Thursday, April 21, 2011

Big Hitter, the Lama - My Buddhist Awakening

“You know what the Lama says? Gunga galunga... gunga, gungalagunga. So we finish the 18th, and he's gonna stiff me. And I say, Hey, Lama, hey, how about a little something, you know, for the effort, you know. And he says, uh, there won't be any money, but when you die, on your deathbed, you will receive total consciousness. So I got that goin' for me, which is nice."

Carl Spackler

It’s been a long time since I’ve done a blog posting. It’s not that I stopped having thoughts about how ridiculous the world is. Or got hit by a truck. Or got “disappeared” by the government. Mostly I’m just busy at work and haven’t had much evening brain capacity left recently. But I’ve also dropped of the grid and become a Buddhist monk. Well, I haven’t actually done it yet. But I might soon.

I initially got turned on to some Buddhist stuff when my first law firm drove me to therapy. My therapist asked if I’d be amenable to meditation kind of stuff and I said, yeah, I’d be up for pretty much anything that would help me stop thinking about throwing myself in front of the subway every morning instead of going to work. She recommended that I read The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese monk. What the hell. There was nowhere to go but up, sanity-wise.

The book was good. I found peace and tranquility for about a week until my high strung, type-A nervous default settings kicked back in. Then, recently, when poking around a bookstore in Brookline (ironically, the Hasidic Jewish epicenter of Boston), I stumbled across another book by Mr. Hanh that had only recently been translated into English. I took that as either a sign that I should continue my Buddhist studies, or that a publishing company marketing rep had done a good job of product placement. Either way, I bought the book.

I read it, and then read a few more things that Thich Nhat Hanh had written. And I gotta say, there’s some good stuff there. It’s a little disjointing to try to learn from the writings of an actual full-fledged, tea drinking barefoot Himalaya-hiking monk when you’re riding the subway on your way to the 37th floor of an office in downtown Boston. But on the other hand, this guy also spends most of his time working with lepers and dismembered children in war zones. So if he can find inner peace after a day in the field, it seems like I should be able to too, even if one of my clients is an asshole.

Here are some of the Buddhist principals that resonated with me:

(I’m paraphrasing).

You’re Not Such a Big Swinging Dick After All

It’s easy to get caught up in how monumentally important you are and what a crime against humanity it is when your latte gets made with 2% instead of skim, but consider this: all of the molecules that make up your body have been around for a trillion years. They’ll take the form of you, Joe Schmo, for a few decades - a blip in time in the grand scheme of things - and then you’ll decompose, get eaten by an animal or a microbe, and be recycled into something else. Buddhists don’t see people as individuals, but rather as brief “manifestations” of the larger universe. The current arrangement of molecules that is you is just a fleeting little moment. Nothing to get depressed about. But also no need to get all bent out of shape when the guy at the dry cleaner is being dickish to you. In a few years, his manifestation too will evolve and he’ll just be dust blowing in the wind, fertilizer for a shrub. You too. Relax, smile. It doesn’t matter.


A huge component of meditation and Buddhism is breathing. Now come on. That is an attainable goal. However much of a loser you are, however much you’ve pissed away your life and led a sad, meaningless existence, you can at least breathe. And once you’ve got that down, it doesn’t take a whole lot more effort to think about breathing. Breathing is the interface between your body and the world around you. Without the oxygen pulled in by your breath, all of your systems - body, soul, consciousness - would shut down in a matter of seconds. That’s heavy. If you think about what a crazy process breathing is, and how nice it is that you’re able to do it every second of every day, that should make you a little cheerier.

