God as the Third Mind

 
by Gabriel Hart

I met God in the desert.

            He wasn't at all who I assumed I had been avoiding my whole life. In fact he was not a he or a she or a they or an it – nor an occurrence even, though I believe something needs to occur in order to trigger the chance encounter that, in good faith, remains everlasting.

           

            It was 2015 when I finally moved out of the most Godless of cities, Los Angeles. Like an exorcism, I was nearly convulsing from the severance – but perhaps it was the alcohol withdrawals I put myself through in order to start clean in my new one-church, one-stoplight rural town in California's hi-desert. Impulsively, I committed to that remedial ignorance that all one needs to banish their insidious demons is a little change of scenery – but we all know that in the long run, we often just keep running like a toxic comet, spreading our dust behind us until we hit the next wall.

            But I had bought a house – a miracle in its own respect for someone of my economic status – so I wasn't going anywhere once I got to Morongo Valley. I made-believe I crossed a symbolic finish line, in fact, so I celebrated with a six-pack, an ass-pocket bottle of Jameson and a pack of cigarettes.

            Our ingrained guilt-ridden narratives accumulated by too many predictable film tropes might have you believe this is where it all went downhill. Perhaps you envision me passing out in bed with a lit cigarette, promptly engulfing my new home into dream-ruining irreversible flame. But this is just a lack of imagination, a deficit of fantasy which also happens to be one antithesis of divinity.

            No, that first night, after moving all my worldly possessions into my house, I simply sat down outside. With my beloved beer, grain alcohol and tobacco which I unrepentantly consumed under the stars, I started talking to myself – or so it might have appeared to the cottontail bunnies that were slowly gathering around me. But I was talking to someone, something... not a conversation per se, but I was, in fact, being answered back to; prompting me to continue, rapid fire. I was slurring my words, yet I was only neck deep into my first beer, a tiny pull off the Jameson just for the introductory jolt. It was more like my speech was blurring because it was so accelerated, the most sincere psychobabble of heavy-breath gratitude that flowed like a flash-flood. I simply had too much to say, and all I knew was that someone was finally listening.

            It was fun while it lasted, but I woke up hungover, telling myself that I've already gone crazy in the desert. It didn't take long – I was that guy now. I was sort of taken aback and a little nervous, as if I had a legitimate psychotic break, so I kept it to myself.

            The following night I reconvened with my sunset libations, harnessing the day's last rays to read a used book I bought earlier in the day. All my life I've been haunted by a sort of divinity with the books I chose – often it feels like they choose me instead. It's not rare I'll walk into a used bookstore and shoot my arm out into the shelf, grabbing the first spine without looking. Nine times out of ten its a book I've been meaning to read, or a book I haven't previously heard of that ends up being the exact text I need to be reading at that time. Often it will assume the role of a synchronic synapse connecting research for a project I'm currently working on, or about to be tackling, inspired by said book.

            That day's book was Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, a gospel hued “anti-Western” I already knew was essential to my literary taste and now, my current desert trajectory. I was way overdue to read it. Like all of McCarthy's novels, Blood Meridian is an intense, gorgeous, and contemplative read. Much like the Holy Bible itself, its hyper-violence is intrinsic to its holy yet Earth-humbled philosophies. I stumbled upon one passage of especially profound repose:

            In an attempt to create order out of existential chaos, scalp-hunting gang leader Glanton holds an impromptu geologic lecture for a small gathering of those who “nod and spit.” They challenge his discourse with scripture quotes that only jumble his frequencies until his partner Judge Holden supports his case with the most reverberating mic-dop of the book:

 

            “Books lie.”

            “God don't lie.”

            “No,” said the judge. “He does not. And these are his words.”

            He held up a chunk of rock.

            “He speaks in stones and trees, the bones of things.”

 

            (Contrary to what the judge states about books here, I would claim that books don't necessarily lie as much as they're constantly being improved upon, the mystery of truth in a state of perpetual motion, whittling down to a sturdy point to stab itself into further questioning).

