(Written around 2005.)
At 25 miles in the 1996 What, Mi-Wok? Trail 100K race, I linked up with a young runner who was attempting his first ultramarathon.
My new friend was what the Indian healing art of Ayurveda calls a “Kapha” – a “heart type.”
His body and conversation told me as much. He was stocky, strong, cheerful, and enduring. If I had doubts, they were dispelled when we arrived at the halfway aid station at 31 miles. I grabbed a salted potato and was ready to set out on the trail. Meanwhile, my friend pulled out a bench at the table and sat down with a sigh of satisfaction, prepared for a three-course meal.
Back on the trail, he spent an hour and a half regaling me with his plans for a post-race dinner. “I think I’ll cook a pilaf with vegetables and a great cashew gravy. Maybe I’ll include steamed spinach with onions and toasted almonds,” he said. “No, wait, I’ll go to Chef Chu’s for…have you tried their glazed duck? It’s excellent!”
Later, he grew quiet as he’d begun to stagger in limp-home mode. He was experiencing what ultrarunners wryly call a “bad patch.” I tried to cheer him up, running backward and loudly singing children’s songs. “Move, oh ye mountains that stand in my waaaay!!” I bellowed, “Nothing can stop my progress! Tall trees fall aside, every bramble I SLASH with the sword of freedom!”
He gazed at me mutely, a worried message in his big round Kapha eyes: “Am I in personal danger? Am I in the presence of a lunatic?”
I fed him several packets of caffeine-laced GU that seemed to pick up his spirits, and he was able to finish in good style.
Last week I had a lovely run on the three-mile trail around Foothill College. What made it special was two things. First, I kept strict pace discipline, holding my heart mostly under 67% until the final mile. At that point, I recalled the Mi-Wok race, and another children’s song came to mind:
Lightly I fly when I live in laughter,
Lightly I fly when my heart sings!
Fling to the ground every heavy burden,
Now I can soar up above the clouds!
Lightly I fly when I live in laughter,
Lightly I fly when my heart sings!
I’ve been renewing an old practice of mine, of running with an open and expansive heart. As I ran around Foothill I joined my hands behind my back and stretched my chest to “make room for the heart.”
I bent backward and straightened my upper spine while inhaling deeply and offering my heart to a higher power, while sending blessings to a dear friend. All of which put me in a fine mood. But what the children’s song did was amazing. My heart and spirit soared, and I ran happy, light, and free.
Again and again in my thirty-two years as a runner, I’ve been surprised to discover how powerfully an open heart can lend us wings. And how, by contrast, the rational mind wants to ruin everything – standing aside and evaluating, tearing beautiful things apart and analyzing them, siphoning energy from the heart’s fountain, assembling numbers.
Who would still our laughter?
Who would kill our song?
Send them back to Russia – that’s where they belong!
(Come With Me To Brazov, by Swami Kriyananda)
While I ran around Foothill, I felt my mind wanting to separate itself and interject itself into my good humor, as if to say “Wait a minute…,” standing aside professor-like – hmmm – and distancing itself from these foolish feelings while filling out 3×5 cards and writing a research paper. But each time I resisted and gently came back to the heart, happy to escape the mind’s cold and gloomy grasp.
That’s what I hate about atheism – it’s so mental, so sterile and boring and dull. Last year, in my work as a writer, a man called and invited me to come talk about editing his company’s marketing literature.
At the conclusion of our meeting he said that he had a personal website about “a rational approach to life.” He said that he was an atheist, and that he planned to raise his newborn child by logical, carefully reasoned principles alone, without ever making decisions based on feeling.
I thought: “This poor man is insane.” He was, in fact, dry as dust, hesitant and uncertain. When he didn’t call back, I thought, “There is a God.”
While I was at Stanford in the early 1960s, I was one of a group of friends who had grown dissatisfied with what was offered in the official curriculum. We were self-educating ourselves. While our professors tried to pickle our brains with Sartre, Camus, and (jesusgodallmighty!) Jean Genet, we were engaged in a search for meaning.
There were three factions among us: The psychologists, who were searching for understanding in Maslow, Rogers, and Jung. The reincarnated Hindus and medieval Christian monastics who were studying Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi, Ananda Coomaraswami’s Indian Art and Culture, and other books. The third vector was my roommate Dave – an English major.
I don’t know if Dave found meaning at Stanford, but I admired his approach. Here’s Dave: he signs up for a course on Milton, Keats, and Shelley and decides he that he loves Milton and feels no affection for the others. So he spends the entire quarter memorizing and musing on long tracts of Paradise Lost and hastily scribbles a paper the morning it’s due so that he can earn a D- and put off the inevitable day when he’ll be expelled.
Dave had taken a year out of school in New York City, reading at the Public Library and living rent-free with a series of accommodating friends.
When I finished reading Jung’s Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious in the Bollingen edition, I excitedly asked Dave if he’d read it. He said quietly, “Oh, yeah, I’ve read Jung.”
