©1997 by Bill Appledorf
Luella was working the front desk at the Georgia Straight in 1971. I was looking for a job. Every time I filled out an application, I would squeeze all of my undergraduate and graduate credentials, including honors and fellowships, into the 1/2"-tall block provided for education and leave all but 2 of the dozen or so 1"-tall blocks for previous employers blank. I would fill in one block for the 3 months loading and unloading trailer trucks at CP Transport in Halifax and one block for the 6 weeks at Dendy's orchard in the Okanagan Valley. No one hired me.
Lance asked me why I wasn't getting hired. I told him people were telling me I was "overqualified" because of all the years I'd gone to school.
"Don't tell them you went to school, " he said.
"But that's all I've ever done. My job application would be blank if I left that off."
"Make stuff up," he said.
He went on to explain that if you want a job driving a bulldozer, the guy is going to ask you, "Have you ever driven one of those?" You tell him "Yeah" and make up the name of a guy you drove one for in Saskatchewan for a year and a half.
"What happens if I get the job?" I asked. "I don't know how to drive a bulldozer."
"Get in it and push all the levers to see what they do," Lance told me. "Figure it out the first day on the job. It's easy."
"OK," I said, wondering if I could pull that off. "But what do I write down on my job application?"
"Whatever sounds good. Make up a list of places you've worked doing things like driving truck and laboring. Then write that stuff down every time you apply somewhere."
Lying did not come easy to me. Who I really am, what I really think, was all I had ever cared about. I had sent my draft card back because the truth is I didn't believe in the War. I had left UCLA because the truth is taking a student deferment felt to me like playing along with the draft. I had left Dalhousie because the truth is changing the world meant more to me than one or another detail in molecular physiology. My calling, I felt, was to riffle through the truth of life to discern a way to bring peace into the world. A big undertaking for an inconsequential little guy, and it depended on the truth. I know I wanted to change the world because as a kid I believed Peace on Earth would calm my deranged family (the direct approach only made things worse). But when push came to shove, to make a buck, I compromised myself and lied to get a job. Once I had been lying for a while, once Luella had shown me how to fiddle with the returns on our Buy & Sell Press route, dishonesty became effortless for me. I stress that the jobs I was doing paid on the order of $100 a week, so the scale on which I was misrepresenting myself was pretty small-time. The point is that I became as dishonest as I had to be in order to survive. I started believing I had really done all the jobs that I made up. I could talk about imaginary guys I had worked for as though they really existed. I started believing that they did.
"I drove a 3-ton truck for Don MacLeod's marine supply store in Halifax for a year and a half. I was doing pick-ups and deliveries up and down the waterfront from Armdale to Dartmouth. Jack Parnell was the main distributor I picked up at. He had a warehouse off of Sackville Road and handled mostly hardware. The guy who got us our solvents and paint and stuff was Ian Simpkin on Quinpoole Road."
"Can I call these guys for a reference?"
"Definitely. Just call information in Halifax and ask for DM Marine." The guy would never call.
I had myself convinced I had experience doing things I'd never done before, like working as a house painter, laboring at a lumber mill. I can't remember half the jobs I made up. By the time I got to San Diego in 1989 and was applying for computer programming jobs, I was so used to lying on my resume to fill in the gaps when I hadn't worked, I made up stuff on those applications as though the high tech companies I was talking to were feed stores looking for someone to hump around bags of birdseed.
That was then, and the resumes I was putting together for myself at that time were corrupted by the purpose of making money. Having really worked in my life as a recruiter and as a Director of Software Engineering, I have seen a lot of other people's resumes. The fact is that even highly skilled people with impressive credentials distort the truth - sometimes subtly, sometimes not - to make themselves look more qualified than they are to do a job they want. (I once phoned the university a guy said he'd gotten a degree from, and they'd never heard of him!) You might say the rule of thumb is that to make money you have to lie on your resume. Of course, when you interview, Human Resources' job is to convince you you're not as good as you think you are and you're only worth half of what you're asking to do the job. Business is all about misrepresenting the truth, or, as a friend of mine in San Francisco by the name of Paul once said, "Business exploits people's underestimation of themselves."
When I apply for a job, I submit a resume that lists out all the relevant work experience I have had to convince the person hiring I can do the job. I have put a lot of work into my resume to get it to look good, but it doesn't even mention the things about myself that matter most to me. The job-related experiences and knowledge I list on my resume matter to me insofar as they enable me to earn money to survive. (The past few years I have earned my money working as a software engineer.) But what I have learned about how to live in the world matters to me infinitely more. I am still learning - mostly working on communicating better with other people - but I think I am beginning to understand how to enjoy the experience of being alive. That is why I wrote this book. I want to share what I have learned with you.
I am not a Buddha. In the least. I am prone to getting testy, and I frequently alienate people because I do not listen properly. When I was a kid, I got the message that getting along with other people has more to do with talking than with listening, because no one in my family listened to each other. Now I know that it's the other way around, and I have been working hard on learning to listen better. The amazing thing is every time I think I have the technique of listening down, I find out I am not listening enough and I have to listen more. These days I am learning to listen to people who I am convinced do not know what they are talking about. This is hard work for me, but none the less, I enjoy my life enormously more now than I did when I started out.
I tend to be a nervous, high-strung person, most notably when I get scared. But I get scared less often these days, because I trust the process of the universe more, and I've learned how to calm myself down most of the time when I do get scared. It's a matter of feeling into my fear instead of reacting to it. As a result I do feel calmer than I used to much of the time. Sounds pretty boring, right? Feeling calm? If I were calmly sitting in a chair with my eyes glazed over, I don't think I'd have much to write a book about, but the calm I'm talking about is a sense of quiet joy, trust, confidence that sometimes underlies my experience of being in the world, and it feels good.
My attitude probably never would have changed if Luella hadn't killed herself. I was fine with being a nervous, high strung person, but Luella's suicide forced me to admit that the emotional walls I had constructed to protect myself from feeling pain were in actuality hurting me. That's why I want to share what I have learned. I see a lot of people hurting themselves and each other for the same reasons I have, and I know how bad it feels. I am not a Buddhist scholar and do not claim to know much about Buddhism beyond the basic teachings of the Buddha, but I do want to acknowledge that the framework within which my own understanding of peace of mind has grown derives from the Four Noble Truths as I understand them.
(The Four Noble Truths are: life is suffering, desire is the cause of suffering, suffering ends with the cessation of desire, and the way to the cessation of desire is the eight-fold path - - right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. If you want to read a book about Buddhism, "What the Buddha Taught," by Walpola Rahula, is a good one, although it is abstract. "Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior," by Chogyam Trungpa, is much more personal and easier to understand.)
You might accuse me of having written "My Real Resume" because I want to change the world so I can live in a peaceful place. And I suppose I do. But I have experienced inner turmoil many times in peaceful surroundings and have come to realize that the only way I am ever going to feel peace of mind is to find it within myself. So while there is a side of me that wants to change the world for my own benefit, I know that changing the world is not going to make me happy. I also know that changing you is not going to make me happy. I have had numerous conversations with friends over the years about embracing the experience of being alive, and I find that every time I do, my understanding gets a little clearer and my ability to relax and enjoy life gets a little stronger. As I have been writing this book, I have had to compare what I say to what I feel, and I see myself a little more clearly as a result. I am serious about making my life work. It's all I really care about.
For a long time, from 1974 to about 1993, I believed everyone else in the world saw themselves clearly and that I was the only one plagued by loneliness, sadness, bitterness, and fear. I would try to be honest about my feelings and sincere in my interactions with other people, but during that time I still thought communication has more to do with talking than with listening. So rather than to struggle with my own feelings as I listened to others express themselves, I would talk and talk to strangers about whatever I happened to be going through at the time, expecting them to welcome the opportunity to help me understand myself as I would have welcomed the opportunity to give advice to them. Aside from the fact that my not listening made people who wanted to talk about something besides me mad, I was shocked by the cynicism, anger, and lack of kindness many people expressed to me either in their manner or their views - letting me dangle in the wind to embarrass me or callously putting me on the spot, for example. I was only too ready to admit my faults as I understood them at that time, and I assumed other people also hungered to know the truth about themselves, but I learned that a lot of people don't care about much beyond the next beer, the next buck, the next joint, or getting laid. In a surprising number of instances, some large, some small, people expressed in the views they shared with me an impressive lack of sensitivity and an impressive capability to use others for their own monetary, sexual, or social gratification with no regard for anybody's feelings but their own. I hasten to add that I met some understanding, accepting, helpful people. Also, if you get to know anyone well enough, you immediately discover that each of us is afflicted with some kind of crazy little emotional quirk. I think whether I like someone or not depends on whether they admit it when they take their negative feelings out on me or someone else.
