Many people in the West seem to believe that practicing Buddhism simply makes one “nice” with a side of serenity. We’re usually seen as the syrupy sweet, semi-stoned sounding motherfuckers unaffected by the negative emotions that so trouble the benighted masses. We experience no feelings but kitteny-soft ones and exude a constant vanilla-scented air of peace and bliss. Anything else just ain’t Buddhism.
I wasn’t always like this. I was actually a bashful little kid, the sort who would walk nervously up to a new person and say “Hi, I’m Brent, do you want to be friends?” That’s about as smooth as approaching a girl at a bar and shouting: “Hey, I have a penis! Do you have somewhere I can keep it?”
When I was about 13, I decided I was done being myself—wretchedly shy, awkward, and withdrawn. I was done suffering the taunts and shoves of my more aggressive and confident classmates, scuttling around the school with my eyes down hoping not to be noticed.
To that end, I became funny in public. I’d actually always been pretty funny, but only with my similarly maladroit friends. It was hard at first, but I rapidly gained confidence when I realized I was quicker with my wit than most folks. I became a class clown; I was always ready with an inappropriate comment during a lecture or film. When people made fun of me, I made fun of them back, and I was better at it. And I soon understood that I didn’t have to wait for someone to attack me—if I attacked first, they’d go on the defensive, and I could keep them there. In an effort to protect myself, I went from class clown to class prick.
This has caused a few problems in my life generally—and my practice specifically. Although Buddhism has chilled me out and toned down some of my more prickish tendencies, I still find that I take refuge more often in humor than in the Three Jewels of the Buddha, dharma, and sangha. I’ve been using levity to hide my insecurities and weaknesses for so long that I’m finding it hard to stop. Comedy has been my impenetrable exoskeleton for almost 30 years. But now it’s a marrow-deep habit, and I’m starting to think I may need an extraction to get it out. Something more than just a shot, anyway. This isn’t as simple as getting rid of the clap.
My irony and nihilistic snark undermine most of my honest reactions before they can even fully form. My authenticity gets twisted because my inveterate, bone-breaking sarcasm always shoves its way to the forefront. Over my many years of haphazard practice, I’ve had some breakthrough insights, and I’ve acquired a few scattered pieces of wisdom. And yet I constantly find myself being disingenuous with other people out of knee-jerk, smart-ass self-defense. Even as my practice tries to open me up, I’m still shielding myself against the chances of being exposed as that scared little boy. There’s not really much of that kid still in me besides some general anxiety and twitchiness. But by cutting down on myself and others I can pretty much guarantee that no one will get to the bottom of me, least of all me.
With my nearest and dearest, I’m pretty open and honest. But there are still nervous tics. I’ll occasionally be glib when I should be attentive, or vulgar when I should be considerate. It’s crushing when someone close to me walks away uncomfortably puzzled by our conversation knowing that I could (and should) have prevented it. But instead, I had done the usual: lapsed back into self-serving sarcasm while part of my consciousness just sat there, mouth open, watching it happen against its will…