I said, “What did you read?”
“All twenty-two volumes, when I was in New York.”
In any rational university, Dave would have graduated with honors.
I remember Tony, another roommate, on an evening when he wanted to prove a point in a heated but humorous argument with Dave. He dragged out a copy of Allen Ginsberg’s Kaddish and read aloud in a jaded dry voice:
As if to say “So much for your bright and shiny philosophy, Dave!”
Dave grabbed Milton and thundered,
Him the Almighty Power
Hurled headlong flaming from th’ ethereal sky
With hideous ruin and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In adamantine chains and penal fire,
Who durst defy th’ Omnipotent to arms.
Much laughter ensued.
I have a personal beef with Stanford, because when I was seventeen and desperate for meaning, I was asked to cram a hundred pages a night of readings in Western Civ down my sore and protesting throat. In my six years at Stanford, I did well in courses that promised to advance my personal quest for meaning, but got indifferent grades otherwise.
I was attracted to books that dealt with serious issues. Life had shown me its brutal face, when my dad attempted suicide the summer after I graduated from high school, shooting himself in the head and blinding himself for life.
From grass lawns and droning contentment in suburban Arizona we were whisked to downtown Los Angeles where Dad attended Braille Institute. My father was a hero – he plunged headlong into his suddenly altered life without a peep of complaint or self-pity. He graduated faster from Braille Institute than anyone else had, and was soon serving on the institute’s governing board.
In high school, I had loved to sing. As a freshman at Stanford, I could still stand under the shower and belt out Frankie Laine songs, because I enjoyed the feeling of them. They were corny, but they sent a live current through my heart.
“Do not forsake me, oh my darlin’…”
“It’s a quarter to three,
There’s no one in the place, ‘cept you and me…”
“Like a demon, love possessed me,
You obsessed me constantly.
What evil star is mine,
That my fate’s design,
Should be – Jezebel?
After my first year, I only sang at beer busts, heartless songs: “They call it that good old mountain deeeewwww, And them that refuse it are few…”
Among our professors, I remember just two who inspired me: Fräulein Schipporeit who tutored us during six months of foreign study at the University of Hamburg, and who encouraged me to read Hermann Hesse; and Kurt Mueller-Vollmer, a legendary prof who taught in three departments. I remember the joy with which Mueller-Vollmer read the poet Hugo von Hoffmansthal:
Was frommt das alles uns und diese Spiele,
Die wir doch groß und ewig einsam sind
Und wandernd nimmer suchen irgend Ziele?
Was frommts, dergleichen viel gesehen haben?
Und dennoch sagt der viel, der “Abend” sagt,
Ein Wort, daraus Tiefsinn und Trauer rinnt
Wie schwerer Honig aus den hohlen Waben.
What use all this for us, and all these games
To us who are grown and eternally alone
And never, as we wander, seek fixed ends?
What use, having seen so many of these things?
And yet one does say much who utters “Evening,”
A word from which deep meaning and sadness run
As heavy honey out of hollow combs.
Our professors, generally, were notable sourpusses, eager to spread the good word about life’s meaninglessness. I can’t remember what they looked like.
My true education began after I left school – and no time was wasted. I soon discovered books that not only had meaning but challenged me to act: Autobiography of a Yogi, Thomas a Kempis’s Of the Imitation of Christ, the anonymously authored Way of a Pilgrim, Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God.
Later, I would find the four books I had been looking for at Stanford. They were by J. Donald Walters:
- Out of the Labyrinth: For Those Who Want to Believe, But Can’t
- Hope for a Better World: The Small Communities Solution
- Art as a Hidden Message
- Education for Life
At Stanford, I was drawn to Hesse, Rainer Maria Rilke, and an obscure sculptor and playwright, Ernst Barlach, whose writings expressed mystical longings. But their works could only hint at the fulfillments beneath life’s surface. They took me halfway there but didn’t serve up the method.
No book could ultimately give me what I was seeking. A year or two out of school, feeling utterly desperate, I decided that I had no choice – I had to test God.
It was no irrational declaration of “faith.” I didn’t want a goofy, playtime, plastic religiosity; I needed truth – the real thing, wisdom and guidance and joy not in some faraway heaven in the sky, but here and now.
At one point, I had several appointments with a psychologist. I asked her, “Don’t you think it’s possible to have joy all the time?”
She said, “No, that’s unrealistic. Why don’t you go to the bars in Long Beach. There are lots of sailors’ wives who hang out while their husbands are at sea. You could pick them up and have a good time.”
The gospel according to psychology.
I decided that I would test religion scientifically, and if it panned out, fine; but if not, I would at least know. I prayed at first for five minutes at a time, demanding answers with ferocious longing, focus, and energy. And I immediately began to receive answers.
Every day, without fail, I received some obvious evidence of God’s love. One day, while sunbathing at Huntington Beach, I prayed to know the connection between western psychology and the spiritual teachings of the East.
