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The Experience – Part 3: The Mind

the experience – part 3: the mind
the experience – part 3: the mind
the experience – part 3: the mind

That first morning when I arrived at the Zen Monastery I remember telling myself that there was a good chance that I was never coming back out again.  Something deep inside me, that was deeply familiar with the seduction of meditation, was calling to me to beware.  I was wary therefore when I first came into the room.  It was an open room with the unmistakable pillars of a refurbished warehouse interrupting your gaze like an annoying information seeker when you are trying to read a really great book.

There I stood, half-naked and in sandals, hair long but neatly combed.  There he sat, with the others, not looking or not looking at me, but rather just looking.  After a while, I just sat down.  I felt like it was the right thing to do.  I sat there, for hours, not really knowing what to do.  I sat for hours upon hours as people came and went and the person who appeared to be “in charge” just did things only an attendant would do.  I began to think nobody was in charge and this was just a hangout for people who wanted to come and think.  In that way, it was really not very much different than the library.

There was something different about it though.  It was the ever sucking silence that was there.  It was a presence beyond the occasional noise from the outside world that would bleed through the walls of the old warehouse.  It was visceral and gelatinous and stuck to you like flies to flypaper.  It was compelling.  So I stayed, sitting in that ridiculous way for that equally ridiculous amount of time.  I never felt foolish though.  The setting was too somber for that.  I am pretty sure if I had been anywhere else I would have felt foolish.  Here, not so much.

Finally, at the very end of the day, the “attendant” came up to me and stood about three feet away from me.  He was not standing over me nor was he even facing me.  He was just standing near me.  I found this profoundly interesting.  Then he noticed I was looking at him and he then looked at me, no, really looked at me this time.  I could tell the difference.  I thought he was going to say something, but he did not.  His eyes were always making you think he was about to say something but he rarely did.  He then came closer to me one step at a time.  Finally, he sat down in front of me, and then after staring at me for a good long time he finally said something to me.  He took a deep, deep breath and after most of the air had departed his lungs he allowed his vocal cords to intercept the air and his mouth slowly formed the word, “why?”

One word.  One utterance, almost like a windy whisper that could have been mistaken for any number of sounds a windpipe can make, came from him.  Only one.  So I said, “be…” and his hand rose sharply and quickly to silence me.  Then the next word came out, “wait”.  We sat there with me beginning to fidget, something I had not done all day.  Finally, he uttered one more word, “tomorrow.”

Then he got up, went to the door, which was always open, and walked outside.  He did not come back, at least not in the hour I sat there waiting for him.  By that time I was profoundly tired.  So, having no place to go (I had rented out my co-op space to another person for the summer) I opened up my grass mat (yep I was that trendy) and fell soundly asleep on it.

I awoke the next day to ice-cold water dumped over my entire body.  I sat straight up and screamed as loud as I could.  I was enraged and stood up ready to punch someone only to find that face, looking, not at me, just looking.  I was immediately set back by that stare and backed down.  He then said one word to me, “scrub”.  He handed me the now-empty bucket, except for the wooden handled brush inside, and walked away to water some plants.

I could not believe what I was witnessing.  Without saying anything more than four words to me this man had already had the most profound impact on me that I could remember anyone, even my wordy professors, having upon me.  I put the bucket down, grabbed the scrub brush, moved my mat off the wet spot, and started using the water to scrub the wooden floor.

As I scrubbed I could not help but think that the way he was looking in my direction and where the water landed was nothing but a coincidence.  It almost seemed like he was not expecting anything to be on that spot on the floor.  Rather, he was wetting the floor and discovered that I was sleeping on it in that way.  At which point I was enlisted in the scrubbing.  It only seemed natural.  So I scrubbed.  It took me about two hours to scrub the floor while the sun slowly came up over the horizon and the whole room glowed in surreal orange vermilion.

When I had finished scrubbing the floor, he walked over near me and said, “follow.”  I then was taken to the garden area where there was a sandpit with some stones and some bonsai trees surrounded by a redwood deck that was meticulously manicured and startlingly clean.  He pointed at the deck and said, “scrub”.  I sighed and said, “it’s already…”.  Again, the hand shot up and silenced me.  Again, he said, “tomorrow”.  This time he meant I should leave.

