By John Lee Pendall
“Somewhere, somehow, somebody
Must’ve kick you around, some.
Tell me why you wanna lay there
And revel in your abandon?
It don’t make no difference to me,
Everybody’s got to fight to be free.”
– Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers
There was no way around it—I had to fight.
For four years, I practiced the way of acceptance, openness, and compassion paved by the bodhisattvas. Then, disenchanted by the incessant bickering and chest-pounding among Buddhists, I kind of dropped Buddhism altogether.
I was just John again; I was just a human being.
I accepted everything, I was open to everything. I felt deeply. What I was unaware of was that I was caught in a loop, and that I had been for some time. A little later, I found myself at the end up my rope—but I still wasn’t aware of it—tangled up in a six month long stream-of-thought. They say that we have up to 50,000 thoughts each day. Isn’t that outrageous? And most of them are repetitive; we just think the same things over, and over, and over again.
That’s samsara, baby—cognitive habits.
I was riddled with anxiety, depression, loneliness, and confusion offset by periods of peace, vibrancy and love. Yes, I was John again, alright. Caught up in the human condition like everyone else. I was clinging to this and reaching for that, I was racing frantically up and down every branch in search of some kind of satisfaction. The longer my mind churned, the faster it raced. Eventually, everything revolved around the same basic feelings, impulses, and narratives. I felt trapped in my own life.
Sometimes, I wanted to die.
Then, well, my dad. He thought it was a case of persistent heartburn, but my mom and I were able to convince him to go to the ER—just in case. It turns out that that heartburn wasn’t heartburn. He’d had a heart attack, and his heart was only 25% functional. He was rushed to another hospital an hour and half away. I was stranded at home, taking care of the cats. Hours later, Mom called and explained the situation to me. He’d need heart surgery in the morning, but the doctors weren’t sure how many bypasses there would be. She said that he might not even make it through the night.
Then she handed my dad the phone. He was groggy and a little delirious following the angiogram. “Hey Johnathon,” he slurred. Thanks to fucking mindfulness, I knew that this could be the last conversation we’d ever have. So, I made sure to be fully present, attending to each scattered word and ragged breath. It was a short conversation since he was totally out-of-it at the time. After the talk, I sat alone in the living room with the night crowding in from outside.
I felt oppressed. I felt numb.
But the part that really got to me, the part that eventually caused me to commit what Camus called, “Philosophical suicide,” was that nothing stopped. That current situation—me at home while my dad laid near death in a hospital miles away—was kind of absorbed into the already roaring deluge, adding even more velocity to the stress I’d been carrying.
Isolated at 11pm in this slumbering village somewhere in Bumfuck, Egypt, there was only one thing that I could do: sit and meditate.
After an hour and a half of trying everything I knew, I was almost ready to give up. That would’ve been it, for me. This is was the fabled, “Dark night of the soul.” If it broke me, I’d be lost in a bitter cynicism that’d make Gregory House look like Pee Wee Herman. So, I abandoned everything I knew, and just sat there stewing. I watched all the same-old-same-olds, trying to wrestle my attention away, to drag me under. I was getting pissed. The anger built slowly, like dawn on a desolate world. When it peaked, I quoted the fictional anti-hero Takeshi Kovacs and said, “That’s fucking enough!” I turned on myself. No compassion, no acceptance, no openness, and no surrender. In Buddhist terms, the aggregates “turned about.” Volition (the 4th skandha) was free of all desires except one: the total destruction of my inner-monologue.
I fought fire with fire, using the thought, “CHOP!” to cut everything off mid-arising. “Well, maybe-” “CHOP!” “But, what if-” “CHOP!” “I just can’t-” “CHOP! CHOP! CHOP!” After each chop, there was a slight pause, a tiny gap in the narrative. I focused on it, and as I thought-swatted, those gaps grew. I was fascinated by this silence—my attention was rapt. Time began to lose meaning, and everything but that silence started to fade into the background. Suddenly, my mind was still and unpopulated. I could feel thoughts before they formed; it’s like a subtle stirring in the mind, like agitated water. I chopped those too.
Then, something happened. Everything was just… gone. All the stories I’d been caught up in, all that mass of fixation, sorrow, and stress. It was just gone, like it’d never even been there to begin with. Joy. Bright, blazing, welcoming relief flooded my mind.
I felt like I’d just cut the head off of a dragon that’d been terrorizing a village for generations. “Oh wow!” a thought arose, and the joy instantly faded.
With the non-arising of thought, it returned. That was the moment when I became aware that I’d been lost—that I’d been suffering. I felt remorse for all the unskillful things I’d done, and I knew exactly how to solve my problems and how to avoid creating new ones. I vowed to never get lost again.
My dad had a triple bypass. Visiting him in the hospital, I didn’t feel like a traumatized son. I didn’t feel like a schmuck who’d placed his heart in all the wrong places. I didn’t feel like a fat loser who gives up on things too soon. I didn’t feel, “Like a refugee.” I felt like a Buddhist.
And so, spring has come; let’s begin again too.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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He has a B.S. in psychology and lives between two cornfields in rural Illinois. His errant knowledge base covers Buddhism, philosophy, psychology, astronomy, theology, music theory, and quoting lines from movies.
Feel free to check out his Facebook page, and his blog "Salty Dharma".