-The “Grand Affair” of spiritual vocation kicks in.
-The boy -The vicious, but handsome, young man.
-Pilgrimage to test the effects of pilgrimage.
-Shamanism, Buddhism, a great, late 20th Century thinker and the Black Widow are introduced.
-A cocktail party.
I had read much about the lives and teaching of religious people and systems. Of this exposure, I was particularly impressed with St. Francis of Assisi and those people in India who are called Sunyasi.1 Such people renounce the comforts and cares of a home, family, career and taking little more than a change of clothes, if that, venture out onto the roads of the world to place themselves, hopefully, in the hands of God. At the time, there was no question in my mind that there was any other way to live my life, though I certainly did not understand the implications of what I was doing. When I began what was to become a series of such journeys, I never intended to return home, but always did.
It was there, on the roads of the world—there, where one has removed oneself from the protective structures of family, church, soci- ety. Out there, where one is outcast. Where there is little or no protec- tion but the mercy of God. Out there, where one must have a vision that sees through suffering and death. These are brother and sister to joy. One must ‘go beyond.’
That was the intention, anyway. ‘Beyond what’ and ‘to what’ soon insist to be queried.
I left home in the high desert of California and traveled north through that dry, hot territory. After days of treeless waiting on sandy freeway on-ramps and several hundred miles of sweaty discomfort, I felt a certain purgation and the outer rim of toleration for heat and sun, so I headed west towards the coast.
I was now used to traveling. I adjusted to precarious movements through the day and night, adjusted easily. I liked it. Going without food for longer and longer periods of time had a good effect. Much walking and sleeping out in unusual places toned my body and made me alert. It was better than job, school, family, etc. It was to be disdained by some, to be envied by others; always offering an alternative lifestyle to any who saw me. In that, perhaps, I was creating an unconscious avenue of liberation for others as well as myself.
I reached the coast, headed south. Rides became scarce, sometimes in very uncomfortable places. I passed through a place called Eureka one late afternoon and was waiting for a ride in the cool midst of a redwood forest. After a while, a car stopped and I got in. The driver was an old man obviously just off work—probably construction from the look of his dirty clothes, face and hair. It was his last day of work, he said. He was going to retire. He asked about me. Usually, I did not speak about spiritual interests, but for some reason this time I plainly said what I was about; that I was a pilgrim, seeking purification, and trust, seeking to serve the Lord by seeking the Holy.
The old man sneered, “Don’t tell me you believe in Jesus Christ?” “Well, yes,” preparing to defend myself. “You mean that you really believe that Jesus Christ died for your sins,
that you are redeemed by his love?” “Yes, that’s it.”
Then the old man relaxed and smiled. He reached over and patted me on the shoulder. “That’s all right, I’ve been a Baptist preacher for fifty years.” Tension drained from the car.
“Yes.” The old man’s eyes were clear of the staged anger now. They were kind with years of learning in the way of the Spirit. He lived with his little church community off in the forest in a town called Honeydew. It was at the turn-off to that tiny town that he left me after we had talked about healings, exorcisms and other, more ordinary kinds of love. I believed him fully because during the conversation, this elder sort of jogged off the subject, identified some deep personal problems of mine, and gave scriptural references and advice. Then he moved back into the former line of conversation. His evaluation was finely accurate.
It was twilight now. I decided to camp in the forest by the river. As I was making camp, a great stag, with a full head of antlers, bounded through the meadow where I was laying. It paused for a moment, stared at me, advanced then disappeared into the forest.
The next morning, I got up and bathed before sunrise in the Eel River—I felt ritually cleansed. Then returned to the road just as sun- light reached through the tall dark redwoods. Very soon a car stopped, the first of the day to come along, and I was off again.
The driver this time was an art student from San Diego. He was interested in religious matters, so he was very interested in what I was doing.
For three hours, we talked about art and the spiritual life. I was somewhat taken aback by the length of some of these comments, but was fascinated by his topics, so listened carefully.
These might sound rather academic, I admit, but we were students after all, yet to really discover the deeper meaning of our words—hav- ing just heard these words ourselves from so many experts and other teachers. Perhaps due to my religious practices I am slow to react in this conversation. There is something about this practice that has taken
away a competitive edge. I no longer perceive predominantly in terms of discursive thought. I feel less able to argue or contend. Had less desire to do so.
