“Perhaps it is the opportunity of our lifetime!”
These last few weeks, I have driven. I mean….Really Driven! My Acura TL is resting now outside of my hotel room. His name is Nebacanezer and he has been a freaken stud.
Together, we started in Sebastopol, California, and drove 20 hours straight to North Platte, Nebraska. Next day, onward to Mokena, Illinois. A week later, I was driving to Lee’s Summit, Missouri and back to Mokena. A few days later, off again to Nashville, Tennessee and then to Bay St. Louis, Mississippi where I am right now. As I go back in my mind and recall all the states I have covered: California, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi, I marvel at the diversity of climate, landscape and life experience. In the end, as I sit in my hotel room in the deep south, one mile from the Gulf of Mexico, warm humid air outside, storm clouds threatening, listening to The Allman Brother’s “Eat a Peach” and writing this article, I am struck with a question that feels called to be explored: “What is poverty?”
Over the last few weeks of this “walkabout” I have had oh so many conversations with my brothers, my dudes, my male buddies. All of them are fairly seriously tweaked out about finances, the economy, the spending patterns of their women, the IRS and taxes, and just what the hell is going on in these crazy times. Fear of not surviving is rampant. Fear of not being able to provide for themselves and their loved ones runs wild. In short, it is a fear of poverty. It is like a plague has descended, a massive dark cloud engulfing us all during these trying times. I am fortunate in that I seem to be getting a much broader perspective of this phenomenon through all my many conversations. When I talked to one of my brothers, just telling him that everybody is feeling the same way, i.e., “scared shitless”, this brought him some peace of mind. It is always good to feel you are not alone. Even if this feeling of being a part of a tribe is an illusion, the illusion brings comfort to most. I have to remember that most people don’t think or feel as I do. My true tribe is a tribe of one.
There are many aspects to this issue of poverty. In the American culture, it is a bad thing. Yet monks, whose whole life is a search for enlightenment, chose a life of poverty. Interesting isn’t it? We pursue financial security and things like cars, houses, televisions, and fat bank accounts. They choose to live on a very limited diet, spend as much time alone as possible, and eschew all the material possessions we rabidly pursue and show off to our neighbors. Frankly, I am overwhelmed at the prospect of writing about this topic. Heresy isn’t real popular.
So as I hear the cleaning staff outside my room speaking in their southern drawl, I will endeavor to keep writing and see what flows out. In a very wonderful way, this is a nice metaphor for the situation many of us are feeling right now. Overwhelm. So I will take a deep breath, take each thought as it comes, do my best at conveying my feelings, and go on from there. That is the best I can do. That is the best any of us can do.
I have always thought of the word “poverty” as a bad word. My general definition would be “not enough!” Isn’t that what poverty is, it is not having enough? I knew as a young boy that I didn’t want poverty in my life. I remember my Dad driving me and my brothers through East Oakland in some sort of life lesson experience. He showed us how even people in our very own country were poor. Trash was everywhere. Safeway shopping carts were strewn on the streets. Houses were all dilapidated. Old Cadillacs with flat tires were parked on the brown dead grass. I think my dad sensed we were a bit spoiled and wanted us to begin to appreciate what we had. My Dad grew up poor, so he knew something about gratitude. My Dad is a good man, and he made this special effort to teach us about some of the realities of life. I got the message: “Poverty is to be avoided at all costs!”
Then in my twenties, I read a book by Carlos Castandeda, A Separate Reality. In that book, there was a 2 page passage that I will always remember. In the book, Carlos is a student, who is doing some research on a shaman named Don Juan. Carlos is your typical American, westernized male, very left brain, and quite unaware of the unseen world. He had arrived in a little village, awaiting the coming of Don Juan. During his days in the poverty stricken village, he noticed some local boys, and was struck by how they would beg for money, and eat the scraps off a restaurant table after the patrons had left.
“Do you feel sorry for them?” Don Juan exclaimed in a questioning tone.
“I certainly do,” I said.
“Because I am concerned with the well-being of my fellow man. Those are children and their world is ugly and cheap.”
“Wait wait. How can you say their world is ugly and cheap?” Don Juan said mocking my statement. “You think you are better off, don’t you?”
I argued my point for a while longer and then Don Juan asked me bluntly. “Didn’t you once tell me that in your opinion man’s greatest accomplishment was to become a man of knowledge?”
“Do you think that your very rich world would ever help you to become a man of knowledge?”, Don Juan asked with slight sarcasm.
“No!” I said emphatically.
