Mr. Conway’s hand on my shoulder brought me awake, and I got out of bed, shivering in the mid‑night cold. One advantage to wearing robes: it wasn’t hard to get dressed. Seeing his face by the flickering oil lamp, I got a sense of the experience—not to use the embarrassing word “wisdom”—concealed behind that youthful face. Our silence reinforced the impression.
He worked with me to find a comfortable position for the meditation exercise, telling me (to my surprise) that I would not have to torture myself into the cross‑legged lotus position favored by yogis. “Without years of preparation, you would be unable to sit for long with legs crossed. The pain would be intolerable.”
“When I did a little yoga in college, they seemed to think the lotus position was essential,” I said.
“I don’t believe in doing things the hard way,” he said briefly. “How long did you study yoga?”
I admitted that the yoga, to me, was only a secondary aspect of a jiu‑jitsu course I took.
“A pity you did not continue with yoga.”
“How do you know I didn’t?”
Again, that smile. “You wouldn’t move as you do, and you wouldn’t jump around mentally quite the way you do. Come, now, let’s get to work. I’ve brought this bench Henry made long ago. It should serve.”
The bench was about ten inches wide and six inches high. He had me sit on the bench with legs crossed on the floor in front of me, and satisfied himself that I could do so without pain.
“You may experience some difficulty in keeping your spine straight over time,” he said. “If you do, merely relax for a moment and then resume position.”
“It’s all right to break position like that?”
“Better that, and back to work, than hours spent trying to ignore back pain, accomplishing nothing.” A smile. “But don’t start spending your time deciding whether you need to relax for a moment. Concentrate.”
He then proceeded easily and naturally to sit on the floor and cross his legs, tucking each foot upon the opposite thigh. Almost before I could absorb what he was doing, he was sitting with his back bolt‑upright, his hands folded one inside the other, placed on his lap. His eyes were almost, but not entirely closed. And there we sat. It was time to try following the instructions Mr. Conway had given me.
The instructions were simplicity itself. Experience immediately demonstrated that not everything that is simple is easy. All I had to do—to try to do—was to keep my mind entirely blank, rejecting any efforts of my mind to pump in thoughts, reveries, daydreams, speculations, fantasies. . . .
All I had to do. Try it. Try sitting quietly, without external distractions, holding your mind still. Try maintaining consciousness while denying it the right to manufacture images to be conscious of. Try it for five minutes, and then imagine keeping up the effort for four hours—only 240 minutes, after all. I think you’ll be surprised to learn what I was up against.
It sounds like such an easy trick, and it proves to be so frustrating. If there’s a more graphic illustration of how little in control of our minds we are, I haven’t heard of it. I started off thinking it would be fairly simple. Within the first ten minutes I lost the stillness probably 30 times, and I began to realize that I was in for a harder struggle than I had expected.
Just for a few seconds, I would clear the decks, and everything would be in precarious equilibrium, with noisy intruders banished below. Then, a second’s inattention and I would, in a sense, “wake up” to realize that some fantasy had led me down the garden path. Or, more frustrating, I would attain a moment of quiescence, and suddenly would fully realize it, and would be filled with a burst of elation and self‑congratulation—which of course ended and negated the achievement.
“Well,“ I’d think, ”I didn’t expect success the first time. I’ll just have to work at it.“ And I would realize that this noble resolve was itself a thought—and so forth.
I suppose you could have much the same kind of fun by spending your time slipping off a floating log into ice‑cold water, and climbing back dripping wet and freezing, to try again, knowing even as you tried to balance that it wouldn’t be long before you would be back in the water. And knowing that your expectation of a dunking would help dunk you.
And this is how I spent those long pre‑dawn hours of that first day. I would cheat occasionally, stealing looks at Mr. Conway’s untroubled face to see if he was still in position, which he always was. I wondered if he could see me through those slitted eyes. I guessed not, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had suddenly said something to make me aware that he knew I was having trouble keeping my concentration. I wondered if his own concentration was as simple and unbroken as it appeared from outside, or if his level still included struggle.