“…What is the nature of art, after all?’ Asked the driver. “I…” The driver continued, “it is not only good for humankind to make
art, but it is necessary. It is one of the major ways of externalizing the interior experience. This makes clear and complete a healthy bond between our interior and exterior perceptions, dissolving to some degree the barriers between these two. This integration is necessary for psychic health. This alters one’s perception of being to a more unified and real sense of oneness with the rest of the world. After all, we as part of nature will always be in creation in some form or another even after the “Second Coming” as you called it. This eliminates the awful ten- dency of modern man to feel isolated from environment or any sense of community, which is, at the root of much of his sense of alienation and loneliness.”
Art is a ‘search for the real.’ The direct experience of absolute reality. Not by using words or concepts, but by using color, the vocabulary of the soul; space, line, texture, shape, form, value (gradations from dark to light), one probes into the mystery of being and ‘speaks’ one’s finding on canvas. Very often, it speaks to some deep recesses of our person, and in some non-rational, non-verbal way, explains something of us to our- selves. My paintings are visible meditations….
The driver continued after stopping for gas. “Intuition for an art stu- dent is not just a matter of good guessing but rather one learns to work with forces beyond the rational. One learns to master these processes, not in the sense of controlling them, but of being very familiar and suc- cessful in working with them… A great painting is always different, more than the artist consciously intends. So the artist must learn the very spiritual task of going out of himself to be involved in a process that
is beyond him. No great insight is gained without this experience of transcendence. We are all called to it in one form or another. The rela- tionship of this to philosophy, as I see it, is that the rational processes, the Greek way, the philosophical way, should no longer stand alone at the top of human capabilities, but should be developed along with our other capacities: intuition, imagining; emotional, creative, psychic process.
Also, I think that a really solid studio art background is just as good as a BA in Philosophy, especially as a preparation for the study of spiri- tuality. Shamanism in particular…”
“What is shamanism?” I asked ingenuously.
Shyly, self-deprecating about his scholarship, my ride is obviously enthused and full of opinions about these topics.
“What little I know about it is that it has an ancient history and a vari- ety of purposes and techniques for creating health and harmony in per- sons and in communities, and some claim in all of nature. Some say that it delves into the very sources of creativity. It has been described to me as exploring psychic realms. Shamanism is ‘natural’ religion. It delves into the very interior of the mysterious structure of creation. It is, after all, only through the veil of human perception, through this human psyche, that we will ever know anything about God or the world.
He seemed a little didactic, but I was also enthusiastic about these topics, asking many questions and making many comments of my own. I also suggested several books for the driver to read about the ‘contem- plative life.’
Before parting, in the heat of the late summer afternoon we stopped by the Russian River and went for a swim, cleansing the sweat and dust of the day. Refreshed in spirit and body we continued for a little while together, then parted where a narrow mountain road travels a steep course from Highway 101, over the coastal range of mountain to Highway One which runs along the Pacific Ocean itself.
From here, with a few provisions, I hiked through orchard and vine- yard country, up past ranches and apple orchards, to sheep country high up where coastal redwood forests misted in the high reaching fog and clouds. Most of the hike was hard and hot. My boots were the wrong kind for this kind of walking, so rubbed large blisters on the bot- tom of my feet. The blisters didn’t hurt much though. The air was per- fect, sparkling clear in the summer way of California wilderness. The hills were dotted with pungent laurel and oak trees and covered with dry yellow oats. Great brown hawks circled and whistled above the canyons. It took several days to cross the mountains. Going down was as hard on my sore feet as climbing to the top of these mountains.
I reached the coast, bought some food in a little isolated store there and spent a long afternoon on top the of the sea cliffs watching the sun set, igniting the ocean in its decline, with brilliant and innumerable light boats sailing the choppy undulating surface of the sea. My heart was full as I wrote in my journal:
Light sails the wind-carried waves— big swells and whitecaps.
My eyes rest on the largess of now… Luminous salt, quick silver sea, Turquoise sea—
white foam and light. Fresh, clean, rushing waves
Fresh and clean as the rush of heaven.
