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This Surreal Life

June 1, 2011

'Banier: Wake Up!' by Matt Callow via

Sometimes it hits me – bam! – right between the eyes.  I flash back to a younger self.  I tell that girl “You’re living in Los Angeles, sweetie, and you’re gonna join the Navy.”

She laughs and raises a skeptical eyebrow (in that way I imagine I can lift just one eyebrow despite the fact I am not one of those so talented).  “Not bloody likely,” she says with a derisive snort, and turns away.

Now it’s my older self that’s laughing, because life takes us in funny directions.  But beneath the amusement that feeling of disbelief lingers.  And lingers.  And nags at me.

Odd though it all sounds to my ears, even after all this time, the better part of a year, I still can’t quite believe I’m here, I’m doing this.  Which is decidedly strange because the other half of me feels the rightness of it deep down in my bones.

Right?  That’s what this feeling is, isn’t it?  This “I can’t imagine being anywhere else or doing anything other than this” feeling, that’s rightness, yeah?

No one ever said I lacked imagination, so the fact I can’t picture myself anywhere else isn’t from lack of trying.  I tried real hard year before this precisely because the whole notion sounded so damned preposterous.  I looked at jobs and colleges and doctoral programs.  Gave some thought to just picking up and moving somewhere to try my luck.  But it always came back down to this.  So here I am.

And look at me.  I’ve made a life for myself.  Found a home for me and fur-person.  Took some classes.  Joined some clubs.  Student body president.  Making trouble everywhere I go, just like normal (if the word applies). Taken up jogging.  Ugh.  Jogging.  But hey, ahoy matey and all that, or whatever goes in the modern day Navy (probably an acronym).  Even made some good friends along the way who I wouldn’t trade for all the coffee in Kenya and whiskey in Ireland put together (and seeing as I’m on my annual detox from both, that’s saying a lot right now).

Then it hits me, like I’m looking out someone else’s eyes.  Like this is the Twilight Zone or Star Trek or Quantum Leap and I just got blasted into some alternate version of “This Is Your Life.”  And I think for a brief moment, “I want to go home.”

I want the wind in the grass and the storms you can hear coming twenty miles away.  I want my drafty little apartment facing out onto the capitol lawn, the one with the deep iron tub.  I want the Sandhills in the summer and going to movies with my folks on Sundays and ribbing my brother just for walking in the room and fighting with my mother’s cat precisely because she tells me not to.

But I’m here.  In Los Angeles. Two-thousand miles away.  Fixing to join the Navy.  And the only bit that makes a lick of sense is that I’m doing it all for the path – to explore this thing they call Buddhism and I call Life.  That makes it all right, all good, all perfect in a way, no matter how surreal it feels from day to day.  I can forget this feeling for weeks at a time, staring down at the path before my feet.  Then I look up and see the concrete wasteland, the mountains in the distance shrouded in smog, feel the ache in my legs from one last lap, and think “What the hell?”

But you know what?  The more I think about it, the more I think this surreal feeling is a good thing.  I was just so comfy in my drafty little apartment, so distracted by my beautiful thunderstorms, so safe with my family close by that I never looked up.  I hid from this feeling in all the old places, places now lost to me, though I try valiantly to build new ones.  This feeling like it’s all a crazy dream is the more real.  All that’s left to do is wake up.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Noah permalink
    June 8, 2011 12:26 am

    The Navy?
    I’ve never heard of of tree-hugging, progressive, Buddhists in the navy.

    What if someone tells you to shoot a torpedo at someone/something that you don’t want to blow up?

    I guess I’m asking how you would reconcile following your Buddhist ethics with orders that might contradict them?

    I understand that you can’t find a job, so I’m not trying to be a dick…I guess I like talking theory.

