Learning To Be

I was walking through a park with a friend. It was a beautiful summer day in Baltimore. She looked at me and asked, why did you become Buddhist?

I was in a lot of pain, I guess. I was an angry young man looking for a way out.

She smiled and said, it hasn’t seemed to work. You’re still pretty angry.

You should have seen me back then.

Back then was the late 80’s in New York. I ran a comedy club in Greenwich Village, and worked the bar for extra cash. It was grueling hours. I loved being my own bouncer and handling rowdies twice my size. I felt big and powerful and tough. Although, in reality I was small, sensitive and vulnerable.  This made for a certain internal squeeze. I learned to bully my way through any unclear situation. I was Italian, Spanish and Taurus, which seemed to explain, if not excuse, everything.  I  loved the job and my life at full volume. I had the keys and partied after hours many a night. It was a very high profile situation, with many soon to be big names making their initial way onto the world stage. The place buzzed. New York was alive then then, at the peak of its danger and charm.

I loved Vodka and espresso, with a splash of sambucca. I was pretty charged all the time. I yelled at everyone. One day I yelled at the boss. He was from an old New York Sicilian family. It was a stupid move. He always liked me though, and he kindly let me leave under my own power.

Now jobless, with time to kill, I asked my girlfriend if she knew of any place to learn meditation. She rolled her eyes, but remembered a teacher in college who meditated. So we called him and he led me to the New York Dharmadhatu (now Shambhala Center). I walked in and found out the the organization also ran Naropa Institute (now University). I went back to my girlfriend (now ex-girlfirend), very excited. Lets move to Colorado! She was not impressed. We could meditate, I said. And go to Naropa. You can dance and I’ll do the writing program.

She smiled kindly and suggested I move to Colorado without her.

Once I got there, I found I was just as angry as ever, only now I was in a much quieter environment. People were kinder and more real than I was used to. This made me pretty nervous. I couldn’t understand why people didn’t fall for my stories or laugh at my jokes, which I told to anyone who’d listen, usually at a very full volume. Once, I asked a Buddhist friend why although I didn’t seem to fit in, people were nonetheless very kind to me. He smiled and said everybody loves your heart, Joe. But, they love you in spite of your pose. Not because of it.

I realized that I had come very far, but still could not outrace my mind. I was still annoying. I was still loud. I was still angry, even though I had learned to bake my own whole grain bread. So, I dropped out of (another) college and moved to a meditation center in the mountains. I called the (ex)girlfriend once more, but she refused to budge. I could feel her eyes roll, over the phone.

So I was alone under the frozen stars on long nights that winter. I found that with ever more silence, my inner volume seemed to increase. I was telling jokes to the deer, but they’d just look at me and run off before the punch-lines. So, with all the space, I just got angry. The less reason I had to get angry, the more I got angry, until I realized I was nothing but angry. Fundamentally. Or, you might say, basically angry.

Meditation only seemed to make it clearer. But I stayed at it, and eventually began to realize that I was learning to like me in spite of my pose. I was learning to trust the fundamental goodness of my own heart. And then the most amazing thing occurred. I met my teacher. He needed a cook for a two week retreat in the southern mountains, and I jumped at the opportunity. It was an amazing situation. He and I and an attendant locked in a cabin in a remote part of Colorado. He introduced me to sanity, and I did my best to drive him crazy. Luckily, he bested me.

One day he looked at me and said, for a comedian, you’re pretty angry.

Yes, I said.

So, I worked for twelve years as his cook and attendant in between running the kitchens at various meditation centers. It turned out, he was a great comedian himself. He told a mean joke and had the best gift of mimicry I’d ever seen. At the end of our time, I was his chef in Halifax and began hosting a comedy show at a local pub. He never came, but got reports back about my angry ranting form the stage. One night after dinner, he pulled me aside and said, maybe you should go back to New York.

What would I do there?

Teach at the center, they could use you there, and you could go back to your comedy.

Really? I was taken aback. So, I asked him if he thought I’d be successful.

Probably not, he said. And smiling walked into his bedroom, closing the door.

So, I moved back to the city and resumed comedy. And, yes, I didn’t become particularly successful, but I learned to combine humor, with um, humor, rather than anger. I began to see how exposing the truth beneath the pose allowed me to contact my audience more completely and directly. I also began teaching and started combining humor with Dharma, and a bit of Buddhist Wisdom with comedy. One night I was performing and told the story of the old comedy club and my ex who had refused to move to Boulder. It so happened I had moved back to the same block we had lived on a dozen years before. Someone in the crowd knew us from those days. I hadn’t recognized him, as he was a skinny kid at the time. My friend Tom the TV writer stood before me, now a grown man, reminding me of the times we had then. He was a good friend of hers.

Do you hear from her, I asked.

Yeah, he said. She’s studying to be a hippy in some Buddhist college in Boulder.

I stood there for a minute.

Later that week, I contacted her at Naropa. She was involved in running the MFA program there. I invited her to co-teach a program as Shambhala Mountain Center that summer, and we met again after l those years. It was great to see her, but I found that I became my old self again when around her. We were big mediators and teachers and here I was becoming an angry teenager again. Ah, the power of habit and beer.

I went back to New York and realized I really would never outrun myself until I had found myself.  I would only run into myself over and over until I got to know the pose from the truth. Since then everything seems to lead that way. Further and further from the story, and closer to the truth. I think maybe the truth is not knowing. And everything we think we know is, at best, a reflection. Truth is not the frame or the position or the place. Its looking into your heart and NOT knowing. Having no idea.

Back in the park n Baltimore, my friend smiled at me and said, its okay to be angry. Maybe you’ll always be angry. But you can work there to find your truth.

How, I asked.

How?, she said, and rolled her eyes. You’re always trying to do something. Stop trying so hard. Just learn to be. Go inside, touch the pain, rest there and just be with your feelings. If you know what to do, its probably not the truth.  If you have no idea, you have no alternative but to just be. And she touched my heart, slowly and firmly.  My eyes swelled, I felt my feet on the earth and realized I was breathing.

Yes, I said.

Yes, she answered.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One thought on “Learning To Be

  1. New website’s great! Like your post. Sometimes, probably anger’s a lot like sorrow. I’ve embraced mine at some level, however I’m able to do it, since reading Sacred Heart so that I don’t become my anger by pushing it away. Didn’t do it wrong…may seem awfully angry now, but next to a decade ago. Whoa! I could tell some stories. Everyone could, I guess. Sometimes, too, lately, since I’ve gotten more instruction through the Level I courses, I’ve embraced, “It’s all too big for me,” which is linked with getting mad a lot. That helps me to do something anyway…not the big thing, but something.

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