Friday, January 31, 2020

Close Encounters of the Enlightened Kind: Awakening My Heart

Tina Turner shared her own transformative heart experiences with Andrea Miller. (Photo: Nathan Beck).

I wish I had known about Awakening My Heart, this marvelous new book by Andrea Miller from Pottersfield Press, compiling her close encounters with multiple Buddhist luminaries, before I recently completed my new book on Tina Turner’s life and music. Though as a longtime practitioner myself, mostly of a mixture of Zen and Dzogchen, I was, of course, aware of Turner’s many-decades-long affiliation with Buddhist chanting and practice, Miller’s well-crafted conversations with celebrated seekers such as her would have greatly informed the portions of my book devoted to her philosophical pursuits.

Miller takes a highly refreshing angle of approach to sometimes puzzling notions and Buddhist tenets, clarifying them through open and friendly dialogue. This is largely because it is a succinctly practical blend of her own personal exposure to the path, as a deputy editor and staff writer of Lion’s Roar Magazine (formerly called Shamballa Sun) who can speak to fellow practitioners with varying degrees of experience, and also as a journalist who can inform and educate curious lay people who might be bumping into some of these ideas for the first time. Of principal impact to me was her title. It’s not awakening the heart, or awakening your heart; it’s awakening my heart. In other words, it traces the path of her own meetings with remarkable men and women who each contribute an equally personal take on dharma teachings.

Miller begins her introduction to the upcoming roller coaster ride of intense and entertaining personalities, some of whom are celebrities in the wider world and others merely celebrated in the Buddhist one, with the totally sensible declaration that she is not an expert on the subject (no one is, really, as the Dalai Lama would agree, I’m sure) and that at first she found the Buddhist path somewhat daunting due to its initial focus on suffering and its relief. Then she proceeds to illustrate through her exchanges that actually she has quite a firm grasp of her subject matter.

But hers is a gentle grasp, as it should be, holding on to the elusive subject of daily practice in our everyday crazy lives with a tender touch. After an initial explication of the four noble truths – very helpful to people from other spiritual faiths, or no faith at all, who might be coming to the subject for the first time – she situates herself in the perfectly correct narrative voice for the task at hand. Armed with the proper perspective on our suffering and its causes (namely that it’s mostly not actual agony but rather dissatisfaction with things not going the way we want or expect them to), she takes us along on her circuitous route towards understanding.

It is helpful for readers to be placed in the capable but modest hands of a guide who can share their own bewilderment and to clarify how, after experiencing some degree of meditation, the notion that we mostly cause our own suffering but there are ways to become less victimized by our own attitudes settles in as the core tenet to consider. It’s also a shockingly simple and obvious one, which we generally overlook due to listening to our minds instead of paying attention to the world of experience around us, which is usually fabricated from our mental and emotional states.

Miller writes, “Buddhism’s good news, the third noble truth. is that it really is possible to stop clinging and end suffering. Then the fourth noble truth is the recipe for making it happen. In a nutshell, enlightenment is rooted in developing wisdom, living ethically and meditating.” To her credit, she almost makes it sound possible, and is also wise enough to admit the following: “I say this about enlightenment as if I know what I’m talking about, but believe me, I don’t. No one is mistaking me for a Buddha. I’m not even a very good Buddhist. I was recently asked about my morning practice and had to confess that I don’t have one. Each a.m. I’m just trying to survive getting me and the kids dressed and out the door.”

But guess what? First, that attitude is precisely what reveals that she does in fact know what she’s talking about, and second, it is the best vantage point from which to introduce us to the fellow seekers on the path about whom we are about to read. For instance, after sharing that her own experiences with mindfulness training helped her become more patient with annoyances and more accepting of change (once again, that strikes me as an ideal synopsis of what Buddhism is in the first place), she introduces us to some intriguing compatriots.

Equally encouraging is the author’s expressing an initial concern that many people have when first approaching this way of living: the mistaken idea that “there is suffering” might mean “there is always suffering.” But, as many of us who follow this path remind ourselves eventually, there is also joy, and Miller shares the confidence that one can savor all sorts of ordinary joys which are more poignant because they may be fleeting but they are also embedded within our imperfect world. Ordinary joy: that too seems like quite a perceptive summary of what the essence of Buddhism might actually be. Miller’s book is a reassuring reminder of that fact, as she takes us along with her on a remarkable set of encounters with a diverse group of people all searching for that same sense of extraordinary peace in ordinary life situations. We meet some amazingly talented folks in her book, each equipped with a unique brand of wonderment and insight. And that’s when the real fun begins in earnest.

