Who am I?

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’
Uriah Heap

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 to teach.  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 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. I was asked to challenge myself as to where my thoughts began and where the went when they left. I was challenged by my teachers to show that my thoughts and emotions were mine to possess by adhering to happy thoughts and pleasant emotions. I accepted the challenge and discovered I could not successfully cling to my thoughts or emotions.

“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 close me, protect me and subvert me when I 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.

 

“Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today.”Benjamin Franklin

“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.

 

Bicycling is so much more

So let me tell you a few things about biking. Now the obvious, good exercise. Low cost investment generally, but maybe not in my case. Low maintenance costs though.

Here are some benefits folks do not realize. Biking is far more intimate than being in a car. I am constantly engaged with my environment. Cars often wave to me (or curse me). I wave or smile to drivers, bikers, walkers, runners and just everyone.

Biking I hear and smell everything. I hear so many birds, lawnmowers and blowers, car engines, kids, wind, water, dogs barking and more. I smell foliage, exhaust, dead animals, mulch, cut grass, and more.

I see every crack, hole, imperfection in the street and sidewalks. I see flowers grow, creeks run, creeks run dry, kids laugh/cry, faces, fishermen, bridges and animals like opossum, squirrels, bunnies, mice, rats, skunks and more.

I feel good. I do not take medication for heart, blood pressure, cholesterol or anything else. I smile more in an hour on the bike than hours in my car.

It takes commitment. It means discomfort when very hot or very cold. More sweating and showers. It requires my attention, skill and mindfulness. I learned to enjoy my own company and exploring my world. I am at peace with the environment and all celestial beings. I can carry whatever I need to enjoy my ride. Water, food, clothes, caffeine, tools, money, keys and more., if need be.

Biking is so much more

Am I on the path less traveled?

In Buddhist practice we study the Dhamma or as it is pronounced in some lineages, Dharma. The teachings of the Buddha are said to lead to enlightenment, which  is liberation from suffering/happiness.

The Buddha asserted what we call, the 4 noble truths.

Buddhism’s four truths are called noble because they liberate us from suffering. They are the Buddha’s basic teaching.

1. Suffering

Life always involves suffering, in obvious and subtle forms. Even when things seem good.

2. The Cause of Suffering

The cause of suffering is craving and fundamental ignorance. We attach to things and all things that exist are impermanent.

3. The End of Suffering

Suffering can end because our awakened mind is always available to us.

4. The Path

By living ethically, practicing meditation, and developing wisdom, we can take the same journey to enlightenment and freedom from suffering that the buddhas (awakened ones) do. We too can wake up. This path is the 8 Fold Path.

THE NOBLE EIGHTFOLD PATH

  1. Right understanding
  2. Right thought
  3. Right speech
  4. Right action
  5. Right livelihood
  6. Right effort
  7. Right mindfulness
  8. Right concentration

Having put that out there, I want to make a point. My nature causes me to suffer. Human nature leads me to suffering. We will suffer. We will hurt. We will fall ill, lose loved ones, fail at love, harm others unintentionally, etc. If we practice an ethical and compassionate life we can often mitigate our suffering but if you are participating in this thing called life, things will happen.

Our untrained, unmindful thoughts are usually leading to disaster. But mindfulness does not end suffering. The 8 Fold Path is not the end of suffering.

Monks train constantly to think, speak and act mindfully. They practice mental calmness, composure, and evenness of temper, especially in a difficult situation. Monks eliminate most of the distractions and attachments which cause suffering or limit happiness. These same attachments for a lay person lead to great joy at times, great suffering at others.

I do not chase enlightenment but instead simply try to live in the moment. I can do many things Buddhist monks can do. I can chant in the Pali language, recite the blessings, study the scriptures and teachings, go without jewelry, and more. But I live in the world, seeking companionship, friendship, financial security and love. I enjoy pleasure, accept pain. I try to not resist a change of circumstances or fortune, especially one that is unwelcome or unpleasant. Rather, I have a dedication to the development mindfulness and skill, wisdom and compassion. I do not expect the elimination of difficulties or attachments. I have learned to moderate and mitigate suffering and to navigate the type of difficulties that can rob a person of peace.

