Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Check out the new digs

at Zen and the Art of "Yes, and..." http://lawliberationtheology.com/

Monday, June 9, 2014

Why Do We Get Out of Bed in the Morning? Goals and fleeting time.

I think that one of "the" prime questions in life, at least around midlife, becomes "why do I get out of bed in the morning?"  Or its less cheery cousin, "why do I bother to get out of bed in the morning?"

Answers vary, and can change, especially by the late 30s-early 40s.   That's when the student loan may be paid off, "professional success" achieved, but everything starts to feel flat.   Or, goal hurdle crossed, time starts to feel squandered.

This state of change and dissatisfaction probably accounts for my interests in Zen and psychology.  Zen for its emphasis on "time is fleeting, do not squander your life" and psychology for studying goals, motivations, flourishing and resilience, the things we need to jump from impressing authority figures and doing what a culture, profession or family says one "must" do to being full human beings in control of our faculties. 

A week or so ago I listened, as a MentorCoach training alumni, to an interview with psychologist  Kennon Sheldon.  Sheldon does a lot of research on goal setting and goal accomplishment, and talked about how the goals most often kept are those that are intrinsic (about stuff you care about) and self-determined, as opposed to extrinsic (gotta look good for the neighbors) and externally imposed ("everyone says...").  I'd agree with that.

In coming months I'm going to use the inspiration I took from Ken Sheldon's talks, Richie Davidson's "The Emotional Life of Your Brain," Chogyam Trungpa's "Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism" and my Improv comedy training to follow what gets me out of bed in the morning - how do we live this life?  How do we?   Why do we?  

Let's find out.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Meaning, and Stuff Like That

Renewed Focus - How do we live this life?  What is this thing called life?  TBD

By the way, I killed my first Bonsai.  How's that mindfulness workin' for ya, eh?

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Tuesday Book Review - Maugham's The Razor's Edge. Paris, War, Salvation by Vedanta in the 1930s.

"You said just now you suspected what he's been after all these years.  What did you mean?"

"I can only guess, you know, and I may be wrong.  I think he's been seeking for a philosophy, or maybe a religion, and a rule of life that'll satisfy both his head and his heart."    

W. Somerset Maugham, The Razor's Edge (page 211 in the 1992 Penguin paperback).

Posts have been less frequent in the last week as a backlog of work and DIY business blogging and email blasting ate up weekend and evening time.  However, after a Saturday so full of business writing, work and business social media (in the wake of a federal judge overturning Michigan’s prior ban on same-sex marriage, which presents interesting tax and business ownership issues) that I had a Saturday night/Sunday morning nightmare about my PR strategies and costs, I decided to spend some time with a good book on Sunday.   Spurred on by a recent post by a lawyer friend regarding W. Somerset Maugham's The Razor’s Edge as a great, lasting novel of spiritual questioning and searching, I picked up my library copy and found myself reading until midnight (when everyone knows that 10 pm is my habitual bedtime).

The Razor’s Edge (published in 1944) is not a novel for 16 year olds, and when I read it first at 15 or 16 the weight of it didn’t register with me.  Like Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Wharton’s The Age of Innocence and Eliot’s Middlemarch, it follows a group of friends and rivals through time and explores the repercussions of choices.  What happens to the person who turns against the stream and lives by principle?  What happens to the person who chooses wealth and nice clothes?  Is change possible 20 years later?  These are interesting, remote stories when young, and heart-rendingly relatable stories of how choices in life really go down (sometimes not as intended) for the early middle aged.

In The Razor’s Edge, Maugham follows a character based on his adult self, as well as an older gentleman social climber and a group of rich, carefree young Chicagoans composed of the social climber’s niece Isabel and her closest friends.  The fun of youth and wealth end when Isabel’s boyfriend Larry Darrell comes back from World War I having seen horrors and consumed by the questions of good and evil and the existence of a higher power.  Over rich years and post-Depression years, bouncing through Chicago and Europe (whether in the gutter or living off of wealthy older relatives), the group of young friends lives out their destinies – everyone eventually gets what he or she wanted, or asked for (for good or ill).  As does Larry, after a separate life spent studying the ultimate questions in students’ quarters in Paris, a coal mine, a German farm, a Benedictine Abbey and, finally, an ashram in India studying the Upanishads.  

