Dharmageddon

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There’s the Huns at the gate.  They don’t look like they’re messing.  Why don’t you turn your face to the wall if you find it distressing?  You can shiver in fear, feel the heat of the moment, then go ratchet it up in the sun as a kind of atonement…it’s a classic mistake, bringing water to Venice: out on the Lido, down on the lake there’s an aura of menace.  Secret words of the world are ‘engulf’ and ‘devour’.  Why is all this tyrannical shit in the soul of a flower? – Shriekback 

It’s been a little while since I gave myself a public reminder that I’m not who I think I am.  That I am not a solid, definable entity but a fluid process; and even that process is a mere phantasm of Mind.  As usual when I forget myself in this way, I’ve been mistaking Lila’s infinite and dramatic film reel for an actual series of upsetting events any one of which carries a lethal potentiality.  Regardless, it IS still reality, albeit of the relative variety as opposed to the Ultimate.  The nature of relative reality is that its appearance is relative to the observer; things apprehended through the senses are rapidly filtered through one’s memories, neuroses, beliefs and biases yielding very different results for multiple people who may be observing the same “thing”.  That said, just to get this out of the way, here is how this particular fragment of Consciousness interprets recent current events:

The buffoonish behavior of the Baby Monster currently squatting in the spot usually reserved for the arrogantly dubbed “Leader of the Free World” is providing a convenient smoke screen for lower profile but incalculably craftier and more influential puppet masters to consolidate the world stage into a battleground between seeming ideological opposites of the citizenry.  The people thus distracted and divided, these shadowy individuals hoard even more wealth and resources away from an already famished populace that never seems to notice any of it through the haze of manufactured hatred clouding their eyes.  We are perpetually on the brink of war, both at home and abroad.  Our hatred grows in direct proportion to the growth of our ignorance.  All of this has been existent in various embryonic stages for longer than I’ve been alive, but it has finally reached the inevitable point of critical mass.  Yet the greatest dramas with the most potentially dire consequences still play out right in our own living rooms with a little help from our myopic and self-grasping egos.

Did I sum that up nicely?  I sure hope so because I’m not going to say anything more about it for the simple reason that there was never anything to say about it in the first place.  We – the temporary fragments of splintered Mind – created this mess so the last thing any of us needs is an extended highlights reel.  You may protest that philosophy and metaphysics cannot change the very real dangers bearing down upon us as we continue to toxify our own habitat and imperil our increasingly tenuous coexistence and you would be right.  But I would counter that idealism is impotent.  As far as real “solutions” are concerned, the situation is quite hopeless.  And it is hopeless precisely because our minds are splintered and no one viewpoint is any more valid than the next.  I, too, am very guilty of expressing the subjective in objective terms.  Let’s start with the most common example of this confusion: as soon as I decide that some belief systems, words and behaviors are good while others are bad, I have abandoned the realm of objectivity or, if you prefer, the realm of unvarnished reality.  Whenever I use a collective pronoun like “we” to take ownership of what are actually personal viewpoints and morals, I willfully confuse the map with the territory and encourage seemingly kindred spirits to do the same.  The territory does not possess characteristics that are open to debate: it is what it is.  So while I would love to believe that at the heart of all sentient beings lies a core of wisdom and compassion, I’m afraid this has the characteristics of a pipe dream.  Buddha Nature might just be the snake oil of the East.  When I take a humanitarian position with an authoritative air, I am basically implying that love, compassion, empathy, charity, cooperation, kindness and spirituality are intrinsically good while selfishness, greed, hatred, cruelty and hedonism are intrinsically bad.   But since only fragments of fractured Mind can make such value judgments, there can never be anything like a consensus.  I feel the way I do as a result of countless influences: family, friends, culture, religion, philosophy, science, ad infinitum.  If I want to bolster a particular point, I will frequently quote others more illustrious than I in order to seemingly validate my position.  If you’ve followed my blog for any length of time, you’ve already seen me co-opt the words of Alan Watts, Chogyam Trungpa, the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh, among others.  All of these individuals espouse a worldview that has wisdom and compassion at its core.  And they are all far more adept than I at making these subjective viewpoints seem as though they were unquestionable and objectively factual.  But alas…

Imagine you find yourself engaged in a heated debate with someone whose worldview is the diametric opposite of compassionate wisdom.  You explain to them that what they espouse and how they live is of no help to anyone else and might actually engender suffering in those whose only crime is trying to live their lives in peace.  This individual might very well (and justifiably) react by shrugging his shoulders and saying, “So what?”  He will see your St. Francis and raise you an Ayn Rand.  You see, there are just as many anti-social scholars and literary masters working in the service of egotism as there are those who dedicate their words to the promotion of love and empathy and peace.  Who is right?  Who is wrong?  Such questions can only be answered subjectively; objectively, there is no right and wrong.  If, for instance, a person feels compelled to advance the cause of “white supremacy” because this notion seems to be given airtight validity by some of Nietzsche’s dissertations, how can I objectively counter this position by citing the works of opposite-minded thinkers whose views are just as subjective?  I know, I know: by imagining Rand and Nietzsche* as the philosophical muses of the survival-of-the-fittest set, I am giving most of them FAR too much intellectual credit.  Sean Hannity serves the same purpose for those who bristle at big words.  But no matter where they find their inspiration, they would probably view my position that compassion and empathy are essential virtues to be foolish.  Naïve.  Self-defeating.  Are they wrong?  Not necessarily; but then, neither am I.