Sometimes I think that more people than ever before are catching on to taking ownership of their own negative emotions. I think people are developing self-awareness, learning to enjoy the experience of being alive, becoming able to feel compassion for exactly the right reason - because they understand their own and others' suffering, how to end it, and what it makes us do. Other times I see the world descending into a blacker pit of emotional ignorance than has ever existed before. Of course, I have no way of knowing which, if either of these, is true, because all I know are the experiences I have had and the people I have met. Whether I think the golden age of enlightenment is dawning or the opposite, if I were foolish enough to hazard a guess, amounts to a reflection of my mood. I have no idea what is happening to the world, but I can definitely tell you I have met a lot of people who are feeling cynical and cruel. I can see where I have been in them so clearly I want to put my hands on their shoulders, shake them awake, and show them how they can get out of it. But there is a certain level of resistance in them, the same as the resistance I felt, and that resistance is very hard to overcome.
I hung out at Vesuvio's, in North Beach, in San Francisco, for a few years after I returned to the United States from Canada. I met a lot of different kinds of people there, although I didn't realize it at the time. I figured everyone was pretty much the same. A few of the people I met treated me like a friend, and a lot of others manifested some pretty powerful walls. For a while I played chess with a group of serious chess players who hung out there, and I was struck by how mean a lot of them were to me. If I showed weakness, not in chess but in myself, these guys would go immediately for my throat, try cut me down and make me feel bad. You know that type of person who if you ask how things are going, they express the baldest negative views? If they won, these same people would get arrogant and insulting, like some computer programmers I have known who talk down to you if you ask them a question. When someone is unkind or disrespectful, I believe I know immediately what is going on with that person, because I have been unkind and disrespectful myself. You may disagree, and I really hope you don't. At least, at this moment I can't understand unkindness or disrespect any other way. (Hence the book.) These chess guys and these computer guys I'm talking about were actually pretty scared people, although what they were showing on the surface doesn't look a lot like fear. I am positive these guys were trying to bolster an unreasonably high opinion of themselves by trying to be the world's biggest expert on their machine or on their game, because confronting their own fears and learning to feel all right about being an ordinary person, for whatever reason, was not an option for them at the time. Respect is trusting that another person will understand your feelings and respond to you thoughtfully. Fear makes respect impossible, because it interferes with your ability to express your feelings honestly. Your trust just isn't there. So where feelings of inadequacy dominate a person's emotions, you see rudeness and negativity. Humility is scary for a person who expects to be rejected or attacked, or who believes he or she is supposed to be regarded as superior.
I have a tendency to rant, and keeping myself from doing that can be hard, as you can see. I am still carrying around some resentment about all the yelling in my household when I was a kid and about getting myself drafted, as well as some other things; and I am still carrying around a lot of the hurt and fear I started feeling when antagonistic feminists imposed their war on men on me. So I am not free of bitterness and resentment, and these feelings frequently get in the way of my practicing what I preach. But if I pay attention to what I am feeling when my resentment starts coming up, instead of getting all wrapped up in what I think, it is possible for me to get a grip on myself and realize I am projecting, venting, reacting, judging, denying, or whatever. Then I can work on resolving my own expectations instead of dwelling on how terrible other people are. Friends are especially good at pointing out when I am ragging on someone else instead of feeling into the fear that makes me want to rule the world.
Luella's suicide is the most devastating emotional experience I have ever survived. Before she did that, there was in my mind exactly one person in the world whose feelings counted: mine. I had no reason to become aware of the barriers I had erected within myself to keep other people out, and I was ignorant of the defenses I threw up to keep from feeling pain. I was able to be as harsh to another person as I wanted, vent as much anger as I wanted - get that nice, expansive self-righteous feeling going - and not do any work at all to become aware of the fear and anger I was carrying around. I could rail on about "the government" or anyone I wanted. But Luella's suicide rocked me to my core. I felt there must be something terribly wrong with me for her actually to have killed herself rather than to talk to me about her problems. I did not all of a sudden wake up to everything I have learned since then. I experienced extreme misery - loneliness, guilt, fear, paranoia - for more than 10 years while I tried to figure out what was wrong with me and cope with a confusing, sometimes hostile world; and it's taken me another 10 years to achieve the degree of emotional security I have now. The last 5 or 6 years I've been trying to learn to listen better so I can have more friends.
One of the first things I figured out after Luella killed herself is that all you have in a relationship with another person is what you do. You really do and say what you do and say. If you can't be proud of that, at least you know you have to change, and if you look inside, you will. But if you ignore your acting out or deny your little cruelties to yourself as I had always done, then it's going to take a devastating emotional experience for you to be willing to become aware of the truth about yourself. That's where a lot of people I have encountered are, afraid to know the truth about themselves and without a reason to confront that fear. The owner of that company in San Diego who terrorizes his employees and fired me because I wouldn't kiss his butt is making a lot of money, so I guess he figures he's a success and he doesn't have to change, but he sure doesn't seem to be getting much enjoyment out of life. I watched him heap exasperation, disapproval, and annoyance on his girlfriend on the telephone while I was sitting in his office waiting to be fired. I know from my own experience that when I feel good about myself, I am proud to let the truth of my patience and kindness show, but the more defensive I am, like that guy, the less willing I am to admit my real feelings to myself and the more I blame everyone else for creating my lousy life. I've been there. I know. Not looking at your own fears, your own anger, your own expectations, feels like taking the easy way out, because you feel safe behind your walls, but in fact it's a lot harder to be stiff and cold than it is to humble yourself and give other people a chance to tell you how they feel about you honestly. Some of what they say you might like. Some of it might help you grow. The stuff you do not like won't hurt you.
Before Luella died, I was not aware of the fact that I am alive. I didn't know food grew out of the ground, for example. A loaf of bread was a thing in a plastic bag on a shelf you buy at the grocery store. What it was, where it came from - what we are, where we came from - never had entered my mind. I was too busy starring in the movie running in my head, caught up in the details of my own conflicts, chasing after stimulation, trying to pour something into my circumstances or myself that would make me feel all right. I didn't know I was afraid of being hurt, and I believed that acting tough, swaggering around with that Bukowski voice saying "I don't give a shit", meant that I was not. I was defensive, angry, and unaware of my real feelings - meaning I felt the artificial defensive stuff on the surface, not the insecurity underneath. I thought "beliefs" are rational concepts thought out by the conscious mind. I didn't know beliefs are unarticulated emotional assumptions upon which rest a person's attitude, or that my attitude determines what I feel. I thought feelings were the product of events. I didn't know things change, that you have to live through consequences, that you can never get things set up exactly as you want.
I was also ignorant of the fact that I am a manifestation and a part of the totality of everything that exists, that the universe as a whole is occurring right this instant, including me. (It includes you, too.) I didn't know the first thing about how to appreciate the experience of being here. Oh, I figured the world was out there. I knew it contained various ways to stimulate myself, but I assumed I was outside of it and that I control what it does to me. I thought that with the right strategy I could make things turn out the way I want: that if I pushed, I could get what I want; that if I fought, I could change the way things are; that if I squeezed my insides hard enough and demanded eloquently or angrily enough, the world would do what I want it to. This was all inside my head, the way I wished things were. Then I was forced to confront the reality of Luella's death, something I very much did not want to accept, and after fighting it for years, I realized I had no choice but to accept it. The universe unfolds exactly as it does of its own accord. It puts experiences in front of my nose with which I have to deal, whether it be meeting someone I feel uncomfortable about, an argument with a friend, someone hard to get along with, or anything else you can think of. How well I cope with the circumstances of my life is a measure of my willingness to accept the actuality of what is. What is is, whether I like it or not. Interestingly, the more I like it, the more I like what ensues. The less I like it, the more trouble comes. That's why I'm always talking about "embracing the experience of being alive". Acquiescing to the circumstances of your life, even accepting them, is not enough. You have to love the experience of going through whatever is occurring in your life, no matter how difficult or painful it is. Otherwise you can never be happy. Note that I said "the experience of going through" occurrences, not whatever the occurrences themselves may be. The fact of one's existence is always cause for rejoicing. That we don't like some of what we have to deal with in life is part of being here. Embracing the bad means welcoming the reality of it, not running away from it, not futilely trying to gear your life so you never have to deal with it. "This is really happening," Dwight said. Well, what exactly is it that is happening?
