One who has control over the mind is tranquil in heat and cold, in pleasure and pain, and in honor and dishonor, and is ever steadfast with the Supreme Self.” -Bhagavad Gita

 

It is Monday morning and I am pulling on the smooth wooden handle of the sauna door at the North Boulder Rec Center. My eyes adjust to the dim light and I step inside under the watchful gaze of two men sitting at opposite sides of the bench facing the door. I smile without meeting either of their eyes and take a seat at the small bench next to the stove on the right. The bench burns the undersides of my thighs and I fidget under the sting of heat and male eyes above me. In a rush, I make for the empty, high bench opposite me, turn backwards and boost myself up with my palms so that I can sit with my back to the men and my eyes to the door as if we are in an elevator conceived in the mind of a man named Bikram.

I breathe in slowly.

I am out of practice with saunas, having spent the last few years of my life with a baby on one hip. Even so, I like to think of myself as one who enjoys the all-encompassing heat. I like the mental exercise—the progression of thoughts that branch in my mind.

My first thoughts, of course, spider toward Hell. But despite my evangelical roots, it’s not a particularly biblical image of Hell, favoring instead the imagination of Dante or Bosch. Demons goad. Bare breasted women with rotted out mouths taunt. Unshaven men limp from chamber to chamber with various impalements. All pathways are circular.

My next thought is that I don’t believe in Hell anymore.

After this, I remind myself that I enjoy heat. That I was born in the middle of a Sacramento summer. That I was born for this.

I remind myself that heat is a test of endurance. That surviving it—choosing to stay in it when easier air is only four feet away—is a matter of resolve.

My next thought is of a story Scott once told me about a massage parlor he visited in Hong Kong. There was a stretch of hot pebbles on which people were meant to walk in order to increase their sex life. Every minute on the rocks was an equivalent increase to one’s sex life. He said he watched one little, old man walk back and forth on the rocks the entire time he was there. Back and forth. Back and forth.

I remind myself that I can and must handle anything.

I remind myself that I am as strong as I will allow myself to be.

I breathe slowly, savoring the sensation that my nostril hairs are being singed.

I think of ovens. Crispy Peking duck. The witch in Hansel and Gretel. Jeffrey Dahmer.

I have had enough.

In spite of the fact that I have already traveled from Sacramento to Hong Kong with a stopover in Hell, in human terms I have only been in the sauna of the North Boulder Rec Center for about 45 seconds. I am just out of practice, I excuse myself weakly. I have had babies. Babies do not mix well with extreme heat. It says so quite clearly in the Operating Instructions. I can’t remember the exact wording but it was something like: “Saunas: No babies.” Behind me, the older man shifts his weight and lets out a deep sigh.

I study my legs pulled up in front of me to an upside down V. Since it’s dark, I don’t notice all of the imperfections I normally obsess over. Uneven color. Nicks from the razor. Little blue veins. I am wearing a steel gray swimsuit. It is a two-piece that covers my tummy and has halter straps that tie around the back of my neck. It says to anybody who is looking too hard or thoughtfully at it: I have had babies. Babies who don’t belong in the sauna.

And please stop looking at my tummy.

The bench behind me crackles and groans and the older man appears in my peripheral vision. He exits the sauna in a rush of air. The air feels like life.

When the door closes, I sit as still as the wooden planks surrounding me. I am aware that the water from the pool has evaporated from my body and I have commenced a slow bake. I wonder when I will begin to sweat. I long for this release.

Behind me, the young man pushes off the bench. I expect him to leave like the older man, but instead he stops, facing the door. I wait. From his lithe back, I surmise he is in his late twenties. His skin is tanned the color of the wood door and he has long Jesus hair, which tickles his back as his shoulders rise and fall once. He turns abruptly and hangs a light blue towel on the rail in front of the stove as if he intends to dry it out faster. I wonder if he is stupid.

He stands with his sweat drenched back to me and fills his lungs with air. From my place on the scorching planks I watch as his chiseled back expands with his breath. He stares at the door, blocking my entrance to it.

