Fifteen years ago on Labor Day, I had a mystical experience in an unlikely place — the promenade around Boston Harbor. I don’t think I’ve ever written about it before, so…
I had gone to Boston to attend the convention of the American Organization for Bodywork Therapies of Asia (AOBTA), the professional organization for those of us who do shiatsu, acupressure, tui na, traditional Thai bodywork, and other forms of Asian Bodywork Therapy. (If the name seems a little clunky, it’s because it used to be the “American Oriental Bodywork Therapy Association”, before the word “Oriental” got euphemism-treadmilled. They wanted to keep the initialism when they changed the name.)
I was a student about halfway thought my training. It had been less than a year since I had decided to downshift my software development career and start studying shiatsu, so I suppose I was looking for confirmation that I was on the right path. And I found it at that conference; in my first exposure to the ABT community beyond my little class, I found dedicated healing arts practitioners with whom I clicked. Still new to the field, I didn’t get every point of every class I went to, but it was enough that I could follow the gist of what was going on. More important was the energy of the event, the flow of qi.
The convention was at a hotel in downtown Boston, near Boston Commons. One afternoon during a break I went for a walk and found a used bookstore — always a joy. I picked up a copy of Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Heart Of Understanding, his commentary on the Heart Sutra, and maybe one or two other books.
The convention ended early Monday afternoon, Labor Day, with a sort of closing circle. (Chinese Medicine often walks parallel to ritual magic: “shen leads qi” — mind leads energy — is a central principle.) With several hours until my flight home, I figured I might be a little touristy. I took the subway to the harbor and walked around for a while.
At this point, I’m going to pause and put on my skeptical reductionist hat for a moment. More than a decade after this, just a few years ago, I started experiencing occular migraines. Thankfully I’ve only had a handful, but they have been triggered by bright lights or glare; and so from a neurological standpoint, what happened can probably be explained as a manifestation of the same phenomenon. And coming out of the convention, I had an excellent “set and setting”, in the lingo of psychedelic experience.
But in any event, as I was walking along the boardwalk with the planks interrupting the sun’s glare off the water in a rhythm as I walked, I became aware that I was not in my ordinary state of consciousness.It is the way of these things that they are ineffable. To even say “I was not in my ordinary state of consciousness” (much less to say “oh, an early migraine experience”) is to put a border around it, classify it, put it safely in a container where it won’t leak out an affect the rest of my life. And that’s the wrong approach.
A famous Zen koan describes a man hanging by his teeth from a branch when someone asks him to teach them about Buddhism. If he opens his mouth to speak, he falls to his death; if he remains silent, he fails in his duty — and in some versions, will be put to death for that failure.
(This conundrum inspired the Zen teacher Wu Kwang to title his collection of dharma talks Open Mouth Already A Mistake — recommended reading for those who already have some orientation about Zen.)
But I am a writer. Like the joke about the engineer who couldn’t resist his fix-it instinct to repair the guillotine so that he could be executed, we follow our natures.
What I found for a few hours was that when I looked at “other” people, I did not see “other”, but myself. I found that the street musician in the subway was playing the music in my head. I found that everything in the universe was exactly as it was supposed to be.
I wrote in my notebook that afternoon:
this is what I see
a beautiful Universe
people walking by
Monday afternoon in Boston, looking out from a bar near the harbor watching
people go by and just for a moment it is all too beautiful to speak of.
Sometimes I remember
I am Jesus
I am Buddha
I am god
All is one
One is Beautiful
A pigeon walking by is a Sage
Then I forget again
For a while
So I write these notes to myself, to us All, to the Universe in general
In one moment of peace
The Universe is redeemed
These scratchings on paper the only evidence
Everything is perfect just as it is, whether you like it or not. (Even your not liking it is perfect just as it is!)
The feeling persisted as I boarded my flight home. And as I pulled out that Thich Nhat Hanh book for some in-flight reading, I read a passage in which he talks about talking to a leaf on a tree about emptiness.
A noted Zen teacher learning from nature, talking to trees. It was one of my first hints that this “Zen Pagan” thing I’d been half-joingly talking about for years might have some real foundation.
The heavens did not open up; I did not encounter any deities, spirits, or extra-dimenstional beings. It was only a few hours of absolute peace, unity, love, and acceptance, arriving for no good reason at all, and giving me confirmation about my life path when I needed it.