Friday, October 31, 2008

Was Don Quixote serious?

I've been prompted this morning to wake up early and have my breakfast at a local bakery (Panera Bread). It's already the end of the week and I'm seized by that terrible feeling I could have gotten more accomplished. So I launch my morning in a final attempt to squeeze the juice to the last drop. At 9:30 a.m.--when I'm usually sitting at my computer and checking email in my boxer shorts--I'm at the library ready to work.

Last night I watched a clip on YouTube with my girlfriend. I'd seen this clip the night before but because it made me think I wanted to see it again. In this short video, Alan Watts, a British philosopher and student of comparative religion, asks the question, "Is it serious?"

By "it" he means the drama of human existence. And this is a question that has lurked in the back of my mind for some years now. I've wondered about the illusory nature of reality; I studied Buddhism for awhile. I've questioned my deepest struggles and asked whether they were basic or essential, or simply an involuntary creation of my emotions and my ego.

Ask my girlfriend, I am not an especially serious person, and I can even be downright nonsensical at times. I am however very goal-oriented and I take great pleasure in getting things accomplished. In addition, I'm a writer and it seems that writers have to prove themselves before anyone takes them "seriously". Which means, by extension, I have to take myself seriously.

Mr. Watts points out the distinction between work and play. Work tends to follow a linear path; we are working toward a certain end point, even if that end point is the beginning of more, perhaps different, work. In contrast, when we play we have no destination in mind, and the object of play is play itself.

Where does my rigid mentality toward life come from? Was I taught this attitude of seriousness? At times even my play feels effortful and self-conscious. In the last chapter, Autumn Unfolds, I talked about how nature unfolds rather than works to become the different seasons. The leaves fall without effort, not a moment too early, not a moment too late.

I've lost touch with my internal clock. It may be in sync with the seasons but I'm not in sync with it. The clock that I bow down to is the external one on my dashboard. I need to keep an eye on the hour so that everything gets done in a day.

Should there be a point to everything? Should there be a destination?

I've forgotten about the journey. The journey has completely slipped my mind.

Let me tell you a story. In my junior year of college, I dropped out of school. I was on drugs and my parents wanted to send me to rehab so I went to a fancy rehab center in Tuscon, Arizona. After twenty eight days in rehab, they said I wasn't done yet so I went to live in a half-way house in California.

While I was supposed to be getting clean, I was fantasizing about a journey. I wanted to run away from the halfway house and travel around the South West. It depressed me that I was stuck in a house full of ex-junkies and that my day was strictly regimented, drug classes in the morning, work in the afternoon, AA meetings at night. It angered me that I had to sweep the floor, cut the lawn, pull the weeds, and clean the toilets. There seemed to be no end to these menial jobs. My life had become all work and no play.

One afternoon I bought a bottle of whiskey and drank it in the parking lot behind the liquor store. They tested us for alcohol every week, and so I got caught. They asked me to leave the halfway house. Finally, I had the perfect excuse to go on my journey. Like Don Quixote, I set off to an unknown land. Instead of a skinny horse I took a battered Greyhound bus; instead of chasing windmills I went to Las Vegas.

During this erratic wandering, I didn't have a goal in mind. Without a destination or even a purpose for leading an existence other than to have adventures, I immersed myself in a sort of dreamworld. The people I met would enter into my Novel of Life and become instant characters.

I traveled from Las Vegas back to Tuscon and then I hitchhiked through Arizona, where I was picked up by strangers on the highway, and on some nights I slept in the desert. Looking back it seems there was more "play" during this time of my life than any other. My undisciplined mind exulted in breaking the rules of a serious life and "playing" with the limits of reality. Doctors and psychologists had a hard time talking to me because I turned everything into a performance. I also suffered from delusions of grandeur.

Today, almost ten years later, I find myself confronted with the opposite extreme. Too much work and not enough play. I am living the regime of the halfway house without the halfway house itself. My adolescent self understood something that not even my adult self can grasp. If somebody had played the Alan Watt's clip for me, I would have recognized the philosophy as my own. Back then, it was my job to undermine seriousness. I mocked authority figures who seemed to represent a culture of goal-oriented freaks.

While it's true I've become one of those goal-oriented freaks, I do understand that play is not simply a wild rampage. Play is more nuanced than I once thought in my adolescence. The drama of existence may not be serious, but on the other hand, it is also no joke. Therein lies the paradox.


haroldcabezas said...

Wow, what a crazy went through some serious s***. Very interesting. Thanks so much for posting the Alan Watts piece, I have been thinking of it since I viewed it the day you posted it. I have always liked him, but I had never seen that video. Thanks again!!

Lethe said...


I'm so glad we've connected. Thus far I'm only following three people (on Twitter) and you're one of them.

Alan Watts was a genius. Have you ever read his book about Taoism called "What is Tao?" That book openned up my mind. What I love about Watts is his frank, conversational tone and his ability to simplify a discussion about human nature and the way things are. Also, he's not religious, which helps. That is to say, he's all religions, not only Buddhism or Taoism. But he wants to understand religion not merely follow it.

As for the story being crazy, it's the story of my life and that's why I'm writing the epic of my adolescence and publishing it for the world to see.


haroldcabezas said...


Thanks, I enjoy the multiple items you post on Twine. I am familiar with Alan Watts somewhat, but these posts have whetted my appetite to read much more of his material. And yes, I agree w/ him and you-I enjoy religion from afar.

Great stuff, keep writing, it must be therapeutic and it the same time I am sure there are many people to whom it may help tremendously. All the best....

tashabud said...

You got me thinking about life in general here. I should ponder on this to understand my real existence in this life, whether I'm serious or playing and whether I'm physical or imagined.

I watched the video and am saddened to hear that in the end of our lives, it's all a lie? I'm not sure if I understood that part very well. I also read almost all about Allan Watts's biography. He lived a very interesting, colorful, rich, and diverse life--like yourself.

Anyway, I enjoyed reading your post. Excellente!excellente!


Lethe said...

To give a good example which just came to mind after Obama won the election. I thought of this whole year-long election season and the madness and the theater. Think of Sarah Palin with her outrageous remarks and McCain's angry temperament, Obama's cool judicial character, I mean they're all characters. And our emotions which run high during this "political comedy" prove just how un-serious this whole thing is. The media cannot possibly be taken seriously, they exacerbate our emotions and the candidates, Obama included, are forced to participate in this theater of emotions. So was the election real? Was it serious? I say no, I say it was mostly play-acting, mostly exaggeration, and theatrics, with a tiny bit of truth. The truth may just be that it's not serious. . . And yet you cannot go so far as to say it's a joke either. Obama is a man of high character, he's on another level of integrity. He sees through the theater and perhaps that what makes him stand above it. So there is a place to stand then, above the non-seriousness. But to do this you can't take yourself seriously and Obama can be both.

Patricia Lanchester said...

Today I spent some real time reading your postings and found that we are already like-minded. How fantastic it is to find such beauty in living, as you have. Your writing is so touching and I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

Lethe said...

Thank you Patricia,

I look forward to reading your writing as well.


Richmonde said...

Doctors 100 or 200 years ago might have diagnosed a "fugue" - they thought running away and wandering was pathological. But at least they recognised a syndrome. Performance? Grandiosity? Sounds like many teenagers, but perhaps you were a bit more so. I hope you learned that drugs and drink don't help. You were lucky to have the southwest to wander around. Glad you didn't get lost in the desert. If you wandered around the English southwest you'd just get tired of waiting for a bus... Tho a lot of hippies wander down there and stick.

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