A blog about nothing.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

ON DOWNWARD DOGMAS

Every month Atlantic Monthly magazine has a section called "The Big Question" in which readers and authors answer an interesting query. Last month's question was "What is the best exit of all time?" One author, Michael Finkel, considered it a three-way tie between "Jesus (who left society to wander alone in the Sinai desert for 40 days), Muhammad (who retreated to a cave near Mecca), and Buddha (who sat beneath a pipal tree in India). After their exits, each founded a religion. More than 4 billion people now follow one of these faiths."

Meditation holds numerous benefits extending beyond the mere founding of world dogmas. If dogma is of any benefit. I see it as a source of strife. Down with dogma! But science tells us that sitting in silence and focusing the mind for a set time each day reduces stress, improves concentration, reduces cravings, increases self-awareness, happiness and acceptance, slows aging and bolsters the immune system. In addition, meditation makes your brain more plastic, increases gray matter, improves sleeping, reduces blood pressure and relieves pain. 

David Lynch, the creator of the highly-anticipated Twin Peaks reboot, has been practicing transcendental meditation for decades, and he credits this practice, coupled with a good diet, for keeping him young. Indeed the auteur looks younger than his 71 years despite chain-smoking for most of his life. And he has snazzy hair.


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When was meditation founded? It is believed that a Japanese monk discovered Zen on a visit to China in 653 AD and introduced the practice when he returned to his homeland of Japan by opening the first hall for meditation. But meditation extends much deeper into the past. After all, Muhammad was born in 571 AD, Christ around 1 AD, and Buddha in 623 BC, which takes us back nearly 2700 years. Indeed the word Zen is borrowed from the Sanskrit term dhyana, which means meditation and points to India, the birthplace of Buddha, as the country of origin. Where did Buddha learn to sit in silence? The best guess is that the Rishis of ancient India, who authored the Hindu scriptures called the Vedas between 1500 and 1000 BC, were the earliest practitioners, and the sacred texts they composed were the product of their meditations. Buddha was a Hindu by birth. 

In one ancient text, the Bhagavad Gita, which is set during the Kurukshetra War of 3067 BC, the Lord Krishna gives what may be the earliest recorded instruction in the age-old practice to his disciple, Arjuna. 

Krishna says: "Let the yogi seated in solitude and alone, having mind and senses under control and free from desires and attachments for possessions, try constantly to contemplate on the Supreme Self. The yogi should sit on a firm seat that is neither too high nor too low, in a clean spot. Sitting and concentrating the mind on a single object, controlling the thoughts and the activities of the senses, let the yogi practice meditation for self-purification. Hold the waist, spine, chest, neck, and head erect, motionless and steady, fix the eyes and the mind steadily between the eye brows, and do not look around. With serene and fearless mind; practicing celibacy; having the mind under control and thinking of [God]; let the yogi sit and have [God] as the supreme goal. Thus, by always keeping the mind fixed on the Self, the yogi whose mind is subdued attains peace of the Supreme nirvana by uniting with [God]."

Additionally, Krishna counsels yogis (yoga means union, and the goal is the union of the mortal human with his immortal nature, or Self) to be moderate in eating, sleeping, recreation and working. To be free of all desires and be steady like the candle in a windless room. Which is why practitioners often sit before a flame. The result is contact with your true nature, bliss, and the freedom from sorrow. And freedom of sorrow was exactly what the Buddha preached in his 4 noble truths and eight-fold path, proving that meditation, which he learned first by reading the scriptures and later verified in his own personal life, is the best method of Self-realization.

"This yoga should be practiced," Krishna goes on, "with firm determination and perseverance, without any mental reservation or doubts. Totally abandoning all selfish desires, and completely restraining the senses by the intellect; one gradually attains tranquility of mind by keeping the mind fully absorbed in the Self by means of a well-trained intellect, and thinking of nothing else. Wheresoever this restless and unsteady mind wanders away, one should bring it back to the reflection of the Supreme. 

