I dare you, she said, looking him straight in the eye. I dare you to come closer and hit me again, like you did when I was small, and I didn't know that making eye-contact with you would send needles right into the part of your brain that is in charge of self-excusing stories. I dare you to pretend this is all for my own good, and not yours. Go ahead and see what it feels like, not to be believed, for one second. I dare you.
I dare you to tell me this plan is anything other than rabid fear, you taking and taking more, because you think you can, because when you were small, that's the way it went. I dare you to pretend you don't know anything about starting to cry at the dinner table, and people telling you it’s nothing. I dare you to tell me your whole reason-suit isn’t some roughly-tailored shield designed to pretend that child never existed, and doesn't push peas around your table, even now. I dare you to tell me these things, to do these things, and the trouble is, you do. There's so little earth in you, so little substance, that lies pass through without ever encountering anything solid enough to stop them.
I dare you to tell me one true thing for each block of this tower we are going to build together. Don't ask me why we are building towers. We are building towers on a dare. We are standing each on one side of this wobbly round table, and the deal is, one block, one truth.
Truth: Work-life balance is a truly turtle-nosed snake.
Truth: I believe hoarding wealth is the only available path to a safety I can never feel in my earthless bones.
Truth: Fairness will tear you apart.
Truth: Work is helpful, but if you get fixated on it, the savor of life leaches out.
Truth: I have not yet swum one once, this whole summer, unless you count that witches’ cauldron of a hot tub.
Truth: Thrushes are arpeggiating.
Truth: Linden flowers on the cusp.
Truth: Greed confirms its own predictions with such flimsiness that a new Thing is immediately required.
Truth: The opioid epidemic is pathologized poor-people greed; the current administration is legitimized rich-people greed. There are no clinics anywhere to treat the latter.
OK. We’ve built this tower. Now, how do we tear it down?
I could swat it with my hand.
Yeah. Or we could jump up and down till it falls over. I hope someone downstairs is having a truly boring session about work-life balance.
Hey! These blocks are Zen clappers. Can you meet me in sound? Can I meet you in sound? Can we work with the parts of our brains that send needles right into reason, and make eye-contact?
Yeah. That’s called creation-and-distraction balance, and it’s not at all a turtle-nosed snake.
Those thrushes are more throat-cascading than they are arpeggiating, you know?
I dare you to show up in a community where sexual scandal has erupted, and say: puritanism isn't the answer. Making heroes and demons isn't the answer. One person eating strawberries from a bowl at the front of the room only makes everyone else want to be closer to that bowl, and while that’s the case, sexual scandal can’t really be very far away. I dare you to say, what about if a Dharma teacher is sincerely polyamorous? What about if a Dharma teacher really needs to have an affair? What about if these inquisitorial procedures only make it less likely that someone will say, Oh, wait a minute! I was just yearning for those berries over there, while forgetting that I am primordially whole. Never mind.
I dare you to sit through procedural meetings where earnest people with straight faces tell you it’s for your own good, for the good of all beings, and you can watch their reason-suits grow shoulder pads and bulletproof cladding, in real time.
I dare you to learn not to confuse pith and trappings, while never giving up on the possibility that people do meet honestly, sometimes.
I dare you to be kind without using this as an excuse not to know what you know.
I dare you to take the crying child in your arms, and acknowledge pain when you see it.
I dare you to be messy, to be odd, and yet, not to get stuck on Team Odd, which has its own set of problems and allegiances.
Jesus said, I dare you to be passersby.
Hey! Some of those linden-flowers have already started dropping to the shady grass, and if there weren't 97% chance of pee, pretty much everywhere, it would be cool to gather some of them into your pockets, for Right Now Tea. I wonder if that helps with dodgy tick-bites?
I dare you not to distance yourself from any form of suffering whatsoever. You know all that New Agey shit about attracting the positive is basically a flowered utility skirt pretending it's not a reason-suit, so cut it out. Ticks search for blood. Your blood, my blood, lovingkindness-blood and murderous-blood. That’s just the way it goes, and making up some story about how it isn’t, is just foolishness. I dare you to know your strategies for what they are, and others’, too.
Whole lotta creaking, in that maple. Breathy, thrushy, trainy silence. Whew.
