My high school mascot’s name was Bob. He was an ear of corn wearing overalls. You can’t make this stuff up.
In a place where country music and rap happily shared the same studio apartment, the popular kids burned CD’s, drove trucks with spinning rims, and their huge subwoofers drowned out the accompanying lap steels and mandolins.
It’s interesting, the place I live. It’s a mish-mash of two apparently incompatible cultures that, as it turns out, have more in common than not. Both are loud, rabble-rousing, booze-drinking, gun-toting, and wealth fetishizing. They’re also both equally ridiculous. I’ve come to associate classic rockers and metalheads with functional intelligence and basic sanity.
I didn’t always live between two cornfields. I was born in the city—a crime-laden suburb of Chicago. I don’t remember much from those days. Lots of arguments between the adults and sporadic evening gunfire from a block or two over. It’s interesting, hearing a local mimicking bird do an impression of a sidearm. It wasn’t all bad, though. I had lots of fun car-rides with Mom while listening to a classic rock station. Of course, most people didn’t call it classic rock back then; this was the late 80’s. I remember rocking out to “Dream On,” “Twilight Zone,” “Godzilla,” and “Dirty Laundry.” I remember blue, less humid, summers and brisk Octobers.
I was bullied at school by one kid in particular: Steven. One day, he jumped me while I was walking across the basketball court. He knocked me down and started stomping on my groin. As the pain writhed through me, he put his face to mine and said, “If you tell anyone, I’ll kill you.” His hazel eyes were mad with the fury of a rabid dog, and his voice was colder than a melting icecap. I crawled across the concrete toward the nearest teacher. I was fine, thankfully, and I sang like a canary. Back in class, I found intense satisfaction when I leaned down to Steven and taunted, “I toooooold.” Ha! The look on his face! He was expelled after that.
So, when we moved, I didn’t suffer much; I wasn’t leaving anyone behind except my batshit crazy extended family (who are a little less batshit crazy these days). I never understood my peers; I thought they were dumb and had shallow interests. I liked talking with girls though—until I hit puberty. Then, all of a sudden, girls became the most terrifying phenomenon on the planet.
The sticks actually suited me better than the city. Things move slower, and there’s plenty of room to roam alone. But, just like in the city, I didn’t vibe with my peers. I didn’t care about the things they did and didn’t see things the same way. Everything started to change in 5th Grade when I learned to play the drums and joined the school band. Mr. Schneider, the music teacher, was a strict disciplinarian, but I really appreciated that. He approached each performance like it was a matter of life and death. That’s exactly how I approach Buddhist practice.
Like music, Buddhist practice is a hell of lot of fun but, it also takes extreme discipline. Like music, it’s easier if you’re naturally drawn to it—if you have a natural inclination toward it. If you don’t, it’s more difficult, and there are a lot more “traps” and “bad habits” you can fall into along the Way.
Music is what finally connected me with other people, and music revolutionized the way I view things. I was professionally taught to play the drums but, ironically, they’re my worst instrument. I was self-taught on the guitar, bass, and piano and combed through music theory books to teach myself how to compose. I took one semester of music theory in college, and the teacher and I really hit it off. He wanted me to make it my major, but I was in for broadcasting thanks to my dumbass HS guidance counselor.
Never, ever, ever listen to guidance counselors. If you’re still in high school (which is doubtful), find a BS job after you graduate and save up money for a few years. Then go to college when you’re a little more stable in your brain sack. If I’d have done that, I’d have several thousand dollars more in savings right now and several thousand dollars less in student loans (60 grand and counting). Life is like walking on a sheet of ice (being pushed onto a frozen pond was another of Steven’s favorite tortures for me); don’t rush things or you’ll fall flat on your face.
Anyway, I despised my peers in music theory class—actually, I despised almost everyone I met in college. I used to always fiddle around on an electric piano when I came in because, well, I don’t happen to have an electric piano. I heard one dude whisper to another, “It’s like he’s trying to impress us.” If I were more extroverted, I’d have paused and said, “No, you barely even exist to me. You’re like a rock covered in moss that someone accidentally kicked down a hill. It looks like it’s alive, but really, it’s 90% inert matter and 10% parasitic growth.” Then I’d have nonchalantly turned back to the keyboard and started playing again. But, alas, I’m not just not that cool—and I don’t like hurting people, even if I’m not too fond of most of them.
