Choosing to walk my own path: the beginning

Group X, Altar paintings #1. Hilma af Klint (c) Hilma af Klint Foundation

I keep thinking about the months of January through June of 1998. I struggle with how to label this period, because to say something like “this was a massively influential time for me” or “it was the most pivotal inflection point of my life” feels like an understatement.

Looking back, I genuinely believe that choosing to leave the life I had known up until that point allowed me to begin to discover who I was. And because I was, for the first time in my life, evaluating the world around me based on my own lens / my own value system / an expanded sense of what might be possible, I discovered several practices and perspectives that have been with me ever since.

What happened (in a nutshell)

Two and a half years into a Bachelor of Science degree at McGill University, I had become disillusioned with science as a way to explain the world. I fell into an existential crisis that called my entire approach to life into question: Why was I working toward a degree that reduced everything I loved into numbers and statistics… particularly when all the trends seemed to show that everything was doomed?

More importantly: Why was I in university at all? I certainly hadn’t made a conscious decision about the matter. Twenty years into my life, I suddenly realized I had been blindly following the path that had been laid out for me, with little regard for what I actually wanted to do, much less who I actually might be.

Then “Ice Storm ’98,” one of the worst national disasters in Canada’s history, hit…. right at the beginning of McGill’s winter semester. The entire region ground to a halt, with trees and critical power lines down all over the place. The National Guard was brought in to clean up the mess and help assess the full extent of the damage. We heard that thick sheets of ice were falling off buildings downtown, and I have a vivid memory of walking home through McGill’s quad one night to the beautiful sound of ice-covered branches tinkling together in the breeze, punctuated by the occasional “SNAP!” and “CRACK!” as massive branches and trunks failed under the extra weight, and came crashing to the ground.

I took the storm as a sign, dropped out of college and ran off to Australia. I planned to WWOOF my way around the country (and the world?) indefinitely.

Intro to Buddhism

I started reading about Buddhism in the living room behind the Red Velvet Lounge in Tasmania. After work, the owners and the other WWOOFers and I would chat long into the night about seeing things as they really are, the elusive value of non-binary thinking, and how hard it is to cultivate a compassion that truly includes everyone. (This was my first WWOOFing experience and my first commercial cooking experience, so I also learned how to prepare a mean vegetarian filo triangle, and that good chefs never leave sharp knives in the sink.)

Intro to Yoga

My next stop was an internship at Zanskar Cafe in Hobart. The proprietor there, a former Mormon from Salt Lake City then known by his spiritual name Prashant, taught me my first sun salutations, sparking an interest in yoga that I’ve been cultivating ever since.

“Getting” art

Prashant and his wife Vichara (also her spiritual name; she was a no-longer-practicing Jew from New York City) employed a menagerie of travelers. Most of us had abandoned round-the-world (or at least round-trip) tickets in order to bask a little longer in Hobart’s warm glow; the rest were students of the local art school.

I spent all my free time hanging out with the artists, because, for the first time in my life, I “got” art. As in, I began to understand its origins and importance beyond aesthetic value / “that’s pretty” / “I like it” or “I don’t.”

As in… images and symbols were coming to me / flowing through me in a way that would have freaked me out, except that everything in those days felt like an acid trip (no drugs were involved!) / magic / Universal Truth / God / whatever you want to call it. I was filling an entire notebook with symbols and diagrams and newly-expanded thoughts every two weeks.

I tried to describe some of this in a video back in March:

I caught an exhibit at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne entitled Beyond Belief: Modern Art and the Religious Imagination. I was so taken with Hilma af Klint’s work (symbols! just like mine, except bigger, and more colorful, and from a body of work that was infinitely more developed than my own!) that I bought the catalog, lugging it around with me for the rest of my time in Australia, back to North America, and now to New Zealand.

Group IX series SUW, The swan #17. Hilma af Klint (c) Hilma af Klint Foundation

Everything is a metaphor for everything else

One night in Neika, the small town I lived in just outside of Hobart, I was at a party hanging out on a pile of cushions a short distance removed from the main action. The night was warm, and my belly and heart were full. Another traveler had spent hours building an enormous man out of wood, and from my vantage point I watched as he sent a burning bit of something down a wire suspended from the second-storey window several yards away to set the man on fire. (Now I wonder if he must have been at an early Burning Man event, or at least heard about them.)

Watching the sparks fly up to meet the stars in the sky I suddenly knew: at some point I will be, to someone else, every person that I have ever encountered, or will encounter. At the time I was the traveler watching from the edge of the party, but I had already been (an ocean away) host of parties to which random travelers had showed up; maybe some of them had, at one time or another, watched the action from outside. I had also been, at other parties, one of the group of friends that invited the random traveler. One day I might be the person creating the massive art piece, or the person who built the tented party shelter I was lying in while having this revelation.

I knew that everything was a metaphor for everything else, but it was more than a rational thought or logical conclusion I drew; I just KNEW it.

It feels weird to write these words when I’m not currently in a state like that, but I can remember the feeling of knowing these things, as I have known them in fleeting moments before, and I know I will again. I used to feel this way more frequently when I was little, and outside. I’ve felt it as an adult in moments when I’m in a beautiful place, quiet, and sitting still.

This moment arrives when I cease to be an observer, and instead have the sense that I am observation itself, and also that there is no separation between me and everything else. I want to laugh because suddenly everything makes sense and feels whole and “right.”

And then in a flash I’m a separate me sitting on a rock again. It’s gotten cold and I need to find my jacket, or the person I’m with says something, or the mosquitoes start biting and the spell is broken.

But even as the knowing disappears, the knowing of the knowing remains. Over the last several years, integrating this knowing into all aspects of my life no matter where I am — alone in nature / at work with my colleagues / at home with my partner / anywhere else —  has increasingly felt like the only work that’s important. This is the path that I want to walk. Not because it is separate from everything else, but because of the felt awareness that it can contain, and be contained by, the rest. And so the journey that began in 1998 both continues and begins anew, every day.

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