2016 Goals? None

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December 31, 2015.  What are my goals for the New Year?  None!

For a period in my life I swam in the waters of “positive thinking”; of goal-setting with the focus on living in prosperity.  I read the books and listened to the cassettes, and attended a church that was infused with what Oliver Burkeman in his book, The Antidote:  Happiness for People who can’t stand Positive Thinking (Faber & Faber, Inc. 2012), called the “cult of optimism.”  Since 1991 I drafted and tracked goals on a semi-annual basis.  Some goals were accomplished, others not, and others abandoned because my heart was never into them when I first committed them to paper. I stopped after 2001 because life was traveling at a dizzying pace.

Goal setting creates a mindset that you’re not “happy” or “good enough” or “successful” in the present moment.  So you set a goal for a future event that will define you or your work as a success, and thus delay happiness to that point.  To quote Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary, the future is defined as “(t)hat period of time in which our affairs prosper, our friends are true and our happiness assured.”

In the chapter titled “Goal Crazy: When Trying to Control the Future Doesn’t Work,” Burkeman demonstrated how goal setting backfires with, in some cases, deadly consequences, such as a 1996 Mount Everest climb that took the lives of eight people.  Chris Kayes, a former stockbroker who became an expert on organizational behavior and was one of the surviving climbers, links the deaths to goal-setting, as they were “lured into destruction by their passion for goals.” (Burkeman, pg. 78).  “In theology, the term ‘theodicy’ refers to the effort to maintain a belief in a benevolent god, despite the prevalence of evil in the world; the phrase is occasionally used to describe the effort to maintain any belief in the face of contradictory evidence.  Borrowing that language, Chris Kayes termed the syndrome he identified as ‘goalodicy.'” (Burkeman, pg. 78-79).  In Kayes’ studies of business organizations and their goals, he found that when a business’ goal was not being met, the business put forth a larger investment in effort and resources to pursue the goal, resulting in making the chance of accomplishment worse.  (Burkeman, pg. 79).

Burkeman also sites a study that shows that those motivated by a goal are more apt to cheat.  There are big name positive-thinking gurus who site the Yale Study of Goals.  A group of researchers found that 3% of the students of the 1953 graduating class of Yale University formulated specific, written goals for their lives.  The researchers returned twenty years later and allegedly found that those students amassed greater financial wealth than the other 97% combined.  Compelling, eh?  That’s why so many motivational gurus cite it.  The problem is, the study does not exist.

Goals are more of a hindrance to living a happy life than not. In a survey commissioned by Steve Shapiro, 41% of adults agreed that achieving their goals had failed to make them happy, or had left them disillusioned, while 18% said their goals had destroyed a friendship, a marriage, or other significant relationship.  Steve Shaprio, Goal-free Living (Hoboken, New Hersey: Wiley, 2006) cited by Burkeman.

Seriously. It can’t be said any clearer than this:

The optimism-focused, goal-fixated, positive-thinking approach to happiness is exactly the kind of thing the ego loves. Positive thinking is all about identifying with your thoughts, rather than disidentifying from them. And the ‘cult of optimism’ is all about looking forward to a happy or successful future, thereby reinforcing the message that happiness belongs to some other time than now. Schemes and plans for making things better fuel our dissatisfaction with the only place where happiness can ever be found – the present. ‘The important thing,’ (Eckhart) Tolle told me, ‘is not to be continuously lost in this mental projection away from now. Most humans are never fully present in the now, because unconsciously they believe that the next moment must be more important than this one. But then you miss your whole life, which is never not now.’ Another staccato chuckle. ‘And that’s a revelation for some people. To realize that your whole life is only ever now. Many people suddenly realize that they have lived most of their life as if this were not true – as if the opposite were true.’ Without noticing we’re doing it, we treat the future as intrinsically more valuable than the present. And yet the future never seems to arrive. Oliver Burkeman, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking (Faber and Faber, Inc. 2012) p.116.

After graduating from law school in 2004, and prior to studying for the Bar, I revisited my goal setting process. The process was superficial and empty to me due to my deeper practice and study of Zen during the break from goal-setting. In re-reading the entries from the twice-a-year logging of goals achieved, shelved, and committed to, I found that there was a lack of satisfaction. There were some things that created great memories. But it felt like an unending checklist that, once some goal was achieved, there had to be something else to replace it. And worse, concepts like being “prosperous” or “intelligent” or “wealthy” or “something better” lacked substance. What is wealthy? When does “wealthy” become achieved? It was like the hungry ghosts of Buddhist teachings, where the ghosts’ mouths are so small, yet their hungry bellies are so large, that no amount of “wealth” or “prosperity” or “intelligence” will be enough to fill them.

I sought to reconcile this and came upon a talk by Sangharakshita called “Nirvana”   In the talk, Sangharakshita discusses “The Psychology of Goal-setting,” which can be found in the Essential Sangharakshita: A Half-Century of Writings from the Founder of the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order by Urgyen Sanharakshita (Wisdom Publications, 2009). He describes a goal as something that you strive for.

“You could, if you like, draw a distinction between striving to be and striving to have. But actually, the two come to the same thing: ‘having’ is a sort of vicarious ‘being.’ A goal is in the end something that you want to be.” (Sangharakshita, pg. 116).

This makes sense to those who have goals of being wealthy, or being intelligent. Then, Sangharakshita takes it to the next step.

“There is one really crucial (if obvious) precondition for setting a goal: it must represent something you aren’t. You don’t want to have or to be what you already are. You can only want to be what you aren’t – which suggests, obviously, that you’re dissatisfied with what you are. If you’re not dissatisfied with what you are, you will never strive to be what you aren’t.” (Sangharakshita, pg. 116).

This dissatisfaction ultimately is a desire to achieve happiness. No one seeks unhappiness. And these concepts of “prosperity” or “intelligence” or “appreciated” or “respected” are never ultimately achieved. Why? Because at any level, there will be a need to be more prosperous, or more intelligent or more appreciated or more respected, or for something better. They are the empty bellies of hungry ghosts.

