Aram Saroyan on the ordinary experience that changes our lives – if we only notice it.
When I was in high school at Trinity in New York, and during the years I sporadically attended several colleges, I had a number of experiences that I recognize today were as important, as formative, as anything that occurred in the classroom, and probably more so. I came across a book by Alan Watts when I was going to Trinity called This Is It. In the title essay, Watts discusses moments, common to people all over the world and throughout recorded time, in which one perceives that one is a part of some larger whole. I found the book tonic for my own development, confirmation of experience I’d known but never discussed or heard discussed.
If a man or a woman, you or I, walks outside the house on a particular day and experiences a sense of this oneness-a very reassuring perception in the several instances I recall in my own life-this isn’t something that will be the subject of a discussion on Nightline or Charlie Rose. Nor is it likely to be covered by any print media, not even The Star or The Enquirer. Watts quotes the following paragraph from Sketch for a Self-Portrait by Bernard Berenson, with the prefatory remark that it is “one of the simplest and ‘cleanest’ accounts of it I have ever seen”:
It was a morning in early summer. A silver haze shimmered and trembled over the lime trees. The air was laden with their fragrance. The temperature was like a caress. I remember — I need not recall — that I climbed up a tree stump and felt suddenly immersed in Itness. I did not call it by that name. I had no need for words. It and I were one.
An essentially nonverbal experience of this kind became the subject of one of my first poems, and an ongoing touchstone of my practice as a poet. I’m not sure what year this happened. I still may have been going to Trinity. That seems the most likely scenario because it takes place at the bus stop on the corner of Madison Avenue and 79th Street, where I used to wait in the late afternoon for the crosstown bus to take home to West End Avenue, after an hour or two of after-school revelry at Stark’s coffee shop on 78th Street and Madison.
At a Bus Stop
I turned to
an accumulation of women
the light was so clear
Years later I came across a line in Krishnamurti that seemed to refer to this experience: “Between apprehending and naming, is experiencing.” If I understand correctly, Krishnamurti says here that in the interval between seeing something and putting a word to it inheres the true experience of what it is, or perhaps more accurately of what is. I remember trying to get this into a philosophy paper at NYU, and feeling pretty excited, only to be given an F on the grounds of it having nothing to do with the assignment. This sort of thing frustrated me. At the end of the term, one in which I was enthusiastically engaged in reading Plato and in writing the assigned papers, I received an F. The rest of my courses went no better, and after failing four out of five of them, with a D in English, an appointment with a staff psychiatrist was scheduled for me.
The psychiatrist turned out to be a dark-suited fellow with dirty fingernails, I noticed. He reviewed my academic record and then looked up at me.
“Well,” he said summarily. “There are two possibilities here. One, you’re mentally defective. Or two, you have study inhibitions.”
“I’ll take number two,” I said sheepishly. He didn’t get the joke.
The philosophy paper may have been read by a student assistant. But the discouragement had the effect of helping to turn me away from the university system, a fateful occurrence in my life. The judgment that my piece had nothing to do with the subject may even have been correct, on balance, because the state I was speaking about is nonverbal, an embodiment of what happens when words disappear for a moment. Poetry and certain prose works may be the paradoxical effort to portray the state in language. Here is a sentence from Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, which was written late in Stein’s career and became a best-seller. In it she adopts the more down-to-earth sensibility of her companion to tell the story of their life together. The eponymous Miss Toklas is describing an experience of Miss Stein’s as a schoolgirl in Oakland (the city about which she famously said, “There’s no there there”):
She remembers a little school where she and her elder sister stayed and where there was a little girl in the corner of the school yard and the other little girls told her not to go near her, she scratched.
I’m not sure how it happens — partly at least a consequence of the cumulative effect of the sequence of thirty-eight words before the single punctuation mark, the comma that precedes the two final words — but “she scratched” occurs with a force and presence I find unparalleled. It reminds me of the brief parenthesis in Lolita that Tom Stoppard cites, in the profile of the playwright by Kenneth Tynan, as his favorite parenthesis in literature. Nabokov writes: “My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three.”
