August 2002 Volume V, Number 1
War Against Sleep
What's Your Happiest Moment?
A Mother's Gift
Book Review: Radical Spirit
Stake Out: The University for the Study of Human Goodness
Zen and the Art of Floor Waxing (top)
Joseph Chilton Pearce, author of the best-selling book Crack in the Cosmic Egg, once said that the first step in a spiritual search is to be "seized by the idea." When I was attending the University of Pittsburgh, I was seized by the idea that a radical transformation of the human being could take place that would, as the Zen masters put it, "solve the riddle of life and death." I found myself unable to think of just about anything else and devoured books on Zen, yoga and Christian mysticism. These were books that left me breathless with their descriptions of nirvana, Samadhi, satori, and the Unio Mystico. Could I look upon the face of God and live? When I met my spiritual teacher Richard Rose in 1972, he epitomized this idea that had seized me. Then at a retreat at his farm in 1973, something happened to me. Something seized me so forcibly that I left college, my girlfriend, my friends, my parents' approval, and my plans for the future and I dedicated myself completely to The Quest. My ears rung with what Rose had said. He had smiled tenderly at me and whispered, "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."
While Rose was a spiritual giant he was also an ordinary West Virginian from an extremely modest family. He cared little for money and had even less of it. He lived in a ramshackle old house in Benwood, West Virginia with an interstate for a back yard that you could've bought from him for about $15,000. It was an oven in the summer and an ice box in the winter. Yes, the toilets flushed, but a shower? No chance. I was actually his first "full-time" student and about six months after I dropped out of school, I moved into the house with him. Rose had a unique teaching style. He left me alone while he went about the business of writing books, corresponding by mail, and earning enough money through contracting to keep some day-old bread on the table. I quickly learned that his help was dependent on my asking for it and that meant meeting him half-way with "something on my mind."
One day I had an inspiration. The word about Rose was getting around and more and more college students were making the trek to Benwood to see him. The net result of all this was that the kitchen, the only heated room in the house and hence the meeting room, was getting very dirty. Especially the floor. And my inspiration was to scrub that huge filthy kitchen floor. The idea appealed to me partly to curry favor with the Master, and partly because I guess I was bored and didn't have anything "on my mind." As the oldest of eight children, the first seven of which were boys, I had done housework from an early age, and scrubbing my mother's kitchen floor was a chore I did every Friday growing up. As a result, I considered myself uniquely qualified for the job.
Trying to hide my generosity and bravado, I announced to Rose my intentions. I told him the plan. "I'm going to sweep and mop the floor, then I'll hand-scrub it and use steel wool on the scuff marks. The corners I'll get with a rag over a butter knife, and then I'll give it two coats of wax. It'll look like a new floor." Rose dispassionately surveying the sorry spectacle of that 1000-year-old floor, murmured "OK," and retreated to his tiny meat freezer of an "office" to bang away on his 150-year-old mechanical typewriter.
I went to work. After a couple of hours I began to realize how big a job this was. Determined to impress that SOB Rose, I soldiered on. The harder I scrubbed, the bigger that kitchen became, and for every 1000-year-old black scuff mark that yielded to the steel wool, that floor seemed to grow two or three more. Finally it was finished. I let it dry and applied a coat of wax. Now in those days the only floor wax around was Aerowax, and I'd forgotten that I had to let the first coat dry for an hour or so before I re-applied the second coat. By the time that first coat was done drying I was exhausted and it was growing dark outside. I gave the floor the critical eye of the expert I was and it looked great. Better than new, I thought. The idea of another coat and another hour and a half wait before replacing the furniture was too much for me. My raw and aching knees decided that another coat would just be carrying coals to Newcastle and I called it a day.
Now, I hadn't seen Rose all day. Only the infernal tapping on that decrepit type writer had kept me from checking up on his vital signs. Proudly I knocked on the door and when he appeared, I told him I was finished and ready for his inspection. He simply nodded and walked behind me down the frigid hall to the kitchen. As I beamed he quickly took it all in. Glancing impassively my way he said, "I thought you said you were going to give it two coats of wax," and went back to his writing. Utterly hurt and humiliated, I gave that floor another coat of wax. The pain I must now endure is knowing a gratitude so deep that it is impossible to express, even after many years of trying to express it.
The war against sleep began when I was sixteen.
It was the night before the due date for our applications to the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics. My mother was in a silent fury because I had procrastinated writing my application essays until now; the evening was wearing on and my paper was still blank.
"I'm going to bed," she announced curtly, with a tone that implied she had given up all hope of my educational future. My twin brother had finished his essays that afternoon and was now printing them out noisily on our overenthusiastic dot-matrix printer. He gave me the raised-eyebrow look that said, "Well, well, aren't we in a difficult position?" Then he, too, went to bed, and I was alone in the gloomy basement study.
I proceeded to pace non-stop for the next three hours, churning over the essays in my head. I originally learned to write without the benefit of a word processor, which gave me a maddening compulsion to know every single word I wanted to say before I ever touched the paper. By one a.m. it was all there, every word, like a memorized speech, perfect. . .and locked in a brain that might never go to boarding school unless I could release it soon. And I was exhausted.
I had to go for the secret weapon. I had to go for. . .coffee.
I was a starter on the Brevard High wrestling team, and two years of sucking weight had taught me to love black coffee: the zero-calorie, stomach-filling, appetite-suppressing, energy-restoring black potion of unnatural fortitude. But now I needed it for something else. I snuck upstairs to the kitchen, lights off, and quietly shoveled two heaping teaspoons of Folgers into a microwavable mug, and prayed.
By two o'clock it was looking like I had a chance. . .by three o'clock, a good chance. . .by four o'clock I was proofing. . .and then at five o'clock it started to snow. As the sun peaked over the mountains, the snow kept coming, and I sealed the envelope of my application while the morning radio announced that school was cancelled for the day. My mom shook her head at my rumpled clothes and my bleary-eyed triumph. I went to bed feeling like I had conquered death.
My first all-nighter got me into boarding school, and started me on my lifelong campaign of wakefulness. It taught me the sweetness of the Procrastinator's Code: Never do today what you can put off until the night before it's due. Through my entire high school and college career, a week did not go by that I did not stay up all night at least once. In a perverse sort of way, I looked forward to those torturous nights of sleep deprivation. Going into the night, faced with the seemingly unconquerable, withstanding the onslaught of all bodily weakness, persevering by sheer will until I emerged again into the light of dawn, shivering with exhaustion, project finished, now weirdly excited and punchy, because I had won. It was like death and rebirth.
Why did I do it so much? Maybe it was just ego. I don't think people realized how much they egged me on. "What, are you still in the lab? At this hour? Jesus, you're nuts. How do you do it?" My grades and my writing, the products of my all-night binges, were rarely lauded with so much open marveling as the fact I had forgone so much sleep.
Oh, how I lapped it up. I just shrugged and gave a half-smile and said something like, "I guess I'm just a lazy man who loses his nerve at the last moment." But inwardly: "I am IRON MAN."
Or maybe it was perfectionismtrying to avoid all possibility of rejection by making everything impeccable. Or maybe it eased the guilty feeling of seeing another day of my life wasted and goneif I worked until I dropped, I couldn't be accused of doing less than everything I ought, could I?
It all came down to the same thing: I wanted time. I wanted to steal time from the night and drag it back kicking and screaming into the daylight. I was stealing more life for myself. Prometheus, eat your heart out. Or liver, or whatever.