Bernie Glassman and Jeff Bridges. (Photo: Peter Cunningham)

Earnest fun might be the best way to describe the perfect couple of longtime close friends she chose to begin her book’s narrative, the acclaimed actor Jeff Bridges and the revered teacher Bernie Glassman. In a charming opening chapter entitled “The Dude and the Zen Master: The Bromance of Jeff Bridges and Bernie Glassman,” Miller explores the curious and deep dynamic at work in the friendship and shared values between an Oscar-winning Hollywood star and an acknowledged master of the Zen philosophy. They both discuss what drew them to the other: in Glassman’s case the fact that Bridges is a surprisingly regular guy without the expected pretensions that stardom can bring, and in Bridges’ case the fact that Glassman has none of the expected trappings or formalities that esoteric enlightenment is often imagined to carry with it. They even entertained the exotic notion that the renowned character portrayed by Bridges in The Big Lewbowski might be a kind of accidental Zen master himself. Both these bright and sparkling personalities are undoubtedly uniquely gifted and talented individuals but their interest in and practice of Buddhism has also allowed them to be, or at least appear to be, regular guys. In fact, being a regular person might also be the real secret of what Buddhism is all about.

Perhaps Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Indian sage who became known as the Buddha or awakened one, was really not a saint of any sort at all but just a regular person. Or at least the kind of person we could all be if we stopped preventing ourselves from seeing life clearly, from seeing beyond ourselves alone. Each and every one of the people presented in Miller’s book teaches us something similar but different. They are each obviously special, and yet they all project themselves to us as humble and tolerant figures who share all of our own flaws and foibles.

That’s one of the great achievements of Miller’s book: to make Buddhism easily accessible to everyone through the highly personal and intimate interactions she uses to write about their private and public experiences with both doubt and delight. They are, that is, just like us, only much better at not being fettered by our us-ness. A fine example is the case of the former Princeton Professor Richard Albert, who became much better known as the compelling teacher Baba Ram Dass, author of the 1971 spiritual masterpiece Be Here Now. I myself encountered this book the year it came out, when I was a curious twenty-year-old looking for fresh ways to go far beyond the Catholicism of my early childhood. Miller’s fortunate discussion with the just recently departed teacher is one of the highlights of her book, given how influential he was and the impact he had on so many different sorts of seekers. Appropriately titled “Be Love Now,” it might strike a special chord in everyone from practicing Buddhists to taxi drivers, plumbers, insurance salesmen or accountants. As long as they have some degree of curiosity about what it means to be alive, almost anyone stuck in a human body will be able to relate to this charismatic existential comedian as he shares his insights gleaned from a whole lifetime devoted to wondering what we are doing here and what to do about it once we find out.

Ram Dass with old pal Timothy Leary. (Michael Ochs Archives)

The Ram Dass chapter is particularly revealing of the heart essence of Miller’s approach to her subject, which she circles around in a natural, casual, easygoing and often humorous manner perfectly aligned with two distinct kinds of reader. The average curious person with a desire to learn more about an often difficult-to-explain subject matter, so drastically different from our western notions of the spiritual, as well as the longtime practitioner for whom the interviewees are highly meaningful personas who strongly embody empathy, mindfulness and awakening, will be equally entertained by her narrative.

The stories and teachings contained in this book, one of the most diverse cross sections of thinking and feeling beings that I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading along with, is less about the daunting concept of “awakening” (the core concept or motivation of all meditation and Buddhist practices) and more about the tantalizing truth of how to be fully alive. What does it mean to so wide a spectrum of individuals, for instance, to be so alive to the moment they’re in that there doesn’t even appear to be anything left to “search for”?

Thus the fascinating exploration which Miller undertakes into the realm of Buddhist fiction and literature is also one of the most captivating, especially, for me, in the works of Kim Stanley Robinson. “Buddhist fiction” Miller observes, “is a slippery fish to define. Some would say it’s comprised solely of stories written by Buddhists and/or stories that feature Buddhist characters. Others would expand the definition to include stories written by non-Buddhist authors about non-Buddhist characters, as long as the writing reflects a Buddhist sensibility in addressing themes such as suffering, compassion and emptiness.” For emptiness, read selflessness.

I tend to agree with Susan Dunlap’s assessment of her own works, especially those mysteries devoted to the Darcy Lott character. But also according to Dunlap, that all her works, of which there are some twenty-four, have some Buddhist element. “They do,” Dunlap explains, “because I do.” It also allows me the widest latitude, as an appreciator of literature that asks the big questions, to include in the Buddhist fiction domain some of my favorite authors who address existential dilemmas or questions. This angle permits me to claim, for instance, that the works of Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett or even David Foster Wallace, are all inherently Buddhist, even though nothing overtly Buddhist ever takes place in them.

