This image below is of one of the most recent paintings I've completed. The "I" in that sentence is definitely misleading, though. It isn't that I am unwilling to take any credit for it- after all, I made the panel, I bought the paint and then I showed up, sitting after sitting, and painted the image you see.
Yet when I feel my work is 'on,' when I have birthed something surprising and new (to me, at least), when I feel I have created something that goes beyond my identity, my personality, my ego, AND my pre-conceived notion of what 'my work looks like,' then I know it wasn't "I" alone who completed it.
For many years I charged at the surface of my works and I battled with them. I painted with brushwork that slashed and slathered and slapped images to life. That emotive, angst-ridden fury often kept me separate from the piece until it all came together; until I had risked destroying it's beauty so many times, that a new beauty arose, almost in defiance of me, and one I didn't understand at first. I would then often feel that the work created itself and I had little to do with it.
The process has evolved and changed in many ways. Most recently, I am doing a lot more waiting, breathing and allowing than ever. I am waiting for guidance. I am listening for the inaudible. I am breathing in the mystery of where I will be led next- to what color, to what stroke or line, to whether my eyes will be open or closed as I work. I realize that if I am going to bring something new into existence, I must listen from that place- the intangible, the mysterious and the infinite.
Today, as I was coming through a crowd of movers in my ecstatic dance class, my teacher invited us to consider a threshold we are crossing in our lives.
Immediately I thought that every time I paint I am crossing a threshold. I am in the unknown; and every time, I am confronted with an almost palpable terror. There is excitement, for sure, yet the word I heard in class so clearly was- 'terror.' This was new and very surprising to me. I'd never associated something I draw so much joy and pleasure from as being initially 'terrifying.'
The truth is, there is an edge that I must meet every time, a barrier of my own creation. This is where the breathing makes all the difference. Through the breath there is, to the best of my ability, a dissolving of all pre-conceived imagery and notions of 'how' to paint that I begin aiming for. There is an essential desire to empty my mind and let go of the controls. And, there is the necessity of silencing so many voices- "What if you fuck this image up?" "What if this one isn't as strong as the last one?" "What if you aren't as inventive as you have been before?" "What if you don't reveal the purity and truth of yourself in this moment, right now?"
Nothing like a little pressure, eh?
So, I will pause to laugh a little at myself and breathe in the intensity of me, knowing that in all of this, there is a dance.
There is a dance of letting myself be as fully present as possible. There is the dance of moving between the fire and the flow of the process. And, there is the possibility of dancing more 'with' the work than battling against it.
Thursday, July 21, 2011
One of my favorite things about being a carpenter is how much I learn from other guys. Not just about the technical, day-to-day aspects of building, but sometimes major life lessons, as well.
I remember helping my old friend George do some work up in the Palo Alto area about ten years ago. I arrived alone to the job site on a sunny, tree-lined street and surveyed the materials and tools. I was going to be finishing laying a bamboo floor as the job had been started by a previous carpenter. I was making a cursory assessment of the hallway and measuring various areas to see how square the corners were, and how straight the walls were. I was getting excited because I’ve always loved doing floors- there’s something so elemental about them. Then my heart sank briefly, and I called George on the phone.
I said, “I don’t know if there was a miscommunication or what, but there’s no chop saw here.” For those who are unfamiliar, a chop saw is a stationary saw with a small, built-in metal bench to either side of the blade that allows you to cut a variety of widths of boards, depending on the type and model of saw you buy. The tongue-and-groove flooring was only 3 ½” wide and I could certainly have used a hand-held skill saw. However, the chop saw is a much safer easier way to go, especially when there are numerous cuts to make as there were going to be when laying the flooring.
There was a momentary pause on the other end of the line. Then George said, “Wow, that sucks…. Yeah, I see it right here. I guess I’ll have Fausto run it over to you. It’s going to be a little while though, maybe 45 minutes.” He paused again and said, “Everything’s cool, though. It’s all about the recovery. I’ve learned that it’s those first few moments of how I respond to the breakdown that determine everything that follows. Let's brainstorm some things you can do while you wait for the saw.”
I've heard George’s words of "it's all about the recovery" hundreds of times since, and hearing them again yesterday opened a divine doorway. I was building a cabinet for a new set on stage and just when I finished it and married it up next to the other cabinet I’d made, I almost lost my mind. As I stepped away from the project to begin allowing some perspective, my first thoughts were rapid fire and unfriendly; “Fuck! I can’t believe you just did that! Well, you did keep telling yourself you were going to screw something up at some point, didn’t you?” See, the first cabinet I made measured 42” high, or 3’ 6”, the proper height. The second cabinet was 36” high; I’d mixed the 3 and 6 up on that one, and as I walked out of the mill to let my foreman know I’d fucked up, I heard myself saying “It’s all about the recovery. And even more than that, there’s something to discover here- about yourself.”
Because when shit goes ‘wrong’ or according to a different plan than I am prepared for, as it often does in carpentry, and life, in general, those first few moments are the most key. And countless times, George’s wisdom has healed major emotional trauma from earlier experiences in both carpentry and life: times that were full of yelling, swearing, blame, guilt and shame, by others to me and from me to myself. Now, instead of not telling my brother or father I’d fucked something up and being held hostage by the shame, it was easy to tell my foreman and come up with a quick fix. Within an hour, I made a few adjustments, added six inches to the top of the cabinet and all was well.