The asceticism of the pilgrimage so far and the beauty; the solitude and clarity of earth and sky seemed to have pried something open inside my heart and mind. Again from my journal:
The Eagle wings
gently into spreading night.
Black cormorant screams its hunting whistle above afternoon cliffs.
Wave and wave
flood the sea.
Light sails the wind-carried waves.
Having fasted and have prayed, I am ready for the feast—
fresh and clean.
The eagle, the Old Man are with me now,
Abbas Mundi— Servant of God,
feeds me on the Spirit,
shows me the glory of creation
nearness of God.
This is heaven, the presence of God— but we cannot see.
He helps me to see,
shows me the liveliness of everything.
He is the Old Man standing in a dark portal.
I am brother to Christ
forgive my transgressions
Eagle, Golden Eagle
the Eagle rises and flies to the west.
I passed three days traveling slowly down the northern California coast. The third day I spend solely in prayer. Not speaking, not moving much, having found a lonely cove near Fr. Ross to rest. Later, I wrote about someone who shared my solitude in that place.
Solitary boy Searches tide pools,
Alone for hours, searches
The ebb, and urchins,
The whip of free-floating kelp.
The boy and I share A rocky cove For an afternoon.
I, sometimes watching his research.
He, not watching me at all, He, singing a senseless song
Boy noises that
Maybe geese and turtles understand
He and the rocks
(He light-luminous Sailing the wind carried waves.)
I watched the sun lose its shape in the horizon mist,
Next morning, the tide exposed a new nation of
Rocks and fresh pools.
My first thought is that he will come soon, ‘to do research’ to turn rocks,
poke the squirt from exposed anemones, pillage crab cities, collect, ponder,
as we met along the path for my observation a handful of starfish stacked five high.
He showed me the stars
Then went his way as
I climbed this rocky cove’s dirt path out.
I continued down the coast, through San Francisco and spent the next night on a beach north of Santa Cruz, called Pescadero. It, unlike the beaches north of San Francisco, did not feel benevolent. There was something angry and upsetting about the place. Perhaps, I was upset because the previous ride had included among other fellow hitchhikers, a deranged fellow who got out where I did and who might be lurking about… I walked up the beach to find a place to spend the night. The waves seemed moody and violent. As I lay on the beach, the water seemed higher than the beach. Threatening. I slept. I dreamed. In the dream, I am on the same beach. It is lit by a sourceless light. Very, very, clear. Crystalline. I am standing at the water’s edge with my back to the sea. On the beach some kind of supernatural beast is attacking a friend of mine. I go to his defense. I hit the beast with a yew-wood club (which I did actually have in my pack). I wasn’t able to hit it with enough force, except to draw its attention to me. As it turned on me I could see that it had the form of a savagely handsome young man. It came for me. I escaped by waking up. As I opened my eyes to the same but now foggy beach scene, suspended before me was a huge mask of the beast. I said, “you cannot hurt me because I am in Jesus Christ.” I made an offensive, if immature, gesture towards the monster, turned over and went to sleep.
What was this figure? Some frustrated aspect of my psyche, a wrath- ful deity ala Tibetan Buddhism? (Which I did not know anything about at the time.) Or something else?
I woke the next morning. Continued my way south. However, I never saw the Yew-wood club carving again that I had been carrying in my pack. A couple of years later, while on a vacation with a friend, I drove past that beach. There were a lot of surfers parked along the highway there. As we passed, two were dressing next to their car the way surfers do. Because of the traffic we were going slowly. As we passed these two, both looked at me, then dropped their towels and leered, completely naked. It seemed that they both looked just like the savage young man in the dream. I’ve returned to that place since. At night. And have done rituals of placation and liberation. That would not be the end of this for me, not nearly the end of this ‘figure from the unconscious.’
My first year at the seminary went well enough. Four years of monastic ‘studies’ had prepared me well for seminary. But by the following summer I was once again ready for pilgrimage. The seminary is an aca- demic, affluent environment. It is a remarkable combination of univer- sity and monastery. There is much potential there. But I’m just not an academic and I was still very serious about asceticism. So I sought the purification of the road.
