Take it or leave it.

Saturday, August 19, 2017


In TIME magazine's essay of the week, Kristin van Ogtrop gives advice for those who wish to make a midlife career change. It is clear that TIME's bourgeois readers seek such change not out of the need for extra money, but for the sake of change itself. Which is really just a means to combat restlessness. As a way of guiding yourself along the path to a new beginning, the author suggests asking the question, "What am I really good at?" 

What van Ogtrop may not realize, being a married and presumably faithful mother of three, is that this question appears in the "about me" section of pretty much every dating site worth its salt. No stranger to this genre myself, I usually put as my answer things like "running around without shoes," "making Brussels sprouts taste good" and "writing blog posts which nobody reads." As I haven't had a date in many moons, it seems my skills aren't worth the time it has taken to develop them, and it's been 6 years since I last wore running shoes. 

Clearly I'm not very good at this exercise, so I've come up with a better question for my nonexistent reader to ask himself. Since a career change is really an attempt to find happiness - and happiness at least in America is associated with what you do, not who you are - then the more appropriate question to guide you in your quest for bliss is this: "When was I the happiest I've ever been?" Determine the answer, and replicate the conditions of that golden period of your life, and voila, joy shall spring eternal.

My happiest time was hands down the summer of 1990. This was just before my senior year of high school. I was 17. It was great because I was busy, but not overly so, challenged but not overwhelmed, and balanced, balanced, balanced. I had a good mix of physical, social and academic stimulation, plus adequate time to relax. And also great hair. 

For starters, that summer I had to enroll in summer school. As a transfer student, there were classes I had taken in my former school which didn't carry over at my new one. So each weekday morning from 8 to 10 I was in Mr. Farmer's Music Appreciation class, and from 10 to 12 it was Mr. Thompson's Photography class. These classes were interesting and challenging. They involved class presentations but no homework, which left me free to spend weekends reading about metaphysics at my father's suggestion. And I got to sit next to several cute girls.

I also had a lot of physical outlets that summer. Two evenings a week I played summer baseball games with my varsity teammates, who were also my best friends. I also participated in a summer soccer tournament with members of the following season's championship team. And if that wasn't enough, my friends and I signed up for three-month memberships to Gold's Gym, where we'd pump iron every other day. And when I wasn't in Venice Beach bench pressing, my friend DJ and I were in Santa Monica riding waves, scoping chicks and eating Subway sandwiches in the sun. You can probably guess that come September I kicked off the school year with one helluva tan. Socially, in addition to spending lots of time with my guy friends, I had an impressive rotation of girlfriends. Nothing too serious. Just evening strolls in the park (with Bryn), french fries at Ed Debevics (with Shannon), cuddling in the lounge area of Bar One (with Nicole, or with Evelyn when Nicole wasn't looking), and a lot of kissing with them all. Yes, that summer was perfect, and with senior year on the horizon, life looked to get even better and did. Well, almost. Because if senior year had been an improvement on perfection, that's what I'd be writing about now.

These days my life seems much different from what it was when I was 17, but it's actually very much the same. I don't go to the gym or to the beach, nor do I play organized sports. But I do keep myself rather active with some combination of running, swimming, biking and weight training almost every day, in or around my house. Which reminds me: one thing I don't miss from the summer of '90 is the traffic. Back then I was always on the road - either going to the beach, or driving to games, or taking girls to movies, or making out with them in the back seat of my Jeep. While these days I hardly leave the house. And I use the extra time wisely. Since the house won't clean itself, the dog won't walk himself, my food won't cook itself, and the garden won't water itself. I had none of these chores to do as a teenager. For that there was our live-in, Thelma. Muchas gracias. And though my days of formal education are over, I still like to read books, many of them on metaphysics, and occasionally write essays on those books, just like teachers had me do during my days as a student. While things that are absent from my life, then as now, include alcohol, tobacco, drugs, sex, meat and a job. Proving that despite what Ogtrop and her ilk believe, a career is not the ticket to lasting satisfaction, which can only be found be being who you are, which is . . . if you've been reading my words for any length of time, you can supply the missing word. Hint: five letters, begins with a B.

As for social stimulation, I may not seek it out but I do seize the opportunity to schmooze with whatever friend might call or visit me. Today my neighbor Michael came over, and not long after he left I chatted on the phone with my old surfing buddy, DJ. I don't date nearly as often as I used to, and when I do expensive dinners are much more apt to occur than make-out sessions. Which is lamentable. Maybe my choice in females is to blame, or is it something in me that the wrong ones see? Perhaps I should return to that questionnaire and think of something I can do better. Or just remain focused on something better to do. You're looking at it.


In November of 1985, when I was twelve, my parents took a trip to India to see the holy man Sai Baba, leaving my brothers and me at home alone. Well, not exactly alone. A bevy of babysitters came through the revolving door that the Dave residence had become during my parents' brief absence. These included my older brother, Jason, as well as my paternal grandmother, Annette. The Kunstlers, who were our Belgian neighbors, assumed carpool duties. And we also had a live-in housekeeper, though Thelma didn't speak English and at the time I hadn't yet become bilingual. The ten days that followed was sort of a free-for-all, an anything goes situation in which, without consistent supervision, my brothers and I could go to sleep at whatever wee hour we wished, have cereal with chocolate milk and whipped cream on top for dinner, and Twix for dessert, and watch scary movies. I remember one evening, the three of us found ourselves at the foot of my parents' bed watching the movie The Exorcist

I had never seen the film, and watching the young girl, Regan MacNeil, wiggle and writhe, as yellow slime spewed from her orifices, and her head spun, and those devious eyes and that horrific voice, it all filled me with intense dread, or what I'd have referred to back then as the willies, or the heebie jeebies. And all the while my brothers slept peacefully by my side, because it was after all well past their bedtime and old habits die hard. After the movie ended and I had tucked my brothers in, I lay awake in bed, horrified lest I become possessed myself. And then, from the other side of the room, the phone rings. Terrifying! This was before answering machines, so the only way to make it stop was to crawl out of bed in the darkness and pick it up. Turned out it was just my maternal grandmother, Irene, making sure we weren't up too late eating cereal and watching scary movies. "Don't worry, Grandma," I said. "Everything's fine." And I went back to being creeped out. Thank goodness there was no demon lurking in my attic, but only because we didn't have an attic.

