J. C. Amberchele
Whatever idea I’ve had about how things work in this world hasn’t got me far, considering that I’ve spent more than twenty years in prison. Most of my beliefs I acquired from my father and from John Wayne, and anything that wasn’t ultra tough and ultra cool was to me ultra embarrassing. In fact, I lived in a state of near continuous embarrassment, never measuring up to the ridiculous standards I had accepted without question, applied to a framework of expectations I and no one else could meet: how I should act, how others should treat me or otherwise comport themselves in my presence, how the days and months and years should unfold to my favor.
Needless to say, I became the poster boy for control freaks worldwide. And like all control freaks, I carried beneath a façade of polished strength a sense of hollowness and doom, ever waging the war between who I thought I should be and who I thought I was. In a haze, I self-destructed over and over, taking others with me.
And then years ago, already well into this prison sentence, I happened to watch a PBS Bill Moyers interview with Joseph Campbell, and I decided to try meditation. It was difficult at first, what with the crowds and the noise and the routine in the cellblock, but I soon discovered that during meditation I had few expectations, of myself or of others, as if there were no others. It was a place of no standards and no embarrassment, a refuge where I no longer had to assert my misguided will. And except for the rare glimpse on drugs or during moments of life-threatening stress in my long criminal career, it was the first time I had truly noticed myself, that bare attention of “I am “ at the center of my awareness that, it was now obvious, had always been there.
The mystery, from then on, became a question of how this “I” had originated and from where it continued to spring. The old way of thinking, that I could be a separate consciousness in a separate mind and body, was far too painful to accept. This was the way I had been taught, the way of my father and of everyone else by whom I had measured myself; this was the way of contraction and confrontation and endless self-torture. There had to be another explanation.
This led to six years of obsessive reading. I wanted to investigate the unspoken hunch I had had since my LSD days in the Sixties, one that had previously manifested as fear, and one that had been resurrected during the Campbell interview: namely, that all the major religions carried at their root an identical message, one so clear and so basic that words were unnecessary for its realization. I suspected that my perception of the world and my so-called place in it were illusory, that reality wasn’t what I and most everyone else had thought. It was as if humankind were the recipient of a hoax the universe had conspired to play on itself. And it was clear that my life thus far had been a fight against the revelation of this knowledge, holding on, as it were, to the lies I had been handed, lashing out to avoid the truth.
I read Buddhist texts. I read Gurdjieff and Ouspensky. I read all I could find on the Christian mystics. I devoured Hafiz and Rumi, then launched myself into the work of the great Indian sages. I found Wei Wu Wei, then returned to Buddhism and dug in for the long haul. I was determined to sort this out, this mystery at the heart of the matter.
And then one day I read an article by Douglas Harding about his so-called “headlessness” and something snapped. Seeing Who we are, Harding pointed out, was elementary, so easy we miss it, and in failing to recognize it we erect philosophical and religious structures of monumental proportions, thereby concealing it all the more. And all the while it is right Here, closer than close.
At this point I thought of the old Sufi story of a highly agitated Mullah Nasrudin riding into town shouting that he had lost his donkey, until it was pointed out that indeed he was sitting upon it.
The message was clear: “We can’t see It because we are It,” and the implications were mind-shattering. Illusory – the term I had used to describe my suspect perception of the world – suddenly seemed the ultimate understatement. It was not only illusory, it was one-hundred-percent backwards! I was no longer in the universe; if anything, the universe was in me, including whatever concept I held of a supposed “self”, body and mind. I was, as Harding had said, “Space” for the world to appear in. Space that actively participated in the creation of that same world! This was astounding!
Staying with it was another matter. Like everyone else, I had been conditioned to think of myself as a separate individual with a separate consciousness, an awareness that mysteriously emanated from the spongy material inside my head. Harding was revealing the opposite, as, I now realized, were all the others, including the founders of the great religions. And like their followers, I was unable to remain open; I could not prevent myself from returning to the deceptions I had been taught as a child. It was as if I were trapped inside my own head.
No doubt, the struggle was on. It was clear: I could sit with my legs crossed for a lifetime, I could live alone in a mountain cave in Tibet, I could train in every lineage in every tradition, and still come out with the wrong view, still see myself as a separate subject seeing objects. I wanted to drop the lie and return to the truth, now. And the agony was that I kept forgetting. How to make the shift?
I have never answered that question, except to say that perhaps there is no shift. To fight it only seems to strengthen the misunderstanding. The Buddhist idea that nirvana and samsara are identical holds the key, of course, but I wanted to live it, not think about it.