"Supreme bliss comes to a Self-realized yogi whose mind is tranquil, whose desires are under control, and who is free from sin. Such a sinless yogi, who constantly engages the mind with the Self, easily enjoys the infinite bliss of contact with [God]. 

"Because of perceiving the Self (abiding) in all beings and all beings (abiding) in the Self; a yogi, who is in union with the Self, sees every being with an equal eye. Those who see [God] in everything and see everything in [God] are not separated from [God] and [God] is not separated from them....

"One is considered the best yogi who regards every being like oneself, and who can feel the pain and pleasures of others as one's own."

You will notice that Krishna doesn't mention downward dog or other yogic poses once in the Gita. This would come much later, via Patanjali's Sutras. But true yoga lies in stilling the mind, and through it you develop compassion. We're all in this together, and all is one. Let us love each other and be kind to our pets. And happy posing, if you're into that sort of thing. I prefer to watch.


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The greatest benefit of meditation is that it allows, in the words of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who developed the system used by Lynch, "the individual life to come in conscious contact with the cosmic life of absolute Being of eternal status." Thus the "conscious capacity of the mind is enlarged and the whole ocean of mind becomes capable of being conscious," enfolding the full mental potential and expanding the mind to its maximum limit. 

What Einstein said about our using only a small fraction of the brain is true for most of us, as the conscious mind can only deal with what it perceives, and it is able to glimpse such a smidgen! Expanding the mind through meditation enlarges the purview of its conscious component, the result of which is nothing less than pure genius. Here's to using your intelligence wisely. The wise person, who is also the smartest, always does.



Sunday, June 18, 2017

CALL ME SIR REAL

Andre Breton, Frenchman and founder of the Surrealist movement of the 1920s, writes: "the human condition is extremely precarious. Anything can go wrong at any time."

The truth of this statement was revealed to me recently at a party. A friend with whom I was conversing was leisurely munching on finger foods when suddenly his front tooth fell out. What an inopportune time to be visited by such catastrophe. He immediately left the party. At any moment we can be besieged by back spasms, the power fails, our computer crashes, we break a leg, etc. Just to name a few of my mishaps.

Ours is a lifespan ridiculously short in light of all we intend to achieve. We submit to a very few simple instincts - namely to eat, drink, sleep, defend and mate - and we do so inexorably. Our power to think we overrate, especially in light of the fact that we so often fall victim to routine, and "we are carefully channeled by society in predefined directions so as to be watched, or else we prefer not to think or to think badly," as when our thought processes are dominated by prejudices and peer pressures, half-truths, unrealistic expectations and imaginary fears.

We lie to ourselves at every turn. We act as though we'll live forever and build castles in the clouds. We ignore the inevitability of our own demise even in the face of a loved one's death. We lose the uniqueness that is our birth right and our own true prize in the mass of uniformity that is public opinion. 

But it doesn't have to be so. We must be like philosophers and seek "to understand nature through ourselves and not ourselves through nature." And do so in all humility. We as humans do not enjoy absolute superiority over all other beings, though it may seem like this to our biased perspective as we dominate the lower animals and exploit the earth's resources. Despite our pretentious views, we are not the world's crowning achievement. The belief that the human species is the ultimate goal of evolution is much too anthropomorphic - like imagining God with a beard and flowing hair. If a bird could speak English and you asked him to describe the Creator, he'd surely tell you about a Supreme Being with wings and a beak.

Instead we must use what little we know of ourselves to "reconnoiter" what surrounds us. And to do so through the intuition which Surrealism purported to uncover. 

Start with automatic writing. Sit down, grab a pen and a scrap of paper, and give free rein to the ideas that come to the surface of your mind. Set them down, however random and disjointed they seem. Don't edit or attempt to make sense of the apparent nonsense that will follow. It will be like a waking dream. See the exercise through. A couple such sessions and you'll have yourself a chapter of a novel, or like me a blog post and a screenplay of questionable merit.

"The human condition is a state of manifestation like any other," as the metaphysician Rene Guenon writes. "It is situated in the place assigned it by its very nature in the hierarchy of degrees of Existence." 

