by Sam V. Guthrie
The flight attendants did one last cabin check before takeoff, blissfully unaware that, soon after leaving the runway, our plane was going to crash in a blazing holocaust.
But I knew.
I’d had a premonition—I saw the flames, heard the screams, felt the hulking machine hurtle toward earth like a skyscraper fallen from the clouds.
Granted, I got this premonition every time I flew, but tonight it felt different, deep in my gut. It felt real. I was a high school teacher on my way to New York for a professional training and, at twenty-eight, I was hardly ready to die for my job. I looked out the window and watched guys in grubby reflective jackets drive little trucks around on the tarmac beneath our plane. Soon they would go home to their cozy, earthbound homes, have a beer, maybe watch a Seinfeld rerun—while I died in a screaming frenzy.
The cabin door was shut with a heavy clunk and suddenly I felt trapped and like I couldn’t breathe. A primal urge seized me: I had to get off this death machine. In all my premonitions about planes crashing, I’d never done what I was about to do.
The plane began to pull away from the gate and I waved at a flight attendant so frantically that two of them came over. I told them a terrible illness had gripped me. Headache, nausea, diarrhea, ennui—anything I could think of. I added that it felt virulently contagious. I actually used the word virulently. One of them gave me a cup of water and I sipped it weakly, like a baby bird. I kept my eyes half open, as if I was struggling to stay conscious. It was the same performance I’d used as a kid to get out of school, desperate to cling to the cozy safety of my mom. She would minister to me in bed, with a cool hand on my forehead, and I would bask in her sad gaze, The Flintstones on the TV in the background.
Dad would be safely far away at his job and I feared his return with a dull, inescapable dread. He’d walk through the door in his dark business suit and cocktail hour would begin, his handsome James Dean face getting pinker with each martini. Sometimes his eyes would start to squint, glassy and mean, as if he were scanning his memory for things I’d done wrong. Then the explosions of rage, him towering over me, lips pulled tight, ice cubes clinking in his glass. The two flight attendants disappeared to talk to the pilot and, a few minutes later, the plane rolled back to the gate. I staggered feebly down the aisle, out of the airless cabin and into a wheelchair waiting for me just outside the door. Guilt burned my cheeks. But in that moment, the only thing that mattered was that I wasn’t hurtling through the black sky toward certain death.
I was only thirteen when I began my project to become a highly evolved being, reading books on Eastern spirituality and studying Korean karate five nights a week. I thought of myself as Kwai Chang Kane, the Shaolin monk from the TV show Kung Fu. In the woods near our suburban house, far from my father’s clinking ice cubes, I would sit cross-legged, meditating, reading books on personal growth, and writing furiously in thick, spiral-bound notebooks, trying to analyze and control my riot of emotions.
Now, at twenty-eight, I still worked on myself incessantly. I spent countless evenings in front of my fireplace, charting the whole project of my psyche with forensic detail in the same spiral-bound notebooks. My cat, JJ Burnel, would snooze at my side. By this time, I’d studied Zen for ten years under a great Zen master and I’d come to think that I was pretty far along the spiritual path. I still practiced martial arts fanatically and, just for good measure, I’d become all but obsessed with health foods, eating things like broccoli sprouts and powdered Chinese mushrooms. In my eyes, these were the kinds of things highly evolved beings ate.
But there were these little inexplicable happenings. Like the airplane thing. Highly evolved men don’t freak out on airplanes. So, in the days following “the incident,” I accomplished a strange feat: I wrote off the whole event as a bizarre fluke. It became remote, somehow unreal to me. It’s not quite that I rationalized it away. It was weirder than that, more subterranean. It simply became the not-me.
The not-me was the secret repository of all the parts of myself that didn’t fit in with my spiritually evolved image—an image so indestructible, even wheelchair rides through airports couldn’t dent it. Neither could my therapist, Duane. I talked to Duane every week because crippling storms of anxiety came upon me regularly. I told myself these were the trials of being so far along on the path, facing the inner dragons that Joseph Campbell wrote about. I was a kind of Indiana Jones of the psyche. But I also wanted these struggles to go away.
Duane said I would never feel better until I let go of this “advanced guy” self-image. Intellectually, I kind of got what he meant. I could even talk about it with him, but I still didn’t see it—not really. I would nod sagely, as though he and I were colleagues discussing someone else’s case. It all felt very theoretical to me. I felt very theoretical to me.
When I told Duane about making the airplane return to the gate, he said, “Can you connect the fear on the airplane with anything you felt as a little boy? Try to go back into that feeling.” I closed my eyes and tried to feel. Nothing happened.
The not-me was impervious to interrogation.
Measures far more exotic than therapists in mild mannered sweaters would be required to penetrate the ligamentous scar tissue of my grandiosity.
Although I told Duane about the airplane, I was less honest about my martial-arts life. In fact, I spoke about the martial arts in such lofty spiritual terms, he probably pictured me wearing satiny kung-fu pajamas and subduing my opponent with willowy motions, sandalwood incense wafting through the air.
