Tuesday, January 6, 2009

57. "Journey to the Luminous" by Arran Stephens

The following excerpt, entitled "Heart of Light" and located at http://web.archive.org/web/20030209234504/http:/www.naturespath.com/journey/chap2.htm, is the second chapter of a book by Arran Stephens entitled Journey to the Luminous. See http://web.archive.org/web/20021205200533/www.naturespath.com/journey/sales.htm

Despite brief hope, I could not pry away depression’s insidious and shadowy fingers. The words of the poet Mayakovsky haunted me: “I am as lonely as the only eye of a man on his way to the blind.” In a Venice Beach coffeehouse, an equally burnt-out comrade described a monastic retreat, not far away. “‘The Fountain of the World’ sits near the top of Chatsworth Mountain,” he told me. His eyes were bright with hope: “It’s free, and we would be welcome, as long as we follow the rules and do some work. The folks there practice brotherly love and walk barefoot!” “Brotherly love? Walk barefoot?” I asked, incredulous. “It has to do with their vows of personal poverty and non-injury to living things. Some of their buildings are built around trees, rather than having them cut down. We can stay as long we like. It’s worth checking out!” We packed our few belongings and headed for the hills. Like a wounded dog, I craved a quiet glade, a tree to rest beneath.

The Fountain of the World was high above the smoggy Los Angeles basin, surrounded by tall eucalyptus, poplar, and pine, boulders the size of buildings, and dry sunburnt hills. Almost from the minute we left the car, soft zephyr-like breezes started sweeping away the cobwebs from my mind. Obligatory group sessions called “Concentrations” were held in the main hall each evening, where thirty or so monastics would stand in circles with closed eyes, hands upturned, chanting such affirmations as “Love One, Love One...” or, “Be positive, be positive...” over and over, from very slow and low to very fast and high-pitched. Despite initial feelings of embarrassment and weirdness, I eventually settled into the routine. One week after arrival, I had an experience that profoundly changed the course of my life.

During an evening Concentration I became quite detached from the outer surroundings and entered a condition of heart-flow prayer—a sort of unceasing implore to the Unknown. While gazing with closed eyes into the dark void, I became cognizant of a comet-like light speeding from the distance straight toward the center of my head, growing brighter and brighter with every moment. A wave of circular, evanescent, golden whiteness burst upon my vision. Then came another bright comet, and another, unceasing, rhythmic, and mysterious. It was as though I had entered the living heartbeat of the Cosmos. In that heart of Light I experienced intoxicating waves of unconditional love. The body and the world simply ceased to exist. All that remained was boundless scintillating radiance and awesome energy, proceeding simultaneously in all directions. After what seemed an eternity—perhaps only a few minutes—this reality/vision subsided, intruded upon by the activities of monastic life.

This was the first conscious taste of that intangible something, for which I had been blindly groping. With this illuminating experience came an all-knowingness, a love freed of egoism. Once separated from that blissful state, however, numerous questions and doubts assailed me.

“Surely Elder Nikona will know,” I thought, as I approached the monastery’s head. With mixed emotions I asked about my mysterious experience. Elder Nikona admitted, “I do not know what this Light is, my son. But I do know that by it you have experienced a blessing of a very high order.” I excused myself to walk alone in the night, lost in thought, questioning, wondering: To whom can I turn for help? What is this Light? Am I chosen for a higher calling, or have I lost my mind? Who am I? What is my destiny?

Over the next few days I sought from others but drew blank and unsatisfactory responses, as well as questioning looks.

One night I was awakened in total darkness from a dreamless sleep by a constant thundering roar on all sides, as though a gigantic waterfall of sound were pressing into my being. Inability to lift even a finger led to desparate panic. “God! I’m dead! Help me!” I cried, though no sound escaped numb lips. Physical paralysis and lack of bodily sensation was complete. With Herculean effort I eventually began moving fingertips, then toes, and gradually the rest of my alienated body—which seemed no more than a husk in which the real me lived.

I began to search through the monastery’s well-stocked library, and discovered a translation of the Bhagavad Gita (The Celestial Song), an immortal discourse between Krishna and his disciple Arjuna, the warrior-prince. The Gita examined morality, religion, duty, yoga, meditation, and the goal of human existence, an elusive goal that could be attained by realization of one’s higher self. Self-realization led to ultimate illumination and freedom from the cycle of births and deaths. Something inside began resonating to the Gita’s ancient message. One passage in particular whispered to my slumbering memory and set it astir:

Let the yogi sit in Sidh-aasan, in a place neither too high nor too low, ...And, fixing gaze at the root of the nose, He should make his mind as still as a candle’s flame in a windless place.

Hidden from others, I began to sit straight-backed, left leg folded under, right leg folded on top, hands resting upturned on each other, thumbs touching, eyes closed. For some inexplicable reason, this posture seemed like the most natural and obvious thing to do. The burning pain which quickly developed in my westernized legs was excruciating, but with determination the time for sitting was gradually increased each successive day from a few minutes to half an hour, from half an hour to an hour, and longer. Whenever I sat like this, after a few minutes the golden Light would return, imparting a delectable inner state. Each encounter left me strengthened; each plunge into the billowing radiance helped heal the sickness in my heart.

