After my freshman year, inspired by Thoreau, I retreated to the woods of Vermont where I went on long walks, came alive to colors, dreamt out all my bad dreams, and wrote poetry. I had found a part of the way toward filling the pit of loneliness and anger that had dominated my life. When the cold weather hit, motivated by Herman Melville’s Typee and Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence, I set out from New York on a freighter for Tahiti. After passing through the Panama Canal, I meditated on the sky for ten days, lying on the small top deck on the windward side of the smokestack, filling my mind with the marvelous blueness of that truly pacific ocean....
Returning to college after a year and a half, I started drinking hard again. I have a dizzying memory of trying to stare at the wooden chair in front of me during my eleven o’clock Russian literature course. One night, a friend gave me a bottle of rum for reading beat poetry at a Harvard club (where I was almost roughed up for reading Allen Ginsberg). After drinking most of it, I wandered up to Massachusetts Avenue where I found myself faced by a glass doorway. I intended to break the bottle against the door, but the opposite happened: I swung the bottle, and the door shattered into pieces. Rushing back to my room, I fell facedown into bed, waking the next morning shaking from the fear of being arrested. But when it dawned on me that I was mimicking Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, I laughed a little and started regaining some of my mental health. Where did these saving moments come from?
A year and a half later, in the summer between my junior and senior years, I retreated for six weeks to a cabin on a lake at North Hadley in Quebec province. It was hard to get to. I went by canoe, navigating the three miles of choppy water by myself. When I started out, an old man had warned me I wouldn’t make it, but I used my pack as ballast and rode perpendicular to the waves. The six weeks away gave my mind the time it needed to settle down. At the beginning I was so physically depleted I couldn’t go for walks, especially since the cabin was on a steep hill, but in time I got stronger and stronger and would climb up the hill every day and meditate on the sky.
I spent the rest of summer vacation in Oklahoma near a river, where I continued my practice of lying on the ground staring at the sky. I used to float down The River, as it was called, in a tube. Sometimes I would get off my tube and stare at the water moving over the rocks; I saw that what I imagined as the river was water constantly changing and that there was no river like the one that I, or anyone else, was imagining. The ever-changing water prompted an experience much like one in childhood when, on my high chair at the dining room table, I would stare at a candle flame, seeing that it was always changing. I’d stare right into the center of it, and even though it always had a yellow color, it was always vibrating ever so slightly. There wasn’t anything constant there that you could call the flame, as if it actually existed for some time. These childhood perceptions coupled with staring at the sky and now the river led me to realize that nothing remains. The stuff of ourselves is like the flame or the water. What existed a few moments ago is not somehow sitting on top of the present.
One day floating down The River, I saw an old man sitting on the bank, his head drooping to one side, who looked as if he had died. I suddenly realized that his last perception in this lifetime would be no fuller than any of his other perceptions. The accumulated perceptions of a lifetime did not go into the last perception to make it scintillating and rich and profound, but rather he merely would have looked to the side, much as anyone, and then died. Experiences are not like baggage; you don’t fill up a suitcase with experiences and have them with you in palpable form. I began to recognize the ultimate futility of external activities, and to turn my attention inward to a light within.
When I returned to Harvard in the fall of 1962, it was as if a coffin had been opened; I had been living my life in a coffin and had not recognized the presence of sky. The Oklahoma sky meditation had developed to the point where, when I returned to the East, suddenly there was sky there too—my whole world opened up.
From Cultivating Compassion, ©2001 by Jeffrey Hopkins. Reprinted with permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House, Inc.
Image: © Mindy Gross