In broadcast journalism class, we were once asked to play a song we like (what a dumb assignment). I played Imagine by John Lennon. My peers were amused, hiding smiles behind their hands and softly giggling among themselves. I could’ve felt insulted, but instead, I was amused and a little forlorn: “What kind of world are these filthy primates gonna make if they can’t appreciate this song?”
As the days wore on, I became less sexually active, less attracted to women. I’m at a point now where it would take an earth-shattering attraction to move me from my unintentional celibate solitude. I’d almost rather have a heteromantic relationship with a woman instead of a sexual one. Sex complicates everything, and it’s frequently distracted me from the things that really matter. When I first started practicing Buddhism, it was going gangbusters. I was tearing through barrier after barrier. Then, I got distracted by a cute girl I knew. It turns out she loved drama, and I almost got sucked into her madhouse. It took a long, long time for my practice to get that momentum back again.
It might seem harmless to set your practice down when it’s inconvenient. Really, it can seriously mess everything up. Duality is taboo in Buddhism, but one point seems black-and-white: you’re either practicing 24/7, or you’re not practicing at all. The Dharma is either your life, entering into every view and routine you have, or it’s a drugstore paperback that, in itself, becomes a distraction from actual practice.
So, here I am, in this house between cornfields. The night pools around me as my cat begs for my attention—the words, “Professional writer,” meaning nothing to her and little to me. I have two close friends I seldom see, and the nearest temple or Zen Center is miles and miles away. And that’s alright. It feels like all is as it should be, the only way it could ever be.
I don’t function well in groups, so the Sangha life would be hot and cold. I don’t function well as a student; I’m obstinate and ask too many questions, and my obedience totally hinges on my respect for a person. I’m unimpressed by certifications because I’ve met a lot of truly thick people occupying high places—and everyone formally authorized to teach has either fizzled out or abandoned me.
There’s nothing more disorientating than losing your life raft in uncharted waters. One teacher, in particular, left me stranded in the void, and I had to fight my way back from a yawning, manic madness. There’s almost nothing crueler than ditching a student during pivotal moments of practice. May your robes burn. That would at least provide some warmth and guiding light to midnight travelers. I’m a mongrel, a mental vagabond with few allegiances and limited compassion, but I would never, ever leave someone stranded in the weeds.
With all of this in mind, I practice DIY Buddhism; homegrown and homemade. Homegrown because it’s in the spirit of Western individualism; homemade because it’s created by my mind, tailor-fitted to my mind. Like my mind, it’s constantly changing—nothing is set in stone.
My only guideline is the Three Marks of Existence: impermanence, not-self, and the cessation suffering. I make sure that, whatever my view or practice is at the time, it doesn’t negate those Three Marks. If it does, then I’m no longer practicing Buddhism.
I’ve tried writing how-to books and struggled to set down some fundamental principles in my blog, but I’ve given up on that. I’m not a teacher; I’m an entertainer. I’m not a sage, I’m a desk reference. And the only people that I can personally serve are people who were like me when I started practicing: introverts at the end of their ropes who enter the Way out of nihilistic despair. Those who have already had an insight into the First Noble Truth prior to even knowing what Buddhism is.
Downtrodden seekers who, propelled by suffering, approach practice like they’re running toward a river with their ass on fire. People who’ve finally conceded to the cosmos, “Alright, you win! I’m done!” Those are the only people that I could truly feel at ease with, the only ones I could tentatively call, “my Sangha.”
Here’s to you, you ragged, dismal dreamers! I’m here if you need me. Cheers!
Editor: Dana Gornall
John practices the "Outer Way" which he describes as, "I guess it's fundamentally DIY Buddhism and Taoism with a huge focus on autonomy, introspection, experiential learning and real world applicability. It isn't traditional or secular. I only call it the Outer Way for convenience, it doesn't actually have a name since it's just about doing what comes naturally."
Feel free to check out his blog, Outer Way Zen.