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The Biggest Party Ever (July 2014) Print

Shambhala Sun | July 2014

The Biggest Party Ever

As a child, HOWARD AXELROD dreamed of a festival that everyone in the world attended. Now he realize that it's been happening all along.

Through third and fourth grade, I had a recurring fantasy, though I thought of it as a project. Night after night, surrounded by my retinue of stuffed animals, I’d lie awake elaborating and refining. No dreams of tree houses for me, no plans of revenge on my older brother. Just my nightly planning for the World Festival.

Everybody in the world would be there. Everybody. Vast portions of the Earth would be left uninhabited: Boston, New York City, China. No one on any of the playgrounds. No one in any of the stores. No cars on the highways. No nightly news. No school. No piano lessons. Just every house in every town waiting for the people to come back, for life to be filled back in. But filled back in with something new, something that made everything make sense.

The more impossible the festival seemed, the more important it felt. Trying to imagine it would keep me awake—not just the hum of everyone coming together, but also all the questions. Where would the festival be held? The Nebraska/Kansas area seemed like a good bet: it was centrally located on the map at school, and not much other than a little husked-corn icon seemed to be there. Maybe Missouri and South Dakota could be used as parking lots. What kind of entertainment would there be? It would have to be music, that way there’d be no problem with people not speaking the language. But whatever the entertainment was, we’d have to set up giant screens so everyone, especially the kids, could see. What about bathrooms? Imagine the lines at the port-a-potties. And food? We’d need more than a few ice cream trucks. And what about sick people? We’d have to build hospitals. And babies being born? More hospitals. And how could we make sure that everyone, everyone, everyone got there? The men waving the glowing sticks who helped land the planes would have to be the last ones onto the shuttle buses. And would people bring pets? We couldn’t have dogs and cats abandoned all around the world, howling in empty houses and fields.

So there were a few logistical details to work out. But night after night, safe in my bed, with the lights of soon-to-be-uninhabited Boston winking in the distance, I’d plan the buses and bridges and health stations, the giant booths for lost kids to find their parents, maybe even enormous domes of Jiffy Pop popped on heated ponds. This wasn’t just going to be the biggest party ever, some kind of birthday party for the world. It was supposed to give everyone something.

It was supposed to give a shared feeling, one that made all the logistical problems unimportant, a feeling that would rise up, almost like a scent or a faint hum that everyone could hear. It would give an understanding of what it meant to live on Earth. Because with everything else taken out of the picture, with no school, no schedules, and no piano lessons, and with everybody in the same place more or less doing the same thing, what other feeling could there possibly be?

 

This past Fourth of July, having not thought about it for years, I was reminded of the World Festival. On a grassy hill just outside Boston, a crowd had gathered to watch the fireworks. Dogs nosed in the cool grass; toddlers wobbled after soccer balls. We were too far away to hear the Boston Pops Orchestra, which was performing the usual Fourth of July brassy fare, but no one seemed to mind. Dusk turned the sky deep blue; couples on their blankets turned into silhouettes. Children ran chasing whatever children chase, paused to nuzzle close to their parents, then resumed chasing. Eventually, with the sky gone almost as dark as the trees, the fireworks began. Great blossoms of light. Starburst after starburst, scintillating showers falling toward the earth, it was otherworldly but not otherworldly. It was friendly, too, because we knew the show was man-made and designed for our enjoyment.

But then something strange happened. The big finale ended, and within sixty seconds, there was a kind of stampede. Grass kicked up, blankets trampled, voices louder than they’d been the entire night. Every couple or family its own little army again, retreating. Parents wanted to get kids to bed. No one wanted to be caught in traffic. We were not a group anymore. With the spectacle over, it was as though everyone had instantly forgotten that the evening had been beautiful before the fireworks—that, indeed, perhaps what had made the fireworks so beautiful was the feeling that had grown on the hillside while we were all waiting. 

