For whatever reasons, I acknowledge a peculiar inward hunger, one that cannot be satisfied by societal conformity or physical comfort. To ease this hunger means appeasing its source: that the very exercise of repeated preparation, of a consecration to an appropriate discipline, and of a self-denial in deferred gratification that leads also to abrupt spans of maximal awareness and rightly balanced action. This state provides the only ambrosia that quenches such hunger. Anything else, by contrast, feels muddled or sickly. Activities and thoughts that interfere with its practice become annoyances or pitfalls. Although many varied systems exist to teach this truth, its realization requires the participation of a person’s body, emotions, and soul, as well as one’s mind; ultimately, this knowledge is not of the intellect alone. Sometimes it is found through athletics or a fine art; sometimes in the pursuit of science or religion; sometimes within craft labor or the steps of an ancient tradition. Even so, many who receive the teaching remain unaware of its underlying hunger, of the spider’s web linking this particular activity or setting with humanity’s timeless potential of wisdom in the universe.
I could speak of the importance of finding a teacher who is qualified to guide the aspirant into this practice. I could have addressed this teacher as Swami, Roshi, or Murshid, a reflection of the roots of the particular practices I was traversing. Critics may argue whether the teaching retains its purity only within its own lineage and language, on one hand, or gains its authenticity in terms of vitality and application, on the other. Some Teachers replied that in bringing this teaching to America, certain adaptations have been essential. I’ve referred to this discipline simply — or perhaps elusively — as the Dedicated Laborious Quest.
In relocating to the Pacific Northwest, I was also unintentionally fleeing my own Teacher, who, in fact, had instigated the break, sensing that the time had come for me to apply the lessons fully, no longer the student but now the journeyman.
The Far West, like many of these teachings, remains simultaneously fossilized and virgin. I needed to discern the strands. For instance, I encountered petroglyphs in ethnology books before finding them on a riverside cliff here. Returning to my journals, I find a notation: “According to Newcombe, 1907: ‘It seems impossible to decipher these inscriptions satisfactorily as it is not likely anyone except the makers and those living at the time the work was done could tell what was meant by them.’ Oh really? Has he seen a fancy menu?”
From book to the field back to the book again.
As I contemplate the prevalence of “you” in contemporary American writing, I jot: “It seems to be ‘other-than-myself’ reaching out to the almighty ‘I-thou,’ to another intimate self-aware being.”
I look up and wonder: could these paintings and carvings be attempting the same?
“Oh, waiter! Garcon! Where are we?”
In desert, the wind’s invisible presence is like the divine spirit itself. Gusts give sound to unseen natural power. Whatever Voice ripples Tibetan prayer flags — the ones a friend gave me — now make this energy visible, too. “Those banners,” I record, “remind us how cut off from wind and often from Spirit, as well, we are.” The friend jokingly refers to me as a “cunning office rat with a job that includes the self-serving hazards of political survival.” Pay attention! Open a window! The flags remind me of the divine, the wind, and my friend all at once. As for the prayers themselves, I refer to the translation, voicing a the desire for universal peace.
I might speak of a personal need to renew divine energies. My Teacher would remind me the divine has been present all along — my awareness, however, is another matter.
Sometimes my Teacher would speak of dancing with an unnamed lover. “My Dance Partner” may be the best name for the unseen divinity when dancing. For one’s beloved human companion, as well — when the union of melody, rhythm, motion, and affection overpowers all else. So what is this dance, this lifetime of recovering the angels’ music? In the end, the only way of learning to dance is by dancing. Preferably, with a skilled partner. At first, staying at the edge of the room. There will be mistakes, naturally.
My Teacher taught that even when dancing solo, you’re not alone. There’s also taught the joy of dancing arm-in-arm in a circling chain. The dance, then, moves along the horizon between spirit and flesh. Having danced solo, I would now also dance with others, teaching them steps I’ve mastered (or at least seen mastered; some of the best teachers, you’ll find, are those who have come to the brink and gained insight through failure, seeing a promise they cannot enter). Expressing common inward experience builds a kind of family, one that speaks to friends, associates, and a kind of tribe with words of both gratitude and recognition. I long yearned for a magic circle of an especially aware community, itself existing within a tenderly defined locale and time, which I’d found, however fleetingly, in the cloister. Now it’s my turn, as if only I could bring it together somehow. The desert, with familiar landmarks stripped away, is where I come to find direction.
It’s appropriate to refer to those who’ve accepted a Dedicated Laborious Quest as monks, even if they have — like me — married. As my Teacher counseled, approached wisely, marriage and parenting rise to full disciplines in this order.
When monks (whatever their particular exercises or traditions) discuss the living practitioners they most admire, they pass a point where they typically cease mentioning celebrities. Beyond that, they say nothing of classic masters or even living talents already in the curriculum and news reports. Rather, these monks are likely to be most impressed by unknowns who turn unfamiliar ground or who send back fascinating postcards from frontiers much like their own. Yes, I appreciate most those who work in similar ways or places to my own. That, too, is natural. Yet those who are most like yourself are also the ones you’ll criticize most intensely. It’s the flip side of the same coin. In some ways, every monk seeks a Dedicated Laborious Quest free of words, even while constructing your own set of personal Assays and Histories or the accompanying maps.
I fondle a strand of Rudrakshi beads, “Shiva’s eyes,” presented by another friend Back East. Think of the Bhagavad Gita, where the name of a central character, Arjuna, literally represents “white” or “bright”; why does that strike me afresh as I gaze up at parched grass the irrigation canals don’t reach? Those inclines are too steep for orchard ladders or tractors to work safely. Below the water trench, fruit ranches quiver with fat fruit ripening. Caucasian orchard owners are surrounded by darker-skinned Hispanics, Indians, and Asians. The character Krishna, it seems, depicts “black.” So who’s the Guide through all these centuries? The sun simultaneously devours and sustains all. Much that’s been hidden comes to light.
I once expected old people to hold out a future for humanity rather than debunk everything as rotten. A lifetime of wounds, however, can fester.
For more insights from the American Far West and Kokopelli, click here.