Santa Monica Press
There was once a famous population of Japanese monkeys–the irrepressible macaca fuscata–living on the island of Koshima in 1952; incidentally the year I was born. Scientists provided the monkeys with sweet potatoes dropped in the sand, and observed that they generally seemed to relish the new treat in spite of a certain unpleasant grittiness. One day an enterprising young primate named Imo discovered that if she took her potato down to the water’s edge, she could rinse off all the dirt and enjoy a much tastier meal. Imo taught her mother and playmates the trick, and gradually, over the course of six years, one monkey after another adopted the practice.
Then in 1958, a remarkable event occurred: the number of potato-washing monkeys reached what is called a “critical mass,” and suddenly, not only did the entire monkey population on Koshima Island start performing the new procedure, but all of the monkey populations on neighboring islands spontaneously began washing their potatoes as well!
“The Hundredth Monkey” became the name futurists used for this unusual phenomenon, and they extrapolated from monkey-experience to show that this is also the way the human community makes dramatic, collective paradigm shifts into new ways of thinking, being and behaving. Once a critical mass of people have transformed their essentially materialist world-view to a spiritual one, for example, the entire population of the planet will spontaneously choose to come along for the ride. The dirty sweet potato of being a self-centered, acquisitive, power-hungry creature, blindly bent on the destruction of life as we know it, will be gently washed in the stream of loving-kindness, peacefulness and the desire to serve God and humanity, ushering in a Golden Age of peace and prosperity for all people.
Fat chance. Not with the likes of me around. I am the 99th Monkey. If you don’t get me, you don’t get your critical mass, and it screws up the whole works. I seem to be single-handedly holding back the Great Paradigm Shift of the Golden Age through my simply continuing to be a resistant little putz most of the time. My apologies.
(If it makes you feel any better, I recently heard somewhere that this whole story about the monkeys and the potatoes is not true, that it didn’t really happen that way at all. That really annoyed me, considering that I’d just based a whole book on it.)
I met Ram Dass, my first spiritual teacher, in 1975 in New York when I was 23 years old, several weeks after completing the est training in Boston, which was several months after having spent one and a half years screaming my head off in Primal Therapy. I was desperately trying to cure myself of being me, a futile pursuit that would continue for three decades, and would take me all around the world to meet shamans, healers and gurus, stay in ashrams and monasteries, sit for long hours on meditation cushions, chant in foreign tongues, and live up to 40 days in primitive huts on solo retreat.
I experimented extensively with psychedelic drugs, ancient spiritual techniques and outrageous new ones. I was massaged, shiatsu-ed, and rolfed, took hundreds of consciousness workshops, human potential seminars, and self-improvement courses, sat with psychics, channels and tarot readers, experienced Primal, Gestalt, Bioenergetics, Object Relations, generic talk therapies and anti-depressants. And that’s the short list. (The complete one gets embarrassing. Suffice it to say that it includes learning the Tush Push exercise in a Human Sexuality weekend—you don’t want to know–as well as having an obese female therapist sit on my head at Esalen Institute, so I could re-experience being smothered by my mother.)
As Editor-in-Chief of the New Sun Magazine in the ‘70s and the Wild Heart Journal more recently, and through being a freelance spiritual journalist, it has often been my job to do all these things. Like a scout sent ahead to report back, I often saved others a lot of time: “You don’t have to go deep into Brazil to do all-night rituals involving the ingestion of ayahuasca, chanting in Portuguese to Oxum, the Mother of the Waters, and throwing up out of a church window at four in the morning—I already did that.”
Most stories like this end with an epiphany: the seeker finds what he or she was looking for, writes a book about it to inspire others, and then with any luck, appears on Oprah and becomes very wealthy. Unfortunately, in my story, I remain more or less the same guy—or as my friend Eddie Greenberg would say, the “same old schmuck”–at the end as I was at the beginning.
An earlier version of this book was turned down by one publisher, who said, “The main character’s story just doesn’t seem to hang together.”
Buh-buh-buh-but, I thought: This is a memoir; this is autobiographical…I AM the main character!
But he was right. My story doesn’t hang together. Whose does, really? Nothing bugs me more than those self-help authors who start out as a complete mess, find a magic solution, and then try to sell the rest of us on a new and improved way to live, while getting very rich in the process. At least this much I can promise you: apart from a few laughs and some good stories, this book will very definitely not change your life. Fortunately, every bona fide spiritual teacher worth their salt will remind you again and again that you don’t need to change your life in order to get enlightened, find God, or be your Self.
Again and again, we seekers of truth are told that our primordial, essential nature is always already the case, always and only available now, no matter what the circumstances of our inner or outer lives, and therefore all desire to change our inner or outer lives in order to somehow get closer to the ever-elusive spiritual prize are not only fruitless, but are actually the problem itself. Seeking truth or God or enlightenment or Buddha nature is the equivalent, it has often been said, of a fish swimming endlessly in search of water. Once our great quest has commenced, we have already missed the point and are on the wrong track.
