Living the Dead Life: Vampires Who Don’t Totally Suck – A Buddhist Perspective On Knowing Versus Realization…

Have you ever felt that your life is like one of those stunningly spectacular traffic accidents where pedestrians and drivers, alike, literally stop in their tracks to gawk in horrid fascination? Of course, nothing restores normalcy and order like a police officer motioning and admonishing the stunned onlookers to “Move along, folks! Nothing to see, here!” Honestly, I’ve never heard a real police officer say this – only in the movies; but then, I’ve never stopped to gawk.

Whether or not police officers actually say this, I recently discovered the equivalent of a personal police officer, or better yet, bodyguard, to direct traffic in the sometimes-seeming collision of my own life. I’d like to share it with this caveat:

Depending on where you are, or are not, in your meditation practice, or if you don’t have a meditation practice, you may or may not find value in this offering. I know this because just three months ago, after reading what I’m about to share, I would have said, “What the hell?” Really.

The following quotation is from the book  Meditation On Perception: Ten Healing Practices to Cultivate Mindfulness  by Bhante Gunaratana. I’ve never met this man, but I love him, and I love his work. And I was amused to learn that he is commonly and affectionately referred to as Bhante G, which seems like the Dharma equivalent of such celebrity names as Sheila E., Kenny G., or Heavy D. And mind you, I mean this with all metta and respect. So, let’s get to business. The following quotation is from the book chapter titled, “Perception of Non-Delight in the Whole World”:

As we discover, the mind purified of greed, hatred, and delusion is naturally free from excitement when perceiving anything in the world. There is nothing special in the entire world for such a mind to delight in. Nor is there anything to be disappointed by. Nothing is extraordinary. The same problems of impermanence, suffering, and selflessness exist everywhere. Recognizing this truth, the mind becomes relaxed, peaceful, and calm (pp. 81-82).

Waitress! I’ll have one of what he’s having! Can you imagine what a deep realization of this ‘truth’ (as opposed to knowledge about, or agreement with) could accomplish? First, it calls us to task regarding the alleviation of our own delusions; then, it causes us to question whether or not we are alone, extraordinarily, or otherwise, in our sufferings. Of course, we are not; but it often feels this way. Finally, it calls into question our core values or beliefs regarding that which is important, singular, or even remarkable about what might be happening to us – if anything. It’s about detachment (as opposed to indifference). And in a strange and tragic sense, people who resort to watching television 22 hours a day (which Buddhism considers an intoxicant, or form of ‘intoxication’), or abusing substances to numb the pain actually sort of “get it,” but their methodology is unhealthy and rooted firmly in ignorance. There’s another way! Another caveat, here, could be that this ‘other way’ could take years.

If it’s true, as the Buddha said in his Four Noble Truths (the very foundation of Buddhism), then it is only our ignorance of what constitutes “reality” that makes us suffer. The Second Noble Truth reveals that it is ignorance that is the cause of our suffering – not that someone might actually be racist, sexist, stupid, unfair, or __________ (fill in the blank). Isn’t it funny that when we invest in stocks, we want something stable but profitable, but when we invest our hearts in people, or situations, entities that are often not stable, and never un-changing, we wonder why we aren’t getting our money’s worth… We also learn, eventually, that we are usually our own worst enemy in the worst of situations, not to mention the best…

Finally, we learn that there is a way to “suck it up,” all up, without faking it, or becoming a closet addict, or having a nervous breakdown, and we can do it with discernment, objectivity, and uncommon sense, as well. But, it ain’t easy. It never is. As the First Noble Truth says, ‘Where there is life, there is suffering…”

Related Reading:

Gunaratana, B. (2014). Meditation on Perception: Ten Healing Practices to Cultivate Mindfulness. Wisdom Publications: Boston, MA.