Now, I run the risk of turning this all into some glib or nauseating cliché, but fuck it. Because two beautiful things occur to me in the moment; one, the cabinet is for a TV show, so there’s a lot of forgiveness right there. I love that forgiveness aspect of the job; because instead of starting all over as I would have had to if the cabinet were for someone’s home, it is getting heavily painted and you’ll never see my ‘mistake’ from your couch. The second thing is gratitude. I am so grateful for the men I work with, who continually remind me that ‘mistakes’ are just opportunities to discover new resiliency and effectiveness, whatever we’re building. It may sound trite, but the prevailing attitude is always ‘forward;’ to keep moving forward as best we can, especially when it feels like we’re going backward.
Saturday, July 9, 2011
I didn’t notice them until well after I had arrived. The entire morning my singular focus was on getting to dance class by 9 am. I’d gotten up at 3, was on the road by 4 and drove 389 miles from Half Moon Bay to Los Angeles in a personal best 4 hours and 45 minutes. The class was so great and so full of life that it only made their death that much more shocking.
I had said goodbye to my friend Sukha after class and stepped off the curb and into the street. The late-morning, early July sun was hot on my forehead and earlobes. A steady stream of three lanes of cars was plowing west just a few feet away. I was feeling nourished by the ritual and deep play of the class; I was feeling gratitude for seeing several dear friends during and after the dance; and, catching a glimpse of the front of my car, I was feeling stunned and guilty at the sight of so much death.
I kneeled down before the light blue bumper to inspect it more closely. Splattering the full width of the bumper’s arcing nose, in a band close to 20” high, hundreds and hundreds of tiny black flies lay cemented in the blood of their own demise.
A moment of intense shock and sharp sadness rippled out from my heart. Then there was an injection of visceral fissures running in the opposite direction; for the briefest of moments, I was fucking pissed.
I was pissed because just hours before, I’d been bombing along Interstate 5 through the golden, flat and arid Central Valley of California, completely oblivious to the mounting death toll. I’d been busy listening to music on my iPod; busy following the Wimbledon’s Men’s Tennis Final on the Sportacular app of my iPhone; and very busy passing cars on the left and right of that two-lane stretch of road, fully unaware that scores of flies were ‘passing over to the other side’ as I sped along.
That sense of outrage moved through like a flash flood though, and before I knew it I was pulling out my iPhone to make a short video of the front of my bumper. It was such a spectacular and fascinatingly sculptural sight, I felt compelled to capture it and, until just this morning and nearly a week later, I still hadn’t washed my car. That I had been busy was no excuse, nor is it the real reason why. It’s because every time I caught a glimpse of those flies (they’d also peppered the front of each side-view mirror), it called me to pause and breathe. Not out of guilt or shame, but out of appreciation for being, itself.
I know it is part of the cycle of life that something must die for something else to be born. I know those flies didn’t consciously ‘give’ their lives over so that I could keep living. But, I also know their presence reminded me that I am alive.
In this aliveness, there is gratitude, but even more there is this challenge to wonder; "So, what would I be willing to consciously give my life for, so that something else may live?"
Friday, June 17, 2011
It took me nearly 48 hours to drive the last 150 miles to LA. In part, I was exhausted, for the experience in Death Valley had been so raw and personal. More palpably- as it had on that first morning in the desert looking for the spot where I would create my vision quest- it once again felt as though an invisible force was wisely, benevolently slowing me down.
Driving South from Death Valley through the black desert night I was excited by the mystery of where I would be landing, but the excitement didn’t last long. Baker, California, population 735, was merely a pit stop on the Interstate that led to Vegas. It proudly displayed “The World’s Largest Thermometer,” stretching up like a prize Redwood, I am guessing some 150’. It also displayed a service road studded with MacDonald’s, Taco Bell and Carl’s Junior drive-throughs. Driving up and down that road, I discovered there were two hotels in town and one them was closed. I can’t remember the name of the one I stayed in but it had that quintessential, run-down feel. I remember the pool didn’t have water in it and it was full of cracks; I remember the rooms looming aside sickly trees in a horse-shoe shape; I remember the receptionist in the brightly-lit office was pregnant and I remember sending Reiki to her unborn child and praying, “What a wild place you have chosen to incarnate into. Many blessings to you.” And, I remember that first moment of shock when I opened the hotel room door.
Simply put, the room was lousy, and it felt void and hollow of anything resembling goodness. There were cracked tiles on the floor; a large, white wooden letter “W” on the wall, which was the first letter of the hotel’s name I can’t remember; and a pathetic, sagging ‘king-sized’ bed made of two single beds pressed together and a large thin, undulating mattress over the top of it all. The dark walnut, wood-grained Formica on the pressboard furniture was peeling at every corner, and as I lay on the bed for a moment, I looked up at the ceiling. As I made my initial descent, I thought maybe I should leave; but within seconds I exhaled deeply, allowing an audible sigh of relief to fill the white-walled room. I was relieved to have found one thing in the room I could honestly love and appreciate; the ceiling was made of 1 x 6 tongue-and-groove boards. And although they, too, were painted white, they were in excellent health, not unlike a pristine picket fence in a Norman Rockwell painting. I remember thinking, “Ok. This place sucks, but at least those boards are cool.”