Contrary to what you usually read here, I spend a lot of time shouting into my own echo chamber about matters of politics and sociology.  It’s cathartic until it becomes its own solidified ego game, as it invariably does.  Yesterday, the actor Bryan Cranston – for whom I have great admiration – made the following statement: “Donald Trump…is not the person who I wanted in the White House.  That being said, he is the president.  If he fails, the country is in jeopardy.  It would be egotistical for anyone to say, ‘I hope he fails’.  To that person, I would say ‘fuck you’.  Why would you want that?  So you can be right?”  Admittedly, I experienced a bit of cognitive dissonance when I read those words coming from someone I respect.  But what was incorrect about what he said?  How many of us can humbly and courageously internalize this point that seems to run so counter to our new hobby of protesting across stubbornly delineated battle lines?  We so easily forget that we are ostensibly striving to decrease suffering; we are NOT striving to vanquish enemies or toss sharper barbs at those with whom we disagree.  Right?

The only thing to do is to root out any and all noises in our brains that did not originate from within and then work with what’s left.  So many of our cherished opinions, values, fears, tastes and proclivities have come to us from the outside: from our parents, our friends, society, religion and culture.  The Western mind is uniquely geared towards self-gratification due to the out-sized influence of the Judeo-Christian ethos that tells us we are all unique individuals made in God’s image and possessing an eternal soul or, in Buddhist parlance, an “inherently existing self”.  Therefore, even those of us who care about the plight of those less fortunate than us do so because it is essential to our chosen image (or “eternal salvation”).  In other words, we think of ourselves while we act on behalf of others.  The Eastern mind is better attuned to a more holistic view of the phenomenal world.  We help others to help ourselves to help others, and the demarcation between self and other isn’t nearly so apparent as what we’re used to.  On the face of it, this almost seems to imply an objective superiority, but that’s only because I am the one writing these words and I happen to have adopted a second-hand pseudo-Eastern mindset that informs these online diatribes.  Neither mindset is intrinsically right or wrong.  The only thing that we can do “wrong” is act in the service of ideas that aren’t our own.  Discerning which is which, of course, is easier said than done.  How many of us know our own minds, the only things that we actually can know if we truly made the effort?  Would you be able to differentiate between an opinion that germinated from within and one that was implanted from the outside during your formative years?  For those who wish to take on the daunting task of sorting through your own bullshit to unearth what’s genuine, meditation is really the only method I know of by which this can be done.

But if meditation is not a part of your truth, you’d be foolish to pursue it.  The word Dharma does not necessarily indicate the body of wisdom contained in either the Buddhist or Hindu canons.  Taken on its own, it simply means “truth”.  Buddhadharma would be the form of the word specific to the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama.  But Dharma – Truth – can be defined in as many ways as there are human beings (and possibly animals).  In order to get at your personal Dharma, you must do what I prescribed in the previous paragraph and separate the wheat from the chaff until you are left with your own pure, personal truth, whatever that may be.  Once you have accomplished that, you will no longer be capable of acting against your own interests.  Unfortunately, you may still be capable of intentionally causing suffering to others, but I do believe that more of us are at least moderately empathetic compared to those who are incapable of basic compassion.  Whether or not that’s true is irrelevant: you can only be genuine if you follow your truth, no matter what I or anyone else may think about it.

Let’s reclaim our genuine Truths so that we can go forward with confidence.  Stop second-guessing your own intuition.  Dance with the phenomenal world for as long as you are able.  This is not the path of least resistance, it is the path of No Resistance.  Float with the stream of the Tao and observe everything with interest – but don’t take any of it seriously.  Delusion imbues illusion with false veracity while clarity dispenses of such labels altogether.

There is truly nothing to fear other than our own self-made insecurities.  The outer battle may just end in total destruction.  So be it.  But the battle within is fought with gentleness and sacred silence and thus it is noble and worthwhile.  Real freedom arrives at the very moment you let yourself go.  Whoever you are, may you be happy and free from suffering and the causes of suffering.  Remember: Karma is extinguished along with illusion.

* To be clear, there is much of worth to be found in the works of Nietzsche for those who can interpret them correctly.  Ayn Rand was just an asshole.

 

Confessions #1: A Virginity Story

A couple of months shy of my 19th birthday, I was desperate to finally lose my virginity. And so, one early evening in May of 1993, I had “sex” with one of my brothers friends.

Well, I don’t know if you could really call it sex. It was 40 seconds of something that happened down there that I’ve rarely ever talked about because it’s so shameful. (Which I’ll be explaining in a second.)

It’s on my Top 5 list of “Why the Fuck Did I Do That?” 

We all have one.