Mindfulness vs. Ritalin

I am currently reading Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche’s book, Ruling Your World: Ancient Strategies for Modern Life.  The Sakyong is the son of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, subject of the documentary, Crazy Wisdom. In 1959, it was Chögyam Trungpa who led 300 people out of Tibet and into the exile (the result of a conflict with the Chinese government) that stands to this day. Trungpa’s son, the Sakyong, whose title means “Earth Protector,” was born in India, in 1962; and he, himself, would not see Tibet until the year 2001. I am struck, and deeply touched, by the pains taken by Chögyam Trungpa in teaching his young son the ropes of mindfulness and discernment (not that this can be ‘taught,’ so much as sought, and certainly, I’m sure Trungpa did not find the instruction ‘painful’).

In  Ruling Your World, the Sakyong shares memories of his father teaching him the elements of mindfulness, through meditation, from an early age. It was serious, pointed, incremental training, with a particular goal in mind, but loving, as well. Interestingly enough, at one point, the Sakyong shares that his father handed him over to the Buddhist nun, Pema Chödrön, for meditation instruction. Chödrön writes that not long after that, it was she who became the student of the young Sakyong, a relationship that stands to this day.

I’ve often wondered, while reading this book, if the young Sakyong played peek-a-boo, bounced off the walls, and ignored his teachers, preferring to talk and giggle with an imaginary friend instead of engaging in instruction. I’ve wondered if his mind ever raced with the energies of youth, or if somehow, because of the nature of his birth, because of his being the incarnation of a great meditation instructor, he was somehow, unusually sedate.

The reason I’ve wondered about the Sakyong as a little boy is because I know of another brilliant little boy whose father, rather than teaching him mindfulness, or working to constructively direct his youthful energies, decided to give him Ritalin. Now, don’t get me wrong, I realize that the conditions we’ve labeled ADD/ADHD are real. As a teacher, I’ve seen how children with this ‘disorder’ can disrupt classrooms and drive everyone around them practically insane. It’s quite obvious that these children are suffering, just as everyone else around them. But I’ve also seen the suffering that entails once they’re drugged. Imagine being six- or seven-years-of-age, and being “depressed’ (a side-effect of Ritalin), but not knowing what depression “is,” and having to take other medications to try to balance out the combination of a hyperactive nature and a drugged depression. And yes, Ritalin is the same drug that teenagers used to traffic in because it has the opposite effect on adults.

This other boy’s father, besides medicating his son, also engaged in self-medicating. And he didn’t teach his son mindfulness and discernment through meditation because he did not have that knowledge or experience. Additionally, in his own way, though a successful man, he, too, was “hyper.” And now, decades after the Ritalin Rush, we are seeing the purported (or probable) extended side-effects this drug has had on the young people we drugged, some almost into a malevolent, macabre “extinction.”

Is it possible that we could try something other than drugging our children into oblivion? What if these children were taught mindfulness meditation? Obviously, the parents, and even the doctors would have to be trained, too. And this is not to say that parents and medical professionals have not tried other methods, alternative and organic. I simply can’t help but think that treating ‘youth’ as a psychiatric emergency is a dangerous thing. And consider this: A fair number of mental health professionals claim that it is not possible to diagnose such mental illnesses as bipolar disorder (formerly known as manic depression) in youngsters due to their not having yet reached a certain age of maturity and level of cognitive functioning. So, why do we take children, as young as four or five, and do everything but bind them in a strait jacket and inject them with Thorazine?

In the interest of balance, please check out the links for the music video on ADHD meds, below (yes, music video), and a blog post by someone with ADD,  for whom Ritalin has made all the difference in the world (in a positive way).

Do ADHD meds work? We break it down for you in our latest music video from PandoDaily (Website)

I have ADD from Modern Day Artemis (blog)


Related Readings:

Kids Getting On Your Nerves Again? from HADDOCKWALLOP! (blog)

ADHD could be a fictitious disease?/TDAH pourrait être une maladie fictive? from Another Day in the Marathon of Life (blog)

i don’t want comfort from Wake Up Tiger (blog)

Children — ADHD & bipolar (history etc) Robert Whitaker – Psychiatric Epidemic from Beyond Meds (blog)

“Stoner” by John Edward Williams (A Review)

Williams, J. (1965). Stoner. New York, NY: New York Review of Books.

