45. College and Pre-Buddhist Exploration
The next time I remember crossing the A&P was the summer after my junior year in college
at UNC-Chapel Hill. I had been philosophizing heavily and hanging out extensively with my housemate Kenneth Folk. He had also crossed the A&P a few times by that point, back in California, using totally different methods, and at the time he also didn’t know what it was. We lived together with my friend Chris in a grungy band house covered in acid-art from the previous tenants. Kenneth and I often philosophized furiously while playing Frisbee in empty parking lots late at night. We spent countless hours searching, reading, discussing, and debating things related to what we felt were the deep questions, particularly topics such as free will versus super-determinism, unitive models presented by physics, and the tensions with dualistic human experience. This is not something depressed people tend to do, more like something obsessed people do, and we were obsessed with trying to figure the thing out, though we weren’t even sure what “the thing” was.
Our hunt was somewhat eclectic, including the poetry of T. S. Eliot, the writings of Tolstoy, and authors such as Ken Wilber. During that time, Kenneth and I forged a deep friendship. One of the key topics we had been discussing was the observer or watcher and how this related to the question of non-duality. Kenneth took off after that school year, going back to California to start the more formal, meditative phase of his spiritual quest, and I was still living in the grungy acid-art band house. I had no classes for the summer and was just working about two or three nights a week running sound for bands (which was my living all through college and for two years thereafter), so I had a lot of time to do basically nothing.
One day, I was just sitting on the couch when I decided to take on the watcher directly. I am not sure exactly what inspired this practice, as Buddhism in a formal practice sense hadn’t shown up in my life yet, but trying to make sense of my experience just seemed to be the right thing to do at the time. I began trying to catch the watcher, second after second, really going after the visceral, perceptual experience of what was observing, and before I knew it, got into this rapid-fire back and forth, super-concentrated state of everything vibrating in my head, and the whole vibration zapped back through my skull at very high speed into a black space, and it was done. The whole process from start of contemplation to finish couldn’t have lasted but a minute or two, and the quick zap lasted less than a second. There were no other fireworks, no bright lights, no amazing dreams, no bliss, nothing. Just that, but that was all it took. I broke up with my girlfriend of the time for no particularly good reason, moved into an apartment alone, and was relatively dark for a while.
Interestingly, that particular girlfriend would later become my first wife, and that means that she was already experiencing some of the unfortunate side effects of being in a relationship with a practitioner, except that I wasn’t a practitioner that I knew of, except that I unknowingly was. I mention her because she is quite important to the story, except that I am not going to say a lot about her. Despite her very social persona, she was a relatively private person in many ways, and I respect that privacy. Our stories are extremely connected. She was on retreat with me for most of the early retreats, and with me during my travels and travails for the first six years of my dharma practice.
The take-home from it all is that early dharma practice and relationships can be a rocky road, particularly when both people are dealing with various stages of insight, though just one going through it can be more than enough to cause trouble. I owe her a lot, as she was very supportive through most of it, and I wish her all the best. While she was there for many formative parts of my journey, most of the story hangs together pretty well without going into details about her, and the dharma lessons are the same. I transmit many of the lessons I learned from my interactions with her and the dharma in various places in this book in generic ways, so hopefully the practical message gets through without having to go into specifics. My gratitude extends to her for everything she did to support my practice and teach me about life.
The third time I crossed the A&P occurred during the year after graduation from college. I was dancing in a club while running sound for a great dance band called Mr. Potato Head, and I began spinning around and got into a very altered state, dancing wildly, with tremendous energy, feeling an intense and cathartic long-sought freedom, like something I had forgotten, and an amazing bliss and sense of power welled up through my being, overtaking the dancing, and dancing me effortlessly but with this cone of raw power in the center around which the world and my body were spinning and moving quite on their own (Wiccans and whirling dervishes take note here); and then it peaked in joy and intensity and was done. After that I began to have to meditate to feel “normal”. I would go outside before work, lie on the ground, breathe very slowly, and somehow that would help a little. Shortly thereafter I got frustrated and angry at the band I was running sound for, quit working for them, got a job as a cook in a gourmet seafood restaurant called Squids, and then moved to California for a while.