’t have, just moved some words around, added a word here or there. I could have added them myself. It seemed that she had just played with the language, almost at random. I couldn’t believe how much better it sounded.
It also said different things. It said things I hadn’t meant to say, things I hadn’t known, when I sat down, and the way she arrived at those things was by playing around with language. She didn’t add any thoughts. She just moved words around.
That meant—if I actually could have done what she did—that I could have sat down wanting to say one thing and wound up saying another. I could have said something I hadn’t known when I sat down. I could have—just by playing with language—discovered something I hadn’t known before. I could have become smarter than I was.
Where would this new knowledge have come from? It was somehow there in the language?
How can you be smarter than you are?
This was not the terrifying fear I’d experienced when I was ten. It was much more subtle, a shift in perception. It was as if the earth had moved, or some unseen being gave me a little shove. I sat there staring at the page.
What most people think—what I undoubtedly thought—was that writing is simple: you have a thought in your head and put it down on paper. What could be easier than that? (Why is writing so difficult?) The truth of the matter—as anyone knows who has ever meditated—is that you don’t haveanything in your head. Thoughts are flying through your head all the time, at a terrific rate. It’s also true that putting them down on paperis not the simple task it seems to be. We go to do that and something happens. The thought we hadin our head has somehow squiggled away, and some inferior thought has shown up.
We’ve all had the experience of having a wonderful idea for a piece of writing, then sitting down to do it and finding it disappointing (I’m having that experience right now). What I was seeing that day when I was eleven was the other side of that. If you played around with language, if you moved words around, you could change what you said. You could make it much better. You could say something you hadn’t known when you sat down.
Writing was a process, not of recording what you knew, but of discovering something you didn’t know. There was nothing final about it. It was constantly open (because you could shift the words around more, say something still different).
What I had caught a glimpse of—this was why the moment seemed so strange—was the place where language came from, that place beyond thinking, the wisdom beyond wisdom. I didn’t know that at the time. I didn’t know what I’d seen.
What I did know was that I never wanted anyone to help me with my writing again. (I’ve always had problems with editors.) I wanted to do it myself.
That day when I was eleven was the moment when I discovered that writing was a special activity for me. At the time I thought I wanted to be a doctor, like my father. But when I was fifteen I took biology and realized I had no aptitude for it. I could have gone on and studied science, become a doctor, but I would have been going against the grain. That wasn’t where my interests led me. I began to think I wanted to be a writer.
By the time I went to Duke University in 1966, I was completely serious in that wish. I told almost no one, but knew that was what I wanted. I took a creative writing course my freshman year, and every day, before any other work, I spent a couple of hours writing. I went to the Medical Center—where I could occupy a carrel alone (and where I could smoke!)—sat with a legal pad and played with language. I was influenced by the Southern rhetorical tradition (though I was from Pittsburgh), would write a long complex sentence, 75 words, 100 words, 150, sit there and play with it. I would rewrite it in every conceivable way. The next day I’d come in, look at it, and rewrite it again.
It was a terrible way to write a story. I spent the first three weeks producing a page and a half, then had to hurry through the next eight, or whatever it was. But it was somehow true to what I’d seen that day when I was eleven. I had to work on the language. I worked it over until I got it right.
I look back with great affection on that eighteen year old man, deadly serious, as serious as a candidate for the priesthood, but telling no one his ambitions. It would be ten years before he published a word, anywhere (even the college literary magazine, which he never did crack), fourteen years before he published a book. He would graduate from college, get married, work for six years as an English teacher, write fifty stories and send them to magazines, get up at 5:00 AM for two years and write a novel which also didn’t get published, go through periods of depression, seek professional help, have problems with his marriage, all because of that obsession with writing, that decision to be a writer, all because of that moment when he was eleven years old. Why had his mother ever corrected that composition? Why had he looked at it so hard?
People at the time thought I was incredibly stubborn (I am), that I was misguided, that I was trying to do something I didn’t have the talent for, that I wanted to be rich and famous, that I was presumptuous (how could you ever presume to be a writer? an old teacher once asked me), that I was just plain nuts, wanted to be depressed, didn’t really want to succeed. All of those things may have been true. But the reason I continued writing—though I barely knew it at the time—was that it put me in touch with that place beyond thinking, that place of prajna paramita. It put me in touch with a deep part of myself that I couldn’t access in any other way.
It seemed that I had to write. If I stopped writing I’d die. The other motivations might be true too. But none of that was why I wrote. The wish to write was deeper. It was incomprehensible.
My method of writing changed in various ways through the years. From that time when I wrote every sentence fifty times, I went to another method, where I would do a whole draft of a section (maybe a couple thousand words in one sitting), then spend a week or two revising it. I planned books out intricately; I wrote with no plan at all. I wrote by hand on legal pad; I wrote in notebooks; I composed directly on the computer. It took me two years to complete a novel, which at that point was largely finished; or I finished a draft in three months and revised it gradually over time. The general direction of all those changes was trusting more and more in that place beyond thought, letting the work come from there, getting out of the way. I don’t believe in not revising at all (like Kerouac or William Saroyan). I still think language is alive, that you can discover things by playing with it. But I trust in that deep place where language comes from. I trust in the wisdom beyond wisdom.
In my mid-twenties, in the midst of my struggle to publish, I read that Kafka thought writing was a form of prayer. I didn’t know what that meant at the time. I thought it might mean he was pleading for something, which he did seem to be doing. But now I believe he saw that the act of writing touched into that deep place, the same place prayer and meditation touch into, that it was essentially a spiritual act. He didn’t care about being published. He just wanted to lead a religious life.
I did too, though I might not have used that word.
For the first thirty years of my writing career, perhaps longer, I was a compulsive writer. I wrote every day. I would have said I had to. But once I discovered meditation, had a regular practice, I lost the compulsion. I still like to write. I love to. But I don’t have to do it. I do it because I want to.
I sometimes think that addiction and samsara are the same thing, that the Buddha was actually describing addiction when he talked about samsara. There is some activity through which we try and try to achieve some final satisfaction and never do. Despite years of experience, we think this thing is going to make us happy. That is the fundamental ignorance the Buddha was talking about. How can we be so stupid? Our whole premise is wrong.
But that attitude derides human existence. It seems to be saying that human beings can never be happy, can never come to a place of joy (one does get the impression from the early Theravada monks, or from Theravada monks today, that their whole goal is to be indifferent to human existence, not to want anything). The fact is that many human drives—like hunger, and sex—are periodic. The appetite arises, we find some temporary, imperfect satisfaction, and we go on with our lives. We accept that no final satisfaction is possible, but take full delight in the temporary. If you are completely present in a moment of samsara, not wanting it to be otherwise, that is nirvana.
It is also true that it is possible to way overdo these activities, far beyond what our appetites suggest. Sex and food are two areas in particular where the modern world has run amuck. Various modern cultures seem crazed with sex. And a person merely has to glance around to see that food has become a major problem. People have been talking about obesity as a problem for most of my life, but the common occurrence of gross obesity seems to be recent.
I understand how I came to have a problem with sex. In moments of anxiety, in the dark, for instance, at night, when I was alone, I called up sexual images (when I was a boy it was the long kisses from movies in the fifties. Once I learned about sex I substituted more explicit things) because they were strong, and attractive, and held my attention. Soon that reaction became habitual (it worked for me), my natural response to anxiety. I felt anxiety—perhaps just the general anxiety of existence—and fled it by dreaming about sex, craving it, and, as I got older, going off to have it.
I’m not the only person ever to react that way. Boswell, in his journals, speaks of going to see the public executions that were common in his day, then—in terror at the sight of death—running off to find a whore. I believe that much of the sexual yearning and sexual activity of the modern age are misunderstood anxiety. The need is strong because the anxiety is great.
My problems with food are more mysterious to me, though they follow a classic pattern, familiar to every psychologist. My younger brother was born, and because I felt my mother’s affection fading, I began to eat in a compulsive way, beyond what my appetite demanded. When you look at pictures of me in kindergarten or first grade, I’m a skinny little runt. In third grade, I was one of the fattest kids in the class. I can still remember the flush of shame when the doctor came to weigh us at school and I tipped the scales at 83, the same as the other two tubs of lard in our class. It was a dead heat! We were all equally fat.
That was the period in my life when I lost the connection between eating and satisfying my appetite. I ate to the point of being uncomfortable, of feeling pain. What was that all about?
I would guess that I was stuffing myself full of food so that I couldn’t feel. Feeling takes place in the belly. I didn’t want to feel sadness, or the anxiety beneath it, so I loaded up on food. I got so I couldn’t feel anything.
When I was in high school, playing football and lifting weights, I weighed 198 pounds at a height of 5’8”. When my mother cooked lasagna I had three big helpings. When she bought a Sara Lee cake I had a big slab, threw on a couple major scoops of ice cream, and when I finished did it all again. I was a smart person, a sweet person, but a walking talking zombie who felt nothing. When my father died that year—the culminating event of a long anxious adolescence—I more or less just stood there, a big fat moron.
Eight months later I went to college and lost forty pounds.
People have asked me, sometimes angrily (Tell me what you really did!), how I lost that weight, and what I normally say is, I ate in a cafeteria and paid for my own food. I was slightly worried about money, my father having just died, and I didn’t ask for three slabs of lasagna, take two pieces of cake and four cups of ice cream. I ate more normal portions, though I didn’t hold back and never missed dessert. But when you’re eating half of what you did before, or a third of it—even if it’s not diet food—you’re going to lose weight.
I’ve sometimes wondered, in recent years, if my father’s death had anything to do with it. A friend of mine at the Chapel Hill Zen Center, Mike McKillip, once spoke about the fact that the only way to face a fear is to have the thing happen. You worry about your father’s death, you think, “How will we get along? How will we ever get along?” Then he dies and, one way or another, you get along. There were a lot of sad scary moments, especially in the tumultuous history of our country in those years, in the late sixties. But we got through them.
And I’ve often thought—though it’s a terrible thing to say—that losing a father takes pressure off a young man. What would my father have said if I’d told him I wanted to be a writer? That I wanted to major in English and didn’t have any idea how I would make a living? I didn’t know what I would do about the draft, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to Vietnam? My mother, with a young boy still at home and with no fixed ideas about what her sons should do—she had her hands full—didn’t weigh in. I had a freedom at that age that a lot of my contemporaries didn’t.
However you explain it, I lost forty pounds.
I can still eat too much, eat too many sweets, drink too much beer. I sometimes eat beyond what my appetite would dictate and often feel an urge to eat more than that. By the late nineties—though I’ve exercised religiously ever since college, and love to exercise—my weight crept up to 180, and I went to Weight Watchers. I’ve learned the strategy of taking stock of things before I eat, deciding how much I’ll have. If I let my urges guide me I’d be huge.
I look around—especially in the American South, where I live—and see that something has gone very wrong with eating, here and in much of the world. Something drives people to eat maniacally, way more than they need.
I ask myself the purpose of sex in human existence, and at first glance that seems a preposterous question. Sex propogates the human race! Nevertheless, it is so central to human experience that it must have other purposes. Many people engage fervently in sex—plan their whole lives around it—who have no intention of having children, would be horrified at the thought. Yet sex is terribly important to them.
I owe much of my thinking on this subject (as anyone would) to Wilhelm Reich, whose The Function of the Orgasm(which Paul Goodman said was already a classic, just by its title) was quite influential for me. I’m also influenced, oddly, by my meditation practice, during which I’ve had a chance to look at all energy—including sexual energy—more closely. (In The Red Thread of Passion I made the notorious statement—certainly the most quoted of all my sentences—that I had learned more about sex on a meditation cushion than I ever had in a whorehouse.) We give names to varieties of energy, but really there is only one, the vast nameless force inside and outside of us that created—and keeps creating—the universe.
We don’t quite meet that energy as it unfolds. We encounter experiences we don’t want to take in and tighten against them. We tighten our muscles so we don’t havethe experience, don’t go through it. We thereby create blockages and tensions in our body that prevent energy from flowing, keep us from taking in other experiences. These blockages hold off experience. They hold off life. And the experiences we haven’t fully lived continue to exist in our body. They stay in our muscles, waiting for us to feel them.
The great example of such an experience in my own life was my father’s death when I was 16. I couldn’t take it in. But there are many lesser experiences in which this tightening—this blocking—happens in smaller ways. If we don’t get the results we want in some encounter, if we run into somebody on the street we don’t like, we tighten against that experience. Our day is made up of these small cringes. We block ourselves from our lives.
The function of the orgasm is to run a wave of energy through our bodies and sweep away these blockages and tensions.
According to Reich, not all orgasms are created equal (anyone who has had a few sexual partners will know that is true). The orgasm Reich is talking about is an S-shaped curve that sweeps through the body, causing it to crack like a whip. I’ve seen this phenomenon in others, also experienced it myself. I’ve also seen and experienced smaller events that didn’t have as profound an effect.
In some cases—Reich would say—people have so profound a blockage that an orgasm can’t remove it. I believe he would say such a blockage prevents a real orgasm. But as far as I know, his cure was to keep having orgasms. He had the genius to see that many of our psychological problems are physical in nature, or at least the cure is physical. Freud wanted you in his office talking. Reich wanted you back home fucking.