That was the first of many nights I slept in nature.  Something a break from school and the summer vacation made possible.  It is quite striking how little food we actually need to survive.  Granted I was rail thin, but I was not always hungry.  I ate what I was offered, from friends or from the monastery, but nothing else.  Towards the evening I would find a safe place to place my mat and sleep.

I arrived the next morning around the time I remembered must have been when the master had arrived and discovered that there was a bucket, scrub brush, and water waiting for me.  So I scrubbed the floor of the main sitting room and then moved to the redwood deck in the garden area and then when I was done I placed the bucket where I had found it and sat down.

It was about another hour and the master came out and said, “follow”.  I then followed him and he took me to a really amazing place.  It was a small pool with a statue of a Buddha in lotus.  Placed on a redwood bench next to the pool were a robe, bright orange vermilion, and a pair of plain leather sandals.  He looked at me and said, “Bathe. Dress. Sit.”  So I did.  When I saw him next he had a towel and a bowl.  He said, “on your knees.”  I said, “OK.”  He said, “bend over.”  I was thinking, “OK, this is getting creepy.”  I felt like I was supposed to be alarmed at this somewhere in my deepest being, but then he smiled and pulled out a big pair of silver scissors.  So I bent over and he placed the large wooden bowl under my head and began to cut my hair.

Now, it must be said, I loved my hair.  I took meticulous care of it.  I was careful to brush it one hundred times with my head inverted between my knees to let the blood flow to the follicles.  It was thick and luxurious hair and I was known for it all about campus.  As I watched it fall from my head, all I could think about was that this felt like I was becoming naked even though I was fully clothed in the robe.

Next, he got out a razor and some shaving soap and shaved my head neatly down to the skin.  When he was done he tossed me the towel and I wiped my head.  He then said, “follow.”  We went into the garden as the sun was just rising.  He sat down and patted the redwood.  I sat down.  He then reached into his robe and gave me the book that would change my entire life.  He gave me a handwritten notebook containing the neatly written Ambattha Sutta which is the treatise on Pride.  It means, generally, “pride humbled.”

He got up and walked away.  I then started to read the words in the notebook and from that point, I was whisked away into a world of understanding that has only grown as I encounter more of the wisdom of humanity on this incredible journey I am on.

One notebook at a time throughout the entire summer I read, sat, listened, and learned from the master.  Finally, towards the end of the summer, I came across the treatise on the mental body.  I remember where I was when I was reading it.  I was in the coffee shop next to the monastery sitting at a table, bright orange vermilion robe and shaved head and all, and read the lines about the instructions on how to build the mental body.  It was at this point that everything came rushing in upon me and I started to pulse in and out again.

I knew that this was the answer to what had happened to me and it apparently had happened to this fellow Gautama over a thousand years ago.  He was experiencing something far beyond what was simply physical and it had real ramifications in the world, the physical world.  According to this reading, there were many things that could be done in the mental body that could not be done in the physical body and that that which was seen in the mental body could inform the physical body and physical world.  However, there were many, many cautions.  Far more cautions than the cautions for the meditating student.  This was precisely because this exercise was detached from direct corroboration.  It was an exercise that existed entirely inside of mind.  Progress had to be made slowly and with meticulous verification or one was surely lost.

However, at least I had a framework for what was happening to me.  I could let go of the conspiracy lunacy and get down to brass tacks.  I was, after all, a scientist and a philosopher, at the time, and I was after a rational explanation for the profoundly altering experiences that were happenstance-ing to me.

The Experience – Part 2: Water Moon

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blankI remember as a boy of about five or six years of age, which was the earliest I can remember, that I knew I was never alone.  It was a central understanding in my life.  It was like mom or brother or sister or dog or house or any of those other central understandings in my life.  It was almost something I took for granted, almost.  Only I couldn’t.  That’s because it never went away.  That ever present sense was always there like the scent of the Pacific Ocean that hits you when you get close to Yuma, Arizona and gets ever so stronger as you continue West on Highway 8 towards San Diego.

