Nothing to Lose
The Testimony of Arni Klein
How strange to go along as though everything is fine, then suddenly, for no earthly reason, your entire perspective of life goes upside-down. It’s like an experience I had while driving on a N.Y. highway. A cold sweat came over me the moment that I awoke. Driving on a curvy stretch of road, I had nodded off behind the wheel traveling at 50 mph. I was fine for the moment I slept, but as the waking brought the awareness I had been sleeping, I shook with fear.
Whatever the cost,
Whatever the commitment,
The truth is all that matters.
It’s a journey and a call that requires us to leave everything behind.
“When you ain’t got nothin’, you got nothin’ to lose.” (Bob Dylan)
The revolution of the Sixties started a full-scale erosion of American society and drove many to wake up to the reality of the inner life. Normal, average middle-class people became professional seekers practically overnight. Some just hopped around and sampled from the various menus of gurus and philosophies that were popular at the time, while others sold their possessions, packed their bags and began a journey, the destination of which was not exactly known.
Our modern society is filled with people — of all ages in all kinds of situations — that have reached the breaking point. Bankrupt values and ideas have left us with a house built on sand. Precepts and principles merely inherited from parents, teachers, religious leaders or mentors will simply not stand. There can be no substitute for personal experience and revelation. We must know that we know that we know. The only thing with the power to bring real peace and fullness is the truth.
* * *
“Wake Up & Smell the Coffee”
I had been busy moving up the corporate ladder as an advertising executive when reality hit me in the face. It suddenly amazed me that I had lived so long and had never asked the questions:
Who am I?
What am I?
Where did I come from?
Where am I going?
What is the meaning of life?
What is death?
What is right?
What is wrong?
From the moment we are born we are headed to the grave. We all die.
Can it be that our great reward is to cease to existY to go into the grave and be no moreY to lose consciousness and remain only as someone else’s memory? If that is true, what’s the big deal if you live to 1 or 40 or 120? But what if it doesn’t end in the grave and death is just a door? What if what we do here has some bearing on what happens afterward?
Living in New York
The summer of 1969 was when something really clicked inside me regarding the inner search for meaning and purpose. On the surface things were going quite well. At twenty-two I’d already been working in the advertising industry for three years and was beginning to see the road to a corner office unfolding before my eyes. I certainly had a way to go, but success was in my sights.
Where I lived was an address to be envied, at least by some. My apartment was on the East Side of Manhattan, a ten-minute walk from where I worked. From the outside, advertising looked challenging and fun. It was a world of creative writers, artists, and marketing strategists getting together to find new ways to sell more stuff to more people that already had more than they knew what to do with. But in my short time of employment I had already begun to see a superficial cutthroat mentality that seemed to be at the basis of the industry. Adding that to what was going on in the world made me one angry young man.
Yonit lived in Philadelphia but was in New York for a season to study modern dance. We met in a restaurant. She was a waitress and I was a customer. Our courtship was very simple. For our first date she came to my apartment after work and never left. My hanging wicker basket chair just captured her heart. Two weeks later we decided to get married. We were sure that as the world went mad, if we held to each other tightly enough, we would be all right.
Within days after our decision to marry I was notified that the U.S. Army considered me a worthy vessel to protect the American way of life, in the jungles of Southeast Asia. This was not my war. Given my disdain for the superficial Western way of life, Vietnam was the very last place on earth I intended to be found. I appealed my classification, claiming to be psychologically unfit for military service, and was subsequently invited to meet with an Army psychologist to determine if, in spite of my claim, the Army had a space I could fill. A whole lot was riding on the coming meeting. We had decided that if I didn’t get a deferment we would leave America and become part of a growing community of draft resisters in Canada.
On the day of my interview I rose up very early and proceeded to get into character. My plan was to take on the persona of someone out of touch with the normal world, strung out on drugs, without motivation or reason to live. This “person” was so disconnected that regardless of what my interviewer said, regardless of how he spoke — and he got rather angry at one point — my response was always the same, nothing. A few months later, I was informed that I had been given a 4F for my performance. (4F was an unconditional psychological deferment).
Life in those days was filled with rallies, marches, speeches, sit-ins, protests and riots in the streets. As much as we sympathized with the cause, we weren’t into the overthrow of America… violent or otherwise. Free love made much more sense to us. We half joked that the world needed a little LSD in the water supply to get everyone out of our rat-race-dog-eat-dog way of life to love each other. You may laugh, but we weren’t the only people that believed that.
The hippie scene was where it was at for us. Instead of marching with guns, we marched with candles and flowers. Through the streets of New York we went to stop the war. Down to Washington we went to stop the war. But, the more we protested, the more we marched, the more we saw that the war was inside.