That is what scared me in a way - Larry's happiness and awakening leads him, in many ways, away from the life of prosperity and society that his friends embraced.  Is that a bad thing?  Maybe, maybe not.  Does it have to happen (that spirituality and the marketplace cannot coexist)?  Maybe, maybe not.  I'm not convinced, but am concerned.  Larry Darrell, in the end, reminds me of how the entrepreneurial cartoonist Hugh MacLeod (Gaping Void) writes in his popular "sheep v wolf" drawing, "the price of being a sheep is boredom, the price of being a wolf is loneliness, choose one or the other with great care."

I don't think that I've chosen Larry's path (yet, if ever) but I understood it.  He found life somewhat flat, and inexplicable, after witnessing war.  I had one sad year in BigLaw where I saw deaths of friends, coworkers' family members, friends' family members, and one client literally hit by an 18 wheeler (while on his Harley).  You know, after that all of the fancy framed diplomas and "Best Whatsit 2012" awards looked pretty damned flat, and life inexplicable, and they still do today.  I get it, I get it.

Maugham chose the book’s title from a line in the Katha-Upanishad “The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over/Thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard…” and the long, late passages where Larry describes his rambling and life at the ashram are steeped in his study of early Christian mystics and Vedanta philosophy and his search for the Ultimate, the Source and answers.  Much of this will seem familiar to students of Zen - the non-duality, infinite cycling and rebirth of matter and energy, and the turning inward in meditation.  But are there ever answers?  Is the answer to not linger on the edge, but go all in or get out?  I'll leave that to you and your own reading.

I won't issue further spoilers, but for anyone interested in (1) entertaining novels about interesting characters doing unpredictable things, (2) life in pre-War Paris and the Riviera, (3) seeking and questing and (4) finding oneself in India, I highly recommend The Razor's Edge.  

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Ready for My One Woman Show, or First Over 40 Improv Class

I'd always wanted to be an anthropologist, writer, comedian or comedy writer...so I ended up as a tax and corporate lawyer.  Which I believe qualifies as an existential joke on many levels.  Actually, it's OK.  I can help people with things so obscure, unpleasant, unfathomable, intimidating and/or horrifying that they will pay others to unravel them.  Bit like being a demonologist crossed with a financial proctologist.  As they say, "It's a living."

However, there is what we accept (doing work that leads the occasional client or potential client to ask "you want to do this [represent taxpayers against the IRS]? Eeeew."  "yes, that's why people like me exist to help you..."), and there is what we do not accept (burning up our one precious human life with inconsequentiality).  I'd gone into law long ago for a handful of reasons.  None that included "work myself so hard that I can't do anything I value in order to support someone else's dream into which I do not and will not ever buy."  But, as Kurt Vonnegut famously said, so it goes.  So it goes - time is passing, do not squander your life.

Now, Grape Flavor Aid spat out and on the other side of The Wall, it's a new world. After 20 years of interest, dithering, delay, stinginess towards the self and/or putting the firm's or someone else's billable hour goals or some other bullshit first, I signed up for my first improv training class.  I just attended Class 1.  I think this is going to be, along with leaving Law Firm Land, one of the most important and transformative experiences of my life.  I think this is going to be why I'm here at all, a most profound and potentially disruptive spiritual groundbreaking.

Improv is"the" quintessential Zen practice.  It is being entirely in the moment, reacting to the moment, and leaving delusion, attachment and grasping behind. You are exactly who and what you are, and if you fall flat on your face (literally or metaphorically) then you see what happens in each following moment.  No bullshit, no poses, no titles, no prestige, no masks.  It is the anti-Corporate America, the anti-when did the aliens abduct me and deposit me in a corporate law department?  It was those things most Americans search their lives for and cannot dependably find - freedom, coupled with acceptance.

We all wear a lot of masks in life. That's how many survive family, school and the workplace.  We end up caving to serve or please, or to support or fund another's dream, or to go along to get along.  For a brief, shining moment around 1988-90 I charged forward, fully in possession of my dreams.  I remember it well, like a foreign country to which no traveler may return.  

