The dharma shows up in the darnedest places. Today, as I was driving to the airport to fly off to another city for another round of consulting, it showed up on my car radio. Go figure.
I was toolin' down the highway, still high from an early morning hike at Tsankawi, groovin' on one of my favorite albums, Gram Parsons' Grievous Angel. I was lost in the magic of one of the greatest harmony duets in recording history, between Gram and the then-unknown Emmylou Harris, a big cheezy smile on my face, when Protector's tape player sputtered and choked and gave up the ghost. I tried to fix it, but it was gone, man — dead, croaked, no more...it was an ex-tape player. It was bleedin' demised.
I chanted a Tibetan prayer for its passing, to help it on its way through the Bardo of Deceased Audio Equipment, and pondered how I was going to make it the rest of the way to the airport with no music. I was on my way to Detroit, fer crissakes, and I really needed some good music to pump me up and prepare me for the experience.
Finally, in desperation, I did the unthinkable. I switched on the radio. I never listen to the radio. I would go so far as to say that this was possibly the first time Protector's radio had ever been on. Not surprisingly, all I got was static...it wasn't even tuned to a station. I fiddled with the knobs, found what seemed to be a strong signal, and braced myself for the worst.
The experiment began badly. I listened to a string of commercials for — so help me — acne medication, weight-loss centers, romance hot lines, hair care products, and Wonderbras, all of which were on sale for the holidays. I assumed this was because the holidays are so traumatic that everyone needs a little more help than usual with their self image. I gritted my teeth, fearing I was in for a heavy-duty dose of maya for the remainder of my drive.
Then the last commercial faded out and the dharma talk began. It started subtly with a few tasteful piano and guitar notes, and then a young woman's voice — a beautiful voice — began to sing, ever so quietly:
If I could tell the world just one thing
The voice belongs to a young woman named Jewel, and this particular dharma talk is her latest hit, the first single from an album called Spirit. It is one of the ballsiest, riskiest, most in-your-face statements of faith I have ever encountered on this rock, and it's on the radio.
One of my best friends turned me on to Jewel a few years ago. At first I didn't believe him. He has, after all, a tendency to obsess over phenomena that don't always turn out to have a long shelf life. But he's my friend, so I went out and bought her first album, recorded when she was only nineteen. The album wasn't exactly my cup of tea. It was too sweet, too sincere. And the voice was just too perfect. Even though the album had several songs on it I liked, I really wasn't much taken by it on my first listen, or my second...even on my tenth. Jewel's youthful idealism grated on my old, carefully-crafted cynicism. "Major twif!" was the phrase that sprang most often to my lips while listening to it. I just didn't dig it.
But then she began to get to me. With each subsequent listen, I began to realize that my friend was right on, and that this Jewel person really was a phenomenon. Not just because of her voice. There are a lot of great voices in the music industry. What there isn't a lot of in the music industry is positivity. Jewel is positive. So positive that the presence of positivity in her work points out its glaring absence in the rest of the music being churned out as programming by a jaded industry.
And programming is what it is. If all that you hear on Top 40 radio is the pitiful whining of egomaniacs lost in a delirium of prolonged adolescence and self pity, it is easy to become programmed to believe that's all there is to life.
That's not all there is to life. That's why I don't listen to the radio.
And yet, coming through the radio as I drive through the desert is a young woman's voice, singing about positive things on a medium that has seen all too few of them. That basic positivity is one reason I think of the song as a dharma talk. As I drive along, with a classic post-power-place-hike grin still fixed firmly on my face, it strikes me that the next verse, which describes her approach to life, could just as easily be describing my approach, or the approach of any Buddhist:
Poverty stole your golden shoes
Then she sings the bridge, which could be a paraphrase of the Buddha's central message:
In the end, only kindness matters
See what I mean about it being hard to believe? It's too sweet. Too sincere. Who can believe that someone who looks like the manufacturing prototype for a product line of blonde jokes could be for real, could really have the intent of inspiring people, of helping them to change their lives for the better, all through the medium of popular music? Well, my friend and his obsessive nature have done their damage to my cynicism, and now I believe it.
She's for real. Jewel has talked often in the press about the intent of this latest album, using that exact term. She intends to inspire. And she has taken some heavy hits in the media because of it. But y'know, the Buddha probably took some pretty heavy hits when he started giving his dharma talks, telling people who had known nothing but suffering in their lives that there was an alternative to it.