The cause of the Black Panthers attracted us. We even took part in a few demonstrations. There was a quote from Eldridge Cleaver that called out to us: “If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.” We definitely did not want to be part of the problem.
One day we went to a local branch office to see how two white hippies could get involved in this ethnic struggle for freedom. Much to our dismay, what we found there was as filled with selfish ambition and strife as what we trying to get away from.
By this time I was so filled with frustration that it was impossible to continue working in the “make believe” world. I no longer had any desire to devote my life to getting a new car or a house in the country. The owner of the advertising agency I was working for also thought I’d be happier somewhere else.
For the next year Yonit worked as a secretary for a publishing company while I collected unemployment, climbed trees and looked to get free of myself. Smoking pot had become an everyday part of our life. It seemed that when I was stoned I could cope with just about anything. I found a safe place inside myself. The problem was that once the drugs wore off, I couldn’t find the place again.
A Sign in the Sky
One day we were standing on a bridge over the Hudson River looking south towards Manhattan. A great black cloud of polluted air sat over the entire island. Both of us were struck by the same thought: “We’ve got to get out of this place.” We were more than ready to renounce the world of materialism. So we packed our bags and set off on our journey into the cosmic realm and the supernatural.
The thinking coming out of India and the Far East really attracted us. The teachings of yoga and other Eastern religions had a sound that caught our ear: Be free. Put an end to karma. Get off the wheel. Surrender everything. Holding on to this world is what keeps us down. Here was a promise of much more than physical freedom; this was eternal freedom for the spirit and soul. We left Manhattan on our way to India and got as far as Philadelphia.
Yonit had lived there for a few years and had family there. We decided to stay around for a while before continuing our journey eastward. However, little by little, we got so involved in the Philadelphia New Age hippie community that we ended up renting an apartment, buying a used Volkswagen van and starting a business making stained glass lamps.
Compared to Manhattan, Philadelphia was like a small town. The buildings were just a few floors tall and people said hello in the streets. The area where we lived was filled with craft shops, modern theater companies, coffee houses and little boutiques. It was a mostly low-income neighborhood made up of Afro-Americans and spiritual pilgrims who had turned from the Establishment to find the road to higher consciousness and everlasting peace.
The Spiritual Teacher
Tom’s house was the main “drop-in” place in the area. The door was always open and there was always something going on inside. We had just been reading about one of India’s many “avatars” (supposedly God in the flesh for the age), Satya Sai Baba, who reportedly had supernatural power to create objects out of nothing and a seeming omniscience about events around the world, when Gil walked into the house. His physical appearance was nothing unusual but he had a charismatic “knowing” about him that drew us like a magnet. We had never seen anyone like him before. One philosopher we’d read maintained that people were continually catching glimpses of truth and falling asleep into forgetfulness. We needed someone to keep us awake…to help us remember. Could this be the one to teach us? Gil had just spent two years in India sitting under the very man we had been reading about Sai Baba.
Over the next few weeks, Gil showed up wherever we were. And wherever he was, all ears and eyes eventually turned his way. Wherever he was, we wanted to be. With his long hair, reddish beard and striped overalls, he was about the freest-flowing person we’d ever met. His message was simple: “Let go! Don’t hold on to anything! Everything around us is part of the ‘illusion.’”
The Strange Group
One afternoon Ken showed up at Tom’s house having just been released from the hospital after suffering a breakdown. Within days he became one of us. Together, Gil, Ken, Yonit and I went from house to house preaching our gospel of detachment from all material things. “Let go and let God.” Many people came and listened. Some even opened up their homes to us in search of the promised freedom. For the most part, folks hung around for a while but found us a little too radical. We seemed wild, but our goal of finding God (whatever that meant) was the center of our lives.
We developed our own style of worship. Putting our guitar into open tuning, we sang out at the top of our lungs, “Oh God, Oh God, Oh God, Oh God, Oh God, Oh God, Oh God, Oh God, Oh God, Oh God,” again and again and again.
Being that Ken, Gil, I were Jewish, we thought it would be a real high to worship “freely” in a synagogue. After locating the nearest one, Ken and I ventured out at a time when it was likely that no one else would be around. We sat quietly for a few minutes trying not to be self-conscious and then began to chant, “Oh God, Oh God, Oh God, Oh God, Oh God…” The more we went on, the louder and freer we became. After not too long the rabbi entered the sanctuary to see what the noise was. At that very instant, in a fit of exuberance, Ken jumped up from the pew, snapping the string suspenders that held up his jeans. Well, as was the custom of many a hippie, Ken did not believe in underwear. So there we were, calling out to God while the rabbi called the police. We sensed God directing us to worship elsewhere.