I dare you to consider exactly what it is that you are working towards. That round-faced lady looked pretty exasperated with you, when she said, Well, if you want to lead any kind of normal householder life, then these are pretty important tools. Do you want to do that? Do parts of your family freak out because they can sense the powerful parts of you who have no interest whatsoever in such a project?
I dare you to live a life where enjoying dinner at your kitchen table does not preclude needing to be away from it, sometimes for long stretches of time.
I dare you to resist a “normal” life. I dare you to be transformed into flame. I dare you to still have dodgy tick bites. I dare you to enjoy making garlic-scape pesto, and shell peas with delight.
I dare you, she said, shuffling out a rhythm with the toes and heels of her feet. I dare you to find solace on this cool, dusty floor, in these symptoms seen as medicine.
I dare you to stay within the bounds of the here-and-now. I dare you to eat your shadow at every meal, and to notice when others are leaving theirs scraped to the side of the plate, as though, who? me? I don’t eat crusts, or rinds.
I don’t dare to cross that way.
I don’t dare to talk to him, to her, to them.
I do, and I don’t, and the thrushes silver out all the notes the train can’t reach.
When I was a kid, in the suburbs of Atlanta, the concept "demon-slaying laugh" was nothing I had encountered yet. Yes, I knew about snorting ginger ale out your nose while watching Monty Python. Yes, I knew about mocking Mr. Hell Toupee, after Bible class. I knew that sometimes the elements of the world could come together in combinations that wrestled something out of the body that went far beyond the yes/no/I don't know menu that school and home life seemed to require. But a demon-slaying laugh? No, that I hadn’t come up against. It hadn’t shown up in academic subjects, at Mass (which involved zero laughter), in PE class, or in the informal curriculum of my self-conscious, unconscious immigrant family.
Someone found out that a troupe of Tibetan monks was coming to perform at the Academy of Medicine. Of course, medicine is exactly what the monks were, but at the time, the location just seemed odd and interesting. REM and the B-52s played at the Fox; bigger acts were in stadiums; and scruffy punk bands had their own beer-sticky venues, half-glimpsed in the dark of all-ages shows. But the Academy of Medicine – a small Greek temple, respectfully surrounded by neat azaleas and parking lot – was something new.
My whole family decided to go. This is worth looking at, because, like any rebellious teenager, I was convinced that my parents were total idiots who hated me, and I knew I hated them. Had this been true, I doubt they would have forked over the hefty whatever-it-it was, and agreed to make a family outing of it. Maybe they were intrigued. My mother had loved all things Tibetan from girlhood, reading Tintin au Tibet and Le Troisième Oeuil. Her grandmother had some kind of Buddha on the mantlepiece in the living room, which once disgorged countless tiny prayer scrolls from a hidden cavity. My father did not seem Tibet-curious, but who knows? He may have been the one to find out about the monks in the first place, through the university where he taught electrical engineering. We all went.
Polite audience, good clothes, thick carpet. This I had all encountered before, on expeditions to the Atlanta Symphony, where my parents had season tickets, and to which they brought my brother and I for expensive naps from time to time. I could recognize some of the beauty of that music, but the passivity of being in the audience in that venerable hall never failed to bring me to sleep. I came to believe that the velvet upholstery was basted in unconsciousness, permeated with it. Anyway. Until the monks came out, everything seemed more or less familiar, even though their origin story – learned people exiled and dispossessed from their homeland – interested me.
Then they appeared. Tasseled, hatted, rainbowed, with long brass fart-o-phones, with skull-staffs, with masks both terrifying and splendid. That was all for the eyes. With deep rumbling of voice, high fluting, and clashing of symbols, for the ears. With expansion of body-space, throat, and belly – a visceral sense of breadth, joining and possibility. I knew, right then, in my fifteen-year-old body – that what they were up to concerned me, too, somehow. The leap I couldn’t make in a symphony concert – to seeing in the musicians’ prowess some sign of my own potential – for some reason I could manage, witnessing these monks in their wild saffron smurf-hats and heavy wine-colored cloaks. What they had to say to me was the equivalent of a two-hour immersion in demon-slaying laughter.
Don’t believe what you think you are.
Don’t believe what others tell you you are.
