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.


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.


 

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.



 

Let it go

Non attachment is a concept that rises to the top of my consciousness every time I sit down to write one of these posts. I suppose that is appropriate because attachment is the root of all suffering and I am interested in the prospects of ending suffering. I have found in my experience that the reason for my suffering very rarely has anything to do with what is actually happening at any given moment in life.

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When I was a trial attorney, I suffered a great deal imagining situations that never transpired, projecting my fears of being unprepared or  public speaking or failure onto myriad moments that, objectively speaking, were actually quite peaceful.

Moments of potential stillness, where awareness of details like my breath or the awesome radiance of the human eyes around me, the sound of laughter, the feeling of vulnerability and humility, the simple awareness that I am alive, that I am here, conscious that I am having this experience rooted in mystery and wonder, with this capacity to create beauty with love, always has the potential to bring me peace and completion.

Instead I too often allow the loud and persistent story-teller in my head to scream so loudly and stomp so heavily that I’m literally hypnotized by it, rendered inert, unable to snap out of its suffocating grasp, forgetting to breathe and listen and see and feel.

I do the same thing as a writer. Every moment is alive and buzzing with infinite potential, the world is literally a ball of clay that molds according to my intention. But nothing happens if I’m rendered inert by my captive attention to the screen of the mind, the inner hater and doubter.

That ball of clay will just sit there always buzzing with infinite potential and I will sit by its side looking off into nothingness and not breathing and then I will die.

I think it was Picasso who said “The meaning of life is to find your gift, the purpose of life is to give it away.”

Creation without attachment

Like the Japanese monks who write haiku, place them in a bottle then toss them to the sea, the Tibetan monks who labor meticulously creating complex images and patterns out of multicolored sand then just sweep it all up and pour it into the river.

I create because when I create that loud and obnoxious voice with the megaphone is locked out of the room and I am here now operating according to my design in the same way water flows across rock and trees reach for the sun.

Being attuned to the truth of the moment and attempting to capture it with words, I am tuned into the only thing that is real. The only thing that is permanent and infinite is now.

The only a-hole that benefits from praise, accolades or riches is the a-hole I locked out of the room because he’s holding me back.

Well he can’t hold me back anymore.

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The Power of Mantra

I was taught at an early age to say the Gayatri Mantra every night before going to bed. I had no idea what it meant, but I understood it as a declaration of gratitude for things like health and abundance and an expression of hope that such blessings continue.

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I eventually read an English translation that I did not find particularly inspiring or moving* but I continued to say the mantra sporadically and mostly selfishly throughout my life when I wanted something from the universe like safety for my family when we traveled or success at trial or even a 49ers victory.

Now I am finding myself using this mantra to help tether my wandering mind to the present moment when I meditate.

The mind is pretty powerful and mine might be unusually neurotic. Sometimes focusing on my breath or the expansion and contraction of my diaphragm or the sound of the birds or the leaf blower across the street is not enough to contend with my mind’s incessant barking.

But forcing myself to sit in one spot, consciously breathe and repeat this mantra over and over again makes the daunting task of staying in the moment easier. It gives my mind something to do that is repetitive and rhythmic. It settles it down.

The purpose of meditation is to identify reality with the now, the sensations and feelings of presence and not the streaming ticker that constantly passes across the mind’s screen. Allowing the stream of mental chatter to take over, we get lost in the bullshit.

The bullshit becomes our mantra

The worries, laments, projections, should’ve/could’ve/would’ves, the daydreaming about what we want for our future, the regret of what we’ve done in the past, all of this endless chatter becomes our mantra and robs us of the experience of now (also known as life).

If we are going to occupy our consciousness with words, let them me words that reflect what we want manifested. The content of our consciousness is what determines the content of the reality we experience on a daily basis.

What we think we become

When we allow our mind to become untethered to the present, we are not deciding what we want to occupy our consciousness. We are allowing things that thrive in unconscious states like fear and ego to thrive. We should repeat only the refrains that we want to constitute our reality, mantras that reflect our true values and help to bring about the state of mind required to actually be here and bear witness to life.

