A man who stands for nothing will fall for anything. – Malcom X.
I remember being sure, once upon a time, that it couldn’t be that easy to be blessed. I knew, in my heart, that I, for one, did not deserve it. That character, that socially deformed renegade who had faked and side-stepped his way through the business world into old age, had run his course. Handling the world was never going to be my thing. Finally, just being in the world was enough .
I had discovered, lurking in the shadows, secretly layered into the landscape I grew up in, was the conviction that I would find redemption in various sorts of self-destruction. In the mountains and the forests, in the cliffs and the canyons, I had seen clearly that it was only me that was in the way of understanding my place in the world. I was worth whatever I thought I was worth.
The road to Aspen was easier than I anticipated. A gentle slope. Along the way, I visited a couple of old teammates. Bill, in Grand Junction, bought me my first bottle of vodka when I was a freshman at UCLA. He helped Bob and me start Santa Monica Rugby Club in 1972. John, from the North of England, lived in Parachute. He was the scrumhalf on our first championship team.
On the 12th of September, I pulled into the downtown driveway of the house being cared for by Jerry, the President of the Gentlemen of Aspen. They were putting on their 50th Aspen Ruggerfest. I had been there in 1972, winning the 5th Ruggerfest with The Pumpkins. This year, the age brackets ran up to The Over-50’s, who platooned substitutes every five minutes. Even with those old guys, I was surprised by how few people I knew. Mine wasn’t just another time, it was another era.
Ruggerfest is a very social week in Aspen. Parties everywhere. I realized that I had not been in such an environment for years. At first, it was puzzling, seeing all the beautiful women in torn jeans. I thought it was just very casual in a mountain town. But the torn pants did not go with the five-thousand-dollar jackets and the thousand-dollar shoes. I realized that it was supposed to be a statement of some sort. Back in the world, it was all about signals. All the women did it. The jeans were for sale that way in the shop windows.
After Aspen, I followed the better part of valor by driving around Independence Pass. My 20-year-old Tioga Arrow had performed well so far, but the risk wasn’t worth it. We, more maturely, took Interstate 80 and then Interstate 25 to Colorado Springs. From there, seven hours hard driving into big desert winds got us to Alberquerque. A couple of long days.
Three days after leaving Aspen, I was sitting at my brother’s bedside. We worked at talking for a couple of hours. When I held up fingers in front of his face, he couldn’t tell how many. Diabetes had robbed him of his eyesight. Jim talked about what he had been doing in his mind. He was a victim of his emotions. When he recalled an old girlfriend, he cried. When he recounted his latest imaginary meeting with a celebrity, he laughed. I held his hand and sat there. Before I left, I asked him if there was anything he wanted. He said, “To be cremated next Tuesday”.
I stayed at Western Skys RV park, outside of El Paso. I got to know Rosa, the manager, and her two sons … one in college and the other just graduated from high school. On the drive to and from downtown, where Jim was staying, it became clear to me that this weight, this guilt about having lived a life of indulgence while my brother suffered horribly, was just a part of who I was … like my broken collarbone that now sticks up on one side, or the corner of my eye socket that wasn’t stitched back properly, or the arthritic knees … I could go on. I sat with Jim for as long as I could for a couple of days. I saw that he recognized, too, when the time had come for a visit to end. We had to be careful. We were holding on to something fragile.
Driving with the wind, back across the New Mexico desert, I felt as if I were emerging from the landscape. From what I had seen that summer, it seemed the next logical step in the evolution of this magnificent earth. Awareness. The planet was waking up. I was waking up. I could not separate the two. The first step is to see what a mess we have made of things. Then it is time to see another way.
It occurred to me, as Alice and I wound our way through the canyons of southern Arizona, that words have become so powerful for us that we have forgotten what to do without them. We are losing our sense of the sacred. We want to wrap syllables around the experience of the numinous, to use language as a lever to access an experience of the divine. We want to feel the joy all the time. But words are not meant for that. The best words will ever do is point. The underlying assumption that naming something keeps it the same is an illusion.
