By Brent R. Oliver
When I first asked to write for The Tattooed Buddha, I knew what I would offer: entertainment value.
I had been contributing to one of the big Buddhist publications and, while I wasn’t particularly well-known or well-loved, I’d carved out a tiny niche for myself. It was a filthy little space, full of curse words, self-deprecation, and fart jokes. In the generally staid and sober world of American Buddhism, I was the vulgar prankster, the crass bodhisattva stumbling drunkenly down the path, regaling readers with his missteps and misdeeds.
I figured I’d do more of that here at The Tattooed Buddha. I didn’t feel I had a lot going for me as a teacher, or an exemplar of practice, so I’d just stick mostly to goofy comedy. Maybe people could learn what not to do from my stories, and hopefully have some giggles along the way. I think humor is integral to this path and, in lieu of real wisdom or guidance, that’s my strong suit. If I even have a strong suit. Truthfully, I have mostly weak suits, like from JC Penny.
After more than a year writing here, I no longer fit into my niche. I have Hulked out of my crevice.
For years, I stubbornly refused to evolve beyond my crude humor and cynicism, even though my meditation practice kept showing me how limited that was. I clung tightly to my crusty old class-clown persona and insisted my sarcasm was a necessary art the world was begging for. When I finally understood it was destroying my compassion and wisdom, I reluctantly decided to let my deepening mindfulness steer the ship for a while.
That changed things.
I became less concerned with being Buddhism’s superfluous bad boy and much more concerned with being authentic. My practice had provided a gap between stimulus and my typically barbed response, and I began to use it. I saw I didn’t always need to make a derisive comment, or recount an insane story, or grab my dick suggestively. In most cases, none of that was helpful, pleasant, or even a genuine human reaction. I was hiding. I was afraid of getting hurt, so I became offensive. I was terrified of failure, so I didn’t try to become something better, something more significant. No thank you. I wore my awkward, crippling armor and lashed out with my caustic wit, so I never had to be real.
When I originally titled this column “Tales of a Gonzo Buddhist,” it was pretty accurate. I wasn’t your typical Buddhist; I didn’t follow a traditional path; I thought my viewpoint was outside the box and valuable because it was strange. Moderately valuable. Everything I wrote was geared much more toward making you, Faithful Reader, snort beer out your nose rather than get you to think or transform. Despite my 20 years on and off the path, I assumed I was more of a cautionary tale than anything else; someone whose viewpoint was so wedged into the personal angle that it was cut off from everything else.
I didn’t value myself or my experience, nor had I spent any time developing my talents beyond well-crafted, if gross, jests and jibes.
I still want to be funny and l definitely want to entertain. I still believe humor is integral to this path; this lonely, difficult, painful path toward awakening. However, I also think I can be a legitimate positive force—build things up rather than tear things down. Establish rather than demolish. I’ve always considered myself, rather proudly, part of the problem because I saw the problem as insoluble. Embrace the entropy, I figured. Speed this self-destruction right along.
Turns out, it doesn’t matter if the problem can be solved—it’s only important to work on it. Human suffering can be eased. Entropy, that insurmountable law of thermodynamic spirituality, can be embraced with wit and grace, rather than rejected with bile and hate. Self-destruction occurs in every moment and can’t be slowed down or hurried along.
All this time I’d considered myself a gonzo Buddhist, but really, I was an asshole.
I actually have students now; beginning meditators who look to me for guidance and support. I’m enrolled in a mindfulness teacher training program that will fully qualify me—me—to mentor people deeply embedded in a contemplative path and shape their practice. I have a dream to start a mental fitness center in my town offering as many forms of meditation as I can cram under one roof. I want a mobile meditation van in order to roam the streets giving anyone on their lunch hour or afternoon out a quiet, safe space to sit. I’d like to replace detention in local schools with mindfulness training. I want to bring mindfulness meditation to Kentucky boardrooms and break rooms and college campuses and prisons and rape crisis centers. Some of those dreams are sort of unrealistic here at the top of the South, but they’re my dreams and I’m happy to have them.