One snowy evening, sitting around a blazing fire, tripping on LSD, Ken was struck with the idea to take a video camera and film the cars going by on the country road. So, as you might expect from any red-blooded, freewheeling, let-go space cadet, he proceeded to don his birthday suit for the occasion. I don’t think he won an award for film of the year, but you can be sure that somewhere in the Pennsylvania hills, someone is telling his grandchildren about the naked cameraman in the snow.
Our manner of speaking was somewhat unusual also. We didn’t believe in ever saying “no,” so other phrases became necessary to convey the concept. The standard answer to a question like, “Do you know where Yonit is?” would be, “I am without the information.” Likewise, in order to reject an unwanted offer, we would say, “Without that” instead of “No.” This was serious business to Gil. He couldn’t tolerate any negativity whatsoever.
Once, while sitting around our living room, he asked a question to which Ken responded with a resounding “No.” Calmly but directly, Gil got up, walked over to where our guitar was standing, picked it up and politely smashed it over Ken’s head. Without batting an eyelash, Ken looked up at Gil, apologized for being negative and thanked him for the correction.
One day Gil told us he was going to London to find a lady he had met while hitchhiking in California who was supposed to be one of our group. Yonit decided to remain behind while the three of us had an adventure. The London immigration officials checked Ken’s and my passports and inquired as to our plans. We told them we were free men — children of God. We had neither plans, itinerary, nor money. We explained to them that we were committed to following the leading of God.
They were very understanding of our situation and asked us to wait in a little room down the hall. When they locked the door, we surmised that God had changed his plans for us. Within a few hours we were ushered aboard a Pan-Am jet to fly non-stop back to New York at the expense of the British government. Gil, however, got to spend several days in England. When he returned to Philadelphia, he was accompanied by Sara, a young English lady from the same corner of the twilight zone as the rest of us.
We had our own ideas of what “letting go” meant. To our way of thinking, it was a most unnatural thing for a man to wear a tie. And a suit was totally out of the question. Commitments such as these became principles of life.
When my sister-in-law sent us an invitation to her “traditional” wedding, at first we didn’t know what to do. What would I wear? Yonit thought of the perfect solution. She made me a caftan from her grandfather’s old white seersucker bedspread. For me the wedding proved to be an exercise in letting go of the fact that everyone was staring at me rather than at the bride, and that my six-foot-tall, 300-pound father-in-law wanted to strangle me before he threw me out.
It wasn’t long before it became evident to us that apart from our group of five, no one else in Philadelphia was really interested in finding God. Gil decided it was time to leave. Our expectation was so high that walking out of our apartment filled with appliances, clothes and furniture didn’t mean a thing. We offered our possessions to anyone that had a mind to carry them out. We told people in the street that we were going to find God and we were never coming back. Just one year earlier, Yonit and I had left New York en route to India. Though India was still thousands of miles away, we had already traveled worlds from our New York beginnings.
Into the green Volkswagen bus went a change of clothes, a 16-inch copper frying pan, a 5-gallon jug of water, a few hundred dollars and a guitar. The exhilaration of those days was a rush that promised to take us beyond any drug high, and hopefully, leave us there.
Gil was our “India.” Unpredictable, without the restrictions of our plastic society, and clear about the path to truth, he was an older, wiser brother who was on the verge of entering into the ultimate reality. I was going along for more than just the ride. I wanted to be with him. His confidence was my security. His words and glances became food for my soul. If he smiled, everything was fine. When he diverted his gaze, something was wrong. I was a long way from the executive that knew it all.
My identity had been dropped into a blender set for “puree.” There was no stopping now. There was no going back. A change also happened in our marriage. We were no longer clinging to each other as we sped through space. Clinging was not allowed. We were letting go of “pair bonding.” Pair bonding, or marriage, as we had formerly called it, was just another one of society’s attempts to set up artificial connections to provide a hiding place for the weak. A truly let-go person never needed to know what was coming next. He was totally in tune with the flow of life. Adopting this attitude was not easy, but the hope of the great release kept me going. I knew that there was a controlling intelligence in the universe without yet knowing what it was. Surely connecting to it was the only way to find peace.
The April sun warmed the air as the Green Bus headed for reality. We were pioneers in a spiritual rocket ship, catapulting into the unknown regions of inner space. Every cell of my body was screaming with excitement. Every breath was an ecstatic experience. The colors around me were brilliant beyond belief. We were alive! This was really happening! Yesterday and all that we knew as life and truth were gone. There was only Right Now.
