The French crêperie is full of emptiness this morning. Almost no one is here. Even though this is one of the only places open, it's still early and there are only a few loners in the place, each celebrating Thanksgiving in his or her own way.
There's an Indian couple at a table near the fireplace. They sit and drink their coffee in silence, not even looking at each other. Then there are a handful of grizzled old farts, alone, sitting at their respective tables, alone, sipping their coffees, alone, reading a book or writing in a Journal, alone, as if being alone has become a comfortable habit for them, and they are quite content with simply being, alone.
I sit at my own table, pretending to write in my own Journal, waiting for my cappuccino and croissant to arrive. I am pretending to write because I don't have anything to say yet. I didn't expect to be here this morning, having to come up with something to write about. I arrived home late last night, brain-burned from consulting in faraway cities, looking forward to nothing more exciting this Thanksgiving weekend than lazing about at home, relaxing, catching up on phone calls and email, meditating and doing Nothing Productive.
But this morning I awoke shivering, to discover that they (whoever they are) had turned off my heat and my telephone. Not that I am complaining. They had a right to. My current client hasn't paid me in several months, so I didn't have the money to pay the bills. Oh well, I thought, that's one of the realities of life as a ronin...living with Accounts Receivable Hell.
So I got up and went to light a fire in the kiva, only to find that I was also out of firewood. Bummer. After taking an extremely short, extremely cold shower, I got dressed and ventured outside, where I discovered it was actually warmer in the sun than it was inside my adobe. I grabbed a couple of carrots from the big bag of them that I bought a couple of weeks ago and went out to sit on my patio.
As I suspected he would, after a few minutes don Genaro came by to visit. I said hello and tossed him one of the carrots. We exchanged pleasantries for awhile while munching our carrots, and caught up on what had been happening in our respective worlds for the last couple of weeks. Finally, though, he grew tired of the conversation and hopped off into the desert to join his jackrabbit buddies, his tall ears upright and alert for the presence of a cubic centimeter of chance, a mystical portal leading to a cool bunny moment. I watched him hop away and shivered from the cold and thought to myself, "Smart bunny. Time for a Road Trip!"
I ran a mental SQL query on my assets. It returned a remarkably small result set. I had a twenty and a five in my pocket and the possibility of more tomorrow on the Magiccard when my deposit cleared. I had a full tank of gas in Protector. And I had the big bag o' carrots. Not bad, actually. I smiled, thinking, "Hell, I can squeeze a cool moment or two out of this." So I grabbed my Journal and the big bag o' carrots, threw them into Protector's passenger seat, and roared off in a cloud of dust to spend Thanksgiving in Santa Fe.
The cool moments did not exactly start right away. I got to Santa Fe and found it — as Leonard Cohen said so well — deader than heaven on a Saturday night. Everyone was at home with their families, putting turkeys in the oven and making mashed potatoes and stuffing and cranberry sauce and checking to see if they have enough Pepto Bismal for later. Then I found that my favorite sidewalk café, the one where I normally sit and write when I am in town, was closed. The nerve! Do these people have lives or something? So I walked around the Plaza for awhile, and finally remembered the French crêperie, which is almost always open.
That's the story of how I come to be sitting here, just another loner in a room full of emptiness, waiting for my cappuccino and croissant to arrive. While I'm waiting, I look around the room and check out the other old farts. They're all pretty cool, actually, and for a minute or two I consider going over and starting a conversation with one of them, opening with, "Howdy...I don't mean to bother you, but I was wondering just what one has to do with his life to become as interesting as you seem to be." They are classics, each one of them.
But just then the waitress arrives with my order and, while gracefully setting the mug of steaming cappuccino and equally-warm croissant in front of me, glances out the window and comments on how beautiful the cathedral looks in the morning light. I turn around to look, and find that she is right on. Much more right on than I am, in fact. I have been sitting here lost in my own petty problems, thinking about how to pay my bills, missing the best light show in town. The morning light has turned the face of the cathedral into an enormous, glowing sculpture, seemingly carved in Romanesque splendor from a block of pure gold.
