Dharma Bums

Jack Kerouac idealized Gary Snyder in “Dharma Bums,” similar to his idealization of Neal Cassady in “On The Road.” Both figures, although so different from each other, were made into glorious saints of the beat movement through Kerouac’s vision.

Snyder was a humble poet living in a shack lit with wax candles. He bought working class clothes only from thrift stores, meditated, drank wine in the Chinese restaurants of San Francisco, read, studied, and translated many ancient Buddhist texts, and hiked up mountain peaks with a high, echoing yodel.

Kerouac carried a lot of assumptions about what Buddhism is or could be — looking for a kind of “absolute truth” by climbing to the top of a mountain. Awake briefly in awe only to forget again.

At his most lyrically beautiful, he reminded me of a mystic filled with insight about the infinite grace of the cosmos.

Then at other times, he made Buddhism into a chore of daily understanding, a ritualized act of acquiring more and more knowledge just to show off, a literary dabbling into primary sources.

Sometimes he wrote with boyish fantasy, with naive hope, that after years of seeking, he had finally found an ultimate experience, one that would give him full understanding and end all his suffering.

Then there were moments when he was too arrogant with what he had learned about Buddhism (that others didn’t or couldn’t ever know). At those times, he basked in a false spiritual wisdom — like the main narrator in Fight Club — perceiving his role in the universe as a Chosen Bodhisattva, which seemed more like he was putting on a mask of spiritual vanity to compensate for insecurity.

Throughout “The Dharma Bums,” there was a confusion between his ideas about non-duality and what he was really like as a person, as a man who desired to fuck and eat and love and do drugs and shit and travel and be understood, as a lost bum poet who cared too much and felt too strongly and wandered through all of America with a great self-consciousness.

He always seemed to almost get the point of zen, before losing himself in a tangle of symbols. His Catholic background might have conditioned him to seek some fixed idea of Buddhism. Some odd merging of God and Jesus and Nirvana and Heaven and Hell and Buddha and so on. There was so much struggle in his search, in thinking over and again that he had finally got what It was about, that he often missed what was in front of him all along. Being a Buddha is to be nothing special, just here, now. Awake in the moment, not grasping. Not stuck.

As Lin-Chi once said, “Just be ordinary and nothing special. Eat your food, move your bowels, pass water, and when you’re tired go and lie down. The ignorant will laugh at me, but the wise will understand.”

There is no out there to get to, no special place, no person to give all the answers. But ironically enough, even in Kerouac’s search, whether it’s judged as right or wrong, it is still as much zen as anything else, in the same way that right implies wrong, outside an inside, and in form, there is emptiness.

Only minds make distinctions and get lost in those distinctions without looking at the passing moment. To walk round with a head full of ideas about anything, even Buddhism, is to hold an overflowing cup.

As Dogen Zenji wrote, “Before one studies Zen, mountains are mountains and waters are waters; after a first glimpse into the truth of Zen, mountains are no longer mountains and waters are no longer waters; after enlightenment, mountains are once again mountains and waters once again waters.”

Kerouac, in his need for truth (more in finding his own subjective truth even when filtered through a particular person or philosophy) still came across as beautiful because of his talent, because of his earnestness, because he wanted harmony and peace and spontaneous joy, folding evermore inward on himself.

He romanticized a bohemian lifestyle, one in which artists move round the country, hitching in cars and on freight trains, meeting up briefly, smoking joints together under a roof as rain falls, pitter-patter, reading haiku to each other in coffee houses, having orgies with each other, loose and free and open to what comes.

By having an authentic lifestyle in such conflict with the conformist notions of his time, there were drawbacks. There was the uncertainty of where to eat and sleep, poverty, judgement, a threat of prison, relationships that came in moments of ecstasy only to go. There were those abused by life on the road, rootless to anyone and everything, who became victims to fear, alcoholism, paranoia, loneliness, and starvation.

Kerouac, in a sense, became a victim of his own life — dying under the pressures of fame and alcoholism and unsatisfied yearning.

The sensitivity that made his writing great brought him intense joys and sorrows. He had such perceptiveness into others but also could rationalize his own delusions, such as with “Ray’s” unfeeling talk with a paranoid Rosie before her suicide, where he never truly cared about her well-being. He spouted Buddhist philosophy only for his own ego, not out of compassion or love. Such compartmentalization shows, as the Tao Te Ching said, “Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know.”

Despite Kerouac sometimes being possessed with delusions of grandeur, and his inability to get his family to understand his disconnected insights, he was not hard to like. His affinity for all of life and reveling in its ecstasies, made him a wanderer, a loner, a rebel, spiritual in his longing and despairing in his fall. He inspired countless generations of hippies and hipsters and seekers and artists and found himself a guide for those who want meaning outside of a conventional world.

Man’s Search For Himself

People often don’t know what they truly feel or want. They sense something missing inside themselves, an existential emptiness, an anxiety that gnaws deeply at their insides.

They do what everyone expects from them to do—from their teachers, employers, parents, religions, and communities — or at least, what they imagine these groups expect. As one ordinary person said, “I’m just a collection of mirrors, reflecting what everyone else expects of me.”

People want to be liked. They crave after attention and respect, believing rather compulsively that these things will be sufficient for happiness and meaning.

“Every human being gets much of his sense of his own reality out of what others say to him and think about him. But many modern people have gone so far in their dependence on others for their feeling of reality that they are afraid that without it they would lose the sense of their own existence.”

Social acceptance seems like a cure to existential angst, but it only temporarily relieves loneliness, fear, and anxiety. People seek approval from others while symbolically returning to the warmth of the womb, and in turn, sacrificing freedom for dependency.

What arises from such emptiness is the need for authority, for someone or something to take control of, and then make better, what is neglected within.

“When a nation, rather, is prey to insupportable economic want and is psychologically and spiritually empty, totalitarianism comes in to fill the vacuum; and the people sell their freedom as a necessity for getting rid of the anxiety which is too great for them to bear any longer.”

Those who live with existential anxiety lose themselves. Overwhelmed, confused by what is out there. They cannot clearly identify what they want out of life. They succumb to what is external instead of tending to what is sacredly internal.

They feel the threat of being cast off.

They seek social approval while avoiding isolation, alienation from the group.

Those who hide from their anxieties during the crucial stages of their development will only stagnate or get worse. Anxiety, for everyone, is a normal aspect of growth. People should be honest and confront their own anxieties, exposing themselves gradually to what they need that helps them mature.

While anxiety confuses reality, people can still choose to constructively engage with these negative feelings. “Just as anxiety destroys our self-awareness, so awareness of ourselves can destroy anxiety.”

People often, however, compartmentalize much of their lives. They use their reason to study, save themselves for fun on the weekends, distract themselves from feeling pain and fear by watching television and posting on social media. They put on shows for other people, for an invisible audience in their minds. They become performers rather than humans, caring about their actions, based on the reactions of others to their actions.

“But the artists, and the rest of us too, remain spiritually isolated and at sea, and so we cover up our loneliness by chattering with other people about the things we do have language for — the world series, business affairs, the latest news reports. Our deeper emotional experiences are pushed further away, and we tend, thus, to become emptier and lonelier.”

To find those deeper experiences, people need to live fully, vulnerably, alive in each moment. Human beings are capable not only of being nature, and being in nature, but in thinking of nature and their place within it.

People are able to be self-aware, keep time, to learn from the past, plan for the future, use symbolic systems to make distinctions and communicate. They can empathize with people from hundreds of years ago, on different continents, with other types of animals and plants, and imagine themselves as them.