It was his disciple Alexander Lowen who realized that the cure might be physical, but not necessarily sexual. He created a whole system, called Bioenergetics, that shook out the physical blockages, as did various other systems created by the followers of Freud, like primal scream therapy, or Gestalt therapy. All of those systems saw the problems Freud did, but believed in physical treatments for them.
They were all, in a way, trying to create systems that would duplicate the results of ancient disciplines like yoga and meditation. It’s one of those splits between the West and East. It’s funny that these Germans were trying to create a new system when an old one exists that works much better.
I’m a comparative novice to Hatha Yoga (though I’ve practiced it for years). I’m much more familiar with meditation. It would come as a surprise to someone who has just begun, but the idea of the sitting posture is that the skeletal structure supports you while the muscles relax. For me the muscles relax in a profound way that they never do in the rest of my life. The body relaxes, and the energy flows.
Our body has been holding off experience, sometimes for a day or two, sometimes for years, and as the muscles relax the experience comes back. It shows up in the mental garbage that arises during a sitting. It literally is garbage, refuse from days and sometimes years before. Though we long for a calm clear mind, it’s good that such things come up. We’re able to take them in, and experience them, and let them dissolve. They no longer weigh us down, or hold us back. We don’t have to tighten against them.
One doesn’t have to do anything to make this happen. It’s a natural occurrence, and there’s no way to bring it about except to sit and relax. Hence the Zen practice of Shikantaza, or “just sitting.” We don’t do anything, and this phenomenon takes place.
The larger blockages—like my father’s death—come up on longer sittings, usually on retreats. It’s on such occasions that the sitter finds himself getting into deeper parts of the body and the psyche. It took years before my father’s death came up in a profound way, and I could let go of it.
I suspect that sex is addictive because it keeps trying, and failing, to remove a blockage. The addict finds some relief—the only relief he ever gets—but not total relief. He tries and tries to get rid of this blockage. He never quite gets there.
There is a periodic aspect to sex itself, of course, a natural physical need to have an orgasm, which arises at regular intervals. That shouldn’t lead to addiction.
My all-time favorite quotation about sexuality comes from a commentary on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra. The author is discussing the term that is generally translated as celibacy.
“Brahmacharya means literally ‘moving in the immensity’ or ‘living in reality,’ but from earliest times it has been understood to refer to the sublimation of the life force that is normally expressed as sexuality. Thus brahmacharya has frequently been translated as ‘celibacy,’ by which sexual continence is meant.
“This has led to much confusion. True yoga is a natural process, and has no place for repression, whether of the ego, sex, or anything else. Such an attitude of forced control is against life, and can only result in strain and tension incurred in the name of some supposedly ‘higher’ ideal. However, as we progress on the path of yoga, needs and desires become more refined. Sexuality is one area of experience that typically tends to aberration, becoming narrowly confined to the habitual need for release of tension and dissatisfaction, rather than the magnification of an already existing happiness. Nourished by yoga, a wider loving-awareness that is present at all times begins to develop. Such all-inclusiveness is the natural state of awareness; it has its own economy, self-sufficient and unforced. And if such a transformation is experienced, it will only be because the limited self, which is always more or less motivated by the need to overcome its chronic and anxious sense of separation through repetitive and unexamined behavior patterns, has been transcended. Transcendance has nothing to do with suppression, and brahmacharya does not mean ‘self-control’ as normally understood. It is a state of self sufficient wholeness, an innocence that is its own ecstasy.”
That would be the cure for addiction, that state of self-sufficient wholeness that is its own ecstasy. It brings up a fascinating question. Would a truly realized person feel any need for sex at all? If—in theory—you’re taking all your experience in, not resisting any of it, would you need to have an orgasm?
The C Word
That brings up the practice of celibacy, which is generally associated with religious purity, though I’ve never been sure why. People automatically assume, for instance, that Jesus was celibate. An itinerant teacher in that day and age was necessarily celibate? The fact that he did not have a wife and family meant that he’d never had sex? We know that? Why do we make that assumption?
A Catholic woman of my acquaintance, a fierce political activist, once said to me, “I know Jesus loved women. People who say anything else don’t know what they’re talking about. I’m certain he fucked Mary Magdalene. There’s no question in my mind.”
That statement startled me, from a woman who presented as devout (though perhaps not in the way most people use that word). But I agree with the general sentiment. Why do we assume that someone who is religious, or spiritual, or has a special relationship with God, would not want to have sex? Why are those two things opposed?
Alan Watts (who seems himself to have had as much sex as he could get, to say nothing of all the booze he could get his hands on) stated the idea most clearly when discussing the sage J. Krishnamurti: “Krishnamurti himself has never had intercourse because his every moment is a constant communion with the entire universe, through every nerve fiber [get exact quote].” The implication was that a truly enlightened being had no need for sex, because he felt no separation from anything.
But Krishnamurti did have sex with women. He famously had sex with one of his followers, who was married to another man in the group. I’m not denying that he was in touch with the entire universe at every moment, through absolutely every nerve ending. But he also apparently liked to get laid.
The idea of celibacy, as I understand it, is not that you’re constantly fighting your sexual urges, which you regard as evil, but that through celibacy you can devote your energy to a “higher” spiritual purpose. Instead of focusing on your lowly genitals, and all the emotional strain and upheaval that sexual relationships involve, you devote your energy to God.
That takes a mature person. When my wife attended Weston School of Theology, she became a kind of Mother Confessor to the young Jesuits, who got a cheap thrill by telling her how hard it was to channel their sex drives, and how often they masturbated. They got no counseling or instruction in this endeavor. One of them told me that there were gay Jesuits who had sex with each other in the Jesuit house, or who went into Boston to have sex with other men. Everybody else was left to fend for himself.
But the sexual/spiritual energy that people are conserving to devote to God is boundless and self-renewing. It may be that right after the sexual act people might need a little snooze, but before long their energy returns and they feel cleared out and refreshed, freed of the tensions that were weighing them down. It’s true that people use lots of energy pursuing sex, but that doesn’t need to be true. Emotionally healthy people—if we can find any out there—could be happy, in the absence of a partner, taking care of themselves.
There may be gender differences in regard to renewing sexual energy. Most men, once they ejaculate, are finished for the moment, may lose all interest in sex and being touched, while some women go from orgasm to orgasm and gain energy in the process. The energy renews itself.
For that reason, the two genders seem to have different attitudes toward masturbation. Men often feel they have “lost” something when they ejaculate, all that seed gone to waste (most notably Honore de Balzac, who once claimed that France had lost a masterpiece for a fortnight because he had had a wet dream the night before. He associated his seed with creative powers, as have other men). That was the actual sin of Onan, not that he jerked off, but that he spilled his seed on the ground instead of impregnating his brother’s widow. Women—at least those I’ve talked to—feel no such sense of loss (and why would they? They’re raring to go, while the man is already finished).
They also may have a different view of celibacy. When I’ve gone on meditation retreats in which we were told to abstain from sex, every man I’ve spoken to assumed that include masturbation. Women did not. “Of course you can masturbate!” one woman said to me, as if I were a moron for even asking the question. They don’t allow men to make such rules for them. Masturbation is something they do with their bodies, and it’s nobody’s business when and how they do it.
I personally have yet to meet the celibate person who is perfectly equanimous about not having sex, who engages the full energy of their entire body but only uses it for spiritual purposes. Alan Watts claimed that any celibate men he had met were invariably crabby and grouchy (and who can blame them?).
It’s often true, of course, that people who claim to be celibate actually aren’t.
Years ago, for instance, I was shocked by an article in Tricycle about a woman who claimed not only that she had had sex with Kalu Rinpoche (a renowned Tibetan teacher who had taken a vow of celibacy), but that men who surrounded him knew about the relationship and colluded with him, telling her that if she spilled the beans it would do harm to “the Dharma” (the same argument the Catholic priests used with the altar boys). Kalu Rinpoche was worshiped in Buddhist circles, his teachings revered. A prominent Buddhist publisher suspended advertising with Tricycle for a time because they published this scurrilous article, apparently believing the article did harm to the dharma. He wasn’t apparently worried about the harm done to the young woman.
Larry Rosenberg told me that his first teacher, the irrepressible and charismatic Seung Sahn, had not only had sex with female followers in this country, but back in Korea a family was raising a child that he had fathered with a Korean woman. They felt they were attaining spiritual merit, even though the child was illegitimate and begotten in conflict with religious vows.
Larry—who now teaches in the vipassana tradition, and points out that vipassna teachers don’t seem to have such a problem keeping it in their pants—sometimes asks me why all the scandals are in the Zen tradition (in which I, his former student, now practice). I tell him it’s because the Zen teachers are more vital and alive. They’re more attractive. Who would want to have sex with those pallid vipassana people?
I haven’t even mentioned the most notorious Zen teachers, Eido Roshi and Sasaki Roshi, who didn’t slip now and then but were genuine predators, carrying on affairs for years and accosting women who didn’t succumb. In contrast to these men, Chogyam Trungpa, the famously drunken and womanizing Tibetan teacher, seems comparatively principled, because he had disrobed and a monk and taken on the role of lay teacher (giving the term new meaning), and freely admitted to what he did. He wasn’t a hypocrite.
We seem a long way from the Buddha, who in the Pali Canon seems quite anti-sex, did not allow his monks even to beget a child to keep the blood line going (one monk did exactly that, and was thrown out of the order), and who famously felt that the presence of women among the monastics would set the practice back hundreds of years.
He was trying to create a situation in which people—in increasingly large numbers—could learn what he had learned under the Bodhi tree. A monk, in order to do that, can’t give in to desire; he has to watch and learn from it. The Buddha apparently thought having women right there would make all of that more difficult. The men would be tempted.
People who try to explain these outrageous behaviors go through all kinds of contortions. So and so hadn’t achieved final realization. He was an arhat but hadn’t achieved the final states of the great masters. They say that after the fact, on the evidence of what they’ve discovered.
It seems easier just to say that men like sex. I hate to make a wild generalization, but there it is. Of all the statements on this whole issue that I’ve ever heard, the most intelligent was by some guy on NPR who said—in explanation of some other set of peccadillos (the French President and his girlfriends, or that French politician who abused hotel maids, or maybe some American army general), “Men are addicted to ejaculation.” I’m slightly uncomfortable with that word addicted, but there’s plenty of evidence that they like it very much. It’s also true that they would prefer not to bring it about themselves. People like to be touched. They like friction with another body. They especially like that thing that happens at the end.
Why is that anti-religious?
I am of course opposed to anything that smacks of abuse, that involves a person of power taking advantage of someone who has less, that involves an underage child, that involves coercion or force. But it seems these things often come about because people suppress the sexual instinct. They try to tamp something down that can’t be tamped. A boy is attracted to boys, and he’s told that’s wrong, so he decides to become a priest and put himself in a place where he can’t express that desire. Then as a priest he runs into boys and the desire returns; it takes revenge because it was ignored. It would have been better if he’d expressed that desire when he originally felt it, allowed it to mature into something more acceptable (like a guy his age). Or if not, find a young looking man, or someone who’s willing to act boyish. There’s a way to handle things, but repression ain’t it.
Taking a vow of celibacy doesn’t solve the problem of sex (if sex is a problem). It draws the line in a different place. Some people draw it at one partner, some at several, some at none. The question is: do you cross the line that you yourself have drawn? Often people do, celibate people—it seems—as much as anyone.
The Mystery of Life and Death
“Death is a mystery, and life is a mystery.”
My childhood came to an end when my mother told my brother Bill and me that our father had leukemia. I had just finished my sophomore year in high school. I would turn sixteen in a couple of months.
Until then I had faced difficulties and disappointments, but nothing of this magnitude. This was a situation where my whole world turned upside down. A major thing was happening that I hadn’t expected. My father would die before his time.
She asked us into an upstairs room of the house, had us sit down, and said, “I spoke to your father yesterday, and he said I’d better talk to you boys. He’s been in the hospital before”—he’d been in an out for bleeding ulcers—“but this time we weren’t sure he was going to make it.” That last phrase was the one that made my blood run cold. My life as I had known it up to that time ended.
He’d been diagnosed six years before, right around the time I began to have those fears about death. I’ve wondered if I had brought those fears up to him at the worst possible time. I’ve even wondered if something about his situation transmitted itself to me, and because he was facing death I started worrying.
That sounds weird and fanciful, but it is just such weird fanciful things that I’d like to talk about.
My father was definitely ill. For a couple of years he’d suffered from serious bleeding ulcers, and had transfusions of many pints of blood. He was on a bland diet and took Maalox constantly. His lips were flecked with white flakes from that liquid, and his face was a ghostly pale. He’d once been a big hearty man, over two hundred pounds at six feet. Now his shoulders and whole torso had shrunken. His neck was especially weak; sometimes when he was tired he had to hold his head up with his hands. Complicating matters, he’d been operated on for cataracts in both eyes, a much more laborious procedure than it is today. He had thick bifocals and couldn’t see well, often held his head up to try to see. Anyone seeing him on the street knew he was ill. He was 46, looked 70.
But those things had all been true before; I’d gotten used to the idea of his cataracts, then his ulcer. The diagnosis of leukemia made it all suddenly make sense. It told why he’d aged so suddenly, why he looked so horrible. It explained why ulcers had happened to a young healthy man.
