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Author Podcast: Arthur Jeon


What does a "Meat-eating, poker-playing, cigar-smoking, skirt-chasing, Ivy League graduate-come-screenwriter and yoga instructor have to do with it?" asks screenwriter and best friend Helena Kriel at the Santa Monica book launch of this author. Meet Arthur Jeon, in this month's author interview, discussing his new book, City Dharma: Keeping Your Cool in the Chaos, Random House (2004) his first in a two-book contract. Love and the Dharma is his next book.



June 15, 2004

As summer approaches, you may be looking at the calendar and counting the days until your well-deserved holiday.  But for most of us, the majority of the summer will be spent in the cities or suburbs where we work and live, and that means heat, congestion and tempers. Ancient people called them the dog days of summer, because of the seasonal positioning of our brightest Sirius (the dog star) in conjunction with the sun, which was thought to heat up the atmosphere and result in those sultry days between July 3rd and August 11th

To help get through this Arthur Jeon has written City Dharma: Keeping Your Cool in the Chaos, Random House (2004) and it deals exactly with all the things we encounter full throttle in city life not just in the summer, but all year long: anonymous; selfish or rude behavior; road-rage; media negativity; feelings of disconnect or loneliness despite the population density; materialism; emotional and personal strains­­­­­. 

How do you cope?  Arthur suggests a series of basic teachings from his study of Advaitic philosophy, which are couched in amusing anecdotes and bits of wisdom from his extensive reading, Ivy League education and eclectic lifestyle. Please listen to excerpts of our conversation, read along with the interview, check out Arthur’s website, and purchase a copy of the book!



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Part I: Living in Southern California

BookBuffet: This is a fabulous book, I really enjoyed it.

Arthur Jeon: Thank you.

BB: Arthur what is it about living in Southern California that causes people to seek an alternative lifestyle?

AJ: I think it’s the sense of moving West.  I think it started with England.  Everyone moved over here to escape religious persecution and have freedom of religion. Then people started moving West to escape that.  And then finally hitting California where you’re bumping up against the Pacific Ocean.  So, at that point, both literally and metaphorically, since there is no place else to go, I think it’s a natural thing to start to turn inward.  Coupled with the idea that you go to California and you can create yourself as you really see yourself, minus the sort of strictures and constricting conditions of where you came from.

BB: About the time I was growing up there were several people in the popular culture that famously went down the path of spiritual enlightenment.  Leonard Cohen, members of the Beat Generation before that, The Beatles, and recently Sting.  And if you want to go further back I can think of William Blake.  Do you think there is a cycle to peoples interest in spiritualism?  Is it related to economic cycles, or  war, or conflict.  You mentioned 9/11 in your book.

AJ: You know I think there are cycles.  In my experience it is when life is good, that people turn more towards spirituality, when their basic needs are covered. It’s like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need. Then they get concerned with self-actualization.  And there is the flip side of that to which 9/11 was an example, [when] people end up getting really concerned with survival.  So there are these cycles and the great thing is that both need to exist.  You need a toxin on the one side and an antidote on the other side.

BB: You started to think of writing City Dharma when you had a conversation with one of the women in your [Dharma conversation] classes…

AJ: We were talking about this consciousness, that you are not what you think you are, the world is not what you think it is, rather it's one blast of consciousness and the only thing obstructing your realization of that is your own conditioning and belief systems and identification with your thoughts, your body and your possessions.  And she said, “Well that’s great when you’re on a retreat up on a mountain, or doing yoga class or meditating, but what happens when someone is flipping you off on the highway, or somebody is cutting you off, or your boss is hitting on you? You know, all the stuff that is happening in the real world." 

And I thought that’s a really good question. And my experience with this type of spirituality is that it’s applicable everywhere: from the most quotidian, basic aspects, to the profound things that are happening; from the daily hassles of life and materialism, to death, war and violence and everything else.  So that’s what came to me, I thought, “City Dharma. Why not look at life through this paradigm of connection rather than separation, of love rather than fear and how do you react within these different circumstances?” 