The war hit a serious snag when I tried meditation. I had long been interested in spiritual and religious directions, and by the middle of college considered myself a real hard-core seeker after the Truth. The problem was, every sacred text and guru and half-sensible expert was telling me that meditation, contemplation, prayerwhatever you called it, quiet time alone in your own mindwas a requisite practice. So, along with all my busy sleep-deprived super-activity, I tried sitting still for a while. And, of course, the natural thing happened.
I feel asleep. Every. Single. Time.
At every yoga class I would lie down for one of Marty Soloman's guided meditations, and I would get about halfway through the walk down the wooded path to the secluded glade with the natural spring before I was out like a light. I could never stay awake to meet any spirit guides or fly into the night sky or anything. On retreats I would sit on a tiny cushion that only a samurai would find comfy, and twist my legs into a suitably painful position, and focus my entire will on being aware of my breath and my thoughts slooowing dow. . .damn. Fell asleep again. What agonizing torture. Head nodding stupidly, snapping back up in embarrassment, wondering when this will ever end.
"Well, you're never really going to learn that much about yourself by meditating, are you?" I once said to a Buddhist monk lecturing at a local Zen center. "The way you find out who you are is by doing things, challenging yourself." This line of reasoning was very popular with my spiritual community.
"Yeah, maybe. . ." he replied, his hand patiently flicking beads on a rosary-like loop of leather. "But then again, maybe you're just afraid to find out who you really are when all those accomplishments and goals are ultimately stripped away. You can't take that with you when you die. Who will you be then?"
Huh? You can't take your experience with you? Isn't experience all we really get to keep? I always thought I was so wise to avoid desiring material possessions, and instead focused on learning, on gaining experience and wisdom. But upon reflection, I saw that I was just what Chogyam Trungpa would call a "spiritual materialist"I thought I could make a full life by piling up lots of experience, not realizing that the intangible was just as perishable and limited as the tangible.
I am changing my ways. I don't stay up till all hours like I used to. I meditate in the morning and evening, and sometimes, for brief periods, I get a fleeting glimpse of who I am before I ever think about doing anything. I have surrendered in the war against sleep, but maybe I haven't lost.
Georg Buehler is a graduate of North Carolina State University and contributing author of Radical Spirit (see book review below).
Inspiration and Perspiration: An Interview with Dean William Willimon (top)
He is the author of fifty books, including Resident Aliens and The Search for Meaning in the Workplace, with over a million copies of his books having been sold. In 1996, an international survey conducted by Baylor University named him one of the Twelve Most Effective Preachers in the English-Speaking world. His articles have appeared in many publications including The Christian Ministry, Quarterly Review, Liturgy, Worship, and Christianity Today, and he is Editor-at-Large for The Christian Century.
Interviewing Dean Willimon was a special opportunity for me, because as a Duke undergraduate, he was a true friend and mentor. I met Dean Willimon through my initial work with the Self Knowledge Symposium, for which he was the faculty advisor and a frequent guest speaker. Throughout our later conversations and friendship, I have always been amazed by his willingness to address the issues that are most on students' mindsnot only the spiritual questions about faith, truth, religion, and philosophy, but also the day-to-day questions of friendship, sex, career choices, etc. In this interview I focus on the theme of inspiration with one of my own most inspiring teachers, while also getting Dean Willimon's perspective on what is going on with students and their spiritual lives today.
What inspired you to enter the ministry?
I think that most contemporary Americans who I know tend to think of inspiration as a feeling or impulse that comes out of you, like when you say "Aha, I've never thought about thatthat's great!" or "Now I finally know what I want to do!" In this way, inspiration is a feeling that is emoted that comes out of you.
But I believe the word inspiration literally means to be filled with some kind of spirit. I guess the word probably comes from the Church originally. Christians are weird in that we think that this spirit or inspiration is something that comes to you from outside of you. Christianity, like a lot of religions, is called a revealed religion in that it is not something we project or that comes out of us but rather it is something that comes to us.
So, my junior year of college I was simply minding my own business. I'm doing what juniors in college are supposed to be doingthinking "Should I go to law school? Should I go teach?" And I suddenly had the sense that I was being addressedthat something was coming to me. God was saying "Hey, I got work for you to do. I've got plans for you. They may not be your plans, but they're my plans, and you better listen." And I still, after all these years, have a sense that I'm here because I was put here and that I was summoned.
Someone just recently asked me, "How'd you feel you wanted to become a Christian minister?" and I said I didn't feel it at all. It certainly wasn't something I wanted to do. I thought it was the most ridiculous idea I've ever heard in my life. So I guess I'm saying there that I think of inspiration as something that comes at us. Martin Luther spoke of Christian gospel as the "Verbum Externum"that is, the external word. That means that the word is not an expression of my innermost longings, but rather comes from someplace else. I don't know if that's a common North American way of construing our lives, but that's been my experience.
How did you respond to this inspiration? Was it difficult to accept?
It certainly took some getting used to. When I shared these feelings with my college roommate, he said "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard in my life." He said, "I feel guilt about stuff I did my freshman year, too, Will, but there are other ways to work that out. Get over it." My mother said that it was the strangest thing she'd ever heard and she told me "You'll be a failure as a minister because ministers have to say what people want to hearand you're terrible at that."
Looking back, thoughto be honestI'm sure this was something I was thinking about and struggling with for a long, long time. One of the great things about being at Duke is that you get to talk with a lot of people who are thinking, "What should I do with my life?" Some of those people are so formed that they ask "What does God want me to do with my life?" One thing I've noticed is that when answers finally come people will say "It was just amazingI knew what I had to do." But most of the time what we probably mean is, "Finally I got the courage to admit that this was really where I was heading. I've been avoiding it for some time, but I can finally see that this is what I have to do." The Bible is just full of stories of people who are minding their own business and suddenlyzapthere's a voice saying, "Hey I've got a job for you to do. Go do it." So for me I think it was the culmination of a long process.
What are some of the things that have most inspired you to continue with your work?
Well, I think inspiration is something that tends to be most easily felt in our youthful days. So, from what I've seen you have to keep on working to be inspired and keep on looking for ways that you're summoned again so that you can rise to meet the challenge.
For instance, in my job here I've found that students are a peculiarly effective source of inspiration for me and they keep reminding me this is fun and I'm lucky to be here. Students, for instance have fewer defense mechanisms than adults have, and aren't nearly as good at hiding their feelings. Most of us have learned by about 30 that there are just some questions you shouldn't ask and places you shouldn't go, but students don't know any better than to just lay that stuff out there. That's their job and so there are these beautiful moments where you really get to share something with someone.
I constantly have students asking, "How'd you get here? Was it a blinding light? Was it a voice?" When you have those moments where you have to recapitulate your own story, it becomes renewing and you're inspired again. It puts you back in touch with your own days when you felt that, and so one way inspiration keeps being renewed is being with inspiring people who fill us with that spirit, adventure, and discovery.
I've heard my own teacher say that inspiration is valuable, but in many cases it's similar to burning tissue paperthere's a huge flash but doesn't last long. What role do you see inspiration playing in the spiritual life?
I like that a lot. In fact, I was teaching a class once and I had the people read M. Scott Peck's The Road Less Traveled, where he defines love as "commitment to the growth of another person." So that might not necessarily apply to what goes on most of the time in the Duke gardens, but that definition is closer to what we're doing when we get two people ready to be married. We say "Okay, you're in love. It's easy to be in love with someone when they look this good, when they've got this great future, and when both of you are feeling great. But will you be committed to love this person for better and worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and death? We make you promise to deal with all of this ugly stuff.
