Monday, September 9, 2019

THE EXAMINED LIFE

We are back in Los Angeles after a lengthy summer stay at our Laguna Beach cottage. It is 10 degrees hotter here--I think in terms of ambient energy as well as air temperature. I feel the difference, and recognize the need to also make adjustments to the inner life  to adapt. It takes a while.

Meanwhile, I have been reflecting on the writing that I'm working on--a sequel to "What a Good Boy Am I," the story of my childhood growing up in England during the Second World War and the post-war period. I'm looking now at the years of my young manhood, from ages 18 to 25, a time of great confusion and insecurity as to my identity as a man and the direction that my life would take.

Given the mistakes I made, my obsession with myself and my own needs, my casual misuse of others for my benefit, I find myself wondering what there is to like about this young man. I conclude that it is his vulnerability, and the suffering that makes him no different than any other human being. When I ask myself what it is that impels me to write so much about myself--as a child, as a young man--the principle reason I can find is nicely expressed in the familiar precept attributed to Sophocles, that "the unexamined life is not worth living."

The other reason that I tell myself is this: there is value not only to myself but potentially to others in sharing the sometimes dark, sometimes even shameful depths of my human experience. The more I'm able to be get to the heart of my own being in the world, the closer I come to every other human being with whom I share this planet; the more painfully personal, the closer to the experience of all humankind.

So I persist.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

A LOVE STORY

I have a story to tell. It's a lovely, human story and this is a time when we can all use lovely, human stories to remind us that we are not the lowest of all species on the planet Earth.

The story starts many years ago, in the 1950s, when an undergraduate student (that was me) fell in love with another undergraduate student--who did not fall in love with him. Instead, she fell in love with another undergraduate student, a ridiculously handsome, charming man from India, who also fell in love with her. This was a time when interracial relationships, let alone marriages, were "not on." Ancient and powerful social conventions militated against the couple, as did her family. Perhaps his family, too.

It was after we all left Cambridge and went out on our (initially) separate ways that I met up again with this young woman in London. I still loved her, and engaged her in a brief, rather stormy and, on my side, sadly immature relationship. Even after we broke up, even after years of wandering, marriage, settling down, having family and eventually growing old I never forgot this first real love of my life. She remained always in some quiet corner of my mind. It was humbling to discover, many years later, when I actually found her on the internet and we had a friendly exchange of emails, that she scarcely remembered me at all!

Which is not the end of the story. That exchange of emails took place ten years ago. (There was hope in the air; Obama was elected president!) It was a short while ago that I began to think about those youthful days again and decided to say hello. I wrote an email. It bounced back. I wrote to her old college, which is how I had found her in the first place. They had no updated information. I went back through our emails for possible clues. Looked up a friend or two she had mentioned. One had died, another was untraceable. Remembered she had a daughter with the same name as my daughter and searched for her.

I had almost given up on finding her when I recalled the name of her Indian friend at Cambridge and googled him. Found his name quite readily and noted that he'd had a distinguished career in the field of education. Discovered that he had a Facebook page. Facebook! Ridiculous! I went there, only to ascertain that his wall had gone unused for the past two years. Still, I messaged him, without much hope that he would ever receive my message and reply. Besides, he had more than likely lost contact with her after all these years. We are all now in our 80s...

To say I was surprised to receive a response from him only a couple of hours later is a wild understatement. And not only had I managed, against all odds, to find him, I had found him, to my absolutely amazement, with her! At that moment! In Australia, where I knew she had been living for many years. Both of them now widowed, they had reconnected several years ago and have been seeing each other regularly since then.

Kind of a fairy-tale ending for them, then. I hope they both had long and happy marriages. I hope they each had, still have, wonderful children and grandchildren. But--perhaps this is nothing more than romantic fantasy on my part!--the thought of a couple reunited after so long a separation, one caused by nothing more than long-discredited social racial prejudice brings hope and joy to this old, not quite yet jaded heart.

