Authentic living in the 21st Century

What is it about human beings?

Beautiful, sensitive, so creative but so destructive…

Our biosphere, that fragile envelope of conditions favorable to life, seems in dire straits. In addition, the economic and social conditions of life foisted on the poor of the world by the rich seem to be growing steadily, alarmingly, worse. Fascism is on the rise, though mostly unrecognized, and the political environment almost everywhere is as threatening and depressing as the physical and social ones.

Yet there are an incredible number of beautiful, creative visions of life blossoming all around, alternative experiments that demonstrate how beautifully we humans are able to live on the planet. Even as the political and corporate structures – really one entity now – grow more authoritarian and life-denying, more and more people wake up to the potential for living in ways that are freeing to people and friendly to the natural systems that sustain us.

What are we to do? How are we to live authentic lives in the midst of the insanity of apparently imminent collapse?

For many years, I have grappled with the contradictions that seem inherent in modern life. My time in the war on Southeast Asia, as a pilot in the U.S. Air Force stationed in DaNang (Viet Nam) and Nakon Phanom (Thailand), which was at once the most horrible and the most wonderful experience of my young life, catapulted me beyond most of the concerns that probably would have dominated my life otherwise, and left me forever unable to accept simple answers, simple solutions, to these contradictions.

Even though at times I have tried to settle into some solid, clearly defined system that laid out the answers, I’ve never been able to stay with those answers. As I begin to move into the autumn years of my life, I want even more to reach some clear understandings, at least for myself, about the priorities of this life. Partly this is a practical need, as I seek to direct the last decades of my life in directions that will make some positive contributions to the world my children and grandchildren will inherit. Partly it is just the need for closure, for some sense of a philosophical story that is satisfactory and complete.

In the next few entries, I am hoping to at least outline something of where I am now in this process.

As this blog has partially described, I have followed the spiritual path of Buddhism for most of my life since the Air Force years, partly because I encountered it in Southeast Asia and partly because it seemed to be a way of thought that meshed with my own deepest intuitions of truth, and I seemed to need something to fill the void in my life after I abandoned my Christian upbringing. My experiences with meditation and the Buddhist teachings over the past 30+ years have profoundly influenced me, and no doubt are the primary filter that I bring to this quest to understand the reality of modern life.

But as I enter into this analysis of the course of our times and try to arrive at some clear distillation of how things seem to me, I am intentionally trying to step outside of those teachings, that perspective, as much as possible.

So, as we welcome this new year full of promise, this year we call 2014, I begin this new phase in my apprenticeship to the idea of emptiness.

Lojong #11 When the world is filled with evil…

... transform all mishaps into the path of Bodhi.


(This is maybe my favorite – at least my favorite simple, straightforward one.)

Whatever occurs in your life can be transformed into a part of your wakefulness. The way to do this is to incorporate the obstacles, the distractions, the difficulties… make them the substance of your practice. Whatever is hardest for you is the thing from which you can benefit most…

This little slogan has gotten me through some difficult times… like the latter part of my teaching career and a lot of other challenging situations, as well as helping me deal with the whole course of the world descending into chaos in the past 25 years, which at times has seemed to me like evil.

Of course, we can’t get too hung up on the word ‘evil’ here, else we distort the teaching. Truly, there is no such thing as evil, and it isn’t meant in that dualistic, good/bad way at all. It’s referring to our human tendency to identify anything that’s a problem in our own lives as ‘evil’ – projecting the source of it out there somewhere, some malevolent force.

Trungpa says we should realize our own richness and not be mired in a ‘poverty mentality’, not be concerned with loss and gain or competitiveness. Then we can find generosity, which is the way to awakening, or Bodhi.

Pema Chodron, one of Trungpa’s students, has some wonderful teachings on “Poison as Medicine” that are related to this slogan. It’s based on the idea that the challenges are what allow one to practice, because without obstacles and difficulties, there’s nothing to practice with, so we just be grateful for these problems. It’s challenging, but an interesting way to approach life’s nastiness.

Eugene to Florence…

No, living in the Green Hole didn’t jump start my quest for enlightenment. It was one more step on the karmic path: one more obstacle, the navigation around which defines that part of the path.

