Whitley and I were recently invited to participate in a conference at that magical spot by the ocean called Esalen. I loved it: We’d driven by it many times when we visited Big Sur, but we had never actually been there, and we were especially honored that they took our specialties–UFO sightings and contactee stories–seriously enough to include us. After we got home, we expected to be rested and refreshed, but instead found ourselves exhausted, so I’ve come to the conclusion that enlightenment is enervating. Perhaps this was because, being in such a meditative place with so many wise people all around me, I realized how really BAD I am at that sort of thing. But maybe seeing where you are is the first step down the spiritual path.
We were lucky enough to meet Mike Murphy, the man who started Esalen 40 years ago. This patriarch wears his wisdom on his face. He started walking his own spiritual path through the game of golf, which is a unique version of the Buddhist idea that one should become enlightened while one "chops wood and carries water."
I expected it to be quiet there, but it isn’t quiet at all–the the institute sits directly above the ocean and the waves pound incessantly on the rocks, producing a constant "white noise." The building where we live now is quiet compared to New York, where to open the window meant to let in a loud din, but I where we live now, can overhear people talking and sneezing, hear phones ringing and of course there are still the loud garbage trucks. I was surprised to find, when we got home, that my apartment was kind of a quiet refuge, compared to Esalen.
One of the main things people do at Esalen is soak in hot tubs which are filled with warm, sulfur infused water that comes from a mineral spring on the property. When you go into the bath house, you see two signs, pointing right and left. One of these says, "Quiet" and the other, "Silence," and I knew immediately upon seeing them that this was going to be my spiritual downfall.
When you begin the practice of sitting and meditating and try to silence your mind, the first thing you notice is all the JUNK that’s going on in there, all the trivial thoughts swirling around in your brain. The goal is to get beyond that, but I’ve never achieved that: I just sit down, try to sense my body, notice a few aches and pains, listen to the crap in my head, then sigh and vow to do better next time.
Besides all the noise going on in my head, I have a real problem with physical silence. I like to bellow out a song after I wake up in the morning and I sing as I go about the day. This may sound pleasant, but it does not enhance one’s meditative state.
I even set a record for talking once. I talked too much for about a year after I got out of the hospital. Scientists estimate that the average person speaks a little over thirty thousand words per day, and I’ve since come to the conclusion that when we don?t (as I didn’t when I was mute for a couple of months), all that talk gets pent up inside our brains and then explodes. Once I regained consciousness in the hospital, I babbled on nonstop, day and night, for fifty- five hours! As I chattered on, the nurses kept track of the time I talked and told Whitley I had set a record for what they call "I.C.U. Psychosis."
The problem was, I kept it up after I got home as well. Whenever we were in a meeting or with a group of people, I would always try to dominate the conversation by throwing in some facts, and since I run a science website, I know a lot of what might be called scientific factoids. I finally realized what I was doing when a certain topic came up in a meeting one day and our manager said, "Let’s just ask Anne, she knows about everything." He meant it nicely but I took my cue: It was time for me to SHUT UP!
While soaking (relatively quietly) in the Esalen baths one time, I glanced into the tub on my left and saw what I thought was a bearded lady. Needless to say, this jerked me out of my meditative state immediately, but it turned out to be only a bearded man with long hair and thin arms. I figured it was a kind of cosmic joke that served me right for all those nasty, voyeuristic thoughts whirling around in my head.
Whitley and I are both what might be called "lapsed Gurdjieffians." In the Gurdjieff work, you try to be quiet that mental whirl, which is called "inner considering," and be "awake," be THERE for the moment. Again, I’m always coming up from behind: I realize from one thing or another that I was NOT awake in the recent past. For instance, in the middle of the 5 hour drive to Esalen, I decided that I had not packed any tee shirts, and worried about it during the entire trip, trying to remember if I had actually put them in the suitcase. It was clear that I had been "asleep" during that phase of my packing and of course, when we reached our room and unpacked, the shirts were there, right on top, as a rebuke to my poor attempts at enlightenment.
The wonderful thing that happens at a conference at Esalen is that you exchange ideas with so many people from different venues, that you come away filled with new ideas. This sort of exchange has occurred in various places at various historical times. Some of these which were Berlin and Paris between the wars, when poets, prose writers, painters and animators all gathered in the same cafes and influenced one another. I saw the same sort of thing happen in SoHo in New York in the 1980s, as artists became more creative after they prowled the low-cost "junk" shops on Canal Street and picked up new ideas and materials for their art works.
After I came home, I read a wonderful article in the May 22nd edition of the Wall Street Journal by Matt Ridley, in which he wrote that human evolution is continuing. He based this on "a new idea, borrowed from economics, known as collective intelligence: the notion that what determines the inventiveness and rate of cultural change of a population is the amount of interaction between individuals. Even as it explains very old patterns in prehistory, this idea holds out hope that the human race will prosper mightily in the years ahead–because ideas are having sex with each other as never before."
It helped me to understand why some cultures, such as the Muslim world and the Catholic church, are stagnating, while others are thriving. They are doing so because they have excised half their brain power, and thus half their new ideas, by excluding women from their dialogues.
Part of this exchange of ideas takes place through an exchange of books. We made a list of people to send a copy of The Key to. A woman named Vicky gave us a copy of her book, which is titled "The Secret Life of Puppets." I laughed when I saw the title after I got home and was shelving our new books, because Whitley has, for some reason, always been TERRIFIED of puppets, especially those Charlie McCarthy-type "dummies" with clacking jaws. He’ll do almost anything to avoid a ventriloquist: Once on Fifth Avenue in New York, we once encountered a white ventriloquist with a black dummy that kept shouting racial epithets at the white people walking past (it was hilarious) while walking to our favorite bookstore. I turned my head to make a comment about it to Whitley and suddenly realized that I was alone: he had quietly and quickly gotten the hell out of there and crossed to the other side of the street.
When we lived in Greenwich Village, we were right across the street from where SoHo began at a time when it was just beginning. It had once been filled with fish wholesalers and businesses that dealt in rags (the final place where your clothes end up), and many of the old-timers in our building assumed it was still the same and never crossed Houston Street to seek out all the wonderful art and delightful small stores that were now there. I remember seeing this as a metaphor at the time, and I vowed that I would stay curious and never become that set in my ways.
Now I’ve realized that the real risk we take in going new places and trying new things is not that we will come to harm (not in most of the places we go, anyway), it’s that we’ll be taken out of the comfortable smugness we’ve set up for ourselves at home and begin to SEE OURSELVES more clearly (and perhaps not like what we see). While I certainly don’t feel critical of Whitley for his deep-seated fear of puppets (which is probably based in his early experiences with the Visitors), I’m glad that I "crossed the street" to go to Esalen.
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