My summer Alaska trip had been a complete success, I had made enough money to pay for books the coming year, in addition to some tuition and spending money. Equally important I had a better sense of myself, my strengths and weaknesses in the face of difficulties, and a deeper understanding and compassion for others who find themselves in tough circumstances and need a helping hand, or friendship, or simple kindness.
I had fallen away from organized religion over the past few years, though I still had an inner appreciation and love for my idealized version of it, but I still carried within me many aspects of a social gospel that I had learned while in church; love for the downtrodden, empathy for those that are hurting, willingness to help others where I could. The golden rule had been inculcated within me and though I was by far an imperfect practitioner of it, at least I kept it as a standard to strive towards and measure myself.
I also continued to learn what I could about my inner spiritual life, to notice my inner motivations and my true feelings, and to make sense of the jumble of ideas and thoughts that ran constantly through my head. Meditation and theater rehearsals still provided me with tools and opportunities to practice inner awareness but I was still several years removed from engaging in something approaching spiritual warfare, or an active and consciously applied effort to fight and win against spiritual things detrimental to myself and others; and the time of applying myself to this fight systematically and with ongoing determination would be something I wouldn’t be initiated in, or begin to practice, for quite some time.
To this very point, I recall a conversation I had with my step-mother at the time. She was bringing up some failings of mine, and observing that I was out of control in some significant ways in my life. I couldn’t disagree with her because she was correct, but I explained why I felt this was the case; I offered a comparison of my inner being to a complicated M1 tank. In my view, I had been dropped into myself without an owner’s manual and suddenly I had to learn what all these levers and buttons and controls and screens meant, in order to operate myself properly, and frankly, I hadn’t a clue how to operate myself properly. I was just going through life guessing, and making things up as I went along; doing a little trial and error here, a little self-correcting there, experimenting with this and with that, and hoping I wouldn’t mess up too badly. Admittedly, it was an imperfect practice, and I yearned for something better, but I made the best with what I knew.
Soon after returning to California from Alaska I began my next school year. I started studying Mandarin Chinese in preparation for a semester abroad the following year. I lived on campus, which was situated in the hills south of Petaluma; a bucolic and serene setting perfect for contemplation and immersing oneself in nature. On a daily basis I could watch deer walking by my first floor dorm window and often resident raccoons could be seen congregating around the front door, eating from our dorm-kitty’s food dish. Having grown used to sleeping on the ground in Alaska, and indeed much of my life, I gave my mattress to the facilities manager for safe keeping and spread a colorful Mexican blanket over the plywood bedframe in my dorm room and used this as my bed for the year.
Chinese language and culture appealed to me because of the mystery involved; the written language was so different from my own, and the cultural history, from the various dynasties up through the Long March and the Cultural Revolution was strange and different and captured my imagination. As part of this exploration I began to read the Tao Te Ching, the basic philosophical and religious text of Taoism written by Lao Tzu. It didn’t enthrall me in the same way as the Bhagavad-Gita but I was impressed by the value it placed on things counter-cultural to my way of thinking; things like passivity and weakness which my culture disdains, and the harmony and balance one can achieve when one embraces these alternatives, along with their opposites, in a unified whole.
As a complement to this study I began taking Aikido at a local Dojo in town. While this martial art is from Japan, not China, and Taoism and Aikido don’t share a common lineage, for me Aikido seemed to embody concepts I was learning in Taoism. For instance, in Taoism there is a famous image about the strength of water in relation to rock, and how over time the water is stronger and wears down the rock; while in Aikido, one meets one’s opponent or aggressor in a way similar to water, allowing the force and violence of one’s attacker to flow past one, and to redirect their violent energy into a more constructive energy that harms no one. I enjoyed applying the theory of the Tao in a practical and active method through Aikido.
Against the backdrop of studying Mandarin and my other classes I was also involved in several theatrical productions. As I’ve mentioned earlier, theater was more important to me for what I could learn about myself and about other people and less about the production or the finished product. In our theater community that year, we had a visiting director from Poland who had worked with the renowned Polish director Jerzy Grotowski, so we were excited to learn what he brought with him from his experience. We were working together on a scene from Martin Buber’s play, Elijah and discussing how best to translate Buber’s interpretation of the Biblical account into modern terms to reach a modern audience. In the course of this discussion the director began to speak about Buber’s own philosophy and his method of Biblical interpretation, or hermeneutics. He went on to explain that as actors, writers, producers we are also engaged in hermeneutics in how we approach the text of the play, and how we translate that into action and perform it for an audience. The question was how to make the Biblical story understood to the audience in the deepest, most visceral and dramatic way, simply and without artifice but with sincerity and honesty and power.
This discussion reoriented me and gave my life new purpose. I had never heard the term, hermeneutics before and I was so excited by the prospect of interpreting sacred scripture and joining that to theater for the purpose of making spiritual truths known and understood by an audience. This idea was a seed of a new life’s purpose; I wanted to write plays which would somehow interpret sacred truths in an accessible way, presenting them to an audience so as to make the unknowable knowable, and to inspire and instruct in these truths to open people to hidden realms so they could know that there is more to life than just what we see and touch.
I wanted to bring the mystery down to earth in some way, to battle the cold rationalism, and the narrowness of the literal, data influenced culture of my society where things are only true and only matter if you can prove them beyond a shadow of a doubt, with lots of facts and charts and graphs to prove your point. I knew in the depths of my heart that God wouldn’t be known this way, that He couldn’t be known this way, and my peers were losing faith in droves because they were trying to find Him in the wrong ways and with the wrong means and because of this they were giving up and dismissing faith as a fairy tale. I wanted to reverse that trend.
(to be continued)