As I look back on my time in Eugene with the perspective of the years, I can see that I learned a lot there, and even made some progress in a fairly short time.  But it wasn’t at all clear to me then that I was even on the path.

I thought of myself as vaguely Buddhist, but I didn’t really know what that meant.

I was very happy to be there. At least I was reunited with my family, superficially. For a while, I lived in the big house on Broadway where my wife and son, Connie’s sister Holly, her daughter Jenny (and off and on several others) lived in a loosely communal arrangement. I worked at a few marginal jobs around Eugene, the most interesting of which was as a casual worker on an organic farm, and helped out with the kids and the housework. It was a different life. I never really considered trying to teach school there. Somehow, I thought I was done with that life.

It became clear fairly early on that we were not going to be a family again, and gradually we drifted further apart, though we continued to have a sweet, friendly relationship. I had not yet figured out how to actually be in a relationship with another person. I more or less decided to stay out of relationships altogether, though I kept narrowly avoiding getting entangled. I won’t go into those stories. Some were painful though sweet, and I learned a lot about myself through them.

I did get an actual job working at a motor home construction plant, but I left it so I could go back to Georgia for my brother’s wedding. Hitchhiking to Georgia was another adventure! I did a few other temporary gigs to help with the finances, but eventually my daddy sold our house in Georgia and I became a full-time volunteer activist.

It was a politically charged time, Ronnie Ray-gun having just been elected, and I got involved in activism at a level I’ve never been before or since.

The US was aggressively killing Indians in El Salvador and Guatemala to protect the banana plantations and other financial investments there from the effort of the local people to regain control of their countries. It didn’t seem right somehow, so after a rally, I volunteered to help the Eugene Council for Human Rights in Latin America (ECHRLA).  The name doesn’t exactly roll off your tongue – we called it “the Council”.

I began just helping out around the office, putting up posters and such, but after a while I became a full-time volunteer, sort of an assistant to Robert, the director. Nelly, an Argentine woman who pretty much ran things there, let me live in one of her houses, and the three of us ate, drank, and slept political organizing 24-7. We hosted a lot of cultural activities, speakers, workshops, conferences, as well as fund-raisers like movies and meals, serving mostly students and church groups.

I talked to people who had been in Central America on a near-daily basis. I knew what was going on by first-hand accounts. As I compared those reports to the reports in the media – part of my job was reading the daily reports – I began to realize that nothing we read in the papers comes close to telling us what’s really going on.

A few NY Times reporters were occasionally printing accurate stories on the events there, but they were reviled and attacked by the political commentators. It was an eye-opening time for me, a radicalizing experience.

But it was a bit too intense, so I didn’t hang in very long. And then too, the money ran out, so I had to find work again. I got a job – well, sort of a job – taking care of a woman’s kid and house while she went to college classes. This involved moving to Florence, a quaint little town on the coast straight across the Coast Range from Eugene. I liked it there a lot, and eventually got a job as a proofreader and typesetter at the local weekly newspaper.

The  Oregon coast – the ocean, the dunes and the forest – were all beautiful. Florence was magical… especially because it was in Florence that I met Giana.

Life was very nice, calm, and peaceful in Florence, hiding out from the world, as my friend said. Old Town Florence, a street on the north bank of the Siuslaw River, was a wonderful scene in those days, populated with an extremely interesting array of alternative business men and women, and peopled most any nice afternoon and evening with an even more diverse group of folks from the surrounding countryside.

We’d occasionally see Ken Kesey parking his old convertible in the parking lot there, and learned that the Siuslaw was the model for the river in his novel Sometimes a Great Notion.

Everyone knew everyone on the street, it seemed, and the various parties, bonfires, plays, and other events just happened without a lot of planning or publicity, yet everyone knew about them.

One of those events was the Sunday evening guitar circle at Donnie’s coffee shop, which usually drew 10 to 20 guitar-playing folk. It was at that guitar circle that I first met Giana.

I had spotted her early in the evening, a very cute brown-eyed girl behind a big Martin guitar. As the song lead went around the circle, everyone played a song they thought the rest would enjoy and maybe play along with, so when it came Giana’s turn, she ‘lit out’ on “Friend of the Devil” and I jumped right in, following her chords and singing along. She smiled at me a lot during the song, which was the hope behind my enthusiastic response, though I had always loved the song, and when the singing was over we talked a bit, and she smiled again and waved as she went out the door.

