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BEYOND THE BILLOWING CLOUDS

For me 1993 was a pretty mystical year. I read many of the books that have to this day 22 years later inspired and informed my spiritual practice. These include the dialogues with Nisargadatta Maharaj collected in the book I Am That as well as Conscious Immortality featuring talks with Ramana Maharshi (thanks Dad!) and Yogananda's Autobiography of a Yogi not to mention the Hindu epic and national treasure, The Ramayana, which details the exploits of one of India's Avatars, or divine incarnations, Sri Rama and his comely consort Sita. Since then Rama has been a hero of mine. Truth be told I always hoped to find a Sita of my own. Moving on.


The year 1993 also involved a trip to southern India to see the holy man Sai Baba (shortened from Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba, in case you're wondering where the syllables went). Talk about an acid trip. Sitting for hours in the dusty heat, my attention transfixed by the form of this Afroed man in his flowing ochre robe. Priceless and irreplaceable, as far as experiences go. And speaking of drugs, 1993 also involved abundant substance use. I started with marijuana (don't we all) and by the spring did my first acid trip. A real downer. My room seemed filthy and after three showers I could not manage to scrub my skin clean. There is an upside. Around the same time I also had the good fortune to try mushrooms. Talk about a mystical experience.

A family friend, Anthony, was able to procure a fresh batch of 'shrooms. Not easy to come by. Most who are able to get their hands on some obtain the dried variety, a very inferior substitute to the fresh version, which is the real deal. And these were so plump and moist it was as if they had just been plucked straight from the ground (and from a pile of shit?).

Anthony and I drove down the Pacific Coast Highway into Malibu and up Tuna Canyon Road. We parked and hiked a ways and found a secluded wilderness spot amidst rocks and assorted vegetation and overlooking the Pacific Ocean. After doing some breathing exercises (Anthony is into that sort of thing) he gave me my portion and it was down the hatch. Despite having fasted overnight as instructed I found myself dry heaving not 15 minutes later, which I am told is not uncommon. And then came the trip. First I sat cross-legged staring up at the cloud-strewn sky. And I'll be damned if there weren't these faces smiling down on me. They were a fluorescent pink, bald and with big grins and wide eyes. Like Light Beings, or for you lovers of the tube, little Casper the Friendly Ghosts, peaking at me through the clouds.

Anthony kept trying to get me to talk about what I was experiencing, but all I could manage was to put my finger to my lips ever so slowly and ever so quietly say, "Shhhhh!" Trying to put my feelings and thoughts into words would diminish their intensity. I can't even remember my thoughts, only that I felt as though I was being reborn, there in the middle of nowhere, as though I were coming out of the womb a second time, and at 20 years young a full grown man. But I wasn't a helpless toddler. Hardly that. Rather, I had the innate ability to police my own thoughts. A child is instructed as to the dos and don'ts by his parents. Led away from dangerous things (no fingers in the stove!) and told to shush when he swears (or I'll wash your mouth out with soap!), etc. But my thoughts were kept pure and tame and dare I say sacred by an internal parenting of my own. I wouldn't allow myself to think a distressing thought. I'd just will myself back to center. I had been born again, as mommy and daddy to me! Trippy. But mainly I was content to just enjoy my own existence, feeling at one with everything - the dirt beneath me, the sky overhead, those smiley-faced beings staring down at me. I didn't know where my inner reality ended and where the outer world began. It was all one!

At some point I looked over at Anthony who had given up trying to get me to express myself and fallen back against the dirt, where he looked to be asleep. So I got up and decided to take a stroll in the surrounding hillside. Not easy, getting up. Since for however long I had been staring at the sky I had been out of my body. I could have wet myself and I wouldn't have known. Eventually the blood started circulating again. As I sauntered through the crevices and around the crags, running my fingers along the hard rock and watching my silhouette dance over the mountain, I had a very strange feeling. It was of this presence, this very ancient presence. I would say eternal but this would be inaccurate. Older than eternal because outside of time. Timeless. I at once understood the Hindus neti neti ("not this, not that") and the "negative theology" of the Neoplatonists and Moses Maimonides, who use a process of elimination to describe the Divine who is beyond all classification and qualities - although not back then; back then I knew nothing about these fancy concepts, and living in a simpler world was probably better off.

