Life Is Sweet, Goodbyes Are Tough–And, Flashback #3-What’s It All About.

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The Picture–Mt. Tewinaut

Dr. Gill Was An Emotionally Moving Educational Experience-Not Just A Teacher

Oct. 25, 1979

After breakfast of campfire eggs and bacon, Carin and I headed back to Michigan. By late afternoon we stopped for the night at the campground at the foot of the Big Horn Mountains. It was located at the entrance of Tensleep Canyon, the same canyon where, while careening down the mountain grade on a previous bicycle trip, I had an “out of body experience.”

After another day’s drive, we pulled into Lead, South Dakota. While there, I renewed my acquaintance with—the Barrios Family. Sitting in Javier’s living room brought back memories, maybe a few too many. Drinking beer with Vicky and Javier while listening to Leon Russell sing Hank William’s Good Night Irene on the stereo, however, made it all worthwhile. I knew I was about to say goodbye to Carin (maybe forever), but I also knew that I had said goodbye to Carole Sue from on top of these same hills–many times over. Life had a way of repeating itself, whether you wanted it to or not; all that was required to get you through was strength–and sitting with old friends and listening to great music also helped. Drinking my beer, I knew full well that when Leon was through singing, it would be the Grateful Dead’s turn. Javier would see to that!

Alone In My Empty Apartment

A long time ago, I attended a lecture in Warner Auditorium. The keynote speaker was an authority on value theory. I had hoped to learn something from him, but I didn’t. After the talk, as was my custom, I went up to where the speaker took post lecture questions from the audience. My Professor, who himself had some original ideas on value theory, was in the crowd. When he noticed me, he immediately came over and started apologizing to me. He was apologizing for something he felt uncomfortable about, something that he said to me the last time we were together.

At that time, I was taking his class, and, as was his style, he had just posed a question to the class. I was not satisfied with the discussion of the question that followed, so I went up to him after class and asked, “What is the arête of man?” I was simply repeating back to him the question he had asked the class to respond to. He wouldn’t (or couldn’t) answer my question. (Arête is a Greek word relating to purpose: the arête of a bow is to shoot straight.) I didn’t know it at the time, but that semester was over for me. Do to circumstances beyond my control, I quite CMU and moved to Arizona. Because of my absence, he had jumped to the conclusion that his teaching method—his silence, had caused me to drop out of his class.

But now, in his apology, Dr. Gill wanted me to know that that was not true. He wanted me to know that his silence was not surrender to “man’s lack of arête.” His silence was simply a way to make a point. “The only person who can answer that question, your question,” he said, “is you.” A person’s arête was always peculiar to one’s unique situation at the time of posing the question. He was apologizing to me because he did not answer my question; that is, until that very moment, and at that moment, he completely won me over. I knew myself to be standing in the presence of a man of impeccable character and generosity.

Just before Carin and I went on our vacation, I was sitting in on yet another class taught by Professor Gill. In the past I had sat in on full semester classes taught by Dr. Gill in– The Philosophy Of Literature, Myth, and Spinoza. I had also spent truncated time in the classes he taught concerning Value Theory, Plato, Zen and Symbolic Logic, and Freedom. In all but the last couple classes, I challenged him at every opportunity. I needed to know what he knew. What I finally concluded was that John Gill was not an instrument conveying knowledge; but rather, as a teacher exuding great sensitivity, he was a deeply emotional, educational, experience. After I got back from vacation, I found another Professor teaching his Freedom class. John Gill died of cancer October 23, 1979. He was 69 years old.

Flashback # 3 What’s It All About…Is It Just For The Moment We Live

Late September, 1970

Campfire Sitting With Vedanta Tom In Grand Teton National Park

Outside Omaha, John, a University of Nebraska Psychology graduate student, picked me up. He was taking time off school to visit the Grand Teton National Park in northern Wyoming. As we were talking, he invited me to go along with him, and I happily agreed. Actually, I’m not sure if he invited me, or I invited myself, I think it was a little of both. As we were driving down the highway, John picked up two more hitchhikers, Tom and crazy Jon. Tom, a Philosophy student at Berkeley, was on his way back to California after spending the summer in Europe. Crazy Jon was a nice guy, but still a bit crazy. He was returning from New Jersey where he visited a girlfriend and he was also on his way back to California. Apparently, he hitchhikes back and forth to see this girl on a regular basis. He wore a summer jacket, carried nothing, and he was out of money.

