I ride my bicycle as much as 6 days a week sometimes. I thoroughly enjoy riding. When I am in hiking country, I hike daily for similar named reasons.
I like hiking/biking to or along water features especially, creeks, rivers and lakes. I love biking woods and meadows. I am not enthusiastic about city streets or urban paths running under high voltage wires.
I was riding along the north branch of the Chicago river yesterday. I found myself having difficulty watching the trail because I was mesmerized by the woods on either side of me. The lush foliage aided by the river, the greens and browns of the tree trunks, the dead trees and leaves in various states of decay and the wildflowers, oh my. I suddenly understood, I am in the greatest multi-dimensional art museum there is. Nature baby!
I am presently in a city with one of the great art museums, The Art Institute of Chicago and also the Museum of Contemporary Art. But I seem drawn to the palette of nature more than any. No 2 days are identical. No 2 minutes are identical on these river trails I ride.
There is a woman I met, Kelly. She is a natural artist in residence in Oregon and she takes items from nature and creates a new art piece, simple and beautiful. She sees it. I cannot do that, but I can enjoy her art and the raw materials she infuses it with.
Even in Dallas, where I live, and the main creeks the bike paths run alongside, are filthy with debris and pollution, I found an appreciation for urban landscapes. Plastic bags and water bottles mingle with turtles, mallards and egrets. I used to get so agitated at the trash but I surrendered to the reality that it is a constant and I am powerless to remedy it and so step back and look and see how nature adapts.
I realize even while I am moving in nature I am smelling the roses. All smells are not equal. In a car I might miss the smell of an oak or pine tree or the smell of death of a small mammal. The stealth of biking or hiking allows me to spot a family of deer, I stop my movement, we stare at each other and get as excited as a little kid at Disneyland.
A good bike ride is no less educational or entertaining as a trip to the Louvre. But the air is fresher and the ride is cheaper. My museum has no humidity control, air conditioning, uniformed guards or expensive lighting. Some days may be unbearably hot and humid, but I never ask for a refund.
I do enjoy a great art exhibit. I appreciate the artists. I am adorned with tattoo art. I own some art books. I have dozens of pieces of art on my walls, floors and garden. So, I am hardly a neanderthal.
When I think about the marvelous art I enjoy almost daily, I can actually claim moments of gratitude. I may be an agnostic but that means that I am awed by whatever force(s) created this thing we call life/death.
I used to have an aversion to being present for death. But the past several years have brought intimate contact with the passing of family and friends. Nature is one of the most visible examples of impermanence. My study of impermanence began with my study of Buddhism. It now allows me to reside in life alongside death. Nature does not sanitize death or decay like people desperately try to do. From dust were ye made and dust ye shall be. And then in some way I will be part of the great art exhibit called Earth.
City after city has demonstrated what a positive impact greenways have on the locals. No one asked me but I urge you to get out long enough to hear every bird nearby, smell every scent and see the various colors only visible when all the barriers are absent.
How can we talk about life when we cannot talk about death. No one tells you they are going to kill themselves because family and friends will call out the cavalry. So they do not talk about it.
When I was 15, I told a therapist that I considered suicide regularly. He tried to have me committed to a psychiatric institution. Lesson learned. And yet I have often contemplated suicide. But why, or why not.
Like many of my readers I suffer from emotional, financial, psychological and spiritual difficulties. Addiction, loss of financial well-being and the loss of love due to death and break-ups.
Much of my life I struggled with my demons. Made friends with em and broke up with em. Worked through them. Got tired and quit. Came back and started over. Made progress, back pedaled rinse repeat.
I will not likely die a natural death. I expect an accident or suicide will end this chapter of my story. I have no wish to suffer death via illness. As my abilities fade and the losses of life mount, I will go on my terms. Not a damn thing will change that. Buddha sensed what I have been going through and he proposed a path to free me from suffering. It has been very helpful. But I do not think I will achieve enlightenment in time. Talking with my favorite monk 2 days ago, I agreed to investigate some teachings on rebirth. That is for Buddhists. I think maybe Christians get to be with Jesus. My friend Jerry is with Jesus, wherever that may be.
But the reason I started writing today is I have spent many hours in solitude contemplating things. I wonder about love. So many folks are in love with someone who does not love them back. So many of us are trying to navigate romance and it can be a source of great frustration, ache and intense pain comparable to physical pain of the worse kind. Others have loved well and long and then lost to death them that they loved. Alone at the end of the day when they are least likely to re-engage with the types of social milieu that will reintegrate them to romance. Bars and social activities reserved for the younger crowd.