I turn and thank her, honestly, for pointing it out to me. She gives me one of those smiles that makes you seriously consider the term 'soulmate' and then turns and walks away. I watch her long, tanned legs for a moment and the grace with which their movement turns the simple act of crossing a room into an artform, and wonder whether she might be my cubic centimeter of chance for a cool moment.
At that moment, the image of a pair of lithe, strong, tanned legs wavers in my vision as if through heat-haze. I am looking in the same direction, the Legs Of Wonder are still there, but I can no longer see them. The café fades from my vision and all I can see is the image of the cathedral, glowing in the golden light of morning in the high desert. I close my eyes, and the image is still there, even though the actual cathedral is outside, behind me. I open my eyes and the image persists. I turn to look at the real thing, and the vision follows my line of sight as I turn, surfing the wall of the café as if it were projected onto it as part of a slide show. Outside the window, as I continue to turn, the image projects itself onto buildings and cars and trees until I am actually looking at the cathedral itself. Then the vision merges with its source and it suddenly strikes me why I am sitting here in this café, having a cappuccino and a croissant and writing in my Journal instead of relaxing at home. I am here because I intended it, two weeks ago, standing in front of that very cathedral.
I was out on a walk. I walk a lot. Anyway, on this particular walk, I found myself in front of the Saint Francis Cathedral. I was standing there, gazing up at it in wonder, thinking about how long it has been here and the people who built it. There is a sign, right there on the front of the building, that says:
I found myself wondering — not for the first time — what life must have been like for the architects and craftsmen who were brought here from France, in a very different century, to build a house for God in this place. This place that, among all other places on this planet, has possibly the least need for such a house. The place — rolling desert hills at the foot of a holy mountain — had been constructed by a far more talented and far more subtle architect, designing for him or her Self. If these workers were the kinda guys I suspect they were, they probably paused a few times every day to wipe their brow, looked around at the view, and felt humbled by the pettiness of their undertaking.
But they built it anyway, and here it stands, hundreds of years later. They had the ego to carve a house for God out of stones that were already perfect when they started carving them. But I'll bet they also had the humility to stop from time to time and say to one another, "Y'know, François, this is some silly merde we are up to here, thousands of miles from our home. Look at that view. Who needs a cathedral here to feel close to God? But I still feel good about what I am doing, because I am living the way I want to live — in the pursuit of my faith — and leaving a pointer to that faith for other people. That's not a bad way to spend one's life."
I walked around to the entrance, and stood for a while gazing at the sculpture of Saint Francis that stands there. The artist did a good job with the face. He caught something in that face. Looking to the left of the sculpture, I read the prayer written by the person whose face the artist had tried to imagine:
It was then that I came up with the intent that landed me here in this café this morning. I realized, standing there reading a simple monk's prayer, that I hadn't been doing much lately to live up to the responsibilities of being a simple monk. This was not a new realization. Someone's offer, made to me a few weeks back, had put me in touch with the fact that I hadn't given much back to the universe for far too long. I had become complacent and lazy. So I made a promise to myself. Right there, standing in front of the cathedral, I set myself a task of intent. I would give this giving thing another try.
The only thing I knew of that inspired a sense of giving in me lately was writing, writing with the firm intent to inspire other people. So, with all the force of such a moment of clarity, I intended to come back to Santa Fe again in two weeks. Then, the way I dreamed it, I would spend the day sitting in cafés writing about what it was like to be a former student of Rama's, and what it was like for one of those weirdos to spend Thanksgiving in and around Santa Fe, in some of the places Rama loved most. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
Five minutes later, of course, I had forgotten about my promise to myself completely, and was busy making plans for traveling to some other place of power within a reasonable drive of home, to see what Thanksgiving was like there. I switched itineraries at least twice a day during the following two weeks. And last night, when I finally got home, all that remained of my plans was a desire to lay low in my little house in the desert for the whole weekend, and skip the Road Trip altogether.
Yet here I sit again in Santa Fe, contemplating writing in my Journal instead of going somewhere new, instead of vegging out at home. Instead, even, of hitting on the Waitress From Brahmaloka. Go figure.
Lesson of the day: Be careful what you intend — you just might get it.
