Crummy cars, a wall of guitars, and a whole bunch of meditation: not exactly the American Dream, but Zen teacher Brad Warner is good with that.
I recently turned fifty. Happy birthday to me! It’s an annoying age: you’re not old enough to be considered wise but you are old enough to be considered old. I’m too old to be a prodigy but too young to be venerable. Nobody cares what fifty-year-olds think.
But then, as my dad says, “It’s better than the alternative!” At least I don’t look fifty. Must be all that Zen.
Things change. Watching TV, I saw a Cadillac ad that used “Do You Remember Rock and Roll Radio” by the Ramones as its soundtrack. That song was the first track on the first Ramones album I ever bought, End of the Century. I played that album until the grooves were gone. It’s still my favorite Ramones record. And now the Ramones are being used to sell Cadillacs. That’s what it’s come to. I suppose that’s what happens.
But I don’t want a Cadillac. I don’t want a swimming pool. I’m not the “crazy, driven, hard-workin’ believer” another Cadillac commercial says I should be.
I guess the Ramones are supposed to be the music of my generation, but that’s not how I remember things. I remember being just about the only one in my school who liked the Ramones, then watching with a kind of incredulous fascination as, many years later, the same weasels who’d made fun of people like me for liking the Ramones pretended they’d been into them all along. Uh-huh.
Which is not to say I’m a Zen monk who only owns a robe and a bowl to beg for food. I’m somewhere in the middle, maybe slightly more toward the robe-and-begging-bowl side than the Cadillac-and-pool side. I’ve never owned a house. I’ve never owned a car I couldn’t pay for outright. Which means all my cars have been kind of crummy. I do have a number of guitars because that’s what I buy whenever I come into any cash. And then when I’m strapped for cash I sell ’em. I’ve gone through dozens that way. It’s fine.
When I was young, I saw the folly of the things so many of my peers believed were worth pursuing. The mass media was lying, and that was plainly obvious. Whatever they said was valuable, I was sure was not. So I started looking for new kinds of value. I found it in meditation and in a philosophy that encouraged me to question deeply. I’m happy with that choice.
And I’ve never grown up.
That annoys a lot of people I encounter. It’s one of the reasons that most of my friends are ten, twenty, even close to thirty years younger than me. People my age are often angry at me for not being an adult in the way they think I ought to be. I get emails all the time telling me, “You’re almost fifty,” followed by a list of adult ways the person thinks I should be behaving.
Now they can remove the word “almost.” It still won’t work.
See, the fact is I’ve paid my own rent and my own taxes for thirty years. I’ve done most of the things I dreamed of doing when I was a kid, and I’ve done plenty to qualify as an adult. I’m pleased as punch with the life I lead. Money is a problem and probably always will be. But when I look at the guy in the Cadillac commercial—our culture’s notion of the ideal fifty-year-old man—he doesn’t seem to be living the kind of life that would make me happy.
Since I write books about Zen, Zen has sort of become my thing. Which is weird. Because in my own impressions of what I am, Zen is a relatively small thing. It’s a practice I took up in my late teens because it felt good and because its philosophy made real sense. I stuck with it and ended up being ordained and becoming a teacher, not because I actually desired to ordain and become a teacher but because my teacher thought I should, and I trusted him. But I don’t read a lot of Zen books, and I don’t hang out with Zen people most of the time. I don’t self-identify as a “spiritual person” or consume the lifestyle-enhancing products spiritual people are supposed to consume.
I practice this Zen stuff because it’s been the key to happiness for me. It has surpassed anything else I’ve ever tried. It has taught me how to enjoy life thoroughly. It’s given me the ability to see the negativity we all encounter in life for what it really is. Which is, nothing.
The powers that be want you to believe that you can’t do the things you want to in this life. They’re lying. All you have to do is step out of “yourself” enough to see what it is you actually want, rather than the crap they’re telling you that you want, like Cadillacs and pools.
It might sound like I believe in The Secret or something. But that’s not quite it. The Secret encourages you to envision your ideal life and try to psychically attract it to you. What I’ve found is a bit different: it’s that the life you’re living right now is already your ideal. Which doesn’t mean you can’t improve it. It also doesn’t mean things are always good in the ways that we usually define as “good.” It just means our ideas about what’s ideal are wrong. They’re created for us by people who wouldn’t know what true good was if it came up and sat on ’em.
I’m fifty, and I’m fine with it. I’m living with the love of my life. I’ve done stuff I was told never to believe I could do, and I’m planning to spend the next fifty years continuing in the same vein.
Go ahead, punk. Tell me to act my age.