Sauna etiquette is not much different than elevator etiquette. No talking. No eye contact. Face the door. If you cough, you say, excuse me. If someone else coughs, you wait a full minute before bailing so it doesn’t appear you are leaving on account of them and their diseased lungs. Having never met this person before, I am fully prepared to play by the rules. I sit perched on the high bench, flanking him at 3 o’clock. When he turns around, I drop my eyes as if I don’t see him. As if I am so consumed with my own world of razor burn and the sex drive of little, old men that I don’t even register that he is there.

To our left, the stones hiss as he empties a ladleful of water over them. He turns toward 9 o’clock and stretches his back left and right. He exhales the slow leak of a loud, aspirated ‘h’.

Not stupid, I realize then. Enlightened.

Watching him over my shoulder, I realize I have made a mistake entering the sauna. The truth is, I don’t really enjoy the heat. That was something I just told myself when I was fresh out of the water and the thought of detoxing my pores appealed to me. I may have mentioned this before, but I am a lightweight. Babies and all.

Just then he drops his torso forward and reaches down for his toes, releasing as he does this a yogic groan that not only aligns his chakras, but mine as well.

I want to leave but also fully realize that my departure at this point might be considered rude. We’re in Boulder, after all. What he is doing isn’t that strange. Everyone does yoga here. The organic produce section of Whole Foods alone is practically filled with people doing yoga. Mountain pose to reach the salad sprinkles. Warrior pose to reach the kiwi and mango simultaneously. Triangle to procure cucumber. Would I make him feel uncomfortable if I left? Would he feel bad knowing he drove a fellow sauna sitter away? Would it set back his progress toward enlightenment?

I consider my possible responses and their effect on his dying ego. And if I leave now, what does that say about me? That I’m squeamish? Insecure? A Republican? He rights himself and turns back in my direction. My eyes snap to the door. Certainly I can handle a minor chakrasm alone in a sauna with a hippy version of Adonis himself.

When I lived in Hong Kong, there was a small English style pub I used to visit. There was only one bathroom in the pub, inside which was a toilet and a urinal separated by a curtain. There was no lock on the main bathroom door. Once I had just ducked into the toilet when the door swung wide and some guy walked in to use the urinal on the other side of the curtain beside me. I couldn’t do it. I stood up, zipped up, and left. Behind me, the man apologized profusely through the door insisting that we could somehow work it out between us. I don’t mind, he kept repeating. Come back!

He is now facing the back of the sauna. With arms raised, he bends his torso right then left. If I raised my left arm, my fingers would leave a trail through the sweat up his side. The closed door beckons me. He is slowly rolling his shoulders now and commencing pranayama. In my peripheral vision I watch as he fills his abdomen, then lungs; then he empties his lungs, then abdomen. He does this eleven times.

I am confused. I want to leave, but I no longer know how to do so gracefully. Clearly he has a regimen. From the looks of his slick and hollowed-out face, I estimate he has been in the sauna for at least three hours. If I leave now, he will understand. He will know it is not simply because I was made to feel uncomfortable or because he has detracted from my own karma with his practice. I may not have ridden it out to the lengths of, say, a Libertarian, but maybe at least to that of a Democrat. It would be all right. We have an African American president. I have simply had enough of the sauna. I will leave at the final emptying of his abdomen so as not to interrupt his Nirvana.

Without warning, he begins to make sharp, even bursts with his nose. I turn to look and see that his forehead is slightly bent forward and his eyes are closed. He increases in tempo until he is performing nearly three breaths per second. I have missed my opportunity. I wait for him to finish this respiratory miracle in the midst of the oppressive heat. My head is swirling now, having mastered nearly four whole minutes in the sauna of the North Boulder Rec Center. I wait for a pause in which to make my exit. But the pause doesn’t come. When he finishes his Breath of Fire, he pitches forward and umbrellas his Jesus hair over his toes. He groans with pleasure.

Not enlightened, I realize then. Asshole.

