Clint had come across a small but favorable review in the Sunday paper. Days later he saw the book in the window of his neighborhood bookstore with a selection of other spiritual/self-help books. Everything about the face on the cover was familiar but the expression. The expression was rapturous.
He did not buy it right away.
He had not talked to her for 14 years, not since their son Sam’s 7th’ birthday, when she called from the monastery. It had been the highpoint of Sam’s day. Clint was surprised the call had been allowed. The monastery was an austere place, forbidding in both senses.
At first, she and Clint had attended retreats at the monastery together. They were always in separate “hermitages”, and for the duration, followed the guideline of no contact, not even eye contact. The ritualized sexlessness was formidable, and something of a relief, for a few days anyway.
The monastery was, for him, an excursion. For her it was a destination. Her stays got longer: a week, a month, three months. Foolishly, he kept expecting her to come home for good. Out of the monastic silence came two letters and a final note, saying goodbye in evasive language.
Leaving him was more or less comprehensible, thus forgivable; abandoning Sam was not. Clint feared the boy was damaged in ways that might not heal. He and Sam maintained a silence about her until Sam was in his teens, when he began asking questions, which Clint answered honestly, admitting he didn’t understand her choices, that he had been hurt.
“Were you in love with her?” Sam asked.
“Yes,” he said but he wasn’t sure. Anger, though watered down over time to resentment, had obscured whatever joy they once shared. His own mother bristled with fury if her name was spoken. He reevaluated the days after Sam’s birth, when he floated in a blissful haze. Was it illusion? Delusion?
Last autumn Sam asked Clint for “donation” money to attend a New Year’s retreat at the monastery. Clint masked feelings too convoluted to express responsibly. Afterward, he waited in vain to hear details of the retreat. Clint respected Sam for his discretion. He wondered if Sam was trying to spare his feelings.
For a few days the book migrated room to room in his house unread, title up, photograph down. No Separation, Conspiring with Our True Nature. When at last he read it, he was surprised to find his resistance dissolving. The prose was as simple and clear as the message: everyone and everything is connected. Happiness is accessible, even inevitable, if one practices faithfully. The phrase, the illusion of a separate self, appeared multiple times.
Resistance soon returned, equal to the force of the words but weakened by a fact; Clint had been out of sorts and depressed since Sam moved to the East Coast for college. His house seemed cold, alien almost. For the tenth time he considered asking Lenore to move in with him, but living together, they agreed, would ruin a perfectly good relationship.
One midnight, under the sway of 2 scotches, he paid a lot of money for a 4-day retreat at Esalen. It would do him good. He had been to Esalen once before, and remembered it as a sybaritic paradise, the Ritz compared to the monastery. For that 4-day period, there were 3 workshops to choose from, one of which she was conducting, based on the book. He did not enroll in it. He enrolled instead in “Turn up the Heat,” which promised to explore what it means to be “passionate partners.” The scotch made it seem a sufficiently ironic thing to do.
After claiming his bunk in a cabin for four, he traversed the grounds. The fabled site above the ocean, even more beautiful than he remembered it, quelled his ambivalence about coming. When it got dark he sat on a deck chair on the lawn beneath an array of stars, the waves crashing on the far rocks a hymn of reassurance.
The next morning he went to the passionate-partners workshop, the only person without a partner. During introductions he made it sound like he was there to spark things up with Lenore. He bypassed the afternoon session, exploring instead the kitchen gardens and taking a blissful soak in the baths. He appreciated the complete silence there, with almost no eye contact made. It was like being at the monastery, except everyone was naked. The calm that had settled over him deepened another notch.
He arrived at the evening meal with a big appetite. A pretty blonde he remembered from the workshop was beside him as he loaded his plate with greens. She didn’t remember him, and he didn’t bring up the workshop. Mutually they gushed about the food with an enthusiasm that was sincere despite the whiff of predictability. He invited her to join him at an empty table. Her husband, boyfriend, whatever he was, whom Clint vaguely remembered as a tanned athlete, was not around nor, when supplying Clint with a capsule biography, did she mention him. She was an entomologist, originally from Texas, now at Stanford doing research about the lifespan of beetles. His antenna for flirting was congenitally defective, but he was pretty sure she was flirting. It was flattering and inconsequential. At Esalen, that’s what you did.
After sunset he took the same seat on the lawn but, due either to a chilly breeze or to the static caused by the recent flirtation, he did not feel the same equanimity. The vault of the heavens showed its other aspect, impersonal and cold, and he did not sit there long. He couldn’t suppress the knowledge he was avoiding the thing he’d come for: closure with his ex-wife.
Almost by chance, he became part of a stream of walkers crossing the canyon and converging on a large, white tent. Through its portals he glimpsed several rows of participants already seated on cushions. He stood in the shadows between the lamplights. Now her nearness affected him, constricting his rib cage. He took a deep breath of the salty air. A gull flew overhead, a dark shadow, squawking, followed seconds later by a voice testing the sound system, recognizable yet different, polished. He walked back over the bridge.
