One of my favorite — and also I think one of the most important — lines in Miguel Chen’s new book, The Death Of You: A Book For Anyone Who Might Not Live Forever, comes right within the first small handful of pages. Chen, is obviously best known for his role as bass player for long-running punk band Teenage Bottlerocket but is also increasingly well-known for his yoga and meditation teachings and practices, and wrote a pretty successful book, I Wanna Be Well: How A Punk Found Peace And You Can Too that came out last year. Anyway, early on in The Death Of You, page eight to be exact, Chen asks and answers the question that you might be asking out loud when you hear that the bass player of a hard-working punk rock band has written a book on essentially how to come to terms with the concept of death in a way that allows you to lead a fulfilling life. That question, as you’ve probably deciphered by now, is “why is Miguel Chen qualified to write this book?” Chen’s answer? “I’m not. Well, at least not more than anyone else.”
It’s that tone of self-deprecation, of not taking himself all that seriously, that weaves its way through all of Chen’s written work – and all of Bottlerocket’s music for that matter – that makes it so compelling and relatable. However, it’s also, frankly, not exactly true. Chen, you see, has experienced what some might believe is more than his fair share of painful and untimely deaths in his life. As you probably know, Chen lost his mother to cancer when he was sixteen years old and lost his sister in a tragic car accident less than a year later. Then, as you definitely know, he lost his best friend and Teenage Bottlerocket brother-in-arms Brandon Carlisle four years ago. The bakers’ dozen years in between found checking most of the boxes on Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance; sex, drugs, rebellion and rock and roll, followed by intense periods of yoga and meditation that have found him in a much, much different place by the time Carlisle’s death came around than he was in as a teenage.
And now with The Death Of You, Chen is trying to impart some of his immense and profound wisdom on the rest of us. The book finds Chen teaming up with the same writing partner (Rod Meade Sperry) and publisher (Wisdom Publications) as the first go around, which resulted in a much quicker turnaround this time than the few years that went in to I Wanna Be Well, even if he had this idea kicking around far in advance. “(Writing a book about death) was actually in the back of my mind for years and years,” explains Chen. “Before I came to these practices and this connection with myself, I really kind of felt like a victim of death, of these losses that I had faced. My mom died, my sister died, life was fucked, why was this happening to me?” Eventually, as chronicled in I Wanna Be Well and previously discussed in our last conversation here, Chen began practicing and ultimately instructing in both yoga and meditation, offering him a deeper perspective not only on death as a concept. “As I got to the other end of it through these practices and saw how different my life was because of those events, I had to be honest with myself that it wasn’t all bad,” he says, adding “I mean yeah, it was heart-breaking and tragic and I wish I had those people back in my life, but because of what happened and when it happened, I was able to live a more free existence. It freed me up to be like, “well, this happened, and this is real, so what am I going to do with the time that I do have?” It really drove me to pursue the band and music, and to make a life for myself that I was happy with, you know?“
Like with I Wanna Be Well before it, The Death Of You contains a mixture of first-person storytelling, education of the reader about certain concepts, and a handful of practices aimed at getting you and I to learn by doing. For it’s not just the idea of death that Chen wants us to be comfortable accepting; it’s how to deal with all varieties of deaths we might be presented with, up to and including our own eventual shuffling from off this mortal coil. This includes a meditation practice toward the end of the book that implores the reader to envision just what’ll happen to them when their time is up. “The status quo is to just never think about death at all, and just kind of move forward,” says Chen. “You counteract that with the extreme on the opposite end, right? So, we’re going to do the exact opposite. We’re going to fucking not only think about death, we’re going to think about our death and we’re going to think about it in explicit detail. And I think by then having explored both ends of the extreme, we come to find where our spot in the middle is.” It’s not for the faint of heart, but it can prove a fruitful experience nonetheless.
The Death Of You has an official release date of September 17th. You can pre-order it on Amazon or Barnes & Noble or Indiebound, or if you’re luck enough to live in one of these fine cities, you can pick it up at the Teenage Bottlerocket’s merch table on the Fat Wreck tour that’s going on now. Head below to check out our full Q&A!
Dying Scene (Jay Stone): So congrats on the new book! Last time we talked, for the last book, one of the things we talked about is how long a process it was, from when you started writing the book to when it was finished to when it finally came out. Here we are the following year and book number two is upon us. How’d that happen so quickly?
