The 3rd in a series venturing beyond the veil of the obvious. Read this for more orientation info about the series. I almost feel a need to apologize since the length of this piece is over 5000 words, but only almost. Within this entire series (A-i-t-s) I try consciously to build as vivid a context as possible, according to my memory, within which the events in question unfurl. If I lose some people enroute, that is something I can live with. It is important to me to treat these things comprehensively and lovingly.
“Love is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone – we find it with another.” – Thomas Merton
My first forty Thanksgivings were quintessentially social affairs, marked by large family gatherings and eating — nay, feasting — throughout the day. Sometimes there were even two rounds of this exhausting ritual because one would take place under the auspices of my extended family and a second, after a short commute, at the behest of a girlfriend’s family. But this was not to be the case for Thanksgiving #41. On that day I was driving all day long, alone, for almost 900 miles to a rendezvous with someone I’d never met, at a private meditation cabin, in rural northern Alabama.
Ad in the Back of a Yoga Magazine
The morning’s driving had a liberating feel to it. No relatives to negotiate, a freedom issuing from the awareness of devoting some time entirely to myself. But passing through the appealing hills of western Virginia in the early afternoon, a mild hunger not completely for festive food began to enfold me. The increasingly peculiar, to my ears, pandering tone of the ‘conservative’ call-in radio programs served to illuminate my sense of holiday isolation. I’d allocated a block of ten days to this either madcap or ingenious scheme in response to what some would dismissively label a midlife crisis. This was my usual style, devising some grand gesture to deal with a perceived inner blockage. It had started less than a month before while glancing through a Yoga glossy just before checkout at a health food store. I wasn’t much of a yoga afficinado, though it was fun to leaf through the hi-res asana photos and amuse myself about how the yoginis strove to project the appearance that it was all about inner work instead of sex appeal. But I knew that the backpages sometimes contained interesting ads and inspiring obscurities.
Personalized Retreats of Distinction for One
Serious reconnection in a lovely quiet natural setting
Experienced Facilitator – Father John
Submit personal essay for consideration
That one stood out for it’s lack of pretense. There were two photos. An exterior view of a sizable, contemporary-looking cabin in a forest, and an interior picture of a nicely appointed corner with a bamboo panel, a sitting meditation cushion, and an elegant incense burner. It claimed to be non-denominational, exquisitely private, informed by zen practice, and only available for pre-arranged one or two week time blocks. From what could be seen it appeared nicely appointed; everything seemed thought out by someone with developed aesthetic sensibilities. The face, accompanying the ad in a floating oval vignette looked kindly and not too removed from life, about sixty perhaps. $350 per week. There was a phone number.
Father John Groff
“Pride makes us artificial and humility makes us real.” – Thomas Merton
Why did I want to do this? – the question hung in space for a moment, neither brief nor lengthy. He intended it rhetorically for now, something to address in my handwritten (he preferred, if possible) biographical essay. Father John had a relaxed voice, deep but expressive, and we settled into true, reflective conversation, nearly at once. I could see he was using the leisurely pace and winding topics to get to know me. He did not want just anybody at his personally designed and built meditation house, and I liked this selectivity. He explained the mechanics. I would be on my own — this was a big boy contemplative retreat — save for visits of not more than half an hour each late afternoon during which my mood would be respected and possible short discussions might occur, or observations offered. The place was clean, with a kitchenette and small table, a bed alcove off to one side, and a toilet room with shower. No external communication. I was expected to have a reasonable familiarity with sitting Zen meditation. This was the one area where my situation presented a bit of fudging, but I’d done a good amount of my own freestyle contemplation, enough to pass the authenticity test. I’d been to a few group yoga and mindfulness retreats and found them okay for boosting the physical health, but I remarked to him that I experienced group ‘silence’ as a kind of travesty or avoidance of the real inner work it was possible to do. Father John’s primary mentor had been Thomas Merton, a couple of whose meditative works had made a favorable impression upon me. In fact, he had lived together with Merton for a period at the Gethsemani Monastery in Kentucky when they were both Trappist Christian monks. Merton went on to become a globally known figure on account of his spiritual writings and died in Thailand, having been invited there by Buddhists to deliver some lectures. For my part, I liked that Father John had this esoteric Christian thread running through his makeup, both because it demonstrated his openness and softened or grounded the easternized coloration one often encountered within meditative circles which tended to render things very abstract.
