He woke up to his true nature in prison -- a high-security prison in the high desert area of northeastern California. He understands the gift of it now and he calls the incarceration a divine intervention. Most of his buddies that were “running amuck”, as he says, are dead. He tried to die several times, too; he was so lost in the great suffering of addiction. He tried to overdose and would then swim fully clothed far out into the ocean, until he would lose all strength, only to find himself coming to senses hours later, miles from where he went in. The ocean would spit him out, unconscious, to the same Monterey Bay shores, the land of his ancestors.
He is Native American. His tribe, called Amah Matsun, is still not recognised by the federal government though his ancestors lived on this land, around the Bay, for centuries before anyone else stepped foot here. Like most Native Americans, he didn’t have a great childhood. His ancestors were either killed or converted to Christianity by white people. They were given alcohol, which their bodies could not properly assimilate, due to the absence of specific enzymes. Strong addiction to alcohol, and death from it, is common among Native Americans.
How to take in the world as it is now and pretend that it’s all right to be a refugee in your own land? How not to feel the ancestral suffering of a mass genocide that no one wants to know and hear about? How to witness the destruction of land and nature when any rights to your own soil are taken away? The Amah Matsun people, like most Native Americans, were stripped of their ways of living, their history, their rituals, their language, their names. I can understand why his grandfather drank, why his father drank, why he was drinking and using anything that would make him not feel. And he understood it, too, in prison. He finally understood why he was trying to kill himself; why he had been addicted to drugs and alcohol for most of his adult life, with the exception of some years where he was sober and trying to lead a normal life, raising a son.
He was on the run for a long, long time. He was running from feeling it all, from feeling the immense sorrow of his people, from grief stuffed down their throats and kept there in order to survive the extermination.
One day the cops came. Although he was mad at them and at the system that indeed unlawfully imposed the prison term, he is now grateful for the second chance to live. He is open to feeling with his whole being, regardless of whether he is experiencing the hardships or the joys of life, whether things are difficult or easy, pleasant or unpleasant. “Elena,” he says, “I am feeling it, and this is what it is all about to be a human, it is a blessing!”
While he was incarcerated, he was told that his mother died. Suddenly, the immense feeling of loss and guilt was too big to run from. He was sober and vulnerable, but he didn’t have any skills to deal with this feeling yet. The prison environment was too brutal to show any trace of feeling, it would be perceived as weakness. Prison is not a place where you cry openly and are comforted. The only way to handle a grief of such magnitude in such conditions is to shut down the outer expression completely and dive inside with it.
His story reminded me of a long vipassana retreat. Of course, when you sign up for a retreat you sign up voluntarily. Later on, you would want to run away many times, and at those times might view your predicament as if you are stuck for the term, with no escape. Doing the time, you burn from the fires of your inner hell, while anger rushes to the surface of the mind, completely overtaking the psyche of your seemingly still body. You feel hot, cold, lightheaded, sometimes you feel you are going to lose it; the pain -- physical and emotional -- is too overwhelming not to act upon it. You literarily burn and sweat it out through your pores. Naturally, the body needs to react to the feeling by moving, by changing positions to ease up on the pain, by acting out, by getting loud, by crying. You want a tranquilliser or anything that will help to stop this violent movement of overwhelming emotion and the unbearable sensations it brings. But this is the liberating quality of vipassana: if you do not act on the pain, it will arise, it will grow bigger, it will expand and take all the available space, until every corner of your being is saturated with it, then suddenly it will break down into millions of subatomic particles, erasing any solidity of the body/mind organism, making the cycle complete. It is an ancient technique of mind purification through awareness of, and equanimity with pain, and some of us stumble on it completely accidentally.
The grief of losing his mother while he was locked up was immense. The prison had no private place to be -- even the cells and bathrooms had no solid walls to hide behind. With his heart split open by loss, he went deep inside his own self. He had no other choice, he just let the feeling be, it was too big to “manage.” The feeling overtook his whole being, and one day he just dropped all the superficial shields, and became real.
He left prison a bit disoriented. He was released early for good work and for exhibiting good character, and given a few dollars to get by. He spent all of it to get back to Monterey by taking several transit buses. He arrived early in the morning; it was raining. With a plastic bag containing all his life possessions, he exited the bus, looked around, and started to walk. He kept walking in the rain, since he really didn’t know what else to do, or where to go. Walking in the rain without an aim, with nothing to hold onto, he became the rain, the path, the walking. Ideas of who he was washed away under that rain.
He doesn’t really know what happened to him, he just knows he wasn’t the same anymore. The world wasn’t the same. What was that? What happened? He only knows he doesn't need to run from anything anymore, no feeling is too big to feel. He feels the world as himself, very acutely. In the world that he couldn’t bear, he found his own rules to live by. He lives and is moved by love. The mind is still there and still thinking old thoughts, but the thoughts are not believed anymore with the old conviction. Everything seems the same and not, at the same time.
