Will I Dream? Zen and the Art of Making It Weird

Will I Dream? Zen and the Art of Making It Weird

A podcast about stand-up comedy taught me more about spirituality and being than 18 years of Catholic instruction. I am about to tell you that it changed my life. This will sound preposterous. It will warrant the same eye-rolling reaction as being told, “This diet will change your life.” Or, “This book will change your life.” And it should. Because it probably won’t. In fact, it will almost certainly be a disappointment. Profound words to some often sound like a string of banal platitudes to others. That’s the way these things go. But seriously: You should listen to Pete Holmes’ podcast, You Made It Weird, because it changed my life.

Holmes originally intended to give his audience an inside-baseball look into the lives of comics like himself, but gradually, the show became more of a vehicle for exploring his understanding of relationships, religion, and the mysteries of life—particularly in the wake of losing both his marriage and his traditional faith in the years leading up to the podcast’s launch. Commensurate with the transition, Holmes began expanding his roster of interviewees to include musicians, artists, scientists, and other Deep Thinkers. As was astutely observed by T.J. Miller about 35 minutes into his third appearance on YMIW: “People like this podcast because it’s actually a podcast about philosophy.”

Holmes is not a student of the Classical School when it comes to conducting interviews. He interrupts his guests when he gets excited, tends to talk over them, will let himself become the subject of their questioning. But this is the genius of the format, intentional or un-. It’s as if the listener is invited to eavesdrop on a conversation between old friends that’s taking place in the back of some dive bar after one-too-many cocktails. Said format seems to have a devastatingly disarming effect. When the host attempts to make each episode “weird” by pressing for his guests’ opinions on the taboo subjects so often left out of vanilla interviews, the irony is that he hardly ever succeeds. But it’s not because his guests shut down at, e.g., the invocation of God; it’s because they are so willing to openly discuss Him—and every other heavy subject Holmes lobs their way.

What YMIW demonstrates is that all of us—famous or not—have doubts, fears, and curiosities regarding the unknowable. And the torrent of opinions Holmes’ probing unleashes is a testament to the fact that no one has The Answers. Perhaps, then, the titular You is not the host, but the collective You of mankind: You, through birth alone, Made It Weird by adding yet another layer of complexity to this puzzle we call existence. If the show proves anything, it’s that there are roughly 7 billion pieces and no picture on the box that will help us solve it.

None of this is really about the show though. Instead, it’s about the renewed Philosophy of Being1 I assembled while listening to it—a selection of the YMIW wisdom that’s had an appreciable impact on my life.2 Though it is divided into five sections, the ideas contained within each are more interconnected than they are discreet. Keep whatever pieces work best for you and put them together however you like. Discard the rest.

Religion, or Barns, Moons, and Other Mixed Metaphors
This isn’t about whether religion is Good or Bad. Religion is for the individual, and what hubris I would have to make that call for each of us. But if religion is anything, it is the finger that points us all towards the moon. Too many people become obsessed with the finger. All the while, the moon is right in front of them. What this is about is getting over the Finger, letting go of whatever pent-up hostility we have for the Finger, allowing the Finger to just be. Because the Finger doesn’t matter.

Consider what we might call the Three Phases of Religious Thought. Construction is the phase during which the Finger enters the life of everyone raised with religion. This is the phase of law and dogma. We learn that Jesus was the Son of God and that we must eat His flesh to live eternally. Virgin birth. Sinless life. Physical death and resurrection. You know the drill.3 During construction, we are given a barn that has already been built for us—our creed. We are told to believe—and indeed, we must believe—that every word of it is literally true, or we cannot be a member of the club.

Most conservative folks spend their whole lives constructing. Their entire identity is built upon the literal Word. They do not question. They do not doubt.4 At any sign of challenge, they will stick their fingers in their ears, condemn, ostracize, maim, and/or murder. Because they are the True Believers; theirs is a faith that cannot be corrected by further evidence.

Around the age of reason, many of us begin to deconstruct, which is to say, our faith gets corrected. We see drinking the blood of our Messiah as being really no different than ritualistic sacrifice, rain dances, or worshipping a sun god. We realize that we have been lied to—that there was no talking snake, that no one can walk on water or raise themselves from the dead. We learn that mortal men called a huddle to vote on whether the Son was of the Father and to decide which books were worthy of inclusion in the Good One and which ones needed to be buried in caves. We realize it’s no coincidence that Buddha was also tempted three times and that Jesus’ birth was hardly the first claim of immaculate conception. The list goes on.

