There Must Be More to Life, But What?
“‘Why is it,’ Jonathan puzzled, ‘that the hardest thing in the world is to convince a bird that he is free, and that he can prove it for himself if he’d spend a little time practicing? Why should that be so hard?’” -- Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull
“If you fired an arrow and stopped it in its flight, and sighted along the arrow, you would see where it was going. If you stop life in its flight and sight along it, you will see that it is headed toward an enlightened planetary civilization.” Harry Palmer, author of the Avatar® materials.
I was in the sunroom at our house on Betsy Lane in Houston. Our family had moved in at the first of the summer, but my parents had shipped my brother John and me out of town, first to friends in Kentucky, then to cousins in Virginia, so they could pull up the orange shag carpeting to reveal hardwood floors, and cover dark paint in the kitchen with bright green wallpaper adorned with big yellow and white flowers. It was 1970, I was 8, John was 6, and my sister Teal was about to be born. Standing in the remodeled sunroom alone, I was excited by a strong but vague feeling that there must be something more to life. I didn’t know what the “something more” was, but I was certain it existed. I knew that something good was coming. I just couldn’t tell you what. It came to me that things could be better than they were, but we would need to work at it. Yet it would be worth our extra effort.
My parents had put their efforts into improving the sunroom, and I feel the parallel between the remodeling and the lovely events I awaited. The sunroom had had cloudy plastic louvered slats all along one wall, that could be opened to let in outside air, but not much light. The house must have gotten central air at some point, because my parents replaced the sunroom louvres with big pane glass windows that gave us a view of the lush greenness of the back patio and flooded the room with stunning gulf coast light. The couch sat in front of these windows, and sometimes cradled my mother’s women’s groups. My dad had built bookshelves across the long room to anchor both ends, and they were filled with volumes about how to improve oneself mentally and spiritually.
In the freshness of that space, I knew instinctively that people could get along better, and love each other more. We could know our common nature, which lay beyond our differences, and underneath our words and actions, and from this new perspective, truly understand each other. Our conflicts could then simply vanish. Back then I could never have told you all this, even though I was feeling it, so I didn’t spend much time pondering what I sensed. It took years to name was that something was.
A remarkable thing about this feeling was how palpable it was. I could feel it surrounding me, surrounding all of us, occupying an expectant present. Its existence was terribly exciting, like the night before your birthday, or Christmas, or a trip to AstroWorld. The peculiar and disturbing thing was that no one else acted like they could feel it. During good times this puzzled me, but when I was not in such a good space, it frustrated me to no ends. Again, I could never have told you this when I was a kid, but it didn’t occur to me that everyone else was blind to the human harmony that was coming. I felt that somehow they also knew this, but were tricking me.
I am not sure how long this conviction continued, but I know that it was still much on my mind five years later. I was in seventh grade, and I wrote poems to try to put this feeling into words. I had grabbed Jonathan Livingston Seagull off a sunroom bookshelf. Jonathan had discovered that there was “more to life than eating, or fighting, or power in the Flock.” He found a way to awaken a least a few of his fellow birds to this new way of living. I bet I have read that book at least 75 times since then. My poems were an attempt to explain to myself that, like Jonathan, I had seen a remarkable vision of a beautiful future that marshaled hope and anticipation. I wanted to explore this growing recognition that I had apparently seen something that other people hadn’t. The vision was important to me, and seemed connected somehow to my purpose for being alive. At the same time, it took all my courage to move toward this experience and examine it, and I worried that even a small setback could make me lose my nerve. I wanted to explain my feelings to myself, so that I could hold them more closely to me.
When I shared the first drafts of my poems with my mother, I took a small step to show the world what I had seen. I was afraid that my mother wouldn’t understand what I was trying to say or, understanding it, would reject it. But the opposite happened. She was so proud of what my poems conveyed that she had her secretary type them up and mimeograph them so she could give them to her friends. I hadn’t told her not to share the poems -- I hadn’t even considered that she might like them that much. Still, I wasn't ready to share them with others; my insights felt too tender and fragile. I was afraid that my mother’s friends, who were all good people, would reject the vision that meant so much to me. Losing control of my attempt to voice that which I couldn’t describe unsettled me, and made me feel that I needed to brace myself each time this feeling came over me. When my parents divorced a short time later, I stopped exploring my vision-feeling altogether. I no longer had the resolve I needed to take in the experience and study it.