The Exorcist is the only movie that has ever really frightened me. Perhaps because I was an altar boy and it touched on the very Christian fear of demonic possession. Perhaps because of the timing, or the special effects, or maybe just because the writing was so damn good. Indeed, the movie caused quite a stir when it hit theaters 44 years ago. Audiences across America were really freaked out, crying and vomiting and in all sorts of hysterics. And they were adults. It was nominated for best picture, and won best adapted screenplay. 

And so, as you might imagine, when in 2000 I got it into my head to write a horror story of my own, about the ghost of my deceased brother, Justin, coming back to terrorize us, it was to the pages of that great classic, which was a novel before it was a film, that I turned. In life Justin had experienced some of the very tragedies Regan's mother fears her daughter may suffer from, which is why she takes Regan to a neurologist to check out her brain. Justin had fallen from a tree and sustained a head injury which years later required surgery. After the surgery my brother's personality changed markedly. He became surly and intensely brooding. He started drinking heavily, smoking and using drugs. And something in his eyes had just died. I remember at the time thinking that maybe my brother's body, like Regan's, had been taken over by a force of evil. After all, he had been put out for the surgical procedure. Maybe when he came to, he was no longer himself, but...Pazuzu?

In Blatty's novel, it is Pazuzu, the king of demons, unearthed from a burial site in Iraq by the Catholic priest, Father Lankester Merrin, who possesses Regan. It is never made clear why Pazuzu, who Regan eerily refers to as Captain Howdy, chose the body of an innocent 12-year-old to take over. Regan did however fiddle with a Ouija board, and one wonders if by tinkering with supernatural forces she may have opened the door to the other side, a door which once ajar would not be shut except with the deaths of those concerned. Of course there is the theory, and this is the one that the novel would have one believe, that Regan was not possessed by a devil at all. Her illness, if it be called that, was, at least in part, psychological in nature. Maybe she had been molested, or was jealous of her mother. Or maybe the local devil's cult was to blame. None of these nuances registered when I was Regan's age, there on the floor in my parents' bedroom, with my brothers blissfully unaware by my side. How could they when before my virgin eyes a girl was repeatedly stabbing her cooch with a crucifix, not to mention that spine-chilling score. And years afterwards, when I wrote my novel, I realized as an author I was no William Peter Blatty and so I shelved it. The Oscars will have to wait, forever.

But I have always been enthralled by the forces lying dormant within. Forces potentially good or evil, depending on how they are used. Just power. Regan had this power, which may or may not have been attributable to the primordial entity which had entered her. But the power to levitate and spider walk and twist her head, not to mention the power to kill three grown men, makes one a force to be reckoned with. And I wondered: Why isn't there a film about someone being possessed by or connecting with a power that is supremely benevolent and good? Why not a book about being taken over not by Satan but by God? And unable to locate such a tale in literature, perhaps because there's not an audience for it - modern viewers, who require plots substantially more titillating, would call it boring - I thought of writing such a story myself, until I remembered something. There is an example of such divine possession in the life of a man whose biography my father had introduced me to when I was not as young as Regan but not much older either. I was 19.

Maruti Kambli was an illiterate householder living in Bombay. A husband and father of four children, he made his living selling cigarettes as the owner of a small goods store. At the age of 35 he came in contact with a mystical being whose instruction he followed to the letter. No board games or ancient statues involved, but you can see the rough parallel. After about two years or so this humble villager began radiating an almost supernatural power and speaking words of great wisdom. Having never studied any of the great religious texts he was suddenly able to discourse authoritatively on the age-old questions of souls and God and the purpose of life. Soon thereafter throngs of visitors started appearing, perched on his every word. From that point until his death at the age of 84 he was revered as the great sage, Nisargadatta Maharaj. Since his death he has been extolled by spiritual masters the world over, including Eckhart Tolle. Even if he does look like a demon, but purportedly so did Socrates! As Elvis almost sang, these excellent individuals were angels in disguise.

What precisely was the instruction that this humble Indian man followed to access such miraculous potency? In the Maharaj's own words: "My Guru ordered me to attend to the sense 'I am' and to give attention to nothing else. I just obeyed. I did not follow any particular course of breathing, or meditation, or study of scriptures. Whatever happened, I would turn away my attention from it and remain with the sense 'I am'. It may look too simple, even crude. My only reason for doing it was that my Guru told me so. Yet it worked!"

Maharaj found the supernatural power within him. That power exists in you too, waiting to be tapped. The book of his teachings that my father gave to me when I was 19 is appropriately entitled I Am That. It came out the very same year my favorite horror film was released, and the year my parents met Sai Baba: 1973, which is also the year of my birth. Now who do you want to be? A force of immense good, or a force of unfathomable evil? If you hesitate, I'll have you remember that Pazuzu was expelled from his young hostage and eventually defeated by a kind and loving priest. Which the Majaraj, like Merrin, most definitely was. Kind and loving, I mean. So read his book, although a good horror story can be satisfying. But before watching Regan writhe, be sure to turn off your ringer!