Back in the Good Ol’ Days, we had values. Songs had ‘meaning!’ We didn’t listen to crap like Fergie’s “My Humps,” Rihanna’s “Umbrella,” or Kelis’s “My Milkshake Brings All the Boys to the Yard.” Our songs had lyrics with substance and gravitas  like The Eagles’ “Hotel California” and Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” baby. There’s not a day that passes when I don’t thank the Buddha that I wasn’t born in some obscene year like 1990! So, it’s only because I was a child of the 60s that I happened upon the novel, Stoner.

Let’s begin by saying that it isn’t, at all, what you might think it’s about. I mean, we all know what a ‘stoner’ is; so, when I discovered this work featured at my local independent bookseller’s establishment, I wasn’t even sure I was going to read it! But I did wonder, as I picked up the book to examine it, why the man depicted on the cover was wearing a suit from the late 1800s. Actually, “Stoner” is the surname of the main character in the book of the same name. And amazingly, the book was originally published in 1965, the decade of my birth, and then simply lost in the shuffle, forgotten, until just recently  this  century! Just as interesting are the rumors regarding Professor John Edward Williams,’ death. I’d been told, more than once, that he’d committed suicide. Truth be told, he died in bed, quite happily enough, leaving behind a wife, family, and not a few friends.

A small placard affixed to the front of the bookstore copy said, simply, “The best book I’ve ever read!” One of the bookstore staff warned me that it wasn’t a flashy, exciting read, but more of a deep, introspective, examination of a rather unremarkable man’s life. In many ways, she was correct; but I beg to differ regarding ‘excitement.’ This could be the undergraduate English major in me, but I was shaken, and moved, to my core. I could easily have read the book in one sitting, but instead, decisively closed the cover and laid it down, unwillingly, someplace out-of-the-way, for brief intervals over a period of three days.  I felt compelled to savor what I’d read, and delay what I knew would be the final, painful end of a rare reading experience. Not since Hermann Hesse’s “Siddartha” (1922) have I felt this way about a work. And like Hesse, it’s quite obvious that John Edward Williams was, in his own fashion, a ‘spiritual’ man.

From the first page of  Stoner, author John Williams lets you know that William Stoner, the subject of this work, is no one special.  By the middle of that first page, we know that William Stoner was a university instructor who “never rose above the rank of assistant,” and was barely remembered by any student who’d ever taken one of his courses. In fact, after his death, it was noted that his colleagues didn’t think much of him, either. Williams’ lack of concern in developing some type of hook to pull the reader in from the start could be the reason why this work simply disappeared into the dustbin for the next 50 years or so. I won’t lie: it did occur to me to lay claim to my “within ten days and good condition” right to refund after reading that first paragraph. Nonetheless, I turned the page, and by page 9, I just knew I was in for one of the rare experiences of my life. I had to find out more about this poor boy who’d escaped the impoverished, illiterate, threadbare existence of a Missouri farm, where his parents eked out a subsistence, only because of an almost freakish opportunity to receive a university education.

Prior to leaving the farm to attend classes, young Stoner had known nothing of next-door neighbors, socializing, fine clothes, reading for pleasure, or the carelessness of youth. His parents were the stereotypical hard-bitten, illiterate, inarticulate poor dirt farmers who had given up the vernacular of light conversation, endearments, or even complaining. Life was simply hard, and one did what one had to do to get through it. So, the clueless young Stoner builds his adult life on a foundation of nothing and what little romance he is able to extract from Medieval English literature and the rarely-sought perspective of a few, not-so-close friends. But Stoner is far from ignorant. And somewhere within his hardscrabble life, he learns to love and to appreciate what beauty he can find along the way.

