A Cow Coop Gone All Frank Lloyd Wright

Eiffel Tower
Under the Eiffel Tower is only one of the places where I’ve meditated all over the world

Chapter 6, Part 2

I performed the TM meditation technique dutifully for the next 20 years, even though I quickly forgot the philosophical instructions that went with it. I suppose you might say I practiced TM irreligiously, rather than religiously.

Over that period, I meditated under the Eiffel Tower, on a bullet train speeding through Japan, in transcontinental airliners, on a bench in the ancient historic section of Geneva. I did TM during a three-day bout of insomnia while camping on a sweltering beach beside the Indian Ocean. I did it while inner-tubing down a snake-infested river in Costa Rica and while squatting near a leopard’s rocky lair on the Serengeti Plain. I meditated overlooking Gatún Lake in Panama. While burning with malaria in Nairobi. I even experimented with a running meditation, concentrating on my mantra during five-mile gallops alongside the Sacramento River. I still credit meditation, along with running, for the miracle of surviving my frantic, hell-bent life.

The benefits were, and are, undeniable. TM brought me a sense of quietude that existed nowhere else in my life. It rarely failed to ease my troubled mind. Meditation calmed me down. Indeed, I found that my soothing mantra often made me doze off during meditation. The practice was something I desperately needed and couldn’t have lived without. Even though I still joke about my TM experience, the organization gave me something that brought me through many a life-threatening trauma, all of my own making. So I will be forever indebted.

Let’s face the fact. TM has proven so successful precisely because it was marketed as a Westernized, secular, mental-health practice. I don’t write that as a criticism – far from it! – because in the American culture of today, millions of people crave an effective technique to ease their mental strain. I certainly did.

Nevertheless, undoubtedly through my own fault, TM gave me limited benefits. I gradually realized how my agnostic TM practice was oddly lacking, strangely compartmentalized. I knew I was missing something.

Though TM reduced my personal stress level – the byproduct of my failed pursuit of the American Dream – it never reached beyond that to enlighten my search for truth, purpose, and happiness. It never cured what Thoreau called “moral and emotional depression.” It never in-formed me with the secrets of the universe, as Ervin Laszlo might say. My meditation practice never brought out my Transcendental intuition, waiting inside to be woken up and crowned with its rightful authority.

With time, I began to realize I was searching for something beyond a stress-free existence; something located in the “cloud of unknowing” that shrouds every actor in the human comedy. I was yearning for answers that TM, or at least the narrow form of TM I practiced, couldn’t give.

In fact, what I couldn’t perceive at the time seems obvious now. That which was missing in my TM meditation was that which was missing in my life: an underlying meaning.

Don Quijote and Sancho Panza

Brother Bob was the spitting image of Don Quixote

In the end, as I would eventually learn, this search for meaning was the very meaning of my search.

Let me tell you a charming story about how this search for meaning led me to Walden, the Transcendental philosophy behind it, and the Buddhist meditations that replaced TM in my life and worked as my search engine.

In the late 1980s, after my close brush with suicide and during my eight-month retreat into a Trappist monastery, I began looking for some kind of philosophical gyroscope to balance my life. Like Thoreau at Walden Pond, I plunged into reading, poring over an eclectic mixture of philosophical, metaphysical, and Eastern texts for wisdom. I also had rambling discussions with the monks and found that each of them had come to the monastery because of a long pilgrimage toward truth and understanding. The monastery, in effect, was their Walden.

Some of the monks had even entered the hermitage in much the same desperate state that had landed me there. In effect, we had been committed to an asylum. One such desperado was a 91-year-old monastic named Brother Bob, a tall, gaunt, goateed man, who was the spitting image of Don Quixote and had a past, like mine, full of titling at windmills.

Brother Bob’s remarkable story, like Thoreau’s account of Walden, would alter my life forever.

Unlike other monks, Brother Bob was treated as someone special; mostly, I suspect, because he had for many years helped support the abbey with his own sizeable fortune. Instead of the small rooms, or cells, inhabited by the rest of the monks, Brother Bob lived in his own separate residence, a cinderblock structure, which he called his “Bullpen.” That’s because it literally had been the bullpen before the Trappists had bought this property in the 1950s, when it was a cattle ranch.

