“God triumphs over the ruins of our plans.”
Two of my early passions had been music – all and any music – and audio gear. During my summer vacations home from the Seminary, I worked in various jobs to afford the latest pieces of sound tech equipment, and by the time I finally decided to leave the Seminary, I had assembled a marvelous system of stereophonic bliss, along with a substantial collection of cherished music. Rather reluctantly, I sold it all at a bargain price to a classmate in order to finance my coming months, and have never regretted that decision.
Plans, plans! Yes, since as early as I can remember, I had felt a call to serve the Sacred. There was an intuition of palpable Mystery that invited my most profound response. It was an inexplicable impulse, even prior to memory, that became framed within the Irish Catholic zeitgeist of my childhood conditioning. At the age of 13, I embarked upon a 7-year odyssey through the inner sanctum of priestly training. I entered the Seminary in the fervor and naiveté of my youth, and left a disillusioned cynic. Yes, the ruins of our plans!
With the realization that I had superimposed a fictitious belief system on my innocent yearning, all but strangling it in the dry dogmatic grip of an impotent, life-denying, and soul-deadening religious superstructure, I walked away with a Frisbee, a few hundred dollars, and my first beard.
Several years earlier, a friend of my father’s had lent us his cabin in the high Sierras for a week of summer trout fishing, and we had returned to the area in succeeding years for vacations. Deep in the old Gold Rush territory made famous by the original “Forty-Niners”, the North Fork of the Yuba River cuts a crystal clear swath through this majestic mountain range. The primal hum of ancient and yet ever-fresh and innocent power vibrates alive through vast forests of giant Evergreen Firs, inviting a remembrance of our own earthy origins.
The day I left the Seminary in 1969, I drove home in my third-hand Ford Falcon, packed my fishing rod, a tent, a sleeping bag, a little hibachi grill, a couple of pairs of jeans, a sweatshirt, and a flashlight. I stopped off at the food store for some supplies, and then sat down for a farewell dinner with my bewildered family. They were almost speechless in their despair, having counted on me to pave the way heavenward for them as their own in-house divinity broker. Not only had I just dropped out of the Seminary, but I was apparently getting ready to drop off the face of the civilized world. There was nothing I could really say by way of explanation that they would understand, and so I just said something like: “I’m going to see what life wants to do with me…” And left it at that.
The next morning I got up at dawn, gassed up the car, and motored off across the Golden Gate Bridge on my way north to the mountains, the river, the forests, and whatever lay ahead, patiently waiting to reveal itself. I was smiling broadly, and realized that it had been a very long time since I had really smiled like that, with my whole being.
About 4 hours later, I was meandering serenely along Highway 49, a two-lane road running parallel to the river of my chosen sojourn, when I spotted a pull-off road to an abandoned campsite. I took the turn, and eased down a precipitous dirt track that wound narrowly for about 10 minutes, eventually depositing me at a slight clearing adjacent to the riverbank. There was a weathered poster board at the base of the trail, with a barely legible inscription designating the spot as “Convict Flats”. There was a brief story attached, which told of a now century-old episode of escaped convicts, and their eventual capture, at this very site. There were no other current campers, since it was way before the season, and it appeared that the area had seen little recent use. I pulled the car into the shade of an inviting Evergreen, cleared the space of some fallen limbs, and set up camp. This was to be my home for the next half year, or as long as the trout would oblige. I had traded my music for a different song – the sound of the breeze sifting through the trees, the sound of river caressing the canyon, and the sound of my soul, opening once more for the very first time.
It was a very warm afternoon, and after settling in, I stripped off my clothes and plunged into the icy stream. The ecstatic thrill of this naked baptism felt like an immediate cleansing of caked residue accumulated from my previous life. I regularly repeated this ritual over the coming months, surrendering myself more and more deeply to the amazing grace of flowing, redeeming water.
Then I was suddenly hungry, hungrier than I had been in a long time! However, there was no refrigerator here, nor kitchen, nor some contingent of tiny French-Canandian nuns dedicated to keeping clergy-to-be fat and happy. My dinner was swimming in the same river from which I had just emerged, and my kitchen was the small hibachi grill, waiting patiently for its intended culinary guests.
I strung my fishing rod with a Mepps Spinner lure, which I knew from previous outings offered an irresistible seduction to the local rainbow trout, and then searched for and found a likely pooling eddy for my first cast.
A 14-inch beauty almost stripped the rod from my hands, leaping high above the rushing stream and tearing the monofilament line hotly off my reel. Impaled on a shaft of late-afternoon mountain sunlight, the moment seemed to open a rift in the ordinary progression of time, and it was only the insistent throb and tug of the rod that returned me to the matter in hand.
After a setting the hook with a sharp jerk, I battled the sleek river wonder onto the shore, and sat back against a boulder, watching my first mountain meal flopping futilely in the waning light. I thanked it for its sacrifice, reached down, and snapped its neck. There was a brief and fleeting stab in my heart at the death now wrapped in my hands. Nevertheless, any further rumination was quickly supplanted by the growls from my stomach, and I must say here that fresh rainbow trout, immediately grilled on an open flame and consumed outdoors in the mountains at dusk, is a gustatory delight rarely matched by any fine restaurant cuisine.