 

            As if additional information, an annexed text, or a celestial message was downloaded into my mind, reading that passage was a moment of epiphany that nearly brought me to my knees: that God is the Third Mind formed when Man and Nature collide. Or at least, when they come to copasetic terms igniting reflection on our present form, after our old perspectives have been broken down.

            I walked farther out past my property until I could no longer see my house. Automatically, I began talking to someone again as I watched the sun descend behind the range. With fading images of the city in my mind, I saw our suffocating downtowns; its compacted clusters of skyscrapers looming over streets and sidewalks of our asphalt Hells. When I considered the two imposing mountain ranges I was standing in the middle of, I saw our man-made metropolis as the most blatant false-idol. Consider what we use to create these buildings, streets – even our churches: we destroy mountains, trees, stabbing into the blood of the very ground we stand on in order to merely mimic nature's monuments, which are already sublime testaments to Creation. All we really need to do is to walk outside our homes to find a place of worship – though depending on where you live, one might have to keep walking until you find yourself completely off the page.

           

            In 1977, William Burroughs and Brion Gysin assembled a book called The Third Mind, a collection of essays on cut-up technique; the technique of literally “cutting-up” a linear narrative into strips, then re-assembling at hazard into a new sequence. What occurs: the words are liberated from  pre-existing shackles and given new meaning, seeing their purpose ever-expansive the more you take them out of their original context. The new layout(s) are and contain multitude, where there appears to be something else pulling the strings, taking responsibility for the variants here rather than the author's sole intent, where he can no longer claim complete ownership of the words. In other words, if he/she is paying attention, the author will realize they are no longer the center of that universe.

            Why do I cite the Third Mind when I speak of God? Because I can't help but think that I cut-up myself when I impulsively moved to the desert. In the city, my mentality was rigid with concrete atheism, so fatalistic that I would fetishize my own demise as a coping mechanism; to egg it on in order to beat the shock of death I felt was imminent. As if my dramatic, addicting story in the city was finite, I couldn't wait to get to the end. But by cutting myself up and out of that narrative, I learned that nothing lies beyond the concept of phase: we can fetishize death all we want, but its merely just one story leading to another.     

            We are not shackled by any scenario or philosophy if we have the courage to step outside of it to gain a new angle. The more drastic the change, the more its likely to make us feel a little crazy. And if you start hearing voices, well, congratulations – that's just your old perspective being broken down enough to let some divine information in.            

            How do I know this?

            Because God told me so.

Gabriel Hart lives in Morongo Valley in California’s High Desert. His Palm Springs noir novelette A Return To Spring is out now Mannison Press. Hart also taught the writing workshop for Mil-Tree, a non-profit reach out program for Vets and Active Duty Military to heal the wounds of war. 

Dissolving

 
by Nathan Alling Long

          I arrived at the Buddhist monastery one bright August morning, with my required white cotton clothes, candles, incense, and travel clock, ready to start the 26-day intensive meditation course. The monastery, set in the countryside outside Chang Mai, Thailand’s second largest city, had a colorful temple and library, with pointed, orange-tiled roofs, and several simpler white, concrete buildings.  The grounds were mostly dirt and grass, cooled by expansive trees that canopied the grounds.   It was run-down, but had an unpretentious charm.  In the center of a small fenced-in area stood a white stucco monument know as a stuppa, which supposedly held the remains of a Bodhisattva, or Buddhist saint.   

          The young British monk who ran the program for foreigners was a former art student who now bared a shaved head and saffron robe.  He showed me around, told me I would have to sleep on the floor of the new library for a few days, as there were no vacant rooms, and then instructed me on my first day of meditation.  I choked back my excitement, offering only a modest smile.  I was here to do what I had secretly wanted to do for years—to be deeply quiet and still, to learn about myself and the true nature of the world. 