Trying to recover some of that feeling, I found myself on the drive home comforted by a strange thought. There were a lot of people on the sidewalks, returning to their cars from one viewing place or another, and it struck me that all of us had seen the same thing. We’d all been watching the sky at the same time. It was our common point of reference. Which is what made me think of the World Festival. Not everyone in the world had been there, but hundreds of thousands of Bostonians had been. We’d all enjoyed the same performance, and it had happened on a screen everyone could see, because that screen was the sky.

How often did something like that happen?

It took a moment, but then it dawned on me: pretty often. Millions of people have watched the same TV show, the same YouTube video, the same movie on Netflix. Having a common point of reference was nothing new. It was just that our original common point of reference, the sky, had been moved inside, to smaller screens.

It was kind of ingenious, if you thought about it. The World Festival was a logistical nightmare. But if you couldn’t bring everyone to the show, why not bring the show to everyone? You still knew you were watching what everyone else was watching. You could still talk about it with everyone afterward; you just had to post your comments online. You never had to wonder where you’d parked your car. And you never had to wait in line at the port-a-potty. You could have all the feeling of belonging without any of the discomfort of gathering. All of the community, none of the hassle. All of the connection, none of the vulnerability.

The World Festival was happening. You just had to tune in.

 

The word absurd comes from the Latin surdus, which means deaf. This suggests that if you can’t hear the wind moving in the treetops or the fall of your own footsteps on the ground, your life can’t help but become disengaged from meaning. Imagine walking deep into a forest with no sounds, no branches snapping underfoot, no cries of far-off birds, only the phantom rhythm of your own breath. 

The link between the senses and our orientation in the world isn’t just etymology or metaphor. Modern studies suggest that alienated people feel detached from their senses; they also suggest that feeling detached from our senses can make us feel alienated.

The most obvious sense we need for contact with the world is touch. Studies show that a baby needs to be held, to feel its body against something, preferably its mother, to locate itself in space and feel secure. Gentle touch from anyone or anything, even from a swaddling blanket, helps babies stay healthy. Take away that touch, and a baby shows distress—the inability to gain weight, a quickening of heart rate, a depressed immune system, fitful crying. You could argue this is simply an evolutionary adaptation: the baby wails, the mother tends to him, the baby has a better chance of survival. But in experiments with monkeys, when a mother’s touch was removed and then returned, even though the baby monkey eventually grew calm, its body remained more susceptible to disease, which clearly isn’t an evolutionary advantage. My bet is this response isn’t just the trauma of lost love or lost nourishment, but the trauma of lost orientation on the most primal level: a sense of spatial abandonment from which the body never quite recovers. As much as the trauma might be said to be psychological, that psychological aspect starts in the baby’s body, which has already begun to need a physical, sensory trust with the world.

 

On July fifth, I talked to my father on the phone. He’d watched the fireworks on his iPad. “Quite spectacular,” he said. “Gets more elaborate every year, doesn’t it?” There was nothing unusual about his comments. He probably would have said the very same thing had he been there in person.

But something was missing. And I felt that gap all the more keenly because there seemed no prospect of explaining to him what I’d experienced, as he assumed we’d more or less experienced the same thing. So I tried to imagine the Fourth of July on a screen, rather than in the sky. There was no touch—no feel of the grass on my bare feet, no evening breeze on the back of my neck. No faint smell of musty blankets and trodden grass, no waft of fried chicken from the family picnicking next to me. And while there was sound with the screen, it was only the booming of the fireworks and the professional wonder of the commentators, not the dimensional murmur of the hundreds of people around me, a murmur that revealed the contours of the hill in the summer dark and gave a kind of human shape to the wonder—a wonder that included everyone there, even if the little girl’s commentary on the blanket in front of me, “that’s my favorite, that’s my favorite,” wasn’t the same as mine. 

And yes, the screen had vision—it probably even afforded a closer look at the fireworks: vivid shots of the hot light catching the trailing white smoke, beautifully composed frames with the Boston skyline in the background, an American flag waving in the breeze. But on the screen, there was no way for me to turn and see the shifting colors reflected in the slightly greasy, utterly dazzled, upturned faces of the fried-chicken family, or to see the little girl nuzzling close to her father during the finale, or to look out over the entire crowd and toward the Boston skyline and feel at once my similarity and my difference from everyone, to appreciate, for better or for worse, that I was part of the group.

