Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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I’ve started wearing a tie. To anyone who’s known me for the past fifteen years, this is highly improbable, as if I’d started wearing a dress. I didn’t even have a tie until recently, but I’ve been buying them at the Thrift Shop, for fifty cents each — modest, conservative ties. I’m not dressing as a clown. I’m trying to look like a businessman.
The first day I came in that way, there were some exaggerated double-takes, a couple of jokes, but no one seemed quite as surprised as I was. I went into the bathroom two or three times to check myself out in the mirror. Notwithstanding my beard (hardly a symbol of anything anymore) and my floppy curls, I looked respectable. I remembered to keep my shoes on, too, though for years I’ve worked barefoot; in the winter, I usually pad around the office in my socks.
Finally, I settled down to work. A couple of hours went by. It was quiet, as it usually is. Once in a while a friend may stop in; every few months, a subscriber says hello. This day, of all days, there was a knock on the door: a couple from Georgia, wanting to meet the editor.
I got up to greet them. They were in their twenties, easy-going — he had long blond hair and a generous smile; she was a little shy, standing off to the side. She wore a peasant dress. He wore a hippie shirt and overalls. I think they were barefoot, but I can’t remember for sure; I was too nervous, worried about the way I was dressed. I was concerned they’d make a quick judgment about me the way I so often do about others. I wanted them to know this wasn’t how I usually looked, but that seemed ridiculous. I wanted them to know I was one of us — pure, poor, a prince of a guy in a pauper’s disguise. But here I was, in my new disguise, already afraid it was working.
Why the tie? Oddly enough, it’s because of a book I just read, Chögyam Trungpa’s Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior, a profound statement about learning who we really are, discovering our true power and dignity. To live as a spiritual warrior, Trungpa says, is to be always aware, the way a good fighter is aware. It means noticing every change — the rustling of branches, the rustling of thoughts. When the mind and body are synchronized, meditation isn’t something we do (or don’t do) once a day but is instead a way of life.
A warrior pays attention to people, too. He gives up anything that is a barrier between himself and others. Trungpa respects tradition — the family, all the generations that came before us and advanced human life through hard work and sacrifice. The warrior honors the past as well as the present and does what is expected of him — not blindly, but with unerring sensitivity to the moment. There’s nothing contradictory, Trungpa suggests, about living spiritually and wearing a three-piece suit to a business meeting. That is the appropriate attire, so why not wear it? To show others we’re different, more original, perhaps smarter than they? This isn’t the warrior’s way. So, too, with how we stand, walk, sit. Feet belong on the floor, not on the desk, he says. It’s too easy to put our feet on the desk. It suggests we’re free, that our minds are free, but that kind of relaxation, Trungpa says, has nothing to do with real freedom at all.
To me, these were disquieting thoughts. I’d made a career out of being different, breaking the rules. Living authentically has meant, among other things, dressing to satisfy myself, and not others, putting my feet where I pleased. Even though I ran a business, I never thought of myself as a businessman; I was a maverick publisher, in my heart a poet still, a seeker — not for success or profit — but for truth. Struggling to pay the bills enhanced the drama. Jeans and tee-shirts, the more frayed the better, told the world who I was.
Trungpa’s words came like a tap on the shoulder. I turned around and there it was — the obvious truth. Yes, I’m a poet, a romantic, something of a hero and a fool. And I’m also in business. I’m a businessman. My ambivalence about making money, about THE SUN being a financial success, was hardly a sign of spirituality. Maybe wearing a tie would teach me something.
Dressing this way makes me more aware than ever how deep-seated are my prejudices against wealth and success. Even the appearance of success makes me uncomfortable. Individually, I don’t think I judge wealthy people more harshly than I do anyone else — but isn’t that like the charitable racist who acknowledges there are a few exceptions to the rule?
My way of seeing the world was shaped by the radical politics of the Sixties. As a college student, I marched for civil rights. I wrote editorials against the Vietnam War. I pondered a world divided into haves and have-nots, a society abandoning itself to exploitation and greed, turning out worthless goods whose manufacture benefited a privileged few.
Nothing seemed more important to me than to change this. When I got out of college, I became a newspaper reporter because I thought this would give me that chance. From the start, I suffered what we now call liberal guilt. Though my salary was modest, and I lived in a small apartment in an unassuming neighborhood, I knew I had a great deal compared to the poor. I tried to make it obvious where my sympathies were. I grew a beard. I wore scuffed shoes. With a raised eyebrow and a wry smile, I got the point across: I was one of us, not one of them. But since, in New York City, the downtrodden and disenfranchised tended to be black and I tended to be white, there was always the possibility someone would misunderstand.
