Religion & Beliefs
The Dream of the Magician
"You’ve got to go out on a limb sometimes because that’s where the fruit is." – Will Rogers In high school, all I wanted, but didn’t even know that I wanted, was a magician to suddenly appear in my … Read More
"You’ve got to go out on a limb sometimes because that’s where the fruit is."
– Will Rogers
In high school, all I wanted, but didn’t even know that I wanted, was a magician to suddenly appear in my life and peel back the grey curtain of my existence to reveal a magical, rainbow world underneath. Now, at 37, I know that world exists — multiple ones, in fact, places of discovery, spiritual awakening, sexual ecstasy, altered consciousness, creativity, emotional connection, diverse experiences, all totally unknown to me when I was younger. But it took me years to find them. There were a few intimations in my twenties: a couple of peak experiences, usually with the help of one substance or other; some spiritual highs in my Orthodox Jewish years; and, as the shells began to break, some wonderful times with music, with pot, and at a few rave parties. Really, though, it didn’t start happening until 2001, when at age thirty, my old life shattered and I felt I had nothing to lose by jumping off the cliff, and either falling or flying or both.
The closest I came: I saw Dead Poets Society at age 17, and was instantly convinced. Unfortunately, I made two mistakes. First, I mistook the form for the freedom, thinking that poetry specifically was the point, rather than self-discovery, which would have included coming out, getting beyond my ego’s fears, and other terrifying things. And second, I followed poetry into a cul-de-sac of early-90s irony and cynicism — a trap from which, even now, I occasionally have trouble escaping. By the time I got to Columbia, the Allen Ginsbergs had all gone, and in their place were coolness, sophistication, irony… all wastes of time.
There was no Mr. Keating in my teenage life: no teacher, no older peer, not even a friend. I did my best, but I had no guide, and no internet either. I was into the Beatles, and read the Beats, but where anything was happening contemporaneously, I had no idea. And there was a furtiveness to it (another early closet), a shame of being into the 1960s, which for my stood for everything related to creativity, free expression, and living life fully, as opposed to the 1980s, which to me stood for superficiality, football games, and conformity. I had neither the aptitude nor the interest in what my peers seemed to be doing. I was a gay kid closeted from himself, so I had no idea what I was supposed to do with girls, except from what I could glean from pop culture and porn, neither of which could substitute for actual desire. And I was a geek, toward the bottom of the social food chain, but without that blithe ignorance some geeks seem to have. I knew I was a loser, but there seemed to be no alternative.
Of course, in the late 1980s, there were plenty of countercultures to choose from. But I either didn’t know about them, or was intimidated by them. There were a few punks at my school, but they all seemed dangerous and mean. I didn’t know of any artistic communities near where I lived, and of course if I had, I would have been ludicrously out of place. So I spent such large chunks of my adolescence editing a computer club newsletter, playing computer games, and being by myself. Some of that alone-time was really quite creative, and a foreshadowing of the time I’ve spent on solitary retreat more recently. But I was so alone, and isolated. I had no idea how to make my life extraordinary.
From this vantage point, there’s a sort of sadness, a wistfulness, looking back on those times lost. I know that the experiences of those years shaped me into the person I am now, for better as well as for worse, and so I try not to regret. I try also to be conscious of how this dynamic contributes to potentially destructive patterns now, e.g. indulging the inner child unwisely, chasing after boys, and resisting discipline even when it would help me.
But mostly, I admit, there is regret. Imagine, if there had just been one person: a boy, maybe, or a teacher, or someone to rip open that junior-high school facade, and tell me the secret that there are whole other worlds out there, don’t waste your time with these people, come with me, and I’ll show you a life so intense, so alive, that they can’t even dream of it.
For a time, I played the Mr. Keating role myself. At the summer camp where I worked, I turned the ultimate frisbee team into my own Dead Poets’ Society, complete with scorn for the normals, counterculture values, and even some actual poetry. And as a Hebrew High School teacher in my 20s, I tried to influence my kids to… what? To seize the day, I suppose. To see things differently. To make fun of the mainstream. Simple stuff. Catcher in the Rye stuff. But stuff that no one told me at the time.
Yet as I tried to show my students the virtues of living out loud, was I seizing the day myself? I was in law school, albeit for partly noble reasons. I was deep in the closet, hopelessly and sometimes pathetically in love with straight boys. And while I was going out and drinking and seeing some shows, none of those things, when I look back on them now, really seem that powerful. In law school, too, I was lost among the normals, as if college had never happened. All along, I was being creative: writing, painting, eventually writing music once I taught myself guitar. Yet none of those had much of an outlet. One photography show at Yale, and a few poems in literary magazines. Otherwise, I treated my creativity as a hobby.
