My book Subtraction: The Simple Math of Enlightenment is now in print, available from Amazon or your local bookseller. What’s it about? It’s an entertaining and informative look at the seven years of my spiritual path which culminated in enlightenment.
From the Foreword by Bob Cergol:
A subtractive, deconstructive process is the surest way to successful conclusion of a spiritual path. It was the main piece of the shortcut that Richard Rose said existed. But just what in the world does subtraction on a spiritual path really mean? How could it translate into a viable spiritual practice? How does one follow a subtractive path?
That is precisely what this book is about, what it so eloquently reveals, and what it so satisfyingly illustrates, all in a way that frequently reminded me throughout my reading of it, that the author of these pages is also a talented and inspiring poet.
Here is the Prologue, Chapter 1, and Chapter 2
I appreciate writers who get to the point right away, then tell me a story to illustrate the point, then remind me again what the point was.
December 28, 1999 was the day my spiritual search ended. From late 1992 till that day, I devoted myself to finding an answer to the great philosophic questions of life: Who am I? What am I? What happens to me at death? These were not theological musings, but eminently practical questions that demanded answers based on personal experience rather than belief. I meditated for hundreds of hours, fasted, prayed, talked to spiritual teachers and talked to myself, spent days alone in the woods, tested and challenged my beliefs through dozens of practices, despaired and cried. A central theme of this path was that of a Way of Subtraction fueled by honesty. It was Richard Rose who taught me this simple, but elegant formula: “You back away from untruth,” he said, turning from untruth until all that was left was what was real.
Just before the last day of the 20th century, my questions were put to rest. My notebook still contains the scribbling from that evening:
God is here. He rings in the death of all we know.
Rejoice, the end begins.
A new life. Nothing ever the same. We are
Rejoice, I am free. Behind these words flows
It is back there, doors open, look inside.
This is my way, no plan, you cannot follow,
but must try.
God is here. God IS HERE Now.
I used the word God only as shorthand. “God” goes by many names. The Absolute, Buddha-Nature, Mind (with a capital “M”), Self (with a capital “S”), and the big “E” of Enlightenment. You have some conception in your mind the moment these words are read. That is unavoidable, but what happens next is not. You could be satisfied with the words, or you could ask what they really mean and seek that which inspired the words. This book is about the latter.
Enlightenment is just a word—a chew-toy for the mind. The desire in our heart for the truth is what we must connect with. That desire will guide us, but it is not easy to hear the heart and then take action. Such action is the work that leads to the backing away from untruth that is the spiritual path.
Why bother? Because a part of us longs for an answer to a question which is uniquely ours. I was asleep to that longing for many years. Embrace that longing. Allow it to grow. To follow a spiritual path is to follow that longing.
You do not realize the depth of your uncertainty. Nor can you conceive what it means to know one thing for certain, and how that makes all the difference in the world. My hope is this story, which is unique to me, will inspire you to continue your path.
End of Life One
Everyone has two lives. The second one begins when you realize you only have one.
“Who am I?” would have been a meaningless question to the young man that was me, alone on the first Saturday evening of freshman year at the University of Kentucky. Eighteen years old, oblivious to the force of motives, I was ruled by fears and desires that seemed my own. There was no separation between the thoughts and feelings that flared through the mind, and my awareness of them. I was, as a friend expressed years later, completely laminated to whatever I experienced. There was only the reaching ache of loneliness and the silent complaint, “Why me?”
Fear led me to this isolation. Rather than knocking on a neighbor’s door and introducing myself, or saying hi in the hallway, I felt the presence of strangers like a pointed accusation. Avoiding the anxiety, I pretended: I am busy, I am important, I am special. I walked hurriedly from place to place with an imagined air of self-importance. I rehearsed conversations that entranced audiences who never appeared. It was a hellish circular prison where I wanted to hide the fact I was alone, yet did not want to be alone. This pretending gave a feeling of control, as if directing my little boat of self through life—though in reality it lacked compass, engine, or even steering wheel. I was not aware enough to wonder why I hid while others leapt into new encounters, or to question my control of the collection of thoughts and feelings called “Shawn.”