This pilgrimage was specifically an experiment. I was carefully test- ing the effect of certain ascetical practices. I will not tell the whole of this adventure now, since all its details are included in Book II. Suffice it to say now in the process of testing these practices and because of an encounter with a beautiful young woman and her baby, I came to an expanded understanding of Eucharist. I came to an understanding of such spiritual largess that it reduced me to tears.
Later, when I was exhausted by pilgrimage, asceticism and suffering, I had an experience of the “other world” that energized me in an amaz- ing way. Instead of being defeated by fatigue and disappointment, I ascended to a state that carried me buoyantly through the night to a fiery dragon dawn. That same evening I walked through a town and out into the countryside. No rides were offered. No food. No where to rest since this part of the country was very wet. Around midnight, I’d had it. “Asceticism is fine, but I feel like shit.” At that point of giving up, some- thing in me opened, a curtain was pulled back, another world or dimension was revealed. A world of light and glory. This was for the briefest duration, but it was enough. It was enough for me to continue through the night refreshed and re energized!
That same summer I also made two backpacking trips into the High Sierras in California. 100 miles altogether. It was on this trip that I read for the first time, the infamous Carlos Casteneda. From Casteneda’s per- spective (Don Juan’s apparently), Being is likened to a rapacious black eagle, but there is a way, a path, to escape its otherwise inexorable appetite. To follow that “impeccable” path is the warrior’s task and most beneficial to all concerned. Casteneda’s shamanistic topic tolled in me with such deep resonance that huge inner doors slowly swung open with the invitation for the exploration and activation of sacred mysteries.
Bishop, this opens the whole topic of Shamanism mentioned earlier. You might ask what need a Christian has of such things; spirit animals, sacred plants, rocks and places; rituals and other practices that commu- nicate with the “other-world” through such media. I would like to sug- gest that God speaks through exactly such agents as these since they are how the creator Spirit has fashioned the world. They are part of the whole religious complex that connects us intimately to the natural structures of the world. That is their significance to me. Our humanis- tic religion, our culture, is often indifferent, even hostile to this intimacy and therefore the spiritual dimension of the non-human world. It is a cruel and ignorant vilification to blithely dismiss this profoundly mys- tical insight of our ancestors about the structure and function of our psyche in relationship with nature, as solely the territory of the black arts where a Christian dare not trespass. I would dare to say that such communication is not only valid but also completely appropriate. Why would the creator not use creation and creatures to communicate the mysteries of the world? Such an understanding is neither against revealed religion, nor science for that matter, if both are really interested in true things. How we use this knowledge seems to me to be the ques- tion that should interest us. And that is what I am describing.
The spirit animal that takes on the greatest power in this story is soon to be introduced; though it will be a while before it reveals its real potency and danger. You, I suspect, will be quite surprised, perhaps hor- rified, as I was at first, by the significance of this animal in my story.
Soon after that backpacking trip, I met a Shingon Buddhist priest and meditation teacher named Shinzen. He and his partner who later became a Tibetan Buddhist nun, were my first formal teachers of Buddhist theory and practice. This priest’s partner also taught me about the way of the “Wicca.” At the end of an intensive meditation retreat under Shinzen’s direction I was introduced to a famous Zen Master, Sasakai Roshi. During our interview, he asked me an engaging question. “Who is it that climbs up on the Cross?” I meditated on that for three years. Then, I felt the power of this koan and was inspired to ask: Who are we in Christ? Who is Christ in us? What do the Gospels evoke and conjure in the human heart: What spell is cast to fulfill the human capacity? And who casts it?
It was during another such intensive meditation retreat at the Zendo that a terrible, yet excellent process was begun in me. It happened, I believe, around 10:00 p.m. of the second night of the retreat. I was med- itating in the traditional Zen style. Into my mind’s eye came the image of a black claw sticking itself into my back. An hour later, I started to become very ill. So ill, that I went home. I was sick the next day, a Sunday. On Monday I went to the doctor. He discovered that I had been bitten by a black widow spider. There were five wounds in my back. I still have the scars. Necratized, mortified flesh? Most of my convales- cence was a time of heightened clarity. Then, I developed blood poison- ing, a thin red line creeping around my side from the wound toward my heart. I had to be rushed to the hospital. I recovered and found out later that Aztec priests of old used Black Widow venom to alter conscious- ness since there is a hallucinogenic agent in it. For a couple of years this just seemed to be an another odd episode in my life. But much will come of it, as you will see. Venom must be changed to vision.