BB: I did a little bit of research on you… and you write your life experiences into the book, and it’s very entertaining and very engrossing.  All of the witnessing you do from your life is something that we can relate to. 

AJ: I don’t want to interrupt you but that’s very much what this book is based on, these teachings called advaita vedAnta. Advaita means non-duality; the teaching of.  It’s the sense of consciousness and the sense of separation that we’re all identifying with which is the illusion of the mind. 

So I really wanted to write the book from that point of view.  Advaita says, “Don’t take anything for granted, trust your direct experience and trust only your direct experience.” So what is your direct experience of a situation, a person, whatever is going on – and then you can actually speak with some authority.  And then you are not asleep, you’re awake, you’re having a direct experience.

BB: If everyone did that, wouldn’t the world be a different place!

AJ: Yes, I was thinking about it while watching Charlie Rose the other day and Admiral Anthony Zinnie was being interviewed and he was this Marine General who ran the first war in Iraq in the Gulf, very bright guy, Republican, extremely articulate, and he was blasting this war in Iraq and and Bush, and saying Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz should be fired.

One of the things he was saying was they were dealing with what they thought things should be rather than how it was.  They thought they were going to be met with flowers and beautiful parades and things like that.  In actuality there are competing factions within that country who are all battling it out, so they have a typical Maoist insurgency on their hands heading toward civil war. 

That comes from not seeing reality clearly.  Rumsfeld himself, ironically, has this great quote about the failure of imagination and expectation—he was talking about the intelligence community not seeing reality clearly. 

The teachings that this book is based on, are completely about seeing reality clearly.  Removing your own obfuscation to what is, and getting to a sort of radical acceptance to what is happening right now in this moment. So in that, you create freedom— the real freedom that matters, not external success or external things, or beautiful objects, or the right woman or man, or anything. 

It’s actually a kind of internal freedom that comes from not identifying yourself with any of these external things.  Finding happiness no matter what is going on.  And that happens through the present moment.   Through waking up moment to moment to moment.  So when you are awake you see reality, you see what’s going on.  You’re not projecting out of your own conditioning what you think should be happening. 

BB:  How do you compare your formative upbringing or religion to where you’ve come now? 

AJ: I was Greek orthodox, as were both my parents.  There are many spokes to the hub.  And any one of those spokes can get you there, but none of them are necessary.  So any one of those religions: Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism have incredible ways to get to that thing but, along with that, they ask you to believe some of the most unbelievable things in the world, and not just as metaphor.  

So for me as a child growing up in the Greek Orthodox religion, which is highly ritualized with beautiful things and fairly liberal, (the priests can marry; it’s not like Catholicism in that way) I was an altar boy, the whole nine yards, even as a five-year old my mind was saying, “What? This makes no sense,” to what they were asking me to believe. 

So I searched long and hard for a kind of way to be in the world that felt more intrinsically true, that didn’t depend on belief systems, that didn't depend on acknowledging or accepting someone else’s religion, which is opposed to a sense of spirituality, a sense of religion with a set of rules and a set of rituals.  I ended up with Buddhism for a while.  But even Buddhism asks you to believe in karma and reincarnation and still my beginners mind was saying “How do you know?  How do you know there’s reincarnation?”  What beyond anecdotal, superstitious belief in stories do you really have? I mean, nobody really knows.

It was out of this that I discovered Advaita Vedanta.  Advaita is very difficult in once sense because it offers no handrails. It doesn’t give you a set of practices or a set of beliefs or anything to hold on to.  It basically says “You are already enlightened.  The only thing you need to do is let go of your own identification, your thoughts with your belief systems, with your conditioning.” So it’s more a releasing of that rather than taking on, and that to me is the truth.  

