Saturday, August 3, 2013

advice ... the good, the bad and the ugly

Back before the Internet, there were books. Books transmitted information in a more languorous and demanding fashion and I loved them. Looking up at the books that lined my shelves at the time, I would feel myself to be among silent and delicious friends ... basking, as in a warm bath tub; comforted; reassured; and not alone.

And because I loved books, I took it into my head to work for a book publisher. My logic at the time seemed impeccable: I love books; book publishers publish books; therefore I would love book publishing as a profession.

A friend of mine who had worked one summer for a book publisher tried to bring a little focus to my star-struck eyes: "Book publishers aren't selling books," he said. "They're selling shoes." It was excellent advice that it took about five years for me to understand and acknowledge. The halls were hushed with carpeting, the employees well-educated and clean ... and I was in the business of selling shoes.

And when that lesson sank in, I began to cast about for something else to do. Newspapers (another pre-Internet invention) struck me as a possibility. But as with book publishing five years before, I
really didn't know what the job entailed or how to get one. Finally I hooked up with a city editor at a Long Island newspaper and he told me how the game was played: Get a job outside New York (the media capital of the U.S.), gain some experience, then come back to New York. Don't stay at a newspaper outside the city for more than five years: "For the first five years, you learn good habits. After that, you learn nothing but bad ones."

His parting shot as regarded newspaper reporting was this: "Remember: It's a craft, not an art. And ... be yourself."

Advice is a peculiar thing. At first, assuming anyone accepts it, it comes from a person who seems to have experience, who has walked the walk, and who may be bathed in a wonderful and seemingly- experienced light. Later, with experience, it is not the advice-giver's wondrous light or stature that means so much: It is the actual-factual, up-close-and-personal verification that allows anyone to say, "Yup, s/he was right." Being "right" is not the point except to those whose own experience is wobbly, lazy and uncertain ... the point is whether the observation is true according to the advice-getter's life. The advice-giver's station or stature is no longer important. It may be kind, but it's not really important.

Today, not for the first time, the words attributed to Gautama (the "Buddha" credited with giving liftoff to something called "Buddhism") float up into my mind:
It is not what others do and do not do that is my concern.
It is what I do and do not do -- that is my concern.
For those who are attracted to Buddhism, Gautama is a pretty good city editor, a pretty good book-seller. There are those who hang on his words and advice the way a panty-wetting teenager might hang on the presence of a rock star. And there's nothing wrong with such enthusiasms except that after five years (or whatever), the bad habits start to assert themselves and ... well ... I wonder what Gautama might have thought if someone walked up to him and announced, "I am a Buddhist. I know lineage and vows and temples and texts. I can point out the proper direction to all and sundry. My robes are well-pressed. My wisdom is applauded and is therefore assured." I don't imagine Gautama would have scoffed -- anything, after all, can be used for anything else -- but I can imagine a curious look crossing his face and perhaps a mild observation: "I hope you are happy. I hope you are at peace."

At peace ... not according to the local applause-o-meter, but actually-factually in the quiet places where applause cannot reach and no one is wetting his or her adoring panties.

Anything can be used for anything else. Whether that anything else will bear some consequential fruit cannot be known. To some, it is a kind of apostasy that meditation techniques can be used for relaxation or a means of boosting corporate productivity; a kind of apostasy that Chinese restaurants might display Buddha statues as a token of good luck; a kind of apostasy that yoga, whose origins are based in a 'union with God,' should become a favorite with anxious suburban housewives.

On my porch, there is a tool box that contains a much-used and affectionately-viewed hammer. It has helped me to build a backyard zendo, helped me to pry apart things needing destruction, helped smash a thumb that bears the results all these years later. But that same hammer might just as easily have helped me to commit murder or simply acted as a paper weight in a breezy living room. The hammer's uses cannot be numbered or compared or prioritized ... that hammer can do it 'all' and then some. Good and evil do not concern the hammer. That's my schtick ... much as relaxation may be for an anxious suburban housewife or good luck may be to a restaurateur or enlightenment may be to a sincere Buddhist.
It is not what others do and do not do that is my concern.
It is what I do and do not do -- that is my concern.
Yesterday, I was skimming along an Internet Buddhist chat board. The topic was suicide. And in the midst of the conversation someone mentioned "sacrificing your life" for others. "Sacrificing your life" carries some impressive clout. Politicians and military officials like to use the phrase when describing the deaths of young people they feed into their war machines. Parents, if they're anything like me, would like to think they might sacrifice their lives on behalf of children or other family members. "Sacrificing your life" is a biggie -- no doubt about it.

But does it occur to anyone else as it occurs to me -- what makes anyone imagine that it is "my life?" Is that really appropriate or even especially accurate? Sure, it's a figure of speech and a long-standing habit, but where the rubber hits the road, does life submit to ownership ... even as august an ownership as my own? Does life submit to "sacrifice?" I know it's a spooky question, but I am curious ... is life afraid of death? The evidence suggests it is not and if this is actually the case, isn't it time I got with the program? Can anyone sacrifice what is not, properly speaking, their own?

Anything can be used for anything else. But when I look at my beloved hammer on the porch -- a bit of crafted metal -- I have to admit that it seems to have its own infinite possibility, its own life. It does not cling to life or improve it ... it just is life. It may make sacrifices, but its life is unaffected and undiminished.

OK, OK ... it's my life. I love it as dearly as a corporation loves productivity or Chinese restaurants may love good luck or a harried housewife may love relaxation or energetic Buddhist may love enlightenment by whatever confused and solemnified definition. Everyone's got to go with what they've got, with the advice they consider credible, with the life they consider mine. What other choice is there?
It is not what others do and do not do that is my concern.
It is what I do and do not do -- that is my concern.
It's good advice, given the circumstances.

Who knows? Maybe someone will take it. Maybe not. But equally, maybe so. Who's to say that someone could not learn yoga from practicing "yoga?" What is art if not a craft with a little magic thrown in?

The magic of life.

And just living it.

Be yourself ... not some gussied up true self or artful-dodger sacrificing self....

Just, you know, your laughing, lively, life-ly self.

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