“Every moment and every event of every man’s life on earth plants something in his soul.” – Thomas Merton
We spoke again about a week later, this time Father John telephoning me. He said he found my letter — this was in the days of stamps and envelopes — warm and inspiring and would be happy to invite me to his retreat. We discussed that I could come soon were I willing to accept the holiday week which no one seemed to want this year. This suited me better than waiting till the spring so I accepted. He proposed I drive down because it would afford me hours to set my mood as opposed to flying which would be disorienting, and liking how he thinks, I again accepted. The plan was I would drive all day Thursday, resting somewhere a hundred or two miles away for the night, and then meet at a parking lot in northern Alabama right after lunchtime the following day. And so it was, I found myself pulling into an interstate exit just shy of Chattanooga, Tennessee on Thanksgiving night, a Motel 6 at the ready. A diner down the road provided a serviceable turkey dinner with southern-style fixings. And then sleep.
Father John was a large man, tall and broad, portly and not at all inured to availing himself of the things which pleased him in life. His greeting was respectful and attentive. I followed him to his suburban home about three miles away, where he lived with a woman, a place with many many leaves. He pointed out the cabin in the backyard which we would tour later, but for now I was asked to secure my car in his garage with the keys on the seat. I would not be needing it for eight full days. He then drove me back to the shopping mall where we met so I could shop for whatever provisions I thought suitable for the week; I’d be preparing all my own food. I went vegetarian that week and also fairly light. Simple oatmeal, fruit and tisane in the mornings and one main meal around mid-afternoon. And lots of water. Driving back, his conversation was casual, relating stories about adventures with Merton during in his younger days, or expanding about the culture and politics of the locals, what he liked about the South, and so on. He’d built the retreat cabin himself a decade back and began overseeing private retreats in it five years ago. He’d left the monastic life decades ago and detoured into various aspects of Buddhism, Taoism, and Zen, crafting a sort of personalized esoteric approach to spiritual development for himself. I got the impression he still cleaved to a very intimate relationship with Christ on his own terms, colored by a strong dose of what might later be termed, perhaps incorrectly, ‘mindfulness meditation’. In truth, he valued devotional silence — with heart. He saw part of his unfolding path as service, expressing it in the form of gently advising and housing seekers for stays at his retreat.
“Solitude is not something you must hope for in the future. Rather, it is a deepening of the present, and unless you look for it in the present you will never find it.” – Thomas Merton
He showed me the cabin; it was inviting and aesthetic in a completely functional sort of way. Wood everywhere. He pointed out the zazen nook first — it was near the only door. A simple yet elegant cushion lay on a bamboo mat facing an Japanese room divider curtain with a small table in front. On this was placed a beautiful incense bowl and a Tibetan singing bowl covered in symbols. A concealed drawer under the side of the table housed some high quality Japanese meditation incense. Expressly manufactured for sitting zazen, each elegant stick burned for exactly 70 minutes — a standard sitting meditation session. He also noted that the fragrance was pleasant but retiring, not cloying or aggressively sweet like so many others he’d tried. A suggested day, in Father John’s view, consisted of six one-stick sessions during the daylight hours and an optional one or two additionally in the evenings. The practitioner, of course, was free to arrange his time however he wanted however. The sleep nook was comfortable and clean with quality bedding materials, neutral tones everywhere. No art adorned the walls. An L-shaped bookshelf wrapped the area, containing a modern adjustable reading lamp, a few dozen inspirational books, evidently hand selected, and a headphone set which plugged into a music console. Most of the tapes available were either guided verbal meditations Father John had recorded for pre-sleep or ‘space’ music of the electronic swelling pulse and meandering melody genre which he seemed to favor. He spent some minutes on this because it was one of his enthusiasms. He also wanted to see what, if anything, I had brought along to read. I had several meditative texts, aphorisms from people like Rumi or Idries Shah, some spiritual machinations from John G. Bennett, and Rudolf Steiner’s “Calendar of the Soul”. Plus an empty notebook. His one caution was not to read anything too process-oriented, or intellectualized. Brief, expansive, imaginative meditative things were good. Inspirational epigrams and such. I put all the food away and we retired to his house for an afternoon chat and some tea accompanied by sweet Indian burfee.