Of course, to get what I wanted I could have just waited for my parents to come back from their trip and listened to their stories. Because to hear my father tell it, the Maharaj's biography is not the only one of its kind. Indeed the life of Sai Baba reads like an Exorcist rendition. Only instead of causing murder and mayhem, Baba, who legend says emerged from a brush with a scorpion proclaiming to be the next avatar or divine incarnation, devoted his life to healing the sick, manifesting jewelry and counselling the downtrodden. His is another great biography to read, though you may find that it lacks pep.

Friday, August 18, 2017


The recent string of celebrity suicides leave one to wonder whether fame and money and doing what you love, with a generous throng of groupies thrown in, can ever make a person happy. The answer is clearly no. And yet the focus of society is on gaining precisely these things. From early childhood we are taught to seek lucrative jobs. We idolize those in entertainment and politics and business and tech who are famous for their net worth, the toys in their garage, their Hooters wives and however skillful they are at singing or playing an instrument or hitting a fastball or reciting lies in front of a camera. 

No less than Forbes magazine, in dispensing career advice, tells us to "find something you would do for free and get paid for it." Self-help gurus urge us to "awaken the giant within" in order to effect major change in the world and earn a substantial sum in the process. Even philosophers, who are supposed to have transcended such mundane affairs as climbing the social ladder, are not above weighing in on the issue. Joseph Campbell, the Columbia University-educated mythologist whose work on archetypes influenced such blockbuster films as the Star Wars franchise as well as Disney hits including The Lion King, not to mention The Da Vinci Code, The Matrix trilogy, the Indiana Jones series and super-hero flicks like Batman, is perhaps best known for urging followers to "follow your bliss." Which many took to mean "do what you love." Again, the focus on being, not doing. Ironically Campbell's inspiration for the saying derived from the Hindu scriptures. In the Upanishads, and indeed throughout all major Eastern texts treating the subject, we are reminded that our essential nature is Sat Chit Ananda, or Being, Awareness, Bliss. Campbell claimed to know little about being or awareness. But he knew what made him happy - which from his substantial bibliography we gather to have revolved chiefly around reading and writing. And yet finding bliss in activities outside your Self is the very thing that these scriptures caution against. The world is fleeting. It is dream-like. Turn away from external events and find the permanent reality that dwells within. In other words, bliss is your nature. All you have to do is be aware.

The twin deaths of rockers Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington, separated in time by about two months, deeply impressed me. I loved Soundgarden the moment my brother turned me onto their mesmeric hit "Black Hole Sun" in 1995. Audioslave's haunting "Fell on Black Days" resonated with the overworked clinical medical student slaving away in the armpit of America that is southern Louisiana, at a time (winter), when every day was literally black, or at least varying shades of a wet and weary gray. 

And Bennington's feral screaming on tracks like "Somewhere I Belong" and "In the End" spoke to the stunted adolescent in me, who at the time was chasing dreams of screenwriting success while grunting through days as a school teacher; the music energized my sex life with then-girlfriend Shannon - try pumping in time to the bass beat- not to mention fueling my long runs around Silver Lake. I was perpetually irritated about life and Linkin Park's angst-filled riffs served as a socially-acceptable outlet for my own frustration at the way things were. Frustration that stemmed in part from a state of society which could lionize men who were simply standing on a stage airing their feelings with rhythm and harmony. And also derived from my buying into such a society and trying to be a "success" myself - while drinking and smoking and doing lots of drugs. Because that's what artists do, right?

These men had it all. Looks, style, otherworldly talent. They knew and loved each other and were pseudo-contemporaries. Cornell, who as a sort of older brother helped to shape the star that Bennington would become, was 52, Bennington was 41. They were both married with children. Still in the prime of life, and in good health, with many golden years ahead in which to spend time with their families, do what they loved, and enjoy their life, their deaths by strangulation left fans around the globe to wonder why. Yes they both battled drug abuse and alcoholism. But as with many musicians, destructive habits developed or at least became entrenched only after they had become world famous, perhaps as a result of the fame. And clearly both men were doing what they loved. As lead singers of wildly successful rock groups they routinely played in front of thousands of adoring fans. Indeed Cornell had performed with his band the night before taking his own life. 

Ask a hundred people what they consider the dream job to be and I can guarantee you "rock-star" is at or around number one. And you can see why. The job itself requires tremendous talent and skill. It requires single-minded focus and a champion's work ethic. Music is universally cherished. And success as a rock star brings with it money, fame, countless romantic prospects and the opportunity to travel the globe. These men were doing as Campbell had commanded and following a bliss outside themselves - and it left them depressed and dead. In a twist worthy of being scripted, Bennington strangled himself on what have been his mentor's 53rd birthday. My heart goes out to the loved ones, and there are legions, these great performers left behind.

There have been times when I too have been well-received by the world, albeit on a much more modest scale As a child I gave a speech on human values to a crowd of 10,000 in an auditorium in India. I was king of my high school and valedictorian of medical school. The allure of the world is tantalizing, and it feels euphoric to be embraced by others. But these times were few and far between. We are sensitive to the opinions of our fellow human beings, and long for their approval. Even me, despite years of weeding these tendencies out.

Take yesterday, for instance. While walking my dog I encountered my neighbor, Dr. Applebaum. He is a retired opthalmologist who my mother used to hound about getting his brush cleared annually in a timely manner. Once or twice she even threatened to call the fire department on him. They had a strained if superficial relationship, and I used to beseech my mom to leave the poor man, who is nearing eighty, alone. "Don't be that nitpicky old lady interfering in other people's affairs," I used to tell her. Applebaum and I had never been formally introduced, but my mother had given him a copy of my book on nutrition, which she told me he had read and enjoyed and even recommended to friends. After I waved a hello to him we spent the next hour on the side of the road chatting like two old Jewish ladies. He told me he was so impressed by me. How "lovely" I am, and how good shape I am in, and how loquacious, and that I should find a wife - which is advice I receive quite regularly. He went so far as to say he had never met anybody like me, a person with so much appeal who chooses to spend the bulk of his time alone.

