The Secret Journey

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1 August 2006 Appear in Portland Magazine - A  A +

Once every three or four months, or five, for much of my adult life now, I’ve got in my car in my mother’s house in the dry hills of California, above the sea, and driven up our road, around some switchback turns, past the White Lotus yoga foundation, past the community of Sixties refugees, hiding out in the spaces between, the silent corners of our town, past the mock-Danish tourist town and the little gatherings in the hills now famous for their vineyards, past where Ronald Reagan used to keep his Western White House and where Michael Jackson sits imprisoned in his Neverland, and onto a broad, largely empty road that runs beside the sea and then, for me, trickles onto a rather narrow road that runs, in two lanes of quiet, right next to the waves, past a lighthouse, past meadows of dormant cows, up again, and around turns, to another little room 1300 feet up above the ocean, in the dry hills, where deer come out to graze at dusk and (since this is Nature, and California to boot) mountain-lions come out, too, to stalk our Bali fantasies.

There is a sign on the main highway down below–hanging from a huge cross–and there is a name (a saint’s name) on the door of the little room I enter, underneath the number. But names are all forgotten here, even my own, and when I step into the little “cell” that awaits me–narrow bed huddled up against one wall, closet and bathroom, wide blond-wood desk overlooking a garden that overlooks the sea–I really don’t know or care what “Catholic” means or hermitage or monastery or Big Sur.

My friends, a little concerned about my defection–how could I be turning my back on them, and on the smiling self who’s telling them wild stories of North Korea and Tibet and Bolivia ?–find ways to tidy up my betrayal, and say (I’m sure), “He’s gone off to find himself. He needs time to rest. He travels so much, the poor thing is in desperate need of peace and quiet. He’s just taking a break.” They step around the fact that there are crosses in this place, and hooded men singing the psalms at dawn (at noon, at dusk, at sunset), that there’s a cross on the wall above the bed. “He just needs to unplug.”

If I am with them, I say the same–no need to confront them head-on with my infidelity. Besides, I go not because of all the trappings of the chapel I had to attend twice a day every school-term day of my boarding-school adolescence, but in spite of it. “It doesn’t have to be Catholic or Buddhist–or nothing at all,” I tell them (and I believe this). “It’s the silence I enter.”

What I don’t tell them is that I don’t go there just to catch my breath, to be away from the phone, to breathe in one of the most beautiful stretches of coastline in the world. I go there to become another self, the self that we all are if only we choose to unpack ourselves and leave ourselves at home. That is the ultimate, the unforgivable betrayal.

In my cell–nothing is legislated there, though most people (women, real estate agents, Buddhists, nothings) go to lose themselves in silence–I read novels, and they are novels, often, of infidelity (of the everyday kind). In the best of them, the ones by Sue Miller, say, there is a palpable, quickening sense of the excitement of betraying others and your daily self in the world you know. At home you’re just a dad, an overlooked husband, a mass of duties and non-achievements and routines and concerns, a dirty sink. Then you brush your hair and put on the new shirt, the one you keep just for her, you take off your undershirt so she won’t smell the other woman on you and slip out of your room, and on the other side of town you’re received for what you are: dreamer, rescuer, white knight, sex object, subject of desire. Someone at last sees you in your mythic dimensions, as you really are, or could be. She holds you tight and adores your every inch, and for a moment your life is magnified.

The secret beats, beats, beats away in your pocket like a second heart, a time-bomb, and that gives an excitement to things, too. “My usual life doesn’t know who I really am,” you tell yourself, the devotee in your arms. “She doesn’t understand me. She’s forgotten how to look at me.” You’ve sloughed off your jeans, your cares, in fact, and you can still hear the heightened, speeding tick, tick, tick of the secret in the pocket.
She wants, the other woman, you to make things real, to make her an honest woman, to make it permanent, but you know, she knows, you won’t. It’s the unreality that excites.

I read these stories, and I read with recognition. The shadow story is as familiar as the one we’re taught in boarding-school, so much a part of us that they warn us about it in the Bible; it is as much a part of our lives as are our dreams. All the great myths, the stories of Shakespeare and Aeschylus and Homer are about it, as well as the ones in the newspaper; these kinds of betrayal are themselves domesticated, part of our romance novels, our noir dreams, our letters to Aunt Agony. They’re so much a part of us that they define us as much as all the daily stuff we’re rebelling against does.

The rebellion itself is rather daily, too, a stage, a human impulse; that’s why we talk of hormones and mid-life crises, the lure of a second skin.