What does Sangharakshita suggest is the fix to this? A change of attitude.

“Rather than trying to escape from ourselves, we need to begin to acknowledge the reality of what we are. We need to understand – and not just intellectually – why we are what we are. If we are suffering, well, we don’t just reach out for a chocolate. We need to recognize the fact that we suffer and look at it more and more deeply. Or – as the case may be – if we’re happy we need to recognize that fully, take it in more and more deeply. Instead of running from it into guilt, or into some sort of excitable intoxication, we need to understand why, what the true nature of that happiness is, where it really comes from. And again, this isn’t just intellectual; it’s something that has to go very deep down indeed.” (Sangharakshita, pg. 119).

Burkeman reasons that goal-setting fails because it doesn’t address the issue we’re really trying to resolve – our uncertainty of the future.  “Faced with anxiety of not knowing what the future holds, we invest ever more fiercely in our preferred vision of that future – not because it will help us achieve it, but because it helps rid us of feelings of uncertainty in the present.” (Burkeman, pg. 86).

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I know the goal-setting crowd likes acronyms, and mine for GOALS is Ghosts of Attaining Life Satisfaction. Yeah, it’s a stretch. But to chase these ethereal creatures and to attempt grasping them in order to experience a satisfied life seems to be a waste of energy and focus, and a distraction from the happiness of now.

I will look back on 2015 for the year that it was, reflect on it, savoring its joys and reflecting on its missteps and challenges. But for the future? All I have is now. This time next year I can review another collection of 365 days of now-moments.

2016 is uncertain, and I’m satisfied with that uncertainty. It is foolish of me to set a goal, for example, of writing and publishing another novel in 2016.  If something happens to alter that goal I’ll have excuses or disappointments to chastise myself with. And what do I really mean by setting a goal of publishing a novel?  What am I not by seeking to achieve it?  That I am not a writer unless I achieve it?  How can I feel that with a whole page on this website listing my publications?  Instead, I’ll just look back and see what good was created in 2016, and be all the happier for it.

And I just might be surprised at how awesome and challenging a year it can turn out to be – like 2015 was!

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Vinyl Memories #9 – Herschel Bernardi’s Show Stopper

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This Vinyl Memory is not about a record from my past.  My distant past, anyway.  The first time I listened to it was less than a week ago.

I was in my basement, where the turntable sits and spins when I am either free-writing by hand or doing some other arranging, organizing, or sorting through the collection of memories beneath the ground level of both home and mind.  This evening, it was putting a few items out on the Internet’s largest garage sale.  As I worked, a couple of Monkees albums played, followed by a Frank Sinatra LP.  With a few items left to list, I decided to sample a freebie.

The record store I frequent – Weirdsville Records in Mount Clemens – will package records by the dozen that they just can’t sell, and give them away for free in the form of a “mystery box.”  The caveat being you can’t bring them back.  Herschel Bernardi’s Show Stopper was one such album I discovered in a mystery box I took home one day from the store.  Tonight, I thought I’d give it a spin.

I’ve never been one for musicals, though that is changing.  Since our first trip to New York City and seeing Rock of Ages on Broadway, my hopes for the next trip there are 1) staying in one of the boroughs so not to spend so much time on the train in and out of the city, and 2) to take in a Broadway show at least every other night during the vacation.

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I put Bernardi’s record on.  It’s a live performance of him singing a variety of songs from musicals, explaining that he was raised in the theaters of New York and was different from the other kids he grew up with.  He sang, and I listed items on the website.  Side One concluded, it wasn’t terrible, so I got up and flipped it over to Side Two.  While working, a song played which made me stop.  The lyrics struck me.  I rose, walked over to the record player, lifted the needle and gently lowered it back to the beginning of the track.

Damn.

South Pacific is a Broadway musical which premiered in 1949 by Rodgers and Hammerstein.  Based on James A. Michener’s book, Tales from the South Pacific (1947), the story’s theme is racism as two characters become involved in romances that cross racial boundaries, and the decisions based upon their conflicts.  I have never seen this musical, but I’ll be on the look out for it.

The song struck me, at first, because of the lines:

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!

Yeah.  At first I thought that I did a good job of ignoring what I had been taught.  And though I was able to disregard the specifics, I was still taught how to hate.  The words of this song had come to me less then a week after MLS Cup 2015.

On December 6, 2015, the Columbus Crew SC hosted the Portland Timbers FC in the MLS Cup in Major League Soccer’s 2oth season.  Since 2002, I’ve traveled down to Columbus to catch the occasional match – the Crew being the closest MLS team geographically to Detroit.  I’ve grown to become a fan of the Crew.

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When Portland entered the league in 2011, I enjoyed watching their home matches on television, as their supporter group – The Timbers Army – was a powerful force of fan enthusiasm.  The team dates back to 1975 in the old North American Soccer League and three years later, I was introduced to professional soccer through the Detroit Express.   Then, in 2012,  Detroit City FC was born, from which emerged the Northern Guard Supporters.  It is my understanding that the NGS had roots to and were inspired by the Timbers Army.

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That said, the prospect of a Portland Timbers at Columbus Crew MLS Cup was a no-lose proposition for me.  The Crew are my favorite MLS club, and the Timbers my third (NY Red Bulls became #2 when Thierry Henry joined them in 2010).

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The thing about Supporters Groups is that the focus is all about supporting the team, and contempt for every opponent.  Sunday reminded me of this.  In a place where I would be happy with either team winning, there were a few NGS folks at the game rooting for the Timbers and hating on Columbus and Ohio, not just the team, but the whole state.  You see, some Michiganders are taught to hate Ohio (and I’m sure vice versa), most likely through the sports rivalry between the University of Michigan and Ohio State University. (Another view is that Ohio is the state Michiganders are forced to drive through in order to get to where they really want to go).

I’m not exempt from such sports-driven hatred.  I could have chosen the Chicago Fire to follow, however my hatred of that city and all of its sports teams guided me to Columbus.  There are three hockey teams I root for – the Avalanche, the Devils, and whoever is playing the Red Wings.  Even distance doesn’t prevent the growth of hate, for as an Arsenal fan of the Premiere League, I’ve come to hate the Manchester teams – both United and City.  The hate for these teams and locations did not emerge from me at birth, but emerged from experiences with their fans and organizations.