I am not ashamed to say that I left the interaction with my neighbor on winged feet, on cloud nine. If the high regard of one gentleman in the twilight of his life makes me so pleased with myself, imagine if I once again earned social acclaim at a larger level. Maybe I should re-enter society and make a name for myself. Be a radio personality, or a talk-show host. Or a health guru. And then I caught myself. Though the allure of the world is so tantalizing as to be almost irresistible, the praise you earn is always short-lived. Anything temporary is short-lived for one who is eternal. And I am. And you, too. 

And so I remind myself and you of the teachings of my youth. To be desireless. And to seek nothing but enjoy what comes your way unsought. These teachings should be made available to the youths of the west, if nothing else than to avoid future untimely deaths. Maybe that's something for me to do. Spiritual mentoring. I could be an ecumenical Joel Osteen, with the chops of Smokey Robinson. Oh wait, they're the same guy. Tantalizing, see?And so I cast these thoughts aside and returned home where on the pee-stained carpet amidst the gardener's blowing, I quietly, inconspicuously, resumed my meditation. Applebaum remarked that he couldn't imagine what it's like to quiet the mind for hours on end. I said surely someone who practiced medicine for over 30 years, who is also a pilot and accomplished harpsichordist, has the discipline to develop a skill which only requires an hour or so of daily practice to ultimately master. He said, "Perhaps, but I don't wish it." That's just it. Desire, and time, are the limiting factors in Self-realization. If our celebrities had more of one or the other, properly directed, I wager they'd still be with us today. And if they were I'd tell them this: You are doing more for the world by attending to the miracle of your own being than you could by any social reform or for that matter, sold-out show.

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If as Shakespeare tells us, "all's well that ends well," a life, however glorious by society's standards, cannot be deemed worthy of emulation if it does not lead to the happiness of the liver, and clearly these men were not happy with themselves, or they would not have bid the world that embraced them a premature farewell.

Of course, rock stars are not the only ones to commit suicide. Sages also do. The difference is where the celebrity extinguishes his physical existence, the recluses of the world, by self-examination, kill the one who suffers. They kill the lower self, the ego-based personality ever in search of pleasure and in avoidance of pain. They contact that true nature, which is bliss, and which does not need to be followed, but only allowed to shine within.

Bliss is your real nature. And it is independent of what you do or don't do. In fact, doing may get in the way. And following your bliss is like a dog chasing its own tale, or a child running after its own shadow. It will only leave you frustrated, tired and alone. You are independent of what you "do" or "don't do." Because you are pure being. Don't let fame or fortune or society's expectations get in the way of the realization of your true nature. You belong right where you are. That's my free advice for the day.

Thursday, August 17, 2017


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In the movie Office Space (1999), an Everyman desk jockey named Peter, who spends his days trudging miserably through a corporate job he hates, decides one day to stop caring and instead just do whatever comes naturally, even if that means coming into the office in flip-flops and a Hawaiian shirt or not showing up at all. Instead of getting fired, his nonchalant, devil-may-care attitude makes him the envy of the firm. 

It all starts when Peter's girlfriend takes him to an occupational hypnotherapist, in the hopes that he will learn to like his job more. During their session, he tells the obese man that ever since he started working, every single day of his life has been worse than the day before it. "So it means that every single day you see me, that's on the worse day of my life." Peter wants the guy to hypnotize him into thinking that he doesn't know he's at work, that instead of being at the office he might be brainwashed into believing he had been out doing something fun, like fishing. The hypnotist performs a relaxation technique but dies of a heart attack before he can snap his subject out of the trance. So Peter is permanently, shall way say, Zenned out. And I am not transcribing this dialogue from memory.

Back at the office,  a permanently chill Peter tells the "efficiency experts" hired to assist with the lay-offs a little about his average day. It's as if he's been administered a truth serum. "Well, I generally come in at least fifteen minutes late," he tells the experts, who are both named Bob. "I use the side door, that way the boss can't see me. Uh, and after that, I just sorta space out for about an hour. I just stare at my desk but it looks like I'm working. I do that for probably another hour after lunch too. I'd probably say, in a given week, I probably do about fifteen minutes of real, actual work. It's not that I'm lazy. It's just that I just don't care. It's a problem of motivation, all right? Now, if I work my ass off and the company ships a few extra units, I don't see another dime. So where's the motivation?"

Rather than rat him out as a good-for-nothing, the Bobs extol Peter as having "'Straight to Upper Management' written all over him," proving it pays to be frank. Lots of other awesome scenes ensue in a movie I always watch when it comes on TV, which is not often enough since I only have basic cable.

I fell in love with Office Space when I first saw it back in 2002. I could really relate to the protagonist's plight. I was working as a teacher in the Los Angeles school district, where I taught English and also supervised high school-aged students in an independent study GED/diploma program. Many was the day that I employed tactics similar to those Peter confessed to in my own daily routine. I couldn't come to class late, the bell system in place saw to that, but I'd use the restroom like every 15 minutes just to get out of the stuffy classroom. I was overworked and understimulated, so instead of grading the ever-rising stack of papers beside me on the desk, I would stare into the pages of a book I pretended to read, or reach for the occasional flask of cognac, or work on a screenplay that I'd never be able to sell, because when it comes to writing cult classics, I'm no Mike Judge.

I thought of the movie today when an email appeared in my inbox. It was from a Giovanni Dienstmann, whose mailing list I somehow got added to, likely because he blogs about meditation and I must have appreciated what he had to say on the subject at some point. In the body of the email, Dienstmann asks, "Suppose you have 100 million dollars in the bank. You have already enjoyed everything money can give you, and you are bored with it. How will you want to spend your time?"

