Continuing my journey…
As I moved on along the road – geographically and karmic-ally – meditation kept interjecting itself into my consciousness, even though my geographical moves seemed to be in some kind of pattern of moving away from environments conducive to developing a meditation practice.
I moved from Arizona to Missouri, got married and had a son, and mostly because of the influence of my new family, I decided to give Christian ideas another chance. It was really the people there that I loved, and I think because I wanted so much to be part of what they were part of, I got involved in the church life. I made a conscious decision to suspend my disbelief and give it all one more shot. I took the Christian descriptors of faith at face value – belief in things not seen. The pitch is: if you sincerely pray for the truth of it to be shown to you, it will be. So that’s what I did.
I took all the steps, I talked the talk and walked the walk. I was baptized again, I read scripture, I fasted and prayed, I spent time in the wilderness in solitude. And one day, as I sat meditating, looking for truth, it was revealed to me. But it wasn’t the voice of God or a passage of holy writ, and it didn’t confirm what I was looking for.
It was a tree.
As I sat, gazing across the meadow at the horizon, a tree prominent against the sky, a pine or spruce, seemed to embody for me the whole of Truth. It was a wordless Truth, this, but nevertheless a Truth that affected me profoundly. It was something that was never easy to put words to at all, but it was essentially a deep conviction that in the reality of that tree, simply as a single real piece of the greater reality that is existence, is all the Truth there is and all I needed. Writing that, it sounds simple and petty. But the experience itself was far beyond anything I could say of it.
The greater significance of it, of course, was that I more or less in that moment abandoned all the other intents and quests as essentially irrelevant. I realized I just didn’t need any of that. Whatever this experience was, however it might be explained or defined philosophically, it was clear to me that the only Truth I needed was right there for me to directly access.
It took me a while to untangle myself from the whole bit there, at least a year. I didn’t renounce anything or make any grand proclamations, I just quietly slipped away into the sunset. My wife really never understood – who does understand? – and it was, I think, the beginning of the end for our relationship.
I took a class on ‘Buddhism in its culture’ at a local university, and began again to try to meditate, though still without any real guidance on how or what it was all about. I began to read excerpts from the Buddhist sutras, and again had the experience of “fit” – the Buddha’s teachings seemed to be a perfect fit for me. I remember reading in the Buddha’s first sermon the teaching that all arising things are also ending things, and connecting with it as a lived truth for me.
Most of what I was finding was the academic side of Buddhism, however. For whatever reasons, I never came across any books during that period that explained how one should meditate. But that experience in the meadow – which I now know would be called a kensho experience in the Zen tradition – was just a glimpse of the ultimate reality that sometimes comes unbidden, and it was just enough to keep me on the path, to keep me trying to meditate.
And it all fit in together somehow. Taking the class got me interested in returning to an academic career, so I began taking other classes, and before long I had decided to take enough classes to get certified to teach school. I had a bachelor’s degree in history, but no education classes, so it took nearly a year of school to meet the requirements.
I also took a class on native American culture, and decided I would like to try teaching on a reservation, so when I finished my coursework and student teaching, we moved back to Arizona.
Living for a few months at my wife’s parents’ home while I was taking a few classes at Northern Arizona University that were required for certification in Arizona, I had another strange conjunction of ideas that in retrospect seems to be a stepping stone on the karmic path. One night I discovered on the bookshelf in their very normal middle-class home four books which seemed very out-of-place: J. Krishnamurti’s three Commentaries on Living and The First and Last Freedom.
My wife’s parents had no idea where the books came from. I began reading them and was entranced. It seemed the books had been left there by some mysterious power purely for my edification. At first, I hated what he had to say, rejected it and argued against it. But I was nevertheless entranced. Clearly, his teaching was getting at the same truth as the Buddha’s teachings, but his insistence that one should be able to access this truth on the spot or else give up all hope of ever knowing it infuriated me.
Nonetheless, it kept me looking for the key to enlightenment, kept me working to learn how to meditate. In fact, reading those books and trying to understand the ideas there became my practice for a number of years.
At the end of the summer, I got a job teaching in a Navajo school in New Mexico.
Teaching was more of a learning experience for me than for my students, I’m afraid. I began to seriously question why the Navajo children should care about much of what we were teaching them, and why we should care whether someone says “new red truck” or “red new truck” – “May I have a pencil, please?” or “Give me pencil.”
But living in the high desert through a winter when there were five planets visible in the night sky was a spiritual experience in itself. Running three miles in the morning at 7000 feet elevation was life changing. Hiking on the mesas and into Bryce Canyon opened my mind, my eyes, my lungs, my hips, and my heart. Dancing around a bonfire inside a circle of pickup trucks with their lights all pointing inward was cultural enlightenment of the highest order.
Hiking up onto a mesa and across a natural bridge hardly five feet wide onto a large round mesa where a ring of huge, building-size rocks circled an ancient firepit took me back, deep into the origins of human spirituality.
By the time my year in New Mexico was over, I was thoroughly cleansed of whatever mental complications had driven me to attempt to re-enter the fold of Christian theism.
The wind and the cold and the black night skies full of stars washed my mind clean.