Long before this first session was over, I had evolved an analogy (which activity in itself was a breach of the concentration I was supposed to be developing and maintaining): I decided that the mind was like a ticker‑tape machine, endlessly spouting quotations whether you wanted them or not. My job was to turn off the main switch, or pull the plug.
I wondered if Mr. Conway would approve the analogy—and realized that to mention it would be to tell him that, so far at least, I had failed.
I went back to the beginning. Achieved concentration for a moment or two, lost it in a trickle, then a flood, of random associations. Thinking about anything was far easier than thinking about nothing. I started to wonder how long it would take me to attain the kind of control over the stock‑ticker that Mr. Conway wanted. Caught myself and sought blankness of mind. Certainly Mr. Barnard would approve of the analogy, I thought. And remembered to clear my mind. And reminded myself to mention it to Mr. Barnard. And cleared my mind again. And was distracted. And cleared it again. And was distracted again. For four hours.
At 6 a.m. we heard the gong resounding through the buildings, calling the monks to their morning meal. Mr. Conway opened his eyes, arose without a hint of stiffness in his joints, and lent me an arm to lean on while I got to my feet.
“Oh, my aching back!” I said as I got up. “I don’t see why you aren’t crippled for life.”
He smiled. “One soon gets accustomed to it. The monks schedule a certain amount of yoga daily, if only to improve suppleness and assist circulation.”
We moved quickly down the hall to the refectory, I as eager for food as if I were back in basic training. It was only 6 a.m., but I felt like I had already put in a hard day’s work moving heavy machinery.
By the time we got there, the room was already half full. We got our food and sat with Mr. Barnard and Mr. Herrick, toward the middle of a long table.
“How’s the new recruit?” Mr. Barnard asked. “Achieve enlightenment yet?”
I shook my head silently, a little depressed by the contrast between his cheerful words and my own sorry performance so far. I suppose I expected his irreverence to be met with disapproval, or with strained tolerance, but Mr. Conway and Mr. Herrick chuckled, instead.
“This is not one of your famous American land‑grant colleges,” Mr Herrick said to him. “I doubt he’s ready for his certificate quite yet.”
“However,” Mr. Conway said, apparently gravely, “being an American, George will no doubt learn in one month what others of us required years to learn.”
“And then require three more years to return to the beginning and get it right,” Mr. Herrick said, laughing.
“That’s all right,” Mr. Barnard said complacently. “Being an American, in six years he’ll have the whole darn course of study revised, and it’ll turn out you can enlighten the whole blamed valley.”
“I see the vision before me,” Mr. Herrick said, putting down his spoon and pointing as though reading words on the wall. “In great illuminated signs, cut into the rock walls, I see it: `Achieve infinite compassion. Also, buy Barnard’s cigars.’”
“George Chiari’s Spiritual Correspondence School,” Mr. Conway suggested. “Enlightenment for all, no waiting.”
“Time tested, over three weeks’ experience,” Mr. Herrick said.
As so often before, I marvelled at the playful high spirits of the monks at table, almost as if in deliberate compensation for any excess of seriousness in their day’s routine. I concentrated on my meal, and wondered if I would ever get to the point of enjoying tsampa.
“George is pretty quiet this morning,” Mr. Barnard said. “Maybe he is farther along than you think, Conway. You don’t suppose he’s going to achieve Buddha‑hood right here at the table, do you?”
“Not on this diet, I guess,” I said. Not a side‑splitter, but they laughed, and I saw Mr. Conway’s nod of approval, and I concluded that for some reason too much seriousness was to be avoided. At any rate it was clear that I was not going to be allowed to discuss the morning’s session during the meal as I had hoped. So I decided, sensibly, to save it.
Mr. Conway sat across from me in the little study. “Now you have had your first experience with the drunken monkey,” he said, smiling.
“It’s unbelievable!” I cried. “I just couldn’t hold onto it.”
“You will, with persistence. I did. Others did. Success does not come easily, to anyone, but it does come, to those who persist.”
