The Words Of My Imperfect Teacher

The first time I met Noah Levine, I thanked him for saving my life. And I meant it; in the weeks after experiencing the consequences of my past actions – I had been accused of sexually assaulting a woman 13 years prior, something I did not recall but responsibility for which I accepted – I had become sober, but I was floundering with how to deal with my new reality. I was shamed, my life as I knew it was over, and I didn’t know how to live with myself. As is common for the newly sober I threw myself into sobriety memoirs; I wanted to read about other people’s hard bottoms and see that they had survived and maybe even flourished afterwards. One of those books I read was Dharma Punx, Noah’s story of being a young drug addict and alcoholic who got sober and got into Buddhist meditation.

The first time I ever meditated it was based on the instructions that Noah wrote in that book. I sat on my couch and focused on my breath, counting each one, starting over if I got distracted. I couldn’t get past four that first time (today I can sometimes get to ten. Don’t set goals in your meditation would be my advice. Just do the thing). I picked up Noah’s other books – Heart of the Revolution, which presented spiritual awakening as a form of guerrilla warfare against a corrupt and degenerate society, and Against the Stream, which really explained the Buddha’s teachings as a form of radical countercultural protest. These things spoke to me deeply.

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Suffering And Acceptance In Video Games (aka CALL OF DUKKHA)

I play Call of Duty online multiplayer. Maybe more than I should; perhaps any COD online is too much, as the game is the opposite of what I am trying to cultivate in my mind. No, this isn’t a military violence thing, rather it’s an acknowledgment that shooters like this are twitch-based games. They are about reflexes and reactions, and I am trying to train my mind to respond more slowly, not more quickly. I think they make me kind of jumpy and amped up in a not-great way.

Maybe I’ll kick the habit, but in the meantime I was playing this morning and noticed some serious dukkha happening in the game. Not to me, although I do notice my own suffering sometimes when the game isn’t going my way. No, I saw it in another guy who was ranting and raving about the other players, whom he was calling the kind of slurs that I as a straight white man cannot repeat.

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Mudita At The Wedding

Schadenfreude is the German word for the feeling of joy you get when something bad happens to someone else. I used to think that it was a credit to the Germans that they had a word for such a delicious emotion, but lately I’ve begun to think that maybe it’s a credit to English that we don’t have one. After selflessly generating a whole lot of schadenfreude back in 2016 I’ve come to look at this emotion in a whole new way.

It’s one of those easy emotions, cheap and dirty, one that makes you feel great in the moment – for a moment – but that leaves you spiritually hungover with the residue of unpleasantness. Negative emotions, even the ones that paradoxically make us feel good in the moment, don’t leave us feeling good in the long run. Schadenfreude is just our worst, most bitter impulses being fed and validated. As Morrissey, the master of negative emotions, sang in We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful:

We hate it when our friends become successful
And if they’re Northern, that makes it even worse
And if we can destroy them
You bet your life we will
Destroy them
If we can hurt them
Well, we may as well
It’s really laughable
Ha, ha, ha

You see, it should’ve been me
It could’ve been me
Everybody knows
Everybody says so
They say :
“Ah, you have loads of songs
So many songs
More songs than they’d stand.”

This song, pointedly, did not play at a wedding I attended last week.

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Elon Musk Is On A One-Man Mission To Prove Money Doesn’t Make You Happy

If I were rich, I would be happy.

This thought came to me more than once this week while cleaning up trash and swabbing out toilets at my day job. But once I confronted the thought it melted away; two years ago today I was making about 400% more money and was about 200% unhappier. I wasn’t even that much more comfortable, to be honest. Somehow I managed to spend all of that extra money and had basically nothing to show for it.

“Money can’t buy you happiness” feels, when you’re poor, like one of the nastiest lies that rich people feed to you. It sounds like a maxim designed to keep you down, to make you stay satisfied with your wretched lot in life, to keep you from encroaching on their hallowed halls of aristocracy.

