Saga of a dropout doper

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At the age of 15 I decided I was going to be a writer. I loved books, and writing them seemed to be the greatest thing in the world to do. Now after eight books it still does.

But at first I had a terrible time writing. My thoughts were all jumbled up. I couldn’t concentrate. I did poorly in school because I couldn’t hold my mind on the assignments. I was too caught up in my psychological stress and subconscious conflicts to be able to really write or study.

I started smoking marijuana, thinking I could blast my way through all my blocks with that. But it made them worse. When I was high I thought I was being very creative, but the next day when I read what I’d written, it was drivel. Eventually I flunked out of the University of Colorado, but I figured who needs college — I want to be a bohemian artist. So I moved to the Lower East Side of Manhattan and wrote, painted, and drummed, but mostly got high. New York had many more kinds of dope than Boulder, and I tried them all, hoping for that creative breakthrough. But finally I realized I needed to get out of that whole scene if I ever wanted to do any good writing.

The war on Vietnam was just beginning, and the military draft was after me. I’d been reading a lot of writers whose first books were war novels, so I figured I would make a 180-degree change from my current scene. I joined the Special Forces to write a war novel. I was probably high when I got this idea, because it wasn’t a very good idea. During our search and destroy operations in Vietnam, I kept telling myself, “I’m just here gathering material for a novel.” But our deeds have consequences that affect us and others regardless of why we do them. I’m still dealing with the repercussions from my involvement, and writing and peace activism have become my way of atoning for that.

I got back from the war in 1967 and moved to Marin County north of San Francisco to write the book. But by then all sorts of new fun dope was around, and I found myself slipping back into that scene. I was also suffering from PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder, which gave me combat flashbacks and self-destructive depressions. The result was I still couldn’t write.

My best friend from Special Forces, Keith Parker, had started doing Transcendental Meditation and said it made his mind clear and calm. I tried it and found he was right. When I meditated, I sat with eyes closed and thought a mantra, a sound without meaning that took my mind to quieter, finer levels and eventually beyond all mental activity to deep silence. Subjectively, TM was like diving down through an inner ocean into a realm of serenity. Objectively, it is a physiological state of deep rest that enables the nervous system to repair itself and heal stresses that are blocking it. In this expanded consciousness I could access my subconscious mind and resolve my psychological conflicts. They weren’t trapping my mental energy anymore. The war was in the past, not raging now in my head. My internal pressure began to be relieved. I didn’t need to get high. I was in touch with my creativity. I could concentrate and follow a line of thought. And most of all I could write.

I made good progress on the novel, and a sample of it got me accepted into the creative writing program at Columbia University. I went back to college and back to New York, but this time I made the Dean’s List and no drugs. The novel, A World of Hurt, won a Rinehart Foundation Award.

I later wrote a novel about the current war. Summer Snow is set now as an American warrior falls in love with a woman in Central Asian who has him initiated into Transcendental Meditation. Through meditating he learns that higher consciousness is more effective than violence, but his new insights put him into conflict with his military mentality. Here are two two short selections from the book:

Djamila (his TM teacher) asked him to sit in a chair next to her while she stood in front of a picture of a white-bearded man in an orange robe. “This is Brahmananda, Maharishi’s teacher, who gave us this meditation. Now we will thank him for the knowledge.” She began singing in a high little voice in a language he didn’t recognize. She dipped a flower into a bowl of water and waved it around, spraying water here and there, then laid the fruit, flowers, and cloth in front of the picture. While she sang, a calm settled over him, and his face relaxed as tension dissolved. When she finished, Djamila knelt in front of the picture and whispered a sound very softly, as if to herself, then gradually louder until he could hear it clearly.

She turned to him and said, “Say it with me.”

They repeated it together, then she said, “Now close the eyes and think it silently.”

He could see the word floating through his mind in curlicues — a Möbius strip turning into an infinity sign. It resonated through him, first with his heartbeat then with his breath, quieting them. His whole body relaxed, and he felt he was sinking deep into the chair, into the earth even, not sitting but floating. His thoughts started to space out, with gaps of silence between them. The silence grew into a delightful emptiness. At the center of it pulsed the mantra, a blend of sound and light. It grew fainter, finer, then disappeared like a bird wing-waving away, leaving his mind alert but without content, aware but not of any thing.

Then he heard noises from outside: a horse snorted and stamped its hoof, a cow mooed. Distracted, he drifted onto thoughts of Wyoming, the ranch in Sheridan where his father had worked, saw faded photos of his dad. His breath and heartbeat increased, sadness wafted over him.

No … don’t get trapped in all that again. He brought his mind back to the mantra, which mixed with the other thoughts and eased them away. The calmness returned.

He inhaled lightly, tendrils of air curling into a vast space behind his closed eyes. As the sound continued, his mind became a darkness full of light, an emptiness that seemed to contain everything. Happiness welled up within him and he laughed.

The laughter brought him out of it, back to his body sitting in a chair. He opened his eyes; the room glowed.

I want to go back.

“Close the eyes and continue,” said Djamila.

The sound now stretched out into a slow drone, then seemed to fold in on itself and turn inside out. He had a moment of deep silence, a plunging dive into rich, full nothingness, then thoughts rushed in and pulled him away.

Here’s a section from later in the novel as he’s meditating in a dangerous situation with a group of peace activists:

As evening turned to night, the wind faded away, leaving the air still and crisp with a tang of pine resin. A wafer of moon, cool as a mint on the roof of his mouth, swam through wisps of clouds.

As Jeff thought his mantra, his breath slowed and his heart stopped pounding. He didn’t realized it was pounding until it quieted. He shivered in his parka and blanket until he relaxed enough to accept the cold without resisting it. As he opened up to the chill, it ceased to bother him. It was just another physical sensation, and all those were superficial compared to this great empty peace. A few thoughts drifted by, butterflies on the breeze, but the spans of silence grew longer. Somehow the emptiness was lively, full of an energy that was his deepest self. It was not only his self but it linked him to the others, all of them together in a wholeness that was greater than their surface separation.

As the hours passed and their minds joined deeper, Jeff could sense this same underlying dimension in the atmosphere around them. The air had a quality, a flowing plasma that vibrated with their mental impulses. It must always be there, but now he was aware of it. His skin seemed more permeable, his body less dense, interpenetrated with the outside. He could feel his mind pulsating slow and strong in rhythm with the others, all of them mutually reinforcing. Then their brain waves merged and seemed to rise and spread out, covering and shielding them. Within this dome was total peace, everything was all right, nothing to fear. We can only be afraid of something different, and here everything became the same — multiplicity blended into the oneness of the unified field. He was part of an energy flowing in all directions, unbounded, without differences, one ocean of consciousness. It was alive, it was divine, it washed him with joy.

All the while he was sitting against a tree feeling pine needles drop onto his parka hood, his left foot falling asleep from being cross-legged too long, ears throbbing and cuts stinging. He could hear forest noises: burrowings and nibblings of mice; a woman’s yelp of alarm as one scampered over her legs; the tread of deer approaching the thicket then trotting away as they smelled humans; the call of an owl.

These two different channels — separation and unity — were going on simultaneously, and he could shift between them, focusing more on one, then on the other. But they weren’t really separate. The physical channel of the senses emerged from and was cupped within this empty, silent field. The still ocean of awareness was the source of everything.

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William T. Hathaway’s new book, Wellsprings: A Fable of Consciousness, concerns the environmental crisis: www.cosmicegg-books.com/books/wellsprings. He was a Fulbright professor of creative writing at universities in Germany, where he currently lives. A selection of his work is available at www.peacewriter.org.