Jean Piaget, psychologist, showed through his legendary studies in child development that logical and mathematical operations result from the internalization of operations originally executed externally, with solid objects. We have to think with ‘things’, before we can think without them. Survival depends on learning how to operate in the world. Contemplating the wonders of the universe comes later … and can only be thought about in terms of the language we created to deal with ‘things’. We don’t have a way to think about something that is everywhere, all the time … that is no thing. We can’t see something that is everywhere, all the time … where would we be looking from? Grammar is designed to remove the ambiguity when perceiving the world … an ambiguity that must be re-experienced in order to be removed.
The most insidious habit is the desire to know … all the more so because it appears to be the most successful approach to taking care of business. That’s why language started in the first place – to keep things the same. This is what binds us to the earth and obscures Paradise. When we grow up, we each have the opportunity to become a unique mirror to an unspeakably wonderful reality. One day, we will laugh at that feeble period in our history when we believed the meaning of life could be manufactured. Heaven is still there, waiting, unknowable, behind the veil of grammar. One has to be older, I believe, to understand all this and to realize how awareness punctuates experience.
But awareness is fragile, like my time with Jim. Awareness will spill into all the cracks … and we will turn our eyes from what we don’t want to see. Real awareness is almost too personal for us to talk about. Out of the gate, I only see things that are important to me. The awareness that shimmers over the Grand Tetons at dawn, skimming over icy mountain lakes and whistling through the tall pine trees … the scale I had experienced that summer, put my tiny point of view to shame.
As I watched a storm pour rain on a patch of desert in the distance, I felt a warm appreciation for my age and a deep gratitude for being older. Ironic as it sounds, we each have to outgrow our initial identity, like shedding a skin, or leaving a cocoon … except this is a disintegration of a point of view. We all learn that nothing is good or bad all on its own. We know that karma is real and life is short. We understand that, eventually, we get what we deserve. As we watch the body grow older and do less, we learn that who we are … the spirit that is aware of all this going on … is ageless. This is growing up.
I have been aware of something just beyond the normal senses, a numinous world, ever since I can remember. Most people have had a similar experience along the way. I have always had a sense that there was more going on somehow. As a child, I was happy just to play there. As an adult, I wanted to know.
Crossing the Colorado river, returning to California, it was clear to me that I would never know, because I would have to separate to look. I saw too that being enlightened and feeling enlightened were different experiences. Being enlightened is not feeling enlightened all the time.
I remember when I saw my first Zen teacher, Thich Thien An, at the doorway to an extension class at UC Irvine. Thich had escaped the purge in Viet Nam. He was smoking a pipe. My friend and I thought he must be a phony. Why would an enlightened being smoke tobacco? Looking back, it’s as though I was expecting him to be drifting a foot off the ground and surrounded with a glowing light. In the first class, I asked him what he thought about the TV program ‘Kung Fu’, which was popular at the time. He said he hadn’t seen it, he was too busy teaching and driving on the freeways, fulfilling his duties as the resident monk at the Los Angeles temple.
What to do with what I had seen on this journey of thousands of miles, wandering through the mighty folds of the northwestern landscape, was a uniquely personal decision. How do I want to see things? How do I live behind the scenes? Growing up is just the beginning, once we have found our own path. We are always on the road.
As I pulled into Palm Springs, from where I began a year ago, I remembered the last day of that first Zen class. At the end of the semester with Thich Thien An, we gathered at the Los Angeles temple, in front of an altar which was decorated with flowers, incense and a statue of Buddha. It was time to ask questions of the master, expecting an instant, hurricane-force transformational reply, as was legendary in such situations. Personally, I was concerned about the altar – the worship, the placing of personal power outside oneself … all those Seventies psychological clichés.
“Is it possible,” I asked him, “to reach enlightenment without ever having heard of Buddha?”
“Buddha never heard of Buddha”, was his immediate reply.