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This Labor Day Chop Wood And Carry Water

(The image above is Mila Kunis in the some-day cult classic Jupiter Ascending)

If you’ve noticed that I’ve been scarcer than usual here, it’s because I got a day job. A couple of them, actually. One is a work from home part-time thing, but the other is a minimum wage service industry job. It’s very physical and quite menial; I leave work every day bone-tired. Between these two jobs and my Patreon I still don’t make a living wage – the combined income is not enough to even rent a studio apartment in most areas of Los Angeles.

When I got the job I was worried that someone might recognize me as I was cleaning toilets; this isn’t just my enormous ego talking, the job is in a sector that attracts movie fans. On my first day I saw an acquaintance who works on a big TV show; I’m not sure if he saw me, but we didn’t have an interaction. I was grateful for that.

So as you can imagine the kerfuffle about Geoffrey Owens, formerly Elvin on The Cosby Show, has hit home. The actor was spotted – and photographed! – bagging groceries at a Trader Joe’s. What followed was a perfect internet storm, first of people mocking the actor and then people getting mad at the people mocking the actor (and thus spreading the photo farther and wider. The internet is the ultimate home of “This tastes like shit, try it.”). A lot of people spoke up about how hard it is to make a living in the arts, and that having a job – any job – is laudable and honorable.

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Heal Yourself To Help Others

One of the things I’ve always liked about Buddhism is that it’s based in a ‘check it out for yourself’ attitude. Because the Buddha didn’t talk about a lot of cosmic stuff there’s very little to take on faith; you’re invited to check out the principals and practices and see if they work for you.

John Horgan is a science writer who has been super critical of Buddhism and the modern mindfulness movement, but always at a remove. He doesn’t meditate. I get where he’s coming from – this shit seems ridiculous from an outside vantage point. But friends convinced him to do a 10 day retreat and, even though he half-assed it, he came to the conclusion that there’s something to this meditation business after all. 

But he makes a really common mistake – he thinks that meditation is selfish. He writes:

[S]eeking enlightenment is pretty self-indulgent. The world isn’t all fireflies and goldfinches. It has problems that need fixing, as I was reminded whenever I looked across the Hudson at the West Point Military Academy.

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Holy Shit, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Is Great

In June Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, identifying as a Democratic Socialist, won a Democratic primary in New York City against a sure-thing incumbent. It was a total come-from-behind victory; when people complained the media hadn’t paid enough attention to her I thought to myself “You guys are missing what makes an underdog story an underdog story,” but whatever.

In the weeks since she’s been getting a lot of love, but I’ve maintained my usual irritating skepticism (which has been tempered from the thinly veiled cynicism I used to hold to something closer to the true “I do not know” freedom from judgment to which I aspire). Ocasio-Cortez was a bartender a year ago; not at all a disqualifying thing, but she has no record or history as a legislator or even a major activist. To make any judgment seemed, to me, to be premature.

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Kindness Is Subversive

Lately I’ve been getting very into kindness. I used to think kindness was something that you deployed on occasion, like an umbrella. Then I thought kindness was something you used like a weapon, a cudgel with which you could smite your enemies, leaving them bloodied with your superiority.

In the past year my thoughts on kindness have changed. I think kindness can be constant and invisible, like radiation coming from a pellet of plutonium (maybe I can come up with a more positive version of that simile at some point). Kindness is something you not only project but that you also apply to yourself. And kindness, I believe, is the most radical and subversive thing in the world today.

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A Little White Privilege In The Morning

I experienced a little white privilege today.

I have this new used car, and there is only one door lock. It is broken. I can’t get into the car. So I had to climb in through the trunk, push down the back seat and unlock the car from within.

Doing this told the car that it was being stolen. The alarm rang like crazy. The only way to stop it would be to put the key in the lock and open the door, but the lock is broken. So the alarm blares and blares and I’m standing there next to the car with a blank look on my face. The alarm quits after ten solid blaring minutes.

I leave the door unlocked all night, because I’m taking the car to the mechanic this morning. But when I open the door, the alarm goes off again. At 8:30 in the morning. On a quiet residential street.

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