The diagnosis was too much for me. I couldn’t take it in.
The next day, when I went to the hospital to see him, he was trying to look relaxed and happy, okay with what I’d just been told. I suppose I should have raged and screamed and cried, let him know how upset I was. But I wasn’t like that, and didn’t do it. Following his lead, I looked relaxed and okay with things. We didn’t talk about his illness; it sat unspoken between us. We never talked about his illness.
Maybe that was where the air of unreality began. All I had to go on was that conversation with my mother. I never confirmed it in any way. We didn’t talk about it at all.
For the next six months, that fact about my father was the backdrop to everything I thought and I did. He’d go to work—he continued to work until two days before he died—and I wondered if he would die that day at work. If I went somewhere, I wondered if he would die before I got back. I wondered if maybe I shouldn’t go. If I was making social plans, I wondered if that was the wrong time. He went upstairs for a nap and I wondered if that was the last time I’d see him alive. It was ridiculous the way I worried.
At the same time, I wondered if maybe the whole thing wasn’t true. All I had to go on was that single conversation with my mother. Maybe she hadn’t said what I thought. Maybe she hadn’t meant what I thought. Maybe the conversation hadn’t happened. Had she called us into the room that morning? Maybe I had imagined it all.
Maybe the diagnosis was incorrect. They thought he had leukemia, but all he had was cataracts and ulcers. Maybe the diagnosis was correct the first time, but there had been a miraculous change. It had never happened before in the history of medicine, but now, in this case, someone had actually had leukemia, then miraculously gotten over it. Or maybe he did have it, but suddenly, the next day, after years of research, someone would discover a cure. He had leukemia, but somebody had discovered a cure in the nick of time. Everything would be all right.
I could imagine in all kinds of ways that everything was all right. What I couldn’t imagine was that my father was about to die.
Something was true, and I did everything to deny that it was. I didn’t want it to be true. I was furious that it was.
We had, as far as I remember, a normal Christmas that year. A few days later, there was a day when my father went to work, then decided he was too tired and had to come home. If anything should have told me something was dreadfully wrong—if I’d been open to a sign—that was it. My father had never left his patients in the lurch.
He skipped dinner and went up to bed. Maybe someone took dinner to him. He then did another thing he had never done in my lifetime. He called a doctor to come have a look at him, someone who lived in our neighborhood. I was upstairs while the doctor talked to him. He’d only been in the room a couple of minutes. I heard him say, “I hate to just put you in the hospital, Bill, but I can’t help thinking that’s where you should be.”
I’ve always found it moving to think of those men in that room, knowing what they knew.
Next comes the fact that seems—even to my mind—unforgivable, but it has to be seen in the context, not only of the six years since my father had been diagnosed, the two or three years since he’d been in and out of hospitals constantly, the six months since his illness had taken a turn for the worse. There had been so many occasions when I asked myself if I should do something or not, if I might be leaving at the wrong moment, doing the wrong thing. If I’d made this decision one time, I’d made it hundreds. This didn’t seem fundamentally different.
My brothers and I had tickets for a special showing of “My Fair Lady.” It was a rare occasion when the three of us did something together (Rusty, seven years younger than I, longed for those moments when we included him). The tickets were expensive and the seats reserved. My mother had gotten them.
All three of us said we shouldn’t go. My mother said we should.
“There’s no reason not to. There’s nothing you can do. I can get your father into the hospital. I’ve done it many times. He would want you to go.”
If we were going to make the movie, we had to leave right then. The doctor was up in the room, and we couldn’t say good-bye.
The little glimpse I’d had of my father when he was sitting on the bed, and the doctor had listened to his chest, was the last time I saw him alive.
The next day was New Year’s Eve. We did our usual rotation at the hospital: my mother went in the morning, Bill in the afternoon, my mother would go back after lunch, I would go in the late afternoon. But after my mother’s second visit my father said he was tired; he didn’t have energy for another visit. He’d see me in the morning.
I was scheduled to spend that evening with some friends, maybe go to a New Year’s Eve party. I would spend the night at their house (at the age of sixteen we had a special driver’s license, and couldn’t drive after 11:00. At their place we would be within walking distance of a party). Everything my mother said was the same as before. There was nothing I could do. Nobody would be going to the hospital that night. He would want me to go.
I thought there was a chance we’d go to a New Year’s Eve party, and I would kiss a bunch of girls. That had happened the year before. I hadn’t kissed girls much in my life, couldn’t pass up the opportunity. As it turned out, my friends had done something wrong and were grounded, so we couldn’t go out. We hung around playing pool and ping pong. After midnight I called home to check, and my mother said there was no change, but my father had called to wish everyone a Happy New Year, spoken to everyone individually. He was glad I was with my friends. But I was the only one who didn’t talk to him.
The next morning my brother called from the hospital and said there’d been a sudden turn for the worse. My friend drove me down, and my brother waited in the lobby, tears in his eyes. “Dad died this morning,” he said. “He didn’t know us when we got here.”
I was, as I’ve said, a sweet quiet boy, not terribly assertive. It didn’t occur to me to want to see my father’s body. I probably wouldn’t have asserted myself anyway. I’m not sure they would have let me, what with hospital regulations and procedures in those days. And my mother decided—partly because of the way he looked, but also in the general spirit of everything my family had done about this illness and death—to have a closed coffin. She might have been trying to save herself. She didn’t want to keep looking at the corpse.
In any case, I never saw the body. I didn’t see my father before or after after he died.
I went through those days in a haze. People came to the house, brought food. The house was full of people for several days. There were visiting hours at the funeral home, and we went to those.
I have no memory of the funeral. I remember sitting outside a room, waiting to go into the sanctuary, but don’t remember anything after that.
I don’t know exactly when I began to dream about my father. It wasn’t right away. One series of dreams—they were the inspiration for my first novel—concerned football; I would be hurrying to play a game somewhere, trying desperately to do this thing I was so intent on, and in the middle of the dream my father would show up, and we’d talk for a while. He seemed apart from all that, uninvolved in my struggle. Part of the reason I was playing, I knew, was to prove myself to him. But he was never at a game.
The dreams that interest me more are those I had in my thirties and forties. In some of them my father hadn’t died. He had disappeared from my life but now was back around. He’d gotten older but seemed fine. In other dreams—the really strange ones—my father had died, but had somehow come back to life as an adult, the age he should have been. My family knew him, but didn’t live with him. But he was alive.
Those were repeating dreams. I might have them several times a night, or in one long dream that lasted throughout the night. That was how it seemed. As strange as they sound, those dreams were terribly convincing. In the midst of my life as a teacher, or a library clerk, I went around in the morning with the strong feeling that my father was alive. I knew as a rational being that such a thing couldn’t be true, but the dream world is not rational, though sometimes it seems more real than the one we inhabit. It took hours for me to shake the feeling.
My brother Rusty, who was nine when my father died, often sounds, looks, or acts, exactly like my father. You would say he knew him the least—for the least amount of time, anyway—but sometimes he seems the most like him. It’s as if he’s doing an imitation, and got it perfect.
Is my father alive or dead? Is he alive in us? If I think he’s alive, or I feel he’s alive, is he alive? If I had a vivid dream of him, is he alive for the moments the dream is still vivid? Just as there was an air of unreality when he was ill, and when he died, there is an air of unreality about his death. It seems true and not true.
What is it to be alive? What is it to be dead?
Moments of Release
At the age of 16, weighing 198 pounds, and at 22, at 165—those vastly different bodies—I was somehow the same emotionally. There was a great deal of life experience I hadn’t felt. I held my breath, tightened my muscles, trying not to feel it. I had huge ambition as a writer—originating in my obsession with language—but if I couldn’t access my experience and emotion, I would have nothing to write with. A writer writes—as I’ve often told students—with his body, and my body was inaccessible.
A few years later, at 28, things weren’t much better. I had written 40 or 50 unpublished stories, an unpublished novel—two years in the making; I got up at 5:00 in the morning before I went off to my job teaching English at a secondary school—but still hadn’t accessed my deep emotion. My writing was technically proficient but something was missing. In my deep disappointment at the rejection of my novel—our lives give us the push we need—I had a kind of nervous breakdown. I felt a pain, a tightness, beneath my breastbone, as if a hand grabbed me there and held tight. The more harried my life—there were various things harrying me at the moment—the worse the pain. I saw a doctor, who guessed I might have gastritis and put me on a tranquilizer and a bland diet, eventually saw another doctor who did an upper GI series, but they found nothing physically wrong. The pain got worse and worse.
Finally, in desperation, I saw a pastoral care counselor. I poured out the story of my frustrations; for two sessions I talked about nothing but failures at writing. I thought he would tell me to give it up—that was why I hadn’t wanted to see him—but when I brought that possibility up, he said one of the kindest things anyone had ever said to me, ten years into my struggles with not being published. “Oh no. I could never see you as anything but a writer.” I eventually, in filling in my past, told him the story of my father’s death, how I hadn’t had a chance to say good-bye. He suggested I write a letter to my father telling him what I wished I’d said.
At that point I’d given up my teaching job, moved back to the city where I’d gone to college and got a part-time job at the university library. At an age when my friends were finishing law and medical school, establishing their practices, I was a part-time library assistant who rode a bike to campus every morning, wrote for several hours before I ate a peanut butter sandwich and went to my job. My wife had a weekend job at the local greenhouse, and we shared care of our three year old. The person who took care of Billy drove the car; the one who went to work rode the bike.
I’d started a second novel, resented the time it would take to write this goofy letter to my father. I didn’t see the point. I went to one of the open tables on the fourth floor of the library where I normally did my writing. The library was deserted at that hour, in the summer. As soon as I wrote the words Dear Dad, at the top of the page, I burst into tears. I didn’t just tear up. I started sobbing. I grabbed my things and stumbled to a more private part of the library.
My sobbing continued all through the letter, which was the most important thing I ever wrote. I didn’t say anything subtle, just talked about how I wished I hadn’t gone to the movie, hadn’t gone to the party, had gotten to the hospital sooner; I said all the things I wished I’d said, things I couldn’t have spoken at age 16 anyway. I could say them now, on a legal pad, by myself, at the age of 28.
The pain at my breastbone wasn’t an ulcer or gastritis. It was my body tightening so it wouldn’t feel the emotions locked in my torso, the sadness, anger, frustration, fear. I had broken through that locked up place. I’d opened the floodgates.
One morning of crying didn’t get at all the emotion, but it was a start.
My fiction writing, the personal essays I began to write—the first pieces I got published, right around that time—the writing I did every morning in notebooks to check in with feelings, the work I did with various therapists: all those things began to merge. I explored a subject with a therapist and wrote about it in my notebooks, always the way I got into it further. When the subject took shape, it might become an essay, many of which I published in a local magazine. Sometimes the essays expanded, or combined themselves, into novels, which I began publishing in 1980. I published four between 1980 and 1990.
That first novel might not have been published if it hadn’t been for my second therapist, also a pastoral care counselor, named Cheryl Smith. I started seeing her after I’d moved back to Durham. She was smart, interesting, deeply caring, attractive; she had a lot of compassion, but you couldn’t get around her. She was no pushover.
She saw me through my deepest depression about not getting published, after I’d finished my second novel and found an agent, but spent a year being rejected by a variety of publishers. I’d written about my father’s death, but mixed it with a sports story: I wrote from the vantage point of the senior year, after the father had died, when the team went on to a championship season (something no team of mine ever did). That success would never be enough for my protagonist, Dan Keith, because his father wasn’t there to see it. I told the story of my father’s illness and death, and his close relationship with me, through a series of flashbacks, thinking the sad story of the father would be more palatable if it were the background to a sports story.
Most of the rejections felt there was too much football in the book; they got bored with the march to the championship. A canny editor at the twelfth place to see it suggested the real problem: the heart of the story was the father son story, but it was told as background. The problem wasn’t that there was too much football—though there was—but that the emotional heart of the novel was in the background. She suggested I tell the story chronologically, from the freshman through the senior year. That would force me to face the difficult moments of the story and find its emotional center.
She didn’t say—but implied—that in writing the story as I had, I’d avoided the emotion. I’d told it that way in order to avoid it. I’d dipped a toe into my sadness about my father, but hadn’t been ready to take it on.
It had been difficult enough to face the story I told, much less go into it more deeply. I couldn’t see going through it again.
“So”—I reported to Cheryl Smith in a therapy session—“I told her I couldn’t do it.”
“Couldn’t?” She wrinkled her brow. “You mean you don’t want to. You could, but you don’t want to.”
“I couldn’t. It’s impossible. I could never go over that material again.”
“You could, but you won’t.”
“I’m telling you I couldn’t.”
She shook her head. “You won’t.”
She seemed intent on this semantic distinction. What the hell did she know about it?
“Put it any way you want,” I said. “It’s not going to happen.”
It must have been frustrating for her to hear me moan and groan all year about my bad fortune, now pass on the one opportunity I had.
She shrugged. “Have you faced the possibility that you might never be published?”
“What do you mean?”
“Maybe you don’t have the talent to be a published writer. Maybe it isn’t going to happen.”
“How would you know?”
“I have a friend who studied for years to be a concert cellist. She spoke to me the other day with tears in her eyes. ‘I have to face the fact that I’m never going to do the thing I always dreamed of.’”
