The theme of the most recent Moth Slam was "desire." I considered entering my name to tell a story, but ended up not doing so, because the only story I could think of on the subject was inappropriately philosophical. Not that you can't be philosophical at a Moth Slam, but more that just like everyone else (with the one exception of Elna Baker) I'd rather tell a story that stands a chance of getting me laid. Ah... desire.
The Buddha said that desire causes suffering. Buddhists sometimes expand upon that simple statement, saying that suffering is caused by the desire for external things which are always fleeting and, in fact, illusory, so even after possibly attaining such things, in the long run they cannot help but fail to truly satisfy, which inevitably leads to more desire... and more suffering.
But desire is the motive force of all human activity! So like, everything we do ultimately causes us to suffer?!
Of course! Haha! Just look at us!
I mean, I am living in what is probably the single most non-Buddhist place in the world. New York City is constantly inflaming every kind of lust imaginable, in everybody here. Sexual lust, consumer-product lust, food cravings, ego-boost-bullshit, competitive victory lust, you name it. A gigantic swirling vortex of arousal and desire, never ever truly satisfied, because it is, by its nature, unsatisfiable.
And look at New Yorkers. So many of us are so neurotic and anxious and depressed and stressed out and so we drink and drink and do this drug and that drug and fuck this one and fuck that one and just fuck whoever comes along, and the healthy ones among us are all in this kind of therapy, or that kind of therapy or some new kind of therapy, or maybe we just go shopping, because it feels so good to throw our money away on really awesome crap we don't need, until after we get home and have to find a place to put the crap in our already over-filled closets (we call them "apartments") and we notice all the unused crap we bought the last time we felt this empty, and then we really feel like shit because we totally coulda used that money...
(Even as I write this, I'm trying to remember when the new iPhones come out. It's soon, right?)
Yep. Pretty non-Buddhist.
I never thought of myself as all that caught up in the consumer culture, I mean, I like my Chuck Taylor sneakers just fine, but I wear them until they completely disintegrate. Like, down to individual sneaker atoms (Sneakronium). I was, however, most definitely a prisoner of lust when I first moved into town. But then that head-explosion thing (I've mentioned) happened to me, and that changed everything. Too complex an experience to describe in any great detail right now (and it kinda defies description anyway) so let me just say that in the wake of having been to "the other side" and back, I was left with absolutely no desire for any transitory product of spacetime.
All the things that I used to strive for, all the things that everybody else strives for, suddenly struck me as utterly worthless -- ludicrous to even bother paying attention to them, much less to want them, much less to actually make an effort to obtain them. I mean, I still needed to pay rent, and eat the occasional meal and all, but as long as I had the bare minimum to survive, I didn't give a crap about anything else.
I didn't even care about sex anymore. Like, not at all. Oh, I could still appreciate the hotness of a hottie when she'd strut past, but then I'd just laugh my ass off... "Oh my god... I used to be such a slave to pussy! Hahah!" And it's not like I stopped having or enjoying sex, but it became completely unnecessary. Even after having great sex with an amazing girl, if she wanted to do it again sometime, I could totally take it or leave it. No cravings whatsoever. Like, think of a really delicious food, but one which you just don't happen to feel like eating at the moment. You could eat it, but you could also pass. It was just like that. In my case, I don't have much of a sweet tooth, so a good comparison would be to, say, an extra-large double fudge chocolate brownie sundae. Nobody NEEDS an extra-large double fudge chocolate brownie sundae. It will never be necessary to eat one. I will never particularly crave one. But if somebody offered me a spoonful, I'd probably take it and enjoy it just fine. (Though not these days because I can't have any of the ingredients.)
Another food analogy: let's say, you like McDonald's hamburgers. You think they are just sooo delicious. You try to eat them whenever possible. Then, one day, someone feeds you the finest filet mignon in existence. After that, McDonald's doesn't seem so great any more. You walk by a McDonald's restaurant and say to yourself, "Wow... I can't believe I used to get so worked up over those hamburgers."
So, I found myself devoid of all cravings. No wants. At least, not for anything in the normal day-to-day realm. I did want to repeat the transcendent experience though. So I took up meditation. I was pretty disciplined about it too... for a while. Within a short time, I could put myself into a pretty deep state almost immediately, and I could sit still like that for long stretches at a time, just watching the pretty light-show on the inside of my skull, and that was way more fascinating to me than anything else I used to be into. Spiritual pursuits were all so new. Everything else was a been-there-done-that yawn by comparison.
