By way of an introduction…
For some time now my mom has been asking me to send an update to our large Louisiana family about my current whereabouts and life plan.
I admit I’ve been hesitant. It’s not easy to account for where I find myself at the age of 32, without a job, living in America’s most expensive city. But I have been trying to put pen to paper. I’ve almost drawn up a five-year plan, yet all that’s penciled in so far is tomorrow.
I kid, but it’s kind of true. There’s part of me that wonders where I went wrong. Another part wonders if I went wrong at all. Boohoo, cry the privileged. It’s a wonder anyone still listens to us at all.
Last October I finished my PhD in American history. It’s turned out to be a good idea in many ways except the most practical ones. I am a writer and an educator; I’ve been writing and teaching for years now. But a few months ago I decided to leave the place I lived since 2008. Grad school ended, and so did a certain phase of life, it seemed. The stability I’d gathered, the career I’d sort-of started, I swiftly dispelled almost in one fell swoop. On a plane flying west, back to where I came from.
I moved back to San Francisco on a lark and a lurch. I returned in part because I study the lasting legacies of the 1960s, especially the so-called human potential movement. That movement is alive and well in the Bay Area, and as I laid plans to leave my wintry haven in Rochester, NY, I envisioned myself entering a new phase of less scholarly, more experiential research.
Since I got here three months ago, I’ve spent some time dabbling and gathering notes. I’ve experienced many varieties of yoga, mindfulness, meditation, processing groups, encounter groups, hot springs, Rolfing, sensory awareness training, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, Feldenkrais Method, Rhythm and Motion, Chakra chanting, social and emotional learning, gratitude and forgiveness exercises, sound healing, Dance Your Bliss, Ecstatic Dance, 5 Rhythms, a 10-week self-expression class called Free Your Voice, and, most recently, a workshop at the San Francisco Theosophical Society on Sound and Singularity.
It’s been a lot, and my body and mind are still not quite free, not quite whole.
One hypothesis is that I’m wasting my time, basking in the latest offerings of the new-age consumer marketplace and forgetting how the other half lives. But the radical premise the Sixties put on the map is that all this middle-class comfort-zone testing may not (yet) be a waste of time.
Perhaps we’re actually getting somewhere, actually bringing something new and vital and worthwhile into the world.
At the very least, this is another hypothesis worth testing.
Even as our experiments often appear — and often are — self-indulgent, we may be developing models that have the power to help heal the wider culture.
That’s a tall order and a big ambition. But like I said, I am a student of the Sixties. Now I’m here trying to put my body on the line, so to speak, keeping that big-S faith alive.
* * *
One major obstacle is that San Francisco is plainly not what it used to be. It is still a beautiful, historic city. It used to be a great place for artists and writers. But now it’s mainly a great place for rich people.
The obvious case in point is what everyone here talks about: rent. From May 1 to July 31, I lived in a furnished room in a three-bedroom flat and paid $1,550 a month. One-bedroom apartments here regularly go for $2500–3500 a month. So, without much income, and without much hope for income of the Google-employee strata, I have chosen to radically reconsider my options.
Many say that San Francisco is presently owned and operated by the Tech People. This is not entirely true, but their influence is palpable. The smell of money is everywhere (except for where the homeless congregate), as are references to start-ups, apps I’ve never heard of, and bright ads that conflate progress with all manner of electronic spectacle.
I thought before I moved here that I might embrace some of the futurism and try to make peace with it on some uncertain terms. But predictably I have felt mostly at odds with the dominant ethos.
During my first month and a half I started and quit a few jobs. I also began to find my people. Yesterday I moved in to the San Francisco Zen Center, also known as Beginners Mind Temple. Naturally, it was founded during the Sixties.
The temple follows the Soto Zen tradition from Japan, which emphasizes “studying the self” through sitting meditation. Observing thoughts, feelings, and sensations is part of Zen study, but the object is simply to accept what’s happening moment-to-moment and keep breathing.
According to one of the Zen Center’s introductory pamphlets, the goal of practice is “to meet whatever arises with total energy and a calm, open mind, allowing everything to be just as it is, regardless of whether we like or agree with it.”
As far as I can tell, this is what is meant by being and becoming a beginner (again). At this point in my life it’s exactly what I need.
So, for the foreseeable future, I will be working in the temple’s kitchen and on the grounds, meditating in the zendo, eating communal meals, and generally learning what it’s like to be part of a Sangha, or Buddhist community.
This is unlike anything I’ve done before. I grew up in an Americanized Indian Yogic tradition called Self-Realization Fellowship, but I’ve had very little exposure to Buddhism or anything Japanese.
Already I feel the Zen Center is much deeper than some of the other cultural vanguards I’ve brushed elbows with. But I’m also beginning to see that everything is connected.
* * *
I decided to start writing on Medium to chart my journey and offer a window into the strange world of contemporary counterculture from the admittedly genteel perspective of an American cultural historian.
I used to think that once I finished grad school I would happily embrace the mantle of freelance social criticism. But I’m now working to disavow this role in my new life in California.
The problem with social criticism in the tradition of historians like Christopher Lasch (author of The Culture of Narcissism) is that it’s premised on a rigid separation between the critic and his/her object of scrutiny. The often biting, sharp mode of attack distances and devalues more than it strives to help heal or understand. And the result is often self-defeating.
So, in what follows, I will speak for “we” as opposed to “they.” I will actively advertise the fact that I have joined the fray.
There are things and people in this world worth criticizing and despising. But what the world needs now is love.