Be Your Sh*tty Self: Book Review

shitty self

Isn’t the Internet is the best invention ever!  I use it every day to do my research on a variety of topics; it keeps me informed about what’s happening in my community and the world and most of all, via social media, helps me connect with people who I otherwise, would never met. Sometimes I connect with others who practice Zen Buddhism, and sit Zazen. Zen is the form of Buddhism that I am attracted to, probably because of the silence. I like sitting in silence. It’s a nice contrast to my noisy life. I live in Southern California. Traffic jams. Crazy drivers. People who are obsessed with looking trendy. Fake boobs. Fake personalities. Why do I live here? The ocean. The beach. Health food stores, great vegan restaurants, my terrific oncology doctors are here, and a variety cultures and lifestyles all thrown in to one crazy mix. And I am only a few hours away (in any direction) to experience the desert or the mountains. But the Internet allows me to travel anywhere in the world without leaving the comfort of my futon. Sometimes people even find me.

Mark Van Buren

Mark Van Buren

Mark Van Buren, a yoga teacher, recently found my blog (the one your on right now) and left a comment about one of my posts. I found out he wrote also wrote a book about meditation, specifically Zazen and I wanted to know more. It’s titled, Be Your Sh*tty Self and I knew right then, I had to read it. He sent me a copy. I wasn’t sure what to expect even though the title was humorous. Would it condone asshole behavior? Was it meant to be sarcasm? Mark is twenty-something and I read his generation can be a bit self-centered—and I do live a few miles away from the self-absorbed capital of the world… Hollywood! The only way to find out was to read the book.

I was hooked after reading the first paragraph:

“One day I was listening to a talk given by a Buddhist teacher, when a woman in the audience revealed that no matter how much she meditated and was aware of herself throughout the day, she was still just her same old shitty self. Her brutally honest confession cloaked in humor made me sit up and take notice. Finally, someone who felt the same way as me! I didn’t know this woman, nor had I ever met her, but I was sure as hell relieved to hear someone else was struggling like I was.”

That sounds like me! I struggle with my “shitty self” all the time (especially when I have to interact with rude, self-absorbed people. Remember… I live in Southern California, but that doesn’t stop me from being disappointed in my own behavior).  I knew I could relate to what Mark was writing about even though we are a generation apart. Many of the Buddhism books I read are written by monks and Zen priests, which is good, but sometimes they get all “esoteric” on me and I have no idea what they are taking about. Take koans as an example. I can read a Zen koan a hundred times and it still sounds like an algebra problem to me (algebra and geometry are not my best subjects). I know these writers from centuries ago are the real deal, but if I don’t understand them, how will that help me? … And keep me interested in studying Zen? I do better with contemporary writers, especially those who live in the same hectic, western world I do. I simply cannot relate  to someone who lives in a cave (not that there’s anything wrong with that). I also cuss. I can relate to someone who has a “colorful” vocabulary like mine. Not that his book is full of cuss words, it’s not, but occasionally you will find one. It makes the author human.

Be Your Shitty Self, is divided into two parts; Section I: Concepts and Beliefs. Section II: Applications and Practices. It’s easy to read, with several anecdotal stories that we all (probably most of us at least) have experienced and how to deal with a particular situation. Of course the theme is meditation and mindfulness. How many of you read books on “how to meditate” or watched videos, but the author never went in to detail about the actual experience of meditation? They make it seem so easy, but when I did it, I experienced all kinds of problems. Why couldn’t I just “sit” like the pros? Did they know something I didn’t? Why was meditating so hard? How many have given up because they think it’s too hard to do it “right”? Mark challenges that excuse:

“The excuse I hear most often from people is that meditation is too hard. “I can’t stop my mind from thinking,” people complain to me. This excuse comes from a misperception that thoughts need to be stopped when practicing meditation. As discussed prior, your thoughts are not to be annihilated—they’re to be noticed and then released.The idea that thoughts must be stopped is not only the wrong approach to meditation, but it also fills your head with the impression that your thoughts are bad, creating an internal war between the object of meditation and your thoughts. This leaves you more tense than you were before you began. Warring with yourself is the complete opposite of what you are trying to do when you sit and meditate. Let go of the struggle. There need not be any wars in your mind during your practice. Label your thoughts “thinking” and then let them go, even if it happens a thousand times in your session.”

Yay! Finally, someone says it’s normal to have thoughts invade your meditation. Actually, another contemporary author, Brad Warner, said the same thing, but it’s nice to know there are more Zen practitioners who admit it.

So many of the conservative Zen authors come across quite formal (and that’s ok) but I am anything but a formal kinda gal. (I wear my leopard coat over my pajamas when I walk my dogs in the morning.) I like to laugh. I have a sick sense of humor and love to prank people. A sense of humor got me through my cancer treatments. I think a lot of people’s problems stem from the fact that they take themselves too seriously and don’t laugh at themselves. Mark seems to agree.

