An eerie silence followed the crash, but it didn’t last long. As we came to our senses — and the blessed realization that no one had been ejected — we piled out of the vehicle. That is, everyone but me.
I couldn’t move.
God’s given us mental shock absorbers, an internal mechanism that dulls us to excessive pain, both physical and emotional. Well, mine were working overtime. Maybe it was my level of intoxication, or maybe it was shock, but it took me about six months to remember the actual events that unfolded immediately after the accident.
I remembered being carried out of the wash on a stretcher. I remembered the ambulance ride. I remembered laying on a whitewashed gurney surrounded by blue-gowned ghosts. And that was it. The next morning, slightly less intoxicated but just as dense, I discovered I was lucky to be alive, or at least, ambulatory. Several vertebrae in my spine were crushed, but there was no apparent neurological damage. Apart from some broken bones and miscellaneous contusions, no one in the vehicle had been seriously injured. I was hospitalized for a week and then consigned to rehab and a back brace. Somehow, we attributed our survival more to the tank we were driving than divine intervention.
You’d think that was my wake-up call. But my head was as impenetrable as that old Chevy; it would be another four years before the light bulb went on. In between was an existential angst even more tender and tortured than my flimsy spine.
Within a year of graduation, I landed a job at Kaiser Steel. The money gave me a newfound freedom, which proved to be both a blessing and a curse. Not only was I able to rent a nice apartment and buy a truck, I could now explore more exotic panaceas. It didn’t take long for me to begin selling cocaine and designer drugs. But underneath the cool facade, a spiritual disconnect remained. My record collection grew, as did my library; I continued sketching and painting, displayed some pieces at a local art house and even made some money at it. But, unbeknown to me, my spiritual yearnings dovetailed with my drug habit and took on a weird religious tone.
I began exploring Eastern mysticism more aggressively, studying books like Paramhansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi. Much of this was fueled by the prevalence of Eastern thought in rock music, and many of these bands became my guide. The Beatles had went from singing I Wanna Hold Your Hand to I am the Walrus, their albums becoming increasingly surrealistic as they delved into drugs and mysticism. For instance, their song Within You Without You on the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album, based on the Hindu concept of maya, was a direct result of George Harrison’s study of eastern religion. The Moody Blues’ album In Search of the Lost Chord is a concept album chronicling the search for a mythical “lost chord,” revealed in the mantra Om. I became so enamored of the sacred syllable, that I bought jewelry and artwork with the image. One of my all-time favorite bands was Yes. I found their symphonic / jazzy / progressive rock sound, combined with abstract, unconventional lyrics, to contain profound spiritual themes. The footnotes for their experimental, double disc Tales From Topographic Oceans referenced the “four part Shastric Scripture” (Shrutis, Suritus, Puranas, Tantras), with the first song on the album being The Revealing Science of God. I became so enchanted by Yes that I saw them half a dozen times in concert.
The music was fast becoming a sacramental element in my religious quest.
It paved the way for a more dangerous search — transcendence through death. More specifically: Ego death. I found the concept first in Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception. The book details Huxley’s experimentation with mescaline. It is well-known that Jim Morrison’s Doors took their name from Huxley’s work, further reinforcing the music/drugs/religion connection. Huxley brought a clinical element to my thinking about hallucinogens. Leary framed it as religion. The Psychedelic Experience is Timothy Leary’s translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Describing itself as “a journey to new realms of consciousness,” the book uses the Tibetan model for the “pre-mortem-death-rebirth experience,” making parallels between the spiritual trip and the acid trip. Pretty weird, huh?
Either way, I had something to sink my teeth into. This wasn’t like the religion of my parents — hollow, ritualistic, impotent, unfulfilling. This had bite. The spiritual hunger I’d had all my life was a hunger for enlightenment — in the Eastern sense, of course. Through LSD and rock music, and the principles outlined in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, I was convinced I could quell the emptiness.
Choose and renounce throwing chains to the floor.
Kill or be killing faster sins correct the flow.
Casting giant shadows off vast penetrating force
To alter via the war that seen
As friction spans the spirits wrath ascending to redeem.
(Yes, The Gates of Delirium, Relayer 1974)
The curtain rises on the scene
With someone shouting to be free
The play unfolds before my eyes
There stands the actor who is me
Suddenly, it was all making sense. I was “the actor” — I’d always been — and there I was, “shouting to be free.” However, the curtain was about to rise on something devilish. . .