Had I only known
I recently read Tolstoy’s story, “The Death of Ivan Illych,” because in dramatic contrast to War and Peace, it is very short. The story invites contemplation of perhaps the worst accusation of all: a life lived wrong. But Ivan doesn’t get it until he’s lying on his death bed. You and I still have time, although not a whole lot, really. Which is why I generally never read memoirs or biographies. Who can afford to spend their time reading about someone else’s life?
Nor do I presume that you should spend your time reading about my life. Unless, of course, it’s funny. And ask anybody: I’m usually a pretty funny guy, apart from those times when I’m lamenting the fact that, like Ivan Illych, I may have lived my entire life completely incorrectly and now it’s too late to make it right. It isn’t too late, of course, given that another thing the sages often like to chuckle about is that enlightenment is “only a thought away,” or that God is “closer to us than our own breath.” Nevertheless, we all know time is short, and so it’s good to always keep in mind what the famous Tibetan Yogi Milarepa once said:
“You people who gather here
think that death will
come sauntering over to you.
Whenever death comes,
it strikes like lightning.”
I got caught in a riptide in the Outer Banks of North Carolina a few summers ago, and didn’t know that the trick is to swim parallel to shore, as opposed to panicking and thrashing about wildly and coming extremely close to drowning. Close enough to get a glimpse of the shocking recognition, “Oh my God, I’m actually drowning, this is it. I can’t believe I’m dying today.” Milarepa was right: it did feel like lightning, coming out of nowhere when I least expected it. There are lots of stories about people who emerge from such experiences with a renewed sense of aliveness and appreciation, and begin living with more passion and making major lifestyle changes and so on. Leave it to me to be the one guy who manages to blow a near-death experience and just carry on as if nothing much happened.
Be that as it may, if you’re going to take the time to read a book, it ought to, at the very least, have an impact. Father William McNamara, a Carmelite monk, once said: “Never read good books. There’s no time for that. Only read great ones.”
Or funny ones.
Books that impacted my life in my early 20s:
1) The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. The day I finished The Fountainhead, I dropped out of the music department at Northwestern University, having decided to be an architect like Howard Roark, the hero of the book. However, I then discovered that Northwestern didn’t have an architecture department, so I enrolled in the closest thing to it, Interior Art and Design. I went to the first day of classes where we were asked to make little couches out of construction paper, and I dropped out of college completely. And thus began the sequence of adventures recounted in this book.
2) Most everything by Jack Kerouac, particularly The Town and the City and Desolation Angels. He stirred the passionate, poignant, prose-poet in me, the vagabond artist-seeker, albeit with a credit card, very generous parents, and a suburban, upper middleclass Jewish sensibility. In other words, I was absolutely nothing like Kerouac.
3) The Outsider, by Colin Wilson. Like a million other people, I thought the book was about me. Someone finally gave me a label I could get behind. And while I still romantically fancy myself an “outsider,” it could also be argued that I simply do not like to work and with one exception, have never had a real job in the world for longer than about nine months.
The true Outsider, Wilson explains, is someone who has somehow intuited or glimpsed the vast, empty, infinite possibility of eternal life and spirit, but is now somehow separate from that experience except as a nagging memory, and their life is fueled by the intense and obsessive desire to “get it back.” Their art and their religious life become an expression of that quest for authenticity and essence.
The most difficult part for outsiders, Wilson says, is the realization that although as humans they have been given the most extraordinary and abundant gifts and an infinitely mysterious and magical existence filled with beauty and love, they seem to be ironically lacking only one thing: the simple ability to appreciate and enjoy any of it. Ahab said it like this:
“This lovely light, it lights not me; all loveliness is anguish to me, since I can ne’er enjoy. Gifted with the high perception, I lack the low enjoying power; damned in the midst of Paradise!”
I hate that “ne’er enjoy” part. And considered in that light, I truly am an outsider. I once interviewed Colin Wilson via e-mail for the Wild Heart Journal. Here is our conversation, verbatim:
Me: Please elaborate on the connection between the artist’s impulse toward creativity and expression and the religious person’s yearning for spiritual freedom or union.
Colin: Ooof! I don’t feel like writing you an essay to answer that question. Norman Mailer once said to me that he got fed up with people who, after a lecture, asked ten-cent questions that required ten-dollar answers, and this is an example. I just don’t have time to write you pages and pages on religion and creativity. Ask more down to earth questions, like how old are you, have you ever had syphilis, etc. and I’ll answer. (The answer to those is 67 and no.)
It was a very short interview. (And FYI, that conversation was about seven years ago, so Wilson would be 74 now, and hopefully, still free of STDs.)
Jewish people in America and elsewhere are almost always given two names at birth–one in their native language, and one in Hebrew. My English name is Elliot, and I used it most of my life. Eliezer is my Hebrew name. It’s pronounced eh-lee-eh—(as in bed)—zer. Rhymes with Nebuchadnezzer, the infamous Babylonian king. “Eli” means God and “ezer” means help, so Eliezer means “God is my help.” I was upset that all of my friends on a spiritual path had been given new spiritual names by their teachers at some point, to help them shift their primary identities away from their limited personalities over to their True Nature. Most of the names were Hindu, like Krishna, Arjuna, Ananda, and so on. Generally the names meant something along the lines of “Blissful Consciousness,” and it was thought that even if you were totally miserable and depressed, your spiritual name would help you remember that your real Self was nevertheless still having a gay old time of it.
