A Day at the Oakland Book Festival

The clouds swirl above city hall, swept at the edges into mist. The breeze is icy, the sun warm. Smiling faces in every shade sit in grass, books in hand, heads bobbing to rappers crisscrossing the stage. I look up at the banners stretching between columns at the top of the stairs.

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I step into a crowded room and the flow of poet Will Alexander draws me in. His hand moves in circles to the rhythm of his words. I do not understand most poetry. Today is no exception. Maybe poetry is not meant to be understood. Maybe it is meant to be felt. His words sound beautiful, his beat hypnotic.

A poetry student raises his hand.

“How do you know when a poem is done?” he asks.

Matthew Zapruder answers by quoting another poet.

“I know a poem is done when both me and the poem have had an orgasm.”

I walk to the bookstore across the plaza. A choir of African-American girls sings a capella. I imagine Jack London calling for a socialist revolution at this very spot. I remember watching Barack Obama speak on these steps. I recall the humanity and energy of Occupy Oakland. The sun warms my face. I feel love for this city. I feel like I have returned to my home.

I sit on a metal folding chair and listen to authors from Oakland read from their books. Novella Carpenter tip-toes through the crowd to the front of the room. In her hand is a box of cucumber and zucchini starters she plans to give away.

“Sorry I’m late,” she says, “no bike parking around here.”

I read her memoir about starting an urban farm on an abandoned lot in west Oakland. She tells us a story about how once she was dumpster diving in Chinatown for fish guts (to feed her pigs) when a homeless man offered her a dollar for food. “Even the homeless of Oakland are openhearted,” she says.

There is also Zac Unger, a firefighter from Rockridge and Rod Campbell, an entrepreneur from west Oakland. Both wrote memoirs.

Campbell’s wife commends all three for embodying and celebrating all that is good with the town. Then she asks what can be done about all that is bad.

Unger says, “the most political decision a family can make is where they send their kids to school.”

I feel a pang of guilt.

I walk back to city hall and queue up for a reading/discussion with Ayelet Waldman and Akhil Sharma. A middle-aged Asian lady with short spiky hair and long pink bangs stands behind me.

“What a great turnout, huh?” she says. “Who knew this many people still love books?”

Sharma is one of my favorite contemporary authors. Waldman is obsessed with him too. “I’ll only read a little bit,” she says, “so we can listen to more of him.”

I admire Sharma’s sparse yet piercing style. I feel compassion for the suffering he endured. I admire his dedication to craft. He spent twelve and a half years writing his novel. He wrote seven thousand pages for what became a two hundred and twenty-four page book. When he finished the end of one draft, he opened a new document and started typing again.

Waldman can’t believe he revises this way. “I think you’ve inspired me,” she says. “I’m going to try that tomorrow.”

Sharma sits at a table in the loud and white hallway after the reading. He is hidden by a line of people waiting for a panel on gentrification. I introduce myself to him. I am nervous.

“I also wrote a novel drawn from my own experience,” I say. “I’ve written four drafts so far and I signed up to do an intensive workshop with Tom Barbash.”

I know him and Tom are friends.

“Oh, good for you,” he says. He is sincere.

“I’ve yet to try rewriting it from scratch,” I say.

“Try it, man,” he says.

I like that he calls me “man.” He makes a mountain climbing analogy I don’t really hear because I’m so nervous. Something about carving out a more direct route to the peak.

“Try it for like two months,” he says.

“I think I might,” I say. “It’s taken while, but I’m finally embracing the long game that writing a novel demands.”

At home, my wife tells me I networked.

“I’m glad you went,” she says.

“Me too,” I say. “Just seeing all those authors in the flesh and listening to them speak and interact with each other, it struck me that these are not the superhuman people I’ve idealized in my imagination. They’re all just…”

“Regular people,” she says.

“Yes, exactly. It just made the prospects of me becoming one of them seem more plausible.”

She nods.

“I have to believe in myself to make this thing work,” I say. “If I don’t believe in myself, I might as well stop.”

“Well I believe in you,” she says, “so even when you don’t believe in yourself, you’ll always have that.”