The amazing thing is that in the marriage service you'd think the minister would say, "John, do you love Susan?" but the minister says, "John, will you love Susan?" So love is defined as something that happens to you after marriageit's something that is the fruit of commitment. The couple typically thinks, "We want to be committed to each other because we love each other," but the church says, "No, we want you to be committed so that eventually you WILL love each other"it takes love to another level.
With inspiration it's the same way. So if you want to be inspired, go be with inspiring people. Go do something. I just got back from Haiti on a mission trip with people form Duke. The first night we were down there someone said, "I became a Christian a few years ago, and I wanted to be closer to Christ. I was doing some reading and all, but I think that if you really want to know more about Christ you should go where He is. The Bible says He's among the poor and the dispossessed, and that's why I came to Haiti." Well, at the end of the week she could say it really worked.
As she was talking I was thinking about all of the people that come to me and say, "I feel distant from God." Well of course you feel distant from God. You're working for Arthur Anderson, you're playing big shot in New York Citygo somewhere where God might actually be, you know? How about a little commitment here?
So rather than waiting to be inspired before committing to a religion or a spiritual path, in a lot of cases you have to make the commitment first in order to be inspired?
Exactly. The work ethic applies to your soul, too. When I was a teenager, and I was thinking I might like to be a writer, I went to see this novelist speak. Someone asked her, "How do you find inspiration for your writing?" and she said, "I have breakfast and I sit and write. It's what I do." That's a wonderful kind of mundane story that illustrates how in most cases inspiration, creativity, acts of genius, and so on are simply tied to work. It's tied to commitment. So maybe the question is not, "Does inspiration lead to commitment?" but "Which tasks tend to be the most inspiring?"
For me I find having a good intense conversation with another personwith students, for instancevery inspiring. You're with people who are stupid and dumb and inexperienced and who don't know any better than to have these huge dreams and plans. You think, "You poor soul, that will get knocked out of you in a while," but it isn't knocked out of them yet. It tends to shame you and you think, "How I've compromised myself and narrowed my dreams down," but at the same time it renews those dreams in you and you think, "I was once 19 and I had the same feelings, and thank you for renewing that inspiration."
It sounds like a whole lot of work.
Well of course it isanything worth having is. But I think I'll add to this since it's on my mind. This might get us more into creativity than inspiration, but I think that a spirit of playfulness is important. It's interesting that in his stories of Socrates, Plato depicts all of these dialogues taking place outdoors and it's kind of like a verbal ping-pong. Plato was very nervous about writing anything down because if you write it down then you've got it and you don't have to do any more playing or working to get itthere it is on the page. All this Greek philosophy tends to come out of dialectic where you say one thing, I reply, you come back at me, and somehow there's a playful spirit which delights us and surprises us. Little children just live to be shocked, scared, delighted, and they show it when it happens and their eyes light up. When a child wakes up to the world, she says, "Surprise me today. Shock me, confuse me." Somewhere along the way most of us lose that childlike delight, and I'm afraid that at some point we say to the world, "All right world, confirm again today that by God I've got you figured outthat I've got the rules, and I'm going by the rules."
I just think that with the inspired people I know there's a joy, a playfulness, a fun kind of improvisation where you have to change your game in light of the gamethat somehow is mixed up in inspiration. It troubles me at the university that there are a lot of people who have been good at following the rules and saying, "Mom, Dad, what do you want out of me? Okay, I'll deliver." They were obviously toilet-trained way too early, and there's no room for anything else. Somehow you need to let life take on a spirit of rolling with it, and being willing to be outside the bounds of what you know and are comfortable with.
I've heard you criticize today's "spirituality" from time to timecan you talk about some of the dangers you see as people start to explore a spiritual path?
I have been one of those critics. You know the way I sometimes depict this is that a year or two ago, the Self Knowledge Symposium had Augie Turak give his Five Years with a Zen Master talk here at Duke. There must have been 250 people there, and Augie got into this Zen stuffa lot of which didn't makes sense to me, but I thought, "Hey, it's Zen, man. It's supposed to be that way." Everyone was really receiving this and taking notes. But I went there a few nights later and there was someone saying why they believe that the Bible is the true word of God, that the earth was created in six days, and that the book of Genesis is better than the Department of Botany. There were 250 people there, too, and it looked like some of them were the same people from the Zen lecture! They were also really into it and taking notes and I wanted to stand up and say, "Hey, wait! There are two worlds here that are radically different. You can't do Zen one night and fundamentalist Christianity the next night." Now I'm sure a lot of them would say, "Well, tough. Yes we can. I'm sure your brain isn't big enough but ours is."
So I worry about the cafeteria-style approach to religion. I worry about really being fair to the beauty of different faith traditions, which can sometimes be like the difference between living on the earth and living on the moonthe difference between Christianity and Islam, for instance. But all of this also has to be prefaced by saying that I'm a child of a Christian traditionthat's how I got it, so that's how I think everyone else should get it. So maybe I'm limited.
The world does seem to be evolving to a much more syncretistic approach, where you borrow what appeals to you. There are just two things that bother me with that. One is that it's actually pretty easy to get a religious experience. The hard thing is to keep that going. It's easy to be knocked down one night by the power of God. But it's hard the next morning and the next day to live that out even when you don't feel like it. So staying accountable for your actions is the real challenge.
The other thing that bothers me is that the transformative aspect seems lacking in some contemporary spirituality. Now again, many of you would challenge me on that, but to be a religious personthe way it feels sometimes is, "Hey, I didn't dream this up. This is something coming at me. Something weird. Jesus is not some projection of my need. Jesus comes at me and gives me needs that I didn't even have before I met Him. And a lot of things I think are my needs He seems to care less about. I live in a society that loves to talk about sex and orgasms and getting it on, but then you get Jesus who seems to think all that is kind of sillyHe never gets into it. He's interested in other stuff, like what it takes to save your soul and why rich people are in real big trouble." I wonder if in our pick-and-choose spirituality we miss opportunities to be formed, reformed, and transformed.
It reminds me of a great quote from Ken Wilberthat "True spirituality does not console the self. It shatters it."
That's a great way of putting it. You know, just last Sunday I was giving a sermon on hospitality, and Jesus was talking about how he who receives one of these little ones receives Jesus. A woman came up to me afterwards and she said, "The service today really got to me. My husband and I are adopting a child of another race, and we've really been hurt by our friends who have found this to be difficult to accept." I thought she was going to say that she really wished her friends could be more open and hospitable, but she said, "I realized I'm really wrong to judge my friends the way I have. Their concerns are legitimate concerns and they wouldn't voice them if they didn't care for us. I've really been much too harsh with them and I need to be more patient with them and give them time to see us with this baby and become okay with this. I'm the one who's not hospitable." I thought, "You're a good Christian. I wouldn't have seen it that way." So don't tell me this is some self-fulfillment stuff she's dreamed up. For her it was, "Wow. I didn't expect to come here and have to change and have to judge myself." That is one of the wonderful things about being a religious person.
What makes the university so unique is that the experience of being shattered and reformed is a typical day at the office for a sophomore. It's like you walk in to chemistry class and the professor is putting a lot of stuff on the board. You say, "This is new and confusing and this doesn't really feel like me," and he says, "Well yeah, that's right. I'm trying to make a different you. We're not just sitting here under a tree, emoting and thinking about chemical processes from our hearts. When I get through with you in this class you're going to be in a different world. You're going to be a chemist when I get through with you. I'm adding something to your life that you don't already have." Religion is like that.