It occurs to me I’m writing another philosophy paper here, trying to redeem a failing grade of forty years ago. In another experience of my own, I was riding the 79th Street crosstown bus home. It was winter this time, already dark in New York at somewhere between four-thirty and five. I know I was at Trinity because I was worried about homework, lots of it, which I needed to do and hadn’t a real will to do nor quite an adequate ability to do. I’m sixteen or seventeen, not a happy camper. I’m twisted with remorse and simultaneously a nervous system unlikely to bend to the required task of the moment, past a certain point. After we’d crossed Central Park, somewhere between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues, the very stretch it occurs to me now where twenty years later my childhood friend Sandy Kirkland would jump to her death from an apartment building, an estranged wife and mother of two — it suddenly dawned on me that I was on a bus, that outside the bus, as it moved down the street, it had turned dark, night had come on, lights were on in the buildings that lined the street; and above the buildings was the night sky, and all was right with the world. In that moment, it would seem that my consciousness had switched from its microcosmic state of personal issues and problems, to a macrocosmic awareness that I inhabited a larger universe — that in fact my consciousness was but a single filament of this larger whole.
During the sixties, the poet Gary Snyder, an honorary elder of the hippies of my generation, said, “We must move from a preoccupation with material states to a preoccupation with states of being.” Was it a Jungian synchronicity that a chemically synthesized form of this consciousness was widely distributed throughout my generation, like a sort of parting gesture of the industrial epoch itself? In his 1989 biography of Allen Ginsberg, Barry Miles records a meeting between Timothy Leary and Ginsberg during the early 1960’s in which the two plan for the widespread dissemination of LSD to the new generation in order to accomplish a revolution in consciousness. I was appalled to read that.
During the summer of 1965, when I was 21, I roomed with two actors in Woodstock, New York, where they were interning at the Woodstock Summer Theater, and I remember an evening when one of the roommates, Chris, came back to our place and told us that a waitress at the Expresso Coffee House, the local hangout, had LSD, and it cost five dollars. Five dollars — at that time a little more than the going rate for a first-run movie. So we had to weigh this-had it been twenty-five dollars it would have been easier to dismiss. Would we ante up five dollars to try this new thing? Some people said it produced the equivalent of Buddhist enlightenment, and that the state of mind lasted for eight hours or more. A bargain, no less.
I was, then, so I would learn a few decades later from Miles’s biography, one of Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary’s guinea pigs. Another aspect of this story is that the historic meeting between Ginsberg and Leary is also not widely discussed. Here were these two leaders of the counterculture taking a meeting and deciding to accomplish a revolution in consciousness. Again there’s been no significant coverage. I don’t recall even a review of the Ginsberg biography that mentioned this meeting, and yet it seems to me perhaps one of the most historically significant occurrences of the second half of the twentieth century.
What did acid do? It rendered a variation on what I’ve already described, and quoted from Bernard Berenson, all of which occurred without chemical help. Indeed, I believe that most of us have these experiences but, as they are not the subject of public forums, what is one to do with them, finally, except perhaps to forget them?
In the late sixties, just after I’d gotten married, I remember staying briefly at the Chelsea Hotel. It was summertime, and one night there was a terrific thunderstorm. I was woken up and got out of bed and went over to the window and watched the lightning strike, spreading sudden silent illumination over the city. Then would come the late-breaking thunder, the noise of the lightning, which traveled so much more slowly than the light. I got back into bed and listened to the thunder, entirely unpredictable and yet inarguable, inevitable, and hence as perfect as music — and again there was the sense of being part of something much larger than the self.
When something catches the attention so completely, our thought process gives way to a perceptual level that doesn’t involve the mind’s insistent duality of good and bad, yes and no. It’s snowing! one suddenly sees, and in that moment exists all the wonder of the world without the imposition of any idea of right or wrong, good or bad. T. S. Eliot’s famous remark about Henry James, that he had a mind so fine it was unviolated by an idea, seems to me to reflect such a state as the ideal for an artist, or perhaps for anyone. Not that James’s – or Nabokov’s or Gertrude Stein’s – characters don’t have many and frequent ideas, but their creator regards them with the same open perceptual gaze and equanimity with which he would notice a blossoming plum tree. The Hindus have a saying: “When the mind empties, the heart fills it.”
