A strong smell appeared to me, as I drove across the massive Bay Bridge that stretches between Oakland and San Francisco. It was New Year’s Day, this year. The afternoon sun shone bright and low, the beautiful white bridge glowing in the long rays of winter.
The experience of this smell however was quite different than other smells. It seemed to be simply appearing inside my sense perceptions, directly inside my brain, rather than coming in from somewhere outside. It had no visible source. I pondered the strange scent for a while, and began to test it, wondering what it was. And then the thought struck me – it was the smell of toast. The nature of how it was appearing, from the inside, was quite odd though, not something I had ever experienced before. I thought then – isn’t the smell of toast the sign of a stroke? Or heart attack? One of the two I was fairly sure, I couldn’t remember which. But either of those outcomes seemed like something very significant to be happening right there, for real, in that moment as I was driving my vehicle 50 miles an hour across the 4 mile long bridge.
This thought, that a life ending event was about to happen began to form into a definite shape. Like a weighty winter coat I tried it on for size in the crisp bright light. I put both my hands firmly on the steering wheel, in the ten and two position, readying myself for what was about to happen. I pulled over into the right hand lane and slowed down, aiming to lessen the impact on others if I had a stroke or a heart attack, and died while driving, with no place to pull over. This was the moment for me, apparently.
As the smell pervaded my senses, I reflected calmly on how I felt. What if indeed this moment, within the next minute or so, was going to be my last in this particular physical reality. If my brain would cease functioning, or my heart stop beating. What came over me with this deep reflection was a complete sense of peace. Of joy. Of abundance. Of enough.
On that day I was returning to my home in San Francisco, from Berkeley. I had just undergone a powerful ancient ritual, called Taking Refuge, in the Buddhist tradition. With a literal single snap of her fingers, the seniormost teacher in my tradition transmitted to me the power and lineage of a 2,500 year old tradition. I had performed prostrations on the ground, bowing to the earth deeply, and took a vow of becoming a refugee. I declared that I am homeless and groundless in this world, acknowledging that there is no security. But also accepting that there is no need for security. In taking refuge I acknowledged that there is no savior, nobody coming to rescue me. I took complete and absolute responsibility for the life experience I am having.
I have traveled far in life, through long periods of immense suffering. And I walked through, I swam through, I crawled on the ground underwater for long periods, all the way to the other side, where I have found joy and magic and play and love in abundance. Now that I reached this other side, and from there have journeyed far beyond the river’s edge, inland to mountains and forests of magic, now that I have acknowledged myself as fully responsible and self authorized, it appeared that this was the moment at which I would depart, and seek an entirely new adventure. I realized that I was fully at peace with this, and it was beautiful.
Yesterday I heard someone share the story of their awakening. They were in an area of the city with urine and shit all over the road, a run-down poorer area, not a conventionally pretty sight to look at. But they looked down and saw a single blade of grass that had pushed its way up through a crack in the grimy sidewalk. Life, irrepressible life, dancing in the midst of it all. She witnessed it and was struck awake. A beautiful teaching about what we choose to focus on. Do we choose to focus, again and again and again, on the shit and the piss, or do we look deeply at this joyous blade, seething with life, exuding magical energy. In the midst of whatever situation we find ourselves, that we have created for ourselves, there is always joy and magic to be experienced if we so choose it, if we practice choosing it. And there is always shit to be found if we practice choosing that.
I remember a couple of years after I became sober, I was walking past my old bar, a place that for a long time was almost my entire world. I would go there all the time, I knew everyone there and everyone knew me. The first years of sobriety were immensely challenging me as I had to feel everything I had suppressed for many years, but by this point I had reached a place of peace and joy in my experience. An old bar friend called out to me as I walked by, and I was genuinely delighted to see him. The bar is dark inside, but has large glass windows that were wide open to the street. He was inside, I was outside in the bright sunny day, we spoke to each other through the open window. He said, let’s hang out and catch up. I said yes that would be wonderful. His next question threw me – are you back drinking yet? I sighed and said no, I don’t drink. He said, from within the dark cave of the bar – oh, well that really limits where we could go then, doesn’t it. With a finality that indicated there was no more discussion to be had.
So deeply ironic, but from within the confines of the world he had created, it was impossible for him to see the entire planet that was outside the cave, where we could go literally anywhere to talk and relate.
In the world that many choose to live in, there is plenty of piss and shit to roll in if we so choose it. There are plenty of people we can find who will be glad to write and share with you their detailed descriptions of the shit, because it helps them practice doing that. The smell and taste of it. Long TV shows all about the way the shit makes people feel, instructions for how to hold your nose when you put your face deep into the middle of the shit. How to have the shit have less impact on your body when you swallow the buckets of shit that you must have for your dinner. Descriptions of all the other shit that there are in other places. Long discussions on the particular flavor of shit that certain oh-so-important people like to take. Warnings that even if you avoid this pile of shit, no need to worry, there are more piles of shit just ahead of you and to the left and right of you.
I choose a different experience. I choose to dance and play on the blade of grass. To transmit and receive the deep magic of life contained within even one single blade. And to notice that this life experience is incomprehensibly vast, and that we can choose whatever experience we desire to have.
On that New Year’s Day I was ready to die, joyful and fulfilled. And yet, there is so much more. Today is my birthday. I’ve reached level 47 in this game. And everything that follows is a bonus round. Being human, being this powerful conscious creation device that we are, is an amazing gift. We can each practice choosing shit or we can practice choosing magic. I choose to practice magic.
This morning I could barely contain my joy. As soon as I got up I went in the bathroom and started punching the air in pure joy, hardly able to contain the energy pouring out of me. I sat meditating on an island in the Columbia River, in the dawn light at 5am, the sun stretching across my face, waking a smile in its wake. In this present moment, which is everlasting if we choose to stay here, in this moment we have everything. Everything turns out to simply be peace. Well-being. The knowledge, the deep experience of the okayness of everything.