Don’t look to vengeance and competition for what you are.
Expand! Open! Drop your poisons into space and see them changed.
Those voices, which could be in two or three different places at the same time, meeting, writhing and dancing together, male and female, shook open man-roles and lady-roles, pretty and ugly, me and you. Also, unlike ballet, which I'd already been ejected from, these dances stomped AND flew. They fought AND surrendered. They did not rely on anyone else to do the heavy lifting, or to be lifted. Each monk was his own partner, and the partner of all the others, as well as of some far larger harmony brought into being through their collective, multi-sensory, whole-hearted action.
Seeing the those monks that night, at fifteen, with my family, at the Academy of Medicine in Atlanta, was as much an experience of art as it was an experience of spiritual awakening. I knew, even then, in my bones, that these categories didn’t really make sense as separate pursuits. You don’t need a separate demon-slaying laugh to deal with religion, and another one for aesthetics, and a third for sexism, etc. A real, whole-being demon-slaying laugh takes care of all of this at once, with war, stinginess, racism, insecurity, and professional ambition all falling simultaneously, if you let them. If you let the laugh go deep, and do its work.
Art is matter, and so is religion, and so it goes for entheogens, falling in love, and aching heartbreak. Only the small versions of ourselves, hoping for protection from the full reach of the demons’ laughter, attempt to box our up experiences into categories. We want to keep the transformative potential of what we know separate from certain cherished reaches of our lives. We want to keep this over here, and that over there, and we don’t much like stories that ask, Who’s the demon around here, anyway?
It's true – the monks didn't physically move into my family’s living room, hanging out on the wicker armchairs and berber carpet, to aid the transformation of my being. They had other stuff to do, other minds to open, and further funds to gather for their resurgent monastic school. Also, there was no need, because I was already on my way to other transformative experiences: a single acid trip, the love of a sweet blond boy, a ticket to college emerging from a thin, white envelope.
When we turn our resources and attention exclusively to science, theory, or formal education, we are relying on reason alone to do the job of the demon-slaying laugh, and this is absurd. A lecture and slideshow about the monks would not have touched the parts of me that opened to their embodied courage and fierce truth – their voices, costumes, and choreography, and the penetrating force of their meditation practice. You can read recipes all day long, and never know a thing about how searing heat turns bubbly gloop into bread. You can feel fire, and never know the taste and feel of crust breaking into food.
That concert, that evening, those voices and moving bodies, that path. All called to me in ways that I have kept answering ever since, astonished by the pull of a demon-slaying, demon-disarming laugh that rises from the earth, rolling out from my body, as from yours, in great pealing waves.
Meanwhile, back home, something is happening between those two dogs. They could be biting each other, or stretching up onto the counter to leave tooth-marks in the butter. Meanwhile, back home, something is cooking. It could be the thing you knew you were making for dinner, or it could be the unforeseen results of actions undertaken long ago. It could be that old container of power-kraut on the lower shelf in the fridge, reaching ferment escape velocity, and oozing its way free, among the jars of condiments and bags of greens. It could be all the questions you’ve not known to ask, not dared to feel. It could be today’s sense of isolation, with a side of sore throat. Meanwhile, back home, everything you’ve not had the heart to sort, everything you’ve acquired lightly and not resolved, is sitting in boxes that also contain the socks you want to wear today. It’s slowly filling up the attic, and the basement, and even though you’ve read Marie Kondo, you know the day when you have the time to deal with any of this is not dawning anytime soon. Meanwhile, back home, a sort of insulation layer made of stuff is keeping things from crashing into each other, or making too loud a noise.
Meanwhile, back home, four different kinds of raspberries are thriving, and the rhubarb is neck-high, with wild lacework flowers collapsing onto huge, shiny leaves. It's all so lush that you burst out laughing to see it all, leaning lavishly in the direction of chaos.
Meanwhile, back home, another woodchuck has moved in under the studio, and no one’s yet taken the time to go pee on his hole, inviting him, meanwhile, to make a home elsewhere. The tables and chairs in there still look a lot like they did a couple of weeks ago. Nothing much has happened, and yet now, when the dogs are in there, they listen for the woodchuck’s subterranean doings, beneath the paint-stained, dusty concrete.