The moments of our lives are happening, and what we feel in each and every one of these moments matters so much to each of us that we worry and fight about everything we can think of to try to make ourselves feel good. If we could just get things set up the way we'd like, we believe, we would be as happy as a clam. So we try to set things up the way we'd like, and in the course of doing that we create so much trouble for ourselves and everybody else that we feel miserable. To eliminate our enemies, we kill each other's kids in war. To be rich, we destroy the natural environment. To feel safe, we erect emotional barriers that isolate us from the very love we yearn to feel. To feel happy, we drink beer, which makes us numb and leaves us right back where we started after it wears off.
Well, that last one is just my own pet peeve, but I've fooled around with my brain chemistry enough to know. I did a lot of drugs and alcohol for a lot of years, and I did it to make myself feel good. All it ever did, though, was get me stoned. Alcohol for me is a symptom of what Zen guys refer to as "separation". Let me explain separation, then I'll tell you what I mean.
Zen, which literally translates to "absorption", means involving oneself fully in the experience of this moment. This degree of involvement, which depends on a willingness to accept the experience we are given - and cannot occur as long as we are wishing that the world would bring us something other than what it does - leads to deep enjoyment of the experience of life "as it is". When we embrace the actual content of our lives and are willing to engage ourselves fully in the experience of what is front of our noses, we stop clinging angrily and fearfully to dissatisfaction with the current moment, and our lives become filled with happiness and concern for others. The realization that we participate in and do not control the universe as it manifests itself is the antithesis of "separation", and it means we have no alternative but to experience an event as it occurs. If we struggle against it, our struggling makes us suffer. Thus, as our understanding of separation grows and we begin to feel not separate from the universe but a part of it, we become able not to trouble ourselves with trying to get the universe to give us what we want. We become willing, because it is not our show but the universe's show, to do what circumstances require, including genuinely caring about people other than ourselves. This is not a passive view. Action is always required, and right action flows naturally from the clarity of mind that comes with accepting the fact of the present moment on its own terms. However, we are conditioned to perceive ourselves as separate from the totality of the universe. We try to control the experiences it brings us rather than to enjoy the necessity of responding to the actuality of this moment as it occurs. We feel separate, and we cling to a picture of the experiences we would rather be having, outcomes we would rather enjoy. Thus, we feel and express tension instead of peace and love. (You're on your way to work. A slow poke up ahead backs up traffic. You are approaching a yellow light. The person in front of you slows down. That is what I am talking about.)
As for alcohol, I think a lot of people drink beer because it is a culturally ingrained habit. These people are not deliberately ingesting alcohol, although once they do, the alcohol definitely affects their minds. It is also true that many people drink beer to get a buzz on, and that buzz removes you from the experience of life "as it is". It clouds your perception, accentuates self-centered thoughts and feelings, and numbs your experience of the outside world. People stoned on beer have to turn up the stereo so they can hear it, for example, and it's hard to concentrate when you're stoned on beer. I found it much easier to get stoned than to recognize and resolve my insecurities when I used to drink, and it's a whole lot easier to get stoned than it is to understand the illusion of separation. So while working with your insecurities and understanding the illusion of separation strengthen the foundation upon which your ability to enjoy life rests, drugs and alcohol provide a temporary escape from reality by chemically stimulating your brain, and they leave you where you started after they wear off. It's easier to think your anger and frustration are someone else's fault than it is to realize they are a consequence of the way you see the world, and there is the nub of the problem.
I know that, for myself, wanting to impress people, wanting them to like me, wanting to be in control of my situation so I feel good, has resulted in the exact opposite effect almost every time. When I don't try so hard to control the situation, I am able to learn something about the reality of the people I am with. They are no longer a figment of my imagination to project on and invent. The principle is the same with beer or any other deliberate means I've tried to make myself feel good. If I let the world show itself to me on its own terms, I can enjoy the reality of the moment. But if I push and strain to guarantee I will have fun, I fill my experience with "me", including the aspects of my attitude that cause me pain, and the world might just as well not be there. I don't need to drink beer to have a good time. In fact, drinking beer clouds my perception and interferes with my ability to have a good time. That is why I do not drink or do drugs anymore.
I was flying cross country talking to a middle aged couple from the Midwest whose company I enjoyed. When the waitress came around to sell drinks, they bought cocktails. I think they bought them because they were offered. It wasn't like they were sitting there wishing for a drink. As these people consumed their cocktails, the atmosphere changed. Cynicism and negativity crept into their conversation as the alcohol took effect. They became less cheerful and accepting. I enjoyed their company less. Many, many times I have seen people who inwardly feel like they are having the time of their lives on alcohol behave outwardly in an edgy, cross way. I hung out at Vesuvio's for the better part of two years, and for more than one of those I didn't drink. Maybe it isn't the beer. Maybe it was just the people I noticed who hung out there, but so few reached out to share anything with me. So many felt to me to be primarily concerned with making themselves feel good. It seemed so easy for people in the bar to be cynical and insincere, whereas truly satisfying relationships derive from caring, warmth, and emotional generosity.
Alcohol is not the only mainstream activity in which I do not indulge. I didn't watch TV for the better part of 20 years, from 1967 to 1985, because I was occupied with other things - reading, playing music, walking around - and I didn't really miss it. My mother tried for years and finally did convince me to accept one of her spare TV's in 1985, when I agreed I was missing out on learning stuff from the "good" shows. When I did start watching TV again, I didn't relish what I was seeing, but I became addicted to it anyway and spent a fair amount of time sitting in front of it. By 1996 I had freed myself of the habit again and went back to interacting with my surroundings, which I like much more.
Watching TV feels to me inconsistent with simple enjoyment of the fact that I am alive. It works the same as beer. I've done a lot of beer, believe me, and it's not as glamorous as the TV ads might lead you to believe. TV and beer are ways to escape from the reality of one's immediate surroundings, to fill oneself with pleasurable stimulation. I don't think they are ways to feel more engaged with the reality of your own life or to enjoy it more.
I lived for a couple of years on Quadra Island and spent a lot of time feeling into the stillness of the forest, the heavens, and the sea. The discriminating power of our senses, which evolved in concert with the wilderness, is amazingly acute. In fact, there are levels of stimulation far below the background noise level in which we immerse ourselves in the electronic world that our senses pick up easily; a friend cutting the vibration of the forest walking towards you on a road a mile away, for example. Probably everyone has experienced, even in the city, involuntarily looking in a particular direction as if in response to a strong invisible force, only to discover someone looking directly at you. The point is that for me stillness and quietude greatly enhance my experience of myself as a living thing. When I am in Nature, which basically means out of earshot of electronic media, the potential for my perceptual experience is far subtler than what I feel when I am drummed upon by TV, and I enjoy it more. I don't think we experience ourselves as living things when we sit and stare at the tube. We go into a fantasy world inside our heads instead.
TV fills our imagination with images, and the time we spend staring at those images, apart from not paying attention to our immediate surroundings, is also time spent not looking inward, where the work to heal our attitude of "Thirst", as the Buddha called it, lies. I've encountered a lot of people who seem not to have done any of that work at all; the woman at Coast Cab who vindictively rubbed my nose in being fired, for example. She didn't have to be so mean, but apparently she didn't dare to let herself feel warm. Almost nothing on TV encourages us to learn the truth about ourselves or shows us how, and the bit that does is so diluted by commercials it's hard to decide whether the total effect is positive or not. I think most people's natural inclination is not to want to know the truth about themselves. At least I know I didn't want to know the truth about myself until my life was a total mess, and it's the only way I can explain a lot of behavior I've observed along the way. I've met an awful lot of people who have trouble being cheerful and accepting, for example, and having been that way myself, I think I know the reason why.
Feeling separate from the universe, not trusting that we will like the experiences that come to us, makes us fearful. So we want to be in control. We hold on instead of letting go and prefer to escape into fantasy rather than to engage with reality. On top of that, negative beliefs cause us to feel inadequate and insecure. I know this was true for me, and I think that until we have a reason to confront ourselves, we prefer to continue getting defensive and blindly acting out our problems, blaming everybody else for how we feel rather than to solve them, because it's easier. It takes serious motivation, like your wife committing suicide, for a person to want to change. Meanwhile, TV reinforces the illusion that we are separate from and control the world. We change the stimulation in front of our noses by clicking the remote control. It tells us we can get what we want and be happy by buying the right products, but it doesn't tell us happiness lies in being an ordinary person participating in a miraculous event that is out of our control. Ponder this: our actions and our feelings definitely cause effects; but while our actions are ours to choose and our feelings are ours to manage, it is not we who determine their effects.