The thought alights on my shoulders like a lotus petal caught and fallen in the morning breeze. I can not believe I did not see it earlier. He wants me to leave. The entire time he has been trying to make me uncomfortable so that he can be alone. So that he can have the sauna of the North Boulder Rec Center all to himself. Right on cue, he begins gyrating his hips in slow, large circles with his head now thrown back to get a better look at eternity through the planks in the ceiling.

I hold my eyelids open with effort and watch him as he stirs the heat slowly with his kundalini. Suddenly he stops and looks my way. I look back at the door.

All this time I have been secretly admiring his lack of ego—his ability to break the social mores of the sauna-elevator classification—when in reality he is trying to drive me out of the sauna. His sauna.

I continue to stare at the door as his egoless ego bores a prana-shaped hole into my psyche. He has declared war.

It is enough. All at once, I give in to the heat and let my eyelids fall like a tankini over a stretched out stomach. I lean my head back against the wall for support—for when the unconsciousness will soon overtake me—and smile, just as somewhere in the background, the elevator musak switches tunes to that of a desperate om.

Graham is one of the students who had invited Andrew Cohen to teach in Boston. He was used to quite a materialistic lifestyle before meeting Andrew, and a last remnant of this is a beautiful Saab. He is notorious for his attachment to his Saab. In Boston Andrew had already pressed him to sell the car. Graham promised to do so, but kept postponing it. Now Andrew presses him to sell it a second and third time. But again Graham hesitates and tries to renegotiate. He desperately wants to keep the car.

It gradually turns into a battle of wills: Andrew is battling Graham’s ego, trying to wrestle his attachment away from him. We speak with Graham in the men’s meeting, trying to get him to give up his attachment to his car and everything that it stands for. But although Graham says he’s on our side, we feel he doesn’t really want to let go. As the drama continues, the pressure mounts. In the end Andrew radicalizes the situation, just as he did with Juliette. The standard of enlightenment is black or white, so if it isn’t white, it will be black. Andrew calls Graham and tells him he’s going to solve the dilemma for him once and for all. He will go with Graham to the junkyard and have the Saab crushed. After his initial responses of disbelief, panic, rage and desperation, Graham eventually agrees. We all hold our breath collectively. We can’t believe it. A $20,000 car is going to be destroyed for the sake of Graham’s spiritual evolution. It’s the ultimate act of renunciation, like in the classical stories of the scholar who threw his beloved books into the Ganges or the Buddha who left his wife and child behind.

In satsang the next evening Andrew tells the whole story to a disbelieving crowd. Graham and Andrew went to the junkyard with the Saab. The operator there initially refused to crush the car, thinking he was dealing with a pair of nutcases. But Andrew and Graham insisted. To maximize the effect Andrew had Graham push the button that turned the car into pulp. Andrew says it was a momentous cleansing ritual, a powerful boost for Graham.

He points to Graham, who indeed seems to have undergone some kind of transformation. He’s beaming with self-confidence because he has taken such a firm stance against his ego. We’re in awe. Andrew had the guts to take this to the extreme, and he was right—look at Graham sitting there beaming! So this is what it takes to do battle with the ego.

What is Enlightenment Blues about?

It is the age old story of the spiritual seeker seeking enlightenment, of liberation from the conditioned world of samsara. Tradition has it that you can only attain this through the help of a spiritual guide, a guru. I actually went through all that, eleven years long. The book is a description of this journey out of samsara.

 

Just for our less enlightened readers, this whole thing “enlightenment” –- what is it all about?

According to this way of thinking, we are all bound by the ego –- which is nothing but a whole mess of impurities and conditionings that are staining the mirror of our awareness. Enlightenment means that, suddenly or gradually, the realization breaks through that this ego is an illusion. The idea is that through the light of such a realization, all real and imagined impurities are burned away, and the mirror of our awareness will be completely spotless and able to reflect whatever is happening around us. Then we’ll be able to function effortlessly and respond appropriately to the world around us.

 

Sounds great. Is this what Andrew Cohen was teaching?