He almost certainly didn’t picture me at a martial arts school where ZZ Top blared through the speakers as we were taught the finer points of head butts and the three ways to tear off an assailant’s face with our teeth. You had to use your canines, because, as it turned out, your front incisors would “hydroplane” on your opponent’s skin.
I was an instructor in this system of martial arts, Filipino Kali. Nevertheless, tough-looking men on the street still filled me with a reflexive fear, a fear that was growing. I had a key to the gym and I stayed longer and longer after class, thrashing the heavy bag with knees and elbows.
Amazingly, I couldn’t see the consuming fear driving me to exhaustion. It was too close. Too normal. It was the not-me. Advanced beings didn’t have consuming fears.
Throughout all the years of my search, I’d maintained a tumultuous relationship with one author in particular, an unusual spiritual master with thick, black eyebrows on his great round head. I’d stockpile his books for a while, enchanted by his muscular rigor, his humor, and his fierceness. But sooner or later, I’d become infuriated with him. He could be maddeningly repetitive and sometimes downright mean. Worst of all, he was a guru. I hated gurus on principle. Zen masters simply gave you instructions, but gurus you were actually supposed to worship. So, I’d stuff his books angrily into my backpack and sell them to my local used bookstore.
However, a time would always come, a month or a year later, when I'd spot one of his books in a bookstore, grudgingly flip through it, and then mysteriously start buying his books all over again. This odd cycle had repeated itself for fifteen years.
But then, about a month after the airplane incident, something happened. My beloved Zen master died. And during the weeks to follow, in the grief of his passing, I began to sense a knowing in me, like a big, silent, inscrutable mountain, just sitting there, that I’d somehow never noticed: I was going to become a devotee of this wild guru. This, of course, seemed crazy to me. But in the aftermath of my Zen master’s death, all my protests about the guru seemed oddly prim and remote. Something much deeper had shifted in me, something geological.
Soon after taking my devotee vows in a simple ceremony, I pushed through my premonitions of exploding planes and flew to a large ashram in Northern California for my first meditation retreat on my new spiritual path. The guru was not there—he lived at another ashram, in Fiji, of all places. But apparently, when it comes to guru devotion, time and space are merely the quaintest of notions, cosmetic trifles.
The ashram had a few cavernous meditation halls, each one pitch dark except for a big, framed photo of the guru, dimly illuminated, glowing gently in the sea of blackness. The guru was supposed to be a sort of laser-like “focusing mechanism” of the transcendent reality. Instead of concentrating on your breath, like in Soto Zen, we meditated on the guru and his spiritual transmission because, as the axiom went, “You become what you meditate on.”
For the first several days, I experienced in meditation a quiet joy I’d never even imagined. The photographs of the guru often seemed to come alive and a pleasurable force pressed between my eyebrows, drawing me into an exquisite feeling of peace. Sometimes there were cramp-like sensations in my heart, like an ancient mummy’s crusty old fist creaking open by a couple of centimeters. Remarkably, in between these experiences, I found ample time to reflect on how they were proof of my highly evolved status, and I couldn’t wait to tell my friends about them in my bashful, reluctant way.
One meditation stood out from all the rest. I was sitting there on my little round cushion, channel surfing through the inane trivia of my mind, when, out of nowhere, I was swept into a sensation of an infinite space, a bright and delicious openness, wider than the sky. I dissolved into it, and the dissolving was the happiest thing I’d ever known. I stayed in the cold, dark hall basking quietly in the afterglow long after everyone else had left.
About ten days into the retreat, however, all the bliss unexpectedly stopped. At first I tried to pretend that it hadn’t, but that just made me anxious and self-conscious. My anxiety grew until, one night, sitting in meditation, enormous waves of fear began surging through me. I’d befriended a dentist from Australia named Martin, and the next day at lunch I sat down next to him. He was a burly guy with hips like a mastodon.
“I think I’m having a nervous breakdown,” I said.
He grinned. “That’s awesome, mate! Purification! Good onya!” This with great gusto, wide eyes, and challenging grin. He told me to read a talk of the guru’s called "The Sunlight Over the Well" and, after lunch, I curled up with it in the men’s retreat quarters.
In the essay, the guru said that at high noon, when the sunlight shines directly down into a well, all the slimy creatures in the bottom come up the sides to escape the heat and light. In the same way, our deepest emotional wounds come into awareness when we open ourselves to the spiritual force of a real guru. I’d read about this idea of purification before. But I’d always figured I was so far along on the spiritual path, how much could I possibly have left to purify?
When I got home from the retreat, the terror quickly subsided. But something was different. I went to my martial arts school, and it was almost like I was watching myself from across the room. I was practicing eye jabs and groin slaps on a big, meaty guy in body armor, and it suddenly seemed crazy in a way it never had before.
Later that week I stood in my kitchen chopping vegetables for juicing when I stopped, in the quiet of the morning. All at once I saw what I was doing—trying to ward off a ravenous horde of diseases with my talismanic pile of produce. I felt embarrassed, disoriented.
And then one night I was alone in my apartment meditating when an image flashed through my awareness. I could’ve sworn it was my father’s face—huge, red, a mask of terrible fury. A sickening fear rose up in me, just like I’d felt on retreat, but only for a moment. I thought I must have made it up. I had, after all, read a lot of books on this stuff.
