“Here come the sharks.” Another surge of cars raced up Bush Street. Green lights ushered pack after pack past Sokoji Temple across the street, past the Eye and Ear Hospital on the corner, past the Victorian porch with peeling paint where I was sitting. Late model ‘50s and early to mid-‘60s cars with fluted chrome grills and arching tail fins stabbed the air. Sharks. Swimming up the river of fumes in my three lane front yard.
I was sitting on the stoop because I was unable to make the four block walk to Safeway. I was suffering from a groaning headache that had arrived on the heels of a bad acid trip and the headache gave me agoraphobia. I was afraid of crowds, elevators, bridges, tunnels and freeways. I stayed home, indoors, inside the jar of my body, inside a painting studio with 20 foot ceilings with a blue door to an outside world where I felt I didn’t stand a chance. My month-long headache had originated from taking too many LSD trips too close together but what did I know at age 22 during The Summer of Love? People in San Francisco were eating acid like M&Ms all around me in 1967.
I had casually dropped half a tab of Blue Dot as if it were a cup of coffee. The previous half tab trips had gone well and I figured I was on a roll. Acid and I were becoming friends. I was moving with it, surfing, riding the wave of everyday life while simultaneously peering into the Infinite Nature of Reality. I was so overconfident I thought I had a handle on the physical rush, that I could cope gracefully with the chemical maelstrom. Aside from the ecstasy of painting, an LSD trip was closer to what Kerouac described as enlightenment than anything I’d yet encountered.
On this trip I crashed. My body, my mind—I—dissolved into panic and fear.
I had invited Dennis, my boyfriend’s co-worker, to come for supper. I loved to smoke a little pot, invite people over, cook a meal and pull it all off. I juggled recipes, changed records, lit candles and arranged flowers as I were conducting an orchestra. I considered it a form of Performance Art.
I never got it together to cook for Dennis. There was a four- alarm fire down the block and the building was gutted. The fire started in the afternoon then raged all night into the next morning. I was already depleted from the three prior trips so I had no reserves. The fire trucks’ sirens corkscrewed into my brain and I was paralyzed with fear that was magnified by the drug. I was pinned like a moth.
As the acid was coming on I could hear sirens from across town heading my way. Three shiny red engines pulled up and parked outside my window, idling, snorting and steaming like war horses. People asked me later, “Did you see the fire?”
“No, I was having a bad trip and I couldn’t leave my room.”
My boyfriend asked, “Do you want to go see the fire?”
“No. I can’t move. I feel like I’m on fire.”
I kept looking for something to become a message, a clue I hoped would add up to: You’re going to make it. You’re going to get a handle and figure it out and you’re going to get back.
But I couldn’t get back. I had lost control. I had become the fire, the engines, the sawhorses blocking the street, the flashing red lights whoop, whoop / twisting around / boomeranging into the room, blasting emergency strobes on the bedroom walls.
I could barely sit up. My heart pounded. I was nauseous. I was engulfed by the sense of having lost it, of the whole game being up. Of being caught in a net. Of being found out. Discovered. My cover blown and they were coming to get me. It was time to turn myself in.
“Get the bell.” I managed to say. “Get Bill’s bell.”
Bill was the upstairs neighbor whose friends were getting married and he had bought them a Japanese temple bell as a wedding present. He had brought it down to show me the day before.
I huddled on the bed. Dennis had gone home. The fire was raging. My world was reduced to soundtrack. I was inside the headphones, the volume set on high. I was barely able to hit the bell with its wooden mallet. Since there was no hope for silence with the sirens wailing outside, the only refuge was from deep inside the bell. I struck it and profound peace swelled into the room. The bell had a Big Sound that each strike cinematically displayed. It became more alive with every hit. BONG. I could see the sound vibrations broadcasting images of equanimity like a Kodak slide projector. BONG. The bell spoke in the voice of Inscrutable Wisdom. It sent the deep cool sanity of Buddhism into my heart.
As soon as the bell’s reverberations would die down enough for me to hear the sirens, I would strike it again. BONG. The sound waves straightened my back. The strength of the vibrations helped me to breathe deeply. Breathing cooled out the panic. I began to relax. After awhile I could see the bell had its own song, an invitation. This was the bell that called the monks to practice in the meditation hall.
After what may have been hours sitting with the bell, I, too, if only metaphorically, walked serenely down a path past craggy rocks in a raked sand garden to a Japanese monastery with snow-covered, tiled roofs. I walked out of the charnel ground of samsara but I had been required to first go through the inferno of my own psychic cremation.
On the afternoon I sat stranded on the porch, Mary, a friend from art school dropped by after meditating across the street. I told her, “I’ve got to go over there.” Zen Center’s Sokoji Temple. “Or over there.” The faded Victorian where long- haired, bead and feather bedecked freaks floated in and out. “Or I have to call Dr. Northcutt.”
“Go to bed early and set your alarm. I’ll pick you up tomorrow morning before five AM.” she said.
The August dawn was damp from summer fog. Streetlights shimmered. Sokoji’s wooden steps and old polished banisters caught their reflections in each other and in the windowpanes. There was a three-tiered stand of flourishing plants on the stair landing. Downturned eggshells leached calcium into each pot.
The light was dim but there were big shadows on the walls from candles on the shrine. Incense wafted slowly through the room. Half a dozen people were sitting still, crossed legged in rows of black pads on straw tatami mats. There were sounds within the silence: pigeon warble, an occasional rumble of a passing truck, the lilting tune of a wind chime, a sneeze. Then silence again.
Mary introduced me to Suzuki Roshi who took me out to the adjacent auditorium’s balcony. I could see the outline of rows of theater seats and a stage below. Then Roshi indicated I should do as he did. After bowing, he sat down slowly on a round cushion and adjusted his brown robes. He crossed his legs and straightened his back. He placed one hand in another with his thumbs touching gently. Although I was awkward, I did my best to mimic him. I sensed I could trust him completely.
“Now we will sit together.” He whispered softly.
After 20 minutes of trying to follow my breath, tears began streaming down my face. I realized this was the first peaceful moment in my whole chaotic life. I was so overcome with gratitude I didn’t even notice that my headache had completely disappeared.
While my personal life had been blown apart by a bomb in a tablet, the culture was being rent by the Vietnam War. Acid had blasted me out of any certainty that I had dependable reference points or any middle class, suburban ground to stand on. Meanwhile the body count from Saigon rose each night on TV. I felt appalled by the meaningless horror in the world. Kaleidoscopic perception made events seem random and disconnected. Arbitrary molecules flew around aimlessly. Everything was fluctuating energy, pulsations. I became overwhelmed from having become an involuntary empath, hence the headache and agoraphobia.
Aside from the photo of the earth from space, the most arresting images of my life are from the Vietnam War: the picture of the naked girl screaming in pain from searing napalm, the Mai Lai massacre mass grave, Buddhist monks and nuns sitting calmly ablaze after self-immolating each convulsed my mind. The only recourse was to be, at least for forty minutes a day, twice a day, sitting still, breathing, allowing the newsreel to unwind, the turmoil to subside. Rise and fall. Rise and fall. I counted exhalations from one to ten then started over.
Everyday at five in the morning and five thirty in the afternoon I walked across Bush Street and went up the stairs at Sokoji Temple. I took my place at the corner of the northeast second row of cushions and put my body on the line. This was the war. I was the war. And this simple practice of sitting still was the revolutionary path to peace.
“The war is right here!” Suzuki Roshi said firmly as he whacked John Steiner on the shoulder with the Kyosaku stick when John asked, “What should we do?”
We chanted The Heart Sutra every session and it provided a counterbalance to the culture’s madness. True, not false. There is no deception. For 40 minutes twice a day we renewed the truth, the truth of impermanence and the truth of the emptiness of a separate self.
Bit by bit, day by day, the floor got swept, the rice got cooked, clothes were washed and the upheaval in my mind abated. Life became workable, so much so that I was able to consider taking acid again, one last time. I wanted to close out that chapter of my life on a high note, not a downer.
“Just one more trip now.” Country Joe implored on the radio in Bass Strings.
“Fornicating with the universe, is that it?”
My friend, Peter had tracked me down to a cottage on Mount Tampapais where I had retreated to prepare to redeem myself from having taken LSD too casually. Since the bad trip I had sat regularly, practiced yoga, eaten macrobiotic food. I slept well, took vitamins, drank herbal tea. I prayed, chanted, read, took long walks. This trip was not for a trip. It was a sacramental offering, a ceremony.
The weather in Marin County the spring of 1968 was mild. The moment arrived to drop. I sat in the lotus position and made a bow. Aside from feeling a flush of energy, an electricity or excitement as much from apprehension as from the drug, nothing happened. Meditation could take one as far or further than acid! My supplication had succeeded. I was free, released from the imprint of fear from the bad trip.
I later told my friends who were still tripping, “Zen can take you everywhere drugs can, without the craziness and risk.”
After sitting for a few hours, I spent the rest of the day hiking on the mountain. I returned to the Boy Scout camp where, on a previous trip, I had had to grow psychic gills to swim across a lake. I went to fields that had turned to dancing purple and green filaments, where grasshoppers had droned out all other sounds with their cosmic mantra, where clouds had become paisleys and Moorish kilims undulating in the sky.
Now the landscape was itself, settled in its intrinsic suchness. The Roshi’s words spilled out onto the springtime field and the mountain became a text I could read:
Form is emptiness. Emptiness is form.
I got what that meant, how phenomena arises from space and dissolves back into it, how vast space without beginning or end and all that manifests from it are co-emergent.
What I beheld was perfection, a grade school science book in action. A rainbow shimmered, evaporation formed clouds, full-cheeked gusts of wind rustled the leaves. Then a light rain watered the hillside while roots penetrated deeply into the soil to retrieve minerals for the plants. Photosynthesis was happening in every leaf, giving off oxygen while taking in the carbon dioxide I was breathing out.
Meanwhile turkey buzzards circled overhead, new yellow-green shoots of trillium and wild iris broke through the peat. Birds gathered twigs for nests. The majestic oaks stood like sentries. Violets and mustard bloomed in the meadows while a foggy haze covered the valley below and wispy clouds scuttled overhead. Everything was connected in interdependent harmony.
I walked out of the scrub forest and heard the telepathic narrative, “Nature comes out of itself in order to see itself more clearly.” That was me. I was nature, a part of it, inseparable from it. I was a member of the species with self-reflecting consciousness, the part of nature with a highly complex brain and opposable primate thumbs capable of invention. I was supposed to be a mouthpiece, an advocate, a protector or at the very least, one capable of celebrating the glory of it all.
I sat on a large rocky outcrop and surveyed the San Francisco Bay below. At first it was a scenic tableau but as I looked deeply, I saw the polluting smoke from Richmond’s oil refineries, the frenzied interstate freeway system, the bridges, the barnacles of buildings built up along every inch of shoreline and beyond. I saw the flipside of what nature coming out of itself could do without reverence or awareness. This smog-filled, mindless sprawl was like a cancer, a malignancy, a carpet of greed rolling over the countryside. With the same clarity and dilated eyes with which I had just encountered the Tao of Wilderness, I now gazed upon a lurid display of rapidly expanding civilization that made me cringe. What I was seeing now wasn’t perfect. And yet, it was. Simply that: it was.
I felt a coldness and a loneliness I had never before experienced, a piercing sadness for the natural world and for a future I could not escape and had no means to change. I had allowed myself to heal but humanity was wounded far beyond my comprehension. It was diseased with the passion of grasping, deluded by ignorance, enflamed with aggression toward itself and other forms of life.
I sat there and once again, followed my breath and wept. Tears rolled down my face from having been shown far more than I could bear to see. I was given the koan of “What Is” and I’ve spent this entire incarnation trying to wrap my head and heart around it, this journey of all trips called Life in the Human Realm.
All work protected by copyright © 2017 by Brigid Meier