With all that is going on in our country right now, where we have one 2016 Presidential candidate whose campaign foments with fear and prejudice, first against Mexicans, most recently stating he would ban Muslims from entering the United States; where a county clerk in Kentucky refused to carry out her duty to give marriage licenses to same-sex couples; and with the unending institutionalized racism against African Americans, You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught strikes a chord which still rings true today.  And though the message of the song speaks to racial prejudice, we learn to divide ourselves and cultivate hatred on many levels, which include sports rivalries.

Hatred is one of the three poisons the Buddha warned us about.  Because we want our life to be pleasant, comfortable, and satisfying all the time, we create conflict with those who would disrupt that.  Obviously, if we have a strong bond or connect our identity to our sports team, and another team defeats ours, we’re drawn to disliking them, perhaps even elevating our feelings to hatred depending on the stakes of the game.  It’s as if it is a personal blow against us.  The Buddha identified the poison, and provided the antidote: loving-kindness, compassion, patience, and forgiveness.  If we’re open to the complete experience of life, there will come times of defeat and loss.  Yes, it is the other team that delivered that blow to our team, however hating them is not going to eliminate the pain we feel from it.  It may, instead, amplify it.  Being patient and forgiving the errors that were made which resulted in the loss is more effective.

I still have work to do on this when it comes to the teams I hate.  But I’ve come a long way by letting go of the hopes of winless seasons for Chicago teams, the Manchesters of the Premiere League, and the Red Wings.  My energy is better served rooting for and supporting the teams I love.

You never know what you’ll uncover in a free “mystery box” of record albums.  Teachings manifest everywhere.

Book review: Books I’ve recently read all have one thing in common

 

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This book review covers five books which I’ve recently completed reading.  At first, the common thread was unintentional.  But after discovering that I was in the middle of reading three books by authors who are Buddhist, I added two more.

Just because they are Buddhist authors, that does not necessarily mean that the topics are Buddhist.  But in this case, a couple of them are.

 

DSC00652In 2013, my first Zen teacher, P’arang Geri Larkin, wrote Close to the Ground: Reflections on the Seven Factors of Enlightenment (Rodmell Press).  Struggling with my commitment of spending Sundays in Detroit, either at Still Point Zen Buddhist Temple’s service, or providing service at Cass Park with Friends and the Forgotten Worker, a collection of many different circles of friends, groups, unions and political interests to feed and provide for the poor living in the Cass Corridor of Detroit, I chose to read this as a supplement.  It came in quite handy.

Taking the seven factors of enlightenment from the Pali Canon, Larkin provides a chapter on each with a series of dharma talks which flow seamlessly together, providing a practical understanding of each.  The seven factors are:

  1. Mindfulness:  Attention to what is happening now.
  2. Investigation of phenomenon:  Curiosity about ourselves and the world we live in.
  3. Energetic effort:  Cultivating a high energy for life.
  4. Ease: Being free of resistance.
  5. Joy:  The sweet feeling that everything is okay.
  6. Concentration:  Mindfulness focused on a specific task.
  7. Equanimity:  Calmness of mind and temper.  Everything comes and goes in life.

For me, reading this book was a refreshing reminder of what works in my life.  And the timing of some of it was incredible.  I was reading the chapter on the investigation of phenomenon, questioning the source of my thoughts and beliefs as the chatter on Facebook focused on the United States Supreme Court decision in favor of gay marriage and of the nature and symbols of racism after a white gunman open fired in a black church in South Carolina, killing nine.  I was reading the chapters on ease and joy when, for the first time since I’ve entered the Michigan Bar Journal Short Story Contest, my submission did not make the list of finalists.  I was reading the chapter on concentration as I was revising a 13,640-word short story that is circulating amongst potential publishers.  And I was reading equanimity after a shocking loss in a court room trial, which hurled me into a state of heavy self-criticism.  Through all this, the right teacher was right there at the right time.  A testament to how well this book applies to every day life.

DSC00655The late John Daido Loori was one of my early influences into Buddhism.  He founded the Zen Mountain Monastery in New York.  I subscribed to the monastery’s quarterly journal – Mountain Record: The Zen Practitioner’s Journal – for a few years in the mid-1980’s.  The Zen of Creativity: Cultivating Your Artistic Life (Ballantine Books, 2005) has been on my radar for a number of years.  This spring, seeing it on the shelf at Still Point, I started thumbing through it again.  It was there again the next week, and finally, the third week I decided it was time to purchase and read it.

The book is broken down into four sections.  Part One is the story of Loori’s journey to Zen.  Part Two presents the practices which guide the artist to a new way of seeing and creating.  Part Three explains how the Zen aesthetic points to basic truths about how to live freely.  The qualities of simplicity, mystery, spontaneity, and suchness, are embodied in both Zen and the arts.  Part Four brings the book full circle reflecting Loori as an artist and spiritual seeker, and how the creative and spiritual journey never ends.

Photography was the strong artistic expression for Loori, so reading this both as a writer and a photographer kept me interested.  Loori quoted his mentor, Minor White, about photography, which rang true to me.  It is much the way I approach Detroit City FC games that I shoot.

The state of mind of the photographer while creating is blank…[but] It is a very active state of mind really, a very receptive state of mind, ready at an  instant to grasp an image, yet with no image pre-formed in it at any time.

Throughout this book, there are nuggets of deep truths for artists.  But it doesn’t feel like a self-help, positive-thinking, cheerleading book for writers like some I’ve encountered.  The deliberate process which Loori presents holds meaning.  For example, when he writes, “It is important to trust this and to trust the process.  Trust yourself.  Your way of experiencing the world is unique.  And what you’re trying to do is give voice to this unique experience,”  nothing about it feels like someone saying something nice out of obligation or in order to sell more books.  Everything leading up to it adds to its credibility, giving one (at least me) a sense that, “Yeah, he really means this.  I need to trust myself.”

