Sojourn in Shangri-la

By Gary Corseri

Gary CorseriI am walking like Bugs Bunny walked when he walked behind Elmer Fudd, mimicking Fudd's hunting him. I am doing this amidst a dozen strangers outside a classroom of the Krotona Institute, high on a hill overlooking southern California's Ojai valley. I'm in my stocking feet, and one foot goes down very deliberately to a silent chord of three seconds while the other balances precariously in the air. It doesn't matter how funny I look with my Fudd-Bunny impersonation because each of my classmates is equally intent upon their own deliberate gait and posture. It's a focusing exercise; and when I don't feel like Bunny, I feel like a Cherokee, imagining my moccasins ever so gently touching the earth. I think I can feel the wobble of the earth and I seem to hear the song it sings in the hot dry breath of the cypresses undulating like waves to the Topa Topa ranges.

Jim Lassen-Willems has given us this exercise, and it follows hard and soft upon the exercise with the pretzel. It was one of those party-favor pretzels. We each got one to know with our fingertips as though we were reading Braille. We each got one to savor with our nostrils and to touch with a flick of our lizard tongues as if we were tasting for the first time the salt of the ocean, the Pesach salt of tears--whatever associations might flood the senses. And when we finally eat it, it is the torrent of the sea breaking starch, it is Lot's wife frozen in regret, it is Gandhi's Great Salt March--all in a little pretzel!

"To see the world in a grain of sand," Blake wrote, and my experience on a two-week Florence Tanner Foundation grant has been very much about that--and about what Jim and Shirley Nicholson call "incarnating the knowledge." In the class they co-teach, it's Shirley's job to lay out the logos in the am. This ranges from Bell's Theorem--"Put a spin on one atom," Shirley interpolates, "and another, at a distance, picks it up as if in sympathy"--to fundamental questions of epistemology--how we know what we think we know. Shirley reminds us that the source of "intuition" is in tuere--to look within, and she tells the story of Elias Howe and the sewing machine.

Howe had all the basic concepts, but he couldn't figure out where to put the hole. He tried it at the end, as with a regular needle, and he tried it in the middle and the thread kept getting tangled. Then he had a dream in which natives attacked him with spears with holes in their tips!

The aim is to see with our whole being, to get mind, body and spirit in synch, to experience what Helena Blavatsky called "direct beholding." Kant said thought without intuition is blind, and intuition without thought is empty. Problem is, there's so much to distract us in the hullabaloo of getting and spending, most of us don't know what's what. "If the doors of perception were cleansed," Blake tells us, "then everything would appear . . . as it is--infinite." A perfectly delightful thought. But a little scary, too. The infinite majesty of Zeus, after all, contains the Gorgon's gaze as well.

So in the afternoon Lassen-Willems helps prepare us for that mutual gazing. ("The eye through which I see the Infinite," Meister Eckhart wrote, "is also the eye through which the Infinite sees me.") The preparation may involve walking like Bugs Bunny and it may involve deep breathing exercises. In the latter, we learn how to bring the energy of the earth up through the soles of our feet. Or, we breathe deeply of the ether and let that energy swirl down to our soles. Once we're grounded, the electricity can flow. I can also make myself lightheaded by releasing energy through my crown chakra. I dance out of class. I'm shining.

I'm a bright star driving my red, rented Ford Taurus through downtown Ojai. A few days before, Joy Mills and I drove to the Happy Valley School in the upper valley. I'm honored, of course, to have the illustrious Ms Mills as my tour guide. On a high bluff overlooking the valley, we pause at a scenic overpass. We stand in the spot--oh sacred temenos of movie lore!--the very spot where Ronald Coleman stood when he first beheld the mystical valley of "Shangri-la" in Lost Horizons.

