When real men speak

On Thursday morning, a Facebook post from India  announced the passing of Kyabje Gyalwa Trizin Rinpoche, 33d leader of the Tibetan Bon Buddhist tradition. I never met His Holiness, but the spiritual teachings of one of his senior students, Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche, have been of supreme importance to me. For decades I’ve been a serious student of contemplative traditions, and have found no teachings of greater benefit.

The Dalai Lama with the 33d Menri Trizin, head of the Tibetan Bon Buddhist tradition

Later that Thursday, I saw a provocative post that quoted welterweight boxing champion, Floyd Mayweather, as saying that when Donald Trump spoke of grabbing pussy, “that’s the way real men speak.” 

The juxtaposition of these two posts – one about a man I greatly admire, and one from a man who claims to know about “real” men, highlights our collective confusion about almost everything.

What Joseph Campbell referred to as “the social function of myth” – the stories that teach us appropriate behavior, and our place in the larger culture, have completely broken down. Collectively, we agree on nothing, including, but not limited to, what a real man, a real woman, a real government, or a real president is like.

Few men and women in recorded history have had so much choice about their station in life, or greater anxiety about it.

Much of our our nation’s appeal, from colonial days on, was the hope that here you could reinvent yourself. From those who indentured themselves for passage across the ocean, to the westward expansion, to the “Do your own thing” rallying cry of my adolescence, this promise has been a sword that cuts both ways. Psychologists tell us that too many choices can be as stressful as too few.

In the late 80’s, Joseph Campbell suggested that the mandala of a future religion might be our world seen from space. In 1990, President George H. W. Bush revived a phrase used by Woodrow Willson and Winston Churchill, to speak of a “New World Order.” At the start of the tech boom and the end of the cold war, such dreams seemed feasible.

Now the world is contracted in fear. Nationalism, fundamentalist religion, and right wing conspiracy theories about “new world orders,” have replaced any near-term hopes of a greater good. With a reality TV star in the White House, the nature of “reality” itself has been twisted in ways unimaginable even a year ago.

The crumbling of outmoded concepts to make way for the is new isn’t always bad, but it’s usually painful. Going back is never an option. At this point, it’s good to remember that ideas of “real men” and “real women” are constructs with no essential connection to lived “reality.” If you want to know what a real man or real woman looks like, go look in a mirror. Only adolescents, or adults stuck in adolescence, have time to worry about such things.

The more important question is what do I want my life to be like? What attributes do I admire, and who embodies them?

I knew a ex-prizefighter at the gym. In his 60’s, he walked with a limp and was usually in pain from a lifetime of beatings he’d taken in the ring. “You have to be an idiot to make a living like I did,” he said. Though he was a nice guy, his was never a life I aspired to! Nor would I want to be a thin-skinned rageaholic, rising in the wee hours to fire off angry tweets.

On the other hand, after a lifetime of service to all living beings, when his time had come, Gyalwa Trizin, sat in meditation and left. Left his body, left this world. Over millennia, Tibetan masters have learned how to live and die in ways that lead to ideal or even enlightened rebirths.

I have been in the presence of a few such masters –  men and women, who live and act from the calm assurance that our difficulties are more like dreams than we know, and that there are paths that lead to life of service to beings, and when the time comes, a death that is free of fear. To my mind, this is something worth living for…

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The Day of the Locust at Walmart

Nathanael West (1903-1940), author of “The Day of the Locust.”

USA Today reported that Friday, in a Detroit area Walmart, a woman with a concealed carry permit pulled a gun after two other women started pulling her 20 year old daughter’s hair in scuffle over the last available notebook in a back-to-school-sale.

The gun brought this to national attention, but after I got the snide comment about “well ordered militias” out of my system, I sat with the underlying question, far more mundane and depressing at the same time: why does violence over a notebook come as no surprise in our nation today?

I thought of Nathanael West , a little known author during his lifetime, who worked as a screenwriter on hack movies in Hollywood, and wrote four novels, filled with biting social satire. His friend, the poet, W.H. Auden coined the phrase, “West’s Disease,” for the angst that comes from realizing the spiritual and economic poverty of much of what passes for “the American Dream.” Continue reading

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The Summer of Love, Repression, and Stuff.

USA. Washington DC. Seventeen year old Jan Rose Kasmir, confronts the National Guard outside the Pentagon during the 1967 anti-Vietnam march. This march helped to turn public opinion against the war in Vietnam.

