Giving This Famous God a Dare
–To Allan Y. Cohen
At age eighteen
I made a deal with the night air
Under stars and the influence
Of a desperate sense
I was tired
Like someone swimming at sea
So I didn’t care about talking to the air
Pretending God was real or even
Giving this famous God a dare
They say God won’t make deals
You have to love Him first
(First water, then the thirst)
But I swear it’s not gone to my head
Instead after forty years still
I’m heart over heels
On my knees crying
For no longer dying
“He not busy being born is busy dying.”
When I was five my mother had me declared a “ward of the court” and placed in a sort of orphanage, (same principle, but often parents were living, as were mine) paid by the state to provide my room and board.
Five years later she took me and my three brothers back, but within six months released us again, this time into the custody of my father, whose new wife had stars in her eyes and notions of interesting child-rearing experiments. After this, we bounced around among various family members on my mother’s side, punctuated by episodes with my father’s subsequent wife. (He ended up with four) During this time I moved on average every six months.
As it was difficult under these circumstances to make and keep friends, I became very lonely. Later, when I was eighteen and a student at UC Berkeley, I had a “religious” experience, which delivered me from this loneliness. I had until then been an atheist, mostly to please my two older “freethinking” brothers, who were then my only friends.
However, as a student at Cal, I was allowed free psychological counseling and had the good fortune to be the patient of a newly minted Ph.D. from Harvard, who’d just had his own Odyssey, having been under the tutelage of Timothy Leary at Millbrook, famous for prescribing the rampant use of LSD under the philosophy of “Turn on, tune in, and drop out.” As well as Richard Alpert (known as Baba Ram Dass these days). This man, Allan Y. Cohen, had since become a Sufi and a follower of a mystic, Meher Baba, and was dedicating himself to the furtherance of Meher Baba’s crusade against drug usage.
I had then a fierce chip-on-my-shoulder way of testing people. And when I’d show up for an appointment after having the night before attended one of his anti-drug lectures, exhibiting what most others would have taken to be insulting behavior such as heckling etc., he invariably reacted with good humor. He simply looked vastly amused that I would find any fun in that sort of thing.
As for whether I might believe in his metaphysical stuff, he didn’t seem to care. Not viscerally. Though with helpful enthusiasm if and when I ever showed any interest. Which was fortunate, in that any sort of proselytizing would have driven this atheist away. But the pictures on his wall of Meher Baba and Hazrat Inayat Khan, the founder of Sufism in the western world, aroused my curiosity. And as I became curious about this curious man, I began to ask questions. Like who were the pictures of?
Now, you must know that the Sufi philosophy or at least the Hazrat Inayat Khan brand of Sufism–pretty much the only kind I’ve studied, apart from the 1000 year old wonderful Sufi treatise, by the Sufi shaykh Hujwiri, Kashf Al-Mahjub (The Revelation of the Mystery)–features the opposite of proselytizing, almost to the extent of indifference, except for the reinforcement of any pre-existing enthusiasm. Queries are answered, but unless there are follow-up questions, the matter is dropped.
I think Allan Cohen created a sort of Buddhist vacuum, that pulled me in.
So I asked if there was anything I could read by way of an introduction. But even after reading his suggested mystical writings, intriguing and plausible though they were, still it was just an intellectual concept. I guess I was like a later dear friend, an atheist who admitted to me she would surely like to be able to believe such stuff, but couldn’t believe in fairy tales, thank you. It is an interesting question what leads one to such a belief. Meher Baba has written (familiarly, to me at least) about a state of “divine desperation.”
Well, one night in 1968, visiting a friend in Portland Oregon, with the television blaring news of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, I was feeling so lonely that I went for a walk under the stars, and started to talk out loud saying things like I felt stupid talking to the air but as there weren’t any witnesses, okay, I’d give it a shot. I simply said, I was desperately sad and lonely and if Whoever you are would take away that feeling, I would believe. And instantly I was ecstatic. It was as if God was afraid I would change my mind, and struck while the offer was there. Tears streamed down my face, I was so happy, so grateful. And I went on to become a Sufi, in the same order that Allan Cohen was in. After seven years things happened and I moved on, but I have considered myself a Sufi ever since. And I can justly claim to be that since the essence of this Sufism is the belief that God is only accessible through an experience in one’s own heart, independent of priests and intermediaries. There’s a word for it, antinomianism.
Of course, this intense, ecstatic feeling wound down after a few days, but it is still there today, as a floor beneath me that I feel I can never fall through. It is rumored in Sufism that the best virtue is gratitude, and I do have that, though many troubled waters have since passed under the bridge.
But in my generative years, as Erik Erikson would say, I wish to share these Sufi ideas which I have come to love and which are the inspiration for my poetry. This “about” section begins with a poem I wrote concerning the situation I’ve just described, and my gratitude.
My plan is that each blog post will begin with one of my poems, illustrating the Sufi principle under discussion that day.
God be with you,