Years later, during a summer in medical school, I worked in Paraguay with Amigos de las Americas, a program that could transform the lives of teenagers by training them, placing them with families in Latin American villages, and giving them adult levels of responsibility. I supervised two 16-year-old boys who were in charge of immunizing children from a pueblo of farmers who used oxen to plow their fields. One of the boys was so inspired by his experience that he spent several years with the program, became one of its leaders, and took a national role with a public health organization right out of college. What happened to him felt like what I discovered 15 years earlier.
Some kids (and grownups) were forever changed by Amigos’ program, but what had happened? I followed many trails to seek the answer, and learned from a number of people, like Larry Dossey, Willis Harman, Scott Peck, and Elizabeth Kubler Ross. I made the search personal by engaging in psychological and spiritual growth processes like A Course in Miracles, Jungian Analysis, and meditation. I became a psychiatrist and worked at a world-famous institution, at least in part, so I could comprehend even more. In the end, I understood that these transformations were real for a number of people, but I still didn’t know the fundamentals of what changed them so dramatically for the better.
I also wondered why such transformation only seemed to happen to individuals, sporadically, and never deliberately in large groups of people, which had been my childhood vision. It was at that point that my best childhood friend told Teal and me about the Avatar course. He said it had been powerfully helpful for him, and that it was right up my alley. I was glad that my friend had so enjoyed Avatar, but I was too busy with my other activities to even consider doing the course. In contrast, Teal went to an Avatar course 11 days later. She took to Avatar right away and said it had served her immeasurably. Like my best friend, she said that I had to do Avatar because it was what I was looking for. I dismissed her encouragement as I had his. There was no guarantee that I would have anything close to what they experienced. By then I firmly believed that personal transformation was individual, unpredictable and fundamentally unknowable.
Four years later, on Halloween, I had lunch in West Hollywood with Teal and two of her friends from Avatar. The waitress was wearing a Medusa wig, the one with all the snakes. Teal and her friends told me their experiences of Avatar, their faces bright in the glow of remembering. During that lunch, something clicked, and the feelings of excited anticipation came flooding back. Did I dare hope that Avatar might be the thing that would usher in the magnificent changes I felt to be so imminent when I was a child? I decided to do the course. The 3 weeks I had to wait before the next Avatar training seemed like an eternity. I could barely contain my excitement.
My days on the Avatar course were filled with expectancy. Would I see glimpses of this world I had felt but never quite seen? How would it happen? Would it be now?
During the Avatar initiation, I was gently led to see that the ways that I had defined myself served as barriers to knowing who I truly was at my core, who we all truly are. As each identification was considered and then proven false, I could see more and more of my true self. I was none of the many things that I thought I was. The process was effortless and enjoyable. It was straightforward, and I easily realized that, as Harry Palmer puts it, “I am not that, not that, not that either.” When I released all those things I had considered to be me, what remained was a pure, joyful and undefined expression of beingness, a feeling not unlike when my parents replaced the sunroom louvres with those big bright windows. Simple. Grand. Light.
Flying back from Austin to Kansas City at the end of the course, I found myself at a Southwest Airlines gate at Love Field in Dallas, my layover city. When I was in medical school in Dallas, I had often flown from Love to my family home in Houston. This time was different. The gate was quite crowded. Our flight was delayed, and people from several flights were jammed together. Yet all was in order, and no one was upset. People talked with each other, or sat quietly, or stood patiently. There was a mother playing a card game with a child near my feet, no worry about being stepped on. It was just as I had known it would be, everything in harmony, everything okay. But what had changed? Did the world transform during my time away? Was it like this all along, but I couldn’t see? Were my eyes opened to a new reality? Whatever it was, it was what I had felt as a child. My vision was indeed a reality. I had found it, and I knew we all could be living this! In fact, I was living it, even in an airport.
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