I'm sitting at the Bad Frog Tavern, having a beer and some Frog Fingers. Please don't…uh…croak. They're really chicken fingers, but that's what they were called on the menu, and I have been assured by those who have actually tasted chicken that it's a lot like frog. The Bad Frog is a colorful place. The logo shows an enormous bullfrog glaring at the camera with one arm raised, giving everyone the finger. You order a beer by flipping off the waitresses, none of whom seem particularly offended by the gesture. It seems like a perfect place to sit and write for a while about the nature of reality.
I got onto the subject last night, when I went out for the evening with several of my coworkers. Over dinner, we got into a discussion about the differences between Newtonian physics, relativity and quantum mechanics. Just your normal dinner conversation: "Well…the Newtonian view deals effectively with the behavior of objects that are slow and heavy, relativity with objects that are fast and heavy, and quantum mechanics with objects that are slow and light. But none of them really deal effectively with objects that are fast and light. Would you pass the bread?" I work with some interesting people.
The two ringleaders of this particular conversation are qualified to lead it; both have Ph.D.'s in Physics. I barely scraped through college, majoring in changing majors and Better Living Through Chemistry. Hey?! What can I say? It was the late sixties. Suffice it to say sthat I possess neither the education nor the brain cells to normally follow such a discussion. But these guys are both excellent teachers, reducing incredibly complex concepts into real, tangible metaphors that I have no trouble following. It's an artform, and tonight they are both really on. It's a pleasure to watch, and I have learned much.
But there is a part of me that is watching the conversation from far away, from a point of view that is dumfounded by their certainty, by their absolute and total assumption that these particular descriptions of the universe and how it works are correct. So correct that physicists do not even pause in their conversation when they refer to them as the Laws of Physics. I don't know about you, but I am not comfortable using terms like 'laws' when dealing with a universe that I don't recall inventing.
But maybe that's because as a self-professed spiritual outlaw, I have seen some of these laws violated, and can no longer believe in their status as 'laws.' I envy my friends' certainty. I once shared it. But that was before I sat in the desert and watched a guy do things right in front of me that the laws of physics say he can't do.
I once ran into Carlos Castaneda in an art gallery in downtown L.A. It was at one of his rare public appearances, and I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Having read all of his books - several times - I was naturally curious as to what he was like in person. I liked him. He must have been ten years older than me, but looked ten years younger. He was fit, tanned, and well-dressed. And he had one of the most staggering intellects it has ever been my pleasure to interface with. About the only thing about him that disappointed me was that he didn't have the sense of humor that was so apparent in the things he wrote about his teachers - don Juan and don Genaro. Well, I guess that's just the way it goes: the teachers get to have all the fun and the overly-serious students get to write books about them.
Anyway, what I was most interested in that evening was not just checking him out on the surface, but trying to use the very skill of seeing he had written about in his books to check him out more thoroughly. I wanted to settle for myself, once and for all, whether there was any chance that his books were fiction. So I sat and watched him for almost two hours, using every ounce of seeing that Rama had taught me, trying to catch even the hint of falsity or exaggeration or deception.
The books aren't fiction. Oh, they may be, but Carlos was just too fluid, too comfortable in the telling of these tales of power for them to be anything but the truth. The stories of wonder he told that night and in his books really happened. For him.
Which brings us back to our discussion on the nature of reality. Would a physicist, convinced that human beings cannot fly through the air or project a double of themselves onto a distant mountaintop, have seen these things happen if he or she had been there in the desert with Carlos? I really don't know. I only know that if they did, the experience would put them through some pretty heavy cognitive dissonance.
You know about cognitive dissonance…it's those moments when something happens to you, something that everything you have been taught in your entire life says cannot possibly be happening. But it is happening. Your own senses tell you that it is happening. And no matter how cool, calm and collected you try to be on the outside, inside every cell in your body is just freaking out.
Carlos was a master at freaking out. He sat in the desert and witnessed miracles - events that violated all the known laws of physics - and shrugged it all off. He was cool. But then he went home and freaked out over the experience for weeks. Thank God. I believe that is one of the most valuable aspects of his work.
I know that Rama was not as fond of Carlos as he was don Juan and don Genaro. He recommended to us that when we read the Castaneda books we focus on the two teachers, not on the student. I agree. If you need another reason than 'Rama sez,' Uncle Tantra sez that to me his sense of humor convinced me he was not on the same level as the teachers he described so well.
But I liked his freakouts. They were real. I knew, because I had gone through many just like them. Even though I had been a spiritual seeker for decades when I met Rama, and had read scores of books about siddhis and miracles and psychic phenomena and thought I was comfortable with the idea of them, the idea of them turned out to have little to do with the reality of them.
When I first started studying with Rama, I was cool. I thought I had it all figured out. Yeah, I was studying with him, but I had been around the spiritual block a few times and was into keeping my distance, not really admitting that I was learning anything new. I just sat back and checked him out at the Center Meetings, enjoying every moment of them but never really showing it. And then he took us to the desert.
I'm not cool any more. I have had my mind blown so many times by Dr. Frederick Lenz that I have discarded any hope of becoming Fonzie in my next incarnation. Oh sure…I tried to act cool at the time. I sat in the desert and watched him disappear or levitate or project the double or do special effects with the stars and I just acted cool. I sat there and thought to myself, "No problem. The man just walked up to that cliff face and stood there and then went away, from the bottom up. First his feet disappeared, then his legs, and then his torso, leaving only his head. He kept fading away until only a Cheshire Cat smile was left. No problem. This kinda stuff happens to me all the time." Then I went home and freaked out just like Carlos did.
