February 15, 2012

Meth, Mardi Gras, & the Heart of Enlightenment.

The spiritual awakening is an accident. Divorce, drugs, alcohol, and the practice of meditation made me accident prone! This is my story: The Confessions of a Buddhist Dumb-Ass, unabridged.

I have been writing on elephant journal for a little over a year now. In this time, I have seldom mentioned anything about my personal story. Of course, what I write about has its origins in the revelations that are my life. But I thought it appropriate and timely to share with the elephant readers a few of the specifics regarding my life, and to do so in such a way that puts my perspective on the spiritual path into context.

The spiritual path can be a tricky path, and I can think of no better story than my own to illustrate this point. Just as Jiddu Krishnamurti once said, “We are all the story of humanity.” It wasn’t until I stopped blaming the church, alcohol, and drugs  that I was able to sit down and read this story on the pages of my mind. It was then that true meditation was discovered.

I was born in Louisiana, but when I was still a young child my family moved to Waskom,TX. At this time I was probably in kindergarten or first grade. By all accounts I was a playful kid. I did well in class and had a keen interest in airplanes, dinosaurs, and church. These interests would often overlap, and I would find myself drawing dinosaurs and airplanes on the back of the offering envelopes in church.

I would, of my own volition, attend the local Baptist Church in downtown Waskom. Often times I would go alone, which wasn’t a problem for me, because I got to ride the church bus. The highlight of my week was sitting on the bus next to Jimmy, this fellow with down syndrome, listening as he sung, “I Like That Ole’ Time of Rock & Roll.” In my early years, I loved church and everything about it.

However, this love turned out to be rather conditional. In first grade, when my parents decided to separate, my church going days came to a screeching halt. I blamed God for the failure of my family, which seems to point to the fact that I expected him to watch after me and my interests. I used my participation in church as a sort of leverage over God to manipulate the course of my life. The moment that it became clear to me that this was not an effective strategy my relationship with God became null & void.

Following the divorce, me and my dad moved back to Louisiana. The next ten to twelve years of my life were extremely dark. I had learned at an early age that I was alone, and that if I was going to be happy, it would only be achieved through intense effort on my behalf. I began to experiment with a variety of different methods and techniques for producing a comfortable situation for myself. I tried being the class clown, the smart overachiever, a member of the popular crowd, and associating myself with the self-imposed outcasts.

My inability to organize life into a comfortable series of events made my first encounters with alcohol welcomed events. Alcohol enabled me to forget these failures. It gave me the option of slipping into oblivion. This was an option that I came to abuse in a relatively short period of time. I wasn’t looking to drown my self in despair; quite the opposite was true. I wanted to produce happiness, but despite my best efforts I was still uncomfortable in my own skin.

By time I was seventeen I had already been to four treatment centers. The pain and discomfort I was trying to avoid began to catch up with me. While visiting a treatment facility in Canton, TX, I was forced to accept the fact that I could not continue to use alcohol or drugs. When my parents and counselors would confront me with my drinking and drug use I would always say, “This is how all teen-age boys from Louisiana act. The only problem I have is that my parents won’t get off my back.” I was also diagnosed with ADD/ADHD, but the staff in Canton caught me cheeking and snorting my meds, which lead to me being taken off of Adderall. This was the first time since I was 12 years old that I had been unable to get my hands on either drugs or alcohol.

The treatment center staff was forcing me to relate to life without any sort of sedative and it was intense. Everything was so piercing. It felt like I was loosing my mind. I remember setting up a make-shift tennis court in my room, and by make-shift I mean jailhouse. The tennis court was a sheet stretched across the room from one bed post to the other. The ball was a pair of rolled up socks that we struck with our jailhouse racquets—flip flops worn over our hands. I was literally willing to do anything in order to escape the intensity of a non-sedated life. One afternoon, one of my three room-mates came in pissed off and tore the net down. It was almost as if he had stripped from me my last possession. I threw him down on the bed and held a fork to his throat, while I promised him that I would kill him if he did not put the court back together. It was official: I had spun off of the earth!