I often slipped from the dorm while others slept, following a long and precarious trail through bushes and rocks to sit alone atop a huge prehistoric boulder overlooking the dark valley below. These late vigils under the glittering stars were rewarded with further joyous and radiant experiences, though phantasmagoria of the lower mind sometimes left me shaken. A cosmic, benign force is always in service of aspiring humanity, but a corrupt power may also assail and test one’s resolve. Whenever this happened, as it did from time to time, I persevered in solitary struggle, intensely invoking God’s protection, throwing myself at His mercy, even shedding tears. Then, as reward, like candy for a child, the Light would return and banish the phantoms.
Two months passed. Increasing pressure was being brought to bear on me to renounce the world and become a full-fledged monastic brother. This vow meant giving up money, property (not that I had any), family, and friends on the outside, and living a life subservient to a puzzling theology with Krishna Venta, their departed founder, at the top. From talking with his few remaining original followers, and reading magazine articles and mimeographed pages, I learned that Venta, a white American, boldly claimed that he was none other than the long-awaited and final Messiah, the Buddha, Krishna, Isaiah and Jesus all rolled into one. I was neither ready nor willing to surrender life and freedom in blind obedience to anyone. To the questions that dogged my existence, I longed for answers that rang true on all levels.

On the day of my ordination, I decided to leave. Each step through the grounds felt as though immense psychic weights were about my ankles, making movement exceedingly difficult. I looked around and noticed several crones directing their focus upon me. With every ounce of will I struggled up the last few stairs leading to the open road, but once off the Fountain’s property, my feet and mind took wings. I ran and ran till I could run no more, down that mountain road. The Lake Shrine: With high hopes, and no money, I found myself at the gates of the Self-Realization Lake Shrine in the Santa Monica Mountains, founded by the yogi-saint Paramahansa Yogananda. The peaceful, meditative aura and jewel-like beauty of the lake, the white swans, and the bright atmosphere drew me many times over the next few months. I’d hitchhike there from Venice Beach, to meditate and read Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi, in which I discovered numerous references to the divine Light experienced by saints and seekers of various times, places, and faiths. The accounts of India’s great sages, who were like scientists of the spirit, beckoned powerfully. Yogananda was a Christ-like man, but he had consciously died in 1952. Where to turn? I wasn’t able to recognize his exalted stature among the kind and helpful followers I met.

Unnoticed and in secret, I spent most of one full-moon night sitting in the lotus posture by the serene lake. Wrapped in silence for many hours, I observed the ever-unfolding panorama within. As I went deeper and deeper, for the first time I began to see radiant visions of great yogis and Saints. How could I reconcile such sublime experiences with my wretched life? My difficulty, like that of many seekers, was that initial mystical experiences were quite overwhelming, if not bewildering. I had very few reference points. Then there were the claims put forth by a plethora of teachers and followers. How was one to determine their validity and reach? One thing for certain, this new-found Light was the source of good and holy power, perhaps the unseen source of all life and Intelligence in the universe. The Bible speaks of it:

The light of the body is the eye.If therefore thine eye be single Thy whole body shall be full of light. - Matthew 6:22

Pythagoras, the Grecian mathematician, philosopher and mystic had referred to the “Science of Light,” which, when mastered, can alter the structure of matter. With its aid, Pythagoras demonstrated his mastery of the elements by controlling an eagle and a rampaging bear, which obeyed his higher will.

A remarkable experience involving the power of this same Light befell some friends and me in 1963 in San Francisco. While strolling through a late-night crowd, one member of our party skipped ahead onto busy Market Street and directly into the path of a speeding bus. I was suddenly aware of subconscious gears shifting; the prescient “observer” came forth both to witness and participate. Everything and everyone appeared dreamlike, slowing down. Into this thickness, I felt a sudden rush of adrenaline and cried loudly, “Look out!” A brilliant flash of Light enveloped the entire scene. Everything stopped, frozen in time-silence—the bus, the people, and all sound. In that split-second pause, only the would-be victim was able to break the stasis and move free from the path of certain death. The eerie stillness was replaced with the roar of everything. A brief suspension of time and space became enveloped in Light; a life was saved! A mysterious miracle had occurred, and all who were witness were profoundly thankful.

One refrain I would often hear in the search ahead: The Holy Book, or the body of teachings, was now to be considered as the Master, the Guru. I wanted an unsealed revelation, a living Teacher of the highest stature who could answer all my burning questions. However, my periods of God-longing were short lived and unstable, satellites partly shot through the Earth’s atmosphere, only to be recaptured and pulled back by the gravity of desire and attachment. From 1961 to 1964, with one or two exceptions, the springs of Divine Light all but dried up as this prodigal wandered and squandered the spiritual capital that we all come into this world with, and I again sank into the abyss of addiction and despair. The inevitable dark night of the soul engulfed me.
Following a solo exhibition of my paintings at a major San Francisco art gallery (Fall of 1963), I visited lovely Mendocino County, where rolling grassy hills invitingly beckoned. I gladly followed. In long and solitary walks came flickerings of renewal and bonding with the Earth Mother. I marveled at the way the sun’s rays filtered through the leaves of a huge oak tree, and then to my eyes, breaking into prisms and rainbows. The Inner Light, which had been lost for two years, began to resurface in the form of myriad sparklings across the wash of external sight. In a poem of sorts, I attempted to capture that fleeting ecstasy:

Lending from his splendor, the Sun said,“Take a little PEACE of me, And let it be your Light for the night.”

Too soon, alas, the Light dissipated. I was unable to hold to it, but knew that from the Luminous my peace and salvation would one day come, if only I could peel away the layers that separated me from it. For now, my spiritual quest was sullied, and a rude but merciful awakening was speeding toward me like a night train careening around a hidden bend.

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