I knew I wanted to continue writing about the vision quest at some point, but I was out of paper. I walked across the service road and bought a spiral, blue-lined notebook in a general store. I also thought, ‘I should eat,’ so I checked out the two non-chain candidates nearby- a Greek place, serving Greek and everything but Asian and Mexican foods, and a Mexican place next door. I wasn’t terribly hungry, but I settled on Mexican take-out and headed back to the hotel. Awkwardly adapting to my hollow home for the night, I prayed over my food and raced through the meal ashamedly. Sitting cross-legged on the lumpy bed I was eating just to eat, but I couldn’t stop. I had gone unconscious in feeling depressed about the hotel and my decision to stay there. Then, to no surprise, I became nauseous. Upon completing dinner and dropping the Styrofoam container in the plastic trash bag by the door, I grabbed my new notebook and wrote for twenty minutes.
It felt good, pen in hand, to let it rip, to let go into a stream of consciousness, to let myself unwind in that way. It had been a long time sine I’d done that; just not cared what came out. It also felt good to have released some pent-up energy, but unfortunately after I was done, I didn’t let myself savor the experience. Which is to say, directly after finishing, I did what I have often done in hotel rooms over the last 5-10 years: I watched television- a lot of television.
Earlier in the evening, I had a pre-arrival fantasy that I would ‘stay strong and connected’ with my experience in Death Valley, and, once inside my hotel room, I would meditate, pray, or simply sleep. I can only admit that I have had bouts of raging vulnerability to the distraction of a television. It is why I don’t own one now, though I am still battling the stranglehold my iPhone’s “Sportacular” app has on my ability to be balanced in the present moment, and consistently face what’s really happening in my life at a deeper level.
So it was, that on this first night after the vision quest, I was startled and upset at how quickly I disconnected from the depth of my experience on the vision quest. Like an unconscious child rebelling against the world, I didn’t want to be present. I didn’t want to take the ‘best’ care of myself. I didn’t want to serve my soul any more. I had internal excuses and rationales- “I need a break,” “I deserve a little entertainment,” “I need to decompress.” So, as I often have in life, when I had an opportunity to stay the course and dive even deeper into the rich terrain of savoring a powerful awakening and being truly present, I turned my outer attention to the TV. In so doing, I turned my inner attention to judging myself harshly for it, effectively dissolving my ability to see the experience as ‘entertaining.’
As often is the case, the TV was located at the foot of the bed and I propped myself against the wafer-thin pillows and the rickety headboard to sponge up the ‘outside’ world. In between live news reports about the revolution in Egypt, I caught snippets of campy teen 80s movies and a full episode of a show I’d had the privilege to work four seasons on, “Six Feet Under.” I delighted in seeing how it was still such a powerful display of genius writing and acting; and the mood of familial tension and the subtlety of awakening to one’s own truths and desires were absolutely captivating. In hindsight, I can see how much easier it was to ‘watch’ that awakening, than to stay committed to my own.
Finally, close to 11 pm, I turned the TV off and meditated. I sat crossed-legged in the pit of the bed closest to the night table, facing the turned-off TV. I held the small wooden cross in one hand and the dream-catcher in the other. After holding the remote for the last few hours, my spirited tchatchkes felt foreign and briefly unfamiliar. I prayed for the strength to forgive myself for watching so much TV. I prayed to accept the choices I made as the choices I made, neither bad nor good; and I prayed I wouldn’t turn the TV back on.
But, I did; this time, for only another 2 minutes. Then, annoyed and outright disgusted with myself, I shut it off. I quickly gave thanks for my ability to do so, and at 12:30 am, turned out the light and went to sleep.
I slept in ‘til 9 am and considered getting cleaned up, but after looking inside the dark, tiny shower stall, I let that idea go and packed myself out. I got in my car and I drove ¼ mile down the service road. I could see the Interstate buzzing in the bright morning light to my left. It throbbed like a gigantic aorta- 75 miles-per-hour-plus of truckers and rvs and cars and, in that moment, for me, overwhelm. I pulled over to the side of the road, just before committing to the long lonely on-ramp. As I pulled to a stop in a large gravel parking lot, I was feeling completely spacey. I was painfully aware that I was not present. I was not in my power. I was awash in a brain fog of shame and guilt and I was furious about it.
I rustled through my small black backpack lying on the passenger seat and grabbed the cross and dream catcher. I got out of the car and began circling the vehicle, chanting, sounding, dancing, anything I could do to get into my body and out of my head. I had to wake my self up and get “here.” I was furious for watching so much TV the night before and I was furious for not forgiving myself. All that convoluted, unexpressed angst and rage had created a powerful vortex of victim hood in me; one I have been relentlessly addicted to most of my life. Most of the world wouldn’t know the depths of it, for I have kept that battle under wraps. I have hidden the intensity of how deeply I can spiral into the apparently ‘comforting’ pain of shame and guilt, a powerful distortion of my true power as a man and a being.
Fortunately, amidst the dust and gravel, the glaring sun off the windshield and the cars and trucks heading onto the Interstate 30 feet away, the prayers and chants worked their magic. In those moments, moving and shaking my body jerkily around the car praying and giving thanks to all the spirits watching over me, I was finally ‘channeling’ that fury into my most authentic power. I could feel the words coming from deep in my gut, and from someplace deeper than my mind can know; it was the true me, satisfied and freed. Within 10 minutes and numerous laps around the car, I had shifted the energy enough to get back in the car and back on the road.