Meanwhile, back home, I wonder about home as a real possibility in this world. Is it even possible to be met completely by someone else? Is wishing to be met completely by someone else the best way, meanwhile, to have no home? I get out of bed late, still tired from my long airport purgatory, still tired from so much Internet consumption in unwanted places. A friend sends me the name and title of a book addressed to men, to tell them how to be men. Apparently, it involves blooming women and the world into being. I’m very glad not to be, meanwhile, at home with someone whose conception of himself, women, and the world subscribes to this mythology. There are women, yes, who want to be “bloomed into life” at the end of some man’s cock, but I am not one of them. I prefer, in these arrangements, the dancing dakini’s staff. Here is my masculine. Here is my feminine. Here we are, at home.
Meanwhile, back home, I am still making piles of this and that, which clutter the kitchen table, and the need to be moved, so we can eat. Being in graduate school this time around involves so many books. Taken individually, I could enjoy most of them, but in their waves, I realize I see them like weird beaching creatures, flopping in heaps here and there. I would like a book-free life for a few months or years – a chance for all those words to settle in and down and turn into coral, moray eels, or plankton, as the case may be. Into beluga whales. Into sunfish the size of small houses.
Meanwhile, back home, each time I take a break from watching the news, something freshly horrible happens. Is everyone reading Zadie Smith's White Teeth again? Because here is a good place to find out about young men who are drawn into jihad, even though they grew up right here, and hand out Halloween candy to children. Maybe it’s not all jihad through and through in there: also, family. Also, girlfriends. Also, music, love of the body, love of life. Meanwhile, back home, we all could afford to step up our game a little, learning how to give peace and fellow-feeling the same degree of glamour that we attribute to violence and war. I love the new Wonder Woman movie, but if you look at how paltry the few scenes of peace are, you can tell we have a problem. What’s a little waltzing, to millions of flying kicks and sword-strikes? Meanwhile, back home, we need to remember that waking up in crumpled blankets, and wandering aimlessly in the garden is at least as worthwhile as kicking someone in the head.
Meanwhile, back home, no one is quite sure what to do about anything, in large part because there are too many things. Food things, medicine things, debt things, things falling apart things. When it's like this, it's hard to settle enough to do anything even moderately well. Facebook starts to have lots to say. Email about this-and-that starts to have lots to say. Meanwhile, the peonies sprawl unstaked, or they are staked, but there’s no string to bind them together. Meanwhile, the letter doesn’t get written, and the waves of books don’t get read at all.
Meanwhile, of course, the ocean is still there – the “show me your face before your parents were born” ocean, oceanically getting on with things just fine, thanks. Yes, it knows you really don't want to get a cold right now, and it would actually appreciate a couple of weeks free from problem-solving and being harnessed. It gnaws at the iron posts of all your plans, not because it has anything against them, but because it’s salty, and that’s that.
Meanwhile, back home in the body, there is the edge of fever, the sense that someone's turned the heat up inside my eyeballs, and I could use another few hours of sleep. Feet and bottom are fine: solid, living, and squishy. Meanwhile, right here, I am at home.
What are friends for? I'm a little stumped here, which is a feeling I often get when I have something important, but a bit prickly, to say. This morning, laying in bed, I was mulling over the couples-therapy demo video I streamed last night. (Yes, this is a real occupational hazard of being a counseling student.) Anyway, the session featured a method for which I have great respect – and yet, I could not get over my sense of uneasiness. WTF are you doing, good people? There is no way to solve what is transpiring between you, without first solving what is happening inside each of you. Also, WTF, good people? That man needs to fucking mow the lawn, and that is that.
What I was feeling is how very definitely I conceive of change as an individual pursuit, whose pleasant side effects include improved interpersonal relationships. I don't, in other words, believe in Doing It for the Marriage, or Doing It for the Family. I believe, in part, that friends are for reminding you that the work of getting on with your life is yours alone. They can’t do it for you, and they can’t even tell you what it is.