Unlike some, I have tremendous resilience and resources when I am hurt. I trudge on and rebound. But today I looked around and did an assessment. My two daughters live with their mom. I got divorced 5 years ago. I am jobless and my finances are thin and I may be broke before I die. I am starting over and I am simply not ready, willing and able to do so except in short spurts and even then I wonder why.
Do or did I have a soul mate? Did I meet her but we did not figure it out. Did she meet me but I was emotionally unavailable? I met someone I felt so comfortable with and so close to, for 6 months and then it was no more. She was gone. No amount of love, money, or gestures could prevent or return her to me. She was my soul-mate. Big fucking deal.
Aging boomers may become the next “lost generation”. Shell-shocked from cultural shifts unseen in modern times. The digital age leaving us in its dirt. The magnification of regressive politics, polarization and aging leads many of us to feelings of vulnerability, isolation and regret.
I for one lived large. Much to my detriment and regret. But on the plus side so many personal and professional encounters in my life saw benefit to others from my being a warrior. Ex-cons, drug addicts, gangs, and everyday people need what I have and there is no shame in being that special snowflake that they can relate to.
As he said, “Old age is like everything else. To make a success of it, you’ve got to start young.” Theodore Roosevelt
Or him, “Old age isn’t a battle; old age is a massacre.” Philip Roth
“Nothing in the world is permanent, and we’re foolish when we ask anything to last, but surely we’re still more foolish not to take delight in it while we have it.” ― W. Somerset Maugham
If there is a me, this might be. Can you summarize a life? I did so much living, I cannot recall half of it. But memories flow when I find that those memories may be helpful to others. I also realize that all I am in many regards, is memory. This moment fades immediately into a memory. Here I lay out the substance of memories which comprise the path I follow to freedom from suffering. I have learned studying the Buddha that the most precious moment in my life is this moment. If you read through I hope it will be worthy of your time.
I am 66 years old. I am recently identifying as a lawyer, meditation teacher and recovering addict. I relate to Marilyn Monroe when she said, “I am good, but not an angel. I do sin, but I am not the devil. I am just a small girl in a big world trying to find someone to love.”
I arrive here by luck and by being very street smart. I spent most of my teens on the streets of Chicago, as a runaway from a physically abusive dad. While my family was affluent, I chose to live in poverty and crime, sometimes living on pieces of foam in the basements of apartment buildings and churches. I spent my teens stealing property, selling drugs, hitching rides and evading pedophiles.
Fightin’, killin’, wine and women gonna put me to my grave
Runnin’, hidin’, losin’, cryin’, nothing left to save
But my life
Stood on a ridge and shunned religion, thinking the world was mine
I made my break and a big mistake, stealin’ when I should have been buyin’
Probability of survival, low.
When I was 23, I created the nonprofit youth agency called Local Motion Inc. because it was the only way I could get a job working with teens. All the established youth programs I applied to declared that my lack of any formal college education disqualified me. So I hired me, I learned how to write grants for funding, and spent most of my time working in the streets with the toughest kids I could find. I was drawn to spending nights on street corners inhabited by gang members. My goal was to draw them away from the violence and facilitate their productive participation in society.
I dropped out of high school at 16. I tested and received a GED, high school equivalency when I was 18. I didn’t see the inside of a classroom again until 11 years later when I began a college program called University Without Walls. I spent 2 years in (and out of) the program getting a bachelors degree. My college program was interrupted when I went into drug treatment. After being clean of drugs for a year I returned to college and social services. Got my addictions counselor certification and my Bachelors in Human Services.
In 1985, at the age of 33, I enrolled in the John Marshall Law School. I was awarded a law degree 2.5 years later. I continued to work as a social worker with high risk populations in the inner city until I began a solo law practice in 1988. My own experiences as a street urchin and a drug abuser made me feel drawn back to the streets even as a lawyer. I could stay with what I had come to know the best, the streets! I have learned most of the tricks of survival by always bringing my work to the streets and the streets to my work.
I have been in numerous life and death encounters, including being shot at a few times. I have been witness to or involved in probably 100 violent incidents. Some days I saw multiple assaults. I have seen hate and most of its permutations. Probability of survival, low.
