Saturday, September 23, 2023

Close at Hand

It’s well known that the time of my coming to age in the late 60’s/ early 70’s, was a time of great political unrest. For those convinced that “revolution is the only solution,” there were many paths available— the Black Panthers, the Black Muslims, SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), the Weathermen, the Yippies (not Yuppies), the Young Socialists and yet more. All determined to overturn racism, sexism, warmongering, capitalism in the name of expanded political freedom and justice.


At the same time, there was a sense of inner revolution in the air, a refusal of the deadened mindsets and dull consciousness of established religions, narrow psychologies and restrictive social norms. What was the point of gaining political freedom if we remained entrapped in the prisons of our own closed hearts, depressed spirits, rational thinking minds and lost souls? So kickstarted by mind-expanding drugs— LSD, mescaline, mushrooms, etc.— there was a parallel hunger to expand our consciousness. 


In swooped the Indian gurus. Take your pick! Sit at the feet of the boy wonder Guru Maharaji or practice Transcendental Meditation with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Don some orange robes and follow Swami Muktananda, do some physical yoga with BKS Iyengar or try some Kundalini Yoga. Hang out with Bubba Free John or Baba Ram Das or grab your finger cymbals and join the Hare Krishnas at the airport. If India didn’t grab you, you could go the Zen route with various teachers coming over from Japan or get into Sufi dancing or heck, why not just be born again as a Jesus freak? It was quite a spiritual carnival and I watched with some trepidation as various friends and acquaintances danced off down the street with their newly chosen tribe, often to the detriment of their future mental health.


Then there were all the new psychologies. Go to a Walden II commune with BF Skinner, a Gestalt therapy workshop with Fritz Perls, a Primal Scream retreat with Arthur Janov or an EST Seminar with Werner Erhard. Or join the Church of Scientology with L. Ron Hubbard. So many choices! 


In the midst of it all, some of us just opted to follow our passion for a craft— be it music teaching, woodworking, immigrant law, pediatrics— and concentrate on doing good work. We blindly entered the severe training ground of sustaining a relationship and raising a family and amidst all the wrong turns and slips near the cliff’s edge and tumbles into the poison oak patch, managed to find some satisfaction in all the small acts of house-holding, from homecooked meals, cleaning up the kitchen together, gathering around the piano to sing or around the TV for a favorite family show or movie. We felt how exercise kept us alert and alive and sometimes combined the solace of hiking in the park or the woods or bike riding on back roads with the mandatory calorie burning. We found sublime beauty in simple things— a sunset, a swim in the lake, a lunch at a favorite café with friends. Without having to blindly follow a charismatic leader who would eventually betray us or disappoint, without letting out a primal scream or chanting mantras for hours or sitting full lotus with pained legs or blindly accepting some group dogma as if it were the pillar needed to hold up our life, we discovered that it's possible to lead a useful, fulfilled and spiritual life simply by choosing to live well. 


Not to wholly discount any of the above. I’ve paid my dues with pained legs and Buddhist chanting and the guidance of a Zen Master I could have given over my life of free choice to but didn’t. But when I think of all the time and energy people have spent thinking “THIS IS IT!!!” and their subsequent disillusion that it wasn’t, it’s worth remembering that what we deeply need is always close at hand. Our own breath. Trusting our intuition about what we actually know we need and being courageous enough to follow it. Breaking bread with neighbors, talking with friends and family. And always, time with trees and plants and rivers and always, some music and song and dance. It’s all right here, right now, available to all and waiting for us.


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