*I read a translation of the Gayatri Mantra today that did inspire and move me and I think having some deeper connection to the meaning of the mantra will help even more. Read it here.



The Writer in the Woods

“I’ll tell you what hermits realize. If you go off into a far, far forest and get very quiet, you’ll come to understand that you’re connected with everything.” – Alan Watts

I watched a documentary last week about J.D. Salinger, the reclusive genius behind The Catcher in the Rye. Salinger might be the most famous author in American history yet this was the only novel he ever published. It is is a book that has inspired millions around the world, one that gave voice to a sentiment felt by many but spoken by few, a cathartic experience for young people trying to find their way in the world and a sobering look in the mirror for those already entrenched in the grind of phoniness.

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sign posted in front of Salinger's NH house | photo by Edmund Fountain/Valley News

 

I first read The Catcher in the Rye while I was an unemployed law school graduate looking for work anywhere I could find it because I had student loans and bar loans and there were way more lawyers than there were law jobs. I read it and I enjoyed it but then I poured everything I had into finding this elusive, magical job, securing my chain to the conveyer belt that was moving forward, progressing aggressively toward advancement and elevation so that maybe one day, if  I worked hard enough, I could actually enjoy my life for a few years before I died.

Having unclipped myself from this conveyer belt a couple years ago to raise my kids and write a book, I was inspired by Salinger’s ambition and persistence, two qualities essential to succeeding as a writer and really at anything. I was astounded by the number of rejections he received from The New Yorker before one of his short stories was finally accepted. I was impressed by his dedication to the craft of writing itself, the pursuit and creation of truthful characters and settings and stories that people can identify with and have empathy and compassion for.

I was intrigued by his rejection of fame.

As a new and unknown writer, I often daydream about fame and recognition and look forward to that day that I can enjoy that private fist bump, that “yes! I fucking did it!” feeling that accompanies some external recognition that what I am doing is in fact significant and worthwhile and valued. I imagine delivering the “I told you sos” to all the haters and doubters in spirited and colorful ways. I visualize accepting an award and looking in the camera with tears streaming down my face and saying “dreams really do come true.” I daydream about it and know I will find some ego-level satisfaction from success in the form of fame and fortune, but this is not why I write.

I write to speak truth.

Salinger holed himself up in his writing studio for decades meditating and churning out stories and novels and ruminations on Buddhism and Vedanta. When he finished a manuscript he just put it in his safe. He did not publish anything. He could have typed the word apple 90,000 times and it would have been a bestseller the next day. He wrote diligently and profusely and published nothing for forty-five years and then he died.

These works will be published according to his trust in a staggered fashion beginning in 2015 and for the next several decades. He was reportedly moved by the notion advanced in the Bhagavad-GitaThis is something I believe. In fact, I tweeted it over a year ago.

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Salinger didn’t tweet it, he lived it. Unlike him, I have yet to write a world-changing, generation defining novel that can bankroll me for the rest of my life. Well maybe I have, but I’m working on it still. But seeing this legend, this icon, this superstar reach the pinnacle of writing success then abandon it and write only for the sake of writing, without attachment, knowing that it will only touch the souls of readers when he was removed from the situation as an ego, as an anointed and unwilling spokesperson for a generation, this was inspiring to me.

It was a powerful illustration of why we ought to create art.

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The Beginning of the Rest of the Story

Take a deep breath and tell us your deepest, darkest secret, so we can wipe our brow and know that we’re not alone.” – Alan Watts

Welcome to the first post on this blog. I formed the serious intention a couple years ago to stop practicing law and focus my efforts during the time I was not taking care of my two small children on developing myself as a writer.

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photo by Thomas Nugent

I started a blog called Place{Thought}Story with my friend and we wrote and edited several well received pieces that did exactly what I wanted them to do in the world. I received more than enough affirmation from the universe that writing was in fact my true calling and that powerful, game-changing results stem from the radical act of speaking truth.