So that's my story for the day. I don't know how much I have invented, how much misremembered. But I'm sticking to it.

Monday, September 2, 2019

JAKE'S JOB

Jake has a job. Well, let's call it something grander. He has a mission in life. He's a smile-maker. He's very good at it, a natural. Out for a walk in town for an hour he can make 20 or 30 of them, no sweat. He will probably make a good few just looking at his picture.


And don't laugh. It's an important job. We need as much simple joy as we can get in this life. Particularly right now. Dogs humanize us in a way we seem to have forgotten how. They equalize us. Forget all pride and dignity, he or she who is constrained to stoop in the middle of a crowded sidewalk to remove the steaming gift left by your pooch.

There's more. People with dogs talk to other people with dogs. Hell, even people without dogs stop to talk to people with dogs. Jake introduces us to people of all kinds, rich or poor, snooty or gregarious, black, white, brown or purple, "liberal" or "conservative." We stop and talk. We talk about dogs, we talk about the weather. We might even get to agree about global warming.

So Jake--and others like him--do us all a service. Things are bad enough as it is. Imagine what it would be like without them.

He takes a well-earned rest after a hard day's work...

Sunday, September 1, 2019

THE LECTURE

It was one of those nightmares so intense that when you wake up from it your mind can't let it go, but keeps trying to resolve it.

I have been engaged by a major university for an important lecture series in a huge auditorium with many tiers, like a rather lush concert hall. I have no idea what the topic is, but the first lecture in the series must have gone off well, or at least alright, because I am not especially nervous about the second. Before the lecture I decide to go out to lunch with Ellie and a young man who seems familiar, even though I'm unable to identify him. He is part of the staff involved in the event.

It is raining. We drive south to a restaurant the young man has recommended. Why do think it's a BMW that I'm driving? After lunch, Ellie is typically in no hurry to get moving. She thinks there will be plenty of time to get back for my lecture, and the young man supports her.

I am now nervous though. I hate to be late and don't want to risk it in the rain. We leave the restaurant ten minutes later than I would have wanted to. I'm also nervous about turning north across traffic on the busy highway in the rain, and decide instead to try taking a back road which will lead behind the university. The young man proves to be a useless guide, and we miss a turn that would have taken us to the campus.

Driving north on the back road, I take the next turn toward the highway. There is a big slope in front of me with a curved concrete barrier at the top and I wonder if the car will manage to get over it. Deciding against this new risk, I turn back north again and find myself in a built-up area where a long, rain-slick cobbled stairway leads down toward the main road. I decide the BMW can make it and drive slowly down the steps.

We rejoin the southbound highway and finally arrive at the university, already a half hour after my lecture was due to start. When I join the group of academic principals, one of the staff members mutters pointedly that the organizers had "set aside three days for this," implying that my late arrival had badly let them down.

I am still not dressed for the occasion. For whatever reason (for lunch?) I am wearing baggy green swim trunks, a Hawaiian shirt, and the kitchen apron I wear to bathe the dog. I ask Ellie to go back to our room and at least find me some trousers. When she returns with them, the next problem is to find a men's room where I can put them on. We try a number of doors without success, but finally find one.

I am on the steps up to the stage where I'll be delivering my lecture when I realize that I have not the first idea what I'm supposed to be talking about and have made no preparations ahead of time. It's at this moment that I wake...

... and find myself in a panic about having an hour to fill and not a thought in my head as to what to say.My waking mind seizes on the vacuum and tries to get prepared before I read the podium. I will start out with a heartfelt apology for having kept everyone waiting for so long, Then what? I decide the only think I can talk about it myself. I will tell my own story, starting with St. Peter's chains in Rome. I will speak about authenticity, the need for self-examination and the rewards to be expected. I can think of nothing else.

But I'm heartily relieved to realize that I am now awake! I have no lecture to deliver...


Monday, August 26, 2019

IS IT ENOUGH?