Miguel Chen: Yeah, man! Maybe this time around I knew the process a little bit better. Since it was publishers I’d worked with before, it all just came together a little faster. There’s that element, and there’s also that this book idea – the second book idea – was floating around in my head before the first one even came out. So there were kind of a lot of factors.
Where did the idea itself come from? I know you said the idea itself had been floating around for a while, but where did the idea to put this stuff on paper come from?
You know, my first book was a little more general. Like, punks, we’re bummed out or we’re depressed and we need something different and, you know, here’s things that’ve helped me in my life and such. The second book was a little more specific, you know? A lot of the depression in my own life and a lot of the struggles that I have faced were really death-related. And so I kinda wanted to grab that one aspect and focus there.
I was talking to a friend who has not read the book yet, and she asked what it was like, and I mentioned that the the focus is a certainly narrower than the first book, but the more I think about it, the more I think that opens it up to a lot more people who might relate to it more than the first one. Not a lot of people grew up in or gravitated toward the punk rock scene, but we’ve all had people die, whether timely or untimely.
Absolutely! That was a discussion I had with Wisdom for sure. The audience for this book is certainly different. It’s not necessarily just a punk rock book, but whether or not we want to deal with death, we all have to at some point. The older you get, the more people you know or people in your life that have died. It’s a fact of life. Like you said, punk rock maybe doesn’t apply to everyone, but death certainly does.
One of my favorite lines toward the end of the book, and it might actually be in the last chapter, is about how you can live a joyful life because of death. To me, that’s the thread that ties the whole book together. When did that sort of focus come about, as you were writing, or is that the idea that was in your head the whole time?
I think, you know, that was actually in the back of my mind for years and years. Even before I knew that writing books was something that I wanted to do, at some point, as I got more serious about my meditation practice and the sort of inward connection….let me phrase it this way: before I came to these practices and this connection with myself, I really kind of felt like a victim of death, of these losses that I had faced. My mom died, my sister died, life was fucked, why was this happening to me? And as I got to the other end of it through these practices and saw how different my life was because of those events, and I had to be honest with myself that it wasn’t all bad – I mean yeah, it was heart-breaking and tragic and I wish I had those people back in my life, but because of what happened and when it happened, I was able to live a more free existence. It freed me up to be like, “well, this happened, and this is real, so what am I going to do with the time that I do have?” It really drove me to pursue the band and music, and to make a life for myself that I was happy with, you know?
I really appreciate the way that you included not just your own experiences with loss and death, but the other sort of lenses that you tried to apply to them, especially being a teenager and experiencing those deaths, there’s some of the Catholic imagery in there, you tried the aversion thing, you tried the rebellion and the drugs, you tried the “why me” thing. I appreciate that you included all of that stuff in the book, because it provided a sort of human context to the concepts, and that there’s stuff that maybe didn’t work before.
Absolutely! There’s definitely a lot of trial and error on my own path, and I suspect that anyone grieving or going through a loss or even trying to come to terms with their own mortality, they’re going to face a lot of trial and error on their own path. But maybe my experiences or me kinda talking openly can save them from one or two trials that they don’t need to figure out first hand, you know? Or even if they do go through it first-hand, it’s a little familiar and they’re aware that maybe they’re not the only person who’s tried to look at it this way before?
When you talk about death in a “real” way, and in a way that I think is pretty well-adjusted, do you get people that look at you or talk to you a little bit strange? Like you’re cold or dismissive or desensitized to the whole death thing?
(*laughs*) I’m laughing because I think immediately of a couple examples. Many years ago, I had a friend and her mom was also dead, and we would just kinda make fucked up jokes with each other, like “hey, what’s your mom up to?” “Oh, just laying around.” (*both laugh*) Really fucking dark, right? I had another friend whose dad died around the time my mom died, and he would always call me around Mother’s Day and go “Happy Mother’s Day! Oh wait, sorry.” And then I would return the favor on Father’s Day. To an outsider, that’s fucked up. That’s so dark. But we were adjusted enough, or maybe this was even our way of adjusting, to find some sort of humor in it. Like I said, there’s definitely people who don’t understand it. Or they don’t understand it YET. I think after a certain level of healing and working with yourself, it becomes, in a strange way, okay to laugh a little if that’s what helps you heal.
One of the things that you talk about, and that I think is important, is that you still get sad. You can be sad about the fact that your mom passed or that your sister passed or that Brandon passed, but that sadness doesn’t manifest itself the way that it used to. Or it doesn’t linger.