These gifts of humanity come with anxieties and fears, with inner-crises. People still struggle with not only their current states of development, but with all those influences which had come from before.

People have the ability to be created by their engagement with others and what had conditioned them in their past. At the same time, they can create themselves.

“The self is always born and grows in interpersonal relationships. But no ‘ego’ moves on into responsible selfhood if it remains chiefly the reflection of the social context around it. In our particular world in which conformity is the great destroyer of selfhood — in our society in which fitting the ‘pattern’ tends to be accepted as the norm, and being ‘well liked’ is the alleged ticket to salvation — what needs to be emphasized is not only the admitted fact that we are to some extent created by each other but also our capacity to experience, and create, ourselves.”

People can create themselves by being aware of themselves as thinking-feeling-intuiting creatures deeply connected to nature. Their “selves” are not merely a sum of “roles” that they should perform to be accepted by the group. Each human can rather be fully integrated within themselves, fulfilling their potentialities.

“But the human being’s task in fulfilling his nature is much more difficult, for he must do it in self-consciousness. That is, his development is never automatic but must be to some extent chosen and affirmed by himself.”

People are unique in their consciousness of themselves. No one entirely knows the full extent of what another person feels and thinks. Each person is alone in their minds and must find their inner-strength ultimately without anyone else to do it for them.

People must affirm their own dignity and self-worth. It is far easier to blame others or oneself than it is to take responsibility for life.

To blame or praise is often to mask an arrogance of being overly concerned with one’s own importance, despite whether one feels superior or inferior. To engage in such thinking is a deception that people use to avoid a constructive attitude toward life, in seeing things as they are.

One should love oneself.

To love oneself is to love others and to love others is to love oneself. There is no selfishness in genuine caring, compassion, empathy, and kindness. When one is aware, one can let go. By letting go, spontaneous joy comes into living for each moment. One feels an expansion rather than a constriction, actively alive rather than passively existing.

To love, one must be sensitive to feelings and thoughts, to the connection of body and mind, to nature and community, to all sense and intuition, passing from dawn to dusk, over and again.

“The originality and uniqueness which is always part of a spontaneous feeling can be understood in this light. For just as there never was exactly that situation before and never will be again, so the feeling one has at that time is new and never to be exactly repeated. It is only neurotic behavior which is rigidly repetitive.”

It is easy to block awareness with routines and repetitions and busying oneself every day. Rather than idleness, contemplation and meditation, people often do without any thought as to why.

Individuals will constantly struggle to discover what they want, how they feel, and what they can do to live fully, because there are many external pressures that will prevent them from being aware.

“Strictly speaking, the process of being born from the womb, cutting free from the mass, replacing dependency with choice, is involved in every decision of one’s life, and even is the issue facing one on his deathbed. For what is the capacity to die courageously except the ultimate step in the continuum of learning to be on one’s own, to leave the whole? Thus every person’s life could be portrayed by a graph of differentiation — how far has he freed himself from automatic dependencies, become an individual, able then to relate to his fellows on the new level of self-chosen love, responsibility and creative work?”

It is normal for those who desire to grow to experience great moments of anxiety, fear, and terror.

“Moving out from a protected, familiar place into new independence, from support to temporary isolation, while at the same time one feels one’s own anxiety and powerlessness.”

People must work with feelings of anxiety, alongside an environment that pressures them to conform or rebel, while moving toward inner freedom.

To create oneself is to transcend the fit of old masks, to move beyond those dependencies of childhood, to seek unfamiliar places that haven’t yet been explored.

Unhealthy environmental influences will never support a person’s quest for inner freedom. They will rather, in the form of family, religion, government, and so on, redirect a person’s fear toward others, eventually turning that fear into hatred.

“Hatred and resentment are destructive emotions, and the mark of maturity is to transform them into constructive emotions. But the fact that the human being will destroy something — generally in the long run himself — rather than surrender his freedom proves how important freedom is to him.”

Those who suppress their hatred often feel a deep resentment. They don’t resent others or themselves nearly as much as they reject having their freedom taken away, feeling powerless to do anything about it.

Those who don’t conform usually rebel. Their rebellion is a mistaken attempt at individuality, a failure of responsibility in reaction to what is external.

“But rebellion is often confused with freedom itself. It becomes a false port in the storm because it gives the rebel a delusive sense of being really independent. The rebel forgets that rebellion always presupposes an outside structure — of rules, laws, expectations — against which one is rebelling; and one’s security, sense of freedom and strength are dependent actually on this external structure. They are ‘borrowed,’ and can be taken away like a bank loan which can be called in at any moment. Psychologically many persons stop at this stage of rebellion. Their sense of inner moral strength comes only from knowing what moral conventions they do not live up to; they get an oblique sense of conviction by proclaiming their atheism and disbelief.”

To live in reaction is not to be free. To be dependent is also not to be free. People claim freedom to do whatever they want as well. But they neglect responsibility by chaining themselves to addiction, security, comfort, and gratification, avoiding what is uncertain and mysterious, fearful and painful.

“Freedom means openness, a readiness to grow; it means being flexible, ready to change for the sake of greater human values. To identify freedom with a given system is to deny freedom — it crystallizes freedom and turns it into dogma. To cling to a tradition, with the defensive plea that if we lose something that worked well in the past we will have lost all, neither shows the spirit of freedom nor makes for the future growth of freedom.”

Freedom comes when people mold themselves and take care of others. Freedom comes first through self-awareness, expanding forever out.

“Through his power to survey his life, man can transcend the immediate events which determine him. Whether he has tuberculosis or is a slave like the Roman philosopher Epictetus or a prisoner condemned to death, he can still in his freedom choose how he will relate to these facts.”

Freedom is not given. It is developed every day. People can choose to kill themselves psychologically, unaware and ignorant, in restless craving. They can conform to the conditioning of their youth and follow a linear path made up for them to adhere to until eventually dying. Or they can gain a false sense of power through rebellion, in reacting, resisting, combating an enemy, until they wither away in hatred and fear.

To be free, however, is to have discipline. With self-discipline, one seeks to learn about life and consistently follows one’s values, discovering freedom through inner work.

“Man’s anxiety, bewilderment and emptiness — the chronic psychic diseases of modern man — occur mainly because his values are confused and contradictory, and he has no psychic core. We can now add that the degree of an individual’s inner strength and integrity will depend on how much he himself believes in the values he lives.”

To live with integrity is terrifying and uncertain at times. People often retreat from what’s not known, becoming rigid and dogmatic, protecting themselves with certainty.

“Within the creative person himself there is fear of moving ahead. In these myths there speaks not only the courageous side of man, but the servile side which would prefer comfort to freedom, security to one’s own growth.”

There is a battle within each person: for comfort and security, and for creativity and freedom. To fully conform to security is to undermine one’s inner strength. To be conditioned to the whims of others is to give up choice and awareness.

People who are ethically sensitive will struggle daily, but they will be creators of themselves. They will live consistently, aware of who they are and what they want.

When one is courageous, one can accept being alone. One is not living merely for the acceptance of others, but rather, is living fully. There then is no authority greater than oneself.

The mature person has “the capacity to love something for its own sake, not for the sake of being taken care of or gaining a bootlegged feeling of prestige and power. Certainly loneliness and anxiety can be constructively met. Though this cannot be done through the deus ex machina of a ‘cosmic papa,’ it can be achieved through the individual’s confronting directly the various crises of his development, moving from dependence to greater freedom and higher integration by developing and utilizing his capacities, and relating to his fellows through creative work and love.”