I almost start sobbing but I don’t. I make a caprese salad. I think about my short story. I am excited to get back to work.


The Bluest Eye, the African-American Experience and the Importance of Art

I read The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison last week and haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since. I can only marvel at Morrison’s narrative genius, the love she invests in each of her characters, from the most vulnerable to the most vile, but mostly at the magnitude of suffering upon which her brutal and devastating story shines a light. The book is about an ugly, poor black girl who yearns for blue eyes and the recognition of beauty blue eyes represent. It is a heart-breaking premise rich with so many truths about how the beautiful and privileged see and treat the ugly and suffering, how the absence of love is filled so often with addiction, self-loathing and violence and how this perpetuates itself from generation to generation. In the broadest possible sense, the book is about humanizing an African-American experience. It is about becoming a vulnerable black girl or even an abusive alcoholic black man and understanding the beauty, yearning and intelligence behind all that which we demonize or ignore.

Morrison’s project is more important today than ever before. The race narrative in America is being dominated by fear and distrust when it should be dominated by compassion, sorrow, regret and a recognition that the legacy of slavery persists today. The African-American experience is unlike the experience of any other racial minority in the United States. They have not been simply victims of stereotypes regarding work ethic or driving skills. They were dehumanized, in the most literal sense of the word, for 246 years of America’s history. They were regarded by society as nothing more than chattels. Bought and sold, traded, whipped and disposed of when no longer useful. They labored without compensation for 246 years, building infrastructure, industry and wealth for privileged classes to pass on to subsequent generations of privileged classes and the only thing they were left to pass on were the scars.

Today, 150 years after the abolition of slavery and fifty years after the Civil Rights Act, camera phones and social media are documenting and exposing the unacceptable regularity with which unarmed black men are being shot, ran over, choked or otherwise subject to deadly or excessive force by white police officers. There is a widespread assumption today that blackness alone is a suspicious activity that justifies intrusion into sacred spheres of personal liberty, that blackness alone is grounds to believe that one’s physical safety is so threatened that the use of deadly force on unarmed men is being judged by our legal system to be okay. This insidious brand of racism is conspiring with the criminalization of addiction and privatization of prisons to modify the directive of our police from “protect and serve” to “arrest and imprison,” to try and sweep under the rug the ugly and complex consequences of building a country on the backs of slave labor and then profit from it. When excessive force from the police results in deaths of unarmed human beings, deaths that are either met with no prosecution or bungled and halfhearted prosecution from the officers’ colleagues and lunch-buddies at the local DA’s office, something has to break. Such blatant failures in the system of justice, such “intolerable conditions,” in the words of Martin Luther King, “are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention.” The riot, according to King, “is the language of the unheard.”

The problem with indiscriminate destruction of private property or the use of violence in any protest, however, is that it weakens the credibility and moral standing of the protester. Committing injustice in the protest of injustice only results in more injustice. People pay attention, but they pay attention to fires and broken glass, to crimes against innocent members of the community. They do not pay attention to the message that needs to be heard, they are downloading images that support the very narrative that oppresses the protestor in the first place and the vicious cycle rages on.

The truly radical and revolutionary acts of protest are anchored to a steadfast commitment to nonviolence. Organized, sustained disruptions of the unjust systems with strikes, peaceful blockades or sit-ins in the spirit of King and Gandhi. Pressure on law-makers to reform prison and drug policy, to require body cameras on all police and recuse local DAs offices from the job of prosecuting their investigating officers/slow-pitch softball buddies.

But perhaps the most effective and potentially world-changing thing we can do is take the time to understand each other by expressing ourselves and our stories truthfully and authentically and, most importantly, listening when others do the same. We can make less judgments and more art. We can watch less “news” and read more literature. It is one thing to know something intellectually and another thing to experience it through the magic of brilliant writing, writing like that of Toni Morrison, that puts us in the shoes of the disenfranchised and suffering and forces us to feel what it’s like to feel ugly, unwanted, invisible or hated for things beyond our control.


Stopping and Starting

I spent the last ten months rewriting my book.