I understand why my father stayed home, why he watched on his iPad. He has a bum ankle, and crowds are tricky for him. Uneven hillsides present a real danger, especially with overstimulated kids racing around in the dark. And I understand, more generally, why people spend so many hours a day looking at their smartphones. Each one is a ticket to the World Festival, promising to keep us informed, included, a part of everything that’s going on.

Yet I also understand why I stopped fantasizing about the World Festival years ago. Part of it was that other fantasies, usually involving a girl and some privacy, became more pressing. But part of it was that it occurred to me that the space it would take to hold the World Festival was the space of the world itself. And the festival was already occurring—with hospitals, bathrooms, ice cream trucks, lost children, people dying, people being born. Granted, there was no opening speech, no clear reminder that a festival was in progress, no articulated spirit of why we were all here. But maybe that was for the best. Maybe answering that question for yourself—or not answering it, but simply wondering about it every now and then, feeling it in what you heard and saw and smelled and tasted and touched—was the most important part of being here. 




Howard Axelrod has written for
The New York Times Magazine, Harvard Magazine, and The Boston Globe. He recently completed a memoir, The Point of Vanishing, about the two years he lived in solitude in northern Vermont.

Ilustration(s) by Tomi Um.

From the July 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

Prepare Now (July 2014) Print

Shambhala Sun | July 2014

Prepare Now

Death can come at any time, so the Buddha warned us to get ready now. Knowing that helped Buddhist teacher Allan Lokos after a terrible plane crash. ROD MEADE SPERRY has his story.

Did meditation save Allan Lokos’s life?

Well, there was this one time. The short of it: an indigestion-type feeling hit one evening, was noted but not much worried about. Next thing Lokos knew, he was on the floor of his bathroom at 5 a.m. He was rushed to the ER, where it was guessed that he was in atrial fibrillation, putting him at risk of a stroke.

As he was waiting to be seen, it occurred to him: “What could be a better place for meditation?” So he set to it. Finally, when he was examined, it seemed that Lokos had, thanks to the practice, brought his heart back to normal function. He was given tests and prescriptions but, sure enough, was declared recovered in a few weeks.

It’s a great story, nice and neat. Did meditation help? It seems reasonable to think so.

But then, there was this other time, in Burma, on Christmas Day, 2012. Lokos laughingly encapsulates it this way: “It was a trip I wanted to go on, and I loved it. Except for one little thing!”

 

It’s Marathon Sunday morning on New York’s Upper West Side. A cool hush is in the autumn air. The neighborhood is extra quiet, ground transport having been snarled up in much of the city. I arrive at the Community Meditation Center (CMC) no problem and am greeted by Susanna Weiss, Allan Lokos’s spouse and, as he’s put it, “perfect partner.” She’s natural and charming, and maybe even a bit familiar, to a film fan at least: the actress Laura Dern is a dead ringer for her.

Because of the traffic, Weiss tells me, some die-hard seniors and other regulars may not be able to make it to CMC this morning, so attendance could be way down; it tops out at about two hundred sometimes. She warmly invites me to meet Lokos.

Automatically, I thrust out my hand and shake his, but my sense of touch quickly sends a message to my brain: This is not the time for a firm handshake. Both of Lokos’s hands are in bandage-like glove contraptions. I hope I haven’t hurt him.

I leave him to a moment with himself before he gives today’s teaching at 11:30. The room seems to be filling up nicely. Halloween decorations are still up—a green witch will stir a cauldron behind Lokos as he talks—and people are festive, talky, upbeat. By 11:28, fifty have arrived, including some of the die-hard seniors, who are joined by visitors of all ages from their twenties on up.

“Let me catch my breath,” the seventy-three-year-old teacher quips, having just taken his seat. “That marathon’s quite a race.” Then he begins his guided meditation, which includes references to gratitude for the body. “Isn’t it amazing that breathing just happens on its own?” he says. “How wonderful to have this body that supports this practice of mindfulness.”