I spent the night in the padded room. The staff began to move my things into another dorm. In the process, they found a couple of single brew coffee packets. After questioning my roommates, they learned that I had pocketed them in the cafeteria and was snorting them in my room. My big thing had always been alcohol, but just before coming to treatment this time I was snorting a lot of cocaine and meth. When they took me off of the Adderall I started to reach. I was willing to do anything to flee the rawness and immediacy of my life, so I tried snorting coffee. When they confronted me about it, the game was up. I could no longer deny that I had a problem. I couldn’t continue to say, “This is how all teen-age boys from Louisiana act,” because I did not know another teen-age boy from Louisiana snorting coffee. Once the fine folks on the treatment center staff had me bent over a barrel they began talking to me about God.

I was quite clear with these people from the beginning that I wanted nothing to do with God. While I had caused plenty of problems for myself, God had proved Himself to be equally as insufficient, in my eyes. The treatment center staff arranged for a meeting between me and a man named Billy Jack. They told me that we were going to talk about God. I was pretty apprehensive, but equally as excited. My intense hatred for God made debating his existence an enjoyable activity. I wanted you to feel the same hatred and disappointment I felt.  However, Billy Jack took another angle with me, perhaps the only one that would have worked at the time. He spoke to me about possibilities, not certainties. We never even talked about philosophy, dogma, or Theology. In fact, we did not speak much at all.

The conversation began with me going off on your typical resentment filled atheistic rant. That lasted about five minutes. Then, conquered by boredom, he interrupted to ask me two simple questions: First he asked, “Is it at all possible that God exists?” To which, I had to concede,  I could not disprove the existence of God any more than he could prove it. So, I said, “It is highly unlikely, but nevertheless possible.” The second question was, “At this point in your life, can you think of anything more important than investigating this one possibility?” Again, I had to concede that I could not. I was at a point in my life where I knew that I had to do some serious soul-searching, and first-hand knowledge about the existence or non-existence of God seemed, at the time, to be the most profound subject of inquiry. This simple encounter with Billy Jack, a man I have never seen or heard from again, turned my mind inside out. It was an invitation to participate in a world that was beyond what I thought about things.

Initially, my intense disdain for all things Christian did not enable me to approach a Church or the Bible. I only mention my disdain for Christianity to say that my initial search was governed by resentment and fear, not a heartfelt desire to enlarge my spiritual life. Before leaving treatment someone offered me a book on Buddhism. I did not understand much of what I read, but I did retain a few slogans and prescribed behaviors, which I employed as articles of clothing for my new and improved self-image.

Erik Törner

At first, Buddhism was just another transition or development of my ego. I was drenched in spiritual materialism. I had only seen one Buddhist in my life and that was the Dalai Lama. So, I did everything in my power to look and act like him. Upon leaving treatment, I moved to South Florida. Here I am in Boca Raton, FL—a seven-teen year old, six foot eight, Buddhist redneck from Shreveport, LA. I am walking down the street with a freshly shaved head, wearing a maroon bathrobe and flip flops, trying my best to be Buddhist as hell—dramatically stepping over ants, eating veggie lo-mein, and counting the beads on my mala while mindlessly reciting some mumbo-jumbo in another language. I had always believed that happiness was something I had to become, and at this point in my life that belief had not changed.

Over time, I learned a little more about Buddhism. I observed certain codes of conduct. These codes did little more than give me new boundaries to operate within, because the same patterns of consciousness were still operable; the only difference being, they were dressed in Asian garb. I was still trying to organize the world to my likening; only now I couldn’t use drugs, alcohol, or violence. On a fundamental level I realized that I was still unhappy, and I began to suspect that I was responsible for this inescapable sense of dissatisfaction.

This sneaking suspicion was made all the more obvious by my ongoing commitment to the practice of meditation. During my short stay in Boca Raton I had the opportunity to learn how to meditate from the Roshi at a local Zen temple. Over time, this practice enabled my mind to settle, and once the mind was settled, simple observation naturally began to take place. One of these simple moments of observation happened in the midst of a chaotic environment and a flood of emotional turmoil.