Someone gave him an old bicycle. He started to work as a painting contractor again. Same work, same life, same town, but something major had happened. He couldn't explain it to himself, nor was he looking for explanations. He kept the old character of Tony that was at least something familiar, the same scratchy voice, and the same construction guy vocabulary. As more time passed, a couple of old friends noticed the changes in Tony, but they attributed it simply to his being sober.
He was a good painter even before, but now he became a true master of his craft. He paints as he dances, one with the rhythm of the brush. He feels the brush as an extension of his hand and his whole being. He plays Native American music on his iPhone. You would think he might put pain onto the walls, but in reality he covers the walls with his energy, tinted in color. His mind is still when he is involved with intricate details, and is joyful when he has more space to play with. This probably got the attention of the building contractors who hired him to work again and again, and eventually became his new friends.
One day, on the porch of the housing complex where she was living at the time and where he was painting the adjacent rooms, they met. Their beings merged in a split second, without the consent of their minds. The gaze was too strong to hold: he turned away, feeling he was in forbidden territory, as if he was not worthy of her. She walked away with the attitude of a queen who has just been looked at by a servant. Both were still under the spell of old stories in the mind, which, unquestioned, run our lives.
When the being suddenly expands to its limitless state in the experience of awakening, it truncates the character, the limited self-identity, along with the neurological passages in the brain on which this identity is held. It rearranges, deletes the old passages and creates pristine new ones, sending out millions of neurones as a lightning bolt through the brain in an instant. Coming back to an old life environment, the neurones will surely try to sneak in by the old route, like dry arroyos in a desert that still hold their shape, just in case the rain comes and water can flow again. The old character will try to hold on, old habits and patterns will execute in a second. Yes, she tried to run away, yes, he was unsure about himself, but behind the meeting of the old characters, the larger meeting happened: being met being, the new energies recognised each other, the frequencies of limitless awareness merged in an instant. The meeting was complete.
She was the first one to see the vastness of him, the fullness of his being. He almost made her believe in an old character that barely fit him, but she was taken by the power and innocence she felt in him. With her keen sensitivity, she noticed the nuances in the pitch of his voice. He had a very deep, ageless voice, but sometimes he would start talking in a tone that was difficult for her to listen to. It felt like a sharp knife through her senses, and was almost painful. She was able to notice where the voice came from in the body itself: from the belly, what called in martial arts “hara”, the energetic center, or the throat. Every time the voice would originate from the throat, the expression was coming from old thought forms, like something belonging to an old character. She just had to point this discrepancy, there was not much explanation needed, it was also obvious to him, very clear, right in the moment. It was easy for him to see it and relax, and then the voice would freely drop down to the belly. And usually this would bring a pause, a short period of silence, as though he was feeling, trying on those old thought forms in a relaxed way. In a very short time with this uncompromising biofeedback, he just settled into the frequencies of his new voice and grounded himself into a new character. She called him Anthony. Old Tony was gone.
She started to offer vocabulary for his experience. “Awakening.” “Awakening to Presence.” “Being.” She was on the path to awakening through many years of spiritual search; he arrived spontaneously. Awakening is always a spontaneous event, but some of us are more prepared for what to expect than others. Luckily, there is not much one needs to understand, one only needs validation that what they experienced is a known phenomenon, that it is a true, authentic experience, one they can trust. It will take time, perhaps the rest of a lifetime, to re-orient oneself and integrate the new perception of who they are into the experience of being human.
In Buddhism, there are “the three jewels.” The presence of the three jewels properly supports awakening, and makes an ideal environment for integrating the new way of being, especially right after the initial experience. The three jewels are: the Buddha (a teacher), the Dharma (teachings), and the Sangha (a spiritual community). Anthony had none of this support, so she came to him as all three jewels.
She needed the same support. She was couple of years into a very intense integration of the awakening journey herself -- the journey of complete demolition of the life she knew, both outer and inner. When they met, her house had been taken by a fire, her husband left with another woman, and her good health had been taken by an autoimmune illness. She left her managerial job, unable to perform it. She left her son to start his adult life. She withdrew from teaching others, she felt she needed to fully integrate before she ever spoke or guided anyone again. She was on the road for couple of years, driving the country, exploring her sudden freedom. She retired most of the old identities; her life had no goals, no structure, no certainty -- and she was completely open to it all. With that lightness of being, she ended up in Big Sur, California in the community called Esalen, where she joined the kitchen staff in exchange for a room, meals, access to the famous mineral baths, but mostly the time to reflect on her life and make no demands to support herself financially. She came for a month, and stayed for a year, prolonging her stay one month at a time, almost as if she was waiting for his journey to complete itself and bring him to paint those adjacent rooms -- and later, hers too.
From a book I am writing:
Buddha on a Bull
Practical guidance on Seeking, Finding and Living Awakening