Ever since I was about ten I’ve wanted to make my own monster movie. When I was a teenager I made a few with friends. When I was around 27 or so I got myself a VHS video camera and with my friend Dana Mitchell (now Dana Plambeck) I put together a script and started working on what I hoped would be a semi-professional film.
I made a miniature set of downtown Akron out of old laundry baskets (the square holes looked sort of like windows) and cardboard boxes and I discovered that a friend of a friend owned an iguana that he was willing to let me use in the movie. I took my little buildings, a bunch of Matchbox cars and my camera up to his place in Cleveland one summer afternoon and got to work.
At first the iguana was kind of lame. He just sort of sat there. The guy who owned him said, “I can make him bite the cars if you want.” That was exactly what I wanted! So I asked him to do it.
The guy stood behind the iguana and pulled its tail. Whenever he pulled the iguana’s tail the iguana would bite whatever was in front of him. It looked awesome!
I will never forget this moment, not just because it was so cool but because I learned something really important that day. Watching that iguana bite those cars I suddenly realized, “That’s ME!” That is what I do all the time.
The iguana was being bothered by something behind him, something too big for him to fight. So instead of turning around and biting the giant anthropoid who was pulling his tail, he went after the smaller thing in front of him. We all do this all the time. It’s hardwired into the reptilian portions of our brains. It happened to me very recently and I’d like to tell you about it.
Last week around Thursday I found out that one of my best friends, Logan, a guy I’ve known since high school, has stage 4 esophageal cancer. He lives in Portland and even before he was diagnosed I’d been planning to stay with him and his wife when the movie about me was shown up there. Amy, his wife, said we shouldn’t cancel our stay at the house. She thought the company and the distraction would do Logan some good.
This was devastating news. Logan is two years younger than me and might have been the very first fan I ever had of anything artistic I did. I used to make a zine called The Reptile. I probably printed a dozen or fewer copies of each issue. It was your typical punk zine with stupid jokes and dumb cartoons, Xeroxed at the local Kinko’s copy center. Logan was one of the few people who actually bought the thing. When I stopped making them he and a friend of his started putting out their own zine called Not The Reptile, which was actually a lot funnier and better produced than mine had been. I remember at the time I thought it was really touching they’d done that. But, of course, an 18 year old boy is never going to say that out loud to a couple of 16 year old friends.
Later on I moved into a house with Logan and his then-girlfriend Laura and another friend of ours named Steve. At the time Logan sang for a band called the Zen Luv Assassins. In those days I didn’t usually tell people I was involved in actual Zen practice. I’m sure none of them knew I was often sitting zazen upstairs during their noisy rehearsals in the basement.
Anyhow, at almost exactly the same time as I learned that Logan had cancer someone in the comments section of this blog decided it was time to have a hissy fit over a wholly imagined slight he decided I’d given him. And I got to watch the Iguana Effect go into action big time.
Logan’s cancer is huge and scary and there’s nothing I can do about it. So all of the anger and frustration I felt about the diagnosis suddenly got trained upon this guy and his silly little screaming baby meltdown in the comments section. I didn’t write anything about it here or confront him. But you should talk to some of my friends to see how much it upset me! I was ranting about it to anyone who would listen. And they were all telling me what I knew already, that it was nothing at all, that the guy was getting his panties in a twist over something that never even really happened, that I should just ignore it.
I wanted to bite that guy just like that iguana bit those Matchbox cars.
But I also knew that the Iguana Effect was very likely happening to him as well. There was probably something else in his life that he couldn’t control and so I became the focus of all his anger and impotent frustration about whatever that might have been. As mad as it made me, I could see it for what it was and knew I had to temper my reaction accordingly. Even calling it a “hissy fit” and a “silly little screaming baby meltdown” here feels like a reaction more to my anger over what’s going on with Logan than anything directed at the guy on the comments section. That guy probably doesn’t read this blog anymore so I’m not all that concerned he’ll see my description. But if you are reading this right now, Mr Commenter, please know that I’m just lashing out at my former housemate’s cancer and not at you. Sorry about that.
Now some of you must surely be asking yourselves, “If Brad did all those years of zen practice and he still gets upset over things that don’t matter, what the hell good is zazen?”
It’s a reasonable question. It’s one I had myself when I saw my teachers behaving like real people instead of like the kind of serene ethereal beings I hoped I could one day become. It shook my faith in the practice and made me wonder if it might be better to just give it up, or to look for something else taught by someone who really was an ethereal being made flesh — like the guys who advertise in the backs of all the meditation magazines. Surely they never get upset at anything! Look at those beatific smiles they always have!
But it doesn’t work like that. Those reptilian reactions do not go away no matter how much meditation you do. Not even for those smiling guys in the backs of the meditation magazines. What you learn through meditation practice is how to stop believing them and how to stop feeding into them. This is relatively easy to do when the thing pulling your tail is not so big and horrifying, when its something like a bad day at work or fatigue or things of that level.
But when it’s bigger and scarier than that, like a friend getting cancer or a pending divorce or stuff along those lines, the Iguana Effect kicks in much harder. You find yourself feeding into whatever minor and more controllable frustration sits in front of you like those Matchbox cars in front of that iguana. You’ll even see yourself biting at it just like that iguana did and even understanding precisely what’s happening and why, and yet still somehow doing it anyway.
All you can really do then is step back. Stop. Take a temporary vow of silence (I did this for about 24 hours). Do some more zazen. It’ll be the most frustrating zazen you ever did. Even a 20 minute sitting will feel like it’s going on for 47 years. But it will help. Trust me. It really will.
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Tickets for four more screenings of the documentary about me, Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen have just gone on sale! I will be at all of these screenings, signing books and posters and shaking hands with people and generally being a Matchbox car you can bite to relieve your frustrations about something else. Here’s the rundown.
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This site is still supported by your kind donations. It’s the only way I make any money off of what I write here. Your donations are deeply appreciated and are what has paid my rent for the past couple years. Book sales do not do it!