the revelation of “no revelations”

“Those days of the mystique of the Bodhi Tree are probably gone,” she said. “An era has ended and a new thing comes.”

Whatever that will be, Madson and Thompson say they will not be involved financially. Madson said he plans to continue his personal spiritual explorations, travel with his wife, read 200 new books and reread 5,000.

Thompson also looks forward to traveling and spending time with his three children and dogs.

After four decades of delving into the wisdom traditions of the world, the men say they come away with no major revelations. Thompson said he has found that the most important things in his life are relationships, family and children.

“I don’t know if I found the secret to anything,” Thompson said. “I have an ordinary life and feel good about it most of the time.”

Madson said he is grateful for the chance to have helped people find inspiration.

“This general material has helped people live better and transform their lives,” Madson said, “and that’s sort of nice.”

–from the L.A. Times, January 18, 2010

The Bodhi Tree bookstore, a mecca for spiritualists and New Agers and just plain old book lovers, has been sold and will be closing shop next Fall (2011).

The comments above are from the co-owners of the store who founded it in 1970, a much different era (obviously).

Forty years later, this is what they’ve learned.

After four decades of delving into the wisdom traditions of the world, the men say they come away with no major revelations. Thompson said he has found that the most important things in his life are relationships, family and children.

You know, I think Buddha (or whatever deity you care to name) would be very pleased with that non-revelation 😉


“smells and bells”

I didn’t become seriously religious until my mid-30’s, when I joined the Methodist Church.

I’d been raised Methodist in a casual way as a kid but nothing serious. And I considered myself more of an agnostic up until then.

But I’ve ALWAYS had a sense of God somehow. I just have.

My grandmother was herself a lapsed Catholic and when I lived with her she’d occasionally take me to Xmas or Easter Mass (you know) but I hated it so she didn’t force me.

Then, in high school, I discovered Zen Buddhism and Taoism (there was this popularizer of Eastern religions by the name of Alan Watts who made them seem really interesting). And I kind of went with those (which didn’t really require any formal belief or worship) until my mid-30’s.

That was around 1992 and I was hitting the first of what would be a few emotional crises throughout my 30’s and 40’s: the result of not really having any close family and being on my own a lot and also studying Durkheim and his whole idea that society is really a “spiritual” entity.

I became lonely for God in a way that I hadn’t before and I also had a real sense of a sacred part of myself that needed to be recognized, i.e., my soul.

I believe that we all have souls (of some kind, anyway).

So I did the Methodist thing for 2 or 3 years and then I became friends with the husband of one of my colleagues in grad school and he was Scottish and he was Catholic and if you know anything about Scottish Catholics, they’re hard-core. Which didn’t really impress me all that much.

But we started this Theology discussion group that met once or twice a month and we’d discuss various books or readings and he argue the Catholic positions and I’d argue the Protestant view.

Over time, I found myself being strongly attracted to things like the idea of the Holy Trinity, and the Mystery of God and the Eucharist and, of course, the Virgin Mary (there’s really nothing like her in any other religion).

And then I went to mass with him and there was just something about watching people taking communion that really spoke to me.

That might not seem so impressive to you if you were raised Catholic and depending on the church and whatnot, it’s not always a big deal, but coming from another faith and going to St. Monica’s (the Catholic Church here in Santa Monica) which is a pretty amazing place, it just kind of hit me that Catholicism is where I belonged.

I had lots of objections, of course, given that I believe that a woman has a right to an abortion if she so chooses, that women should be priests, that the whole Vatican thing is so outdated and medieval, etc etc. But the nun who ran the RCIA there told me not to let those things stop me from becoming Catholic if I truly believe in it.

I mean, I love the whole “smells and bells” aspect of the Church, the ritual and whatnot, you know?

Every religion has it’s own kind of style. I think all religions lead to the same place, they’re just different styles of getting there.