Family, Community, Gravity, and Plate Tectonics Got You that Promotion

Everyone thinks that their successes are solely the result of their own brilliance, talent and dogged perseverance. That stuff is all helpful, but there are a lot more forces out there at work. I’ve written a dozen other blogs about the invisible-to-those-who-have-them forces of money, family and societal power that make privileged people think they’ve earned everything they have (or, as Molly Ivins put it when describing George Dubya, “born on third base and thought he hit a triple”). Buddhism’s less concerned about putting prep school kids in their place than on pointing out the larger environmental forces that contribute to the success of even the most Ayn Randian CEO. Like the oxygen that makes his lungs work and the rain that makes the plant grow that becomes food for the cow that gives its life to transform itself into the $400 midtown Kobe beef steak that feeds him. You get the point. A lot of forces in the universe have to converge to produce a human being. Have a little gratitude just for being one.

Live in the Present Moment

Here’s a mind-bendingly obvious concept: the past is gone and the future will never arrive. Thich Nhat Hanh talks a lot about washing dishes. I don’t think he has a dishwasher. He’s talking about doing them by hand. The Buddhist view is that if you’re 100% focused on doing the dishes, not thinking about anything else, just living in the moment, then washing dishes can be a wondrous miracle. OK, I know that sounds a little hyperbolic. Doing the dishes sucks. But I understand the point. Whatever you’re doing, it won’t get done any faster if you’re thinking about just getting done with it and moving on to whatever’s next. There never is any next moment. So why not just relax and engage with what you’re doing at the moment? This goes for anything - commuting on the bus, getting a root canal, pushing a piano up a flight of stairs. If you can make yourself see the beauty and relax in the face of that kind of shit, you’re really in good shape.

Getting a Sports Car is Not Going to Make You Happy

If, as so brilliantly articulated above, there is no moment but the present, you’re gonna be disappointed if you spend all your time looking forward to something that might happen in the future. That doesn’t mean you should stop flossing and making vacation plans. But don’t think that if you’re unhappy now, you’ll suddenly become happy if you get a raise or buy a new car or stop your receding hair line. All that stuff might give you a few minutes or weeks of satisfaction, but only until it hits you that you’re still you. And if you’re not a happy you now, chances are you won’t be later, even if you buy yourself a garage full of expensive stuff.

So there you have it. Three millennia of Buddhist doctrines distilled into a two page smartass account of all that’s important in the world. I gotta say, though, Thich Nhat Hanh and the Lama and those guys have some good things to say. If their ideas can actually get someone like me to slow down and relax a little, I guarantee it, it’ll work for you.


Unknown said...

Nice Dan! Definitely resonates with me...thanks for writing this! Well worth the wait.

Unknown said...

Thanks, Dan. Do you think Thich Nhat Hanh had anything to do with Caddyshack?

Chako Kanyon said...

You wrote:

It’s a little disjointing to try to learn from the writings of an actual full-fledged, tea drinking barefoot Himalaya-hiking monk when you’re riding the subway on your way to the 37th floor of an office in downtown Boston.

Kwan Seum Bosal Kwan Seum Bosal Kwan Seum Bosal

Riding the train might be one of the very BEST times to meditate.
I wanted to start a meditation group/club called THE SUBWAY SITTERS, but it never happened.

(Samsara got in the way! hahaha)

You can really see (and possibly feel...ugh!) your intimate connection with all the other sentient beings you share this place with! You can take the opportunity to look at each one as they come and go (from their stops/trips/bardos?) and send them
unconditional LOVE and positive regard. This is a no-joke practice that can not only help others, but save yourself from suffering (unnecessarily?) too.

I'm certainly no expert, but one MUST take whatever opportunity one has and practice LETTING GO as soon as possible. This human birth comes once every what ? millions of lifetimes?

It really doesn't matter whether one believes one thing or another (there are so many human personalities out there and a practice or belief for each one!) but that they begin to see themselves and this world as intimately connected, and begin to "86" the practice of being an ASSHOLE and "9-11 Emergency" begin to LOVE themselves, everyone, and everything they see.

Buddhism has A LOT to offer a seeker
in this regard. Nice work and keep at it!

Your toes are in the stream -
now jump in (the Ocean!)