I had always thought that he was really cute and funny. He was at our house so often it felt like having him around was normal and sometimes we’d lightly flirt with each other, but I never let myself think of dating him because he was 15, close to my brothers age at the time.

He looked older than he rightfully should have. He even had stubble on his face a few times. (Yes, I stared at him plenty, while sighing inwardly, so I noticed.)

Anyway, I was lounging on the couch watching television after coming home from my job as a teacher’s aide at a nursery school when Melvin (not his real name) knocked on the door.

“Yo, come in,” I said or some kind of shit like that.

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“Where’s your brother?” he asked me.

“Not home from school yet,” I replied.

“Can I hang out?”

“Sure.” My heart skipped a beat, but I acted aloof, cool as a cucumber. He was one of those people, who when they shined their attention on you, made you feel slightly giddy and bedazzled.

We chatted about nothing of much importance for a few minutes, joking back and forth like we often did. Then he paused and looked at me sorta funny, scrutinizingly, like he was trying to figure out if he was attracted to me or not.

Was I a SILF?

“Do you want to have sex?” So matter of fact, if I recall. My goodness, he was quite the charmer.

Now, keep in mind that I hadn’t even really kissed a boy yet, no tongue at all. (I was a late bloomer.) Sure, I had many male friends, but that’s where it ended. If any of the boys liked me more than that when I was in high school, they never let the cat out of the bag or I was too naive to notice. 

Most of my friends had already done it. I was approaching the ancient age of 19. And, up to that point, I had yet to have anyone approach me sexually since I was 13…by a 14 year-old altar boy.

“Yes,” I said, a knee jerk reaction, for I had fantasized about him many times.

Plus, this could be my only chance to lose the virgin thing. Such a stupid thought, I know now, but back then it seemed to be of the utmost importance that I rid myself of that title. 

Call it Catholic rebellion.

A condom! We needed a condom, of course! Did I have a couple of dollars? The local head shop was just a block away on Detroit road and they sold them individually. It would take him about 10 minutes by bike and back, he promised me. 

I gave him a couple of bucks and he went to go get the condom. While he was gone, I went to the bathroom and took a quick look at myself in the mirror. My make-up had that 12-hour fade thing going on and my hair was flatter than a Necco wafer.

But, I didn’t have that no so fresh feeling (you know what I’m saying, ladies), so I was good to go in that department.

This was really going to happen. Holy shitballs. I started to panic.

The minutes ticked by slowly while I waited for him to get back with our solitary prophylactic. I was also so afraid that my brother would come home and ruin it all. Or worse yet, interrupt us mid coitus.

As I mentioned above, I shouldn’t have worried.

“But he’s so young, Mer,” my inner voice whispered. 

“Shut up, inner voice! Can’t you see that I’m about to finally get laid?!”

He finally came back and we rushed upstairs to my room. I took the clothes and blanket off of my bed and laid down. I had no fucking idea what I was doing. Didn’t he have to be the one to take off my pants? Wasn’t he supposed to kiss me?

Touch my boob or something?

He was standing there looking down at me, then he quickly whipped his shorts down. I followed his example, taking off my jeans and undies.

And then…

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…well, it was over before it even began. I knew something had happened, since he threw away the now used rubber in my mini garbage can. He left my room without a single word and then I felt the front door slam.

I guess he decided not to wait on my brother to come home after all.

I remember lying there in a daze for a few minutes, trying to understand what the actual fuck had just happened.

I finally got up and redressed myself, then I walked over to the nursing home kitchen that my best friend at the time was working at. I’d often go there to wait around for her to get done, talking to the residents while she served them fish sticks. Then we would go get an ice cream cone and sit on the swings at the park.

I told her what had happened and she consoled me the best that she could.

Melvin didn’t come around much after that and I was glad. It would have been awkward.

So, I pushed the whole incident out of my head until a couple of months later when my brother confronted me. I guess Melvin had been bragging to his friends about our short interlude and my brother had gotten wind of it.

When I confirmed that it was indeed true, he looked disgusted.

“Dude, he’s only 14!” (He still ribs me now and then about it, but to his credit he has never told our mom and he so could have.)

My stomach dropped, because 15 was technically okay, maybe, but 14? That was just too young to be anything but immoral and wrong.

I still think so. I wish that I would have said no to the fucking kid and laughed him out of the house.

Wait for my brother on the porch, you flaming asshat.

It turned out that Melv often lied about his age in order to woo girls. If you take into consideration his lack of sexual prowess, I don’t think that it worked all that often.

I still refuse to count it as the first time that I had sex, but don’t be waiting for me to write about that, because it was unspectacular and not illegal. 

A total snorefest, really. 

No, it was an act of desperation from a girl who seriously didn’t think that she’d ever have sex, like ever. I seriously thought that, which I think is truly sad.

This is the first time that I have ever written about this sordid chapter in my life and I have to admit, I do feel a little bit lighter.

Thank you for reading.