I knew I would see her again; that’s how things were there.

We in fact saw each other often over the next few weeks; the next time I saw her she was dressed as the wind, having just come from a children’s theatre event. Before long, we were friends, and then one night on the dance floor we kissed.

The rest is history, as they say.

Within a year of that meeting, we got married in the Old Town gazebo in sight of the dunes, the bridge and the street where all our Florence friends hung out. We sent no invitations, put no announcements in the paper – tho as the classified ads typesetter, I often sent her love notes and cryptic announcements via the classifieds – yet there were, by all accounts, at least 200 people at the wedding, with lots of wonderful food and drink at the mostly impromptu reception in our apartment afterward.

Eight-year-old John was the ring bearer, and Giana’s dad was there, as was Connie.

It was a wonderful day.

Over the next few years, we lived in several different, amazing places in and around Florence, – on top of a 300-ft. high cliff overlooking the Pacific, upstairs in an old general store in a huge apartment with 20-ft. ceilings, and in a little house in ten acres of forest with a sauna and three out-buildings – Giana opened an art school for kids, and I became the manager of the print shop. We had an amazing group of friends who got together frequently, naturally, and our lives were amazing.

Pretty soon, Luke was born and our lives became even more amazing and wonderful. We had an idyllic few years there, with lots of friends, one of the most beautiful natural settings on the planet, and a fairly stress-free life.

But there always seemed to be something missing for me. I read a few books with Buddhist themes, and I tried to meditate occasionally, but I wasn’t really getting it.

Our friends Mike and Monica went to a Zen retreat in Hawaii, and I wanted to ask them about getting involved, but I was hesitant. It seemed forced, artificial, inappropriate to ask. I don’t know why, but as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t.

I think I thought that somebody was gonna come up and tap me on the shoulder and say, “Wanna get enlightened? Come with me!” Sorta the Baptist model.

But it kept calling to me, and I knew it was what I wanted.

I started a sculpture that I thought of as a Buddha-rupa (image of Buddha) in a large block of Port Orford cedar. Somehow it seemed to help me feel I was doing something in the way of finding a spiritual path.

I was really just getting very complacent, hiding out, waiting for something to happen. Then life just slapped me right down.


Lojong #10 Begin the practice of sending and taking with yourself

“Whenever anything happens, the first thing to do is take the pain on yourself.” (Trungpa) — Give up the good feelings so someone else can benefit. This is connected with developing the Paramita of Discipline. Open your territory completely, let go of everything.

Kongtrul says: Take on all the suffering that will come to you in the future, then you’ll be able to take on others’ suffering.

Radical stuff. Like the Tibetan mountain paths, it’s not for the faint-hearted.

But it’s probably the best program ever devised for helping yourself learn to be more compassionate to others…

This one is a bit tricky. But on a clear, everyday practice level it can be understood simply. When you find something unpleasant – negative emotional states or other problematic things – going on in yourself, you breathe them in. Then on the out-breath, you send out to the world some positive quality in yourself, which requires that compassionate, unselfish motivation we’ve been talking about encouraging. It also helps you feel better about yourself, because you realize these good qualities are there for you to breath out.

The idea is that this is the beginning point for the tonglen practice. Things get a bit more complicated as it develops, so it’s best to be able to be very clear about ones’ motivation and willingness to do the practice. Beginning with yourself helps with that process.

a sweet contradiction

This is a wonderful piece.

born by a river

The holiday season harbors a sweet contradiction.  We gather around full tables.  We feast until our stomachs protest, until we collapse on the couch in a food coma.  We eat and we drink and we enjoy the bounties of the year, the gifts of our family and friends.  It feels good, so very, very good.

And it is a simultaneously a season of longing. quiet moments masking an internal cacophony of regret and longing and grief and sadness.  We miss the ones who are far away, the ones we have lost.  The ones that are gone, the ones that were never here. We want things to be different, we want what we cannot have. 

This Thanksgiving I remembered my friend, who died 17 years ago in a car crash. She has now been dead as long as she was alive. I was mourning her absence, feeling the echoing hole…

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