Though fear and uncertainty predominated, there was a deeply buried longing. I didn’t acknowledge it, but my body and mind savored the outdoors. The summer before freshman year, I reviewed the University’s course catalog, starting at the letter “A”: accounting, agriculture, arts, biology, chemistry, engineering, mathematics and so on. In the agriculture section, I lingered on photos of the light dappled, rolling green hills of Kentucky horse country. In the mind’s eye, an image unfolded of a wide field under a clear, azure sky. Sun-warmed air rose from the grass, surrounding me in a feeling of contentment. It was a perfect moment that was mine to have if I could find that place. I would someday stand under that azure sky, and everything would be perfect. Though I had never milked a cow, ridden a tractor, or even grown a vegetable, these photos drew me to agriculture, and I settled on it as my career. I told no one of this dream, especially not my advisor at the agriculture school. I doubt he could have corrected my misunderstanding—that happiness was created by circumstances we create. Instead, I plunged headlong into a science-heavy schedule of classes, chasing the dream that a career would lead me to that place of complete satisfaction.
I was far from any sort of satisfaction that first weekend of school. Fleeing the image of myself as a loser sitting alone in the dormitory, I wound up sitting alone on a park bench behind the student center. There, I briefly held the hope I looked like a brooding loner—too cool to bother with parties and friends. But that was not where or who I wanted to be. I longed to laugh, to meet girls, and impress the world with my personality. Instead, I churned on every flaw: I saw myself as shy, stupid, ugly, weak, scared, skinny…
Suddenly my thoughts flipped from their miserable litany, and a moment of grace entered. The green pine boughs swaying high overhead caught my attention as if whispering my name. The mind quieted, and in that space I felt the wind push at my hair, and heard the soft rustle of pine needles brushing one another. No longer was I drowning in thought. The silence built, thickening as if a storm was coming, but all was quiet and at peace, inside and out. Something other than me was present—not alien, but familiar and comforting, as if I were again a child in the back seat of my parent’s car, safely drifting to sleep under the muffled sound of their voices. I doubt this feeling lasted a minute, but the loneliness and anxiety were gone.
I had no context for this strange event—as any notion of spirituality was utterly absent from my world view. Nor was there any thought that I should seek out the cause of this state, or that others might have experienced something similar. Nor was there recognition that the instant relief of my troubles occurred without any change in my outer circumstances. I could be alone without feeling lonely. How was this possible? I would never know because I couldn’t even ask the question. In the coming days, it became apparent that I was not freed from the weight of fear, but my self-criticism and dissatisfaction receded as chemistry class and calculus presented more immediate concerns.
The routine of class and homework comfortably consumed my life. I sat in the same seat each day, rarely speaking to classmates because I couldn’t compose the perfect opening line. Throwing my energy into schoolwork solved the boredom and unease of my first freshman weeks. Through brute force memorization, reading and re-reading my notes and textbooks, I rose almost, but not quite to the top of my classes.
Relationships became road signs passed on the way elsewhere. I told myself I was in school to get good grades rather than make friends. The only connection I admitted to wanting was with a girlfriend, and the courage finally arose to introduce myself to the cute blonde seated next to me on a field trip. The initial thrill of getting her phone number became a crushing defeat when I called the next weekend, and her roommate said Megan was washing her hair. I left my phone number, but she never called back. After our next class, we awkwardly stood in the hall as Megan told me about her boyfriend. I remember she looked away a lot while we talked. Words I didn’t want to hear fragmented and lodged in my memory. I still thought she was beautiful. I smiled and pretended not to care, but never spoke to her again. Phrases festered in my mind: “I’m an idiot. Not good looking, not cool, and a fool.”
I went home to my parents for the summer after a mostly forgettable freshman year. Though a high school dropout, my dad had a wide-ranging curiosity with a library to match. There were books on the Old West and World War II, detective novels and adventure stories, and authors like Mark Twain, Edgar Allen Poe, and Harlan Hubbard. Browsing the collection, I came upon Arnold: The Education of a Bodybuilder. There was the story of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s rise from sickly child to champion bodybuilder. While I dabbled in my dad’s garage gym throughout high school, I lacked the needed motivation. Now however, being “awesome and powerful” as Arnold put it, was exactly what I wanted. Rather than asking out more girls, I would first make myself into a real man, so awesome and powerful, that I would never again feel the sting of rejection.
I threw myself into lifting weights, and was ecstatic to learn my new dorm for the sophomore year had a gym. Its windowless basement harbored a collection of wellworn exercise equipment that I attended to with religious devotion an hour each day. Between lifting weights and frequenting the all-you-can-eat dining hall, I slowly armored myself with muscle over the course of the year. Not fully content with my transformation, I grew my hair long, and adopted a facade of ripped jeans, flannel shirts, and chains which I copied from a lab partner whom I was certain was cool. Yet Frank, a droopy, ever-present, and thickly bearded fixture on the front porch of our dorm, was not impressed. From beneath the brim of his filthy baseball cap, he called out “Hey, ya big stiff!” every time he saw me. I couldn’t even fool the most unhip guy in the dorm, much less attract any ladies. At least not yet. If I added more muscle and more hip clothing, surely things would change.