After dark, just outside Cheyenne, Wyoming, we pulled off the highway to sleep. John and Tom slept in their sleeping bags on the ground while I shared a blanket with crazy Jon in the backseat of the Mustang. (After spending two weeks in the farmer’s field my gear was still wet.) In the backseat, crazy Jon and I spent the night like two ice cubes lying on a bed of nails; our body heat just didn’t get the job done. In the morning, the car heater was greatly appreciated. In Cheyenne, crazy Jon got out and continued on his way to California, but Tom decided to go along with us. I, for one, was glad to have him; he was a very interesting person.

As we traveled farther north, we could see Caribou leaping in the prairies. As we approached the mountains, our excitement intensified. The Teton’s were formed from a geologic fault that left shear rock walls anchored in the grasslands of the flat prairie, unlike other mountains that rose up out of the foothills that surrounded them. After we drove through Jackson’s Hole, the last town before the park, the view of the mountains rising above the fall colors was spectacular. Finding a nice campsite was a cinch, since we were the only campers in the park, and after filling our water jugs from Lake Jenny and making our fire out of tree stumps, we cooked hot dogs. After dinner we went exploring, but with daylight almost gone and the nighttime cold setting in, we were back standing around the fire in no time flat. We were all in agreement on one outstanding issue: we didn’t gather too much firewood.

It’s hard to describe the feelings that arise when you’re sitting around a campfire in a mountain wilderness. We spent a lot of time in silence as we watched and listened to the fire snap and crackle. I asked John, “What are you going to do after you graduate?” “Probably become a school counselor,” he replied. Tom, like me, didn’t know what he was going to do.

“What can you do with a Philosophy major?” he said, then he answered his own question,”Maybe I’ll join a monastery.”

John looked over at Tom and said, “Do you have a philosophy that you like best?”

“Not really,” he said, “but lately I’ve been studying Shankara. I tend to like the philosophy that I’m studying at the time I’m studying it, and right now it’s Shankara. I like his ideas. Get back with me in six months and I’ll probably like someone else’s ideas.”

“I thought you said you were into existentialism?” I said from across the fire. “That’s right,” Tom responded, “At school I studied existentialism, but I’m studying Vedanta philosophy on my own. Actually, it was the nausea created from reading too much existentialism that got me interested in Asian philosophy.”

“Wow!” I said, “I don’t know anything about existentialism, but I did take a class in Asian philosophy, and just last year I became a Buddhist.”

“Really! What kind of Buddhism?” Tom replied.

“Japanese, I think,” I said, “I haven’t really studied up on it.”

“Well how did you become involved then?” asked Tom.

“I was walking down a street in San Diego when these Chinese ladies came around a corner and asked me, ‘Do you want to learn Buddha?’ I said ‘Sure,’ and they took me to a temple and after a brief ceremony, I was given my papers and a mantra, ‘Nam Myoho Renge Kyo,’ and proclaimed a Buddhist. Then the ladies drove me back to the city, and now here I am, a Buddhist, I guess.”

“That doesn’t sound right to me,” Tom said, “Papers and mantras do not make a Buddhist, there’s more to it than that.”

“Yeah, that’s what I thought too, but when I chant the mantra, silently or out loud, I actually feel better,” I said.

“That shouldn’t come as a surprise,” Tom replied, “it’s not how you quiet your mind, it’s the effort you put into it that matters. And you know, I’ve heard that mantra before. I believe it’s a mantra used in the Japanese Buddhism of Nichiren Shoshu. I don’t know much about it, except that chanting the mantra was supposed to bring you things, material things, and that’s not what Buddhism is about either, at least not the Buddhism taught by Buddha.”

“You’re right,” I said, “But the guy at my initiation explained it to me when he told me that Nichiren, the Japanese guy that gave his people the mantra, did so because at different times, different teachings are necessary. Even the Buddha taught different stuff to different people. What was taught depended on how ready a person was to hear what needed to be heard. Nichiren lived long after Buddha. I agree with you though, I don’t think that’s what the Buddha meant to teach when he gave us his four noble truths. Anyway, I don’t use the mantra to get things, just to focus my mind.”

“So why do you like Shankara?” John spoke up, “Who is he?”

“He lived in southern India around 700 A.D,” said Tom. “He was a child prodigy who, by age ten, had memorized most of India’s holy books. In fact, scholars would go to him for council. He believed the material world, the stuff of our phenomenal existence, was illusion and he called this illusion Maya. Reality, for him, was dualistic. A duality that was separated into the true Absolute called Brahman, and the phenomenal world of illusion. But, when you got right down to it, the dualistic nature of Brahman and Maya was really non-dualism. Shankara always described the world paradoxically. He would say, ‘The world both is and is not.’”