The Magical Green Van
The hunk of green metal that was transporting our physical forms was like an enclosed magic carpet. The platform behind the driver’s seat was covered with two-inch thick foam and a rug. Indian bedspreads hung on the inside roof and walls. Sitting cross-legged in this mobile living room was one desperate man. I was filled with hope and expectation while being motivated by the knowledge that the entire world was sound asleep, watching a Technicolor dream with touch, sound, and smell, thinking they were awake. So intense was this realization and so dire the need to awaken, that if death itself was the only way out, then let’s die and be done with the nonsense. Oftentimes it would seem to me as though all of planet earth was nothing more than a great train station. And our time here would end when the train came. I wanted to shout so many times: “This is not it! This is only the station! Stop spending your life at the station! Get ready for the train! Pack your bags! The train will be here before you know it! Get ready!” Gil, Ken, Sara, Yonit and I set out from the station to flag down the train.
Gil was the only one of us who had ever just “lived off the land” before. The rest of us were city folk. Consequently, we looked to him for practical as well as spiritual direction. He was very much like a guide for a wilderness journey. What would we eat? How would we cook? What would we do when our money ran out? Where should we sleep? The potential questions were endless. And one belief alone put them to rest: whatever would happen would happen. This trip was inevitable. There was no other choice. And God, whoever he was, was certainly with us. We had nothing, so we had nothing to lose.
With winter just behind us, the warm climate of the South set our direction. Our routine was simple. We stayed on the road until daylight gave way to long shadows, at which time we searched for a plot of ground away from civilization to make camp.
Our main reason for leaving Philadelphia was that the spiritual height we desired to reach was all but unattainable in the midst of the constant negativity of “sleeping” people. We didn’t just run out on them, though. We tried to wake them up, but they just kept bringing us back down into the illusion. Still, we did what we could to help them. We invaded their houses, took their clothing, freed them of various cumbersome possessions, and even broke up their marriages. But they insisted on holding on to their crutches.
Our first stopping place turned out to be an old railway station that looked like it hadn’t seen a train since the days of the wild west. Signs of frequent travelers were all around — cold ashes from old campfires, discarded clothing, beer and wine bottles, empty rusted cans with the lids sticking up. The ground was so covered with broken glass that we couldn’t even sit down. Dinner was rice, vegetables and popcorn with honey. After dinner, we sat around the fire listening to Gil tell stories about India, Sai Baba, and the way to find God. I was so tired…morning arrived before I knew I was sleeping.
Sleeping in the garbage in the middle of the road that would lead us into eternity was an unlikely beginning for such an exalted journey. But we had no idea what to expect, anyway. It was real and that was enough.
After breakfast, we rolled up our sleeping bags, pointed the Green Bus south, and got ready for our next adventure. The atmosphere was perpetually electric. We lived in a continual state of expectancy. We were not the super-highway types. We mostly traveled on back roads, dirt roads, side roads, and no roads. With no particular destination, we were in no particular hurry. We were in search of an inner place.
The next morning found us in a typical middle-American backwoods country town. Main Street, all two blocks of it, was set on top of a hill right in the cow’s backyard. “Town” consisted of one traffic light, one cross street, a general store, and a handful of two-story white clapboard buildings. Coming to a stop in front of the general store, Gil decided we needed a chapati iron and went in. A few minutes later, he emerged with a big grin, a black iron skillet on which we would cook kneaded Indian flatbread, and a saucepan to make our “Drink.”
The Family, as we called ourselves, was set. We needed nothing else. The more we could let go of, the happier we were. The smaller our portion of the material world, the greater would be our capacity for God. We were free spirits. No longer bound by society’s norms, anything was possible. The entire world was a stage. Life was a play. In fact, we called it “The Movie.” Seated somewhere behind our eyes, we watched as unattached observers while the material world passed by in front of us.
Living “free” as we were, our times of bathing were mostly dependant on streams and ponds. One such opportunity presented itself near Lynchburg, Virginia (a southern town with neither hippies nor Jews). It was a beautiful little pond surrounded by trees, just off a main road. We pulled alongside a man and woman sitting in a car at the edge of the pond. Gil and Ken jumped out of the bus and walked over to their vehicle. “we’d sure like to go swimmin’,” Gil said, “But we ain’t got no swimmin’ britches.” The man gave some sort of affirmative-sounding response and Gil and Ken proceeded to remove their overalls.
