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Against The Stream: The Dharma Punx Path

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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 anti-authority 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 overcome with the pain and sorrow that were fueling my downward 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 fi rst 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 diffi culty 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 breathing." 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 fi nd that the teachings of the Buddha,
as originally taught (that is, pre-Mahayana Buddhism), were
what resonated with me the most.

Over the past twenty years I have been committed to studying 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, education, 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.

This blog is my offering to you of the path that I walk, the
path of the spiritual revolutionary. Please keep an eye out for the
weekly postings that will offer the teachings and practices that I
am referring to.

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