One doesn’t have to leave society to be mature or free. To be in the crowd but still maintain the “sweetness of solitude,” as Emerson said, to have integrity while still learning from tradition and culture, is to possess inner strength.

One is not bored, but interested in everything, in everyone, alive in the moment.

“Wonder is the opposite to cynicism and boredom; it indicates that a person has a heightened aliveness, is interested, expectant, responsive. It is essentially an ‘opening’ attitude — an awareness that there is more to life than one has as yet fathomed, an experience of new vistas in life to be explored as well as new profundities to be plumbed.”

With curiosity, people can explore all of life. They begin from themselves, and not from others, as a foundation for love, open to what is possible, affirming who they are through their choices, not only in action but in attitude. A person will find what is valuable for him or herself. These values will be intimately known rather than passively given.

In every choice, there is always a risk. To choose from self-awareness, however, is to take responsibility and affirm oneself though a creative decision.

Whether each choice springs from conscious or unconscious motives, whether the person will make a mistake or not, doesn’t take away from the integrity of choosing what feels right in the moment, based on current knowledge.

What matters is to be honest with oneself. Knowledge of one’s unique perceptions, impressions, and experiences, leads to clarity and a higher purpose. In order to have this self-knowledge, however, one must have tremendous courage.

“Courage is the capacity to meet the anxiety which arises as one achieves freedom. It is the willingness to differentiate, to move from the protecting realms of parental dependence to new levels of freedom and integration. The need for courage arises not only at those stages when breaks with parental protection are most obvious — such as at the birth of self-awareness, at going off to school, at adolescence, in crises of love, marriage and the facing of ultimate death — but at every step in between as one moves from the familiar surroundings over frontiers into the unfamiliar.”

People are often afraid to be themselves because they don’t want to be laughed at, ridiculed, mocked, and shunned. They hide in the crowds, avoiding taking a risk, complacent with the shaky comfort of fitting in.

One can be courageous in living and still be connected to a community. One can discover an inner power without being socially isolated. “It takes courage not only to assert oneself but to give of oneself.”

To be courageous is to let go of what is familiar. Steadily, patiently growing from awareness of one’s inner world, seeking out what is mysterious and exploring, highly creative and mature.

One is blocked from being courageous when one doesn’t stand up for his or her values, when one automatically falls into roles that others have desired, rather than living from a genuine purpose.

People need to be accepted as who they are, not for as others wish them to be. But all too often, people want to be liked, not for who they are, but for who they appear to be.

To strive to be normal and seek acceptance from outside is to give up on courage. By living after others, one feels worthless whenever the group doesn’t approve, but feels valuable whenever they do.

“Courage arises from one’s sense of dignity and self-esteem; and one is uncourageous because he thinks too poorly of himself… Vanity and narcissism — the compulsive needs to be admired and praised — undermine one’s courage, for one then fights on someone else’s conviction rather than one’s own.”

A courageous person can stand by their own convictions without the need to justify those convictions to others. Rather than trying to explain who they are and what they value to an authority, such as to a symbolic parent, they only need to convince themselves. To try to convince those who made up the rules, who want one to conform anyway, is to implicitly legitimize those rules and then react against them.

One must hold with conviction one’s own standards — no matter how imperfect they may be.

“It is the courage to be and trust one’s self despite the fact that one is finite; it means acting, loving, thinking, creating, even though one knows he does not have the final answers, and he may well be wrong. But it is only from a courageous acceptance of ‘finitude,’ and a responsible acting thereon, that one develops the powers that one does possess — far from absolute though they be.”

When people can honor their own dignity, they can see the dignity in others, even in those who are different from them. They can see the human and not the object to feel superior or inferior against.

They can feel the joys and sorrows of another, empathize, being fully present.

To love is not to exploit someone for an advantage. It is not to depend on another to reduce fear and loneliness. Love arises through mutual dignity, developed from self-awareness.

People are so used to competing, to treating each other as objects, raised on the philosophy of buying and selling, that they’re conditioned to love with undeveloped authenticity.

All too often, “love” is provided only when one gets what one wants.

Genuine love means to give, but only when one is mature enough to give, when one is internally strong enough to live through themselves.

“It is a giving of one’s self and a finding of one’s self at once. Such ecstasy represents the fullest interdependence in human relations; and the same paradox applies as in creative consciousness — one can merge one’s self in ecstasy only as one has gained the prior capacity to stand alone, to be a person in one’s own right.”

To live with the ideal of love, freedom and responsibility, completely in the present moment, with awareness and spontaneity and patience, to intimately explore one’s potentialities and face the uncertainty of life, is to be mature, to be humble about what one doesn’t know while being open to what could be. It is ultimately to be alive.

Man’s Search For Meaning

“THIS BOOK DOES NOT CLAIM TO BE an account of facts and events but of personal experiences, experiences which millions of prisoners have suffered time and again. It is the inside story of a concentration camp, told by one of its survivors. This tale is not concerned with the great horrors, which have already been described often enough (though less often believed), but with the multitude of small torments. In other words, it will try to answer this question: How was everyday life in a concentration camp reflected in the mind of the average prisoner?”
 
 The life of an average concentration camp prisoner, of one who had no special status or distinguishing marks on their sleeves, was one of daily struggle for existence.
 
 Tattooed on flesh, stolen of possession and identification, reduced to number among other numbers. To live, if only barely, if only briefly, was to know of another’s death.
 
 “Every man was controlled by one thought only: to keep himself alive for the family waiting for him at home, and to save his friends. With no hesitation, therefore, he would arrange for another prisoner, another ‘number,’ to take his place in the transport.”
 
 Viktor Frankl was Number 119, 104. His job inside camp was digging and laying tracks for railway lines before eventually tending to the sick, injured, and dying.
 
 For the Capos with their regular rations, they earned cigarettes as well as other perks. For ordinary prisoners, cigarettes were luxury items, traded for soup to prevent starvation. Then there were cigarettes for those who had lost themselves in despair.
 
 “The only exceptions to this were those who had lost the will to live and wanted to ‘enjoy’ their last days. Thus, when we saw a comrade smoking his own cigarettes, we knew he had given up faith in his strength to carry on, and, once lost, the will to live seldom returned.”
 
 When a prisoner first entered the camp, they were shocked. Unable to grasp the brutal reality of their situation. Barbed wire and spotlights. Shrill commands in German. Ragged humans slumped in a gray dawn. As the days passed from the train to the camp, prisoners dulled into a nightmarish world.
 
 “In psychiatry there is a certain condition known as ‘delusion of reprieve.’ The condemned man, immediately before his execution, gets the illusion that he might be reprieved at the very last minute. We, too, clung to shreds of hope and believed to the last moment that it would not be so bad.”
 
 Prisoners who first arrived to camp were starved and cooped together in the cold. Guards would walk to each person and inspect them, deciding on whether they would work or be sent to die. With one finger pointing to the right or left, there was existence or non-existence, life or execution.
 
 “‘Was he sent to the left side?’
 
 ‘Yes,’ I replied.
 
 ‘Then you can see him there,’ I was told.
 
 ‘Where?’
 
 A hand pointed to the chimney a few hundred yards off, which was sending a column of flame up into the grey sky of Poland. It dissolved into a sinister cloud of smoke.
 
 ‘That’s where your friend is, floating up to Heaven,’ was the answer. But I still did not understand until the truth was explained to me in plain words.”
 
 Prisoners were removed of all their items, including wedding rings, writings, jewels, photographs, anything resembling their former lives. They were stripped into a trembling nudity, whipped and beaten, washed of lice, shaven until completely hairless.
 