Looking outward for stimulation rather than inward for awareness has created a raft of problems for humanity. For example, the lust for things, and the ever-accelerating pace of commercial exploitation of the environment, has done enormous damage to the atmosphere, the forests, the rivers, and the oceans. When I venture away from the beach, where I live, the noise and speed I encounter on the freeway are positively frightening to me. Roaring engines rush ourselves and things all over the countryside, spewing toxins into the air, killing whole species of plants and animals, destroying habitats. We've layered our world over the world of Nature, and we tear up Nature everyplace, replacing it with freeways, malls, and offices. For entertainment we watch people murder each other on TV. We stimulate our brain chemistry with beer or another drug to produce the illusion of happiness. We live in fear of crime. Many people are arming themselves with guns to try to feel safe. We spend a third of our time pursuing money, feeling pressured by our deadlines, office politics, and bills.
I think we do these things because we do not perceive ourselves, and our culture does not perceive us, as participants in the process of being alive. We see ourselves as agents to be stimulated, entertained, and gratified. Rather than to be taught to enjoy the immediate contents of our own existence - to talk to each other, enjoy Nature, go outside for a walk - we are manipulated by print and electronic images to chase after things and experiences advertisements say will give us pleasure. The way of life we live continues because we view ourselves as participants in a monetary system humans have conceived, not as participants in a miraculous event beyond anyone's comprehension, and we don't know how we would survive if we switched our view. We worry about keeping up, and instead of teaching us how to feel secure within ourselves, our monetary system exploits our lack of self-esteem. It promises bald people happiness with artificial hair, fat people happiness with diet fads, and every person happiness with more money, more things, more stimulation, more excitement, and more advertisements for more things no one needs. The only problem is that happiness does not derive from things you pour into your life. Happiness derives from an attitude of peace of mind, which our society does not teach, does not promote, and does everything it can to prevent. You need stuff, the message is, and you better buy it right this instant or you are missing out.
There are serious consequences to our not experiencing ourselves as being alive and not conceiving of ourselves as participating in the process of Nature. This perspective reinforces our understanding that we are separate from the process of the universe, and it thus undermines our appreciation of the truth about our predicament. Because we believe it is our circumstances, not our attitude, that prevent us from enjoying life, and because we believe we control those circumstances, we remain unaware that joy lies in surrender to the fact of our own participation in the universe as it unfolds. We remain ignorant, too, that our negative expectations about ourselves and others underlie our defensiveness and judgmentalism. So we fear the universe, we fear ourselves, and we fear each other. Because we labor under the illusion that we control events, we look for satisfaction in manipulating the world outside, and we consider the turf we carve out for ourselves to be serious business indeed. Beyond the inner lack of joyfulness we inflict on ourselves because we are not at peace with the universe is the pain and suffering we inflict on one another. A feeling of dissatisfaction pervades our lives and causes us to behave unsympathetically, even angrily, with others. We are impatient, self-centered, always looking for that pay-off that's going to make us feel all right. We don't think twice about taking advantage of other people. We rip them off, sell them crap, use them to advance ourselves socially or pleasure ourselves physically. Think about the urgency with which that lady low-balled me at the end of "Fired in San Diego". She is not a bad person. She lies and cheats because she is nervous about her own station in life and sees herself not in the same boat with everyone else but alone in her own private, more important boat.
I don't think you can teach people to be considerate of others. I think consideration must arise of its own accord from within, and I think it can only arise if you look inside and see that you, not the circumstances of your life, are what is making you feel miserable. Then your priorities change. When you are no longer sold on the idea that someone or something outside of yourself is going to make you happy, you are not so willing at any cost to use, abuse, and step on other people to get what you think you want. You understand it is your attitude of desperation, your fear, that is preventing you from feeling joy in this moment, and that the reason to feel joy in this moment is simply because you are in it. You realize that to be happy you need to "feel into" your feelings - really feel the hurt in your hurt, the fear in your fear - until you arrive at a place of peace with your feelings and acceptance of your life. Once you begin to work with yourself, the automatic impulse to grasp for someone or something outside of yourself or to vent your feelings starts to feel ridiculous to you. You are the one who has to change. You are the one who has to find your own peace in the context of your own distress. You begin to understand that other people hurt just like you for the exact same reasons - wanting pleasure, fearing pain, trying to guarantee their comfort by trying to control the world - and you begin to have compassion for other people, because you understand they're going through the same thing you are. You can't use them anymore, not only because you are aware that other people have feelings, but also because you understand that they can't give you what you want. You realize there is a person in that thing you talk to when you converse with another human being, and you treat that person as you've learned to treat yourself, with respect. You tell the truth. You ask for help, understanding that they may say no. You behave as though this is really happening for them and for you. It's not a game. It is your life. You have no idea why this miracle is occurring, and you have no choice but to participate in it as it unfolds.
I had a job in the Sorrento Valley in San Diego in 1990. That's the part of town where highly educated people work creating new technology to improve our lives. I naively thought the people there would be sensitive and kind, because they are intelligent and have been to school. But you know what? Many people there were so rude it was appalling. Aggressive, me first, deferring to no one, arrogant. All they knew about was me, me, me. I thought educated people would know something about themselves and hence would have developed some capacity to exhibit kindness, but these people were only educated in the ability to make more money for themselves. So they cut each other off speeding through a choking traffic jam in and out of work each day and never stopped to apply their creative faculties to the question of why that traffic jam is even there. Many times in my dealings in Sorrento Valley, capable individuals in positions of responsibility broke their word or blatantly tried to cheat or exploit me. These people only thought about themselves. A small number of exceptional people did understand that all you have in a relationship with another person is your word, what you do and say. I know how people can feel comfortable with themselves telling lies, because I have done it, too. I did it for money, to be the ripper instead of the rippee. But my priorities were upside down. I didn't know that faith in the process of the universe brings you good relationships with people and opportunities that are right for you. I thought you have to push to make big things happen, skillfully play your hand, and even outright lie to get where you want to go. And once you get in the habit of lying and being blind, you don't even notice that you are. I know how hard it is for people to admit the truth to themselves, because it was hard for me, but the truth is that there is a place for you in the universe because you are a part of it, and lying doesn't change that place. Better to be what you really are than to cling by your fingernails to a lie. "These are scenes from your life," Dwight said. "This is really happening."
When I first came back to the San Francisco Bay area from Canada in 1976, I was invited to dinner by an educated family in Berkeley. These people were smart. My host had a Ph.D. in Philosophy. I figured these people would know something about kindness, that they would have gone inside and found the truth about themselves. But you know what? They were as impatient, rude, thoughtless, and self-centered as the dirtiest stupidest drunk. A little girl, three years old, was at the table, the child of the guy with the Ph.D. The kid started crying. The smart guy with the Ph.D. started saying, "You cut that crying out. You stop that crying right now. You stop that crying or I'm going to put you out on the porch." On and on, berating this helpless kid. I leaned over and said softly, "Why are you crying?" and smiled caringly. "I want butter on my muffin," the kid sobbed. I could barely understand what she said and had to ask her to repeat it several times until her mother finally figured out what she was saying. No one listened to this kid. The only way it knew to be recognized was to cry. Why is the assumption always that someone else's problem is a pain in the ass? What is so hard about asking a kid what she's crying about? To me this is a prime example of what is wrong with the way we are taught to perceive ourselves. We are so focused on ourselves, so ignorant of our disgruntled inner world, we manifest brutality as minor as being annoyed by a child's feelings and as major as dropping bombs on other human beings. Our priorities are upside down.