Case in point: Here I sit, driven out of my house by the cold and a gnawing sense of disconnectedness from the Internet, doing exactly what I intended to do in a rare moment of insight two weeks ago. I'm here to write a story about Thanksgiving in Santa Fe, as seen through the eyes of one of Rama's former students. The only problem is, I don't know what to write about. Despite the vision of the cathedral earlier, this morning hasn't exactly been one of my highest moments. I sit here, refreshed with purpose but lacking inspiration. My Journal is open in front of me, my pen is in my hand, but the blank page remains a study in emptiness.
The waitress notices my inertia and walks up to replenish my coffee and my interest in her legs. She asks if I am enjoying my croissant. I tell her it is wonderful, and we talk for a couple of minutes about what makes them so fresh and wonderful here at this particular crêperie. I am so wrapped by the conversation and her legs that I am thinking of fighting the dharma, giving up on the idea of writing anything, and spending the rest of my life with her when the vision thing happens again.
Instead of her standing in front of me, suddenly I see Rama, leaning back on a couch on the tiny stage of the Neptunian Women's Club in Manhattan Beach. Instead of sitting in a French crêperie in Santa Fe, having a cappuccino and a croissant and watching an interesting woman, I am suddenly sitting in the audience in that faraway place and time, having a conversation with Rama about sitting in a French crêperie in L.A., having a cappuccino and a croissant and watching another interesting woman. The experience is, to say the least, intensely recursive.
The waitress notices that I have completely spaced out on her and falls silent. After a few seconds, she gives up on me, deposits my check on the table, and walks away, probably having written me off for all time as having a Poor Reality Quotient. She is right on, again. But this time I hardly notice her departure. I am still lost in my vision, and when I finally turn my gaze to my Journal, I find that once again the vision follows my gaze and superimposes itself onto the leather-bound volume and the empty page in front of me. I pick up my pen, and the vision starts to turn into words on the wheat-colored paper, words describing that short conversation with Rama so many years ago.
He started the conversation. It was the first Center Meeting after we had distributed a new edition of the Self Discovery magazine we put out from time to time. Previous editions had been kinda straight — fairly standard tabloid spiritual newsletter stuff. But this latest one was somewhat different, and he wanted our reactions to it. So he asked us a question, and then kicked back, waiting for us to speak. He said, "Tell me about your experiences with the new Self Discovery. We distributed it this weekend. There are now hundreds of thousands of copies, free for the taking, in thousands of places throughout Southern California. What have you learned from it, from seeing it in print, from your reactions to it and from other peoples' reactions to it?" He paused the perfect number of beats and then added, "After all...you're the ones who wrote it."
I listened to other students' replies, stories of how inspiring it was to watch fellow students or non-students pick it up and read it and become inspired themselves. They all spoke of the magic of watching it, of seeing peoples' reactions to the cover, and then the look on their faces as they read the stories inside. Hearing their stories, I remembered my own, and raised my hand to tell it.
I told the story of going to a French crêperie much like the one around me as I write this. I was hoping to score a cappuccino much like the one in front of me and a croissant much like the one in front of me. It was a Sunday morning, and I was tired from a six-day workweek from hell, so I needed the change of scene as much as I needed the caffeine and sustenance.
As I walked in, I passed a rack of freebie newspapers and magazines, neatly arrayed there in racks beside the door. I glanced at them as I passed, checking each one out briefly, and then walked on, my mind firmly intent on the charms of coffee. Then a face I had seen on one of the covers of one of the magazines registered in my mind, and I stopped dead in my tracks.
I turned around and walked back to the newspaper that had caught my eye. Its cover consisted of a full-color, full-page photo of a purple Porsche. Sitting on the hood of the Porsche was a young woman, whose face was as beautiful and as bright as her aura. I knew her. I looked at the top of the magazine and saw the words 'Self Discovery.' The only other thing on the cover, as I remember, was the word 'Free.'
I picked up the paper and carried it with me to the counter. I ordered my cappuccino and croissant and, when they arrived, took them to a table near the door and sat down, opening the newsletter and beginning to read. What I read shocked me almost as much as the fact that I had almost walked past it without recognizing what it was. I wasn't involved in the actual production of the magazine, so I had no idea what to expect, but what I found inside was even weirder than whatever I did expect.