This book doesn’t go back to the bookshelf of writing reference books near my desk, but rather on the small shelf above my desk, where it is easily accessible when I need the reminders and inspiration.

DSC00647Like anything that one makes well with one’s own hands, writing good nonfiction prose can be profoundly satisfying. Yet after a day of arranging my research, my set of facts, I feel stale and drained, whereas I am energized by fiction. Deep in a novel, one scarcely knows what may surface next, let alone where it comes from. In abandoning oneself to the free creation of something never beheld on earth, one feels almost delirious with a strange joy. – Peter Matthiessen, The Paris Review No. 150, Spring, 1999.

I’ve often felt that as a writer and as a Zen Buddhist, I needed to read and like Peter Matthiessen’s work.  Born in New York City in 1927, Matthiessen created The Paris Review in 1951, which has become my personal favorite literary journal.  His life’s work included ten novels, the collection of short stories above, and over twenty works of nonfiction.  He has won a National Book Award in both fiction (Shadow Country, 2008) and nonfiction (The Snow Leopard, 1980).  His 1983 book, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, about the  American Indian Movement and the 1975 shoot-out at Pine Ridge in which two FBI agents and a young Indian were killed, brought litigation against him and Viking Press by FBI Agent David Price and South Dakota Governor, William Janklow, for libel.  The book’s publication was halted until 1993 after both cases were dismissed and appeals were denied by the US Supreme Court and upheld by the South Dakota Supreme Court.  Matthiessen became an ordained Zen Buddhist Priest in 1981 under Maezumi Roshi at the Greyston Center of the Zen Community of New York.  He died in April, 2014.

I remember, back in the 1980’s, picking up Race Rock, Matthiessen’s first novel.  For whatever reason, it did not draw me in.  Hoping that my sensibilities had changed, I decided to return to Matthiessen’s work with this collection of short stories.  On average, I liked the stories I read (I haven’t yet finished the final two stories).  What I discovered about myself as a reader is that I am more interested in characters than environments.  For example, my favorite story of the collection is Travelin’ Man, which was written in 1957 about Traver, a black man who escaped from prison and was running and hiding along the Carolina coast from his jailers who were hunting him.  The language is harsh (as it is in the earlier stories, using the language of that time in the South, in particular the epithet for African Americans), and the situation and the character kept me in it.  On the other hand, Matthiessen was also a wildlife writer and naturalist.  On the River Styx  – one of the two I had not read – opened with the following paragraph:

On the pale flats the lone trace of man was a leaning stake marking some lost channel that a storm or shift of current had filled in.  On the end of the stake perched a ragged cormorant, its drying wings held wide in a black cross against the wind.  The archaic bird, the rampant mangroves, the hidden underwater life raising ghostly puffs from the white marl dust of ages of dead creatures, deepened Burkett’s sense of solitude, of pointlessness.  Earlier that day they had seen a silver horizon off the the west, where the Ten Thousand Islands opened out onto the Gulf, and this window of light, for a little while, had dissipated a vague dread that had been gathering for days.

This just doesn’t move me, I’m afraid, even though I think it’s supposed to.

I do have an interest in reading the Watson trilogy – probably as the revised, single edition Shadow Country, and In the Spirit of Crazy Horse.

DSC00646Susan Dunlap has been a Zen Buddhist since the first time she walked into a zendo in the 1970’s.  A founding board member of the Sisters in Crime, an organization dedicated to supporting women mystery writers, Dunlap has created four series characters and has written twenty-four novels in the genre.

This is the first in a series of three Veejay Haskell novels. At first blush, I thought the character was Indian. But Veejay is a nickname for Veronica. It is a cozy, in that Veejay is a meter reader for the electric company, and she has to solve the mystery of Frank Goulet’s death. Goulet was found shot dead in his bar, and Veejay was the last person to see him alive (or second to last, to be more accurate). With the sheriff suspecting her, she is incumbent upon unraveling the mystery before the cuffs are fastened to her wrists.

It was a quick read, a relative easy read, which the genre is apt to be. I liked the book enough to see my way through to the end.  Though there are two more books in this series, I’m more interested in delving in the Darcy Lott series, which I understand is more openly Buddhist.

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I read this book in the early 1990’s, then again sometime in the 2000’s.  The beat-up, paperback edition had survived moves from Novi, St. Clair Shores, and Harrison Township.  In November, 2012, I was in John King Books in Detroit, and came upon first editions of this, and David Guy’s earlier works; The Man Who Loved Dirty Books (New American Library, 1983) and Second Brother (New American Library, 1985).  His fourth novel, Jake Fades was published by Trumpeter Books, an imprint of Shambhala Publications in 2007.  I decided it was time to read it again.

I really should do a separate entry on him.  Guy, a Buddhist and writing instructor at Duke University, is a writer I have enjoyed.  At least three of his four novels I have.  Second Brother I cannot say I enjoyed only because I have not yet read it.

The Autobiography of My Body (Dutton, 1991) is about Charles Bradford, a writer surviving a divorce, returning home to Pittsburgh because his father, whom he refers to as The Senator, is recovering from a recent heart attack.  His mother, to whom he refers to as The Duchess, is concerned about her husband’s health, and links it to a situation at his firm – he is a prestigious Pittsburgh lawyer.  Charles stays with his sister, Helen, a lesbian, who he is closer to than their younger brothers who followed the Senator into the practice of law.

The homecoming is a recollection of his sexual discovery, a compelling drive which defines his life’s compass.  While in Pittsburgh, he connects with Andrea, a feminist and political activist from his past, who also experienced the end of her marriage.  Passion, emotions, and family dynamics give Charles an opportunity to examine the autobiography of his body, and to recall and experience sexual encounters, some of which sway into the fetish realm.