The place we occupy in this universe and on the evolutionary ladder, with its limits, confers on the human neither superiority nor inferiority relative to other creatures. It simply is what it is. We are as we are. Our human-ness acquires for us special importance because we find ourselves in it for this brief span of time allotted to us. Our point of view is relative and contingent on our present mode of manifestation. As human beings we do not occupy a privileged place in the whole of universal Existence relative to other beings, like the tree and the bee. Every being takes itself seriously and is the center of its own world. If you don't believe me just observe your dog delighting in its being-ness. It is that being-ness that is important. And how hard can it be to just be. Really hard, if thoughts get in the way.

Speaking of which: an update on my meditation journey. I am now on day 11 of 100. During this stretch I have not masturbated, because images of fine females flitting through the mind makes it hard to focus on nothing. Besides, as each ejaculate contains between 200 and 500 million sperm, it feels like such a waste of all that energy and all those resources to just spew them out indiscriminately, not to mention cruel. It's life we're talking about here, guys! 

Each meditation consists of sitting cross-legged in front of a candle and staring at the flame as I rid my mind of thoughts for the span of about a half an hour. It's not so much trying not to think as watching calmly as thoughts arise and subside and enjoying the thoughtless space in between, in which you experience pure being, or turiya, as it is called by the ancients. I find it helps to imagine that the candle flame is in me and then that I am the flame, consciousness burning steadily and brightly without the impediment of those breezy gusts of emotion and cerebration. For "first you are in the light; then the light is in you; finally, you are the light and the light is everywhere."

When I began the practice my body would get quite antsy. I'd fidget. My back would tighten up. I'd need to prop myself against the bed to remain erect. My legs would fall asleep, necessitating my recrossing and sometimes straightening them. 

Yet after about a week of practice I can now sit erect without support and sometimes can go the entire half hour without recrossing my legs, although they still often get all tingly. The mind images that arise are fewer and fewer, and subsequent to the meditation there is greater and greater calm. This is an effort, as this beautiful Sanskrit mantra states, to go "from the unreal to the real" - that is, from the world of transient images and sensations to the perfect awareness in which these images appear. The consciousness which is identical to God, and which I AM and YOU ARE! For more on meditation, click here.

I don't know where surrealism fits into all this. I suppose it is not too much of a stretch, in light of my vow of celibacy, to mention the surrealist painter Dali, whose work "The Great Masturbator" is pictured below. But I always enjoy a decent pun so I now call myself "Sir Real."


Wednesday, June 14, 2017

NATURE ABHORS A VACUUM



The other day I picked up The Secret of the Golden Flower, which is a thirteen hundred-year-old Taoist treatise discovered in China by a German man named Richard Wilhelm, who "recognized it as essentially a practical guide to the integration of personality" and translated it in 1929. The psychiatrist Carl Jung praised the book, which provides instruction on meditation, as a link between Eastern spirituality and Western science. The essence of the instruction boils down to this: "Look with both eyes at the tip of the nose, lower the lids, look within, sit quietly with upright body, and fix the heart on the center in the midst of conditions," or the solar plexus, and do this for a quarter of an hour or so each day. 

This advice is not unlike that which was dispensed by the Indian sage Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, whose disciples while alive included the Beatles, and whose transcendental meditation techniques are praised by such auteurs as David Lynch in addition to Ellen and Katy and Oprah and other individuals we recognize on the basis of their first name alone. The Maharishi was the cutest man who advised disciples to sit still for twenty minutes twice a day and repetitively recite a mantra or phrase suitable to the individual. The purpose of the mantra, supplied by the meditation teacher, is to "experience the thought of that sound and minimize that thought to experience the finer states of that thought – until the source of thought is fathomed and the conscious mind reaches the transcendental area of being.” If that sounds confusing it is also costly. A course in TM can run you anywhere from $400 to over a thousand dollars. Or you can just buy Mahesh's book, which I found used and in good condition on Amazon for $5.98 including shipping. 

