Yes, one can wage war in this world, ape love, torture one’s fellow man, or merely say evil of one’s neighbor while knitting. But, in certain cases, carrying on, merely continuing, is superhuman.
— Albert Camus, The Fall
I’ll start with feeling bad. It’s a bone with a little — you should pardon the expression — meat on it. Tears are tears. Nobody needs to tell you how to feel bad. It’s as natural as bleeding. As natural as concentration camps, impotence, or saying the wrong thing. Just today I said the wrong thing. I told someone I was getting married. Nothing wrong about that. Except I used it as a weapon, to bar the entrance to my heart. As if the bones piled outside weren’t enough to dissuade anyone, anyway. See? That broad, sunny grin notwithstanding, I’m as much at home on the high wire of self-contempt as I was before this New Age circus came to town, with its spiritual acrobats and gimmicky sideshows and roller coasters to take you up and bring you down. And in the middle of it all, that renowned tamer of the heart, Dr. Feelgood, dispensing patent cures to a mob of tearful jerks, just like me, who’ve traded their minds at the door for identical big name buttons, all of which spell “God.”
Is this making you feel bad? Is it too painful to evoke the memory of all the clowning we once dressed up as seriousness about — you should pardon the expression — the meaning of life? Posing before the mirrors that so distorted our shapes, into yogis, or hippies, or whatever disguise seemed better than our own skins. We have, from Kerouac to Kesey, indulged in glorifying ourselves, mistaking the painful step we were taking towards new understanding with some graced leap, over the heads, and limitations, of other, more common, men — men for whose unhappy marriages and demeaning jobs and bleeding piles we advised an ounce of pot and a paperback by Hesse, or the certain adventure of hitchhiking to the Coast. Being high became not a means, but an end, and when one circus folded — the pleasures of revolution and sex and dope and diets exhausting themselves, in turn — we’d move on, to the next. The measure of our worthiness kept changing. Parents’ approval. Good grades. Popularity. Sexual conquest. Cleverness. Being poor, or being rich (depending on the prejudices of our friends). And finally, and more subtly, our perception of ourselves as peaceful, centered, or humble (the self consciousness that allows such description also suggesting its inaccuracy). No matter. Insofar as something outside ourselves was needed, it made no difference what it was. The violence was internal. Eventually, inevitably, the Big Top came crashing down around our heads. As public as an assassination, or as private as a divorce, the awakening was different for everyone, and always the same. Tears are tears. “Do you mean there’s life after birth?” the joke goes, and those of us who were no longer laughing remembered how we began — naked, and crying — and suddenly became less interested in covering that nakedness, Indian fabrics no less a disguise than the drab American clothes we grew up in.
Recently, a friend who calls himself vastly intuitive promised me that in a few days I’d experience “total infinitization.” That meant I’d understand, no longer merely intellectually, but down to my emotional roots, how everything is possible, every imaginable, and unimaginable happening, every heaven and hell, as an infinite expression of infinite consciousness, and so — freed of attachment to any particular experience — I’d feel tremendous peace and clarity.
I wanted to believe it. Who wouldn’t? Deep into the sweets of astrology and the Tarot, guru-worship and the occult, other friends offer me other honeyed assurances — about how it’s all going to work out, just give it time; or, why it isn’t working out, because of the astrological aspects, or the whim of an archangel; or, that it’s perfect just the way it is, so why don’t I dry my tears and wipe my glasses.
Stephen Gaskin threw away his glasses a few years ago. He said he didn’t need them because he didn’t need to see, any more than dress, or speak, like everyone else. When I heard that, I tried it too, until I got tired of squinting. A couple of months ago, when Stephen came to Chapel Hill, I noticed he was wearing glasses again. I didn’t ask him why, so it’s presumptuous for me to say it’s the same reason I no longer attend yoga classes, or follow a strict vegetarian diet, or care whether the guy next to me is reading the Diamond Sutra or TV Guide. About as presumptuous, in fact, as Nyle Frank, the once-proclaimed King of the Invisible Universe, who now plays the piano and sings in cafes. When I saw him the other day, he, too, had a new pair of glasses. Now, he says, he can avoid the people he can’t stand and talk to those he wants to see.
“When I want to look at the world I see it the way you do,” Don Juan tells Castaneda. “When I want to see it I perceive it in a different way . . . To one who sees a thing is never the same every time you see it, and yet it is the same.”