What are some of the key issues that you see students dealing with today?
I think that students have been raised into a flattened worlda sort of cause-and-effect, mechanistic, scientifically explained world. That has explained a lot, but I guess I'm more interested in those students who say, "Well, thank you, but I want to talk about more stuff. I want to know more and dig deeper than those explanations allow." I think that in today's world that requires almost an act of courageous defiance.
If I could compare today's students with my memories of my own student experience, I notice that you all are awful polite and nice about stuff. We were angry and showed it. Our parents had lied to us, our government had lied to us, and we were pissed at anyone over the age of 30. I'm continuously amazed that students today are seeking out older people. They're nice to them and are extremely polite about it, but I say to the old people, "Be careful. Some of these students are bomb-throwers. They look nice, they have short hair, and they're polite, but they're pissed, too. They don't like the world we gave them and they want a different world."
My generation is assessed with creating the sexual revolution and today's students are the results of it. But I'll often run into a student who says, "Well, I had sex, but it didn't seem to save me or change my life much, and I wonder if there's anything else going on." I was at a fraternity and we were talking about Bill Clinton's problems at the time, and I said, "Are there those of you who had sex or even oral sex? Did you like that?" Of course a lot of them said yes, so I asked, "Well, could you see yourself jettisoning your career, your family, your good name, and everything you've ever worked for for that?" and this one guy said, "Yeah, I've been wondering if maybe he gets more out of it than I do."
I like it when I find this spiritual defiance that says, "I may be created for more than this. Gold's Gym may not be the ultimate." (I'm a member of Gold's Gym.) I think our capitalist corporate environment is terribly dangerous, and I meet a lot of young adults I think are getting abused by corporate America. That bothers me, and I think, "Please, boys and girls, don't let them treat you that waythese sleazebags running Enron and WorldCom and Tyco." The question I want to ask these students is, "Do you have the moral resources to resist that kind of seduction?" I think God has created you for more than giving your souls to these kinds of endeavors.
Another challenge is the lack of good models. You talk to a Duke student about something they did and so often they tell you that it was the only thing they could have done in their given situation. They simply don't see examples of people doing it any differently. That's what I like about Augie Turak so muchhe comes right out and says, "Hey, there's something more here. Get off your butt, start working on some of these questions you're asking, do the right thing, and you might be able to get some answers." There is no better example of what's possible if you apply these principles than Augie's own life and success.
I'd also want to say today's culture of quick fixes and instant gratification has allowed us in many cases to get lazy about our spiritual lives. M. Scott Peck actually says that most psychological problems and most unhappiness come from sheer laziness. We don't want to do the work we have to do. I got really depressed after watching an episode of Six Feet Under the other day, because all of these characters had gone through so much during the episode, but it simply ended with each of them getting ready to have sex. I guess that I see people start to ask all these deep questions, but rather than work to find answers all they do is have sex. It's what we immediately gravitate towards in an effort to find intimacy, or transcendence, or what have you.
Like I said, the work ethic applies to your soul, too. People come and tell me they've never felt close to God and I ask, "When was the last time you ever did anything with God? Have you attended a place of worship?" Well no. It's like somebody saying, "Classical music is stupid. I went to a concert one time and I didn't get anything out of it. In fact, I've never been so bored in my life." Well come on, don't you know the years it takes to be able to be there and see the glory of that piece of music? That's going to take some workyou're not born with it. You need to become a person who can find and accept happiness. There's a lot of effort involved.
Duke was recently awarded a major Lilly grant for Vocational Exploration. Can you talk about the work you're doing with this?
Our Lilly program is designed over five years to get Duke students to ask the question, "Where's my life going?" and "What ought I to do with my life?" Vocation is a Christian ideait may also exist in other faithsand the notion is that this life is not your own. It already has a claim on it. So how many Duke students ask, "What does God want me to do with my life? Do my gifts have responsibilities? How can I serve others?"those are all vocational questions.
We've also done a lot of research on why students have gone on to seminary, since part of the goal of the Lilly program is to encourage and develop Christian leadership. So we looked for common patterns, and just one example of what we found is that many students who went on to seminary had been on Duke Chapel mission trips. It's amazing that when you get students to a place of great need and to a different culture, they really start asking, "Who am I? What's my path? Do I have a responsibility to help others in need?" So we are supporting numerous mission trips as well as programs for internships in the Durham area designed at helping others in need. We're also going to pay faculty to address vocational issues in their classescreating classes such as Women's Spiritual Autobiographies. What I think it comes down to is that for most students, the question they want to answer more than any other is "What is the life worth living?" We want to support that in every way we can.
You're also on the advisory committee for the upcoming Inward Bound Conference at North Carolina State University, which the Self Knowledge Symposium is putting on together with the Education as Transformation Project. How does the conference fit into the work you're already doing along these lines?
I think it's very interesting that students have gotten together to plan this and put this conference together. I hope that it may serve as a critique of the university education. There's a whole area of life that the college curriculum simply doesn't address, so if you want to ask these questions, like, "Who am I really?" and "How should I live my life?" you need to join the SKS or come to this conference, or somehow find some other way outside of the classroom. Of course, the university says that, "We're so free," and "We follow truth wherever it goes," and that's bull. There are things you can't talk about.
The plan for the conference is so exciting because we're not just going to sit down, throw some ideas around, shake hands and go home. There's a more dynamic way of learninga kind of leaning into it with your whole being and putting it into practicewhich I think that religious and spiritually inclined people should really respond to.
There is a Hindu student here at Duke who went to a religion class to learn more about her faith. The professor was lecturing about all of the Hindu beliefs, and she came to me afterwards, "I didn't know there were any beliefsI thought that Hinduism was just the way you live. The beliefs by themselves are so desiccated and empty. I found myself wanting to stand up in class and say, ‘It's more than this!'" I sometimes wonder how we let Christianity into classroom in the first place. Jesus didn't come up with any particularly new or interesting ideas, or ask people what they thought, he said, "Follow me. Die like I do."
So I like the conference and the activism it encourages, and in a way I think it's a much-needed protest against the modern institutional system. There is a greater need out there, and I predict the conference will oversubscribe because I hear students saying all the time that they want more space to talk about this.
It's been interesting watching students look at the stories of corporate greed and ask, "Is that what I want in 30 years?" One of my criticisms of the student generation has been that they're too pleased with the world their parents lived in and that they've created. Part of it is we've been on this feeding frenzy for so long, allowing the rich to get richer, and maybe the cracks in that are starting to show. So the conference is a great opportunity for students to explore. I predict there will be more stepping back and thinking "Hey, is this worth giving my life for? And if not, what is worth giving my life for?" And that's the question we all need to keep asking ourselves.
Ed Cheely, a recent Duke University graduate, is now advisor to North Carolina State University SKS and is currently living and working in Raleigh.
Flight From a Grizzly (top)
I flew north to Anchorage and took a train on the Alaska Railroad to Denali National Park. Denali is known for its physical beauty and its plentiful wildlife. It is also known for its tourists. Yet as a lover of open spaces and wild animals, I viewed Denali's rolling plains as a dream come true. Escaping the throngs at the entrance, I made my way inside the park, eventually discovering a narrow stream that cut along the base of Mount McKinley and the Alaska Range. Drawn by its beautiful setting, I followed the stream for about a mile, flanked on each side by snow-capped mountains and Arctic tundra. I offered a prayer, feeling as if I were standing in some immense temple, replete with white pillars and green carpets.