Dissatisfaction with the status quo gave birth to our nation, and has been part of our heritage every since. Fifty years ago this summer, this undercurrent burst into the loud and colorful limelight as 100,000 people gathered in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury with mottos like Timothy Leary’s, “Tune in, turn on, drop out.”

I was a high school kid in San Jose, wearing torn jeans and love beads, reading the literature of discontent by authors such as Thoreau, Sinclair Lewis, and Nathanial West. After Saturday excursions to the head shops on Haight Street, with their incense and posters of Lakshmi and Ganesh, I bought a copy Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, a book I still have, and one which, fifty years later, I more or less understand, because doing so became one of the core priorities of my life.

“We are all outlaws in the eyes of America,” sang Grace Slick, and in the explosion of new music, art, literature, and the ideas of change embodied in The Whole Earth Catalog, there was a sense of expansion, a sense that we could stop the war, and we could leave the world of ticky-tacky houses, and create a nation where Peace and Freedom would reign as supreme values.

We didn’t understand our own shadows. We didn’t knew that Charles Manson was roaming the Haight during the summer of ’67, winning friends and influencing people with techniques he had learned from Dale Carnegie’s book, which he studied in prison. We didn’t know that “Do your own thing” was a double-edged sword, and that we would see bitter fruits of that motto fifty summers later.

*****

When I turned 40 in 1990, I was halfway through a Masters program in Psychology, which I’d entered in part because in the wake of the Summer of Love, I’d discovered Jung, Joseph Campbell, and Tolkien, and I couldn’t get enough of that stuff. And also because, the ethos of “Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll” doesn’t really work very well.

Yet when in that course of study, we came to look at the psyche’s defense mechanisms, most of us thought repression was a bad thing, inhibiting self-expression and individuation. I gotta do my own thing, man!

“Don’t be so fast to put down repression” said the instructor. “It’s one of the glues that holds a culture together.”

I’ve thought of this statement many times since then, never more so than when I read a woman’s letter to the editor in the local paper sometime in the mid-nineties, reporting on an incident she’d seen at a local multiplex. For whatever reason, no one was behind the concession counter, so some of the patrons clambered over the counter, help themselves to popcorn and drinks and then dash into the theaters.

That’s not quite what we meant by “Do Your Own Thing,” but it’s a pretty telling, canary-in-the-coal-mine kind of snapshot of the kind of societal breakdown parading through our streets this summer.

One of the four major functions of a living myth, according to Joseph Campbell, is “the sociological function,” which teaches us the norms of living together. “Thou shalt not kill,” for instance. Other roles are more dicey – gender and class roles for instance. These get rigid as times change, and are then modified by pioneers or movements, or in extreme cases, by revolutions if leaders are really stupid and tell their starving masses to eat cake.

Perhaps with enough acts of popcorn theft, large and small, because we feel entitled and we want what we want and we want it now – perhaps the kind of president we have was inevitable. Sooner or later, just as inevitably, he’ll go.

What will we do then? Will we be sickened enough by current events to turn in another direction together? What does a culture do when it’s fragmented by so many contradictory stories that Campbell’s sociological function of myth has completely broken down? What will it take to restore a genuine sense of “us” in our national life, a sense that we’re all in this together? The most obvious and frightening answer is a shared disaster.

Ironic to realize that the youthful idealism that brought us the Summer of Love, and two years later, the high water mark at Woodstock, carried the seeds of its own demise, partly because of the self-righteous sense of “us and them” that still drives our national life. And yet, it is profoundly valuable to review those youthful ideals, that sense of a better world within reach. Without such dreams, we are left with little better to do than rail at each other on social media.

“It’s been a long time coming,” sang Crosby, Stills, and Nash. “It’s going to be a long time gone.” It will come around again, sooner or later, but the question is, how long a time will that be?

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You Will Get Through This

I spotted this wonderful painted stone in the bushes near the entrance of our local library, on an early morning dog walk this week. How many smiles did this artist generate? How many people’s days were brightened?

The message is simple but intriguing. Get through what? This day? This period of crisis in the life of our nation? This life? Samsara? Whatever other personal burdens each one of us carries?

Such an attitude is a choice, and most of us have to practice long and hard to cultivate such a view, for negativity is easy, especially in times of rapid change like these.

Maybe the question this stone really asks is how do we want to live? The joyful colors of both the paint and the surrounding plants give us a hint of the most skillful answer.

