Outtakes from Who Was I? – Fundamental Uncertainty

In the process of rewriting my music-theatre piece, Who Was I?, I wrote a lot, exploring the geography of memory. As I get closer to performing the new version of the show, I’ve decided to post some of that writing. Read more about the piece by clicking here


The Buddha says that clinging to the idea of a fixed, unchanging, personal identity is the source of human suffering. We create and maintain the illusion of a permanent “self” in order to avoid the full experience of the “fundamental uncertainty, the groundlessness of being human.” (Pema Chödron, Living Beautifully, p 4)

So I can view my recent neurological episodes – auras, transient amnesia, seizures – as opportunities to experience that very uncertainty. The two times I emerged from oblivion with no memory of how I had come to be lying on the floor felt intensely groundless.

The second time I came back to awareness from a seizure, my wife and three paramedics were all telling me that I’d had a seizure. For several minutes, I could not figure out what that word, seizure, meant. I had no story to tell myself. That came later:

I was standing at the kitchen sink, washing some dishes. The dishwasher was open. That’s the last thing I remember before coming to on the floor with everyone telling me I’d had a seizure. I must have fallen on the open door of the dishwasher and then slid onto the floor. Now I’m in an ambulance on the way to the Marin General Hospital emergency room. But my consciousness still seems intermittent as if the movie I’m in had several random jump cuts and was being shown at an inconsistent speed.

A lot of spiritual teachers talk about the benefits of “dropping your story. ” About twenty years ago, not long after my mother died, I went to see Gangaji, an American woman who was a student of “Papaji” a self-arisen Indian mystic. At the time both Papaji and Gangaji were very popular among American spiritual seekers. Gangaji was very big on story-dropping. I raised my hand. “But I’m a storyteller,” I said, on the verge of tears, “I love stories!”

“Well, then,” she answered,”You’re just a sentimental old fool.” I’m even older now and still hopelessly tangled in story.

The difference is that I’m finally willing to consider that changing my attitude toward the stories might be a Good Thing.

I noticed, a couple years ago, that Gangaji had written a book calledHidden Treasure: Uncovering the Truth in your Life Story. I should read it, I guess. But my Buddhist teachers seem to be saying that the notion that there is anything “true” about one’s “life story” is, itself, suspect.

Perhaps this is the opposite of Alzheimer’s or amnesia, this flood of memories.

Continued in next post

Reflections on the Occupy…Movement

I’m heartened to see people of my generation (Robert Reich, Robert Haas, Vincent Harding, Cornel West and more) in solidarity with the students and other young Occupiers. I only wish that some of the abundantly creative young folks in the movement would explore ways to effectively calm and soothe the police when they are ordered to clear the real estate by the powers who pay them. Rhythmic, continuous chanting of “Shame on you!” though certainly apt, can only raise the adrenalin level of those being addressed. I would hope that the values and goals of the movement, as expressed in the phrases projected on the brutalist slab of Manhattan Verizon building“LOOK AROUND / YOU ARE A PART / OF A GLOBAL UPRISING / WE ARE A CRY / FROM THE HEART / OF THE WORLD / WE ARE UNSTOPPABLE / ANOTHER WORLD IS POSSIBLE … OCCUPY EARTH / WE ARE WINNING / IT IS THE BEGINNING OF THE BEGINNING / DO NOT BE AFRAID / LOVE” — could prevail and redirect any confrontational, angry energy that only divides people into one that could reveal how much the police, say, and the occupiers actually share. Singing to the police might be worth a try. Even if it doesn’t change the behavior of the corporate security forces, it might be a lot more fun than chanting a three word admonition.

"Occupying" the Verizon building.

"Occupying" the Verizon building

To paraphrase the brilliant George Lakoff, we need to reframe the narrative that “America is broke” and that “Big Government” and social programs like Social Security, Medicare etc. are the problem.  We need to find effective ways of telling a different story: American values include caring for each other, creating community, empowering all citizens. Government’s job is to protect and nurture.  All these values don’t make sense unless people understand and feel empathy for others in wider and wider circles.  We must not fall into the trap of creating an “other” who is the “enemy.”  To do so is to become exactly what we don’t want to be.  Yes, I consider myself part of the 99%, for sure, but I was speaking to someone yesterday who is a bona fide member of the 1%.  His pain at feeling judged and attacked was no less real than my own pain at feeling marginalized and excluded.  But the problem is systemic. No one thinks of themselves as “bad.”  To blame and accuse only provokes defensiveness and aggression.  As Cornel West would say, our beloved brothers and sisters in the 1% must be encouraged to enlarge the circle of those they can empathize with.  Until one realizes that sharing and cooperation are in one’s best interests, they won’t adopt those values.  Easier said than done, yes. But I sense a tremendous creativity dwells in the “Occupy” Community and I encourage us to tap that energy to tell a new and powerful story of interdependence between all beings, including the beleaguered planet itself.  Stories can change feelings, attitudes and beliefs, all of which inform behavior more powerfully than  either rational argument or coercion ever will.

Footnote: For many the word “Occupy” has negative, militaristic associations. A conquering army “occupies” the land of a defeated enemy. Occupier is often synonymous with oppression. I believe that this movement will need to gain traction among the middle-class and across generations before real change can happen. If it’s seen as simply a vehicle for the venting of anger and frustration, I’m afraid it will have a hard time building those essential alliances.  For these reasons I support non-violence, empathy and respect for small business people, working people, public employees (including police), indeed, for all persons and property.  Tactics that rely on disruption and destruction  create resentment and polarization and rarely change anyone’s attitude. On the contrary, actions that involve shutting down traffic or the everyday transactions of life are invariably used by the powers-that-be to justify repression.