Sunday, June 24, 2007

Farewell to a Friend: Marc McCormick

My friend Marc passed away last week after fighting Lymphoma for about a year. He was 39 and leaves a wonderful wife Shelly and three beautiful children Deklan, Mikyla and Finlay. I knew Marc from when I was a young man and grew up around him and his family. Marc was, as anyone who knew him would attest, the epitome of positive energy and vision. My teen years were enhanced with Marc as a good friend and as a lead vocalist/lead gutarist from probably my first real, solid rock band experience. First paid gigs, first in-studio experience and first recorded, produced, packaged and marketed LP in the form of cassette. Marc was the type of guy who could ebb and flow from intense athletics to the deep technical concentration of a music studio producer to giving visionary presentations to stakeholders and salespeople of his growing business. I can't think of a guy that more other guys wanted to be like. Marc had an interesting ability to take things hard but yet forgive people when they messed up. I know because when we used to work in the band setting, band guys can get pretty tired, miserable and self-absorbed. I remember Marc back in the early 90's shouldering the hard work of a salesman and entrepreneur but always diligent about bringing his musical love to life. He loved being with people and wouldn't let himself affirm the negative voices of the world. When I would struggle to learn a piece of music, or deal with any life problem actually, he would hear me whining and complaining and laugh directly at me, but with an honest heart, which you knew was the sound of self-esteem looking at someone who didn't quite believe in themselves yet and I never felt chastised or hurt. I tried to pick up on what Marc's attitude was dictating of me. It was to never look back and to look at this moment right now and give everything you have...I mean really give it. His life was a short journey but it was electric in every sense of the word. Marc worked his ass off for all that he had and I was happy when he met Shelly and settled down to have kids. In many ways it was this loving support that allowed Marc the space to find the peace he did in his last days.

My friend Al and I visited Marc a day before he passed away. I remember sitting next to him, passing him his diet pepsi to sip on, a fan was blowing cool air behind me and the sounds of the papers in the room were rustling. I could see through the window, the evening sun was setting and the wind was blowing through the trees. We sat quietly as Marc drifted in and out of consciousness. Later, Shelly brought his son and daughter for their goodnight kiss and they went down the hall to their bedrooms. Soon Marc awoke, looked at us and said to me and Al that he was "gonna let us go." We came to his bedside and shook his hand for the last time, said goodbye to Shelly and slipped out their backdoor. The sun was glistening off the rippling water of the pool. It was deeply silent. My heart felt like it would explode.

Goodbye Marc.

Friday, May 25, 2007

On Buddhism

Many great things are borne out of frustration. Frustration is the root of existence, why even Guatama Buddha realized this, pointing out that it is the intrinsic nature of existence. Frustration here is the best way to understand “suffering” which is the term he uses but, because the original term was from the Sanskrit, (Dukkha) or “suffering,” as we understand it, it is too simple an understanding. Upon realizing this, the Buddha didn’t just put on his pjs, slide under his bed covers and turn the light off for the rest of life, no, he offered something in terms of a solution. You could say he was a solution-oriented person rather than a problem-oriented person.

His next “truth” was his explanation why this frustration occurs. This was the fact that we all “crave” or “desire.” We want; things, persons, status and successes, in short, happiness, hell, maybe we even just want to survive, but because life is in a constant state of change we actually cannot have anything including our own life. We can “have” it but it is only temporary and as sure as I will have a shit in the next two hours we will eventually lose everything. This attempt to hold on to everything, which is constantly changing, being born…then dying, is the primary reason for our existential frustration. The more we try to solidify, keep, hold on to, our experience of life the more we feel we are watching our life going by our very eyes and the reason that we feel like that is because it is. In Buddhist cosmology, this “clinging” to life produces extensive suffering and keeps one being re-born into yet another existence to experience the same fucking bullshit over and over again until one finds liberation, emancipation or “salvation.”

The third “truth” of the Buddha is that there is liberation and this consists in our ability to extinguish our “craving” for a permanent self. Upon reflection anyone can see, that the neuro-physiology of the human body is changing constantly, day to day, minute to minute, nanosecond to nanosecond at a molecular level. But how then do we eliminate our desire to live? Doesn’t this seem contradictory? Illogical? Insane? Suicidal? Not really because one has to really want to live before he can extinguish that “desire.” According to Buddhism, Nirvana, is the a state of being in which one can live fully yet with a sense of detachment to one’s life, not a cold stoicism, but with a deep and full bodied-minded awareness that everything goes away. So, to the Buddha, achieving this higher state of being or existence is the duty or mission of a Bodhisattva or monk. This state of being is inherent in all living beings and humans are the ones that are the most capable of realizing it right now, right here in order to “pay it forward” to other people in pain. Some Christian theologians have associated this state of being to the mystical experience of God (Tillich, Eckhart) but as original Theravada and Zen Buddhism do not posit any deities, are a-theistic, they would prefer the explain this as the experience of “Sunyata” or Ultimate Emptiness. Why even Victor Frankl said that we have to “burn in order to give light.”

This brings us to the fourth “truth” as the Buddha sees it; the way to our liberation or “Buddha nature.” This is known as the “middle path.” It is a life that avoids the extremes of hedonism as well as asceticism. It consists of eight ethics of living:

  1. Right Understanding
  2. Right Thought
  3. Right Speech
  4. Right Action
  5. Right Livelihood
  6. Right Effort
  7. Right Mindfulness
  8. Right Concentration

This is a path that essentially has to do with the ultimate health of the person. But it is a path of discipline and requires an extension of oneself that is often hard to muster up considering the stubborn narcissism and vanity of the weak human. It is much easier to sit and stew over the “frustration” of life than to attempt to move oneself to transcend it – but if one is to reflect on the impermanence of one’s own self, one’s own life, the experience of existence seems different – more vivid, more immediate.

Throughout the life of the Buddha, all his teachings deal in some respect with the eight-fold or “middle” path (Rahula, 1959, p.45). Dogen Kigen, who was a Zen master in the 1200’s said: “The Dharma (ultimate truth) is amply present in every person, but unless one practices, it is not manifested; unless there is realization, it is not attained.” He is pointing out here, simply, that Nirvana or self-transcendence is not a “place” but a way of being. It is something that is already present in everyone and it is through constant training, constant effort, that a Bodhisattva*, manifests this experience to others. Paradoxically, you ask, “am I not then desiring the end of desire?” Yes that is it. But the heart of Buddhism is the cultivation of the “true self” while living in the “transitory self. That is to say, one transcends oneself by living yourself to the fullest, to the deepest…and it requires that one understands this paradox. Why “through giving one shall receive,” …now who said that again? Another paradox…hell, it seems like we “live to survive them” (Downie-Hip, Henhouse, 1996).

*Please note: I am not a publicly stated Buddhist but have found great interest and insight into my own life through the philosophy of Buddhism. It is a profound school of thought and action that originated approx. 500 years before the life of Jesus, whom of which, we can see many associations, one example is the “parable of the mustard seed.” This is one particular parable that seems to sum up the very idea of the Buddha-nature or “enlightened” nature. Buddhism seems to have as many interpretations as there have been followers. Like Christianity, Buddhism has been twisted and manipulated by political regimes throughout history to justify slaughter. Even Zen monasteries have literally warred to macabre death over rights-based issues. People themselves are the ones who decide how they are going to relate to any institutionalization of their religion and it seems like we have been profound failures at doing this properly. What good is knowledge if it is not put into practice?