I cried at my daughter’s college graduation last June, but my tears dried up as soon as the speeches started. I couldn’t believe how many clichés I was hearing — as if nothing had changed in all the years since I graduated from college, when I heard the same clichés.
I thought about the social upheavals of the last three decades: the wars and assassinations and betrayals in high places. I thought about the civil-rights movement, the women’s movement. I thought about the hole in the ozone layer and about our funny weather. How much there was to grieve, I thought, and how much to be thankful for. Yet even here, at one of the more innovative schools in the country, graduation was still . . . graduation. Even here, at the end of the most violent century in history, graduates were exhorted in the usual ways to step across the mass graves and the poisoned waters and the broken vows. Step lively, the speakers told them.
I don’t know whether all “recovered memories” are real, but I know that as a species we deny and repress the greatest horrors as if they never happened, or at least could never happen again.
Of course, most of us in the audience probably didn’t want to be reminded of too many harsh realities on this beautiful spring day. We knew what we’d done to alleviate suffering, and we knew what we hadn’t done. We knew about the terrible future and the terrible past, and we knew we’d made some difference in the world, but not enough.
I remembered some figures I’d come across recently: If we shrank the world to a village of one hundred people, six would control half of all the wealth; all six would be U.S. citizens. Eighty would live in substandard housing. Seventy would be unable to read. Fifty would suffer from malnutrition. Only one would have a college education.
The local mayor stole the show. A shrewd politician and a tireless promoter, he clearly knew how to work a crowd. (Once convicted of roughing up a man he suspected of sleeping with his estranged wife, the mayor had served five years on probation, then been swept back into office. At his trial, witnesses had testified that the mayor had stubbed out a cigarette in the eye of his victim and beaten him with an ashtray and a log. ) The mayor related to the microphone not as a barrier to intimacy — like some of the other speakers did — but as his oldest confidant. He earn the most sustained applause of the morning when he promised to waive late penalties on parking tickets if students paid them before leaving town.
My daughter didn’t ask for my advice on graduation day. If she had, I hope I would have been wise enough to spare her another speech. For better and worse, the life I’ve led, the example I’ve set, was my speech to her — my life, not my words about life. My daughter knew I wanted her to challenge the conventional wisdom. She knew I wanted her to do some good in the world. And she knew how hard it is for most of us to do even ourselves a little good. My daughter knew I tried to take seriously the Zen master’s dictum: “The most important thing is to find out what is the most important thing.” And she knew how self-absorbed and neurotic I could be, how easily sidetracked by the most ridiculously unimportant things.
So my message to her had nothing to do with words. It was this: in my hotel room that morning the alarm went off 4:45, and I got up.
Even though it was a Saturday morning, even though my wife was still asleep, even though we’d been up late the night before, I got up. Quietly, I made my way to the bathroom. I brushed my teeth. I splashed some water on my face. Then I sat down cross-legged on the floor.
At the beginning of 1998, I’d made a vow: for an entire year, I’d get up at the same time every day — whether it was a weekday or a weekend, whether I was at home or out of town, whether I felt alert or exhausted. As soon as the alarm went off, I’d get up. Instead of complaining to myself how sleepy I was, instead of questioning the value of the vow, I’d get up. Then, before my wife woke up, before the world around me woke up, I’d meditate. I’d pray. I’d write in my journal. I’d practice waking up a little more.
I was used to getting up early. Off and on for years, I’d gotten up before dawn to work on my essays for The Sun. Those mornings weren’t exactly contemplative, however; I’d pour myself a cup of coffee and get right to work. Sometimes I’d meditate, but I wasn’t consistent. I might meditate for a few days, then drop it for a few weeks. I often wondered what it would be like to be committed to a daily devotional practice, but I was never ready to make the commitment.
I made the vow because I wanted to deepen my faith in what was real and enduring. Because I wanted to face each day with more clarity and humility. Because I wanted to test the little I knew against the solemn face of darkness. I made the vow because one of my mentors, the spiritual teacher Ram Dass, had recently suffered a stroke that had left him partly paralyzed and barely able to speak. If I wanted to be more devoted to truth, what was I waiting for?
By the beginning of June, I’d discovered something interesting: The meditation and the prayer and the journal writing mattered very much to me. And keeping the vow mattered even more.
When I was a boy, my father promised me a set of model trains. On the night before my birthday, he drove around New York City in a blizzard until he found a toy store that was open. This story (and the set of trains he gave me the next day) made a big impression on me. But instead of becoming a man who always kept his promises, I became a man who always waited until the last minute to shop.