There is a cartoon, I’m just remembering… Charlie Brown and Lucy are telling Linus all sorts of stuff.  And Charlie Brown says “It’s going to take a lifetime to forget everything you’ve been taught”.  [Both laugh]

And that’s kind of where we all are in the situation of just needing to let go of everything that we’ve been taught and come into the present moment—moment to moment to moment. And wake up, moment to moment to moment.  Even if you have to come out of your own story a thousand times a day, do it, a thousand times a day.

In this moment, right here right now, there is nothing else.  So there is no space for anticipation, future, worry.  There is no time for regret about the past.  There is just right now. The past and the future are just concepts and products of mind.  It’s just pure imagination.  So going up into the future and the past is purely imagination…

BB: [You mean] living in the past or the future; but we do have to accept, you know, our actions and ramifications of those actions. Nothing can’t be corrected, I suppose, but…

AJ: Right.  Everything typically that has happened to us, or that we’ve done or created, has been part of that perfect journey to get us to the point where we’re going to wake-up or realize that this isn’t working anymore.  What I’m talking about is when you’re living in the past in some way, or going into the future, you are missing out on the moment.  The only place you can be is in the moment.  And I’m not saying, “Look, I’m a writer and I think imagination is a wonderful place to be,”  but use it as a tool for imagination, as a tool for creativity, rather than neurotic thoughts of what’s going to happen today, tomorrow…

BB:You also speak about the beauty of children, who are essentially living in the moment.  We asked my [then, 10 year old] son what wanted to do; to be, and his response was, “I just want to have a happy life!” [Both laugh]

AJ: You know that is a fully realized response!  That is exactly what the Dalai Lama says that you are responsible for on this planet, to have a happy life, to be happy and not cause other humans suffering. To be happy and help other people to be happy—that’s it, that’s it—that’s the basic thing.  So, it’s only the conditioning that we get that says we have to go out and DO DO DO.  No, we don’t have to do any of that.

BB: The book has a definite format.  You introduce each chapter with a profound quote from a spiritual leader

AJ: …like Woody Allen [Both laugh]

BB: …or a famous author, and next you present a problem or a fear or a challenge, and then you give a series of witty and entertaining personal anecdotes, [Both laugh] and finally you bring out the spiritual lesson or approach that you think helpful to people. 

You have twelve different city stressors, and it’s an easy foundation and a great process, and I’m wondering how you came up with the structure of this book— did the anecdotes come first or…?

AJ: I organized the chapters [into] “road rage", or "driving", or "noise", or "violence", or "media inundation", "status envy", "work relationships”—all the big things that we all deal with in modern life

I wish I had organized it further, because it would have been a much easier book to write.  What I did was start to tell a story, then I would talk about how to look at the world through advaita.  And that just seemed to be effective.  Now what eventually happened was that I had this incredibly circular manuscript.  I would write three to five pages a day and the next day there would be the next perfect three pages, but none of them had anything to do with each other.  The re-write process was really difficult. So the second book will be more structured in that sense.  I will continue teaching through stories, because [otherwise] it all comes down to a kind of blah blah blah, which is hard to retain. The teachings themselves are very simple and elegant, but kind of elusive. So it is the stories that stick and after that the lessons.

BB:  I loved your use of film and screenplays to further illustrate points. Some of those you quote: Schindler’s List; Lawrence of Arabia; Wag the Dog.  As a screenwriter, I’m interested to know which movies have impacted you?

AJ: That is a hard question. [Laughs] I’ll tell you one movie that I thought interesting was House of Sand and Fog.  I don’t know whether you’ve seen it?

BB: Yes

AJ: That to me was a brilliant little movie because it brought down this battle for a house between two people, both of whome are right in their own way, neither of them are wrong.  Neither of them want to give up on the idea that they need this house to be happy.  It ends up in death and murder and destruction of both lives.  It is a metaphor for what is going on in the world on a larger scale. This is the kind film that really works.

BB: Do you feel a certain amount of responsibility as a screenwriter who also practices spiritualism?