So, anyway, I ended up converting and that was in 1995. And I was a pretty regular mass-goer up until 2002-2003, and since then I go only occasionally.

I kind of miss it.

But A.A. sort of fills in a lot of my spiritual requirements and I’ve been very upset with the whole sex abuse thing and the Church’s pathetic/cowardly response to it.

But I definitely believe Emile Durkheim’s argument that society is a religious entity and experience and I think religion is the basis of everything, really.

I mean, where does science come from?


The witch doctor was the first scientist, you know?

time as memory?

“I guess time really is the best plot. The suspense of seeing if you’ll remember.” — Andy Warhol

Lady Gaga & Popthenticity

So a couple of weeks ago I was taking a break between a morning and an afternoon class I teach at LAVC (Los Angeles Valley College) and was walking down the hallway toward no specific destination when I hear this, “Hey, Steve!”

I look around and there’s this Psychology professor who I occasionally see around the building beckoning me towards her classroom.

Walking toward her I see fifty students students sitting there and looking at me expectantly.

“Tell my class about Lady Gaga,” she smiled, waving an arm towards them and inviting me to take the floor. When I asked her how long she wanted me to speak, she replied “As long as you want.”

The Psychology prof in question had seen notices plastered throughout the building announcing that I was going to give a lecture to the Valley College Sociology Experiment (i.e., the campus Sociology club) the following day and decided to take advantage, I guess, of my in-depth Gaga expertise.

Now all of this was highly unusual.

In the first place, professors rarely turn their classrooms over to other professors with such carte blanche and practically never do they do so on the spur of the moment. Spur-of-the-moment just isn’t generally what academia is about.

The other unusual thing about all of this was that I had been aware of Lady Gaga for all of about, oh, two weeks. Not as in generally aware (which includes pretty much everybody these days), but specifically aware…that is, aware enough to give-an-instant-lecture-to-somebody-else’s-class aware.

After the roughly 45 minute pitch I’d give to this Psych professor’s class, I’d end up giving another hour long lecture to another colleague’s class.

And in between those I’d give the lecture to the Sociology club that had been planned all along.

So what exactly is the deal?

Well, as I would’ve told you had you been at any of those talks, dear reader, all of this is very reflective of Pop itself.

And when I say Pop, I mean Pop culture.

Pop is the cultural ocean that all we curious fishes live and swim in but very seldom spend too much time thinking about.

Indeed, not-thinking-too-much-about-it is one of Pop’s chief characteristics. If you’re thinking too deeply about it, it’s probably not very good Pop ;-).

But, of course, this sort of *instantaneous* element — the Psych prof asking me to speak out of nowhere and me speaking with only recent familiarity with Gaga — is all part of Pop itself.

Pop culture (hereafter simply “Pop”) is all about what’s fresh, new, immediate.

The “buzz,” if you will, that surrounds a celebrity or icon who suddenly appears in our collective awareness, especially a celebrity or icon who has risen so quickly and so universally as Lady Gaga is partly about the “buzz” itself: why is this person on the tip of everybody else’s tongue or how is it that her name seems to be everywhere or how is it we know her even though we don’t even know *why* we know her?

Andy Warhol, the so-called “Pope of Pop,” and the Christopher Columbus of the world we live in today, came up with the idea that “in the future everyone will be world famous for fifteen minutes.”

But Warhol also said that “Pop is the idea that anybody can do anything.”

Which can also mean that Pop means that anybody can become anything, including world-famous.

Celebrities and celebrity culture are strongly associated with Pop and are often seen as contributing to the “dumbing down” of modern society.

But in a more positive light, the rocketing to world-fame of Stephanie Germanotta a.k.a Lady Gaga within, what, a year, from basic obscurity to the cover of Time magazine as being one of the world’s top 100 most influential people, that’s really democratic, isn’t it?

In this way Lady Gaga is emblematic of the idea of celebritization as democratization, i.e., celebrity and celebrity culture as positive reflections of the democratic influences of American culture.