“What does your friend have to do with me?”
“Your situations are a lot alike.”
I sat forward in my chair. “Why would you say this to me?”
“I’m just asking. Have you faced this possibility?”
“What do you know about writing talent? You haven’t even read my writing.”
“I’m asking you a question.”
In all my encounters with women, I’d never gotten angry. My father hadn’t allowed us to show anger to our mother, and once he’d gotten ill, she needed support and protection, not anger. I always had the feeling I had to be gentle with women, to protect them.
But in that office, with that woman questioning the most important dream of my life, I blew up. Who was she to ask such a question? She just wondered if I’d confronted this possibility, which to my mind was like confronting nuclear annihilation. It was unthinkable.
I stomped out. The hell with the hug at the end of the session. I’d have broken her ribs.
I didn’t mention what she’d said to my wife (who also, though she knew better than to say anything, wondered why I was passing up a publisher who was willing to give an advance if I’d do a revision). I was too angry.
Somehow, though, I couldn’t get it out of my mind.
The following weekend, though I normally devoted my weekends to my son and had vowed never to work, I went upstairs while he was watching cartoons and outlined the book I would write if I followed these suggestions. (I had also thought that the editor was kind of an uppity bitch. Who was she to tell me how to write my book?) It didn’t take long. I outlined the four years of high school, wrote the incidents I’d already covered with flashbacks. It was easy to see where I needed to fill in.
I still thought I’d written a good novel. But any fool could see this one was better. If I could write those scenes.
I would have to swallow my pride, of course. I’d have to admit that these damn women—neither of whom could have written this novel—were right.
I had to face the anguish of my father’s death once again, and in a deeper way. I had to put up or shut up.
I decided to do it.
That tightness beneath my breastbone was holding off sadness; it was holding off anger, but it was also holding off fear. I was afraid of what would happen if I got into all the sadness, afraid I wouldn’t get out.
I was also afraid I wouldn’t be able to write the scenes.
That fear would be my companion in the next eight months. I had to learn to work with it.
The most interesting of all the therapists I worked with—though the other two were exactly who I needed when I saw them—was a man named Victor Zinn, who I began to see in the mid-eighties, by which time I’d published two novels and was finishing a third. Victor was tall, thin, sturdy, an athlete—a highly competitive tennis player, who arranged his work around his tennis schedule—and a musician. He was very much in his body; one of his strongest teachings was the way he sat in his chair, facing you, completely open, completely present. He was also—interestingly—not terribly articulate, a fact which he freely admitted. He wasn’t anxious to talk—probably a good quality in a therapist—but was always there when you spoke.
I’d begun seeing him when I confronted the serious illness of my most important mentor, Reynolds Price. He had contracted spinal cancer, a serious difficult case, which even ten years before wouldn’t have been treatable. He eventually became a paraplegic, lived another twenty-seven years and produced much of his best work. But when he had first become ill, he seemed to be dying. I visited several times a week, but the visits took a toll, probably because they reminded me of the last days of my father. Sometimes after I saw Reynolds my stomach would hurt so much—that same gripping pain beneath the breastbone—that I could hardly drive home.
Victor was in many ways a body therapist, a concept which was new to me. He had trained with Alexander Lowen, the founder of Bioenergetics. Lowen himself had trained with Wilhelm Reich. Victor didn’t bring Lowen into the conversation himself, but I discovered the Bioenergetics books on my own, and he let me know he’d studied with the man.
All I was dealing with in confronting the unfelt emotions from my father’s death—anger, sadness, fear—resided in my body. The anger seemed primary, up in my chest—the natural adolescent anger I’d never had a chance to feel or process, also anger at the very fact that my father died—then sadness, which seemed more down in the belly, and fear, further down from that. I probably—as a man—felt anger better than the other things, but didn’t feel anything terribly well. Victor suggested I buy a heavy punching bag to get into the anger physically. He also suggested we schedule some sessions after hours where I could use a foam rubber encounter bat, scream and stomp around.
Victor understood that “the way I worked” (as he said) was to discover things as I wrote about them, then come and report. I didn’t often make discoveries in the office, as other clients might. I made them on my own, by writing. That was fine with him.
I sat and wrote one day, confronting that moment which most haunted me, my father on his death bed when I hadn’t been there. I spoke about how sorry I was that I hadn’t been there, and he replied—as I know he would have—that it was okay. There was no way I could know he would die that day. It wasn’t my fault.
But that day, as he said those words back to me, a wave of rage rose up. I raised my writing board—originally a cutting board, it was almost an inch thick—and my legal pad, slammed them to the floor, and jumped out of the chair to go down and work on the heavy bag. “Then what isn’t okay?” I shouted. I knew something wasn’t. My father’s answer never gave me any peace.
When I came upstairs after working the bag over and sobbing until I was exhausted, I saw that the cutting board had split in two.
What I got into that day was a side of my father I hadn’t allowed myself to look at, the part that was critical of me, didn’t like me. Because of the way he died, because of the time in my life, I hadn’t been able to get into the real feelings. I’d made him into a plaster saint.
Those were the things I concentrated on during our evening sessions with the encounter bat, the rage I felt about various things. There was something adolescent about it—Victor was largely a therapist for adolescents—but I’d never gone through it. On those evenings when I screamed and stomped and whacked the couch, Victor egging me on, I touched into a range of feelings, not just rage. I could feel my chest open. On my way home one evening I heard a sad song on a tape I was playing, burst into tears, something I’d never done to music. A funny song came on after that, and I howled with laughter.
One of the oddest days I experienced with Victor took place when I showed up with that knot burning in my chest. I was at a loss for words, and Victor had me do what my body felt like doing. I followed the energy, wound up on the floor in a fetal position. Eventually I lay on my back. He asked where the pain was, and I directed him to the point beneath the breastbone. He touched gently with his hand. My body convulsed in a way it never had, throwing off tension. If it resembled anything, it was the throes of an orgasm, but there was nothing sexual about it. Tears poured from my eyes, but they weren’t about anything. My body was just releasing. I kept convulsing that way, and crying, for 45 minutes, an enormous feeling of release, the tension of many years, pouring out.
There was more to come.
I think that Buddhist meditation—which I began to study in 1991, while my wife Alma was in Divinity School at Harvard—was the wheel that all the psychological and physical disciplines of the twentieth century (Reichian analysis, Gestalt therapy, Bioenergetics, Primal Scream therapy, even the very simple method called sensory awareness) were trying to re-invent. Reich himself, for instance, believed his disciples could collect the energy of the universe by sitting in a box that he called the Orgone accumulator.
He was right about the sitting. The box was extra.
The truth of the matter—at least as far as my life has told me, and I’ve done body therapy, Bioenergetics, yoga, dabbled in Tai Chi and sensory awareness—is that everything is accomplished by simply sitting. The body must learn the posture and acquire its seat. Over time (in my case months or years) it will learn to relax, and the experiences that were previously held in the body’s tension are released and emerge into consciousness. The mind/body experiences them—that can be painful—and then, like all phenomena, they dissolve.
Until that happens they weigh the body down. The feeling of releasing these things is one of sudden lightness.
I couldn’t sit at all when I began. On the night of our first class, while Alma (a limber person who had done yoga throughout her life) raved about how wonderful it was, all I experienced was a sore back and aching legs, though we had sat for only ten or fifteen minutes. I couldn’t get in the position at all.
But I persisted. One reason is that, when I take a class, I always do the homework. I don’t see the point of not doing what the teacher says. (Alma, as far as I know, never had any intention of doing the homework. She had plenty to do in grad school. But she was a natural.) I tend to be stubborn. There was something about Larry Rosenberg—just because he didn’t make grand claims—that inspired confidence.
I was also, in some way, desperate. If this didn’t work nothing would.
I had a visceral feeling (Larry has spoken of the same feeling when he began) that there was something about meditation I needed to know.
In my stiff, awkward way, I continued to sit, at first before I wrote, in the morning, then first thing in the morning, before I had breakfast, as an activity by itself. Gradually my body loosened up. My posture wasn’t great (even after seven or eight years, my Zen teacher had plenty of complaints), but it was good enough. The evening sitting at the meditation center lasted an hour, and I set that as a goal, because I wanted to attend and didn’t want to embarrass myself. Within a year I was sitting an hour every morning.
Sometimes in the afternoon, after I had exercised, I went to the center and sat on my own, deeply grateful I finally had a spiritual practice.
My first full summer in Cambridge, because Alma was about to start an internship at an AIDS hospice, she did a ten day retreat at the Insight Meditation Society (though she’d sat only sporadically in the intervening year). When I picked her up at the end of it, she looked noticeably different, completely relaxed. The way I put it—the way I saw it—was that she was beautiful, not that she hadn’t been beautiful before, but there was a greater beauty in her face when it was relaxed. The difference was startling.
The following year I did several weekend retreats, and though I’d had a daily practice for over a year, found them incredibly difficult, but they loosened me up even more. Something about extending myself—as if I were a long distance runner—was helpful.
When we returned to North Carolina, I sat for a while at the Shambhala Center, where the sittings weren’t scheduled, lasted varying lengths of time. It was there that I began to experience bolts of energy, which might turn my body in a twist, send my arms flopping around. Shambhala practice has no strictures against moving, and I let those things happen. I also began to experience a soft blissful energy, not all the time, but often. It was this energy that I referred to—in a book I wrote in the late nineties—as “better than sex. Better than any sex I’d ever had.” It’s an easy thing to get attached to, and it didn’t show up when I wanted, but it came and went all that year. Years later I would find truth in Reginald Ray’s statement, in an interview, that “The body’s natural state is blissful.”
After two and a half years of daily practice, I decided I was ready to do a ten-day retreat at the Insight Meditation Society.
That retreat was a profound period of learning, one of the most important things I ever did, and set the tone for all the retreats I’ve done since. It showed me something about my life I’d always known but never examined. It was a microcosm of my Buddhist experience, of my whole life, as if I were dying and watched my life pass before me.
By any normal measure, it was a dreadful experience.
On the morning I embarked on the two-day drive to Barre, I noticed a feeling of trepidation but brushed it aside. I’d been meditating for two and a half years, was reuniting with my first teacher in an ideal place to deepen and refine my practice. How could that be a problem?
That evening, at a motel Alma and I had stayed at before, after having dinner, watching a basketball game, sitting for a while, I got ready for bed. I could hear some men next door as I turned the light out. It sounded as if they were watching basketball themselves, maybe having a few beers. “I wonder if those guys will keep making noise” I thought to myself, “so I won’t be able to sleep, will be tired at the beginning of my retreat.”
With that thought, I fell into a place of deep anxiety, my body suddenly rigid. It wasn’t nervousness about those guys making noise, but all the anxiety about my retreat that I’d been brushing aside for weeks, preserving my idealized vision. It wasn’t just anxiety about being alone on retreat, or alone that night, but the fact of being alone in the universe, a fact which my retreat would accentuate.
I knew this feeling. It was like the nights when I’d lain awake for hours as a ten year old.
I didn’t sleep at all, as it turned out. Long after those men went to bed, the noise stopped, I lay terrified, my eyes closed but aching, body rigid. I had this way of thinking, “If I get to sleep now that will be six hours of sleep, that isn’t too bad.” I did the same with five hours. Four. Three. I kept holding out the possibility that I’d get some sleep.
At 5:00 the next morning I gave up and hit the road.
By now I realized I was terrified. It would have made as much sense to turn around as to keep going. When I got to IMS, some men took me under their wing, showed me around. They couldn’t have been kinder, or more helpful. There would be one sitting that night, and things would start in earnest the next day.
I didn’t sleep at all again that night.
The day began with a sitting at 5:45, followed by breakfast and a work period. It proceeded with 45 minute periods of sitting followed by periods of walking, one after another. Lunch was at noon, followed by a break. There was a talk after the light evening meal. The rest of the day was sitting and walking.
I had done all this before, but never more than two days, and never at a residential center. I’d always gone home at night.
My record for consecutive nights without sleep was three, after my first wife left. On that third night, with my son sleeping in the next room, I got up at one point to write some lines in my notebook, then went back after a while to read them and see if they made sense. I was afraid I was going out of my mind, the voices were roaring so loud in my head (as they were doing now, on retreat). I was afraid I’d read those words and they’d be gibberish. On that occasion I’d called a doctor the next morning and gotten a prescription for some sleep medication.
There were no sleeping pills on the meditation retreat. And after that third night, there were seven more.
On the third night I drifted off in the wee hours of the morning, slept for two or three hours.
As one of the teachers said in a dharma talk, retreats are a set-up for suffering. You’re forbidden to speak, to read, to write, even to make eye contact; you spend the whole time in your consciousness. You do sitting meditation, walking meditation; you skip the whole thing and sit around drinking tea (some people, it sometimes seems, do nothing but drink tea). Nevertheless, there you are. It’s a nightmare. Whatever your personal brand of suffering, it shows up. Mine (was I really surprised at this? My wives wouldn’t have been) was anxiety.
The first person I actually spoke to was a long-time meditator who was helping to lead a retreat for the first time, Michael Grady. I explained what I’d been going through, strange as it sounded. I was a total basket case. He admitted—probably the kindest thing anyone could have said in those circumstances—that he was quite familiar with that kind of anxiety. “Maybe you thought you’d come on retreat and wouldn’t experience anxiety,” he said. “Maybe you thought you’d just come and deepen your meditation practice. Maybe you thought you’d have some anxiety, but would only experience it on the cushion.”
