Peaking on acid, about to freak out, I opened the window for air.
“Yeah, buddy, you should jump out the window. Do us a favor!”
Keith had been needling me all night long. He was smart, with a good sense of humor, so his mockery was strong, but he never came right out and said anything openly shitty: I couldn’t tell if he was really being a total prick or if I was just imagining things. And if you’ve ever been that high you’ll know the feeling: you think something is happening but you’re not really sure…
…and the topic is potentially embarrassing so you don’t really want to bring it up…
…and if you do bring it up you can’t really say what you mean and people just look at you…
…and you can’t tell if they’re just looking at you kindly or if all along have they’ve felt you’re a complete fucking tool and it’s only now coming out.
Anyway, at this moment it became clear that Keith had been after me all night long, but we were all friends, more-or-less, and it was kind of weird for him to be picking on me for no obvious reason.
Of course now I can imagine many reasons he might’ve disliked me: I could seem like an arrogant prick sometimes, and even though I already had a girlfriend I’d been sleeping with this girl Keith knew and had probably been generally callous about the whole thing, and Keith was good friends with another local band with whom we had this sort of unspoken rivalry: they were the Beatles and we were the Stones (or, as the singer of that band said, they were a sneaker band and we were a shoe band.) And even though that band was several orders of magnitude more popular and successful than we were, we came on like we were the Stooges crossed with the Gun Club, and that brand of not-give-a-fuckery was not guaranteed to endear oneself to the citizens of our quiet little town.
So I think it’s quite likely Keith was just trying to bring me down a peg.
The thing is, though, that I was already quite convinced that I was a piece of shit and that nobody liked me, so it was no great achievement to make me feel bad about myself. So ha HA Keith (not his real name,) joke’s on you!
I already felt like jumping out the window!
I don’t know where this feeling came from, but I can pinpoint the first time I was aware of it. It was in a church basement in Butte, Montana in 1982, at a family reunion with my mother’s people. (Good folks, all of ‘em!) I had recently fallen in love with punk rock and, the night before we left, cut my own hair in the style of John Lydon.
My mother, god bless, didn’t make a big fuss, but I must’ve looked terrible…and here I was with my fucked up head and my ripped up t-shirt, surrounded by all these red-blooded, corn-fed American teenagers with bright white smiles and nice hair.
They were all very nice to me but I wanted to die. I just couldn’t talk. I felt like a different species, alone in that room. And not only alone, but strangely pitied and despised.
And the feeling that I am a freak and a flake has never since left me, though to meet me you’d probably assume I felt like the wise, kindly, handsome, charming, confident, middle-aged citizen I present to the world.
I don’t really care about that any more, though: I don’t believe everything I think and I don’t listen to everything the voices say. (To be precise: I only listen to the voices when they’re speaking English.) (Just joking! The voices hardly ever speak English any more.)
I don’t really think I’m a piece of shit and I don’t even think it makes sense to think I’m a piece of shit. It doesn’t make sense to think that I’m anything all the time. And although I frequently disappoint myself (in fact I probably disappoint myself daily about some stupid shit or other) on the whole I think I’m just fine the way I am right now. And you are, too.
You’re fine the way you are. Right now.
Do you see?
But when I say “You’re fine the way you are,” it’s important to be clear exactly what I mean. Because you might actually be completely fucked up. Which is fine! But that doesn’t mean you want to stay that way.
You’re fine the way you are because everything that has happened to you, in fact everything that has happenedto everyone, in fact everything about the life of the Universe up to this moment has conspired to make you precisely the way you are. And there is absolutely nothing you can do to change the past.
So in that sense you are obviously completely fine because there is no other way for you to be at this moment.
So get off yourself, for Christ’s sake!
However, nothing about this suggests that you are in a desirable state or one that is conducive to flourishing or that you need be resigned to it or that the way you are is the way you will always be. The usefulness of knowing you’re fine is that you don’t need to waste a bunch of energy feeling shitty about yourself or bemoaning past failure.
You can immediately dispense with the illusion that you are inherently bad.
Which is good to know! Because this kind of fruitless self-loathing is a terrible time sink, and you can pour your whole life down that drain. Don’t do it! Accept that you’re fine, that the past is gone, that you have this moment to work with and that with every new moment you are reborn.
You’re fine, love yourself, accept the world as it is and love everything…
…but by all means quit drinking, or cheating on your wife, or resenting your husband, or stealing from your boss, or treating your employees like shit, or envying rich people, or despising poor people, or hating brown people, or loathing white people, or whatever other bullshit keeps you from thriving with an open heart and bringing light and love into the world.
So I kicked the cat this morning. Actually twice. No just once. The first time I just kicked at him, without connecting. I could have connected, but I pulled back at the last second. The second time I connected. Not that hard, but hard enough to fill me with remorse and self-recrimination. And then the cat ran away from me and hid, and cringed when I approached him. And all the while I was thinking how selfish I was, how enslaved to my anger, and thinking about how bad the cat must feel, and how unfair the whole thing was, and that I hoped the fucking cat didn’t wake up the boy and why won’t he just eat his goddam food?