“It’s going to be a long fight, I can tell.”
“Not necessarily. Much depends upon your will and your innate energy level. But you have taken the first step: You have recognized, for the first time, that you, yourself—your essence, if you will, your soul—are not the same as the thoughts and random associations that flow through your mind.”
I moved a hand in a gesture deprecating what I had accomplished in the earlier session.
“Before you began, George, you weren’t even aware of the existence of that unceasing chattering machinery. Now you have begun to bring it under control. This is the first step.”
“And the second?”
“The second is to pass beyond resolve, into accomplishment.”
He proceeded to quiz me on the morning’s successes and failures, and to offer suggestions—disappointingly few—on how to improve. Then he talked to me for some while on the nature of the mind and the relation between the mind that perceives and the object that is perceived. His objective, he said, was to present the subject in an intellectual way, since my mind was constantly looking for meat to chew. I asked him (having told him my analogy) if feeding my mind more ideas wouldn’t just encourage the stock ticker, but he told me not to worry about it. He said my mind would in any case seize any excuse to ratiocinate, and that it was less a matter of adding to the stock‑ticker’s energy supply than of using that energy to convey and mull useful information. My subconscious mind would work at assimilating the new knowledge even as I worked to keep my conscious mind blank. “Indeed, your subconscious mind will function all the better for the lack of interference from your conscious mind.”
He then proceeded to begin the long and interesting process of filling me with the basic material behind a different point of view—a new way of seeing, as he put it. When he paused, I waited for him to continue, but he said that two hours was enough. I was amazed. It had seemed twenty minutes.
After a trip to the facilities, we returned to my room. Mr. Conway handed me a sheet of paper, saying I was to read these Buddhist scriptures and ponder them till he returned. Then he left the room, and I was alone for the first time that day.
The paper contained five neatly written quotations. I read:
Wherein does religion consist? It consists in doing as little harm as possible, in doing good in abundance, in the practice of love, of compassion, of truthfulness and purity, in all the walks of life.
And I read:
Never think or say that your religion is the best. Never denounce the religion of others.
And I read:
Do not decry other sects, do not deprecate others, but rather honor whatever in them is worthy of honor.
It is nature’s rule that as we sow, we shall reap; she recognizes no good intentions, and pardons no errors.
Finally, I read:
As a fletcher makes straight his arrow, a wise man makes straight his trembling and unsteady thought, which is difficult to guard, difficult to hold back. As a fish taken from his watery home and thrown on dry land, our thought trembles all over in order to escape the dominion of the tempter. It is good to tame the mind, which is difficult to hold in and flighty, rushing wherever it listeth; a tamed mind brings happiness.
I re‑read the quotations, and asked myself “Now what?” If breakfast took 40 minutes and Mr. Conway and I talked two hours and I was to meditate again from 10 to noon, I had about an hour and twenty minutes to spend on this exercise. Was I supposed to read the quotations forty times? When he had told me he would provide passages for meditation, I had assumed that he meant pamphlets or articles of some length, not five short paragraphs.
Well, so I was wrong. Time to figure out what he wanted me to do. I looked again at the first quotation. “Wherein does religion consist? It consists in doing as little harm as possible, in doing good in abundance, in the practice of love, of compassion, of truthfulness and purity, in all the walks of life.” I decided to analyze it as if it were an exercise in analysis. Mr. Chiari, what does the message tell you about the person who wrote it? What does he believe? And what point is Mr. Conway attempting to get across to you?
I thought about it.
Well, sir, first off, it’s striking, the things he doesn’t say. Not a word about God, or heaven and hell, or religious ceremonies and duties. He seems to think of religion as the practice of six virtues, without regard to ceremonial or theology. He doesn’t say “follow me,” and he assumes we know the difference between doing harm and doing good. And he says that virtues can be practiced in all walks of life, which implies that he doesn’t believe in any special priesthood.
And how does this impress you, Mr. Chiari?
Offhand, pretty favorably.
Try the next.
“Never think or say that your religion is the best. Never denounce the religion of others.”