Coming from him, it means a lot.

 

Which brings us to that trip to Burma and the “one little thing” that went wrong.

Lokos, Weiss, and sixty-nine others were taking a short in-country flight on a Fokker 100, a small plane but not quite a puddle jumper; the numeral denotes its number of seats. There seemed to be nothing unusual with this flight. Then, with essentially no warning, the plane crashed.

One of the passengers, a woman from California, later recalled looking out and seeing a blue flash, which was likely the plane shearing through electrical wires with its wings. And since the fuel was stored in the wings, they immediately burst into flames. But Lokos didn’t see any of that, so when Weiss first told him they’d crashed, he thought she was overreacting. There had not even been a “Fasten your seatbelts” sign.

Lokos turned to Weiss, and by the time he turned back—it was that fast—heavy noxious smoke was pouring in and chaos was overtaking the cabin.

There was an emergency exit, but it was on the other side of all that smoke, and Weiss was already feeling the poisonous effects. She didn’t think she could make the jump to safety. “You’re going to go right through it,” Lokos told her. “You’ll be okay.”

Lokos gave Weiss a push and intended to follow right after her, but his foot caught on something. “From that moment to when I landed on the ground outside the plane,” he says, “all of it is blocked out of my memory, which my trainer, Nancy, ascribes to ‘the benevolent brain.’ But, clearly, I was on fire in that time.”

The plane had crashed in an abandoned rice field. More than half of the passengers were spared serious injury. Two died. And then there was Lokos. A pair of teenaged boys tried to help him after he’d escaped the plane, but he was too big for them to handle. Two men—one of them the husband of the Californian woman—stepped in. “They had to drag me because I couldn’t walk,” Lokos says. “As I looked up, I saw the faces of all these spectators. They looked horrified.”

Then he looked down and saw why. “There were large sheets of skin hanging off of me. But I have no memory of being scared by any of it; I was probably well into shock at that point.”

It was then that Lokos turned to the man from California. “Those people look really scared,” he said. “I must look awful.” “Oh, no,” the man replied. “It’s really just like a bad sunburn. You’re fine.”

It was a kind, comforting thing to say. But it was, of course, not true. Lokos was in grave danger. His legs were seriously burned, especially the ankles, which had been burned right to the bone. “Exactly how my hands got so damaged, I don’t know,” he says. “I never knew that I was close to dying. I never even thought I was injured, never thought about it. Now, as my trauma therapist says, my body knew. I was on fire!

Lokos also suffered burns on his head and neck, and part of one ear was lost. “It now looks like I have a deep eye socket,” he says. “See that line of red? That’s how close the flames came to that eye, right to the socket. Two weeks ago Susanna asked me if I wanted to see the clothes that I was wearing at the time. They were just shreds.”

Immediately after the accident, a doctor on the scene assessed things this way: “There’s nothing we can do for him.” When Lokos was moved from Burma to a hospital in Bangkok, doctors there concurred. Then the same happened in Singapore, and once more back in New York. All told, six doctors would tell Weiss, who’d suffered seven broken vertebrae in the crash herself, that Lokos’s prognosis was hopeless. When one flatly told her, “This man won’t live,” she replied, “You don’t know this man.”

Finally, two doctors—a Dr. Tan in Singapore and a brilliant New York surgeon named Dr. Yurt—saw not only the Lokos that Weiss knew but also the potential for turning things around.

 

Lokos counts Sharon Salzberg, Joseph Goldstein, Thich Nhat Hanh, Mingyur Rinpoche, and others among his teachers, but the path was not always so clearly delineated for him; in fact, he didn’t come to Buddhism until late in life. As a native New Yorker growing up in Brooklyn, he was raised in a family that was, as he puts it, “once-a-year Jewish,” though his mother’s side was both very religious and wonderful. “That’s where the joy was in my early childhood,” he says. “But—and I think this really plays into where I ended up—my mother died when I was sixteen and my father was mentally ill, bipolar.”