The man had me nailed. I’d thought all those things.
“That was the retreat you thought you’d have. This is the retreat you’re actually having. I encourage you to have the retreat you’re having.”
That final sentence should be etched above any hall where retreats happen.
He told me, basically, to do whatever I had to do. Nap during the day, stay away from the hall all day if I had to. (I knew, actually, that I wouldn’t be able to sleep during the day either. My room was a torture chamber to me.) The thing I needed to do, as much as I was able—and it might not be much—was to experience my anxiety. There was no other answer to what I was going through. I had to experience what life was serving up to me.
I could describe any day on the retreat, any night, probably any meditation period; they would all be completely characteristic of the whole. My characteristic syndrome was taking place: I was afraid that something would happen (that I wouldn’t sleep); my fear made me tense; the tension brought about the thing I feared. I went through the same emotions over and over, overwhelming fear, sadness that I was feeling fear (and that I’d felt it all my life), anger at the way I’d ruined my life with this. I’d get sad again. I’d get afraid. They were all one feeling.
I’d never cried so much in my life. I was constantly bursting into tears. My hands shook. My body ached. I was bleary-eyed, stumbling around bumping into things. I was a mess.
The most characteristic moment was also the most humiliating one. After I’d been there four or five days, six days, sleeping at the most two or three hours per night, I realized I could never drive back to North Carolina at the end of this thing. I’d planned to spend a couple of days up in Cambridge to see my old haunts, but who was to say I’d sleep any better, or be less anxious, at a B&B in Cambridge than at the meditation center? I’d still be utterly alone. What would the difference be?
I decided that—though we weren’t supposed to use the telephone, though Alma had work to do and we didn’t, in any case, have much money (that was why I’d driven in the first place rather than flying)—I had to ask Alma to fly up and drive back to North Carolina with me. I needed help driving. I needed companionship. I just needed help.
It was humiliating to ask, but Alma was not entirely surprised. She said she’d be happy to help me (though she let me know later that she was slightly pissed off). She’d call the airline and see when she could get a flight. I said I’d call back later in the day. I didn’t want to wait for her to leave me a message. I’d just keep worrying.
I called after lunch. She’d gotten a flight. She’d help me drive back. Finally I could quit worrying about my insomnia. I knew I’d get out of here and make it back home. I could relax and get into the retreat.
I set out on the three mile walk I took every day after lunch, hoping, in vain, that it would tire me out (it never did. The energy of my anxiety was huge). About ten minutes in, basking in the feeling that everything was okay, I suddenly thought, What if the plane goes down? What if I have to face, not only that whole car trip alone, but the rest of my life alone? What if my idiotic anxiety is responsible for Alma’s death?
It’s funny to write such a thing down. When I’ve told this story in a talk, there have always been gales of laughter. But in that moment, though I could see how crazy it was, that it was the same thing all over again, the fear was real. I’d fallen back into my anxiety. I was right back in the soup.
I was doing this to myself. I was causing this suffering. I could see that I was doing it, that I’d done it all my life, and that it had ruined my life. But I couldn’t stop.
“What are you afraid of?” Larry Rosenberg said, on the day when we finally had our interview. “You have a place to stay here. Good food to eat. What’s to be afraid of?”
That was the eternal question. I would spend years pondering it.
One day toward the end of the retreat, on the last full afternoon, I went back to the bedroom which had been such a torture chamber for me—I dreaded going there, every night—and, as I looked out the window, felt a sudden fear of going outside. I was afraid of outside and afraid of inside. That didn’t leave me much choice.
It was like when I was ten years old. I was afraid of death, also afraid of life.
I decided to go outside. If I gave into that fear I wouldn’t be able to live. I walked the same three mile loop I’d walked every day, but I did it backwards, so it looked different. I didn’t walk quickly, to exhaust myself, I walked slowly, finally giving in. I was a totally fucked up bundle of nerves trudging along, barely able to walk. There was nothing I could do about it.
The whole place looked different, apart from the fact that I was walking the other way. The rocky, craggy landscape of New England suddenly had a rugged beauty. I’d seen it as harsh and forbidding. Birds flew down to greet me, butterflies hovered around; chipmunks came out to look, as did farmyard animals, horses and a goose. A cat walked up and rubbed my leg. I don’t know whether, because I was giving off another vibe, animals were coming up to me, or whether I was just seeing what happened every day, if I hadn’t been so tortured by anxiety. What I was seeing, in any case, was the world. It was beautiful.
I should have taken a look before.
My friends all wondered, after I’d told them—in hilarious detail—what a dreadful experience I’d had on retreat, why I wanted to go back the next year, and the next. (It was one of those moments when you finally write your friend off.) Maybe it was because I’d gone through something I’d had to: facing my anxiety, feeling my aloneness, crying over it. Maybe it was because I’d screwed it up so much, and wanted to try it again. Maybe it was because I could see no recourse to facing myself as I really was.
The real reason was that I had so much less anxiety in the rest of my life. I’d shaken off things that had plagued me for years. I felt freer, lighter.
The whole movement of meditation practice is toward freedom and lightness.
This year’s retreat was my 20thanniversary of doing retreats. I’ve averaged two per year most of that time.
I never begin without that sense of dread. But now I try to feel it.
I have always—this is something I’ve noticed on retreat—been the kind of person who makes the best of any situation he’s in. This isn’t all that bad,has been the mantra of my life. It could be a lot worse.In that way, I’ve been a helpful companion to other people, helping them see the other side of things, helping them persevere.
As the days wore on during my early retreats, my back would grow tired, legs tighten. I especially noticed my legs tighten toward the end of the afternoon. They were like metal bands in a vise, grew tighter and tighter. I sat wincing with pain.
This isn’t so bad,I’d say to myself. It’s not as bad as last year. It’s not something I can’t stand. I’m getting better at this. I’m starting to like this place.
One day—again, I think it was toward the end of the retreat—I wandered out of the meditation hall, walked through the dining hall, smelled some characteristic smell, I think it was lentils cooking, and suddenly said to myself, I hate this place.
It made no sense in a way. The retreat was almost over.
But that was what I felt. I went back to my room and completely lost it. Within the limits of trying not to make much noise, I cried, slammed my fist against the bed, put my face in a pillow and roared. I’d finally admitted how I felt about the place.
I felt better after I’d done that. And when I went back to the meditation hall, my legs didn’t hurt at the end of the sitting. They didn’t tighten up. They weren’t holding something off so I couldn’t feel it. They’ve never hurt again.
My legs are like rubber. They can sit all day.
One year, after I’d just been on retreat, I went to get a massage from a woman I’d been seeing for years. She’d been a confidant of mine as well. I’d told her about retreats, my meditation experience in general. My body was still slightly weary from the experience. I’d just gotten back.
I was lying on my back at one point, and she cupped her fingertips under my neck. She wasn’t actively massaging, just letting me lie with that support. I suddenly, in that part of my body that had always been tight, felt a huge release. I had a sensation like falling through space, but never hit bottom. From the center of my body, a radiant energy moved out, as if I were dissolving. I wouldn’t have been surprised if I’d dissolved into thin air. I also wouldn’t have cared, the way I felt. I won’t say I’d never felt anything like that, but I’d never felt it so powerfully. I also had an overwhelming sense of love, not that I loved somebody, or somebody loved me. It was just love, radiating from my center, taking me over. Love was what I was. It went on as long as she held her fingers there, which seemed a long time.
Afterwards I asked if she’d felt that energy. “I didn’t feel any energy,” she said. “I just felt love. Not that I loved you. It was just love.” She laughed.
Maybe she was more used to it than I was. For me it was a first.
Monastic Living and the Rhythm of Life
When Alma and I first got to Cambridge, I had no social connections, while she met all kinds of people at school. I was busy with writing and reading, but didn’t run into people much. Our meditation class wasn’t a social occasion, because everybody was practiced mindfulness and noble silence. Partly in order to meet people, but also to learn the language, I took a Spanish class in Harvard’s Continuing Ed program.
I loved the people in that class, including the teacher, a small Peruvian man who had to teach Spanish to nitwits in Continuing Ed but was actually a Cervantes scholar. He and I had dinner one evening, and he told me that all the techniques of the modern novel are already there in Don Quixote, the first novel ever written. He also drank me under the table.
It was a bad time for the economy, right before the Clinton presidency, and Boston had been hard hit; most people in the class were unemployed (while I had just made the only good paycheck I ever made as a novelist That was how I could move to Cambridge). One of my classmates, weirdly, was from Duke Divinity School in Durham. He had taken a year off to live in Cambridge at a monastery, I think it must have been The Society of St. John the Evangelist, though I wasn’t interested enough to ask. I was just coming out of my religious stupor.
One day I was walking along the Charles River and ran into him. (He had spoken of his daily walks (in Spanish) during class; he was trying to give up smoking, and on his daily walk along the river had his one cigarette of the day. Soon he would give even that one up.) We chatted for a while, and he said, “You know, this is the first time I’ve ever lived at a monastery where you have to attend prayers. The only responsibility I have in life is to attend prayers morning, noon, and evening. And what I’ve found is, if you take care of that part of your life, everything else just falls into place.” He spoke those words, smiled, shook my hand, and walked away.
I stood there thinking, what was that? Did I ask about life at the monastery? Did I ask advice about my life?
But I have found what he said profoundly true. If you make your spiritual practice the first priority of the day—at least figuratively, if not literally—the rest of the day falls into place. I never wake up thinking, what do I do now? I know what I do. And out of that, somehow—collecting myself from a night’s sleep, reviewing what happened the day before (which naturally happens as you sit), gazing into the day ahead (another thing that happens), bringing mind and body together, to whatever extent that happens, the day begins to emerge.
I think of this as the monastic way of life, though you don’t have to live in a monastery to live it. I regard it as one of the great discoveries of life. I’m not sure I would ever have seen it if that young man hadn’t spoken to me that day in Cambridge.
I began really to understand the monastic way when we did retreats—known as sesshins—at our Zen Center in Chapel Hill. I may have noticed more easily because I was in North Carolina, where I live. On sesshin, we wake up early and are sitting as the sun rises, and the first bird sings. (A friend of mine who practices Transcendental Meditation told me that, in India, the most propitious time for meditation is said to be the hour before the first bird sings.) We gaze at the wall but have windows all around, and hear that first birdsong, notice the room slowly fill with light. After two sittings we have a morning service of bowing and chanting, another way of waking up. We wake our bodies with the bowing, voices with the chanting.
After breakfast we sit in the full light of morning. Our teacher gives a talk after a couple of sittings; we sit again after the talk, then have a briefer noon service before our meal. After lunch we have an hour of work practice, cleaning things up and maintaining the zendo; we often have an hour of physical movement, yoga or Chi Gong. By mid-afternoon we’re sitting again, and feel that difference in the day, as the light wanes. We have a brief service before the light evening meal. After a break we sit into the evening. The zendo is dark by the end of the day, as it was when we arrived. The evening service is quiet, just chanting and bows, no bells.
As you go through that schedule, day after day—it hasn’t changed in the 20 years I’ve been following it—you notice that the day has a rhythm, and there is something profoundly satisfying about being in sync with it. The day follows that rhythm and our schedule does as well. We’re living as animals live, as the human animal—one can’t help thinking—was meant to live.
Life has a rhythm. If you settle down you can feel it. The life in our cities, our workplaces, tends to be profoundly out of touch with it. I’m not saying that’s immoral, or even incorrect. But there’s something profoundly satisfying about being in touch with life’s rhythm.
Everything in life is expansion and contraction. The day is that way. The year. A human life. (I’m in the contraction phase.) The human heartbeat. The working of the lungs. Apparently the life of the universe is that way, expanding and contracting.
It is deeply satisfying to be in touch with that rhythm, not to control it, or pretend to (you don’t control it, whatever you think) but to surrender. A traditional technique of meditation is to follow the breathing, but it’s not really a technique; it’s a natural occurrence. If you sit in stillness and notice the body, you feel the breathing; it’s overwhelmingly the most notable thing going on. It probably became a “technique” because it naturally happens. I’ve found, through the years, that there are levels of surrendering, deeper and deeper. There’s a level at which, when you surrender to the breathing, you’re surrendering to the cosmos. You’re not doing it; you’re not doing anything. You’re something that is happening.
One day last spring, as I was about to give a talk on this subject, I was walking along the beach at Wrightsville Beach (my wife was attending a conference in Wilmington; I was tagging along), and saw a bench painted with the words, Enjoy the Rhythm of Life. The waves crashing in, the waves going out.
The birds don’t need a reminder. They follow it naturally. But we—who are subject to the jagged rhythms of daily life—do need a reminder, at least most of us. We need a monastery that tells us to come to prayers (like a bunch of birds singing), or a retreat center that tells us to sit. Or we need a daily practice to follow, which puts us in touch with the rhythm and opens us to joy.
