The Place by Jerry McGowan - HTML preview

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Chapter Four: The Real World?

Sometimes Out There isn’t where you think it is!

Summer, 1971

My senior year at Wake Forest was one of the best years of my life. Our football team won the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship for the first time in the history of the university. I would carry that accomplishment with me for the rest of my life, along with the honor of being one of the captains of that squad. There were many teams in the history of the school that were far more talented than our team, but in the end we brought home a trophy our school had not seen since football began there in 1888.

But now things had changed, and my time at Wake Forest had come to an end. I found myself in the same position as Ronan after he left school. Living at home after college was pretty much everything he predicted it would be. The free ride was over, and now I was faced with the decision about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.

I hadn’t been home a week when the inquisition began. It was something right out of the 1600s, and it wasn’t just about work, either.

“So, where were you last night?” my mother would inquire, not really sure if she wanted to know.

“Any luck finding work?” my father asked.

I found myself shrinking back to a quiet retreat under the table, looking for a place to get out of the line of fire, but their pursuit was relentless! My room became the only place I could go to find sanctuary. During this time I began to watch a television series called “Kung Fu.” It was the first show of its kind. It addressed simple things—truth, compassion, peace of mind, and discipline—all wrapped up in a tale about Buddhist monks in China in the late 1800s.

The story began when Kwai Chang Caine (David Carradine) was orphaned and taken in to a monastery run by Shaolin monks. The series moved quickly through the lessons he learned as he grew up within the walls of that monastery: martial arts, discipline, truth, and the art of becoming a man. Each episode taught a different lesson about life, and it was presented in a way that resonated strongly within me.

Caine was on a pilgrimage with a teacher who had been blind since birth. They had an altercation with the nephew of a prince, and the nephew lashed out in anger and killed the blind monk. Caine, in his anger, took the life of the nephew. Now a hunted fugitive, he would have to leave the country. He had learned all he could from the monks. If he remained in China he would face certain death, so he left for America. His father was an American who had married an oriental woman, so he quickly set out to find his relatives in the New World.

When he arrived in America, he came to realize how different the Old West was from China. There was gunfighting and cattle rustling and all the other activities that marked the times as a primitive part of the ongoing development of the United States. The times were being captured in the paintings and photographs by such notables as Russell, Remington, and Curtis before they were lost forever.

Like the monk, I too was looking for something, and I had no concrete idea as to what that was. The only thing I kept coming back to was the incident at the lake with Bob. There was something very similar about the truth I found in the TV show and my experience with Bob. Although I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what it was, I knew the answer would come soon enough.

I soon got a job working for my father. After retiring from the local fire department, he went to work for a friend of his who had been chief of the department some years earlier. Dad was now the vice-president of one of the largest parking concerns in New England. I began my career as a booth attendant. It was a somewhat mindless job as I think back on it, but it afforded me exactly what I needed at this point in my life—time!

I was running a small lot outside Copley Square in downtown Boston. Most of the spaces in the lot had been leased to the Copley Plaza Hotel since parking in that area of the city was extremely limited. I worked with one other person. We’d get a call from the concierge requesting a guest’s car and would take turns running them down to the hotel. My preference was to stay in the booth to read and study what had become my newest pursuit, Zen Buddhism. I had been introduced to Buddhism through the “Kung Fu” series, but through my studies, I learned that Buddhism and Zen Buddhism were very different. Zen dealt primarily with the spiritual and philosophical aspects of Buddhism, whereas Buddhism focused more on the practice of the religion.

In the beginning I had a hard time recognizing that religion and spirituality were different. It didn’t take long for me to discern between the two and decide which road I wanted to travel. I have no quarrel with anyone who follows their own beliefs, as long as it works for them. Growing up Catholic, I realized very quickly the differences between religions. Just as my mother’s father was Jewish and my father’s family was Catholic, so I was exposed to various beliefs early in my walk. I just wanted something simpler—something that would help me find The Place where the voice emanated from.

I read everything I could find—from Humphreys to Watts, and Krishnamurti and Meher Baba to Suzuki. The more I learned, the more I wanted to learn. I rearranged my bedroom to duplicate the lifestyle of a monk as best I could. My mattress lay on the floor. There were two small brass lamps, no more than a foot and a half high, standing next to the bed and across the other side of the room.

There was a poster of a mandala on the wall, next to the window. I had a batik cotton wall hanging I used as a bedspread, and that was it. My clothes were in a bureau outside the room. It was simple, but perfect. I would soon learn just how important simplicity was in my quest to find The Place.

The book I had been reading, Concentration and Meditation, by Christmas Humphreys, had become my favorite primer. I read from it day and night. I knew there was something special within the covers of that book, and I was committed to uncovering what it was.

I hadn’t yet begun to practice meditation, when I began to hear others speak of transcendental meditation as the newest thing in Western culture. After reading about it, I decided instead to commit to Zen meditation because the lessons I was learning were becoming more impactful every day. It was the simplicity that continued to appeal to me.

After reading a chapter on the process of meditation at work, I went home that afternoon enthralled by what I read and excited to begin practicing what I had learned. It was important to meditate at the same time and place each day in an effort to reduce distractions. I read about becoming and so many other things, but I never really understood what they meant. I knew that experiencing them first hand was the best way to learn. I began to practice meditation and never missed a day. Each experience left me relaxed and was more insightful than the previous one. I read in the very beginning of my studies that the mind is like a wild horse; one doesn’t simply saddle it and expect to ride. The wild horse cherishes its freedom because that is all it has ever known. Change is difficult for all beings.