Interestingly, in Judaism, one of the last-ditch methods for healing someone is to change their name, thus tricking God, who might otherwise have had their name inscribed in the “Sayanara Sucker” column of the Book of Life. I once took a workshop in which we were asked to take on a new name just for the weekend. People chose names like “Fun,” “Gentle Being,” and “Millionairress,” trying to cultivate specific, desired qualities. I became Crescent Jewel. My friend Eddie chose the name “Jim.”
By the way, ordinarily Jews write the word God as G-d, never spelling it out on paper. This avoids the possibility of being suddenly burdened by a piece of paper that is considered sacred because it contains the Holy Name, and which you therefore can never throw away; but since you don’t really want this scrap of paper, you wind up with a box of them in the attic. What’s more, if we avoid spelling out “God” and the document in question does get thrown away, we’ve only thrown out a hyphenated word, and not the actual name of God. Predicated on the prior assumption, I guess, that if we did spell it out and the paper got thrown away, it would be akin to trashing our G-d, the presumably Untrashable One.
There’s a great definition of heaven and hell I read somewhere: after death, you are shown a film of your life as you lived it, as well as a film of your life as you could have lived it, given your highest possibilities and potential. The closer the two films match, the closer you are to heaven. The greater the distance, the more hellish. I’m shown those two films everyday in my own mind. And I’m trapped in the theater, like some surreal cinema in The Twilight Zone that only shows the same two movies for all Eternity. At least they’re both comedies.
The morning dew flees away
Is no more
in this world of ours?
I’ve always been interested in reading the enigmatic dying words of great people–particularly Zen masters. My favorite was Suzuki Roshi, whose last words to those assembled at his deathbed were simply, “I don’t want to die.” There was no hidden meaning, which is the essence of Zen.
Allen Ginsberg, who spent his life writing so many meaningful words and wonderful lines of poetry, apparently ended his life with only one word. But it was a great word, one of his best ever: “Tootles.” (It’s possible I’m completely misinformed about this, but I like the story whether it’s true or not.)
Timothy Leary’s last words were “Why not?” And his last words to William Burroughs were, “I hope someday I’m as funny as you.”
My friend Karen’s father was shoveling snow when his wife came out on the porch, screaming, “STOP SHOVELING, OR YOU’RE GOING TO HAVE A HEART ATTACK!” to which he responded, “IF I HAVE A HEART ATTACK, IT’S GOING TO BE FROM YOU SCREAMING AT ME!” Then he dropped dead.
A friend of mine was standing around having a conversation with a 55ish male acquaintance, and in the middle of a sentence he too just dropped to the ground, dead. His last words, my friend told me, were “Hey, it was good seeing you.”
Finally, they say that Gandhi was such an evolved devotee of the Lord that at the moment of his death–when he was shot–he had the presence of mind to utter his sacred mantra, one of the Hindu names for God: “Ram.” But when they depicted this in the film, it was in English, and came across more like the way it probably happened: when Gandhi was shot in the film, he said, “Oh God,” which is more or less what any ordinary shlub like you or me would say if we were shot.
I was an interfaith, non-denominational hospital chaplain some years ago. My colleagues in the hospital were a Presbyterian reverend, a Mennonite minister, a Seventh Day Adventist pastor—(I never learned the difference between a minister, a reverend and a pastor)–an Episcopalian seminarian, and an Apostles of Christ Holy Roller Pentacostalist. Plus, a Methodist, a Baptist and a minister of the United Church of Christ. The hospital was in the Bible Belt; all the patients were Christians, meaning they were followers of the teachings of Jesus Christ, son of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Christ, as described in the New Testament. As a Jewish Buddhist Sufi New Age pot-smoking aging hippie, it wasn’t exactly a perfect fit for me.
(Although I secretly believe Jesus Christ was also a Jewish Buddhist Sufi New Age hippie, albeit probably without the use of pot. Although some claim he spent a lot of time in India before starting his Son of Man career, and if that’s true, then he easily might have smoked some hashish chillums with the local Shiva babas–what young guy backpacking through India on a spiritual quest wouldn’t ?)
Milarepa’s “lightning of death” struck the people I ministered to in the hospital all the time. But in that situation nobody ever had the opportunity to say their last words, because they were always on morphine, fentenol, and various other medications, which allowed them to remain unconscious and without pain as they made their passage to the Great Beyond. When I saw this again and again, I quickly made out a living will in which I asked that I not be sedated at the time of death, that I’d rather be awake, even if in pain, so I could at least come up with some pithy, enigmatic last words. My wife Shari laughed when she heard this, pointing out that I tend to take five Advil for the slightest headache, so intolerant am I of enduring pain of any sort.
But what a disappointment it would be if, in addition to whatever else was causing me to be on my deathbed, I also suffered from writer’s block, just when it was time for my last words. As a writer, if I am to take death seriously, I must always remain aware that these may very well be my last words.