Zen Is Great But A Bitch To Do
Staring At A Blank Wall
I’ve been meditating for a half hour every morning for over 40 years. I know half an hour is a paltry amount of time, but at my reckoning, that makes for 14,600 times of sitting in a chair trying to calm my mind. Most of the time this quest has been an abject failure, though a few times I’ve witnessed something with a little stretch of the imagination that might be called Nirvana—and it didn’t involve Curt Cobain.
What I was feeling was a deep-inner peace—but it didn’t last long. I started my meditation practice with Maharishi’s Transcendental Meditation. After a six week course, one of the Maharishi’s disciples gave me a mantra. The mantra was a Sanskrit word. I never knew what the word meant and I repeated it every morning, but never neared anything that even closely resembled a transcendental state.
I then attended three Yogi Ashrams. Along with Yoga, I was given a whole new group of Sanskrit words. They weren’t any more effective than the Maharishi’s had been, but then I discovered Zen.
The Zen center I went to was in downtown Los Angeles (well before the area was gent). In other words, it was in the ghetto, but it was an oasis in this tract of misery. The Zenists had taken over a turn-of-the-century house and turned it into a magnificent ashram that the locals respected. There was graffiti on the surface of every wall but not a touch on the Zen house. There was also something about this place along with the noise. The ghetto is a noisy place, but the closer you got to the ashram, the quieter it got. It was like there was an invisible shield that was guarding the building. From the first moment I laid eyes on the Hazy Moon Ashram, I was impressed.
After a week’s introductory course, I was allowed to partake in the group’s meditation practices. From the first day, Zen was a tough trip. First of all, Sanskrit mantras went out the Zen window. They were replaced with dictum, which was to just sit still and watch my breath. On top of that, I was supposed to watch my breath with my eyes open. This was different because in all other meditation practices, one’s eyes are closed and it is much easier than staring at a blank wall.
The neophyte doesn’t get a koan when he begins the practice. A koan is a paradoxical question to a student, and an answer is demanded. This is concentrated on until one rids oneself of rational thought and thus gains sudden enlightenment…hopefully.
I never got to the koan plateau. The roshi and the Zen leader didn’t think I was ready. He was right. I remained pretty much in the category of watching my breath and staring at a blank wall. The wall had a couple of knots in it.
My fellow Zenists (and I don’t mean to sound derogatory) and I admired the group. We would all arrange ourselves in the meditation room wearing black gowns. These gowns had to be purchased, and since I wasn’t sure if I was going to follow the practice, I settled for a black t-shirt. But there we would sit in our black garments, in absolute silence for 20 minutes, while looking at the knots.
A typical Zen mediation lasts 2 hours and 20 minutes of staring and 10 minutes of silent walking. The Zen center I attended had weekend-long sesshins (the Japanese word for staring at a wall for days). I wasn’t nearly ready for that, but for six months, I went to the 2 hour practice every day.
At the end of some sessions, I was certain that I flew back to my car because my feet never touched the ground. At the end of another session, I was so discombobulated and deranged. I felt that I should have called 911, and sometimes I felt that I should have drove directly to Forest Lawn without stopping!
After six months of this up and down existence, I just couldn’t take it anymore. I quit. I regret that decision to this day, and I’ve made a promise to myself that I am going back to Zen.
I have it all planned out; I’m going to ask the roshi if he’ll let me make up my own koan. If he allows it, I know what it will be. On my intake of breaths, my mantra will be:
“Ommmm…Oh mighty knot on the wall.” And on the exhalation it will be, “Ommmm…oh mighty knot why are you there?”
I’m Dying. Now Leave Me The Hell Alone.
Beating The Odds…
At this point I’m beating the odds. The average American male life span is seventy seven years and I’m deep in my eighties and overall I feel pretty good. But in America once you’ve lived eight decades—they won’t leave you the hell alone.
Want proof? Here is the list of letters (all of them unsolicited) that I got last month: The Neptune Society, Burial at Sea, The Eden Mortuary, A Jewish Cemetery, The Forest Lawn Cemetery & Mortuary, a non-denominatial resting place. That famous final resting place that takes up a large swath of The San Fernando Valley which could be used for public parks, schools, home etc. also sent me a 4 color brochure which must have cost a fortune. The Mountain Society was more discreet. Their letter head had the outline of a stately peak deep in the Canadian Rockies which, after cremation, would be my final resting place.