I mean, how can you knock a culture where *anybody* (even crooks…or Heidi Montag!) can become famous?

That is like so the opposite of how most primitive and tribal and traditional cultures operate, where you have a restricted royal bloodline of certain select people to whom fame is invested.

Boy, have we ever turned *that* upside down.

Guess we really showed old King George, eh? That’ll teach him to tax our tea!

Thus the seeming superficiality of celebrity and celebrity culture is really a perceptual problem, my fellow Americanos (and/or esteemed visitors and assorted permanent or not-so residents ;-)).

The shallowness of celebrity reflects our own shallowness, right? That’s the usual criticism, right?

But to believe that that is *all* celebrity is is to shortchange ourselves and our culture.

We’re not going “deep” in terms of our everyday awareness, or at least our awareness of celebrities, if all we seem them is as “shallow.”

Of course, we don’t have to go deep. Going “deep” or “going electric” are choices. But it’s important to realize that this is a choice and it is *our* choice. We are not victims of the media, of corporate capitalist fat cats or anything else.

Let’s face it : if we wallow in the celebrity gossip re Britney that’s not the *media’s* fault, that’s the fault of you and me not changing the channel.

American society is constantly creating new icons and idols, it’s called “iconic experience.” It creates these symbols out of human beings, celebrities, as a kind of language, a means for us to bond and communicate as well as a fabric of time, we tell our lives through the celebrities we experience. Celebrity and celebrity culture are kinds of awareness or consciousness.

That’s part of society’s *function,* to bind us together.

And you can say, “What? With celebrities?”

Well, one, not all celebrities are pseudo-events, many are genuine heroes, contrary to what many critics have said.

And, two, when you’re going to bind 300 million people together, celebrities probably work better than e=mc squared, you know?

To understand or see the beauty in celebrity and celebrity culture we have to see the beauty in the world around us, and as common and seemingly “shallow” as celebrity has become, we have to see that there is more to it than that. A lot more. We kind of have to return to that awe and magic that we used to have before we “grew up.”

Even more importantly, the key to this is seeing that all of the magic, allure and glamor that we associate with celebrities like Lady Gaga is actually something we project *onto* them rather than being something they themselves actually possess.

Which means that all that “sexiness” we see in celebrities actually isn’t in *them*, it’s in *us.*

It’s the creative work of our own imaginations!

The “sexiness” of celebrities is in reality the “sexiness” of our own imaginative power, what Carl Jung referred to as the “libido.”

(The term libido is associated with that which is erotic but Jung didn’t see the erotic as specifically limited to sex but rather anything that engaged and activated our creative powers.)

From the Jungian perspective, the “real” business of everyday is a distraction from the “real” aim of life itself, which is to cultivate the creative imagination so that we feel that life has meaning and purpose.

“Work” and “career” and “everyday life” aren’t enough, according to Jung, we must also lead “the symbolic life.”

Celebrities and celebrity culture, then, are a form of mental or imaginative “push ups” as we play with these fantasy figures and use them to develop and explore our own understanding of who we actually are.

Celebrities and celebrity culture can be a means of self-discovery and self-development.

They can, in fact, help us to “go electric.”

And Lady Gaga has made a point of telling her fans that she hopes that they don’t leave her shows idolizing her but celebrating themselves

the ocean we all swim in…

Grabbing pizza at Dagwood’s after my Friday night meeting.

This 16 year old chick was sharing about how she got into crystal meth and heroin at 13. 13.

Anyway, she’s better now. Has like 44 days sober.

She was telling her story and it was pretty amazing.

A while later I was referring to her to the others at our table and I said something like “But this kid’s story is something else…”

I mean, I said a lot of other things, too, very complimentary about her.

But almost instantly she was like “Kid?!?

Like: offended.

And, you know, not really having any kids of my own or anything and not dealing with a lot of people that age, I didn’t really think about it, obviously.