 “Thus the illusions some of us still held were destroyed one by one, and then, quite unexpectedly, most of us were overcome by a grim sense of humor. We knew that we had nothing to lose except our so ridiculously naked lives. When the showers started to run, we all tried very hard to make fun, both about ourselves and about each other. After all, real water did flow from the sprays! Apart from that strange kind of humor, another sensation seized us: curiosity. I have experienced this kind of curiosity before, as a fundamental reaction toward certain strange circumstances. When my life was once endangered by a climbing accident, I felt only one sensation at the critical moment: curiosity, curiosity as to whether I should come out of it alive or with a fractured skull or some other injuries. Cold curiosity predominated even in Auschwitz, somehow detaching the mind from its surroundings, which came to be regarded with a kind of objectivity. At that time one cultivated this state of mind as a means of protection. We were anxious to know what would happen next; and what would be the consequence, for example, of our standing in the open air, in the chill of late autumn, stark naked, and still wet from the showers. In the next few days our curiosity evolved into surprise; surprise that we did not catch cold.”
 
 In Auschwitz, a prisoner adapted to the worst conditions imaginable. Cold and unclean, sleeping huddled for a couple hours after hard labor, shirt weathered, feet cracked in mud.
 
 Suicide loomed in every prisoner’s mind — from the ever present danger that took those around them, threatening at every moment, to the utter hopelessness of the future. While some did kill themselves, most popularly by electrocution when touching a barbed wire fence, others, despite their small chance of living on, bared grueling days of survival, aware that they would still be sent to the gas chamber.
 
 As time went on under harsh conditions, prisoners were desensitized to emotions such as disgust and pity and compassion. From being around so much trauma, they had become apathetic, blunted of caring, in the instinct to survive. From day to day, physical punishment didn’t matter as much as the agony of injustice, of the helplessness to do anything about the terrible conditions that spread through camp.
 
 Guards regularly punished prisoners for the smallest of infractions. If somebody stepped out of line, talked back, helped another person who was struggling, or couldn’t do their work, they would be murdered, if not beaten. They were treated with the same respect as livestock.
 
 Prisoners, who had once identified as husbands and wives and students and doctors and professors and musicians and teachers and shopkeepers, were barely afforded the dignity of being human.
 
 After being reduced to such a blunted state, prisoners became primitive in their need to live each day for one more day. Just a little longer. They often dreamed more than they lived. Imagining that they had simple desires fulfilled from cake to cookies, from warm baths to deep sleep, they craved the illusion of peace while living a terrible reality.
 
 “When the last layers of subcutaneous fat had vanished, and we looked like skeletons disguised with skin and rags, we could watch our bodies beginning to devour themselves. The organism digested its own protein, and the muscles disappeared. Then the body had no powers of resistance left. One after another the members of the little community in our hut died. Each of us could calculate with fair accuracy whose turn would be next, and when his own would come. After many observations we knew the symptoms well, which made the correctness of our prognoses quite certain. ‘He won’t last long,’ or, ‘This is the next one,’ we whispered to each other, and when, during our daily search for lice, we saw our own naked bodies in the evening, we thought alike: This body here, my body, is really a corpse already. What has become of me? I am but a small portion of a great mass of human flesh … of a mass behind barbed wire, crowded into a few earthen huts; a mass of which daily a certain portion begins to rot because it has become lifeless.”
 
 Once woken from their longing in dreams, prisoners huddled together to work from a shrill whine of sirens. They barely fit their swollen feet into wet shoes before a day of labor began. If their feet could not fit inside those shoes, they would have to trudge through the snow, barefoot and frostbitten. While undernourished and starving, prisoners generally lost the ability to care about sex or anything except for a fulfillment of basic needs. Even feelings of sentiment, of caring, numbed from repeated daily trauma.
 
 “There were fifty of us in the prison car, which had two small, barred peepholes. There was only enough room for one group to squat on the floor, while the others, who had to stand up for hours, crowded round the peepholes. Standing on tiptoe and looking past the others’ heads through the bars of the window, I caught an eerie glimpse of my native town. We all felt more dead than alive, since we thought that our transport was heading for the camp at Mauthausen and that we had only one or two weeks to live. I had a distinct feeling that I saw the streets, the squares and the houses of my childhood with the eyes of a dead man who had come back from another world and was looking down on a ghostly city. After hours of delay the train left the station. And there was the street — my street! The young lads who had a number of years of camp life behind them and for whom such a journey was a great event stared attentively through the peephole. I began to beg them, to entreat them, to let me stand in front for one moment only. I tried to explain how much a look through that window meant to me just then. My request was refused with rudeness and cynicism: ‘You lived here all those years? Well, then you have seen quite enough already!’”
 
 As prisoners endured the nightly struggle of a concentration camp, sometimes only salvation could come through thought, in the rituals of religion, prayer and debate, in the rumination of a loved one. Frankl imagined his wife while marching with sore feet, touching her with memories, with his imagination of where she was, how she was, and how deeply he loved her.
 
 “This intensification of inner life helped the prisoner find a refuge from the emptiness, desolation and spiritual poverty of his existence, by letting him escape into the past.”
 
 By creating such a rich inner life for themselves, prisoners developed an intense appreciation for nature and art. In contrast with their suffering, they found glory in the small miracles of existence.
 
 “Standing outside we saw sinister clouds glowing in the west and the whole sky alive with clouds of ever-changing shapes and colors, from steel blue to blood red. The desolate grey mud huts provided a sharp contrast, while the puddles on the muddy ground reflected the glowing sky. Then, after minutes of moving silence, one prisoner said to another, ‘How beautiful the world could be!’”
 
 “Another time we were at work in a trench. The dawn was grey around us; grey was the sky above; grey the snow in the pale light of dawn; grey the rags in which my fellow prisoners were clad, and grey their faces. I was again conversing silently with my wife, or perhaps I was struggling to find the reason for my sufferings, my slow dying. In a last violent protest against the hopelessness of imminent death, I sensed my spirit piercing through the enveloping gloom. I felt it transcend that hopeless, meaningless world, and from somewhere I heard a victorious ‘Yes’ in answer to my question of the existence of an ultimate purpose. At that moment a light was lit in a distant farmhouse, which stood on the horizon as if painted there, in the midst of the miserable grey of a dawning morning in Bavaria. ‘Et lux in tenebris lucet’ — and the light shineth in the darkness. For hours I stood hacking at the icy ground. The guard passed by, insulting me, and once again I communed with my beloved. More and more I felt that she was present, that she was with me; I had the feeling that I was able to touch her, able to stretch out my hand and grasp hers. The feeling was very strong: she was there. Then, at that very moment, a bird flew down silently and perched just in front of me, on the heap of soil which I had dug up from the ditch, and looked steadily at me.”
 
 Most of camp life, however, wore on the very existence of the prisoner. One lived with mental turmoil, pain which constantly threatened one’s values, beliefs, and high purpose, “throwing them into doubt.” This brutal world ground the prisoner’s human dignity down to nothing, where the end of all struggle was death. People were used up until they their bodies failed, until their will to go on faded, like the flickering light of a candle, falling to enfolding darkness.
 
 Camp inmates often were tormented with making decisions and taking an initiative, believing that their lives were subject to fate. Small decisions could lead to life or death, whether in the moment or future.
 
 As Frankl wrote on his last days at camp before being rescued, when he thought about escaping, “We found out just how uncertain human decisions are, especially in matters of life and death. I was confronted with photographs which had been taken in a small camp not far from ours. Our friends who had thought they were traveling to freedom that night had been taken in the trucks to this camp, and there they were locked in the huts and burned to death. Their partially charred bodies were recognizable on the photograph.”
 