I know I'd only be attending a course on Transcendental Meditation to meet chicks, and $400 is about ten times above what I consider to be an affordable dinner, so I recommended it to a friend, who in addition to being a guilt-ridden gourmand is always looking for a girlfriend. I prefer to make dates at the car wash anyway. If the thought of paying even a cent to learn a practice which adepts purport to flow naturally from within as our essential nature seems as ludicrous to you as it does to me, then read on. It will only cost you a few minutes to learn all I have to teach on the subject. 

I was first exposed to meditation as a boy of 7 or 8 in Balvikas. Balvikas is a type of Sunday school based on the teachings of vedanta as expressed by the holy man Sai Baba, where the instructor would have the students sit in front of a candle flame as he guided us through a ten-minute experience. The idea was that we should practice meditation on our own at home, but I never did. TV took precedence, as did playing outside. When as a college student of twenty I took my fifth and final trip to see Sai Baba in India I met an Australian man who recommended a particular method of meditation he swore had results both impressive and immediate. He referred me to a discourse of Sai Baba's in which the method was laid out. I went home and rifled through my dad's old copies of Sanathana Sarathi, the monthly magazine founded in 1958 and published by the Sai Organization to feature Baba's discourses in serial form. This was in pre-Internet 1993. I somehow found the lecture and immediately sat down to apply the teachings, which are: 

"Look at any object --flame, idol, or picture - for 12 seconds with total concentration and without blinking eyelids. This is concentration (dharana). Twelve dharana concentrations make one meditation (dhyana). This means that meditation should last for 12x12 = 144 seconds. Thus, proper meditation need not last more than 2 minutes 24 secs. Twelve meditations equal one samadhi, which amounts to 12x144 seconds =  28 minutes 48 seconds."

I meditated in such a way on and off for a couple weeks but soon lost interest and returned to my former pursuits - mainly watching TV and playing outside. I also got really into cleaning, and it was then that I developed a relationship with the Dustbuster which I am proud to say continues to this day. Around the same time I also began the practice of sexual energy channeling at the behest of a friend who was a practitioner himself. Mantak Chia's book on the subject instructs the reader to redirect life force in the body rather than dissipate it as ejaculate. I mention sexual energy channeling because The Secret of the Golden Flower also refers to the practice, albeit briefly and without the enormous detail that Chia devotes to the subject. So meditation and masturbation are related, or at least one is a suitable substitute for the other. 

In the over twenty years that have intervened since I learned how to meditate, I would dabble for a day or two every few years, just to reconnect with the practice. But I never gave sitting in stillness and silence in front of a candle for a half an hour at a time the consistent attention it deserved. My thinking was, to quote Sai Baba, "[Meditation] is not something that one does by sitting for a couple of minutes or hours. Contemplation of the Lord should be always at all places. Sri Ramana Maharshi was once asked, "How long should one practice meditation? 15 or 30 or 45 minutes or an hour?' His reply was, 'You should continue doing it till you forget that you are meditating. As long as you are conscious (physically aware) that you are meditating, it is no meditation at all.' The consciousness of body and mind and the thought of yourself should become totally extinct. The experience of only the object of your meditation should subsist, i.e. nothing else but the presence of divinity. The state of meditation is experiencing but without the consciousness that you are experiencing."

And so I would study and call it meditating, run marathons and call that meditating, or read or write or drink wine or woo women, all in the name of communing with divinity! But now all this is behind me. It's funny. In Hinduism there are the four stages of life. These are dharma, artha, kama and moksha. Or righteousness, wealth, desire and liberation. You get to the meridian of life, or the half-way point, and you find all the desires and quest for material success are behind you. You have drunk the cup of youth to its dregs, and you contemplate death, and want to do your part to ensure eternal life. That's where I find myself. Or as Jung puts it, "Life has been lived so exhaustively, and with such devotedness, that no more obligations to life exist, [and], therefore, no desires that cannot be sacrificed unhesitatingly stand in the way of inner detachment from the world."

With a lust for liberation, if I may call it that, I find myself wanting to devote the exclusive attention to meditation lacking all those years that life got in the way. Thus the 100-day challenge, begun last week, in which I will continue to practice Swami's brand of meditation every day until the end of summer - which also happens to be the length of time recommended by the Taoist book - and see what happens. I am doing this in part because I have chosen to refrain from masturbation for this period, as another way of returning to my roots, and since, as they say, nature abhors a vacuum. But don't say the same about me!

