Clint discovered the book in his neighborhood bookstore amid a selection of other spiritual/self-help books. Everything about the face on the dust jacket was familiar but its expression. The expression was rapturous. He did not buy it right away.
He hadn’t had contact with her for fourteen years, not since their son Sam’s eighth birthday when she called from the monastery. Her call was the highlight of Sam’s day. Clint was surprised it had been permitted. The monastery was an austere place, forbidding in every sense.
At the start she and he had attended retreats together, lodged in separate “hermitages.” For him the monastery was a place to get away to, whereas her stays grew longer and longer: a week, a month, three months, six, then of indefinite length. He kept expecting her to come home. Finally a note arrived saying the obvious in uplift language.
Her leaving him was acceptable; abandoning Sam was not. He and Sam maintained a silence regarding her until Sam was in his teens. One winter he asked Clint for “donation” money to attend a New Year’s retreat at the monastery. When Sam returned from the retreat, something had changed, but the most he would say about the retreat was “I got a lot out of it.”
For a few days the book migrated room to room in his house unread, title up, photograph down. No Separation. When Clint read it he found the style supple, the message simple, possibly simple-minded: everyone and everything is connected. Words like joy and gratitude flowed like warm bathwater.
In his particular life, he wasn’t feeling much gratitude and less joy. Sam had left for college and his house felt vacant, slightly gloomy. Clint reconsidered asking Lenore, his longtime girlfriend, to move in but living together, they had once agreed, might ruin a perfectly good enough thing.
He needed a retreat, some time to recharge. One midnight, a little drunk on bourbon, he went online and discovered that Esalen had vacancies the upcoming weekend so he booked lodging, not paying attention to the workshops available. Later he discovered there were three, including one called “No Separation,” led by his ex-wife. The coincidence was startling. He couldn’t dismiss it as meaningless. But he enrolled instead in the “Passionate Partners: Turn up the Heat” workshop. That sounded useful.
After claiming his bunk, he walked the grounds, even more beautiful than he remembered. Ambivalence about coming dissolved. At nightfall he sat on a deck chair beneath a splash of stars, the waves below a refrain of reassurance.
The next morning he attended the Passionate Partners workshop, the only person without a partner. He skipped the afternoon session and soaked in the baths instead. The lack of talk was calming. It was like being at the monastery, except everyone was naked and checking everyone else out. This is what it felt like, to live a life in harmony. In harmony with what? Beauty. Bigness. Lust.
At the evening meal the auburn-haired beauty he remembered from the morning workshop was beside him as he loaded his plate. The food was obscenely good, they agreed. She joined him at an empty table. Her passionate partner from the morning session, whom Clint vaguely remembered as a tanned jock, was not around nor was he mentioned in a capsule biography. She was an entomologist, originally from Texas, now at Stanford doing research on the lifespan of beetles. It sounded so sexy.
At nightfall Clint took the same seat on the lawn but, due to a chilly breeze—he should have brought a jacket—and the re-appearance of the tanned jock, he did not feel the same equanimity. The vault of the heavens showed its dark aspect, impersonal and deadly cold. He was avoiding what he’d really come for: some resolution with his ex-wife.
The next evening he joined a stream of walkers crossing the bridge over the canyon and converging on a white tent. He glimpsed rows of participants seated on cushions inside. He stood equidistant from the lamplights in the shadows. A gull flew overhead, or maybe a raven, a shadow squawking. A voice tested the sound system: hers, clearly. He walked back over the bridge.
The atmosphere at the baths bordered on raucous. He sat in one of the larger tubs, his knees lightly held together, staying in his space. He wasn’t in the mood to chat. He closed his eyes and funneled his awareness into his body. He tried to tune out the tiresome guy advertising his knowledge of the constellations. Andromeda, right over there. Inevitably he felt compelled to show his new app to the woman he was trying to impress. She was, Clint realized, the beetle expert, her hair in a towel atop her head. Her breasts floated on the surface of the water, ivory in the dim light. She was a goddess. Andromeda.
He was glad the final day dawned. He had been besieged by self-criticism, topped by the accusation that only he could be miserable in such a paradise. Soon after lunch everyone but the permanent residents would get into their cars and drive back to their disappointing lives.
After packing his suitcase, he crossed the canyon and climbed the slope toward the white tent. The morning sunlight radiated the false promise of new beginnings.
He took a seat close enough for her not to miss him. Chatter like birdsong filled the tent. He pictured himself as a raven in the midst of starlings.
She arrived on time, trailing attendants. A line waited near the podium to have an audience with her. He couldn’t help being impressed by the devotion.
She began by asking what people wanted to talk about, and arms shot into the air. Everyone without exception expressed a newfound, or renewed, experience of joy, and there wasn’t a false note. She was a masterful comedienne. The laughter came freely to everyone except the young man one chair over, the only other male in Clint’s row. Being near another male was another reason why Clint had chosen that row. Being male was being contrarian. Something like that. This was the direction of Clint’s thoughts when the young man raised his hand.
The young man had an argument. He proposed that gratitude was easy to feel at a posh spa with gourmet meals and hot baths but for a lot of people life is a bum deal. Abused children, prisoners tortured, people with dementia.
She asked him what his focus on the pain of others did to alleviate it. She said, “Here’s what the Buddha taught. We can only save ourselves. Save yourself you save the world.”
“Whenever someone brings up Jesus or Buddha,” the young man said, his voice getting sharper and little unsteady, “it makes me think they’re telling a story. As if they know what Buddha said, if there was a Buddha. You said you weren’t a big fan of stories.”
“Stories are fine,” she smiled. “It’s when we start believing them we take a wrong path.” She re-directed her remarks to the assembly. “Each of us has a karma, and each of us is perfectly adequate to it. That doesn’t sound like much. But it’s everything. It’s trusting life to live through us. We tell ourselves we are inadequate, separate, alone. I’m here to tell you that that is pure hooey. Many of you opened up to that truth in your hearts these past days. Will the voices in your head try to talk you out of that joy? You bet, but that doesn’t make it less real.” There was an edge in her voice too. Passion, perhaps. Certainty.
The young man stood and walked out of the tent. She showed no reaction to his departure, and almost nothing when her eyes briefly, almost certainly, linked with Clint’s. She may have slightly flinched. Clint felt as if he should have offered the boy support. He decided to confront her later, after the disciples dispersed.
Nearing noontime, she asked everyone to assume a comfortable position for a guided meditation. Clint joined the ones lying under blankets in the aisles. She told everyone to close their eyes, to feel the gratitude for the gift of their bodies; to imagine being on a forest path that opens into a meadow filled with wildflowers and fragrant grasses, to see and hear the insects buzzing, feel the warmth of the sun.
Clint awoke to metal chairs being folded and stacked. The tent was almost empty. One of the women bustling around gave him a patronizing smile. His ex-wife was gone.
Walking back over the bridge he felt a joyful disembodiment, as if he’d had the best nap ever. He looked over his shoulder to see if the white tent was just a dream but it was already out of sight.
In his car, he turned on his cell phone. Surprisingly, he had reception, buttressing a decision he had made to call Lenore and invite her to move in with him. He hesitated, wondering if he should direct his fingers, wondering if life would live through him. And when.