 

          I always felt a little lost, as though I’d missed the instruction manual to life that others had received.  In college, I majored in English, hoping to find some kind of wisdom, the secret meaning of life in the great works of literature.  But it was the Eastern Religion course I took, which asked us to study and practice forms of meditation, that seemed to offer the closest to what I was looking for.  Each night that semester, I sat silently in my room, watching my breath and imagining that everything I saw was, as my professor suggested, an illusion, as if only projected on a giant screen. I practiced this until I finally felt the corners of reality peel away a little.  Although I couldn’t convince myself completely, I sensed that behind that layer were many insights, if I could just be still long enough.

          One day during my junior year, I stumbled upon a Thai monastery in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., and, having practiced a little meditation, I decided to stop in.  In the yard was a friendly Thai monk who was raking leaves and drinking a chocolate milkshake.  He wore a big smile and spoke in broken English.  I couldn’t understand much of what he said, except his ubiquitous answer to all my questions: “No problem, no problem.” 

 

           My senior year, I interviewed that monk for my anthropology class final project, which also involved reading books about Thai culture.  The year after graduating, I decided to travel through South East Asia, Thailand in particular.  Though the idea for the trip had originated from my Eastern Philosophy course, I grew to see it as an adventure, a chance to explore the world before settling down—into what, I wasn’t sure.

          Over the first few months of my travels, I walked around the ancient Thai ruins of Ayutthaya, trekked through the Himalayas, visited an orangutan rehabilitation center in Sumatra, and snorkeled among parrot fish off the Malay coast.  But it wasn’t until I sat in a guest house in Bangkok listening to a fellow traveler from Canada talk about her experiences at a month-long Buddhist meditation retreat that I felt that old longing for the meaning of life rise up inside me.  As she described what she had learned by simply sitting still, I understood why I had really come to Asia. 

I hadn’t told any of my friends or family back home about the retreat.  I wanted this to be my own private time.  I would write them about it when it was over.  I knew what I was signing up for would be difficult, but I had managed to travel for five months on my own through various Asian countries without knowing the languages.  I’d trekked for two weeks in the Himalayas--crossing a glacier with bleeding feet, wearing only hightop sneakers—I’d nearly capsized a boat off Malaysia, and I’d dealt with an intense case of pink eye in Sumatra which had left me half blind for a couple days.  Sitting for hours in the quiet, verdant monastery in rural Thailand, despite the potential aches and bouts of boredom, seemed like paradise. 

          The monastery housed about thirty Thai monks and nuns, and about a dozen Westerners who had come to take the course I had.  Each of us had different instructions each day, based on the day we each started the retreat.  The first exercise involved sitting still for 20 minutes, then walking very slowly for 20 minutes.  I had to complete five of these sessions on my own before the morning day.  I was given a thin mat to sit on and no cushion, like I was used to using. That afternoon, I lay the mat on the stone walkway inside the stuppa grounds, what would become my regular outdoor meditation spot.  I folded my legs in and closed my eyes.  During my first sit, I felt excruciating pain in my ankles and back.  I got bug bites, and my nose ran from the pollen in the air.  I rocked anxiously as I waited for the 20-minute alarm to go off.  It felt like it took an hour.  But I held out, then I stood stiffly and walked my slow 20-minute exercise.  I did this cycle again, and again, until I’d completed over three hours of meditation.

          By the second day, when I had to sit and walk in thirty minute intervals for four hours, I could easily say that this meditation was the hardest work I’d ever done in my life.  But I did not quit.  I was young and full of energy and had such a longing to understand my mind and the world that I stuck to it.  I also felt chosen, being the only one to sleep in the pristine new library building, as though I were in a palace for meditation.  Plus, I could feel a powerful spirit all around me.  Sometimes, it was a cooling wind or a sweet scent in the air.  Other times, it was the black monastery cat who would sit on my lap to comfort me during the last painful minutes of my practice.

