Saturday, March 5, 2011

How Do I Get To Carnegie Hall?

Life is tough.  Often, things don’t go the way we want.  It’s messy, imperfect and unpredictable.  Plus, it’s always changing.  Just when things get comfy and we believe we have some ground under our feet, shit happens.  And we resist it.  That makes things worse.  So this covers at least two “marks of existence”, according to Buddhism: suffering and impermanence.

Oh!  And that suffering and impermanence business I just mentioned is always about ourselves.  Me, me, me.  It’s all about me!  How can I make this about meeeee?  And that, ladies and gentlemen, covers the third and final “mark of existence” known as not self.  In a nutshell, we perceive everything through the lens of self and really, in the largest sense, it’s not about us.

Which brings me to me.  I had a bar show the other night that I want to tell you about.  But before I get back to me (which I can assure I will) let’s just review for a moment those curious three marks of existence, that are the foundation of Buddhist teachings:

Suffering (dukkha)
Impermanence (anicca)
Not-Self (anatta)

You might be thinking: “That’s great, but what does this have to do with me?”  Aha!  Now you’re doing it.  OK, we’re all doing it.

Anyway, I had a bar show the other night.  Bar shows are unpredictable and messy.  There’s usually one or two tables that refuse to shut up and a TV is blaring with some sports game and the patrons who are supposed to be listening to your brilliant comedic rantings are wasted.  Not fun.  At least not for the comics.

There’s an old Catskills style joke that goes like this:

A man on a New York street stopped a passerby, asking:

“How do I get to Carnegie Hall?”

The passerby replied: “Practice, practice, practice.”

A while back, I made the choice to view every challenge in life as an opportunity to practice something.

This came in handy in 2008, when I almost died.  Twice.  I had undiagnosed appendicitis and by the time the doc figured it out, some shit had not just gone down, it had hit the proverbial fan.  A raging infection, two surgeries, ongoing care from a nurse, much pain and uncertainty and four months later, I was finally able to get back to my life. 
When the first ghastly pangs of appendicitis started - during my birthday weekend, no less - and nobody could figure out what it was, I remember my inner voice saying stuff like:

"But it's my birthday!"

“I wish this wasn’t happening!”


"Why me?"

…and then a light bulb went off.  And I relaxed.  This is what’s happening.  Wishing it wasn’t will only compound my suffering.  So surrender.  Which is not resignation, by the way.  Surrender is not giving up, but giving over to whatever situation you find yourself in and meeting it fully.  And I had plenty of opportunity to practice this during the four-month-appendicitis-hell.   Which wasn't so hellish after all, thanks to the practice of surrender.
So back to something almost as painful as appendicitis: bar shows!

At the bar show the other night, waiting to go on, I took in the surroundings.  There was a table up front texting and talking, a few tables laughing and enjoying things (thankfully); a large table in back YELLING at each other throughout the entire show and some tables off to the side cheering whoever was winning the game on TV.  And the inner voices inside me were almost winning:

“Oh god, I wish I wasn’t here.  I wish they were listening.  I wish the sound system was louder” and on and on.

Right before I was about to get up on stage, my loving, wonderful, mind-reading boyfriend got up from his chair, whispering to me:

“That’s it.  I’m going to tell them to be quiet.” 

Heart flutters.  My prince!  But I paused a moment as the light bulb went off and I whispered back:

“Thank you, but don't say anything; it’s fine.”  And he got it.  He knows me so well.

I wanted to meet what is and work with it.  That’s the spiritual way of looking at it.  The comic’s way of looking at it?  I love a challenge, it’ll make me better, so bring it on, bitches!!

So I stepped up there and met the moment.  Dealing with TVs on, audience members who had no idea they were audience members and a noise level that rivaled the circus helped me get very present and very creative.  I was relaxed but on my toes. 

I didn’t compound my suffering by wishing it was different.  I practiced surrendering to what is and thus found a place from which to work with the situation.  In resistance, we can’t find that place.  Throughout my set, I picked and chose material that suited the circumstances.  Perhaps not a night to whip out the subtlest and smartest comedy material, but a night for material that would get their attention.  I talked to them.  I called out the situation and made fun of it.  But more than anything, I just worked with what was happening, even though I wanted to hate what was happening.

I kept practicing the release of the desire to make this about me.  My ego wanted to let the circumstances tell me something about my identity, my “self”, even though in a larger sense it really had nothing to do with me.  It was just another show.  Not self.  I wanted to listen to the inner voice that told me I’m a failure for still doing bar shows.  And that because I’m not performing at Carnegie Hall but instead at a place offering $5 baskets of shrimp, there is something terribly, terribly wrong with me, my life and everything I stand for.  But I chose not to go there. Well, not completely.  Practice, practice, practice.  

And finally I practiced releasing attachment to things staying a certain way.  At various points during my set, they were listening instead of watching TV, laughing instead of drunkenly shouting to their friends.  But I accepted it might not stay that way.  ImpermanenceChange is the only constant we have.  I may have their attention now, but I refuse to take it personally or get thrown if two minutes from now they’re back to cheering on Kobe.  Or whoever has the football at the moment.  The Lakers are a football team, right?  Can’t remember.  Anyway, back to me.

Success!  I had a good time, the audience (that was listening) had a good time and miraculously some people who weren’t listening actually listened and even laughed.  Sure, I was proud of myself for meeting a small challenge like this with awareness.  The practice is paying off.  But then I proceeded to get in a fight with my boyfriend on the way home where I said things I wish I hadn’t and generally acted like an asshole. I’m human, what can I say?  We’re all trying to do our best.  Practice, practice, practice.

In every aspect of our lives, practice, practice, practice.  And eventually we will get to Carnegie Hall...whatever that is for each of us.


  1. This accepting-what-is biz is definitely something I need to practice! 99% of my stress is caused when I'm resisting the moment.

  2. I don't want to talk about this...I wanna talk about ME! Ha Ha!

    No really, I am reading a great book called NO DEATH, NO FEAR by Thich Nhat Hanh:

    "We believe that we are born from nothing and that when we die we become nothing. And so we are filled with fear of annihilation. The Buddha taught that there is no birth, there is no death; there is no coming, there is no going, there is no different; there is no permanent self, there is no annihilation. We only think there is. When we understand that we cannot be destroyed, we are liberated from fear. It is a great relief. We can enjoy life and appreciate it in a new way."

  3. This is exactly what I needed to hear (okay, "read") right now. "Surrender is not giving up, but giving over to whatever situation you find yourself in and meeting it fully" as well as "Practice, practice, practice" are what I really need to focus on. (Wait... by relating to this, does that make it all about me?) ;-)

    Thank you!

  4. @Kat: So glad it was right timing! Funny how that happens...
    @Lynn: Love the quote!
    @Adele: I think you're doing a great job of accepting what is these days. Even more, you're *working* with what is!

  5. Great piece!! I love love love the Carnegie Hall reference...we're all going towards our own version of Carnegie Hall and to reach it we need to remember these pillars that your so succinctly expressed - Suffering, Impermanence and Not-Self...and keep reading your blogs!!


  6. Surrender not resignation. Impermanence not annihilation. "Me" realizes which side of "not" I'm on, and how much I appreciate these very good words, practice, practice, practice.

  7. oh, what a wonderful dharma lesson!! thank you ~ just what i needed.