“Then how could you feel sorry for those children?” he said seriously. “Any of them could become a man of knowledge. All of the men of knowledge I know were kids like those you saw eating leftovers and licking the tables.”
What I see out there is men in panic feeling sorry for themselves. I see men reacting to the current situation, which is essentially a dance with poverty, as if something is very wrong. I see men getting angry. Fear manifests in many ways. And it is all in reaction to having a bit or a lot less than last year. That’s it.
Many of us have to live on less. That is the current situation. All there is to do is adjust. All the whining, the anger, the emotional reactions are pointless and only bring heartache to ourselves and our families. The following comments, all of which I have heard numerous times, go to serve what purpose? “My 401K is getting killed.” “The IRS is after me.” “I don’t know if I can afford it.” “She is spending more money than she is making.” “My check might bounce.” I can speak for myself here and state very bluntly that my ego, my identity, and my sense of well being have all been tied to my financial stability. This has been a potent lie we have been told since birth. And I bought into it. Maybe you can relate. What I am getting at here is that perhaps, just perhaps… this dance with poverty is a massive opportunity, if only we could see it from a broader perspective.
This dance with poverty could be an opening for massive ego deconstruction.
This interaction with poverty presents the opportunity to go deep within and find humility. In the Buddhist culture, complete and total poverty of the ego is the ultimate awakening. Our current financial poverty can lead all of us to a profound humbling. It can teach us to appreciate the little things in life if only we would stop the struggle. How much time do we need to spend like a rat in a cage, running and running on the wheel, getting only tired, frustrated and depressed? Truly, we all have so much to be grateful for, even if we can’t afford to eat out at our favorite restaurant as often as we’d like. Just the simple fact that we are alive is all the reason we need to be grateful. Right now, take a deep breath and see how it feels. Recognize that those who have passed on can’t feel the air filling their lungs. Right now, imagine the eyes of another and see if you can feel the warm heart that beats inside. Close your eyes and feel the blood pumping through your veins. We are alive and life is rich.
As I drive around the bayous of Mississippi, I stop to sell cable with my newfound southern drawl – “Hey, I’m Jay…. Y’all got the dish?” Most of the people I meet with are poor. Many live in trailers as their homes were destroyed in Hurricane Katrina. It can get real hot, and the gnats (which do bite…hard) are everywhere. Yet, I can say based on my few days here, these are some of the friendliest people I have met. They exude warmth that I find ever so refreshing. I walk up to the door, and “poor ignorant southern folk” invite me in, often before I have even introduced myself. They offer me water or coffee. One man last night fed me and my buddy with an unlimited supply of boiled shrimp, garlic and potatoes that he made earlier in the day. Poor? Yes. Humble? Yes. Arrogant? No. Angry? No. Having a pity party? No. Worried about the world collapsing? No.
Out of catastrophe comes beauty. Out of complete devastation comes transformation.
Now it may be possible that some of you are saying something like “Well, that’s easy for you to say, you don’t have my bills to pay!” or “Fuck you, you don’t really know what it is like living with her!” or “Jay, you are so full of shit, go fuck yourself!” I get it. This isn’t great news. And yet it is! On top of a financial crisis, we also have a much larger crisis of spirit, and that is the crisis that is worth addressing with every ounce of our being.
Among the maxims on Lord Naoshige’s wall, there was this one:
“Matters of great concern should be treated lightly.”
Master Ittei commented,
“Matters of small concern
should be treated seriously.”
The choice is yours. The opportunity is here like never before. Never in my generation has there been such a massive calling by the universe to drop the ego, surrender, and free fall into humility and nothingness. This is our chance to go deep within ourselves and find the inner peace, the inner love and the inner lover. The universe is forcing the issue. You can go with it, or fight it kicking and screaming. What happens outside of ourselves is all noise. The real game, the real path, is inward. That is where the long lasting grace is to be found. This is what Osho calls “The Golden Path.
I invite you to join me and come to a place of acceptance, humility and exhilaration. I am slowly starting to see where this dance with poverty is taking me, and I am humbled by the intelligence of the universe. I am absolutely ecstatic about how the universe is bouncing me around, teaching me that I am not in control. This is an opportunity to learn the ways of the wizard. For many of us, we aren’t as young as we once were. The old ways don’t work like they use to. The sword is not so sharp. It feels heavy in our hands. Subtlety, wisdom and patience are called for. The universe is calling for it. And I bet your woman and children are looking for it within you as well.
And best of all for me, I am learning that by not being in control, and merging with the universe rather than fighting against it, things are actually working out with a shamanic mysticism, a divinity, and a magic that my soul craves. What a time to be alive. Game on!