I went looking for answers and found some of them in a Native American sweat lodge ritual near Taos, New Mexico. The turmoil and meaninglessness of American life at the end of the twentieth century drove me to participate in the Global Peace Walk 1995, and I'm thankful for both the beautiful experiences and the harsh lessons I learned along the way.
I'm a queer white guy, an actor, generation-x, raised middle class in the midwest on Catholicism and Capitalism. I moved to San Francisco in 1992 as a response to growing intolerance in America, especially in Cincinnati, Ohio. But I was also looking for something that I thought I couldn't find in my hometown: the meaning of life. For years leading up to the Peace Walk, I had checked out numerous religions from East to West and outside to inside, read lots of books, tried to meditate, fast, etc., but I couldn't overcome my sense of feeling desperately lost in a world out of balance.
A number of things happened in 1994 that simply pushed me out of the nest and forced me to join the Peace Walk in April, 1995. It was really an overwhelming year, now that I look back on it. The possibility of universal health coverage in America had been derailed by cynical spin-doctors. A huge earthquake hit LA, comets smashed into Jupiter, Steely-eyed Republicans swept the House of Representatives. Proposition 187 (which would deny health and education benefits to the undocumented) became law, Rush Limbaugh ruled the airwaves, NAFTA and GATT passed over the objections of Labor and environmentalists. People talked vehemently about trashing Welfare, Affirmative Action, and environmental protections. The ubiquitous OJ Simpson media extravaganza began; it seemed as though the whole world was turning into a dark, insane and ugly place. I actually fantasized in my most hopeless and disgusted moments about comets striking the Earth instead of Jupiter (that, and suicide).
At the time, I was working at a bank as a Microfilm File Clerk. I had been promoted from a temporary employee with no benefits to a full time/part time employee with no benefits, which basically meant that the bank didn't have to pay the temp agency a commission. It was a dreary, dull job where I was basically invisible, adrift in a sea of Type-A Suits scurrying from important meaningless task to important meaningless task. This job represented what I had most wanted to avoid all of my life. An artist and a dreamer, I longed for meaning and fulfillment as I made a living. Instead, I had become cynical and closed-off to artistic expression, blocked and unable to create. I found myself toiling away for increasingly annoying and petty taskmasters in the belly of the beast, and I choose the word beast in full knowledge of its Biblical implications.
Thankfully, in this day of corporate profiteering and the relentless pursuit of efficiency, the inevitable happened. Our whole department was laid-off so that a new technology could be gainfully employed. I certainly would not have stayed at this deadening job indefinitely, but getting laid-off was just what I needed to get beyond the hypnotic siren-song of a steady paycheck. Unemployment was wonderful. I had time to think, write, dream, and be politically active.
Even in San Francisco, things were becoming cold and hard. Mayor Frank Jordan basically declared homelessness illegal and had begun a callous campaign to drive the poor from the city under the guise of directing them to (nonexistent) social services. The police department had taken to harassing Food Not Bombs; arresting volunteers, dumping out pots of soup and confiscating bagels that could have fed the poor. And so at one political protest or another, I found out about the Global Peace Walk and it gave me a reason to hope.
The Global Peace Walk was initiated by Rev. Yusen Yamato, a nonsectarian Buddhist monk, for the purpose of acknowledging the 50th Anniversary of the United Nations and as a commitment to developing greater awareness of our global inter-connectedness and to bring back the ancient knowledge that will show us how to live in harmony and balance on this fragile planet Earth. The organizers realized that technological advances have taken a quantum leap forward in the past few years, yet our attitudes and philosophies have not kept pace. It is time for an evolution of consciousness so that we can move into the next century with compassion and wisdom needed to ensure global survival for the future generations. This was what I needed. I wanted to be a part of this movement.
