Many people in the West seem to believe that practicing Buddhism simply makes one “nice” with a side of serenity. We’re usually seen as the syrupy sweet, semi-stoned sounding motherfuckers unaffected by the negative emotions that so trouble the benighted masses. We experience no feelings but kitteny-soft ones and exude a constant vanilla-scented air of peace and bliss. Anything else just ain’t Buddhism.
I wasn’t always like this. I was actually a bashful little kid, the sort who would walk nervously up to a new person and say “Hi, I’m Brent, do you want to be friends?” That’s about as smooth as approaching a girl at a bar and shouting: “Hey, I have a penis! Do you have somewhere I can keep it?”
When I was about 13, I decided I was done being myself—wretchedly shy, awkward, and withdrawn. I was done suffering the taunts and shoves of my more aggressive and confident classmates, scuttling around the school with my eyes down hoping not to be noticed.
To that end, I became funny in public. I’d actually always been pretty funny, but only with my similarly maladroit friends. It was hard at first, but I rapidly gained confidence when I realized I was quicker with my wit than most folks. I became a class clown; I was always ready with an inappropriate comment during a lecture or film. When people made fun of me, I made fun of them back, and I was better at it. And I soon understood that I didn’t have to wait for someone to attack me—if I attacked first, they’d go on the defensive, and I could keep them there. In an effort to protect myself, I went from class clown to class prick.
This has caused a few problems in my life generally—and my practice specifically. Although Buddhism has chilled me out and toned down some of my more prickish tendencies, I still find that I take refuge more often in humor than in the Three Jewels of the Buddha, dharma, and sangha. I’ve been using levity to hide my insecurities and weaknesses for so long that I’m finding it hard to stop. Comedy has been my impenetrable exoskeleton for almost 30 years. But now it’s a marrow-deep habit, and I’m starting to think I may need an extraction to get it out. Something more than just a shot, anyway. This isn’t as simple as getting rid of the clap.
My irony and nihilistic snark undermine most of my honest reactions before they can even fully form. My authenticity gets twisted because my inveterate, bone-breaking sarcasm always shoves its way to the forefront. Over my many years of haphazard practice, I’ve had some breakthrough insights, and I’ve acquired a few scattered pieces of wisdom. And yet I constantly find myself being disingenuous with other people out of knee-jerk, smart-ass self-defense. Even as my practice tries to open me up, I’m still shielding myself against the chances of being exposed as that scared little boy. There’s not really much of that kid still in me besides some general anxiety and twitchiness. But by cutting down on myself and others I can pretty much guarantee that no one will get to the bottom of me, least of all me.
With my nearest and dearest, I’m pretty open and honest. But there are still nervous tics. I’ll occasionally be glib when I should be attentive, or vulgar when I should be considerate. It’s crushing when someone close to me walks away uncomfortably puzzled by our conversation knowing that I could (and should) have prevented it. But instead, I had done the usual: lapsed back into self-serving sarcasm while part of my consciousness just sat there, mouth open, watching it happen against its will.
One of the finest results of meditation is the increased gap between stimulus and response. That gap before I react gives me time to notice my habitual patterns and sometimes even decide whether to stay a slave to them or break loose (when this happens, the feeling is liberating—like getting naked in public).
But this humor thing, it’s sunk deep in me, and it’s barbed. It’s taken years of practice simply to notice that it’s entwined with my rage and my fear. I’ve been host to this nasty, deceitful, internal threesome for almost three decades, and I’m only now poking my head into that fetid room and trying to pry the tangle of sweaty limbs apart.
For me, Buddhism is all about authenticity and unity. The wisdom and insight cultivated from meditation allow us to see things as they are and act in the most skillful way. All situations, no matter how similar, are fluid and require their own genuine responses. It’s not always wrong to kill. It’s not always right to be honest. There is no concrete morality or script that we must rigidly adhere to no matter what—this destroys authenticity.
As for unity, I don’t mean it in the way pie-eyed hippies do. I’m not talking about some shirtless drum-circler muttering, We’re all one, man, while he’s waiting for the mushrooms to kick in. I’m referring to the illusion of subject and object, the false dichotomy of “me” and “other” that forces isolation into our lives and assassinates our compassion and empathy. Unity brings us all together because there isn’t actually anything separating us in the first place.
My attack-dog humor is absolutely crippling to both authenticity and unity. I’ve got it on a shorter leash than ever before, but it’s still a vicious beast fiercely protecting its yard. And it may be rabid.
It’s terrifying to imagine letting go of my cynical and aggressive comedy and presenting myself totally exposed to this cruel, frightening world. But until I do that, I won’t ever learn what it means to be authentic, and I’ll certainly never be liberated. I’ll just keep grinding along, madly clutching my security blankets, and insisting that I’m keeping it real by using comedy to point out the unseen and jar the status quo.
And I do use it for those things. But because I’m gripping it so tightly, I’ve lost the ability to put it down when it’s not helpful. I’ve just contrived another way around actual reality.
What’s the point of Buddhist practice if my own actions continue to obscure what’s in front of me? Why spend all these hours meditating and trying to cultivate kindness and compassion if I’m going to allow this rusty armor to immobilize me? I certainly don’t like confronting the painful and toxic parts of myself but that’s the whole goddamn reason I do this. I started meditating in order to understand and curtail my own suffering. If I stop at understanding and do nothing to curtail, I may as well quit.
Buddhism has given me all the tools necessary for transformation, and the one I need right now is not a pair of tweezers but a giant fucking chainsaw. I’ve been too scared to pick it up because I’ve never used something so big and powerful. But now it’s time to shred, to sever, to split and cleave and sunder. It’s time to fill that big bastard with gas, run it hot, and press it to the ossified plates and scales that are paralyzing my progress. The armor has to go, and hopefully it’s not going to take some skin with it.
I don’t believe in rebirth in the traditional sense where consciousness or karma or whatever is transferred to a new life. But moment-to-moment rebirth is not only possible, it’s inevitable. I have to stop resisting and evolve toward awakening, even—especially—if that means chewing through my cherished protection. Put your foot on this thing while I yank the cord and fire it up. Then stand back. It’s gonna be a mess.
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters