“May you get to heaven before a word is said, and make your peace with God before the Devil knows you’re dead.” -Old Irish Prayer
It’s been over 3 months since I’ve written anything on this blog and while you could attribute some of this to sheer laziness…the truth is, “I simply haven’t found much time lately.” The reason for this very long delay is because shortly after my last post my father died unexpectedly just shy of turning 80. His death came as a shock because I wasn’t even informed of his hospitalization, which I later learned was for at least 3 weeks. Apparently, he didn’t want to tell either my brother nor I about it, and so I didn’t learn about it until he had already passed on. I believe that he was embarrassed to have either of us see him in such a crippled and invalid state as the last image we would have of him, especially since so much of his early life had been preoccupied with displays of youthful vigor.
After all, he would brag about being in the Golden Gloves and had some memorable amateur fights. He taught dance at Arthur Murray dance studio and was obsessive about his health even becoming a vegetarian back in the 50s, long before it was fashionable. So much of his identity was wrapped up in his Adonis-like appearance that creeping finger of old age robbed him of more than his strength and vitality…it cannibalized his spirit until there was nothing left but a shell of his former self left. However, it wasn’t just old age that did this (which one could argue in our youth-obsessed culture robs most people of their spirit if not their identity). He was always just barely hanging on to financial long-shots, embittered by business deals gone awry, partnerships gone sour, and opportunities lost as if in some cruel twist of fate that was his burden to bear like the trials of Job. It was if his life were the living embodiment of Murphy’s Law (i.e. Whatever Can Go Wrong, Will Go Wrong). He never seemed to have a firm grasp on reality, which is why he so loved to escape into his “far out” books.
If he couldn’t master the tangible universe, then he was hellbent on mastering the intangible, the invisible, the spiritual one. How does one achieve mastery over something so ethereal and elusive? For my dad, this involved a lifetime’s worth of searching for what were deemed “spiritual” or “transcendent” truths, which found their apogee in the Indian mysticism of Sant Mat. This particular path has a lineage of gurus, who by all accounts are quite spiritually evolved and teach union with the divine through meditation on what is called “the sound current” or “Nam”. It believes in living an ethically pure life, of course, abstaining from alcohol, meat, drugs, and pre-marital sex.
Oddly enough, this last abstention is congruent with (in theory) much of Christian thought. In fact, what’s particularly interesting about this predominantly Indian-oriented form of mysticism is that it accommodates what you might describe as Gnostic forms of Christianity into its philosophy, which can cause a radical psychic schism to develop in the psyche if not navigated successfully. Given the rather obvious ways that contradictions, hypocrisies, and inner conflicts appeared throughout my father’s life- I would have to say that he was largely unsuccessful in navigating those perilous psychic waters with the most evident being that he was, for the most part, not a well contented man let alone spiritually enlightened enough to be in a blissful state of consciousness. As Nietzsche would say, “He was human, all too human.”
And by human…I mean flawed, emotional, habitual, accident prone, short-sighted, reflexive, and given to repeat the same stories and mistakes throughout his entire life. And, boy did he love to tell a lot stories, long-winded, fantastical, seemingly meaningless, but always with a sense that he was conveying something profound. Listening to stories about UFOs, his American Graffiti-like adolescence, his rocky marriage to my mom, transcendental readings through psychic mediums, meeting remarkable or otherwise famous individuals, and endless stories about his master, Charan Singh, along with the basic philosophy and mythology of Sant Mat was (given the numerous times my pop would repeat the same story over and over again though at seemingly widely varying intervals) both fascinating and exhausting at the same time. The weirder, the better, the more outlandish and fantastical, the more he loved it. Proof be damned! Truth is stranger than fiction, and my dad had no time for fiction…or so he would tell you.
However, his truth was so “out of this world”, for most people grounded in the banalities of everyday life, I’m sure he appeared as just another nutty snake oil salesman of para-normal and mystical stories the veracity of which were always in question. So, I was both bemused and befuddled by them, since I’m known to have an attraction to the mysterious but more prone to use Occam’s Razor. My pop, on the other hand, never let investigatory facts or common sense answers get in the way of his metaphysical yarns, though. It was almost comical how emphatic he would be on subjects that he had absolutely no professional training or background in nor even take the time to thoroughly research adequately. Still, for all his flaws, he was at bottom a kind man, a generous man, and (in his own way) a reflective man, who was driven by his insatiable curiosity to know and dwell in universal truth but failed to recognize the truth in imperfection and how truth is lived subjectively in those that remain true to their individuated uniqueness rather than always stifling it among the homogenous masses.
Truth is the force that gives life meaning, and it can and does take a multitude of forms, expressions, rhythms, and embodiments within the strata of life. For me, it means thinking, feeling, speaking, and acting out of the greatest aspect of my humanity and higher self. It means living in the fullest expression of my own unique contribution to this mad play called life without lying to myself or others. It means giving respect but taking no shit. Sometimes I fall short, but the moments when I rise to the occasion are without a doubt the greatest moments. These moments need not be filled with action, since there times when non-action is just as truthful as action. It takes discernment to know what is called for, though.
