Christmas: Can You Be Ready?
**Showing Up for the Show Down**
I wanted to talk today about joy and fear and Christmas. Do those things go together? If the Buddha had stuck around I’m sure he would have laid down a sutra for the Christmas holidays that would be chanted the world over. It’s December and this is the most important time of year to come here. It can be so easy to drop practice when you’re busy. The time pressures and expectations can be dizzying, not to mention the heaping doses of superficial generosity and I’m so glad you came smiles. This is a time of intense loneliness – the last two weeks of the year, and the first two, are when most suicides occur. Someone’s out there right now having the last night of their life.
This is the time when we count on the practice we’ve been cultivating, and the most important quality of that practice is often: showing up. Sometimes the reason we stop practicing is because we’re so busy, and our busyness does such a good job of covering our anxiety, the life we might be having, the feelings we want to file away for a bad weather day. Can we sit with our anxiety, our unwanted feelings, our difficulties? Sometimes I sit hoping it will smooth out unwanted feelings, I think: I’ll sit and then the bumpy road will run clean again. I’ll find my breath and feel good. But what would it mean to enter our lives without the crutches we used last year? What about not drinking? What would it mean to be sober this month? To avoid taking any intoxicants, by which I mean anything that intoxicates your ego, like too much shopping.
There’s a Japanese story about courage I wanted to tell. It’s about an old monk. Often in Japanese stories these old monks find enlightenment and then they always say: “and then he practiced for ten more years with the same teacher…” Enlightenment, just another step on the road. Are we going somewhere? Anyways, this old monk has a great realization, an awakening, and then he goes right on practicing. He’s given transmission to teach, and there are pressures to become the national Zen teacher for Japan. But he feels the best way to serve is to become anonymous and go live in the mountains outside Kyoto. But then he imagines being found there, and a whole cult growing up around him, so he decides to plunge into the city instead, and lives under a bridge. Meanwhile the emperor grows concerned: where is this guy, and why doesn’t he take the job? He dispatches his seekers but no luck. They tell him: all homeless people look the same. Uh huh. Then they discover he loves melons, but he’s a Zen master so you have to test him. They’re going to use this puzzle: “Can you take this melon without using your hands?” The seekers head back out and find an old man under a bridge who lights up seeing the melon. They pop the question and he asks back, “Can you pass me the melon without using your hands?” So they know it’s really him. This became a central koan for Japanese teachers/students. Can you pass the melon without using your hands? Can you show me your anxiety without using the crutch you usually use? (Our usual crutch: explanations and stories).
How can you show yourself without the usual crutches? How can you do this with your family this year? Can you pass the melon without alcohol? Can you be generous without being in debt? It looks like we’re concentrating on our breath, or the way we bow at the door. But all these practices are getting us ready for how to sit at the family dinner table. Oh, there’s your dad drinking again. Warming up to ask you the same questions. Time to pull on the old mask. Recite the lines. Or?
There’s a group in England called BAFTA, the British Academy for Television Arts, and each year they invite a guest to talk over the state of the art. Charlie Kaufman rolled in, the writer of *Being John Malkovich*, *Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind*, He’s talking to fellow screenwriters, though not in the usual way.
Here’s a recent quote that I found: ‘We do not talk, we bludgeon one another with facts and theories gleaned from cursory readings of newspapers, magazines and digests.’ That was actually written in 1945 by Henry Miller and I think it’s timely. I think what it says is that the world has been on its present course for a long time. People all over the world spend countless hours of their lives every week being fed entertainment in the form of movies, TV shows, newspapers, YouTube videos and the internet. And it’s ludicrous to believe that this stuff doesn’t alter our brains.
It’s also equally ludicrous to believe that – at the very least – this mass distraction and manipulation is not convenient for the people who are in charge. People are starving. They may not know it because they’re being fed mass produced garbage. The packaging is colourful and loud, but it’s produced in the same factories that make Pop Tarts and iPads, by people sitting around thinking :
> What can we do to get people to buy more of these?