It took a while to bounce back from the blunt and unfiltered feedback of a professional editor but I eventually settled into an enjoyable stretch of joyful creation without attachment. The days were ends in themselves. I worked in the moment, for the sheer pleasure of stringing together words, playing with rhythm and dwelling upon the mind-blowing revelations that drove me. I blasted electronic dance music in my headphones, ran and hiked the mountain and made beautiful memories with my family. The down times came and went like always, but I didn’t resist them nor did I convince myself that they were my reality. I tried to not identify my reality with my thoughts about reality.

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I countered rainy days with blankets and hot cups of tea, deep breaths and good books and celebrated sunny days with hikes and adventures with family and friends. I wrote everyday and I didn’t share it with anyone. A few weeks ago, I reached the end of the book. Again.

I shared it with eight readers. I felt good and was happy with the book’s progression but this pause in the creative process in anticipation of feedback really disrupted the whole creating without attachment thing. The truth is I am not actually creating without attachment. I am writing this book with the intention of selling it, with the intention of it becoming the foundation of my writing career. There is a sense of urgency burning inside me, fueled by my desire to provide for my family but most of all to connect with people, to share ideas, images and moments that inspire presence, gratitude, vulnerability, love and compassion.

I received feedback from six of my readers. I heard some of the most touching and validating praise I have ever received as a writer but I also heard specific and actionable issues, deficiencies and suggestions for improvement. The praise felt good and the criticism stung but both feelings faded as they usually do into the only constant, steady truth of this life: the present moment.

My editor told me ten months ago that it often takes several years to write a good book and that mine “is particularly complex and ambitious.” I had coffee with a local fiction author a couple weeks ago who said the same thing. When I asked him if he thought it was a good idea to start querying agents, he asked me how I make my living.

“I’m really nice to my wife,” I said.

“Oh, well then it sounds like you’re in a good place,” he said. “I think you should delay it as much as possible. Agents are eager to find any possible reason to reject. They just get so many submissions.”

He said at some point I would get to a point where there is nothing more I can do with the book, but I am not at that point yet. I still have beta reader feedback coming in. The more I write and rewrite and let this story marinate in my subconscious, the more complex and nuanced it becomes. Obvious thematic connections that I never remotely contemplated are starting to manifest. My voice is ripening, embracing more humor and confidence. I have made progress as a story-teller, grounding the reader in scenes, weaving in description, dialogue, mood and theme, but there is definitely more work to be done. I don’t know if this book, as a concrete and finite entity in this world, will ever approximate my visualization of it, but I do know that, right now, there are specific and concrete things I can do to make it better.

Thankfully, the spring sun is beginning to dwell upon our patio for a few hours each morning. The creek is still babbling from the sparse winter rainfall. The mountain and ocean beckon always to humble and inspire. I will continue to write, to add layers of complexity and richness to my story, to seek the truth and try to convey it in beautiful ways. I will endeavor to do this as an end in itself, without attachment to results, until there is nothing more I can do.


Writing Wisdom from Jack London

Writing my novel has been my first real education in the narrative arts. In addition to a daily writing practice and subjecting my writing to editorial critique, I have been reading more than ever before. I have been reading classic and modern novels, studying the lives of established authors and learning the fundamentals of craft. Currently I am reading a biography of Jack London which so far has confirmed my belief that

  1. real-life experience and adventure provides the greatest fodder for fiction and
  2. persistence renders failure impossible.

By the time he established himself as one of America’s most important writers in his early twenties, London had already been the primary breadwinner for his house for a decade, as a factory-worker, oyster pirate, seal hunter, gold prospector, university student and political leader.

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He sailed the Pacific and Bering sea hunting seals for nine months. He rode the American rails with the homeless and did thirty days in jail for vagrancy. He traveled by foot through Alaskan mountains in search of Klondike gold then built a boat out of a tree he chopped down and sailed home through the deadly rapids of the Yukon river. He never finished high school but got into U.C. Berkeley. He gave speeches nightly on the Oakland city hall lawn, espousing socialist ideals and calling for revolution. He ran for mayor of Oakland.