“The biggest human temptation is to settle for too little, spiritually.” – Thomas Merton
This was to be the heart of his interaction with me, I learned. We spoke for two or three leisurely passing hours around a coffee table in a living room with extremely comfy sofas. He was very fond of a large photograph he’d gotten blown up and imprinted upon canvas of a devoted native woman kneeling in a snow slope having cupped out a small hollow in the snow in order to house a tiny candle whose flame she was protecting from the wind. It was taken in Peru, he explained. We spoke in no rush about each other’s biography, albeit from a spiritual point of view. It was clear his psychological insight bore some depth. He was quick to notice, with suddenly punctuated attentiveness, whenever some item I was relating suggested any sort of inflection point. He was ever patient to listen first for some sort of self-analysis I might offer as some experiential fruit, and then would slowly narrate a parallel incident from one of his sources or memory to shed a complimentary light upon the topic. Our conversing had a graceful dance to it, leading and yielding on both sides. The slanting fading light through a multi-paned bay window seemed to bless us with an eloquent brevity. At one point I remarked, intending it as a kind of mildly self-critical observation, that I possessed the curious trait of not being very proactive when it came to some fork in life’s road. Likely as not I would display excessive patience and simply wait for the crossroads to simply resolve itself, possessing no clear inclination as to which outcome was preferable. He deeply surprised me with his reaction, eyes widening in some sort of recognition, saying that in fact I was not aware of how fortunate and blessed that I was in this. Pressing, I indicated that in fact I was at such a decision point at the present moment in my life, and that one of the hopes I’d attached to this journey, though sincerely not its exclusive motivation, was to arrive at some clarity about what to do. It was here that he intervened gently, but clearly drawing upon his experience. He told me in effect: “You have come here with a specific aim in view, a question to answer, or decision to make. But it would be better if you laid this concern entirely aside for now. At some point after this week you will arrive at a decision… I do not know when, maybe it will be the moment you are turning your key in the door back home. But for now, for our purposes, you should place all this out of your mind and heart.”
“To consider persons and events and situations only in the light of their effect upon myself is to live on the doorstep of hell.” – Thomas Merton
We also had a quick discussion about zazen technique in particular, and meditative practice in general. I plainly divulged I was not a serious devotee but was familiar with the basics and had done some time on the cushion. I’d also done work in other modalities and had gone past the point where I was seeking this — for I paved my own route nowadays and was influenced and attracted as much by western (Christian) ideas concerning contemplation as by eastern sensibilities. To not belabor one key distinction, the eastern way felt more characterized by quieting oneself, as a goal, and tuning, by virtue of the afforded silence, into what is. The western way placed more emphasis upon devotion and focused concentration upon a spiritual symbol, or saying sometimes, such that intense inner activity was being made to replace what is normally quite unconscious processes of cognition. In any event, both paths contained a mindful, quiet, devoted entrance ramp, if you will. And zazen was entirely suitable for this; I intended to sit with application soon as the morning commenced and would also do a brief session tonight before bed. Father John seemed content with all this, mentioning that I could use or fall back upon the tool of observing the breathing whenever things got too ‘noisy’. After a light meal together I retired to my cabin, the understanding being I would not depart it for the week and only be visited by him.
