By Brent R. Oliver
So now that we’ve met, let’s get to know each other a little better.
My first post here was all whining about how I suck at Buddhism while simultaneously congratulating myself on being such a renegade spiritual antihero. I’m sure there will be more of that to come. These major dichotomies are a big part of the comedy inherent in my path. The humor is very important to me because it’s a constant reminder not to take these massive matters of life, death, suffering and happiness too seriously.
Of course, the dichotomies are also a pain in the ass. Long ago, I convinced myself of exactly what character I was going to play in the world and Buddhism began destroying that character from day one.
When I was 23 years old, Buddhism saved my life. Just typing that sentence made me want to kick my own ass.
I’ve always been dismissive and irritated when someone tells me their life was saved by anything other than Batman—especially when it’s something religious or spiritual. For every damp-eyed convert having a verbal orgasm about coming to Jesus, there’s an uncomfortable audience wondering if maybe Jesus could have skipped this one so everybody could finish their beers and go to bed.
By age 14 I was perfectly good without God. And I don’t mean I was an exemplary moral person whose ethics and behavior were gaggingly beneficent; I was actually a snarling little shitbag. But life and the world made perfect sense without religion and I didn’t see it having any function in modern society.
I became aggressively, tiresomely antagonistic toward anything divine or intangible. There was no compassion or wit in my opposition, just a single-track pugnacity dedicated to obliterating anything religious in its path.
I’m still not a huge fan, though I’m less inclined these days to start shit about it. But for awhile there I was all about starting that shit, and as belligerently as possible. I was so absolutely anti-religious, so righteously inimical to anything remotely spiritual, that it was like I was a cartoon character. In fact, I was so invested in my own suffering and so deeply suspicious of happiness, I was mostly unbearable to be around.
This fact made it all the more hysterical when Buddhism saved my life.
The why and how of my misery at age 23 aren’t really important right now. I had gone out of my way to become a self-destructive, nihilistic asshole and it wasn’t working out. The end was nigh for me.
One afternoon, I was shuffling around a local bookstore like the dead-eyed zombie dick I was and I not looking for anything in particular—certainly not fucking salvation. Nonetheless, that’s what I found, though it was of the distinctly “do-it-yourself” variety rather than trading up to a higher power.
I grabbed a book called Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction, and I have no idea why. Again, I hate stories like this. The fluffy, new-agey idea that the universe guides you to what you need always pisses me off. It seems like a cheaply magical explanation for pleasant coincidence. I can hardly imagine there’s a metaphysical reason I ran into that book but it’s the closest I’ve ever come to believing that stuff is possible. My hand didn’t move to it magnetically. The title didn’t leap out at me in giant neon letters. It wasn’t sticking farther out on the shelf than its mates. I was just browsing in the Philosophy section and I came across it, read the back, and was unaccountably intrigued.
I took it home (after buying it, I didn’t steal it) and burned through it in one evening. It really was a Very Short Introduction. When I got done, I didn’t contemplate becoming a Buddhist and I didn’t decide to read more and see what it was all about. I simply realized I was a Buddhist.
All the years I’d been self-aware, something had been eating at me. My understanding of the world and myself seemed rooted in a negativity few others shared. Even though I couldn’t articulate these feelings, could never even find a way to see them fully, they shaped almost everything about me. And the longer it went on, the more hope I lost. When I found that book, I had given up. I had accepted all the darkness with no possibility of light; all the suffering with no thought of comfort.
But after reading that final page, relief washed through me. Everything I’d always felt about reality but had never been able to express was right there, explained in a way that just clicked into place. I was in pain because of hatred, greed and delusion. I was literally creating my own torture with my stupid-ass mind.
The solace blooming in my suicidal brain, the relaxation that unbound my tangled innards, was due to finally recognizing what I was and why I was like this. Even better—the juicy lime on this tequila shot of realization—there was a way out of suffering. It was like agonizing over a math problem for a decade and then figuring it out in one breathless moment of understanding.
The release was sublime.
Everything turned around that night and I had to struggle not to bother anyone with my revelation. For one thing, no one wants to hear it. For another, I’d look like an enormous hypocrite yelling about the Four Noble Truths and the needless pain built into our perceived existence that can be transcended on the Eightfold Path. I would essentially be doing what I’d yelled at countless others for doing: telling the spiritual equivalent of a “you had to be there” story. So, I kept it mostly to myself.
I have a lot of science-minded, atheist friends and it’s definitely been hard explaining this to them over the years. From the outside, Buddhism looks exactly like a religion and, in a lot of cases, it is. But I’ve struggled to show that actual Buddhist practice—especially mine—has nothing to do with religious views or beliefs. I don’t think I’ve done a good job because no one seems particularly interested. I understand why and it doesn’t hurt my feelings.
Because if someone is complaining to me about how stressed and unhappy they are, they don’t really want to hear, “So, have you tried meditation?”
Editor: Dana Gornall
Brent is a coach in Shinzen Young’s Unified Mindfulness system because it’s just such an approach. He works with individuals interested in everything from alleviating stress to pursuing classical enlightenment. He also coaches groups, and offers presentations to companies, schools, and organizations curious about the benefits of mindfulness. In addition to being a columnist at The Tattooed Buddha, Brent’s writing has also appeared in Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, and Morpheus. He lives in Lexington, KY with his wife, two cats, and a crippling addiction to horror. Swing by his website brentpurpleoliver.com for more information.