Driving home afterwards, though, I remembered what it was like to be that age (well, kinda, it was a long time ago, 1973 to be exact) and how it was to be dismissed as a “kid” by adults.

And she was right.

Because this thing that we all share called “consciousness” or “awareness” or “being here” or whatever you want to call it, it’s like this ocean we all swim in, you know?

And how “deep” somebody goes doesn’t depend on their youth or their age so much as what they do and/or what happens to them.

I remember being “older” in some ways at 16 than I am now at 53. In terms of thoughts and feelings that I experienced.

Of course, age is this chronological thing and is measurable and a 16 year old doesn’t have the amount of time that an older adult has.

But age isn’t only chronological, it’s also spiritual or metaphysical or whatever.

Age is a feeling as much as it is a fact.

I like what Kimberly, the pizza waitress from another pizzeria (Di Vita’s) said a couple of weeks ago about how younger people are closer to eternity because they just recently emerged out of it and therefore have a kind of spiritual power that older people have sort of lost, like a baby chick loses the down that it emerges from the shell with.

So I guess that’s maybe what that 16 year old was reminding me of.

We think of our lives, of this world, as consisting of so many concrete, material things, like so many chairs in a living room.

But, really, our lives are all about the atmosphere: not the chairs in a living room but the music floating in softly from somewhere else.

We think our lives are all about the clear foreground when it’s really the fuzzy background that matters most…

“do you have any idea of how f**king busy i am?!?!”

So when you hear me say something like this it means that I’m thinking like this which means that I’m probably going to have a bad day and if you’re anywhere in my general vicinity you’re probably gonna get a little, hot, flaming piece of it.

And if I’m not feeling my feelings, if I’m not being sensitive to my emotional side, what happens is that I repress them, sit on them, banish them to my subconscious, where they invariably build up in the darkness and eventually blow up by me getting angry or nasty with other people for no good reason.

Last week I had my finals. During one of them I asked the class of about fifty students if they had any questions before I gave them the final exam. A few people did and I answered their questions.

Now I should mention that I arrived to class late and so the schedule was thrown off a bit and I was somewhat anxious about the class having enough time to do the final.

So as I’m just about to hand the class the final exam, I ask one more time “Anybody else have any questions before we begin?”

You know, as a sort of pro-forma thing, to let them know that I was being very “available” to them.

Even though I actually wasn’t.

Because one young woman, Samantha, raised her hand.

And my response was to roll my eyes and sneer and go “Oh, come ON…REALLY?”

As in: you can’t seriously have a question at this point.

The student turned bright red and she stammered her question and I impatiently answered it and proceeded to hand out the final.

But you could feel the atmosphere in the room tighten up in response to the way that I’d responded to Samantha.

Within a couple of minutes, the entire class was bent over their exams and I was standing at the podium looking at them and feeling like shit.

Because I knew I’d been absolutely wrong to respond to Samantha that way.

What kind of moron asks people if they have any questions and then treats them rudely if they do?

Especially when the moron-in-question is a teacher, whose *job* is to answer questions.

So I’m standing up there for the next fifteen, twenty minutes with a bad conscience and I know what I have to do.

I have to apologize.

And I’m thinking to myself, “Well, they’re taking a final, you don’t want to interrupt them, maybe you can take Samantha aside when she turns in her exam and quietly apologize to her.”

I’m so brave, you know?

But that doesn’t satisfy my conscience, which says “You embarrassed her in front of the whole class, you should apologize to her in front of the whole class.”

“They’re taking a FINAL!” I respond to my conscience, “I can’t interrupt them for THAT!”

And my conscience goes “What better reason is there to interrupt them for?”

The clincher was that usually during finals, students will come up and ask me questions.

But nobody was doing that. Because they were afraid I was gonna jump down their throat like I did with Samantha.

