Okay, now we’re getting down to the real challenging challenges that were presented to me earlier in the week. I know I indicated I was only going to pick 3 topics, but they were all so good and outside of my usual purview, that I have decided to try my hand at all of them. This one comes from The Modern Leper, an extraordinary writer whose current novel-in-installments, Utopia, deserves to win a Hugo Award and be available at all major booksellers in a future far less distant than that of the setting of his story. Check it out, along with the rest of his excellent writing, here: https://themodernlepersblog.wordpress.com/. For the challenge, The Modern Leper gave me the following: “Okay, how about this: what scares you? And I don’t mean like bears or the dark; I’m talking more in an existential sense. I’ve always found you write quite confidently, and you seem like a reasonably stable character (or at least stabler than the rest of us), so I want to know what (if anything) will break that wall. I want to know what challenges the deepest fibre of your being.”
Thank you for stopping by. I hope you don’t mind the incense smoke, I was just meditating in front of my shrine and the Nag Champa helps me to transcend mundane thoughts. You probably came here in search of spiritual instruction or perhaps a koan to shock your mind into sudden enlightenment. I’m sorry if you got the wrong impression. Advertising is inherently dishonest, after all, even when all we’re selling is an image.
If you’re confused about what I just said, you might want to brace yourself for a shock: I am a mess. A far more manageable mess than I once was, to be sure, but a pile of garbage is a pile of garbage no matter how many layers deep. I’m afraid I may have inadvertently given the impression that I’ve risen above the types of fears and neuroses that plague the average person through a calculated regimen of spiritual practice and metaphysics. The truth of the matter is that I am a skilled actor. I act with my words, my mannerisms, my style of dress. I act with my expressions, my slow calculated steps and the illustrious names I drop. I perform with everything I’ve got because, you see, I’m not as concerned about the audience out there as I am about the audience of one that lives behind my eyes. And I’ve nearly got him fooled.
The audience of one is, of course, my ego – or for those with an aversion to Freudian terms, whatever you choose to call the feeling that one is a distinct individual with a corresponding destiny. Like all egos, mine is a pitiful, trembling thing, which is perfectly apt for something nonexistent that gets treated as though it is the most important thing in the world. It follows me to the meditation cushion and injects sparks of panic into my quest for Samadhi. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me tell you how I came to embrace this self-conscious quest for enlightenment.
When I was a boy, an empty vessel, my parents filled my head with all kinds of horrors. They told me that God was an all-powerful, highly judgmental patriarch in the sky whose appetite for adoration is insatiable. As I grew older, other people I met corroborated that story. They said that all but a select few who had turned their lives over to God would be promptly deposited into a pit of eternal torture the moment they shook off this mortal coil. As I grew older still, I heard more and more of this, so I played the alchemist and transformed all that fear into rage.
The rage was a smokescreen, too. I began drinking heavily in an effort to dull this repeated cycle of panic, terror, rage, panic, terror, rage, but in short order, the life of a drunk created social disasters and mental confusion that almost caused the whole works to overload. I’ve peered over the precipice of death many times, never quite finding the courage to jump. It seemed that despite it all, I still wanted to live this infuriatingly futile life of mine.
I tried to lose myself in romantic love; a fool’s game upon which I’m sure I needn’t elaborate. A heavy cloud of depression kept my body supine but it never dulled the fear. There is no comfort in fearful repose. Finally, the bottom dropped out and the ravages of alcoholism brought me to a crossroads. Would I live in a meaningful way or would I die? There was no discernible third option.
So here I am, living proof of the choice I made on that fateful day. Ironically, the siren call of the wisdom of the East that had beckoned me since my teenage years finally made itself resoundingly clear, so I set out absorbing every available resource I could find that would teach me how to think like the silent, noble lamas of my imagination. But the lamas who wrote these words weren’t imaginary and what they taught me was that there was nothing at all fateful about that day because there is no such thing as fate. Or destiny. Or purpose. And my Western mind initially found great comfort in that because it misinterpreted the Dharma as a very deep contradiction of the Judeo-Christian ethos. I thought my adoption of these views would be a peaceful refutation of the myths of my culture. It wasn’t. When one’s ego reads of its own insubstantiality, it simply grasps at that new idea for its continued nourishment. It finds meaning in the meaninglessness.
Listen: I do see more clearly now through the illusions we all entertain. A general calmness that had always eluded me before has become a fairly reliable companion. This is good. Yet, it solves nothing. Though the severity and frequency of panic has abated, it still permeates the energy that moves me and ties me together. As everything is cyclical, I often anticipate its reappearance with renewed strength; a storm gathering quietly in the background as I go about my arrogant business of playing the role of a suburban prophet. The very thought causes me to panic. Have you ever seen a self-professed guru attempting to sit serenely in the lotus position in the midst of a panic attack? No? Me, neither, but that’s only because I don’t have a mirror on my shrine. I would guess that it’s a comically pathetic spectacle. Perhaps I should ask my dog.
Some of the most skilled purveyors of the so-called wisdom upon which I base my worldview have died in nefarious ways. Two of my chosen spiritual mentors drank themselves to death. One has to wonder how confident they could possibly have been in what they were selling.
Are these really our only choices? Nihilism or a dangerously selective eternalism? The Buddha answered this question with a resounding NO, of course, but he’s been dead for over 2,500 years and his current self-appointed mouthpieces rarely deign to descend from their mountaintops and explain the elusive Middle Way thoroughly to the modern world. I suspect they are mostly actors just like me, but far more adept. Their inner audiences are so thoroughly entertained by the show in progress that they don’t even need an external audience.
I admit your visit caught me off guard. I didn’t have time to don my robes and choose an appropriate sutra to elucidate, and for that I apologize. So now you know. I am a fraud. My spontaneous and accidentally genuine words belie my wise reputation. I have figured nothing out, nor have I conquered my fears. I am afraid of living as much as I am afraid of dying. I am afraid that I am far more transparent than I thought and that unmistakable beams of fearful ignorance shine through my eyes. This temple may as well be a brothel for its lack of authenticity.
But then, who doesn’t enjoy visiting a good brothel every now and then? Thanks for stopping by. Come again soon. Namaste.