This is as true of the world within you as of that around you. And that reminds me of a question: What, do you think, is the difference between strength and power? I could make a case that, as we are now a year away from America’s next big national election, this is the most important and fundamental political and economic question of our time. For just as looking into the sky on a dull Friday evening in a characterless northeastern American city, allowing the song of wonder to well up within you until it feels as if it may burst every boundary you’ve ever been taught to believe in — just as this can free you; so in the same way can a simple question, held closely and carried through the shadowy walls of acculturation, become the seed of the Revolution, of the renewal that embraces and raises us all. So let that question percolate some in your unconscious, while I tell a story.
I will tell you of a young man I once knew, half a dozen years out of undergraduate school, where he had slid into a darkness of excess that had drowned his natural abundance. Cocaine, toxic hallucinogens, downers, uppers, angel dust, and an endless river of alcohol — bad booze, cheap beer, rotgut wine and sherry — even 200 proof grain. Thus he sputtered sideways into adulthood like a stream of piss into windblown snow, reeling drunk or brooding sober. Many of his friends and acquaintances receded; those who remained beside him stood back a pace in alarm.
He wasn’t what you’d call a bad drunk; but then again there are no good ones, are there? When I came face to face with him amid those post-college years, I saw a death struggle going on in his eyes, like a fly spattering a windowpane loudly with its last desperate and directionless convulsions of wings. There was not a visible trace of light left in those 20-something eyes. He limped and staggered like a man four times his age, fit more for a hospice than a home.
Perhaps he felt the touch of death at the bottom of a bottle during a night or two; perhaps some random awakening of the energy of youth stirred him from his morbid torpor. All I can tell you is that when I saw him one dusk-lit evening, walking past a mirror down a bare and darkened hallway in a Zen temple in uptown Manhattan; something about him seemed different and strange — as if he had been made weightless from the releasing of an invisible yet crushing burden.
He showed up a few times a week, and began attending the weekend sesshins, the mini-marathons of Zen meditation. He told me of how he had built himself a meditation chamber in his bedroom at home, made of a wooden frame, dark curtains, cushions, incense, and icons — a crude, dark, yet working altar to awakening. For the first time in his life, perhaps, he thought he had found something besides himself that he could take seriously.
Somewhere amid this inner passage, he found that he lost his taste for alcohol; he had dropped the lust for that violent liquid stupor that so recently had been the obsession of his night life. He simultaneously lost patience and money for the cocaine habit; he had spent the last few rolled-up twenties and tens he had, still white with the dust of addiction, on books and beads and meditation bells. The rest he dropped into the donation bowl at the Zendo.
I have often wondered something about that young man — had some external God or Grace given him the power to conquer, to pull himself off the edge of the abyss? Or had something more intimate, closer, and more personal stripped whatever had obscured and distorted his ordinary light, and thereby made him what he always was anyway — strong?
That question may never be answered — the young man I speak of no longer exists, except amid the fading electronic illusion of a few neural circuits deep within my neocortex, known as memory. Yet I know where my feeling for him trends — toward the inevitable certainty of some visitation from deep within his living body, amid the strands and telomeres of that info-molecular essence called DNA. I tend toward the certainty that this young fellow was awakened not by power, but to it. Something had told him that he could safely walk away from the training he’d received, that the only truth, the only support he could find was outside himself. The moment he had sensed that, his ordinary strength had been awakened and released; and he could begin peeling away the lies that had covered his mind like cobwebs over an open doorway. He had had his first encounter with the regenerative understanding that the greatest and most enduring help of all comes from the beings you cannot see, the ones inside.
The death, two months ago, of Oliver Sacks has shaken me somewhat — another favorite modern writer from my younger years, now gone. I remember reading Anthropologist on Mars and Awakenings when they first came out in the mid to late 90’s. I remember thinking how this literature could not be cubbyholed into an insular category — this was a significant dimension of its quality.
Many of my past, recent, and current influences are of that same brand of creation that admits of no branding; for they not only defy categorization, they embrace contradiction. This is what art and artists do: they hold contradiction close to their bodies, over an often long period of years, and thereby transcend it. Sacks was a scientific man who had rejected religious belief; yet he writes more soulfully and with a greater consciousness of the sacred than many spiritual authors I have read.