Immediately buoyed by this shift, I wondered how quickly I might make it to LA. In such a perfect display of the spirit’s truth overcoming the desires of the ego, I lasted only 40 miles. I simply couldn’t handle the Interstate anymore than that. I’d already pulled over twice for long rests, and it was shocking how exhausted I felt and how challenging it was to maintain my focus and concentration. I also began to hear a very faint voice in me that wanted me to take better care of myself. I heard it wanting a comfortable hotel room; a hot bath and a breakthrough with the television set I knew would be waiting there. So, I exited at Barstow and within 200 yards I landed in a reception hall parking lot. I shut off the car and sat there in the shade, just breathing. For fifteen minutes I sat there with my eyes closed, just mindfully watching the air come in and watching the air go out. I felt as though I was taking a pause on my way through the proverbial birth canal heading home. Sitting in the driver’s seat, breathing with that image of birth, I began to feel more at home in my power, as if to say, “I don’t think I am ready to be born and there’s really no rush.”
In that spacious and wonder-filled place, I pulled out my phone and called my wife. We spoke for 45 minutes, and all the while I was staring at an inviting Marriott Hotel across the six-lane road. It was only 12 noon and when I mentioned this at one point in our conversation, she was right there with me. She said, “It sounds like you need another day, at least. I can feel it. Take the time now. It feels like you really need to keep de-compressing.” After we hung up the phone I called the hotel, booked a room, and went about exploring.
Five hours later- after praying on a hill overlooking a trash heap on the southern outskirts of town, with locals shooting guns in the background; after grabbing some lemons and raw spinach (to my shock, both organic), new pens and a bag of popcorn at a local market; and after inhaling ½ lb of spinach for lunch- I was lying in heaven. It was a hot bath in the dark bathroom of a quiet, carpeted hotel, and I luxuriated there for 45 minutes. I admit I had watched a little TV, prior to bathing, but it wasn’t on but a half an hour- going back an forth between a Steve McQueen movie and a college basketball game that just wasn’t doing it for me. Drawing the bath as I watched, I knew I really needed to let go. I needed to give myself back to the prayer of every moment of my breath. I needed to come back into the positive power pole of me.
After the bath, I lay on the bed, closed my eyes and turned out the light. Lying there, I breathed in the echoes of Death Valley still pulsing through my body. I breathed in the wild winds of the first few days on the Vision Quest; I breathed in the healing with Riun and the drama with my family; and I breathed in the fullness of myself re-connecting with the Valley and my purpose for going. The fullness of me was so relaxed and centered that I fell asleep, at what couldn’t have been later than 7:30 pm. Awoken by a freight train lumbering along behind the hotel at 4:30 am, I got up and wrote. I let the writing be my first prayer and it was mighty- mighty to allow a new flow of hope, mighty to be in my full enjoyment of me, again, and mighty to have broken through to a place of forgiveness- the present, the now, the ‘here.’
After writing and offering some verbal prayers of thanks cross-legged on the carpet floor, I took a walk up and down hilly streets. I wandered along kicking rocks and welcoming the dawn. I wandered behind the stores of that bleak desert outpost, just following my nose past wood-paneled apartment buildings and low-budget motels. I wandered along watching ravens through the odd stillness in the air, what was the calm before the commercial storm of Super Bowl Sunday. I had no plans to watch the game, no plans to party with friends, and no plans for what I was going to do when I got back to LA.
I checked out just before noon and glided easily back to Los Angeles; everything flowed, I met no palpable resistance and I was deeply grateful for how light traffic was and how much I enjoyed the ride. Upon my arrival home, I remember seeing my wife and just sharing the silence with her as she lay in bed. The mid-day sun coming through the large bedroom window was low in the sky and we sat in silence for many minutes, just taking each other in. I felt changed and I could feel us both appreciating that. It felt good to know that something had shifted, that I’d cleared my psychic field, so to speak, and that by following my intuition to complete that journey, I’d received the reward of a divinely inspiring experience.
It has taken me three months to finish writing about this particular journey, and it is vigorously clear that it is another journey altogether to fully integrate what I’ve learned. In the time since the vision quest, I have had brief flashes reminding me of my life in the womb, my signatorially emotional response to the experience, and how it still echoes regularly through my present life. Since the vision quest, I have become radically aware of how the experience did and didn’t change my life; and since that time in the desert, I have found my life transforming and challenging me in ways I never dreamed possible.
There are so many great and rich ripples of awakening from the vision quest, yet, given what is before me now; it was clearly just the tip of the iceberg. If a possible template of real-life transformation is stepping into and through our deepest fears, it is now time to breathe my way over the coals in an even more committed way.
The wisdom of the desert gave me many things, the great blessing of Ravens in flight among them. And I am blessed, grateful and suddenly inspired to remember that I asked the Universe for a vision and the Universe delivered. Now, it is time to wonder inside a new question: “What vision of life am I willing to quest for now?”
And all I hear is "breathe."
Monday, April 25, 2011
Fresh from the most satisfying sleep of all three nights, I woke slowly, studying a bizarre collection of dream sequences. Both President Bush and Obama showed up in separate scenes, the former as a master carpenter, of all things. Another scene included the cast and crew from the most recent TV show I was working on, mixed with mentors of mine from the entrepreneurial world, all set in a Roman scene of playful debauchery.
Waking from this surreal collection of visions was mildly perplexing, until the gravity of the moment really began to sink in. This was the final morning. I’d made it through. And, as I gazed at the Western mountains filling with light, I savored the moment. There was no need to rush. Reverence was the order of the day.
