I’m becoming a Buddhist Novitiate. I have been advised by most everyone in my life that this is in fact a terrible idea. I have quit my job as a television news executive which offers a wage a little better than middle class, if there even is such a thing, and I have given away the last of my possessions. Most people tell me having a job is a great privilege but I can’t make myself feel that way anymore.
The day to day sleep state which allowed me to get up without question and strap on a suit, drive through the coffee stand and show up numbly grinding out a new day had a deadline with an alarm attached and it went off. It rang over and over until it deafened me to any other question but ‘what am I doing here?’ I know how it started with little beeps that sounded like tears and heart break. In rather short succession my twenty five year marriage failed, my daughter and grand daughter moved away and my dad died. After that I couldn’t stop this persistent thought: everything I’m doing has no context anymore. Then driving home one day in the stillness of my economy car the thought came and came and came back again: so what’s all the work for? Am I trying to climb a ladder, buy a house and pay the bank for the privilege? At fifty two how likely is it that I could even pay off a thirty year mortgage, and if so, why? How about health insurance, am I working for that? Given that I got sick a year ago and have absolutely no hope of ever paying off those bills, I don’t think that’s it. No, I’m working so as not to have some horror like starvation or homelessness, which are very real things for way too many people but I’m lucky enough to have the currency of friends and family to get me by long enough to figure myself out and then—well- there’s the monastic life which has oddly appealed to me since I first read Kathleen Norris’ wonderful book, “The Cloister Walk on a plane ride across the country some twenty years ago. There remained one last barrier to chucking it all beyond the mind bending fear of tossing myself in the monastery and that is the concept of meaningful work. I’ve been hanging on thinking that what I did as a journalist was meaningful. I still believe that as an overarching value showing what is happening in our world is helpful but it’s not enough for me right now in this time of my life. I’m terribly sorry for that.
You see in the television newsroom I manage we tell the same story every, single, relentless day. The middle class is shrinking, greed rules the day, the Earth is literally burning and by the way here’s the “It” shade of lipstick to wear while the body count is growing of people who cannot fight off illness because they are eating factory farmed meat swollen with all manner of antibiotics that cause resistance to its properties and at the other end of the “food security” spectrum, there are people just plain and simply starving to death as desertification takes over large swaths of our planet. Meantime, Monsanto and the dozens of other multi national businesses yank the chain of politicians who enable corporate welfare at unprecedented rates and while we talk, talk, talk about these things on the news there does not appear to be any change except more people are talking about it, which I recognize is something. I still believe in informing people. I still believe in telling the truth and that in telling it we make things better but I’ve become personally impatient with it. I want to tangibly see the difference I can make. I want to give one hungry person a loaf of bread and be able to tell that for that moment some good has come of me being here. If I could feed a hundred people, so much the better. It’s a selfish wish and I know it. But this vague desire is what I have now, so I’m acting on it.
In fact at some level I fear myself and the rage of impotence I would feel if I did not act on solving problems but merely continued to talk about them. Because right now I cannot stop talking and I cannot think that’s helping the problem. If I was the darling that Russell Brand is, stunning audiences with his British wit, big words and a voice that speaks for the common person in a refreshing way all that spouting off would matter. But I am not anything close to him. If our news coverage about the “disparity in the distribution of wealth” represented by the woman recently nearly arrested stealing groceries for her hungry kids made a difference then I’d tell that story all day every day. I thought it made a difference when I first started covering the trend during the Bush administration but all these years later it has become precisely worse. All that coverage, all the days pouring through statistics and urging reporters to hold anyone, someone accountable has not changed anything that I can see, at least not yet and I’m growing anxious waiting.
The Buddhists have a saying, “As above, so below.” My version is “As in the world, so in me” I can feel nothing but futility and anger about the years of sweeping in a dust storm both in my work and in myself. I’d rather personally feed five hungry kids, sit on a mat in a monastery and try really hard not to be angry and sort out what, and there will be something, I can actually do.
Those who don’t find any of this crazy tell me “congratulations on your journey”. That’s not it either. I am not heading out on a romantic, highly funded global vacation to find myself. I really have no idea what I’m doing or how to do it, I just know I’ve got to do something and this is what I came up with. This being sitting Zazen and counting my breath, cleaning the temple which I have no idea how to do, treating water as sacred by taking very fast showers with a bucket and practicing detachment which is the one thing I must do because clinging looks like fury and grief rolled into one giant ball of asking how I got here. I am approaching this with absolute dread, the kind that is waking me up at 5am and asking me if I am going to miss having my own room, the kind which drives me to good red wine because it’ll be a long while before I have it again, and the kind which asks over and over in that desperate howl only a mind wrapped around work can intone; ‘what are you going to do without money?’ I don’t know the answers to those questions but I will find out as my bare feet enter the temple and I find my mat on a bitter cold day in the more than seven thousand feet straight up at a Zen Buddhist learning center in Santa Fe. If all I learn is that my life was better before I came there, then I am content because I will know where I fit. I am thinking it’s more likely that direction will come in another way and I will follow that just as frightened as I am following this.
So soon I will be packing a single suitcase in my car and making the long drive away from everything I’ve known to this point, except perhaps one thing: there is wifi and I have a laptop so I will be showing you what it’s like and hoping that as I do you see yourself somewhere in it so when it’s time for your own personal revolution you may do so with more bravery than I have displayed here.
So yes, I am sitting to save myself. Let’s hope it works.