His father was arrested repeatedly, and Lokos and his brother were eventually called to his apartment to intervene; he had pinned a woman down and was over her with an axe. He was arrested one last time and died in the forensic ward nine days later.

Whether despite or because of such difficulty, the young Lokos found himself drawn to beauty. He began exploring the arts, in particular singing. (This can be no surprise to anyone who’s heard his sonorous voice and impeccable diction.) “I studied with Madeline Marshall, who was teaching at Julliard and was the great English language teacher at the Met,” Lokos says. “She literally wrote the book on how to sing in English. I used to cut all my classes at Brooklyn College so I could go to rehearsals. This teacher said, ‘Why don’t you go to a school where your classes are rehearsals?’”

A career was born, with Lokos performing on Broadway and loving it, as well as the lifestyle that came with it. It wasn’t lucrative, he says, but “I did lots and lots of raucous carrying on and having fun.” Later, wanting more, he and Weiss decided to pursue careers as ministers fostering harmony in post-9/11 New York. The interfaith group they founded wouldn’t last, yet the ministry experience would eventually lead to CMC’s birth in 2007, and training for it was what ultimately put Lokos onto the Buddhist path.

It’s often said that people come to the dharma because of suffering, but that wasn’t quite it for Lokos. “I was suffering as much as anybody else,” he claims, “but even in seminary, I never understood why the word was used so much.”

Instead, Lokos says he felt the pull of a more positive allure: “Part of the study program to be a minister was that a practitioner from each of the world’s religions would come and chat with us. And when this Buddhist fellow came in and began to speak, he brought this sense of calm and joy I really hadn’t seen before! That was in 1998, and I was about fifty-seven. He asked me, ‘My teacher is coming to the United States. Why don’t you come on retreat with us?’ So I did.” That teacher, Lokos’s first, was Thich Nhat Hanh.

Today, the connection to calm and joy remains. He says, “I’m often asked what about this path appealed to me so much. It’s just, life works better. It’s easier. It’s more fun.”

 

After the crash, Lokos endured surgery after surgery, graft after graft, with fantastic results. He seems awed, still, by all that’s happened, and without self-pity. But more than that, he seems appreciative.

“The body is unbelievable,” he tells me, smiling. “It’s incredible—this is all healing. When I came home, I could not turn on my electric toothbrush. The first time I did, we celebrated! The nerves are regenerating right now, which is painful, but also sort of miraculous because if they aren’t regenerating, then the hands are dead. So I try to rejoice in the fact that I’m getting a lot of pain in my hands. I could stop working on my legs right now, because I can walk—I could probably dance if I had to—but we’re continuing with these pressure garments that I’m wearing.” (They’re like the zippered, tipless gloves he wears, only covering his legs.)

“As difficult as things were for us, I think a lot of positive is coming out of it… will come out of it,” Lokos says. “The big thing that dominates all of my thinking right now is that there is this opportunity. In no way was I looking for it—certainly, not in the way I got it!—but there is now this opportunity to be able to reach people like I never could before. Quite frankly, if I had been in an automobile crash and injured exactly the same way, nobody would be interested. Practically everyone’s been in an auto crash. But ‘airplane crash’ grabs everybody’s attention. We had a group of attorneys come here, and when we were all finished, one of them said to me, tearfully, ‘This has been fantastic to meet with you. Usually we only get to meet with the families.’” 

And word gets around. Now when Lokos meets new people, they often tell him, “Oh, I’ve heard about you.” “So there is an opportunity here,” he says, “and I just hope I can be equal to it. I’m in uncharted waters.

 “The twist,” Lokos adds, “is that I will no longer only be teaching someone else’s teachings. Great teacher though I do follow—the Buddha—I have now been ‘in the fire’ for real, and have been among people who have been suffering in a real sense. Susanna reached a point—and she has spoken about this openly—of saying, ‘I now know that there can be something worse than death; we would’ve been better off if we had been killed.’ So suffering is no longer theory and philosophy. And I’m not through the flames yet. I’m still sitting in them.