Some 5 years later, back home in Louisiana, I was at a Mardi Gras parade with a girl I had been dating for some time. At this point in my life, I regarded myself as a sort of “highly accomplished spiritual seeker.” This all came crumbling down, when the girl I was with said something, which sparked in me a fear that I had carried around since my childhood. In front of God and everyone, without hesitation, I turned and spit right in her face. For a moment I was stripped naked. It embarrassed the hell out of me. Spitting in my girlfriend’s face proved to be one of the greatest revelations of my short life. It was made unequivocally clear, to me and the people around me, that all the crap I had read in all those books was of no use. All the rules and precepts, the meditation techniques, they were all pointless. What others thought about me was an opinion about someone that did not exist. Their opinion of me spoke more to my acting abilities than it did to my character. I was still the same child who stormed out of church eighteen years ago. I spit in her face, just as I had spit in God’s face when He failed to meet my expectations.

This insight was not some glorious moment that placed me on a pink cloud of bliss. It was one that revealed to me the powerlessness of my attempts to fix myself. The only thing left in my repertoire was to run, but since my newly acquired codes of conduct did not allow me to drink, use drugs, or commit suicide I decided to run into a monastery.

The only problem the monastic “escape plan” seemed to present, was location. I was looking for a wayward Buddhist hide out, and all of their monasteries seemed to be in Asia. Luckily, I had recently met and befriended a Catholic priest. He made arrangements for me to go and stay at a Franciscan Friary, which shared property with a Trappist monastery.  This gave me the chance to test the waters of monastic life without having to commit to Asia, as of yet. My short stay at this monastery proved to be an amazing experience. There I met the most whole and complete men I had ever known. I cannot stress enough the value of my trip to the Christian monastery; It was there that I realized there was far more substance to the spiritual journey than I had ever realized.

Upon arriving in India, all illusions I harbored about being able to hide from life, were promptly shattered. The overwhelming frustration I experienced after being involved in what amounted to a kidnapping and credit card fraud, plus the sheer culture shock reminded me that I could not hide from myself—not even half way around the world! I had brought on board the plane the one thing that I was trying to leave behind—myself. Fortunately, I picked a less populated portion of India, and chose to go there during a time of the year when most of the usual tourists and residents have fled the area due to harsh winter conditions. I was trapped in doors with no one to talk to, no TV to watch. I was without distraction for the first time in my life.

It was a beautiful accident. I forced upon myself, the opportunity to finally settle down and get acquainted with this person I had spent so much time and energy avoiding the past twenty-four years. In addition to this great opportunity, I had the good fortune to meet someone who had taken the time to get well acquainted with him self. The man whom I consider my teacher (though it seems I’ve had so many), Jetsun Thubpten, was a hermit who had spent the last twelve years living in the mountains. He concluded twelve years prior that studying and memorizing the texts alone was of little benefit to anyone. He then reserved himself to watching his mind.

Jetsun taught me by way of example—not with fancy lectures or complex philosophical treaties. He showed me that it was alright to be myself. He showed me that embracing my own humanity was the path. He showed me that meditation was not some complex exercise meant to mold me into some perfect person. Jetsun taught me that meditation was little more than simple observation—watching the mind. That in watching the mind, our true life is revealed. I saw that “my” life was a projection of my fears and expectations. These fears and expectations were the limitations of my conscious self, and Jetsun’s insistence upon exploring the world beyond these limitations introduced me to the life that Billy Jack alluded to years before. The whole journey has been about exploring the space that Billy Jack pointed out by creating a moment of uncertainty. Jetsun also showed me that meditation was not some activity reserved for a cushion, monastery, or hermitage, but was something that is alive in everything we do. He use to say, “If you can’t meditate while you cook, eat, and shit, you can’t meditate!”

After three months with Jetsun, I returned home to share the practice of meditation with my friends and others. I hope that my writings are a continuation of these efforts.

The spiritual path requires bravery and courage. We are put in a vulnerable situation immediately. Our first instinct is to run, but if we should choose to sit with our darker side—the personification of our deep seated fears—we will see, in a flash of insight, our basic goodness—the heart of enlightenment—break through that karmic cloud of darkness.  It is only by digging deep into the silence of our inner-being that we are capable of recovering the unlimited capacities of our own enlightened potential. I hope that with every word I write someone finds the inspiration to dig deeper into the mystery of their life and recover that spark of basic goodness that is the power of being in which we all participate.

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