Sometimes I come across the old, risqué song “Take A Walk On The Wild Side” by Lou Reed. The reference to Andy Warhol’s “The Factory” and it’s superstars is integral to the lyrics. Reed’s song was written in a subculture where “no holds barred” was the only rule. The forbidden nature of the deepest underground culture was brought out for display in the mainstream.
“Take A Walk On The Wild Side” was noteworthy for its references to forbidden sexuality and to unconventional real-life people who we may or may not care to meet personally. These characters pushed the barriers beyond earlier Beatnik culture and the then contemporary hippie lifestyle. Besides Lou Reed, the other major star to appear on the original record was David Bowie.
What does this song have to do with me becoming a Nebraska Buddhist?
The song’s appearance in 1972-1973 briefly fascinated me, but I didn’t have the mindset to appreciate Warhol’s culture beyond his Pop Art paintings. The sinister presentation of sexuality by Lou Reed was just a bit over the top for me, too. I liked the idea of being a hippie or maybe even a Beatnik, but I couldn’t make the leap from “white bread” college student to that world. Yet, the Warhol ideal lingered in my subconscious mind and became a part of my spiritual autobiography.
The early 70’s coincided with my conversion to Buddhism and dabbling in the New Age culture of the San Francisco Bay Area. One of my second cousins, who lives in San Jose, was my housemate on and off, for a few years. Her interest in meditation, non-conventional spirituality, and yoga struck a deep chord in me. While the yoga didn’t take root, the New Age thought remained with me for about a decade. That is, until the Buddhism re-emerged, this time, in its Tibetan form.
It was during a Dharma lesson from my guru that he referred to the Lou Reed song. He challenged us to take the ultimate “walk on the wild side” by walking and observing our egos. So, that’s what our group did that morning. We practiced walking meditation and observed our actions and thoughts. I still recall that the “do do do do do do…” refrain from Lou Reed’s song appeared within my mental chatter for several minutes of that walk.
If we truthfully contemplate ourselves, we notice our chosen identities. We choose our political allegiances, our musical tastes, our preferences in film, video, and television, our literary identification, and whether or not we choose to remain with the religious backgrounds of our childhoods. These identities are our deepest attachments.
The guru reminded us that these attachments are artificial, cultural conditionings that we unconsciously adopt. The point of that day’s contemplation was to investigate beyond the cultural mindset and try to discover our “original nature”. Travelling down that path, is to really take a walk on the wild side.
We adopt our current identities by donning a cowboy hat and boots; or camo clothes with appropriate “gear”; or sophisticated business attire; or athletic togs; or jeans and tee-shirts. These outer costumes reflect who we think we really are. These days, we can choose clothing, accessories, and motor vehicles to reinforce our chosen identities.
These cultural concepts and artifacts are tools we use to deal with our individual encounters with life, love, sorrow, joy, our place in the Universe, and death. Our carefully cultivated personalities are much of what it means to have that “I” who we have placed at the center of our life experience. It is through the “I” that we construct and compose our interpretations about the meaning of existence. Even a person who thinks she is a rebel, living on the wild side of life, is a person who is thinking in a conventional manner.
Our default mode of experiencing the world is the sensation that “I” or “myself” is a separate, distinct center of thinking, feeling, and action. We feel like we encounter an external world of things and other people. It feels like we are entities inside our bodies looking out through the “windows” of our eyes, hearing through the “sound systems” of our ears, and picking up other sensations through the rest of our senses.
If we pay attention to what we say each day we understand this way of experiencing the Universe. We might say, “I like chocolate fudge ice cream”, or “I’m a Buick man”, or “I’m a conservative”, or “I don’t like purple shirts”. We cut ourselves off from the rest of the world with other figures of everyday speech. “I’m not like Iranians.” “I don’t identify as a Hindu.” “There’s something wrong with conservatives.” Even as a species, we mentally, separate ourselves by claiming we’re conquering nature, or we must “face the facts”. These are all artificial inventions of our tricky minds.
We tend to adopt philosophies, religions, lifestyles, and opinions that reinforce rather than liberate us from our attachments. We humans have a basic intolerance and distaste for uncertainty. The ambiguous, actual nature of our planet and life on it frighten most of us to our cores. It is this fundamental uncertainty and instability from which we try to protect ourselves.
The primal state of a raw homo sapiens is the “wild side” from which we flee. Our social conditioning is the historical conceptualization and invention of people who have worked to tame and sublimate our primal nature. This is why dying one’s hair bright green, dressing in tie-dye shirts and torn jeans is not truly wild. Nor is donning camo pattern cargo pants to drive a tricked out pickup truck truly wild. These are examples of alter-egos we enjoy.
To walk on the wild side is not to adopt the lifestyle of a rebel. To walk on the wild side is to engage in a process of inner discovery. This discovery might take the shape of walking or sitting meditation. The walk on the wild side might be a leisurely stroll during sunset when we feel most connected to the Universe around us. It can take any number of outward forms that enable us to objectively observe our attachments and beliefs.
This walk on the wild side isn’t always warm and fuzzy. Sometimes we observe things that cause us discomfort. The walk on the wild side takes the path that takes one deep into that discomfort. The walk on the wild side also takes the path into the parts of us we love. The ongoing walk on the wild side might show us who we really are not, plus who we really are. That is, if we dare to take a real walk on the wild side.
The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes Alan Watts. “Things are as they are. Looking out into it, the Universe, at night, we make no comparisons between right and wrong stars; nor between well and badly arranged constellations.”