Living by Karma and Living by Vow
One of the things that the Dalai Lama’s website publishes is his daily routine. He wakes up at 2:30 and spends several hours in meditation (definitely sitting the hour before the first bird sings). He doesn’t literally live in a monastery, but follows a schedule as regulated as any monastic. On one occasion when he was asked the secret of happiness, he gave a one word answer. “Routine.” (He has also answered “Compassion.” Another good answer.)
There is a little man I know at the YMCA, who always has a smile on his face, though his life has not been easy. He works long hours at a high school where he teaches exceptional children, spent years caring for his ailing mother, coordinating shifts with his various adult children (most of whom were sons, and great cooks). His wife had left him years ago with an infant girl, whom he raised by himself, while working. One day I talked to him about his routine—he doesn’t own a car, has to get a bus quite early to make it to school, then takes one to the Y—and he mentioned that he got up at 4:00. That didn’t square with anything else. Why so early, I asked. “Oh well,” he said. “I’ve got to thank the Lord.”
When I taught in the MPP program at Duke I knew a young woman who was a member of Soka Gakkai, a form of Nichiren Buddhism. She told me her inspiration in life was her Japanese grandmother, who had come to this country when my student was a little girl, came to be treated for cancer. She was dying, and the treatment didn’t prevent that, but she seemed totally equanimous, baked cookies for the nurses, sat around with her granddaughter. The night before she died she called the family together, said how grateful she was to have known them, and to have found Buddhism. Her daily practice was chanting. She did it every morning from 4:00 to 6:00.
When Alma and I were in Seoul because she’d been asked to give a talk at a woman’s university, we met the university president, a woman who was such a role model that the professor showing us around said she’d returned to Korea from the United States solely because she’d have the opportunity to work for this woman. One of the facts this professor told us was that the woman got up at 4:00 every day and spent two hours praying at a Presbyterian church. (There’s a Presbyterian church that’s open at that hour?I thought.) A prominent American Presbyterian, Fred Rogers, also had the practice of praying for two hours every morning.
I prefer to sit in silence. But I don’t think that’s the only practice to have. I don’t doubt that some practices are better than others, but I also think any is better than none, that it doesn’t matter what you do, but it’s good to have a period of time every day that reminds you how you want to live, connects you with the rhythm of life.
One of the important Buddhist teachings for me is a simple one, we live by karma or live by vow. By karma is the way most people live: you want a pizza, you go get it; you want a six pack of beer with that, you buy it and guzzle it down. You buy a quart of ice cream and eat it right out of the carton. You wake up in the morning and wander around scratching your ass, wondering what the hell is going on.
Living by vow is different. You make a conscious decision to live a certain way, and try to do it. You see the value of having a schedule, and practicing meditation, and you vow to do that every day. That doesn’t mean you never miss, or that if you miss one day the whole thing is over. It just means that you missed a day, the way you might miss a day of jogging. You return to your vow the next day.
The bird doesn’t need a reminder to sing in the morning, but we do. A vow can be that reminder.
On my most recent retreat at IMS, my old teacher Larry Rosenberg—81 years old now, but as sharp as ever—was talking about how sitting is not a special activity, but also is. It’s a subject I’ve heard him address many times before. “Look at the statue of the Buddha,” he said. “He’s not washing the car, or mowing the lawn. He’s not making love. He’s sitting.”
That remark drew a wave of laughter from the crowd. Suddenly his mind took a different turn. He didn’t continue that train of thought.
“He’s also dead,” he said. “Apparently he solved his problems. That doesn’t do us any good.”
With one remark, he skewered the people who were making a show every day showing deep reverence for the Buddha. Larry also shows reverence for the Buddha. But that isn’t the point of what we’re doing.
The Buddha didn’t intend to found a religion. He didn’t want to be worshiped. Like all the great religious teachers, he saw something. It is my theory that they all saw the same thing, though they expressed it differently, coming through different cultures. But what they wanted was for people to wake up and see the beauty of life, throw off their shackles and be free. They wanted people to taste the joy of life. They had tasted it themselves, and wanted to pass it along.
People are afraid of that freedom. They are afraid—strangely enough—of joy. They are afraid of the full beauty of life. It’s too much for them. They can’t take it.
So they worship the person who brought the message. They admire him for being free, for throwing off his chains, for being awake. They feel that they’re not worthy of this message, but can at least worship the man who brought it.
They thereby miss the whole point.
Every Snowflake Is Different
On a recent visit to Brooklyn, where I visit my grandchildren, I had a free morning, because their favorite babysitter was coming over and my daughter in law thought it best that I not be there (things get wild). I had a few hours to do my favorite things. My plan was to wake up, sit zazen, have coffee in my room while I read my Buddhist book (I always do some devotional reading), go to a diner for breakfast, then walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. My hotel is less than a mile from the bridge, so walking into Manhattan and back gives me just the right amount of exercise.
I was reading in the Tibetan Dzogchen tradition. One of my friends at our Zen Center has been sitting with us since he moved to the area, but before that practiced for decades with Tibetan teachers. He had given me this book as the one Tibetan book I should read, and I’d read it the summer before. But good Buddhist books are different every time. I’ve read some many times.
Something I read that morning gave me a radically new notion about the world. I’m not sure the notion was in the book, since I’d read it before and didn’t notice. Maybe it prompted the notion in me. But I had the feeling it was in the book.
The idea was that every being in the world was supposed to be exactly as they were, because the world is complete as it is, and if something changes things will be thrown out of balance. It isn’t that everything is good, or fine. Plenty of beings are perfectly awful. But we need awful in this world, so we’ll know what good is, but also in order to make the world complete. The important thing is that the world be complete. That’s the way it is now, so nobody needs to change.
I had heard this teaching expressed before as something like: if you remove even a mote of dust from the universe, the whole thing will collapse. This seemed another version of the same teaching, but with specific reference to beings. We don’t want to get rid of any dust motes, or any beings.
The notion seems radical because it stands in contrast to what people normally think when they practice a religion. It’s more natural when you’re practicing Buddhism to think that everyone should practice, and they should change in a way that will make them wise and compassionate, also much happier. That’s what all religions seem to say. Just act this way (the way we tell you), and become this person, and the world will be better. We’ll get along beautifully.
This teaching said something completely different. The world is the way it’s supposed to be. Be as you are. (That seemed to correspond with a famous teaching of Suzuki Roshi: when you are you, Zen is Zen. I’ve spent years pondering those words.)
This wasn’t some Fred Rogers type teaching: You are my friend you are special. I like you just the way you are. It was more radical. The most grossly obese person, the most physically deformed person, the dirtiest most scum-sucking drunken bum: all those people are important. They make the world complete. Without that drunken bum, we would be deficient in scum sucking.
I’m not saying this notion is correct. I may have made it up. I’m not dead certain it’s in the book. What is fascinating is how much different the world looks when you walk around with that notion in your head. It’s a Copernican revolution. All of your judgments cease.
I could eat a continental breakfast in the hotel lobby. It’s free. But when I’m in Brooklyn I love to go to diners, because things seem livelier there, and lately I’ve preferred a diner next to the Fulton Street Mall, an African American enclave in the middle of a neighborhood that is becoming trendier and trendier. When I walk my grandson to school we go through the Mall, and people are out on the sidewalk hawking gold chains, CD’s, offering great deals on cell phones. Everybody’s friendly (they’re all trying to get their hands in your pockets). It’s a lively place.
The morning before, a Sunday, many of the people who walked by were dressed for church, I mean dressed for church, and a woman who was dressed up and waiting for a bus had somehow slipped and fallen on the sidewalk, chose to stay there for close to fifteen minutes, yelling at people about her problems in the world while they just stepped around her. The folks in the diner knew many of the customers, and know what they wanted, so a guy came buzzing along in a wheelchair to a huge welcome, and ordered his usual breakfast, scrambled eggs with cheese and a side of French fries. He slathered the whole thing with ketchup. He was obese, obviously not getting much exercise, but he was supposed to be the way he was, so my usual judgments flew out the window. Eat those fries! Get a double order of cheese with the eggs!
I was fascinated by walking across the Brooklyn Bridge. All of New York is like the United Nations, but the Brooklyn Bridge is in particular: many people from far away make a point of walking the bridge, and having their picture taken (more than once they’ve handed me the camera. Not something you want to do too freely in New York!). I heard all kinds of languages, saw all kinds of people, every shape and size, happy faces, sad ones, hysterical, angry, vaguely melancholy, troubled, tormented: you name it, I saw it.
You’re supposed to be just the way you are, I wanted to tell them. Do you realize that? Few people seemed to have any idea. Not a lot of people met my gaze, or met it with more than a glance. But every now and then, more often than I would have thought, somebody looked directly into my eyes, met my gaze, and smiled. They know,I would think. They know everything’s the way it’s supposed to be.
When I was a schoolchild, one of the most startling things I heard was that every snowflake is different. Although they all look alike, sit together and form a huge pile, actually, if you examine them under a microscope, each one has a different structure. No two snowflakes are alike.
How do you know that? I used to think. It sounded preposterous. Have you looked at every snowflake? How could you even look at a snowflake under a microscope? Wouldn’t it melt?
But what I didn’t believe about snowflakes, I believe about people. The problem isn’t the way they are. It’s that they keep trying to change.
On my trips to Asheville I often get together with my old friend Levi, a substance abuse counselor whom I first knew in a Durham Men’s Group 26 years ago. He moved up to the mountains soon after we met, but we kept in touch. Now that I live in Asheville part time we periodically get together for long breakfasts. I don’t have another friend who shares so many of my interests.
In recent years he’s been working part-time at a high end substance abuse facility, the kind of place where people go when their funds aren’t limited. That situation, of course, can make their substance abuse problems all the more difficult. On a recent visit he told me about two men in late middle age, both professionally successful. One is a lawyer and one an Episcopal priest, one straight and one gay. Both were addicted to crystal meth.
I shook my head in disbelief. I thought of crystal meth as a working man’s drug, associated it with desperately poor people in the Midwest whose lives are bleak out without hope. I couldn’t understand why successful people would even try such a notoriously addictive drug.
They took it in the context of sex parties. Both were promiscuous and liked to organize wild orgies, seeking greater pleasure, more partners, several partners at once, partners who would do anything they wanted, any time they wanted. When all that—apparently—wasn’t enough, they took crystal meth in the hope of intensifying things.
One of the men hit rock bottom when somebody found him under a bed smoking meth and looking at porn on a laptop. I can’t quite picture the under the bed situation, but that’s the story I was told. His life had come to that.
Years ago I wrote a book on sex and spirituality, and profiled a number of people—living and dead—who saw the connection between those apparently disparate energies and tried to live it, writers such as Walt Whitman, D.H. Lawrence, Alan Watts. One outsider I featured was a porn writer named Marco Vassi, who produced a very literate kind of porn, also wrote a memoir and one straight novel, about Zen practice. He was a spiritual seeker and sexual renegade all at once, spent years in the Gurdjieff work and countless hours in New York’s gay baths. He seemed very much a product of the Sixties.
Vassi was the kind of person who, at some point in my life, I thought I wanted to be. He was apparently a charming, charismatic man, had had sex with hundreds, thousands of people, seemed to have had sex whenever he wanted. He did all this in the eighties, so he wound up dying of AIDS. He was a kind of martyr to sexual freedom.
When I finished the book, I asked myself who had been the happiest among the people I profiled. I settled, somewhat to my astonishment, on Walt Whitman. He didn’t have a strong sex drive, wasn’t like the promiscuous gay men of a hundred years later. He tended, actually, to fall in love with straight men, to have a short-lived relationship and pine away when his beloved wandered away and got married. He wrote in a veiled way—not terribly clearly—about sexual encounters; you can hardly tell what was going on. He also wrote, pointedly and memorably, about a moment he regarded as the height of happiness, sitting in a bar with one of his special friends, holding his hand and enjoying his company. It wasn’t even a sex act, just a moment of deep affection.
You could look at Whitman as a pathetic old queer who never found satisfaction, kept falling in love with one inappropriate man after another. Yet he lived a deeply loving life. Toward the end he spent months caring for wounded men during the War Between the States, gave of himself tirelessly. I’ve read speculation that such work damaged his health, led to an earlier death than he might otherwise have had. He never regretted it.
Vassi on the other hand seemed a tormented soul, constantly seeking a pleasure better than the last. The scene from his porn books that most sticks in my mind is the time that—despite any number of free partners—he hired a prostitute and began his account of their encounter by saying, “I ate her for an hour.” I’m sure he meant to give pleasure to this woman, and maybe he did. Men often don’t think of the woman’s pleasure when they hire one; he went out of his way to make her happy.
But I think it just as likely that the woman wanted to get the hell out, pick up her cash and move on to the next trick. What was this crazy guy doing? Wouldn’t he ever stop?
He wouldn’t. He kept going way past the point of reason. He kept it up until it killed him.
The day before I saw Levi, I’d been to my favorite institution in the city, One Center Yoga, with one of the best teachers I’ve ever had of anything, Cindy Dollar. She often attends sessions with visiting teachers who come to the center, and the weekend before a man had come who had taught pranayama—practicing with the breath—and spoke in that context about satisfaction. Our goal at class that day was to find satisfaction in all our poses.