 Trusting in fate, at times of certain death, was acceptance of what was to come. In other ways, it was a defense mechanism against the evil of the camp. Apathy was another way of survival, of psychological defense. In conditions of starvation and death, of malnutrition and poor hygiene, of regular slaughter and grueling work, of being treated as livestock instead of as humans, prisoners had to find ways to endure.
 
 Despite the apathy, exhaustion, and irritability of the prisoners, they were never completely lost, forsaken to the hells of their psychological conditions. They still had a choice, a chance within every moment, to act humanely. There were many who, under extreme duress, acted heroically.
 
 “Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.
 
 We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
 
 Everything could be taken from an inmate but their inner freedom. Some prisoners, despite the most terrible conditions, still maintained their human dignity. Amidst great suffering and death, they had to choose and not choose.
 
 Surrounded by the most extreme external restrictions, prisoners had the choice to reflect upon what had meaning for them, holding onto their purpose. Their attitude of spiritual freedom was a crucial element in an ongoing struggle for their existence.
 
 “The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity — even under the most difficult circumstances — to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not.”
 
 While many prisoners slumped into despair or conformity under a brutal injustice, there were some who remained compassionate, courageous and loving, giving of themselves when they had no obligation to, accepting their fate while selflessly helping others, up until their extermination. They died with no names, no families and friends, but still had the integrity to not lose their humanity.
 
 To maintain dignity while trampled on by the jackboot, to give a last piece of bread away to a sickly child, to offer a kind word before walking before the gas chamber, despite not being known or praised for their sacrifices, was to act with freedom.
 
 “This young woman knew that she would die in the next few days. But when I talked to her she was cheerful in spite of this knowledge. ‘I am grateful that fate has hit me so hard,’ she told me. ‘In my former life I was spoiled and did not take spiritual accomplishments seriously.’ Pointing through the window of the hut, she said, ‘This tree here is the only friend I have in my loneliness.’ Through that window she could see just one branch of a chestnut tree, and on the branch were two blossoms. ‘I often talk to this tree,’ she said to me. I was startled and didn’t quite know how to take her words. Was she delirious? Did she have occasional hallucinations? Anxiously I asked her if the tree replied. ‘Yes.’ What did it say to her? She answered, ‘It said to me, ‘I am here — I am here — I am life, eternal life.’”
 
 Inside the camp, there was no time, no sense of a future. Outside of the barbed wire fence, prisoners felt an unreality, an alien world to their own. Prisoners had to struggle to grasp the meaning of life and not lose themselves in the past, in apathy, in giving up to future possibilities. Some strengthened their inner lives, maturing under the horrors of their experiences, while others resigned themselves to a previous way of life that was no more.
 
 “Naturally only a few people were capable of reaching great spiritual heights. But a few were given the chance to attain human greatness even through their apparent worldly failure and death, an accomplishment which in ordinary circumstances they would never have achieved. To the others of us, the mediocre and the half-hearted, the words of Bismarck could be applied: ‘Life is like being at the dentist. You always think that the worst is still to come, and yet it is over already.’ Varying this, we could say that most men in a concentration camp believed that the real opportunities of life had passed. Yet, in reality, there was an opportunity and a challenge. One could make a victory of those experiences, turning life into an inner triumph, or one could ignore the challenge and simply vegetate, as did a majority of the prisoners.”
 
 A prisoner who could imagine a reason to survive, a “why” for their existence, in the moment or future, could endure the most unbearable circumstances.
 
 “We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life — daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.
 
 These tasks, and therefore the meaning of life, differ from man to man, and from moment to moment. Thus it is impossible to define the meaning of life in a general way. Questions about the meaning of life can never be answered by sweeping statements. ‘Life’ does not mean something vague, but something very real and concrete, just as life’s tasks are also very real and concrete. They form man’s destiny, which is different and unique for each individual. No man and no destiny can be compared with any other man or any other destiny. No situation repeats itself, and each situation calls for a different response. Sometimes the situation in which a man finds himself may require him to shape his own fate by action. At other times it is more advantageous for him to make use of an opportunity for contemplation and to realize assets in this way. Sometimes man may be required simply to accept fate, to bear his cross. Every situation is distinguished by its uniqueness, and there is always only one right answer to the problem posed by the situation at hand. When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.”
 
 Inside the camp, there were those who could endure daily atrocities and those who could not. Even among those who could, they survived not only from hope, from genuine purpose in a world against them, but from chance.
 
 For the guards themselves, there were those who took a sadistic pleasure in making the prisoners suffer. Then there were those who were sympathetic but remained silent to the abuse, to the tortures, hardening themselves after years. Finally, there were those who secretly helped and cared, despite negative consequences from their superior officers.
 
 Some prisoners, who had been promoted to marginal powers, became as sadistic as the worst guards. Other guards, moved by compassion, could bring a prisoner to tears from the smallest act of kindness. No one in either group was entirely good or entirely bad. Life asked the question, in every circumstance, what type of person would they be?
 
 “From all this we may learn that there are two races of men in this world, but only these two — the ‘race’ of the decent man and the ‘race’ of the indecent man. Both are found everywhere; they penetrate into all groups of society. No group consists entirely of decent or indecent people. In this sense, no group is of ‘pure race’ — and therefore one occasionally found a decent fellow among the camp guards.
 
 Life in a concentration camp tore open the human soul and exposed its depths. Is it surprising that in those depths we again found only human qualities which in their very nature were a mixture of good and evil? The rift dividing good from evil, which goes through all human beings, reaches into the lowest depths and becomes apparent even on the bottom of the abyss which is laid open by the concentration camp.”
 
 When the prisoner was finally released from camp after so many years of hard suffering, returning to the world was an ordeal. A prisoner drifted as if lost in a dream, unable to feel, unable to become human. It was so difficult for prisoners, after being routinely abused, to recover from the endlessness of a camp, where starvation and death were companions.
 Prisoners often ate an enormous amount once liberated, compensating for years of watery soup and stale bread.
 
 There was a pressure that had built inside every inmate, a repression of their yearly suffering into the unconscious, which had to eventually erupt though talk, through a discussion of what had been taboo to speak about in camp, through screams and nightmares and long cries to those murdered, a readjustment back to the unfamiliar world of the living.
 
 “One day, a few days after the liberation, I walked through the country past flowering meadows, for miles and miles, toward the market town near the camp. Larks rose to the sky and I could hear their joyous song. There was no one to be seen for miles around; there was nothing but the wide earth and sky and the larks’ jubilation and the freedom of space. I stopped, looked around, and up to the sky — and then I went down on my knees. At that moment there was very little I knew of myself or of the world — I had but one sentence in mind — always the same: ‘I called to the Lord from my narrow prison and He answered me in the freedom of space.’ How long I knelt there and repeated this sentence memory can no longer recall. But I know that on that day, in that hour, my new life started. Step for step I progressed, until I again became a human being.”
 
 Some of those freed returned and found no homes, no families anymore. Others traveled to their hometowns, where their community could not truly empathize with them or know the magnitude of their past. Yet those who survived still held onto hope for a wife, husband and child, for a future, for a meaning that lingered beyond those barbed wire fences and spotlighted towers. They found purpose in their suffering, but not through what the Nazis desired. They endured in utter depravity, for years and years, only to seek that which could transcend them.