It took more traumatic knocks on the head, literally and figuratively, for me to practice what I preached. A failed longterm relationship with a wonderful woman convinced me that maybe I wasn’t bisexual after all. Burning Man showed me that I could get physically and emotionally naked without humiliating myself, and that it was possible for me to have those wonderful, intimate conversations that previously I’d only read about in books. And eventually, meditation and spiritual practice cracked open my soul to possibilities of love I’d never even known about. It has been a long journey, and it continues.
I realize that the dream of the magician is, in some ways, an adolescent dream. There’s a reason Dead Poets Society was set in a high school; just "going for it" in some vague sense is, well, a kind of high school/college thing to do. But I think it’s still an important dream to nourish, for at least two reasons.
First, most people never take that first step. Today, all these years later, it’s a wonderment to me to see some of my peers all grown up, yet never having begun a spiritual, artistic, philosophical, or just plain hedonistic seizing-the-day journey. I’m sure their lives are fulfilling, with kids and family and the rest. But to never have escaped the box you were born into! To never have seriously questioned it! It’s hard for me even to remember what those first steps are: questioning authority and conformity, finding that essence inside of yourself, being true to your heart. This isn’t about being a writer or an artist specifically. It’s about being an aficianado of life. Something — and preferably, something rich and transformative. Jazz, or exotic travel, or S&M. Something that lets you really live, for God’s sake, rather than just go on, love (hopefully), and reproduce. This may be an adolescent dream, but if so, many (most?) people are pre-adolescents.
Second, the dream has political import. Part of seeing that you’re living in a box conditioned by convention, privilege, and unquestioned values is seeing that the box also contains oppression and injustice. It’s not just vapid; it also despoils and chains and subjugates. I think failing to "seize the day," individuating, and escaping from expectation is how Republicans are made. As long as you don’t look too closely, and as long as you’re satisfied with what you’ve got, you prefer not to change how things are. Most of the oppression is invisible anyway, and injustice happens beneath our notice. So the system continues.
Maybe that’s what mainstream religion (as opposed to spirituality, radical religion, etc.) is really for. It props up the householder life, and provides just enough juice, meaning, and reflection for it to be worth living in the first place. Or who knows, maybe kids really do change everything, and maybe one day I’ll find out.
But right now, I want to live. To paraphrase Mr. Keating again, my spiritual practice isn’t there to enable me to live a normal life happily; it’s life itself. I love my writing projects, my queer activism, my lust of life, and my spiritual practice. I love my weird and unusual life, featuring months of silent meditation and five careers and living in the woods and some pretty far out sensual and spiritual experiences. There is deep bliss, love, enlightenment, compassion, and holiness on the paths I have chosen. People who’ve never "left" the box can’t see that; they can’t see that there are other goods out there that people might choose to pursue. This is what distinguishes those who voluntarily choose a householder life from those who slipped right into it without self examination. And again, I think it has political import. How can you be deeply pluralistic if you’ve never seen from outside your born-into-it perspective?
It’s certainly not all sweetness and light out here on the limb. There is loneliness, dependence, and the dangers of narcissism. There’s not a whole lot of money or power, which for me, raised as I was to be a lawyer-statesman, or at least a lawyer-professor, causes a lot of envy — especially since I actually did go to law school, and now have friends who are rich, successful, powerful, and justifiably respected. I’ve worked on that, and have come to some peace around it, but it has taken work. Perhaps worst of all, long-term relationships are notoriously hard to maintain among bohemians, spiritual types, and other misfits; one three-year relationship of mine ended because my partner felt a "heart-pull" to leave, explore, and grow on his own. These are all understandable and even praiseworthy from a spiritual and self-actualization perspective, but it sure hurt like hell, and it took me about six months to come to accept it without rage or searing pain.
And yet, for all that, I don’t think I would trade lives with my peers, if I could. But the truth is, I can’t. I tried very hard to live their lives, and failed. That’s the point of the dream of the magician: I wish that I could have escaped sooner.
There are many alchemies that spring from those years of frustration and pain, some productive, others less so. Thanks to meditation practice, I have learned to let go of regret. I was always trying the best I could; it just took me awhile to find my way. And the loneliness and pain has, obviously, motivated a lot of my spiritual work in the first place. But I think my favorite of the alchemies of spirituality is how I play the Mr. Keating role today, only this time from the edges of my own experience, and with adults rather than adolescents. Today, as I teach in spiritual contexts and invite people to explore the edges of their own hearts and minds, I encounter people who are as gray as I was back in 1988. And I know, because they have told me, that I’ve brought color and light into their lives. I also encounter people who are already growing and flourishing, and with whom I enjoy a symbiotic relationship, mutually opening, daring, provoking, laughing, and inspiring. We are each other’s magicians, performing at a kind of carnival, in which I get to grow wiser and kinder, and experience more ecstasy than I’d ever thought possible.
Though I do wonder, sometimes, if the admission ticket could have been bought with a bit less pain. ___________
Images: Where Shall We Go, Reflection and Black Bird (lead image) by David Brooks.