My little boy imagination was always at work.  There were flashes of light and sound and color, some furious and others subdued.  Then there were wisps and whispers that  I thought for sure contained faces and structures I related to living creatures of all kinds.  This produced feelings in me.  Feelings that constantly wanted me to be there and nowhere else.  There was a yearning to it.  Far from running away, it was just this pang.  A hunger and a thirst that could not be satisfied with any succulence or satiation I could swallow.

This knowing was not shallow.  It was all encompassing and ever pressing.  It was like feeling the weight of the pressure of the atmosphere in a way that took you out of your forgetting of it (which you have done you know).  It wasn’t like drowning though.  It was instead very warm and encompassing like a womb.  It was exactly like a womb, only it was constructed of everything I encountered after being forcefully evicted from the place of my origin.

I am telling you this because this presence I speak of sets the stage for the second chapter in my experience of coming to know that I am more than the sum of everything that forms me.  This presence plays very heavily into my accretion of a mindset that eventually allows me to envision that the transfer out of the place of my origin is not a severing isolation, but always a new implantation within a new womb, which I have come to understand is called “the Universe” (At least it is by those who currently call this planet their home).

The story continues with me living on with the experience on my fourteenth birthday seared into my mind and coloring everything that I encounter.  That day drove a wedge between my acceptance of life as something that “just happens” and my understanding of life as something that “is happening”.  My awareness took an injection of steroids and went from passive to active, zero to sixty, in an instant.

Up until that day I considered myself a better than average dreamer.  I would have dreams every night and even during the day sometimes.  I would imagine all sorts of worlds, some of them obvious and others not so much.  Every dream was in full vibrant color and I was always aware that I was dreaming.  Up until that day my dreams were like a picture show that I watched.  After that day my dreams were increasingly under my control.  I began to understand that I could control every aspect of every dream that I had and I considered this a fluency as important as types of scent, varieties of flavor,  nuances of touch and the meaning of words.  After that day what I considered a dream was no longer a dream.  Dreams became the activity of an attribute of my mind.  One that would lead me into some very interesting and powerful experiences.  One that was fraught with danger and innocence, horror and beauty and revelations that sometimes took me to places that I had no desire to be in or even know were possible.  I knew one thing and I knew it well.  Dreaming like this was a power.

I grew on, into the twilight of my time in the nest with mom, dad and siblings until the day when my yearnings and cravings sucked me out and spit me upon the shores of the only place I knew where I could plug into the information network of this planet, the University.  At first I was like an awkward, gangling youngling stumbling about trying to gain its footing.  I had no idea if it was the world that was rubbery or if it was my legs.  You could think of it in both ways and I sure did.  I always did.  I think that is the deepest consequence of the types of experiences that I have had and continue to have.  I was and still am acutely aware of the limitations of the anthropomorphism that plagues our species and is perhaps the single greatest enemy to personal freedom and self-discovery that we wrestle with every day.  There I was nonetheless, cast upon these shores, like a self cast outcast.  I felt like a pioneer, a pilgrim.  Even so I was driven, maniacally at times, to understand just how to deal with the information gap that existed in me as a consequence of the disruption of that day so long ago when my world was turned upside down, never to return to right side up because right vanished and in its place there was only a relativity staring back at me decidedly unblinking.

So I enrolled into the School of Architecture and Urban Design.  What?  Seriously?  Yes, I did.  I don’t know why I did so.  I think it was because I sensed that I was on to something structural and I wanted to know about structures, about architectures, about how things were constructed (and torn down).  I was driven by this passion and soon came to terms with the first limitation that doomed my chances to be this kind of architect.

I could not draw.  My hands were like dumb blocks of palm and finger shaped rubber.  They were entirely unresponsive.  It was embarrassing.  I tried every possible way to augment my shortcoming but we had not come to the age of Photoshop and graphic manipulation, heck computers were extremely infantile in the early eighties, so I was left to rulers and compasses and protractors and other rigid and crude instruments, such as cut out tracing templates and light boards (for engaging actual visual plagiary).  The more and more I struggled to create inspiring visual representations of my passion for structures the more and more that passion was sucked out of me.  My mother was an accomplished and masterful painter and she spent hours teaching me to paint.  Even so, that teaching was stubbornly not extending to my ability to draw.  With the tool of the paintbrush in my hands I could create wonderful things.  But as soon as I tried to use my hand and a pencil or pen or chalk, that vanished.  There was something about the intersection of the tool and the distance from the work that was my sweet spot.  It always bugged my mother, but then again, she saw that I could paint and it was OK by her.  However, my inability to draw was the first time I encountered the visceral difference between theoretical and practical. It had a profound impact upon me, not only then, and not only in this category, but in every single aspect of my being, including the one that was at the heart of a relentless driving of me.