Absolutely! It’s a little bit this shift of mentality. You take it from “why did this happen to me?” and this victimhood to “okay, these are the facts, and this is reality, and what do I do with that.” When you approach it with this shifted mindset, you can empower yourself and take back control over your life and decide that, yeah, all these fucked up, awful things happened, but that doesn’t mean I can’t live a life that’s worth living. I don’t have to be sad all the time. At the same time, it is absolutely okay to get really fucking sad. That’s part of it. It’s just more of a taking in and letting go; when it’s time to be sad, be sad, and then let it go. You don’t have to be stuck there.
What stage of your own spiritual journey, for lack of a better phrase, and your own practices were you in when Brandon passed away, and did you deal with that death differently than you did with your mom or your sister?
Most definitely. When Brandon passed away, I was actually in the process of buying my first yoga studio. I’d been teaching for a while, and I’d been kind of heavily immersed in these practices for a long time at that point. It was a very different process. To some extent, I was a little alarmed at how calm I was. I didn’t want it to be mis-perceived as coldness or not caring, because absolutely I cared so much. This guy was like my family, you know? I loved him so deeply. But there was a strange ability to carry myself, and from that perspective I could kinda see other people near me who hadn’t gone through these processes or had the experiences that I’ve had, and how much they were struggling. It kinda knocked me into a different role. It was like “I’ve been here, and even though I’m losing someone I really love, for me to be able to be able to help other people, this is my healing process.” For me to be able to be here for other people, when it’s the first time this might be happening for them…I can try to hold space, and just the act of holding space can be really beneficial for other people and can also help me with my own process with a significant amount less struggle than previous brushes with death.
I was just going to ask you, if you were at this more advanced part of your journey at that point, did people come to you as…maybe calling you a guide is not the write word to use, but did people come to you for help and for comfort while that was going on? So that even though you lost somebody that was basically a family member, you were also still in that caretaker role.
Absolutely. I realized really quickly that Brandon really meant so much to so many people, and people that maybe I would say weren’t as close to him as we were in the band, or as Ray was being his twin brother…I didn’t have this “oh, you barely knew him” thing, I just realized quickly that Brandon really touched you, and you need someone, and I’m here. I felt responsible, and almost humbled to be able to serve that role for someone. It’s strange. It’s definitely a thing everyone goes through in their own way, and I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way, but there were definitely some people who just let it all out on me, you know? Then there were other people who wanted to grieve differently or let it out in different ways, and that was fine too. My role for whoever I was with to just be what they needed me to be at that time.
Did you worry about yourself in a situation like that, though? Obviously you can be that person for a number of other people, but did you have person for you, or was it that you had your practices that you can fall back on so you maybe had a more solid foundation?
I wasn’t worried about myself, and that’s not that I thought that I was like this invincible, selfless being, but because of my previous experiences, I knew I had not only my practices but I had people and that as difficult as this was, we’d get through it together. I had people that if I needed a shoulder to cry on, me and Ray and Kody were there for each other, and we still are there for each other. I wasn’t worried about myself. I had this deep feeling that it was incredibly awful, and in one sense I’m never going to be okay; I’m never going to get over this loss, and at the same time, I am okay. This idea that these contradictions can exist, and it’s something that I’ve learned over years of practice, but things that logically can’t exist at the same time do. Like, “complete not okayness” and “complete okayness” can coexist in one person.
It’s funny you mention that. One of the parts that I read of the book and then read it again and read it again are the couple of chapters in the middle, eleven and twelve, on Nothingness and then Universal Oneness, and those concepts that should be polar opposite and yet for me and my own personal belief, I feel like they both exist simultaneously. Part of me feels like when we’re done, we’re done. That’s it. Nothing else happens. There’s not an afterlife necessarily, except that we’re all also part of this singular energy that is the universe. Our body and our spirit or whatever don’t move on, we’re done, but we get returned to the primordial soup. It seems like those ideas should be polar opposites, but I feel like they’re both what I believe in.
Absolutely. I can totally see that. I think the universal oneness concept is so vast and so huge that it can also most certainly encapsulate nothingness. They logically are exact opposites, but there’s a part of us that can hold space for contradictions, and I definitely think that those are two compatible concepts if we clear this egoic part of us that doesn’t want to accept that opposites can exist in the same realm.
What kept coming back to me was The Who lyric “nothing is everything, everything is nothing.”
Absolutely! That’s Buddhist as fuck!
Exactly! I don’t remember if Pete Townshend was a practicing Buddhist at that point, but you’re right; that’s Buddhist as fuck!
