Fatal Attraction Part 4: The Awakening—Learning from the Natural World and the Redwood Forest

Karnamrita Das

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[I am continuing the reposting of this 5 part series.] AWAKENING BY GRACE, MOUNTAIN FATHER, REDWOOD TREE PROFESSORS: Growing up in San Francisco, Chris didn’t think it unusual or sad if the sky was overcast or foggy—it was just a different color sky, though he liked the sun too. In fact, in a general sense, even at the young age of four he began a lifelong pattern of not look forward to things, or thinking of too much about the past. Though he was learning to shut his emotions down as much as possible, in a strange way he lived in the present, at least his version of it, safe in his castle of neutrality, yet ever on guard so he could remain at peace, and not angry (like his father). He learned that if someone is angry that will mean pain, so he treaded life very gently. When his family moved from L.A. to San Francisco in 1954, he didn’t feel much different in his new neighborhood in the Sunset district than he had in his previous house in Van Nuys, especially after making friends—but at first he didn’t like the hills. When a neighbor began making skate coasters for the kids, the hills became an asset for fun.

In their flat on 9th Avenue, these were carefree years for Chris, at least on the surface. He had a best friend, Michael Rivers who lived next door, and they played all day, coming home for lunch, and sometimes playing Monopoly. They were loosely under the watch of Michael’s mom, since Chris’s parents were at work, and sometimes there was a baby sitter, but in those times kids were just let out to their own devices without supervision. As they grew older they enjoyed roaming the neighborhood, finding homes under construction to play in, climbing the tree on the corner, or exploring the hill that steeply dropped down from 8th Avenue to the fast and busy street far below. Sometimes on the weekends they would walk over to Sutro forest and climb to the top with Chris’s dad.

Interestingly, from today’s perspective, in his youth Chris didn’t learn to make any distinction between the city composed of concrete, asphalt, cars, and houses, with the natural environment he encountered in his back yard, in vacant lots, or at Sutro forest. He hadn’t yet spent time in country settings which were at least partially undisturbed and full of trees, bushes and wildlife. Although later he and his friends spent time in Golden Gate Park, and had family vacations in scenic resort areas, he still didn’t understand that where a city now stood was once a scenic, natural habitat, free from human intervention and “progress.” To Chris, human beings seemed to be the center around which everything else revolved, while Nature and its laws were but an afterthought, or only of secondary importance to cities and their inhabitants. It was only when he was in his existential crisis at 18 that Chris really appreciated the natural world. He discovered a Nature that wasn’t secondary to human beings. Instead, humans were only a part of Nature. The natural world, the planet, and the Universe, were the basis of all life, having to be properly respected and cooperated with.

The foggy skies that often graced the redwood forest as a canopy had a much different effect on Chris than he had ever experienced in the overcast city. Here, rather than just being a different color above, it added a certain magic to the forest. On a bright sunny day the sun called attention to itself as the dominate object in the sky—which couldn’t even be looked at directly—but on a foggy day the light was filtered so that it seemed the diffused light was coming from every direction, and not from one source. The light felt alive and full of wisdom. Colors were more vivid and intense, the green on the forest floor, luminescent. Although at the time he would have been hard pressed to define “mystical”—it was the natural word that came to Chris’s mind to describe the redwood forest atmosphere on such days. Of course the massive size of the trees and being alone in the quite forest added to this fact. The main factor, though, was his state of mind, which felt like it had awoken from a very long nap, had taken off its limiting blinders, or had the curiosity of a child—which he hadn’t had growing up.

When he first began coming to the redwoods with his friend, Byron B., he would just come for the weekend. Byron, who Chris had met at Polytechnic High School, had already made a regular habit of camping on Mount Tamalpais, near Bootjack Camp. He would spend the day hiking down to the Muir Woods, redwood forest, or to the cliffs overlooking the ocean, and then in the late afternoon, he’d hitch a ride to the top of Mt. Tam for the sunset. Chris joined him in this practice, along with a few others, but it was mainly Byron, Chris, and Phil S., one of Byron’s close friends. Although Byron was a few years younger, Chris looked up to him, and learned through his company how to navigate around the area. They would share what inspired them from religious texts and Eastern philosophy books, which included some modern mystics and shamans. Additionally they would speak about their psychedelic drug experiences and how they were similar to the mystical states spoken about in their readings. Eventually Chris would spend weeks here, mostly alone, hitch-hiking from Berkeley with a store of provisions in his backpack, sometimes meeting up with Byron on the weekends.

These extended visits became like a holy pilgrimage; Mt. Tam, a father giving shelter and support; the sun rise, his call to wonder and contemplation; mystical books, his life curriculum; the towering redwoods, wise teachers who schooled him in life and death and his connection to Nature; the changing seasons, days and nights, the fallen trees and new shoots, the circle, and cycles of life; the fog, a cool embrace of clarity and sustenance; the tourists visiting Muir woods, what he didn’t want to become; psychedelics, a radical, dangerous, means to smash his worldview to pieces, and make him face the hard questions of life, or perish; the redwood nature spirits, his protectors as he tried to make sense of his experiences, life’s purpose and his place in it; the sunset at the top of Mt. Tam, his contemplation of how humankind had the power to destroy the beauty of Nature and life; and but for the grace of God, the only way he survived this time of upheaval, and found his spiritual calling. When one door closes, another opens.

Chris would sometimes leave the wooded campsite and put his sleeping bag in a clearing so he would be awakened by the sun and watch it rise. Since he often watched both the sunrise and sunset, he frequently contemplated the sun, and its place in life. For a time he thought he should worship the sun, since the sun was the source of the earth and it currently sustained all of life. This was funny in a way, since the word “worship,” had never been in his past vocabulary, but now, the idea of offering homage to things more powerful than himself seemed natural, even obligatory. Chris felt very small, not in control, and yet a new certainty was arising in him. While he felt disconnected from modern civilization, he felt an inner harmony and guidance, learning to feel the life force and his Source.

He was grateful for each day, and for so many things—like his new awareness of life, mystical books, and the natural world—yet before this time he had never felt grateful for anything. Life was now full of excitement and wonder, and this was curious to him, since these states of mind were practically unknown. His favorite books where the Tao te Ching, I Ching, Upanisads, and Bhagavad Gita, and by reading them and experiencing a daily focused life of contemplation, his desire increased to find a way to live these books, not just in a cursory way, but as a life practice. He knew he needed a wise teacher, to become a monk in some tradition, and to live with likeminded spiritual seekers. That became his extended quest. In part 5 Chris finds devotees of Krishna, and moves in with them to formally begin his bhakti practice.

If you missed the previous parts, here are the links:
Part 1:http://www.krishna.com/blog/2018/02/13/fatal-attraction-part-1
Part 2:http://www.krishna.com/blog/2018/02/18/fatal-attraction-part-2-illuminating-shadow-our-past
Part 3: http://www.krishna.com/blog/2018/03/9/fatal-attraction-part-3%E2%80%94ch...
and the last part 5: http://www.krishna.com/blog/2015/02/26/fate-attraction-part-5%E2%80%94co...