In clouds over the lake. Why is it that the view of Earth from space turns astronauts to mystics, but travelers on planes aren’t enraptured by the million?
We just flew past the east coast of lake Michigan. The dunes along the coast are lit up in afternoon sun, and the bay at Saugatuck is full of little white triangles. Michigan is water country. Summer thunderstorms, a latticework of ponds and lakes, months of snowcover, so many lighthouses, more freshwater shoreline than any other state. The water element is good for my spirit here. Water underlies our zeitgeist.
Zeit = time. Geist= spirit. The energy signature of a certain time-place. For example, Laksmipuram 1979. Gokulam 2010. Ann Arbor 2013. Zeitgeist is a vague, shared interiority that, in retrospect, good art can evoke with objects. Sense memory stores it up in the emotional body. I don’t know how there can even be a word for it without acknowledging something like geist. How is it that the languages I’ve studied –German and Spanish and Hebrew and Sanskrit—are infused with spirit, while our own finds ways around it?
As the cultural moment of the Encinitas trial passes and I’m stuck thinking about how it feels like the pendulum has swung to the other extreme of the Scopes Trial, I’ve been really sensitized to the spiritual repression we take for granted in public life. This is really hard to put into words, must less substantiate. But… most cultures aren’t like this. I mean, America is not a place where I can cop to working for reasons other than pursuit of personal “success” without coming off as a flake. It’s a place where meditation is legit if you do it for stress reduction (i.e. increased sense pleasure, a longer life), and religion makes sense if it’s about community and tradition. But the transcendent stuff – worship, selfless love, inner silence, oneness with everything that exists – aren’t part of our legitimate shared reality. You have to find a bounded epistemic community (a family, a yoga shala, a church) to even think about articulating these matters with others.
This repression isn’t just the vibe of intellectual movements like the new atheism, science done by people who don’t get the fuzzy roots of physics and math, or abstract modeling and rat choice theory in social science. It’s in the general idea that transcendence is ever so unique, and minds are ever so private. Spirituality is as personal as religion. Riiiight.
No wonder westerners who go to India mistakenly identify it as a “spiritual” place. It’s got more violence, inequality and environmental horrors than most places… but what it is not is spiritually repressed.
Anyway, I’m going west to PDX, going back in time, feeling Portland 1995. I lived here until the end of the 90s, during a period of enthusiastic anti-spirituality. Still a beautiful time; and I’m nostalgic for it. Everyone I knew was an artist; no one had any money. It was always dark and wet. Fertile. My uniform was a burgundy polyester V-neck from the Goodwill; it hung over my Levis and matched a pair of twice-resoled Vasque Sundowners. Social interactions were intensely self aware and ironic. Casual words were an image liability. So I kept up appearances with spitfire wit and a refusal to smile. Philosophers and musicians on Up Records were important. If there was a god, it was Jean-Paul Sartre, and Will Oldham sat at his right hand.
Saturdays were in the fiction aisles at Powells. I remember reading Gravity’s Rainbow, my body collapsed against the stacks, mind dumbfounded that writing could be so perfect. I was getting used to foreign film, to paying my own bills, to drinking indiscriminately. To blow off steam, I’d cycle for hours through wine country in the rain. Email was epistolary and monospace; the library used card catalogs. I wore a pair of Gap khakis to wait tables 3 nights a week; now threadbare, they made great capris this spring teaching yoga retreat in Puerto Vallarta.
* * * * *
On the plane again now, Portland back home to Detroit. Three days off the radar.
There is the presence of Portland’s past within and as me—-bootstrapping, overeducated, and self-serious—-but god the zeitgeist two decades later is so different. A creative, gritty, shockingly friendly town. The life my brother has built there is epic, yet more mysterious than anything I could ever carry off. That is not for me to describe.
I visit Portland whenever I can, first, for a strong flavor of his alternate reality. And, second, because jet lag and distance from the work of Mysore teaching allows me to shut down my sense organs very deeply at night. In fact I’ve just had a trifecta of ten-hour sleeps and am still happily groggy. Long, deep sleep feels sort of like an achievement.
This trip, I’d sink into a memory foam mattress laid out in the center of a vast mezzanine floor, prepared with an eye mask against the solid half-block of sunlight that shows up at 5. Holocene, an electronic music venue, is across the street, so I’d use earplugs to block out the kids carousing in the street. That would be the last moment of outer sensing – the crinkling of the foam against my eardrums and the skin inside the ear. Tap, tap, crinkle, muffle, nothing.
Then, boom, straight to theta state with nothing to perceive but the relaxation of the spine and jaw. God. Within a few minutes, the body would drop away, leaving just the psychedelic imagery auto-generated by deeper layers of my mind. Eventually even that would sputter out into silence.
During the days, there was an infusion of big ideas and beautiful minds. And entertainment. Last night in the alphabet district, we patronized the establishments with the longest lines – a new taco place built to look like it’s been there forever, an ice cream parlor where you can get the flavors habanero-marionberry-goat cheese or honey-balsamic-black pepper (I had both) and, finally, a sensory deprivation tank center named for a Modest Mouse track. Float on.
The overwhelmed owner at the float place gave us a tour, once he realized he didn’t have to worry about us wanting to get on the schedule. He’s booked two months in advance! “The business is growing so fast. We’re still trying to figure out who our market is… are they trippers, artists, meditators, people trying to heal…?”
“How about humans with sense organs?” I offer.
Here’s his mystifying bottom line: pratyhara sells.
And this is because there’s something there when consumers stop pouring auditory – visual – tactile – culinary content into the orifices. It’s just that we have this funny culture that tells us meaning reliably comes from sense pleasure. And Spirit – collective or inner, immanent or transcendent – is for suckers.
I dunno. My 1995 self would not approve, but I’m going to power down the laptop and go back to worshipping the clouds out over the Lake Michigan.