Nothing did. After months of this crafted persona, I felt a lurking dissatisfaction with my non-existent social life, occasionally depressing me enough to ask “What’s the point?” Which is a form of one of the oldest philosophical questions: What is the purpose of life? Was there any purpose to the misery I experienced? Because if not, a fleeting but familiar voice said, maybe I should end it all now. A week finally arrived where I could no longer ignore this question, and I went to the only place I knew to seek answers—the library. In the cool, hushed recesses of its stacks, I bypassed the religion section and picked a book of Zen poetry from the Eastern philosophy shelf. I have no idea why I thought Zen could answer my question, but I did think this exotic book would impress anyone who saw me reading it. Though it looked nice on my desk, I puzzled over the poems and found nothing intelligible:
Fathomed at last!
Ocean’s dried. Void burst.
Without an obstacle in sight,
This was a bunch of riddles rather than an answer to life’s purpose. Casting aside my short study of Zen, the black and white of science made more sense, and I concluded that life was simply biological. Everything died, and a higher purpose was not necessary to live and enjoy life. For a time, this conclusion put the metaphysical questions to rest. I was helped, (or hindered I would later decide) by the stubborn regularity of my routines of study and exercise, even the same paths I walked each day to class gave me a bit of comfort. Habit carried me through any sloughs of depression. Plus, I still had the dream that my best years were yet to come.
I once complained to a teacher in high school that, “These are supposed to be the best years of my life,” but it certainly didn’t feel that way.
“Oh no,” she said, “college will be the best. You’ll love college.”
Now that I was in college, I hoped like hell these were not the best years. It must be graduate school, I thought, or maybe even after I graduated when I got a house and a wife and all the possessions that led to a happy life.
By my junior year, despite my fear of people and telling myself they were unnecessary, I recognized the
need to interact. A professor recommended joining the agronomy club, as this would look good on my graduate school applications. With only four members, it wasn’t long before I wound up president. Surprisingly, I enjoyed arranging pizza parties and service projects that grew the club from four to eight members. Having a clear role to play in a small group helped me understand how to interact. Another professor suggested a prestigious internship at Argonne National Laboratory, so I spent the summer there. My senior year, the recommendation was for independent research, so I prepared a presentation for a conference in California. I was on a train where people kept handing out tickets for further stops. You want to give me a ticket to graduate school? Sure, why not?
My junior and senior years were not all work. The Block and Bridle Club was famous for its alcohol-fueled barn parties, and I drunkenly fell into more than one stack of hay bales, though never with a girl in hand. In those short, blurry moments it did not matter how much muscle I had or whether I had something witty to say. I could see acceptance in the eyes of others—I was fun to be around—and for that night at least I was “normal.” Inebriation was the only state which lessened my fear, as the rest of the time I was ever the anxious actor perpetually waiting in the wings practicing his lines.
Not until the last weeks of my senior year did I relax my routines, as I realized that no graduate school would see my final grades. I skipped classes to go for a drive. I took a hike with a girl I liked and even made time to sit with Frank on the front porch. I suddenly wished for time to slow. On the last day of school, I looked down the now quiet and empty length of our hall and realized I missed an opportunity. I wanted to reach out, but there was no one left to receive my hand. My one wish was that I had spent more time socializing and enjoying myself.
The next stop, however, was a Master’s Degree at North Carolina State University’s soil science department. Looking for a fresh start to my social life, I was disappointed by the cold and unwelcoming brick façade of NCSU’s graduate student housing. No one left their doors open or chatted in the hallway, and there was no front porch. My major professor, who would mentor me for the next two years, proved a dour sort as well. Our first meeting lasted five minutes, then his assistant showed me to my office.
As a graduate student, I was granted a desk in the corner of a third-floor laboratory. There amongst the fume hoods, test tubes and deionized water, I claimed a space—arranging my text books on a shelf like trophies. I propped my boots on the smooth black surface of the lab bench, then looked out the window at the brick courtyard filled with students moving between classes. Briefly, I felt like the king of the world.
Classes were hard, however, and disappointments revealed themselves one after another. I struggled to stay awake in class as an unusual fatigue wove itself into my days. I didn’t appreciate my Indian roommate whose cooking spices permeated our room. I missed my family. I learned that research was often guided more by funding fads than any great desire for scientific exploration. Even the red clay topsoil of North Carolina was dry and hard compared to the dark, rich, and crumbly central Kentucky loam. “Why did I even want to go to grad school?” I wondered. Looking for friends, I forced myself to attend a graduate student association party one evening, and there I met Ann.