As their unclad bottoms became visible, the man leaped from behind the wheel shouting something about not being able to do that there and crazy hippy something or others. Realizing that these people were not as free as we were, it seemed best to forget our swim and leave. Not thinking very much about the occurrence, we headed out of town. About 15 minutes had passed when we saw in our rearview mirror a police car with its lights flashing and sirens wailing. The young lady in the car by the pond had been the town judge= s daughter.
The courthouse/jail was a pristine white building surrounded by a nicely manicured lawn. The sheriff paced up and down the walkway repeating words like “outrage,” “disgraceful,” “amoral freaks” and other similar phrases. One minute it sounded like he was going to lock us up and the next like he would settle for kicking our behinds out of town. Then Gil cried out a “minor profanity” to the sheriff, to which his response was, “Lock them up!” Since Gil and Ken were the only ones who got caught with their pants down, the rest of us didn’t get to spend the night in jail.
We all met together in the courthouse the following morning for the hearing. All clean and scrubbed, Gil and Ken stood to face the judge. The court appearance was short. The judge looked at Gil and they exchanged a few words, when the judge, apparently taken by Gil’s charisma, was moved to send us on to our next adventure.
Being that our journey was really more inner than outer, one place was much like another. Four o’clock came in North Carolina just like anywhere else. We turned onto a dirt road in search of our campsite only to arrive at the top of a dead-end street. Turning around to go back down, we saw a car blocking the entrance to the road. Sensing that something was wrong, we approached the bottom very slowly.
Several vehicles had gathered around the entrance to the road. The scene was rather chaotic. One person was nervously tossing a rock up into the air. Another pointed a shotgun in our direction and suggested we get out of the van. The daughter of the lady with the rock had been abducted by some people in a green van while walking along the road, and released shortly thereafter unharmed. “The Movie” had taken a new twist.
The girl was being brought over to see if we were the guilty ones. Even though we weren’t, we knew that she could say we were and we would see God sooner than we expected. Fortunately, she was truthful and we went our way. The man with the gun, however, was so disappointed that the State Police escorted us out of the area for our own protection.
Our search intensified as we were reminded just how much we didn’t fit into this world.
Day after day we would drive from morning to evening looking for signs from God to direct our journey. Our signs, of course, were not normal road signs. Broken trees, piles of rocks, flocks of birds, or muscular twitches might be the indicators of whether to turn right or left.
A Gil I Did Not Know
The day was almost gone and the lush new green of Spring was mixed with the golden glow of the late afternoon sun. The bus rolled up to the entrance of what looked like a small ranch house in central Arkansas. Gil got out and approached the house, which was set several yards back from the gravel road. Perhaps the residents would be able to direct us to a place where we might camp for the night. We four sat in the bus and waited. Gil emerged from the house followed by an elderly country gentleman. “Welcome home,” he said. The Colonel (as he was called) was apparently intrigued by this rather unusual “group of pilgrims” and invited us to camp on his lawn. For several days we enjoyed staying put. Mostly we stayed outside but were able to use the bathroom and shower in the house.
Gil had the opportunity to “preach” our “Let Go Gospel” to the Colonel. He seemed interested at first and began calling Gil Jesus Christ. We soon saw that the Colonel and his wife were no ordinary folks themselves. The inside of the house was kept very dark and had a musty smell to it. The place was filled with relics from the Civil War. At dinnertime the old couple would sit at opposite ends of a long wooden table feeding their dogs burnt toast from the ends of plastic fly swatters. This was a novel experience for us all. But the novelty soon wore off and it was time to look for the next sign.
Something very unexpected happened at the Colonel’s. Up to this point Gil was always warm, friendly, and filled with laughter. One day, when the rest of us returned from a visit to town, a different Gil was waiting to meet us. His hair was fixed on top of his head in a knot and his railroad-striped overalls had been laid aside in favor of a dhoti (a simple piece of cloth worn in India which was wrapped several times around the waist and folded down at the top). Moreover, his face had changed. His eyes were fixed, his jaw was set, and a strange austerity covered him like a cloud.
Now we understood why he always wanted to be away from people. They caused him to come out of himself and relate, while his need was to go deep within to find the hidden passageway to eternal bliss. We were there to serve his needs…to care for him and help him get free. Our hope was to catch some of the fallout of his discovery. Gil’s change was shocking and unsettling. But we were in too deep to get out. We could never go back. For the first time, I was scared. After being together in Philadelphia, I thought I knew who Gil was. But here was someone I had never seen. From that moment on, the trip had become “let go or else…”
His tolerance for anything negative grew smaller and smaller. Questions, doubts, fears, and uncertain looks made him furious. And as it turned out, I was the one with most of the aforementioned attitudes. I became the scapegoat and reason everything went wrong that went wrong. It was my attitude that held everyone else back from moving closer to union with God. Not only were there constant verbal reminders, but also minor beatings became a regular occurrence in an effort to wake me out of my state. Since my only desire was to be stripped of my selfishness and egotistical pride, I counted the harsh treatment as what I needed, and continued to “let go.”