The past few years have been littered with difficulties and blessings. I would have been crushed under the weight of my own insecurities, fears and low self-esteem. But now I recognize that I am not my thoughts and feelings. They are the story I generally tell myself but which I can alter and improve upon by acting in a skillful, wholesome and kind manner.

Monastic life has advantages and disadvantages. The biggest advantage is that it is a simpler life generally without the complications and the challenge of paying rent, buying food and clothing and raising daughters. I would if I could but I cannot I know. I can live more simply but I will always be encumbered by the responsibilities and distractions of a non-monastic life. It beats the old way though by a significant margin. It is a life of service, free from intoxicants and a recognition that I can be in the moment when all my fears and insecurities are pulling me back to the pain of the past or anxiety of the future.

“If you just walk with me
And let me walk with you
I’m on a journey
I don’t wanna walk alone”    Pearl Jam.

 

When the heart weeps for what it has lost, the soul laughs for what it has found. ~ Sufi aphorism ~

It would be hard if you were not there to know the changes. There were changes constantly going on, physical, mental, psychological and spiritual. I was meditating today and had a flashback. I have had it before but not while meditating. I was 13-14 years old. There was an overnight party at a rented cabin by the beach. The party was all high-schoolers of various ages. I was the youngest.

My “friends” at the time were proud to act like animals. On this occasion they decided to vandalize the cabin. I cannot recall but there were probably 3 of us who did this. The older guys must not have said anything to stop us. As I discovered the joy of destruction, I went wild. I do not know how much damage others did but I broke everything breakable. Furniture! We pulled out dresser drawers and broke the wood bottoms. Destroyed chairs. Broke the plasterboard walls, kicked through doors, whatever.

No one ever reprimanded me, that I recall. I believe our club got a bill for the damage but I do not remember anyone telling me what a fuck up I was.

As I had this memory come back to me during meditation it hit me so hard I opened my eyes and my heart was beating fast. I wanted to undo what I had done. I was so ashamed. I never had the good sense to be fully ashamed before. I did apologize to my date about 20 years later but never to the cabin owners.

I grew up to be a good person. I did many fine things for many people. But when I was young I did many bad things to people and property. I broke into dozens of residences and stole their belongings. Some days I would steal anything not locked down in stores and homes. I spent hours quietly unglazing and taking windows out of buildings so I could get in. I manipulated door locks with screw drivers and knives to get in where I did not belong.

I would walk down the street and try every car door late at night to see if a car was unlocked so I could steal what was inside. I jumped through the window of an empty police car one time and stole everything that was loose on the front seat.

I pick-pocketed students in school for their drug stashes. I would eat in restaurants and stay for hours and would eventually order a second meal but only pay one of the checks. And then steal the toilet paper out of the restaurant bathroom for my apartment. I enjoyed my reputation as a thief and a thug.

Of course I was victimized plenty also. A kid on the streets gets exploited as much as he hustles others. People stole from me, assaulted me, tried to use me sexually. I dropped out of high school so there were plenty of hours to get in trouble.

Years have gone by. I have been through so many phases, changes and transitions. Drug addiction, recovery, addiction again and recovery again, marriages and divorces. I got an education , became a social worker, lawyer, teacher, counselor, friend, husband, father and more. Each phase, every twist and turn carried change.

But nothing has been as transformative as mindful meditation accompanied by the practice of loving/kindness. I do not just change, I am change. I do not just grow, I am the growth. I see change unfolding in the quiet moments of reflection. I see the past with clarity and without excuse or praise. I see the moment without justification or reservation and I only ask for absolution from the world on these rare occasions.

I am a better person than I have ever been. I will be better as time goes by. But in this moment I am able to be the better parent, son, husband, friend, customer, driver etc. All the changes before were mechanical in contrast. They happened because they were necessary to stay off drugs or get through school or do my job or stop pain or derive pleasure. But in Vipassana (Insight) meditation as taught in Buddhism by my teachers, I change organically because I simply want to be better. I want to operate free from any motive other than to just be a best me.