Clear enough. But (uneasy thought for someone who has left the bounds of the religion he was raised in) doesn’t it imply that you also shouldn’t denounce your own religion or say another is best? Hmm. Bears thinking about. Go on.
“Do not decry other sects, do not deprecate others, but rather honor whatever in them is worthy of honor.”
Honor whatever is worthy of honor. I guess that goes for good solid Catholicism. Christianity in general. All religions contain some good: Find it and honor it. I don’t know how much more I can get from that one.
“It is nature’s rule that as we sow, we shall reap; she recognizes no good intentions, and pardons no errors.”
Pardons no errors? That doesn’t sound much like a God of mercy. But then, the quotation is talking about nature, not God. In fact, you know what it sounds like? It sounds like mechanics: What you get depends on what you do, not on what you intend to do. [I was a bit pleased with myself. I understood this one, anyway.]
I re‑read the longer one about taming the mind. Stuck in by Mr. Conway for the sake of encouragement, presumably.
Well, now what? I’d been through them all twice. How much time had it taken? No way to know, since Mr. Conway had told me not to wear my watch.
Go through them again, I suppose.
I re‑read the first. “Wherein does religion consist? It consists in doing as little harm as possible, in doing good in abundance, in the practice of love, of compassion, of truthfulness and purity, in all the walks of life.”
As little harm as possible. The old physician’s motto: First, do no harm. Try to lead a blameless life. Don’t injure others. Do good in abundance. Not only don’t do harm, but do good. No harm comes first. Because it’s more important? Or does it have to come first before you can do good? Or is it just a meaningless stylistic choice?
Practice love. Well‑wishing. No, more urgent than that. Love. But just what is love, really? Unselfish love, I suppose. If that phrase means anything.
Love. Not desire, surely. Not attachment? Maybe just genuinely caring for others and being willing and eager to help when you can? Leave it at that for now. And don’t go thinking about Marianne. Leave that for later.
Pity? Sorrow? More like empathy, I’d guess. Pity is degrading, and the word “sorrow” seems too limited here. You can feel compassion for somebody when there is really no occasion for sorrow. Like when you see that somebody is really ignorant and doesn’t know it, and you can’t get to him but you know it’s only a matter of time till he finds it out.
Truthfulness. Well, do no harm. But sometimes lies don’t hurt anybody. What my mother called manners is mostly polite lies.
Truthfulness. Well, (to quote Pontius Pilate) what is truth, anyway? We never know the whole truth. Maybe it’s just not pretending? Being yourself and saying only what you believe? Boy, what chaos that would bring!
Would it? Maybe if we got used to it, people wouldn’t get their feelings hurt when somebody told them the truth. We’d know more who we are, maybe. But the first person to start telling the truth is going to have an interesting time! [I thought of my awkward friend Lou, always putting his foot in his mouth through a naive willingness to say whatever was in his mind.]
Purity. Sexual purity? Virginity? Well, what else could it mean? But: “all walks of life.” Couldn’t mean virginity.
Purity. Unmixed motives? Transparency? Consistency? Integrity? Funny: I had no idea what the word did mean, even in a sexual context. Continence? Chastity?
But, no point in getting caught in a game of semantics. Purity, if it means anything, must mean preferring what is wholesome and avoiding what is corrupt and corrupting. Defining which was which would be a task—but something inside me knew the difference, as my conscience had proved to me, uncomfortably, many times.
“In all walks of life,” it says. You can lead a religious life no matter what your profession or external circumstances, as long as you practice these six virtues. Which means that members of certain professions can’t lead a religious life, certainly. You couldn’t very well be a gangster and still do no harm to yourself or others. You couldn’t—
But, as I thought about it, I wondered if anyone could lead a religious life in any of the “walks of life.” At least, it would be difficult to do and still prosper. I couldn’t quite see a businessman or lawyer or politician always telling the truth. I couldn’t see an accountant ceaselessly practicing compassion.
Which said something about the professions.