And so it goes with each territory that Miller so skillfully navigates, from the nature-wisdom of the great zoologist and student of human behavioral attitudes towards the natural world Jane Goodall, to the gentle humanity of the folk singer and famed children’s entertainer Raffi, and the perhaps surprising Buddhist sensibility of a famous television actor who won an Emmy Award for his compelling performance as Christopher Moltisanti in the critically acclaimed series The Sopranos. Michael Imperioli alone is worth the price of admission to this gripping cavalcade of people who are as different from each other as chalk from cheese (as my grandmother used to say) and yet share one overarching and all-consuming element to their real life activities: they are all practicing Buddhists who have a single-minded devotion to the art of living their lives in a way that does no harm and also tries to accumulate the perfectly delightful merit of being a kind person. This parade of refreshingly candid practitioners includes well-known ones such as Pema Chodron as well as visual artists such as Chrysanne Stathacos, psychiatrist and sociologist author Robert Jay Lifton, and Simon Critschley, professor and chair of the New School for Social Research in New York, whom Miller describes in one of my favorite characterizations ever: life-affirming and morbidly funny. That last description pretty much sums up what captivates me about the non-Buddhist and yet totally Buddhist writings of Beckett, Kafka and Wallace: they each affirm life while also embracing death with direct cheekiness (though Wallace did so in too literal a fashion for his own good in the end).

Thich Nhat Hanh. (Photo: Duc)

Likewise, Tina Turner’s personal triumph over her difficult personal life in the early days was also life-affirming in its own way by becoming infused with the power of sound, in her case both singing and meditational chanting. My only complaint about Miller’s book, in fact, is that I didn’t know about it in time to quote from her exchange with Turner in the portion of my upcoming biography where I relate the story of her discovery of Nicheren Buddhism and its mantra. She is now, at the age of 80, the living proof of what going deep inside oneself can do in terms of unleashing a strength you never knew you had until you suddenly realized that you no longer had to be the victim of your life story. You could, in fact, rewrite it entirely anytime you chose to, mostly because there is no ‘you’.
It’s also a charming interlude to read a chapter about Miller’s own experience maintaining a family with a partner and two toddlers, at the same time as a full-time job at Lion’s Roar Magazine, a feat she accomplished with considerable aplomb by focusing her attention on the challenges of the kitchen and the lessons of the great Zen master Dogen. But even more personally engaging, and also a fine way to round out the set list of her book’s examination of awakening her heart, was her recounting of her three retreat experiences with one of my own favorite contemporary Buddhist teachers, the venerable Vietnamese monk master Thich Nhat Hanh.

Her first retreat with him was in my hometown of Vancouver, British Columbia, at the University of BC, her second in southwestern France meditation center of Plum Village, and her third at a monastery located in Pine Bush, New York. But wherever she went, the being of Thay, as he is affectionately called by friends and students, remained consistent and unchanging, largely because he accepts change so readily. His description of the Plum Village location practically sums up his entire teaching method and the complete content of his wisdom: “Plum Village is not so much a place that is situated in time or space. You can have it anywhere at any time. If you come to Plum Village and don’t know how to be in the present moment, it’s not the country of the present moment. But if you are in America, or Asia, and if you are in the present moment, you are in Plum Village. When you fly back to America you can have Plum Village on the plane. You don’t have to look for the future, you don’t have to be caught in the past. If you know how to spend time with joy and peace, you are in Plum Village. You are in the country of the present moment.”

That is what makes Andrea Miller’s book so precious in its personal and sensitive sharing of her close encounters of the awakening kind. Not awakened, as in the past sense of something accomplished, but awakening, in the sense of something unique and indescribable that is always happening all the time. I learned a great lesson one time while watching jazz master Thelonious Monk make his way to the stage to perform in a small club. As he wove his way through tables and chairs to get to his piano, some hipster called out, “Hey, Monk, what’s happening man?,” to which Monk responded without skipping a beat or losing a step, “Everything is happening, man, all the time.”

Andrea Miller’s fine book is a stamped passport, a tourist map, a guidebook filled with other engaging travelers on the same road, one directing our usually frenzied attention to the serene place where we can live our lives in a way that actually matters the most: the country of the present moment.

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films.He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Pacific Cinematheque. His latest book is Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, published in November 2018. His new book, Tumult! The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner, is forthcoming from Backbeat Books in 2020.

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