My ears pricked up as she said that. My understanding of the Buddha’s teaching is that there is no such thing as satisfaction, that pursuing it (having huge sex orgies where you smoke crystal meth, hiring a prostitute and going down on her for an hour) is a futile enterprise because our lives are finite but our desires infinite. That dilemma characterizes human beings. The notion, therefore, that we could find satisfaction in a yoga pose gave me pause, though I was open to it. The yoga teachings of Patanjali are similar to those of the Buddha, but not exactly the same. Some vocabulary is different, some ideas as well.
Cindy said this teacher claimed that we find satisfaction when the inbreath and the outbreath are in harmony, the same length and in sync. That is satisfaction.
Made sense to me. I’ve experienced that feeling in zazen, which is itself a yoga asana. The inbreath and outbreath are slowed down and calm; there’s a still point around which the lungs expand and contract. It is what Zen teacher Gudo Nishijima called the balanced state (he was referring to a balance between the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system, but that brings about a balance in the breathing). When we settle into sitting, the breathing is often subtle, just that slight movement around a basic stillness, what T.S. Eliot called “the still point of the turning world.”
I don’t think the Buddha would have disagreed. The way he saw people suffering was that they were constantly looking outside themselves to satisfy desire, relieve aversion, escape confusion, avoiding these painful states. They never really can, because satisfaction is temporary at best, also never enough. We want more.
The irony is that we find satisfaction is by doing nothing. We feel our desire, feel our aversion, accept them as they are. That complete acceptance is a novel strategy, more or less the opposite of what everything else is doing. Weirdly enough, it works.
Through years of practice, there’s a way to take that stillness into the world, into activity. You’re doing things, but not in order to accomplish anything; you’re doing them to do them. You completely do them, with no goal at all. You’re just doing, the way you just sit.
When you live that way, you’re in a constant state of satisfaction. It’s not the opposite of dissatisfaction, and doesn’t exclude it. It’s a feeling that surpasses our discursive activity. It includes everything.
“If the only prayer you every say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.”
At the homeless shelter where I volunteer, we begin each Friday’s religious service—it’s supposed to be a class about meditation and Centering Prayer, but feels more like a prayer meeting—by saying what we’re grateful for. We take quite a bit of time. I’m humbled by things those folks mention, and the way I take many of them for granted (like a bed to sleep on. A roof over my head. They haven’t always had those things). But last time I talked about a man whose story put them into that same position.
At the Chapel Hill Zen Center we do prison outreach, and four of us meditate with a couple of prisoners on Death Row in Raleigh. We cover every Monday, so each of us goes once a week. I’ve been doing that for eight years. One of the men we sit with—he goes by JT—seems remarkably mature spiritually. He never misses a meeting, greets me with a certain calm and humility, speaks sometimes of the help he gives younger inmates. He’s like a father figure to them.
I know JT did something terrible to get on Death Row. (I know what he did, actually and don’t believe it worthy of the Death Penalty, but I don’t believe in the Death Penalty period. I find it barbaric, not worthy of a civilized nation.) But as one of the people at the shelter said when I told them this story, it’s possible to have a transformative experience, one which turns your whole life around. More than one mentioned St. Paul, and pointed out that he did some time himself.
One possible transformative experience was that JT was scheduled to be executed when the current legal conundrum which has stalled the death penalty in North Carolina came about (my hope is that it continues indefinitely). He had said good-bye to his family and friends. He was ready to go. Then he wasn’t executed. That was right before I met him.
He’s practiced some form of Buddhism for much of his life. When he was young and living in Berkeley, he used to walk past a bookstore every day smoking a joint, stopped to stare at the books in the window, and one day the proprietor walked out and handed him a book about Nichiren Buddhism. He found a group, and it had a profound effect on him, especially that feeling of masses of people chanting, vast togetherness; and that’s probably the brand of Buddhism he would continue with if he could. But the Zen Group is what we’ve got, so he sits with us.
He also—like the other guy who sits—practices yoga from time to time, in conditions that aren’t ideal; the floors in Death Row are all cement. The prison is isolated in Raleigh, and it’s huge, looks more like a General Motors Plant (except for the fences and barbed wire all around, and towers where, presumably, guards are standing with high powered rifles).
Inside there is an overwhelming feeling of claustrophobia, long hallways where there is no light from outside, just florescent lights that glare off the cement. Death Row itself is isolated in the center of that facility. Its inmates rarely get out of that section (the two men I see live on different levels, and don’t even see each other). If they have visitors, they speak to them through a thick glass; they have no physical contact with loved ones until the night they die. They go to the dining hall with other Death Row inmates. They live among themselves and see almost no one from outside their group. Their jump suits are red; everyone else’s are white.
One day JT was doing a headstand on that cement floor, fell and hurt his shoulder. He really banged it up. You looked at him and saw how much it hurt. He held it up on one side and winced, afraid to let it relax.
Central Prison has medical care, and may be good with an obvious problem, like a broken leg, or a heart attack. But when the problem is more subtle, and people aren’t sure what’s wrong, they don’t do as well. JT was obviously in dreadful pain on three or four visits that I made—those visits were a month apart—but they couldn’t figure out what to do, other than giving him a painkiller.
The fourth time I saw him after the injury, it was painful just to look at him. I said that, and he shrugged it off.
“It’s okay,” he said. “I’ve gotten used to it. I’m just glad to be here. Glad to be alive.”
That statement pulled me up short. I couldn’t help thinking of the people I’d seen that morning at Whole Foods—that market that was so abundant with beautiful nutritious food—who seemed terminally angry that they had to lower themselves to shop at all, or perhaps that things didn’t meet their towering expectations: I don’t know what it was, but person after person looked petulant and pissed off. Not—though they should have been, if anyone in the world was—happy to be alive.
Finally the authorities did some diagnostic treatment and determined JT needed surgery. He was taken to a doctor in Durham for some pre-op, would return later for the surgery.
“That was great,” he said after the pre-op. “I haven’t seen the streets of Durham for years. Brightleaf Square and all that. It’s beautiful.”
He took delight in the streets of Durham. Just seeing them, just being there. That was what I told the homeless people. We see those streets every day, but don’t notice their beauty. They might seem commonplace, even hostile. We take them for granted.
JT lives in a place where, essentially, there are no windows. There are narrow slits of thick class ten feet up on the wall, to let in a little light (though I never notice it. Maybe I’m there at the wrong time). But he doesn’t see the outside. He never sees it.
The thing he mentioned to one of my friends from the Zen Center was the real kicker. His surgery was scheduled for the afternoon, and he hoped that, when the truck brought him back, he would be awake, and coming in the evening. That seemed likely, and he hoped it was true.
“I’ve only seen two sunsets in the last thirty years,” he said. “I’m hoping to see another.
Just Do It
I’ve come to the conclusion that religious dogma is a load of crap.
When I was a young man I spent years—desperate and frustrating years—trying to think my way into religion. I read the Bible and various religious texts, combed through C.S. Lewis, Paul Tillich, even the massive On Being a Christian by Catholic theologian Hans Kuhn. I studied what Christians believed and wanted to believe it, but found I couldn’t. I went to church after church trying to find one that I could accept, or that would accept me, but there seemed to be something wrong. I wasn’t suitable—by who I was and how I lived—for the church.
I thought that if I found a religion I could practice it, but fell short on practice too. Somehow or other the religious milieu in which I’d been raised, the massive Protestant sanctuaries, stone walls, wooden pews with cushions, the steam-heated air, loud organ music, the congregation—old folks with quavering voices—singing hymns, the professions of faith (various items in them that I didn’t understand, much less believe), the endless intercessory prayers, all the praising God, singing to God, talking to God: why was that all about? Did we have something to tell God? Something he hadn’t heard? Was he up there beaming as we praised him? Did he like the singing? How could he? It was terrible.
I had a feeling there was something misguided about the whole enterprise, but had no idea what. I just couldn’t participate (in good faith, as the expression goes).
Years later—I gave up on churches in the early eighties, and I’m fast forwarding to 1991—I stumbled into a meditation class with my wife (though she wasn’t my wife yet, and it was more like she dragged me than that I stumbled). We sat in cross-legged postures. We straightened our spines. We brought our attention to our breathing, wherever we wanted; I chose the belly. We let go of thoughts, as best we could. We did not, in any case, think about religion.
In those early classes, in fact—for the first three months (we took a Beginner’s class, then an Intermediate)—my impression was that our teacher, Larry Rosenberg, didn’t bring up religion at all. He talked about sitting. As we moved into a new year, and I continued with the Intermediate class (the highest available), he moved into religious subjects more and more. He seemed to be going spiritual on us, as if he’d had some kind of conversion. I now think he was saying the same old stuff, but I was hearing the religious aspect. I’d tuned it out before.
At some point, probably that winter, I was practicing a religion. There was no other way to put it. I sat every day; I attended classes; I came in once a week to sit with the evening sitting group, and from time to time, on my own, I wandered in and sat in the meditation hall. I was so happy to have a religious institution that I sat when nothing was scheduled.
I didn’t believe anything. I just practiced. There was no dogma associated with my religion at all.
The Buddha famously said, in the Kalama Sutta, that people shouldn’t rely on belief. He said that when you know by your own experience that something is true, you should believe it. Otherwise you shouldn’t. Even if he himself said it.
One could argue that the Buddha wasn’t a religious teacher at all. He didn’t teach about God, the cosmos, didn’t impart a doctrine. He taught about how we suffered, how we could avoid suffering; he was more like a psychologist, or a physician, than a teacher. He eased human suffering by teaching people how to live.
He knew more than he was saying. Once when he was in the forest with some followers, he picked up a handful of leaves and asked if there were more leaves in the forest or more in his hands. They said there were more in the forest. He said, “The leaves in my hands are what I’ve taught you. The leaves in the forest are what I’ve learned.” There was more to learn through meditation than just a way to decrease suffering.
I’ve found that to be true. Many of the things I studied in Christianity have come back to me as I’ve sat, and I’ve understood them in a new way. I didn’t think about them. I suddenly knew them.
That’s what I would say about religious truth. We don’t find it through thinking. It comes in another way.
I’m still not inspired by Christian religious practice. I sometimes attend Mass with my wife, and don’t find a lot of sustenance. I appreciate the physical gestures of the religion, the kneeling, the standing, even crossing oneself. I’m often inspired by the devotion of the people.
The practice that inspires me is sitting in silence. That’s what feeds me.
But I’m convinced practice should come first, not last. In some forms of Buddhism, and in other religions, people need to have a basic understanding, and a grounding in ethical behavior, before they meditate. But in Zen—the form of Buddhism I now practice—we just have people sit down. Everything you learn comes out of sitting. You might as well get started.
One day last fall I was sitting zazen in the early morning when it began to rain. My house was being renovated at the time, and the painters were scheduled to paint the outside; rain meant they wouldn’t be able to work. I was anxious about the job, wanted it to get done; I silently cursed the rain. I thought to myself, If I were a praying man, I’d pray for the rain to stop. Then I thought how ridiculous that was.
I’d like to explain why I think it was ridiculous, though I run the risk of offending any number of people. First of all—I don’t know how to put this—I don’t think God works at that level of detail. It’s not that he couldn’t; it’s that he doesn’t. He has created the world as it is, and the weather is just the weather. He doesn’t control it on a day by day basis. (Rick Perry, for one, disagrees. In 2011 he called for three Days of Prayer to pray for rain in Texas to end a drought there. There was not a good result, though I’m not saying that proves anything.)
Even if God does control the rain (and just wants Texas to suffer because they’ve been so evil. If they have been evil. I honestly don’t know), I don’t think He would have stopped it because I wanted my painters to work. If God controls the rain, and was having it rain that day for some reason—to help farmers, for instance—he wasn’t going to stop it because of my petty anxiety over a house renovation. He also wasn’t going to suspend it over a single block of Wilson Street. The rain was taking place in a larger situation which I didn’t understand. That was true whether God controls it or not.
A lot of things are like that.
When I gave up on Christianity in my mid-thirties (there was no day when I finally said, Okay, that’s it, I’m not a Christian anymore. I more or less just drifted away), a major part of it had to do with my relationship to prayer. I didn’t understand the meaning of prayer, I didn’t understand the necessity, I didn’t believe in the power of prayer, I didn’t know how to pray. Something. I went to church and the minister prayed long prayers of intercession. He pretty much said the same thing week after week. I couldn’t see that it had any particular effect. If I prayed for something, it seemed to me that God knew my wishes before I asked; he knew what I needed better than I did (even devout Christians said those things), so what was the point of prayer? It sounded as if the right thing would come about anyway. In any case, the thing that was going to happen would happen. There were prayers of praise, prayers of thanksgiving, but I didn’t think God was so petty (this was making him sound like a petty functionary) that he wanted to hear himself praised, for the ten zillionth time, by one more human being. I heard of people with strong prayer lives, people who found support from prayer, but I didn’t feel support. Finally I gave up. Hell, I can’t do this.
(On my way out, I made a stop at Friends Meeting. I attended for some years. People at Friends Meeting sat in silence for an hour; they sometimes delivered a message to the rest of the group, something that, presumably, they had been compelled to say by God. (Sometimes I wondered.) Mostly they sat in silence. I liked that, and it seemed more in accord with my idea of prayer and religion. You didn’t ask God for anything. You sat there and listened. But I didn’t know how to listen, and nobody suggested there might be a way to do that. Nobody gave any instruction at all, and that lack of instruction seemed intentional. Eventually I walked away from Friends Meeting too, though I had gotten started in peace activism, and continued with that. I felt that Friends Meeting, with its emphasis on pacifism, was leaving out a side of human nature. I was a pacifist, I am a pacifist, but something in the whole Quaker stance made me uncomfortable. Anyway, I left.)