One summer night, my editor sent me to cover a race riot, cautioning me to stay behind police lines. I quickly discovered there were no police lines with snipers firing from a half-dozen rooftops. Well past midnight, I followed a couple of cops down a deserted street and then, somehow, lost them. I’d been up and down these streets before — indeed, this was the kind of neglected neighborhood I had pledged to turn into an urban paradise — but that was usually during the day, in the company of an anti-poverty worker or a black politician. They may or may not have been convinced I was one of us, but neither had they suggested that, if in doubt, they’d shoot me. Whereas now, walking as quickly and quietly away from there as I could, I knew, that from the superior vantage of a rooftop, there was no doubt: I was one of them.
I didn’t get shot and I didn’t save the world. That turned out to be more difficult than I’d imagined. It wasn’t the corporations and the government that created the greed and the exploitation, I came to realize; rather it was the greed in individuals, the confusion about how to live in the world, that created the oppressive institutions. After all, this had been going on for thousands of years; it didn’t start in America, or with the industrial revolution, or with the wheel. It started with human nature. That insight brought me to a crossroads: I could become cynical about humanity, with ample evidence that all our hells were self-created, or I could turn from the world to face myself, and see in my own habits of thought, my guilt and fear, the real “enemy.”
Starting THE SUN ten years ago was an opportunity to give form to this understanding. It was the medium and the message. Any job would have given me a chance to work on myself, but THE SUN allows me to marry working on myself with working in the world. It’s an enormous blessing and challenge: because my life and THE SUN’s life are so entwined, I can’t pretend there’s one code of ethics for me personally and another for me as a publisher. Exaggerating circulation figures to sell more advertising is no different than lying to my wife. There are countless other examples, as in any business. With an organization like THE SUN there’s the extra temptation to rationalize that it’s for a “good cause.”
Good causes are dangerous. They attract the right people for the right reasons; thus the traps are more subtle. Being devoted to truth is one thing; being devoted to an organization devoted to truth is something else. One of my favorite stories — Ram Dass tells it — is about God and Satan walking down the street. The Lord bends down and picks something up, and gazes at it glowing radiantly in his hand. Curious, Satan asks what it is. “This,” answers the Lord, “is truth.” “Here,” replies Satan, as he reaches for it, “let me have that — I’ll organize it for you.”
I tried to get this idea across to a friend recently but instead I got into trouble. She’s a writer and a good one too, who for the past couple of years has earned a living doing public relations for a new age organization. Because of the demands of the job her own writing has suffered, and she knows it. But my suggestion that she stay away from public relations — from any job that required her to use her gift to push a point of view, no matter how enlightened — wasn’t well received. She thought I was accusing her of selling out, and that this had more to do my my fears about myself than with what was right for her.
She’s got a point and so do I. I know how easy it is, even at THE SUN, to lose the thread, to become so absorbed in the endless details, the organization of truth, that I forget who I am and why I’m here. How often have I pushed aside my own writing? How many days have I given of myself unstintingly — without pausing for a quiet moment, a really naked moment, a moment of truth? We can sell out overtly — doing something for the money, rather than out of a deeply-felt need — or we can sell out by trading our reality for an identity, any identity. No role we play in this world is as big as who we really are. This magazine exists, in part, to remind us of that and I live with the delicious irony that, as its busy editor, I keep forgetting it.
My forgetfulness is at the heart of my dilemma about being a businessman. I become entangled in the role, enchanted. But it’s like any other role — father, writer, lover. If I become too identified with it, I start feeling lost. My vision narrows: the world becomes shadowy, pale, a backdrop for the drama I’m enacting. Interestingly, the dramas all have one thing in common: fear. Not enough money, not enough love, not enough time. Instead of feeling creative and alive, I feel empty and powerless. Every struggle becomes a struggle for survival, as long as I’m wandering through this dream.
Into the dream, I bring my particular prejudices: my distrust of success, my conflicts about my own needs. These form the dream landscape in which I travel, like Don Quixote, mistaking my own projections for what’s real. Here we have the noble poor — in my dream, all the poor are noble — and the undeserving rich. Once again, it’s us versus them, a dream of separateness in which I’m endlessly divided from myself, from abundance, from true generosity of spirit.
How would the spiritual warrior avoid this trap, not fall asleep? How would he sell the advertising, pay the bills, ask the readers for support? How would he remember?
Before I go to bed at night I pick out the tie I’m going to wear the next day. How long will I keep doing this? I don’t know. For now, it helps me remember. I wake up in the morning and put on the tie and wake up a little more.