            I had the privilege—and the pleasure—of spending last Saturday listening to the wisdom, the practical realism and the sparkling wit of the man who has been teacher, mentor, guide to the small Laguna Beach sitting group of which I have been a member for more than twenty years. Thanissaro Bhikkhu, the prolific writer and translator of Buddhist texts, is well known as a Thai Forest monk and abbot of the Wat Metta monastery in Valley Center. Our sangha hosted this day-long retreat, which attracted at least two dozen ardent students of the dharma from throughout Southern California.
            The topic for the day was the deepening of the meditation experience and questions turned, in the afternoon, to the importance of the student-teacher relationship in developing one’s practice. I asked no questions, and in truth was tuning in and out of the discussion as my mind went back to an issue I have never managed to resolve: the need for a teacher. While Than Geoff, as I have addressed him since I first knew him (or Ajahn Geoff as he is more properly titled now) has been a deeply respected presence in my life for many years, I have never been able to approach him with the request that he be “my teacher” in the Buddhist sense. Certainly my loss. Perhaps he would not have accepted me. I don’t know.
            The important role of the teacher has been impressed on me since I first started sitting in meditation some twenty-five years ago. I have read a great number of books, many of them in sufficient depth to have been able to review them; for several years in the early 2000s, my reviews would appear regularly in the Los Angeles Times. More recently I have been publishing them quietly online. Virtually every one of these books has stressed the vital importance and value to any serious student of Buddhism of seeking a teacher. And yet, a student of the dharma myself and a daily meditation practitioner, I have never sought one.
            So I woke this morning thinking of that discussion on Saturday and asking myself yet again what it is about me that has resisted the knowledge that to progress into a profound embrace of Buddhism and its tenets I would need to find a teacher. I asked myself who had been the greatest teacher I had encountered in my life and, strangely perhaps, my mind leapt immediately and unquestioningly to Mrs. Smith, the woman who was my first French teacher at my private boarding school in England. I would have been seven or eight years old when I sat in her classroom, and she scared me stiff. She was a strict disciplinarian, liberal in her use of the ruler on the back of your hand when you had failed to learn all the tenses of an irregular verb correctly, or an entire poem by LaFontaine. In the eyes of a little boy (this one) she was terrifyingly beautiful, a woman to be honored and obeyed without question. And yet she changed my life. It was from her that I learned the love of language, syntax, words that has been the lifelong beacon for my profession and my passion.
            Her counterpart was Mr. Ellis, at that same school, the pederast who took me into his bed when I was twelve years old and used me to gratify his sexual lust.
            I once received, with many others, I’m sure, an online message from a well-known authority on Buddhism asking me what I would be looking for in a teacher. I thought about the question seriously and in some depth—this was a number of years ago—and responded, genuinely, I thought, that I had resisted not only Buddhist but every other kind of teacher in my life because of a profound and persistent sense of distrust dating back to that moment of abuse. The teacher, in my young mind, was the violator and the predator, and there was something in me, some deep part of my psyche, that had been unable or unwilling to shake off the involuntary instinct to protect myself.
            Which was, of course, an excuse, a pretext for a more complex web of qualities that stood between me and the search for, and acceptance of a teacher. Beyond this instinctive, little boy’s distrust there is, for example, a broader more mature intellectual skepticism of all things “religious.” I was brought up in the home of an Anglican minister and learned first the stories then the dogma of Christian belief. But I chafed against it from the earliest age. I “went to church” as a child because my parents took me. When I reached adolescence, I began to doubt. My schools required my continued attendance at church services, but my mind had already begun to reject the underlying belief in an almighty God. By the time I was ready to leave school and home and move on into the life of an adult, I had abandoned any serious attachment to Christianity. If I went to church at all, it was when visiting my parents; and then it was only out of deference to my father’s feelings. I would do anything rather than offend him.
            For the longest time I thought did not need religion in my life. It was pain—an assault of deep emotional pain—that brought me to the realization that, along with Christianity, I had discarded a value that had dwelt in my psyche since childhood; and, with that realization came the longing to fill a spiritual vacuum in my life. It was thus, already well into middle age, that I found my way to Buddhism.