And it turned out the Buddha was exactly right. Without all the constant desires and cravings for fleeting external enticements, I no longer had any problems. It was so weird. All the mental effort I'd devoted to obsessing over my so-called "problems" was now freed up for other uses. I had so much more time! So much more energy! I didn't know what to do with myself! And that energy would come bubbling up out of me in quirky little expressions of joy that I could barely contain, at totally inappropriate moments. Imagine how weird it would be to see a total stranger spontaneously burst into a fit of the giggles when he's by himself on the corner waiting for the light to change. I was that guy. I didn't particularly want to be a lunatic, but I was so happy that I didn't care.
I would float through my day in this craziest, edgiest of cities, in a bubble of simple contentment, watching as all around me everybody clawed all over each other to get:
- a phone number
- a bargain
- a taxi
- some head
- a spot at the bar
- the latest craze object (supplies are running low! hurry!)
- a girlfriend
- a boyfriend
And I would just glide past all of it, like "no thanks, I'm good."
And people would be all, "You sure? It's mighty tasty!"
And I would say, "I'm sure it is, but it's not for me. You enjoy it though."
And people would frown, and look at me like I was nuts, or just plain stupid for turning down the opportunity to snort some coke with some fine bitches in the back of Puffy's limo, possibly even getting sort of pissed off at me as in "How DARE you turn us down?!" and I'd be all, "Thanks anyway, but I've got something way better to do!" and they'd be like, "What could you possibly have to do that's better than this?" and I'd be all, "I'm gonna go home, turn off the lights, and sit quietly on the floor with my eyes closed for as long as I can! Haha! Isn't that great?!"
I suppose I'm lucky nobody called the men in white coats to come haul me away.
Now, I'm not sure how long this most amazing period lasted. Maybe a year. Maybe two. Hard to say really, because in some ways, it never ended, and in some ways it definitely did. I couldn't sustain it. I didn't particularly even try. I didn't have a reliable wisdom tradition (can't bring myself to use the word "religion") to draw on, or any real knowledge, simply relying on my intuition to guide me. Sometimes this was just fine. A lot of the time, I felt like I was flying blind, even when I was just fine. And sometimes I did totally fuck things up.
First of all, on some level, I just didn't know how to live as this happy problem-free person I'd become. I mean, I'm a mellow version of an edgy weird neurotic urban Jewboy. I can't function without problems! My entire sense of humor was based on being perpetually infuriated! It was a defense mechanism against how badly everything sucked. If everything is suddenly fine, then I have no use for such a mechanism. How can I be fun at parties if I can't make people laugh due to the most unfortunate fact that I actually like life?!? Oh My God... I've been turned into one of those wide-eyed earnest no-sarcasm dullard people that I always used to mock so incessantly because they used to creep me out so hard!! Poetic Justice! Nooooooo!
And it's not like I could even get upset about it, because the "problem" was that I had no problems! I was too fucking happy! I mean, I LIKED it, even as I watched people squirm and try to get away from me at cocktail parties. I knew I was boring them and creeping them out by being all "genuine" at them and shit, but seeing them run away in fear and disgust only amused me more! And of course, I couldn't even mention this to anybody, much less "complain."
FRIEND: So, what's the matter?
ME: I'm too happy.
ME: Yeah, my life's too good. I can't stand it.
FRIEND: Should I kick you in the balls or something?
ME: Well, no, I don't think that's the answer, really.
FRIEND: Because I kinda want to.
ME: No, really. That's okay.
FRIEND: I so want to kick you in the balls right now. Are you sure you won't let me?
ME: Should I not have said anything? I shouldn't have said anything.
FRIEND: You definitely should not have said anything. I'm gonna have to kick you now.
ME: Okay fine. Kick away.
FRIEND: Oh no, not if you're just gonna lie down and take it. What kind of friend would I be then?
ME: What kind of friend are you now?!
FRIEND: You're the one complaining about how your life's "too good." I should totally kick you!
ME: You're right. You should. Totally. Go ahead.
FRIEND: Oh My God You Are Such An Asshole!
ME: What? What do you want me to do?
FRIEND: I want you to suffer. Like the rest of us. Is that so wrong?
ME: I don't think I can! I don't remember how!
FRIEND: I don't want to kick you in the balls anymore. Now I just want to kill you.
ME: You shouldn't do that.
FRIEND: WHY NOT!?