This cluster of books I’ve recently read all resonated with me.  Was it because they were all Buddhist writers?  That could definitely be the case with Close to the Ground and The Zen of Creativity.  But the other three did not express Buddhist locations or characters, or even indicate that the writers themselves were Buddhist.  As Charles Johnson wrote in the foreword to the anthology of Buddhist short stories, Nixon Under the Bodhi Tree and Other Works of Buddhist Fiction (Wisdom Publications, 2004), “The Buddhist experience is simply, the human experience.”

One million words

Remember these high school assignments: Write a 500-word essay on _____.

The struggle.  The agony.  Five hundred words?  How many pages is that?  You’d write something, then count the words.  Only three hundred and ten?  How am I going to add another one hundred and ninety words to that?  (Yes, I know.  Today’s word processors have the ability to tell you the word count.  For me, this was back in the day where the electric typewriter was high-tech!)

In high school, being a writer was not on my radar.  But then college happened, and well, getting these kinds of assignments became challenging in a different way.

Write a short story under 2,500 words.

The rough draft would come out to be almost twice that.  How am I suppose to cut all this?  The same would happen in law school and as a law clerk, only with page-count restrictions.

Briefs cannot exceed 25 pages.

When the factual details in the case were intricate, and faced with conflicting legal theories, I wondered how I was going to tighten up the brief in order to make the strong argument within twenty-five pages.  Shrinking the font to an unreadable size was not an option.

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On August 1, 2012, I finished reading Dinty Moore’s little book, The Mindful Writer – Noble Truths of the Writing Life (Wisdom Publications, 2012).  It is something that was written in the Afterword that clings to me today.

It is said that the writer Andre Dubus would end his writing session each day by marking down his word count.  How many words had he managed in those four hours?  After the number, whatever it was, he always wrote the words “thank you.”

So, on August 1, 2012, I took a small spiral notebook, and began tracking.  Fifteen-hundred and twenty-two words were written that day (no “thank you’s” written due to space, but thank-yous were said).

After finishing my writing work today, Thursday, May 28, 2015, adding 2,621 words to the tally, I have hit one million words (1,000,109 to be precise).

Two years, nine months, and twenty-eight days of writing can get you 1,000,000 words.

The thing that surprises me the most is that in order to get to that million words, I averaged writing 970 words per day over the 1,031 days.  Journal entries, writing exercises, blogs, first drafts of short stories and novels, and their revisions, all of it has added up.

The question is, did those one-million words amount to anything?

  • The final revisions of The Y in Life.
  • Two short stories published in Legends: A Literary Journal from Grey Wolfe Publishing  Summer, 2013.
  • A finalist in the 2013 Michigan Bar Journal Short Story Contest.
  • Two short stories and an essay published in Legends: A Literary Journal from Grey Wolfe Publishing  Autumn 2013.
  • One short story published in Write to Woof 2014 (Grey Wolfe Publishing, 2014)
  • A 50,000 word rough draft novel completed during NaNoWriMo, 2013.
  • The first draft and first revision of the novel I am currently working on (not the NaNoWriMo 2013 novel), at 91,540 words.
  • Four unpublished short stories with one currently entered in the 2015 Michigan Bar Journal Short Story Contest, and two others circulating amongst publishers.
  • 2,377 pages of journaling.
  • Everything written on this website, excluding this entry.

Not bad.

Being a writer requires one to write.  It is evident that I do write.  However, I still get stuck in Moore’s Four Noble Truths for Writers:

  1. The writing life is difficult, full of disappointment and dissatisfaction.
  2. Much of this dissatisfaction comes from the ego, from our insistence on controlling both the process of writing and how the world reacts to what we have written.
  3. There is a way to lessen the disappointment and dissatisfaction and to live a more fruitful writing life.
  4. The way to accomplish this is to make both the practice of writing and the work itself less about ourselves.  To thrive, we must be mindful of our motives and our attachment to desired outcomes.

Too often, I focus on writing to be published, because my ego wants that.  As an actor wants to see his or her name in lights on Broadway, I want to see my novels in bookstores, my stories in The New Yorker and The Paris Review.  This twists me into the self-defeating spiral of questioning whether I’m a writer.

A million words, Mike.  C’mon.  You’re a writer.

I start to argue with myself, that I’m not a published writer, but, there’s a whole page on this website that puts an end to that debate.

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I read The Mindful Writer back in 2012, but it really didn’t sink in until I came across another Four Noble Truths for writers.   I found Gail Sher’s One Continuous Mistake: Four Noble Truths for Writers (Penguin Compass, 1999) just before we left for New York City last summer.  I read it while traveling to and from New York City on the train from our Trenton, NJ hotel.   Her Four Noble Truths provided the key to unlock Moore’s Fourth Noble Truth for me.

  1. Writers write.
  2. Writing is a process.
  3. You don’t know what your writing will be until the end of the process.
  4. If writing is your practice, the only way to fail is to not write.

The combination of Sher’s book and visiting New York City for the first time, brought it home for me.  Her short pithy chapters read while in a city where a day’s walking and subway travel can get you to more book stores than are located in Macomb County, had its effect.  The 732 days before the NYC trip, my average words per day was 883.  Since NYC, 1,183 words per day.  I’ve been getting out of my own way, working on the exercise, journal entry, or project for what it is, losing myself to it.

Writer, Nick Hornby felt that his formative years as a writer was hindered by the prescriptive advice that experienced writers gave him.  His advice is the following:

Walk into a bookshop and you will see work by writers who produce a book every three months, writers who don’t own a TV, writers with five children, writers who produce a book every twenty-five years, writers who never write sober, writers who have at least one eye on the film rights, writers who never think about money, writers who, in your opinion, can’t write at all. It doesn’t matter: they got the work done, and there they are, up on the shelves. They might not stay there forever; readers, now and way off into the future, make that decision.  (Ten Years in the Tub: A Decade Soaking in Great Books ( McSweeney’s, Believer Books. 2013)

A million words?  The work is getting done.