Reviving the reductive nature of my “most conservative folks” comment, deconstruction is often associated with atheists, liberals, and the Intelligentsia—those who delight in feeling superior to anyone who believes in a god. As Neal Stephenson put it:

Ninety-nine percent of everything that goes on in most Christian churches has nothing whatsoever to do with the actual religion. Intelligent people all notice this sooner or later, and they conclude that the entire one hundred percent is bullshit, which is why atheism is connected with being intelligent in people’s minds.

But this phase is also pitfall. If construction is one side of the coin, deconstruction is the other. And it is no better. It, too, embraces the dualistic (binary, oppositional, us-or-them, right-or-wrong) mindset—eschews nuance and third-way thinking. These two phases are methods of choosing, not seeing. And deconstruction, specifically, becomes the crutch so many of us lean on the for the rest of our lives, because it allows us to say: “You can’t fool me twice. I’ve figured it out. I’m done.” But it’s easy to tear down the barn. What’s difficult is building a new one.

That’s what reconstruction is all about. It is the phase during which we build our own barn, however we like—the barn that works for us. It is a lifelong pursuit, and it is extremely personal, but in my view, necessary.5 Because neither apathy nor mindless self-flagellation manages to enrich our lives, or the lives of anyone we know for that matter.

A major part of reconstruction is moving past Finger Resentment. Did Christ really cure two men of blindness? Did He really flip-out on the money changers at the Temple? Were the Pharisees really that angry at Him? It doesn’t matter. The first step towards reconstructing is sliding out from under the crushing weight of literalism, because literalism is the lowest form of meaning. Literal truth has never been a tool capable of teaching us more than metaphor and myth.

Consider your dreams. Most of them have elements of real life, be it family, friends, your old high school, or the challenge you’re facing at work. Dreams combine these real things with elements of the fantastic—events that never happened, scenery that cannot exist, or people long gone. If I was trying to figure out what your dreams meant, would I be concerned only with the parts that were literally true?

Or consider the way you speak about your lover. You might say that he completes you—that he is your other half. Doesn’t that simple metaphor convey more than any literal description could?

Maybe we can inject more Truth into narratives by telling lies. Maybe Christ’s story teaches us that even gods have to endure betrayal, suffering, and death—that we must all, at one time or another, die unto ourselves and be resurrected in order to keep moving forward. Maybe the Blindness Thing is a tale about the healing power of compassion. And the Temple Tantrum—something those tuning into the Televangelists should take time to consider. And the Pharisees Thing—evidence that even religious institutions screw up royally and end up accidentally executing their Savior. Maybe Jesus was trying to tell us something by couching his teachings in parable.

The point is: I have stopped discounting “the entire one hundred percent [as] bullshit” just because I felt like a scorned lover, and I have embraced the idea that metaphor may be the only language we have to talk about God. Because metaphorical truth is truer than literally true. Metaphorical truth is always true.

This isn’t a radical, new idea. In fact, it’s mundane. And it’s something we inherently understand. As children, we read countless fairy tales whose sole purpose is to trick us (through entertainment) into learning a valuable lesson. Cinderella taught us that those with good hearts always triumph, and that princes don’t want anything to do with people who treat others like shit. And we never cared, even for a second, whether her slippers were actually made of glass. This is the Gospel according to Grimm, and it proves that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are not the last guys who had something interesting to say.

Ultimately, religion is the choice between Coke and Pepsi: turn the can sideways and read the label; it’s all corn syrup. Or, there are many pathways to a sense of communion with the cosmos. Every story of religion is a story about one guy getting it—really getting it—followed by legions of people trying to have the exact same experience and missing the point for thousands of years.

So if it doesn’t suit you, don’t believe in a God who disproves of premarital sex, who is angered when you work on Sundays, who hates when you use the F-word (Lifeguard God). Instead, believe in God as an energy field, who set into motion the Big Bang, who connects all living things, and who hums within all of us at the subatomic level (The-Force God). Or believe in God as the innate, collective good in all human beings (Don’t-Be-An-Asshole God).6 Or don’t believe in anything you feel comfortable labeling as “God.” Whatever you do, don’t let the burden of literal truth stand in the way of great lessons. Or, forgive the Finger, find your moon.

Suffering, or Why We Are Envied by Gods
Said a certain gold-plated robot a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away: “We seem to be made to suffer. It’s our lot in life.” Presumably, he was speaking only for himself and the astro droid, but this applies to us as well. Human beings are made to suffer; it is a foundational and integral part of our existence. But as is the case with most Mysteries, we struggle with suffering because we don’t have an Answer for it. As Richard Rohr puts it, “It’s the cross that kills most people.”

