Bumps in My Road
Sometimes turning points in our lives come seemingly by chance, like bumps in the road. This is about some of the bumps in my road.
When I was sixteen I was living with my father, stepmother and stepsister in West Hollywood, not far from Melrose and La Cienega, the vicinity of the famous Bodhi Tree Bookstore. It had recently opened and its discovery by Shirley MacLaine still lay years in the future. Nor had I discovered it as yet. I was in high school, but school was out. It was the great summer of surfing, 1962, but I wasn’t at the beach. Just a few blocks away on Melrose, though, were a neighborhood plunge and a small branch library.
While my stepsister did laps in the pool, I visited the library. I had the notion at that time that I had exhausted all my previous interests, so I tried the experiment of running my hands along the spines of books and choosing one at random.
It was Habakari Hankin, by Lewis Bush, an American author who had lived in Japan in the early part of the 20th century; a whimsical little book about an international connoisseur of outhouses. I checked it out and was soon back to retry the experiment. This time I passed around the end of the bookcase to the other side, and my hand lighted on A Study of Gurdjieff’s Teaching, by Kenneth Walker. I read it, and my world turned around. The notion of higher consciousness, of super-wakefulness, had never occurred to me before.
At that age I loved to walk, and the following February I hiked through Hollywood, past the Capitol Records Building at Hollywood and Vine, and up into the hills beyond. Just past the freeway overpass I turned right, seeking the continuation of Vine Street. Soon I was mounting a street leading up a steep hill. At the top the street turned to the right and acquired the exotic name of Vedanta Terrace. On the left I could see a golden dome and turned left on a cross street, Vedanta Place. The temple itself was intriguing enough, but what thoroughly seduced me was the bookstore, still one of the best places to browse and buy books on a variety of religions, with special emphasis on Hindu books of the Vedanta movement. I had found Hinduism.
I also found Taoism, which somebody once described as everybody’s second-favorite religion. It has certainly remained so with me. Up till then, I had always associated religion with guilt and discomfort and anxiety about the future. Here was a religion and philosophy that let you feel relaxed and at home in the world! I can remember reading Lin Yutang’s translation of Lao Tzu (with commentary from Chuang Tzu) while walking to the store in Hollywood and feeling a great relief as five years of tension from my old fundamentalist church fell from my shoulders.
Sometimes a discovery comes as a result of annoyance. I had another translation of Lao Tzu’s Tao Teh Ching, by R. B. Blakney, titled The Way of Life (a poor translation of the title, which in Chinese means something more like “Way Power Classic”). I spotted a book by Alan Watts called The Way of Zen, and thought, in my innocence, that Mr. Watts was copying Mr. Blakney to get sales. Anyway, it kept popping up in front of me, so I bought it out of annoyance. It is actually Watts’ best book, the best introduction to Zen Buddhism for the Westerner, and thoroughly reliable as scholarship. Zen was a jazzier version of Taoism, and was in vogue at the time, though I didn’t know it. But I’ve always found it a bit dry.
The same sort of discovery-through-annoyance introduced me to Krishnamurti (Life Ahead) and, years later, witchcraft (Eight Sabbats for Witches). Each time I bought a book that kept showing up on book counters and for some reason annoyed me, doors opened on new realities. In those days, bookstores both new and used were everywhere. You could buy Plato in Mentor Classics paperbacks for 75 cents at a local drugstore. Young people nowadays cannot imagine what it was like in America in the late Sixties, before Vietnam bankrupted the country. Bread was a dime. Breakfast could be had for a buck ten. My roommate and I shared a studio for $35 a month.
The next bump in my road was more like an explosion. I include a section from my early essay “Exploring the Penumbra,” called “A Barking Dog:”
In 1968 I was living in a small studio apartment on Winona Avenue in east San Diego, and feeling frustrated. I had been trying for several minutes now to meditate in the Hindu manner, by withdrawing my mind from my senses. The trouble was this dog next door who insisted on barking every three minutes. I’d start withdrawing my attention from my senses when, bark, bark, in they rushed again.
Suddenly for no reason I turned my attention to the barking, letting it in instead of trying to keep it out. In a few moments I felt very light and relaxed. My ears were taking in all available sounds together, including the dog, traffic on University Avenue nearby, the refrigerator motor kicking in, an occasional plane passing overhead, somewhere a radio. It wasn’t a clamor; there were spaces between and around the sounds.
I started noticing things that were invisible before: the shadows of the bushes by the window, quivering a little from wind; overhead, squiggly lights playing across the fishnetted ceiling; Navajo white paint in the upper left corner of the wall starting to chip and peel away. Suddenly I was aware of a cramp I’d been ignoring in my left side, and shifted positions.
I went for a walk up Winona towards El Cajon Boulevard: birds, car engines, horns, barking here and there; telephone poles, power lines, cracks in the sidewalk, an alpine forest of TV antennas. Everything was in view, not just the stuff in front of my eyes.
I felt very light and peppy. Feelings out of old memories flowed through my mind, the nameless flavors of forgotten moments. Very loose feeling. This energy, I saw, had always been available, but was always tied up in filtering out supposedly irrelevant sensations. Apparently, filtering them out took a lot more energy than including them in awareness, because now I had a surplus.
This bump in my road literally put me on a different road than the one I had been on before. I am still on it. I have found Neopaganism and Witchcraft along the way, but this has been the path I found them by.
Sometimes a seemingly trivial incident can confirm that one is on the right personal road. I remember early one Sunday morning walking in East San Diego in search of breakfast (I had stayed over at a friend’s). It was very quiet, with no traffic to speak of and the streets virtually deserted. As I neared the coffee shop, a bright eyed old lady (or so she seemed to me then) approached from the right. As she passed in front of me, she remarked “We’re the only ones up!”
Why has that moment stayed with me as a beacon all these years? Life is very mysterious.