I wrote a letter to my family and close friends. I told them, I find modern industrial civilization to be meaningless, bleak, heartless, chaotic, and somehow on its last legs. I have been unable to find my position in- or outside of it and so I feel hopeless and fatalistic at times. There are countless people who are as alienated, as unhappy with the condition of the world as I am, who want peace, unity, and love to be the law of the land. The fact that for most of known history there has been greed, poverty, war, hatred and environmental destruction does not mean that these things are reasonable or inevitable. These forms of destruction only come into the world through the conscious decisions of each and every one of us. . . This walk is my chance to be free from the ordinary world, to live life as people used to before we became seduced by materialism and fear. There will be no OJ Simpson trial on this walk, no Contract with America, no sitcoms, advertisements or celebrities, useless things to buy, no triple-speaking politicians, no game-shows, no loud voices, anger, or greed. There will be lots of stars, birds, wildflowers, peaceful people and good intentions. . . . I'm walking in faith that this storm in my life and in the world will pass and that a new way of life will emerge. I'm walking so that I may find out where I fit into this (new) worldview since I do not support and do not wish to be part of the old destructive one which seems to be collapsing all around us.
In mid-April, I joined the Walk near Taos, New Mexico. On my first evening, we were invited to take part in a sweat lodge ritual in Arroyo Hondo. The experience I had that evening has completely changed my life, has given me hope and released my repressed inner artist. It has given my life purpose and meaning.
Native Americans had been supportive of the Walk all along the way, and very open and generous with their knowledge and traditions. Indeed, one of the organizers was an inspiring and fatherly (in the best sense of the word) Native American named Philipe Chavez, a Yacqui Sundancer. I was struck many times during the walk by the gentle generosity, openness and warmth of the Native Americans I met and owe them my great gratitude and respect for countless reasons.
It was a dark and cloudy evening on the plateau where the sweat lodge awaited. Thunder and lightning flashed through the sky as we gathered around the fire where the stones were being heated for the ritual. I had never been to a sweat lodge before, and as this was my first evening on the walk, I was a bit nervous. I didn't really know anyone yet, nor did I completely understand what I was getting myself into. I had long been interested in and respectful of Native American spirituality and longed to participate in the ritual. Although I was open to anything, I was a little frightened. To calm myself I begin to say to myself, no fear; global peace now.
Before long, the heat from the stones which had been brought into the center of the lodge began to overwhelm me. I tried to be strong but I felt as if I were passing out. At this point I began to experience my vision, though I didn't know it. I did not know that I was in an altered state and so was taken aback when the other people in the lodge began to taunt me, suggesting that I was a tourist or a yuppy homo out to ruin the walk. The spirit was speaking to me using the voices of the people in the room, testing my resolve to be on the walk. I tried to defend my motives.
The accusations grew even more cutting. Eventually they said that I was a Karmic villain sent to join the Peace Walk for the purpose of destroying it at this crucial historical moment. They tried to convince the sweat leader that I should be killed, for the good of all creation. I protested (in my mind? I do not know if I spoke aloud) that this was certainly not the case, that I had nothing but good intentions for being on the Peace Walk. But when I protested, they would use this as evidence that I was just trying to save my physical self and that I should most definitely be sacrificed for the good of all.
In my vision, the sweat leader held in his hands a red-hot rock with which he threatened to fatally hit me in the head. I felt that if I were to completely pass out, or lose my grip on my self, then I would certainly be killed. I fought against passing out and my body kept wilting and then springing back upright as I resisted. Every time I tried to save myself, it was as if a little light were above my head, revealing my true intentions. They would say to the sweat leader, See? He's trying to weasel his way out of this. He's a liar. You must kill him for the good of all. And then at other times, when they were beginning to wear down my defenses, it was as if there were another light going off above my head that told them something else that I didn't understand yet.
Indeed, I tried to save myself in this way for some time, thinking that there was no way I was this Karmic villain that they were talking about. After all, I thought, how could that possibly be? I had spent most of my life trying to do good, trying to be a spiritual person; how could I possibly be an imposter, sent at this important time to destroy the Peace Walk? It seemed impossible, but then again, they seemed so sure of it. Could it be true? What if it were true? What should be done about it? I began to think that maybe they were right. Maybe I was this dreadful antichrist-type character without even knowing it!
