The Beaten Path

The Beaten PathThe Beaten Path is, I guess, my weakest book, though there are parts in it that I still like well enough. As far as I can make out, the book is hampered in main by what at the time of its writing (1997-98) were my struggles to integrate my growing feeling that I was, in fact, a Christian, into my writing without dooming myself to the “Christianity” section of the bookstore. It’s odd that the ghost of Christianity looms so heavily over the book, given the fact that the years of my life it recounts were years taken up with Eastern spiritual traditions. The intuition that most forcibly placed me in the Christian camp was my growing certainty that there is an irreducible importance to the individual human personality: an importance summed up in that three-word sentence of Nicholas Berdyaev’s (“Personality is indestructible.”). For Eastern faiths, (very) generally speaking, that sentence would be more accurately conveyed as: “Consciousness is indestructible.”

Toward the end of the book, I’m in essentially the same fix I was in at the climax of Paradise Fever: at bay in a desolate spot out behind another house (this time a rather bigger one, in Santa Fe, New Mexico), feeling surrounded by a world that will either swallow me up or transform me (a feeling brought on, this time, by psilocybin mushrooms rather than alcohol). Once again, my individual, very particular plight is intended to be suggestive of the plight of our culture in general. As our possibilities shrink around us, we find ourselves pressed to make a shift of some kind: a shift upward into a different mode of being, or a shift downward into collapse. Once again, as in Paradise Fever, it all happened as described. Reality is a relentlessly symbolic event.

As my references to Night of the Living Dead in the Paradise Fever tab might suggest, I quite often find this stuck-in-the-cocoon situation illustrated with special vividness in movies. One of my favorite examples is a scene in James Cameron’s 1989 film The Abyss. Cameron has, it seems to me, a rather extraordinary eye for visually embodying key aspects of our modern spiritual situation. In the scene I’m thinking of, the film’s villain, played by Michael Biehn, is in a broken one-man submarine, sinking into the darkness. The deeper he goes, the more desperate he becomes. He’s got light, he’s got oxygen, he’s got a control board in front of him that had, until the sub broke, given him a feeling of comfortable autonomy – of being safe and sound and the boss of things. But with this little bubble of autonomy compromised, all of that is suddenly lost. As the pressure builds, the windows of his craft begin to crack. Finally the pressure becomes too great and – boom – he’s gone. That one-man submarine strikes me as a wonderfully concrete symbol of our situation as animate bodies, complete with skin that feels, brains that think, eyes that see and all the rest of it. And, like Biehn in his sub, we can make a pretty good show of things as long as our physical vehicle is working correctly. But when it begins to stop? That’s when we start to find out who we really are (or aren’t), and how we are at facing up to that fact.

The mysterious individual who can keep it together, who can remain him or herself and not fall apart when everything else is doing just that, is the book’s real subject. My essentially comic quest in search of this character took place in my teenage years, when I began consuming wisdom books, or what, in The Beaten Path, I call Life Manuals. I had the feeling that these books were offering me, if I read them correctly, a recipe for getting through life successfully, for making sense of its many problems and paradoxes. The three major influences on me in those years – and the three authors who come in for the most discussion and the most abuse in The Beaten Path – are Alan Watts, Carlos Castaneda, and Aldous Huxley. Actually, I remain a fan of all three writers, and hadn’t intended, when writing the book, to come off like I was really dissing them or their messages too severely. The problem with each of these writers lay, in the end, not with them so much as with me, for searching for perfection in other people is a fool’s errand. Robert Bly – mostly in that stretch of his writings taken up with the (sometimes-silly-and-sometimes-useful) Men’s Movement – often suggested that we live in a culture where the adults are missing. The Beaten Path is a description of what happens when someone who longs for an initiatory encounter with a real adult — a human being who has been initiated into the world outside the ordinary world and returned from that place in one piece – fails to do so. What, in our culture, is such a person left with?

Consumption, pretty much.

For me, that meant consumption of wisdom books. For others, it’s consumption of… well, you name it. We are a buying culture, and we buy, I think, in large part out of frustration with not being able to change and to grow. There is something we want to be. We sense it, and we look for models of it around us. And when we don’t find it, we end up as collectors and cataloguers. People who have stopped moving forward. People trapped in the flat, apparent world we wake up to every day. A world rich with its rewards and pleasures, but which, a secret part of us never stops whispering, is not all of the world but only a particular level of it.

None of these points, needless to say, are terribly original, and one might find their elements expressed more succinctly in any random Eckhart Tolle video. If The Beaten Path has any value, I think it probably lies in the specific life events it describes, some of which I think are reasonably funny. It’s one of those books where I don’t really know enough about any aspect of my subject, and I know I don’t know enough about it, but where I just go ahead and muscle through anyway. To a certain degree that applies to all of my books. I don’t know enough about anything I write about. What are you gonna do?