Bruce Lee’s “Tao of Gung Fu”

Bruce Lee, a legendary action star and martial artist, wrote a classic book on Chinese martial arts, called “The Tao of Gung Fu.”

More than an instructional on proper technique, Lee explored combat like a philosopher. He believed that fighting wasn’t Chinese or American or Korean, but rather, a deeply human, creative expression. Dogmatically following a particular style of martial arts was a limitation on the human potential for growth and fluidity.

Imagine the Yin Yang symbol. Yin can represent negativeness, passiveness, gentleness, internal, moon, darkness, femininity, and so on, while Yang can represent positiveness, activeness, firmness, external, sun, and so on. Together, Yin Yang is one, whole, changing from one to the other.

There is no true duality between Yin and Yang. They are complementary, not in conflict. There is no black without white, no force without gentleness, no before without an after. There is a Yin in every Yang and vice versa.

In martial arts, one should be adaptable, fluid in movement. One doesn’t strike. The fist strikes without any thought of striking. When trained properly, there is action without action, strategy without any thought of strategy.

There is no strength without gentleness or gentleness without strength. To strain too much is to tire just as to be too submissive is to be overwhelmed.

The bamboo, yielding and then bending along with a strong wind, doesn’t crack like the stiffest of trees.

What the mind focuses on, it emphasizes while neglecting the rest. To neglect the rest is to be blind to all but one thing. To ignore all is to be blind to all. When the mind perceives what happens without attaching to one thing or two things or more, then it intuitively understands, adapting to change as it happens.

“When I look at a tree, I perceive one of the leaves is red, and my mind stops with this leaf. When this happens, I see only one leaf and fail to take notice of the innumerable other leaves of the tree. If, instead of restricting my attention to one, I look at the tree without any preconceived ideas, I shall see all the leaves. One leaf effectively stops my mind from seeing all the rest. But when the mind moves on without stopping, it takes up hundreds of thousands of leaves without fail.”

Where the mind focuses, it is captive. The mind should flow freely through the body. When it is nowhere, it is everywhere. By not calculating, it acts as it should. By planning, it is inhibited. Become one with whatever activity is taking place, not trapped in how or why it takes place. Water flows where it does without an obstruction, spontaneous and alive.

When there is no intellectualization in fighting, no thought of superiority or inferiority, winning or losing, the fight happens naturally. There is no true separation between the internal and external, between one opponent and another, until one makes distinctions between the two.

Yin and Yang are not in conflict, but the mind makes them appear to be so. To be intuitively aware is to act without acting, to let the mind alone, adapting to what happens as it happens, like the calm mirror of a pond and the rushing of a waterfall.

A martial artist should strive for perfection in simplicity, avoiding flashiness. Rather than study a thousand techniques or overcomplicate oneself with too many steps, develop what is essential, reject what is unnecessary.

One should not block thoughts or try to think too much. Instead the mind is not grasping, not getting stuck in ideas or emotions. A martial artist uses no-mind, being everywhere and nowhere at once.

Martial artists should not concern themselves with status, with being superior or better than others. Pride is illusory, based on a fixed idea of self, given and eventually taken externally.

When one is prideful, one is always terrified of being dethroned. A wise martial artist cares about discipline, knowing themselves truthfully through self-cultivation. To be self-sufficient is what matters, not the appearance of success, based on the opinions of others.

When a martial artist begins, he or she is ignorant. Then after training, the martial artist knows some about defense and offense and thinks a lot about both. After the martial artist masters their training, they no longer think about it. They are wise like an expert and ignorant like a beginner.

“If you try to remember you will lose. Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless. Like water. Now you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You pour water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put water into a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or creep or drip — or crash! Be water, my friend.”

A martial artist must never be rigid in thought or in movement. Like water, combat is uncertain, changing from moment to moment. To be stuck in dogmatism is to be severely limited, resisting the nature of what is.

“To me, styles that cling to one partial aspect of combat are actually in bondage. You see, a choice method, however exacting, fixes its practitioners in an enclosed pattern. I always say that actual combat is never fixed, has no boundaries or limits, and is constantly changing from moment to moment. Because one does not want to be made uncertain and be engaged in broken rhythm, so he establishes a fixed pattern of combat, a cooperative pattern of rhythmic relationship with his partner. As his margin of freedom is getting narrower and narrower, he becomes a slave to the pattern and accepts the pattern to be the real thing. Such exclusive drilling on a set pattern of one’s choice will only lead its practitioners to clogginess, because basically it is a practice of resistance. In reality, the way of combat is never based on personal choice and fancies, and one will soon find out that his choice routines lack pliability and are incapable of adapting to the ever-changing swift movement of combat. All of a sudden his opponent is alive and no longer a cooperative robot. In other words, once conditioned in a partialized style, its practitioner faces his opponent through a screen of resistance. In reality, he is merely performing his stylized blocks and listening to his own screams.”

An effective martial artist is not bound, but rather, free of self-imposed prisons. Spontaneous, broken in rhythm, open in mind to all possibilities, sparring to keep sharp in combat, unconcerned with belt and status. There is no rigidity in forms, overthinking of techniques. There seems to be an action of no action, an intuitive mind focused on nothing and yet on all that occurs, not concerned with mere externals but with momentary change.

Enter the Kettlebell! Strength Secret of the Soviet Supermen (review)

For Russian strongmen, elite military forces, and hardened criminals in Chechnya, the kettlebell has been an essential tool for developing a balanced musculature, endurance during the most grueling physical trials, functionally explosive strength, and a whole host of other benefits.

A tiny iron cannonball doesn’t seem that impressive, but after gripping at its cold handle and ripping into the momentum of a swing, there is nothing more punishing or more addictive.

Kettlebells come in poods. For example, the average male beginner uses 1 pood (16 kgs. or 35 lbs.) while the advanced lifter uses 2 poods (32 kgs. or 70 lbs.). There are different weights for every level. One must master the lighter weights to progress onto the heavier ones, but even the most powerful athletes can accomplish their goals with 1 pood.

In “Enter the Kettlebell,” Pavel Tsatsouline describes the correct (and most thorough) techniques available for exercises like the sumo deadlift, face-to-wall squat, halo, swing, snatch, clean, and get-up.

Pavel encourages a daily practice, not a burnout. Kettlebell training requires a lot of skill and patience to do well. For instance, to do a proper two-handed swing, one needs to maintain a box squat alignment, keep a straight but not upright back, generate power from the hip but not in the arms, sit back rather than dip down, and so on.

This book uses a minimalist approach and recommends two kettlebell exercises for the most benefit: the swing and the get-up.

“The swing will take care of your back, legs, heart, and lungs. The get-up will temper flexible and resilient shoulders, ready for exercises and spots skills that traditionally trash them: punching a heavy bag, grappling, heavy pressing and jerking, and so on.”

Once one has practiced these exercises for a long time (weeks to months to even years), focusing on finesse over speed and technique over high repetitions, additional exercises can be incorporated.

Kettlebell cleans, snatches, and presses are demanding. One needs to use strength and flexibility to do them well. Pavel argues for slow strength training with lower reps. Rather than championing the popular fatiguing way of strength training, he believes that slow training minimizes injuries, while building resiliency and power.

When using kettlebells, one is always in the Yin Yang of relaxation and tension. Like any good martial artist knows, it’s all about timing.

“Tension and relaxation are the two sides of the performance coin. An always-tight powerlifter can hardly move. An always-loose yoga practitioner is weak. A karate master, who moves like lightning and then freezes for a split second to put all of his mass behind the punch and then recoil with relaxed quickness like a snake’s tongue, has both. In the words of the late Okinawan karate master Chozo Nakama, this is ‘relaxed tension.’”