          On my hours off, I walked around the temple grounds and forested roads around the monastery, dressed in my telling white clothes.  In the evening, I sat with some of the other Western meditators, once they’d finished their meditation hours, and we talked about our lives and how much meditation we’d done before coming here, as we drank tea and the sky darkened.  Late at night, before bed, I sat in the empty library building and wrote in my little journal about my experiences, though I’d been encouraged to give up all writing and reading during the retreat. 

          After four days, I was given my own small room in the dorms, as my daily hours of meditation increased to eight, then ten, then twelve.   I began to wake at five-thirty each morning to the sound of birds and the nuns chanting softly.  I started the day by sitting in my small white room, which held a simple bed, a sink and a toilet, until the bell rang announcing breakfast.  Then, though I could have a breakfast of spicy vegetables and meats at the kitchen, I made tea in my room and ate banana bread I’d bought at a little shop down the road.  During the rest of the day, I practiced meditating outside, usually within the quiet grounds of the stuppa.   For lunch, I ate curries and rice served by the nuns, in their plain white robes.  My body hummed with stillness as I sat under a tree with my bottle of water and plate of food.  I was content, watching the Thai monks passed by, wrapped in their saffron robes, and the soft-green geckos scurry up and down the side of the monastery walls, chirping out their call, ge-ko, ge-ko

          We could not eat past noon, so after lunch, I returned to meditation.  I was doing so little physical activity, I didn’t really miss food, but I did get bored.  Meditation was the best way to pass the long stretch of time before sleep.  I practiced sitting and walking meditation outside during the daylight hours.  Once it grew dark, I meditated in my room.  I saw less and less of the other Westerners.  We had little time to socialize as we each practiced on our own, everyone doing their twelve hour days.  We were very busy, as they say, doing nothing. 

          On my fifth or sixth day, a thin, somber Germany woman with long dark hair came up to me near the stuppa before I began meditating.  I’d seen her but not talked much to her.  She greeted me, chatted for a minute, then, when I asked her how it was going, said, “It gets very hard around the 12th day.  Be prepared.”  She nodded gravely and walked off.

          I sat down, undaunted by her comments.  I felt I could survive anything.  I had nearly died as a child because of a constricted stomach muscle, and several months later, I’d been put in intensive care for two weeks after a severe reaction to immunizations.  I’d been through a serious car accident in high school, and as a college senior had lived two weeks with a ruptured appendix before I went to the hospital.  Maybe all these things had made me suited to meditation. Intense physical pain was terrain I felt comfortable in.

          More importantly, I was learning so much about myself, about the nature of the world and consciousness.  For a split second on the fourth day, I had seen absolute nothingness, a wondrous and terrifying experience.   Everything I thought was solid and real—the earth, the sky, the monastery buildings, my body—disappeared.  It was like being plucked from my physical form and thrown into starless space.  Everything was, as one Buddhist put it, an eddy in a vacuous wind.  I opened my eyes to see that the world hadn’t disappeared, and it all rushed back into place, but I couldn’t deny that moment of nothingness.  I knew now that it lay under all the layers of sensation that make up what we think of as the real world.  If I had peeled the corner of reality back in college, I had now pulled off the whole cover, if only for a split second.

          I was also learning more practical lessons about how my ego could trick me, trying to avoid recognizing the painful truth—that I was not exactly real.  My mind generated hallucinations of decaying corpses, beautiful naked men, elaborate imaginary sculpture gardens of original art—to distract me from my practice.

          Still, I progressed—even the monk said I meditated very well—and soon twelve hours of daily contemplation was easier than the initial, painful, twenty minute sits.  When I opened my eyes after an hour sit, the moss around the stuppa glowed a vibrant green.  A warm breeze felt like electricity across my skin.  Every tree seemed to pulse with a life force I remember vaguely from childhood when I spent long hours in the woods above my house.   Even fasting after noon was soon not a struggle.  Simple things like a cup of tea tasted wondrous and complex.  The hot sweet fresh soy milk they sold at the tiny shop just down the road from the monastery was almost too rich to drink. I didn’t always look forward to each hour of practice, but I was swept up by the way I felt, and after a while, I barely knew how to fill my free hours.  I even began meditating through the night, somehow watching my breath as I slept. 