In the movie, Peter poses a similar question to his office buddies, Michael and Samir, although the question was raised by an old guidance counselor of his and the sum he uses is a million dollars. The film is nearly twenty years old, so chalk it up to inflation. I, however, believe I could manage on just a million. Your answer is meant to clue you in as to what you should do for a living, or at least devote as much time and energy towards as your circumstances might afford. Michael scoffs at the question. "If that quiz worked, there would be no janitors, because no one would clean shit up if they had a million dollars." Samir says he'd invest the money to make more money, which misses the point entirely. As for Peter: "I never had an answer. I guess that's why I'm working at Initech." 

Peter thinks about his response a bit more, and over beers with his neighbor again poses the question. Lawrence, who in addition to great hair also has commendable taste in what constitutes a good time, says he'd use his funds towards a night in the arms of two females, simultaneously. This makes Peter smile and he finally cops to his true feelings. If given the opportunity to spend the remainder of his days doing whatever it was he felt like, he says, "I would relax, I would sit on my ass all day, I would do nothing." To which Lawrence replies: "You don't need a million dollars to do nothing, man. Take a look at my cousin. He's broke and don't do shit."

I, who have devoted a gazillion hours to such pursuits as reading and writing, have grown tired of these and other time-suckers, present effort exempted. And I too choose to do nothing. It's not new. I've been doing nothing for nearly 4 years. I'll do or not do it for 15 minutes here and for 2 hours there. All at once or several times a day. But where Peter and I differ is that I refuse to do nothing sitting down on my ass. After 60 straight days positioned cross-legged in front of a candle flame for 30 to 60 minute stretches, I was left in sore need of a stretch. Sitting sucks. It hurts my joints, makes my muscles tight and causes my legs to fall asleep. All the blood pools in my feet which is a recipe for a blood clot. This explains why, after years spent in predominately such a posture, the sage Ramana Maharshi wound up with such severe arthritis that in his latter days he could no longer amble about freely, and at 70 he wasn't that old. Just look at the poor man's swollen knees!

And another thing is the technique. Many meditators, novices and veterans alike, spend their time staring at a candle flame or image, or concentrating on the breath, or reciting a mantra. Indeed these are all standard practices in virtually every type of meditation under the sun. Or if, like Ramana, you prefer caves, then in the shade. But Ramana had no patience for such practices, which may assist in the short run in focusing the mind, but ultimately lose their efficacy as your concentration improves. To paraphrase: "Breath-control. meditation on the forms of God, repetition of mantras, restriction on food, etc., are but aids for rendering the mind quiescent.  If through these means you seek to control the mind, the mind will appear to be controlled, but it will be quiescent only so long as the breath remains controlled and the mantra recited. When once again normal breathing resumes and you go about your day, the mind also will again start moving and will wander as impelled by residual impressions." In other words, anyone can hypnotize himself by staring at a flame and then pat himself on the back for his commendable mind conrol, but the moment you get up the spell breaks and thoughts once again flood your head and your old higgledy-piggledy ways return.

Which is why we are dissuaded from following these more rudimentary types of meditation. Instead you should ask yourself over and again the simple question, "Who am I?" And so I choose a spot in which to recline comfortably. Sometimes it's the hammock, sometimes the couch or propped upon pillows on the bed. Today it was on the floor in what used to be my brother Justin's room, so as not to be noticed by the gardener. Once comfortable I close my eyes and remain still and silent, both inside and out. If a thought comes I follow the hermit's counsel and ask, "To whom does this thought occur?" Thus I am once again brought back to myself. Not the thinking or doing self. This isn't the real me. But the being self. Which is bliss. This is being as you are

While to the observer it might look like I'm asleep, and maybe I doze off a bit here and there, the practice requires skill which is developed through much practice and time. But there is nothing else I'd rather be doing, and the effects are literally out of this world. There is no thought that is as charming and fulfilling as the total absence of thought. But to believe me, you must see for yourself. If you can find time what with all those threesomes!

By the end of the movie, Peter wonders if his new attitude is the effect of the hypnotherapy session that never ended, or if he somehow has become the unflappable fellow he always wanted to be. Give meditation a try, and you'll find your real Self has always been right here waiting for you. Now there's a catchy title.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017


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Shortly before my twenty-first birthday, my dear friend from high school Natalie invited me to kick off the new year with her and a few close friends in San Francisco. It turned out that one of my best buddies and former baseball teammate Bryan would be visiting the Bay Area from DC to see his sister. I had always been drawn to No Cal and had no holiday plans, so I booked a ticket and headed to SF for our impromptu little reunion. While attending nearby Menlo College, Natalie was rooming with another of Beverly High's alumni, Lindsey, whom I had dated for a couple months during our senior year. On New Year's Eve a group of us took magic mushrooms and Natalie and her friends went to Chinatown to have dinner, leaving me and Lindsey all on our ownsome lonesome in the small apartment. It felt like a set-up.

Contrary to what you may be thinking, we did not rekindle the spark. Unbeknownst to moi, Lindsey had harbored some hard feelings about our brief togetherness of yesteryear. Particularly she didn't approve of the manner in which I had taken her virginity. Apparently when choosing positions for a girl's first time, doggy style is off-limits. I didn't believe Lindsey to be a virgin back when, since prior to dating me she had been with an older fella who was definitely not wet behind the ears, sexually speaking. And after me she claimed a still intact cherry. But she was adamant about my failure to show her the respect that was her due. I remember telling her while on 'shrooms that respect should be earned, and you must act in a manner deserving of such reverential treatment, and her repeatedly sticking my penis into her vagina, which she did, was not exactly behavior befitting such a girl. Perhaps she didn't respect herself all that much and the 17-year-old I had been was just mirroring her self-image. It's all water under the bridge anyway, and I hope Lindsey has found the position that suits her, at least in a figurative sort of way. I mean I hope she has found her bliss. 