It was filled with our stories, the ones we had been writing for the past several months. Rama had asked all of his students to write down some of their experiences for a book he was thinking of publishing, to be called (at the time) Samadhi Is Loose In America. I wrote my share of such stories, but had forgotten all about them because I never heard anything more about them or the book. It eventually was released as The Last Incarnation. But he had never mentioned using them for this issue of Self Discovery, so I was surprised to find them inside. None of the stories was mine, so I relaxed and began to read — for the first time — other students' impressions of this weird study we were involved with. And weird it was. There were stories about meditation as self discovery, about career as self discovery, about chance meetings in airports as self discovery. And there were stories from the desert, stories about the stars moving around and this Rama guy disappearing and glowing and (with all due credit to Douglas Adams) hovering in mid-air in precisely the way a brick doesn't.
I sat there sipping my cappuccino and reading. Finishing each story, I would turn the page and look at the cover again, trying to somehow reconcile the dichotomy between the stories and the cover. After a few stories, I began to realize that there wasn't any dichotomy. These were just our stories, the way we lived our everyday lives. They were presented as unapologetically as the cover presented the juxtaposition of a purple Porsche, a beautiful woman, and the words 'Self Discovery.'
The crêperie began to fill up. I looked up from my paper and happened to notice, just as she walked in the door, an attractive young woman with extraordinarily long, extraordinarily beautiful legs. (You may have begun to notice a trend in the things that capture my attention; I believe this trend is called samsara — the tendency to do the same silly shit over and over in the hope that things will turn out differently.) Anyway, this woman was striding in the door, dressed well in a crisp business suit, obviously On Her Way Somewhere, both in her career and on this particular Sunday morning.
As I watched, she did exactly the same thing I had done a half hour before. She walked past the rack of freebie newspapers, checking each one out with a brief glance as she continued her purposeful walk to the counter. Then she stopped dead in her tracks, just as I had done, and walked back to the stack of Self Discovery's. She stood there for almost a full minute, just looking at the cover.
Then she picked up the paper and opened it and began to leaf through it. She seemed intrigued, and finally put it under her arm and carried it to the counter, where she ordered her own caffeine and sustenance and then carried them to a table near me. I sat watching her as she read. It may have been impolite, and she probably thought I was leching on her, but I really wasn't. I was interested in how she would react to what she was reading.
Interestingly enough, her reaction was much like mine. She would read one of the stories, then turn back and look at the cover, with a perplexed look on her face. Her statement simply shouted a message: "This does not compute! It seems to be a series of personal stories about spiritual experiences, and the name of the paper is Self Discovery. But there's this cover photo of a Porsche with an attractive blonde model sitting on top of it. This simply does not compute!"
It didn't compute. But after about ten minutes of reading, it started to make her smile. Then a couple of the stories made her chuckle quietly to herself. Then one of them made her laugh out loud, and she caught herself, stopped, and looked around guiltily to see if anyone had noticed. I pretended I hadn't. She read for a few more minutes, finished her coffee, got up and started to walk away. The Self Discovery still lay there on the table. From where I sat, a trick of the light made the young woman's face on the cover look as forlorn as a discarded lover.
Then she stopped, and after a moment's hesitation walked back to the table. She picked up the Self Discovery, looked at it, and then folded it in half and put it in her purse. She turned and walked purposefully out of the café, but this time with a different purpose. As she walked, she laughed again out loud. This time she didn't look guilty about it.
I stopped talking. Rama sat there for a moment in silence, and at first I thought he was going to say something profound about the experience. Instead, he began to laugh. He didn't just laugh...he roared! When he settled down, he said, "That's it. That's it perfectly — my students! Sitting in a French café, having a cappuccino and a croissant and reading about self discovery and having a good moment. That's perfect. That is what we do.
"That is why I put the picture of the Porsche and the blonde on the cover. They are not incompatible with self discovery, but everyone will think they are. They won't get it. This young woman in the café may not have gotten it. She may never come to one of my talks. But she may, in time, become curious and pursue her own self discovery. That is why I put these newsletters out. That is why I got you involved in this one, because I wanted you to experience what that feels like."