ME: Because you might feel bad about it later, or get sent to jail or something.
FRIEND: But not because YOU'D have a problem with me killing you.
ME: Better than living with crushed testicles, I imagine.
FRIEND: Erk-- arg-- mmp--
ME: Yeah, no. Death ain't no big deal. It's just a transition from this kind of life to a different kind of life. And I mean, I've had a good run here as this weird jon-levinish meat-thing. Especially these last couple of years! Hoo doggie!
FRIEND: SO STOP COMPLAINING!
ME: Oh right! Thanks! You've been a big help!
Then, something else started happening that was pretty negative. I found I was kinda getting off on turning things down. Like, instead of merely not being interested, I started perversely enjoying people's stunned reactions when I'd opt out of things other people would kill for. And that's no longer authentic. That's no longer a healthy detachment. It was a weird reverse attachment. I became attached to detachment. (Who knew that could even happen?!)
And of course, the more I opted out of things, the more cut-off from humanity I became. Remember those years you never (or rarely ever) saw or heard from me? Well...
I made a half-assed attempt to find other people who were going through what I was, or who had already been through such a thing, both to learn from them, and just to be able to talk to somebody about it who wouldn't think I was nuts (or want to kick me in the nuts). And as it turns out there are fucking huge numbers of such people all over the place! But I hate them all.
There are tons and tons of people, obviously, who had been through similar things. Ridiculous to think I was breaking new ground on any of this shit. I mean, really. What the fuck. So, right... I went to Burning Man (too loud). And I visited a yoga/meditation ashram upstate (too rainbow-y). And I attended a lecture at the Theosophical Society (too dry and humorless). And I attended a lecture sponsored by the Multi-disciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) (too spaced out). And of course, I met lots of other people who knew the score. But I never really let myself become part of a community. I've mentioned in the past how I tend not to join things, even when they're amazing.
And while it was definitely comforting to know I was not alone, I guess I still preferred to go it alone. I'm sure I was some kind of renunciate hermit monk in a past life. Really hard to manage that in Midtown fucking Manhattan. Especially due to the fact that radiating a fairly purely happy vibe, as I was, made other people respond to me totally differently. Before, when I was a miserable bastard, I could skulk around more-or-less invisible. If I wanted some attention, I'd have to go out of my way and do something funny to get it. For a while after I got all happy, people paid attention to me. A lot. Way more than ever before. Way more than I was used to. More than I could handle. At first, I was sort of flattered of course, and if I'd been less of a renunciate by nature and more of an opportunist, I could've gotten very very laid during that time. But I knew that it wasn't "me" or anything I'd done to particularly deserve the attention. And after a while, I found it hard to simply go about my regular routine (New Yorkers can be very persistent). I even left the city for 4 months one winter, to escape to the woods and not be around anybody. If I'd known about silent meditation retreats, I would've done the longest one available, and then done it again. Several times. A psychic lady I saw a while back, told me that I was caught between two polar opposite life-paths, neither of which was really "right" unto itself. She called them the Priest and the Rock Star. Eeewww. I don't want to be either of those! And right... I'm not supposed to be one or the other. I'm supposed to integrate them into one middle-way healthy person. (Buddha was right again!) Well, if anybody knows how to do that, I'm all freakin' ears.
(Actually, I think I have the answer. I think I've had the answer for a while. I've got to take up a regular Yoga practice. The whole mind/body/spirit integration thing.)
Anyway, due mostly to my own stupidity, I ended up almost squandering my calm, happy centeredness, because I started wanting something I had never thought I'd want again. I started wanting to WANT things. In other words, on some level, I wanted things to go back to the way they were before, when life was crappy. Well... be careful what you wish for ladies and gentlemen! (Just kidding.) (Though, yes, in general, it is a good idea to be careful what you wish for, because we have more power than we think we have.)
Nowadays, I am back to wrestling with lusts and desires, but not like I used to. I don't think I'll ever go back to being the way I was... before. One of my problems (I have problems, woo hoo!) is in recognizing when I do legitimately want something, versus when I only think I ought to want it. My desire mechanism is a little rusty and it slips a bit. But one of the things about being me is that something like a busted desire mechanism doesn't bother me.
Maybe I'd be better off if it did.
Should I want it to bother me more?
I wish I knew! (Too much?)
(Now you can see why I didn't try to tell that at the Moth Slam. God. Can you imagine! The whole audience would still be vomitting now, a week later!)