For the larger betrayal that I enact on my pilgrimage, there are no accepted words. And yet it is a treachery absolute and unforgiving. I step into my cell and I step into what I feel is my real life, the only place of importance in my life, the place where I ought to be forever. There’s no will involved, or choice; this other world, and self, and life are waiting for me in this empty room, the silence, like the clothes that were made for me all along I never thought to ask for.

This isn’t a Christian thing. I’m not a Benedictine monk, and I attend none of the services held day in, day out, four times a day, while I’m in my little cell. If I make the mistake of attending one because of my longing to be good, my wish to pay, in some way, the kind monks for making the silence available to me, I soon run out again, fallen and in a state. The presence of the fifteen kindly souls in hoods, singing, takes me back, somehow, to the world, the self I’ve come here to escape. The words in the psalms are all of war. I notice which face looks kind and which one bitter.

No, the flight is to something much larger than a single text or a particular doctrine. It’s to–this is how it feels–Eternity. I step into a place that never changes, and with it that part of me, that ground in me, that belongs to changelessness. There is a self at the core of us (this is what some call “Christ,” others the “Buddha nature” and poets refer to as the immortal soul) that is simply part of the unchanging nature of the universe. Not in any exalted way. Like soil or sky or air. It is all of these things, and has nothing to do with the name or resume that accompanied me when I woke up this morning in my bedroom. I have little patience with the names we give to it, the ways we try to box or package it. It is the truth. The adulterer feels he’s stepping into his true, unacknowledged being, but he knows it’s temporary; he seizes the moment greedily, because it’s a drug that won’t last forever. There is something real in it–that is the promise of passion–but there is something willed, delusional. Here I step into another self that will never die and is realer than any of the mortal selves I know. The monks would say that I am carrying on a clandestine affair with my Real Self. I am known as one is in an affair, but known by something eternal and undeluded. The monks would call it God, but I have no need for words at all in my silence.

Thomas Merton put this all best, not because he was a Christian, or even because he was a monk, but because he fell in love with silence. And he made the pursuit of that real life his lifelong mission. He knew, he saw that it was akin to the earthly love we feel, that the heightening, the rising up to a higher place, the making sense of things–above all, the disappearance of the tiny, petty self we know–when we fall in love with Eve or Adam is our closest approximation to this state, as certain drugs can give us an indication of what lies beyond. But it is only an approximation, a momentary glimpse; when you are here, you are in absolute calm.

I won’t necessarily call this a pilgrimage, because, as Merton says, again, I’m not off to find myself; only to lose it. I’m not off in search of anything; only–the words soon become fanciful–in pursuit of the state that is beyond searching, of being found (we feel this when the new lover seems to see us, to love us, for what we are. Alas, her illumination does not last for long). You could say it’s not a pilgrimage, because there’s no movement involved after I step out of my car, three hours and fifteen minutes north of my mother’s house, and I don’t pay any of the religious dues when I arrive. But all the movements and journeys I have taken around the world are underwritten, at heart, by this: this is who I am when nobody is looking. This is who I’m not, because the petty, struggling, ambitious “I” is gone. I am as still, as timeless as the plate of sea below me.

I keep quiet about this pilgrimage, often, because it sounds stupid to other people, or to myself, to put into words to them. If they have an equivalent–and they surely do, in meditation, in rock-climbing, in running, in sex–they will know what I’m talking of, and substitute their own terms; everyone knows at moments they have a deeper, purer self within, something that belongs to what stands out of time and space, and when they fall in love, they see that eternal candle in another, and have it seen in themselves. But I don’t want to try to break it down too much into the words I throw around at home. When we fall in love, and enter a room with our Beloved, we know, every one of us, that we can’t really speak about it to anyone else. To do so would be to cheapen. The point, the beauty of it, is that it admits us into the inexpressible.

So when I come down, I tell my friends that the monks watch A Fish Called Wanda in the cloister. That most of the visitors are female, and very down-to-earth. They sell fruitcake and greetings cards and cassettes in the hermitage store; they have AA meetings once a week and a sweet woman who now lives on the property, helping care for the rooms. The monastery has a website and a fax number; there’s a work-out room in the “Enclosure” for the monks. I read the autobiography of Robert Evans. Hollywood’s famous philandering and coke-snorting producer, on one of the occasions when the monks let me stay in the cloister (I found it in one of the rooms in the private library in their “Weight Room,” along with Woody Allen).

Everyone feels better when I tell them it’s a mortal place, with regular human beings, balding, divorced, confused here, and it has an address I get the editor of The New York Review of Books to send packages to. But I can say all this only because I know I’m not talking about what I love and find. It is the place where all searching ends.

All the photos on this site, other than the one on the Welcome page, are taken by Pico Iyer.