The breadth of Gil’s knowledge was amazing. His practical wisdom was equal to the spiritual insights that attracted us in the first place. And what he hadn’t learned through experience, he seemed to have a way of just figuring out.
One time, camping alongside the Rio Grande River in Texas, Gil had us gather up some fairly large stones and place them in the middle of a blazing campfire. While the rocks heated up, we made a dome-like frame a few yards in diameter by bending young willows and tying then together at the top. Next we covered the frame with blankets and dug a pit inside for the rocks. We all got inside and sprinkled water on the rocks with sage branches. When the steam and heat got too much for us to stand, we ran out of the sauna and jumped into the icy-cold river.
We saw America — from back woods to hick towns, to deserts, to forests, to rivers, to mountains and canyons. We saw America! But I was so deep inside myself searching for the meaning of life, that it was hard to really appreciate the incredible beauty all around us. I was in the middle of a complete personality breakdown. The channels of my mind had been re-routed. All the reference points had disappeared. In two short years I had gone from being sharp, together, confident, and self-assured to being a whimpering, confused “kid” who lived in paralyzing fear of doing something wrong.
There was no choice but to go on. The truth had to be found. It didn’t matter what price I had to pay. There was a God. One day I would see Him, and my search would end. Until then, the Green Bus would keep leaving every place He wasn’t.
Nomads on the Way
We drove and drove and drove. Most of the time, one night was all we ever stayed anywhere. By the time five months would pass, our VW bus would cover 15,000 miles of America’s back roads.
Every night we slept under the stars. The infinite expanse of the clear night sky was a dramatic contrast to what I experienced looking into my inner space. After each day and one more failed attempt at finding release, the heavens above continued to cry out, “It’s out there, it’s out there. Keep going. Don’t give up.”
Our diet consisted of rice, vegetables, flatbread, popcorn, oatmeal, and citrus with water and honey for drink. We ate neither meat nor anything made with chemicals. How we got our food was unusual. When we left Philly, our purse had several hundred dollars. This was mainly used for gas, rice, and flour. Our fruits and vegetables came gratis. We would go from store to store asking if there was any bruised produce they were throwing away. We usually did pretty well, though our menu was out of our control.
One time we got boxes and boxes of cantaloupes. It seems like for the better part of a week we ate nothing but cantaloupes. We ate so many cantaloupes that by the time they were all gone, what came out looked remarkably like it did when it went in.
Occasionally, we resorted to climbing into the dumpsters behind the markets when there was nothing else available. Can you picture driving through America in 1972 and seeing a man wearing an Indian bedspread with a long beard and his hair in a topknot climbing out of a dumpster? It’s a good thing my mother missed that scene.
The Green Bus was a real trip in itself. It didn’t go over 40 mph and couldn’t make it up steep hills. Whenever we came to a grade, Yonit, Ken, Sara and I would wait near the top. Gil would charge up the hill as far as the engine would take him and we’d get behind and push the rest of the way.
Somewhere during the middle part of our journey, the starter went out. We had to roll down a hill in second gear and pop the clutch or crawl underneath and jump it with a screwdriver. Guess who spent most of the time on the ground. One time, while in the manual starting process, the emergency brake was not sufficiently engaged and the van began to roll over me. I managed to get out just in time by slipping out of my jacket, which had already been caught under the wheel.
It wasn’t just the English that preferred that we did not visit their country. So did the Canadians. Can you imagine being denied entry to Canada? What led up to this began on Yonit’s birthday at the end of June.
We had camped for two weeks in a national forest outside of Helena, Montana. It was the only time we stayed so long in one place. On the afternoon of June 30th, without any warning, Gil got into the bus and began to drive away. He was leaving us stranded with no money in the woods of Montana. We were somewhat freaked out but not all that surprised. Actually, we lived in fear of such a thing happening one day. Every morning, whenever he felt the urge, he would exclaim, “The Green Bus is leaving.” Anyone not ready would be left behind. We told ourselves that it was no big deal. After all, it was only a movie anyway.
This time, without a word, we heard the sound of the tires rolling down the road. Ken and I bolted for the bus. Ken grabbed the front door and swung himself into the front seat like John Wayne might have mounted a galloping steed. I got hold of one of the two back doors as they swung wildly. But with the bus barreling down the rocky forest trail, I was unable to get inside and was eventually thrown off as Gil and Ken drove out of the forest.