This orientation is I think a direct descendent of the family and social dynamics I grew up with. I learned quickly that if I depended on friends, parents, teachers, or family members, to tell me what to do, I pretty quickly wound up in roles and situations that did not feel right. I wound up with some kid's acne-face in mine, his nail-bitten fingers in my underpants. I wound up at a debate tournament every weekend, speed-snarking my way through arguments about Manuel Noriega and Integrated Pest Management. I wound up clearing the table, while my male relatives sat on their duffs. I wound up, in other words, unhappy.
It took me a long time to completely absorb the implications of this discovery. If friends, family, teachers, and the world in general aren’t there to tell you what to do, then why do they insist on telling you the opposite? Why are they so fucking upset, when you decline?
Most people are scared of doing the against-the-stream work of figuring out what they actually think, are, and should be doing. And if you start declining their invitations to go along with the stream, it begins to point out, rather uncomfortably, that something else is possible.
So then, what are friends for? Something like: one bird grawks somewhere in the forest, and another one cascade-tweets. A third sussurates, just under the note of the breeze in the pine boughs, and now we have a triangle that marks space. Now we have an echo of the unobstructed space that permeates our experience – inner and outer, upper and lower, and all around. Friends are for bearing witness to the truths that come pouring out of us like an uninterrupted stream of black ink on white ruled pages, or like a finger writing on the surface of the ocean.
I remember listening to an interview between Tami Simon, who founded the publishing company Sounds True, and her teacher, Reggie Ray. "So," she said, "you call yourself a Vajra Master. That's kind of a big title. What does it mean to you?" And he answered, “A Vajra Master is someone who, when you come at them wanting to give away your power, won’t take it.” So that’s another thing friends are for. When you show up really looking for someone to be your victim/ persecutor/ rescuer, your friend does a Melania hand-flick (only nicer, hopefully) and puts you right back in the saddle. What do you already know about this? Why are you shying away from knowing what you know?
Friends are for opening up possibilities that you might not otherwise make space for. My friend Stephanie, in developing brain cancer at age 30, opened the world of accelerated mortality much sooner than either of us thought we would be meeting it. She stepped right into the worlds of intracranial surgery, American Cancer Society lodges, and being actually told by a doctor that if you don't feel like it, flossing isn’t such a pressing concern. She opened the space of residential hospice care, and the way people call the ambulance anyway, just in case.
Friends are for making parts of our shared landscape visible in ways that it wouldn't otherwise be. Sure, I heard about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in the flat ways that the radio could broadcast it for me, but it wasn't until I had a student who was a recent veteran that the whole thing began to seem real to me, in terms that could map onto my own experience of being human. This sweet man, with his angel drawings and utter devotion to his mother, was out there. Same goes for the refugee crisis: one thing when it’s a global catastrophe, and another when it’s your friend, fighting for her life with her life.
The Buddha described friendship with the image of two acrobats. The first one’s job is to walk holding a tall pole, and the second one’s job is to balance up there. How do we help each other, they asked? And the Buddha said, The best way to help each other is by doing everything you each can do, to do your own job well. He didn't say, What a stupid job. Why don’t you consider doing something a bit less precarious? Maybe that was in the second session, after the acrobats had sorted their codependency issues a bit more.
Anyway, that image strikes me as a kind of ur-myth for my own marriage and friendships. I spend very little time indeed trying to solve my friends’ problems, or asking them to solve mine. Instead, I focus on trying to do the best I can, maintaining moment-to-moment balance, and asking myself about whatever it is I’m trying to do. Am I feeling miserable and wobbly because the role I am trying to inhabit was invented by some ancient Indian acrobat-part, dwelling deep inside me? If so, re-assess. What would be a more fitting way to walk down this road? Whom have I asked to carry me on a pole, and how can I let them know they don’t have to? Whom am I carrying? How do I put them down?
Friends are for learning the limits of my strength and the boundaries I keep in the world. Friends are for laughing like hyenas when I come in, dusty and exhausted from another round of acrobatting on the open road. Friends are for savoring the moments of joy, truth, grief, and focus that arise spontaneously from letting go of stories and distractions.
Friends are for falling in love with, in the maybe-safe laboratory of unfolding stories that intersect and diverge. They are the catbird calling out from the edge of the garden, the beloved silhouette glimpsed just ahead in the parking lot, the mystery of how we arise and cease, for ourselves as for one another.
Julie Püttgen is an artist, expressive arts therapist, and meditation teacher.