You never know what’s going to change your life or what state you’re going to be in. Then, when it happens, you’re not always sure anything significant occurred. Ninety percent of it is just showing up. I believe Gelek Rimpoche, my teacher, told this to us just a month ago, at our last retreat. Just give yourself a chance and just show up.

My journal entries for this day and the days immediately preceding it are so painful as to be almost unreadable. I was having terrible fights with my wife. “You’re so selfish, you’re so self-centered,” she yelled at me. “You think you’re so much greater than everybody. You’re just the same as everyone! You think your shit doesn’t stink!”

Two days later, on Sept. 24, I started out in this state:

“I want to hurt myself. I want to cause myself discomfort and pain. I want to work even though the weather has been so beautiful this fall. I want to work and grind and grind even though I hate it. I hate my job and yet I stay at it. I want to write and yet I refuse to. I work. Why am I killing myself slowly, strangling myself this way?”

I had seen a flyer posted on campus advertising a talk by this Tibetan guy. The title of the talk was “Overcoming Habitual Patterns.” This didn’t sound very mystical or airy-fairy. So I stayed after work and walked over to Ida Noyes Hall. I sat on a bench near the bank. It took me a while to realize that the little guy in the suit and short-brimmed hat was our speaker. I had expected him to be in robes or something. I think I wanted something totally different, something to take me out of the hell of my mind and everything I hated.

“Coming over here I realized how thoroughly I have turned my mind off and how I retreat into fantasy,” I wrote. “It really is a way of escaping the way things really are, of reality, really. I escape into dreams, and I think, over and over again, Wouldn’t that be nice, Wouldn’t that be nice, instead of thinking Isn’t this nice, Isn’t this good. Being happy with the way things are. It’s something I’m not used to.”

That’s the state of mind I was in when Brenda Rosen gave an introduction and Rimpoche began to talk.

“Little Tibetan monk in a brown business suit and a beige tie. How his earlobes were so long and stuck out like little baby’s thumbs. How his eyes were just like slits; round moons above and below. How he stood there gathering his thoughts with his eyelids closed and his eyes rolled up in his head like the Tibetan singers. How neat his hair was. The teacher gains respect. The only way to gain respect is by benefiting others. Then you gain respect without even trying. You acknowledge and face your problems. Then you use patience and compassion to overcome it. You do not ignore it. You allow your true beautiful nature to grow by eliminating barriers; then it grows of itself.”

And that is all I wrote. Nothing like “Wow!” or “This changes everything!” But my writing and thoughts after this after different. I started looking at things, simply looking, and finally getting out of my own head. And when Jewel Heart met the following week, I came. And I have never left.

Sacred Music Sacred Dance
One good thing about working at the University of Chicago was the number and range of cultural events that took place on campus and in the neighborhood. I was in a Javanese gamelan group for a while. There were classes in Ikebana flower arranging, choral concerts, poetry readings. And on this day, a concert by Tibetan monks. I stayed after work and went to it.

Perhaps I went because they were to be introduced by the actor Richard Gere. Perhaps that’s why the hall was absolutely packed. I wrote:

“A suitably gray, introspective type of day. Tremendous overflow crowd snaking through hall. Guy behind me talking about home renovation. Richard Gere has perfectly gray hair. Have all these people come to hear the music of the unconscious?

“Although I went to this thinking that I would test my theory about the unconscious, I was more interested in the large crowd and the feeling I got from being with them–an indescribable good feeling that thee were all good people, interesting people, and that this was the right place for me to be. ‘It’s something different,’ the girl in front of us said. That was true; it was something away from everyday life, a break from the mundane, a time to pause and connect with ‘god’ in the sense of universal bliss or self-awareness or whatever–which has nothing to do with everyday life. That is what church never did for me, yet should have been. It started out as something mysterious and foreign but became less and less so. Doing the mass in English was the first big change. Then turning the altar to the front. Then guitar music, deacons, shaking hands–god knows what they have now. They probably have group discussions and hug-fests in the middle of the service. That’s why it became dead for me.

“That shivering, resonating shiver when something is really right, when I am learning something. I got it quite often that night.

“As to whether Western music is music of the ego and the chanting of Tibetan monks is music of the unconscious, I’m not sure. It feels that way, but I have no way to test it. I suspect that many of the people who went to the concert felt better for it but could not tell you exactly why–because it did not reach them on a conscious, verbal level. If that was the way they looked at it, they would say, ‘That’s weird,’ or ‘I can’t follow it.’ But if they forgot that barrier of consciousness, and let it speak to their unconscious, I think it does touch us there, and that is why we feel better about it. Because, for a change, our conscious set o ‘ears’ has been entertained, not the conscious set.

“It demonstrated the value of mass ritual–the energy and excitement gained from the group, with it loss of emphasis on individual concerns. so that one is open to more universal things–and the escape from the transitory world of everyday pain and suffering; the opening out into the wider sphere of the collective unconscious. Mad me realize how far away from that I had come, how I never got that sense in all the Catholic masses I had gone to.

