Saturday, April 6, 2013

Journey of Awakening 57: A Spiritual Wilderness

The years from 1982 to 1985 are a bit of a blur—mental, physical, and spiritual.

Mental, because the images that come up all seem to morph into one another and, since time is a mental construct at any rate, the entire phase is like a whirlwind on an inland sea. Physical, because of the many activities I involved myself in just to help keep the family together and food on the table. Spiritual, because these were years when the yearnings that led me to ask the big questions about life were being re-awakened.

I parted company with Northwestern Mutual Life, after which I tried to hang on to a few group health insurance clients and got into the Medicare supplement sales field. I delivered LA Times and USA Today newspapers in Redlands and Oak Glen. I drove a Dial-a-lift Van in San Bernardino and helped open a Dial-a-ride office in Yucaipa. I took a job as sales manager for Niles Fletcher’s carpet cleaning company. Niles had been an insurance client of mine. I even went back into the local church ministry, part-time, when Mentone Congregational Church was in need of a pastor.

One venture I enjoyed for a few years was with the hot new Cambridge Diet company. This was the result of my longstanding desire to get control of a weight issue I had struggled with most of my life. I not only trimmed down by about 50 pounds while trying to live a healthier lifestyle, but became a “Cambridge Counselor” to help others by selling the Cambridge product and program.


Many of these employment activities were going on at the same time. The one at the Mentone Church, which happened to be of the same denomination I had served back in the sixties, was a lesson in “you really can’t go back again.” I made some good friends and saw the congregation through a transition from an all-white dwindling group of seniors to a mostly black but more alive church family that still struggles to remain viable. The experience convinced me that my original decision that I was not cut out for the local church pastorate was the right one. I guess the legacy I am most pleased with is that I helped found the Mentone Seniors, which met in our church building for several years. This group went on to be responsible for the establishment of the Mentone Senior Center and, along with some assistance from the County, the public library in which our writing class now meets.

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It was also during these few years that I managed, with Linda’s introduction and her boss’s willingness to give me a shot, to get an adjunct faculty position at Whitehead Center of the University of Redlands, in the Business Management degree program. My job was to conduct six-week, 4-hour classes at various centers in southern California, teaching working students essentially how to study, how to write, how to put their life and work experience into a portfolio that, hopefully, would qualify for college credit on their way to getting their college degrees. I actually enjoyed getting back into the academic setting in front of students again, after so many years away.

My dream of being a householder was now gone. The economic recession and some poor career choices resulted in us giving up at 540 South Center with the fixer-upper project incomplete. We moved to a rental at 917 West State Street in the Redlands Town Homes and began to rebuild our life in Redlands. It was actually a great time for us in many ways. We re-learned the importance of living the simple life. We took walks. We read together. We remembered how to “make lemonade.”


540 Center Today – Someone Cared for it

The spiritual pole of this three-legged stool meant that Linda and I now had time to reflect on not just where we had been but where our lives were headed. Linda had always been an avid reader. She was also a spiritual seeker, a pursuit I had left behind in the flurry of activism my life had been for the last decade or so. So we began reading together from some of the spiritual classics of the world’s religions, including the Christian mystics, Meister Eckhart, St. John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, and Thomas Merton. We discovered the eastern traditions as well, the Baghavad Gita, a Hindu devotional classic, some Buddhist writings of Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese monk who co-founded the Fellowship of Reconciliation during the Vietnam conflict.

And of course we discovered Zen. Friends in Redlands who had been family counselors for us when we were attempting to figure out how to help son Rob invited us to their home to meet this young monk just back from studying for years in Japan. It was our first up-close-and-personal encounter with a Zen Buddhist monk in robes. We were duly impressed. This was also our first exposure to a disciplined approach to meditation. Meditation in our experience had been mostly a mental activity related to staying right with God. Shinzen Young began sharing about the practice of meditation and then stopped suddenly and said: “Would you like to try?”

“Why not?” and that “Why not?” led to taking instruction from this Zen teacher for several weeks and an excruciating weekend retreat at his center in Los Angeles keeping a schedule I had forgotten was possible for the human body: alternating periods of sitting cross legged on mats with horizontal time attempting to sleep; chanting weird phrases in the Pali language; and trying to learn how to “just sit.” In Zen nothing is taken for granted and nothing is easy. These beginning baby steps in the area of meditation practice evolved into further exploration with other Buddhist teachers that lasted for more than two decades, among them Jack Kornfield, co-founder of Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts and Spirit Rock in Marin County. Linda and I have hosted a weekly meditation and study group in our home for 30 years and have benefitted from this ongoing spiritual support group. But that is part of another chapter and will surely enter into future episodes of this journey.


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