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 this 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 either 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 talk 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, take drugs, 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 paramita is 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 right is, 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 have anything 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 paper is not the simple task it seems to be. We go to do that and something happens. The thought we had in 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.
Sex and Addiction
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 have the 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 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?
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 imagine 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 back.
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 20th anniversary 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.
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 had done 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.