But where might it be possible? Housewives could practice the virtues, perhaps. Hospital orderlies. Most anybody who was not in authority over others. An analogy to the rich man and the kingdom of God?
But actually, why couldn’t an accountant practice compassion? Mostly because of the race for eminence and money, probably. If exercising compassion cost him money in reduced or deferred fees, it would hinder him in the running of the great status race. Still, if it meant enough to him, he could—
Mr. Conway re‑entered the room, and to my surprise it was time to begin the final two‑hour meditation before lunch. And I had hardly begun to explore the ramifications of the thoughts already suggested.
“I think maybe I’ve learned something about this meditating over texts,” I said, smiling up at him.
I wanted to jump right into discussing my morning’s work, but Mr. Conway smilingly shook his head and refused to listen. “We’ll talk after the noon meal,” he said. “Until then, concentrate upon the task at hand. You may find this period before noon the hardest: For this very reason, you can make it the most productive period. Concentrate, George.” He added, obviously quoting something, “Righteous persistence brings reward.”
We re‑entered our meditation positions. Mr. Conway immediately half‑closed his eyes and withdrew into his own world. I delayed, watching his face, marvelling at its tranquillity. His boyish face seemed never to have known strain or sorrow. If it were true that his vital forces had been badly depleted in his youth, the wells of life had obviously long since risen again within him. He appeared to overflow with quiet vitality.
After a moment or two, I again turned inward—not without some reluctance—to spend a long 120 minutes wrestling with the ticker‑tape machine within my mind. It wasn’t a bit easier than the first session had been. If anything, it was harder, because I couldn’t help being a bit discouraged by what seemed to be my total lack of progress.
All the rest of that morning I wrestled with the uncontrolled word‑producing, image‑making, daydream‑spawning, escapism‑oriented stock‑ticker of a mind mechanism. All morning I learned the infinite number of traps the mind could set up to defeat my efforts to turn it off.
If I battled the thoughts to a standstill, the awareness of the battle itself became a distraction. If I gave in to the thoughts, or was caught unaware by them, I found myself waking up at the end of a long series of rapid‑fire associations, knowing that I had lost again. If I got angry at having been side‑tracked, the anger was a distraction. If I maintained ceaseless vigil and succeeded for an instant in holding back the thoughts, awareness grew that I was holding them back, until it seemed that I was straining to hold closed a door that had, on the other side, a terrific and growing weight of water. When the weight forced the door open even a crack, it burst open immediately and washed me away—and after the water had entirely emptied out, I had to swim and wade wearily back again, to shut the door and know that the same build‑up was beginning again.
Sometimes it was memories, and I could fight them pretty well, overcoming (usually) the temptation to linger over the pleasant ones, or rehash the unpleasant. Sometimes my mind filled with bars of music, or—worse—with lines from popular songs. As any ad‑man knows, songs are a lot harder to exorcise than words alone. Sometimes the damned phrases, or ad jingles, would get stuck in an endless loop, playing over and over and over and over until I felt ready to scream. And then the anger and frustration became the distraction.
None of the things running through my mind were neatly sorted out, of course. Memories were mixed with daydreams, and fantasies (especially sexual fantasies) mixed with speculations and other busy inventions. And all the while, like the one‑armed paperhanger my father used to talk about, or the fireman with a leaky bucket, I was running from thought to thought, putting out sparks here and sparks there, refilling my water bucket and finding that it was filled with kerosene.
“Righteous persistence,” Mr. Conway had said. I righteously persisted all that long morning, and made no progress that I could see, and was ready to sleep for three days by the time the noon gong sounded.
Again Mr. Conway helped me to my feet, and again the refectory was half full by the time we had made our way the few dozen yards from my room. It was strange indeed to move from the twilight of my mind into the bright and cheerful sunlit room.
Again we sat by Mr. Barnard and Mr. Herrick, and it was only after the pattern had repeated itself meal by meal and day by day for over a week that I realized that it happened not only by the intention of the three, but also by the active cooperation of everybody else. Which in turn led me to suspect the considerable interest with which my progress was being followed by the rest of the community.