The day was clear and the air cool. I passed caribou and Dall sheep as ptarmigans darted across my path. My mind wandered from images and memories of the past year in Boston to forecasts and fantasies about the year to come in the Holy Land. The presence of wildlife was mesmerizing. Even when it was invisible, I sensed its reality. Through imprints in the soil. Droppings. Hair on broken twigs. Living beings surrounded me at every turn. Yet as hypnotic as these creatures were, it wasn't until I entered a thicket, and stomped through it into a clearing, that I was truly stunned, and stopped dead in my tracks.
At first it looked like a fuzzy golden ball, a mound of bronze shimmering in the summer sun. But this ball had legsfour of themand as it lumbered toward me, I quickly came to realize that the fuzz was really fur, and that the object wasn't a ball, but a bear. A grizzly bear.
I can't describe what darted through my body as the distance between the two of us shrank, because it was beyond words. All I had at that instant was a sensation, raw, primal, and almost as palpable as the sound of the brush as it crunched under the grizzly's paws. If I had to choose a name for it, I'd call it fear. Naked, unbridled fear.
In classical Jewish thought, it is only after one has experienced the fear of God that life gains complete clarity, that a person fully and finally understands his or her place in the cosmic whole. Standing there, scared, vulnerable, and alone, in the presence of a being far more powerful and attuned to nature than I could ever hope to be, gave me a hint of what it must be like to behold the Divine Presence, to experience a brief, mystical, life-altering flash of transcendence. There is an inscription above the Holy Ark in a great many synagogues around the worldI'd seen it myself in places as different as Brooklyn, Moscow, Nairobi, and Casablanca. The Hebrew reads Da lifney mi atah omed: "Know before Whom you stand." But there are times in our lives when such an admonition seems unnecessary.
I had stepped back into the food chain. I felt terror, but I also felt a strange sort of reverence. As if the threat of being eaten alive were somehow tempered by the knowledge that if it occurred, it would occur not as some random or malicious act, but as an enactment of some grand and mysterious design. This was a situation that was beyond good and evil, beyond even reason. It was a situation that transcended all logical categories, a moment in which the whole was far greater than the sum of its parts.
Don't run. Don't stare into the bear's eyes. Keep it in your peripheral vision. Do nothing to excite the grizzly's predatory instinct, but get the hell out of there. Walk swiftly but calmly. Put as much distance as possible between yourself and the bear. I did everything I'd read that a person should do in the event of a bear encounter, but as the grizzly began following me, all my thoughts and strategies began to melt into a kind of white heat. I still had the residue of a mind, enough to keep my legs moving and my lungs filled with air, but for the first time in my life I was all body. Just a sack of blood and bones. A movable feast.
I had had a run-in with two black bears the summer before while camping in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I was able to scare those bears away from my tent, and I knew that though blackies could climb trees, grizzlies couldn't. But Denali was tundrait had no trees. There was nowhere to escape to, nowhere to hide. I was naked. With the grizzly still on my tail, I spotted a dirt road off in the distance. Turning at a 120-degree angle away from the bear (a young male that probably weighed several hundred pounds) so as to maximize the separation between the two of us, I made my way toward the road. Perhaps it would lead me to better shelter.
The bear followed me. My heart was beating so fast, it felt as if it would burst. Though I saw it indirectly, too afraid to look at it face-to-face, that grizzly had more raw presence than my own soul. Lifting my feet felt like lifting manhole covers. Every step was gravid. When I finally reached the road, I discovered two cameramen and a Jeep. The three of us jumped inside the vehicle just as the bear closed in. Something inside me snapped. Or was freed. I'm safe! Alive! Exhilaration and gratitudeeven a vague, objectless feeling of lovebegan to replace fear and trembling. As the animal watched us silently from a hillside, I asked the men why they were there. They told me they were making a documentary on grizzlies.
How does the experience of confronting a wild animal relate to God? As William Blake tries to convey through the verses of his famous poem "The Tyger," the mere fact of such a mysterious and terrifying creature is inspirational. It also poses a question: Who, or what, possesses the deep imagination and bold power to create such a seemingly unearthly being? In this sense, Blake's tiger, like the grizzly I encountered in Alaska, is revelatory, a living monument to its Creator, a trace of the transcendent force that formed it. More than a work of art, it is a mark of divinity. Our fear of these animals is, at a deeper level, merely a mask for our awe of God.
Niles Goldstein is the chaplain for the New York City Police Department, the author of five books, and a speaker at the upcoming Inward Bound conference.
Adventures of a New Age Traveler (top)
In California, I did okay on the spiritual thing, landing myself as a Vipassana Buddhist with a Jewish teacher from the East Coast. Pragmatically speaking, Buddhism meant that I'd sit my butt on a cushion every morning for a half-hour trying to catch a glimpse of my breath between the entourage of visitors that frequented my mind. One evening a week I would attend dharma talks, during which my nice-Jewish-boy teacher who didn't know I existed would try to persuade us to act like human beings.
Twice a year I'd go to the desert in southern California for a 10-day silent meditation retreat with a crotchety European meditation teacher. Hour after hour she instructed us in her shrill German-English accent about how to feel the flow of air as it brushed the hairs at the entrance to our nasal passage.
Watching an invisible breath for ten consecutive days without speaking to anybody can get pretty brutal, so my fellow meditators and I would deal with our frustration by doing things like dropping a fork during lunch so everybody would look our way or clearing our throats too loudly as we organized ourselves on our zafus.
Seven days into the third retreat I could no longer endure the inner workings of my mind. The teacher had refused my fourth request for a meeting to discuss my sanity, her German accent was driving me nuts, and when she asked which of my feet had touched the floor first that morning I wanted to punch her.
In spite of my concerns of the karmic implications of ditching a meditation retreat, a spiritual teacher, and my own mind, I fled. At 3:15 in the morning after all were sound asleep, I secretly packed my bags, crept over to the main building, left my good-bye note, and silently climbed into my white Honda with the green hood. After driving in first gear out the sand driveway, I cued my cassette player to Cat Steven's "Wild World," and blasted my way out of Joshua Tree at 90 miles an hour.
In spite of such rebellions, my spiritual practice was sound. God didn't punish me for breaking out of meditation jail, and through studying the Buddhist scriptures and beginning to familiarize myself with my own mind, I finally realized that my mind is no different from everybody else's. Therein, I discovered I was not crazy.
Nevertheless, I sought out a therapist. In the recesses of my canvas army bag, I found the telephone number for a healer named Iris, and called her up. The next day I was seated in a plush, baby blue armchair across from my projected New Age mother.
I had exactly two sets of feelings about Iris: I loved her and she drove me crazy. I loved her because she listened to me so closely that tears came to her eyes when I was in pain, and because she made it unquestionably clear that she cared about me far beyond her role of therapist. She drove me crazy with her New Age proclivities. From day one she was trying to push Archangel Gabriel and every other angel she knew on me. She channeled the Great Mother and every other known and unknown goddess into the room with us. She would give me weekly reports on the shade and size of my aura, and would trance out with rapid eye-blinking as she received a psychic message from her spirit guides about what I needed to do about one dramatic situation in my life or another. She put crystals in my lap and insisted that I surround myself with rose, lavender, and effervescent lights.
I came into our second session and told her that if I was to do therapy with her, that I needed all angels, guides, gods, goddesses, channels, mediums, tarot decks, crystals and auric cameras to remain outside of the room or I was out of there. In this way, Iris and I proceeded with our weekly sessions. Our agreement for normalcy generally held up.