During Stoner’s first year as a student in the College of Agriculture at this fictitious University of Missouri (Williams, himself, taught at the University of Missouri), Stoner is awed by university life, but his passion to continue is exceeded only by his fear of returning to the farm where very little, if anything, ever grew. Then, near the end of page 9, we learn: “It was not until he returned for his second year that William Stoner learned why he had come to college.” Soon after, Stoner would leave the College of Agriculture to become, of all things, an English major, thus leaving his parents to think he’d soon be returning to run the family “business.” Williams, in his spare narration of Stoner, simply states: “In the summer he returned again to his parents’ farm and helped his father with the crops and did not mention his work at the University.” And the wonder and pathos of it all is that Stoner did not have to say anything because it never would have occurred to his parents to ask him how ‘things’ were going. Nonetheless, he changed and grew. He learns Greek and Latin, within the space of a year, well enough to read simple texts. And we learn that “Sometimes he thought of himself as he had been a few years before and was astonished by the memory of that strange figure, brown and passive as the earth from which it had emerged.”

Stoner’s career would encompass America’s two World Wars, and Williams provides some rare insights, through his characters, into how academics viewed conscription, volunteering, and the crushing effect these wars had on the very people and things for which American warriors fought, such as art, literature, and the value of a general education. In fact, one character is driven to madness. But one of the most confounding aspects of the book is Stoner’s marriage. If the expression, “thinking with his little head instead of his big one” had not yet been coined in the 1960s, it should have been. Stoner’s choice for a life mate, fairly early in his marriage, sets in motion a number of events, so inexpressibly tragic, but so easily avoidable with just a little thought, that one finds it impossible to keep one’s mouth from hanging open for much of the book. Nonetheless, and much to my amazement, Williams still manages to keep the tone of Stoner, mundane, dispassionate, and even.

Throughout Stoner’s tragic and remarkably unremarkable life, it is his career, as a university instructor, not professor, that keeps him sane and solid. Even after he realizes that despite his great love of literature, and respect and passion for education, that he is most definitely not a good instructor, he continues to plod on with a mindfulness most students of meditation would envy. And that mindfulness and dedication would carry him through several departmental scandals, controversies, and the ugliness of faculty politics. Certainly, it is in Stoner’s struggles to come to terms with the mess of his life, and the tragic nature of the little beauty he manages to experience, that reveals the aforementioned spirituality I found in Williams’ writing. All along the way, Stoner remains alert to the gifts ‘life’ gives him, however bare and paltry they might seem to anyone living life more “large.”

Once, Stoner experiences “…an epiphany of knowing something through words that could not be put in words…” Later, Stoner discovers the emptiness of “learning,” but still appreciates the learning that leads him to this chilling discovery. And at a fairly late stage in his life, despite being married, he finally learns of true love, searing sex, and the staggering price he must pay for that knowledge. Near the end of his life, which ended long before his career, Williams says of Stoner, “He seldom thought of the past or the future, or of the disappointments and joys of either; he concentrated all the energies of which he was capable upon the moment of his work and hoped that he was at last defined by what he did.” Oh, reader! Does that not sound like some type of meditation to you?

Somehow, through a work thoroughly unremarkable in the areas of drama, humor, or much in the way of any character’s internal life (though Williams’ narration could fool one into thinking that Stoner had much more in the way of an internal life than was actually depicted), the author manages to create a character of such warmth, depth, dignity, magnitude and quiet, passionate desperation that there can be no question, by the end of this novel, that greatness can be found, and fostered, in the most unremarkable of remarkable places.

This is a work that will, one day, be read by every “educated” person. It deserves to be read, and murdered by, every first-year college student. And I, for one, will never be the same for reading it. Neither will you.



Related Reading:

John Williams’ Stoner: The Greatest American Novel You’ve Never Heard Of by Tim Kreider from The New Yorker

Stoner by John Williams from bookemstevo