Sara, Yonit and I were stunned. We had been left behind.
In the face of such a circumstance, the only reasonable thing to do was to eat. Almost as though nothing had happened, we clicked into our normal routine of gathering wood, making a fire, kneading the dough, preparing the vegetables and cooking dinner. Just as we were beginning to eat, the Green Bus returned. Out came an irate Gil. We were eating without him. Of course it was my fault and a good swat across the head was in order.
Gil had merely decided to go into town to buy a special treat for us at the health food store. For some reason, however, while he was out, he decided to stop speaking. The “holy men” in India call it “going moan.” It’s a season of “holding your verbal energy inside.” From then on, all Gil’s communication was in sign language, which Ken interpreted. Between the two of them, they developed their own signs. Ken was really honored to be Gil’s mouthpiece. Gil’s tolerance for things that broke his flow was not small…it was non-existent. So Ken’s periodic stumblings would usually leave the imprint of Gil’s hand somewhere on his head.
This brings us back to the Canadian border, if you recall. The customs official asked us some very routine questions as a normal course of events. But Gil was “moan.” The official had difficulty grasping the deep spiritual significance of the situation and determined that if Gil didn’t speak, we didn’t get into Canada.
The Crazy Race
So we continued,
mile after mile,
from dumpster to dumpster,
from highway to rocky road,
in search of God.
With our hunger to touch the majesty of creation, we really tripped out in the Redwood forest in California. Talk about big, tall, and mighty! Driving down a mountain road, however, brought us closer to the eternal than we had anticipated. Gil took the driver’s seat out of the van and replaced it with the body of an easy chair. Sitting lower and further back than normal, he could just about see over the dashboard. It looked pretty cool.
The road was narrow and very winding, with sheer drop-offs into “bottomless” chasms. We had been saying that the material world was just an illusion and A the real@ would come after we got out of here. Our faith in that belief was about to be tested.
Going downhill, the Green Bus had no trouble getting above 40 mph. It seemed like Gil never used the brakes. Our tires were often mere inches from the abyss. Yonit screamed the whole way down. Without saying a word Gil’s being shouted out, “Let go… let go… let go!”
I remembered that my cousin Jeff, who once taught yoga in New Mexico, lived outside San Francisco. We called him up expecting to find a kindred spirit and instead found that he had come to believe in Jesus. How could a Jew believe in Jesus? Jeff was being immersed the next day. He invited us to attend. What a trip. Jewish yoga instructor turns to the God of the gentiles. This promised to be a unique experience.
We had met some so called “born again” believers on a few occasions. Actually we sort of felt sorry for them. They thought that they had to somehow receive God into themselves. They didn’t understand that God was already everywhere in all things and that His nature in each of us just needed to be uncovered.
The immersion was at a swimming pool in someone’s back yard. I really didn’t have a clue as to what it meant, but my reaction to this ritual was much the same as it was to the Christians we’d met along the way. Jesus had a lot of good things to say. Even though they were misguided, they were really nice people and if they really followed Jesus’ teachings, they’d do all right.
Cousin Jeff told us of a commune in the Santa Cruz mountains where we would be welcome to camp out. “The Land,” as it was called, was 800 acres of rolling hills and meadows, with an underground spring flowing out at the base of a tree. A man that had made a bundle of money in the video industry owned the property. Some years back he had let a group of draft resisters occupy the place and set up an alternative lifestyle.
At the entrance to “The Land” was a grouping of buildings equipped with plumbing and electricity. Scattered throughout the rest of the place were a variety a funky dwellings nestled under the trees. There were tents, wood houses, tepees, A-frames, and even a geodesic dome. Everything needed to be hidden from sight because they were not up to code and would be bulldozed if discovered. In the center of the place was the Cook Shack, a shared kitchen with running water and propane stove. Things were pretty loose there.
Some people worked.
Some people didn’t.
Some did drugs.
Some wore clothes.
We found a clearing on a hilltop in a walnut orchard right in the middle of a cow pasture and set up camp. No sooner did we get settled than the bus broke down. After two weeks, the bus got fixed and we headed south to a Sai Baba ashram (retreat house) in the Mexican border town of Tecate…all except Yonit. As it turned out, she had wanted to leave for some time. During the time we were stuck at the commune, Yonit formed a few connections and worked up the courage to get off the bus. Seeing my wife break with the group was a hard thing. But we were not into pair bonding, so off I went.