Feeling an intuitive inner prodding, I drove to a used bookstore in downtown Long Beach that I rarely visited, praying all the while. I walked in, turned left, walked down three aisles, turned right, walked halfway down, looked at the top shelf, and spied Geraldine Coster’s 1933 book Yoga and Western Psychology. I took it back to the beach where I lay on my towel and drank in the answers I was seeking.
Soon I was praying every waking minute. A respected spiritual counselor, Brother Bhaktananda, wrote me letters in which he warned that my approach was misguided. “Learn to relax and enjoy the spiritual path,” he urged.
I went to a satsang with Daya Mata that was attended by three hundred people. At one point in her talk, she paused, turned and looked straight into my eyes and said, “My Divine Mother is not for those who are hard on themselves and hard on others! She is kind, sweet, loving and forgiving. You don’t have to chisel your prayers to Her in stone – you can talk to Her in the language of your heart.” She then turned back and resumed her talk.
I simply couldn’t let go of my hard-nosed mental approach, which had long since become inappropriate. My great fear was that if I stopped my constant hurdy-gurdy-wordy praying and thinking, I would fall off the spiritual path into utter darkness forever.
As a result, my inner life became dry. God receded, waiting patiently for me to “get the point.” And, guess what? It came by singing.
The inner truths of all experiential paths are the same. They are conveyed better by the music than the words. It’s only the “believers” who are in continual disagreement; the word-spinners. The saints of all religions – the singers – are agreed. The root experiences of earnest seekers everywhere are the same.
An Asian woman called to ask for my help with a book she wanted to write. She sent me the first pages, in which she described how she had prayed intensely to Christ, and how she had awakened the next morning hearing an indescribable blissful “sound of mighty rushing waters” that permeated her consciousness. She called it “the Holy Ghost,” but it sounded suspiciously like what Yogananda describes in a chapter of his autobiography, “An Experience in Cosmic Consciousness”:
I cognized the center of the empyrean as a point of intuitive perception in my heart. Irradiating splendor issued from my nucleus to every part of the universal structure. Blissful amrita, the nectar of immortality, pulsed through me with a quicksilver-like fluidity. The creative voice of God I heard resounding as Aum, the vibration of the Cosmic Motor.
The Korean woman expressed dissatisfaction with my sample edits, in which I’d stressed the need for personal experience. “I want someone to help me who knows the dogma,” she said.
I can’t count the number of Christians I’ve met who’ve had a single experience of Christ’s love and joy, and then turned to the “religion of rules” for fear of losing what they’ve been given – thus effectively sealing the door to further divine experiences that could come through an aspiring heart.
Suffice it to say that, for five years, I sang for at least an hour and a half every day. It was, in fact, too much – I often drove myself to sing far beyond my heart’s capacity in my desperation to feel God’s love and joy. Still, the experience changed me.
The longer I live, the more I’m persuaded that the heart holds tremendous healing power. When I ran ultramarathons, my best training runs were invariably marked by the feelings of an expansive heart; the worst were accompanied by the sad, discouraged feelings of a contracted heart.
Songs that came from deep inside, not secondhand from an iPod, freed tremendous energy and allowed me to run fast with ease. It depended on how thoroughly I could harmonize and purify the feelings of my heart. It wasn’t easy, but it was a dimension of running that was almost unbearably wonderful to explore. I expect that music, self-generated, will be a core tool of sports training in future times.
By the way, what are we to say of a culture that takes its musical inspiration from composers whose prefrontal cortices haven’t yet fully formed. The PFC is where the highest human faculties are localized in the brain; it doesn’t mature completely until age 24 to 30 – until then, people are more easily swayed by indiscriminate emotions.
Mystery author Robert B. Parker has Spenser, his middle-aged private-eye, observe that rock music sounds to him like beer cans being fed through a trash compactor. Perhaps drums and guitars should be licensed, with a minimum age requirement of thirty.
Last Saturday I drove to San Francisco and ran for two hours by the Bay. At one point a middle-aged man passed me going the other way, singing loudly. He had a short, stocky Kapha body. The words he sang were strange and disjointed, as if he were trying to tune his heart and not quite finding the right chords, like a sitar player tuning his instrument. Yet he looked quite happy.
Years ago, on the Stanford campus, after running and singing silently for an hour, I felt so joyful that I could not resist singing aloud:
If you’re seeking freedom,
Seek it on the mountains,
God’s sunlight on your shoulders,
The wind in your hair.
For there’s no one can hold you,
Boss about, or mold you.
Once your heart is free,
You’ll be king everywhere.
I turned and realized that a young Stanford student had been running behind me – she was athletic, tanned, and as our eyes met a smile of pure delight spread over her face.
Returning to Stanford forty-two years after I left, I have the good sense to avoid the main quad and academic buildings with their odor of blue books and scholarly sweat.
When I run at Stanford, I wind through the athletic complex, under the eucalyptus trees, and into the hills. Back at Stanford, I’ve begun to find my heart again. I’m learning how to sing.