Now I am going to discuss a very touchy subject. When I emerged from the woods of British Columbia in 1975, I understood myself radically differently and had divorced myself further from the mainstream of society than I ever had before. I was thoroughly immersed in drugs, thoroughly awed by Nature, and reeling from Luella's suicide. My life was not about advancing myself socially or materially. It never had been. When I was in college, for example, being an educated person had meant everything to me, while using my degree to make a lot of money had meant nothing. I had always experienced myself as something of an outsider, too, and had always sought in my relationships, for the most part unsuccessfully, mutual understanding, relaxed communication, and the desire to belong that I did not experience in my family as a child. I wanted to admire and believe in the people that I met, and I wanted to be taken seriously as a person who cares deeply about fairness, consideration, and respect. That element of sincerity in me, no matter how poorly I understood other people or myself, meant I could never derive much pleasure from using other people, so for the most part I never did use others. You can see why lying on my resume came hard to me. Because Luella killed herself - I thought she did it because she couldn't get what she needed emotionally from me - the idea of disregarding another person's feelings or selfishly using them for my own gratification became even more remote. My thinking was impaired by drugs, but even so, I had discovered that I am a living thing in a living world, a monumental insight that completely changed my experience of everything, and on top of struggling to understand the enormity of the experience of my being alive, I was confused and scared by Luella's death. I wanted to understand why Luella hated me so much that she had killed herself. I was in Canada in the first place because I had been drafted for Resisting the War in Vietnam, and now, alone and lost, I was feeling more alienated, more terrified, and more in need of understanding and support than I had ever been before. If you've read the rest of "My Real Resume," you know I had been hated plenty in my life. My brother insulted me and beat me up constantly when I was a child, I was reviled as a War Resister in the United States in the 1960's, and I generally did not fit in in Canada. In 1975, at the mercy of strangers, broke, friendless, homeless, feeling totally alien in a foreign society, I found myself enveloped by yet another raging social upheaval. I learned that, because I am a "man", I am guilty of "oppressing" women. All the unfair advantages I was enjoying because I live in a "male-dominated" world were grounds for my humiliation and vilification by women. No matter that I was tormented by visual and auditory hallucinations or believed it was my fault that my wife was dead. I was a "man" and thus fair game for whatever clever insult or embarrassing innuendo captivated the collective imagination of women in any particular week. The old "Keep him guessing" had evolved into "Keep him off guard and unsure of himself. Send him mixed messages. Fuck with his head. It's fun."
You can see that I still have not fully resolved the hurt and resentment I accumulated during that time in my life. Here is a dream I wrote down in 1995:
A girl, I don't know who, is ducked down completely in a sleeping bag. It feels like it might have been Luella, but I don't consciously know who it was. She's taunting me over and over, ridiculing me, squealing, "Oppressed by patriarchy, oppressed by patriarchy." I wake up beating my fist into my bed where the sleeping bag would be, and I shout "I've had to listen to that shit for the last ten years!" I shout it in a guttural voice that sounds just like the way the schizos out on the street shout at the demons in their heads.
I was living in a nightmare. It was hell. (Luella, by the way, did not talk feminist rhetoric.) I think this dream on one level expresses my conviction that there was far more than gender at stake in my relationship with Luella, and that to trivialize her death with abstract rhetoric about "patriarchy" misses the point of everything that occurred between us.
Prior to 1975, I had been one of the good guys to the counterculture, a War Resister, and after Luella committed suicide, I had committed myself entirely to learning the truth about myself. Let alone that I was suffering terribly because Luella was dead and I thought it was my fault. In 1975, with total disregard for the grief and guilt and fear that defined my life (or might have defined my life, since people who had never met me didn't know anything about me), the women I was encountering saw me as a "man" and perceived me, as was being pushed in the media at that time, as the enemy. That line near the end of "The Reunion" is as much my message to the feminists as the culmination of my own understanding of the measure of a healthy attitude: you only have an enemy if you need one. It is hard for me to talk about the problems I had getting along with feminists without going off and venting my unresolved anger and resentment, but I have to talk about it, because feminism is a major social movement that went down in my time, and I have seen in it a lot of projection and denial, which contrasts sharply with what happiness requires, which is self-awareness, humility, and embracing the experience of being alive. It's easy to get self-righteous about someone else and demand that they change, but it's hard to be willing to see the truth about yourself, and it's hard to change your attitude from self-righteous negativity to understanding and acceptance. Remember, I hated the government passionately because of the War. Ultimately I had to ask, "Where is this hate coming from?" and the answer was, "In me," my anger, my negativity, my belief that venting all that stuff is how you change the world. The reason I care about feminism is I want to tell you that feeling powerful, acting tough, and being rude do not change the world. (They're just someone new doing the same old thing.) Gentleness, which can only arise from feeling into the truth of your own fear and pain, is the way to change the world.
Life is hard for everyone. Everyone wants their circumstances to bring them happiness, but when you realize happiness is to be found in an attitude of wonder at the experience of being in the world and in your own capacity to be forgiving and compassionate towards your fellow human beings, then you are no longer trying to get someone else to do or give you something that will fix your world. Then you are living your life as a caring, willing person with something of value to share with others.
Remember I told you about EST and how for the EST people happiness is getting everything you want? Well, from what I've heard on the radio, seen on TV, and read in newspapers and magazines, it was the same for the feminists. Getting your own way was the ultimate accomplishment for the feminist reporters I listened to on NPR in Sacramento in 1979. Not compassion, not kindness, not understanding, not patience, not enjoyment of the fact of one's life, but "power", being in control. Unfortunately, we are not in control, and to believe you are is an illusion. What these commentators missed entirely is that to relinquish control and to love the fact that the universe obeys its own imperative to occur creates in us the possibility for joy.
I have heard many feminist commentators say that despite its "excesses", feminism has made an indisputable and indispensable "contribution" without which women would not be where they are today. Feminism, according to these individuals, made the world see women differently. I have a different view. The world sees a person differently to the extent that a person changes the way they see themselves. Thus, the issue from the start, rather than to have beaten "men" over the head to see women differently, has always been for individual women to change the way they see themselves. You can't tell another person what to think and feel about the things you do and say. My friend Brian, when he fired me from Technology Locator, told me, "You're a pretty smart guy, Bill, smarter than most, and if you want to get along with people, you are going to have to use your intelligence to figure out how to make them like you." The point is, no matter how right I think I am, no matter how I think another person is supposed to behave, no matter what I want them to think of me, no one is going to listen to me, trust me, like me, or want to help me unless I find the capability within myself to care about them and find a way to express it. Why should anyone care about me? Because I can insult them really well? For years I heard feminists on the radio and saw them in print railing on about what is wrong with men, but you're making an unsupportable leap when you try tell another person what they think and how they feel, especially someone you don't know. Feminist writers and commentators and the women that they influenced had not met every man in the world. Their theories were based on what they thought they knew about the miniscule number of men to whom they had chosen to relate. Yet they tried to explain every human problem in terms of gender. I think gender is completely beside the point. Gender is just the superficial manifestations of the fact of human sexual reproduction. What really matters is each individual human being's becoming aware of his or her own fear-driven desire to control the universe, because we all need to get over that. Feminism, as I have heard it expounded, is the epitome of self-centeredness, but it held itself up as the intellectual salvation of society, when it is precisely self-centeredness that is the root of society's ills. On an individual basis, happiness depends entirely on learning how to get out of the way and let the universe occur. On a societal basis, happiness depends on learning how to give, not figuring out how to get what you think you want.
I came out of the woods of British Columbia in 1975. I thought it was my fault Luella had committed suicide. I didn't believe I would ever smile again. I needed kindness. I needed support. And I walked into the midst of an enormous self-centered game called "women's anger" that was being fueled by feminism and promulgated by the media. The media liked it because it gave them an easy formula: beat up "men". The feminists liked it, because they got to twist the proposition "men are bad" into every possible question and rant to their hearts' content. (Just last week here, in 1997, I read an op-ed article by a feminist claiming the reason there are no good movies this summer is because men make all the movies, and testosterone causes men to create lousy stories and boring characters.) The feminists whipping up "women's anger" in 1975 were certainly not selling kindness, compassion, understanding, or support. They were selling anger, power, domination, and selfishness. Human relations for these people was not an exercise in self-awareness, but a "struggle", a fight. I noticed one day when I was living in Vancouver in 1976 that I hadn't seen a couple walking hand in hand for six solid months. I even wrote a song about it. "Six solid months/I never saw no/Lovers walking hand in hand, etc." Was holding hands in public thought to "degrade" women? I forget. But I remember that a popular slogan of the day was "Happiness is being single", not happiness is love, not happiness is humility, caring, giving, living, but happiness is "I can get what I want from you and not give you anything in return." The number one best seller in 1976 in Vancouver was "The Art of Intimidation." Intimidation. Not cooperation, not understanding, not empathy. Everywhere I looked, women I didn't know were posing in sexually suggestive positions, looking away, trying to look seductive. Not smiling and saying hello, being confident and friendly, but being "powerful" and in control. I knew that whenever I spoke to a woman, she was going to refer to every place as "down there". "Down there" is what girls had always called their private parts. Fondling phallic objects, putting things in their mouths. Women don't flaunt this stuff anymore, because it is so crude. It looked manneristic to me at the time, because it was manneristic, and I asked about it. "Are you doing this on purpose? What does it mean?" and every one denied they were doing it or said it didn't mean anything. Women in my neighborhood do not strike these poses now. Why couldn't the women I met in Vancouver tell the truth back then? Look. Feminism is just an example. The real solution to the problems of the world is self-aware communication, and all this "battle of the sexes" stuff I've outlined for you shows you what we do instead. We manipulate - we don't connect - to convince ourselves we are in control, because it is so scary to be real.