I am licensed to practice law in Texas, Arizona and Illinois. I studied law with some of the best trial lawyers in America including Gerry Spence and Racehorse Haynes. I loved doing trials and represented clients in all types of criminal and civil cases. I am especially proud of my representation of those accused of murder. The stakes for the accused are almost incalculable..
Moved to Dallas TX when I was 43 with my second wife. She was a corporate executive and I started the DFW Gun Range and Training Center, the largest firearms training center in Dallas. Studied handguns tactics with some of the best, Thunder Ranch, Gunsite Academy, and the Executive Protection Institute among others. I was certified by the state of Texas to teach police and security firearms and the laws of use of deadly force. Survival odds, improved.
I made a best friend of my little brother Ricky when I became a Big Brother of Chicago over 35 years ago. He was 8 years old then. My second and best wife and I became foster parents to Danny, an 11 year old I met when the juvenile court in Chicago assigned me to assist in his criminal defense.
I have owned 7 businesses including 3 nightclubs. I regard nightclubs as a world infused, infested with drugs, alcohol and pain. Probability of survival, low.
So let us summarize what I think I am. I do fail more than I succeed but my failures are so delightful to others that I enjoy sharing them when opportunity knocks. So I identify with my failures. At the same time, my failures were harnessed to create subsequent successes. I identify with that.
If I get past labels, it is because I realize that saying I love biking Dallas or hiking Tucson AZ. is not satisfactory. Teaching Buddhist meditation for several years at the Buddhist Center of Dallas and being present for my daughters/family Annastacia and Alexandria, does not explain who I am now.
Should it be a thing that I relapsed on drugs for 10 years but in 2007 I reengaged with and remain in 12 step recovery? Does my study of Buddhism help sketch out who I am?
Funny story. On my way to losing a fortune during the economic tsunami of 2008, I befriended a Buddhist monk from Thailand who was living in Tucson Arizona. He and I hiked hundreds of miles of mountain trails discussing and learning meditation the next 2 years. Then I ordained as a novice Buddhist monk and lived in his monastery for a little over 4 months. That monk, Ajahn Sarayut, taught me how to meditate and then how to teach meditation. Odds of survival, very good.
I eat healthy, treat the Earth with respect and seek the companionship of great spirits. I have two mottos. Do no harm. And, Be humble, because I may be wrong.
I do wish to label me not. I prefer to be what I can be as the moment dictates what is true and right. My study of the Buddha taught me that the path of virtue, concentration, and discernment would lead to a state of calm well-being and then to use that calm state to look at all experience in terms of suffering and freedom from suffering.
I am certain that I must be accepting of everything. I may not approve but with a gentleness I never knew, I must accept the pleasure and adversities and how fleeting both are. Drug addiction was a quick way to allay my emotional discomfort. Meditation is a slower, safer more skillful way to free myself from the very torment that drove me to abuse chemicals, relationships and money.
The time I spend trying to be certain of the solidity of things and thoughts, the more suffering I have. When I bathe in the uncertainty of everything including myself, while it is bewildering, it is liberating. When I sit a look closely, there is nothing I can cling to with certainty. Buddhist teachers challenged me to find where my thoughts began and where they went when they left. I can not. I was challenged by my teachers to prove that my thoughts and emotions were mine to own/control by adhering only to happy thoughts and pleasant emotions. I accepted the challenge and discovered I could not successfully cling to my thoughts or emotions. None of us can.
“I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true. I am not bound to succeed, but I am bound to live by the light that I have. I must stand with anybody that stands right, and stand with him while he is right, and part with him when he goes wrong.” Abraham Lincoln.
If I fail to stand for what I believe I would fail to be who I think I am. When I act mindlessly, not mindfully, when acting selfishly not selflessly, and when my intentions are unwholesome, then I am not who I want to be.
Who am I? Have not a clue. I no longer intend to let the armor around my heart remain there. I have been letting go of the pain of life’s encounters which closes me off to the sunlight of the spirit, creates the illusion it protects me and yet subverts me when I only wish to love. Breathing in I am mindful I am breathing in. I practice in meditation to be aware of the physical sensation of the breath, in and out. When I am fully mindful, meditating, the sediment of mindlessness settles. There is then a clarity which I never had of this moment and all the pain of yesterday and the anxiety of tomorrow is dissolved. I am free to love my family and friends and even strangers without the rubbish of judgment and opinions I love attaching to.