Tasting the freedom of being my own boss, and the business owner and financier and secured creditor, and risking and not "literally" dying on the improv floor (what's the worst that can happen?  I've died of disappointment and humiliation before, metaphorically, and am happier for having shrugged it off today), pushes me to this conclusion further - I'm done with supporting others' headlining acts. Law firms, hobby ventures, creative ventures, whatevers, count me out.  I'm ready for my One Woman Show, where the masks and acts and fetters are left in an alley outside in a heap, no permission must be asked or forgiveness sought, my wise counsel carries the day, and the only expectations are my own.  Enough already, cut the crap, cue up the next game.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Slaps and Tickles of the Great Matter of Birth and Death on St. Padraig's Day

Some days we talk a good game about impermanence and non-attachment, and some days it slaps us in the face.  I've written before about that moment when the talk of "yeah man, everything is impermanent, good and bad, and we're all gonna die some day so we can't waste this life" meets the reality of gray hair and lines in the mirror, or a birthday starting in 3_, or 4_, or 5_, or an oddity that requires genetic testing to investigate further while you still think you are still "young."  Or the moment you see someone else's personal stuff on sale for spare change at their estate sale, with no buyers.  Then we get a tickle of truth that yeah, everything is impermanent.

Then there are the times truth slaps us across the face, hard.  The kind of slaps Archy demonstrates to inept criminals in Guy Ritchie's RocknRolla.  That's when you see impermanence for real.  When the friend or classmate your own age (too young) dies, the client who owes you a call is actually and literally hit by an 18 wheeler over the weekend and you find out on Monday morning (true story), or you see serious health crises in the family (true story for every human, eventually).  

So far, 2014 has presented me with the chance to see two relatives have potentially very serious health problems and recover fully, no harm done.  One would have died without treatment but bounced back fast, the other received a temporary misdiagnosis of near death (rescinded 14 hours later, "whoops!") and went back to normal life.  Today each is enjoying a sunny day and, as we say, smelling the roses instead of pushing up daisies.  Honestly, right now I bet that each is on the computer, checking email (knowing each).  

I'm the one left most troubled with no rainbow at the end, as nothing compliments a post-age 35 questioning of the impact, purpose, meaning and effectiveness of one's life like watching the near ends of others and the range of responses (gratitude, love, hope, anger, fear) that they engender.  Exactly what we don't want to admit into our tidy, sanitized, suburban lives.  Except that our tidy suburban lives are actually seething, howling, Pink Floyd suburban lives just under the surface. 

Watching a winning game of Hide and Seek with the Grim Reaper, as someone who talks a good game about impermanence and needing to not squander my life, but actually has done relatively little to activate many of my own long-time plans and goals, was rough.  The relief of seeing the best possible outcome for another, followed some time later by the realization "that is coming someday, too, for me, and if I don't get off my behind soon, a life will be squandered and no one will benefit."  I'm writing this on St. Patrick's Day and may observe that there is not enough green beer in the world to drown the suspicion that one will simply live and die without mattering (a Top 5 Existential Horror). 

Which one would any of us want to be at an advanced age - the one who loved his work and achieved big things, and desperately wanted to live to achieve more?  The one who'd dutifully, respectably provided very well for others in a stressful career and earned a retirement of recreation and enjoyment, and desperately wanted to get back to it?  Or the one with duties to system, society, the IRS, dead ancestors, educational institutions, professional organizations, and creditors lovingly cared for and well groomed, while personal goals and plans sit on the railroad tracks on the wrong side of town in rags, eating charity bologna sandwiches and hoping for shoes, a flea bath and a clean cinderblock pillow some day?  I've thrown scraps to those exiled goals and plans before and saw plenty of other lawyers do the same  (if they didn't just drown the pesky outside interests after dark and be free of them forever) and I don't know about you, but the last option doesn't look appealing.  That's what impermanence looks like, and if it doesn't scare the hell out of you, put down your "2014 Best Whatevers" plaque and look again. 

On the subject of lives spent well versus lives squandered, today is St. Patrick's Day, St. Padraig's in one of my ancestral lands, and I'll end with wise words from William Butler Yeats about finding a place in life.

WHEN I play on my fiddle in Dooney,
Folk dance like a wave of the sea;
My cousin is priest in Kilvarnet,
My brother in Moharabuiee.

I passed my brother and cousin:
They read in their books of prayer;
I read in my book of songs
I bought at the Sligo fair.

When we come at the end of time,
To Peter sitting in state,
He will smile on the three old spirits,
But call me first through the gate;

For the good are always the merry,
Save by an evil chance,
And the merry love the fiddle
And the merry love to dance:

And when the folk there spy me,
They will all come up to me,
With 'Here is the fiddler of Dooney!'
And dance like a wave of the sea.