Yippie! We’re All Gonna Die

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I watch television news for one thing and one thing only: entertainment. That’s all I want from the news; entertainment. You know my favorite thing on television? Bad news. Bad news and disasters and accidents and catastrophes. I want to see some explosions and fires, I want to see shit blowing up and bodies flying around! I’m not interested in the budget. I don’t care about tax negotiations. I don’t want to know what country the fucking pope is in. But you show me a hospital that’s on fire and people on crutches are jumping off the roof and I’m a happy guy! I’m a happy guy! I want to see a paint factory blowing up. I want to see an oil refinery explode. I want to see a tornado hit a church on Sunday. I want to know there’s some guy running through the K-Mart with an automatic weapon firing at the clerks. I want to see thousands of people in the street killing policemen. I want to hear about a nuclear meltdown. I want to know the stock market dropped two thousand points in one day. I want to see people under pressure. Sirens, flames, smoke, bodies, graves being filled, parents weeping. Exciting shit. My kind of TV. I just want some entertainment. It’s just the kind of guy I am. It’s the kind of guy I am. You know what I love the most? When big chunks of concrete and fiery wood are falling out of the sky and people are running around trying to get out of the way. Exciting shit. – George Carlin

Every now and then I have to pause and consciously choose a perspective from which to view the current state of the world. Usually, the upshot of poking through my mental grab-bag of worldviews is a continued resolve to seek meditative insight into interdependence and impermanence so that I can face challenges and emotional upheaval with ever-increasing wisdom, equanimity and compassion. Other times, my reserve of spiritual aspiration and faith in its efficacy seems exhausted and I start to lapse into a nihilistic attitude that either fails or flat-out refuses to see the point in such efforts. What yesterday I called Vipashyana meditation, today I call sitting on a mat like an idiot and staring at statues of some long-dead Indian eccentric. And the bitch of it all is that both perspectives contain equal measures of truth. Meditation has scientifically-tested potential to harness the mind’s plasticity in the nurturing of positive emotional states and egoless insight. It is also a pointless act of remaining uncomfortably motionless in the futile expectation of a miraculous infusion of non-existent esoteric wisdom. Just like quantum particles, one’s attitude toward the importance of a spiritual approach to life’s eternal flux depends on the existing subconscious expectation of the observer making the judgment.

When George Carlin delivered the rant quoted above in a 1992 stand-up performance, I had yet to embark on any sort of a spiritual journey, let alone the frequently convoluted path of Buddhist practice. My views and opinions were entirely informed by a sort of bitter nihilism fed by drugs, alcohol and depression. As you can imagine, I reacted to his giddy ode to spectacular calamity with unbridled joy. Yes! It was like a rousing call to action. What can I do, in my own little way, to contribute to the chaos and expedite the annhilation of our needlessly troublesome species? For a comedy bit, it affected me profoundly. I embraced my existential angst with a new and uncharacteristic spring in my step.

It dawns on me that had I retained such a schadenfreudic attitude into the present, I’d probably consider the antics of people like Trump, Putin and Kim Jong-Un to be the entrees in a virtual smorgasbord of entertainment suddenly laid out before me as humanity’s condition becomes increasingly precarious. It would also be self-defeating of me to remind climate change deniers of their erroneous positions because another of my favorite spectator sports would almost certainly be the mad-dash scramble of people whose homes stand directly in the path of a category 5 uber-storm. In short, I would be nothing more than a properly informed but willfully unconcerned enabler of ignorance and suffering. Truth be told, I wrote all this out so that I could see the inherent awfulness and underlying cowardice of such nihilism with renewed clarity. I’d been lately contemplating throwing in the towel. This post is a reminder to myself that the seeming comfort in abdicating effort and responsibility is nothing but a mirage. Those of us who care do so because we can’t but feel otherwise if we are being honest with ourselves. There is no escape from the vulnerability of interdependence. I breathe because you do.

The prophecies of Armageddon contained in many of the world’s major religions also seem to have been inspired by a sort of nihilism arising from a lack of faith in man’s ability to resist his baser nature. From the Universal cycles of creation and destruction called Kalpas in Hindu cosmology to the apocalyptic warnings of Christian Revelation, man’s unspoken desire to watch the whole shithouse go up in flames is readily apparent. My spiritual dilemma is not different than that of humanity at large. Quite simply, it boils down to a question each of us must answer with as much honesty as we can bring to bear upon it: Do I succumb to despair and deliberately temper the effect of the horrors befalling the human race by telling myself I welcome and enjoy them? Or do I muster the courage to acknowledge my inseparability from it all and rejoin the noble and compassionate struggle with renewed vigor?

The question is rhetorical. Love is indestructible. I’ll see you on the front lines.

Nirvana

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The truth is not always beautiful, nor beautiful words the truth. – Lao Tzu

The laws of the Universe demand that everything remains perpetually in balance. Death and life appear simultaneously, though individually we usually only experience one of these poles at a time: last year, you celebrated the birth of a child; this year, you mourn the passing of a loved one. On an elemental level, disintegration and manifestation are a singular process as matter and energy are neither created nor destroyed. The only realm untouched by the Universal law of balance (or, if you prefer, the eternally balanced stream of Tao) is that of conscious experience. Not of Consciousness, mind you, but individual temporary conscious experience. Because we are unable to apprehend anything more than a mere fraction of the information around us through our limited sense organs, we feel as if any given moment in time is one of good fortune or bad luck. This, in turn, causes us to invent and conduct ourselves according to such conceptual pairs as justice and injustice, beauty and ugliness, sinner and saint, good and evil.

