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November 11, 1997

A Different Kind of Voyage

Clark Powell

"Ah, the anxious employment of the periodical writer," wrote the great Dr. Samuel Johnson, who should know. From 1700 to 1760, he wrote often weekly columns or broadsides signed, variously, by The Rambler, The Idler, The Adventurer.

"He that condemns himself to compose on a stated day," Dr. Johnson continued, "will often bring to his task an attention dissipated, a memory embarrassed, an imagination overwhelmed by anxieties and a body languishing with disease. He will labor on a barren topick till it is too late to change it; or in the ardor of his invention, diffuse his thoughts into wild exuberance, which the pressing hour of publication cannot suffer judgement to examine or reduce."

This same "pressing hour of publication" is upon me, your negligent and humble practitioner at an art - episodic writing - of which Johnson is the supreme master, in my view. In fact, the pressing hour of publication is almost past me. Remember last Thursday afternoon? A beautiful day it was - the October sun slanting warm and gold through the oaks that lace the Mobile sky into a cathedral with the chiaroscuros of dark mossy limbs and diagonal beams of light, and -

Oops. In the ardor of my invention, I seem to have diffused my thoughts into wild exuberance, which the pressing hour of publication cannot suffer judgement to examine or reduce.

So anyway. Last Thursday (today as I write this) I got an email saying, where is the column that was due Monday? It's already too late to be copy-edited." Oops. I wrote Edmund back and said I'd have it in the email by tonight, and that I would lead with this: "This clume has not be capyedited."

(I tick the one item off my Ideas To Do list.) Actually, I was contemplating a series about a long spiritual trek. This was because I missed the big theme last issue, which was Religions in a Pluralistic Society. I thought I might add my own personal contribution to the topic. (Some could call such "memoirializing" narcissistic and be correct, though I fondly consider my little stories to be at least partially representative, if not universal. Just like your stories are.) But you know, this would begin a series that would have to go on at least as long as that Vietnam saga I got myself into, and I just wasn't into it.

Let me explain. When I went to Vanderbilt, I listened to all kinds of lectures and read discourses like those serious articles that intimidated the last issue. I was already declared as a "religion major" in my freshman year, and was taking courses like "Phenomenology of Religion" along with the standard "Eastern Religion" and "Western Religion" courses. I was also taking Greek, so that I could read the koine or common Greek New Testament in the original.

Now for the kicker: at the time (1970) I was an 18 year old "Elder" in what was then called the Jesus Freak movement. The Jesus Movement lasted from about 1968 to 1973, when the Children of God came into ascendance and warped the whole scene. Basically, Jesus Freaks were ex-hippies (freaks) who adopted a charismatic, anti-establishment, communal, and (we thought) First Century Christianity. Like the early Christians described in the second chapter of Acts, we lived together and broke bread in common. Meaning, we rented old houses and gave them names like Koinonia House (Mobile), House of Judah (Atlanta), or The 23rd Psalm (Nashville). These became our meeting centers, or "house ministries," as we called them. Their popularity was contagious to a generation that had seen assassinations of hope, the drug deaths of rock stars - it was a kind of nationwide recovery program.

Jesus Freaks were stylishly different than the conservative Campus Crusade for Christ types, though over the years as everyone aged, the tie-dyes and bellbottoms disappeared (except for a few diehards and later, millions of latter-day deadheads) and most Jesus Freaks settled down into a more complacent suburban church style.

I took all the religion courses basically to be able to refute any challenges to my fundamentalist-charismatic view of Christian reality. I romantically viewed Vanderbilt as a sort of Nebuchadnezzar's palace, where, like Daniel, I would have my faith tested against the fire of doubt. But faith and reason should not be enemies, and I wanted not merely to study the concepts of world religions, but to somehow realize the grand and universal Reality they described. But this was an impossible stretch at that time. On one hand I was pinned down with religious dogma (in my case, fundamentalist Christianity) and on the other with the dry, left-brain didacticism of academia.

So the summer following my freshman year, I had what was then called a "nervous breakdown." As I look back, I now see that this was as much an existential crisis as a psychiatric one, perhaps even more so. I later learned that going crazy is a common stage accepted in some "primal religions" (as Huston Smith refers to the shamanistic traditions, for example, of the Native Americans) for those who venture beyond the familiar geography of the religions they were born into - the social religion, we might say, of parents and family. Almost every tradition depicts the dangers of such ascents or descents from the mundane reality of everyday life toward another order of Reality. Whether the warning comes figuratively, as in the story of Adam and Eve, or the Tower of Babel, or through folk traditions of "divine madness" or "crazy wisdom gurus" or, in India, of the avadhuta, the bizarre craziness of individuals taken to be great mystics there, but who would be instantly locked up if they appeared on any Western street - just as Jeremiah, Daniel, Isaiah, and especially old wacky Ezekiel would be hospitalized today. I mean, lie down in thoroughfares for a few hundred days, or walk around naked for a year, or wear a yoke around your neck, or eat food baked in the dung of men - well, you don't have to be a prophet to predict a future featuring heavy doses of Thorazine if they tried that stuff in Mobile.