“Why is it,” I interrupted, “that Eastern philosophy always seems to begin and end with paradoxes?”

“I don’t know,” Tom said, “but the sages tell us that what is beyond language and thought is, by definition, inexpressible—yet real!”

“How can something exist if it can’t be described or known?” John replied.

“That’s why they call it Eastern philosophy,” I spoke up, “it’s the opposite of what we do in the West. If we were scientists, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation.”

“According to Shankara,” Tom said, “reality can’t be known, at least not in the way we normally ‘know’ something, but it can be experienced and I guess that’s another way of saying we can know it. I can’t know a blue sky or a beautiful sunset, but that doesn’t mean that a beautiful sunset does not affect me, or that it’s not meaningful. And, it’s not quite right to say that Eastern philosophers never describe reality. Reality gets described negatively. In the Upanishads there’s a guy who frequently refers to reality as ‘neti, neti,’ — ‘not this, not that’.”

“When were the Upanishads written?” I said.

“Back around the time of Christ,’” replied Tom.

“Well, how is Shankara’s philosophy different from the Upanishads?”

“That’s a good question, I wish I knew,” said Tom. “I’m not a scholar, I just read books. What I find striking about his thought, though, is the way he uses the atman/Brahman distinction, the same atman/Brahman distinction found in the Upanishads. In his philosophy, Brahman, or the stuff that never changes, is the first cause of the universe and everything in the universe emanates from, subsists in, and finally merges back into this absolute Brahman. For Shankara, the universe is superimposed upon Brahman. That means the universe, as an accumulation of objects, is essentially all Brahman, but we don’t experience it that way, instead, we experience rocks, dust and heat, the stuff called by us ‘universe’, the stuff of the ‘world illusion.’ Our job is to see through this illusion and, in doing so, experience absolute existence, knowledge, and bliss. Intuitive knowledge of our inner-self is brought into play here, for our connection with Brahman is linked to our atman, or deepest self. When a person becomes one with their atman, they enter a consciousness where the fundamental unreality of the universe becomes realized. Unfortunately, this is a rare experience; our normal experience of atman is more commonplace. It is our ego-idea, and that falsehood keeps us in the world illusion.”

“Is that anything like Freud’s ego?” said John.

“Yes and no,” replied Tom. “Shankara’s ego-idea was a more generalized form of ego. Freud, if I remember correctly, sliced ego into its personal, social and biological components while, for Shankara, ego means simply ‘the object of consciousness.’ In other words, Freud’s ego, superego, and id are most definitely ego-ideas, but so to are all other predicates that can be referred to the subject I. In this way whatever gets predicated along with the ‘I consciousness’ becomes an ego-idea. For instance, when I say, ‘I’m hungry… I’m lonely… I’m unpopular’ –hunger, unpopular, and lonely become predicates of the subject I, thus these ‘referents’ become ego-ideas. Shankara goes on to tell us what we call individuality is nothing more than a generalized form of this ego-idea and, more importantly, were it not for this ego-idea there would be no particulars in the outside world. First we superimpose our ego-idea on atman then we superimpose a world of multiple creatures and objects on the undivided existence that is Brahman. In reality, though, it’s all appearance, it’s all part of the world illusion.”

“But, if I understand you correctly, how can we be connected to Brahman by our atman when our atman, in the form of ego-idea, is the same thing that keeps us separated from Brahman?”

“Yes, that’s exactly it,” Tom replie
d. “Figure that out and you become a sage, a holy man, or a Saint. In fact, the sages tell us that the existence of our inner-self, uncontaminated by ego-idea, makes sense up to a point, but after that we must subject ourselves to a long regime of meditation and yoga before the ‘real thing’ can be discovered. Shankara tells us that ‘only that which does not change exists’ and that something is Brahman. Shankara also tells us that world-appearance depends upon ego-idea for its existence. Yet, in order to have an ego-idea of an impersonal, unqualified Brahman, we too must exist as Brahman exists. The key to enlightenment then is to lose our ego-idea. When world-appearance vanishes, absolute existence, knowledge, and bliss follow.”

“You’ve lost me,” said John. “I can understand why some people might say that all knowledge is interpretation, but I can’t understand why any sane person would say that what is being interpreted is all illusion. How could anybody believe that nature is mere illusion?”

“I guess I kind of agree with that,” I said. “There’s just too much beauty out there, I mean look around, look at those mountains, smell the air, listen to that owl, this feeling that comes over you, if that’s illusion, if that’s something to be done away with then I think I’d rather be part of the illusion than separate from it.”