This is why human life is so unnecessarily difficult.

The Buddhist concept of Nirvana is wildly misunderstood in Western culture. Much like we’ve done with the idea of karma, we have tailored the word to align with our own philosophical understandings so that most people consider it the Buddhist equivalent of Heaven. It isn’t. Nirvana is not a place, nor is it an afterlife reward for having lived a morally upstanding life. It is simply a state of mind that sees reality as it is and consequently elevates the individual who achieves it to a condition no longer vulnerable to the suffering of ignorance. Though many auspicious lamas throughout the ages have claimed attainment of such a state, I tend to think of it more as an ideal to guide us in our psycho-spiritual development.

I know from direct experience that practices designed to aid an individual in the nurturing of wisdom and calm abiding are effective. Not all are to everyone’s taste, which is why there are a myriad of diverse meditative and yogic techniques for our correspondingly diverse mindsets. I utilize what methods work best for me and can attest to an enormous personal transformation over the course of the past five years from a surly, selfish, nihilistic drunk to…well, whatever the hell you’d describe me as now. But no matter how one might choose to describe me now, it’s an improvement, I assure you. However, I am not enlightened. I do not dwell in Nirvana as I am still just as vulnerable to the dualistic illusions of Samsara as anyone. So in speaking of the Eastern wisdom traditions as I’m obviously wont to do, understand that I only seek a lessening of personal and interpersonal suffering, not its complete eradication. Though I know it’s not always apparent in the words I utilize, I am always attempting to approach matters with the motivation of pragmatism as opposed to divine mysticism.

We tend to base our views of vital issues on the concept of time as it relates to our average human lifespan. For instance, if a person spends the majority of a lifetime struggling for social justice or equal rights and in their twilight years injustice and inequality only seem to have gotten worse, this person’s final thought may be that it was all for naught. That is a shame, because every noble struggle is worthwhile. However, if we really care about such causes for reasons beyond our own self-satisfaction, we need to realize that we may not see the fruits of our labors in our lifetimes that are but a drop in the bucket in the grand scheme of things. Acting from compassionate virtue must be its own reward. Every action sooner or later yields a corresponding reaction; incidentally, that’s the actual definition of karma, not some supernatural system of punishment and reward. So your virtuous actions will yield positive results…just maybe not as soon as you’d wish.

Due to my personal predispositions, I tend to be quite passionate about issues of equality and rights. This goes hand in hand with my spiritual understanding of the inherent equanimity of all beings. As a result, those who have read my ramblings for any length of time have come to expect occasional admonishments of those who discriminate on the basis of race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability and other surface-level classifications. Effective writing often demands a certain amount of hyperbolic idealism and absolutism, but I understand how things really work. In order for my words and actions to have any effect whatsoever, they must be shared and practiced by countless other individuals (and, of course, they are — usually FAR more vitally) because it is the collective mind that has to shift if any real, lasting change is to occur. Also, to avoid succumbing to discouragement, I have to understand that a massive psychic transformation on such a scale takes time. Whether I live to be 100 years old or die tomorrow, I will not be afforded the time to witness the effects of the virtuous human action of those currently inhabiting the planet. If this is the case, why struggle? Why care? Because spiritual evolution is not about the individual — it is about the forward motion of embodied Consciousness. If our selfish vantage points tell us that such efforts are futile, then we’re missing the point. Those who came before us brought us to the world we currently inhabit. We are doing the same, for better or for worse, for those who will come after us. If you are a parent, you might have a better instinctual understanding of the importance of leaving a better world for future generations. But this is something we all need to understand, whether or not we plan to pass on our genetic code.

So yes, the problems we currently face are bigger than any one of us. From the standpoint of individual efficacy, they are quite literally insurmountable. Yet I know in my heart that if we can take a broader view and drop our personal arrogance and self-protective attitudes enough to join hands and form alliances with those whose lifestyles and outlooks we may not understand, the prospects for a brighter and more cooperative future are great. Here’s hoping we can all make an effort to do just that. And if you still need a little bit of pride to sweeten the deal, I think it’s perfectly harmless to envision a new generation that truly appreciates the bold and kind efforts of its predecessor. We should aspire to go down in history, not infamy. To paraphrase a line from a cheesy Belinda Carlisle song, Nirvana is a place on Earth.  Potentially, of course.  By tapping that potential, we become timeless.

 

Hypocrisy

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Never meant to leave you all alone. Said I’d be your shelter from the storm. Now your clothes have all been torn. Kingdom sacked, attacked and dethroned. – Matisyahu

Like most people, I habitually make grand proclamations about how I’m going to behave in certain situations “from here on out”. Even on this recently conceived blog, I’ve already contradicted myself several times. “This will be my last political rant” (until the next one). “Fuck it, I’m moving to Canada” (perhaps, maybe, if a good opportunity arises). “From now on, I will view everything through eyes of compassion” (until someone pisses me off).