          Then came day twelve.  The day passed surprisingly easy.  But after dark, I was still practicing walking meditation back and forth in my room.  I had gotten to a point where I no longer felt I was walking; instead, I felt I simply existed in a point in space, with various sensations floating around me—sensation of feet, of bending knees, of door appearing, getting door getting bigger then disappear, of window appearing, getting window bigger then disappearing, etc.—everything was reduced to pure sensation.  The geckos made their comforting knocking sound, but it was as though I had stepped outside of time.

          I walked slowly back and forth across the room.  Outside, the dark night of rural Thailand seemed vast and endless.  I had been traveling for five months, disconnected from anyone who knew me, except by the slow conversation of international post—this was before internet--and regardless, we’d been asked not to read letters during the retreat.  My home and family, on the other side of the planet, seemed in another galaxy.  Here in my little room in the monastery, I was gradually losing all sense of myself.  Everything was dissolving. 

          Suddenly, I felt something behind me, just over my shoulder—a man or a spirit.  I don’t know how to describe it except to say it seemed evil and dark, like a thick, black, suspended powder, too thick to move through, something that would not settle. I turned around, but I could not see or hear it.  

          As I returned to walking, I felt it again and began to sweat.  I tried to cast it off as just illusion, but it did not go away. I thought of the monk I’d met at the monastery in Washington, D.C., who I had interviewed. “No problem, no problem” he’d said to everything.  But this felt like a problem. It felt so real, I only wanted to get away from it.  Then I asked myself, but where would I go?  Where could I find safety, here in the middle of the woods of Northern Thailand?  I started to wonder if what I was doing might actually be something terrible.  Was I falling apart?  If meditation dismantled the ego, what part of me was left?  If everything was illusion, by what basis could I judge whether this practice of meditation was a good thing or not?  How did I know this Buddhism stuff wasn’t a cult? 

          I tried to keep walking while watching my breath, but the feeling of something deeply evil, invisible but omnipresent, kept overtaking me.  It seemed to shape-shift around me, like a thread of smoke or shadow.  I felt like a character in a horror movie who, whether they run or stay calm, has no chance of evading that thing that is coming for them. 

          At the time, I believed I could endure any pain my body could experience, but this new experience was something I hadn’t imagined or prepared for.  Was this what the German woman had warned me about, what she had pushed through?  Was this supposed to happen?   Or was this something happening only to me?  Was I going insane?  Was this the cost of wisdom?

          I began shaking.  I went over to my bed and lay down.  I wanted someone to hold me, but it was late, I didn’t know anyone there well, and I didn’t want to interrupt anyone else’s meditation.  I curled up on the bed’s thin mat and hugged myself, whispering my name over and over.  It was a comfort to hear a familiar voice, a familiar word, even though it was only me.  Slowly, the presence of evil dissipated.  Only then could I fall asleep.

 

          Things were better in the morning, and I tried to return to meditating, but I could not concentrate.  I felt more like I was sitting in a waiting room, waiting for the sixty minutes to end, rather than really practicing.  I asked the British monk what to do, and he said that it was normal to have doubts on the 12th day.  I just had to work through it.  But when I told him I didn’t think that I could, that it was too frightening, he suggested that I talk to the head monk, an older, reserved Thai man who I had only seen in passing. 

          The head monk scared me, but the British monk swore that, under his gruff facade, the monk was a good teacher, a kind man.  So I made an appointment, bowed as I had been taught before the head monk, then explained my situation and asked for guidance.

          “Keep practicing,” he said, without expression.

          I paused, waiting to hear more.  Finally I added, “But I feel as though I’m going insane.”

          “It’s the way of the course,” he said, with equal dispassion.