One would hope the result of meditation is a detachment of consciousness from the world, and the withdrawal of it to an "extramundane point," to use the psychiatrist's phraseology. I prefer the word transcendentalism. And we find ourselves back where we began. After I'm done with my little experiment, ladies come find me. With all that semen to spare, we can get down to having twins of our own. Or as I like to call 'em: Casa and Amigos. Because I may not be done a'drinkin' just yet!





MIRROR MIRROR

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In the delightful movie Twins featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito playing - you guessed it - twins, though obviously not the identical sort, Arnold's Julius tells DeVito's Vincent that the two of them are the result of a genetic experiment pairing the sperm of several different extraordinary men with the eggs of one very lovely woman. In short that they are brothers separated at birth. DeVito looks at the bronzed god of a man staring back at him and deadpans, "Oh obviously, the moment I sat down I thought I was looking into a mirror!"


This is a humorous take on the notion that we see in others aspects of ourselves. When we have disagreements with our loved ones we are confronted with tendencies and characteristics present in our own heart. To paraphrase CG Jung, we are identified with our moods and prejudices, and shamelessly accuse others of the things we will not see in ourselves. So think twice or thrice before pointing a finger at another, for when you do, three fingers point back to you. It as if everywhere you turn everyone is holding up a mirror in which you regard yourself. Even though, like the august Arnold sitting across from the diminutive DeVito, what you see staring back at you hardly resembles your idealized version of personhood. 

But if you take a careful look inside your own heart and sweep all wishful thinking aside you can derive a clear picture of your personality and gain a greater insight into those tendencies you try ever so carefully, if unconsciously, to conceal. Which was the case last Friday when I got together with an old friend, JP. After we saw the highly-acclaimed movie Wonder Woman, which I thoroughly and surprisingly enjoyed, we sat down for a bite to eat and caught each other up on our lives and pursuits. In the course of our two-hour dinner conversation JP reflected back at me several notions that I have been exposed to recently. 

First was a concept I found in Emerson's Representative Men, about how any progress you make along the spiritual path benefits humanity at large, because what improves a part of something improves the whole. Also the importance of constantly asking yourself "Who am I?" as a way of transcending the ego-based individualized perspective, which is limited, fear-based and self-serving, to gain a broader scope and access the cosmic consciousness that is the source of all that is. 

Looking at JP, with his high-priced coupe car and designer jeans and fitted T, you'd never guess he was walking around sunk in "melancholia" wondering what it all means as he questions his own identity. Nor that someone who seems so glib and carefree and who you'd think leaves a trail of broken hearts wherever he goes would be so sensitive as to secretly nurse a heartache months after the damage was inflicted and struggle just to make it through the day. All that I just said about JP could also be written about me. Mirror mirror, see?

JP recommended a book whose author had been a disciple of Ramana Maharshi, whose teachings have awed me ever since my father turned me onto them back when I was 19. A free and brief PDF version of the sage's seminal treatise can be found here. I felt connected and validated after we got up from our meal, and without the least bit of indigestion, because I went easy on the fried cauliflower and barbecued tofu. Vegan junk food is still junk food, and costs a lot more than McDonald's!

Arriving back home, I felt my loneliness assuaged, my belief in the unity of humanity renewed, and with it my faith in the future of American comic book-based cinema. Maybe JP only shared my opinion on many points because he reads my blog, doubtful though this may seem. My point is that if you work on yourself and overcome anxiety, hatred, depression and fear, replacing these emotions with love and thoughtfulness, compassion and control, you see these attributes reflected all around you. And in working on yourself you have made the world a better place. Just go easy on the fried foods.


Sunday, June 4, 2017

TEN BOOKS TO READ, AND THEY'RE (MOSTLY) FREE


The other day I was over at my friends' place. My friends are newlyweds. During their recent courtship, part of the get-to-know-you process involved the wife's, whose name is Allison, making a list of her favorite books for her husband, Steve, to read. On Allison's list I found some of my favorite authors, including Jack London and D.H. Lawrence, as well as lesser-known greats like Lermontov. 