“Why can’t I know the joy of love? Why must I be me?” With such a journal entry within a few days of meeting Ann, it was no surprise this ended badly. Though too timid to ask her phone number that evening, I regained my courage the next day and knocked on every lab door in her department until I found her.
For the first time in my shy life, I pursued a girl—as in flirted, pestered, and generally, genially stalked her until the weight of my attention turned her mind to me. She smiled when I talked with her as if I mattered, and that sense of belonging drew me like the grass on that long sought Kentucky hillside. That she had a boyfriend in another state meant nothing to me. With enough persistence and effort, I opened a crack in the world of possibilities and jumped in with abandon. A short month of uncertainty, feverish thoughts, longing, heartache, and occasional joy followed. In the midst of it, I wrote in my journal, “I’ve noticed that I’m not a very happy person.” Then, though she was never wholly mine, Ann ended our brief romance. It felt like the one light, the one hope and dream of my life was gone.
The wreckage was total—disillusionment with graduate school, and the loss of the woman I managed to entangle in my equation for happiness. Ann said she wanted to be friends, and I sat on the front stoop of her apartment crying into her shoulder, desperately hiding from an overwhelming blackness that rose up in my mind and threatened to swallow me. I was suddenly and mysteriously terrified by the thought of forever being alone. This was far deeper than any loneliness I previously experienced. This was a cold, dark universe staring at the inconsequential speck that was me.
Days passed like a long, heaving sigh until late October, when I saw a poster advertising a lecture. “What is Enlightenment?” it said, and I wondered if therein lay an answer to my troubles. My imagined life with Ann seemed full of purpose, but now I found no reason to live. I felt weak, with no energy for exercise and little motivation for class. My self-proclaimed conclusion of biological mortality offered no comfort. Instead, it shouted my stark meaninglessness to a silent universe. Tuesday evening, I slid into a crowded lecture hall, and found a place near the back. The lecturer was Richard Rose. A short, stocky man, nearly bald, with a wispy white goatee, he wore a non-descript sport coat and collared shirt with no tie. He seemed at ease on the podium, though slightly disorganized, laughing as he rummaged through his pockets looking for reading glasses. He sifted through an old vinyl portfolio, and pulled forth a sheaf of papers. He began to read:
“Does a man own a house, or does the house own him?”
“Does a man have power, or is he overpowered?”
“Does a man enjoy or is he consumed?”
“Can a man become?”
“How shall he know what he should become?”
The lecture continued like this for over an hour. My mind went quiet under a stream of questions for which I had no answers. Rose’s eyes scanned the room and, now and then, it felt he looked directly at me and spoke to me alone. Telling me, “This is important.” This feeling was uncanny and weighty. I recognized Rose had something, and I wanted to know more. After the lecture, I put my name on a mailing list for the group that sponsored this lecture: the Self Knowledge Symposium. The mind is ever forgetful, though, so I was surprised when a few days later a fellow named Bill called to invite me to a meeting. That meeting would mark the end of life one, and the beginning of a nine-year spiritual path best described as a Way of Subtraction.
What Shall You Become?
Does man fall in love with anything besides his own self and his projections?
The Self Knowledge Symposium (SKS) met in Harrelson Hall, which had the lowly distinction of being the only round building on campus and was historically regarded as “one of the most unsatisfactory academic buildings imaginable.” Everything was pie-shaped: classrooms, offices, even the bathrooms. Unmarked exterior doors conspired with a spiral ramp which circled the outside of the building, to leave students perpetually unsure as to which floor they were on, or which direction to go to reach a classroom. I half-suspect the SKS met there because whoever doled out room assignments viewed this as fitting punishment for what was surely a cult.
Whatever misgivings I had about the architecture did not carry over to the group itself. That first meeting was a revelation courtesy of a middle-aged businessman named August Turak. Though ostensibly a student group, “Augie” ran the show. Augie introduced Richard Rose at the prior week’s lecture, where he struck me as remarkably stiff and ill at ease. Not so at the SKS. Sipping a two-liter of caffeinated Diet Coke, his eyes sparkled as he effortlessly held the attention of everyone in the room.
“This is you,” he said, bending his six foot, two hundred pound frame to draw a straight line low on the chalkboard.
“You live on this line, between the poles of opposites: black and white, good and bad, pleasure and pain.” Exactly, I thought. I was tired of being on the painful side, but I recognized that bouncing between the poles was the summary of my life.