With that in mind, I want to include one more variation, this one through the auspices of a holy man, Swami Muktananda. Having gone through the sixties and had my moderate share of psychedelic experiences, as well as having had those of the nonchemical kind I’ve noted, I wasn’t particularly interested in the varieties of religious experience that proliferated in Marin County, where I lived with Gailyn and our three children during the 1970’s. But one afternoon in 1976, in the Campolindo health food store in Fairfax, I passed a poster of Muktananda I’d seen dozens of times before. It featured a color photograph of the guru, a head shot in which he looked straight at the camera, and as I glanced at it this time, slightly depressed, I should say, as I happened to be that year — I was surprised to see something I’d never noticed before. With a multitude of planets in Leo, I wasn’t a natural subject for a guru, but this time I thought I saw in Muktananda’s expression not the ego I’d previously assumed, but rather that he seemed to be radiating reverence for the precious passing substance of life, moment by moment. How nice, I thought, and in that moment my heart experienced a pleasurable melting.
I went home, went to bed that night, and woke up early, as I often did, and lay in our sleeping loft in the dark with my mind going on its usual mental errands. Then I happened to remember the poster and the nice feeling I’d had about it. The poster was a familiar one in Marin County at the time because Muktananda himself was in residence at his Oakland ashram just then. “Be with Baba” were the words that accompanied the photograph, and the details of the Oakland ashram’s address and phone were listed. I learned later that around the same time of the morning as I lay awake in the sleeping loft, Muktananda and his devotees were beginning their morning chanting in Oakland.
The moment I remembered the experience I’d had with the photograph, the third-eye area of my forehead seemed to open with violent suddenness, and a bolt of radiant energy flooded my body through the third-eye aperture. After this forced entry, I lay, as it seemed to me, bathed in the radiance. This has got to be healthy, I remember thinking. It was like each and every cell of my body was being rinsed in a divine, cleansing light. I’ll insist that these words, however inadequate, are not a space-cadet’s hyperbole but simply the best I can do. Another image that occurred to me was that I felt like a flower on a hillside in sunlight. I had a sense of being alone in the universe and at the same time in a sublime relationship to a providential infinity. I lay in the darkness for an hour or more in this state of light and warmth.
When I got up that morning, I went about my tasks but with a sense that I was “looking with the third eye.” I’m no longer sure what I meant by that, except that the radiance lingered in everything. When I described to Gailyn what had happened, she told me, “I get that out of gardening.” Is it any wonder I’m married to this person?
I called a friend, Tom Veitch, a writer of underground comics, and described what had happened and asked whether he had any information about it. Tom was a sort of Catholic mystic who had spent some time in a monastary in Vermont. He didn’t say yes and didn’t say no, which wasn’t bad as things went, but it was less than I was hoping for in the way of an answer. Eventually I ended up doing some research of my own by reading Muktananda’s autobiography, Play of Consciousness, which answered virtually all the questions I had.
What had happened to me was called shaktipat, the transmission of divine energy from the guru to a subject, and it hinged on an opening in the heart chakra, rather than an intellectual understanding. It could be done by the guru in person and it also could be transmitted through a photograph. What was essential, apparently, was the little melting I’d known in the Campolindo health food store. That had broken me open, as it were, for the shakti transmission.
Gailyn was pregnant that spring with our third and last child, our son Armenak, and as the birth grew nearer, I took up the Hindu meditation practice recommended by Muktananda in Play of Consciousness. Any man, he says in the book, could make his home a palace of shakti, whether he believed or not, by following the simple procedure Muktananda lays out. The cover of the
book was the same photograph that had catalyzed the shaktipat I received. Muktananda instructed the reader to use the cover photograph as the focus of a regular meditation and the house would fill up with shakti. I began to meditate each night and Gailyn told me she felt a palpable energy accumulating in the house. As she grew to term, she herself was as radiant as any guru. And there was also Strawberry, six years old, and her sister, Cream, who was three. It was quite a household.
Having thought about Muktananda’s precept that shakti transmission hinged on an opening in the heart, I eventually replaced his photograph, as the object of my meditation, with Strawberry’s first-grade school photograph, without any diminution in results as far as I could tell.
