How I Blew It When Adam Yauch Died

When Adam Yauch died I totally disrespected him.

It was six years ago today that Adam Yauch ended his incarnation. Yauch was always my favorite Beastie Boy – I love his gravelly voice – and has long been an inspiration for me. Even before I hit bottom and had to find a different way to live my life, Yauch’s public change and growth served as a beacon of hope. What’s more, his public Buddhism brought me into the Free Tibet movement in the 90s, which opened the door for me to study Buddhism today.

But when he died I had not internalized the lessons he was trying to get across in his music and life. The gratitude and compassion that Yauch had found in Tibetan Buddhism was foreign to me, and I was trapped inside my own stories, anger and judgment. It led to one of the dumber episodes in the history of BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH. (which I think was still Badass Digest at the time).

So on the night Yauch died Coldplay did a cover of (You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party). It was a REALLY Coldplay version of the song, with the added maudlin nature of grieving the death of a musical icon. I posted the video of the performance under the headline “Worst Thing Of The Day: Coldplay Pays “Tribute” To The Beastie Boys.” The article was short and venomous, but where I really went off the rails was in the comments. When people chimed in saying that they felt this was just a band expressing themselves I battled tooth and nail, often getting mean. I banned people from the site. I eventually closed the comment thread, one of the few times I ever closed a comment thread. And I did it out of petulance.

Here’s what Yauch would have wanted me to understand: I don’t have to like Coldplay OR their cover. But to fixate on my judgment and preferences leads to suffering; I became attached to what I thought was “cool” and I placed my value judgments of what was “good” on not just the cover, but the band AND people who liked the band.

Then I became intensely attached to my opinion. I identified with it so much that I took any argument against my opinion as a personal attack on me, and I responded in kind. There’s just about nothing less Buddhist than this, and I don’t only mean the responding in kind part. What I strive for today is to separate myself from my opinions, to hold them as lightly as possible and definitely to not identify with them. I strive every day to bring my mind to an “I don’t know” place, where possibilities live and where I’m not rigidly attached to any one idea, thought or concept. I can be wrong, and be happy about it (that’s the goal, anyway).

What Yauch was talking about was compassion and love for all; if I had understood his message I would have looked at the Coldplay video, thought to myself, “Well, that’s not for me,” and then moved on. Granted, I was probably driven by a need for clicks – the headline is so inflammatory it all but guarantees people clicking through – but it says a lot about my mindset that this was how I wanted to get clicks from the death of a man I greatly admired for his wisdom and compassion. Looking back I see how deluded I was, how hazy my vision. I am deeply sorry for the way I acted out.

But Yauch also taught compassion for the self. He taught that change was possible, and that you can’t become caught up in the person you were as you move forward to become the person you want to be. In 1986 MCA rapped “The girlies I like are underage,” but in 1994 he rapped ““I want to say a little something that’s long overdue / The disrespect to women has got to be through / To all the mothers and the sisters and the wives and friends / I want to offer my love and respect to the end.” He didn’t need to drag his past self in order to become his new self; he recognized the stages he had to pass through in order to become the man he was becoming. He did a thing we talk about a lot in recovery – he didn’t shut the door on his past, and he did not regret it. It was part of him, a step on the journey. As I grapple with my own history of sexism and misogyny I look at the grace with which Yauch handled his.

He said one of the wisest things I have read about self-improvement. All of my life I thought of self-improvement as profoundly selfish, that we should be focused on improving others. Yet the problems I had within me kept me from helping as many others as I could, and in fact led me to hurting people. In 1995 Yauch told the Shambhala Sun:

I do think that is a misconception of what the Bodhisattva vow is. Because a lot of people just mess themselves up by feeling like they have to “do” stuff for other people, all of the time, even when that’s not working for them personally. They have to include themselves in that overall picture of benefiting everyone. They have to include themselves as “beings”, and know that by being in their strongest place, that that is how they can most benefit the universe, most of the time. Being a Bodhisattva is about strengthening yourself, so you can go on. Benefit where the benefit is needed. Come from a strong place in yourself and you really help people.

The Bodhisattva Vow is a very cool, very ambitious promise some Buddhists make to hold off their own enlightenment until all other beings are enlightened. Basically you promise to hold the door open and only pass through when the last person has passed through. The Vow itself acknowledges the impossibility:

Sentient beings are numberless: I vow to liberate them all.
Fear, hatred and greed are inexhaustible: I vow to end them all.
The Dharma gates are infinite: I vow to master them all.
The Buddha way is unsurpassable: I vow to attain it.

The Beasties have a track called Bodhisattva Vow that I listen to when times are hard and my path seems too steep.

If others disrespect me or give me flak
I’ll stop and think before I react
Knowing that they’re going through insecure stages
I’ll take the opportunity to exercise patience
I’ll see it as a chance to help the other person
Nip it in the bud before it can worsen
A chance for me to be strong and sure
As I think on the Buddhas who have come before
As I praise and respect the good they’ve done
Knowing love can conquer hate in every situation
We need other people in order to create
The circumstances for the learning that we’re here to generate
Situations that bring up our deepest fears
So we can work to release them until they’re cleared
Therefore it only makes sense
To thank our enemies despite their intent.

I knew the song back in 2012, but I didn’t understand it. If I did, I never would have behaved that way in the comments section of the article, or anywhere else in my life. Today I work on understanding it, and internalizing it.

I met Adam Yauch once, interviewing him for Awesome, I Fuckin’ Shot That. I was privileged to get all of the Beastie Boys to sign my Tibetan Freedom Concert program. Yauch was kind and funny in 2006, but he was also just a man. He didn’t have the aura of a holy saint. I will always hold on to that; rather than build this human being up to a place where he stops being human I will remember him as a guy who was tired and maybe not that wild about doing roundtable interviews. That’s important, because we need to look at our inspirations as full people – people who fail as much as they succeed. Because we’re going to fail as well, and we’re going to have days where we’re tired and doing our best.

Anyway, I’ve been struggling with how to make my amends to the internet; there are a lot of people out there who hate me not for any thing I’ve done to anyone, but for my attitude and the way I expressed my opinions. People who I never even interacted with relished my fall because of the way I carried myself. I don’t really know how to make those amends except to acknowledge and express my regret for the ways I have been, and to strive to move forward being better.

Which reminds me of one last Yauch thing. He published this comic in an issue of Grand Royal Magazine:

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I like this because in 1986/1987 Yauch was at a high point, but even then he recognized that it was actually lower than he realized. But what makes it great is that he ran into Paul Williams when he was at a truly low point; Williams would get sober in 1990 and in the years since then has turned his life around in a huge, powerful way, becoming not only an addiction counselor but also representing his fellow songwriters as president of ASCAP.  (I also love that Williams is represented as his orangutan character from Battle For The Planet of the Apes)

I don’t know if Williams and Yauch had many interactions after this one, but I like knowing that both men who passed in the LA night ended up on paths that led them to places of dignity and grace. I love knowing that Williams, in his low moment, offered a lesson to Yauch, and I love knowing that Williams got out of his low moment and continued forward. We can all continue to move forward.