Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Get a self

The Sunday Times magazine had an article about a Zen "master" seeing a therapist. ( I put master in quotes because I have real concerns about how masterful someone who has such obvious blindspots really is. I know I'm not supposed to be judgmental, but it's been 25 years since I first heard the expression, "You have to have a self before you can let go of self." What this means is that if you aren't psychologically integrated and healthy to some reasonable degree, spiritual practice won't have the desired effect. It's what's called a "spiritual bypass," meaning, you try to use spirituality to solve life's persistent problems--relationships, work, substance abuse, etc. Meditation doesn't cure anything. (I can't believe I just wrote that. . . ). This Zen guy had been divorced four times--usually a big clue about lack of emotional health. The description of him is typical of someone who is attached to spiritual ideas. It's very sad, really, how he describes connecting with the idea of forgetting the self. He felt invisible as a kid, so a practice that suggested wiping out the self was perfect.

The Western approach to Eastern spirituality can be very romantic and naive, full of magical thinking. When I first started meditating, I thought it was not only going to cure me, but was going to result in fame and fortune--somehow, meditating was going to make me a rock star. Don't ask me how. When you can't face reality, when you don't want to feel your feelings or be responsible, what you do is come up with magic to believe in. It's about transcending reality, and believing that reality is all an illusion anyway, so why bother.

Getting sober and working a program gave me a whole different way of viewing spiritual practice. At first I didn't think of what I was doing as spiritual, getting a job, going to school, trying to bring some integrity to my relationships. But now I think of those things, and all the practical aspects of life, as being key to my spiritual life. After all, Right Livelihood is part of the Eightfold Path; Sila, or morality, is one of the three major components of the Buddhist path (the others are meditation and wisdom). I mean, what do I think my life is? Sitting on a cushion and feeling blissful? How I actually live seems like the real test--not how many thoughts I can let go of or how many breaths I can pay attention to. I love meditation and it's incredibly valuable, but it's only part of the path. If it's not supporting an integrated, happy life, then something's missing.

Buddhist politician

When I looked at Arlen Specter on the front page of the NYT this morning, I thought, this is a Buddhist moment. For decades he's been a Republican. Everyone knew he was a Republican. There was the "R" beside his name. He voted with Republicans, caucused with them, agreed with them. But yesterday he woke up and said, "I'm no longer a Republican." His identity, which seemed so fixed, so solid, was revealed to be an illusion. He wasn't a Republican at all. That was an outer shell he wore for convenience. It turns out he can be anything he says he is. Or nothing at all.

Isn't it amazing how reality is so fragile? And such a simple act, putting a "D" after his name rather than an "R" could have incredibly far-reaching effects if the R's try to filibuster O's programs. For me this is a reminder that how I identify myself can have enormous effects on my life and that of others. And, the way I identify myself is a choice, not a reality. When I chose to identify myself as an alcoholic, it turned my life around. When I chose to identify myself as a musician, it eventually stifled me. It's easy to stay stuck in ideas of who or what I am. The truth is, who I am is constantly changing (along with everything else), and it's up to me to stay current with that. Who know's, maybe tomorrow I'll wake up with an "R" beside my name---Noooooo!!!!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

nobody here

Years ago I was playing at a club in Burlington, Vermont on a Monday night. There were only a few people there, and I said into the microphone, "Since nobody's here, I'll play this song." Someone called out, "We're here!" That was a big lesson for me. Performers (and dharma teachers) like an audience--the bigger the better, so as to feed our egos--and our bellys. How many people would have had to be there for me to say that someone was there? I learned something that night. Partly I learned not to dismiss people or be rude to them in that way.

A few years ago I went to teach in Mill Valley, CA and only 2 people showed up. I was disappointed, but we wound up having a great evening where I could work closely with these individuals and guide their practices.

Last night, at the John Muir Medical Center in Concord, CA, the same thing happened. I was grateful for my experience because I didn't have to worry about how many people were there. We had a good evening, the three of us, discussing practice, and they were grateful for the opportunity to ask questions and have a conversation that we wouldn't normally have had.

It's easy to get caught up in "the numbers game," and think that it's a reflection on me or that it's not worth it to teach or perform for a small group of people. Realistically, it would be hard to make a living if my usual group were only 2 people, but that's unusual, so I've learned to enjoy it. One more opportunity to see the way my beliefs are contradicted by the reality of my experience.

Monday, April 20, 2009


The past couple years my wife has suggested I start blogging. I've run out of excuses, so here goes. . .

This morning I'm doing a final read-through of my new book "A Burning Desire: Dharma God and the Path of Recovery." The book is an exploration of Higher Power from a Buddhist perspective. As I ponder its publication, I'm a bit nervous out of a combination of my co-dependence--I want to make everyone happy and I want them to like me--and my fear of criticism--people are going to attack me. I'm someone who tends to jump into things without a lot of forethought. Just last night I was putting together an Ikea bookcase and kept doing things backwards and having to undo them and start again because I didn't look carefully before starting to screw and nail things together. This book is a bit like that. There I was wondering what to write about, "La, la, la, maybe I'll do a book on Higher Power. Sure, that sounds easy." Then in the middle of the beast I realized that God is probably the most difficult thing to write about. Too late. I already spent the advance. . .