Twenty-odd years ago, I raised my hand in the large hall at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California, and asked the renowned Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield a question.
“Is there a role for ambition in the Buddhist cosmology?”
“That’s a good question,” said Jack, and silly as it sounds, the memory of that compliment warms me to this day. Jack said I asked a good question!
He had been talking, as Buddhist teachers do, about the fact that according to the Buddha’s teachings, desire—alternately translated as grasping or clinging—causes suffering. This concept, one of the Four Noble Truths at the core of Buddhist philosophy, had resonated with me ever since I picked up Sharon Salzberg’s book Lovingkindness: the Revolutionary Art of Happiness in my early thirties and plunged headlong into Buddhist teachings. Desire or grasping as the root cause of suffering spoke directly to my experience.
At the time, I was working as a regional theatre actor in the San Francisco Bay Area and other parts of the West Coast. I related intimately to the pain of desiring to snag a particular role or work with a particular company. The desire itself was painful—I could feel it in my body as a visceral ache. Often the waiting period following an audition—the days, weeks, or even months when I didn’t know if I’d gotten the job—was worse than the disappointment on the occasions when I didn’t. And the feeling never stopped. Even when I had an acting job that I loved going to every day, I would hear about roles others were playing and feel a stab of envious longing. I felt it even when the shows they were in conflicted with my own. I wanted to be every place at the same time, and because I couldn’t, I was never satisfied.
When I discovered the Buddha’s teachings, I immediately recognized myself in the image of the Hungry Ghost, a voracious apparition with an enormous belly and a tiny pinhole mouth, who eats and eats but is never full.
Confession: I still doubt myself. A lot. Even though I’ve lived more than half a century, even though I’ve been putting pen to paper on an almost daily basis since I was nine years old, even though I’ve made the arts my profession throughout my entire adult life, as actor/writer/solo performer/producer at various times, I still ask myself why I do these things and what makes them worth doing.
There’s an ebb and flow to this inner questioning—there are periods in which I’m so utterly absorbed by the work itself that the existential dilemmas blessedly recede and I’m carried along by the current of pure doing. Love those times. But when the Muse takes a call on her cell, leaving me with the ditherings of my own mind and the eternal struggle for a more disciplined daily existence, the doubting voices return. The most persistent of these is the one that says Why bother in the face of…fill in the blank: mortality, climate change, humans’ abhorrent treatment of each other, violence, racism, poverty, greed…
A year ago, I added regular teaching to the list of creative endeavors that comprise my professional life. Leading others in the act of writing has been an incredible gift, but it’s also ignited a blazing new round of self-doubt. Who am I to take the lead? Am I capable of holding a room? What do I have to give? And accompanying all of that, the old underlying refrain: why why why why why…
Since this inner Why has been with me for so long, I’ve developed a litany of responses, drawn primarily from the work of other artists: songs, poems, passages from favorite books. So when the questions arise within me, these alternate voices rise up to answer them. Together they form a kind of Manifesto of the Creative Life, a buttress against despair. This is why. And this. And this. I share them with you today, dear Reader, in the hope that they may help you through your own moments of darkness. And if these things don’t resonate with you as they do with me, I hope the examination they sprung from may inspire you to develop a Manifesto of your own.
The other day I was reading about an ancient Japanese art called Kintsugi, in which, if a ceramic object such as a bowl breaks, it’s repaired using a lacquer mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum. Once repaired, the fault lines are illuminated, making the object increasingly beautiful as it ages. The philosophy behind Kintsugi treats the process of fracture and repair as part of an object’s history, something to be celebrated rather than hidden or disguised.
This got me thinking about marriage.
I’ve been with my spouse for seventeen years now. And though it’s not easy to share this, I’m going to summon my wobbly courage and tell you: My marriage is not perfect. There have been deep fissures, gashes, cracks that are difficult to repair. In the complex soup of a shared life, the flavors of laughter, tenderness and delight are liberally seasoned with rage, frustration and tears.
It’s been more than a year since we moved across the country, but there are still boxes that I haven’t unpacked. Last weekend I came across a delicate bubble-wrapped packet inside a small jewelry box. When I carefully pulled back the tape and unfolded the bubble-wrap, out fell a tiny gleaming Star of David on a slender silver chain. Made of iridescent glass, it shimmered when I moved it back and forth.
I was celebrating my son’s birthday on Mackinac Island when Death crashed in.
Death was not invited. The clear blue sky with its scudding clouds, the bright yet tender sun, the gentle breeze, the crunchy tang of deep-fried pickles, the waves, the rocks, the lighthouse, the bikes: all of these were on the guest list, but Death was not. Nevertheless, Death showed up.
When I was younger, I was judgmental about the use of anti-depressants. I thought that unless you were so depressed that you couldn’t get out of bed, taking anti-depressants was a cop-out, a refusal to engage with your own darkness. When a college friend started taking them, I was disappointed. I thought she was depriving herself of an essential part of the human journey, that facing whatever arose unadulterated was part of what was required to season the soul.
I was judgmental about meditation too: I thought it was a waste of precious time that was better spent taking practical, concrete action to make the world a better place.
I was born and raised in Kansas, and though I haven’t lived there in more than thirty years, its stretches of wheat and corn are within me still. That’s the thing about where you’re from. Even if, like me, you’re born to Jews and immigrants, who are no more of that place than an olive tree or an arctic fox, you are of that place simply by growing up there. Somehow the soil of the place, the shape of it, takes root inside you and never lets go.