Sometimes it didn't take that long. I would lose my cool and sit there flummoxed, trying to do anything I could think of to make this experience go away, so I didn't have to deal with it. Rama would point off to his left, drawing our attention to a cliff wall just outside the semicircle we were sitting in. He wouldn't tell us what to look for, just to look. So I looked. And what I saw was two columns of light forming a portal, a doorway. And through the doorway I could see stars. I just fuckin' freaked out, man. I know, I know…I should have just been grateful to sit there and enjoy the glimpse of an alternate reality that I was seeing. But that's easy for you to say if you haven't ever seen one. I blinked. I rubbed my eyes. I stood up and stretched and looked again. The portal was still there, and now the stars were moving. I reached into my backpack, grabbed my thermos, and downed several mouthfuls of scalding coffee. I looked again. It was still there. It was there.
It has taken me almost two decades to say that comfortably in public. It was there. I went out into the desert with Rama and he showed me something that the laws of physics say should not exist. But it did. I have tried every rationalization I could come up with to deny it was there, to convince myself that what I saw was an illusion. But it wasn't an illusion. It was really there.
So what do I do with that?
I guess I do the same thing that Carlos did. I sit and write about it, in the hopes that the writing process will solidify for me some of my feelings about these phenomena, and about the nature of reality. Before I said that I have no doubt that the events Carlos described in his books were real, for him. The extraordinary events I describe in these stories - the siddhi powers that Rama was able to manifest - were real, for me. But would they have been seen by a physicist? I don't know. Would they have been recorded by a video camera? I don't know. But if you are asking me whether they actually occurred, whether they were reality, I would say, "Absolutely."
I have really stopped caring whether the laws of physics say they could not have happened. They happened. I was there; I saw them happen. And my experiences of seeing them happen are the most real experiences in my life. They took place at moments when I was most awake, most alert, most in charge of my own faculties. I don't care what Rama's detractors say. There were no drugs involved, no sleep deprivation or hypnosis involved. I was there; the detractors were not. These things really happened.
Sometimes I wish that they had not. I wish that I had been able to convince myself that they were all an illusion, a result of mind control beamed at me by some nefarious black magician. But they weren't. Rama never suggested to me any of the phenomena I witnessed. The most he ever said was, "Watch." I watched. And things happened. When asked later, "What did you see?," a large number of students reported seeing the same things. Go figure.
Now I ask you, what is easier to believe? That an ex-college professor turned spiritual teacher had some kind of mysterious power, some kind of whammy he could aim at 600 people simultaneously from a distance, hypnotizing them and commanding them to see what he wanted them to see? Or that he simply stood there and did what he did and we just watched, experiencing as a result some remarkable phenomena?
That's for you to decide. I am not here to convince you. Rama used to say, when asked by reporters about stories of him doing extraordinary things, "My students just report their experiences." That's all I'm doing, reporting my experiences. I don't really care whether you believe that they are true or that I am the biggest bullshit artist in the history of bullshit. They happened. Deal with it. I had to.
Thinking back to my friends' conversation over dinner last night, I remember the feeling I had listening to their discussion of modern physics. It was a sense of sadness. Not because they are sad people - they are both successful, intelligent people, far more intelligent than I will ever be. But the sense of certainty with which they approach life robs them of so much wonder. And wonder is the most…uh…wonderful thing going.
When we are born, it is into a world of wonder. Everything is new; we have nothing figured out and have to learn everything from scratch. And as a result, life is fun. We laugh at the silliest shit. But then people start to describe the world to us, and we start to believe their descriptions, and the sense of wonder starts to fade. If we are 'normal,' by the time we graduate from high school we know everything there is to know about the world, and are left with nothing to wonder about.
Many spiritual texts warn about demonstrating the siddhi powers in public. When asked why he did it, Rama used to say, "I do these things for two reasons. The first is because they're fun. The second is because I feel they are good for my students' self discovery. When you witness something that you know cannot happen, it rocks your assumptions about reality. It forces you to confront those assumptions, and ask yourself whether they are really true or not. And that process loosens reality's hold on you, and leaves you without a clear definition of what reality is and who you are. If you take advantage of those moments of not knowing, moments when you can do nothing but wonder who you are and what the world is really about, that sense of wonder can enable you to make tremendous leaps in your self discovery."
Wonder is a cool word. Lao Tzu wrote about it in the Tao Te Ching: "From wonder into wonder life will open." Lao Tzu was a cool frood, and I like his book, but to be honest I prefer the riff that my favorite songwriter, Bruce Cockburn, played on his aphorism. He took Lao Tzu's words and turned them into song lyrics, evoking for me images of the desert, and of the times out of time I spent there with Rama:
Wonder is a state of mind. But it is a fragile state of mind, and can be lost when we choose to put more credence in the descriptions of the world we have been taught than we do in our own experience. The descriptions may be correct. You may be more comfortable with them than you are with your own perceptions, and your life may be less stressful and more predictable as a result. But if you go through your whole life like this, trusting others more than you trust yourself, will you be happy? I wonder.