When he set his mind to make a living as a writer, he was met with rejection after rejection. He gave up for periods at a time, but always returned to his desk and he wrote and submitted his work profusely and continued to be rejected profusely. “I’m going to stick to my writing,” he said, “and the publishers are going to accept it whether they like it or not. And some of these days they’ll be glad to take the stuff they’ve rejected and pay me a good price for it; you just wait and see.”

After ascending to the heights of the literary elite, he offered the following advice to aspiring writers:

“Don’t loaf and invite inspiration; light out after it with a club, and if you don’t get it you will nonetheless get something that looks remarkably like it. Set yourself a ‘stint’, and see that you do that ‘stint’ each day; you will have more words to your credit at the end of the year. Study the tricks of the writers who have arrived. They have mastered the tools with which you are cutting your teeth. They are doing things, and their work bears the internal evidence of how it is done. Don’t wait for some good Samaritan to tell you, but dig it out for yourself.

See that your pores are open and your digestion is good. That is, I am confident, the most important rule of all. And keep a notebook. Travel with it, sleep with it. Slap into it every stray thought that flutters up into your brain. Cheap paper is less perishable than grey matter, and lead pencil marking endures longer than memory. And work. Spell it in capital letters, WORK. WORK all the time. Find about this earth, this universe, this force and matter, and the spirit that glimmers up through force and matter from the maggot to the Godhead. And by all this I mean WORK for a philosophy of life. It does not hurt how wrong your philosophy of life may be, so long as you have one and have it well. The three great things are: GOOD HEALTH, WORK and a PHILOSOPHY OF LIFE. I may add, nay, must add, a fourth, SINCERITY. Without this, the other three are without avail. With it you may cleave to greatness and sit among the giants.”

photo by Pablo Sanchez



 

 

Why I Like Fiction

Writing in the narrative form is a brand new endeavor for me.

As a philosophy/political science/law student, newspaper columnist, trial and appellate lawyer and blogger, I am well versed in expository and persuasive writing. I enjoy this type of writing and firmly believe in the power of explanation and argument. I have witnessed it personally with the articles I’ve written and motions and briefs I’ve argued.

My words have affected the fate of human liberty. My words have ignited inspiration and debate.

Good things can be achieved with appeals to reason. Appeals to reason can change the world.

But reason can only take us so far. There are elements of the human experience that are beyond the scope of reason. The human experience itself, our very existence in the company of so much nothingness, is beyond the scope of reason. I cannot ignore this fact if I am to achieve my aim as a writer to speak truth.

Underlying every rational construction is suchness. Underlying every idea or concept about the world and our place in it is an experience rooted in place and time. This individualized experience as a human being contains more truth in its suchness than any argument or idea.

That we are here is more worthy of our attention than why we are here.

Fiction provides a complete and accurate picture of the human experience. In exposing the unfiltered ruminations of an individual consciousness, it gives the reader an emotional basis for empathy. Readers develop intimacy with that consciousness and are left with the feeling that they are not alone in this world, that everybody suffers, everybody has shortcomings, everybody has thoughts that they shouldn’t have, everybody berates themselves to some degree and to some extent everybody acknowledges their brilliance.

By anchoring the reader in an authentic human story with detail and description, abstract ideas and concepts about the meaning and purpose of life become less abstract, more in your face, more real, relevant, pressing and urgent.

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This confluence of idea and story/philosophy and experience is where magic happens and what makes fiction so powerful.

Art is definitely the most powerful force we have at our disposal. It is a collaborative, dialectical process.

I write with my voice, but my reader reads with the voice in their head.  When my voice meets the reader’s voice, a whole new voice is created and that’s pretty fucking cool.


 

My Problem with Religion

The following is a guest post from David Gonzales. David met his wife on a research trip to the Amazon and after getting a masters degree in ecology, he started a bank. He can be hard to nail down but delights in great food and conversation, building stuff, and teaching and learning from his 5! beautiful children. Check out his website and follow him on twitter.