I am absorbed in social media and I have to constantly expend effort to write mindfully and skillfully so that I adhere to a morality which I embrace. It is so challenging. What a great tool Facebook has been for me to grow. Nary a day, an hour goes by on Facebook where I am not presented with the chance to practice vigilance, restraint of pen and tongue, and yes, restraint of knife and gun.

I show up each day for life. I have no reason to avert the gaze of others. I need no reason to reach for a kind word to share. To be the best me is possible in this moment for no reason other than it is the rightest thing I can do. I am nice when I can be because in the quiet moments of meditation, I saw the source of all my suffering and I wanted to be free from it. My life was non-stop attachment and desire to what I thought I needed or wanted and my life was one long painful event which pain I interrupted by moments of service to others. I was petty and resentful. And meditation exposed how corrupting my thoughts were and how my own thoughts put distance between me and happiness. In this revelation lived my liberation. I was the cause of all my suffering.

I hope to inspire others to create the change they need to be free from suffering. I intend to use the time remaining to be useful. I can feel the physical unraveling in my body they call impermanence. It is liberating to not have to escape aging and to be aging. I do not have to flee death, I am, like all beings, dying. I am a long way from where I would like to be in terms of behavior, but my soul does laugh for what it has found.

“The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, worry about the future, or anticipate troubles, but to live in the present moment wisely and earnestly. – Buddha

 

Are we all connected to each other?

In 2012 Tricycle magazine interviewed author Paul Hawken about the Occupy movement and other uprisings. It resonates that we have Trump, Sanders and Black Lives Matter occurring in like manner now. I believe what he said about the political rebellion then is apropos to what is happening now.

“The movement is part of humanity’s immune response to ecological degradation, political corruption, and economic destruction. There is a biological quality to the full sweep of humanity confronting its shadow. The upwelling of awareness and compassion—and anger and frustration—is different from anything humanity has done before because we are connected in a way that has never occurred. This is terra nova. We know something is happening, but we don’t know what it is, as Bob Dylan once wrote. What the Occupy movement cannot do is prevent the bankruptcy of the U.S., Japan, China, and much of Europe, which is where we are but which we have so far deferred by financial contortions. We have created the delusion of economic growth and well-being by creating unpayable debts to the future, whether they are financial debts, the debt of resource depletion, or the debt of structural poverty, and the Occupy movement is holding up a mirror to a political-financial system that is manifestly unfair and is causing incalculable damage to the world, whether it be by bank bailouts or the Athabasca tar sands and the Keystone XL Pipeline.”

“What confuses the media and draws scorn is that there are so many issues at play and that there is no they there. Critics do not see how seemingly disparate issues are connected and linked. We have to be careful to not let our understanding about Occupy come from the very institutions that need to be occupied, among which are corporate media.”

Buddhist practices in many ways demand an examination of life events in large measure to determine the morality and our relationship to said events. What intention do we create through mindful effort to address our response to events. Detachment or engagement, suppression or rebellion? What can we bring to every moment which is mindful and skillful and in line with our personal truths which we arrive at through effort, examination and meditation. Are you in or out. Do you see the peril predicted? What is happening now is what has been happening for a while.

Hawken also cited the following.  “The formation in England of the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1787 was the first time citizens organized themselves on behalf of people whom they would never know or from whom they would never receive direct or indirect benefit. The motives of abolitionists confused the establishment. The prevailing wisdom was that people organized for social change only to protect or serve their own interests. An altruistic mass movement didn’t make sense in the latter part of the 18th century. Today, everywhere in the world except North Korea, there are civil society organizations that do this and it is considered normal. This represents a great awakening in humankind, the likes of which had not previously occurred. It is largely invisible to us, or is so taken for granted that we cannot see a miracle is happening. Occupy is deservedly nabbing the headlines, but we should remember that there are over one million organizations in the world addressing the salient issues of our time with respect to social justice and the environment.”

Is there hope? “The questions I ask myself are: Why am I here? Why have billions of beings, including me, come to Earth at this time? Which delusions prevent me from being fully human and humane? What is joy? Are my words, actions, and work helpful to others? Do I have any control over the future (an easy but an important question)? Do I love the way things are right now? If not, why not? Am I grateful for the privilege of living in these extraordinary times? What is my intention?”