The Cushion and the Gospel
I walked across Father John’s backyard at dusk aswim in a mood of deliberate commencement and set the key to the cabin door, passing under a row of very tall trees. The air was crisp but inside it was comfortably warm. After unpacking and a shower, I unwrapped a single stick of incense, placed it in the pinkish sand, and lit it, allowing some long moments to pass while I did nothing but sense the quality of it’s tactful aroma. Eschewing zen for the evening, I instead sat on the edge of my bed, dimmed my visual focus and entered a purposeful contemplative state. I asked myself and the cosmos to whom it might concern to allow this week’s effort to remain pure and deliberate and concentrated, imbued with a tone of sacredness which would also remain pragmatic. I intended to see whatever would be seen, and clear myself out in the process. I was optimistic, and in good cheer, enjoying my own company. Sleep was good. One thing I noticed often in my thirties and forties was that my dreaming often took on a different character when travelling in a personal (non-business) way in some beautiful place, removed from my familiars. It seemed such dreams became more poignant and also penetrated more deeply into my symbolic memory, often employing personalities and events long forgotten from childhood or youth, but presenting them in some novel way. That night did not disappoint along these lines.
“The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not to twist them to fit our own image. Otherwise we love only the reflection of ourselves we find in them.” – Thomas Merton
Waking was more ritualized and conscientious than in usual life. I recalled my purpose while still in bed, surveying whatever inspirations may have been deposited by the night’s sailing upon the waters. Having only a drink of water, I stretched, refreshed, and went right to the the cushion and sat for two incenses sticks in succession, thus well over two hours. I was fairly phenomenological in my stance towards sitting meditation, in other words not tied into any preconceived frameworks about what was happening. Then I had some light breakfast, sat and reflected a little, wrote down any simple ideas which arose, and prepared for another session. It was easy for me to separate from quotidian concerns, and this did not surprise me. After this, there was usually a longer break, maybe some reading, glancing through Father John’s bookshelf, maybe some stretching. Usually I showered early afternoon before preparing a meal. I liked getting four sticks in before the day’s lunch. But in truth, by the second and certainly third day my being settled into a completely uncrafted rhythm as if the body knew when to sit zen, when to simply contemplate, when to take in sensory impressions from about my environment and so on. I do not recall much about Father John’s early visits in the week, content-wise. Just their form. Because I had become so quiet I’d be aware of his approaching presence a few seconds before his feet stepped upon the concrete patio when he would politely knock softly on the door. It was always around 3 or 4PM, and we always sat around the small dining table, oriented such that the diminishing sunlight would permit only a kind of impressionistic image of his visage. I had as yet no questions for him; in some ways we simply enjoyed each other’s presence and he used the occasion to relate some story from his large store of lore, always slowly, offering it as a kind of healthy break from the proceedings. I was not in the least stressed by anything. When I did not want to do one thing, I did something else.
“Devotion frees.” – Sufi saying (via Idries Shah)
The third day, I think, had a palpably deeper feel to it. I carried an alive stillness within me regardless of what I happened to be doing. I did a little writing at lunch, ate less, no cooking that day. When Father John came I had a question for him. I told him I’d been thinking about the evolution of humanity and of everything, from a non-physical perspective of course, and was curious to know his opinion as to whether or not the cosmos suffered. It wasn’t like a survey or interview query. More like an articulation attempt about some connected ideas which were inhabiting my vicinity since the morning. We had a deeper, more satisfying conversation at that point, one in which neither was really teacher nor pupil. He seemed to recognize that I was going somewhere, something of interest was transpiring within me. He advised again to stay away from anything too intellectual in either reading material or meditative content, and this time said farewell for the evening with a bit more warmth and comeradery.
“We stumble and fall constantly even when we are most enlightened. But when we are in true spiritual darkness, we do not even know that we have fallen.” – Thomas Merton
The next day deepened my sense of simply being, just existing in a soulful way, going about everything with little or no distraction. Moments contained their own infinite justification. Once or twice I unceremoniously got up in the middle of an incense stick simply because I wished to. Meals were slow and sensual. I felt the air as a caress, and detected it’s quality, when the door opened for Father John’s visit. He came bearing gifts this time. First there was a plate of cooked vegetables which an ex-nun who lived down the street had prepared for me. Apparently Father John had discussed me with her. Also, after speaking awhile, he suggested that I should try an outdoor walking meditation the next day. He described the basics. There was a path across the street from his house — it was a very rural street — which led into a forest. A little less than a mile on it led to the shores of a peaceful inlet of Lake Gunthersville. He proposed I walk there slowly, at my own pace, stay as long as wished, and then return in the same manner. The idea was that I should strive to maintain the same inner stillness as I had (apparently, to his eyes) acquired while within the zendo cabin against the ‘resistance’ of the natural world. He made a point of advising no interacting with any people, should I happen across anyone, which he doubted. He gave me tips about avoiding serious eye contact and just acknowledging with a nod. The prospect pleased me. In my current state I simply acknowledged the joy and then placed it aside in favor of the present.