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Book Review: A critical look at positive thinking

DSC07578Serial, a 1980 comedy, puts regular guy Harvey Holroyd (Martin Mull) in a community of New Age philosophy, cults, and sexual freedom in Marin County, California, that tears at the fabric of his family.  His wife, Kate, (Tuesday Weld), participates in a women’s consciousness raising group that is only too happy to point out Harvey’s flaws, while his rebellious teenage daughter, Joanie (Jennifer McAllister) becomes frustrated that Harvey suppresses her rights, and interferes with her peer-group dynamic, her socialization, her individuation and the father-daughter interface, that she flees to join a cult.  Most of Harvey and Kate’s friends are seeing therapist Dr. Leonard Miller (Peter Bonerz) who is medicating them all, including himself, but not Harvey.  Having seen this movie again recently on DVD, I laughed at its satire of the self-help industry and cult of optimism that has oozed into our society more significantly in recent years.  The movie does takes pot shots at environmentalism, feminism, vegetarianism, and homosexuality, and one scene is set at an orgy that Harvey’s secretary talks him into attending.  If sarcasm and satire isn’t your thing, this movie isn’t for you.

And, if you’re one who is guided by a secret, who believes unlimited power comes from pure optimism, who affirms that you will grow rich by thinking it, these are probably not the books for you.  For these titles critically examine the world of self-help and the cult of positive thinking.  If you’re like me who drank the frothy punch promising happiness and felt a bit woozy, as if the magic elixir is nothing more than sugar-coated tap water sold for champagne prices, these books shed light on why that is.

The three books above:  Bright-Sided:  How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America by Barbara Ehrenreich (Metropolitan Books, 2009), The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman (Faber & Faber, Inc. 2012), and Promise Land: My Journey Through America’s Self-Help Culture by Jessica Lamb-Shapiro (Simon & Schuster, 2014) are three different approaches to critically examining the positive thinking industry/cult.

By way of full disclosure, I was immersed in this world for about six or seven years, through a New Thought church that I attended in the 1990’s.  Prior to my discovery of this church, it had a larger-than-life founder/figurehead who had died – or made his transition, as was the parlance of the community, after all, ‘died’ is such a negative term – a couple years prior.  Noted inspirational speakers such as Wayne Dyer, Les Brown, Louise Hay, and Og Mandino frequently appeared for a Sunday service, a Wednesday night program, or a Saturday seminar.  The church underwent a shift when Marianne Williamson was named the church’s spiritual leader.  The selfish interests of manifesting individual prosperity shifted to a liberal, go-beyond-the-walls-of-the-church approach, changing the dynamics of the congregation.  It sent the “spirituality is me” entrepreneurials fleeing, and the more liberal, “beloved community” oriented seekers flocking.  Conflicts between the Board of Directors (who hired her) and Ms. Williamson became too much of a distraction and I left when I discovered a Zen Buddhist Temple in Detroit – something I had been seeking since the late 1980’s.  I met some wonderful people there and cannot say that I did not learn anything from my experience.

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Barbara Ehrenreich entered the positive-thinking community after having been diagnosed with breast cancer.  As she entered “the pink ribbon culture,” she encountered the phenomenon that inspired the writing of Bright-Sided.

As an experiment, I posted a statement on the Konen.org message board, under the subject line “Angry,” briefly listing my complaints about the debilitating effects of chemotherapy, recalcitrant insurance companies, environmental carcinogens, and most daringly, “sappy pink ribbons.”  I received a few words of encouragement in my fight with the insurance company, which had taken the position that my biopsy was a kind of optional indulgence, but mostly a chorus of rebukes.  “Suzy” wrote to tell me “I really dislike saying you have a bad attitude towards all of this but you do, and it’s not going to help you in the least”  “Mary” was a bit more tolerant, writing, “Barb, at this time in your life, it’s so important to put all your energies toward a peaceful, if not happy, existence.  Cancer is a rotten thing to have happen and there are no answers for any of us as to why.  But to live your life, whether you have one more year or 51, in anger and bitterness is such a waste…I hope you can find some peace.”

Bright-Sided, page 32.

As she concludes the first chapter, Ehrenreich felt the same as I did from my experience at the church.  “Breast cancer, I can now report, did not make me prettier or stronger, more feminine or spiritual.  What it gave me, if you want to call this a ‘gift,’ was a very personal, agonizing encounter with an ideological force in American culture that I had not been aware of before – one that encourages us to deny reality, submit cheerfully to misfortune, and blame only ourselves for our fate.”  (Page 43-44).

Ehrenreich researches and exposes the history of this ideological force, how it infiltrated the business culture, and posits how it crashed the economy.  After reading the 206 pages of this book my neck was sore from all the nodding in agreement with Ms. Ehrenreich.

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Where Barbara Ehrenreich revealed the harmful societal effects of positive thinking, Oliver Burkeman gives us The Antidote.  Burkeman starts us off in San Antonio, Texas.  In the professional basketball team’s stadium,  Burkeman takes us inside a popular business motivational seminar – Get Motivated!  He starts with self-help guru, author of over thirty-five books on positive thinking, and founding pastor of the largest church in the United States constructed out of glass, Dr. Robert H. Shuller.  The octogenarian is hyping the crowd by claiming to reveal the secret to happiness.  What does this sage offer?  “Cut…the word ‘impossible’ out of your life.  Cut it out!  Cut it out forever!”  (The Antidote, pg. 2).  Burkeman offers a different path.

This book is the record of a journey through the world of the ‘backwards law,’ and of the people, living and dead, who have followed the negative path to happiness.  My travels took me to the remote woodlands of Massachusetts, where I spent a week on a silent meditation retreat; to Mexico, where death is not shunned but celebrated; and to the desperately impoverished slums outside Nairobi, where insecurity is the unignorable reality of every day life.  I met modern-day Stoics, specialists in the art of failure, professional pessimists, and other advocates of the power of negative thinking, many of whom proved surprisingly jolly.  But I began in San Antonio because I wanted to experience the cult of optimism at its most extreme.  (Pg. 10-11).