Kettlebells bring the entire body into each movement. One exhales with control like a boxer throwing a cross, relaxing and then tensing, building up their combat conditioning. Kettlebells reduce injuries through a stabilization of numerous muscles, strengthening the back, arms, shoulders, abs, legs, glutes, and grips.

Pavel recommends training everyday. Stay consistent but always vary in the workouts each time, switching from heavy to light weights, focusing on proper technique in between sessions, never exercising until fatigue.

He suggests using ladders, starting low. Switching hands, resting. Then slowly building up to fifty repetitions, one hundred repetitions, in a short period of time. Eventually, as one progresses, one will build 1 ladder (1, 2, 3, 4, etc.) to 2 ladders, 2 ladders to 3 ladders, and so on. This can take a few minutes, a few hours, or even a full day.

When it comes to rest in between sets, that depends on individual goals.

“Either extreme of rest between sets — less than a minute on one end, and 10 minutes and more on the other — will make you strong for different reasons. Extremely short breaks will make you stronger by building muscle in the tradition of Charles Staley’s EDT (edtsecrets.com). Extremely long breaks will make you stronger by improving your skill of strength in the tradition of my GTG program from The Naked Warrior. Medium breaks will give you a mix of muscular and neural adaptations. This is why I have not specified how long you should rest between your sets in this book. Why complicate?”

Kettlebell training can be timed as well. Alternating rep/rest periods at random, experimenting daily to build up to high reps in a short amount of time, can be challenging and rewarding. HIIT and Tabata are two beneficial methods for intense, short workouts.

Kettlebells are versatile, adaptive to both the person and program. They’re simple, effective punishers, training raw power and strength, conditioning and balance, flexibility and skill.

One can combine kettlebells with intervals of pull-ups and pushups, shadow boxing and sprints. Athletes can alternate with barbells and machines and dumbells and ropes. They can skip those tools all together and use kettlebells alone.

From stretching hip flexors to stabilizing joints, from building raw power to reducing the chances of arthritis, from lowering heart rate to increasing balance, kettlebells are underrated in the fitness world.)

Tao: The Watercourse Way

without an inside,
there is no outside,
by taking away evil,
there is no good,
without black,
there is no white,
without joy
there is no suffering,
there is no before
without an after,
no feminine
without masculine,
ugliness without
beauty,
life without death:
both are inseparable
like poles on a magnet

everything relates to everything
and then returns back to itself,
from one to two to three to
the ten thousand things,
one is not one without
the ten thousand things

when there are
no opinions,
no purpose,
no action,
things come and go
of themselves

when there is mystery
in what cannot be named,
to name it is to not know it,
to know it is not to talk of it

people take care of themselves
when they are not forced,
snow cracks the most rigid pines
while the willow yields and bends

a great warrior doesn’t need to fight
even though a weapon is available

the most powerful ruler is not free
but is burdened with worry, fear, isolation

the truly powerful have
no ambition, no status,
they do not hold themselves above anyone,
they do not praise or blame,
they act by not acting,
they do not force others,
and everything is still accomplished

the wise ones behave righteously
with no thought of good and bad,
they decide on what to do and do
but do not preach to others

when striving for peace,
there will be war,
when seeking pleasure,
there will be suffering,
when there is youth,
there will be old age,
when there is health,
there will be sickness,
from trying to control,
there is a lack of control

there are transformations
along the path of life to death:
not minding what comes or goes,
there is joy in every change

to desire or strain not to desire,
one is still in the Tao,
not a part of it, but It

let the mind alone
and it will harmonize,
force the mind
and it will resist

twenty haiku

“A haiku is not just a pretty picture in three lines of 5–7–5 syllables each. In fact, most haiku in English are not written in 5–7–5 syllables at all — many are not even written in three lines. What distinguishes a haiku is concision, perception and awareness — not a set number of syllables. A haiku is a short poem recording the essence of a moment keenly perceived in which Nature is linked to human nature. As Roland Barthes has pointed out, this record neither describes nor defines, but ‘diminishes to the point of pure and sole designation.’ The poem is refined into a touchstone of suggestiveness. In the mind of an aware reader it opens again into an image that is immediate and palpable, and pulsing with that delight of the senses that carries a conviction of one’s unity with all of existence. A haiku can be anywhere from a few to 17 syllables, rarely more. It is now known that about 12 — not 17 — syllables in English are equivalent in length to the 17 onji (sound-symbols) of the Japanese haiku. A number of poets are writing them shorter than that. The results almost literally fit Alan Watt’s description of haiku as “wordless” poems. Such poems may seem flat and empty to the uninitiated. But despite their simplicity, haiku can be very demanding of both writer and reader, being at the same time one of the most accessible and inaccessible kinds of poetry. R. H. Blyth, the great translator of Japanese haiku, wrote that a haiku is ‘an open door which looks shut.’ To see what is suggested by a haiku, the reader must share in the creative process, being willing to associate and pick up on the echoes implicit in the words. A wrong focus, or lack of awareness, and he will see only a closed door.”

~ Cor van den Heuvel

***

hammer echoes 
shingles at dawn,
silent red clouds

***

light stills dust
into the steel
guitar strings

***

rain
slipping through 
porch

***

baby curled in,
eyelids

trembling

***

bay waves
glittering beyond
piers on shoreline

***

cherry drops 
in pond,
rippling

***

pregnant belly of
sunlight, bouncing
over an open book

***

yellow leaves
flickering in sun
with brown leaves

***
 
waterfall gurgles, froth 
rocks

***
night pumpkin
shadowed by
legs on stairs

***

rustling bush,
peeled in the 
wind of its leaves

***

hands full of
sunlight
wrinkled shadow

***

callused flesh,
fingertips roll
on soft strings

***

full moon fills 
in power lines,
crow flies off

***

trash bag wraps
in the wind of
highway tires

***

boot plops in
mud, sucks
back into air

***

cattails in

a mud puddle,

splashing fish

***

sun in tree

light, peeling

white bark

***

red leaves

shadow on

a roadside

***

skeletal oaks

twisted in mist,

on snowy hills

***

in brown forest,

rainfall dripping

in cracks of winter bark

Reflections on “True Peace Work: Essential Writings on Engaged Buddhism

“Life is filled with suffering, but it is also filled with many wonders, like the blue sky, the sunshine, the eyes of a baby. To suffer is not enough. We must also be in touch with the wonders of life. They are within us and all around us, everywhere, any time.”

— Thich Nhat Hanh

_________________

nuclear bombs with

mushroom unfolding

and sunlight opening

the petals of

yellow

violets

a child dragging

herself

through mud streets,

lips scabbed and dry,

eyes open in the

napalm rain

and blue birds

chirping

in the moist

rainforest

below a mist

of mountain clouds

shuddering

before a gun,

robbed

of homeland, lost

in a feud

under blood

drones

and sighing

on a mountain,

overlooking

endless endless

trees,

red leaves

yellow leaves

green leaves

_________________

Lose all dogma,

Be open to everything,

Don’t force your beliefs on others,

Walk your own path

_________________

It’s necessary to occasionally leave from civilization, meditating in the wilderness, sitting in the quiet hum of solitude, hiking through the mountains, in order to heal from civilization and turn inward and listen again. Too much noise from civilization pollutes the mind. Too much attachment wears anyone down eventually. The wise, who are filled with loving-kindness, do by not doing. Their presence is powerful in its authenticity and their benevolent actions stem from being grounded, peaceful, and compassionate. They master themselves so they can help others.

