Monday, October 17, 2011

The Path to Enlightenment: One Bruise, A Little Whiplash, No Egg Salad

Yesterday the dogs pulled me down and dragged me. I realized— once I’d gotten back on my feet, brushed away the dirt and gravel and determined I had no broken bones or teeth— this was yet another moment in an unplanned Come to Buddha weekend.

I think three or four out of the six of you know that I have a deep interest in traditional Buddhist philosophy as well as a field that I, personally, am developing, which I call Irish Buddhism. I might actually change the name of this burgeoning discipline to South Jersey Buddhism, since even though I claim to be Irish, I’ve never actually been to the Emerald Isle, whereas South Jersey and its attendant attitude I know like the back of a truck with a bunch of TVs “falling” out of it.

Either way—Irish or South Jersey—the concept of my personal brand of Buddhism is the same: I get to go around “enlightening” people by punching them (metaphorically) in the nose. So if, say, some douchebag is getting in my face, or yelling at his kid in public or whatever, I can in turn get in his face and tell him to quit being an asshole. (Probably it goes without saying, but let me put the disclaimer out there: Irish/South Jersey Buddhism is not affiliated with or sanctioned by Thich Nhat Hahn, Pema Chodron, or any of other Monsters of Om.)

Anyway, so among whatever other books I’m reading/listening to/Kindling at any given time, you will almost always find me in the midst of one Buddhist tome or another. Currently I’m reading Noah Levine’s Heart of the Revolution. (The reading itself is a bit metta-meta as I find myself wondering, “Hey, does this guy seem to have a pretty big ego for somebody who espouses not having an ego?”) Ego or not, Levine does a pretty good job of delivering the mindfulness lesson in lay terms and reminding readers you can have pain without suffering and that nothing is permanent, that emotions will pass.

On Saturday, just prior to a pair of back-to-back Hill Country weddings, I was reading the book as I waited for my food at the Thyme and Dough Bakery in Dripping Springs. Thyme & Dough is one of my favorite places and whenever work takes me out that way I stop in. In fact, I’d just stopped in the day before on my way to a rehearsal after spending most of the morning swinging wildly between these two thoughts:

a) I cannot WAIT to get to T & D for one of their amazing grilled egg salad sandwiches made with local eggs and pesto and goat cheese on foccacia because this is the best sandwich available in the area since you can't get real Cheese Hoagies in Texas.


b) I should not have expectations about egg salad. Expectations lead to suffering. Do not think about the egg salad sandwich. Let the egg salad sandwich desire go. It is wrong to get attached to the egg salad sandwich.

By mid-afternoon I’d worked myself into a pretty frenzied state of egg salad desire thanks to this internal debate and was about to leave the house to go get one when my son arrived, blocking my car in. Reminding myself to live in the moment, I told myself I could visit with him for a few minutes and still make it to the bakery in time to eat a sandwich and get to the rehearsal on time. I was wrong. (Maybe I should just stop here and BLAME MY SON!)

Long ago pic of mythical Egg Salad Sandwich of Enlightenment
I finally got to the Palace of Egg Salad at 3:05 thinking they were open til 4 but discovering they’d closed five minutes earlier. I went in to beg and even though they were down with selling me some croissants and pastry, there was no egg salad left to serve me. I began to feel so sad until I remembered, “Duh, I’ll be back out here on Saturday for the weddings. I’ll just get one then.”

Which is how I came to be at T & D for a second day running, and which is how I came to discover that the most delicious thing waiting for me was a big pile of irony. Because though I arrived during operating hours, I again arrived post-egg-salad-supply. (I’m telling you, this egg salad is unbelievable. No wonder it sells out all the time. Thyme & Dough Egg Salad—The U2 of Sandwich Fixins! Oh, wait, I mean SELLS OUT as in everybody wants some, not SELLS OUT as in Bono and his wife do ridiculous two-page fashion ads in NYT Mag now. But I guess you can interpret SELLS OUT either way.)

So the irony—I’m sitting there reading this book about letting go, not attaching myself to objects, and all I can think is, “Well fuck— I want a fucking egg salad sandwich, I am going to die if I don’t get a goddamned egg salad sandwich.” My nearly imperceptible nod toward “acceptance” was ordering another kind of sandwich and some soup (as opposed to, say, storming out and screaming, “WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU’RE OUT OF EGG SALAD?! DON’T YOU KNOW WHO I AM?!!”) By the time my food arrived I was running late and had to wolf them down. The sandwich was only so-so and the soup was cold. Rather than grow irritated though, I found myself amused me as a funny thought popped in my head, “Buddha’s punishing you!”

My dad din't write this, but he sure could have.
Let me explain. I grew up in a house where my tyrannical father took pre-Vatican-II Catholicism, selected elements he liked, mixed in some of his own personal brand of fire and brimstone insanity, and used the resultant doctrine to psychologically terrorize us kids. One of the most common expressions I heard growing up was this, “God is punishing you.” So say, for example, I punched my brother in the head, then turned around to run away from him before retaliation and, in my haste, ran smack dab into a wall with a huge rusty nail sticking out of it. And say my eye got caught on this nail, and fell out of the socket, and blood was gushing down my face and I was screaming in agony. The joyful refrain greeting me would not be, “Are you ALRIGHT?!!” Instead it would be a smug and mocking, “Ha! God punished you!”

God punished my son when he played this. I think God should punish the asshole that invented the game. I HATE CANDYLAND!
When my son was little, I told him tales of this common phrase of my childhood and he—raised with no religion—was fascinated. Once, when he was maybe six or seven, he returned from playing a game of Candyland with my mother and reported that she’d told him (jokingly, but still) when he pulled the Plum Card, that God was punishing him. He was tickled at the firsthand experience.