Our therapy was successful in spite of her undercover angelic interference, but still I wanted more, lots more. In fact, I have wanted more of any and everything I could get since I was four years old, and so I set out to conquer the therapeutic circuit. You name it: movement therapy, pseudo-tantra, Rolfing, underwater massage, voice dialogue, hypnosis, encounter groups....
My internal mad scientist spared me no healing extravaganza until I reached the pinnacle of experimentation with Ariela and Ahmed, a middle-Eastern couple who were long-term apprentices of a Peruvian shaman. They had studied a brand of neo-shamanism that combined the intake of enormous quantities of organic and synthetic psychotropic drugs with music and sound. I must say that in spite of my initial skepticism and critical hindsight, these guys were no fools. They had laser sharp minds and the perceptivity of police dogs. They invited you to play on the razor's edge, and if you were willing to show up, they would hang out with you right at the brink.
When all is said and done, I wouldn't recommend the process. I am an experience junkie, and I got my experience, but what changed in my life as a result? It is relatively simple to blast open the psyche, and more often than not the person suffers no lasting chemical or emotional consequences (ask me again when I'm 75), but sustaining such states can only happen over the course of years and years of spiritual training. I was no different than all the other people I knew who attempted to use drugs in our shared hope that we could find some shortcut, some backdoor, some easy way out of the necessarily arduous road to God.
Having said that, I credit Ariela as the springboard that threw me into what was to come next. When I showed up the following week at Ariela's conventional-looking therapy office for my session, she asked me how I was doing. I told her I felt bound by 300 pounds of iron chains, and that if I didn't break out of them, I feared I might really go mad.
"So what are you going to do about it?" she said with a tough-girl challenge in her voice.
I reiterated my now familiar story: I had finally settled down in California. I didn't want to go anywhere or do anything (more) outrageous. I had a fall job at a hospice and was going to help people die so I could deal with my denial of my own death, and I wasn't about to give up the first stability I had found since popping out of my mother's womb.
Ariela walked across the room, kneeled down, and placed both hands around my neck in a grip that is uncharacteristic of a 105 pound woman. She repeated, "What are you going to do about it?"
She had succeeded in taking me by surprise. "Stay in California?" I squeaked.
"Are you going to sell out this early in life or are you going to do something?"
I was impressed. She had crossed a line of therapeutic formality that had been disturbing me for years, and had successfully commanded my respect.
"I want to follow my heart. I don't even know if I have one, or where it is if I do, but I want to follow it anyway."
She loosened her grip. "So, I repeat, what are you going to do?"
"I'm going to India."
"When?" she demanded.
Thus was launched what would become a long and not undramatic journey, but one that took me to my long sought-after Teacher. With less outer fanfare, he began to catalyze a slow and painstaking dismantling of the spiritualized personality I had so carefully constructed. My adventures until that point had forged grooves of longing in the soul and hints of deeper understandings, while at the same time they had strengthened my ego to a position where it could receive the first blows of the Master's great wrecking ballsometimes with dignity, and other times far less gracefully. You use the ground to get off the ground, and in this way I became initiated into my eventual profession of spiritual bottom-crawling. Those first years of New Age antics were an extended course in "Spiritual Discernment 101: What Not to Do." Next to come was an eight-year sequel entitled "Spiritual Discipleship: Who and What You Are Not." The spiritual "highway" often more closely resembles a muddy path. The potholes and ditches change their location, and the legs of the discerning traveler grow stronger, but the road never ends. But I'm in it for the long haul, so I stumble onwards, determined to walk until I fall off the cliff of the great void, or until the Great Mother sucks me back into her body, whichever comes first.
Mariana Caplan is a best-selling author and has spent years in the world's mystical traditions, studying and living in villages in India, Central and South America, and Europe. She will be speaking at the upcoming Inward Bound conference.
Erin asks me to come down to Santa Cruz and be with her and Gage, Toby's son. I am crying so hard I can't think. I am on my way to work where I'm supposed to meet with someone, but I can't remember who. I am also on my way to the Tassajara Zen center where I will be leading a weekend for a rites of passage boys group, but it doesn't look like I am going to make that either. I say I will be there as soon as possible. After I get off the phone with her I make several calls: To my dad and Ondrea in New Mexico, to my mom in Santa Cruz, to Vinny, Joe and Micah. Mostly I just leave messages telling them what has happened and asking for some support. I talk to Vinny for a while and he is very supportiveIt's so good to just hear a friendly voice.
My heart felt like it had just been torn from my chest. I couldn't believe it. I wasn't ready for this, not now. Toby had been doing so well. He had been out of prison and going to recovery meetings and counseling, and as far as I knew he had been sober for almost a year. He was so in love with his son, and every time I talked to him he spoke about wanting to start helping kids like I was doing. He was trying to volunteer at some teen counseling programs in Santa Cruz and was going to church every week with his family. Not now. There was a time a few years ago when he was on the streets that I was just waiting for the call to come, but not now. He had just spent the weekend with me a few weeks ago and had come to a teen retreat that I was leading at Spirit Rock Meditation Center where I work. We had a day of meditation and a sweat lodge in the afternoon. Toby was great, sharing his life's experience with the teens and expressing his hope that they would never have to experience what he had.
I felt like nothing had prepared me for thisno amount of meditation, no amount of therapy, none of the spiritual practices or experiences I have had prepared me to lose my best friend. I felt like without him nobody in the world really knew me. It seemed like when I was ten years old I had left home and found my real family. The day I met Toby I finally felt understood. We had been through everything together. When we were kids on the streets getting high, chasing girls, when we couldn't relate to our parents and they couldn't understand us, we always had each other. The first time I had sex Toby was therethe first punk rock show, the first acid trip, the first everything. We fought together and stole together, we shared bottles, crack pipes, and needles. We did it all. Even when I got sober and turned into a self-righteous, straight-edge a**hole, Toby was still there. When he was strung out on the streets and needed somewhere to stay, my door was always open. Even when he ripped me and everyone else off and ended up in prison, our connection was still too strong and nothing could break our friendship; we were brothers. I sent him books in prison, he sent me letters. When he got out and met back up with Erin and she got pregnant, he asked me to be godfather.
We spent twenty years together, longer than anyone else. My oldest friend in the world was dead. And with him died the only witness to see me both shoot dope and teach meditation. Now I was all alone, surrounded by people who I could tell about my past but who would never really know what it was like. No amount of spiritual understanding or belief could make that feeling go away. I knew he was okay wherever he was, be it outside of his body or on to the next realm. But I wasn't okay. I was left behind to deal with the skeleton. I wish I believed that he was resting in peace, but I didn't. I knew that whatever his work was, it would be done, either this time or the next, this realm or another.
I kept coming back to the feeling of being lost, like a part of me had died, and it began to hit me that all of our other friends were dead also: Shooter, Mark, Darren, and even Toby's old girlfriend Jenny. My mind started swimming upstream, asking the useless question of "Why?" Why them and not me? Why was I surrounded by such wonderful spiritual teachersall a phone call away, all available to me. All of them helping me on my personal spiritual path and in my training.
After some time I realized that I was experiencing survivor's guilt. It was as if I had lived through a war and was one of the only ones left. And on some level it was true. Talking to my parents and my teachers about my grief process, although helpful, also seemed to compound my feeling of guilt. There I was being supported by some of the most wonderful teachers in the world and all my friends were dying alone in ghetto apartments, shooting some more dope so that they wouldn't have to deal with the suffering for one more minute. That was me and where I came from, and I felt like I was somehow betraying them by surviving.