“Where you want to be is up here,” he said, smacking a chalk mark above the line. “Up here, you look down upon the opposites and see they aren’t opposites at all. They are gradations on a line. You’ll never know that as long as you’re living on the line.” That transcendence, looking down on the opposites, was immediately appealing, though I had never encountered the idea.
Augie’s voice thrust forward, radiating confidence and conviction. When someone asked a question, he paused, eyes riveted and mouth slightly open as if taking in their every word, then peered behind the question to address its motivation, or launched a question in reply. I was not prepared to engage in this swordplay. Towards the end of the evening, he boldly stroked the formula for success across the chalkboard: Right Thinking + Right Action + Time = Results. I furiously recorded his words in my notebook, as if my life depended on it, which it probably did.
The radical shift catalyzed by the SKS appeared like a bright line in my journal. November 1st was a typical, depressing post-Ann day, as I wrote, “This last week was the most miserable of my life…” By November 13th, however, I waxed philosophical:
The world is a movie; the projector is God… Plato’s man chained in a cave… he thought shadows were reality and did not know to turn around and look to the light… I am guilty of trying to give meaning to my life by loving someone else. This is not the way. I am guilty of trying to give meaning to my life through work. This is not the way.
While Richard Rose’s talk impressed me with an inkling of the profound, it was Augie’s talk that provided insights immediately applicable to my current misery. The sad fact was that nothing in my upbringing or years in school had provided tools for understanding my psychology. Before that first SKS meeting, I never considered objectively looking at why I did the things I did. Self-knowledge and self-study were utterly new to me. Over the next couple of months, I did not miss a meeting.
Though he seemed big, brash, and ballsy, Augie rarely talked about himself. In time, I learned that he
worked at MTV in its heady early days, was a protégé of IBM’s legendary Louis Mobley, worked as a salesman and consultant and stockpiled money along the way. One of the first students of Richard Rose from the 1970s, Augie kept a core of philosophic discontent through all his worldly adventures and his off-and-on relationship with Rose. He founded the SKS as a platform for introducing students to a practical philosophy of life and, in particular, to the teachings of Rose.
Each week, ten or twelve students gathered for an hour and a half meeting—most in their early twenties, predominately guys and a surprising number of engineering/ math/computer science types. I expected a room dominated by philosophy and psychology students, but by all appearances they seemed uninterested in the ad hoc approach to self-study that the SKS provided.
Augie thrilled our impressionable minds with stories often culled from the Wall Street Journal or his wide network of connections. He was a masterful storyteller who loved tales of people summoning their determination to accomplish the extraordinary.
Augie espoused a warrior/monk/entrepreneur hybrid—equal parts Arthurian knight, Zen master, and start-up CEO. This superman was noble, brave, focused, concentrated, intense, and pure of intent. The kind of person who set goals and achieved them; not wasting time, but approaching life as if their hair was on fire. Whatever Jesus had in mind when he said the meek shall inherit the Earth, Augie was not interested. Augie was not the kind to use words like “maybe,” “possibly,” and “perhaps.” He favored the obsessed and driven, turning an article on a Scrabble champion into an example of single-minded devotion leading to success.
Augie frequently used the word “Zen” in the context of his stories. Like Richard Rose, Augie saw Zen as a system of tension rather than a serene exercise in meditation and withdrawal from the world. Keep your head on a problem until it, or you, cracked—then an answer was revealed.
“Attention means ‘at tension!’’” Augie said, driving home the word “tension” like a spike. Many Zen Buddhists would have been dismayed by this appropriation of Zen. However, in extracting the components of discipline and concentration applied to an intractable problem, Rose and Augie both felt they stripped away accumulated centuries of Zen barnacles and revealed the solid essence of the practice. Add to that, Zen sounded cool to a bunch of college kids.
The SKS had a recommended book list, and being ever the good student I started checking off the titles. While it would be some years before I realized the futility of looking to books for a solution to existential questions, at this early stage books were an invaluable in training the mind to question its assumptions.
Within the first few pages of P.D. Ouspensky’s The Psychology of Man’s Possible Evolution, a circular diagram called “The General Picture of Man” riveted my attention. The circle was divided into tiny blocks labeled “I.”
“In reality, there is no oneness in man and there is no controlling center, no permanent ‘I’ or ego,” said Ouspensky.
“Each of these ‘I’s’ represents at every given moment a very small part of our ‘brain,’ ‘mind,’ or ‘intelligence,’ but each of them means itself to represent the whole. When man says ‘I’ it sounds as if he meant the whole of himself, but really even when he himself thinks that he means it, it is only a passing thought, a passing mood, or passing desire.”