Again the conversation was light, even frivolous; in no way offering opportunity for serious discussion of the difficulties I was experiencing. I made no attempt to join in their talk. It was more relaxing to let my mind free‑associate at will, picking its way through the suggestions offered from within and from the overheard conversation around me. This it madly proceeded to do throughout the 40 minutes allowed me for lunch.
We returned to my room. Mr. Conway stressed that I was to try to keep my mind blank, as in the morning, and not let myself give in to the temptation to pursue the newly suggested thoughts of the afternoon. “They will likely appear in the guise of important and fleeting religious insights,” he said. “You will be tempted to think them of such intrinsic worth that they merit your immediate concentration. I tell you now that this is but distraction. Your proper course is to assume control of your mind’s mechanisms. When you have accomplished that, then you may pursue other insights.”
So, for the third time since 2 a.m., I began to meditate. It was now about quarter to one, and I was worn out. I learned now another reason for not allowing the eyes to close while meditating: Not only did it hold down the fantasizing while you were alert and full of vigor; it also helped keep you from falling asleep when you were ready to drop. In that urge to sleep I made the acquaintance of another, perhaps the strongest, of the adversaries I was to contend with for so many days.
Weariness changed the nature of the opponents. With my mind reacting more sluggishly, the stock‑ticker seemed to become less capable of transmitting (originating?) complicated messages and association‑chains. It tended, instead, toward repetition: The drunken monkey became a disc‑jockey. But although song fragments, show tunes and commercial jingles are harder to get rid of than word associations, at least they were less likely to seduce me by catching me unaware.
This time, whether or not from wishful thinking, it seemed to me I was doing better. Possibly I was acquiring the knack! [And then I realized that this was but another distracting thought.]
I fought diligently, but now I was all too aware of the aching in my back and the leaden weariness of my mind. Resolution degenerated into a sort of dogged persistence, as increasingly I found myself on the verge of sleep. One of the (unwelcome) thoughts that came to visit was a sour memory of my confidence of the night before. I could handle it, couldn’t I? After all, it was all in my mind! I’d gotten through basic training, hadn’t I?
With some dismay, I realized that this was the hardest work I’d ever done.
It was a great relief when the two hours were over and it came time for me to exercise. I did breathing exercises, and muscle toners, and sit‑ups and push‑ups and others. By the end of an hour and a half, I was winded and physically tired, but the sheer relief of movement had helped burn off a lot of the tension that had been accumulating all day.
The last half‑hour was reserved for a hot bath in the tub downstairs. I lay soaking, and it was luxury indeed. When I changed into a clean robe, and rejoined Mr. Conway in my room, I felt fresh and vigorous.
This illusion was swiftly dispelled when I began the final two‑hour session. My mind was deeply tired, and my effort quickly deteriorated into a confused mass of distractions, aches, wearinesses, and general fuddlement. It went on for a long time, and then I was glad to see Mr. Conway rise and say it was 6 p.m, and time for sleep.
I was tired beyond words. I slept the dreamless sleep of the just (or something) and about six minutes later was awakened by Mr. Conway. It was 2 a.m. again, and time to start the cycle of another day.
And this routine became my life. I rose at 2 a.m., meditated, or tried to meditate, until 6. I sat through a jovial and increasingly unreal half‑hour at breakfast, and returned for another two hours of instruction and meditation on scriptures Mr. Conway picked for me. Another two‑hour meditation, and then I would sit bemused through a second meal and would spend the afternoon in meditation, exercise, and meditation again.
I have long since lost all objectivity: I cannot tell if that sounds like a difficult schedule. I found it almost a killing pace, and I wondered how Mr. Conway kept it up. With the exception of an hour and a half at midday when I was working with texts, he stayed with me all day. I couldn’t imagine where he got the stamina.
I learned how he did it after I made my first breakthrough. The exercises were not draining his energy, but renewing it. This was how he could remain so youthfully energetic amid so strenuous a schedule: He was tapping a source of virtually unlimited energy.