At the same time, I post frequent dispatches from the etheric level of my mind informing readers, essentially, that there are no absolutes. When I invariably follow such spiritual essays with a declaration of absolute “irrefutable” opinion, do I thus negate myself entirely?

Obviously, confident pronouncements of my future outlook and/or conduct are verbal chimeras as the future is an invented concept to which the Universe does not subscribe. But one can only be so meticulous with his words before the emotion gets sucked right out of the script. Therefore, with full knowledge that I am once again attempting to predict the non-existent future, I concede that I will probably continue to express myself in a somewhat contradictory manner. That doesn’t necessarily render my words hypocritical, just inadequate.

I have to admit that throughout the recent existential crisis faced by the US and by extension the world, I’ve been disappointed to find that the representatives of the Buddhist community to whose newsletters I subscribe have been confoundingly silent about all of it. I receive e-mails informing me of new stupas being built, some lama’s upcoming birthday, or most frequently, another redundant paean to Milarepa or some other long-dead Dharma icon. Of course, a significant percentage of meditation practice is designed to facilitate the disengagement from ego. This is a long process, to put it mildly. Ideally, when one has thrown off the bonds of Samsara, he or she is said to possess perfect natural compassion due to the panoramic view thus attained. But let’s be honest: who among us – dedicated meditators and spiritually disinterested people alike – possesses anything like universal compassion that informs their every thought, word and action? To put it mildly: precious few of us, if any.

So in our imperfect state, are we expected to disengage from all social and political affairs until we reach that fuzzy place called Nirvana? Sometimes, it seems that this is precisely the message I’m getting from people who are supposed to be so spiritually advanced that they elicit reactions akin to worship from their devotees. Humans sure do love to grovel at someone else’s feet. The ironic thing about this tendency in many Buddhists is that its implication is the antithesis of unity and equanimity, two of the most important aspects of Siddhartha Gautama’s original message. Like any other ancient wisdom tradition, Buddhism suffers from having acquired “too many cooks” along the way in its 2500 year history. The Buddha himself warned against the kind of inferiority complex implicit in such misguided fealty.

So here we are, imperfect seekers inhabiting a dangerous world. Humanity’s cruelty is just as prevalent as ever, even if the surface features have changed with the times. And now, at the threshold of a truly global emergency that threatens to increase the suffering of mankind to unprecedented levels, some of us look to our spiritual “superiors” and hear only crickets. Or we’re told about fund drives to finance a new, perfectly unnecessary opulent temple or stupa. Granted, these symbolic structures are beautiful, but can they free prisoners? Feed the hungry? Stand up for the oppressed? I’m sorry, but some vague statement about the positive energy emanating out to the world from these construction projects doesn’t cut it. People are suffering, people are scared…and they need help. Real help. Tangible help. Now. Building a miniature Angkor Wat in Palm Beach doesn’t constitute help.

If you meditate, the time spent on the cushion or walking mindfully is the time to disengage. When the bell signals the end of the session, your ego reasserts itself. Ideally, ego’s strength is slightly decreased with each immersion into non-conceptual awareness, but to proclaim that you have conquered your ego is an oxymoron. Therefore, at this critical juncture, I am asking my fellow travelers of the path to care for your suffering brothers and sisters. Volunteer. Protest. Donate. Comfort those in need. Divert the self-interest of your ego into charitable activities. Get out there. Get your hands dirty. Spreading the message of the Dharma is a wonderful thing (so long as you refrain from proselytizing), but it doesn’t feed people or heal their wounds.

I am aware that many dogmatic Buddhists would take issue with what I said here. But the Dalai Lama wouldn’t, so if you’re itching for a debate, take it up with His Holiness…if you can get a minute with him, of course. He’s usually busy these days taking steps to alleviate real suffering and therefore may not have time for your pointless semantics. That’s what real spiritual people do. The charlatans sit in their temples and solicit donations to increase the shininess of their surroundings. Spirituality without pragmatism is futile.

And if, like me, you wish to decrease the use of absolute language in discussing issues that are fluid rather than static, maybe just try to be quieter across the board. Those who suffer don’t need our words, and acts of kindness can be performed just as well in silence. But charitable acts performed bombastically are still better than silent negligence.

Sacrilege

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You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me… – Exodus 20:5

Early last month, the Orange Homunculus held a gathering of evangelical leaders in the Oval Office. At the conclusion of this bizarre love-in for the New Messiah of the Christian Right, the assembled “faith leaders” laid their hands on him with the same reverence described in the bible by those who had the blessed honor of touching Jesus’ sacred garments. Think about that. If there are truly any humble and ethical Christians left in this arrogant and increasingly despicable nation, I would have to guess that it was enormously offensive for them to see other “followers of Christ” bestowing such undue admiration upon this morally bankrupt piece of shit with a narcissism that rises to the level of a God complex.