I have a problem. Too many people in my life have not experienced immanence in any form. And so they are bitter towards all things religious, because they failed to deliver. Maybe there’s no helping it. Maybe they stalled somewhere on their faith journey. Or maybe they just needed a different context to practice faith. My observation is that it’s usually the latter.

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photo by Charles Dyer

I’ve come to see religion as form of hacking human nature to promote civilization and I think religions are important.

I’m sure the anti-religious are mostly poo-pooing the classic organized religions like Christianity or Islam. They often talk about moving away from religion and trying hard to simply embrace spirituality or hold fast to reason. Both are fine perspectives. I’ve vacillated between intuition, induction, and pure deduction throughout my life.

But religion isn’t going away. It’s a natural and worthy outgrowth of the human experience. We are by nature creatures of habit. Our habitual practices, more often than not, are very quickly imbued with extra-rational meaning no matter whether they were habits learned by experience or taught.

These habits, at least my habits, are very prescriptive. And I’ve found that meditation in the morning with the intent of increasing my level of mindfulness is probably the single most useful thing I can do to get to and maintain a high level of energy in my work and in my interactions with others.

When I was a child this was called personal prayer.I grew up in a very orthodox Mormon home. No, not that kind of orthodox. My father only had one wife, as far as I can tell.

But we prayed morning and night and over every meal. We read from the Bible and Book of Mormon almost every day. We didn’t do very much on Sunday except go to our Mormon Church and occasionally during the fall Dad would also attend American Church hosted by the NFL.

All along the way I did my best to keep up and to try hard to understand why we were doing what we did. I was pretty well behaved but the older I got the less I restrained I became with my questioning of many of our regimented practices. I wanted to figure out why and to what end we engaged with so many habitual practices.

Not getting a satisfactory answer I spent a considerable amount of time in the vast sea of emergence and simplicity eschewing religion and spirituality. But eventually I came to understand the power and necessity of habits and the shortcut that prescribed habits can be. In my mind anyone who does not simply embrace 100% emergence believes in the power of “small r” religion even if they do not practice Religion.

They may bristle at calling it that. They may even say that they have outgrown religion. Nevertheless, nearly all my friends and acquaintances strive for a higher level of mindfulness the more ardently they hope to distance themselves from religion. Their goal is almost universally to be more “open” (the implication being their is something greater to be open too).

But from those that embrace religion, I find it almost amusing how sensitive they are to the use of words like mindfulness, being present, and meditation. Why? Well, reflection upon my childhood points to all of the rote habits. These habits were not taught to us or prescribed to us on the basis of some new-agey terms like mindfulness or being present. We were told it was a recipe for getting closer to God.

So in part the tension between these two camps is one of jargon. But it goes deeper than that and I think where things begin to go up, regardless of your religious persuasion, is when we begin to awaken to the possibility that nearly all regimented practice seems to hack our brain for the better.

Where things begin to nose-dive is where shame becomes the primary motive for adherence. And whether you call the immanence that my atheist friends, Hindu friends, Buddhist friends, Christian friends, etc. all describe as God, Allah, Big Mind or something else, friends from all walks of life seem to converge on one central tenet: There is otherness in the universe and it is kind.

What they don’t always cop to is just how important their regimented practices are to maintaining their “access” to this kindness in the universe. But when I meet them and they appear to be in a funk or when I find myself feeling low it is so often the case that we have flagged in our adherence to those regimented practices that found us nearer to God or “god.”

So what is religion? My more cynical self calls it a “Get Wise Quick Scheme.” But I believe that religion, in all its many forms, is actually trying diligently to protect those practices its practitioners believe and hope will:

  • Promote civilization (beneficial and cooperative human interactions)

  • Promote presence*

  • Encourage practitioners to experience immanence

Some religions do a better job than others. But by-and-large I think they all do a pretty decent job: Christianity, Academia, Secular Humanism, Islam, etc. And like most things you get out of it what you’re willing to put into it.

*Most of the classic religions tend to over-emphasize “the future” as an answer to suffering, experiencing and not letting go of pain, but I like to give them the benefit of the doubt and believe that they have just run aground on human nature. In reality, the goal is to be present, and letting “the future” be responsible for things like justice, fairness, etc. should allow us to more fully focus on the now.