After Brother Bob moved into this structure in the early sixties, he used his artistic temperament and considerable talents to turn the former bullpen into a small architectural wonder; a sort of cow coop gone all Frank Lloyd Wright, surrounded by an Oriental garden – sonorous with running water and wind chimes – and peopled inside with Ming Dynasty vases, Picasso studies, and other priceless works of art.

As I would sit conversing for hours with Brother Bob in his airy living room, I could gaze through the large picture windows he’d installed in his Bullpen and admire the Sierra Nevada range in the distance, not far from where “the last wild Indian,” Ishi, had come down from the wilderness in 1911 to surrender to the White Man’s culture.

I often thought about my own arrival at the monastery and how it had come about in much the same way as Ishi’s own surrender during the early 20th century. Like Ishi, I had no place left to go, for total freedom had become my cell. As I would soon find out, that was true of Brother Bob as well.

Ishi, the Last Yahi

Like Ishi, I had nowhere left to go

During our talks, Brother Bob told me an almost mythic tale about himself. For much of the 1930s and 1940s, he had worked at Paramount Studios as one of its most important art directors, designing scenery and costumes for countless stars, including the Marx Brothers, Mae West, Gary Cooper, Charles Laughton, and Cary Grant. In the process, by Bob’s own account, he lived a decadent life in every conceivable way.

He eventually quit Hollywood – though not before making a small fortune – because of a progressively bad case of restlessness, compounded by a vague urge for something more meaningful in life. You know. That old chestnut.

Evidently, meaning, like God, works in mysterious ways. According to Brother Bob, one night in a redwood forest in Northern California, his yearning came to a head when he was waylaid by a powerful disembodied voice, which acted as an invisible highwayman, telling Bob to give away everything he owned. Amazingly enough, that’s precisely what Bob proceeded to do, but, as he told me, “grudgingly, painstakingly, kicking and screaming all the way.”

In religious terminology, such an experience is referred to as a “locution,” the audible equivalent of a vision. Bob believed it was God speaking to him. Being agnostic on that score, I don’t judge. Maybe, within the wavering field of microscopic vibrations and electric charges that we call reality, this experience was actually a schizophrenic attack, a mental breakdown, or Bob’s own intuition, speaking to him in a manner he couldn’t ignore. I don’t know.

But when I asked him why he followed the dictates of a phantom voice, Brother Bob was unequivocal: “Listen! When a voice comes out of nowhere in a dark redwood forest and tells you what to do, you’d be a damned fool not to listen.”

And so he did. It was during the process of locating a new home for his fortune that he first contacted the monks in the Trappist monastery where he and I would eventually end up, though 30 years apart. Bob decided to give the abbey everything he owned.

Meanwhile, however, God, or fate, or life (whichever way you look at it) intervened. Bob was diagnosed with incurable cancer and given a matter of days to live. A last-ditch surgery was prescribed, which might give him a few months more at most. Or, then again, it might kill him.

“So, on the night before my surgery,” Brother Bob told me, “the abbot visited me in my hospital room and said, ‘Look, Bob, why don’t you become a monk?’ Well, I was dumbfounded. ‘Hell, I’m no more a monk than the Man in the Moon,’ I told the abbot in no uncertain terms. ‘I’m just not monk material!’”

At this point in his story, Brother Bob chuckled low in his throat, stroked his goatee, and winked at me.

“But the abbot said, ‘Come on, Bob, you’re gonna die anyway. So why not take vows and go out in style?’ So I did, by golly, and, wouldn’t you know it? I lived. That’s how God tricked me into becoming a monk. That was more than 30 years ago, and I’ve been here in this cloister ever since. I stumbled over my own purpose in life, despite myself.”

I didn’t know it at the time, but Brother Bob’s story was a precursor. It would predict how, 20 years later, I would stumble over my own purpose in life, despite myself. For that story, read on. See how somebody else’s God tricked me into becoming what I am today. That would be “happy.”