I am not an expert on feminism, but I have seen enough of it to conclude it is an ungenerous social philosophy based on something other than appreciation for the diversity of feelings, conflicts, problems, and desires that impel individual human beings. Remember the "Feminist Psychologist?" Remember her amazingly insensitive remark to me that my murdered brother had been a child molester? Someone's good, someone's bad is the way she thought. Someone's right, someone's wrong. It's an insane way to see the world. So these days few women introduce themselves as feminists. Their unsympathetic attitude has fallen into disrepute. But for almost 20 years women everywhere were enthralled by feminism's non-negotiable theory and professed to understand human suffering in terms of gender. Feminism, as I have heard it expressed over the years, does not provide an avenue to compassion. Instead it offers as a solution to the problem of interpersonal communication judgmentalism, resentment, punishment, and blame.
My purpose here is not to beat feminism into the ground but to make a simple point. Blaming others for your station in life is easier than listening quietly to your own heart to hear how to communicate in a caring way with individuals you do not understand. The world is a friendly place. Human beings as a rule respond in kind. If you approach people tactfully and express kindness to them, they will help you. If you attack them, they don't want anything to do with you. Tragically, many individuals are too afraid and too defended to respond to you in a caring way. These people need your help. They don't know that they are safe. So it appears in life we have to help each other. Of course, you have to quiet your own tigers before you have anything to give, which is why comprehending what you feel is so much more important than lusting after what you think you want.
When I was a kid, I could not have lived in a more dysfunctional family. My mother was extremely volatile emotionally, bordering on insane. The slightest threat that a situation was slipping out of her control, that she might not have things exactly her own way, scared and agitated her so that, without any conscious thought at all, she would start talking faster and faster, louder and louder, not letting anyone get a word in edgewise. If you did try to talk to her while she was in that emotional state, she would start yelling and screaming, accusing you of attacking her and trying to kill her. She would eloquently attack you to defend herself, venting her rage with unbridled passion and no consideration whatsoever for anyone's feelings but her own. She couldn't control herself. At least, her strategy in life was to refuse to control herself and inflict her tirades on the rest of the family when she started to feel nervous. She was irrational and berserk.
In 1984, a couple of years after my brother was murdered, my mother was still saying things to me to the effect that I had no idea what it feels like to lose someone as important to me as my brother was to her. Before that, throughout the years during which I was struggling to recover from the traumas of my own life, she had treated Luella's suicide as of little consequence. Not having explored and come to understand her own suffering, my mother was incapable of comprehending - even recognizing the authenticity of - the suffering of another. She could only feel her own pain, as though no one else in the world feels anything besides her. This is not at all uncommon. We all ignore each other's feelings all the time. In any case, my mother dismissed Luella's suicide as of no account because it didn't affect her personally. She even told me Luella was a "whore" at one point! I was thinking about not having anything more to do with my mother, because she was so consumed with her own self-centered views. She had become even harder to talk to and more temperamental after my brother's murder, which, rather than to get her questioning her attitude about life, seemed to have justified for her and reinforced her "poor me" posture relative to life. I tried to talk to her about impermanence, attachment, suffering, meditation, acceptance, appreciation - all the issues I had been struggling with since 1974 - and she just got defensive.
A guy by the name of Hugh Gorman, an excellent artist but possibly the cheapest person I have ever known, suggested, while I was living in Fair Oaks, California, that I cultivate a relationship with my mother no matter how whacked she happened to be. He said that if I got to know her, I would have a better understanding of where I am coming from. Even if the experience were unpleasant, he said, I would see where my emotional issues, my "buttons", come from. Looking back from an adult perspective, he said, I would be able to see how my mother influenced me. If I wrote her off, though, there is an untold wealth of information about myself that I would never see. He told me that a relationship with my mother as an adult would be like a laboratory in which to dissect my own psyche. I took his advice and did start to cultivate a relationship with my mother. She is not a Buddha now by any means (nor am I), and talking to her was extremely frustrating for a long time, but our communication is mostly good now, 13 years later. Certain things are well out in the open now that took 5 or 6 years of gentle preparation to broach. She has taken ownership of her own anxiety, for example, and accepts that it's her responsibility to manage it, not the rest of the world's responsibility not to make her nervous. The discipline for me for a long time was not to expect her to do or be what she is not. The discipline for her has been to listen. The past few years, I have been doing a lot better at accepting her for who she is. She is much more self-aware now, at the age of 85, than she has ever been before. It's been an exercise in self-control for both of us. Having learned to control myself with her - by practicing not blowing up at her, forcing myself to listen even when she can't listen to me - I have gotten better at controlling myself with others. The point is that staying in touch with my mother has enabled me to develop some objectivity in my feelings about her and my feelings about myself. Not only is our relationship much better as a result, but working at improving my communication with her has allowed me to go straight to the source of my own emotional problems and address my feelings about my mother as they arise. It's been an exercise in accepting the way things are. It's also been an exercise in tact, sensing just how much and when I can tell her how I feel without putting her on the defensive.
Working on one's feelings in a relationship like the one I have with my mother contrasts sharply with the violence of war. Remember, I was a War Resister and dodged the draft by living in Canada from 1970 to 1977. The issue of war is important to me, because it represents the exact opposite of everything I have learned about my own fear and anger.
People try to tell you war is the right thing to do while it's going on, but after it is over, the enemy becomes your friend. Look at how awful the Russians were supposed to be in 1967. Look at the North Vietnamese. Now, in 1997, the Americans are pals with the Russians, pals with the Vietnamese. Whose brilliant idea was it to lay waste the Vietnamese people's country in 1967? After the war we always make up. Look at Japan. Look at Germany. Couldn't we have skipped WWII? Dysfunctional international communication that could not have occurred among self-aware human beings set the stage for WWII over many years. The Germans and the Japanese went insane in their own little worlds because they were not properly emotionally integrated with the rest of the human race, in part because they were terrified to acknowledge their own problems and also because the rest of the world tried to use domination to control them, rather than to reach out to them with compassion. I'm not talking about on the eve of war. I'm talking about, in the case of Germany, at least as far back as the Treaty of Versailles. "Saving the world from aggression" means "Making sure that I am in control". How about getting really serious about saving the world from aggression and figuring out how to help temperamental people realize they need help? War does not just all of a sudden happen. Long-standing resentments, lack of self-awareness, maladaptive beliefs, fears passed from generation to generation, create conflict in the mainstream thinking of societies, and that conflict engenders conflict until violence erupts. The biggest challenge in life is learning how to communicate with people who act out their problems by behaving belligerently, and none of us wants to deal with that. Each of us finds ourselves mysteriously alive, and we don't even notice the mystery. We believe we know what events are supposed to occur and exert all sorts of effort to ensure they do. But our job is to do what the experience of being here puts in front of our noses. That includes solving the problem individually of communicating peacefully and equitably with one another, especially with hostile people. But we don't want to do our job. We don't want to perceive ourselves as living things participating in a miracle beyond our comprehension. We don't want to learn to give up the illusion of control. We're all too busy chasing what we want. We don't want to deal with people we don't like. We want to work on getting things set up so they are favorable to ourselves. So we're real good at fighting, real good at squeezing what we want out of other people - telling lies - and we're not good at all at helping belligerent people to calm down. There's no money in it. We have wars instead.
In 1987, I was working hard on "embracing" the experience of being alive, trying to learn to enjoy my life even when things are not going my way. I complained to my friend Harrison that when I was out in the mountains surrounded by Nature, it was easy to feel joyful about being alive and accept the circumstances of my life, but when I came back to the city, I was pulled in numerous conflicting directions, beset by the energy of all sorts of conflicted negative individuals, and it was hard. He said, "Of course it's hard. When you're surrounded by Nature, everything is in harmony. The trick is to bring that feeling back with you when you return to the chaos of the city." I worked with that for a while, trying to stay focused on being alive even though I was surrounded by the suffering and negativity of people caught up in one rat race or another, people being unfriendly, selfish, manipulative, cruel. I would look into the sky and see nothing but telephone poles and wires. I would look at the trees and see nothing but cars whizzing by swerving and blaring their horns. I was not able to feel the presence of Nature in the artificial world in which we live. One day I was driving down San Juan Avenue in Carmichael. As I approached the corner of Greenback Lane, I noticed a huge cumulus cloud in the brilliant blue sky ahead of me. That cloud was bigger than all of Sacramento. It dwarfed the strip malls, the light poles, the electric wires, the streets, the cars. In that instant I realized that the nervous, illusory, conflicted, artificial world of human society is layered onto the world of Nature, and that Nature is always there below it. It's a question of focus. I can walk in a terrible slum now, remain effortlessly aware of the sky, and experience myself as alive. My frame of reference is not the squalor of the place, but the conditions on this planet that allow for the existence of our lives. Below that, always in my mind, is the universal momentary event, always unfolding, always perfectly complete.