“The popularity of this is hard to explain except to say that it touches something universal that we long for and that is connoted by the words ‘lama’, ‘Tibet,’ ‘mystical,’ etc.–that turning to the East that we are slowly doing in our culture. Not revealing something to people but touching something that is already there inside–people who know nothing of this would be unlikely to spend $10 to come to it.”

I am sure when I got home I told my wife very little of this. She was a Lutheran and didn’t want images of Buddha put up around the house.

I didn’t wake up this morning thinking, “Well, it’s the first day of fall, I think my life will change today.” We never have advance knowledge of when our lives will change. Something significant happens, and you go from one part of your life to another. Only when everything is different do you realize something important happened. That’s what happened this day in 1989. The 21st has always been an important day for me. I was born on the 21st. And 21 of anything is important in Buddhism. Though I didn’t know that at the time.

I had been enthusiastically exploring C.G. Jung, Joseph Campbell, and at least the idea of Buddhism. This was consuming more and more of my psychic energy. But much of my physical energy was still spent with a group of friends in Logan Square. I met Gary (I will call him Gary) in English class in college. He had been my best friend for ten years. In 1982, he was best man at my wedding. We had traveled to Spain together. He was very smart, opinionated, and a born leader and teacher. I am a born follower, so I fit well into a circle of followers. We went through the punk music revolution together, and endured nearly a decade of Ronald Reagan. Our times were spent going to basketball games, drinking, arguing about left politics, going to art shows, drinking, occasionally dancing, drinking… you get the idea. Anything left-wing and not of this country was to be discussed and admired. In These Times was a favorite publication. All our talk and activity was of the outer world. Politics, culture, sports–we lived there at the top of current events, we listened as Gary held forth and extolled the virtues of this or that revolution, and put down Reagan, Bush, Ollie North, Nancy Reagan.

I was no great lover of Republicans, but I was interested in exploring my inner life, a subject that never came up in our group of friends. On this night I went to Gary’s and had a few beers an ventured to bring up my growing interest in Jung. I wrote:

“Tonight I blew up at Gary when he put down Jung and said how stupid he was. I couldn’t stand it. It hurt me so badly to see ideas that were precious to me and that were changing my life get trashed by someone who wouldn’t listen to me and didn’t see to have any interest in what I was saying. I told myself, fight back. Try to explain yourself. Argue with him. But I couldn’t stand it for very long. In this kind of situation I just want to leave. I thinking deep down what bothered me was the possibility that he was right and I was wrong. What if it was true? Then I would be lost again–at sea–uncertain–defeated by my futile efforts. I couldn’t stand that possibility.

“I didn’t have the patience, the maturity to just sit there and reason with him. I couldn’t do it. Something in my just erupted and too that away. I was hurt, hurt like someone was making fun of me personally and saying ‘You’re stupid.’

“I just started to blubber like a little kid. ‘Can’t talk to you about anything you’re not interested in,’” I said. So I left. And didn’t come back. And didn’t speak to him for twenty years. I wanted this to be the dramatic end of our friendship, and that is what it was. Our weekends became much quieter. I cut my wife off from her friends as well. I was free to go on meditation weekends in Ann Arbor and leave her behind. I left all of my old friends behind. I moved to a new part of my life without them.

Just a week later, I went to a Tibetan sacred music concert. I started to read Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior by Chogyam Trungpa. And then I met Rimpoche and Jewel Heart.

I think everyone in my family would admit that I’m different than they are. I did things they wouldn’t do. I ran off to Europe by myself and hitchhiked around France. I got an apartment a few blocks from Wrigley Field. Just last fall, I drove by myself to North Carolina to stay on an organic farm, in a tent, and learn about Chinese herbs. I love these people, but they don’t totally get me.

Buddhism has a concept called sangha: a group of spiritual practitioners who are supposed to help and support one another and discuss things so they can learn. Truth is, this group can be as dysfunctional as any blood relations. But at this time (1990) I felt I had found a sort of family–or at least, people who “got” me. These were the days when we had regular visits from Rimpoche, who would teach the Lam Rim (Stages on the Path). I wrote:

“Last night was a wonderful night. I felt right at home in the circle of friends at Rochelle’s house. You could feel the energy change as the senior people came in. You could feel the energy get stronger. And then the voices got stronger. And then Rimpoche being there on the couch was like a great anchor, a great source of strength, over there to the side.

“To feel that you were on the same wavelength with everyone in the room, and not only that, but that people liked you and admired you and appreciated your work and your efforts–oh, that was wonderful. A warm green feeling.

“[My problems] were off in the background for a while, and they were now a manageable size. I am trying to flow with the world and make everything a single lowing process of meditation from one thing to another all moving together, all one great exchange, one great meditation, one great source of learning and wisdom, one great opportunity to help others and teach others and also to sing the praises of God or Buddha or whatever. All one flowing process. It is so wonderful how it has worked, and how I am beginning to realize consciously what I seem to have known all along intuitively.”