Yes. According to Andrew Cohen, to live in an “enlightened” way meant to live not out of the impulses of the ego, but to be aware of the needs of the situation that one is in. It also means that you’re able to fully and passionately respond to this recognition, and act in a wholehearted and undivided way for the benefit of others.

 

Was Andrew Cohen enlightened himself?

He told us that he was, through meeting his Indian guru Poonjaji. He had realized the light of the Source. It had required no conscious effort. This is what he was teaching us, too. Just relax, you don’t have to do anything to be free. After a few years, he said he realized that for almost all of his students, it would require effort, because we were too entrenched in our egos, and too invested in it.

 

Oh dear. What happened next?

After a few years of teaching, Andrew became frustrated that “no one was getting it,” and that people weren’t transformed even after going through multiple spiritual experiences — which he felt should have been transformative. At first Andrew taught that realizing the nondual Source would transform the personality, and would naturally lead to a transcending of the egoic self. A few years later, he claimed that the ego was too tenacious and would not let go voluntarily, and had to be forcefully overcome. That’s when you get all these stories about radical teaching techniques, such as the guy having to crush his Saab [See excerpt].

 

What was Andrew like, as a person and as a teacher?

In the first few years after I met him, he exuded tremendous peace and ease. He was just amazed at everything that was spontaneously happening around him. Later on, however, he started to feel that he was on a mission, that we were all on a mission, a mission to bring Heaven to Earth. This is when he started craving attention and validation from other spiritual teachers. All those human emotions such as fear, hope, anxiety and anger –- he seemed to experience them all but not get caught up in it. Later, I felt that his anger sometimes got the better of him, and that he could fly off the handle and get into temper tantrums. He also became more and more unhappy and dissatisfied with us, his students, for not living up to his teachings.

Andrew was also very competitive. He was always dissing other spiritual teachers, claiming they were compromising or not living up to their teachings. He said several times that he was the only one who was “willing to go all the way.”  In his book “Autobiography of an Awakening”, he is very critical of the Advaita Vedanta teachings of his own teacher Poonjaji, feeling that they are only half of the truth, and that “living up to one’s realization” is not covered in Advaita Vedanta. In this way, he set himself above his own teacher — something that is, in my view, definitely a sign that something is wrong.

 

Why did you write the book?

I never intended to write a book, it kind of happened to me. I took a creative writing course in the fall of 1998, six months after I’d left Andrew, and was asked to write an essay on a topic of my own choosing. Naturally, my eleven years with Andrew were foremost on my mind. Once I got going, I noticed that more and more stories and memories popped up, and the essay got longer and longer. At one point, the creative writing teacher suggested I keep on going after the course was finished, and expand it into a book. So I did, but I still had no intention to look for a professional publisher. I thought to maybe put it out on the web. The first versions of the manuscript were very bitter, angry and resentful, but gradually, with each new version the tone got milder and, I felt, more objective. That’s when I started to think that this story might be helpful to publish as a book.

 

Some of the stories in the book seem too outrageous to be true. Did Andrew Cohen really demand that you do thousands of push-ups in a row?

Oh yes, all the students had a push-up marathon every Sunday, and these muscles really develop quite fast when you get used to this type of exercise. We would do series of thirty, then rest on our arms, then do more series of thirty. Since quitting was not an option, you had to keep going at it.

 

Did it all work?

No, I do not believe that all these radical teaching methods had a lasting transformative effect on his students. There often would be a short term effect; people would be shaken up, and shocked out of their usual mode of relating to themselves and others, but I would not call such an effect ‘enlightening.’  I wouldn’t know of any person that has become ‘enlightened’ as a result of these teachings.

 

Why are we in the West so fascinated with Eastern enlightenment, and why does it so often go so wrong?

I think it’s a form of romanticism. We tend to idealize Eastern spirituality, and then uncritically import teacher-student relationships that are not appropriate for our Western circumstances. Secondly, religion has become privatized, and has become a marketable product, called “spirituality.”


How do you look on it all now?