_________________

The Buddha said: “Victory creates hatred. Defeat creates suffering. The wise ones desire neither victory nor defeat… Anger creates anger… He who kills will be killed. He who wins will be defeated. Revenge can only be overcome by abandoning revenge… The wise ones desire neither victory nor defeat.”

_________________

Our governments condition us to separate ourselves from the Other. We are routinely taught to hate and fear what we don’t understand. Children starve daily and nuclear weapons are stocked up and environmental disaster heightens to threaten the planet and tribal groups murder over natural resources and corruption spreads through political systems.

In our societies, we forget our traumas and remember and then forget again.

How can we help others when it’s so easy to forget? We have to be aware of our own lives so we can be aware of the issues of the world. To see ourselves in the Other, whether we are a weapons manufacturer or a child with cholera in Yemen, whether we are a corrupt president or a farmer whose land was stolen, lets us be aware of the interdependence of this world.

We are in everyone and everyone is in us. When we see the deep relationship of the world, it is our responsibility to help others because they are who we were, are, and could have been.

_________________

Nhat Chi Mai

Mai, loving Mai,

crumpled in her

bone robes

and burnt hair,

sacrificed all

to end enduring

massacres in

jungles under

blood suns

where bomb smoke

filled the eyes of

newborns

Mai, loving Mai,

dead in the

pagoda dirt,

sacrificed

so the lost

could work for

peace

_________________

Those who try to harm us are our most beneficial teachers. We should be grateful to them because we can then practice our patience, tolerance, and forgiveness.

When we are angry or jealous, our minds are not well adjusted. We’re not balanced or peaceful when we are lost in negative emotions. Those who try to cause us harm may do so because of their anger, envy, pain, bitterness, and so on. They act from their suffering just as we act from our own — whenever we’re upset, sad, jealous, etc. Under different conditions, they may be a friend instead of an enemy.

Instead of hating people who try to harm us, feel compassion for them instead. Instead of judging the entirety of their lives because of an action or negative feeling, we must see ourselves in them.

_________________

The rainforest is my lungs, the sun is my heart. I am made of elements of air, land, and water. Without the trees and flowers and soil and bees and birds and grass, I cannot exist. They are in me as I am in them. From a spec of dust to the stars, interdependent and changing, I am. As seeds are watered to become trees, as decomposing animals fertilize the soil, everything is in transformation. I must protect my planet because this planet, ever-changing in its growth and death, is never separate from me.

I must be aware of my relationship with the earth. I must not mindlessly consume and destroy. Respect should be given to the land and water and air. If I can, I will work to prevent the destruction of what nourishes all living things.

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The persistent cycle of delusion, greed, and aversion, clinging to a past, present, and future, to pleasure and desire, to the idea of having a separate, isolated self, can be broken with wisdom (gained in meditation) and morality.

Every step is a step to be free. Every moment is a chance to be loving and peaceful.

To be enlightened is not to avoid life, not to ignore all of the traumas and wars and violence that causes people to suffer, but to joyfully live in the world, even among all the sorrows (Joseph Campbell). One can simultaneously hear the “birds chirping” and know the “depths of hell.”

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Be at home in the present moment to heal the past. Build communities of peace and love wherever we go.

People are not obstacles to overcome when working on the self. They aren’t distractions. They are teachers, even those who are cruel, violent, and sad.

Care for children and see the child in every adult. Know that even those who are immoral now were once tender babies. Those who underwent so many traumas, who repeat those destructive patterns in adulthood, were once so scared and vulnerable to the world.

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Before speaking, be mindful of breathing. Allow a pause before responding rather than speaking impulsively. Listen deeply, learning about not just the words of the speaker, but their underlying fears and worries, uncertainties and curiosities. When speaking, use the language of loving-kindness, working always to develop harmony rather than causing division. After speaking, let go of the words. They belong to the community now.

Instead of holding onto views of right and wrong, discover what the reasons are for a person’s view. What in life led them to such a position? Does it help or hurt, is it truthful or a lie, does it cause suffering or a benefit to others?

Refrain from unkind words about people not present. Do not fall into unwholesome habits, picked up from others. Break apart conditioned patterns of communication.

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Our boundless energy to help others comes from taking care of ourselves.

Comparing ourselves to others, feeling secretly satisfied when others fail or do badly, will not sustain our lives.

Giving too much, focusing on too many projects, championing for too many causes, while neglecting our own health, will only lead to burnout and depression.

We do violence to ourselves when we ignore our own nourishment. We hurt ourselves when we focus on the task, whatever work needs to be done, the details of an important project, while failing to be mindful of ourselves, of another person, totally and sincerely.

Reflections on “The Art of Slow Writing”

From formlessness, form arises. A story, essay, poem, novel, begins from a slight agitation, a dream, an image of the sun sprinkling over the water, from a hidden place deep in the unconscious. It is raw, muddled. A piece of soft clay that must. be shaped repeatedly before hardening. There may not even be a final form in mind, only the steady cut of steel to unformed material, as shavings float away to reveal a mysterious figure.

Write when you’re ready, when you can. If you wait for inspiration to guide you, if you need to conjure up the perfect image of a masterpiece before you glide your ink pen across a piece of paper, you’ll never start.

Start anywhere. Linger longer in silences, playing with time like a zen monk plucking a daisy from a field, open to what comes.

No expectations, no high standards.

Just write. It could be shit. Who cares? That’s what revision is for.

Write. Write often. Revise even more often.

Go through a couple of drafts before you expose your work to other people for a critique.

Decide what tools are best for you: being physically intimate with a scrap of paper and a pen, clicking away on the keys of a steampunk typewriter, going stream-of-consciousness on a modern computer.

Whatever you use will mold your writing. While a golden retriever and pit-bull are both considered dogs, each has its own bark.

There is no ideal time to write, especially when you have a full-time job, kids, and hobbies. If you truly want to write, you’ll make it work, though.

From waking early, long before the clouds have parted to let sunlight in through the curtains. From those precious moments before the school bus squeals to a stop in front of your house. From an unpaid lunch hour in between a ten hour shift. From a weekend when everyone else is at a bar, watching the football game.

Usually having too much free time can make you lazy with possibilities. But to aspire to work under a constraint can paradoxically be the most productive writing help.

Writers should endure an apprenticeship to develop their abilities. They can learn from masters, alive and dead. Everyone and everything can be a teacher. From television shows to trying new formats, from copying the prose of novelists to mimic their structure to reading wide varieties of material, every experience shapes the development of the artist.

Writers must be patient when struggling for progress.

They must endure in themselves, so that they can become who they first believed they were when they began writing.

Most people will not work for years to steadily improve their craft. They will dabble around, then give up. They will see minor success, then give up. They will get distracted, settle down with a family, find a full-time job, play a video game, then give up.

Writers must have the heart to continue.

Solitary walks through changing trees. Musing in nothingness with sunlight on pine needles, open to all ideas, but not holding on. Writing comes without any obstruction when you idle without a purpose.

Writing is process, not result. Journals kept of meticulous notes, observations, image patterns, daily thoughts. Learn through life and write about life. Some material written ten years ago can be useful in a future novel. Work slowly, deliberately, not rushing to produce.

Henry Miller considered the relationship that one has with books to the one that one has with life.

Are you a slow reader, a note taker, one who is methodical in your learning? Do you linger on certain lyrical passages, feeling the syllables seduce your lips?

Are you one of those people who breezes through a work, taking in information for a moment, only to forget everything a week later?

Writers need to deeply read in order to deeply write.