The Dharma Punx Path
I came to this path and perspective from a place of deep confusion and great suffering. These teachings are not theoretical or philosophical to me; they have been directly experienced. Although I have already written in detail about my personal experiences of coming to and applying these practices in my memoir, Dharma Punx, I offer this abbreviated version for those who are unfamiliar with my story.
In 1988 I woke up in a padded cell, addicted to drugs, committed to a life of crime and violence, and wanting to die. Prior to that day, I had seen myself as a rebel, a punk rock revolutionary. Ever since I was a child I had been engaged in illegal and illicit activity. It seems that I had always known that the material world is run by oppression and ignorance and that the only viable solution is to rebel, to go against the stream. And I had been successful at defying the cultural norms of society’s laws and structure—at least externally. I had raised myself on a steady diet of punk rock nihilism and antiauthority ethics in a haze of drug-induced self-destruction.
From an early age I was suicidal. Ironically, drugs and the punk ethic were the very things that allowed me to survive adolescence. In drugs I found temporary freedom from the pain and confusion of life. In punk rock I found meaning, community, and a form in which to express my discontent. At first these things promised freedom and meaning, but by the time I was a teenager, I was losing hope and exchanged my punk ethic for a life of crime and addiction. The years of confusion and a life of following my mind’s cravings and anger led to repeated incarcerations and deeper and deeper levels of suffering.
At seventeen years old, after waking up in the padded cell of the local juvenile hall, I could no longer see a way to blame the world for my problems. Instead, I began to see that I was the problem. I was the one stealing, taking drugs, and hurting people. I was in jail because of my actions, not because of anyone else’s. I had no one to blame but myself. I was over- come with the pain and sorrow that were fueling my down- ward spiral. My whole life had become a quest to escape from reality.
But this time in juvenile hall, something was different. I could see where I was, and it scared me. It was more real and for the first time in my life, I knew that where I was and what I had become was my fault. I had always blamed everyone else: the cops, the system, society, my teachers, my family: everyone but myself. I was a victim of my surroundings, a product of my environment. But none of that was working anymore. With shocking clarity I could see that my wretched state was the consequence of my addiction to drugs: this is what happens to thieving drug addicts like me.
I had hit bottom. I had lost all hope; death was all I had to look forward to. On the phone with my father, I told him about all the regret and fear I was experiencing. He suggested that some simple meditation techniques might help alleviate some of what I was feeling. He explained to me the basics of meditation and told me that much of the difficulty I was experiencing was due to replaying the events of the past and making up stories about the future. He reminded me that in the present moment I had food to eat, a bed to sleep in, and clothes to wear.
My dad had been telling me things like this my whole life, but I had never really heard him until that day. I had always felt that meditation was a waste of time, the hobby of hippies and New Age weirdos. It had never made sense to me to sit still and meditate. I had always felt that there was too much to do, too much to experience, and perhaps too much pain and confusion to face. Although I was shaking with the fear of spending the rest of my life in prison and physically aching from all of the abuse I had put myself through, I could finally see that he was right. Deep down I wanted to live, and something inside of me knew that meditation was my last hope of survival.
My father said, “The best way to keep the mind in the present moment, in the beginning, is through awareness of breath- ing.” He offered me this simple instruction: “Bring your awareness to the breath by focusing your attention on the sensation of breathing. Attempt to stay with the sensations of each breath by counting each inhalation and exhalation. Try to count to ten—breathing in, one; breathing out, two; and so on. Whenever the mind wanders off to the thoughts of the future or past, gently bring it back to the breath and start over at one. If you can actually stay with the breath all the way to ten, start over again at one.”
This turned out to be the beginning of a meditation practice that would prove to be one of the main focuses of my life.
I remained incarcerated until a little after I turned eighteen, about nine months. Meditation was helpful, but for the first couple of years I practiced only occasionally. I still thought that perhaps it was the drugs that had been the real problem. But after having stayed drug free and completely sober for almost two years, I came to the understanding that the causes of suffering in my life were rooted well below the surface manifestations of addiction.
I came to the realization that the only thing that had ever truly alleviated confusion and suffering in my life was meditation. So I began to explore the possibility of finding a spiritual solution to my living crisis. One of the foundational experiences of my early spiritual exploration was the twelve- step process of recovery from alcoholism and addiction. Although I had been sober for a couple of years and was attending twelve-step meetings regularly, I had never truly attempted to practice the principles of the steps, which together form a practical spiritual and psychological process. In 1990, I began to do what was suggested in the recovery program, which consisted of prayer, meditation, personal inventories, and amends.
Simultaneously, I began attending Buddhist meditation retreats and studying the ancient wisdom of the Eastern spiritual traditions. This was very helpful to me, because the twelve-step view of an externalized “higher power” had always proven difficult to accept. After a couple of years of shopping around in the spiritual supermarket of New Age American spiritual interpretations of the Buddhist, Hindu, and Sufi traditions of the East, and a short stint in a confused and corrupted cult, I came to find that the teachings of the Buddha, as originally taught (that is, pre–Mahayana Buddhism), were what resonated with me the most.
Over the past fifteen years I have been committed to study- ing and practicing the path of the Buddha. This practice has taken the form of numerous silent meditation retreats, ranging from a week to three months in length. It has also taken me, several times, to the monasteries of Southeast Asia and the pilgrimage sites of ancient India.
About ten years into my practice I began teaching meditation classes in the same juvenile hall in which I been incarcerated when I began this path. Having dropped out of school as a teenager, I also began studying at the local junior college and eventually moved on to earn a bachelor’s degree and then a master’s degree in counseling psychology.
In 2000, one of my teachers, Jack Kornfield, invited me to join a small group of Buddhist teachers to be trained over a four- or five-year period. That experience of mentorship, edu- cation, support, and encouragement proved to be transformative and became the foundation for expanding my ability to translate my personal spiritual experiences into the language and form of guiding others through the process of awakening. My practice and study under Jack, as well as others, connects me to an unbroken lineage of Buddhist practitioners that leads all the way back to Sid.
For the past few years I have been engaged in teaching, writ- ing, and counseling. My aim is to use my early life’s experiences to serve youth in juvenile halls, men in prison, and my generation on the streets and in society, and to do my best to make the teachings and practices of the Buddha accessible and available to all who are interested. In 2003 my memoir, Dharma Punx, was published. That book related my personal experience of how spiritual practice and service transformed my attitude and outlook on life.
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