Our simple materials delivery business expanded to be a landscaping company; over the course of my time in the community I learned to build decks, pour concrete, install masonry, lighting, irrigation, basically design and install everything related to new landscape construction. After a few years of this training MD had me take a contractor’s licensing course and in 1996 I became a licensed landscape contractor.
One of the first landscaping projects that we did together as a community was a new backyard landscaping project for a gentleman who contracted with us and then was called out of town for a few weeks. Before he left on his trip he paid us the total balance on the contract before we had even begun the work. The trust he exhibited in fully paying us a fairly substantial amount of money, and then leaving town impressed MD, and as a way of rewarding this man’s trust, we did the project for him and left his check uncashed under his front door; so that when he arrived home a few weeks later he found his new backyard landscape, fully installed, and also discovered that he didn’t have to pay a penny for it, we had done it for him for free. Of course he tried to pay us the money but we refused, telling him that we wanted to do this for him because he had acted so honorably and trustingly and this is worthy of honor and love in return.
By early 1995 our spiritual training, which of course was the primary reason we were living in this community, was developing and taking new directions. I mentioned earlier how there were stages to this spiritual course throughout the four years I spent with MD and that initially we were focused on gaining mental and emotional strength and learning through simple scenarios how to watch our thoughts and motives and work to transform these to more loving and honorable ones. He had also explained that once we had a good grounding and foundation in this concept that eventually the scenarios would grow more difficult to allow us opportunity to make greater strides in overcoming our vices such as anger, lust, cowardice etc. One morning MD had all six of us come into the living room and stand in a line side-by-side. He asked us to extend our hands and then, using a small twig he stood before each of us one-by-one and struck our outstretched hand so that it stung. Inside I felt anger rise up in me. Next he told us not to get angry. I think everyone felt as I did that it was justified or that it was difficult not to feel violated and offended in some way by being struck without cause. Next he had us, two at a time, kneel in front of the open fire in the fireplace, and then he struck our hand again. As a reaction I felt the same way: violated, offended and angry. He told me not to feel this way but I couldn’t change my reaction. Then suddenly he took my hand in his and thrust it over the flames. Just briefly, not enough to burn nor even to hurt, but it caught me off-guard and I pulled my hand back in surprise.
“You didn’t have any anger in that moment as your hand was over the fire, did you,” he questioned me.
I answered that I did not, but rather, I was suddenly and completely focused on removing my hand from the blaze and didn’t have any feeling of anger or offence, I was too preoccupied to feel these things. So then, you could overcome these feelings, under the proper conditions, therefore you weren’t right to say or to think that you couldn’t overcome feelings of anger or offence, because you could. And this is the truth, you have the power and ability, but you don’t choose to use that power, because you don’t want to. Most people don’t have the inner control to make a choice to love under difficult circumstance but they rather react to their environment and react to what happens to them. But this fire illustrates that given a different stimuli one can easily change, almost instantly if they choose to do so. The goal is to overcome stimuli so that one has the freedom and ability to make a choice to forgive, to love, regardless of the external circumstances that they find themselves under. To choose, not because their hand is held over the fire, so to speak, but because they want to.
Several days after this lesson MD gathered us again in his room and explained that we were entering a new phase of training, and that it would get physically very demanding in the future. He wanted us to be aware of this and if we preferred to leave and not continue further with the course, that it was okay, and we could end our training. However, if we wanted to stay and continue, he wanted each of us to sign a contract of understanding that the course we were entering into had risks of physical injury, potentially serious. He handed each of us the contract to look over and again gave us opportunity to opt out if we wished. Everyone wanted to stay and so one at a time each member signed their copy of the contract. Because of the gravity of the agreement he had this meeting and the signing of the contracts videotaped. I was the last to sign and when I sat at the table he took my contract off the table and told me I didn’t have to sign it, that it wouldn’t be needed for me. I was surprised but also felt that somehow I had passed a test in some way, and of course I fell into pride, which is one of my most difficult challenges.
It was reiterated again at this meeting that though members of the community signed the contract it was understood, that in the midst of a difficult scenario, one might decide they couldn’t do it anymore and choose to leave; if this was the case the only rule, you might say, was to let others know you are leaving and don’t just run away. The reason being that making a conscious decision to leave, a decision taken rationally and not in haste, is better than just suddenly reacting and leaving as a result of a lack of control over yourself. And it was kinder to the other members of the community who have developed deep connections with one another, to honor those connections by saying goodbye rather than just vanishing without a word.
It was quite a while after this meeting and the signing of the contracts before I was a participant in anything particularly difficult. Others had had some intense scenarios prior to me, but I only heard about these, and not in very much detail, since I was away much of the time doing landscaping work in Oakland and Berkeley, and only returned home to Santa Cruz for the weekends and occasional weeks here and there.
One afternoon I was driving up the coast on Highway 1 with MD in the passenger seat and K in the backseat. We had music playing, a CD by a contemporary female musician with a beautiful voice. I was mainly focusing on the road but my mind was wandering as well and I was enjoying her voice. Suddenly MD said to me, “stop being lustful.” My initial reaction was that I wasn’t being lustful, certainly not in any overt of graphic way or anything that I would even call sexual. But on further reflection I had to admit that the beauty of her voice did have me thinking with desire and some longing. “Stop it” he said again. Now you must remember again that our goal was not a basic worldly standard of conduct, but was to achieve something better, more pure, and this meant not to allow ourselves excuse or justification for inner states of mind that most people would accept as normal and not think twice about. MD changed his voice and it became very menacing, “I’m warning you, stop attacking her.” He said it this way because, in a sense, any vice, even one that we keep inside our mind or heart, is an attack against another person. I tried to divert my attention to the ocean on my left and distract myself from her singing, but now I was completely immersed in these thoughts and I couldn’t shake them. “That’s it, stop attacking her” he raised his voice and suddenly I was struck very hard across the right cheek.
For a brief moment I lost control of the car and swerved across the center line. The highway was straight, and no cars were approaching, so there was little danger of an accident. I corrected the car back into our lane as I felt more blows into my cheek and the side of my head. I focused very intently on the lane ahead and kept the car in the lane, as the blows landed and obscured my vision. Within a few moments MD stopped hitting me and the scenario ended. There had been a car following us and I wondered what they must have been thinking as they saw the passenger in the car ahead of them get up out of his seat and attack the driver; that must have been a strange sight to see and probably scary, especially when the car temporarily lost control and swerved across the highway and then back again. As I continued to drive I reflected on the situation. Apart from the issue at hand, that being my lustful thoughts and trying to overcome them to become more honorable as a man, I was proud of my ability, for the most part, to stay focused and in control of myself and of the vehicle in the midst of a new, unexpected and physically challenging circumstance. I also liked the stakes, and the seriousness of the effort needed to overcome them. As a young man, I wanted something that I could believe in, that required a sacrifice, that tested my courage and strength and that had honor, purity, and virtue as the goal.
I wanted to hear beauty, to see beauty, but not to have thoughts of possessing it; rather to simply enjoy it innocently and in gentleness. I hadn’t done very well in this scenario, I hadn’t been successful in overcoming my lustful thoughts, but I had learned to endure, to persevere, and to try hard, and this was something that hopefully I could build upon and grow more effective in the future. I fell this time, but was determined to get back up again and continue fighting.
(to be continued)