I let myself look around in all directions for a while before emerging from my sleeping bag. I shook my body a little, got the blood flowing and set to packing. I was not five seconds into it when I became surprised at how mindfully I was putting things back in their compartments. Each of the other days, I had scampered out of that spot with anxious delight, knowing I would be coming back. Today, there was only going forward.
Once everything was neatly stowed and prepared for the walk, I said my final prayers. Standing in the deepening silence, at the center of my bowl-shaped home, my prayers were one word- “thank you;” over and over and over. Strung between clangs of the bells and bows of my head to every direction, all I could say was “thank you.” It was a rich and poignant moment steeping in the power of gratitude, and it inspired me to simply wait for the right moment to leave. In the waiting, the listening deepened into and an appreciation of the vast silence. It stretched into every direction I had bowed to; it echoed inside me, filling me with such gratitude for being alive; and, it filled my heart to overflowing, such that it started racing wildly.
I could suddenly hear my heart beating so loud I thought someone was suddenly running down on me from behind. I reflexively turned and met the near emptiness of the sloping hill of reddish-brown rocks there. I turned back around and breathed a few more times, settling my heart and re-awakening my connection with the silence. I rang the bell once more and then, when the last traces of that were inaudible, right on cue, the silence was broken. High overhead, the familiar honks and cackles I’d heard the previous days were making their way North. I looked up and beheld the two Ravens again. I watched them with delight; floating mostly, staying close, drifting apart and calling each other back to closeness.
Deeply moved by their magical return, I bowed, thanking them, thanking the spot and thanking myself for the willingness to wait. That little act had made the most subtle and powerful difference. I smiled and then hoisted the pack onto my back. Stumbling over the rugged terrain, I walked along ringing the bells, giving nothing but thanks.
When I returned to camp 45 minutes later, I could feel how intensely heightened my senses were and how weak my body felt. Approaching my car, invisible, billowy tendrils of diesel fuel and cigarette smoke almost knocked me over. They were mere wisps swirling amidst the parking lot, but they were pungent and potent near-knock-outs, the likes of which I hadn’t smelled in days. Leaning against my car for support, I set down my backpack and followed the gaze of several campers off to my left. They were marveling at a rare sight in the sky, in the form of two modern birds; one was the ominous, shadow-black span of a Stealth fighter, and the other was the fighter’s ‘food-source,’ a large white plane that had just finished re-fueling the big black jet. In light of the journey with my mother and all the threads connected with the ‘womb;’ in light of my experience with finding new nourishment in the fast; and, in light of the two ravens I had seen three times over the last few days, this modern pair of birds was a surreal and most perfect welcome back to ‘the other reality.’
And, as I said, I was weak. I moved gingerly to sit in the sanctity of the driver’s seat, taking notes on anything I could remember from the previous three days. I was able to set up a page for each day, yet I could hardly hold the pen. I scribbled a few lines then paused to grab a sip of water. Having not had any food or water in 84 hours, I was
clearly out of practice. My hands shook and half of what I intended to take in dribbled down the front of my sweatshirt. I paused. I breathed. I closed my eyes and waited.
Some minutes later, I took another sip, successfully, and resumed my writing. I alternated writing with sips of water and then, quickly discovering how ravenous I was, dove into a bag of raw cashews and the organic turkey jerky I had bought at Whole Foods prior to the trip. What a full, rich tapestry of tastes and physical sensations! To be salivating, chewing and swallowing occurred to me the most radical and dynamic of experiences, all of which were so satisfying. I began playfully savoring it to such a degree that I started humming out loud. I chewed and hummed with such gratitude I nearly fell over with laughter into the passenger seat. Everything in that moment was so yummy.
And the rest of the day became even yummier. As I drove out of camp, I said good-bye and gave thanks for all I’d experienced there. I followed the road ¼ mile North to dine over at The Furnace Creek Café and it was heaven! At 200 feet below sea level! I filled myself to the brim on eggs, hash browns and sausage, enjoying most the fact that I was the last one in the place. To have the space for my nervous system to acclimate and adjust while eating was better than anything on the menu. Of course, I wasn’t really alone. I did have my iPhone, so I was, shamelessly, devouring my breakfast AND Facebook.
Fortunately, for the remainder of the day, I was out of range so there were no calls, e-mails or statuses to post. I hadn’t given any exact thought to what I would do after I ate so, sitting in a wicker chair outside the restaurant, I closed my eyes and let go. I imagined I could do anything and go anywhere and it took several minutes to hear the clear answer as to what would feel good. I heard the words “just drive,” and that was all I needed.
I headed south through the middle of the Valley, cruising along at 40 mph, just taking in the sun-filled expanse of rock, space and light. I meandered for a while then followed an incredible, recently created loop-road called “Artist Drive,” where the mountains revealed stunning, pastel tones that seemed absolutely otherworldly. Coming back to the main road through the Valley, I pulled over and then I checked the map for where I might sleep that night. Then I checked the time. Then, I floored it.
It was mid-afternoon and on the map I saw a natural hot springs in a small town just beyond the Southern edge of the park, one my wife and I had reveled in once. I raced south to get there before sunset and the pools were divine for body and soul; a delicious, tall-reed-protecting, white-sulfur-mud surrounding, all-to-myself kind of paradise. The sunset right after was an intergalactic sheath of swirling magentas, pinks and slate gray-blues. The night drive through the desert after that was much as it had been careening south through Death Valley- an envelope that just kept opening, my car seemingly hungry for more speed, more roads, more space and more freedom.