I remember talking to the Dean.  She and I both knew I was bright but not cut out for architecture, at least of this kind, and I told her that I was going to be switching majors.  At the time I did not really know that I did not need to formally do anything to switch my major, but this meet-up was something that who I was needed to do.  It was all much more dramatic than it had to be, but again, that presence I always felt, made my life feel like I was constantly in a movie that had a director who was always shouting at me to do one thing or another (but mercilessly never said “cut”).

So I gravitated to the School of Design and spent a semester undecided.  Undecided.  Now there is a word.  Especially when it is applied to a life.  Undecided.  I was now undecided.  That was something I never was before.  I had always been decided.  I had always known what I was going to do next.  I had always dreamed it or read about it or discovered something I needed to know that pushed me to become what I needed to in order to slip into the world that held what I needed.  But this time, I was undecided.  I felt it everyday when my friends and teachers and counselors would ask me, “what is your major” and I would say, “well, I am undecided.”  I would physically shudder sometimes.  It was the start of an uncomfortable arising in me that I would understand later as one of the most important moments of my life, but at that time it was a stigma that I was none to proud to wear.

After that semester I had an encounter with a Rastafarian who introduced me to the world of Reggae, Ska and Jazz.  Up until that point I was pretty straight laced.  I was what you would call a “preppy”.  That was the eighties term for “nerd” (well, just before they coined it in a movie made during that decade, anyway).  Interestingly it was at that point that I gravitated to a position between two seemingly irreconcilable opposites, Philosophy and Business.  I also became heavily involved in media production working with a group of friends that called itself Gallivant Media where I farmed out my services as a fledgling start up called Dandelion Paper Media.  We were working to promote the underground music scene in Milwaukee at the time and many of the bands (and other types of artists) we saw come together, through our efforts and the efforts of others, went on to become very famous.  Throw in a healthy dose of Comparative Religions and I was about as far from my Izod wearing preppy days as you could possibly get.  I think it was at that time that I truly became a nerd.

I took a work study job as a circulation attendant at the university library.  It was right up my alley.  I was encased in “the stacks” as they called them.  For me it was a giant labyrinth of knowledge that played a tune so seductive to my information gap that I instantly fell in love with the musty smell of those many thousands of tomes and their care.  Later in life I was to return to that love of information and it was to drive me even during the interim.  I was profoundly shaped by my four years in library service and it is an experience that I will never forget for as long as I shall exist.  There are fundamental “structures” that live there which appealed to my general passion for structure that I tried to satisfy in the School of Architecture and Urban Design and reached out tenderly and all too knowingly to grab the tattered and raw edges of undecided me and snapped me firmly back into place.  It was right after I took that job that the penultimate experience of this second chapter took place.

The midsummer night hung damp and dripping upon the naked skin of my exposed upper body.  I was fond of wearing nothing but a thin three-fold braided chord strung from my shoulder to my waist and around my back to my shoulder again in a half-hearted tribute to the Brahmans of India, whom I respected tremendously.  The moon, low in the sky, hanging over the waters of Lake Michigan with a tentative truce, cast a lightspear from the horizon to the shore impaling me with an accusation of not staring in jaw-dropping wonder at its unfathomable beauty.  The midnight ambiance of this section of the plateau of Lake Park, which shelved itself as a plinth running alongside the lapping waters of the lake, caused me to stop, dead in my tracks and when I did everything melted away, including my direct consciousness of the entire place.

