Mentally Ill: Beastie Boys, Buddhism, and Anxiety

In March 1996, just as the melting snow was making way for spring in upstate New York, I discovered the Beastie Boys as a high school sophomore, finally. Jeremy Smith, who would later be known as DJ Angel Hands, was my best friend and lived down the street. He knew I liked rap (only rap at that point in my life) so he made me a tape of all the rap songs on Check Your Head and Ill Communication. I remember playing that tape on a bulky General Electric Walkman tucked into an oversized black jean jacket that I borrowed from a friend who was far more into the likes of Nirvana and Green Day.

I instantly fell in love. I had been writing half-joking half-serious lyrics on and off since elementary school and discovering the Beastie Boys finally gave me creative license to be a white boy who raps. I got my driver’s permit the same month. That photo of me with a smart-ass smirk on my face remains on my license to this day, and the line shaved straight up the middle of my head was inspired by the look Adrock sported two years prior in ‘94.

My driver’s license photo (L), Adrock in 1994 (R)

Despite having listened to Ill Communication countless times from start to finish back then, the lyrics to more cerebral songs like “The Update” and “Bodhisattva Vow” wouldn’t sink in right away. But then a couple years later during my senior year of high school I became obsessed with learning about religion and spirituality, which was a direct effect of listening to conscious hip hop artists like the Beastie Boys. After high school I got even more interested in buddhism, which surely had something to do with the fact that I was paying more and more attention to the lyrics in songs like “The Update” and “Bodhisattva Vow”, both of which happen to be solo joints carefully crafted by group member Adam Yauch a.k.a. MCA.

MCA and the Dalai Lama in 1995

Even though “The Update” and “Bodhisattva Vow” are ten songs apart and have drastically different rhythmic feels, they succeed to sound like movements of the same piece of music. This is in part due to their sharing of atonal, drum-centric backing tracks and foggy vocals shouted through a shitty Radio Shack microphone, but the lyrics of both surely reflect Yauch’s then-recent ventures into Eastern spirituality. Together the songs are a testament of an individual wrestling with the challenges of living in a postmodern world overflowing with information. At the same time that Yauch points to the worries that come with existing in a seemingly chaotic world full of injustice, he also suggests that focusing on personal growth and development can help us find equanimity amidst the catastrophe. It’s comforting to know that another human being has the capacity to be so intelligent, thoughtful, and compassionate, which is probably a big reason why I often turn to these songs for comfort.

Gaia, the Alex Grey painting that appears in the Ill Communication liner notes next to the lyrics for “The Update”

Buddhism and Anxiety

Medicine and spirituality seem more and more like opposite sides of the same coin lately: different yet undeniably related. The mindfulness of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and acceptance commitment therapy (ACT) has a close relative in the tried and true practice of meditation. And in difficult times when my obsessive mind demands a black-and-white, all-or-nothing path forward in life, the only two choices I feel I have are monkhood or the looney bin. I continue to look for more balance, but where I feel fully on board with Western medicine right now, I still feel unsure of my relationship with buddhism and spirituality in general.

I had my first struggles with depression as a senior in college. I first tried therapy and meditation, and back then I was on the road to wellness in no time. Eight years later, my sister died at the age of 33, which brought on a period of sobriety and intense reflection. I returned to meditation but gave it up after a month or so, mainly because I felt that I was starting to obsess over my breathing during the course of the day (more on my obsessive self-awareness in a bit).

Years later in the fall of 2018 I came to realize just how reckless I had been living of late. I was eating a lot of crap, drinking in excess on weekends, smoking four packs of cigarettes a week, drinking lots of coffee, and paying for video chats with women. It was at this time that I kept returning to the following quote from philosophical guru Jiddu Krishnamurti:

“There is a constant demand to be amused, to be entertained, to be taken away from ourselves. We are afraid to be alone, afraid to be without a companion, without a distraction of some sort. Because we are inwardly empty, dull, mediocre, we use relationships and our social reforms as a means of escaping ourselves. After all, most people marry and seek other social relationships because they don’t know how to live alone. Not that one must live alone; but, if you marry because you want to be loved, or if you are bored and use your job as a means of forgetting yourself, then you will find that your whole life is nothing but an endless search for distractions.”