And then, when I hit the town of Baker, everything slowed to a crawl.
Thursday, April 7, 2011
The third full day of the vision quest was magical in every way, shape and form. By the time I returned from the campground, the wind had died down, offering the most minor of breezes, the sun felt warmer than the day before, and I was full of anticipation. My thoughts gravitated back and forth between surrendering to whatever was supposed to happen, and whatever visions I might see that day, and the occasional, ego-based chirp of “Hey, I’ve worked really hard here. I better see something!”
Fortunately, I was far from disappointed. I gave the morning to alternate between long stretches of meditation and prayer, and unlike the gravitations of my mind, they were deeply calming, confident and unwavering in their trust. After a brief nap, I awoke on my right side and glanced up into the sky. My heart was immediately lit with joy. There were clouds in the sky! Wispy, swirling, tenderly dynamic clouds! The sky had been absolutely free of them for three days and I’d been so focused on my prayers that I’d forgotten they even existed. I quickly reached into my bag to grab my glasses and then what appeared ‘tender’ to the unsharpened eye, quickly took on whole new dimensions of power and intensity.
Similar to that first evening, watching the stars come out to shine, I was that boy in the matinee theater again, excited to devour all I could see. In the west, there was a strong, mythological delicacy to the shapes above me. Together, numerous individual visions formed a gorgeous, parallelogram-shaped tapestry. Stylistically, Mother Nature was combining echoes of the 16th Century Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel, Pablo Picasso and the more contemporary phenomenology of painter Alex Grey. There was a bull-headed man blowing smoke, a large lynx, a roadrunner, a spiraling dragon, a man diving from a high dive, and a man swimming amidst the strong, swirling currents of white all around him. Studying each image, closing my eyes to breathe them in, and then impressing their temporary presence in my mind tantalized me completely.
If the Western sky was filled with the more dynamic motions and projections of life in all its mythical exuberance, the Eastern sky was filled with its polar opposite- Death. In the east there was only one clearly defined form and it felt more gruesome than anything I’d ever seen in person. The form was a large, pre-historic cat, lying on its side, and it was so huge in the sky, it must have been dozens of miles wide and long, only enhancing its grip on me. The stylistic tone was a hybrid of the 18th century Spanish painter Francisco Goya and the contemporary British painter Francis Bacon, evoking a gaudy scene of madness. The cat’s mouth was open and its tongue was hanging out and limp, evoking a horrific, silent scream. Its right eye was literally bugging out of its head and its belly was ripped wide open, exposing ribs, entrails and parts of what looked to be it’s half-eaten offspring. Lying on my back, my head arching backward, I gazed upon the scene in shell-shocked fascination; I could practically hear the vicious tale of attack by some larger life form, evoking the deepest sense of sadness and loss in me.
Over the course of the next half-hour, I lay trading glances at these opposing portraits of east and west, absolutely riveted by the differing intensities and deeply curious as to how they were all going to change. As the high altitude winds shifted subtly, I watched the cat grow more and more enormous, the features of horror becoming only that much more pronounced. It was as if I was watching a once-thriving beast decay right before my eyes. The ribs flared out, cracking into the open blue sky; the hips splayed open and the hind legs broke apart, gradually became severed from the rest of the body; and it’s enormous head, still so filled with shock and pain, twisted at the neck upward and splintered away on its own.
If the Eastern vision of clouds was a pre-historic horror show, the Western vision evoked a graceful dance of lyricism and freedom; not only for the forms themselves, but also for how the forms moved and evolved. Hovering directly above the center of the Valley floor, these clouds initially changed very little. Gradually, the winds over that part of the Valley must have turned, such that each image slowly expanded in size with some, like the dragon, the lynx and the roadrunner absorbing the forms of the other shapes. Then, the entire vision began to move steadily southward, staying directly above the open Valley floor below. Within forty-five minutes, it had reached the Southern end of the Valley and rested still above a low-lying ridge of mountains. In its movement, the multitude of forms had gracefully dissolved, leaving two large splotches of fuzzy wisps to flank two enormous birds in profiled, directed flight. I watched transfixed by how so many shapes and individual stories had magically been distilled into just those two birds. And they seemed to be no ordinary birds; they were iconic, not unlike the image of an airline brand- in perfect tandem and harmony with one another.
Occasionally, as the western vision was gravitating south, I would pull myself away to check on the cat’s dissolution, and it was barely recognizable. Not unlike the way a fallen trunk on the forest floor will decompose into myriad thumbnail-size bits of cellular granules, the cat had splayed itself in shards across the quiet battlefield of the sky. Then, within fifteen minutes, as if God had swept a dry eraser through the air, the entire sky returned to its previously perfect, cloudless state. I was stunned, yet satiated. The magic show was over.
I lay back to rest and it took me awhile to move again. The potency of the visions was so striking and visceral, that for the next few hours, all I could do was breathe and pray in thankful amazement for the brilliance of all I’d seen. And in that prayer and amazement, something novel occurred. For three days, I had been giving thanks for people and forces outside of me, and in the wake of absorbing these visions, that shifted. It shifted when I gave thanks to me. I gave thanks for the dramas and obstacles I’d created in the first two days and the weeks leading up to that moment. I gave thanks for my devotion all along the way. And, I gave thanks for my willingness- to pray, to fast and to be open to receive those visions in the first place.