If you had asked me at that time how I felt about religion, I wouldn’t have said, with authority, I don’t believe in that. I’m convinced there’s nothing to it. It was more like, I’m not good at that. I can’t figure it out. There’s no place for me there. I just didn’t get it, or couldn’t do it.
I’ve written elsewhere on this website about how, after I turned 40, my second wife dragged me to a meditation class, and I began to practice meditation, and thereby, quite inadvertently, found something I’d been looking for all my life. I found my way back to religion.
I also discovered what prayer is, for me. I discovered my relationship to prayer.
Prayer is opening yourself to the presence of God. We are already in the presence of God, so prayer is acknowledging that we’re in that presence; it’s taking notice of it; it’s realizing it. It’s just like the fact that, in Buddhism, we all have Buddha nature, but we nevertheless sit in meditation in order to realize it. I don’t think we “realize” in the sense of “understand.” I think we “realize” in the sense of “make real.” We take some time to acknowledge, to take notice of, the thing that is already true. You don’t have to do anything to be in the presence of God. You don’t have to bring yourself into the presence of God. You just sit there.
(In Buddhist meditation, they gave you techniques about how to sit. In some traditions, they get quite elaborate. They talk as if these techniques have some goal, of bringing you more into the presence of something or other. But over time, everyone who meditates gives up techniques. They just sit there. A few hardy souls—some Soto Zen teachers—don’t give any instructions in the first place. They tell you to just sit there.)
As you sit, you see what you want. You see the contents of your mind, and it is full of wanting wanting wanting. Also of not wanting. (I don’t want it to rain!) It’s the contents of their minds that drive most people crazy. They wish their minds would stop. They wish they would quit wanting so many things.
If they were praying people, of course, they could ask God for the things they want.
When we sit zazen, or just sit in silence, or sit in prayer, or sit at Friends Meeting, we see the contents of our minds. Zen teacher Kosho Uchiyama calls this the scenery of our lives, and points out that our personal scenery is entirely unique to us. But we also see, if we’re paying attention (and this tends to happen the longer we practice) that those unique wishes of ours take place in a larger context—the sun is shining, wind is blowing, birds are singing, horns are honking, trucks are roaring by—and that, in addition to having that private scenery, we live in that larger world. Our wishes may not matter so much there.
The Buddha noticed that people suffer precisely because they want, and don’t want, and don’t see their connection to that larger world. Once you see that connection, really see that larger world you belong to, it isn’t that your wants completely disappear (at least they haven’t for me), but you see how petty they are. The painters aren’t going to paint your house today, little man. Too bad. Get over it.
When Zen teacher Gudo Nishijima described the Buddha’s enlightenment experience, he used just one sentence. “He saw that he was sitting in reality.”
Buddhists don’t use the word God (though some let it slip out now and then), don’t acknowledge God, don’t believe in Him. (The Buddha himself didn’t say anything one way or another. He wasn’t, as some people say, an atheist. He was non-theistic.) But they do (of course!) acknowledge this larger context in which we sit. They have names for it, Original Mind, Original Nature, Buddha Nature. They see it as vast. They see it as infinite.
Sometimes I think the quibbles over terminology in world religion are really stupid.
Eihei Dogen, the Japanese founder of Soto Zen, who certainly never used the word God, when discussing what you should do with this little “self” of personal wishes, said you should throw it into the house of Buddha. It’s not like asking for your wishes, exactly. It’s more like putting them into that larger context. You’re not saying you don’t want them, or that you do. You’re seeing them in context.
Zen teacher Joko Beck, when asked one time if there was prayer in Buddhism, said, Zazen is prayer. It’s the same thing.
I agree with that. I had to come all the way to Zen to find out what prayer is.
This past year, I worked with a group of homeless people at Urban Ministries in Durham. Supposedly I was teaching them meditation, but they were all Christian, so the Presbyterian minister I worked with talked about Centering Prayer, and I talked about meditation a little. And we spent some time every week sitting silently in the sanctuary.
We also did a lot of regular old praying. The minister would open with a prayer, and we had a ceremony where we all came forward and lit a candle and said what we prayed for that week. Mostly we were praying for each other, and praying that the program would continue in a good way. We were acknowledging God, and saying what we wanted. But we understood there was a larger context, and what we wanted might not happen.
People prayed that the group would stay together; we started with 12 people, and by the time we finished our Friday morning sessions there were just seven. So we prayed that those seven people would stay together, and we also prayed for the people who were gone. The fact that we didn’t get what we wanted didn’t seem to mean anything one way or another. We knew we were asking in that larger context.
I actually don’t think Rick Perry was wrong to pray for rain. Prayer is what we do when we’re helpless. What else was he supposed to do?
Sometimes now when my wife and I are leaving our house in Asheville, we get together with her brother and pray. This woman who took me to the meditation center in the first place has us all join hands and asks that we all be healthy and happy and that we stay together in spirit even though we’re going to be apart, that we somehow be there for each other always. That doesn’t seem a wrong thing to pray for to me. It seems right. I join in enthusiastically.
I feel as if I could pray with anyone, in any religion. I feel that I pray every day.
I’m glad I finally found an understanding of prayer. I thank God for it, in fact. But he works in mysterious ways, and he certainly took his time about it.
Maybe that’s a factor of who he was working with.
A Dualistic God?
A friend who read my post on prayer wrote and asked, “Are you talking about prayer to a dualistic God?” At first I wanted to say, what do you think I am, nuts? But he hadn’t read earlier posts, and it’s a natural question. If you’re praying, who are you praying to?
It reminds me of the story of a Zen teacher’s decision to become a priest. He’d been practicing Zen off and on for years, and at one point went through a difficult breakup with a partner. There were hard feelings on both sides, and he had trouble getting over it. His teacher told him to do 108 floor bows every morning, and with every bow to say, Please forgive. That number of bows is common in Korean Zen, but unusual for the Japanese.
“But who am I asking and who needs forgiven?” the student said.
“Just do it,” his teacher said.
He did. After about a month, he had some kind of opening, and realized he wanted to ordain as a priest.
I have written earlier about the moment in my life when my feelings about God and religion began to shift. I was ten years old, and the whole situation was profoundly uncomfortable, but it was one of the most important moments in my life. I went through days of deep fear and insomnia, for which my only comfort was my father’s sympathy, and his physical presence. Many of my life crises have been characterized by similar feelings of fear, and bouts of insomnia.
My father said something to me on one of those nights when I came to him with my fears, something I didn’t understand at the time and puzzled over afterwards for years. Sometimes I thought it was profoundly true; sometimes I thought it made no sense; sometimes I thought he didn’t address my fear at all. I have written about this occasion multiple times, don’t have any idea how close my memory is to what my father actually said. He spoke to a ten-year-old boy, and I’ve pondered his words as an adult.
My memory is that he said that when we’re children, we believe that the world revolves around us. We cry and our mother comes to pick us up; we scream for food and our mother feeds us. We seem to be the center of the universe, but our life gradually teaches us that that isn’t so. Inasmuch as we mature, we understand that God is the center of things, not us. The process of growing, maturing, is to understand that. Becoming a mature human being is a process of moving away from that preoccupation with ourselves, and moving toward God.
The thing I didn’t understand about that image was that it implied that the human being kept growing, larger and larger, until he more or less merged into God. My memory is that my father said growing toward God, but what could that be but growing into him? And if God himself was infinite, how could you grow toward him? The whole thing made no sense to me at the age of ten. I put it into that category of things my father said that I didn’t understand. There were a fair number.
Twenty-five years later I was in another such crisis, though this one lasted for years, not days, and exhibited itself as a chronic low-key problem, rather than a crisis. (I saw it as a psychological problem, not a religious one. I was seeing a therapist. I am reminded of Jung’s statement that in his experience the problems of the second half of life are not psychological, but religious). I had abandoned any attempts to practice a religion, to believe in anything, because I couldn’t buy what religions were selling. I couldn’t wrap my head around it. I didn’t think there was something wrong with religion (though I might have framed it that way); I thought there was something wrong with me. That feeling manifested as anger at religion. A friend had noticed that in me, and I asked my therapist about it. He agreed. I was terribly angry at religion.
He thought he knew the reason, though he mentioned it with some trepidation. He said that when someone was a teenager and lost a parent (my father died when I was 16), he was likely to feel anger toward religion. That young person had probably been struggling with religious questions anyway—people do that as teenagers—and then when the parent died people came to him with banal explanations. God needed another angel in heaven. He has a plan for us all, and this was His plan for your father.We heard those explanations and reacted to them with adolescent rage. We never got over that.
What he said made sense. I could see it in my life. But it wasn’t true that I didn’t believe anything. I believed something; I just couldn’t find it in any religion. I believed that God was the force of Creation, not just the original creation of the universe, but the ongoing creation, which happened constantly. He was the waves breaking, the sun shining, the flowers blooming, also the creative force that arose in any human breast. He didn’t answer prayers—what did he have to do with the petty requests of individuals?—and didn’t have anything to do with morality. He created good and evil. He created everything. The proper attitude toward God was silence and awe. It wasn’t to sing the Doxology and recite the Apostle’s Creed. Those things were trying to contain Him, but God burst beyond all bounds.
My struggle with religion had been going on for years. But the conversation with my therapist prompted me to write what I believed in my notebook. Not long after that I picked up a book that had been sitting around my house for years—it had belonged to my first wife—and read these words:
“There was something vague before heaven and earth arose. How calm! How void! It stands alone, unchanging; it acts everywhere, untiring. It may be considered the mother of everything under heaven. I do not know its name, but call it by the word Tao.
The Tao is something blurred and indistinct.
How indistinct! How blurred!
Yet within it are images.
How blurred! How indistinct!
Yet within it are things.
How dim! How confused!
Yet within it is mental power.
Because this power is most true,
Within it there is confidence.”
I couldn’t possibly say how wonderful those words made me feel. They weren’t exactly what I thought, but they were at least in the same ballpark. (As I discovered later, the translation is in much dispute. The Tao Te Chingsounds exactly like what I thought, or not so much like what I thought, depending on who translates it.) And they weren’t the words of some New Age nut. They had been written down some 2500 years before. The ideas they expressed were older than that.
I wasn’t alone in the world. Some Chinese guys from 2500 years before agreed with me!
The book where I read these words was The Way of Zen, and for years I would be passionately devoted to the works of Alan Watts, who opened things up for me considerably. That whole process had happened to many of my friends when we were in college twenty years before, but I was too busy studying literature to get into religion. I was also probably too conventional. Too stunned by my father’s death. Something.
The question remained: what do you do with such an image of God (or the Tao, this great unnamed thing)? How do you worship it, or come in touch with it, or have some relationship to it? Watts diminished the idea of sitting meditation, as had his mentor, D.T. Suzuki, but once again I had the great good fortune to meet a new woman in my life, have many fiery arguments about religion (she was a devout Catholic), take a meditation class with her (she was looking for some common ground for the two of us). And there I found a religious practice that made sense to me, in every way. You sit and do nothing. You encounter What Is. You come into relationship with that. The relationship deepens over time.
There is a dispute in Japanese Buddhism about whether we come to know What Is by Self Power or Other Power. Practitioners of Zen seem to be taking on a vast spiritual task all by themselves, sitting for countless hours, sometimes to the point of physical harm, bowing and chanting, doing physical work. The Pure Land School—a more popular movement—puts its belief in Amita Buddha, and believes that if they sincerely devote themselves to Amita Buddha, which they do by chanting, they will be reborn in a Pure Land where enlightenment will be assured. Amita Buddha, the Buddha of life and light, sounds a lot like what people think of as God. A Chinese woman who was Christian once told me that her mother believed in God, “but she calls Him Amitabha.”
This dispute is often presented as hard core people vs. easy way people, strenuous doers vs non-doers. Most Zen people don’t use the word God, don’t particularly believe in the existence of Amita Buddha, and think the idea of a Pure Land is a fairy tale.
Yet when I read about Pure Land practitioners, some seem to have achieved a kind of peace that Zen people only dream of. And if Zen people believe there is no Other—no Amita Buddha—they have to come to terms with the fact that their own doctrine says there is no self. If there is no self and no other, what is there? Nothing? Hey dummy, look around. It looks like there’s something to me.
My experience of zazen over a period of years is of feeling myself gradually disappear, and becoming completely other. Some days when I sit, and you ask what I am, there’s no I, just am. I’m the birds in the trees, the cicadas in the grass. I never get to that place by anything I do, by anything that could be called self-power. I get there by not doing anything.
But there’s something there. It’s in me and I’m in it; those two things are happening at once (or neither is happening at all). The Kingdom of God is within you, the Bible tells us in one place, and in another: “In him we live, and move, and have our being.” That’s the experience I’m having. Both those things are going on at once.
There’s nothing dualistic about it. I don’t know what it is. But it’s not a fantasy. I can feel something.
What has happened is like what my father said to me when I was ten, that 41 year old man who had only another six years to live. How did he know?