Not having enough to eat, somewhere to sleep, losing loved ones, battling addiction—this is our traditional view of what it means to suffer. But really, we shouldn’t look at suffering through such a narrow lens. Suffering is also waiting in a ridiculously long line at the grocery store; it’s having to wake up after only a few hours of sleep because you were up all night tending to a sick child; it’s being stuck in traffic on the morning you were trying to get a jump on work. Suffering is any moment where we unwillingly lack control over what is happening to us. As T.J. Miller explained:

This person’s a crackhead. And that’s their life. And it’s not worse than yours [just] because you’re not [a crackhead]. And you own an Acura. But it’s leased. And your wife wishes that you drove something better. But you like your job. And you don’t want to invest. And she feels like her next door neighbor is investing… I don’t know that that’s better. At least a meth head has those moments of being on meth and being like, “Yeaaaaaah!” Relax. It’s all happening.

The Silicon Valley star makes two important points. First, we all suffer in different ways. And second, measuring your suffering against another’s is folly. It’s critical, though, not to lose the forest for the trees, because Miller’s example can come across as the type of narrative constructed by lucky and affluent people to make themselves feel less guilty about being so lucky and affluent. “Everyone suffers” does not excuse us from bettering the lives of the less fortunate.

Perhaps the more tempered interpretation is that we should think of suffering as a color spectrum, and we should always be mindful of the plights of others who share our shades. I.e. Don’t lose your temper at the customer service representative when mobile deposit isn’t working, because he’s been taking it on the chin all day. Don’t shout profanities at the driver who cut you off, because he just wants to get home too. And don’t think that your boss has it so much better because he works fewer hours and makes twice as much money. Maybe you were up late taking care of your kid, but his daughter hasn’t talked to him in 10 years. In other words: slow to anger, great in kindness. In other words: Relax. It’s all happening. It’s not about an Answer; it’s about Understanding.

And just as important as being understanding of the suffering of others is understanding why suffering is necessary. Suffering is the Great Teacher. The greatest growth we experience in life is always the fruit of the greatest suffering. Through it, we learn to let go of our innate, perpetual desire to be in control of everything.

Consider that suffering is the ultimate contrast—that what is fleeting is beautiful, and how awful sustained perfection would be. Or, you only have favorite songs because terrible ones exist.

We all get this; it’s an idea that is evident in our literary tradition. We are saturated with stories of gods becoming men because they want to experience life: love, hope, and joy, to be sure, but also, cowardice, fear, doubt, pain, and death. The desire to endure mortal suffering is a theme that stretches from Greek mythology, through the Christ, and into the present. See, e.g., Agent Smith:

Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world? Where none suffered, where everyone would be happy. It was a disaster. No one would accept the program. Entire crops were lost. Some believed we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world. But I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through suffering and misery. The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from.

Without suffering, joy lacks anything meaningful against which to measure itself. Accept that your life is a television show and that, without conflict, you would tune out before the first commercial break. So when things really aren’t going your way: Relax. And think: “Good episode.” It’s not about an Answer; it’s about Acceptance.

Happiness, or Always Be Coming
Regardless of what we tell ourselves, all it ever comes down to is wanting to be happy. And yet, the feeling alludes so many of us because we have a flawed notion of when to expect it. As Pete would say, we are entrenched in a “come later” culture. We say, “I’ll be happy as soon as I get home from work.” Or, “I’ll be happy when I move out of this neighborhood.” Or, “I’ll be happy when I can afford that big screen TV.” We constantly convince ourselves that we can’t come now, but that we will be able to shortly. That is, we spend too much of our time postponing happiness.

Consider Jim Carrey, who said (paraphrasing): I wish everyone’s dreams would come true so they’d realize that’s not what it’s about. Or his forbearer, Oscar Wilde, who said (again, paraphrasing): The only thing worse that not getting what you want is getting it. What they both understood is that there is no such thing as happiness contingent upon circumstance. Happiness is always and everywhere about being present—about being here now. Coming now.

I am willing to wager that the happiest times you’ve had in life have had nothing to do with milestones—with the State of Things—and have had everything to do with moments. I felt next-to-nothing when I graduated from college, when I found out I passed the bar exam, when I finally got that job I had been holding out for.7 But I felt everything on that impossibly Springish day as I rode my bike through my neighborhood after spending all afternoon getting drunk unexpectedly with my friends, when I closed my eyes at my roommate’s wedding and melted into the organ, after that girl—who had no good reason to want anything to do with me—leaned in and kissed me after our first date.