The guilt and doubt faded fairly quickly and was replaced by the realization that it was for Toby and all my other friends, all of the punks and kids that didn't make it, it was for them that I was continuing my spiritual quest and for them that I had committed my life to sharing what I was finding with othersto teaching the simple meditation techniques that had so profoundly altered the course of my life.
Toby's death became the next teaching, opening my heart to the floods of grief and despair that we all hold at bay. No longer able to keep myself together, I fell apart and stumbled into a deeper understanding of what it means to be human. I began to see Toby's death and all of my life's experiences as teachings and tools to offer to others that will surely walk a similar path. I saw all of this as an opportunity for awakening, as grist for the mill.
Noah Levine is director of the Family Program at the Spirit Rock Meditation Center and has co-founded The Mind Body Awareness Project, which teaches meditation practices to juveniles. He will be speaking at the upcoming Inward Bound conference.
Little Davie (top)
At the top of the steps I heard the muffled sound of Rose's voice followed by the sound of laughter, including his. Like a paranoid child, I found myself worrying that they might be laughing at me. I stopped to try and make out the words, and as I stood in the cold, windowless hallway a strange sadness overcame me. I was overwhelmed by an incredible longing, an irresistible feeling of loss and nostalgia. I wanted to be home. I thought of being by a warm fire with the smell of my mother's cooking in the air, but the sadness deepened because somehow that wasn't it. That wasn't home. My knees began to quiver in the cold and emotion. I had never felt so lost and alone. I sat down heavily in the middle of the stairs and began to cry.
After several minutes I heard the kitchen door open and the sound of footsteps in the hall. I jumped to my feet, composed myself as best I could, and hurried down the rest of the steps. There in the hallway was Rose.
He had started to open one of the hallway doors and I was almost back to the kitchen, when I turned and spoke to him.
"Mister Rose? Could I talk to you a minute?"
"Sure, sure." he said, reaching into his pocket and pulling out an enormous set of keys. He closed the door he had started to open and led me instead down the hallway to the room furthest from the kitchen. He flipped through his keys for the right one and unlocked the door.
"Come on in," he said.
He removed some papers from a couple of straight-back wooden chairs and placed them in the middle of the room facing each other. We sat down.
"Things are still a bit disorganized," he said without apology. "This used to be just my study, but we're running out of sleeping space so I moved my bedroom in here, too."
He made small talk by telling me about some of the things in the room. The filing cabinets, he said, were filled with forty years of correspondenceevery letter he had ever received, and carbon copies of every one he had written.
"I've turned up some real characters over the years," he said. "I guess that comes with the territory."
"What about the people who live here with you now?"
"Oh, they're all right, I guess. Some of them may be sincere. It's not my place to judge. They've come through the door for some reason. You can tell by the way things happen that it's no accident. But once they disappear, they seem to be gone forever. Not many stay in touch. Of course, everyone has to take off some day. That is, if they're ever going to have any sort of spiritual realization of their own."
He stopped talking. It was time for me to say what was on my mind.
"You know, Mister Rose, I don't know how to describe it exactly, but right before I came downstairs and ran into you in the hallway, almost out of nowhere I was overcome by some kind of powerful homesickness. I just felt incredibly sad and alone."
He smiled warmly. "You miss little Davie," he said.
The childlike simplicity of his expression exactly matched my mood and I could feel the tears welling up again. "I'm afraid if I don't hang on I'll lose him forever," I said.
"Let him go," Rose said impassively. "He's a coward."
His voice was still warm and fatherly, but his words were like a slap in the face. I felt set up. My urge to cry disappeared completely.
"Nobody wants to give up his cozy illusions," he went on, "no matter how painful they are. Most people never do. They never even consider it. A few people, thoughthe lucky oneshave something happen to them that makes them start to grow up. They begin to see through the illusion just enough to get curious. So they look into it a little, then a little more, and they begin to see that this life isn't at all what it seems. After that, finding out the Truth becomes the only thing that matters."
"I don't know if I'm at that point," I said, still smarting at being called a coward.
"Only you would know," Rose said. "I'm here and talking for those that already find themselves on the path and are looking for help. I don't go out looking for converts. My own children, in fact, have no spiritual interest. There's nothing I can do about that, no matter how much I might wish it for them.
"A couple of years ago, for instance, my daughter Ruth was home from college on summer break. I'd just finished writing The Albigen Papers, and I hoped maybe it might stir something spiritual in her if she read it. But I had to give it to her at the right time and in the right way. One morning I came into the kitchen and she's washing dishes.
"I figure this might be a good time to ask her. So I gave her the manuscript and told her I wanted to get some feedback, to find out if it was worth trying to get the thing published. Which was also true. I did value her opinion. She said, ‘Sure.'
"A few days later I come home from work and she's at the kitchen table with the manuscript open in front of her, staring straight ahead, like she's in a trance. I stood there for a minute, but she didn't say anything, so I just picked up the manuscript and walked away.
"I figured eventually she'd tell me what was on her mind, but a couple of weeks went by and she still hadn't said anything about the book. So finally one day when we were alone I brought it up. ‘By the way, Ruth,' I said, ‘I never got a chance to talk to you about my book. What did you think?'
"I'll never forget the look on her face when she turned around, almost angry. She looked me in the eye and said, ‘Daddy, I know you're God. But I've got games to play.'"
I didn't know what to say. Rose remained silent. He was looking in my direction, yet his eyes did not seem to be focused on me, but rather on a point somewhere behind me.
"I guess I'm in the same boat," I said finally. "I'm afraid that if I get involved in this work I'll never get a chance to experience all the things I want to do in life."
Rose's eyes re-focused on my face. "Every one of us has some game we feel compelled to play," he said, "especially when we're young. We think we're unique and important, and that God put us here to have lots of fun because he loves us so much. But it's a trap. Our lives are nothing more than a series of distractions.
"One of the most difficult things for people on a spiritual path to get away from is cowardiceallowing things to happen to them because ‘God wants them to happen.' And while you're indulging in some fascination or another you're convinced, ‘This is important, this is my destiny, this is the real me.' But after your appetite is sated, you look up and shake your head and wonder what it was that possessed you. Whole lives pass that way, moving from one distraction and disappointment to another, and people never wise upuntil it's too late." I stared at him blankly, once again at a loss for words.
Rose didn't say anything for a moment either, then he stood up. "Well, we better get back to the kitchen before Augie caves in any more of my chairs," he said. "He has two to his credit already. That boy has the grace of a walrus."
I followed Rose down the unheated hallway, past the rooms he had abandoned in favor of strangers who would someday abandon him, and into the warm, vibrant kitchen where Augie was happily holding forth, laughing, rocking back on the old oak stool that creaked and groaned as if ready to break apart at any moment.
Dave Gold is a board member of the Self Knowledge Symposium Foundation. To order his book, visit www.selfknowledge.org/resources/OrderPage.htm. To hear Dave in person, check out the Inward Bound conference!
Book Review: Radical Spirit: Spiritual Writings from the Voices of Tomorrow (top)
On a balmy September afternoon, while sitting on Hippie Hill in Golden Gate Park with my journal, I divided up my priorities into four:Thus begins Mariana Caplan's "Adventures of a New Age Traveler," one of 26 essays in a new anthology, Radical Spirit (New World Library). The practicality, realness, and urgency with which she approaches her spiritual life embodies the theme of this book: the stories of young, contemporary seekers trying to find their spiritual paths, or building them from scratch. This book uses the personal narrative of young people to capture spiritual truths in the midst of the mundane.