    -some guy who stumbled across a comment of yours at

    • June 8, 2011 6:27 am

      It’s a legitimate question, Noah. I’m joining as a chaplain, which is the only officially serving noncombatant in the military. Not only do we not carry guns or shoot torpedo, we are actually prohibited from using doing so if ordered. That, of course, doesn’t make the ethics of it all nice and shiny, because we’re there to serve and help people who do carry guns and shoot torpedoes, which can seem kinda dicey. I guess the most important thing for me (and karma) is intention. The longer I hang around military folk the more I understand they don’t serve because they have the intention to kill but the intention to protect. When it comes down to committing violence (on order or by will), what is your intention when you do it? Do you do everything you can to minimize that violence? I’m not saying that if you do your conscience is clear, because people and contexts are vast and complicated, but this kind of understanding goes a long way towards helping me do what I do (or will do). There are several thousand Buddhists in the US military and I’m sure they all find there own way to deal with what they’re doing. I recommend checking out the Buddhist Military Sangha for more info.

  2. Noah permalink
    June 8, 2011 2:15 pm

    “There are several thousand Buddhists in the US military and I’m sure they all find there own way to deal with what they’re doing. I recommend checking out the Buddhist Military Sangha for more info.”

    I had absolutely no idea that this was the case. Holy crap.

    “Not only do we not carry guns or shoot torpedo, we are actually prohibited from using doing so if ordered.”

    That’s so fucking cool. And INTERESTING! Who knew? Well, not me, at least.
    So, what prohibits you? Is it military code or something? I have no idea how any of that works. I would imagine whatever would prohibit you from taking up arms would have to have more authority than whatever commanding officer would be incorrectly ordering you to fire at someone. Right?

    It’s all so interesting.

    You might find this post interesting, too. It’s by a man named Ogyen Dorje (a very nice guy) on a website run by another great guy named David Chapman (he actually has a few really fucking helpful websites regarding Buddhism- is his hub):

    “…One of the most popular Tantras in Tibet at the time was the Guhyagarbha Tantra. This text is considered the quintessential Mahayoga Tantra, and includes sections instructing the Tantrika on sgrol (pron: drol), or ‘liberation,’ along with other siddhis and aspects of realization. Interpreted figuratively or literally, sgrol refers to killing—liberating from their destructive karma—an opponent or someone who is otherwise causing suffering or unable to overcome their own suffering. The most famous example of this activity in terms of Tibetan Tantra is the story of Milarepa causing a house to collapse on and kill his corrupt relatives, but many other stories exist, including accounts of yogis wiping out entire armies…”

    Thank you for responding to my comment, Monica.
    What an unexpected world we live in.

    p.s. do cooks have to fight in the military, do you know?

    • June 8, 2011 3:55 pm


      Yes, it is a higher part of the military regulations that prevents chaplains from carrying or firing weapons. Although chaplains are embedded with military units and deploy with them, they are not actually under the direct authority of the unit commander (though only a very stupid chaplain wouldn’t follow his or her orders in normal affairs) but under the authority of their superiors in the chaplain corps.

      Yes, cooks have to fight, bear arms, and fire weapons in the military. So do medics, doctors, lawyers, truck drivers, etc. Only chaplains are exempt (as far as I know). Medics are trained to use weapons to defend themselves and the lives of their patients. Chaplains are assigned a ‘chaplain assistant’ (regular soldier/sailor/airman) whose job is to both assist in day to day matters and protect the chaplain.

      We’ve had the discussion in our courses with some of my fellow military classmates about what we might do if things become really grim. Your entire unit is dead. The genocidal army is in sight. There are a dozen orphans behind you. There are loaded guns on the ground. What do you do? It’s a hard question and everyone has their own answer. Some of us have no answer at all. Some of the sutras might support defending oneself (and the orphans), as you found, while many more seem not to. I guess all we can hope for is that by continually cultivating wisdom and equanimity we’ll be able to see the right answer in the highly, highly unlikely event that situation should ever come to pass. And in the meantime, we’ll do the best to help everyone else.

      Thanks for the links. I’ll check them out.

  3. Noah permalink
    June 8, 2011 2:18 pm

    Also, have you seen the film The Men Who Stare At Goats?

    I would highly recommend it.

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