By Gerald “Strib” Stribling
In April 1975 I was working as a security guard before starting graduate school at the University of Louisville. Toting a gun was no big deal for me, as I was a former serviceman.
The fall of Saigon that month affected me deeply. The day the NVA rolled their tanks into the former capital of the Republic of South Vietnam, I was standing guard all by myself in a parking lot of a paint manufacturer, listening to the war news on my car radio. I didn’t cry. Instead, I took five of the bullets out of the 32 caliber pop gun the company gave me to carry, spun the cylinder, pointed the muzzle toward my face, and pulled the trigger.
I’ve never told this story to anyone before, ever.
The bullet passed through my nasal cavities and stuck in the back of my brain, where it remains to this day. As if by magic, I could play the piano after I shot myself, but only in the rollicking “whorehouse” style of Doctor John, Mack Rebennack.
No, actually, the gun didn’t go off. So I put the bullets back in the gun, and signed up for a meditation class.
In 1975 the only thing available that didn’t involve buses and Jack Kerouac, was Transcendental Meditation, brought to the west by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and popularized by the Beatles. TM served me very well for the next 28 years, relaxing me and helping manage my stress.
In 2002 I went overseas for the first time since my jarhead days (and had to go TDY to Bermuda for a week to entertain the Queen of England). I volunteered to teach English and set up temple-based language centers in rural Sri Lanka. I spent two summers there; I was a 50ish adventurer on my last major hoo-ha. And it was there where I learned the art of insight meditation from the Buddhist monks. I “became” Buddhist, if you can call it that.
After my return to the United States I studied for another four years with a Vietnamese Zen master.
So, I’ve been a meditator for 42 years and have never missed a day. I meditate during my morning crap, I put myself to bed with meditation, and when I was working, I meditated when I got home from work, which for many years was referred to as “fly-tying time.” Now I meditate for ideas to write about. I learned that if I punctuated my day with “as needed” five minute meditation sessions, I could handle pretty stressful jobs. I also learned to turn certain mundane activities into exercises in concentration, like washing dishes and raking leaves, and painting walls. This we do through focus.
Meditation, next to advanced infantry training, is the best way for a person to learn to focus. The meditators call it mindfulness. The military calls it situational awareness.
So I am 66 years old, and I have been meditating for 2/3 of those years. Many of you reading this haven’t been alive that long. I am happy to report that, like coffee, meditating for all those eons has done me 100 percent good, and has had zero percent negative impact on my life. The effect of refining my ability to concentrate has spilled over into my non-meditative life (if there is such a thing), which has improved my work productivity and my social life by pretty much reducing distraction. That’s been especially important for me as I am pretty distract-able by nature and tend to walk around with my head in the clouds (or up my ass, as my dad use to say).
Somewhere along the line I quit listening to the radio in car, feeling more comfortable concentrating on my driving. I love music, but when I listen to music now, I only listen to music. Using music as background noise is just another distraction.
The other long-term benefits—not only have I not tried to commit suicide anymore, but my general mental health is excellent. Go ahead and make jokes, but sanity is its own reward. I define it as the ability to control your thoughts. Sure, I still get the red-ass every now and then, a far cry from the perpetually angry young man I used to be (goddamned Richard Nixon). I even get depressed sometimes, again a far cry from the catatonia of my college days; but now I can meditate and observe my state of mind, and resign myself to realizing that I get to choose how I feel. Then, if I still feel rotten or angry, I can always get drunk.
I have not felt fear in decades. Granted, a lot of that might be due to the training Marines get, and my unnaturally slow startle response (and also I carry a gun). But the absence of fear in my life has been an enormous blessing, and enabled me to to work with dangerous people in the inner city, volunteer in war zones and raise teenagers.
Meditating on the principles of the Dharma is the way to more deeply understand and appreciate them. With this knowledge and the equanimity you’ve developed over years of meditating, people will gravitate to you under circumstances where you have a real opportunity to help someone who is suffering. And you can help them by applying Buddhist wisdom to help them sort things out. Compassion through knowledge.
I’ve had a few miseries to endure, but I don’t equate them with suffering. Suffering is the enemy; the less I suffer the more I can help alleviate the suffering of others. I can say that I’ve never suffered a day in my life. After all, you have to feel sorry for yourself to suffer.
Suffering many times is a choice. The Buddha’s message tells us so. It really came home to me a few years back when I slipped on some wet leaves, broke my jaw on a limestone curb, and had to deal with six weeks of having my mouth wired up. It was significant pain, and months of reconstructive work. Luckily I was unemployed at the time and could devote my full attention to knitting back up. Observing yourself recover from a wound can be pretty entertaining. I stayed in good spirits the whole time, and after it was over my wife said she couldn’t believe how “Buddhist” I’d been throughout the ordeal.
Meditating on pain may not help as an analgesic, but it helps you detach from it. (Actually, meditation does help alleviate pain because of the endorphins you secrete when you’re in your happy place.) You learn not to take it so personally. Everybody who breaks their jaw has pain. If you turn “I have pain” into “there is pain,” it shows mental strength. Mental strength can get you through anything.
The very purpose of meditation is to develop mental strength, and it is mental strength that provides peace of mind. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’”
42 years of meditation has allowed me to ask myself many questions, and provide myself with many answers as well. Sometimes there are no answers, which means pondering the meaning of life is a total waste of time. I have better things to do, like laughing my ass off. And meditating.
I want to chuckle on my death bed. After meditating my entire adult life, I intend to have the last laugh.
Editor: Dana Gornall