Politicians and other blowhards of our culture — priests, pundits, corporate pitchmen and their media lapdogs — these also deal in contradiction, but in a different way: not through exploration but exploitation. When antinomy or iconoclasm suit their image, they wear it, garishly; knowing that it can always be thrown behind the walls of denial when its superficial purpose has passed. They engage and use contradiction not to surpass opposition but to aggrandize and even to deify it — until the president and the patriot become the exclusive priests of a distant and vengeful Power whose hand is fear and whose heart is guilt.
I have written before of the mandate we have as individuals in this age of power to expel from our deepest selves the ghosts of fear and guilt. But my message here may have been incomplete: overcoming fear is not about becoming the stereotypical tough guy, but revealing the sublimely sensitive guy who can be fearlessly scared. That is to say, there is a sort of provincial level of fear that we all experience. Every day, I find myself scared walking the streets of this gasoline-drunk city of Albany. The drivers are aggressive, relentless, and at the same time careless. So crossing a street in this town is scary in a way that pedestrian navigation never was in New York. But I walk anyway; always alarmed but never in fear. I wonder if this makes any sense.
Let me try a bigger perspective: I’m scared of global climate change. But I’m not afraid for myself: I’m scared that by the time my daughter reaches my age our species will be spinning in an irrevocable vortex of self-annihilation; that she will arrive upon what should be her years of peace and freedom amid a world of misery, desolation, rampant impoverishment, and hopelessness. And so I do what I can now: I talk to her about the helpers of the invisible world, and show her how her own life experiences have revealed them to her. If she can hold that understanding and carry it through the decades ahead of her, then I know she will have the capacity to be scared and angry and horrified but without knowing fear. Since she is an artist herself, she should be able to embrace this seeming contradiction without much effort.
I’ve often gotten a similar impression listening to Terence McKenna’s lectures: he might be invoking Occam’s Razor in one moment and then describing how the mushroom (Psilocybin) had “talked to him” one night (in answer to the question, “how can mankind save itself?”). McKenna was far more than a counterculture kook: he was a public speaker of amazing gifts with a far-ranging intellect and an incisive social conscience. Here’s a 13-minute introduction to McKenna.
Another prominent personal influence, Alan Watts, openly proclaimed his contempt for consistency and orthodoxy. His goal was always to penetrate appearances and find the undercurrent that feeds the visible stream, and he’d take any line and proclaim any outrageous statement to further that goal (he once told a conference of military strategists, who had asked him to speak on the foundation of moral behavior, that the only such foundation he trusted personally was pure selfishness).
Emerson famously warned us, “consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” It is also the hobgoblin of little hearts. The message I find throughout so many of my favorite writers and speakers is precisely this: the urgent recommendation to break away from the systemic effort on the part of the culture to make you think, act, and especially feel the same way — that is to say, uniformly — with scarcely any variation. As many a visionary has observed, uniformity is not unity. Once, in a meditation, I heard three spell-phrases spoken by some of my elementary school teachers: “you must fit in;” “you have to get along;” “just be like everyone else.” I said the inner No to these spells and called upon the transformational energy of the universe to cleanse and purify my body of this ideological garbage; and then to heal the inner wounds these spells left behind. Finally, I asked that I be strengthened by the release of these useless burdens.
Sacks wrote of his “feeling as a doctor for the mistreated or marginalized.” Like many other individuals who have pushed the ponderous rock of human evolution a millimeter further forward on the path toward what McKenna called “the transcendental object at the end of Time,” Sacks disguised his own transcendence in the dress of his profession — in his case, the physician’s calling and the Hippocratic Oath.
We all must play in and with our culture and its social roles, even as we recognize their decadence. True independence is not getting to do what you want; it is doing what you must without selling out. It is working among the stone idols of the culture without cutting oneself on their glittering, poison-coated edges; and all the while, seeking their weakness, the point where they may be struck once and broken into dust.
I have a long way to go; and I very often lose sight of the destination, until I also forget that there is one. But I have learned a little: I have learned that I can work for the government; fill my role and perform my assigned functions; and then, during the walk home from it all, stare in wonder at the flight of the crows — black wings filling the evening sky with energy, beauty, and order, exactly as the invisible movements in the subatomic dark regions of my being may someday shift the ground beneath me in furtherance of some great renewal, the triumphant return to the beginning. As Eliot wrote:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.