I nodded in agreement as I turned the pages. What Ouspensky described, I saw in my behavior though I never considered why. Before that day, if you asked me who I was I would have simply said “me.” Now however, that certainty wavered as I saw the collection of often competing desires that masqueraded as a unified whole.
“Man must know what he has and what he has not,” Ouspensky said. It was clear I knew neither.
For the first time in my life, rather than believing I was each desire that appeared in my mind, I stood back and noticed some of them were cranky visitors. In doing so, I took a small step up from the line of opposites Augie described. Who am I? I am Shawn. I am a grad student, a cool guy, invincible, doomed, a friend, a failure, a human being. This list went on and on like the expanse of “I’s” in Ouspensky’s diagram.
Some of these “I’s” were not just passing fancies, however. A select core were long-standing, cherished beliefs that dominated my view of the world. I moved through life like a meaning-seeking machine in a land of cardboard cutouts. I projected love upon a cutout called “girlfriend.” A cutout called “career” provided status, and a cutout called “home” provided security and peace. These additions were tangible evidence of the meaning of my life. Furthermore, if I got the career, home, and girlfriend cutouts aligned just so, then I would be content—at last fully alive. I was so certain of the circumstances of this imagined state, that I conceived it in great detail: Sitting on the front porch swing of a white wood farmhouse. The weather t-shirt perfect, without a mosquito or fly in sight. Swaying back and forth, a slight breeze soothing my skin. My gaze drifting across the lawn and into the mingled branches of an expanse of trees. Inside, the clink of a spoon on glass as my wife prepared lemonade. Every need suspended, the world balanced in quiet satisfaction. Augie described it as the sigh of relief that you finally “made it.”
Despite my identification of these dream components, the feeling of a future perfect moment still compelled me. It was the same feeling of contentment that arose when I saw photos of Kentucky horse country and latched onto a career in agriculture as the path to that place. What finally shook my faith in the dream was the first time I heard Augie’s piercing observation: The moment of perfection does not last, and the thought “now what?” inevitably follows. I had never considered that the stars of my perfect moment would align for minutes if not seconds, then continue their course. The character on the swing had to get up, go to work, mow the lawn, answer the phone, and drain the last drop from his lemonade. The perfect moment fell into the past, submerged by the mind’s ever insistent question: “And now what?” It was as if the human machine was programmed for dissatisfaction and restlessness.
As my mind opened to questioning my beliefs, other possibilities arose. Augie spun the enticing tale of a mystical state called enlightenment. Enlightenment was not a swan dive into bliss, but a cataclysmic revelation of one’s true nature brought about by extreme tension, focus, and desire. While Augie had worldly achievement, it was Rose who had enlightenment.
While I had no clue what enlightenment really meant, I wanted to know more. Augie used to say “You’ve got to fatten up the head before you chop it off.” The “chop it off” referred to enlightenment. It was somehow good to have your head metaphorically chopped off… I bought a copy of Rose’s The Albigen Papers, hoping the enlightened master would tell why this was a good thing. Instead, I got more questions and an understanding that there was a path, however vague, to spiritual realization. Part of that path was to “fatten up the head,” which as it turned out was much of what the SKS provided. To fatten up the head meant absorbing knowledge through books and meetings, and the paradoxical exercise of strengthening character through questioning beliefs. As assumptions and false beliefs were revealed, then from the many false I’s in Ouspensky’s drawing, I progressed towards the true one. This process only happened through intense work. In Rose’s case, finding the true self was actually a transcendence of self that he equated with death of the ego. Not only was your head chopped off, but you died… and still this was a good thing. I didn’t know enough yet to be scared of the possibility.
A small group of us began to apply Augie’s advice to our daily life rather than just listen to his Thursday night stories. Our motivations were mixed at best. I wanted relief from misery, others saw enlightenment as an intellectual puzzle, others saw it as a great adventure, and some just liked being a part of an unusual group. No one wanted their head cut off, but it didn’t matter at that point what inspired us to action. All that mattered was to begin.
Augie was an advocate of action. “Just hit something,” was a favorite saying of his. He’d tell the story of youth football coaches dismayed to see their tiny, uncertain players standing on the field amidst the action. “Just hit something,” they would yell. Just hitting something was better than standing still. Taking the risk and exercising force brought wisdom.
In the context of the SKS, action took many forms. For me, it meant struggling to speak up during meetings, ask questions, and allow my beliefs to be tested. Action meant engaging with life rather than just observing. It was not easy for an introvert, and no easier now than my awkward social attempts as an undergrad.