But the apartment felt like a hostile environment after Lindsey and I had had it out, and I had no bed of my own, so I took Bryan up on his offer to spend my final night in town with him at his sister's Mission District one bedroom, where we slept side by side on the living room floor. I remember Bryan telling me that his goal was to save as much energy as possible. This from a guy who in high school was known as mister frugal. He would not spend a dime unless he absolutely had to. And now, in college, he extended his thriftiness beyond merely pinching pennies to conserving calories. Bryan explained to me that he was against engaging in any unnecessary activities, which included going to concerts, and taking above the bare minimum of college courses, and exercising. When I asked him why, he replied, "Because I'm lazy. Why else?" 

Back then I was anything but. I was addicted to action. I spent much of my twenties and even my thirties running around with my head cut off, engaging in all sorts of enterprises that didn't fit with the lazy man's manner of living. In my first year of college at UCLA, in addition to being a full-time student, I waited tables four or five days a week, drove to Gold's Gym to lift weights six days a week, took three days a week of martial arts training and rode my bike to and from school. Little of these duties served an integral purpose, in the practical sense. The only one with a necessary function, if you believe the earning a college degree is required to get a lucrative job fallacy, was greatly compromised by my hectic schedule. I was so tired with all that working and working out that I could hardly manage to earn Cs in my GEs. 

Thinking back I could really have pruned my daily agenda. I could have done away with the martial arts training, since it got me nowhere. It's not like I was using kung fu as a stepping stone to the UFC or WWE, and I haven't been in a fist fight since I was fourteen. I could have nixed the visits to Gold's Gym and just worked out at UCLA's Wooden Center, a membership to which was included in my tuition. This would have saved me a 90-minute daily commute to and from Venice Beach, since I was already at school. And the only reason I worked so many days at that Italian restaurant in Beverly Hills was to make payments for a new Jeep I had just bought myself. By continuing to drive the car I had sold to buy the Jeep, itself a Jeep, and already paid off, I could have saved loads of time and money. 

Maybe all the running around stemmed from force of habit. Growing up I had been thrust into all manner of extracurriculars, from after school sports to camps and music lessons to cotillion, all without a say, so that when I graduated high school and finally had some free time I chose to fill it up with more extracurriculars of my own. Hey, if it makes you happy, it can't be that ba-a-a-ad, as the modern day mystic Sheryl Crowe sings. But why the hell was I so sad? Although these activities were not integral to my existence and also quite exhausting, they served some psychological function I should address, because it is the crux of the matter, all matter. I was proud of my memberships at the gym and the dojo, and proud of my cherry new car.  Key word: pride.

You see, it was all ego-gratification. And sometimes the ego writes check that drain the body to cash. What is the ego? When you think of an egotist, you think of someone who is full of themselves. Who thinks he's the shit, the bomb, etc. Now, egotism is not to be confused with egoism, which is a preoccupation with yourself, with or without feelings of superiority. And egoist can be locked in his head and still feel pretty crummy. In Eastern philosophy, whose definition of ego is more egoism than egotism, the ego is synonymous with identification with your body and mind. When you think your physical form and personality are the real you, which they are not, self-centeredness results. At its most subtle level, the ego is the I thought. It is awareness of your existence. And the moment you have the I thought, other thoughts follow. If there is an I, says the mind, then there is a you and a he. If there is a me, there is a Lindsey. And doggy makes three.

The ego is the sense of self, and we spend our lives serving it. But if you elevate your sense of self beyond the little individual you take yourself to be, if you identify with the pure consciousness that is the basis of everything, including the ego, then thoughts cease, and with them action. Though it may take a while. It has taken me two and a half decades to fully realize this. And then you, or we, can finally put my friend Bryan's plan on conserving energy to work, because there is little for you to do.

It has been said that the sage sitting in meditation does more for the betterment of society than an army of lesser men with good intentions. Why? Because we are all connected, and finding the bliss within causes a ripple effect which pervades the entire cosmos. Or you can be like those self-seeking pseudo-altruists who start get-rich-quick schemes under the guise of charitable organizations to steal the hard-earned savings of poor unfortunate Americans. Save yourself the effort and other people their cash and Just. Be. Happy.

Speaking of effort: in the 24 years since our Bay Area conversation, our original lazy man, Bryan, has gotten married, moved to Massachusetts, embarked on a lucrative career, bought a house and fathered four children, even though the national average is around 2. While I am unbetrothed and unemployed. Now who's lazy? I guess our definitions of what is necessary differ, or maybe he's just picking up his buddy's slack. Once a team, always a team. Maybe I should give ole Lindsey a jingle. As far as positions go, I'm sure we can work something out.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017


My friend from up the street, whose name is Michael Gates, is always telling me how different are the approaches he and his wife adopt in almost every area of life. Take medicine, for instance. If her husband or son comes down with a cold, Jenny, who is Korean, is quick to retrieve some Chinese herb or other holistic remedy, which she insists will offer fast and effective relief. While Michael, who is beyond what he calls such overpriced nonsense, will without hesitation pop whatever pill is endorsed by Western medicine or at least backed by traditional science, side effects be damned.

I tell my friend that their seven-year-old, Ashton, is lucky to have parents whose philosophies vary so strikingly, for the boy will surely benefit when he is old enough to consider each parent's point of view and side with whatever approach he thinks is right; or even better, develop a synthesis of the two views held by his elders. Since as they say life is not black or white but shades of gray, who could ask for a better recipe for well-roundedness? So long as Jenny and Michael can learn to live with their differences; that is, keep them out of the bedroom, which is not always an easy task. 