“Hey,” Tom interrupted, “I said I like Shankara, I didn’t say he was God. He’s fun to read, and sometimes exciting, but I’m not sure I even understand what he’s saying. I’m convinced though, that he does have something important to say about the ‘human condition.’ I also know that this stuff is not for everyone. Wait a minute! I just remembered an analogy that might make him easier to understand.

“Think of nature’s transitions – birth, life, death, creativity, decay, – as colorful changing patterns on the surface of an expanding soap bubble. Now, let one of the more mature patterns represent the human species. Ego-idea objects would now involve knowledge of the beautiful and sometimes the not so beautiful phenomena occurring within the soap emulsion patterns. Some of these patterns, maybe most, could be described mathematically. At some point, an ego-idea would predict how those patterns and cycles of patterns relate to one another. Ego-idea would come to ‘know’ all about the changes in those changing patterns and, as its ability to analyze those changes developed, it would start to ‘feel good’ about itself. At some point, ego-idea might even come to understand and predict the outcome of its own existence, and even the eventual demise of the surface that it finds itself on. It would however, be extremely difficult for ego-idea to discover the reality underlying its own existence, or the emptiness upon which the bubble rests. In other words, all loving, caring, hating, and suffering– the stuff that animates our individuality — subsists in and finally merges back into the source of all, into Brahman, into the Great Mother, into whatever name you attach to the source. Shankara probably wouldn’t like my use of the feminine gender, but as you have already said, ‘different strokes for different folks.’ Anyway, that’s about it. We’re all here, doing what we do, but we’re also part of a larger ‘spiritual whole.’ What do you think? “

“I don’t know about you,” said John, “but my butt is freezing. I’ll sleep on it, and maybe I’ll be enlightened by morning, but until then see you in my dreams.”

I sat alone by the fire after Tom and John went to bed. It was an extra cold night, and the fire was warm. I couldn’t look forward to a good night’s sleep like John and Tom. I knew I wasn’t prepared for this kind of cold. When it came time to call it a night, after I built the fire up, I laid as close to it as possible. I slept for more than an hour before the cold set in. I vowed if I ever went on another trip, I would have a good sleeping bag.

Lost Wallet On Mt. Tewinaut

Up early the next morning, the frost covered the ground. The three of us walked around Lake Jenny and then we stood at the foot of the mountain, trying to decide which of our lines of sight would produce the easiest climb. None of us had climbed a mountain before. Half way up the mountain, the cold had turned to hot, and we had our jackets tied around our waists. From the bottom what appeared as merely darker shades of green were really large and sometimes impassable moguls and ravines.

Not yet at our destination, we realized the dimensions of the task we had set for ourselves. John was the only one wearing boots. I was wearing tennis shoes, and poor Tom was climbing in sandals. We were almost out of drinking water and we still couldn’t see that part of the mountain that we singled out as our goal. For all our sweat and hard work, though, we were compensated with a beautiful view of the Snake River winding through the open prairies beneath us. The pungent smell of pine was everywhere also, and off in the distance we could see yet another lake and mountain range. The view for John and Tom was reward enough for climbing this mountain, but I wanted to go higher, so they reluctantly followed.

On the mountain we ran into a Bull elk, deer, and lots of rabbits. By the time we reached the snow line John was done in. The excitement of running into the Bull elk reinvigorated Tom though. We told John we would look for him on the way down the mountain. The climbing got even tougher after that, but at least now we could see the plateau that we had marked as our goal. Pointing out the finish line, I tried to encourage Tom to climb higher, but there was no convincing him. If it weren’t for being able to see the end of the climb, I would have quit to. Not far from where I left Tom, the incline increased dramatically. As I approached the plateau, I was climbing on all fours, and before I was done, I was climbing hand over hand. On the plateau, probably 7/8’s the way up the mountain, I had reached my goal. Above me, was a vertical rock face only meant for climbers with ropes and pitons.

I walked around the shelf, and then sat down with my feet dangling over an immense fissure. I can’t even begin to describe the feelings I encountered. All I can say is that I know now why the Greek’s called Mt. Olympus the “Seat of the Gods.” The sun was shining, but there was still a chill in the air. When I finally did get moving, it was like being on top of a pyramid. A little movement provided a totally different view of the mountain and countryside below. I walked back across the rock shelf and began my decent.

Climbing down, I intentionally slid on my ass. It was the fastest way I have ever found to wear out a pair of blue jeans. About half way down, I found Tom playing around large dirt slides. As we met, a large Bull Moose snorted his way out from behind a large rock next to a thick forest. All of a sudden we found ourselves staring down a huge moose standing no more than thirty yards away. We were petrified; we had no place to run. Only broken pieces of shale separated the moose from us. The huge animal took one step toward Tom and then turned and snorted his way deeper into the forest. We were moving pretty fast when Tom almost stepped on a porcupine. We were almost down the mountain when we ran into John. It took us all day to climb the mountain, but only a few hours to get to the bottom.