Grievously, I’ve broken promises to people I’ve cared about; mostly, though, I’ve broken promises to myself. How easy, first thing in the morning, to promise myself I’ll change my ways — lose a few pounds, write to friends I’ve neglected, never raise my voice in anger again. How easy to bury the promise a few days later, late in the afternoon, without any ceremony, just throw it in a hole and walk away.
When I decided to get up early every day, I chose not to call it a New Year’s resolution. I’d never kept a New Year’s resolution. Instead, I called it a vow, because a vow has weight. People take marriage vows — and woe to those who break them. I’m a faithful husband. Was it any less important to be faithful to myself?
There was another reason: A year earlier, my wife and I had invoked the power of a vow to make a change in our lives; to my surprise, we’d been successful. We stopped watching TV.
Norma and I had seen ourselves change from people who never watched television, to people who watched one show a week (Hill Street Blues), to people who turned on the TV practically every night. TV was like a friend who dropped by just when we were ready for bed; a friend who wanted to visit for an hour, maybe two; a friend who liked to talk, and knew just what we wanted to hear — precinct-room banter, doctors barking orders, the small talk of lovers.
Our favorite shows gave us believable stories with believable heroes — or, at least, believably flawed people occasionally capable of heroic acts. We empathized when they grappled with moral dilemmas. We worried when they faced physical danger. When their hearts broke, we wept.
We didn’t turn off the TV because these shows weren’t engrossing. Rather, Norma wanted to try an experiment: What would happen if, for a year, we stopped coming to the door when our friend knocked? Would we read more? Talk more? Make love more? Get more sleep? The answer to all these questions turned out to be yes.
When, at the end of 1997, our friend came by to remind us that the year was up, we told him we had some bad news.
Getting up at 4:45 every morning means getting to bed relatively early. But since I no longer watch television, that’s easier to do.
I still stay up late sometimes. I’ve hardly become a monk. The inner life is important to me, but so are hot kisses and the night’s thousand arms. Let’s face it: I want heaven and earth. I want too much. Still, because I know I’m getting up at 4:45, no matter what, I pay closer attention to what I’m doing at eight or nine or ten o’clock; I don’t have all night.
In Carlos Castaneda’s books, the Yaqui Indian shaman don Juan explains that, while an ordinary man or woman sees everything as a blessing or a curse, a spiritual warrior takes everything as a challenge — without regret or complaint. Knowing how brief this life is, a warrior treats everything with respect. A warrior performs each act “impeccably,” because each act could be his or her last. “When you feel and act like an immortal being that has all the time in the world,” don Juan tells Castaneda, “you are not being impeccable. At those times you should turn, look around, and then you will realize that your feeling of having time is an idiocy.”
This doesn’t mean television was the problem, any more than getting up early is the answer. Many people wiser, braver, and kinder than I watch television. They meditate before lunch or after dinner, or they don’t meditate at all. The particular form my practice takes doesn’t matter — except to me. What matters is that when the alarm rings, I get up.
I get up because I don’t want spirituality to be a trophy in a glass case, something I keep on display to impress company — or myself. I get up because I don’t want to keep misinterpreting my deepest longing, which isn’t for fame or approval or sex or more sex.
I show up at the corner at 4:45. A car pulls up. Get in, the darkness says. Get in and shut up.
Meditating at the same time every morning hasn’t made meditation easy; moments of real wakefulness are rare. Though there’s nothing esoteric about my mindfulness practice, I find it difficult. If I get an A for effort, I get a D for technique. Meditation forces me to confront my restlessness, my fantasizing, the noise and stink of my busy mind. How hard it is to pay attention: watching the breath, only the breath, getting distracted, coming back to the breath, thinking how difficult it is to pay attention to the breath, thinking that this thought, too, is a distraction, coming back to the breath. . . . But every once in a while, I’m rewarded just for showing up. My nonstop monologue stops. I’m just here, breathing.
I used to avoid being alone without something to distract me. I’d read, work, eat, overeat, masturbate, plan the next day’s activities. Being alone can still be difficult. I get up because I’m more interested in confronting my aloneness than in talking about it. I get up because, at a quarter to five, I can insist I’m alone and no one will argue with me. God isn’t interested in arguing.
I breathe in; I breathe out. Everyone who’s asleep is breathing, and everyone who’s awake is breathing. How shocking, how intimate, how easy to forget.
Sometimes I worry that my vow is too bold, too spiritually ambitious. Sometimes I worry that my vow isn’t bold enough. After all, I’m healthy. My children are grown. I earn a good living. I think about those who meditate in prison blocks or on hospital wards or with bombs falling around them. Because my life is comfortable, because I have so many choices, it seems important to narrow my choices: The alarm rings. I get up.
I leave the bed with regret, but I leave it.
I’ll leave this life with regret, but I’ll leave it.