I recalled my initial instruction that directed me to place an orange on an empty table in front of me. The challenge was to focus on the orange for as long as I could, but as soon as any thought other than the orange entered my mind, I was supposed to stop. My first attempt lasted a total of four seconds. I quickly realized I had little control over my mind; instead, it was in control of me. I quickly came to understand the wild-horse scenario. As I progressed, I became more comfortable with my practice each day. It became easier to focus on the orange, but I was still having difficulty with distractions, not to mention moving on from the orange to something else.

Each time I practiced I became very relaxed, but not much more than that. I began going into my meditations asking a question for which I sought an answer. After many months of practice, the answers never came. I kept trying and trying, without success. On several occasions I had reservations about continuing, but I knew these were challenges placed in my path, and I simply could not give up.

Somewhere deep in my subconscious, I knew there was a key to helping me find The Place, and I had to stay the course in order to discover where that was. The answer came one afternoon some nine months later. As I sat on my pillow and began to focus on the orange, I knew something was different about the day. I found myself closing my eyes, which wasn’t unusual, but this time I began to understand what the book meant by “becoming.” It was very different from focusing; it was more like a lack of focus. I soon found myself inside the orange—a seed resting in the center of one section, surrounded by millions of juice pockets. As I became accustomed to the darkness inside, I saw the pulp hanging in strings along the sides of each section. The sections were lined up neatly, side by side, in perfect symmetry. The smell was overwhelming and so very fragrant.

It was the most wonderful orange smell I had ever experienced. I noticed the other sections had seeds in them as well, and I wondered if they felt as confined as I did. I soon came to understand “becoming.” It took the work of focus and made it effortless. I became lost in the orange!

I now understood that when we become something—anything—the need to focus on it disappears. It seemed natural and effortless, and isn’t that how life is supposed to be?

Soon after becoming the orange, I left the seed behind and drifted away. I found myself floating through a mist with no idea where I was going, and it didn’t matter. I was inside a large, open area, surrounded by clouds of various shapes and sizes. There was nothing but openness and a feeling of floating. I no longer saw myself as a physical being, and I wasn’t concerned. I was simply there, enjoying the feeling of being somewhere I had never been before.

As I watched the mists swirling around me, there was a parting of the mist in front of me. There was a shapeless white energy moving toward me. It acknowledged my presence as it drew near. I was at total peace with what was happening and never felt threatened by this entity. Instead, I felt invited—as if I had been brought here to learn something I had been pursuing for some time. I felt like I was home again, but home was not where I had come from. Instead, it was where I was now. I was different. I looked down at my body, and it was not there. I appeared like the energy that approached me, without shape or form. I was as conscious as I ever was inside my body. It was as though I had been waiting for this moment my whole life. It was like revisiting an old friend. I simply floated and waited.

As the entity moved closer, I recognized it as an answer to one of the hundreds of questions I asked over the nine months leading up to this point. It did not present itself as a voice like the one that spoke to me when Bob was drowning. Instead, it was more like a thought invading my consciousness. I soon realized it had been waiting all this time to come to me but couldn’t get past the distractions in my mind.

But here it was, right in front of me—a part of my own consciousness. No sooner had that answer come and gone, when another made its way to where I was, followed by another, and yet another. Each was a different shade of white, an answer I had posed to the universe during the previous nine months.

I was intoxicated with the joy. I was so wondrously happy inside. I hope I can remember all this, I heard myself think.

It all took place in what appeared to be a matter of minutes. When the last answer floated past, I found myself drifting back through the mist and returned to my pillow. There had been no sense of time whatsoever. I sat there for several moments before I realized what happened. I jumped off my pillow and ran downstairs to the kitchen. My mother was standing in front of the sink, washing dishes. I walked over to her and gently touched her shoulder.

“Mom,” I said proudly, “I finally achieved what I have been searching for in my meditations. The answers to all my questions were there. I still don’t believe I was successful!”

“I’m so happy for you,” she replied, smiling gently. “Now do you want some supper?”

I was puzzled. It was only four o’clock in the afternoon when I went upstairs. I was in the mist for just a few minutes. Why was she asking me if I wanted supper?

“What do you mean?” I asked.

She smiled, “We ate hours ago! I called up to you, but you must have been asleep. I thought by now you might be hungry.”

I looked at the clock. It was eight p.m. I’d been gone four hours, but it seemed like just a few minutes, nothing more!

How could four hours have passed so quickly? I asked myself. That was when I realized for the first time in my life that time is relative and certainly not the same everywhere.

I sat down in the chair, and Mom served up dinner. I don’t think she said another word, but I do remember her smiling at me every now and then. I didn’t even know what I ate that night because I wasn’t even there. The next day found me looking through my books for the answers to what had happened. I went from cover to cover, but there was nothing in any book to help me understand what took place. It was simply MY understanding of a new reality.

Of course, I said to myself. How stupid can I be! The book is simply a guideline. The answers would have come from within me since that’s where the questions emanate from! At that moment, I was as complete as I could be. Now I was more convinced than ever I was capable of finding The Place, and I knew my meditations were the key.


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