Our hurried decent didn’t come cheap. My feet were in sorry shape, and I lost my wallet somewhere on the mountain. I became sick to my stomach. All my money, $112 lost, my identification lost. Getting caught hitchhiking without ID meant jail. That night I couldn’t
sleep; my only option was to climb back up the mountain and look for my wallet. I couldn’t believe that after going through so much already on this trip that it had come to this. It was a hopeless situation, but I had to at least try.

The next morning I awoke to the cry of a blue jay. I wished I had as much to look forward too as did that screaming jay. My feet were swollen and sore. John suggested we go talk to the Park Ranger. He said, “You can look at a map, maybe that will help.” I didn’t think it was a good idea, but I went anyway. When I pointed out on the map where I thought I had lost my wallet, the Park Ranger said, “The park service recommends experienced climbers for that area and climbing up there alone isn’t allowed. Somebody will have to go with you.” The ranger understood how important it was for me to find my wallet, so he told me that he would go if I could wait until tomorrow. I thanked him, but I told him I needed to climb today. Tom, seeing my predicament, volunteered to go with me, the ranger looked relieved. As we were leaving, the ranger said, as he handed me his climbing boots, “If they fit use them. Just be sure to drop them off when you’re done.” I thanked him again, and we drove back to the campsite.

The boots were a perfect fit, they were a half size too big; they kept the briars from tearing up my ankles, too. Tom got me out of a jam and I appreciated that. I never did expect him to climb the mountain, so I wasn’t surprised when he didn’t make it very far. John took advantage of his time alone to drive up to Yellowstone Park. He was heading back to Nebraska today, but he didn’t seem upset that he was going to get a late start. I think he was glad to be doing some more sightseeing.

It was impossible to trace my steps back up the mountain. My only hope was that my wallet was on the steep incline that I scooted down. For sure, that would be the most likely place to lose it. Knowing exactly where I wanted to go, I made better time than the first time I climbed the mountain. When I reached the place where I started climbing on all fours, I got excited; the path was narrow and if my wallet was there, I thought I would find it. As I climbed farther up, I was kicking enough dirt down the mountain to bury many lost wallets. Three-quarters of the way up, I was beginning to get sick to my stomach again, and then I saw it, half covered in sand, and stuck behind a loose rock. Elation was too tame a word to describe my feelings. I stuffed my wallet deep inside my front jean pocket, and started sliding back down the mountain.

I met Tom playing in a stream a little farther down the mountain than where I met him yesterday. He was very happy to hear that I found my wallet. Under a warm sun, the two of us followed a mountain stream. Our idea, to follow the stream, once again showed naiveté. The stream cut a crevice in the side of the mountain and eventually we found ourselves desperately trying to keep above the rushing waters as we continued down the steep ravine. By the time we realized we could no longer climb up the ravine’s vegetation overgrown walls; we were too far down the mountain to consider going back. At one point, we found ourselves traversing the vertical slope by hanging on vines and bushes growing out from the walls. To say that this was dangerous would surely be an understatement. Just before we reached the bottom of the mountain, we did manage to climb out of the ravine. Topside, however, our bleeding and bruised bodies curtailed the excitement of finding my wallet. Using Lake Jenny for a landmark, we hiked back to camp where we found John patiently waiting. He was happy that I had found my wallet.

As it turned out John didn’t have to wait very long because he spent the entire day at the south entrance of Yellowstone and had a marvelous time. He saw an abundance of wildlife, which was the major reason he came here in the first place. We stopped at a restaurant in Jackson’s Hole and ate dinner. After dinner I bought some beers to celebrate, and we drove into the night drinking beer and reminiscing about our mountain adventure. When the beer was gone, John pulled into a Wyoming cow pasture and we climbed into our sleeping bags.

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2 Responses to “Life Is Sweet, Goodbyes Are Tough–And, Flashback #3-What’s It All About.”

  1. sue s Says:

    For goodness sake—get this published–at least then I will be able to read it without having to print the whole fecking lot off first

  2. dave Says:

    Yeah, I did get carried away with this post, it’s just that that mountain has inspired me for many reasons, on more than one occasion. Flashback #3 will make my next two posts easier to understand, and the TSK post will make the post three weeks from now more interesting. After that I’ll be biking up the west coast–more interesting stuff. Thanks for the comment. I very much appreciate it!

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