“My life focus is around studying and teaching the dharma and writing,” Lokos continues. Indeed, Through Fire, which follows up his 2011 book, Patience, is well under way. “I want to help people realize that the last thing the Buddha said is very important: ‘Prepare now.’”

 

So, did meditation save Allan Lokos’s life a second time?

In a word: No. Lokos recalls that soon after the accident, his dear friend and mentor Sharon Salzberg advised him, “You shouldn’t be meditating.” It was as simple as that, Lokos explains. “I had no concentration whatsoever, and it wouldn’t have been wise to introduce an additional struggle at that time.”

But is it possible that meditation practice helped him in his recovery?

“That’s the first thing people usually ask,” he concedes. “Maybe that’s where I had one leg up—that, due to practice, I’m not under as much stress as a nonpractitioner might be. I think the way the research about these things puts it is that there is no illness or condition that is not made worse by stress. None! So if we’re dealing with less stress, we have a better chance.”

Wrapping up my visit with Lokos and Weiss, I ask about that comment she’d made to the doctor who’d said Lokos wouldn’t make it: “You don’t know this man.” What did Weiss know that the doctor didn’t?

“I don’t tend to quit,” Lokos offers. “Rather, I become more intrigued. I’ve discussed this with my trauma therapist—that I don’t really think that you can actually quit. And she said, ‘But you can turn bitter.’ And that’s what happens—a part of you quits. That doesn’t interest me.

“I don’t think I was in a plane crash for any reason other than I happened to be sitting on that plane. I’m very much a believer in ‘things arise out of causes and conditions.’ It was all my choice to be there; I don’t regret that choice—I was doing exactly what I wanted to do.”

Lokos and Weiss even flew again, on the one-year anniversary of the crash, to see family. “I think it’s good to do those things, you know,” he says.

“But it was not remarkable. Flying into Cleveland is not usually remarkable. Even the anniversary couldn’t change that.”

 

Rod Meade Sperry is the associate editor of the Shambhala Sun and the editor of the new anthology A Beginner’s Guide to Meditation: Practical Advice and Inspiration from Contemporary Buddhist Teachers.




From the July 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

Photo(s) by Donna Svennevik.


About a Poem: Sarah Messer on Nick Flynn's "Hive" (July 2014) Print

Shambhala Sun | July 2014

About a Poem: Sarah Messer on Nick Flynn's "Hive"

Hive

What would you do inside me?
You would be utterly

lost, labyrinthine

comb, each corridor identical, a
funhouse, there, a bridge, worker

knit to worker, a span
you can’t cross. On the other side

the queen, a fortune of honey.

Once we filled an entire house with it,
built the comb between floorboard

& joist, slowly at first, the constant

buzz kept the owners awake, then
louder, until honey began to seep

from the walls, swell
the doorframes. Our gift.

They had to burn the house down
to rid us.

Nick Flynn is the author of a play, three memoirs, and three books of poetry, the second of which, Blind Huber, explores the life of blind eighteenth-century beekeeper Francois Huber through varying points of view.

In the poem, “Hive,” Flynn writes from the point of view of both the physical structure of the beehive itself (a “labyrinthine comb”) and the collective hive of worker bees acting selflessly as one whole body. I love this poem because in a tiny space, Flynn is able to conjure not only the life of bees but also devotion, desire, and the sublime. 

The first line asks, “What would you do inside me?” and then immediately comes the answer: “You would be utterly lost.” And so from the beginning we understand that this is the hive saying, Reader, I will overwhelm you with my splendor. The poem is perhaps a warning to an ardent lover. Be careful, you will lose yourself.  

What would the lover do inside their beloved—either the actual person they are in love with or, in a larger sense, the divine? Of the two, I prefer to think of the hive as a metaphor for the divine. We all want to live inside it. But what would happen if we got what we wished for? The divine, by definition, is beyond our comprehension.