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The Hungry Ghosts of Washington

Hungry Ghost Scroll, Kyoto, late 12th c.

There are six realms of being in traditional Buddhist cosmology. Two of these, the human and the animal realms, are visible to our senses. The other four are not. Because all these regions are part of samsara, the world of “original ignorance,” (rather than original sin), even the apparently pleasant places are characterized by suffering, because, to quote the song by Iris Dement, “nothing good ever lasts.” We suffer until we learn to see through our illusions and delusions.

Traditional Buddhists regard the four non-physical regions as subtle astral planes where, just like the physical regions, beings sojourn for longer or shorter periods of time, depending on karma. It is possible to read them inwardly, as archetypal situations as well. Among the “lower realms,” where you don’t want to go, are the hell realms, where the dominant emotion is anger. Violent actions driven by anger can project beings into these regions after this life, yet when we see a person, or ourselves, seething with anger – red in the face, trembling, on the edge of violence, we see what a hell-being looks like, right then, without going anywhere else.

“Hungry ghosts” live in a world of insatiable craving, appetites that can never be satisfied. In eastern iconography, they are pictured with huge, distended bellies and tiny mouths that can never eat or drink enough. This is the realm of addiction, to anything or everything. In western art, Hieronymus Bosch shows us what hungry ghosts look like:

From “The Garden of Earthly Delights” by Hieronymus Bosch, c. 1500

We all have a sense of the ravages of addiction to food, drugs, or alchohol. In When Society Becomes an Addict, Anne Wilson Schaef says that life in the U.S. is so stressful that it is impossible not to become addicted to something. Some addictions will land you in jail. Some will win you applause. Some, like addiction to money and power can win you a seat in congress.

Beyond all the rationale, couched in economic terms and political rhetoric, there’s a greed that drives our current political strife that is an insatiable craving for wealth that can never be satisfied. When we read of American oligarchs trying to strip healthcare from millions for tax cuts for people who don’t even need it, remember this image of their inner nature:

Hungry Ghost, Japanese.

What are the odds that such beings can do anything good for their fellows or for the planet?

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Beware the Trolls

NOT THAT KIND OF TROLL
John Bauer, 1912 illustration, public domain

Social media algorithms effectively isolate readers of one type of political news from opposing views; if you follow Fox News, you won’t see MSNBC pop up and vice versa. At the same time, you can usually judge the importance of the “breaking news” of the day by the number of profane, violent, vitriolic comments that follow. I have received, if not death threats, at least death wishes, for comments on Facebook I can’t even remember, and I know I’m not alone in this. Does such overheated rhetoric reflect the national mood? I’ve come to think that in many cases, it does not, though some interests would have us believe it does.

On July 11, in an opinion piece in the Washington Post, David Rothkopf, said, “Russia’s primary goal was not to get Trump elected. It was to weaken the United States(emphasis added).

That’s worth pondering at length. It crystalized my sense that a significant part of the national tension over our “house divided” is a creation of social media, and much of it may derive from the focused efforts of foreign trolls.

On the evening of July 11, the PBS Newshour aired a report by Nick Schifrin, with the help of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, Inside Russia’sPropaganda Machine. Schifrin reports that for the past two years, the Russian military has run online recruiting adds, offering soldiers a chance to “put down their guns and fight a cyber-war.” 

Schifrin interviewed a former Russian troll, Marat Mindiyarov, outside of a large complex in St. Petersburg which Mindiyarov identified as the headquarters of this effort. He said he had “maybe 20, 30” online identities, but implied that some have hundreds.

At the end of May Newsweek reported that 900,000 blank twitter accounts had popped up as Trump followers that month. They were easy to spot – no photo, no byline, no tweet history. And no way for a casual viewer to determine their place of origin. I initially assumed they were created by Trump’s team. Now I have serious doubts.

Important stories on left leaning Facebook sites draw verbal conflict that is sometimes abusive enough to report. This morning I scrolled down the Fox News Facebook site, and noted similar trolling.

Again, I refer to Rothkopf’s piece, cited above. It’s very much worth considering that our external enemies no longer care if Trump stays or goes – as long as we as a nation stay angry and divided against each other, they have won…

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Happy Fourth of July

The Star Spangled Banner, Currier and Ives, undated.

