daily preciousness

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Pi's tiger, my great white

"I am sitting in a downtown café, after thinking. I have just spent most of an afternoon with him. Our encounters always leave me weary of the glum contentment that characterizes my life. What were those words he used that struck me? Ah, yes: 'dry, yeastless factuality', 'the better story'. I take pen and paper out and write:

Words of divine consciousness: moral exaltation; lasting feelings of elevation, elation, joy; a quickening of the moral sense, which strikes one as more important than an intellectual understanding of things; an alignment of the universe along moral lines, not intellectual ones; a realization that the founding principle of existence is what we all love, which works itself out sometimes not clearly, not cleanly, not immediately, nonetheless ineluctably.

I pause. What of God's silence? I think it over. I add:

An intellect confounded yet a trusting sense of presence and of ultimate purpose.

I can imagine an atheist's last words: 'White, white! L-L-Love! My God!' -- and the deathbed leap of faith. Whereas the agnostic, if he stays true to his reasonable self, if he stays beholden to dry, yeastless factuality, might try to explain the warm light bathing him by saying, 'Possibly a f-f-failing oxygenation of the b-b-brain,' and, to the very end, lack imagination and miss the better story."


- from Life of Pi by Yann Martel





Striking, these words of Pi Patel... They story of Pi catching the spiritual tiger by the tail does force me to mull over my own spiritual thoughts. In the novel, Pi must take care of a Tiger. And wrestle with his beliefs at the same time.

Pi's words, above, call to mind, in the resonant voice of one who has seen Life not only through the eyes of the living, but also the very nearly dead. I have to pause, look up from the text and allow my surroundings to go soft focus, as if someone has smeared petroleum jelly over the lens of my camera. Will I be doubtful and distant, to the end, like Pi's proverbial atheist, only to embrace, in my final moments, the reality of Kifflom? Or will the metaphor be slightly different, the nature of my comprehension a few shades off? Will I come to grips with Kiff during those final moments? "Embrace" suggests loving, worshipful arms that reach out to wrap myself around an idea -- the Idea of Kifflom -- whereas "coming to grips with" Kifflom suggests a shrugging, doubting Thomas, rubbing his shoes in the dust absent-mindedly while reluctantly shaking hands with The Divine. Which of these will I be during those transcendent moments?

Or might there be a different transubstantiation of the food of the soul, or, as we Southerners call it, "soul food"? I do not know. Maybe the dark chocolate cake of the soul will occur well before my post-mortem.

During a moment of bliss, will I again see that mythical Great White that visited me, so many years ago? Note to reader: The Great White is not a creature of the deep. But the memory of it does consume me deeply. The Great White is my nickname for the spiritual experience I had on the 18th of September morning, 1996.

I remember it so clearly. I went to bed the night before, just like any other night. I set down the steaming cup of hot ginger tea onto the little kerosene stove right before bed. I was reading a book of philosophy. I sipped the tea occasionally while going through a particularly interesting chapter on eschatology. I was brimming with questions, my mind utterly focused on the book. After a half hour, I realized that the stove was working a little too well. Even on the low setting, it was heating the room too much. I shut it off. After finishing the chapter, I set the book down on the stove and drank the tea to the dregs. I paused to savor the last sip and gently drifted off to sleep.

Now I remember shutting off the stove, so that it would not automatically come on the next morning at sunrise. I normally had it set to warm the place up before I hopped out of bed. But this time, I know that it was off. This is important, as you will soon see, so that I can be certain that what was about to take place was not "the result of f-f-failing oxygenation of the b-b-brain" (as Pi put it).

What was about to take place is this: simply the most vivid and beautiful feeling that I have ever experienced. Take the best orgasm you've ever had and multiply it to the power of googol. (That's the inconceivably large number google, not the search engine Google, mind you!) Then add the complete peace and liquid existence of floating in a sun-basked pool mid-summer. On top of this, subtract any problems with high chlorine or sun damage to your skin. Also, subtract the pruning of fingers, toes and elbows. Finally, add that peculiarly exquisite weakness of waking up in the morning after an usually good night of sleep. This is what I experienced for several hours before waking up the next morning, that morning in September 18th, 1996.

I floated in joy-filled cloud of extreme bliss for several hours but somehow also seemed like mere nanoseconds. And it was the all-knowing, all-seeing bliss of experience as well as innocence. Pure joy. Unadulterated.

It was as though I'd walked through a doorway to another place... as though I were back with Guinan, wrapped in joy, as if joy was something tangible that you could wrap yourself in, like a blanket.


(joy shown smaller than actual size)

Upon waking, I went into the emotional equivalent of the dry heaves: I wanted to weep an oceanful of tears at the soul-crushing fact that I no longer existed in that Perfect Place. My entire body, down to the last cell, longed to return to this incredible place. "Why, why, why did I have to leave?" I asked. No answer. But I also felt thankful that I got to visit. I did not move for an hour, not wanting to disrupt the feeling that lingered, like the ozone smell after a lightening strike. The feeling of that great, perfect, white emotional place, that Great White space, just filled me with a feeling of such love and joy that I felt lucky to even hear the distant echoes of it. It was just that amazing.

As a writer, I am filled with humility at not being able to capture the feeling in words. I suppose that it's because of the incredible contrastive elements that the experience brought to me. I had the exhilaration I get from a 50 yard dash on a cool fall morning, the scarlet leaves of the forest path waving me along like the flag at the Daytona 500, along with the utter and complete calm of an hour's meditation, the quiet ringing of temple bells caressing my ears from a distance.

I had no visions of the afterlife. There were no relatives beckoning me toward them. My Godfather, just recently deceased at the time, did not hand down words of wisdom from the great beyond. No. None of these clichés. But the feeling has stuck with me. It was that life-changing that I can imagine it to this day, nearly a decade later.

This experience is why Pi Patel's words strike me with such resonance. Pi argues that the unimaginative will miss the better story of existence. I'm forced to ask myself: Does my experience conflict with my non-belief in a higher power? Notice: I did not say disbelief. I do not disbelieve in God. I simply lack belief. Is this because I lack imagination? In every day life, I'm on a magic carpet ride of imagination. I prize creativity and imaginative fancy more than most. I write, sing, dance and draw. I use up half a hard drive on creative expression of every stripe! But why am I so unimaginative when it comes to reading the spiritual roadmap to a Higher Power? I have no idea.

Maybe Kifflom can teach me.

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