I thought this bit of sharing a wonderful idea. How better to acquaint oneself with a beloved's preferences, opinions, dreams and desires than by getting to know her favorite authors, by perusing those literary masterpieces, or dime store paperbacks, which have delighted her in her spare time and attended her through life's joys and bolstered her through the hardships? The funny thing is, my friend Steve doesn't like to read. I wonder how that bodes for their betrothal. Like praying and playing, the family that turns pages together stays together, as they say. Hopefully for the Kilmanns there are exceptions to this rule.

Anyway, since I can't start a book club with my wife because I don't have a wife, nor any friends who like to read, I'll make my list for you. Unlike Allison, most of my favorite reads are non-fiction. What does this say about me? And most are available for free and digestible in a sitting. What does that say about me? That I am a realist? That I am parsimonious and distractible? What do these adjectives say about me? That I like to impress with big words? Glad I'm typing and not writing this, or else I'd be analyzing my cursive. At the rate I'm going I'll never get to my ten best books that are quick to read and mostly free list.

I will also mention that my making a list derived additional inspiration from an article I read in Time magazine about the 30 books you should read before turning 30. I, who am 44 and reasonably well-read, have yet to read more than one of the tomes on the list, and I didn't enjoy Jane Eyre in the slightest. What 13-year-old boy does? You won't find any Bronte in the books listed below. So here goes.

CONQUEST OF HAPPINESS
This book is by 20th century British philoospher Bertrand Russell. If you want to improve your mood without thinking about it too much or spending a lot of money, this is for you. It's three dollars.

THE MYSTERIOUS STRANGER
An antidote to excessive enthusiasm that will make you question your existence and introduce you to the quintessential Devil's advocate, this book is free and quick to read.

IN TUNE WITH THE INFINITE
If all the to-do about devils doesn't suit you, and you consider yourself more spiritual than religious or would like to be, try this book by Trine, which is free.

ROAD TO SELF-KNOWLEDGE
Meditation is the buzz-word of today. Here's a short dissertation on the subject for under a dollar and by a recognized authority and rival of Hitler.

THE INNER CONSCIOUSNESS
Vedanta is the system of thought based on the ancient Hindu scriptures and founded by the mystic Adi Shankara some 1200 years ago. Vedanta recognizes the beauty inherent in all religions and upholds the unity of divinity and our identity with all that is. This book is a practical primer on the subject I found by chance.

DETERMINISM OR FREE-WILL
If you think you act in a vacuum, that you freely choose what you do and don't do and are not compelled by your genes and upbringing, then this book, which once was free and now is under 5 dollars, will prove a real eye-opener. And proves by its price that it is not a free country.

THE VITAL MESSAGE
Lost a loved one and need convincing that the soul survives the body and that your friend or relative is someplace safe and happy? Then read this free book by the author of Sherlock Holmes and lay your fears to rest.

THE QUEST OF THE SIMPLE LIFE
Is your life too complex? Are you anxious and distracted? Do you need to pare down your possessions? This author was the unrecognized founder of the hippie movement. See how free and easy it is to live simply.

THE BHAGAVAD GITA
This is the Hindu Bible - and older, shorter and less expensive than the Jesus version.

MARRIAGE IN FREE SOCIETY
Do you want more out of your domestic partnership? Is commitment weighing you down? Read this and be inspired.

REPRESENTATIVE MEN
Speaking of inspiration, enjoy these pithy biographies of some of history's most shining figures from an author who himself was a paragon of excellence. An honorable mention.

If fiction is more your thing, try Louis Lambert by Balzac to witness the momentous changes wrought in the individual's life by Self-realization, and The Strange Life of Ivan Osokin by P.D. Ouspensky if you want to really be bedazzled. As you'll see, you can't change your fate - if your fate is to read these.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

YOUR SPECIAL PURPOSE



A few years ago while I was interviewing for residency positions at several family medicine programs across the country, the interviewer would begin the somewhat dreadful and unnatural ordeal by asking me about myself. To which question I would invariably reply, "Well, I was born a poor black boy." 