Take my own parents. In raising their three sons they represented a united front on most major issues. Both insisted that a religious foundation be a necessary part of our upbringing, and my mother went along with my father's exposing us to Eastern spirituality through Sunday school as long as we also attended church afterwards. My mother supported my father's decision, made shortly before she got pregnant with her first son (me), to adopt a strict vegetarian diet. Provided she could eat a lot of cheese. Which was a breeze, since my father also dug dairy. And where my parents didn't coincide they often complemented each other. My dad was never very comfortable talking about emotional or personal issues. He'd rather take us to see a bloody horror movie than one affording even a fleeting glimpse of girlie parts. Let alone Terminator-type sex. Though in this case the bloody gore won out. But when I had girlfriend issues and looked for a little advice my mother was more than willing to lend a sympathetic ear and then some. 

Indeed she often made my romantic decisions for me. I called mom the night after I lost my virginity to tell her about it. This may sound strange, but it was just the nature of our relationship. There weren't many boundaries. And a few weeks later, at my mother's behest, I broke up with the sweetheart who had so sweetly stolen my innocence. My mother felt that Neysa was taking me down the wrong path of drugs and sex. But it felt so right at the time! I've often wondered what would have happened to Neysa and me had my mother not taken the driver seat in our separation, but breaking up was probably for the best. Double greyhounds ain't cheap, vomit is tough to clean up, and hangovers suck. (If it's any indication, Neysa married a classmate a year after we broke up, and just as quickly got a divorce. Her ex has been in and out of mental institutions ever since, or so I've heard. There but by the grace of God, etc.)

So basically my parents proved true the words of Rocky Balboa, who when explaining why he and his soon-to-be wife, Adrian, were such a good match, said: "She's got gaps, I got gaps. Together, we fill gaps." Not to beat a dead horse, but the only gap Neysa and I filled was the inscrutable one in her crotch. Though it felt so right at the time!

There were, however, certain areas of life where my parents didn't get on quite so majestically. Areas where they neither agreed nor agreed to disagree. And one area proved to be fatal to their relationship. I've probably been over this territory before but it deserves reiterating in this light. When in his early twenties my brother Justin was diagnosed with cartilage cancer, his condition was already so advanced - the tumor was the size of a grapefruit - that the oncologists at UCLA said that in addition to administering chemotherapy and radiation, they'd need to amputate his leg all the way up to his sacrum. This would mean that my brother could look forward to spending the rest of his life with a colostomy bag and in a wheelchair. Or the rest of whatever few days remained to him, because this rather drastic regimen notwithstanding, the doctors still couldn't guarantee a cure. Justin opted not to undergo such barbaric interventions. With accidents and congenital conditions and a host of other rocks on the road of his existence, life for Justin up till that point had been hard enough to voluntarily submit to such exquisite tortures. So the medical establishment gave him six months to live. 

My mother took the word of these doctors as the voice of God and Justin's comfort became her only concern, so her focus was on palliative measures. My father, on the other hand, wanted to fight. His idea of fighting was to immerse his already weak and emaciated son in alternative treatments. He took Justin to psychics and body workers, had him clean up his diet and take an array of supplements. All the while my dad was fulfilling the obligations inherent in a thriving law practice. And when he was at work, my mother was taking Justin into town to rent 80s comedies and order fast food. Because this is what her son wanted. 

Of course, my father viewed my mother's actions as flying in the face of his own and defeating his efforts to cure Justin. But my mother was just fulfilling her son's wishes during what she knew to be his final days. Indeed Justin had weighed these two mutually exclusive courses of action in his mind's eye - fight the tumor with every last ounce of strength in the hope of the miraculous, or accept the inevitable and throw in the towel - and he made his choice. But my parents' contrasting approaches pulled them apart. My father believed that had his wife been on his side, as she had been in so many other of the major decisions he had authored to structure our family life, their son would have been saved. At the time I didn't have any medical training, but even then I knew intuitively that nothing short of a miracle could save my brother's life. And miracles don't come by drinking your own urine and popping shark cartilage pills. The marriage ended. My mother had won, and my father never fully forgave her.

My dad and I sometimes talk about that great drama which unfolded in the Dave household 21 years ago, and though he believes that everything which happens is meant to be, he nevertheless maintains to this day that with my mother's support he could have rid his son's body of neoplasm. I always tell him how fortunate Justin was to have been given both sides of the argument, and to have parents who lovingly let him choose which way would be his own. And I fail to mention, probably because it just occurred to me, that it wasn't only in the rearing of Justin that my parents' approaches differed so. It also was the case with me. My mother raised me to be a champion. She wanted me to marry a princess, take over a business, start a large family and look fabulous all the while. And this almost happened when I met my girlfriend Isabella, whose engagement my mother basically engineered. Read: did everything short of putting the ring on Isabella's finger, which included designing it!

But I had no desire for glitz and glamour. I had had enough of that as a soccer stud at Beverly Hills High. Aldous Huxley once said that the appetite for acclaim is insatiable, but I beg to differ. At the banquet of youth I had drunk deeply from the cup of celebrity and left the feast permanently tipsy. Even as a 20-year-old, I knew I just wanted a simple life, with few responsibilities and possessions and ample time to sit in silence. When I went to my father and asked him what I should do about the future (as if one can do anything about the future), he told me that there were only three decisions a boy need concern himself with. How far to go in school. What to do for a living. And whom to marry. And that only I could answer these questions for myself. He then handed me the biography of an Indian mystic, who had left school at the age of 16 and traveled to a holy mountain where he cut his hair, gave away his possessions, garbed himself in a loin cloth, and for the next 20 years lived in caves, begging for food along the way. After these years of austerities the sage, who had realized the God that shines within as the "I," as pure consciousness devoid of thought, had developed such a reputation that an ashram was built around him, where thousands of people from around the world visited his impeccable presence. My dad's unspoken opinion: the highest attainment in life, more than fame or riches or a beautiful wife, is Self-realization. What's more, the grand distraction that is worldly success often hinders spiritual progress. Witness Christ's quote about the camel.