Humor will be your best friend when things get tough, and it will allow space in your mind for the problems of life to float freely through, causing less harm to yourself and those around you.”

Mark’s book is going on the shelf to join my other books on meditation. I enjoyed it and recommend it to anyone who wants to learn how to meditate and find out what it means to live as a “shitty self.”

You buy a copy on Amazon.




Sitting Zazen with Brad Warner

Brad and me

Brad and me

I have not devoted a full day to myself in a few weeks, so today I planned to do make some collage pictures, stay in doors and lay low — that is until I read one of the blogs I follow. I really don’t remember how I stumbled on to Brad Warner’s books. He is a fifty-year old Zen priest who lived in Santa Monica (He now lives in Philadelphia), plays in a punk band and wrote three books about Zen Buddhism. They aren’t the typical mainstream Zen books you will find in your local bookstore. That’s probably why his writings clicked with me (I am anything but mainstream). So last night I looked to see what he was writing about and discovered he is here for the day, in Culver City, California. That is about an hour north of me. My collage would have to wait. I was going to sit Zazen with Brad and other devotees.

My day started at 7am. After a quick breakfast and walking the dogs, I was on the 405 freeway to formally sit Zazen, something I haven’t done in ten years. The freeway was clear which is a good and  bad. If it’s rush hour, cars are going slower and I feel more relaxed. If the roads are clear, drivers speed and dart in and out of traffic. There’s always some guy riding my bumper. I go the speed limit, so I guess the guy behind me thinks, if he gets close enough to my rear-end I’ll speed up. That never works but it sometimes makes me nervous. Today I ignored them and thought back to when I went to the San Francisco Zen Center.

When I lived in the City I went several times a month to sit 5:30pm Zazen. I really enjoyed meditating with a group and reciting the Heart Sutra at the end. Would today’s experience be the same or different? The last time I sat Zazen was New Year’s Eve 2004. I took the city bus, which was free to all riders that night, to keep party goers who had too much to drink, from driving. It was an interesting experience coming back from midnight Zazen and watching other passengers. At one point someone stood up and sang, “The wheels on the bus go round and round.” The others quickly joined in. It was quite a contrast from the hour long silent meditation I just came from.

I was in Culver City before I knew it. We were meeting in a room at the Veteran’s Memorial Building. Right across the street is Sony Picture Studios. The Sony Pictures (where they make movies and television shows). How cool is that!

I had no idea which room we were meeting in so I just wandered the building until I spotted Brad (He looks just like his photos on the book jacket) standing around waiting for someone to open the door. There were around seventeen of us when we started. The last time I sat Zazen I did not have a walker. Today I brought my fancy one that comes with a seat so I could sit and meditate on that.

When you do Zazen meditation you keep your eyes open (barely open anyway) and face a wall. The wall I was facing had a large window above me and the blinds were partially open. I couldn’t reach the stick to close them, so the hot sun was on my face the whole time. I ended up squinting because of the sun’s rays. Oh well, I was sitting Zazen and that’s all that mattered.

For the most part my monkey brain behaved, but I did find myself daydreaming about being outdoors in a motor home, enjoying the day. The scene in my mind was quite relaxing so I decided to let the images hang around for a while. It was certainly better than rehashing old arguments with people, something I can do all day long if I allow it. Meditation has really helped put a stop to that. I still get those thoughts, but I see them for what they are and can move on.

We meditated for thirty minutes (which felt like ten) and before I knew it we were having a discussion about what it means to be a bodhisattva and what taking the vows of a bodhisattva mean. I don’t know if that is what Brad had in mind for his dharma talk, but that was the first question someone asked. This group was less formal than San Francisco, which is fine with me. One of the things I want to practice more of is to “go with the flow.” I figure I am here today for the experience and hopefully learn something, and I did.

I learned that I live my life (although not perfectly) as a bodhisattva already. I do try to be kind to others and to take care of creatures big and small. Here is a quick reference to those vows:

1.I vow to save innumerable sentient beings.
2.I vow to eliminate endless afflictions/delusions.
3.I vow to learn innumerable doctrines.
4.I vow to accomplish the unsurpassed Buddha Way

A few weeks ago my kitchen was over run with ants. We are in the midst of a drought and they are looking for water and they found it — in my kitchen. They found the cat food too. How would I ever get them back outside? I keep a clear plastic cup in a cupboard to relocate critters that find their way indoors, but there were too many ants to do that. I vacuumed them up and I felt terrible. They can’t help it. They are wanting to survive. I would do the same thing if I were an ant, unless I was the Queen ant, then I’d sit around doing queen stuff (whatever that is).

My point is that I don’t like to see any sentient creature suffer, whether it’s a homeless person or an ant. We all have a right to be here on this beautiful planet and I think we all basically want the same thing — to live in peace and enjoy life. I am guessing that ants feel the same way (I know they don’t have brains) but we don’t know what they “feel.” Just because a creature is physically different than us doesn’t mean they experience life any differently. After many studies we now know that animals experience similar emotions like us humans. Why not ants?