The metaphor at the end of the poem echoes the feeling of being consumed by spiritual longing. It fills the very walls of our house, our cells, our arms and legs, our walls and roof. And then there is no way out. It is a gift, but one that comes with a radical change. “They had to burn the house down to rid us.” In this kind of devotion, there will be nothing left of your old life.




From the July 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

A Punk Looks at Fifty (July 2014) Print

Shambhala Sun | July 2014

A Punk Looks at Fifty


Crummy cars, a wall of guitars, and a whole bunch of meditation: not exactly the American Dream, but Zen teacher BRAD WARNER is good with that.

I recently turned fifty. Happy birthday to me! It’s an annoying age: you’re not old enough to be considered wise but you are old enough to be considered old. I’m too old to be a prodigy but too young to be venerable. Nobody cares what fifty-year-olds think.

But then, as my dad says, “It’s better than the alternative!” At least I don’t look fifty. Must be all that Zen.

Things change. Watching TV, I saw a Cadillac ad that used “Do You Remember Rock and Roll Radio” by the Ramones as its soundtrack. That song was the first track on the first Ramones album I ever bought, End of the Century. I played that album until the grooves were gone. It’s still my favorite Ramones record. And now the Ramones are being used to sell Cadillacs. That’s what it’s come to. I suppose that’s what happens.

But I don’t want a Cadillac. I don’t want a swimming pool. I’m not the “crazy, driven, hard-workin’ believer” another Cadillac commercial says I should be.

I guess the Ramones are supposed to be the music of my generation, but that’s not how I remember things. I remember being just about the only one in my school who liked the Ramones, then watching with a kind of incredulous fascination as, many years later, the same weasels who’d made fun of people like me for liking the Ramones pretended they’d been into them all along. Uh-huh.

Which is not to say I’m a Zen monk who only owns a robe and a bowl to beg for food. I’m somewhere in the middle, maybe slightly more toward the robe-and-begging-bowl side than the Cadillac-and-pool side. I’ve never owned a house. I’ve never owned a car I couldn’t pay for outright. Which means all my cars have been kind of crummy. I do have a number of guitars because that’s what I buy whenever I come into any cash. And then when I’m strapped for cash I sell ’em. I’ve gone through dozens that way. It’s fine.

When I was young, I saw the folly of the things so many of my peers believed were worth pursuing. The mass media was lying, and that was plainly obvious. Whatever they said was valuable, I was sure was not. So I started looking for new kinds of value. I found it in meditation and in a philosophy that encouraged me to question deeply. I’m happy with that choice.

And I’ve never grown up.

That annoys a lot of people I encounter. It’s one of the reasons that most of my friends are ten, twenty, even close to thirty years younger than me. People my age are often angry at me for not being an adult in the way they think I ought to be. I get emails all the time telling me, “You’re almost fifty,” followed by a list of adult ways the person thinks I should be behaving.

Now they can remove the word “almost.” It still won’t work.

See, the fact is I’ve paid my own rent and my own taxes for thirty years. I’ve done most of the things I dreamed of doing when I was a kid, and I’ve done plenty to qualify as an adult. I’m pleased as punch with the life I lead. Money is a problem and probably always will be. But when I look at the guy in the Cadillac commercial—our culture’s notion of the ideal fifty-year-old man—he doesn’t seem to be living the kind of life that would make me happy.

Since I write books about Zen, Zen has sort of become my thing. Which is weird. Because in my own impressions of what I am, Zen is a relatively small thing. It’s a practice I took up in my late teens because it felt good and because its philosophy made real sense. I stuck with it and ended up being ordained and becoming a teacher, not because I actually desired to ordain and become a teacher but because my teacher thought I should, and I trusted him. But I don’t read a lot of Zen books, and I don’t hang out with Zen people most of the time. I don’t self-identify as a “spiritual person” or consume the lifestyle-enhancing products spiritual people are supposed to consume.

I practice this Zen stuff because it’s been the key to happiness for me. It has surpassed anything else I’ve ever tried. It has taught me how to enjoy life thoroughly. It’s given me the ability to see the negativity we all encounter in life for what it really is. Which is, nothing.