“Ardently do today what must be done. Who knows? Tomorrow, death comes.” Buddha
The message is unavoidable and simple. The reality is that it feels like more effort than I can muster to get things done today. So now I actively harness mindfulness into my life. More on that later.
If you read this blog today, you should at least care about one of two things, preferably both. Me and you. Not together, just as participants in this exchange.
I have been thinking about my pal Gary Coursey. He died almost 2 years ago. He was many things to me. Important things. But here is what he brought me today. I knew Gary about 49 years when he passed. I have 2 friends that go back further, Kerry and Marv. They are my oldest friends. Gary and I were friends about 36 years when he became my best friend for about 13 years.
We started living close together in Arizona about 15 years ago. Gary began a habit of calling me everyday or so and checking in. I did not think about it a lot the first several years but then I began to notice he had become my best friend. I knew that within a day or two, we would call each other and I would share with Gary whatever was going on. And usually vice versa although he always had more secrets than me. I moved away and back to Texas about 7 years ago. But we still talked almost daily.
After he died I still had my two oldest friends. The oldest friendship is with Kerry of some 52 or 53 years. Last year his wife and life companion of 45 years died. While she was dying and since then we have been in closer contact. I wanted to check in and see how he was doing after such a blow. We have always tried to be there for each other. We have always trusted each other, mostly. He too has more secrets than me.
So, I decided to call Kerry as often as I want. I have always been measured in how often I call friends, including Kerry. Not too often, not too little. Whatever that means. But as I reflected on my friendship with Gary, I realized that Kerry could handle all the love and friendship I have for him. Gary had shown me that I have a deeper capacity for friendship that I did never thought about.
I called Kerry and said I plan to call him as often as I like and if that was a problem, let me know. Of course it is not a problem (yet). We are best buds. We have weathered high school, drugs, marriages, disease, surgeries and death together.
Gary Coursey, you gave me, Ken, permission to be as much friend as I wish, without measure or hesitation. I never had that before and I surely have not realized what a gift it is.
So dear reader, if aging is inevitable as well as death, better start on that bucket list today. And knockout everything else that was on that list because tomorrow may not go as well as today.
Do not put off showing love to family/friends. Maybe call some friends monthly if possible and try all friends annually or more. Do not put off making a will and trusts or power of attorney for healthcare. Get the annual physical, travel and most important, ride a bicycle.
Mindful meditation brings things into focus. It settles the chatter in my mind and allows for attention to the moment. I simply notice whatever arises. Today this insight into friendship arose.
A favorite Buddhist author of mine Maritine Batchelor, wrote this paragraph in an article 15 years ago…. “You must also be careful not to equate meditation solely with concentration. It is essential to cultivate inquiry as well. This is the quality of the mind that sees clearly into the impermanent and conditioned nature of reality. Whether you are focusing on a specific object or not, the cultivation of inquiry requires you to look deeply into and investigate the nature of each phenomenon in your field of awareness. Whether it is the breath or a sound or a thought, each and every thing can be seen as conditioned and constantly changing. It is essential that you cultivate together and in harmony these twin elements of concentration and inquiry. Concentration will bring stability, stillness, and spaciousness; inquiry will bring alertness, vividness, brightness, and clarity. Combined, they will help you to develop creative awareness, an ability to bring a meditative mind to all aspects of your daily life. In this way, meditation becomes both a refuge and a training: a refuge into being, and a training into doing.” Maritine is a practitioner of Zen Buddhism but Theravada Buddhism, which I teach, recognizes this as Vipassana (Insight) meditation. Insight meditation is believed to be the oldest of the Buddhist meditation practices.
I suggest we live the new year with an awareness of the need to attend to the “now”, this moment. I think it would be wise to look at any inclination to delay and balance that against the possibility that there will not be a “later”.
Like going to the gym to exercise the body parts, meditation is exercise for the spiritual and mental parts. A well-rounded visit to the gym should include aerobics in addition to weights. Likewise, loving/kindness is the balance for insight meditation. The Buddha insisted that a strong mind should be balanced with a loving and compassionate heart.
“May all beings far and near, all beings young and old, beings in every direction, be held in great loving-kindness. May they be safe and protected. May they be healthy and strong. May they be truly happy.” May all who read this have a good, safe and peaceful year.