I sincerely do not know what happened to me.  I know that one moment I was blissfully taking one of my extended Walt Whitman-ish “forays” into the natural splendor of eighties Lake Park and the next moment my world had been reduced to a pulsing arrival and departure of consciousness in which I was greeted each time with a new and bizarre scene playing itself out in front of me.  On the first return I was no longer standing.  I was sitting on the ground.  I had placed the canvas bag that I always carried with me to the side and taken the single-loop toe sandals off my feet and placed them on the bag.  I had taken the small drums out of my bag, which I had spent a pretty penny on and spent a ton of time conditioning and tuning, and then I pulsed again.  It was like a long slow throb.  Like the push of awareness in and out of your grasp as if it was blood pumping through the millions of orifices throughout your body and your cells grasping at each molecule of life it brings as if there will never be another, ever again.

On the second return I was playing my drums.  The rhythm was a combination of palm thrusts, finger taps and back handed nail scratch throws which was extremely seductive.  I found myself instantly in love with the rhythm.  I was staring at the moon which had now met the water and was being swallowed by the mouth of Lake Michigan as the horizon had curved up on each side of the moon like thick wet lips of light sucking on a glowing crystal ball due to the haze effect of the rarefied lake water as it played with the light of the captured moon. Then I pulsed again.

On the third return I was no longer playing my drums.  This was the first thing I was aware of.  The second awareness was that of a strange chattering sound, like clicks and buzzes and high pitched guttural bird calls and the sound of a strange rustling which was thick and noisy and ominously close.  Focus came next and I was staring into the face of three of the biggest raccoons I had ever seen.  They were like little bears.  Big thick heads and large round bodies and they were sitting up on their haunches with their hands reaching out for my drums, touching them and then retreating back to their chests sort of like a kangaroo holds its hands when it has nothing better to do with them.  They were making this unbelievably lively chatter, filled with the clicks and buzzes and high pitched guttural ratatat sounds which were most decidedly directed at each other.  It was like they were talking to me and to each other but I did not understand a word of it and they were upset and bewildered that I did not know what they were saying!  Furthermore I got the distinct feeling, like a pet owner knows its pet knows him or her, that these three night denizens knew me and the fact that I obviously did not know them was troubling them in a very raccoonish way.

It was then that I discovered the source of the loud rustling sound that I was hearing but could not detect the source of.  It was the ground.  Starting from just about a foot outside of where the raccoons were sitting on their haunches the ground was alive with every kind of insect from crickets to earthworms all writhing in every direction in a thick matte that stretched for at least ten feet in every direction around me.  On the edge of that were rabbits and squirrels and on the edge of them were the reptiles, the snakes, frogs and turtles, one of which must have been a hundred year old snapping turtle who peered out from just under the canopy of the woods to see what was going on.  Outside of that just visible within the near canopy of the woods I swore I could see other, larger forest denizens lurking and pacing at the edge of the forest, not wanting to come out and not wanting to leave.  The whole thing was overwhelming.  From the moment I came to to the moment of the realization of the “lurkers” in the woods was approximately 5 or ten minutes.  So this happened rather quickly.  Then I pulsed.

On the fourth return all the animals were gone except for the three raccoons who were walking away on all fours looking back at me as they went.  I watched them go and raised my hand palm out facing them as they disappeared into the woods. I never saw them again.  I remember that I no longer pulsed after they disappeared and I quickly got up, packed my drums and went to the house I co-oped in with some others.  When I got to my room I dropped to my palate on the floor where I slept and I fell into the deepest sleep I have ever slept both up to that time and even to this day.  When I awoke it was still night, but it was the next night.  It was so strange.  I thought I had only been asleep for a few minutes, but an entire day had come and gone and I had missed it.  My body, exhausted from the stress of those few hours on the shelf of Lake Park, had collapsed and had needed that much time to recharge.

Upon awakening I felt the presence that I always felt had become even thicker.  It was oppressive.  That had never happened before.  It was urgent with an urgency that drove me even more.  I cannot tell you how irritating it was to be so driven without any clue as to where I was going.  As I look back on that time, the frustration that I felt during this time was the only thing that could have pushed me into the writings of the Buddha.  I was referred by a friend to a zen monastery that existed at that time in the heart of the university community.  I encountered Zazen for the first time and from the moment I did and read the first words of the Buddha I vanished from among those I had previously known for the rest of the summer.  What I learned during that time changed the direction of my life in yet another revolutionary and revelatory way. Continue reading “The Experience – Part 2: Water Moon”