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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! Itís an annoying age: youíre not old enough to be considered wise but you are old enough to be considered old. Iím 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, ďItís better than the alternative!Ē At least I donít look fifty. Must be all that Zen.

Things change. Watching TV, I saw a Cadillac ad that used ďDo You Remember Rock and Roll RadioĒ 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. Itís still my favorite Ramones record. And now the Ramones are being used to sell Cadillacs. Thatís what itís come to. I suppose thatís what happens.

But I donít want a Cadillac. I donít want a swimming pool. Iím not the ďcrazy, driven, hard-workiní believerĒ another Cadillac commercial says I should be.

I guess the Ramones are supposed to be the music of my generation, but thatís 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 whoíd made fun of people like me for liking the Ramones pretended theyíd been into them all along. Uh-huh.

Which is not to say Iím a Zen monk who only owns a robe and a bowl to beg for food. Iím somewhere in the middle, maybe slightly more toward the robe-and-begging-bowl side than the Cadillac-and-pool side. Iíve never owned a house. Iíve never owned a car I couldnít pay for outright. Which means all my cars have been kind of crummy. I do have a number of guitars because thatís what I buy whenever I come into any cash. And then when Iím strapped for cash I sell íem. Iíve gone through dozens that way. Itís 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. Iím happy with that choice.

And Iíve never grown up.

That annoys a lot of people I encounter. Itís 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, ďYouíre almost fifty,Ē followed by a list of adult ways the person thinks I should be behaving.

Now they can remove the word ďalmost.Ē It still wonít work.

See, the fact is Iíve paid my own rent and my own taxes for thirty years. Iíve done most of the things I dreamed of doing when I was a kid, and Iíve done plenty to qualify as an adult. Iím 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 commercialóour cultureís notion of the ideal fifty-year-old manóhe doesnít 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. Itís 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 donít read a lot of Zen books, and I donít hang out with Zen people most of the time. I donít self-identify as a ďspiritual personĒ or consume the lifestyle-enhancing products spiritual people are supposed to consume.

I practice this Zen stuff because itís been the key to happiness for me. It has surpassed anything else Iíve ever tried. It has taught me how to enjoy life thoroughly. Itís 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 canít do the things you want to in this life. Theyíre lying. All you have to do is step out of ďyourselfĒ enough to see what it is you actually want, rather than the crap theyíre telling you that you want, like Cadillacs and pools.

It might sound like I believe in The Secret or something. But thatís not quite it. The Secret encourages you to envision your ideal life and try to psychically attract it to you. What Iíve found is a bit different: itís that the life youíre living right now is already your ideal. Which doesnít mean you canít improve it. It also doesnít mean things are always good in the ways that we usually define as ďgood.Ē It just means our ideas about whatís ideal are wrong. Theyíre created for us by people who wouldnít know what true good was if it came up and sat on íem.

Iím fifty, and Iím fine with it. Iím living with the love of my life. Iíve done stuff I was told never to believe I could do, and Iím 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.

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