I say no thank you.
In addition to these kind offers I gets solicitations from lawyers who want to update my will, prepare a living will or just go over my will so that anything I have left (and I’m trying hard as hell not to leave anything) does not go into probate.
They make probate sound worse than death itself.
And on top of these epistles which are going to make my demise better, easier and fairer to my descendants (whom as I mentioned I don’t care a whit about) I constantly get daily reminders about my failing faculties. Over the last month and a half I have received letters offering me a free hearing test, a glossy brochure that rivaled Forest Lawn showing me the smallest, unobtrusive hearing aid, a letter with a discount on prescription glasses, two letters from hospitals extolling their expertise in replacing hips and knees. A warning about the onset of diabetes and a Health Update from the biggest chain of hospitals in California.
I also must include the letters I get about various contraptions. In the last thirty days I have received pamphlets about motorized scooters, wheelchairs, devices to help you get out of the bathtub and bed, reading lamps with magnifying glasses and canes with easy grip handles and no skid tips and, of course, walkers.
And I also get magazines. (Lots of them.) Every month there is a “glossy” from AARP with loads of advice on how to delay disease and death. You’d expect that from The American Association of Retired Persons. But what gets me are the newsletters I get from my unions and guilds I belonged to when I was a working stiff writer and actor. Unions which I whole heartedly support. Unions which give me a pension. Unions which I still take an active part in. But unions who constantly remind me of my impending death. On the back of their monthly magazines they carry pages outlined in black and in a curly cue font listing all the members who kicked the bucket in the past thirty days. I try not to but I always peruse the list. I always find people I worked with, people I wished I worked with, and people I liked or disliked. I look at their age when they passed. I figure how much longer or shorter they lived than I have lived….And I’ve come to the inescapable conclusion that there’s no rhyme or reason for death. People I’ve actively detested sometimes crack a hundred and some great guys and gals go in their fifties. It pisses me off.
Incidentally, I categorically refuse to go to memorials or funerals but those those reminders keep coming too.
And now for my final gripe. I’m talking about the solicitations I get from retirement homes. Everybody looks so fucking happy—grown men and women are grinning like idiots over their lusty full of health laughing white haired mothers and fathers who seemingly are in the prime of their life. There seems to be no pain, no decrepitude and certainly no death in these holding facilities. It’s such crap. And along with the grinning inmates these institutions give me lists and lists of amenities they offer. There’s Gourmet dining (which I know includes only pureed stuff that is easy to chew), outings to gardens and museums (I’ve seen them all) workshops in how to use a computer (I know how) arts and handicrafts (I have no interest) weekly variety shows (I cringe when I think of ninety year old broads singing ‘That Old Black Magic’) but despite all these misgivings one day I checked a retirement home out.
My working days were in television and I was getting monthly missives from The Motion Pictures and Television Hospital and Retirement Home asking me when I was coming aboard. Finally I felt it was time to pay them a visit. The Motion Picture Home is just off Mulholland Drive a few miles east of Malibu. It’s an idyllic setting and its’ grassy lawns, well kept grounds, large movie theatre (where the studios show their new releases gratis) heated swimming pool, well stocked gym, airy dining room and small but efficient and immaculate living quarters are all first rate …and all in all it’s one of the better places to go and die. And I support them wholeheartedly but if only they’d stop sending me mail—-I’m not ready yet…and when I do I know how I’m going to do it. Auto-asphyxiation. That’s my route. Hanging myself in the closet while I masturbate. They say that’s the greatest high you can get. (Ask David Carridine—if you could.)
But I’ll put that off for a while. But when I pull (sorry for the pun) it off, you can do anything with my body that you want to…Forget all the burials in the mountains or at sea. Forget the earth burials—or scattering my ashes to the winds. I suggest leaving my withered old body where you found it—in the closet with a rope around my neck, my hand on my crotch and a smile on my face.