As someone who’s never had any fucking idea what to do with his life, it feels great to be passionate about helping people. I like having a healthy direction to point my intelligence and experience.
Considering all this, the moniker “Tales of a Gonzo Buddhist” has to go, so I hope you weren’t too attached to it. I’m certainly never going to live up to Hunter S. Thompson’s level of crazy introspective journalism. There’s no way I’ll ever be half the writer he was. And, as far as “Buddhist” goes, I’m not too sure about that either. Buddhism is crippled and weak here in the West and it’s already festering on its deathbed in Asia. Its view and psychology have always worked very well for me, but I’m not sure that matters anymore. Most of the practical stuff from Buddhism, the shit that works, can be translated into modern secular terms and practiced by anyone.
I’m embracing that and moving further into evidence-based mindfulness and contemplative science, because that’s what resonates with me and what I want to teach others. I feel like those applications are almost limitless here in skeptical, rebellious America. Far more people are interested in modern mindfulness than the moribund traditional Buddhism currently on offer.
As the “nones”—the people who answer none on religious surveys—swell in U.S. religious polls, it seems like those seeking a pragmatic, empirical path to self-transformation are going to grow accordingly.
In the past, I’ve been mostly concerned with what my pal here at TTB, Daniel Sharpenburg, has referred to as “Buddhism for the real world”: functional spiritual practice with a minimum of squirrely metaphysics and a maximum of efficient results. However, even with the rejection of things like rebirth and unseen supernatural beings, it remains under the broad, drooping umbrella of Buddhism. It still carries the often-stigmatic weight of that religion with it.
Right now, I’m fascinated with the idea of simple practice for the real world.
What works? Will it work for most people, regardless of their philosophy or absence of such? Does it decrease suffering and increase happiness? What’s the science behind it? Is it explicable in mainstream vocabulary?
To me, the goal of real-world practice is to become a complete human being; to learn how to be fully and authentically yourself. That’s why I’ve decided to re-name this column “mindFully Human.” The weird capitalization is intentional, so don’t let Microsoft Word give you any shit. The “Fully Human” part of the name is crucial, because realizing our innate humanity, embracing the totality of our being as just plain ol’ people is the gateway to joy and awakening. Sounds simple, but it’s a lifelong journey to become Fully Human.
I chose not to capitalize “mind” in the title because that’s the basic tool we’re working with. It’s common and universal to everyone. No less important, of course, but it’s something we all share. Honing and refining it leads to concentration, clarity, and equanimity, which allows us to evolve into Fully Human beings. “Mindfully Human” wouldn’t have captured the essence of what I’m going for, because the emphasis wouldn’t be right. There wouldn’t really be any emphasis because the word “mindfully” is everywhere these days and we’re used to seeing it. There are a million voices out there urging us to just do things mindfully. It’s like a never-ending Nike commercial for stable consciousness instead of stable footing. Eat mindfully, work mindfully, drive mindfully, cook mindfully, spank it mindfully. It’s all so vague.
“Mindful” is the new black jacket that goes with everything. It’s comfy and tasteful and it pairs with the whole wardrobe we’ve got rotting in our closets.
At the risk of sounding truculently old-school, mindFully Human is not our mama’s mindfulness. It’s not about simply staying present and not judging the moment. It’s a fluid, living path that demands far more than just our attention: it’s a complete way of life leading to a better life.
This is a new chapter for me and I’m excited.
I don’t know if I’m actually part of the solution, but I certainly plan to fuck with the problem as hard as I can and empower others to do the same. And just because I’m no longer cowering behind abject sarcasm and misplaced vitriol, don’t expect some Thich Nhat Hanh stuff up in here. I’m not lowering my freak flag, but I may be getting honest and real, and I’ll work assiduously for the happiness of others.
Editor: Alicia Wozniak
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.