Suppose you are standing on a cliff looking out at the sea on a windy day. You see the choppiness of the surface, the features of the individual waves, and, particularly if you have a desire for that surface to be smooth, because you'd like to go sailing, for example, you do not even notice the ocean as a whole. If you want to sail that day and you fear your boat might capsize in the heavy sea, you feel disappointed and are completely unaware at that moment of the flow of time, the inevitability of the ocean's being calm again another day. You might even believe that if you squeeze your insides hard enough and worry, or if you argue rationally that the ocean is always calm this time of year, you can fix it. And whatever is going on in that moment is lost on you, because in your mind you are somewhere else: in your anger or your fantasy about the future.
Look at the events of your life. They are the choppiness on the surface of the universe. The entirety of the universal event, an unfathomable mystery beyond our comprehension, is the occurrence from which we select what we notice about this moment. We theorize on the surface of an incomprehensible mystery and believe we know how it works. Our theories are couched in terms of the details of our lives, and we understand our lives as though all sorts of imaginary things are occurring or will occur: scenarios we dread or desire, our aspirations and our fears. Meanwhile, what exists in any moment exists and what does not does not.
The frame of reference within which we understand ourselves and the frame of reference within which we exist are not the same.
Think about Nature. We are individually and collectively a manifestation of the materials of this planet, manifestations of the biosphere. We live as protoplasmic entities, breathing air, metabolizing nutrients, engineered in complex ways from organic materials by evolution. But we conceptualize ourselves in terms of electronic and mechanical things we have invented and produce. We understand ourselves in terms of products, shows, and trends. We stimulate our imagination with entertainment, our senses with drugs, our intellect with politics to such an extent that we do not experience ourselves as living things in the natural world. We all make the same mistake. We conceive of ourselves in terms of what we think, as opposed to what we are. We experience ourselves in the context of our own constructions, not as participants in Nature. The implications of this imaginary view of ourselves reach into every aspect of our lives. Lost in thought, preoccupied with our worries and our things, we cruise around asleep, oblivious to the details of the present moment as it occurs. On a larger scale, digging in our heels, we have violence. We have crime. We have wars. We have ecological destruction.
Environmentalists wish for a "sustainable" economic system, as opposed to the one we have now, which requires growth. Continuing to decimate the planet derives from the same world view as continuing to sit in front of the TV watching shows. We pretend the reality of our predicament doesn't exist, just as we pretend the reality of our lives does not exist. We do not attend seriously to solving our problems. We resign ourselves to the toxicity of oil refineries, the destruction of the forests, the pollution of the oceans and air, on which our economy rests. We don't even admit our livelihood depends on these. Instead, we cling to the status quo. We escape into being entertained or pursuing money, because we think that is where happiness lies. Meanwhile, nothing changes, and in the case of the environment things get worse.
OK. The way we do things stinks. Now how are we going to change it?
I've tried to make the point here that there is a deeper level at which we are built to experience ourselves than the mainstream influences in our society lead us to believe. Obviously, the solution to our problems has something to do with becoming conversant with this deeper level, and the solution to our problems has something to do with truly enjoying life. An attitude of emotional generosity comes with truly enjoying your life. You don't have a chip on your shoulder anymore; you are not so quick to take offense; you value communication, are more patient, are not so driven by your own desires; you see the suffering in hostile people, and you want to help them feel better about themselves.
In order to enjoy your life, you must accept your life. What does "accepting" your life mean? It does not mean resigning yourself to having a crappy time in a lousy world. It means "embracing" the fact of your existence, deeply appreciating the essential goodness of the experience of being alive. When you understand what real happiness is, a sense of the goodness of the experience of being alive and a willingness to experience life, whatever it may bring, pervades every aspect of yourself. When you feel that, the equation of happiness with excitement or escape or pleasure or control no longer makes any sense to you, because you understand that happiness is an attitude, and you realize that attitude depends, not on external things, but on your willingness to know the truth about yourself.
I have heard a common argument many times that convinces people to believe in war or guns or the death penalty or more prisons or some other form of violence or retribution: "Suppose someone breaks into your house and rapes your wife and kills your kids? What are you going to do then?" It sounds so compelling a presidential candidate once lost the election in part because of this argument. But this argument confuses a couple of issues and underlines the most important problem facing humanity at this time. You already know that self-awareness is the key to peace of mind. At this moment we are surrounded by people who will not respond appropriately to loving kindness, so we defend ourselves instead of taking down our walls. But loving kindness is precisely the solution to the alienation belligerent people feel. Rather than to focus on an angry violent person at the moment of his crime and use that moment to justify our own violence and anger toward him, we need personally to participate at all times in one another's struggle with our own anger and violence, our own dissatisfaction with the experience of being alive, to support each other's healing of ourselves. To contribute anything toward someone else healing themselves, you first must heal yourself.
You know that rather than to react to your fear and desperation by trying to control or escape from the world, the way to achieve peace of mind is to become aware of your fear, to feel it and resolve it. You also know that if I have peace of mind, my life will not be about gratifying myself or building walls to make myself feel safe. My life will be about compassion for other people who are still trapped in their fear and desperation to control the world. My concern in life will not be "me". My concern will be, for example, the communication between that guy in Berkeley and his daughter who wanted butter on her muffin. My concern will be that guy's self-awareness, that guy's fear of not being in control, that guy's peace of mind. My concern will be the message his daughter and every other kid receives about themselves, whether they learn to experience life as though it is really happening, whether they learn the skills to live in the real world with an attitude of joy, whether they learn to communicate honestly and well.
Henry Miller wrote that the Earth has a destiny, and that destiny can be changed. What it takes to change it, he opined, is for everyone simultaneously to will it. I like his idea, and I interpret it to mean that, since each person has the capability within themselves to resolve their fear, once that has been achieved by everyone, the way we do everything will change. The way we talk to one another, the way we spend our time, the way we see the world, and the way we see ourselves. I can't begin to tell you how different everything would be if each person in the world, rather than to be driven by fear and desperation, were to begin right now to resolve their attitude. Patience, tact, support, kindness, honesty, humility, sincerity, would be the rule. Don't get me wrong. This is not a "brother's keeper" argument I'm putting out here. No one can wake you up but you. I'm not talking about "sharing" and "giving" and "taking care of" and all that nonsense that killed the spiritual awakening of the 1960's. I'm talking about each individual's priorities on an emotional level. Ownership of one's own fear.
I've seen the big societal movements of my generation's public life. First the enemy was the communists. Then the enemy was men. Now the enemy is criminals. I don't know how to explain this to you any more clearly. There is no enemy. The concept of the enemy panders to your fear. Rather than to help you get beyond it so you can live a real life in the real world, "the enemy" justifies your fear and convinces you not to let it go. So you're a puppet. You sit in front of the TV and watch advertisements for trucks. You drink beer. You posture stupidly to make yourself look cool. You have something to be mad about, and you have something to defend. Meanwhile, you are completely out of touch with life. You don't know you're alive, you don't enjoy being alive, and you don't know how to share that joy with anyone. All you know is "me", and you make damned sure the communists and the men and the criminals aren't going to get to you.
Let me tell you how to work with your emotions. Emotions are like waves in the ocean. When a wave crashes on the shore, you can see it dissipate its energy. The wave breaks, creating whitewash, noise, and spray. Then it's gone. That's what emotions are like. Once you feel an emotion, it is gone. You feel a release of energy, then the energy vanishes. However, we walk around holding onto our emotions instead of feeling them. We don't dare to feel our fear, our anger, or our grief, because we are afraid the experience of feeling those feelings will destroy us. So we add a layer of rigidity onto our emotions to hold them down, to protect ourselves from feeling them and being destroyed by them. "Feeling into" an emotion means becoming aware of that rigidity, sitting quietly, breathing calmly, feeling the rigidity, allowing that rigidity to loosen, so we feel the terrifying feeling we are trying to suppress. Then it's gone. All the self-indulgent venting we do on the surface is just noise. Our real feelings, the stuff that keeps us pushing and fighting, worrying and escaping, is what we've got locked up deep inside.
Yes, adults around us who are habituated to inflict their misery on others and committing atrocities is the argument for perpetuating violence and fear. Yes, countries run by madmen driven to kill and steal is the argument for perpetuating war. Yes, surviving in the present materialistic system is the argument for continuing to do business as usual, blocking out of our minds the destruction we are wreaking on the planet and the lost possibility for peace and joy in the way we live our lives. How do we get from A to B?