Not that I was a shaman or prophet, of course, but that the society I inhabited simply had no other diagnosis for a young man who was seeing angels and talking to God as he sold Family Bibles door to door in North Carolina. Future: Thorazine, Prolyxin, Artane, Navane dispensed by a quack psychiatrist who said almost nothing for an entire year but simply blinked his cold stethoscope eyes and asked how my appetite was. I was chemically lobotomized for about a year before we dumped the quack doctor and I was taken off the drugs he'd dosed me with.

It is easy now to look back on that time with a condescending chuckle, except I recall how terrified and lost I was, and my first experiences of the humiliation of the stigma associated with anyone who went to a psychiatrist. I managed to maintain my Jesus Freak beliefs for about three years, but gradually I came to the conclusion that they were based largely on ignorance, fear, and the comforts of conformity to a community of fellow believers. I knew the answers were too pat, like the advice given me when I called my preacher from the hospital, and was told that my problems came from the atheistic doctors, and the solution: "Just pray, brother."

It is not easy to part from a path that you had once passionately followed, and from the friends who could no longer be your fellow believers. But it came down to this, as Joseph Maxwell once remarked: "You either say 'Yea, Verily' or "Bullsh*t." There is finally no other response." Academics try to quibble, but I feel Maxwell was right, if you want to be brutally honest - there is no third choice.

Thus, in my own way, I took the course of Solomon, or whoever "the Preacher" was who wrote that bittersweet Book of Ecclesiastes. For the next seven years, while I was at The University of Alabama, I gave myself over to the pleasures of the here and now. Eat, drink, and be merry, as the Preacher put it, for tomorrow we die. And the mid-seventies was a good time to be hedonistic. I hardly followed the path of excess to any Blakean palace of wisdom, nor did I attain the mature ennui and world-weariness of the Preacher, who viewed both the life of pleasure and the ascetic approaches of traditional religion as "vanity of vanities." Both courses, against the reality of death, were equally vain.

Nonetheless, my original spiritual curiosity (it would be a stretch to declare it a quest) never died altogether. In my 20's, as I learned more about Buddhism and various traditions of Eastern meditation, the hard defenses of my cynicism began to melt a little. I particularly liked the Buddha's words: "Believe not because some ancient book says it is so, nor because some great man says it is so, nor because everyone around says it is so. Believe only what you have experienced for yourself and found true."

In 1975 I hit the road to South America, and on the way back, as I was hitching through Central America, I read Susuki-Roshi's Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind and decided that one day I would have to go to San Francisco again and take a look at the old Japanese Zen master's sangha, the San Francisco Zen Center. This would happen, but first I had to go trough five more years of difficult education.

I left grad school in 1979 and returned to Mobile and help my mom look after my father, who had been partially paralyzed with a stroke. I was supposedly working as a low-level maritime executive at the time, and had a great one-man office in the Van Antwerp Building, though. mostly I looked out the window a lot and read Samuel Johnson. My father's slow and painful death brought a sober end to my "eat, drink & be merry" days of college. Soon after he died, I found myself hospitalized again, just as I had been eight years earlier, back to Go.

This time, I had to really look at some things in myself. I had all the usual family issues and conflicts, but the therapy was not able to address the crises that were occurring at other levels of Consciousness. The work of Ken Wilber and other transpersonal psychologists, or meta- psychiatrists was still ten years in the future, and though I certainly had some personal problems (who doesn't?) I think I could legitimately apply Wilber's wonderful description of what he calls the "Pre-Trans Fallacy" both to myself, and to the therapists who were trying to help me.

But let's hold that for next time - and also the adventure that took me from Alabama to Mexico to gold-panning in Canada and commercial salmon-fishing in Alaska, and finally, to the Zen Center in San Francisco.

So look what I have gone and done! I am launched into another voyage tale, which I wanted to avoid. It is that pressing hour of publication, and it is too late to back out now. This voyage, though, is an inner one, and spans no geography but that of the human heart.


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