Our brains are built to do two things: worry about the future and endlessly process the the past; we are perfect machines for constructing fantasy. We see things only as how we want them to be—spend our lives fighting a universe we have not the slightest bit of control over. If we understand suffering as inevitable and surrender to the current of life instead of swimming against it, we cannot have good or bad days, we can only have days. This is not nearly as blasé as it sounds: nothing ever goes wrong on a day relieved of all expectation.

So always say yes to what is. Or, live every moment as if you intended it. Love people like trees, like sunsets, like ocean views; let go of their minor imperfections and take in their beauty as if they were big, abstract things. Remember that the most important person in your life is the one who is right in front of you. Move through your surroundings with a video game-level of fascination; breathe deep in the detail and marvel at how real and vivid the world is. And whenever you buy something, be it tomorrow morning’s latte or a brand new car—whenever you make the Big Decisions, like whether to have a child or to move to the other side of the planet—remind yourself: “This will not save me.”

Death, or I Was and Will Be a Shrubbery
What happens when we die is not something we often think about or discuss, probably because it terrifies us. Grappling with mortality likely has a lot to do with the popularity of religion. If our souls are nothing more than astronauts in suits of meat awaiting the tractor beam of an afterlife, this whole mission seems a lot less dire. But that’s not an expectation we all have. So what’s to salve the rest of us?

Consider going under the knife. In perhaps the most jarring moment of YMIW, Dan Harmon, probed with Holmes’ question of “Dead. Over?” related a tale of a surgical procedure he underwent. As the anesthesia snaked into his veins, he looked up at the doctor and asked her, “Will I dream?” Without hesitation and with absolute confidence, she replied, “No.” And then he was out.

General anesthesia is a medically induced coma. During its effective period, your awareness of your own existence goes the way of the buffalo. You cease to be until, hours later, you come out without any appreciation that time has even elapsed. Having experienced this myself, it serves as the most compelling evidence that consciousness is an emergent property of neurology.8

Of course, I don’t know. We don’t know. We can’t know. It is unknowable. But if you’re in my having-experienced-this camp, there is something eerily quieting about that thought. In fact, it feels okay. When the lights were out, man, they were out. There was no pain or apprehension or anxiety. There was no light, no fear of what was to come. There was simply nothingness. And the only reason I can speak about what-wasn’t is because, a few hours later, I was again. Only that in death, I won’t be. But it won’t matter. And it shouldn’t. Because we have all been “dead” for most of history. Hit with the “Dead. Over?” question, Dana Carvey answered rhetorically: “Where were you during the Renaissance?” When we die, we go there.

For me, there is no Resurrection beyond reincarnation. Not in the sense that our actions in this life make us either a cockroach or a titan of industry in the next, but in the natural sense. We become the earth, we nourish the vine, we are poured out onto dimly lit courtyard tables and consumed over the sounds of love and laughter, are returned to the river, and on and on and on. We are not above Conservation of Mass.

To fear death is silly. Everything is death. When we look at the universe, we are seeing it only as it is now. We all came from matter that was once in the stars. Today we are persons, tomorrow, plants, for we are dust, and to dust we shall return. We are all things forever. And that is the only afterlife we can and should expect. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll be surprised.

The Meaning of Life, or Embracing Absurdity
So what does it all mean? This is the Real Question, the one we all desperately want answered, the one we start with, and no matter how many hoops we jump through in between, the one for which we have no satisfactory conclusion. And I cannot imagine we ever will.

So just consider the hydrogen atom. If one were roughly the size of the earth, the proton residing at its center would be only 600 feet across. That’s right: 600 measly feet! This is to say that atoms are mostly empty space. In fact, they are overwhelmingly empty space. Not only do vast stretches of the cosmos contain mostly nothing, but so does all of the matter on each side. That means you and that means me, the people we love, the screen you’re reading this on, the roof over your head—everything you know and all that you have ever interacted with—is primarily empty space.9 And yet you think of yourself as one, one thing, a unified body, a sentient organism that moves through the world with intent and purpose. But on an atomic level, you are a school of fish, a swarm of bees, a flock of birds. You are a goddamn flock of birds—a three dimensional, colorful being made mostly of nothing. You should be perpetually amazed at your own existence.10 Indeed, how strange it is to be anything at all.11

Consider the timescale of the universe. If it were condensed into a single calendar year, modern humans would not appear until 11:52:00 PM on December 31, and the invention of writing, not until 11:59:47 PM. The length of time between your birth and your death essentially rounds down to zero. You waste hours thinking about how you could have won that argument, feeling angry that you have to work late, complaining that the waiter isn’t coming to the table often enough. Meanwhile, entire galaxies are colliding into one another; whole civilizations you are unaware of, will never understand or hear tales from, are born from darkness and are suddenly silenced. You are nothing and your life is meaningless. While this sounds crushingly depressing—nihilistic even—really, it should be the opposite. If everything is meaningless, then everything means everything. Because this is all there is. So go talk to that girl, you fucking coward.