How can alleged devotees of someone dubbed the Prince of Peace possibly justify such sycophantic fealty to a man who causes so much suffering with his hateful rhetoric and draconian attempts at consolidating dictatorial power? How did a group of senators and cabinet members just days earlier live with themselves after bestowing coerced hyperbolic praise and decrees of loyalty upon a lawless “president” who had publicly insulted and lambasted every one of them over the course of the past year? The answer, believe it or not, lies in the bible.

The authors of the scriptures, particularly of the Old Testament, knew a thing or two about erecting power structures to assure their own selfish ends. They created an image of God based upon the tyrannical leaders of ancient empires. A god who created mankind out of the dust for the express purpose of demanding adoration, obedience and loyalty from it, the failure of which will be punished by an eternity in hell. Nice, huh? Can’t you just feel the pervasive love and forgiveness beaming down from this Fuhrer In The Sky?

It’s high time that all people of reasonable intelligence and decency start to analyze their own religious beliefs and their reasons for having them. Lazy non-answers such as “it’s the religion in which I was raised” don’t cut it anymore. That says absolutely nothing about why you find a particular religious tradition’s claims to have any veracity. To be clear, I am not attacking anyone’s genuine faith here, as long as that faith doesn’t demand judgment and persecution of others. I am simply calling out hypocrisy on the part of those who claim to “base their lives” on the example of Jesus and then proceed to treat their fellow man in ways that he specifically prohibited.

I find it ironic that the god of the bible seems to be a perfect amalgamation of all the qualities we’re told are wrong and sinful: anger, vengefulness, narcissism, selfishness, jealousy. These are the qualities of a dictator; an emperor; an authoritarian who exacts obedience through fear.

One cannot simultaneously have a “fear of God” and a love for God. Similarly, one cannot fear a ruthless human leader and love him. The two emotions are mutually exclusive. So while someone like Trump may have no qualms about basking in insincere adoration from spineless politicians, how can people attribute such an attitude to their “loving creator” and fail to see the preposterousness of such a myth?

I believe that religion is a true panacea and moral guide for some people. However, if one cannot be inquisitive and, yes, skeptical enough to question the glaringly contradictory aspects of their tradition’s ancient scripture, then this person is just desperately grasping at blind faith motivated by fear. Love and compassion can have no real place in such an egocentric and paranoid cosmology. Nor do they currently have a place in the United States of America.

The Passion of Walter White

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Guess I got what I deserve. Kept you waiting there too long, my love. All that time without a word. Didn’t know you’d think that I’d forget, or I’d regret the special love I have for you, my Baby Blue. – Badfinger

Though I’m often adept at summarizing complex subjects in a succinct, blog-worthy manner, it would be impossible for me to compose a condensed analysis of the psychological underpinnings of the brilliant serial drama Breaking Bad. Such a study could fill a book and believe it or not, several such books have been written.

Vince Gilligan had to know what a risk he was taking when initially pitching a show about a middle aged chemistry teacher diagnosed with terminal cancer turning to the manufacture of methamphetamine to leave a sufficient posthumous financial legacy to his family. Fortunately, AMC took a chance on this exceedingly dark premise and thus we the viewing public were treated to the most meticulously crafted, gorgeously filmed, impeccably acted morality tale ever aired.

If you did not watch the show, feel free to stop reading now. Your time will be much better spent Netflixing all five seasons and watching it in a non-stop, coffee-fueled marathon. Now. Why are you still here? Go. Watch the show.

If you’re still here, I’m going to assume that you are quite familiar with Walter White, Jesse Pinkman, Hank Schrader, Skyler White, Saul Goodman, Hector Salamanca, Gustavo Fring and Mike Ehrmentraut. This post will confine itself to the final episode of the series, Felina. The title itself had a double — perhaps triple — meaning. To indicate the end of the series, the word is an anagram of finale. Also, as we witnessed Walt slip back into Albuquerque sight unseen to utilize his intellect and some tricks of the trade he had learned during his two year odyssey as a drug kingpin to exact revenge and tie up loose ends, he did so with the subtle grace of a cat — felina. The third meaning is my favorite.

As the episode begins, Walt is still hiding out in a cabin in rural New Hampshire. He made his way down to the local watering hole where the TV was tuned into an episode of Charlie Rose, who was interviewing Walt’s former business partners, Eliot and Gretchen Schwartz. Since Walt was now a nationally renowned criminal on the lam, Charlie asked the Schwartzes to comment on him. Their condescending response spurred Walt into action. He used the bar’s pay phone to call the Albuquerque office of the DEA and asked to speak to the head officer on the Walter White case. When asked who was calling, he deadpanned, “Walter White'” and dropped the receiver, letting it dangle from its metal coil. He threw the authorities off his trail by bringing them right to his doorstep.

There is an old car outside the bar covered in ice and snow. Walt delicately lets himself into the driver’s side, being careful not to knock any of the obscuring frost and snow from the windows. When the police descend on the tavern, Walt slouches low in his seat and waits for them to leave. He then hot-wires the vehicle and notices a cassette tape case on the passenger’s seat: Marty Robbins’ Greatest Hits. When the engine turns over, the stereo kicks on: Out in the West Texas town of El Paso, I fell in love with a Mexican girl. Nighttime would find me in Rosa’s Cantina, music would play and Felina would whirl. This old country classic was the perfect choice for this scene. The narrator in the song ultimately dies of a bullet wound in the arms of his love, Felina. A death, but a death done his way, on his terms. This was precisely what Walt was planning to accomplish with his return to New Mexico.

