By Brent R. Oliver
“I don’t want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don’t want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed. You know, as a career, I don’t want to do that.”
– Lloyd Dobler, Say Anything
The John Cusack movie Say Anything came out when I was in high school (shut up) and I loved it.
Still do. Back then the quote above didn’t mean much to me. I was 15 and my future was all shiny and promising and shit. Even though I didn’t know what I wanted to be, I knew I was going to be something. I had no idea what I was going to do, but I knew I was going to be awesome at it and make lots of money and be happy.
That didn’t happen.
It kept not happening over and over and now I’m 42 and I’m a shitty member of society. Hell, I’m a pretty shitty member of Buddhism, too. My vague aspirations in high school never firmed up and I drifted away into a mostly desultory existence.
Going to college not knowing what you want to do isn’t a very big deal. Lots of people do that and then discover their passion for psychology or yeti tracking or whatever. Granted, it appears more likely that people find something they can just tolerate for the next 45 years without going on a chainsaw murder spree.
I had no interest in finding something I could just put up with.
That seemed like a recipe for misery. But college did nothing for me. I never found my thing. I had amorphous aspirations of being a writer but there’s a thousand kinds of writers out there. Could I be more specific? No, I couldn’t.
So, I became an English major, then, which prepared me perfectly to wait tables after I was kicked out of college.
I figured my stint in the service industry would be temporary while I figured out what I would really do. As waiting tables became more painfully permanent, I grew even less interested in settling for something “professional.” The only two things in college I enjoyed studying were English and philosophy, neither of which really led to any jobs but English or philosophy teacher.
I didn’t want to work with computers like so many of my friends because it seemed crushingly dull and eye-searingly awful. Everyone else majored in business or economics, which were even worse. That Lloyd Dobler quote really began to make sense.
I continued drifting, floating along the alcoholic stream of the service industry.
Sinking, actually. And right before I drowned, Buddhism saved my stupid, pointless little life.
It still took a few years before I actually meditated. I’m sort of a nerd so I spent most of my time reading about Buddhism rather than doing it. I didn’t start sitting until I stumbled across my local Shambhala Center. Walking through those doors the first time was neve-wracking. I was like a teenager going into a whorehouse: I knew I wanted to do this but I wasn’t sure what it entailed or how much it cost.
From my first real encounter with Shambhala I knew I wanted to become a teacher. They offered a clear path to that, although it was long and expensive. I also found out that most of the teachers had day jobs because teaching didn’t pay much, sometimes nothing at all.
“Shit,” I thought. “So much for that career path.” I was 25.
When I was very young, I thought maybe I’d be a vet because I liked animals. Then I found out about science and fuck that. When I discovered I could write, I figured I’d just become a best-selling author. That turned out to be more difficult than it seemed. Finally, after five years of waiting tables and searching desperately for something I wanted to do, here it was: teaching meditation and Buddhism. And I’d have to keep serving in order to do it, goddammit.
I stayed with Shambhala for about five years, completing several levels of training and even living at one of their retreat centers for a summer on a work-study program. I was definitely a weirdo among weirdos at that Buddha Camp. As is my nature, I questioned everything there. I constantly wanted to know “why” and “how” and it didn’t go over well.
Many of these folks had practiced with Chogyam Trungpa Himself, the batshit crazy-wise founder of Shambhala. He was a devout party-boy lama whose drunken and sexual high jinks were the height of controversy. And he was revered by his followers in a way that made me very uncomfortable. I loved his teachings and it was obvious he was a spiritual genius, but his personal life confused the shit out of me. He seemed wantonly destructive, both to himself and others.
All my questions were deflected, whether about Trungpa’s behaviors or the canine devotion I saw surrounding him. Several times, I was outright told that I was being inappropriate (keep in mind I was being respectful). It wasn’t like I started my queries with “So, about this Trungpa motherfucker…”
After five years of that, plus the bureaucracy, secret practices, and general neuroses, I wandered away. I skittered between Zen and vipassana for years and, no matter which one I was practicing, I held onto the notion of becoming a teacher or having some kind of career in Buddhism.
The longer I existed on the fringes of society, the less I wanted to be a contributing part of it. I had a menial job with odd hours, no wife, no kids, no investments, no savings, no house and no worries beyond having no future. The Lloyd Dobler quote was now my mantra.
I disdained mainstream society, its products and vocations, its dreams and goals. Everything it said was important, was worthless in my eyes.
These days, I want a real job even less.
When I grow up, I’d like to be a Buddhist writer and thinker. A lot of spirituality steers practitioners to be in the world but not of the world. Personally, I want to be fully in the world and completely human. However, I’d prefer to be in society but not of it. I’d love to change it, to nudge its members toward deeper peace and freedom in their own lives, however bound by the rat race I may see them.
If possible, I’d still like to be a teacher, too. The dharma seems like something that can save many more lives than just mine. Hell, maybe it could save this sorry little world.
Right now, I’m about as much of a teacher as Stevie Wonder is a sniper. I’m gonna have to try a lot harder than I have been.
Whatever happens, I plan to keep shaking things up. American Buddhism sort of sucks and needs a shot in its wimpy little arm. Maybe I can be one of the weird, rejuvenating chemicals in that injection.
Or maybe I’ll be part of an overdose, who knows.
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.