Isabella and I soon parted ways. Personal differences proved insurmountable, and she was much too jealous and possessive for an unconventional air sign such as I. Besides daily sex is a hard habit to keep up, and when you're 21 passion's flame can rage so wildly as to leave both partners feeling burnt out. In that charming girl's defense, I'm sure there's loads of less than perfect stuff she could say about me.

Anyway, for most of the twenty years since I tried my best to fulfill my mother's dreams. I earned the degrees and became the professional and sought a suitable wife. But the life of that humble Hindu ascetic never left my mind. And in my experiences and travels and studies I never encountered anyone who I'd rather be more like when I grow up than the humble hermit Ramana Maharshi. Other than my father, who is also my hero, and one of a kind; but there already are more than enough lawyers in the family!

And here my mother would have had me idolize the likes of Elvis and Sly. But when you consider the former's inglorious end (he died severely overweight and addicted to opioids, while on the toilet) and the latter's carnival freak current physical appearance, I think it's wise to go with the Maharshi. Whether you wish your crowning achievement to be perfect tranquility, in the case of  Ramana, or Rocky/Rambo's Expendables 3 says everything about you.

And so, though my father lost one son, he got his way with the other, and along the way also a lovely new wife. My youngest brother is a spectacular success. And I'm sure my mother is with Justin in the heavenly realm smiling down on his achievements. As for me, after years of trying to be who mom wished me to be, I finally earned the right to live simply and peacefully in the very home I grew up in, which is both cave and ashram to me. See, life is a sort of fairytale that always works out.


On the year anniversary of my mother's death I found myself lying in her bed, clutching her teddy bear, and staring at the life-size portrait of her she had placed on the wall above her TV. Like all the greats, my mother was her own biggest fan, a legend in her own head, and she had never met anyone more photogenic than herself. You must admit she was quite lovely. The portrait itself is one of those touched-up numbers you see gracing school yearbooks. Only in this one my mother was no high school co-ed. She was in her mid fifties, with a white feather boa around her neck. The feather boa makes it appear as though she's in a bubble bath. Which is fitting since my mother loved to soak in the tub and did so every evening. 

And as I lay there, tears streamed down my eyes. I sobbed more profusely than I had since her death. All our memories together flashed before me in an instant. One particular reminiscence held me in its grips. It was of me as a young boy no older than 6 or 7. My mom used to take my brothers and me on shopping sprees in Westwood, which is a few miles from our house. The department store Bullock's no longer exists. The building became a Macy's and is now a Ralphs, which is where I do much of my shopping. When we were kids my mother would lavish hundreds of dollars on each of us, updating our wardrobe for the upcoming school year. 

Most kids would embrace these annual and sometimes semi-annual excursions with unmitigated glee, but not me. For being a party to the fierce arguments my parents often engaged in after these department store visits, regarding my mother's spendthrift proclivities - and since it was after all my father's credit card that my mother was maxing out, his protests were not unjustified - I'd try on my new threads with mixed emotions. Sure I wanted new things - what kid doesn't? - but my brief life had already shown me that though I'd outgrow or tire of the Polo shirts and Guess jeans in a year, at which point they'd wind up at the Goodwill, the credit card bills wouldn't vanish as effortlessly, and the quarrels these sprees caused seemed to brand themselves in my heart for all time. 

I hated to see my parents argue, and because I was literally wearing their disagreement on my sleeve, I felt in part to blame. I say quarrels but my parents' altercations weren't exactly that. My dad would storm around in a huff, raise his voice, threaten to cancel his life insurance policy because my mother was "driving him into the grave," and making him a "beast of burden," while we three kids would cringe over our lasagna dinners. My mother, however, would simply regard her husband with a look of mild amusement, as though not taking him at all seriously. Sometimes she'd break out in a fit of laughter, right in the man's face! I'd ask her, "Mommy, why do you laugh at Daddy when he's so angry." Her reply: "That's the only way I can handle his moods." Laughter and gaiety were always my mom's best defense.

On one such spree, I sat down in the middle of the children's section and started crying. I can't remember what set me off on this temper tantrum. Maybe it was because my mom was buying too much merchandise, or not the precise Polo I desired. And regarding me rolling around on the floor, all wet-faced and mushy, she said in her usual matter-of-fact way, "Smile and the world smiles with you. Cry and you cry alone." And she turned on her heels and strode away - probably to the women's section, because these sprees of ours were fun for the whole family, almost.

Back to the present, or the recent past. From my perch on the bed I looked up at the dreamcatcher hanging from the ceiling fan, and remembered making my mother promise while alive to come visit me after death, as a spirit or ghost, and knock it onto the bed. She agreed. This would be our proof of the afterlife. The dreamcatcher hadn't moved from where she had put it while alive. 

And as I sat in bed crying over my mother's memory, staring wet-faced at her one-of-a-kind photo, the words she had uttered nearly 40 years ago rang loudly in my mind. Don't cry for me when I'm gone, is what she seemed to say. And indeed often did, in her final days. Or you'll do so alone. And I was alone. My mother is gone. Not that I have a problem with being on my own, per se. Indeed it's how I choose to spend the vast majority of my time. But feeling that I wasn't honoring my mom's memory in a way she'd have approved of had she been with me there on her bed, I sniffed a couple of times, dried my tear-stained eyes and left her room to write this anecdote I hope you have enjoyed. The past is behind me, and my mother may be somewhere far away, or what's more likely, nowhere in particular, which is to say everywhere all at once; but her eccentric ways and insouciant sayings will always have their place in the caverns of my heart. So, no more tears. Now who wants to party!