--William Butler Yeats


Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Who is That Maroon Robed Man? The Dalai Lama Visits the Senate

When I started to study meditation, I took the Zen path, along a split Korean/Japanese root (split just like my Catholic/Protestant family of origin).  Korean Soen looks to Chinul, Japanese Soto/Rinzai to both Dogen and Hakuin, and I attend Gelug sect Vajrayana classes through a Jewel Heart extension into the northern suburbs because they bring a warm, wonderful group of friendly people together once a week to talk a little big about practice and a lot about life.  Last week we talked about Lebanese garlic sauce, modern American ethics and Elmore Leonard, among other topics.  But back to Zen, it's roots, and the Tibetans too, share the same basic philosophies of the truth of suffering and its release and the path to rising above delusion and hindrance. 

I don't practice Tibetan meditation - it's ornate visualizations and teachings are interesting, and I love the constant focus on relieving the suffering of other beings and dedicating merit to the happiness of other beings, but the austerity of Zen stuck with me better.  However, I was intrigued to hear that His Holiness the Dalai Lama was scheduled to give the opening invocation at the United States Senate last week.

I've always liked HHDL.  I admire his capacity to have compassion for the Chinese officials who persecute Tibetans, because he understands the suffering that hatred comes from, and the later suffering that hatred produces.  Back in my large law firm days I worked with more than a few people who made me think "Dang, a person has to be utterly miserable to act that way" but I don't recall wishing them freedom from suffering.  Too close to my old country roots, I probably wished for certain body parts to wither and fall away or a pox on their luxurious vacation homes. So HHDL has much to teach me by example. 

Among the sturm and drang of HHDL addressing the Senate in this polarized, strained and hostile American political culture (with every brand of cultural critic to homicidally hateful whackadoodle-doo emerging onto the YouTube comment page like cicadas during a Biblical curse*), one jewel might have gone unnoticed by the HHDL non-conversant. Among the robes, the Tibetan and the general bewilderment of at least half of the room, HH offered one prayer as his very favorite invocation, the portion of Shantideva's Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life.

"Daily I pray this. That gives me inner strength. So I am asking to serve humanity. As long as space remains and as long as beings remain, until then may I, too, remain, and help dispel the misery of the world."

The Bodhisattva Vow** was one of the things about Zen (actually, Mahayana in general) that floored me when I first heard it.  "Do not squander your life" blew off my doors - how did they know?  Then the vow to not escape the suffering of the world, but to stay in it until everyone can be released together, was unlike anything I'd ever heard.  It wasn't the self-centered "how much are you going to pay me" or "don't leave any money on the table" of the business world.  It wasn't the race to the top of middle-class suburbia, it was pure open-hearted compassion for all sentient creatures, with the understanding that altruism may not be the easiest path.  I loved it.

In the times when I doubt my value to society in my line of legal work, not obviously world-saving in the way that human rights, child protection advocacy, constitutional or criminal (prosecution and defense, fact depending) work appears to be, I remind myself that as long as I can relieve a client's stress, helplessness and suffering, I'm doing something.  That is not squandered time.

A Zen teacher I've always learned from and enjoyed hearing gave a talk on the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (who manifests as Kuan Yin, Kannon or Kwan Seum Bosal in China, Japan and Korea and Tara and Chenrezig in Tibet), the embodiment of compassion.  Avalokiteshvara may be male or female depending on culture, and may be analogized in female form (like Tara and Kuan Yin) to the Blessed Mother, a force of love and compassion for all suffering parties.  Ancient Zen teachings say that the thousand-headed, thousand-armed bodhisattva of compassion hears the cries of the world and reaches with no forethought to relieve the suffering of the world - no gamesmanship, no wondering "what will be beneficial to me," but automatically, the way a sleeper reaches behind her head in sleep to adjust her pillow.

The Dalai Lama, each of them in the line, and all of them collectively, are considered to by Gelug sect Tibetan Buddhists to be Avalokiteshvara on Earth.  I don't know about that. My skepticism and over-education are high and my direct observation of all Dalai Lamas is low, but anyone who brings perfect compassion and the desire to save all beings regardless of political party, donation tendencies and level of insurance to the US Senate is OK by me.  May that last, muted prayer, lost in Tibetan and hasty translation and in the oddness of his address on the Hill, have been heard, and may the ripple spread and save us all.


* If this isn't right speech, indict me and take away my mala, I don't care.  Calling a doodle-doo a doodle-doo is an ethical duty and I am a sworn member of the Bar.

** Not just a Beastie Boys song.