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.

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.

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.

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.