Am I still blissed out from my hike in a power place? Am I being a major twif myself, comparing a blonde pop singer to the historical Buddha and a song on the radio to a dharma talk? Of course I am. But that doesn't mean there aren't parallels, and things to be learned from those parallels. And that doesn't mean that there aren't benefits to be gained from allowing oneself to experience positivity without reacting to it with cynicism.
Buddha was positive. He had the most positive view of life and its potential I have ever encountered on this rock. He scoped out something about compassion and giving, something that made his life more worth living, and he wasn't afraid to talk about it. Buddha spent the rest of his life giving dharma talks, trying to pass along the secret of compassion and giving to others so that they could make their lives more worth living. He probably caught a lot of shit for it, but Buddha had balls of steel.
The spiritual teacher I studied with, in the early days, used to give the same dharma talk: "The happiest people in life are those who spend more time thinking about others and doing things for them than they spend thinking about themselves and doing things for themselves." And I know what kinda shit he caught, and I know that he had balls of steel to keep doing it as long as he did.
All I'm trying to say here, in my temporary fit of power-place-inspired twifness, is that I think this Jewel lady has balls of steel, too. She could have kicked back and recorded nothing but insipid pop pablum, and garnered just as much fame and just as much money. But she didn't. She had the balls to put her faith on the line and record a song that is — in its way — a veritable dharma talk. And more, she had the personal power to make it a hit.
You can tell I like the lady. She has gotten to me. But I'll tell you, the thing that gets to me the most about this particular song, and for me turns it into a dharma talk, are two simple lines at the end of the chorus:
I am not broken
These lines are particularly meaningful to me because I was thinking these very thoughts on my hike this morning in an ancient Anasazi power place. I was boppin' along, feeling really good about myself, and comparing that feeling to all the years I have felt really bad about myself. None of you reading this can identify, right? I mean, you found your way to the section of the bookstore where you found this book, so on some level we're all spiritual seekers here. Right?
So why is it that so many of us seekers feel so bad about ourselves, feel that somehow we don't deserve the good things in our lives? 'Fess up, now. You all know what I'm talking about. We may all put on a good show for each other, but in our hearts many of us really still believe we are broken.
It's not surprising, when you think about it. The world has been telling us, since the day we were born, that we are broken. Something is just not good enough about us. Even when we do our best, it's not good enough. That's one of the reasons we became spiritual seekers in the first place, to become better, to become good enough. But from my point of view, a dismaying reality among spiritual seekers in general is that although there is plenty of evidence for our lives being better than they were when we started on a spiritual path, we don't feel better. We still feel broken.
That's not surprising, either. If you think about it, many of the things we have been told along the way — even some of the things we thought of as dharma talks — pointed out exactly how not good enough we were, and left us feeling even more broken.
To my way of thinking, this presents us, as seekers, with a problem. How can we ever hope to find that which we seek if we walk around lost in a mindset that believes that we are not good enough, that we are broken, that we don't deserve enlightenment? The problem is not new. Seekers throughout history have had to deal with this. If you read their writings, from Milarepa to Saint Francis, they have all had to deal with the problem.
Recently, I had a long, wonderful, late-night conversation with one of my other best friends, Yogini. During this conversation, she and I discussed this problem, and tried to put it into words. What we came up with was a kind of koan, a question that everyone in history who has ever considered the possibility of enlightenment has had to deal with and answer:
Do I deserve to be
Inspired by my walk through places of power, and by Dharma Talk Radio that speaks its mind and seeks to inspire people and help them feel better about themselves, I will don my own balls of steel and speak my own mind. I think that we deserve it, and I am tired of hearing otherwise.
I believe that one can, to some extent, judge the effectiveness of a dharma talk by its effect on the listeners. If they hear it and come away inspired, feeling better about themselves and their spiritual path, feeling hopeful in their quest for enlightenment or even for just a happier life — cool. If they come away feeling like homemade shit, feeling broken, feeling that they don't deserve enlightenment, feeling hopeless, then maybe...just maybe...it wasn't really the dharma that was being talked about.
I don't know about you guys, but I am starting to feel good about myself these days, and I like the feeling. And I like associating with people whose intent seems to be to reinforce that feeling, not to tear it down.
Call me a twif. Call me a heretic. Call me anything you want, but I agree with this lady named Jewel. We're all Ok. We are not broken. We were never broken.