I got a glimpse of that source—just a few seconds, if that—after about two weeks of the routine I have just described. For the briefest moment of time, the stock‑ticker turned off.
Beyond it was silence. Beyond the silence was a deep peace, reminding me of the restfulness of sleep and the visions of childhood.
Then the stock‑ticker was back in action, excitedly commencing to analyze just what had happened, trying idiotically to make it happen again.
I won’t go any farther in attempting to describe the indescribable. Those who have experienced it will recognize the event. Those who have not, will attempt to understand it to death, trying to make it fit what they have experienced, or what they can imagine experiencing. I do not intend to offer additional material for misinterpretation. Also, Mr. Conway has asked me to skip any further description of the process. He assures me that he has his reasons for asking my silence on this point.
So, suffice it to say that, once having caught a glimpse of what I was working for, I redoubled my efforts and did begin to attain results. I began to enjoy a reflux of energy. My mind became clearer, and calmer, than I could ever remember. Certain forms of awareness accompanied that increased clarity and calmness, and in time they led to other insights and abilities.
Of course, at the same time I was penetrating into the calmer areas of my mind, I was narrowing my focus. My interest in outside events dwindled. My ability to make casual conversation practically disappeared. In this sheltered environment this temporary development did not matter and was, in fact, all to the good.
For quite a while, Mr. Conway gave me no Christian or Jewish scriptures, knowing that resonance from my early education would inhibit my response and interfere with my progress. Instead, I was given extracts from the scriptures of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam. After a bit, I was given quotations from the Talmud, Mr. Conway assuming (correctly) that these would not have been force‑fed to me in my childhood. I quickly developed a fondness for its pithy, matter‑of‑fact statements. “Without religion there can be no true morality,” I would read, or “He who does not add to his learning diminishes it,” or, my favorite, “The best preacher is the heart; the best teacher is time; the best book is the world; the best friend is God.”
Gradually I felt a hardness within me dissolving, and I became more open to the message of the scriptures. I came to realize that religion did not, at all, consist of external authorities and rules, but was inward, stemming from the possibility of uniting with something—Someone?—that far transcended individuals and circumstances. When I fully realized this, I realized that we do not walk blind and alone, among external accidents. We are part of the whole, as important, and as intrinsic (rather than accidental) as any other part. I had heard it before, of course, but had thought it wishful thinking.
Day followed day without alteration or interruption of my new life. Once the difficulty and fatigue of the first few weeks passed, and some progress had become apparent, I threw myself ever more into the work. I felt I was well on the way toward routing the drunken monkey, though Mr. Conway warned that it would not be so easy or so quick. I could feel the results of increased control in the new mental resources available to me. My life before this came to seem a feverish dream. My curiosity about what might be happening beyond the valley, or even beyond the walls of my room, lessened day by day until I found even the daily meals a shadowy irrelevance. In this, I see now, I was to some extent deceiving myself, walling myself off from thinking about certain painful subjects. Still, whatever else was going on, I immersed myself in endless work, and as the weeks went by forgot past and future tense.
That long, difficult effort was my first experience of really taking things day by day. If I had known at the beginning how long an effort I was in for—two and a half years, as it turned out—I wonder if I would have had the nerve to begin. But Mr. Conway never spoke of times to come, or what would follow. Instead, he showed me, mostly by example, a new way of experiencing time: not straining ahead toward next month or next week or tomorrow, but living always in the very moment. After a long time, I came to realize that this is all we can do anyway: The time is always “now” and that is always just as much as we can handle. But until Mr. Conway began to work with me, I’d been accustomed (without realizing it) to daydreaming my life away, living on plans and anxieties, memories and regrets. As I began to overcome the drunken monkey, the stray moments of true, full consciousness of the moment became more frequent. They became, for the first time, true consciousness.
Useless to write about this, though: Everybody thinks they’re already conscious, until they set out to prove it. Until then, there’s hardly any point in trying to tell them the truth. It’s odd, when you think of it, how few people live in the here and now.