The series began on Walt’s 50th birthday: the same day he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. It ends on his 52nd birthday. In that brief time span, we watched him transform gradually from a henpecked, underachieving and mild-mannered family man into a dangerous, cutthroat, power mad drug kingpin. (“Say my name.” “Heisenberg?” “You’re goddamn right.”) Many of Walt’s colleagues and family understood long before he did that he was not motivated solely by the welfare of his family for very long. During his final visit to Skyler, she won’t suffer his tired altruistic explanation any longer and tells him to level with her. Understanding that at this point he owes her the truth, he admits for the very first time: “I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really — I was alive.”

Walter White, like all of the amazingly nuanced characters in the show, cannot be pigeonholed as either good or evil. Just like all human beings, he is far more complex than a black or white description can do justice. Our sympathy is with him right out of the gate, even after he makes his fateful decision to partner up with his former student Jesse Pinkman and cook an incredibly pure form of crystal methamphetamine for distribution throughout the city. He quickly learns that murder comes with the territory, but at first, he’s extremely disturbed at having to take a life even in self-defense. As time goes on, killing becomes second nature. Finally, it becomes his method of cementing absolute control over the entire Southwest meth market. Gus Fring’s former enforcer, Mike, sums up how much Walt had let the whole thing go to his head shortly after Walt’s brilliant nursing home coup that took out Gus: “We had a good thing, you stupid son of a bitch. We had Fring, we had a lab, we had everything we needed and it all ran like clockwork. You could have shut your mouth, cooked and made as much money as you ever needed. It was perfect. But no! You just had to blow it up. You and your pride and your ego! You just had to be the man.” Mike was right. Walt did have to be the man, because never before in his life had he ever been so feared and respected; he had never before been “the man”. This is why I found myself rooting for Walt to successfully pull off his final coup even though just two episodes prior, he had spoken the most intentionally devastating and evil words imaginable to Jesse before his former partner was taken as a meth cooking slave by the group of Neo-Nazis with whom they’d recently done business. As Jesse struggles to free himself from Jack’s grasp, Walt looks him in the eye and referring to Jesse’s late girlfriend, says with matter-of-fact malice: “I watched Jane die. I was there and I watched her die. I watched her overdose and choke to death. I could have saved her, but I didn’t.”

How could I possibly still have been pulling for a character that would say something so abhorrent to a young man he had grown to view in an almost paternal way? It’s hard to explain. And this was the genius of Breaking Bad.

Freeing Jesse from his nightmarish servitude to Jack, Todd and the rest of the scumbags in that crew was, of course, on Walt’s agenda when he drove across the country to make things right in Albuquerque. He also wanted to ensure that every penny of his ill-gotten wealth would be left to his family. Looking emaciated and ill, an unshaven Walt arrives home on his birthday and sets his multi-faceted plan in action.

With a self-crafted MacGyver-style gun turret contraption hidden in the trunk of his car, Walt arrives at the Neo-Nazis’ hideout and coaxes Jack to bring Jesse into the room. When Jesse appears, Walt tackles him to the floor, covering him with his body, as he presses a button on his keychain that activates the revolving gun. The entire gang is killed by machine gun fire except for Jesse’s main tormentor, Todd, who Walt allows Jesse to choke to death with the chains Todd had bound him in weeks before. Walt kicks a lone pistol on the floor over to his now liberated former partner (and student) and tells him, “Do it.” Jesse notices that Walt has a serious bullet wound in his gut, kicks the gun back to Walt and tells him to do it himself. He then hops into a car, crashes through the gate of the compound and drives to freedom.

We hear multiple police sirens approaching as Walt slowly and wistfully walks through the former meth lab, stopping here and there to caress the pristine cook tops with a bittersweet smile on his face. As his hand touches a metal vat, it slips down leaving a bloody trail as Walt falls to the floor, smiling, and dies.

This was when I began to cry.  Real tears. The kind of tears I usually reserve for the most devastating of personal losses. I was crying for a fictional character. A morally ambiguous drug manufacturer, liar, manipulator and murderer. A fictional character whose journey took all of us along for the frightening yet exhilarating ride. Because none of us are purely good or evil. Because all of us have made regrettable decisions and have hurt the ones we love most. Because nothing and no one is black and white.

The ghost of this fictional character still haunts the desert metropolis of Albuquerque and the outlying areas, and probably always will. Those who believe in the supernatural claim that ghosts tend to stick around the very area on which they had the biggest impact and where they left the biggest emotional traces. I think it’s a fairly safe assumption that no single person, real or fictional, has had a bigger impact on the Duke City than Walter White.

And he leaves us with a profound question to ponder: if any of us were to find ourselves in the situation that Walt did on his fiftieth birthday, what would we do? Until you can answer that question with unflinching honesty, please don’t judge me for grieving the passing of a fictional meth cook.