Burkeman covers Buddhism in the third chapter “The Storm Before the Calm: A Buddhist Guide to Not Thinking Positively.”  I never considered Buddhism as ‘negative thinking.’  Burkeman guides us through a brief history of Zen and meditation in America, arriving at American Zen Buddhist and psychiatrist Barry Magid’s book, Ending the Pursuit of Happiness who argued against the use of meditation as tool to make yourself better or happier.  “The point, instead, was to learn how to stop trying to fix things, to stop being so preoccupied with trying to control one’s experience of the world, to give up trying to replace unpleasant thoughts and emotions with more pleasant ones, and to see that, through dropping the ‘pursuit of happiness,’ a more profound peace might result.”  (pg 54-55).  Burkeman then undertook a week-long retreat at the Insight Meditation Society in central Massachusetts.  Almost ten hours of the sixteen hour days were meditation – either sitting or walking.  He recounts his experience during the retreat, settling in and enjoying meditation by the end of the fourth day.  But then, it hit the fan.

Without my noticing the precise moment of transition, the silence of the meditation hall became a combination of courtroom and torture chamber.  For hours, I was attacked by barrages of negative thoughts and their associated emotions – anxious ones, guilty ones, worried ones, hostile, bored, impatient and even terrified ones – as if they had all been gathering just out of sight, for years, waiting for this moment to pounce.  Above all, they were self-critical.  I was suddenly aware – and somehow all at once – of countless occasions in my life on which I had behaved badly towards other people; my parents, my sister, friends, girlfriends, or colleagues…they filled me with sorrow…The sorrow that accompanied these realisations, from a Buddhist point of view, is a good thing; it is the fertile soil in which compassion can take root.  (Pg. 71-72).

Burkeman contends that the Buddhist’s practice is a negative approach to happiness because of its radical perspective that “it is rarely wise to struggle to change the weather.” (Pg. 73).

One chapter critically denounces goal-setting, another argues the benefits of insecurity and embracing your failures; and another on death as a way of life.  To sum up Burkeman’s “negative” approach to life would be that one should not pursue happiness as a goal to achieve.  Instead, happiness is found by living in awe, now.

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Jessica  Lamb-Shapiro’s observation of the self-help/positive thinking world is different from Ehrenreich and Burkeman.  She traveled with her father, a child psychologist and parenting author, and participated in the demonstration and selling of the products he promoted, since the age of six.  In this memoir, Lamb-Shapiro relates her experiences within the self-help industry.  She opens our eyes to the facade of Mark Victor-Hansen’s uber-expensive seminars (which her father received a full refund for), witnessing attendee’s blind confidence in their guru’s profoundly ludicrous schemes.  She criticizes self-help books The Rules and The Secret, and how “experts” in this industry more often than not fit the Mark Twain definition of an expert – “an ordinary fellow from another town.”  The chapters on addressing fear and grief – as Lamb-Shaprio confronts her fear of flying and the grief of losing her mother under unknown circumstances when Lamb-Shapiro was an infant – demonstrate some of the positives she experienced.

Unlike Ehrenreich and Burkeman who dissect the cult of optimism, Lamb-Shapiro’s personal journey reveals the positives and negatives of the self-help industry.  I agree with her analysis that the blind faith of the followers holds massive potential for abuse.  There are no checks and balances to these advisers.  And, like most cults, their systems discourage interaction with other points of view.  I experienced this firsthand.  I still had contact with a couple of friends from the New Thought church as I questioned it and after I left it, and they fled from me like I had the plague.  One in particular seemed to have taken a hostile attitude toward me.  Lamb-Shapiro, like Ehrengraf and Burkeman, echo my experience of the cult of optimism, which reinforces opportunity for the individual over responsibility to the community.  “At what point does looking out for number-one stop being a wholesome American value and start making you an asshole?” (Promise Land Pg. 207).

Obviously, everyone has to find what works for them, and if the culture of self-help and positive thinking works for you, that’s fantastic.  I once immersed myself into this world of positive-thinking.  But enough of its unhealthy water filled my lungs to the point where I had to flee from it for the real world in order to survive.  These three books have become favorites of mine for detailing and exposing what I was feeling those six or seven years.  Unfortunately, because corporate interests have found positive thinking to be beneficial to stifling dissension within the workplace, isolating the employee, and playing to his or her personal greed, so many more people will suffer.  And some may explode, like Harvey Holroyd who expressed true feelings of grief at Sam’s (Bill Macy) funeral, (performed as a Native American ritual which Sam would have hated) and was tranquilized by Leonard.  After reviving, Stokeley (Anthony Battaglia) provides Harvey with insight, like Ehrenreich, Burkeman, and Lamb-Shapiro do in their books.

Ten influential Buddhist books

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The editors of Shambhala Sun recently listed the ten dharma books every Buddhist should have in their library (and I would assume have read at least once).  Two of them (When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron and Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki) are in my library and I certainly would recommend them.  With only 20% of Shambhala Sun’s editors’ recommendations, I thought I’d examine the ten dharma books that have influenced me.  In chronological order, they are as follows:

1.  Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
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This is not a Buddhist book, per se, but a classic for writers about writing.  Goldberg is a Zen Buddhist, applying right off the bat the approach of the beginner’s mind.  Through this book I discovered Zen.

2.  Taking the Path of Zen by Robert Aitken
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This was the first book on Buddhism I read back in the 1980’s which covered the basics.

3.  The Mind of Clover:  Essays in Buddhist Ethics by Robert Aitken
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After reading Taking the Path of Zen, this came as a natural follow-up, as Roshi Aitken delved deeper into the precepts and their meanings.

4.  The Beginner’s Guide to Walking the Buddha’s Eightfold Path by Jean Smith.
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Looking for a clear definition of The Eightfold Path, I found Jean Smith’s book to be a helpful examination of each step of the path.

5.  Stumbling Toward Enlightenment by Geri Larkin
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In the fall of 2002, I discovered Still Point Zen Buddhist Temple in Detroit.  It was the first opportunity to practice with others and with a guiding teacher.  P’arang Geri Larkin was not only the guiding teacher, but also the founder of Still Point.  Prior to Still Point’s birth, P’arang gave dharma talks at the Ann Arbor Buddhist Temple and the Chicago Zen Buddhist Temple, and wrote a few books on Zen.  P’arang’s practical, accessible, and gritty approach is what grounded the roots of my practice.  This book is another excellent, accessible introduction to the practice of Zen.