The cat hates his food. We have to give him canned food now because he’s old and dry food gives him urinary crystals. But he loves dry food. The cheaper the better. He likes Alley Cat, Mistigri in French, the dry food you get at the cheaper supermarkets, the second-tier supermarkets. The cheap shit. If I gave him a bowl of Mistigri he’d gobble it up and then settle down on the couch, purring. He’d rub against me. We’d be friends.
But I can’t give him Mistigri.
I’ve tried all different kinds of canned food. Whiskas. Fancy Feast. Every kind of organic, free range, open source ultra-food from the fancy pet food place. One dollar cans, two dollar cans.It’s always the same. He’ll try them when they’re new, and I’ll get a gratifying rush thinking, “Ah, this is the one! This is the food he’ll eat!” But inevitably, often before he’s finished the first bowl, he’ll sniff the new food disdainfully, and hop down from his feeding place, and start meowing for Mistigri.
The cat craves Mistigri.
I heard this brassy Australian broad go on about how wild animals are working out karma from past lives. For instance, a lion is compelled to get its food through violence because of unskillful past deeds. On the face of it this is laughable. And it seems unkind to think of the lion this way. And isn’t there something impressive and noble about lions? I mean, it’s the Lion King, right? But, then again, think about the awful violence the lion as to commit every time it wants to eat. Think about the fear coursing through its prey as it flees. I’m not anthropomorphizing here: I know their experience is not the same as ours but, regardless, watch what happens: the lion is violence manifest and the prey, shrieking, wild-eyed, desperate, is the definition of terror.
Now I don’t know if the law of karma is true. It’s one of those things. Sometimes I buy it, sometimes it sounds like bunk. But, in its simplest form, it’s just cause and effect. If this happens, this happens. If there is a lion, there is a lion’s prey. And if it is five-thirty am, my cat is meowing for Mistigri. And if the cat is meowing for Mistigri I feel compelled to do something about it.
And this is where my own karma comes in. Because, on the one hand, I’m self-aware. Well, a little bit. It’s 5:30, after all. (Although I could have gone to bed earlier, which would have led to me being better rested.)So I know that I can just let the cat meow. I can choose to let the cat meow. Except it’s not really a choice, because if I let the cat meow he might wake up the boy. And if the boy wakes up now he’ll be tired all morning. And I don’t want to leave my wife with a tired, cranky 2-year-old and a five-month-old while I gallivant off to my glamorous job at the Drug Dealership. So I won’t make that choice. I can imagine an alternate reality where I make that choice, but in this realm, where I live, everything about my past experience and physical makeup combines to make sure I won’t make that choice. It’s not my karma to make that choice.
So I get up to feed the goddam cat. And I guess I’m working out a little something-or-other karma-wise, because at a certain point I kick him. Not very hard, no real harm done. Just enough to make me feel bad. Just enough to make us both feel bad.
But there’s another choice to be made. I can tell myself a story about how bad I am. How I’m a bully and a mis-treater of animals. How I can’t control my anger. How it’s always the same. How the cat will never leave me alone and isn’t that just what life is like? Some selfish cat meowing at you at 5:30 because you won’t give him the cat food that will kill him?
Or I can choose not to tell that story. I don’t want to kick the cat again, and I’m committed to controlling my anger and annoyance. And the way I’m going to do that is by not telling that story. The story about how it’s always the same, about how it’s all so hard, and so unfair. The cat’s just the cat. He’s okay. And so am I.
So much of what we do is driven by craving for pleasure. If we don’t feel an immediate sense of sensual pleasure we feel we must be doing something wrong, that things should be different, that we’re losing, we’re missing out.It’s because we conflate happiness with pleasure.
But so often what we must do, the wise thing, the right thing, is not obviously pleasurable. Tending to children, cleaning a toilet, writing a blog post: quite often the necessary action is boring, or noisome, or frustrating.
Even then, even now, I feel myself stretching for pleasure: to see that the difficult task is somehow pleasurable in a different way, in a wiser way.
What would your life be like if you could leave aside this ceaseless craving? If you could be with what is, instead of aching for what is not?
What would your life be like if your happiness didn’t depend on pleasure?
For me sitting is almost like training in success. Almost? Always! I succeed every time I sit down. I succeed when I notice my attention has wandered from the breath. I succeed when I realize I have lost equanimity, I succeed when I notice my craving to achieve the first jhana, I succeed in seeing the path to enlightenment. Every time!
And even now as I write this, I can feel the urge to turn this success into failure – to somehow say: “Do you really think it’s like this, living? Success, over and over again?” Although I don’t fully believe that this is what “living” is but, rather, “This is what it’s like to be me.”
And this is what it’s like!