And they’re very good at their jobs. But that’s what it is you’re getting, because that’s what they’re making. They’re selling you something. And the world is built on this now. Politics and government are built on this, corporations are built on this. Interpersonal relationships are built on this. And we’re starving, all of us, and we’re killing each other, and we’re hating each other, and we’re calling each other liars and evil because it’s all become marketing and we want to win because we’re lonely and empty and scared and we’re led to believe winning will change all that. But there is no winning.
What can be done? Say who you are, really say it in your life and in your work. Tell someone out there who is lost, someone not yet born, someone who won’t be born for 500 years. Your writing will be a record of your time. It can’t help but be that. But more importantly, if you’re honest about who you are, you’ll help that person be less lonely in their world because that person will recognise him or herself in you and that will give them hope. It’s done so for me and I have to keep rediscovering it. It has profound importance in my life. Give that to the world, rather than selling something to the world. Don’t allow yourself to be tricked into thinking that the way things are is the way the world must work and that in the end selling is what everyone must do. Try not to.
I am trying not to spend this time, as I spend most of my time, trying to get you to like me; trying to control your thoughts, to use my voodoo at the speed of light, the speed of sound, the speed of thought, trying to convince you that your two hours with me are not going to be resented afterwards.
It is an ancient pattern of time usage for me, and I’m trying to move deeper, hoping to be helpful. This pattern of time usage paints over an ancient wound, and paints it with bright colours. It’s a sleight of hand, a distraction, so to attempt to change the pattern let me expose the wound. I now step into this area blindly, I do not know what the wound is, I do know that it is old. I do know that it is a hole in my being. I do know it is tender. I do believe that it is unknowable, or at least unable to be articulable.
I do believe you have a wound too. I do believe it is both specific to you and common to everyone. I do believe it is the thing about you that must be hidden and protected, it is the thing that must be tap danced over five shows a day, it is the thing that won’t be interesting to other people if revealed. It is the thing that makes you weak and pathetic. It is the thing that truly, truly, truly makes loving you impossible. It is your secret, even from yourself. But it is the thing that wants to live.
It is the thing from which your art, your painting, your dance, your composition, your philosophical treatise, your screenplay is born. If you don’t acknowledge this you will come up here when it is your time and you will give your speech and you will talk about the business of screenwriting. You will say that as a screenwriter you are a cog in a business machine, you will say it is not an art form. You will say, ‘Here, this is what a screenplay looks like.’ You will discuss character arcs, how to make likeable characters. You will talk about box office. This is what you will do, this is who you will be and after you are done I will feel lonely and empty and hopeless. And I will ask you for my two hours back. I will do this to indicate my lack of love for you.”
The melon is the whole thing. Something nourishes with seeds. When we’re courageous we can meet what’s going on and then joy arises. Joy is fearlessness. Living without fear. An old teacher asks her student: is there joy in your practice? And the student answers, “My practice is like cleaning up shit and finding a precious jewel in it.” Where does joy come from? Out of illness, difficulty, digestion, joints, family, relationships. How powerful to go deeply into all that and see that it’s not your fault. Instead, it’s your joy that’s waiting for you, after the mindful practices of readiness. When someone hands you a melon, they are handing you an opportunity.
**Can you be ready?**
I think I’ve been answering the same questions in the same way since I was ten years old. We need our crutches, but perhaps we could use more nourishing crutches. What we really need are new dance moves but often we busy ourselves with redecorating the walls.
There’s a Tibetan saying: It’s better to give a crumb to a mouse (than a plasma TV).
Seventeenth century sailors did wavefinder practice. They would take account of the weather, planets, climate, and then their course would shift according to these factors. Their mantra: If this, then what? I can’t think of a better definition of karma. When you go out for Christmas, can your skin go? How to bring your skin and be there.
*photo credit: drew saunders*