I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn ….
On the Road, Jack Kerouac (1955)
What does it mean to be spiritual today? Does it mean meditating six hours a day every day and never saying an unkind thing or even squashing a mosquito as it tries to impale you? Or does it mean living life to its fullest, chasing the mad ones, being the mad ones? Or does it mean something in between, living the prudent life of a normal person, contributing to one’s community, raising a family, caring for one’s elders?
Or all of this?
Since I became interested in spirituality in my early 20s, particularly Buddhism, Taoism, and Vedanta Hinduism, I’ve found that perhaps the most beneficial aspect of exploring these spiritual traditions is the ability to maintain a center of equanimity even in tough times. I’ve also had various peak experiences, some with the help of sacraments (“drugs”) and some without. My general view has been that to lose one’s cool, to give in to strong negative emotions, is a spiritual failure.
But I wonder continuously about all of this. I’ve been advised by friends and lovers that there’s a risk in being too spiritual, too Buddhist, too calm, too detached. Can romantic love spring forth from equanimity? Maybe, but it’s doubtful.
More generally, is the even keel of equanimity really the best way to live one’s life? Alan Watts, a spiritual and intellectual hero of mine for many years now, who studied and wrote about many spiritual traditions from East and West, suggested frequently in his talks and books that to be truly spiritual was to be a complete human being, to live the ups and downs, the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, the black and the white, because only through experiencing the opposite of something can we know anything.
I’ve been very challenged recently in maintaining my cool, my center, my equanimity, by helping my father as he struggles with cancer, selling his house and all of the frustrations of old age. I haven’t spent more than a few days with my father in any one stretch for years, intentionally (sorry Dad), because he can often be very hard to be around.
On a recent visit, however, to his home in England (where I was born and where he is from), we spent a full two weeks together, including a three-day road trip to France in a little car. I haven’t yelled at someone at the top of my lungs that many times in two weeks ever, in my whole life. In fact, I make it a point to not yell at people at all generally. I’m not really a yeller, is my point. During this time with my father, I felt like I had regressed spiritually by a good twenty years—and I told him this too in one of these heated arguments.
Family doesn’t always bring out the best in us. It can all too often bring out the worst. I’m not really sure why this is the case, but perhaps it has to do with old wounds, old memories, ingrained habits, laziness, resentment, all of the above. I literally told my father on at least two occasions on our road trip in France, at the top of my lungs, to “shut the fuck up!” So spiritual.
Why did I behave like this? For a lot of reasons, but mainly because my father is a mad one, a whirlwind of verbal activity and mildly autistic cluelessness about the reactions of people around him, combined with an increasingly poor ability to control his impulses, his anger, or his verbal diarrhea. The man is undeniably brilliant. Beyond the ability of anyone else I’ve spent significant time with, he has the ability to expound on topic after topic in great detail and with no pauses for thought. It just flows, fact after interesting fact, the result of decades of traveling everywhere, reading, talking, and watching documentaries about every topic under the sun.
Our dynamic is unusual in that I actually am interested in most everything that he’s interested in too. I’m a huge nerd and proud of it. But what I can’t handle is being talked/lectured to continuously for hours and days on end with limited to no chance of injecting my own thoughts into the discussion. I’m all for dialogue but unless I’m sitting in a classroom or watching a documentary I’m not so much into one-sided monologues.
Combined with a true penchant for delivering monologues, my father seems unable to hold his thoughts until after a thought is finished by someone attempting to engage him in dialogue. And when I point out this irritating verbal behavior for the ten-millionth time in our relationship he gets angry and accuses me of not letting him speak. Then I ask for silence for a while, which provokes another angry outburst about my trying to shut him up. And when I try to discuss the problem of him getting angry that makes him angry and he’s yelling at me again.
I guess I was mad for inviting him on this road trip.
At least France was nice. We visited the Limousin and Dordogne regions of central France where there are surprisingly cheap and gorgeous little homes. Papa may end up settling there after selling his home in England. And I’ll come and visit. But I’ll keep my visits short…
Back to my main point: how to be spiritual? It’s no surprise to anyone that family interactions can be extremely trying. Even as I was yelling at my father for the tenth time, because I felt that I had to yell to be heard over his monologues and harangues, I felt terrible about my own behavior but at the same time, even then, I felt a certain calmness at the center of it all.
The “witness” is a term often used in Buddhist or Vedanta meditation practice to refer to this calmness that does, lo and behold, exist even during the most difficult times, if we know where to find it. The witness is, in my preferred interpretation, the process of consciousness and the root of consciousness at the same time. It’s our source. It’s always there, always loving, always calm, always kind.
The witness is me, is you, is us, no matter what we’re doing at any particular moment.
This discussion gets tricky when we consider people who behave badly more as a matter of course rather than (ahem) in rare moments that may feel like they’re justified by unusual events. Steve Jobs comes to mind because yet another biopic is coming out about him, based on the Walter Isaacson biography (called simply Steve Jobs) that pulls no punches in describing Jobs’ bad behavior toward his partners, his employees, and his family. It’s not at all unfair to describe Jobs as an asshole, and even a bit proud of his ability and willingness to be an asshole. And yet Jobs considered himself to be a Zen master.
The book doesn’t go too much into Jobs’ understanding or practice of Zen, so it’s not very clear how serious Jobs was about Zen or his claims of being a Zen master. Regardless, it does prompt the question: can one behave badly, even cruelly, and still be a realized human being, a spiritually advanced human being?
Frankly, I don’t know. It all gets a bit murky and highly subjective. Pu Tai (Budai), the chubby Chinese Buddha who is depicted on a million wood statues and paintings in China and elsewhere, was known for his girth and his mirth because he didn’t see any contradiction between spiritual practice and good food, good wine, humor and ribaldry more generally. Alan Watts certainly saw nothing wrong with combining a type of hedonism with spirituality. And yet many spiritual teachers and traditions advocate abstinence as a general lifestyle.
At the end of the day, I try to remind myself of my true identity, our true identity, as Source, the One, the All, as a basis for spirituality and the good life. If we at all times try to behave with the best interests of the whole in mind, recognizing that we are both individual and the whole at the same time, it seems that we are living not only a spiritual life but also the complete life that Watts himself advocated as the highest form of spirituality.
So, Papa, my apologies for yelling at you. But even then I hope you realized that I was acting with love.
Tam Hunt is a lawyer and writer based in Santa Barbara, California and Hilo, Hawaii.