And then something happened during one of our occasional Buddhist meetings here at the prison. There are fifteen hundred men in this facility, and only nine of us who have declared ourselves Buddhists, and of those, a mere half dozen had showed up. Enough, however, for a little magic.
We had finished a short meditation, and one of the men had begun a discussion of the meaning of “emptiness’, which had the effect of opening the proverbial can of worms: bickering ensued, which, since this is a prison, soon morphed into flexing. Better to return to meditation, I thought, follow the breath, but no one was in the mood. The argument continued, and I considered leaving, but then remembered Harding’s words about this Space Here, Capacity even for argument, and I remembered the exercises.
The exercises are incredibly simple and altogether radical. The fact that they are both simple and radical is how I know they are right, although when I first encountered them in Harding’s books I had to laugh, they were so wacky. But then I caught on, I “got it”, as they say, I knew they were pointing in the right direction while the rest of the world was not.
So I stood up, and the others looked at me, and I began a walking meditation around our little circle of chairs, and soon the others joined in. The idea is to keep your mouth shut and your thoughts to a minimum by focusing on the sensations in your feet as you walk, but this time I asked everyone to forget everything they had ever been taught, ever, as if they had just been born in this room and found all to be new and strange. I asked them to bring their attention to Now, and Now, and Now, as though past and future were thoughts they could not think. I remembered Harding’s account of riding in a car watching the telephone poles slide by while he was motionless, and so I asked everyone to do the same, to pretend it was the rug moving, not them, to watch the walls and the chairs glide by, the room swing wildly as they turned.
This brought a few chuckles, and after a minute or two, we sat down again and I asked the group to point to the ceiling, to notice their hand and what their finger was pointing at, in this case the ceiling tiles and lamp fixtures. Then we pointed in turn at the wall, the floor, our lap, our chest, noticing each time that it was an object (our hand) pointing at other objects, with their various descriptive qualities. But finally we pointed at what we were looking out of, and I repeated questions that Harding had asked: “If you drop your conditioning, drop everything you ever learned and proceed only on present evidence, just what is it you are now pointing at: an opaque, round, separate and solid object that relates to those things out there, or are you pointing at Space for those things, Capacity? Isn’t this Space boundless, speckless, and totally transparent, and isn’t this boundless Capacity in receipt of the room and what you are looking at? Isn’t it awake, and will you find Awakeness anywhere else in the world but Here?
No one said a word. We had no mirrors and no cards with holes in them or paper bags for the other exercises, but before they all jumped on me I figured we could deal with confrontation – something we prisoners are familiar with - by pairing up and sitting in front of one another. Harding’s “face to no-face” experiment involves a standard supermarket bag with the bottom cut off, so that both ends are open. One partner places an end over his face, as does the other partner, and the commonly accepted idea is that the partners are confronting one another inside the bag, face to face. This is our usual way of relating to others. But Harding’s questions reveal otherwise: “Forgetting everything you were ever told, and on present evidence only, how many faces are actually given? Are you face to face, or is it face there and Space Here? Are you confronting that person, or is it Capacity here for that person there, and isn’t it true that you have nothing here, not a speck, with which to keep that person out? Are you not boundless, transparent, void at this end, and at the same time are you not filled with that person in front of you, so that in a sense you have died at this end and been resurrected as that person there? Aren’t we built this way, to die in each other’s favor, and isn’t this the basis of love?”
Well, you can imagine what I expected from my fellow convicts, but they surprised me. What I heard was, “Wow!” and bursts of laughter, and more “Wows.” I don’t know if they caught on, but something happened in that room even if only to me, or should I say, to the Space at this end, the Capacity that is always Here and always filled with what is out there. I came away from that meeting knowing with the certainty of experience that Who I Really Am is always available, always just an exercise away.
And so I returned to my cellhouse watching the sidewalks and the fences and the buildings slide by, while I remained motionless, as I have always been. I have only to point my finger to remember to look at what I am looking out of, and need only the image of a face to know that the end of confrontation is Here. And I realized something else leaving that meeting: that everything sliding past was none other than Who I am; I was, incredibly, walking through Myself, in awe of every step.
So I want to thank Douglas Harding. I am grateful for his wisdom, which of course is my wisdom and everyone’s wisdom, whether or not we realize it. I am grateful for everything that turns and passes and present itself, and for all the faces in whose favor I am built to disappear. Including, even, that curious one out there in the mirror.
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