I realized during the course of writing articles and essays for P{t}S that they were part of a larger narrative of my personal coming of age, my spiritual maturation and that the best possible format for this type of story was a book.

So for the last year and a half I have not shared my writing with the world and have done my work quietly and privately, struggling and suffering alone at my desk or in my chair in the woods with the hopes that one one day when my message is crystallized to me, I can then share it with the world and thereby make it a better place. And by that I mean a world filled with more presence, more consciousness, more gratitude, more authenticity, more love, more creation, less consumption, less pretense, less ego, less attachment, less suffering.

I want all these things for myself and I want all these things for the world and so I intend to create it, to manifest it, to write it. I made the decision to write a coming of age story before I was even close to coming of age with the hopes that in writing the story that I want for my life, I would make it so. After all, our lives are our greatest creative act and our intention is what creates our reality.

I finally reached a point a few weeks ago where I was ready to share my book with a few colleagues and friends – artists and writers – to get an idea of how it affected people whose opinions I value, people who occupy themselves with some of the same sort of ideas and practices that I am trying to advance with my book. I also knew I needed some unfiltered, candid editorial feedback because this is my first book and really my first serious foray into creative writing. I never took creative writing in college and never even wrote a short story, let alone a novel/memoir.

So I reached out to a professional editor that was referred to me by my wife’s former co-worker. He’s been described as a legend in the publishing industry and has edited Hunter S. Thompson, Toni Morrison, Tom Robbins and many other award-winning and best-selling authors. My intent was to simply get an idea as to what kind of money I would have to spend for the services of someone with this kind of track record.

I wrote him an e-mail and told him what my book was about. He wrote me back and said it sounded interesting. He told me to send him the entire manuscript that he would read free of charge then let me know if he thinks we’d be a good fit. So without thinking about it too much I sent over the same draft I had shared with my colleagues and then promptly lamented my haste when I discovered a spelling error on the second page.

He wrote me back a few days later telling me that he just finished reading my book with tears in his eyes. He said he was impressed with the ambitious intentions of the book, its struggle with profound spiritual and philosophical issues and the potential denouement for the characters I created. He said what I’ve done so far has resonated with him professionally and personally.

Reading those words was probably the greatest moment I’ve had thus far in this process and I’ve read them so many times I was able to just write them verbatim from memory.

But then of course he said that the book needs a complete rewrite. He said I need to reconsider where the reader enters the narrative arc and how said arc unfolds. He said the characters need more development, the voice needs tightening and refining and several scenes need to be added and others deleted entirely.

I met with him in Berkeley and the first thing he told me was that writing a good book is incredibly hard and that even the most seasoned best-selling authors sometimes take five or six years to write a book. My book, he said, was particularly complex and ambitious.

He said a writer needs two things to succeed.

1) conviction (in the importance of what you want to say) and

2) humility.

“Oh you’re just getting started,” he said when I told him I’ve been at it for a year and a half.

Hearing this broke my heart.

As much as I tell myself in affirmations to renounce attachment, I want to make writing my career and the thought that I may have years ahead of me before completing this book was a slap in the face from which I am still recovering.

But his feedback was golden. He left me with a structural blueprint to use moving forward in revision and I know exactly what needs to be done to maximize the potential impact and appeal of this book.

“Don’t rush it,” he said as I thanked him and shook his hand.

The last thing I want to do is rush it. I do not want to spend hours setting up a glorious fireworks show and have only half of the fireworks go off. I want to blow people’s minds. I want to fuck people up. When people finish reading my book, I want them sobbing in recognition of the raw beauty and frailty of our shared humanity, inspired to move forward in their lives in a more present, conscious, authentic and creative way. And that is just going to take some more time.

That doesn’t mean I have to wallow in solitary confinement in the meantime. I have suffered enough for my art and I know community will help me enjoy it more. Real and authentic community, online and in everyday life, anchored by humility, vulnerability and the heart-warming and empowering realization that we are not alone.

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