Playing the jaded scholar-adventurer Robert Conway, the great actor gave the performance of a lifetime as a man who stumbles upon Paradise, loses it, then claws his way back. James Hilton's novel described a secret Tibetan valley, accessible by a single, narrow pass. It is a place of beauty and tranquility where the wearing stresses of life have been eliminated by Thoreau-like simplification. A place where covetousness is dispelled through the elixir of inner harmony in balance with nature and the rankling disparities of power and wealth are compressed so that each citizen has his and her place and work, and all may live in dignity, passing, at last, through the veil of life as gently as a summer zephyr parting a muslin curtain. In this Hesse-like Shambhala, the best men and women are the scholar-leaders, blessed with the time to study, teach, and uphold. Blessed with the time to dream and to be.

I am driving my red Taurus now and I am shining. I am shining because Krotona and Ojai are much like the imaginary Shangri-la. Twenty five minutes to the West I can watch the sun go down over the Channel Islands, off the Pacific coast of Ventura. Twenty five minutes towards the Topa Topas (Gopher Gophers!) and I'm driving past Krishnamurti's home to watch the sun's soft decrescendo from Meditation Mount.

In the parking area, a half dozen cars betoken other sunset-pilgrims. I run my palms up the skin-smooth eucalyptus trunks, my way of farewell. I'll be leaving soon, back to Atlanta's chockablock suburbs and parking-lot interstates. I need to review what I've learned.

I make my way past the meditation room and the assembly room, down the short trail. Like Lear, I can sniff my way in the fading light. My hand may smell of mortality, but there's immortality in the cascade of desert fragrances.

Every morning when I open my curtains at Krotona, the Topa Topas seem to unfold like an accordion playing the song of light. But the view from Meditation Mount is a different prospect. It's not an accordion I think of here, but Hokusai's prints: for the peaks rise hillock on hillock, swept to rocky gray crests by the soft winds of eons. Orange and avocado groves stretch like green algae in the valley below. The hot wind caresses the face; the patchwork vineyards shudder and a thousand scattered petals loose their blending scents. One feels a whisper may be heard for miles.

I am standing in the palace of splendor where Yin and Yang come together for a moment and I must nourish the memory like hearth fire.

"Fall in love with Creation," Sister Gabrielle Uhlein has advised. "Our very living is a pedagogy. We live our lives a certain way--we teach." I can still hear the chanting from the Greek Orthodox service which she played for us that morning at Krotona.

"Western civilization is predicated upon the notion of 'being right,' " she said, "that we can come to a place where there is no more tension. But the place of tension is where creativity takes place. . . . Change takes place most dramatically at the edge, along the shoreline. That's where the possibility for the new world occurs.

"We are always participating in the story of heaven and earth. Participation is not an option--our choice is in how we relate."

"All real living is meeting," Martin Buber wrote. And here, in this magic place--oh, not the sterile "magical kingdom" of a manufactured Disneyland!--here I've met kindred questers on a hill above a valley and had a chance to think and integrate, to countenance confusion and make peace with it.

If I stand in the palace where Yin and Yang conjoin it is because beyond me great spokes of Kali's wheel sweep over the planet like scythes. Each belongs to each: consolidation, disintegration, life, death, and rebirth.

And I know I must wander and leave this place of peace. Participation is not an option. "The struggle draws out the beauty of the eagle," as the good Sister has said.

The fireball sinks, a pink moment flares across the sky. I bow to a cactus blossom and imbibe its scent. Then kneel to the scent of another species alongside it. Each is good, subtle, different. Then I kneel to another blossom on the same cactus and I am just a little surprised to find that it, too, is good, subtle, and different from its contiguous neighbor.

And why not?


Gary Corseri has published two collections of poetry: Random Descent (Anhinga) and Too Soon, As Always (Georgia Poetry Society Press). He wrote the libretto for Reverend Everyman, an opera staged by Florida State and Portland State universities and broadcast over Atlanta PBS. His articles, poems, and fiction have appeared in Quest, New York Times, Village Voice, Sky, Georgia Review, Redbook, and elsewhere. His most recent work is another novel, A Fine Excess: An Australian Odyssey (Xlibris Corporation, www.Xlibris.com, Orders@Xlibris.com), described by its cover blurb as "like Kerouac's On the Road--with a global beat" and ending with "a transcendental vision."


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