Without Don Juan to lean on, I turn to the pages of the East West Journal. In the latest issue, with its cover photo of a starving child from Bangladesh, there’s an advertisement for the game of Divine Omnopoly — “the ashrams, natural foods and inner peace board game.” A silk-screened playing cloth, seals to 30 sacred cities and New Age communities. “The play is over when everyone becomes a Bodhisattva.” Beautiful. Eleven bucks for this New Age dildo, handy to have around when you’re tired of fucking yourself with news about world famine.
Not long ago, a friend hurt her foot in a bicycle accident. At the hospital, the doctor wouldn’t let me wait with her, even though she insisted my presence calmed her and made the pain easier to bear. I asked him again. He turned to go. Wait, I said. Let’s talk about it. “Start talking,” he snapped. I told him I only wanted to help her, that I wouldn’t be in anyone’s way, and so on. He looked at me without seeing. To him I was a bother, or a threat. Did he see his reflection in my glasses? Was that the rock of our common humanity he hurled at me? With what New Age truths was I to shield myself? And my friend, gasping with pain in the next room — was this her karma for failing to subscribe to the East West Journal?
I plead temporary insanity, your Honor. They left me here with no instructions, just the graffiti on the bathroom wall that reads, “For everyone, the way is different.” Which way do I turn after I flush? Have you wondered why so much religious humor is scatological? Because there’s nothing so divinely amusing as someone taking a crap. Everyone looks the same with his pants down. But we’re hungry for other proofs. Some chant a personal mantra. Chanting your own mantra is like sending a registered letter to God. In a competitive spiritual environment, this is a good investment. Others look for the answer in books, although a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Most take the precaution of tethering their minds to something solid and safe — a university, for example — before cracking the cover.
But chanting the name of God puts me in the mind of leaning over the racetrack fence, yelling my horse’s name again and again. As to the books, the wisest tell us how little they know; we, who know less, pay dearly to read it.
Mental cruelty. An open and shut case. So please — before I’m buried in this avalanche of smile buttons, mood elevators, and perfect masters — throw the book at the fuckers. They’re trampling my garden, every delicate seedling of pain and contradiction that is the sum of my heart’s growth. My therapist, who eagerly accepted that I’d exhausted every guaranteed high, but couldn’t swallow that I’d finally exhausted therapy, too — throw her in jail, before she threatens to commit suicide if I try to leave. Because I’ve got to get out of here. Nearly a year after my father’s death, at the ceremonial unveiling of his tombstone, his best friend is still tugging at my beard telling me I’ll feel better if I shave. And now, my friend Hal, tugging at my sleeve, warning me about spiritual anarchy, and wondering where this essay is going.
To the grave of the Father, Hal, the God we try so hard to please (difficult with one eye on the altar and the other on our reflection in the glass); the Lord in whose service we eat yoghurt without preservatives (no matter that the yoghurt comes from California, on trucks that soil the air no less than chemical additives the liver); the Starmaker whose gesture is worlds, upon which every noble and bankrupt notion about how to feel good is given form. Feeling good — the promise I began with. But here we are at the cemetery, and who dances at funerals? Around us lie buried the New Frontier and the Woodstock Nation. Liberty is on the heap and New York City is laid out in a plain pine box. The hearses are backed up for miles; I’m peeking through the windows and all the faces look the same — dead gurus and dead kings and dead rock stars. The mourners are in a tight little circle, pretending to grieve. But I won’t be fooled.
Because there’s a smile on their faces. No laughing, nothing like that. But a kind of dry amusement, a recognition in the eyes. Free at last. From what? From that starched collar of moral ambition, from suits that were always a couple of sizes too big, or too small — our burying clothes, our solutions.
Ten years after my last exam, it’s finally dawning on me that life’s no course, that there’s no right answer, that there’s no one to tell you what to do, what not to do, and you go where you choose. Remember John Lennon’s song “God?” “I don’t believe in magic. I don’t believe in I-Ching. I don’t believe in Bible.” And on and on. Tarot. Hitler. Jesus. Kennedy. Buddha. Mantra. Gita. Yoga. Kings. Elvis. Zimmerman. And finally, Beatles. “I just believe in me. Yoko and me. And that’s reality.” Well, maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. Maybe that’s spiritual anarchy, but it really doesn’t matter. It finally dawned on Lennon, too, that there wasn’t any problem to be solved, so who needs a solution?
Did that make him feel good? No laughing, nothing like that.