Then the choice became clear to me: if they were right about me, then maybe I should die. If I wanted to help bring this Global Peace that I had professed allegiance to, I would have to die. This decision did not come lightly, nor did it arise from a Christ complex of some sort. But after a long period of struggle, I honestly believed that if I wanted to play a very real part in bringing on a very real peace into the world, I would have to die right there in the sweat lodge. Finally, I decided to accept the rock to the head and die. I thought I would die right then and there.
Next thing I knew, I was outside the sweat lodge in the cool air. I had been carried outside to recuperate, as I was obviously in distress. But my vision continued even outside: I felt sure that one of the two men who had brought me outside had some sort of sharp stick or spear that they were going to stab me with in my left side as I lay on the ground. The choice was the same as before: accept this death and bring about a peace, some sort of positive change into the world; or save my physical self. After a shorter period of struggle than before, I again chose death. Next thing I knew, they were walking me toward a cliff's edge (in reality, I was being escorted to our bus to rest) in the darkness. The test this time was to trust them completely as they walked me toward my probable death. The more I trusted them, the longer the distance to the edge would grow. I actually felt as though a gang-plank were being extended before me bit by bit. Soon, we arrived at what I thought was the cliff's edge. I knew that to bring about this world peace, I had to jump over the edge of the cliff. As I made my decision to jump, I heard voices whispering excitedly, He's going to do it. He made the right choice. And so I spread my arms and jumped.
Immediately, I felt an ecstatic connection with the universe that lasted quite a while. My eyesight returned and I stumbled around for about twenty minutes feeling literally drunk with ecstacy. I saw the little decisions I had made in my life that had led me to that exact experience and learned that we create our own physical realities with each and every decision we make. Each time we choose the light over the dark, love over fear, we create positive realities for ourselves and others. I also learned that things we come across every day, like rainbows, or seemingly random conversations or events, or just things we find laying in the gutter, are messages directly from the Universe (or from within, however you look at it). I learned that there is love, love and more love out there and that we are all part of it. Black or white, gay or straight, Christian or Jew, whatever. We are all part of it and loved completely, without judgement or reservation.
I went around thanking everyone for letting me be in the sweat lodge, wanting someone to get a video camera! so they could get me on film having a real live ecstatic spiritual experience. I wanted to share it with everybody. I tore off my shorts and ran around naked, wanting to dance, wanting everyone to also be naked and dance. I even yanked the pants off of one of my new acquaintances on the walk, not understanding why he wouldn't join me in my fun.
Obviously, I offended many of the people there who had no idea what was going on in my head. They thought I was on PCP or LSD or something, but in fact I was completely sober, at least in the pharmaceutical sense of the word. Things took a turn for the worse when they tried to calm me down and restrain me. I thought I was still being tested, still in my vision, and that I must resist being brought back down into ordinary reality. I even tried to piss on someone and threw a skateboard through a window, all because I thought I was supposed to resist. Anyway, the bad feelings were eventually resolved later, when I paid for the window and explained as best I could what had happened (it took me a few weeks to really get a grip on what happened).
The vision has proven to be the most significant experience in my life thus far. Before, I suffered from massive creative block, low self-esteem and hopelessness. Now I am creatively fulfilled, my life has meaning and purpose, and I am much more hopeful and confident of humanity and our ability to transcend difficulty. I still have weak moments, when I worry about stupid things like money and other material things, or when I feel like a putz, but I'm working on it.
Also, I feel more psychic now than I used to. I feel I can sense things about people, and make fairly accurate predictions about broad social patterns or courses of events. I also very distinctly feel like I'm on some sort of a mission which unfolds before me although most times I don't know where it's leading me. The most important thing I learned was not to fear! Things are happening just as they are meant to even when it seems that all is lost. The dark must be embraced as well as the light, since they are both part of the whole. I am extremely hopeful that humanity will come out of this strange period stronger and better than ever before, and that we will at last find peace on earth when we can find it in our own hearts. I know all of these things sound like dreadful clichs, but there you have it.
I welcome comments or queries about my experience in Taos, my creative and performing artists collective, Love's Supreme Desire XXX, or the theatrical company of which I am a member, John Body Players.
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