So there, chalk one up to quasi-enlightenment, the dearth of egg salad did not piss me off, as it might have before I started oxymoronically clinging to Buddhist philosophy. I even tried to throw a smidgen of gratitude out there to the universe for a lesson nicely rendered. Little did I know that still more adventures in letting go awaited me.

Sunday morning, I leashed the dogs and headed out for our daily stroll. Five minutes in, I encountered a pair of neighbor boys. One was scootering, the other on foot, both wearing matching burnt orange Crocs. Let’s call them Peter and Paul.

Paul said, “I want to pet your dogs,” and before I could stop him, or pull the dogs back, he had thrust himself mid-pack. The dogs don’t bite, but still, I like to exercise some caution since Bubbles is such a bitch and loves to bark ferociously and Rebound is a fan of jumping up and smacking her front paws hard on her love recipient’s nuts or solar plexus (depending on height of love recipient). Dante, who weighs at least 100 pounds (I suspect more) is the polar bear, totally harmless except he could easily knock small kids over with his joyful tail wagging. And Tatum, since she had her stroke, sort of lists to one side and sometimes falls down, which can be scary. Collectively not a scene you necessarily want a little child hurling himself into.

But I could see, in an instant, that Paul was one of those rare kids that floats a foot or two above the planet. The dogs gently swarmed him and he buried his face in their necks. Nobody-- not even Bubbles-- barked. While Paul got his furry fill, I struck up a conversation.

“Which one of you is older?” I asked.

“We’re twins,” said one of them. "We're both eight."

“So it must be fun being twins?” I asked, realizing too late they must already, even at their young age, be sick of this question.

“No,” they said together.

“Oh, well I guess that’s all you know,” I said. “And all I know is not being a twin, which is why being a twin seems neat to me.”

“Actually, we’re enemies,” one of them said. He said this as cheerfully as if he were announcing he had a great knock-knock joke for me.

“Enemies? Really? What’s that about?”

“Well, actually we’re 95% enemies and 5% friends,” the other said, equally pleasantly.

“That’s too bad. Maybe you’ll work it out,” I suggested.

“Oh no! We won’t. We’re enemies!”

“How did it get started?” I asked.

“We had a big fight when we were five.”

“Really? When you were five! Well what was the fight about?”

At this, Peter looked at me, thought for a second and said, “I can’t remember!” And then he laughed.

Then they spotted their nature teacher and headed off to greet her. The dogs and I made it another half-block and then we encountered the boys' dad. I stopped to tell him how wonderful his kids are and repeat the excellent conversation I’d had with them. He told me that Paul, the dog lover, apparently has a way with all animals—to the point that deer will approach him. He also told me Paul lives with a massive tumor in his chest and a series of metal rods in his back.

“Is he in much pain?” I asked.

“Don’t know,” said his dad. “He never complains about anything.”

We drifted to other topics until the dogs, perhaps tired of the conversation and unable to resist any longer, decided it would be a fun idea to eat a cat that was sitting on a nearby lawn. The sudden yank of 230 lbs of dogs simultaneously pulling hard at four leashes caught me totally off guard. In an instant I was in one of those slo-mo scenes. As if in an out of body moment I could see my own face, and I could see the street, and I knew with full clarity that the two were about to make very instant and very hard contact.

Which is when something really weird happened. A muscle memory from eleven years ago kicked in and, despite the fact I was still holding four leashes, I somehow managed to get my arms into the right position (like a triangle) to break my fall properly. I lay on the ground for a moment, where I'd come to rest after being pulled a few feet by the dogs, and the boys’ dad said, “Are you alright?”

Surely sounding like the biggest dork of the century, I said, “Yeah! Martial arts training!” by which I meant that all those hours in the Taekwondo studio years ago had just paid off. Not in the form of me snapping the neck and crushing the Adam’s apple of an attacking stranger on a dark night as I always thought would be the case, but instead saving me from my own clumsy self. I had an instant memory of the time in eighth grade we were in gym class, walking out to the track, and I fell DOWN a curb. Never dawned on me to even put my hands out to break the fall. I slid across the asphalt on my face, spent hours in ER having gravel scrubbed out with a metal brush, and killed a front tooth leading eventually to my fake, $1200 Lee Press-On Tooth (purposefully lightly stained by the dentist to capture the affects years of smoking had on my other, real teeth). That was then. This was now. I fell like I’d been trained by masters of the World Wrestling mat.

What surprised me most, though—more than the fact that I didn’t break my wrists, elbows, shoulders, orbitals, nose, knees or teeth— was that I didn’t cry. I don’t think I even yelled out. I just got up, dusted myself off, and, trying to ignore the adrenaline coursing through me, casually said, “So, you were saying?”

And we really did resume the conversation just like that. My ensuing state of shock was not related to the impact (though admittedly today I am sporting a bit of a bruise on one arm and I have some mild whiplash in my back). Instead I was shocked at my own reaction—or, more accurately non-reaction. I suppose I could chalk this up to Noah Levine or some other Buddhist teacher, or even the Lesson of the Missing Egg Salad Sandwich. But I’m giving credit to those two cheerful little Buddha boys, aware of but not attached to their sworn frenemyship, refusing to let some steel rods and a big tumor interfere with the moment at hand.

1 comment:

dorothy said...

very funny and entertaining...I'm reading this in my 8X12 foot room in Marcellinara..Joan and I have started our search for ancestors...this morning we were in Amalfi at the Hotel Luna, a once monersary built by St. Francis Assissi