Jeff Bridges is an acclaimed, Oscar-winning actor. Bernie Glassman is teacher of Zen Buddhism. Both men are devoted social activists. In “The Dude and The Zen Master,” the two friends candidly discuss myriad aspects of life and the importance of doing good in a difficult world. Here's an excerpt.
Bernie: People get stuck a lot because they’re afraid to act; in the worst case, like the master bowler, we get so attached to some end result that we can’t function. We need help just to move on, only life doesn’t wait.
Jeff: And it doesn’t help to say, I’ve got to have a mind-set with no expectations, because that’s also an expectation. So you can get into a spinning conundrum.
Bernie: There’s a little ditty that sort of sums this up.
Jeff: Hit me with it.
Bernie: Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream. Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily. Life is but a dream.
Imagine that you’re rowing down a stream and you’re trying to ﬁgure out how to do it. Do I ﬁrst row with the right oar and then with the left, or is it the other way around? What does my shoulder do, what does my arm do? It’s like Joe, the centipede with a hundred legs, trying to ﬁgure out which leg to move ﬁrst.
Jeff: Art Carney of the centipedes.
Bernie: He can’t get anywhere, just like the person in the rowboat. And while he’s hung up with all those questions, the stream is pulling him on and on. So you want to row, row, row your boat—gently. Don’t make a whole to-do about it. Don’t get down on yourself because you’re not an expert rower; don’t start reading too many books in order to do it right. Just row, row, row your boat gently down the stream.
Jeff: Merrily, merrily.
Bernie: That’s important. An English philosopher said that whatever is cosmic is also comic. Do the best you can and don’t take it so seriously.
Jeff: When I was really young, my mom enrolled me in dance classes. “Mom, I’m too young to dance,” I told her. She kind of forced me, but I ended up loving it, and after the ﬁrst lesson I came back and said, “Come on, Mom, I’ll show you the box step.” That introduced me not just to dancing but also to working with someone without having a goal; after all, you’re not going anywhere, you’re just dancing. Years later, whenever she sent me off to work, she’d always say, “Remember, have fun, and don’t take it too seriously.” So I have this word for much of what I do in life: plorking. I’m not playing and I’m not working, I’m plorking. You know, play doesn’t have to be a frivolous thing. You may think of a Beethoven symphony as something serious, but it’s still being played. I think Oscar Wilde said that life is too important to be taken seriously.
Bernie: I always have this red nose in my pocket, and if it looks like I’m taking things too seriously, or the person I’m talking to is taking them too seriously, I put the nose on. It doesn’t matter what we’re doing or talking about, it doesn’t matter if we agree or disagree, the nose changes everything.
Jeff: Clownsville, man. Tightness gets in the way of everything, except tightness.
Bernie: You can’t get arrogant or pompous with a nose. I always tell people that if you get upset over what someone says, imagine him or her with a clown’s nose on and you won’t get so angry. Merrily, merrily. Our work may be important, but we don’t take it too seriously. Otherwise, we get attached to one relatively small thing and ignore the rest of life. We’re creating a little niche for ourselves instead of working the whole canvas.
Another thing about Row, row, row your boat gently down the stream. There are different streams. Sometimes you come to a fall and sometimes you come to white water. Your rowing has to adapt to the situation. You can’t do the same stroke coming down a small stream as you would coming down Niagara Falls. Even if you’re only rowing down a stream, different things happen: maybe the wind changes, maybe the current, and suddenly everything’s different. So gently is really important. Don’t power yourself or blast through; rock with the way things are. Ask yourself: What’s the deal here? I want to get over there but there are things in the way. How do I ﬂow with the situation? Do I wait or go on? If I wait, do I wait one day, one year, five years? If I go on, do I tack? Bear witness to the situation and have faith that the right thing to do will naturally arise. Otherwise I get stuck and think, I can’t do anything, everything’s all wrong.
Jeff: And we take it so seriously! Thoughts will change and shift just like the wind and the water when you’re on the boat, thoughts are no different than anything else.
Kevin Bacon and I recently worked on a move together, R.I.P.D. Just before we’d begin a scene, when all of us would feel the normal anxiety that actors feel before they start to perform, Kevin would look at me and the other actors with a very serious expression on his face and say: “Remember, everything depends on this!”
It would make us all laugh. On the one hand, it’s not true of course, but on the other, everything does depend on this, on just this moment and our attitude toward this moment.
Speaking of boats, there are all kinds. Take a sailboat, for example. Say I want to sail toward you, only the wind is blowing away from you. If I know how to dance with the wind, I can use its power by sailing this way, then that way, and again this way, till finally I get to you. With rowing, you’re working primarily with your arms and shoulders. But with sailing, you’re making bigger use of the wind and the waves. You’re working with more elements, including with your mind and how it perceives things, instead of relying mostly on your own muscles and—
Uh-oh, I’m getting too serious, man. Give me your nose for a second. I need a nose hit. Nostrils go on the bottom, right?
Bernie: If you want to breathe.
Excerpted from THE DUDE AND THE ZEN MASTER by Jeff Bridges and Bernie Glassman. Copyright (c) 2012 by Jeff Bridges and Bernie Glassman. Reprinted by arrangement with Blue Rider Press.