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The other day I re-watched the movie THE SOURCE FAMILY and started thinking about authentic ways of life.
The Source Family is a documentary about the most quintessential seventies California sex-drugs-rock’n’roll and spiritual goopty-goo cult you could possibly imagine. Led by a charismatic millionaire, health food advocate, martial arts master and wanna-be yogi who called himself alternately Father Yod or Yo Ho Wah, they advocated marijuana, meditation, tantric sex and alfalfa sprouts as a way to transcend the restrictions of the straight world.
What struck me most was how many of the people who joined Father Yod in his crazy quest were fairly sane and intelligent people. I got the impression that few of them actually bought into most of the cobbled-together spirituality but were willing to go along with it because it seemed like a better alternative to how normal people live their lives. You only have this life. Why not do something outrageous and fun with it?
All of us are looking for an authentic way to live. Mainstream society presents us with a model that is quite clearly broken and inefficient. But it sorta-kinda works, so most of us just go along with it to some degree. We go to school, maybe go to college, get jobs, get 401K plans, do the things that other people do to make their way through life and then when the time comes we drop dead like everybody else. We work hard at jobs we hate and look for pleasure when we can afford it.
People in power — or those who’d like to be in power — create fantasy scenarios to try to get us to happily do the things that keep them in power (or the things they hope will put them in power). The dominant Western paradigm these days says that consumption is good and that money will buy you happiness (at least temporarily). This enables Wal Mart and Mercedes Benz and the Bank of America and all the rest to stay in the business of selling you stuff.
If you’re reading this blog I’ll assume you’ve already decided that’s all bullshit. I did a long time ago. But you’re still probably wondering what you can do to live a life that is real, that has some sort of value and that will make you reasonably happy or at least content most of the time.
When I see people who join religious cults I don’t think they’re idiots. Some of them probably are. But I generally think, “There’s someone who is trying to find a way to live an authentic life.” They’re intelligent enough to see through the dominant paradigm and bold enough to do something decisive about it rather than just letting it grind away at them until they can’t be ground away at anymore.
And I look at myself and think, “Here I am, a representative of one of those kooky religious orders that tries to offer people a different way to live.” I don’t think Zen is religious. But for the sake of discussion I’ll call it that since that’s how people see it.
Like any other kooky religious order out there, Zen is built upon a foundation of actual insight into how things are and a whole lot of trial-and-error as to what ought to be done about it.
I think the best way to pick what kooky alternative lifestyle you’re going to choose to follow is to try to determine how much real insight there is at its core, how much time they’ve had to work on the trial-and-error aspect, whether the other people involved in it seem happy and connected to reality, and whether it just plain makes any sense or not.
When I look at the Source Family I can see a lot of things that would have made it attractive to me had I been old enough to be interested when it was active. You’ve got healthy food, lots of sex, a sense of purpose, a strong community. But on the other hand, if I’d looked into the insights of its leadership I’d probably have thought the same things I thought when I looked into the Hare Krishnas. It’s all very beautiful but it ultimately doesn’t make any sense. There’s insight involved, but it’s pretty shallow.
I think some people are willing to overlook that aspect if the other parts of the lifestyle in question are attractive enough. Or maybe they just take it all in and hope that eventually it will make some sense. Perhaps they work very hard to convince themselves they believe in it when they actually don’t. And, of course, there are some folks who actually do believe in those shallow insights or fail to see how limited they are. But I think you have to start off with a lot of ignorance or at least naivety and then, as new information becomes available you have to work hard to either avoid it or strengthen your denial mechanisms.
I couldn’t do that. So I never joined the Hare Krishnas. The punk rockers made more sense. But they hadn’t had time to work on the trial-and-error aspects of their movement. It has outlasted the hippies and beatniks because it learned from their mistakes. But it still only goes so far.
Zen made perfect sense to me. It was completely reasonable, completely rational. It didn’t try to fight against science. It had worked on the trial-and-error aspects for 2500 years and gotten a lot of the bugs out.
I couldn’t buy into the Zen monastic thing, but I didn’t have to. I think it works brilliantly for certain people, yet I knew it wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life. Luckily, people who came along way before me had already figured that out so there was an established place for those who wanted to work on the practice but couldn’t see the sense in committing to the monastic life, at least for themselves.
I still struggle sometimes with this question of how to live an authentic life. I think you have to have doubts. My first Zen teacher said that this practice required both doubt and faith. That balance is what keeps you from losing the truth.
But I no longer look at folks like the Source Family or their current equivalents and wonder if maybe they’re right. Sure, other alternative lifestyles might look more fun. I went to a big SoCal polyamorist gathering when I was working on Sex Sin and Zen. Those people got to have loads of wild sex. But I could see that it was making them kind of crazy. It looked like fun, but it lacked any kind of stable foundation. The Hare Krishnas still have way better food than the Zennies (although the bread at Tassajara is fantastic). But as long as they keep putting out books saying that evolution is wrong, I’m not going to join.
I know I made the correct choice. There are variations I could try. Sometimes I think it’s possible I should go freeze my ass off in some mountain monastery and submit to getting bossed around by jerks in brown robes for a while just to see what it’s really like. Maybe I will. But the particular variation on the theme of how-to-be-Zen that I’ve been following for the past few decades has worked out mostly OK.
For now, I’ll just keep on keeping on.
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Here’s my 2014 European Tour as it stands:
Oct. 3-5 Helsinki, Finland all events to be determined
Oct. 6 Movie Screening in Espoo, Finland
Oct. 8 Lecture in Munich, Germany
Oct. 9-11 Retreat in Munich, Germany
Oct. 12-17 Retreat at Benediktushof near WÃ¼rzburg, Germany
Oct 18-19 Possibly in Bonn, Germany (not confirmed)
Oct 20 Hamburg, Germany (probably)
Oct 24 Lecture in Groningen, Netherlands
Oct 25 Day-long zazen in Groningen, Netherlands
Oct 26 Lecture in Eindhoven, Netherlands
Oct 27-30 Amsterdam, Netherlands (exact dates to be determined, but within that week)
Oct 31 Movie screening in Utrecht, Netherlands
Nov 1-2 Retreat in Utrecht, Netherlands
Nov 4-6 (or 3-5 possibly) Retreat in Hebden Bridge, UK
Nov 7-8 Something in Manchester, UK (to be determined)
That’s all I know for now. Only the event in Benediktushof is currently open for registration. You can reserve your spot at this link. Please don’t write me asking for details about the other events because right now this is all I know for certain.