In a recent NPR/PBS/Marist poll, only 77% of Americans correctly identified Great Britain as the country we declared independence from on July 4. Fewer (70%) knew that we did so in 1776.

Aside from what that says about our “informed electorate,” it’s a shame because history, in all it’s messy complexity, becomes more fascinating to me as time goes on.

I was not that interested in colonial American history until I came upon Benson Bobrick’s superb history of the revolution, Angel In the Whirlwind, 2011. In contrast to the present, Bobrick notes that colonial citizenry was generally well informed on matters of politics.

Lest we grow nostalgic for such “good old days,” when (white) men were men, and nobody else had any rights, we can look at another fascinating history, Drinking in America: Our Secret History, by Susan Cheever. We learn that the “shot heard round the world” in 1775 may have been fired by a farmer who was three sheets to the wind. The “minute men” had gathered at 5:30 that morning, at the tavern on Concord green, and by the time the British arrived more than four hours later, they had downed a fair amount of ale.

In a related tidbit, Bobrick says the original duty of congressional pages was to keep the beer steins of our legislators filled. Since reading that, I’ve wondered how many brewskis John Hancock had downed when he famously said, “I’ll sign my name so large that King George will be able to read it without his spectacles.”

This Fourth of July finds most us, I suspect, without the stomach for the usual flag waving piety. Piety is a siren song that traps us into believing our own PR and turning away from difficult questions, and nothing else will serve in times like these. For individuals, tribes, political parties, and nations, there are times when things fall apart. Such crossroad periods end with movement, either toward renewal or destruction, and a key determining factor seems to be a willingness to search for and accept the truth.

This is a time to ponder the words of truth-tellers. I’ve been thinking about this week’s buzzword, “civility,” and realizing that it’s much more than being “nice” or “polite” or “politically correct.” It’s nothing less than a pre-requisite for hearing the truth.

Buried in the paper on September 12, 2001, was a statement by Zen master, Thich Nhat Hahn, a champion of peace and the truth in the world for more than five decades. In the wake of the terrorist attacks, he said, “We will not have peace with the people who did this until we are willing to sit down and ask them why they hate us so much.” After nearly 16 years of constant warfare, with no victory or exit strategy in sight, it is worth remembering his words. As none of our leaders show an inclination to do so, guess what the future holds in store?

Seeds for the divisions that are tearing our nation apart were planted even before our current middle eastern wars, though I think they’re related. Another truth teller, Jimmy Carter told us in 1979 where American Greatness lies and what can destroy it:

“In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities and our faith in God…too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption.  Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns.  But we’ve…learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.”

Unless we as individuals and as a nation, including our elected leaders and their moneyed overlords, are willing to sit down and really listen to each other, things will get more and more dysfunctional. It feels like a worldwide transition is underway, and an unsustainable way of life is ending. Historically, such endings and new beginnings occur at times of disaster, war, pestilence. Are such hard landings inevitable?

I like to think not. I like to think that if enough of our leaders had the wisdom and genuine faith of Jimmy Carter and Thich Nhat Hahn, we as people of America and earth, could steer toward a new course, healthier for the the planet and all its creatures.

I’m not optimistic. With our opportunistic leaders, in a nation where a quarter of us don’t know who we fought in our revolution, I’m afraid it will take more disasters to chasten us enough for any kind of concerted, positive action.

So Happy Fourth of July!  Enjoy the day and your family. Have another hotdog or slice of apple pie. I fear that before long we may look back on these as the “good old days,” and remember how good we had it on July 4, 2017…

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JUNE 17, 1972- 5IVE MEN ARRESTED FOR BREAKING AND ENTERING DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL COMMITTEE HEADQUARTERS AT WATERGATE COMPLEX

As they say, those who forget the past…

slicethelife

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On this day in 1972 what turned into a two year and two month long ‘national nightmare’ began when five men were arrested for breaking and entering the Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate Complex in Washington, D.C.

Shortly after midnight on June 17th a security guard at the Watergate, Frank Willis noticed there was tape covering the latches on some of the doors in the complex leading from the underground parking garage to some several offices. Willis removed the tape and gave it no more thought until an hour later when he returned and noticed someone had re-taped those locks again. He then called the police. Five men – Virgilio Gonzalez, Bernard Baker, James McCord, Frank Sturgis and Eugenio Martinez were found inside the DNC office and arrested and charged with attempted burglary and attempted interception of telephone and other communications.

At the time it was not a big…

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