Later that evening, I lit a small fire and sat out under the Milky Way’s brilliant canopy, simply awe-struck by the beauty of the star field spinning slowly overhead. As the smoke drifted lazily into the clear night sky, I came to feel my body as just one of an infinite number of points of my own awareness, like a winking sun in a vast ocean of conscious starry being that I Am. This feeling shone so strong it opened up my hands. My heart was brimming with love, a love that wanted to ripple out into an endless embrace. There was a kind of urgency to it, a feeling that being itself was pressing into every obscure nook and cranny of itself to kiss itself awake. As the fire burnt down into glowing embers, I knew that I had made the right choice by coming here, and soon I was snuggled in my down sleeping bag, lulled to sweet oblivion by the gentle coursing hymn of the river.
When I awoke the next morning, the music of the river had become part of me. No longer a dear companion, it was now what I was. Over the coming months this realization began to extend to the mountains, the trees, the fish, the sky, the stars, and the beloved moon that visited in a different guise each night. Today, however, I walked out into the stream up to my hips and felt my whole body come alive to itself.
It occurred to me then that freedom – the vital pulsing feeling of freedom – is the birthright of everyone, everything. It is only the superimposition of a whole litany of wry beliefs and second-hand programs that ever obscures what it actually is. At the moment, in this fresh and brilliant morning wonder, I reached into the crystal stream and, with cupped hands, scooped water from the flow and anointed my head with the tingling ecstasy of mindless abandon. Yes – I was free! How had I ever imagined that I was ever anything less than this?
In the following weeks, I settled into a pattern-less pattern, allowing my intuition to take precedence over my previously conceptual approach to experience, time, and perception. It became increasingly obvious that the body has its own wisdom, and by re-connecting with that, I was also being re-established in the naturally unified condition of life’s spontaneous flow.
Sometimes I would just find a favorite boulder, and watch the river flow. Sometimes I might hike up into the Evergreens, and let my footsteps lead me wherever they wanted, pausing occasionally to just breathe in the fresh aromas of the forest, or listen to the bird music echoing from tree to tree in a symphony of ordinary delight. At other times, I would wander along the river’s banks, sometimes crossing in shallow sections, sometimes just stretching out on the surface and letting the water take me where it wanted.
Afloat on the mystery, gazing up into the endlessness of blue, I relaxed into the boundless sense of perfection inherent in this beauty. Prior memories drained away, and with them any sense of past or future. The presence of Now – this moment – became the glowing stage on which all appeared and dissolved. I began to realize that I was happy – not in some gleeful way, but just relaxed into a confidence that, no matter what, all is well. In fact, this happiness was my original state, except when I tended to slip into some fixation on any of it out of old habit and forget my true infinity.
It was here that I first read about Zen Buddhism in a little book a friend had lent me, and where I had my first modest experience (or taste) of the awakening to which Zen pointed. As I sat on a boulder by the river, contemplating what I had been reading, I was suddenly struck by the realization that everything was just appearing as itself, being itself, perfectly and completely. The trees were just treeing, the stream was streaming, I was self-ing, and it was all connected in a most amazing way. There was nothing in need of fixing or manipulating — total freedom was always and already the case! There was nothing to search for, nothing in need of redemption, nothing to grasp or discard. I burst out laughing at the obviousness of it all, as shivers of ecstatic release coursed through my body.
The next few months washed by in kind of dreamy timeless flow. I now felt stitched into the very fabric of existence, and days would pass with barely a thought. I wandered through the streams, swam with the trout, strolled through the woods, or just sat for hours on my rock – lost in silent union with the river’s ceaseless music. Night followed day, day followed night, and occasionally I would notice that my beard had really grown. In the reflecting window of my car, I now saw something of a wildman peering back, but he always seemed to have a happy smile. I had found some berry bushes back in the woods during one of my excursions, and these delicious fruits had replaced the relieved fish population for many an evening meal. I ran out of cigarettes, but never bothered to buy more during my infrequent trips into town.
Most days were lit with brilliantly clear blue skies, but as I sat out on my boulder by the river one morning, communing with the Mystery, the sky suddenly darkened and a fierce wild wind blew up the canyon. Next came a deafening crash of an immense thunderclap that reverberated forever, echoing off the stone walls of the canyon and threatening my eardrums. I inadvertently hollered back “Wahoo!” at the top of my voice, but immediately was blinded by a bolt of flashing white lightning that followed the monstrous thunder. The titanic relay of thunder and lightning rounds continued on for some minutes, but I had already crawled down under the over-hanging cover of the boulder when the rains came at last. It was just then that I noticed the river stones themselves seemed huddled and expectant at the oncoming deluge, and as each new raindrop splashed and glazed them, every stone remembered its home in the domain of liquid light – the very source of all of us.
The warm rain following the celestial pyrotechnics eventually gave way to a clearing, and with the return of sunlight came a vibrant rainbow stretching across the canyon. I was standing transfixed in jaw-dropping awe of this incredible vision of multi-colored splendor arcing up before my eyes when it occurred to me that my time there in the mountains was complete. I stood up and bowed to the rock, and to the river, and to the trees and wind and sun and sky, headed back to pack my gear, and drove south – although it really could have been in any direction.
As I drove away from Convict Flats, my home for the last 6 months, I flipped on the car radio. Some gospel group was singing a slow tender version of “Amazing Grace”, and as I hummed along, tears flowed freely down my cheeks, but I was smiling – it was such a beautiful day!