This is a line from one of my favorite movies, one of the all-time comedic wonders of cinema, The Jerk. The film stars Steve Martin as an orphan raised by a black family in the rural south. As you probably know, Martin is as white as they come, but he grows up believing that he is just like his adopted brothers and sisters in every way. And the movie, which chronicles the ups and downs of Martin's ingenue, begins with that famous line. 

I quoted the movie without revealing the reference to gauge the sense of humor of my interviewer, as well as his love of cinema. If the representative of a program appreciated the allusion, as with a chuckle or even a smile or perhaps a mention of the film's name, I could feel confident the program itself, by extension, would likely be a good match, as there would probably be other like-minded physicians and we might hope to while some of the small hours away with mirth. If he squinted or frowned at the reference, or didn't get it at all, or fidgeted irritably and asked me to move on, I'd cross the program off my list. Of the half-dozen interviews I sat for, only one program made the cut. It was the University of Colorado, thanks to Dr. Jeffrey Cain, who conducted the interview and later became my mentor. He turned out to be an outlier, and nobody else in the program was as zany as him or me. So I left Denver a year after I arrived, with Dr. Cain's blessings, and precious few fond memories.

In the film Martin is obsessed with finding his "special purpose." He joins a carnival and is seduced by a biker chick, who uses him as a boy toy. And finds meaning in life in his mojo. He later develops a technology that prevents one's eyeglasses from slipping down one's nose, and goes on to make millions. He forgets his humble beginning and lives the high life of luxury and pomp. Until it is discovered that his invention contains some strange alloy that causes the wearer of such glasses to become cross-eyed. He is sued and loses everything to wind up where he started - penniless and alone, but with wisdom won from experience. 

The Jerk should be viewed as a cautionary tale by the modern American entrepreneur in the making. Get rich quick schemes often fail, and when they do succeed, the rapid rise to the top is often attended by controversy and lawsuits. Witness Gawker. If you are in search of your special purpose, look elsewhere. Of course the self-help genre is rife with books that claim to tell you how to realize your desires. These authors are forgetful that the original self-help guru, the Buddha, preached the exact opposite. His Four Noble Truths promised a way out of suffering. Suffering comes from wanting what we don't have. Liberation doesn't lie in having more desires and fulfilling them, but in detaching oneself from desires and being free. Or in the words of the Russian author Chekhov, the true success in life is one whose "attitude towards fame is one of indifference, as towards a toy which no longer interests you."

Many pearls of wisdom can be found in Chekhov's The Lady with the Dog and Other Stories. In one tale, a young student has a vision of a monk who tells him: "You are one of those few who are justly called the chosen of God. You do the service of eternal truth. Your thoughts, your designs, the marvelous studies you are engaged in, and all your life, bear the Divine, the heavenly stamp, seeing that they are consecrated to the rational and the beautiful - that is, to what is eternal.... A grand, brilliant future is in store for you men. And the more there are like you on earth, the sooner will this future be realized. Without you who serve the higher principle and live in full understanding and freedom, mankind would be of little account; developing in a natural way, it would have to wait a long time for the end of its earthly history. You will lead it some thousands of years earlier into the kingdom of eternal truth - and therein lies your supreme service. You are the incarnation of the blessing of God, which rests upon men."

I read this passage and was moved to tears. I saw in these words an image of the Buddha, Christ, Moses and other great beings - and, I hoped, myself. But as I read on my reverie became tinged with chagrin. For these visions turn out to be the delusions of one suffering from terminal illness, and in a later scene, after one more encounter with the mysterious figure, the protagonist is left to die in a pool of his own blood. 

But the reality of the words still remains. The line between delusions of grandeur and eternal truth is a thin one. The schizophrenic is locked in his own mind, at the center of an often-bleak universe in which nobody else matters and from which he cannot escape. While the true adept, the Buddhas of the world, see the truth as applying to all of humanity. Each of us is an aspect of the Divine, an integral part of creation sent to earth with a grand mission, which is the upliftment of humanity. Make that your special purpose and save millions.