Though I don’t pretend to understand the power of prayer, I pray. I start with what’s most rudimentary: I pray for the willingness to pray.
I pray to remember that everything I think is mine — my body, my wife, my daughters, my magazine — isn’t really mine. I breathe in; I breathe out. The Universe giveth; the Universe taketh. I’ll lose everything. I’ll lose it today, or I’ll lose it tomorrow.
Thank you, I pray.
If I imagine God is talking to me, I listen closely. If it takes God a long time to finish a sentence, I want to remember the beginning when God gets to the end. Otherwise, God might think I’m not paying attention, that I’m too easily distracted by famine and torture and injustice, that God’s carefully chosen words, and the long pauses between them, interest me less than the terrible headlines I read each day.
Sometimes I remember Thomas Merton: “Prayer is possible only when prayer is impossible and the heart has turned to stone.” In the dark, I call God’s name. I think, Maybe I’m mispronouncing it. Of course I’m mispronouncing it.
When the speeches were finally over, I got to watch a seemingly endless line of other people’s sons and daughters receive their diplomas. Naturally, I applauded more loudly when my own daughter walked across the stage; I could remember how I watched, in amazement, the first time she walked across a room.
There she was in the distance: a serious young woman who hoped to be a serious filmmaker one day. My other daughter, just back from three months of volunteer work in Honduras, was no less determined to live a life that didn’t hinge on denying what’s real. But I knew, as the columnist Hal Crowther has written, that “the nineties are no great time to be starting out in any profession. The corporate giantism that’s spoiling newspapers is spoiling everything. Whether it’s professional baseball, the movies, country music — so many of the things that made my life better than bearable — corporate mercenaries who never loved it are running it into the ground.”
I wanted just one of the speakers to acknowledge how difficult it is to live sensibly in a political and economic culture that makes so little sense. Or to admit that those in power always lie to the next generation when initiating them into the labor pool, or marching them off to war. Or to remind the graduates that, no matter how many people lie to them, they’re responsible for their own actions; that it’s possible to face the despair in themselves and in others with courage and compassion.
The city in which my daughter went to school was founded as a refuge for religious dissenters. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, captains of industry were buying land nearby and building palatial summer homes that they then occupied only two months out of the year. Their consumption was conspicuous even by today’s standards. Some fed caviar to their dogs. One man ordered evening clothes for his horses.
A hundred years later, Americans spend as much on cosmetics every year as it would take to provide clean water and basic education for the 2 billion people in the world who have neither.
I get up early because I’m surrounded by suffering and because I want to relieve suffering. I get up early because, now that my wife is in her forties, I like her to wear lipstick and a little rouge.
There’s power in keeping a vow, in knowing that my word counts. But the year isn’t over yet. Am I giving away some of my power by writing about it? The thought has crossed my mind. Pride, that seductress. A quick blow job in the Oval Office? No problem.
But it’s nearly December, so I’ll risk summing up. I’ve overslept by at least an hour three times this year: twice because my alarm didn’t go off; once because I got home late from a funeral and stayed up until two in the morning celebrating life. I regret those lapses, but what I regret more are all the mornings I’ve gotten up and just gone though the motions. Because I get up early to do spiritual practice, getting up early can become the practice. But merely getting out of bed doesn’t guarantee a thing: I can talk in my sleep, walk in my sleep, even run a magazine in my sleep. Woody Allen said 80 percent of success is just showing up. But what about the other 20 percent? For me, getting out of bed is the easy part: an act of will, a stubborn insistence on keeping my word. But I want to wake up, not flatter myself with a near-perfect attendance record.
Have I walked a few steps closer to my true self? Perhaps. Slowly, almost despite myself, I discover a more spacious, compassionate awareness. But I don’t stay there long. I’m still a beginner; I remind myself there’s dignity in that. Meditation and prayer are difficult for me; this is why I meditate and pray. At least I’ve become clear about one thing: daily practice is like daily physical nourishment, and I need to be fed.
It’s easy, in theory, to choose between enlightenment and ignorance, between an open heart and a closed heart, between justice and injustice. The reality is different. “I came from Latin America,” Carlos Castaneda said, “where intellectuals were always talking about political and social revolution and where a lot of bombs were thrown. But revolution hasn’t changed much. It takes little daring to bomb a building, but in order to give up cigarettes or to stop being anxious or to stop internal chattering, you have to remake yourself. This is where real reform begins.”
I’ve been helped by teachers like Castaneda and Ram Dass, but they’re not here in the morning with a hand on my shoulder, reminding me it’s time to get up. On my own, I greet the day: one man, naked and willing. On my own, I learn what freedom means: the freedom to piss this life away; the freedom to honor this precious incarnation.