“Yet it is in this loneliness that the deepest activities begin. It is here that you discover act without motion, labor that is profound repose, vision in obscurity, and, beyond all desire, a fulfillment whose limits extend to infinity.” – Thomas Merton
I warmed the lady’s kindness after Father John departed. Without sentimentality I can report and still recall that the love with which it was made and intended, imparted an extra vivid goodness to my taste buds. I cannot explain this perception; but I know it to be true and unimagined. I ate and swallowed with a sacramental slowness; my digestive tract felt aglow. A few hours later, but still a good two hours prior to sleep, I decided to do some reading and studied Father John’s bookshelf for ideas. A wonderful thick brown leather volume caught my attention: it was a very handsome copy of The Jerusalem Bible. I spent a few moments courting it, looking through some illustrations and front matter. Then happy with the feeling of it, I turned straight to John’s Gospel. I waited a few seconds and then began reading the pleasantly large type in earnest, in a condition somewhat approaching Zen Beginner’s mind.
I want to emphasize a few things here. In something like 25 years I had not been inside a church unless it was because of someone’s death or unless it was a spectacular cathedral somewhere, usually in Europe, because I wanted to quietly admire the outrageous history and architecture of the place. I was not religious in any sense, though I of course ardently pursued various modes of spiritual inquiry (as you have gathered by now) in an entirely self-directed manner. I experienced no inner debates about God or salvation or creeds or doctrines. I considered atheism to be foolishly presumptuous, the more vocal varieties of which to be either smokescreens for a fundamentalist material worldview or a reactionary mental infection brought on due to someone’s escape from some sort of unfortunately uncritical evangelical upbringing. Or both. But I was definitely not in the habit of countering this with an avid belief in God; nor did I frequently read the Bible. My views on belief were as follows: if you know a thing, you no longer have a need to either believe it or disbelieve it. Therefore, one should remain open, and strive to know. And while doing so, don’t give anybody else access to your steering wheel.
But… this reading of John, this night, all the way through in one long thoughtful sitting, with it’s slightly different language conventions due to the Jerusalem sourcing, was one of the most deeply moving events of my life. Because I was so open, so silent, forces I cannot describe or explain were flooding into me. Like nutrition for different organs. The Sermon on the Mount radiated within my chest. For the entire final third of the gospel, from about the agony in the garden onwards, I was in a deeply emotional state. It was difficult to maintain my presence as against the stupendous vastness of what I was reading, the succession of images. It was something like watching Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time as a teenager. Except the coloring behind it was not artistic, rather solemn disclosure. I can say little more about this. It was a highlight of my life, right up there with the usual events people ascribe to this label. I closed the light and laid my head on the pillow, feeling profoundly communicated to.
“Come and see.” – Gospel of John 1:39
On the Fifth Day
Next morning I felt past the need to sit Zen. I seemed already there, in whatever location or condition it might possibly conduct me towards. I simply existed with concentration and meditative resiliency in whatever tasks I happened to be engaged with, without the need or interest in cushions or incense sticks. I felt happy and matter-of-fact about walking outside. Around a quarter to eleven in the morning, having made sure needs of thirst or hunger would not interfere, I clasped the doorknob and for the first time in over four days, gently pushed it open allowing the interior and exterior ambiences to flood one another in a seamless mixture. I stood some moments taking in the living scene, employing all senses, but noticeably without the usual background hiss of rapidly chaining thoughts. The world felt superb and deep, and that part of it designated ‘I’ felt peaceful and kind.