AJ: There have been periods when I’ve written incredibly meaningful scripts about death and dying and AIDS, and people loved them and optioned them, but never made them.  At a certain point you just say, “OK I’m going to give them what the market wants.”  I got into the thriller genre when Joe Silver bought a script of mine, it didn’t get made but it brought in some work.  I do feel a sort of responsibility, but on the other hand, I feel there is entertainment and [there is] reality.  If you’re doing the reality route, I think it’s important to be really conscious and awake.  But if you’re just entertaining, I think it’s OK to just entertain and not feed a message.

BB: So you give everyone credit to make their own decisions.

AJ: Yes.  In a genre and you are there to make people laugh or cry or thrill them.  Each movie within a genre done really well is just great.  Ideally all of my films, even the erotic thriller I’m currently writing have a message. This one is about love and what it means to fall in love with the wrong person, and that is something we all do.  You read the book, you know my perspective.  But I think there’s an opportunity to explore these themes.  What disturbs me is a movie that distorts historical truth… I thought that The Passion was disturbing on many levels…

BB: I’m going to repeat a few quotes from your book that either astounded me, confused me or inspired me. I’d like you to give them the Rorschach Inkblot test and give me a few words or phrases that come to mind.

Evil does not exist.

AJ: OK let’s talk about something in the news, this Abu Ghraib prison story.  Young men and women, soldiers, are torturing their prisoners.  Now on the one hand you could say “that’s evil”.  And they have come out with the news that there have been thirty deaths, thirty people killed in custody.  You could say, that’s evil. Or what Saddam Hussein did, that’s evil.  These are points of incredible darkness and shadow.  But what does that give you the right to do?  As soon as you label something as evil you can de-humanize it.  And a soon as you de-humanize it you can go in and do anything to it. 

Have you heard of the 1971 experiment­­­­­ (this is more than a Rorschach test), but it's an important point because we’re so accustomed to breaking things into “us and them”, “evil versus good”.  There’s a famous experiment that was done up at Berkeley...

BB: The prison experiment?

AJ: Yes. These were normal students who [were asked to take on the role of either prisoner or prison guard] and within three weeks they were using: electro-shocks; hooding; mock copulation and sexual degradation.  So to me, what that proves is that we all have a shadow side.  And to point outside of yourself and say, that’s evil, who in the right set of conditions and circumstances would not be doing the same thing?  We are all capable of this.  So the point is not to label, but to get to the core of what has created the circumstance and conditions and be careful not to put people into that situation.  Not to put people in a state of power over other people.  Not to go into a pre-emptive war because you know that these sorts of things are going to happen because that is the nature of the shadow side.  And most people have no idea about what’s going on.  Most of us are repressed or in denial.  And part of that is because—it’s evil.  What it means to be human, to be given a lot of conditioning and power and then be told you have complete control over someone else’s well-being, it takes a very self-actualized person not to go down that route. 

BB: Yes, I’ve heard actors say that they’ve had to find these [shadow] places within themselves for a particular performance and then once it was over they wished they’d never experienced it.  They needed professional help to recover from the experience.

AJ: So it’s all there.  To quote one more movie that I love is Death and the Maiden directed by Roman Polanski based on the play, and Sigourney Weaver plays this woman who had been tortured in South America, and her torturer [Sir Ben Kingsley] shows up at her house – she’d never seen him, but she recognizes his voice.  She sets about to break him down to admit what he’d done, but he denies it.  In his final confession he says, “I was brought in to tend to their wounds, I tried to help them, but in the end I just succumbed to the temptation, there was just too much power.”  He had raped her and tortured her, and he was a Doctor, so he had succumbed to that dark side. 

BB: I’ll have to see that.  That brings me to the next question, what is the difference between pain and grief? 

