Thursday, July 30, 2009

Tastes Okay to Me

As some of you who read these pages regularly know, my interest in things spiritual goes back to childhood, and I have for decades been seriously interested in the mystical edges of various spiritual traditions, from aboriginal shamanism to the writings of the Christian desert fathers.

Buddhism holds a particular resonance for me, in particular because its own form of mysticism is really not supernatural or magical at all, but genuinely metaphysical.

For many, many years, on the esoteric edges of Tibetan Buddhism, I occasionally bump into a concept that's sometimes referred to as "One Taste." (For those of you interested, it is in the Dzochgen and Mahamudra teachings where you usually run into this). Sometimes, the phrase used is "the yoga of one taste" or "the great perfection."

The concept can be maddeningly complex and subtle, but in the most general explanation 'One Taste' refers to a fully realized attitude toward human experience, in which the good, the bad, the ugly are all seen and accepted as the natural play of the mind. An adage sometimes used is "nirvanha, samsara (the hellish opposite of nirvahna)--no difference." In this particular school of practice, the follower not only understands, but virtually lives this slogan: "Form is none other than emptiness, emptiness none other than form."

Now, I'm normally far too egotistical and unevolved to really understand this concept, except in the most academic and intellectual of ways. Bad stuff happens, and I get obsessed and grumble and whine about it just like everybody else. Ever so rarely, though, something clicks within me and I actually get glimpses of a different way.

In the last few days, I have awakened to a throbbing headache, broken out in painful itchy allergic hives after eating something spicy, listened to an author bitterly complain about my company's lack of marketing skill, had my foot run over by a law-breaking motorist, moderated a disagreement between two cat-fighting employees, and had my wife impatiently snarl and snatch the television remote contol from my hand because I didn't change the channel quick enough to "So You Think YOu Can Dance."

My responses to these events haven't been all Buddhist and touchy-feely at all. "F@#@ You" has leaped from my lips several times over the last few days. I've become quite angry many times lately.

But the responses, while entirely human and normal, have also carried a fair amount of good humor with them. When I get angry, I get playfullly angry. The entire pageant has really just felt to me like the energy of the universe going about what it does quite naturally. None of is particularly good or bad, this or that. It's just the normal stuff of experience, a single form of experience just manifesting in various ways. And it's this simple faculty of experience——the knowing of stuff as it happens—— that lately I've found so mesmerizing and satisfying. The subjective goodness or badness, desireability or dislike of it, has seemed largely irrelevant——like television programming you can turn on or off at will. Interesting but not carrying any profound seriousness.

It's possible that this string of odd events has caused me to artificially go to an false "happy place." Perhaps the tension is building without me knowing it. Maybe walking home from the bus stop tonight, something will snap and I'll stomp on a small puppy.

At the moment, though, the good, bad and ugly of life all has the same flavor to me, and it's a pretty good taste. I'm sure to fall back asleep again shortly. But that's okay too.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Three Good Books

It's not real often I can recommend three excellent books at the same time, so such an opportunity can't be ignored. It's entirely a coincidence that two of these books have strangely similar names.

1. The Year of Magical Thinking. It's always a treat when a world-class novelist turns to memoir, and this is no exception. This is Joan Didion's memoir of her year of adjustment after the sudden, unexpected death of her husband. Any effort to describe why this book is great would be woefully inadequate, so I'll simply say it should be must reading.

2. Magical Thinking. This collection of autobiographical essays by Augusten Burroughs, the author of Running with Scissors, is painstakingly crafted, and is by turns hysterically funny and shockingly honest. A great, great read.

3. Rain Gods. James Lee Burke's books could be relegated to the category of pulp fiction, given the subject matters. These are all crime mystery/thrillers. But he is one of the few such authors producing books that I reread periodically, because they cross over from popular fiction to true literature. With heroes and villains who are fascinatingly complex, there are Burke novels that I've read as many as four times——that's how interesting they are. The plots are unmistakably masculine and sometimes a bit raw, but this last novel is good enough to remind you of No Country for Old Men.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

20, 25, 30, 35 and Counting

Over the weekend, we attended our 35th reunion of our high school graduating class of 1974. Hard to believe, but true. I felt some trepidation about this, as like most people, I see a much different image in the mirror today than I did 35 years ago, and I wasn't particularly eager to read shock in other people's eyes when they realized who I was.

Naturally, my anticipation was far worse than the reality. All of us have changed, of course, but I was certainly no more shockingly transformed than other members of my class, and am probably a bit better preserved than the norm.

What was most interesting was the general tenor of the reunion. Like most of these gatherings, there was a general mood perceptible in the group at this one. At the 20th class reunion, I remember there being a good deal of energy and optimism, as we were all right in the heart of our career years, still believing that the best years were just about to arrive. It wasn't a particularly realistic mood, but it was invigorating.

By the 30th reunion we in our late 40s, and I remember that there was a prevailing mood of quiet disappointment and even cynicism. I remember talking with many people who quietly expressed that their jobs/marriages/parenting lives hadn't turned out quite the way they wanted. The dreams that had still been percolating 10 years earlier had now been dashed. Divorces had come for some; job layoffs for others; others just hadn't achieved the happiness they expected as their birthright.

So I didn't know quite what to expect at the 35th reunion. I feared that the mood might be even more negative than five years earlier. So it came as a welcome surprise to find that some level of optimism had returned to the group. There were a few people who still seemed mired in maintaining old illusions——the blonde class bombshell embarrassed herself by pouring herself into a black cocktail dress that is now much too tight; another class member still is seeking the big overnight success that is always just out of reach; another woman continues to complain to others about every negative thing in her life, just the way she did 35 years ago.

But for the most part, what I heard on Saturday night was a group of former classmates who have now put things in perspective. For the most part, we no longer are seeking more out of life, but have learned to take satisfaction in what we have. There are those among us who have enjoyed notable career success, but few people talk about it any more, and absolutely nobody brags about it. Everyone now understands how illusory those acheivements are. Instead, we talk about empty nest living, about our now-grown kids. A surprising number are speaking fondly of grandchildren. We laugh about the shared experience of being middle aged and developing arthritis, and shake our heads at the foibles of our children and the younger generation in general.

It was just fine. And I no longer worry about the year 2024, when the 50th reunion will come and we will hobble in at age 68. I'm looking forward to it, in fact.