There is a breath of joy in it, and that breath is my breath. I open my heart to receive it.
For me sitting is almost like training in failure. Almost? Always. I fail every time I sit down. I fail to keep my attention on the breath. I fail to maintain equanimity, I fail to achieve even the first jhana, I fail to become enlightened. Every time.
And even now as I write this, I can feel the attempt to turn this failure into success – to somehow say: “This is what it is, living. Failing, over and over again.” Although I don’t fully believe that this is what “living” is but, rather, “This is what it’s like to be me.”
And this is what it’s like.
There is a breath of despair to it, and that breath is my breath. I open my heart to receive it.
My dog never questions his inclination towards independence and dominance. He never doubts himself. The only thing that changes his behavior is the constant repetition of dominant signals.And even that doesn’t change him much.There’s something deeply appealing about that but it’s no good for making a society.
This is what I mean when I tell my wife that women are superior to men.
It’s not that I think they’re inherently better or that I think men are bad.It’s simply that for people to live together in peace they must behave more like we think women are.
And this is connected to the inclination towards peace. Even violent men – most of them – want peace in the end. Even the psychopath wants the peace of having fulfilled his desires.
A Roman execution began with a scourging of the naked prisoner. Using a short whip made of braided leather embedded with sharpened stones, Roman soldiers would flog the man’s back, buttocks, and legs. “The lacerations would tear into the underlying skeletal muscles and produce quivering ribbons of bleeding flesh.” The prisoner’s arms would then be tied around a hundred-pound crossbar, and he would be forced to carry it to a site where a post was embedded in the ground. The man would be thrown onto his shredded back and nailed through the wrists to the crossbar. (Contrary to the familiar depictions, the flesh of the palms cannot support the weight of a man.) The victim was hoisted onto the post and his feet were nailed to it, usually without a supporting block. The man’s rib cage was distended by the weight of his body pulling on his arms, making it difficult to exhale unless he pulled his arms or pushed his legs against the nails. Death from asphyxiation and loss of blood would come after an ordeal ranging from three or four hours to three or four days. The executioners would prolong the torture by resting the man’s weight on a seat, or hasten death by breaking his legs with a club.
Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature
I come from Catholics, and until I was 12 and discovered punk rock I bought the whole Jesus trip: I was a bit of a fanatic. I remember watching Jesus Christ Superstar (which fuckin’ blew my mind! It was Jesus times but there were tanks! Nobody talked, they sang the whole thing! Judas was black!) and pressing a kitchen knife into my palms during the crucifixion scene to get some sense of the pain Jesus felt as iron nails ran in. I gave up on all that, as one must, because it’s retarded – but later I came back to it, gingerly, as one should, because the story of Christ is of an awesome power and beauty.
I leave aside any argument about the church, any kind of church, most especially the Catholic Church. I don’t give a shit, I hardly think about it any more. I tried to go back about ten years ago but I couldn’t hack it: I couldn’t say the Creed because I don’t believe it, and I wouldn’t take Communion because I couldn’t say the Creed. Plus the priest was kind of a prick and seemed to be pushing reactionary old school Catholicism, perhaps to counter what he saw as a wishy-washy 21st century version. Anyway, it doesn’t matter, I don’t give a shit about that.
What matters is this: that the story is God came to earth as a man, a boy who became a man, a human like us. And that man was at once God and God’s son. Just forget how retarded it is: think of “God” as “the Universe,” or “Nature,” whatever you can get your head around. Because we are part of that: we’re not unnatural, we’re not from elsewhere. We’re from here, of this Universe. So, for the sake of the story (remember it was written by people who didn’t know shit about science. They were like children. It’s childish – but look at it as their best effort. There’s poetry in it.) accept there’s a God and he can do shit like that.
So this God sees that his people are miserable. They keep fucking up, they can’t get their shit together. And he wants to help, but he can’t just wave a magic wand. He wants to help them, but they have to do it themselves. (You’ll understand this if you have children: you can’t do everything for them.) So he sends his son – and his son is Him, because everything is Him – there’s nothing outside. (And that’s how it is, do you see? That’s how it actually is. We’re all of us intertwined, we’re all born from the Universe, from Being. There’s nothing outside of it.)
And this Jesus must suffer and die because we must suffer and die. Because this is the way it is. God has not abandoned us – he is just like us. He is us.
Even God suffers and dies.
But then comes the Resurrection.
Do you see? It’s like us. Because we’re constantly changing. We’re never the same, from moment to moment. We die from moment to moment. And are resurrected. There is new life, always, from moment to moment. Do you see? That’s what it means, this story of death and resurrection. It’s nothing so petty as your little ego coming back in a fairy land. It’s here, now, every day. Every moment. Your life begins anew every moment.
So of course, yes. It’s a bullshit story. It couldn’t have happened that way. But it’s so beautiful. And we made it up. We can tell such beautiful stories. And we’re not being crucified. Not right now. Not at this moment.