Consider general relatively. Where Newtonian physics had failed, Einstein used his model to correctly predict the movement of Mercury. But no one was on Mercury predicting the movement of Einstein. We are here and we are alive. We are the eyes the universe has evolved to witness the splendor of itself. We have these moments and we have each other. Since when did we ever need anything more than that?

None of these things have to do with the Meaning of Life, but have everything to do with the absurdity of it all. I say: There is no Answer. There is only there is, and that is the Good News. Truly, accepting this is Enlightenment, and truly, it is the final disappointment. So love your neighbor and your enemy. Empathize with him. Humbly share with him the gifts you have been given. Because one day—on a day you cannot predict, on a day like any other—there will be no more dreams.

Image courtesy of tocausan. Some rights reserved.

  1. Of course, I am not a philosopher, not a historian, not a physicist or religious scholar. Some of this is probably wrong, but probably not in a way that matters. 

  2. I had 30+ hours of YMIW under my belt before writing this post occurred to me and only vague, unsourced notes setting down ideas that warranted further reflection. So a group attribution will have to suffice. Props to Pete Holmes, Richard Rohr, Rob Bell, T.J. Miller, Deepak Chopra, Brian Greene, Rory Scovel, Duncan Trussell, Emily Gordon, Dana Carvey, Dan Harmon, Ram Dass, Bo Burnham, Tim Minchin, Dimitri Martin, Bill Nye, Chris Hardwick, Shane Mauss, Rick Overton, Todd Glass, Glen Hansard, Peter Rollins, and the late Joseph Campbell. As a result of the editing process, I have likely credited too many individuals—and definitely not extended enough credit to Richard Rohr, whose interview (Episode #253) I cannot recommend highly enough. 

  3. Or you don’t. But in light of my upbringing, the axe I’m swinging will be aimed at Christianity. 

  4. Anyone who doesn’t admit that if they were born in India, they would be Hindu, in Indonesia, a Muslim, etc., has ascended to the highest rung of self-deception. Or to put it bluntly: You can tell how stupid someone is by how sure they are of something.  

  5. In large part, this entire post describes my first steps towards reconstruction. 

  6. Consider that a metaphorical god is truly great, because no one kills in the name of a metaphorical god

  7. No doubt, I felt relieved, but these things did not make me happy

  8. See also You Are Two and split-brain

  9. This is a bit disingenuous. Because electron clouds. Atoms are mostly empty space inasmuch as a spinning ceiling fan is mostly empty space. Stick your hand between the blades and find out how much empty space there really is. Nevertheless, if this aspect of the analogy is the one you’re most hung up on, you’re missing the point. 

  10. From Alan Moore’s Watchmen: “[I]n each human coupling, a thousand million sperm vie for a single egg. Multiply those odds by countless generations, against the odds of your ancestors being alive; meeting; siring this precise son; that exact daughter… Until your mother loves a man she has every reason to hate, and of that union, of the thousand million children competing for fertilization, it was you, only you, that emerged. To distill so specific a form from that chaos of improbability, like turning air to gold… That is the crowning unlikelihood. The thermodynamic miracle… But the world is so full of people, so crowded with these miracles that they become commonplace and we forget… I forget. We gaze continually at the world and it grows dull in our perceptions. Yet seen from another’s vantage point, as if new, it may still take our breath away. Come… Dry your eyes, for you are life, rarer than a quark and unpredictable beyond the dreams of Heisenberg; the clay in which the forces that shape all things leave their fingerprints most clearly.” 

  11. Also consider that dark matter and dark energy make up more than 95% of the total mass-energy content of the universe. Less than 5% is ordinary matter. While we can clone organisms, can swap out bad hearts for good ones, can land robots on other planets, we still know very little about what most of the universe is. This is something we should all find hilarious. Nothing’s funnier than the truth. 

© 2016 Joshua Doguet