Over those hours, my breath became an even stronger anchor and a stronger beacon of warmth and insight. Any time the breath wanted to shorten and my thoughts solidify into a victim-story (especially around my projections that all those visions were created by my psyche, the large cat being my mother, and it was I who created her suffering), I envisioned full deep breaths again coming from my fingers and toes. Immediately, I was out of my head, back into my whole body and taking flight back to the present moment. The more present I was able to be, the more I was able to choose which image I wanted to focus on. And as fascinated as I was by the tale of pain the cat exposed me to, I intentionally willed myself to focus on the vision of the birds: there was more life in it, more possibility and far more joy.
At that point, I was sitting cross-legged on my blanket, staring almost blankly at the brownish-grey rocks before me. The passing of a car down on the road briefly interrupted the stillness of the moment and when it was out of earshot, a familiar pair of calls swung my head around. I’d heard them the day before, one a low honking and the other a nasal-toned cackle. I looked up and watched as two ravens passed over from south to north. They flew closely together, occasionally dipping and swooping one after the other. As I had the day before, when I saw them fly in the other direction, I imagined them to be a mother and child, for the distinction of their calls, for the fact that one was a little less black in tone, and for the fact that one was just noticeably bigger than the other. But then I remembered that this was early February and they had to be a male and female. With spring coming soon, they had to be enjoying some moments of play, preparing to mate.
The vision of all these winged creatures was benevolent fuel for my spirit and crude sludge for my ego. By day’s end, as I moved deeper into my sun gazing meditation, my arms found their way into fuller, more expansive expression. Beginning crossed over my heart, I inhaled and extended the limbs as far to either side of me as I could reach. On each exhale, I brought my arms back over my heart and continued in this way. I gradually lowered my hips and established an enchanting rhythm, the wingspan of my full body relishing the act of unfolding my heart to the world. My spirit was soaring, my heart began to open more fully to feeling so good and alive, and my ego grew jealous.
Inflated and fantastical visions began to be manufactured and I lost the fullness of my presence. I lost myself to fabricated visions of going back to LA and emerging on the scene as the hottest and most magnetic teacher. This fantasy consumed my meditation, distracting me from what was most genuine, true and rich in my connection with the Sun, the Earth and my body upon it. It distracted me so thoroughly that, unbeknownst to me it planted, as it had so many times before, the seeds of great, unmet expectations amidst a salty sea of smothering self-sabotage.
Blissfully ignorant of these seeds’ presence, I prepared for sleep. Having learned so much from the previous two nights struggles, I performed two simple actions that would help make this last night’s sleep a divine, uninterrupted respite of deeply nourishing proportions. First, I finally cleared the earth beneath my bedding, pulling free all the rocks that were jutting up in an eight-foot square area, and sanding it all smooth with my hands. And secondly, before climbing into my sleeping bag, I wrapped my toes in the bright magenta, cashmere scarf I’d brought.
I fell asleep savoring the moment- my whole body was warm, the sky was filling up with friendly, bright stars, and I was dreaming of steak and eggs for breakfast.
Friday, April 1, 2011
I shot up from the earth, completely startled and confused. I panicked, looking around for my father and sister and the wrecked-up cars. All along I was thinking, “Where am I? How did I get into this sleeping bag? What the fuck am I doing here?”
Then I felt the brisk, sharp wind cut across my face.
I felt my sore ass itching to be freed of the bag.
And then I felt the wooden cross, lodged tightly in my right hand. With all the nighttime drama I’d created, I’d forgotten how committed I'd ben to holding it the entire night.
I set down the cross and quickly stowed the sleeping bag with full-bodied, shivering excitement. I grabbed the bells, cross and dream catcher and dove into a standing prayer. Looking upon the sun-lit mountains across the valley, I ran off at the mouth for several minutes. All I could do was give thanks; thanks for the fact of surviving the night and thanks for the daylight and the coming warmth; thanks for my family and all my friends; thanks for the stars and their companionship, and thanks for God’s presence, especially when I thought I’d lost it. I was reverent, but I was also cold and antsy, so within minutes I was done praying and ambling toward the road and the campground two miles North.
Walking was a little awkward at first, not only for the full, cold and harsh winds I had to keep leaning into. It was awkward adjusting; to gaining and keeping a rhythm of breath and motion. I had to really focus on pacing myself, keeping my thoughts centered and trusting that in those first few minutes I wasn’t going to pass out. Occasionally, as it had throughout the day before, my stomach would ripple long gurgles through my belly. Each time, a full breath instantaneously followed and the belly was quickly, divinely satiated. Those full, expansive breaths kept circulating my mental attention to and through the rest of my body, offering me the succinct experience of having just eaten and ‘feeling full.’
Within an hour I was back at the campground. Within moments after traversing the super-smooth, paved entryway, I was sitting in my car, brushing my teeth and waving to Roger, the campground host. And within moments after that, the scene turned Mayberry RFD-surreal as he drove his golf cart to the entry station I’d just passed, 200 yards to the South, and raised the American flag. In my mind, the flag was actually checkered, for I’d successfully crossed the finish line. I’d made it back and complied with the rule of "not leaving your vehicle unattended for more than 24 hours.” I’d taken care of business and it was time to get back to my spot.