 



Mental Health, Mass Shootings and the Problem of Human Suffering

I saw a 60 minutes story on Sunday addressing the issue of mental health in America. Schizophrenia affects approximately 2.4 million American adults. It is a disease of the brain, not the mind. People who have schizophrenia hear voices in their head and they are often berating, scary and angry. They are unable to decipher the difference between their vivid hallucinations and things that are actually happening.

We used to warehouse people with severe mental disabilities in massive asylums. When the inhumane conditions of these asylums were documented and made aware to the public, outcry ensued, reforms were passed and the massive institutions were shuttered. People with severe mental illness were released into the community at large with the idea that they would live in semi-supervised housing with a case manager who would regularly check-in and administer medication.

None of it was funded

The government and the public at large does not make caring for its mentally ill a priority so millions of people with severe mental illness were just released back into society. Most of them are now homeless. Many of them commit minor crimes of survival like petty theft or trespassing (to sleep) and overflow our already overcrowded jails and prisons.

Many of the anonymous and untreated mentally ill get their hands on automatic weapons and massacre everyone around them.

Despite our persistent and unwavering effort to run away from the problem of mental health, it is coming back to bite us and it is biting us hard. Mass-shootings are now happening on a weekly basis.

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Instead of spending tax dollars proactively on therapists, medicine, social workers and housing, we are spending even more of it on a bloated prison industrial complex, i.e. private corporations whose only fundamental purpose is to generate profit.  We are spending it with human lives when the mentally ill so easily get their hands on weapons of mass destruction and indiscriminately slaughter everyone around them.

This cannot continue to happen. This needs to be addressed. We cannot sweep mental health under the rug anymore. I’m not just talking about severe mental disabilities but also depression or anxiety. One in every four Americans suffer from a diagnosable mental illness.

We have to get rid of the stigma. People will not seek help if they are ashamed or otherwise led to believe that they are inferior or weak for their mental illness. We have to abandon the tendency to magnify the ego, to deny humility and hide away vulnerability. We have to embrace compassion and take care of our fellow human beings.

We are all connected to each other whether we like it or not

We either pay for it in the spirit of compassion with a focus on therapy and rehabilitation or we pay for it like we’re doing now in the spirit of  hiding it away while the problem festers and magnifies to the delight of the free market who has turned human suffering it into a profit.

Our democracy has been usurped by corporations

Our broken system persists because the market has found a way to make the problem of mental health profitable, whether through the prison industrial complex or big pharmacy, and the market controls the politicians.

90% of Americans want stronger gun laws, yet our so-called representatives have done nothing because they are beholden to the PR department of the gun industry that somehow has established itself as a political institution purporting to be the voice of freedom against this fictionalized government that wants to take everyone’s guns away, when in reality the NRA’s only purpose is to promote gun sales.

Any law that regulates gun sales in the name of public safety will also slow down gun sales and thus gets misrepresented and sold to the masses of gun-rights advocates and gun lovers as a meddlesome government standing in the way of a Constitutional right. This argument works because the masses don’t trust the government.

Why? Because they know our government answers to corporations, not people. We live in a country whose highest court says corporations are people and that money is speech and literally allows politicians who are supposed to be acting in the public interest to be purchased by massive corporations who are making a killing (no pun intended) on our dysfunction and demise.

We live in a me-first society that is not taking care of our weakest. We live in a society that shuns mental weakness, one that elevates the ego to the extent that most people go so far as to deny mortality by clinging steadfastly to the extension of ego into heaven or other iterations of an afterlife that can only scientifically be described as imagined.

After watching 60 minutes, I flipped to PBS and watched the end of a documentary about Buddhism. The narrator said something that struck me about a fundamental difference between Buddhist and Western ways of thinking.

The first noble truth of Buddhism is that suffering exists.