Turn off your TV. Put down your beer. Sit quietly, and you will figure it out.
We are immersed in so much stimulation right now - computers, television, stereos, movies - so much distraction to keep us entertained, it is easy not to notice the tightness you are carrying around inside or to clearly articulate to yourself the dissatisfaction that you feel with your life. A new car, a new boat, a new house, a new job, a new spouse, new neighbors, you believe, will make you feel just fine. In the meantime, TV provides stimulation to distract you from your worries and from having to become aware of the truth about yourself. It also reinforces your fears you are not all right and are in danger. If you turn off your TV and experience yourself in the immediacy of your own surroundings, it will not take long for you to become aware of your dissatisfaction and your desire to communicate with other people. That's why TV is there in the first place, to distract you and give you an illusory feeling of satisfaction when in fact you are not satisfied at all, to make you feel like you are communicating when you are not satisfactorily communicating with anyone. It's OK if you miss the "good stuff" that is on TV. It won't kill you if you do.
Beer is a particularly insidious from of stimulation, because drugs, including alcohol, induce a feeling of euphoria inwardly by interacting directly with your brain, but outwardly they transform you into a rude, stupid, smelly, uncommunicative person. Many people are indoctrinated by beer ads into the belief that in order to have a good time, you have to drink a beer. This sells product. Beer companies make a lot of money, and people drink beer purely on the basis of habit, when they would do enormously better without it. Of course when people drink beer, the alcohol in it makes them imagine they are having a ball. But they only think they are, because alcohol clouds your perception and impairs your thinking. Precisely the clarity of mind that is required to appreciate the reality of your life is replaced by alcohol with an even more self-centered experience of the world than you started with, an actual chemically self-centered experience. Drinkers need to turn the stereo up loud so they can hear it because alcohol, rather than enabling you to perceive more clearly (as you would if you resolved your dissatisfaction with reality), numbs your perception of the outside world. There is no way to outlaw drugs and alcohol. Besides, outlawing these substances does not address specifically individuals' desire to escape from reality. You can only put down your beer voluntarily. Once you do, you will be in the position to improve the way you feel about living in the real world.
Sitting quietly is hard. You want to jump up immediately and find something to do. You fantasize and strategize. You drift away in your thoughts and don't even notice you are sitting there. Because it is hard to do, you need a compelling reason to try it. You have to reach the point where indulging yourself no longer masks your dissatisfaction. You have to admit you are unhappy with your life, the world, or yourself, and you have to be willing to look inward for a solution. Seeking entertainment has to leave you feeling empty. Blaming other people has to get you into trouble. You have to come to the realization that certain people do not like you, and you have to wonder why.
The mechanics of sitting quietly are simple. Sit comfortably on a hard pillow, a bench, or a chair. Keep your back straight, but not rigid. Do not lean against anything to hold yourself up. Place your hands palm up, one in the other, in your lap. Close your eyes, and station your awareness at the tips of your nostrils. Relax your jaw. Let your lips part naturally. Breathe fully, naturally, comfortably into your upper chest through your nose. Do not strain to inflate your lungs as completely as possible. Do not breathe shallowly. Exhale fully, naturally, comfortably through your nose. Do not force your lungs to empty as completely as possible. Do not breathe shallowly. Watch your breath move past your nostrils on the way in and on the way out. Do not follow your breath in or out. Watch it pass. Whatever feelings or thoughts arise in your mind, "note" them. Identify them consciously. "Feeling anxiety about the phone bill. Feeling angry at the boss. Thinking about that guy who cut me off in traffic. Remembering my mother yelling at me." Whatever comes up, notice it, identify it, then go back to watching your breath. Do not follow your thoughts. Do not get caught up in them. Note them, then continue watching your breath. There are lots of books on meditation around these days. Any one of them will give you useful information. Sit quietly like this for 10 minutes in the morning or the evening every day, and you will figure it out.
When I say you will figure it out, I do not mean you will ruminate on the problems of the world and think your way to a solution. I mean you will gradually heal yourself: take ownership of your emotions, stop behaving on the basis of reactions and projections, acquire the confidence and emotional insight to respond appropriately to the circumstances of your life. Don't worry about the problems of the world. All that is required to heal the world is for each individual to heal themselves. Everything will work itself out from there. When any of us becomes more aware, we treat ourselves, each other, and the planet more thoughtfully to the extent we are no longer driven as we are now by fear and desperation.
The conditions in my family when I started life were such that I entered society with poorly developed social skills, low self-esteem, and a lot of suppressed anger. I was smart, but I was insecure, scared to admit what I didn't know and scared to listen to what other people had to say. So I guessed a lot and failed to connect many, many times. My first girlfriend, for example, wanted something completely different from me than what I wanted from her, but I never asked her what it was, and I still don't know. I got angry about the War in Vietnam, because the West screwed Vietnam politically and the government wanted me to go over there and kill people for them. Disagreeing with the War made sense, but the extent of my anger had nothing to do with the War. The War for me was a convenient target for deep-seated anger I was carrying around and with which I was completely out of touch. I sent my draft card back to my draft board to vent my anger and wound up getting drafted, so I went to Canada, where I married a girl I hardly knew. She and I saw relationships and marriage completely differently. I was much more needy emotionally than she, and she was much more practical financially than I. We stayed together 3 years, until she finally left me because we fought all the time and would not see eye to eye. The first winter we were together we spent in the Eastern Townships of Quebec. Then we hung out in Halifax, Nova Scotia for a while, did some traveling in Canada, picked fruit in the Okanagan Valley for a summer, worked in Vancouver delivering underground newspapers for a couple of years, quit our jobs, and moved to Quadra Island. Six months later we split up, and nine months after that she committed suicide.
I thought her suicide was my fault. I was devastated, scared, shocked, grief stricken, and full of guilt. I was also stoned on every drug imaginable every day for months. I was terrified by Luella's death and was searching for answers when I noticed a dead branch lying across the branches of two trees in the forest. At that moment I realized that the forest as a whole, and the place I stood, and the planet, even the entire universe, is alive and that I am alive - and that I participate in and am a part of the totality of everything that exists. I also understood by living in the woods of British Columbia for 2 years that there is no escape from the rest of the human race. Even if we move to a remote area, we are still part of society because the global effects of mass society reach us there and because we are dependent on modern technology whether we personally use it or not.
When I came out of the woods of British Columbia a year after Luella killed herself, a social phenomenon called "women's anger" was in progress. Women in the media and in the streets were behaving much as I had while I was upset about the War in Vietnam. Some of what they were complaining about obviously made sense, but I didn't see women as chattel or second class citizens. My mother and my sister had always been strong, assertive personalities. It was clear to me that these people were as blind to their own anger as I had been to mine before my wife's suicide and my discovery that I am alive changed the context within which I would understand myself forever. Besides, I was a War Resister. Why were they stomping me?
Women who had a chip on their shoulder and identified themselves as "women", as far as I could see, missed the point that we are all living things in a living place in a process that itself is alive. I had known for my whole life that people who pursue power are only looking out for themselves. Also, women who talked tough and were mean to men reminded me of how I had treated Luella before I understood, after she was dead, that she had feelings, too. Oppressed by feminism, I felt hurt, lonely, alien, and miserable. The world had gone insane. I had huge problems getting along with women anyway, because my relationship with my mother was so stressful when I was a kid and because I had so little experience communicating in a meaningful way with women. I fled Vancouver for San Francisco to try to get away from the hurtfulness of "women's anger."
I was deeply involved in drugs and alcohol when I arrived in San Francisco, but within a year after I arrived, I quit. That stabilized my brain chemistry to the extent that I was able to begin to learn how to relax and enjoy life. I moved to Sacramento, learned how to meditate, and started working on "embracing" - loving - not only the experience of being alive (the easy part), but also the experience of whatever challenges life brings. I'm a little better at it now, and I do feel faith some of the time, where faith to me is trust in the process of the universe, the understanding that I belong here and it's OK for me to be what I am.
When I die, that's fine. I can't prevent it, but for now I understand that I am a manifestation and a part of the entirety of the universe at this instant. Consequently, there is nothing to fear, nothing to hate, only the necessity to stop trying to make things happen and to enjoy the experience of being here, humbly, thoughtfully, respectfully. That is why I think that if you turn off your TV, put down your beer, and sit quietly, you will develop an attitude of appreciation for the miracle of existence, keep that attitude in mind, and live a happy life.
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