But the next day I was with Duane and I mentioned it, all brainy and analytical, and, mid-sentence, I started crying. It welled up before I knew what was happening and I sobbed. Duane gently asked me to open my eyes. “Let me go there with you,” he said, and I could barely hear him. But I did it. I lifted my head a little and opened my eyes and made myself connect with his gaze. His eyes were shiny with moisture. And then something broke open and my sobbing grew louder, and somehow, woven within the sorrow itself, I felt the sweetest wash of life and newness.
The impossible combination of these feelings—the brokenness and the benediction within it—felt real, like it was waking me from a dream. After a long time I said to Duane, “I’m so tired,” my voice raw, a pile of snotty Kleenexes in the wastebasket next to me.
“I know,” he said.
It's been a year since I took my devotee vows, and I sit before a fire in my living room fireplace. On my left, my cat, JJ Burnel, is curled into a ball. On my right is a stack of spiral-bound notebooks, heavy with an unnatural mass, the collected works of the not-me.
My plan is to burn them, to watch my whole life of pain and struggle go up in flames, symbolizing a bold new start. It’s as if all my fear, shame, and grief are trapped in these notebooks, the way a shaman gets an evil spirit trapped inside a little wooden doll and, by throwing it into the fire, destroys it. I’ve been looking forward to this cathartic ritual all week.
I take the first notebook from the stack, a dark green one, five sections, its corners bent and softened to a silky smoothness, and I prepare to start ripping pages from its spiral ribcage for the pyre. But then for some reason I stop and just stare into the flames. I look down at the notebook. Look at JJ, sleeping obliviously. And, as if from out of nowhere, something odd occurs to me: burning my notebooks is not some bold new start at all; it’s just me doing more of what I’ve done my whole life—trying to “work on myself.” And real spiritual life has nothing to do with working on myself.
It’s been plainly stated, even exhaustively stated, in my guru’s teachings, but only now does the shocking obviousness of it smack me square in the face. This mad guru is not calling me to get better at tinkering with my psychology; his demand is far more blasphemous and subversive. It is to abandon every conceivable form of working on myself, the whole project-of-me.
Yes, I must feel my fear and brokenness nakedly, as I had done with Duane, and many times since then. The sunlight must shine into the depths of the well. But spiritual life is not about what's galumphing around down there. It's about the sunlight itself, the radiance that transcends the whole chugging machine of who I think I am. Somehow I'm supposed to commune so recklessly, so unceasingly with that radiance that I'm rendered utterly indifferent to my pain, my bliss, my anything.
If I was a great devotee, I’d be so obsessed with the nectar of the Transcendent that I wouldn’t give a damn about these notebooks—toss ‘em in the fire, wallpaper my apartment with them, whatever.
A familiar despair fills me, because I am not a great devotee. My whole “evolved guy” façade has been cracking a little more each month, and I know damn well that I can barely lose myself in spiritual communion for a few minutes, never mind every moment of every day.
The despair thickens and I stare into the fire, my stack of notebooks sitting implacably in the soft, flickering light. JJ Burnel still sleeps, blissfully bereft of any notebooks whatsoever. I reach down to pet her and she purrs, seeming mindlessly happy. And that reminds me of my guru, who also seems mindlessly happy, and something about all that secret, mindless happiness, hidden behind the voluptuous universe, even behind the torments of my poor, wounded father and myself, makes me feel that maybe the seed of being a true devotee is already in me. “Advanced guy” may be a lie, but maybe “hopeless guy” is, too. Maybe the despair is just me playing sick again, trying to get the jetliner to return to the gate.
But as I heave my warm cat onto my lap, I have the sense that this plane has already lifted off the runway, and we are hurtling, even now, into an infinite space, a bright and delicious openness, wider than the sky.
Copyright © 2012 by Sam V. Guthrie
Story image: "Shiny Lotus" © Kimberly Vohsen
"I’ve always found the notion of psychological purification intriguing—especially when it seems to be magnified and quickened by the energetic or spiritual transmission of an authentic guru—the ‘sunlight and the well’ phenomenon. On the flip side, I’ve also been fascinated by the strangely beautiful mysteries of psychological denial. This personal essay marks a period in my life when, by my guru’s grace, my own memories of traumatic childhood abuse were just starting to open up, initiating a pretty remarkable and humbling odyssey of self-discovery.
Sam V. Guthrie is a nonfiction writer who lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his disconcertingly hot novelist wife of twenty-odd years and their two cats, Tiberius and Oblio. He is also a Rolfer, a martial artist, a raw-food guy, and a Russian kettlebell fanatic. Sam is a longtime spiritual practitioner, having been the devotee of his guru for almost twenty years. His great creative inspirations include Jack Kirby, Joss Whedon, Henry Miller, Hemingway, Nabokov, Joan Didion, and William Hazlitt. Previous publications include the book Stress Relief: How to Achieve Radiant Inner Peace (Scarecrow Press) and numerous articles in the Minnesota publications The Edge and Twin Cities Wellness.