Suffering is the starting point of Buddhism. The dissolution of suffering is the Buddhists’ aim. Suffering is not hidden away or denied or silenced by some imagined utopia, some pie in the sky when we die. Suffering is featured and can only be ended by silencing the ego, becoming aware of the the underlying unity behind every duality and then living with love and compassion toward all human beings, especially our weakest.

Here is the 60 minutes story. Now go start a revolution.



Reflections on the Practice of Meditation

A little over three weeks into the Buddha Dad experiment, I am happy to report I have upheld my commitment to meditate, exercise and write five days a week. I am also happy to report that accessing the spring within me is becoming easier and more natural. Before it was like I had a cup that I had to always refill with something outside of me. Lately I’ve been tapping into the source.

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The cool thing about the source is that it’s all around and it never goes away. I am a part of it. We all are. Meditation helps me wake up to it, tune into it and unleash myself from my mind.

Running

If I identify with the chatter of my mind while I am running, I become conscious of how steep the hill is, how hot the sun is and I get weaker and want to stop. But when I stop thinking so damn much and I just tune into the rhythm of my steps on the pavement, the rhythm of my breath, I get into this fluid zone where I am just gliding across the ground like butter and it feels so natural and good.

Sitting

When I am sitting and have reached that perfectly quiet and still moment when my mind isn’t doing much and even if it is doing something I am not embroiled in it but I am just watching it do what it does, when I am effortlessly riding the wave of my breath, when I feel myself falling at every moment onto the pillow, I feel stillness penetrating my core and I feel peace.

Writing

When I am in the zone writing, I am not even looking at the screen or the keyboard and everything goes blurry but my fingers keep moving and I just let whatever wants to flow out of me to flow. I keep my fingers moving because my mind is always eager to tell me that what I am writing is unoriginal and dumb and not worth anybody’s time. Then of course there is the the call for distraction, the pull to stop what I am doing and just absorb some other bullshit in an unconscious state of mind.

The cool thing about writing is that it takes the loud and obnoxious story teller in my mind who stands at its pulpit and won’t shut the fuck up about how shitty a person I am and it reduces that motherfucker to letters on a page. Tiny little thoughts and statements that demonstrate by their manifestation that they are not me. The person that is writing these things, observing these things is me. That me has no running commentary. It is just a blank slate of awareness.

My mind is always there. It will never go away. But I am reaching moments momentarily where it’s not so damn loud and it feels pretty good.

Sometimes meditation is torture, but it is only torture when I identify with my mind.

When the narrative of my ego is screaming the loudest and I am paying attention to it, everything is torture. But when I am in the moment and paying attention to sounds and rhythms and other sensory things that ground me to the reality that I am here, right now, then all is good.

Well, all is.

And I happen to think that is-ness is good.



 

Ernest Hemingway, Russell Brand and the Unfortunate Relationship Between Art and Addiction

I recently read The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway as part of my commitment to study notable authors and decipher how they do what they do. I was particularly attracted to Hemingway because I knew his writing style was understated and sparse, stripped of sentimentality, yet somehow enabling such indulgences to play out in the mind of the reader.

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I want my writing to be like this, minimalist and understated but infused with emotion and urgency. I want to present simple words and sentences, stripped of flowery or obscure language, and simply describe characters and scenes that are relatable to readers, stories that invoke empathy and intrigue.

Good writing is telling the truth and once you actually find the truth in a story then it’s pretty simple to tell.

I enjoyed experiencing the Paris cafe/bar scene in the 20s, the baking, unspoilt world of the Spanish mountains and, most of all, the harrowing and brutal world of bull fighting. I enjoyed the character portraits and what they revealed about our best and worst qualities as humans.

And yes, I definitely appreciated his writing style. I aim to emulate it. Not in any kind of conscious way but I think if I commit to my method of using meditation to settle my mind, be completely present with whatever I’m writing and just tell the truth, I’ll be doing all I can.

What really struck me though was how much they drank in that book. I paid special attention to this because I knew Hemingway was an alcoholic who ultimately stuck a loaded shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. He’s definitely not alone among writers and artists.