Yet when I tried to understand the who or what, I had a feeling of Buddha. Now back in college I didn't know much about Buddha. Maybe I had glanced at a text or two of the Enlightened One's aphorisms. My parents kept some books on the shelf. But my religious background lay more in the realm of Christianity and Hinduism. Perhaps my silhouette, just my shoulders and head against the smooth rock, and looking like one of those generic icons that comes up when a person doesn't post a picture on, say, Facebook, reminded me of a statue of Buddha that my mother kept in the back yard. We still have it. The Buddha, seated in a lotus posture (cross-legged), eyes closed in rapt meditation, looks Asian. (Although Buddha was Indian. Funny how we make our holy men in our own image, which would explain Christ's depiction as blond-haired and blue-eyed although as a Middle Easterner he most assuredly looked more like Bin Laden - and some even argue he was black. The Buddha in our backyard was likely made by the Japanese.)

But though the silhouette was external, outside of me, and other, I had a feeling that the timeless presence, this Buddha energy, was within me, was me. I am not so presumptuous as to say that I am Buddha. The man lived more than 2500 years ago, and halfway around the world. And I don't place much stock in the notion of reincarnation. Even if I did, the belief maintains that once you become enlightened there is no need to be reborn. Your reward for spiritual exercises is no more earth. You are done. And Buddha most assuredly was enlightened. That's what the name means, for heaven's sake.

Of course there is the belief in Bodhisattvas, those individuals who approach the door to awakening but do not enter, knowing they will never return to this realm once they reach the other side. So instead, having found the way out of this mess called mundane life, they come back over and again, through individual personalities spanning lifetimes, to shepherd others along the path. But this meaning of Bodhisattva is a modern invention, at least more modern than Buddha. Now had he lived around the time of Christ, and the term having already been invented, then maybe . . . What am I saying? There are no others. All is one, and the diversity we see, the diversity that makes you you and me me, is merely illusion - the Lord's Maya (sometimes translated as glamor) working its wonders.

It's like this. Go outside on a bright sunny day. Look around. There's nothing to break up the sun's rays. Light is everywhere. Next take a shade with perforations and place it between you and the sun. The partition breaks up the sunlight, giving the impression of individual rays culminating on the ground as distinct specks of light (separated by darkness, which is analogous to ignorance). With the shade (veil of Maya) there is separation and diversity. Agitate the shade, watch the forms dance and play. Take the shade away, or be above the shade (transcending Maya's illusions) and the Sun shines alone, as the Self.

Truly, that presence I felt there on the mountain is nothing but the inner Self, the true Self, the Absolute. And with my ego-based personality temporarily off-line, incapacitated by the substance I voluntarily ingested, I was able to experience the Self in the stillness and silence of my heart. A little bit of bliss, I call it. Because in elevating Buddha and Christ to the level of God men we forget that once upon a time they were seekers just like us, one called Siddhartha and the other just Jesus, and the true Buddha and Christ they became is nothing but Realization of the Self that dwells within, always, and ever the same, in each heart. They truly are Bodhisattvas because even though they may no longer be in body their inspiration lives on and serves as a signpost guiding our way.
The Vedanta says that it is not uncommon for a person to stumble into superconsciousness sporadically, without any previous preparation or necessary disciplines. Although I had meditated up until that day on the mountain, I was by no means an adept at the practice. But such haphazard experiences, the sages say, are not the real thing. The true test of purity is this: the wisdom gained must be good for life. When you come out of Samadhi (pure consciousness), you remain, in Swami Vivekananada's words, "enlightened, a sage, a prophet, a saint, (your) whole character changed, (your) life changed, illumined."

My Samadhi didn't last. A couple hours later the drug wore off and it was back on the Santa Monica Freeway heading to the gym in bumper to bumper traffic, then a session of heavy chest and back with a buddy from high school. I was back to being a bodybuilder, and the pump had taken the place of the inner peace. Later that same year I shaved my head and considered becoming a monk. That didn't last either. Oh well.

But I'll never forget my experience on that mountain, and I often go back to the same feeling, of communing with a timeless presence as perfect as it is pure. What's more, I return to this feeling of walking with Buddha each day, in the silence of meditation alone in my room. And I don't need the drugs anymore. They were fun and all, but their purpose was served.

Incidentally when I came back from my hike my friend said he was worried I had gotten lost without him. With Buddha as my guide, how could I?

"When you saw one set of footprints in the sand, it was then that I carried you."

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