6.  Tap Dancing in Zen by Geri Larkin
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A collection of P’arang’s teachings to help your practice every day.

7.  Building a Business the Buddhist Way by Geri Larkin
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Prior to becoming a guiding teacher, P’arang was in the “real world” of business.  A management consultant for Deloitte & Touche, her experience in the corporate world and her Buddhist studies combine in this guide on how to create a right livelihood business (Right Livelihood is one of the steps on The Eightfold Path).  I found this book helpful both in creating the no-sweatshop clothing store I owned for eighteen months, and my law practice.  A poster inspired by it hangs on my office wall.
DSC074528.  The Still Point Dhammapada by Geri Larkin
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The Dhammapada is a collection of over four hundred verses that Buddha is said to have spoken.  Its a text lush with wisdom.  P’arang, from her experience at Still Point, translates The Dhammapada with application and examples of living in today’s world, in the early years of this century in Detroit (The book was published in 2003).

Yes, P’arang Geri Larkin’s writings have been a significant influence on me, but they pale in comparison to Still Point Buddhist Temple.  My practice has improved significantly by having a place to practice and a guiding teacher.  My practice deepens moreso by sitting, chanting, and listening to the dharma talk on a Sunday morning than by reading a shelf full of books.
DSC072339.  Not Turning Away: The Practice of Engaged Buddhism edited by Susan Moon.
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Turning Wheel: The Journal of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship takes Buddhism into a social practice.  This anthology of essays, as Susan Moon writes in the Preface, are “accounts of how ordinary people bring together in their own lives their dharma practice and their work for peace and justice.”  It’s about putting spiritual practice to work on a personal, national, and global level.

10.  Your Life as a Buddha: Zen Faith for the 21st Century by Bija Andrew Wright
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Zen Buddhist teacher, Bija Andrew Wright, takes the Lotus Sutra, one of the most important and influential scriptures in Buddhism and interprets it as an instruction manual on how the lay person can be a Buddha in the 21st Century.  Bija was ordained under P’arang Geri Larkin at Still Point.

Is Buddhism the religion for those who don’t like religion?

I read a recent article by Melvin McLeod, editor-in-chief of Shambhala Sunon the growing numbers of Americans who do not identify themselves as a member of any religion.  He writes that the “spiritually but not religious” group of Americans are ” the fastest-growing demographic in the U.S.  Generally, they’re educated, liberal, and open-minded, with a deep sense of connection to the Earth and a belief that there’s more to life than what appears on the surface.”  Speaking to these Americans, he poses the question, “Is Buddhism the religion for those who don’t like religion?”

For me, the answer was yes.

My conversion to Zen Buddhism is not the exotic story of a white, suburban young man venturing across the globe and discovering a religious practice different from the Christian background he was brought up in.  Rather, it is a mundane, simple story, despite the more than four decade gap between my being baptized as a baby in the Presbyterian church to taking the Precepts and being given the Buddhist name of DoHaeng.

Photo taken at Still Point Zen Buddhist Temple, Detroit, MI - May, 2008
Photo taken at Still Point Zen Buddhist Temple, Detroit, MI – May, 2008

Throughout my youth I walked the walk of a Christian.  My parents took me to the Presbyterian church in Plymouth -where I grew up- almost every Sunday.  I was an alter boy in my teens.  When my sister and I were younger, we were enrolled in a neighborhood Lutheran church’s week-long summer vacation bible school where the biggest difference I noticed between the Presbyterian and Lutheran service was that one used the term “trespassers” and the other used “debtors” in the Lord’s Prayer.

But it occurred to me as I began high school that the God story was much like the Santa Claus story we were sold on as children.  An all-seeing benevolent being was taking note of our deeds and misdeeds, which would determine whether we would receive a reward or not at a certain time.  If there was no Santa Claus, then where was the proof that God existed?

That’s when I became an atheist.

In my early 20’s I began studying writing.  I discovered Natalie Goldberg’s book, Writing Down the Bones.  It is a writing book that does not focus on the usual categories of grammar, plot, characterization, etc., but on “using writing as your practice, as a way to help you penetrate your life and become sane.”  Goldberg practiced Zen and referenced both writing and Zen practice throughout the book.  This intrigued me and led me to my next softbound teacher, Taking the Path of Zen by Robert Aitken.  What I found was that Zen provided something more useful than a mythical being judging us from the beyond as a guide to live one’s life.  Zen helped peel away the layers of my mind in order to be more skillful in life.

But I lived in suburban Detroit where no Zen temples existed.  I relied on books.  For a period of seven years I attended a Unity church which exposed me to an interesting interpretation of Christianity.  Human issues between the church’s board and their spiritual leader revealed to me that the “practical Christianity” it professed wasn’t very practical in practice.

In 2002, I found Still Point Zen Buddhist Temple on the same day they opened their doors.  They had originally been holding services at a Unitarian church in Detroit.  I had found my place.  The practice and guidance of the founding teacher, P’arang, and current teacher, Koho, has advanced my practice more than two decades of book-learned Zen.

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As I read McLeod’s article, he listed ten reasons why Buddhism enriches the path of the “spiritual but not religious.”  These reasons, I realized, are what drew me to the Buddhist path and why Zen works for me.  The reasons Mcleod gives are:

1.  There is no Buddhist god.
2.  It’s about your own basic goodness.
3.  The problem is suffering.  The answer is waking up.
4.  The way to wake up is to work with your mind.
5.  No one is there to “save” you, but you can do it.
6.  There is a spiritual, non-material reality.
7.  You don’t have to take anything on faith.
8.  Buddhism offers a wealth of skillful means for different people’s needs.
9.  It’s open, progressive, and non-institutional.
10.  It works.

For the details of these reasons, McLeod’s article can be found HERE.

Many family and friends struggle with this conversion.  It is okay.  It’s about what works.  For me, Zen provides more insight and guidance for daily living than anything else I’ve ever been exposed to.

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