My first teachers were books. On an impulse—perhaps it was a combination of the title and subtitle—I picked up a copy of Pema Chödrön’s “When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times” in a book shop in Ojai, where I was spending a week away from the turmoil of family crisis in Los Angeles. Again on impulse, I bought it. And reading it I was drawn to her words, and readily persuaded by her quiet, powerful message that there was relief to be found in meditation. I went back to “Be Here Now” by Ram Dass—a book I had scornfully rejected, without having read it, when it came out in the 1970s.
            That was the start: reading, an old habit acquired the long years of my academic education. I found my way into the practice of meditation first by chanting, thinking that this activity would distract my always busy mind. Then, later, realizing than chanting itself had become the “busy,” I made the transition to silent breath meditation, sitting at first for a few minutes at a time. Ten minutes, twenty. I first sat for a full hour with the Laguna Beach sangha I mentioned at the outset. That would have been in1994, perhaps 1995.
            I have been sitting in meditation as a daily practice ever since. I have attended retreats, some short, some week- or ten-day long---though I have never engaged in the kind of retreat I read about, the kind that lasts for months, or years in distant mountains. I have read dozens of books about the dharma, about the history of Buddhism, about the benefits of mindfulness in daily life. I have read religious texts and scholarly works, books by such luminaries as the Dalai Lama, books by a great variety of Western propagators of Zen,Tibetan, Theravadan and other schools of Buddhist thought. I have shelves lined with books of a spiritual nature, and have learned enormously from them and from those who wrote them.
            And yet I have not found a “teacher.”
            Over the years I have engaged in a good deal of inner conflict (and not a little self-flagellation!) about not being a good Buddhist, or not having worked harder to be a better one. Should I not have gone to India, as many of those authors had done, to sit at the feet of the masters and to have learned from their wisdom? Should I not have made, or be making, a more serious, consistent, sustained effort in my study of the dharma? Should I not be attending more classes like so many of those whose dedication I admire, whom I credit with knowing so much more than I will ever know? Should I not have surrendered myself to the wisdom of a teacher?
            That conflict, of course, is nothing more than another pretext, another prevarication. I recognize that. In my internal dialogue this morning, as I sat, I recognized and acknowledged disturbing qualities in my character to which I could attribute my reticence. In addition to the distrust, the source of which I described earlier, and the earned intellectual skepticism, I confess to a deplorable arrogance—the kind that whispers persuasively in my ear that I know it all already, that I don’t need anyone to teach me. When I read yet another book about Buddhism, or the ever-popular mindfulness, it seems to me that I’ve heard it all before, these same thoughts and ideas, however differently expressed. It has all begun to seem, well, rather obvious. My vast intellect has no need of improvement. Even my heart intelligence has already embraced it all.
            So there’s that. Worse, possibly, is the indolence that has stood between me and the attainment of many of my goals, be they personal or professional. It shames me to admit to having learned as a child that I was possessed of a certain easy-going charm that could be used as a substitute for hard work. I was always able to get by with very little effort. I was easily enough satisfied with good enough. Doors opened and I was happy to walk through, and to be greeted with a welcome on the other side. Kind friends will rush in with good intentions to tell me that I’m being too harsh on myself, but I know this to be a part of the truth about myself. My indolence has served to allow me to overlook, even indulge my arrogance.
            I have struggled with these things, with feelings of guilt, shame, and inadequacy. I have blamed myself for being less than the good Buddhist I think to see in others, the good Buddhist I myself would wish to have been. Still, thanks perhaps to the advancing years, I am more at peace with myself now, more content to reflect honestly on what I perceive to be my failings without allowing myself to be tortured by them and yearning to be what I am not. I am tired of that struggle. It is so much more important, I believe now, to live in as much open awareness as I am able, and work more simply, day by day, to being a better human being, more generous, more compassionate, more loving that I was the day before.
            That, surely, is enough.