Monday, February 14, 2011


In a recent blog I wrote about the stream of consciousness style writing of James Joyce. This past weekend I have re-read, for the umpteenth time, On the Road by the immortal Jack Kerouac (pictured below - and listen here to him reading the last page of his book). How I love that book! It's, like, cool, man, dig?

I was just a bit too young to be part of the Beat Generation, which is probably good because I am sure that I would have ended up like many of the "leaders" of the Beat Generation. In that regard I am reminded of some beautifully hedonistic words of the pre-Beat “Rumba Rhythm King from Cuba” Desi Arnaz, recalling his early years in Miami, Florida, who in his autobiography A Book wrote, “I’ll never forget those gorgeous nights on the beach, with the moon over Miami. We ate and drank, sang and played, and screwed and screwed. It was fantastic.”

The term “Beat Generation” was apparently coined by Kerouac in a 1948 conversation with John Clellon Holmes. Holmes opined that Kerouac's stories "seemed to be describing a new sort of stance toward reality, behind which a new sort of consciousness lay."  He urged Kerouac to try to define it in a phrase or two. According to Holmes, Kerouac replied, "It's a kind of furtiveness ... Like we were a generation of furtives. You know, with an inner knowledge...a kind of beatness ... and a weariness with all the forms, all the conventions of the world... So I guess you might say we're a 'Beat Generation'.”

Kerouac was a master at writing what has beeen called "spontaneous prose" - and prose that reads like poetry ... with melody. His Joycean writing is proof that one's first thought is generally one's best. (Good advice when doing multiple choice tests.)

Beat is a state of mind ... a state of at-one-ment with the very beat or rhythm of life itself ... the very livingness of life ... and the givingness of life to itself. No wonder Kerouac linked the word "beat" with "Beatitude", that is, showing kindness, compassion, sympathy and empathy. Such qualities are inherent in the very beat of life itself and are perceptible, indeed palpable, through mindfulness. Dig it?

The lasting legacy of Kerouac's Beat Generation is the philosophical assertion, in the words of
Alan Watts, that “the significance of life [lies] in subjective experience rather than objective achievement”. (See Watts' oft-quoted illuminating article "Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen”. Watts was certainly no fan of Beat Zen, but he always makes for interesting reading.) 

"Subjective experience rather than objective achievement." I love those words. In this present world, where the prevailing "religion" of so many Westerners is consumerism combined with worldly success, I firmly believe that what we truly need is ... more beat!

If only Kerouac (who had been "on the road" for 7 years before he wrote the book in only 3 weeks) and his buddies had stayed grounded - "sympathetic" (i.e. "beat") - in the reality of the present moment and their Buddhism. Take these gems from On the Road:

I woke up as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn't know who I was — I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I'd never seen, hearing the hiss of steam outside, and the creak of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn't know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds. ...

They danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!” ...

So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, and all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry, and tonight the stars’ll be out, and don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear? the evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all the rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty. ...

Unfortunately, too much of the moment involved activities which ultimately proved to be highly self-destructive. In time, the effusion of the moment dissipated but for a while it was wonderful ... or at least it seemed so:

We were all delighted, we all realized we were leaving confusion and nonsense behind and performing our one noble function of the time, move. ...

Why think about that when all the golden land's ahead of you and all kinds of unforeseen events wait lurking to surprise you and make you glad you're alive to see?

True mindfulness involves staying with whatever arises for as long as it lasts ... with the knowledge that all things pass. Notice what is passing through your mind with choiceless awareness … by getting up close.

So, dear beatniks, never tire of practising “awareness-ing”. Let your awareness take note of what’s going on ... in and outside of your mind ... and then, in the words of Jack Kerouac, "everything is going to the beat - It's the beat generation, it be-at, it's the beat to keep, it's the beat of the heart, it's being beat and down in the world and like oldtime lowdown and like in ancient civilizations the slave boatmen rowing galleys to a beat and servants spinning pottery to a beat ... ."

I mean, like, cool, daddy-o.


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