I moved slowly into the space of Father John’s backyard, occupying it as though with dignity but also with an utter lack of egoity. No aggression in my sensory activity; no expectation within my thinking. The air entering into me felt cool and giving; the air exiting me felt unrushed, respectful, and gratefully parted with. There was no feeling of time passage and precious little in the way of deliberation. When I arrived at the right spot, I turned to glance down the long stone driveway and saw the path into the forest directly across the street from where the driveway met it. What little will I exerted propelled me slowly down the driveway. I’m certain I would have presented a peculiar image to any onlooker, simply for the turtle’s pace and for the constant regarding of my surroundings with appreciating participation. It is hard to know exactly, but it must have corresponded to ten earth minutes, the elapsed time before I reached the portal of the forest. And not an instant of boredom along the way.
“Practice deep listening and loving speech to restore communication and reconcile the world.” – Thích Nhất Hạnh
Nothing within this demeanor was in the slightest way constructed. It was simply the way I encountered myself to be that glorious morning. The forest was absolutely delightful to exist within. I felt invited. Endless sequences of different leaf forms and shades of green, passing scents, the steady servile kindness of the earth’s floor beneath my sandals, and the sounds, the sounds, revealing a conspiring and busy community of striving and cautioning and connoting among myriad kinds of active, attentive natural beings. I had the feeling of taking things in, during this blessed walking, in a panoramic manner, as a sensory tableau, instead of piecemeal analyzing individual aspects or features. The path was wide, walking me along it effortlessly. The light was generous. Conscious of my enjoyment, I suddenly had the intuition to pause for a long moment. The zendo must have been half an hour away. The ensuing cessation of my motion was strangely palpable for me. I concentrated all of my being upon taking in the scene before me, around me, everything that was independent of me. The world grew more alive in proportion to my silent watching stillness. I became accepted as part of the furniture of the natural surroundings in this stillness and the alive forest vivified before me, swelling into greater being like a tuning orchestra.
A small bird alighted on a limb, slightly above my head, at most fifteen feet down the path. (I believe it was a towhee — but you must try to understand that I was not in the mental space of naming or categorizing.) Not even necessary to turn my head to accomplish its contemplation, only a subtle movement of the eye. I was with it, regarding it, in it’s presence, with absolutely no thinking, aware of it as miracle. No time passed for a long moment. I felt a fuzziness ensue within the usual distinction between myself and bird. Like drops of colored dye tactfully entering a vial of water. Something new to me entered our sensorium, me and the bird. Something announced itself as accompanying the visual, and the audial, the tactile, and so forth. I was sensing the bird’s life, it’s livingness, the life within it. As though a supplemental sense organ availed itself to me. We do not normally perceive life, per se. But I was perceiving it. Then, maintaining my stance somehow in the face of this experience, an additional layer manifested. I also sensed something like it’s sentience. It chirped twice. It seemed to become, or rather to be revealed as, all head in this chirping. It’s entire being vibrated and expressed within these soundings. I felt the movement, the execution, the impulse, the gesture, not as something external but within the boundaries of my being. The bird pulsed and a corresponding motion echoed within my heart and throat. I had a momentary direct access to it’s birdness which defies ordinary description.
The bird departed with an instant splash of will, leaving a subtly trembling branch touching my eyes. And for a short eternity I stayed with the branch, contented. The reality of the experience was self-evident, despite its uniqueness. Authentic as a sweetheart’s kiss, true as a child’s wonder, real as resplendent yellow, actual as sneezing, unimaginary as a thunderstorm.
Thanks for reading about my supernatural adventure. A continuation narrative about my meditation walk through the forests near Lake Gunthersville will appear soon. The raison d’etre for this series of articles is explained here. A previous supernatural adventure can be read about here. May you be open to your own supernatural adventures, while taking care to retain your clear-eyed reason and mental sobriety, to protect yourself from delusion.
Note: This narrative has purposely been almost purely descriptive, and as mentioned in my introduction to this series of articles, I willingly rely upon the general quality of the rest of my writings on this blog to counter any suppositions a reader might entertain as to my truthfulness or gullibility. That said however, and in recognition of my own interest in such matters as narrated here, I will soon offer an Addendum (linkable above) to this piece which will be devoted to speculative explanations as to how and why such phenomena occur, or are perceived. It should be not necessary for me to state that I neither believe nor contend that practicing zazen meditation is either a necessary or sufficient generator for experiences such as these.
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