AJ: Pain and grief are the same thing. I think there is a difference between pain and suffering.  If you are undergoing pain, you don’t necessarily have to undergo suffering.  The Buddhists say that life is suffering and you just accept that life is suffering.  But even they would say that the added suffering-of-mind is what causes most of our suffering in the West.  Now there is real suffering happening on every stratum, within a block of here probably.  So the thing is, how do you go through life and accept that there is this suffering, this pain, without adding on more suffering?  In dealing with illness, just deal with the actual phenomenon.  It’s almost true of every circumstance.  What is happening now, in the moment, is not as bad as what you think is going to happen. Fear or anticipation [can] create real suffering.

BB: OK. How about “Chop wood; haul water”.

AJ: That’s a great quote, that’s Anais Nin. It means, pay attention to what you are doing in the moment, in the now.  Just like what we are doing right now.  So when you’re doing what you’re doing allow that to be the life raft to save you from this neurotic sense of mind.

BB: OK. We’ve actually covered the statements of religion as being either dual or non-dual.

AJ: Duality is about a God that is worshiped outside of ourselves that is omniscient and all-seeing and usually called HIM, as opposed to non-dual religions—and Jesus actually said “The kingdom of God is within you”, so he said a lot of non-dual things.  It was the forty to fifty years afterward that became the struggle over Christianity where all that non-dual stuff got buried.  I’m convinced that, since He spent some time in India where He must have come across these non-dual teachings.  The non-dual path is just saying, we are not separate from God, we ARE God, it’s ALL God, it’s all Brahman.

BB:  Here's the next one, “We do not see the world as we see it; we see it as we are.”

AJ: Anais Nin and the Talmud both have that quote.  It means change yourself and you will see the world around you.  If you wake up, then you’ll see what it actually is. Most of us are walking around unconscious, so we don’t really see things as they are, we have the goggles of our own conditioning. Witness and memory are both very tricky. 

BB: So how do you strip away the way you were treated, the life you’ve been handed?

AJ: That’s a really good question.  You do it in a number of different ways.  You can ask yourself if it’s true.  When a thought comes up, is it true?  How do I know it’s true?  How would I think or feel if it wasn’t true? And then the other great self-inquiry question is,” Who am I?”  Well you can get through all the stuff that has been layered on top and what happens is at the end of the day, you end up with – there’s no “I” there, there’s no “me” there.  There is just a witnessing and present awareness that [brings] incredible freedom.  You are engaged – not detached, you are totally and passionately engaged, you are totally present in the sense of your own interactions with the world through your own conditioning, seeing it more clearly.  The present moment is your doorway into that.  So right now, by always staying right here right now: Eckhart Tolle calls it The Power of Now, are you able to stay in the present moment, your past in the form of previous memory, can’t come into this moment so the Ego goes crazy, when you’re on a silent retreat because it feels like it’s being obliterated and it goes into panic mode and it feels like a straight jacket is on you.  And that’s what you feel for the first three or four days and then you start to calm down.  And once that super structure is dropped and you get a glimpse of that, it feels like you’re coming out of straightjacket.  And once you come out of it, it feels incredibly free and liberated and when it comes back on, you feel constricted, contracted and you can’t tolerate it any more –the coat doesn’t fit anymore – you’ve completely outgrown it.

BB: You have a two-book contract.  Do you want to take your readers any place else?

AJ: Well the next book is happening because Random House has requested it, and it’s going to be taking a look at relationships (because I’m single and I live with my cat and I’m such an expert! So I said yeah, why not!)  [Both Laugh] But a lot of what I talk about in my Dharma classes is about relationships and people's so called misery.  My first chapter in this book City Dharma, begins with a quote form Jean Paul Sartre, “Is Hell Other People: Was JPS Right?” If I do a third book, it will be a look at politics through this paradigm. 

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Reviews & Links

"Witty, wise... an entertaining, illuminating read." YOGA JOURNAL 

"Although written for city folk and high-powered suburbanites, this book should delight anyone living anywhere." PUBLISHER'S WEEKLY 

"Straightforward, sensitive, and sassy." BOOKLIST  

"A hip guide..." NEXUS

*Quote from screenwriter and friend, Helena Kriel's introduction at the City Dharma book launch, Santa Monica, CA.

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