Rama fell silent for a moment and scanned the room, gazing at each of the students in turn. Then he simply said, "We share an uncommonly fine life," and asked for the next story.
That's the end of the Rama story. Back in the Santa Fe crêperie, I pause for a moment to consider how I should end this one. I ponder the problem for a while, and then come up with it. I will try to explain how the moment with a jackrabbit and the moment at the cathedral and the moments in this café have anything to do with a website about Rama.
Some who have read my stuff there have probably wondered, "Who is this Uncle Tantra crank, and what does he think he's doing writing weird shit about his life on a website constructed to honor someone else's life?" Good question. I am just a former student of Rama's, as are most of those who go there. I am there because someone made me an offer I couldn't refuse. The webmistress, in a fit of what may in time be seen as folly, offered to put up on her website things that I write, anonymously. This is a generous offer and, when you think about it, a potentially risky one. After all, we are talking about a weird old fart who lives in the desert and has conversations with jackrabbits named don Genaro.
But I couldn't refuse, again because of intent. Her intent is pure and noble. It is to inspire those of us who were fortunate enough to spend time with this cosmic clown named Rama to remember that we have stories to tell, and to provide a space for those stories when we feel up to telling them. That intent to inspire was greater than my intent to remain uninspired. The webmistress' intent and the stories it attracted from other students, stories that I was able to read on the website, worked their magic. Given her offer, I literally had to try to put my self-indulgence aside, to reinspire myself, to do a reorg on my personal intent, and write some stories of my own, in the hope that some of them will help in the attempt to share her intent, and its benefits, with others.
Because there are benefits. Writing these stories is a high experience. It allows us, in the process of writing about our highest moments in the past, to tap back into those moments and re-experience them, and possibly have a new high moment in the present. It is one serious shitload of fun, and I highly recommend it. It is also a veritable spiritual experience, because the tales we tell there are more than simply stories.
The stories and poems on the website are our cathedrals. They are pointers to our faith, and to some of the cool moments that faith led us to. The telling of them augments the beauty of the moments themselves as little as the Romanesque cathedral in the center of Santa Fe augments the natural beauty of the place itself. But we do it anyway, because it feels good. And because in our hearts we are a lot like Francis, and for us the doing feels like giving, like sowing a little light in the darkness. And because there is always one cubic centimeter of chance that one of your stories will inspire someone else, inspire them to realize that they have stories of their own to tell, to share.
That's all I am trying to do here in this crêperie, scribbling in a Journal over cappuccino and croissants — attempting to share. On the website, I was presenting the possibility to other Rama students that their spiritual life neither began when they met him nor ended when he went away. We had cool moments before, we had cool moments during, and we have cool moments now. Each of those moments is meat for a story, a great cut of beef waiting to be transformed into a gastronomic delight by the proper chef. And there are a lot of folks out there hungry for a good meal. And in this book I am presenting that same possibility to those who never met the man, but who have had cool moments of their own.
But right now this particular cool moment has to come to an end, because the crêperie is beginning to get crowded, and there are folks out there hungry for my table. The waitress hasn't come back since leaving my check, and is casting annoyed glances in my direction because I am taking up one of her tables, not ordering anything. So I write these last few words into my Journal and then, after sipping the last of my cappuccino, reach into my jeans pocket and leave the twenty for her.
Five bucks is enough to get me through the day. After all, I've got the big bag o' carrots. Besides, it's Thanksgiving, and I am thankful that her casual comment about the cathedral triggered a memory of my own intent and inspired this story. I am thankful to her for reminding me that I have stories — that I have experienced cool moments in my life that might inspire others. And I am truly thankful to her for reminding me that an uncommonly fine life is nothing more than a string of uncommonly fine moments, and that such moments are always at hand. This was one of them. I hope it reminds you of your own.
Because whether you remember it or not, you too have lived an uncommonly fine life. You are living an uncommonly fine life right now. That's just what spiritual seekers do. And occasionally those moments are simply so cool that you have to share them. That's not a bad way to spend one's life. When you think about it, that's the only thing one can do with an uncommonly fine life — share it.