But I was motivated. I also started testing my ability to accomplish tasks and keep commitments. I challenged my self to not always retreat from the uncomfortable. I began to think of myself as my self—and this is key—a separate self with behaviors and patterns to study. I undertook numerous character-building challenges. Afraid of the dark, I stayed late into the night at one of the University’s research farms. Afraid of public speaking, I read one of Richard Rose’s poems—with voice quavering and knees shaking—at an open mic night in a local bar. I fasted, gave up sweets and spicy foods, and noted in a journal my reactions and thoughts about these experiments, especially how I tried to talk my self out of doing them. Not every undertaking was a success. Hearing of spiritual seekers who spend days on retreat, I took a blanket into the woods and committed to sitting there the entire day with nothing to distract me. I left after three hours as bugs landed on me, the sun chased away the shade, my back hurt, and one minute seemed multiplied by five. I belatedly realized sitting without a plan of what to focus on led to a bored brain looking for any excuse to leave.
The motivations behind my actions came under deep scrutiny. For some weeks, I obsessively mulled over buying an equalizer and pre-amp for my stereo system. Why did that thought keep popping into my mind? I dug into memories to see where the desire originated, but what ultimately proved more useful was imagining already owning the gear. It dawned on me that more than improving my music listening experience, what I really desired was to impress people with my discerning tastes. My ego, my sense of being an individual in this world, was strengthened through acquisition—even if all I did was imagine how others appreciated the new me. Not only that, but the entire consumer culture was built on providing ever more exotic and expensive products to feed the ego. No matter how good my stereo became, it could always be better, and a nagging incompleteness shadowed each purchase.
Even my music collection, carefully chosen to appear eclectic and hip, was symptomatic of a never-ending quest to create an identity that won admiration. Acting on this realization, I gave away the stereo and albums, and felt surprisingly at ease rather than regretful. I cut my long hair and put away the necklaces, ripped jeans and other symbols that helped me feel cool and unique despite the slights of the world. These subtractive actions brought relief, like a bodybuilder relaxing after holding a pose too long. Looking back, I wondered how much Frank’s “big stiff” greetings stemmed from him seeing poses I could not.
This subtraction was the beginning of backing away from untruth—Rose’s path to ultimate Truth (i.e. enlightenment). Backing away, what he called the Law of the Reversed Vector, was one step on the path that I grasped from The Albigen Papers:
The Law of the Reversed Vector states that you cannot approach the Truth. You must become (a vector), but you cannot learn the absolute Truth. Not knowing the Truth in the beginning, nor even the true path, we still wish to move toward the Truth. We find that there is only one way, and that is to first build of ourselves a very determined person, – a vector. We cut off tangential dissipaters of energy and ball up this energy for the work ahead. And then like most of the clergy, we make the mistake of putting years of this precious energy into first one blind direction and then another… until we learn that we must reverse the vector.
We must back into the Truth by backing away from untruth.
There was a lot packed into that paragraph. I could not learn the truth—it was not knowledge to be acquired. Cutting out distractions brought focus. Identify what was obviously not true, like my Arnold Schwarzenegger-inspired delusions of awesomeness, and abandon it.
Within three extraordinary months of attending Rose’s lecture, I wrote, “…the SKS is as important as school.” As other students came and went, I stuck around and became a core member. With no girlfriend and no friends outside of the SKS, it was easy to regularly attend meetings and devote time to sustaining the group. I walked the campus with posters under my arm and a stapler in hand, covering bulletin boards and kiosks with advertisements for our group. It was a point of pride to hang more posters than anyone else.
While the Thursday night meetings were for students only, there was another meeting at Augie’s house. As soon as I heard about it, I asked if I could go. About half the attendees were in their thirties or forties, while the rest were students or recent graduates. As an invitation-only group, the members were more consistent in attendance and consequently more open and familiar with one another. For the first time, I witnessed in-depth “confrontation”—one of the practices of Rose’s system.
Augie’s sparsely furnished condominium had just enough couches and kitchen chairs to keep us from spilling onto the floor. There was a palpable feel of excitement as he introduced a line from Apocalypse Now for the evening’s topic: “You have to have men who are moral… and at the same time who are able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling… without passion… without judgment… without judgment! Because it’s judgment that defeats us.” Augie then opened the floor to discussion. Opinions flew back and forth while Augie listened, waiting for an angle of attack. Someone’s opinion made a subtle shift from logical discussion to a thought tinged with emotion, as the mind contracted and defensively took a position behind a barricade of belief. Augie pounced, probing and questions, as the meeting pivoted from the conceptual to the personal.