So about a half hour into the exam I clear my throat and I say: “Sorry to interrupt you all but I just want to apologize to Samantha for being so rude to her when she did exactly what she should have done. I’m stressed out because I got to class late, which was my fault, and I shouldn’t be taking it out on you guys. So if you have any questions, please don’t be afraid that I’ll bite your head off or anything.”

As I said that I looked over at Samantha and her face just lit up in the most unbelievably sweet way. She got pink again but this time in a good way because she had a big smile on her face and her eyes were very bright.

It was such a great feeling to see her happy reaction.

Plus, you could just feel the tension in the classroom evaporate.

It’s funny how I do all these things to make myself a better person: therapy and AA and yoga and church and so on and so forth and it’s like I want these superpowers of self-help to help me to be better to others and yet it’s a simple, humble little thing like an apology that ends up being the most powerful gift of all.

(In fact, I’d say that the ability to say “I’m sorry” more often has probably been the single most important practice I’ve gained in the last decade.)

Now the other thing is that at the end of all my classes I usually take a class photo to remember the class by. But given the shortage of time I had decided not to do that. Which made me sad because I value my classes and having a class photo is the only way I can really remember them as a group.

Well, a couple minutes later, a student who I had in a previous class, Alex, comes up to me and says “What about our class photo?”

So I go ahead and interrupt the final AGAIN, get everybody to the front of the room, and snap the photo, which you can see below.

I’m not saying that the photo wouldn’t have happened without my apology or that they would have looked quite so happy but it wasn’t as if Alex had asked about that *before* the apology, right?

While I’ve often found work to be rewarding and satisfying, work alone can’t make me happy.

Nor can being busy.

Unless maybe I’m working at thinking of how other people feel and how I can be less of a jerk to them.

Being busy is pretty good, I’ve found, if I’m busy apologizing for where I’m wrong as opposed to using busyness as an excuse for being insensitive to feelings, whether mine or somebody else’s…

we have others

Lunch with Angelique at Darya, a Persian place on Santa Monical Boulevard at Bundy in West L.A.

We sat next to this mirror and as we talked I noticed Angelique’s reflection in the mirror and our conversation got me to thinking about how we all have this “other” side of ourselves, a kind of “double” or “doppelganger” who follows us throughout our lives and represents “what might have been” or “what might be” or “the road not taken,” etc. etc.

The sign you’ll often see accompanying “No Vacancies Available” on some house or apartment building will sometimes have “We Have Others” beneath it, indicating other available properties.

But I always think of that Other Me when I see those words.

I mean, what would we be without our Others? How would we measure our lives, our hopes or failures, ambitions or fantasies without that sense that we could be another version of our selves, right?

She and I also talked a little about the “trauma, drama and yo’ mama,” i.e., those things from the past that can follow us throughout life or the dark, sad things we often don’t want to talk about.

At one point Angelique said “Sometimes you can seem kind of empty, Steve.”

And I was taken aback until she explained what she meant.

She used this great analogy from how if you don’t get love from your parents at a young age, it’s kind of like carrying this empty bucket around with you: in other words, the small, seemingly insignificant things that parents do for young infants and children are sort of like drops in a bucket that add up over time.

They may not seem like much at the time but when a child gets them, they have a kind of emotional security that children who don’t get that kind of care and attention don’t have.

That idea really resonated with me.

A long time ago, in a world far, far away (the 1990’s) I wrote a short story about a character who keeps stumbling into situations where his double has just been.

And the guy’s double is doing all these wonderful, fantastic, miraculous things that he’s never been known for.

It was probably the most popular thing I ever wrote. People seemed to love the idea.

Especially the ending where the character finally catches up the double who tells him that all his good deeds merely represent who the original guy can become if he just tries.

(Okay okay, I didn’t say it was Shakespeare).

Talking with Angelique and seeing her reflection in the mirror reminded me of that story and made me think about how important our Others are to us.

And how much our own Others may enable us to understand the Others of…others.