Jack Kerouac drank himself to death, dying at 47 from cirrhosis. Hunter S. Thompson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Faulkner, the list goes on an on. Alan Watts reportedly drank a fifth of vodka a day. Stephen King did so much cocaine he had to stuff cotton balls up his nose so blood wouldn’t drip on his typewriter.

And that’s just writers. As Bill Hicks famously reminded us, all “the musicians that made all that great music that’s enhanced your lives throughout the years were real fucking high on drugs.”

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Stephen King’s family staged an intervention and, with their love and support, he eventually sobered up.

“There were nine months [after quitting] when I was out of gas, depressed,” King said in an interview with the Guardian. “And despite what some people say depression is not conducive to good writing or to bad writing. But then it came back. When I gave up dope and alcohol, my immediate feeling was ‘I’ve saved my life, but there’ll be a price because I’ll have nothing that buzzes me any more. But I enjoyed my kids. My wife loved me and I loved her. And eventually the writing came back and I discovered that the writing was enough. Stupid thing is that probably it always had been.”

Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, a book that inspired countless artists (including myself), peaked creatively after beating her alcohol and drug addiction and diving into spiritual practice instead.

Russell Brand used yoga and transcendental meditation to help kick his heroin habit and now listen to him speak.

Dude is connected and awakened and speaks the piece with astounding clarity and depth.  He uses words that sound beautiful when strung together and delivered in his irresistibly charming accent.

As a side note, I often read my writing to myself in an English accent. In fact, now that I think about it, it’s actually Russell Brand’s voice that I imagine. It really does make everything I write sound cooler. Try it. Start reading this post again with Russell Brand’s voice in your head and I guarantee it will sound more profound.

The point of all this meandering is simply to say:

1. Hemingway was a literary genius.

2. He died way too young like so many other artistic geniuses.

3. It’s impossible to create great art when you’re dead.

4. Love is the greatest and most sustainable source of inspiration and connection.

5. Russell Brand is a wise dude and his accent is awesome.



The Pitfalls of Social Media

The other day I was reading The Book by Alan Watts (written in 1966) while the kids were in swim class and the following passage jumped off the page:

“…increasing efficiency of communication…can, instead of liberating us into the air like birds, fix us to the ground like toadstools. All information will come in by super-realistic television and other electronic devices as yet in the planning stage or barely imagined. In one way this will enable the individual to extend himself anywhere without moving his body – even to distant reaches of space. But this will be a new kind of individual – an individual with a colossal external nervous system reaching out and out into infinity.

And this electronic nervous system will be so interconnected that all individuals plugged in will tend to share the same thoughts, the same feelings, and the same experiences

The trend of all this is towards the end of individual privacy, to an extent where it may even be possible to conceal one’s thoughts.

At the end of the line, no one is left with a mind of his own: there is just a vast and complex community-mind…” (emphasis added)

Then I came home and looked at Facebook and scrolled through all the photos of smiling faces, delicious food, faded pictures from college hashtagged with #tbt, duck face selfies and commentary about what Facebook told us was trending that day.  And it made me realize how prophetic Alan Watts was when he wrote these words almost fifty years ago.

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The problem with the vast and complex community mind of social media is that it does not accurately reflect the true nature of the human condition. It creates the illusion that everyone is always happy, eating delicious food and doing interesting things. The proliferation of this illusion indirectly disparages the darkness as not worthy of sharing, something to be hidden away, something worthy of shame.

I am just as guilty as everyone else. I only share  my best photographs, the ones that paint me and my life in the most positive light possible, the natural smiles, the awe inspiring vistas and inspiring quotes. I’ve never written, “feeling pretty lonely today” or  “struggling to find my life’s purpose” for one of my status updates.

Happy moments are made ever more poignant and powerful, more worthy of sharing and celebrating by the existence of sad moments, the recognition of our vulnerability and humility.

We cannot have light without the dark.

The problem with a dualistic way of thinking is it promotes the idea that opposing things are separate and at odds with one another when they are actually unified and working together to create something greater.

“The word happiness would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness.” – Carl Jung

I am often depressed. I am also often happy. This is what it is to be authentically  human.

And this authenticity, this vulnerability is what we should share and celebrate together.