The powers that be want you to believe that you can’t do the things you want to in this life. They’re lying. All you have to do is step out of “yourself” enough to see what it is you actually want, rather than the crap they’re telling you that you want, like Cadillacs and pools.

It might sound like I believe in The Secret or something. But that’s not quite it. The Secret encourages you to envision your ideal life and try to psychically attract it to you. What I’ve found is a bit different: it’s that the life you’re living right now is already your ideal. Which doesn’t mean you can’t improve it. It also doesn’t mean things are always good in the ways that we usually define as “good.” It just means our ideas about what’s ideal are wrong. They’re created for us by people who wouldn’t know what true good was if it came up and sat on ’em.

I’m fifty, and I’m fine with it. I’m living with the love of my life. I’ve done stuff I was told never to believe I could do, and I’m planning to spend the next fifty years continuing in the same vein.

Go ahead, punk. Tell me to act my age.




From the July 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

Illustration by Peter Bagge.

Editorial: Just Like That (July 2014) Print

Shambhala Sun | July 2014

EDITORIAL

Just Like That

Buddhists talk a lot about cause and effect (i.e., karma) and interconnection, but you don’t have to be a Buddhist to understand that everything you know, as you know it, could completely change. Just like that.

For Allan Lokos, the NYC-based meditation teacher I interviewed for this issue, that truth came down hard. A family vacation—intended to be just another positive episode in a fruitful and often comfortable existence—was turned upside down, just like that, when a routine flight turned into a disaster that nearly took Lokos’s life.

It’s a harrowing tale, but not really unique: loss and difficulty, just like birth and joy, are simply the stuff of life. Not that a near-fatal accident is the kind of thing anyone can be ready for. But we can, at least, be somewhat prepared.

What’s the difference? It’s subtle, but it has a lot to do with why Buddhists practice meditation the way they do.

This issue offers you the opportunity to explore the full variety of Buddhist meditation techniques. These not only help us develop a less agitated, more focused mind in the day-to-day, but also provoke us toward actionable clarity about what vexes us on a more existential “lifetime” level. Buddhist practices and teachings lead us to question and ultimately face the sources of our long-held passions and aversions, our morality, our mortality, what reality is and isn’t, and how we’re participating in it. (Or, aren’t).

As we come to terms with these things, we’re becoming more prepared: to enjoy life’s easier moments, yes, but also to be more present and at ease when things don’t happen as we want them to, when others are facing trouble, illness, and death, and when we are facing them ourselves. Again, the stuff of life.

It’s gratifying work, but—why sugarcoat it?—it can take a lot of effort, especially if you’re not feeling up to it. For an incalculable number of people, though, it’s felt to be quite worthwhile. I’m one of them, as are so many of the others behind the production of the Shambhala Sun. Now, I’m in no way saying that we’re all adepts—another thing we can’t sugarcoat—but we do share the conviction that Buddhist meditation has truly benefited our lives and those of the people around us.

We explore the whys and hows in this issue’s special section, “Your Guide to Buddhist Meditation.” After “The View,” a newly available teaching by our founder, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, about why Buddhists meditate, we then dive into the how. You’ll learn the basics (posture, breathing, and so on); how to develop goodwill and compassion for others and for yourself; to sit in Zen’s bare-bones “nothing extra” mode; to investigate the true nature of mind, and more. All of it comes by way of thoughtful, artful teachers of diverse ages, backgrounds, and voices. Which makes sense: there are so many kinds of Buddhist meditation because there are so many kinds of people, so many different needs. So why not try them all, see what fits for you, and what happens if you keep at it?

Perhaps, in the end, you’ll be enlightened. Perhaps not. But don’t be surprised to find yourself better prepared for whatever comes. It can happen bit by bit—or just like that.

 

—Rod Meade Sperry, Associate Editor

 

PS: For lots more meditation guidance, be sure to visit ShambhalaSun.com. Also available is the new Shambhala Sun book, A Beginner’s Guide to Meditation, featuring teachings by Pema Chödrön, the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, and so many more.




From the July 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

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