The passionate-partners had taken over the baths. He sat in one of the larger tubs, his knees lightly held together to avoid touching his neighbors’. The atmosphere was almost raucous. Clint sank to chin level. With eyes closed he could tune out the banality of the chatter about the stars. Some guy felt compelled to get out of the tub to retrieve his smartphone and share his great ap about the night sky. Shut up and open your eyes, idiot, Clint felt like saying. The person the guy showed it to when he got back into the tubs, Clint suddenly realized, was the entomologist, her blonde hair in a knot atop her head. Her breasts floated on the surface of the water, ivory in the dim light. Without his glasses, Clint could not tell if she was smiling at him or just smiling.
He didn’t want to admit it, but he was glad when the final day dawned. The previous day he had undergone a barrage of self-criticism, capped by the fact only he could be miserable in such a paradise. After the morning session, everyone but the permanent residents would get in their cars and drive home.
He lingered in the dining room until the servers began to remove the food trays, hoping the entomologist would appear, suspecting he had wasted another opportunity.
After packing his small suitcase and putting it in his car, he crossed the canyon and climbed the slope toward the white tent. The morning sunlight radiated the promise of new beginnings. Clint viewed it skeptically.
He took a seat not so far back she might not see him. Vivacious chatter filled the tent, reminding him of the small birds that congregated in one of the trees on his block, cheeping rain or shine. He pictured himself as a raven in their midst.
She arrived right on time, trailing several attendants. A line waited near the podium to have an audience with her. He watched, impressed by the way she glowed and the evident devotion of those surrounding her.
She began the session asking what was going on, and a forest of hands shot into the air. To a person everyone expressed a newfound, or renewed, experience of joy. She seemed to know many of them already, Jane, Sharon, Megan. She was a skillful comedienne. Laughter rang out repeatedly. The previous day’s topic had been gratitude, and everyone expressed overwhelming gratitude for her teaching. Clint’s thoughts were drifting when the young man next to him, not much older than Sam, raised his hand. In the moments before she acknowledged him, Clint felt sweat rolling down his ribs.
The young man didn’t have a question, but an argument. He proposed that gratitude was an easy thing to feel—he felt it himself—when you’re at a posh retreat with gourmet meals and hot tubs but life for a lot of people is a raw deal. Children dying of abuse or disease or hunger, prisoners tortured, old people with dementia.
“Pain is inevitable,” she said in response, “suffering is not.” She asked what his focus on the pain of others did to alleviate it. He said that was not the point he was trying to make. “What I’m suggesting is that you own your projections,” she said. “Here’s what Buddha said. Buddha said we can only save ourselves. We can only bring our own eyes to awareness. You cannot love another if you don’t love yourself.”
“Whenever someone bring up Jesus or Buddha,” he countered, “it makes me think they’re telling a story. As if they know what Buddha said, if there was a Buddha. I thought you weren’t a big fan of stories.”
She directed her voice back to the assembly. “Each of us has his or her karma, and each of is perfectly adequate to it. That doesn’t sound like much. But by adequate I mean in perfect harmony with the boundless compassion, the infinite wisdom, that is our nature. Oneness. We tell ourselves we are inadequate, separate, alone. I’m here to tell you that that is the biggest load of malarkey ever. Many of you felt the truth of that in your hearts this past weekend. Will it flicker? Probably, but that doesn’t make it less real.” For the first time Clint heard an edge in her voice.
Clint mutely cheered the young man on, and anticipated talking to him later, but while the next questioner was engaged, the young man walked out. Everyone was aware of his leaving. She gave no reaction, just as she had shown nothing when she saw Clint. Just a momentary linking of eyes.
To conclude the session, she asked everyone to assume a comfortable position for a guided meditation. Some people lay down with blankets over themselves. Clint, after some hesitation, joined the prone. She instructed everyone to close their eyes, to be aware of each part of their bodies, to feel the gratitude for the gift of their bodies. Then they were to imagine themselves on a forest pathway that opened into a meadow filled with wildflowers, to smell the fragrant grasses, to see and hear the insects buzzing, and imagine lying in a patch of meadow with the warmth of the sun on their faces. That space of calm and comfort, that place of connection with all that is seen and unseen, is not only within each of us, she said. It is our essence, our being.
Clint awoke to metal chairs being folded and stacked. The tent was almost empty. He sat up, disoriented. One of the women bustling around gave him a slightly patronizing smile. The nap had been utterly refreshing. Walking back over the bridge he felt a peculiar, pleasant disembodiment, as if he might levitate on every breeze that blew in off the Pacific.
In his car, he turned on his cell phone to call Lenore.