Friday, June 2, 2017

ON HAVING FUN AT FUNERALS


"Do only what you feel like doing. If you find yourself compelled to do something, as from necessity or duty or boredom - or because if you don't you'll never hear the end of it from your wife - by all means act, but make it fun."

This is a maxim I coined some time in the late '90s. For years obeying it meant doing lots of things I wasn't inclined to do, like holding a job. And drinking. And I wasn't even married! I used to bring a flask to the ESL class I taught for a time in my late twenties, to "fortify myself with brandy," as Patricia Highsmith wrote of the talented Mr. Ripley. To pattern oneself after a fictitious serial killer is not behavior one should emulate, so don't try that at home, and definitely not while driving a car or having sex, for reasons I won't go into except to say Limp Bizkit. But a killer buzz does make even the most tedious drudgery somewhat tolerable. For this reason even funerals boast open bars.

I was thinking about why we do what we do, and how we make it through the day, recently when I read a blurb on Robin Pecknold. For those who don't know, and I didn't until I read the article in this month's Esquire magazine, Pecknold is the "hirsute singer and primary songwriter" for the band Fleet Foxes, a popular folk group I have decided I'm not into after listening to one popular song. Limp Bizkit they are not. Which may not be all that bad, perspectives being what they are. But to me their music seems like it should be played at funerals and makes me want to get drunk. I should say the band was popular, until their lead singer quit. After a dozen years of playing music, and after reading an essay on burn-out by 20th century literary heavyweight F. Scott Fitzgerald, the musician took a lengthy hiatus from music to study something other than music at Columbia University's school of general studies. He was in his late twenties at the time. Fitzgerald himself had felt "tired and wrecked," and struggled to find something to care about amidst the constraints and obligations of daily life, but he didn't write about it until he was 39. I'm 44 and really feel old.

Like my former self, the writer of The Great Gatsby had been known to toss back a few. Even more, he was a raging alcoholic whose death at the age I am now - possibly from ruptured esophageal varices, or dilated veins of the throat caused by a diseased liver - some have attributed to his drinking habit. Glad I gave that habit up. And I'm beginning to feel young again. Pecknold, like Fitzgerald, felt one-dimensional as a writer, and was moved by the Jazz Age author's quote that "the test of first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function." Opposed ideas as in writing is a useful endeavor, and it is also utterly futile. It's easy for opposing views, like opposing forces, to cancel each other out and result in inertia, or lack of movement, or my lying in bed on a Friday at noon. Like Pecknold, I too have been plagued by the feeling that "everything has been done before and I should do science." In fact I did science, for 5 years in my early 30s. Where did it get me: write back where I started, get it? The only difference being a few new gray hairs. Which I tweeze.

The interview concludes with Pecknold's advice for life, which is that "you have to delude yourself into thinking that what you're doing is valuable to have the vitality to keep doing it." And so he went back to making music. 

See, I don't agree with his opinion. Most people I have met nurture an inflated notion of themselves, including me, whom I have never met but thoroughly know. Who do you know that doesn't think he's always right, and what he's doing is far and away the most important thing in the world and vital to the planet's continued existence and general well-being? I can guarantee you Donald Trump feels this way, even as he stands behind an executive decision that to virtually everyone else seems guaranteed to launch the world headlong into imminent destruction. Headlong only because it is the direction we were already headed. One's ego (synonymous with perspective, or personal opinion) tends to self-deception, and a person can get so wrapped up in his own personal drama that every action is momentous and every set-back feels like the end of the world. If, in light of this exaggerated self-opinion, this grandiosity, you find yourself engaged in an endeavor your heart's not into, like Pecknold with his music and me with writing fiction, then do something else with your time, or for God's sake go lie down. Unless the endeavor in question is a job and you really need the money, which Pecknold probably does. Because Columbia University isn't cheap. Thus the band's new album, whose title, Crack-Up, is taken from Fitzgerald's essay. I just hope he's doing it for fun. Or going easy on the whiskey.