A couple hours after I arrived for Zazen, I was back on the freeway heading back to Anaehim. I enjoyed myself. I even got to recite the Heart Sutra with the group. I was home.

This is a good video of the Heart Sutra that I do by myself:

If you’re interested in Zen Buddhism from a different perspective, check out Brad’s books:






The Lotus Position

yoga dog

When you think of meditating, what image do you see in your mind? I’m guessing most of us see ourselves sitting cross-legged with our arms resting on our knees and our thumbs touching our forefinger. Most yoga magazines show this position as being the correct way to meditate. But is it really? I mean sitting in that position for any length of time is uncomfortable (to say the least).

Several years ago, when I lived in San Francisco, I visited a Tibetan Buddhist temple — that was during my check-out-different-spiritual-teachings period. I arrived at the temple with no expectations, although I did know we would be meditating at some point. I don’t remember all the details but I do know we sat for forty-five minutes — in lotus position. Each of us sat on a flat cushion on a tile floor and the Buddhist Leader in charge of the meditation, sat in front on a large throne-like chair perched a few feet above us. I know there was chanting, but since it was my first time, I have no idea what was being said so I just listened.

I don’t know how much time went by before my ankles started to hurt. I began focusing on my discomfort instead of what was going on — like the chanting. I didn’t want to adjust my position because I was afraid of interrupting the group and I didn’t see anyone else shifting their position, so I continued to sit. More time went by and finally the pain stopped. My legs were numb. Thank God! At least now I could focus on the chanting.

The chanting finally stopped and the person in charge said we were finished or something to that effect. The other students unwrapped their legs, stretched and stood up. I tried to copy them but soon discovered that my legs were not cooperating. They wouldn’t budge. I didn’t want anyone to notice I was having trouble so I scooted around the cushion trying to jiggle my legs to move. They wouldn’t budge. It was like they were frozen. This went on for what seemed to me an hour, when the Buddhist Leader asked some men from the group to help me stand up. I guess he had been watching me struggle. The two men offered their assistance; one got on each side of me and pulled my arms up. My body came up but my legs were still in lotus. I started laughing (which is how I cope with most embarrassing situations). It took some maneuvering by the three of us but finally I was standing with my feet firmly on the floor. However, my legs were still not right and I walked with a limp for the rest of the evening.

That was pretty much my introduction to meditation, — lotus style. Since then I have meditated on and off (more off, than on) over the years. I read about different methods of meditating — some claiming their way was the only correct way. I recently read a Zen book whose author claimed that the correct way to sit Zazen was in lotus pose (actually he didn’t say lotus pose, I’m mixing in yoga jargon), while staring at a blank wall. He added that sitting this way could bring discomfort but that was part of the meditation. He mentioned it was part of becoming “aware.” Well, I don’t know about him but I had enough “discomfort” in 2011 to last me a lifetime, only back then, what my radiologist called discomfort, I called hellish pain. The last thing I want to experience when I meditate is more pain.

I’m guessing most of us who meditate aren’t into that either, so I meditated on this guys opinion for awhile and came to the conclusion, there isn’t a right way or wrong way to meditate — it’s all about achieving what the individual wants to get out of it. If pain is the goal then, mazel tov! For me, its being aware of my body and surroundings, not to mention the disjointed thoughts that pop into my head.

When I was getting treatment for cancer, I chose visualization as my form of meditation, with some guided affirmations thrown in. I don’t do those as much now but when I feel the urge, I go with it. Sitting Zazen is my favorite but I do my interpretation of it — meaning I do not sit lotus. I can only get in to lotus position when I do yoga and its only for a few minutes. The idea of “no pain – no gain,” does not sit well with me. I think that’s very wrong thinking if taken literally. If my body is in pain, its telling me to stop whatever I’m doing or I could very well pay for it later.

I was much more limber before I got cancer. The radiation treatments shrank the tumors along with muscle tone in my lower back. My muscles are much tighter these days. I still do a modified yoga and feel looser when I’m done but the next day I am back to square one. When I sit Zazen, I choose to sit on a comfortable chair with my back as straight as I can get it, my hands folded together on my lap. There isn’t a blank wall for me to stare at in my small abode, so I close my eyes instead. It works for me. I still get the same results as others who sit Zazen and that’s all that matters.

I liken it to yoga. Years ago I tried out different yoga classes but stopped because I saw myself in competition with others in the class. I couldn’t get into the same pretzel-like positions as them. I was self-conscious of my inability to touch my toes or do a tree pose without falling over.  It wasn’t until last year, after reading an article written by a yogi, that yoga isn’t about getting into that perfect position. Its about a frame of mind and that’s how I view practicing Zazen. Maybe the guy who thinks pain is part of the correct way to sit Zazen but I disagree. Maybe he feels more alive if he feels pain. I don’t. Like I said, I experienced enough of that.