Back to my pop, I always felt that he was conflicted within himself, and it was difficult to discern why. Like many of his generation, the idea of speaking about your feelings was considered too feminine. So, much of his heartbreaks, disappointments, turmoils, fears, vulnerabilities, and inadequacies remained hidden (or at least not typically discussed with me). Women are much more open about these things, obviously, to their trusted confidants and this is probably why they live on average a couple of years longer than men. It isn’t that you should whine or complain about petty bullshit, quite the contrary. However, neither should you think that keeping all your emotions bundled up inside until one day they explode in a violent rage or self-destructive act is good for your disposition.
There’s a reason why women talk things out. They’re not necessarily expecting to get a solution to the problem that may or may not be solved. But, they’ll talk things out nonetheless because it helps to get things off your chest whether or not people want to take action or not. The best I can determine, in my dad’s case, is that there was an inner schism within the deeper recesses of his unconscious mind, which I believe was at root based on the dichotomy he placed between his animal instincts and his spiritual aspirations. This is especially pronounced within monotheistic religions such as Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.
It goes all the way back to the real fall from grace, the alienation of man from the natural environment through agriculture and domestication of animals. Prior to this happening some 12,000 years ago, man lived in a harmonious symbiotic accord with nature as a hunter-gatherer. His spirituality was intimately tied up and dependent on his organismic and psychic connection with Mother Earth. However, the domestication of plants, animals, and eventually people themselves caused this cosmic unity to become fragmented and replaced by the beginnings of monotheistic religion through the ancient solar cults. Nature was no longer the repository of our spirits, our ancestors, our nourishment of both body and mind. It was, thanks to this alien philosophy, now considered corrupt, lower, and in need of control and domination through what eventually became the age of machines and technology. Civilization wrecked havoc on the indigenous world where tribal peoples still adhered to the old ways of natural communion and living in harmony with the Earth rather than viewing the planet as something to be conquered and exploited for material gain.
Needless to say, the Western spiritual tradition shifted away from nature-centric paganism and took on the predatory militarism of monotheism, which created a dualistic split between the carnal earth thought to be corrupt and the lofty airy pure spirit thought to reside in the afterlife. And, it was this schism between his carnal instincts such as to fight or fuck and his spiritual aspirations of meditation in seeking union with the divine that drove my dad to the point of despair and ruin, since he ultimately knew that he couldn’t escape these inborn and ingrained attitudes and behaviors attributed to his lower/animal self. How might he atone, therefore? Punishment or karma was due, in his mind to atone for these transgressions. And, as a result, he bore his pain both with a heavy but also somewhat masochistic heart in that (in his mind) he was working off the karma of falling short of his higher spiritual self…of not being free of his creature-liness as it were.
What if there isn’t such a hard and fast dividing line between matter and spirit, Earth and Heaven, tangible and intangible, Animal and Man, or even Man and God? What if we exist on a continuum of the gradual increasing of qualitative spiritual awareness relative to our animal friends and need not give up earthly pleasure to attain eternal life, since we are eternal? Is God’s love so possessive that he would have us give up the simple pleasures of life in order to seek the kingdom exclusively? Or, is the kingdom within as Christ said, and we can be still be stewards of the Earth at the same time as being rays of the divine invisible sun?
I began this blog by paraphrasing what I think is an old Irish prayer, which I got from the last Sydney Lumet movie “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead“. Go watch this movie, if you haven’t already. It’s a brilliantly constructed movie about a jewelry store robbery gone horribly awry and the toll that it takes on two brothers, who learn that the love of money tears families apart. The older brother is played magnificently by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who also carried a larger inner burden than he usually let on about. Most people in our celebrity and fame-obsessed society can’t fathom someone as famous and successful as Hoffman being depressed and dying from a heroin overdose. Huge success, fame, and certainly wealth come with the very heavy expectations of the world of maintaining it, and the stresses that this false idolatry and adulation brings are often greater than one man, one man with inner demons and doubts can withstand. Interestingly enough, he’s a heroin addict in the movie as well. Not to spoil it for you, but there’s a great scene where the father of the two boys discovers a dark secret about his own son with an old Jewish jewelry dealer, who tells him- “The world is an evil place. Some people make money from it, and others are destroyed by it.” The world, the fabricated artificial world of our greedy and corrupt civilization, is indeed an evil place. And, my father didn’t make money from this fact but was in the end destroyed by it. However, it doesn’t have to be like this. After all, the Earth (for all its dangers and perils) is basically a hospitable and good place for this life, in this incarnation, and in this body. And, the world need not be evil, since the world is going to be whatever we make of it.
Bob Matthews (November 10th, 1934 – June 29th, 2014)