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Dueling Teachers: Willie Nelson & the Dalai Lama

What do Willie Nelson and the Dalai Lama have to do with 2024? February has been one of the toughest months on record, personally. The year of the Dragon came in breathing fire and smoke all over the people I love. I won’t go into detail, but just know that it has something to do with the state of our world, my aging parents (and how much I dislike that inescapable truth), and my daughter being initiated into adulthood abruptly through the tragic loss of a  friend. I just spent a week with Mom and it has me thinking about other octogenarians who help me get through tough times, namely the Dalai Lama and Willie Nelson.

At 88 and 90 years old respectively, they are living legends. The Dalai Lama embodies happiness, despite being exiled from his country for over 70 years. He lost his family, his homeland, and most of his culture, yet he insists that he will live to be 100 because he has so much work to do helping others find joy. Meanwhile, Willie is celebrating the release of his 74th solo studio album. He’s still performing live; he’ll play 18 shows this spring and turn 91 while on the road. He’s survived a collapsed lung, emphysema, and losing almost everyone he’s ever played music with on stage. But this morning I woke up worried. What if we lose him and the Dalai Lama in the same year? How will I go on? 

With Willie, It Was Love at First Listen

Willie’s voice singing “Whiskey River” on my current Sunday morning playlist takes me straight to childhood road trips, first in the family station wagon, then later in the van, with our eight-track cassette player wearing the tape thin on Always on My Mind and Waylon and Willie. Dad would miss highway exits to our destination because we were all too busy singing, “On the Road Again,” or “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys.” Willie is the reason I wore a bandanna over my hair and ripped blue jeans for too many years. He sings of love and loss, dirt roads and dirt-filled bars. He is the charming rebel who has always remained true to himself. 

Willie brings hippies and rednecks together, as if they all arrived in the back of the same pick-up truck. I remember when Kurt and I saw him live at Merlefest Bluegrass Festival in North Carolina in 2000. We were in a sea of strangers and yet we all put our arms around one another and sang, “Seven Spanish Angels.” I danced my way so close to the stage that I could see how yellow his teeth were, but when Willie looked right at me and blew me a kiss, I knew I was his forever. I knew he loved “Trigger,” his Martin guitar that he’s had for a million years, his tour bus, “The Honeysuckle Rose,” his kids, his four wives, and his horses, and at that moment, I knew he loved me, too.

Now, when I’m struggling with life’s challenges, I turn to poetry. Next, I listen to Willie’s country songs and remember what he teaches me: to hold life lightly, follow my intuition, write down my stories, and face adversity with big-hearted boldness.

Meeting the Dalai Lama

Meanwhile, the Dalai Lama is the ultimate spiritual teacher. I have never heard him preach religion, only kindness. He has offered me lessons on how to endure suffering ever since I first encountered him as a dumb college kid. 

During a conference at my school on “Spirit and Nature” in 1990, I was invited to be a tour guide for one of the keynote speakers. I’m embarrassed to say that when I accepted the role, I had no idea what Tibet was, and went looking for someone named “Dolly” to show around the campus. When I found his entourage, the cloud of monks in saffron-and-wine robes parted and a short, older man in glasses stepped forward. He gave me a wide smile that made his cheeks round like apples. I didn’t know who this man was, but when he touched his forehead to mine in greeting, I saw and felt intense white light wrapped all around him, and me.

I discovered that His Holiness laughs continuously, as though he shares an inside joke with life. He is also endlessly curious and has a thing for wristwatches. He asked to see my cheap digital Timex and giggled as he used the stopwatch feature while we ate lunch. I always assumed that spiritual leaders were reserved and serious. But here was the Dalai Lama playing with my watch like a toddler, laughing heartily, and eating like a ravenous retiree at a free all-you-can-eat buffet. I wanted to know more about this “Dolly” person who walked in a forcefield of light. I ended up traveling to Tibet in my twenties to understand where he came from and how I, too, could cultivate happiness. I have looked to him for inspiration ever since. 

The Dalai Lama teaches me to be curious, laugh easily and often, to be a force for unity, and to look at suffering from every possible angle until I find a hidden treasure in it. Most of all, he reminds me that the antidote to pain is serving others. He says, “Happiness is not something ready-made. It comes from your own actions… I am going to benefit others as much as I can. Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries.”

This is, of course, not just about Willie and the Dalai Lama. It is also about my mom and dad and how they are still teaching me to find something to laugh about, learn about, and look forward to every single day. “Keep going,” each of my octogenarian guides seem to be telling me. You’re not alone. Every home holds someone who has struggled, or who is struggling now.  There is wisdom to be born in us through suffering that couldn’t happen in any other way. Just keep going.



photo credit: “Dalai lama” Webted, cc. 2.0.