It was around the time of the black widow encounter that I met Panikkar. He is a Catholic priest who is also a world famous scholar, author, activist and contemplative. He was professor of religious studies at the local University of California, with doctorates in Chemistry, Philosophy and Theology. He became my spiritual director, and guide for the project that developed into my Master’s study of Shamanism, Tantra and the Hesychasm. This Master’s thesis and later the Ph.D. became an umbrella to allow for a formal, organized study of these top- ics that I had been exploring on my own for years; for the whole “Nepsis” project. (I had not planned to do a Master’s thesis, or the Ph.D., but perhaps the academic discipline is a good counterpoint to these other more amorphic investigations.)
The general topic of my thesis was spiritual “awakening” in the vari- ous religious traditions already noted; Tibetan Buddhist Tantra, Byzantine Hesychasm, and Shamanism: Buddhist Tantra because it is a sophisticated mystical integration developing out of the Yogic tradi- tions of India. These are themselves the systematic and highly devel- oped practice of what has evolved from the universal phenomena of primordial shamanism. The Hesychasm because it accomplishes some- thing similar in the Abrahamic traditions.
To pursue this I first decided to go to India, to study with Tibetan Buddhists. But what really happened is this:
When I first announced to my friends that I was going to India, one young woman present announced that she had to go as well. Whatever resistance might have been mounted against that idea, she prevailed. Her name is Catherine. I was to hitchhike across country from L.A. to New York. We were to meet in New York at the airport and continue together from there. Which we did. That developed into a great friend- ship. Still is.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before I left for the east, this trau- matic event occurred. On a Tuesday of a certain week in the Spring, I went to the doctor to get shots in preparation for India. On Wednesday,
I had a bad sinus headache, so I took a lot of sinus medicine. A migraine developed for which I took a lot of prescription medication. On Thursday I woke up with another blazing migraine. I took another large dosage of prescription migraine medicine. I did not know that this pre- scription had a barbiturate in it. Late that afternoon, after some shop- ping, I returned to the seminary in time for the big social event of the seminary year that happened to be scheduled for that evening. This was the only time when alcohol is allowed for the seminarians on campus. There is a cocktail hour and wine with dinner. I seldom drink. Don’t like it normally. But, I had one beer at the cocktail hour that happily mixed with the medication and I was gone. With dinner our waiter thought it amusing to watch me get drunker and drunker as he kept fill- ing my glass. No one, including myself, was aware of the building level of combined drug, alcohol impact. After dinner, my class was on ‘clean up’ so some friends and I volunteered to clean up the cocktail area. I, with some help, cleaned up the beer keg. Soon there was a little party going on. At certain points, I was the center of entertainment, because in this “altered” state, my normally rather pious reputation was express- ing itself in a searingly humorous (I’m told.) critique of seminary per- sonalities. Soon after moving the party to a location safer from faculty detection, I passed out. I was semi-conscious as friends took me back to my room, which involved some slapstick avoidance of seminary profes- sors—hiding in empty rooms as faculty passed in the hall. Having safely made it to my room, they put me to bed. But I got up to vomit in the sink. I did not vomit, but instead I hit the center of my forehead hard on the tap. Then I went into what seemed like convulsions. I remember waking up strapped to a bed in the local hospital emergency room. I was told that it took six men to hold me down when they got me to the hospital; they said that I broke the restraints on my wrists that held me to the bed. Those were replaced with heavy leather restraints lined with fleece. The doctor was professionally rude to me when I woke up.Something about the possibility of suicide. I looked over at my friends and said, “Who is this asshole?” Very uncharacteristic.
I was not expelled from the seminary because the label on the bottle of the migraine prescription had such a “mild” warning about the possibility of drowsiness if taken with alcohol. And no one, including myself, knew how much alcohol had been imbibed.