I was in awe of the process, but afraid to participate. At its best, confrontation was a Socratic dialogue in which Augie challenged a participant’s beliefs. It was similar to the self-questioning I engaged in, but amplified and accelerated. Augie was extremely skilled at getting to the root of assumptions, though not immune to his personal beliefs colliding with those of another. At that point, the joint exploration of dialogue descended into argument. Most nights I sat silently unless Augie invited me in with “So Shawn, what do you think?” That was as rare as a lack of opinions.
My reticence was an impediment in confrontation, but I pushed forward in other ways. Four of us rented an old bungalow in the Boylan Heights neighborhood of Raleigh and dubbed it the “Zen Den.” There was Eric, a tall, square-jawed adventurer, engineer and lover of languages; Doug, even taller, a frenetic musician and physics grad student; and Danny, a gifted raconteur with the haunted eyes of someone who had taken a bad drug trip or two. We attempted to channel our energies more and more onto the spiritual path by surrounding ourselves with like-minded seekers. Rather than talking about sports, it was the sort of place where your roommate read philosophy at the breakfast table. We meditated together on Sunday mornings. A copy of The Zen Teaching of Huang Po sat in the bathroom. For a Friday night party, we invited other SKS members over to watch Henry V. In the film, Kenneth Branagh’s St. Crispen’s Day speech captured the feeling of our little home: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.”
If all this seems cult-like, it was. Yet it was a good-natured cult. The SKS challenged people to become more competent, honest, and trustworthy. People rose to the challenge. A few took those skills and applied them to the spiritual search, while others simply became better human beings.
The SKS was a crucible, accelerating insights that normally required many years and it reflected Mr. Rose’s statement that, “I’m looking to age a few young people.” In a miraculous few months, I learned that much of what I thought true was belief rather than wisdom culled from experience. Seventeen years of education had only piled belief upon belief.
My wayward drift from my graduate school dreams was spotlighted by the exit seminar of a retiring professor. Gray-bearded and bespectacled, he began with a story:
“I was a young graduate student in Honduras, spending the summer on a research farm. I lived in what was just a hut, really, with a lantern as my only light. A few days in, I sat down after a long day in the field and looked over the books on the shelf above my bed.”
His long pause captured my attention. “There on the shelf is a thin, faded volume. It is the book that will change my life.”
I was on the edge of my seat in anticipation.
“It was a study of strip cropping in tropical ecosystems.”
As if someone slapped me awake from a deep sleep, I looked around the room and realized I was in a land of sleepwalkers.
The next evening, my happiness in sitting amongst spiritual comrades was clear. Augie started the meeting with this Theodore Roosevelt quote:
The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause…
“What is your worthy cause to be?” was Augie’s question to us.
I did not know the answer to that, but I did at last know happiness among friends.
The Haunting Presence of Richard Rose
Rose said we were still concerned with what we might miss if we chose a spiritual path. We had no conception of what was at stake and what there was to gain from seeking.
I wasn’t ready to declare my worthy cause as enlightenment. For one, I had no idea what it really meant, and two, I was both attracted to and wary of the spiritual search. Years later, I recognized this mix of attraction and fear in the words of the Zen Patriarch Huang Po:
The substance of the Absolute is inwardly like wood or stone, in that it is motionless, and outwardly like the void, in that it is without bounds or obstructions… Those who hasten toward it dare not enter, fearing to hurtle down through the void with nothing to cling to or to stay their fall. So they look to the brink and retreat.
I would encounter that brink many times and in many forms during the coming years. For now though, I
only recognized that a spiritual path demanded change and that change involved abandoning old behaviors. It was one thing to improve my character and abandon pretenses, but another entirely to pursue enlightenment. Eric felt enlightenment was the ultimate adventure, but I wasn’t so sure, nor was I sure there was even such a thing as enlightenment. Maybe Richard Rose was just crazy.
On a cold and overcast March weekend, I and a dozen other SKS members squeezed into a rental van and
made a pilgrimage to Rose’s home. “The Farm” was a nine-hour journey north of Raleigh, across the sweep of the weathered Appalachians. Leaving the interstate, the dreary neighborhood of Elm Grove was our gateway to another world. A shallow, roadside creek wound further and further into a worn-out countryside. The atmosphere was dipped in gray, making the people, buildings, roads, even the sky, look decades past their prime. Turning off the paved road, we bounced and climbed higher and higher up a rutted gravel lane. The ground to the left of the lane fell off so abruptly that we peered into the tops of enormous maples and oaks. In the midst of modern-day America, it felt like the end of the earth, as if we would travel the final miles on foot and navigate by the stars. Thankfully, the lane leveled out, dipped, then revealed Rose’s weathered white-board farmhouse standing behind a fort-like wooden fence….
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