Yeah, I’m sure he probably wasn’t, but the reason it’s true is that it’s just true. Everyone who digs in, no matter what path you’re going through, you’ll come to the truth. It’s just fucking true, regardless of what religion or what philosophy you choose. Dig in and find out for yourself.
One of the other parts of the book that I wanted to talk about was the practices. In the first book, I was a fan of how after every story there was a meditation or a yogic practice to do, and I’m glad that you put those in periodically in this book too almost as breaks, because the concept of the book gets a little heavy at times, so the practices serve as a little break. But I have to say, that death meditation…I really like that one, and I had never seen it anywhere else before. I really dug into that practice of sort of picturing what happens when you die; of being comfortable with the fact that you’re going to expire, that your time will be up, and then seeing yourself kinda dissipating and falling away and then there’s nothing, and being okay with that. I dug into that over the course of the last couple of weeks, and I’m glad that medication was in there. What sort of went in to what practices you put into the book and where?
I think about a couple things. One, I think about trying to present what I hope the reader is ready or able to dip their toes into at the time. You can’t just take someone from zero to a hundred right away. They’ll be like “what the fuck is this?” and bail. So that death meditation particularly, if I were to start the book and that’s where we start out, a lot of people will be like “I’m not doing that!” and then close the book and bail, right? But, I think as you go through the journey and you get a little more open, you’re willing to test the waters a little bit more, and you’re open to newer experiences. That’s why that particular one is towards the end. The other thing I thought about a lot was, okay, so the status quo is to just never think about death at all, and just kind of move forward. You counteract that with the extreme on the opposite end, right? So, we’re going to do the exact opposite. We’re going to fucking not only think about death, we’re going to think about our death and we’re going to think about it in explicit detail. And I think by then having explored both ends of the extreme, we come to find where our spot in the middle is.
That’s sort of where I landed after trying it. I’ve never been one who’s been good with taking a particular set of contemplations and moving through them, like the first part of that medication. My brain doesn’t seem to work that way and I forget or get lost or whatever. But the last part of that step, I was able to work through the imagery of basically the lifeless corpse as it decomposes, for lack of a better word, and I felt really calm afterwards. I don’t know that that’s a thing that you’d expect after envisioning what happens to your body when you die.
That’s awesome! I’ve had a lot of deeply calming experiences with death practices like this myself. It’s sort of counterintuitive; you mention it to someone that today they’re going to imagine their body rotting away. On paper, that seems like a deeply unsettling thing, but in reality, if you go through it a few times, it can be profoundly peaceful. Again it’s playing with contradictions and the space in between, right?
I think it’s an important concept that usually gets overlooked. It’s one thing that we’re talking about mental health and issues like that more and more in the public consciousness now, but we still don’t really talk about death, aside from that we’re scared as fuck of it most of the time.
Totally! This is another level deeper, right?
Yeah, it’s a good thing that we’re talking about mental health, but I think a lot of people’s struggles with self-medication and self-harm and destructive behavior comes from not dealing with stuff like this. From not being comfortable talking about or understanding death, and they end up either running from it or running towards it.
Most certainly. I was talking about the book and the practices, and hopefully by this point, the reader is ready to go into a slightly deeper practice, but it doesn’t just exist on individual levels. As a whole society or as a whole world, years back, we weren’t able to talk about mental health and depression and stuff like that. Now, generally, it’s more okay to talk about and to investigate those things, so let’s go even deeper. At some point, death is what we’re all fucking afraid of to some degree, so let’s investigate that.
I think it’s sort of poignant that just this week in the sports world, and in the traditionally macho football world, you had two guys very publicly walk away from lucrative careers because they were dealing with not just physical but mental health issues, and the fact that they were even able to talk about that “this game fucked me up and I need to not play it anymore…”
Yeah, it’s remarkable!
Collectively we’re evolving, and I know the news makes it seem like we’re regressing and that things are fucking awful, but I truly, in my heart, believe that the reason that the bad shit is being so noisy right now is that all of the good shit is making real progress.
That’s an interesting way to look at it. I hope you’re right!
I hope I’m right too! (*both laugh*) Just the fact that some football players can talk about that and retire and walk away…there’s been an evolution. Just the fact that…how do I do this without being super fucking political… the fact that climate change deniers are fighting so much and there’s so many people so fucking pissed off shows that the truth is there, and that more people are becoming aware of it. That’s why little dogs bark so fucking loud, because the truth is breaking through, and as a species we’re fucking evolving.