What is one to make of these experiences? What actual relevance to one’s life can they have? In the rough-and-tumble of the years, with their inevitable dark surprises, I sometimes all but forgot about them. When the going gets tough, one would naturally like to be one of the tough who gets going. Only a year or two after the episode with Muktananda, when our son was still a baby, I was struggling to get the manuscript of Genesis Angels: The Saga of Lew Welch and the Beat Generation published. Editors and agents were sympathetic or not, but no real connection happened. Meanwhile, all appreciation of ordinary life had gone from me. My book needed to be published and then I would resume my life. I was a sort of human bullet’and like a bullet, blind, deaf and dumb.
One afternoon during this time, after a dentist appointment in Larkspur, I was driving home on the two-lane Olema Bolinas road. It was Memorial Day Friday. (The universe, I think, can be quite a wit.) I drove up a grade and discovered, at the top of it, that a motorcyclist was coming directly at me — passing a VW van in the oncoming lane’about the length of a car away from me when I first saw him. “Oh,” I thought, “I may be saying goodbye to the world.”
The van went by in the oncoming lane and I edged my car — a newly-bought yellow Pinto — across that lane to avoid a head-on collision with the motorcyclist. The bike glanced off the side of my car, and I braced my left foot against the floorboard — not a good move, I learned a moment later, when the front of the car smashed into a grassy embankment beside the road. I knew right away that my left ankle was broken. Though there was no skin puncture, it hung like jelly in my sock. Slowly I began to gather my wits to get out of the car.
I noticed it was a nice day: sunny with a gentle little breeze on the air. Birds were chirping in the bushes close by. And I was breathing in and breathing out, with pleasure in the act itself. For the first time in months, it occurred to me, I was alive in the moment. The moment, likewise, was alive in my consciousness of it. Apparently I’d almost had to get killed to restore that awareness.
The motorcyclist, a big man who might have been high, was striding up the grade from the side of the road where he’d totaled his bike, shaking his arms at the sky and yelling, “Oh, shit! Oh, shit!” He came over to where I lay stretched out on the pavement beside my car. “Are you O.K., man?” he said. I told him I was all right.
We both were taken in an ambulance to Kaiser Hospital in San Rafael, and the motorcyclist was released later that day. That night I had surgery for my fractured ankle.
Several days later I walked in the front door of our house on crutches. The afternoon light in the living room when I came through the door looked beautiful. I lay down on the bed in our back bedroom, physically at a low ebb but feeling glad to be home and mending.
At some point over the next day or two, I remembered the moment, twenty years earlier, when I rode the crosstown bus as night fell in New York, heading home with my heavy homework assignments from Trinity. Sitting up in bed writing a poem about it, I sensed that I was renewing my commitment to a life that had happened in part because of that moment’s intimations.
During those first several days at home, I also remembered an agent I’d known years ago in New York, and called him and then sent the manuscript. Within a week after he received it, he sold it.
As the years went by, I began to view the accident as a sort of parable: I’d turned myself into a human bullet in pursuit of my goal. On that Friday afternoon, however, it happened that a motorcyclist I didn’t know was playing Russian roulette, passing on a blind hill. As it turned out, I was his bullet.
Since the accident, I seem to have a built-in interior warning system that issues an alert when things get so important that they start to preempt the daily gift each of us gets, just breathing in and out. If I go too far afield, I know from experience that that gift could be in jeopardy, and I try to take responsibility and knock off. The moments I’ve described here seem to have modeled for me in my youth, in an involuntary and heightened form, what today is a more routinely restorative process: one way or another of letting go. For instance, there’s a place not too far from where we live in Los Angeles that serves a nice variation on an English tea, and once or twice a month I’ll ask Gailyn if she’d like to drive up there. More often it’s time to take a walk.
Paying disinterested attention paradoxically renews the self. There is no arguing, after all, with a fresh morning, a beautiful voice or a sip of good tea. And the self that registers one or another seems to simultaneously surrender its baggage – ephemeral positions, opinions, attitudes- and, in effect, to grow young again.