That last point is critical: I was able to live out things I had known all along. I wasn’t learning them for the first time. I have been here before. That’s what has kept me with this for so long.

How do we change? How do we move from unhappy to happy, to change negative habits to positive ones? There is no straight line progression. Either you have a life-changing tragedy or trauma that forces you to look with new eyes at your situation and at the world all at once, or you plod along gradually, taking one step forward and two back.

I’m in the latter group. In the dry, cracked desert of my psyche little rivulets began to trickle down from some cool mountainous area. Grasses and plants sprouted here or there but the rest of the landscape was still overwhelmingly bleak.

My journal of these days is filled with complaints that drag on like an extra-inning baseball game. Most are about my coworkers at the University of Chicago, where I worked in the Office of College Publications (now defunct). Many were about my first wife. At the same time I was finding a way forward, a way to be less angry, less unhappy, less blaming of others, more responsible for myself, I spent considerable time blaming my wife (who was recovering from a life-threatening illness and trying to get off the medication that had saved her) for being a negative drag on me. The lowest rung of hell would force me to read these words in detail over and over and feel all the resentment I directed at this woman who only wanted to love me, to have children and who walked around the house crying because I was pulling away and becoming more distant from her.

At the same time, I was learning about compassion, about wisdom, and finding a family of friends who loved and accepted me.

In other words, you change by faking it. By enduring all these conflicting things at once.

On this day, I went to work and listened to a program on the radio called New Dimensions. Ram Dass was on.

“Truth waits for eyes unclouded by longing,” he said.

My teacher, Gelek Rimpoche, has a Ram Dass story he told then and still tells. Ram Dass was at a family dinner. He had been taking LSD. His brother was attacking him, criticizing him. Ram Dass said his words looked like arrows coming at him. He was able to stop the arrows touching him. They fell to the table in front of him.

I wrote: “Nothing has been more exciting than exploring my own mind, and seeing how it relates to the universe.”

Then just a few paragraphs later I was complaining that my wife had shrunken one of my shirts. Then called to the office in a panic about a financial problem that turned out to be nothing. “I am so unhappy with her. So displeased with her. She is such a negative in my life. She drains all the energy from me…” Our marriage took months and months to peter out.

We are taught not to feel guilt. Rather, to recognize what you have done, who you have wronged, and to regret, and to remediate somehow, and to promise not to do it again. I do that every day, and am doing it now.

IMG_20150220_092612-1Allen Ginsberg met my Buddhist lama. Gelek Rimpoche, through the composer Philip Glass. They both  became members of Jewel Heart. We would see him at occasional teachings at our center on Ann Street in Ann Arbor. He and Philip Glass would regularly attend our retreats, even the “miserable” winter retreats with leaky roofs, illnesses, etc.

Ginsberg and Glass helped Jewel Heart with fundraisers. I helped set up this poetry reading in Evanston. Ginsberg had a quiet speaking voice. But when he read poetry he yelled, he waved his arms, he became someone bigger and greater, like Lord Vishnu showing his true magnificence.

That weekend Ginsberg and Rimpoche and a few others from the Chicago sangha met at my house. Before, there were plumbing issues. The toilets backed up and there was water all over the floor in the first-floor bathroom. I prayed that they would last through this visit. They did.

Ginsberg was tired and wanted to take a nap; I tucked him into my bed. So I can say Allen Ginsberg slept in my bed. I recall that he liked my house and the little yard in the back. It’s one of those things where you think afterward, did that really happen?

In his poem “Friday the Thirteenth” he described the area near O’Hare Airport where I grew up:

Samsara tears itself apart–Dusk over Chicago, light-glitter along boulevards
insect-eyed autos moving slow under blue streetlamps,
plane motor buzz in eardrum, city cloud roof filling with gray gas on up into
clear heaven–planet horizon auroral twilight-streaked,
blue space above human truck-moil, Empty sky
Empty mind overhangs Chicago, the universe suspended entire overhanging



September 9, 1990 · Long View

February 19th, 2015

How did I get here?

We grow from rupture. Something happens to shake up our world and remove the solid ground from beneath our feet. In the scary in-between space we float, we grieve, and if we are lucky, we move forward.

My grandmother died earlier this month (1990). I was already a member of my Buddhist sangha and we had had a summer retreat which I attended without my wife. On Sept. 9, I recorded this dream in my journal:

“The Buddhists were meditating. We were in a long black room. There were low squat objects at regular intervals spaced throughout the room. They were like little islands of coral in the ocean. They were all made up of twisted knots. These were symbols of our problems. We were sitting and we were visualizing our problems as objects out there separate from us. So we were in empty blank flat space and our problems were separate from us and we were at peace.”

My grandmother wanted to die. My uncle and I were in her hospital room. We pulled her up by her big knobby-knuckled hands and pulled her up in the bed so she could gulp down, with great difficulty, a glass of water–more like she was swallowing a golf ball than water. “Let’s put an end to this…this is terrible…I’ve had enough…” I knew she meant it.