I felt like this described my life to a tee. Though Krishnamurti comes across as a rather gentle, kind-hearted man in old film footage, on paper he has always seemed rather impatient and judgmental toward his audience, like he has a hard time understanding why everyone else doesn’t “get it” (his books are actually almost universally transcriptions of his speeches and often in a Q-and-A format). Nonetheless, his words have always rang true with me, so recently I started stripping away the distractions in my life one by one. I became single by choice, I sobered up, quit smoking, started eating healthier, started exercising, and I returned to meditation.

Jiddu Krishnamurti

Ironically, my first full-blown panic attack happened during a class I was taking on emptiness at a local meditation center. I had been meditating daily for about a month, and meditation alone continued to have this anxiety-inducing quality to it. I felt like it made me too self-aware, and my obsessive mind started thinking that meditation may be doing me more harm than good. But that particular weekday morning, the first day of the class, I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t sit there on four hours of sleep in a circle of 25 people while listening to someone talk about how nothing exists, the physical world is an illusion, reality is an empty void, and therefore life is meaningless.

Or at least that’s what I assumed the class was going to be about. One of the great benefits of therapy thus far has been that it has increased my awareness of how presumptuous I can be in my life. It has also helped me realize my habit of making up stories that do not translate into reality, sometimes not giving the reality of the situation a chance to play out in a way that is much less apocalyptic than I imagine things in my head, and that’s exactly what happened on this occasion. After about ten minutes of sitting there I stood up, walked into the lobby, grabbed my coat and left. Hours later I would be in the ER after an emergency visit to my therapist.

Since then it has become apparent that meditation and anything involving buddhist philosophy are both triggers for my anxiety. While a trigger is labeled as such because it’s generally considered an irrational response to something, I cannot deny the reality of my situation: before I started peeling all my layers off to expose my ‘true self’, before I decided to see what life was like without all of Krishnamurti’s distractions, I wasn’t anxious. And what did I find when I reduced life down to its most ‘purest of essences’? A giant pile of anxiety.

This is why I’m still on the fence about how much good ‘buddhism’ and meditation are actually doing for me. To be clear, a big part of me believes in the power of meditation, and that with dedication, over time you can work to settle your mind and make your thought patterns healthier and less stressful. But from where I’m sitting, I seemed fine smoking my cigarettes, getting wasted on the weekends, eating fast food, and riding the thought train non-stop wherever I wanted it to go no matter how unrealistic my fantasy destination was. I may have had to deal with mild depression from time to time but anxiety was nowhere near blowing my life up.

I’m not ready to give up on this current process of taking a long, hard look at myself though, which for me apparently comes with a heaping side order of anxiety. But I do wonder if I would be better off going back to ‘living in the future’, mindlessly chasing my dreams and allowing them to eternally distract me from the ugly stuff buried underneath in ‘the present moment’, the stuff I’m looking at and dealing with right now.

Living with Uncertainty

My spiritual inquires will forever be interwoven with my experience of the Beastie Boys’ music and MCA’s music specifically. To think of the awesome transformation he went through in his life is inspiring, but at the same time I have to remember that what’s right for one person isn’t necessarily right for everyone. Indeed, I have the potential to obsess over my own morality. When I’m in that mindset, it’s easy to buy into the idea that the only way to live honorably is to dedicate one’s life to spirituality and selflessness the same way a bodhisattva like Adam Yauch did. Moving forward then, the question to keep in mind, a question that I’m sure will never be answered with any measure of certainty, is: What’s the best way for me to incorporate spirituality and philosophy into my life? After all, intellectual systems are based on language and hence thought, and thought causes a lot of problems according to the same people who promote these philosophies. Though my search for the answer may not end in a buddhist temple, one thing I am sure of is that I won’t be turning away from that path simply because I am afraid of any uncomfortable theories it may contain.

PS: I encourage you to to read along with the lyrics to both songs as you listen. Find them here.