          Was this all he was going to offer me?  I couldn’t think of anything else to say or ask.  Of course, I was half ready to give up anyway.  Anything to avoid that dark presence that had appeared in my room the night before.

           The next morning, I left.

           I promised myself that I would never feel bad for making this decision.  I had worked very, very hard for twelve days and learned a great deal, about how my mind works, about how habits and cravings and distractions fill our days and cloud out the intense living beauty of the world all around us—in a way, it was more than I’d learned in my four years of college—or at least the knowledge seemed more vital.  I knew the experiences I had gone through would stay with me and guide me the rest of my life.  Yet, a part of me struggled with not having finished the whole month of the retreat.  What would I have learned if I had continued?  How would I be different?  What knowledge had I missed?

          I stayed away from meditation for a long while.  Over time, the memory of that dark night faded into the story of it.  Words replaced the intensity I experienced that night.  But what stayed vivid was the longing for that the insights and wondrousness of the world I felt after long hours of meditating.

          A few years after I returned, I worked in a vegetarian restaurant as a cook, and one day a regular costumer came in and asked if I’d like to be the cook for a week long meditation retreat he belonged to in the Cascade Mountains.  I immediately said yes, and found myself back in a community of meditators. 

          During the retreat, I had extra time between meals, so I often joined them in the meditation sessions.  The leader of the retreat, known as a Roshi, asked me one day why I had stopped meditating, and though I thought of the one difficult night, I knew it wasn’t’ the whole answer.  “I don’t know,” I said.  He suggested I meditate on the answer, and I did.  I sat and sat and sat, but nothing came to me.

          Then one afternoon, it dawned on me: since the retreat in Thailand, I hadn’t had any profound insights when I meditated.  I wanted more out of it than I was getting, I said to myself; at that moment, I came to see myself in a new light: I was greedy.  I wanted so much from meditation, that I gave up on it when I didn’t get what I wanted, even though the whole point of meditation was to free oneself of desires.

          I recognized then how in other aspects of my life I was greedy as well. The realization was so profound to me, that I started crying.  As I stifled my tears, I realized that I’d just learned a great, humbling thing about myself. 

My next thought was, Well, that was worth it!

          At that, I started laughing aloud.  There was my greedy mind again!  But this time, since I had come to accept it, I could laugh about it instead of cry.

          It was after that week, that I started to sit more regularly.  The next year at the summer retreat where I cooked, I told the new spiritual leader about my experiences in Thailand.  He said that they suggested how powerful meditation could be, and that while the goal is to dismantle the ego, sometimes when we’re young we haven’t formulated our ego well enough to deal with the process.   “It was probably a good thing that you stopped,” he said.

          Whether he was simply being kind or was genuinely sincere, his words were a great comfort to hear.  I had never thought that choosing to quit meditating at that moment might have shown some wisdom I had hidden within me all along, the wisdom of compassion—of being kind to myself when I had reached a limit. 

          Today, as I meditate, it feels like a very different practice—calmer and slower.  My ego is probably so stubbornly intact now that I’m in my forties, it will likely never dissolve as easily as it did when I was twenty-four.  But, I’m better able now to sit with that, with all the things I cannot do and all the things I do not know.

          I also feel lighter.  The other day, after a group session had begun, I heard someone walk in late—the door closed loudly and one of their shoes fell as they pulled it off.  “That’s me!” I thought, for I could imagine myself coming in late and being unintentionally noisy.  This made me smile, and I felt compassion towards the person. Then I realized that meant I had compassion towards myself as well, toward my own faults, as loud and as awkward as they may be.

Nathan Alling Long's work has previously appeared on NPR, and in various journals including Tin House, The Sun, and Crab Orchard Review. His awards include a Truman Capote Literary Fellowship a Mellon Foundation grant, a Tenneessee Williams scholarship to Sewanee Writers conference, and a 2019 Lambda Literary Award finalist for my collection of fifty short stories, The Origin of Doubt.  He lives in Philadelphia and teaches literature at Stockton University in NJ.

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