I felt invigorated and empowered on the walk back, spontaneously deciding to go off-road for some of the journey. The strength in following that impulse and having the wind at my back sailed me to my spot with ease. Then, for the next 24 hours, I did everything I’d done the day before, with minor variations. I prayed, napped, got bored, and got excited and, I peed twice. Now, that experience was one of the more surprisingly enjoyable ones, not simply for the obvious relief implied. I enjoyed knowing that despite not eating or drinking anything, the more mysterious, inner and unseen parts of my body were still functioning. I also enjoyed the sense it made that each time I peed, there was less urine and the color of it became a deeper, warmer yellow.
The temperature through the day and night was a little warmer as well, though I still struggled greatly with the sleeping bag and nearly frozen toes. Fortunately, I struggled with the stars a little less and remembered to breathe more often. This sent me to sleep much more quickly when I did wake up, which seemed similarly as often as the first night. During the day, my prayers became deeper, richer and gradually involved more of my body than the day before. There was definitely the feeling in me that I had to up the ante; I had to let go of thinking it had to look the way it did the first day. If the first day was just about ‘getting through it,’ to some degree, I realized I had to build momentum and raise the bar of my intent. I intuitively felt the need to engage more of my whole self so I began moving, bobbing, shaking and spiraling my hips while in prayer. Then, on one particular occasion, my prayers got a little wild.
It began as simply and improvisational as they all had- holding on to the cross and dream catcher, quieting my mind for several minutes, then ringing the bells, and giving thanks to a myriad of deities, guides and Cardinal Directions. After ten minutes or so, the words cut out, giving way to toning and droning chants that had me entranced. This entrancement was inspired and it gave way to bigger movements in my body. These gave way to setting down the prayer tools and beginning to growl and roar. As it had in many movement and ecstatic dance classes over the last five years, the primal force at the core of my being was seeking its expression.
Before I knew it, I’d stripped off my clothes and was on my hands and knees atop the blanket. Facing east, my head a few feet from the torso-sized boulder, the sun was hot and prickly on my back. I was breathing deeper and more actively into my belly, stirring the cauldron of emotion there. I was tapping into the awareness of my inner emotional worlds. I was creating an active engagement with the currents and waves of elemental energies moving in the body, the same elemental waves and currents present in every living thing in the Universe.
Through all this conscious attention, the beast came through the Universe of me loud and clear. Unfortunately he didn’t stay long. Before I became self-conscious of his presence, though, and before I knew what the hell was happening fully, I was transported somewhere new. There were moments of scrumptious growling and an undulation of my body that was divinely surprising. There were moments where I could feel the invisible presence of a ‘tail,’ and I kept looking over both shoulders to savor the mystery of its ghostly presence and feel it’s navigating power. And, there were loud, sharp guttural snarls accompanied by full-bodied thrusts as if I was fucking the earth and the whipping winds with my entire being. That said, and as difficult as it may be to convince otherwise, it was not “sexual,” in the gross, human sense. It was more the universal, primal physical expression, briefly void of any human identity. It was deeply satisfying, yet, it ended quickly; I was ‘hitting my edge.’
In this case, it was proverbially “double-edged;” on one side, there was a fear of the unknown- after two days with no food and water and then the beast coming alive, I was concerned I might get hurt if I really gave over to it. The second part involved maintaining a sincere and authentic thread of balanced connection with that beastly intelligence. The ego of my athlete and performer personas wanted to take over and ‘act out’ the experience of growling and spiraling; to maintain a sense of control, as if it knew what to do and how to make it cool and powerful, based on the past. Then there was the beast within who was not interested in the mind, or proving or performing or re-treading safe and established patterns from the past. The beast was only interested in unleashing what was stuck and liberating its primal power to experience the fullest satisfaction in being alive. I felt enlivened to have this sudden and most nourishing expression come through, but I was also sad I didn’t let go with wilder abandon. Regardless, exhausted by the expenditure of all this mental and physical energy, I lay down, draped the towel over my body and fell asleep.
Upon waking, I slowly got dressed and continued my prayers, shifting the attention and focus. I let go of everything that had happened to that point and I began to ask for specific signs and visions in the outside world. I finally directed myself to the heart of what the vision quest was about; to see the animal that would become my spirit totem, my guide from that day forward. As with every other time I grew inspired, my brain found a way to pull up the reins. By the second day’s end, I was remembering what John the Medicine Man had said on the phone a few weeks before; “The energies are dormant now.”
By ‘the energies,’ I knew he was referring to the animals and the arrival of spring. For, in traditional vision quests, the initiate connects with the spirit of some kind of animal; and this becomes their totem spirit, their guide along the spiritual path forward. For all my praying and apparent willingness, I’d seen very little; two spiders, two unidentified birds far off and a flock of darting, swooping birds close up. While they may have been out there somewhere, I wasn’t seeing the lizards or coyotes I normally might. But, actually that isn’t entirely true.
On the walk out of camp that very first morning, I was shocked to see a coyote curled up just on the edge of the campground, buffering itself from the intense wind and cold. I felt such great empathy for this vulnerable creature and how hungry it looked. And I also felt a great sadness. It seemed to be waiting for the humans to drop a bit of food somewhere and it seemed willing to bear the harshest of circumstances to wait for the tiniest morsel. At the time, I was only present to my sadness and compassion for this creature. Now, looking back, I can see the coyote reflecting my own willingness to suffer for morsels of visions in this ‘dormant’ time.