When I reread the book now, it seems like it was literally Kafkaesque at times. To the reader, it all goes from bad to worse, and just when you think it could not get anymore difficult, it descends into another diabolical level of hell. At first I was quite angry and mad about what happened, but over the years I’ve found a kind of detachment from it all.

 

And what about enlightenment?

I now teach Zen meditation in the style of the Japanese Zen master Dogen. He teaches that enlightenment is not some kind of state you have to reach, but your original natural state that is already there. When you sit in meditation, you actually express this enlightenment, whether you’re aware of it or not. We are always already intimately connected to such an enlightenment. For me, that’s a way of looking at enlightenment that feels very natural. More like an enlightenment waltz than an enlightenment blues.

 

 

What makes Pass the Jelly unique?

I do think there’s an epidemic of seriousness in books on spirituality. Or perhaps “formality” is an even better way to put it. The side effect of this is often a lack of accessibility as well as lack of applicability to “real” life. If you’re not going to wear a robe and meditate in a cloistered temple for the rest of your life, what is one to do with many of the teachings out there?

It reminds me of a funny picture you may have seen. It’s of a bunch of Buddhist monks in robes riding on a rollercoaster. Their arms are tossed up in the air and they have terrified looks on their faces. And that’s Pass The Jelly — what happens when you toss people out of the temple? What spiritual concepts actually hold-up in our everyday lives? It’s a lot easier to appear “enlightened” when you don’t have a job, a spouse, kids, don’t interact with the craziness of the “real” world or pay the rent.

I like to think that by the end of the rollercoaster ride, half the monks want to run back to the temple and the other half are running to get in line for another ride. Pass The Jelly is written in the spirit of those monks who want another ride in “real” life.

 

Why the use the phrase Ordinary Enlightenment in the subtitle instead of just Enlightenment?

The characters I encounter in Pass the Jelly are ordinary people living their ordinary lives in extraordinary ways — people like Mr. Gooch or Little Joe. There’s a lot of wisdom in the places they’ve come to, but they’re ordinary places.

It goes back to bringing some concepts out of the temple and into the light of day. There’s a lot of dogma and semantic baggage around the word “enlightenment,” so I felt “ordinary enlightenment” might clarify things a bit.

 

Why do you say there’s great value in pointing out “what is not”?

I mean that our suffering in life often comes from assuming certain things to be true that upon investigation turn out to be completely false. There is great benefit in recognizing “what is,” but one must first see through “what is not” before one can truly reside in “what is.” Once you can see through “what is not,” the “what is” of life can be very joyful.

 

People tell me this is a funny book even before mentioning the other aspects. Why is getting your readers to laugh so important? How does that mesh with trying to convey important ideas?

It’s part of breaking down the seriousness of it all and creating a space where people can really engage with the ideas. Laughing, and laughing at ourselves, is actually a pretty good starting point for self discovery.

 

Has anything surprised you about the response to the book?

I’ve been thrilled that Pass the Jelly has appealed to such a wide range of people, and on different levels.  Maybe it’s because the human condition is, naturally, universal, so you don’t have to be a serious spiritual seeker to enjoy the book. So, whether it’s the refreshing insights or the laughs along the way, I’m glad people seem to be enjoying the ride.

Hopefully, Pass The Jelly adds a bit of wisdom and laughter to your life.

 

All the best,

Gary Crowley

www.garycrowley.com

 

 


Not too long ago, I had a shot at enlightenment. And despite the fact that I live right outside of Boulder, CO – the enlightenment capital of the universe with the exception of Sedona and perhaps the chocolate aisle of the World Market – I cannot say that I have yet had the privilege of sitting in God’s palm. So when the opportunity presented itself, I jumped at it.

I was living on Lamma Island, just outside of Hong Kong – already the consequence of playing chicken with Fate – when I met Jack. Jack lived down the street from me and was the friend of a friend. He is of medium height, has sandy blond hair and comes from Liverpool. (Read: cute with an accent).

He looks me over, waiting for our mutual friend to arrive and extends an invitation that would change my life.