The publisher, New World Library, usually puts out the writings of such spiritual heavyweights as Joseph Campbell, Deepak Chopra, Wayne Teasdale, and Eckhart Tolle. But its subtitle"Spiritual Writings from the Voices of Tomorrow"makes it clear the editors see these authors as the next generation of up-and-coming spiritual pundits.
When I first saw the book, I felt inspiration, because true inspiration means to become aware of the possibilities in your life. Here was proof-positive that some young people were actually living the spiritual lifethat they had, as the editor Stephen Dinan put it, "radically committed to the divine wisdom that often leads beyond the paradigms we inherit"and that the world took notice.
I was blown away by how vividly these stories captured the experience of what it was like to be a college-aged seeker. In Albert Wong's "A Fine Young Atheist," an aspiring 17-year-old scientist starts to feel his cool rationalism fall apart in the face of life's contradictions. His journal-like prose has lines like: "Jerusalem, 1987. The summer after I won more national science awards than I ever wanted. The summer after Jennifer told me she was in love with my best friend, not me." His lifelong commitment to being a scientist is rattled when he has a synchronicitous meeting on a bus with a great scientist who, for unknown reasons, left science completely. How many of us can relate to him as he argues with himself:
Should I take up my place at Harvard Med?Wong is not the only one who thinks the world is out of joint. Nearly all the authors have their own version of this story, of starting to realize that the life-script they were handed doesn't make sense, and that the larger society, not them, might be the one that is insane. In "February Violets," Rachel Medlock goes on a spree of spontaneous road trips, for reasons she just can't explain to the college establishment:
"So…" (she glances at the paperwork) "Rachel. What brings you here?" For an hour I try to explain my inability to focus, my loss of interest in school, my need to be anywhere but here at Duke, but I want to explain the people in the Van Gogh exhibit who didn't see a thing. I want to tell her what it feels like to be a seeker surrounded by people who aren't seeking for anything, other than a comfortable future . . . These peers of mineambitious, headstrong, and scared to deathhurtle toward their destinies. Law school. Business school. Medical school. They are destinies of wealth, prestige and power; just as often, they are destinies of divorces and broken families, nervous breakdowns and alcoholism, midlife crises and the loss of Meaning. But I can't explain any of this to the counselor before me, or my need to escape it before it becomes my destiny as well. Instead I mumble on about not being able to concentrate, work, sleep. She nods and "mmm-hmms" encouragingly whenever I get stuck. She diagnoses me as depressed and recommends that I look into counseling and antidepressant drugs.For these writers, spirituality is not just an ethereal mood, or an extracurricular activity. For them it is a matter of life and death, for the survival of who they really are and who they hope to be. That absolute urgency comes out most profoundly from the juvenile delinquents in Soren Gordhamer's "Meditation in Juvenile Hall," who recognize in spirituality their last chance to save themselves from self-destruction. Gordhamer, a veteran meditation teacher who talked his way into teaching classes at the local juvenile hall, is himself surprised at how his wards respond:
During one silent meditation, Johnny decided to eat an orange loudly. I thought of the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh and his tangerine meditation and said nothing, but Audrey was fuming. After the meditation, she glared at him across the room. Then forcefully shaking her finger at him, she shouted, "He's f***ing up my meditation!" I was dumbfounded. I had never previously heard the F word and the M word used in the same sentence . . . Audrey gave him an ultimatum: "F***ing take this seriously or else f***ing leave." He left. A great weight lifted from the class. Everyone seemed more committed and focused.There are times when the style of the writing overpowers its content. Too often, some Ken Wilber-inspired attempts to be philosophic, hyperintelligent, and hip all at once come lunging off the page and fall with a splat to the floor. For example, from Michael Dinan's "Picking Up the Slack": "How many king and queen babies today have been weaned at the military-industrial teat and can't be pacified by anything short of total remote control from a cushy sofa?"
Yeah. . .so, uh, right.
But that is to be expected, I suppose. As Francis Ford Coppala said of his film Apocalypse Now, "There is a very thin line between saying something really profound and just sounding pompous." You can feel these writers, with greater or lesser talents, trying to squeeze their lifetime achievements and insights into relatively short essays, so you can forgive them if the result is a little distorted at times. And just when you are about to be overcome by the toxic levels of self-involvement and pretension in these stories, they surprise you by calling it out themselves. One of the hallmarks of most of these essays is that the authors are very aware of all the games they are playing with themselves. Michael Dinan sees his past drug addiction for what it was:
Before I got clean, I canvassed for Greenpeace, rapidly attacking the corporate status quo for their poisoning of the environment. At the same time, I created fantastic and elaborate justifications for the hazardous waste I dumped into my own body every night. I was an artist who suffered from too much genius and lucidity. I needed to do some neural pruning in order to communicate with the sheep. I believed this until I got my first D in college and realized I'd dumbed myself down a little further than intended.Mariana Caplan has several fun riffs on her inexplicable attraction to guys who clothe themselves in spiritual pretensions:
I began to attract a new breed of men (or the same old breed disguised under a new set of clothes) that over time I came to call Zen boyfriends. I use the term Zen loosely here, because a man doesn't have to be a Zen Buddhist to fall into this category. He could be a Tibetan Buddhist, a Sufi, or even a practitioner of some obscure brand of yoga. The more rigid the tradition, the better for this type. What defines a Zen boyfriend is the manner in which he skillfully uses spiritual ideals and practices as an excuse for his terror of, and refusal to be in, any type of real relationship with a woman. He is both too identified with his balls to become a celibate monk, and, at the same time, too little identified with the wider implications of them to take responsibility for them. The result: a righteous, distant, and very intelligent substitute for a real man.But more than just being psychologically smart or perceptive, Radical Spirit gives some just plain solid practical advice and experience. Georg Buehler's essay, "Seekers Wanted, Apply Within," addresses the question on every spiritually-minded college student's mind as graduation loomswhat kind of job should I get? He writes:
"…work with good people, the best people you can find. No amount of freedom or money can compensate you for the psychic damage of having to hang around complete a**holes."And Claudia Horwitz takes the same approach to guiding people into spiritually-informed social activism in "Looking for God and Justice":
I made a vow never again to be involved with something I didn't fundamentally agree with. And I committed myself to finding more sources of integrity, strength, and meaning. . . I believe some of the current trends in the world of spiritual development take us too deep within ourselves and too far from the rest of what matters. We cannot let the journey to spirit allow us to drift off into oblivion or isolation.Best of all, though, are the moments in the book where genuine selflessness, unburdened by style or self-consciousness, shines through. In "From Hollywood to the Holy Woods," Sadhvi Bhagwati relates how she made the incomprehensible leap from being a materialistic, shallow girl defined by popular culture to the absolute polar opposite, a nun in India. Rather than trying to "have it all," she is literally trying to give it all awayshe owns almost nothing and spends every moment of her life in the service of others. Unlike so many of the book's contributors, who are so obsessed with finding a spirituality that is compatible with modern culture, she seems content to blow it off entirely in favor of something altogether better:
"Don't you ever take a day off?" people ask. I laugh. What would I possibly do with a "day off"? Sit in bed and paint my toenails? And why would I ever want one? My life is the work. I am more at peace, more joyful, more filled with divine bliss as I work to bring education to the illiterate, training programs to the unemployable, medicine to the sick, sweaters to the cold, and smiles to the teary-eyed than I could possibly be anywhere else. This work and this life have been the greatest gift from God I could possibly imagine.Could any of us want any more from life, to love every minute of our life's work?
Now that's radical.
Michelle Wong is a recent graduate of the University of Chicago.