The Group Breaks Up
The ashram was a real treat. Showers and indoor plumbing was a nice change from icy mountain streams and digging holes in the woods. I became particularly fond of a big old hammock on a hillside set over a pristine valley with dramatic rock formations and a wide variety of shrubbery. The calm spiritual atmosphere helped me adjust to Yonit not being with us anymore.
My repose was broken by Ken’s sergeant-like tones, “Pack the bus, we’re leaving.” That did it for me. I had had it with being told when to stay and where to go and what to think. I wasn’t going and neither was the bus.
Nirvana was nowhere in sight. We had left neither our bodies nor our egos. As a matter of fact, it seemed like Gil’s ego had increased in size. I gave it all I had and got nothing in return.
The hopes and expectations we had in Philadelphia were unfulfilled with no reason to think that they would ever be realized. Gil and Ken would just have to find someone else to kick around. I decided to drive back to “The Land.” Given the option of hitchhiking to New York with the silent yogi, Sara chose to stay with the Green Bus.
I was welcomed back onto the commune like a long-lost brother. Everyone said how I belonged there. Some nights I slept in the bus, some nights in other people’s houses, and some nights out with the cows.
The ending of the road trip seemed only to multiply my confusion. Did I miss it? Did I just not have what it took? Was I just too scared to let go? My mind was plagued from morning till night. Sleep was my only refuge. Everything I tried had come to nothing. I had nowhere to turn.
Yonit, on the other hand, got right into the groove of this eclectic community. She found a pretty little spot and built herself a 12-foot-square shack, complete with a sleeping loft and wood stove.
The “Trip” on the Hill
Drugs were not the main attraction at “The Land,” but they were never in short supply either. One night, at the end of a late party, about eight of us decided to drop some acid and experience a sunrise. So in the last minutes of a chilly September night, a handful of sojourners wrapped in blankets and sleeping bags atop The Land’s highest hill witnessed the birth of a day, and no one moved until the sun went down behind us. From the rising of the sun to its setting, we sat. Time seemed to stand still. It was always Now.
Though Yonit was sitting right in front of me, we might as well have been separated by an ocean for all that remained between us. We were no longer the people we used to be. The man she married had been outwardly self-assured, directed, and very much in control. The woman I married was fearful, anxious, given to depression, and needing to be loved. The cards were shuffled and new hands were dealt out. The roles had been reversed. It was a strange feeling. This was my wife. We had lived together. Deep inside, I wanted to be with her again, but that life was past…dead and gone.
From the time we met Gil in Philadelphia, our marital relationship had steadily disintegrated. That was what we thought was supposed to happen. We were supposed to be unattached to everything and everyone. I was confused and aimless, depressed, lost, and alone. I had no home and no friends. I had let go of everything. I had reached my goal.
While the others joked and had fun, I was in my own world. It was how I spent most of my time. Wrestling with existence. Contending with emptiness. Looking for the door. Searching for the key. Reaching for the light. Up till now, there had always been another path to try, something else to explore, one more ray of hope, one more voice crying out, “Over here, it’s over here, this is the way!”
At some point during the day we spent seated on the hilltop, I pondered a thought. What would it be like on a desert island with one other person? I imagined interacting with this other strandee. I imagined that I was a person of noted accomplishments. After relating all that I had done, several times over, what would I say? What would I do? Who would I be? I knew in that instant that nothing I could or would ever do or become would change who I was. Who I was had nothing at all to do with what I did. I discovered an empty place that I could never fill.
I wanted to cry but my heart was too numb. Like stone I sat. In disbelief I viewed the end of my life. There was nowhere to go. All my hope was lost. All my dreams had vanished. Sitting…from sunup to sundown, this was the story of my life. With all our traveling and searching, I had not moved…at all.
A Strange Prayer
One morning soon after my hilltop experience, my cousin Jeff and a friend of his came by the tent I was sleeping in and woke me up. They wanted to talk to me about Jesus. In all of my life, I was never interested in the “Christian” God. While growing up, I wouldn’t so much as set foot on the steps of a church. To me it was a heathen place filled with statues of saints and idol worship. They said Jesus was the Messiah and that he wanted to come into my heart. I didn’t really relate to the Messiah thing and the bit about Him coming into my heart sounded pretty weird.
There were many things I was sure were not the answer, money, materialism, drugs, sex, politics, marriage, knowledge, Eastern religions, non-attachment…I had given myself to all these things and got nothing back but empty promises. In truth I could not say that I knew that what they were saying about Jesus was false.
I believed in God. But I didn’t really know who or what He was. Yet I was sure that there was only one of Him. I knew that just because someone chose to believe this way or that didn’t make it true. God was who God was. Nothing anyone could say or think would change that fact. I certainly didn’t believe what they said, but to throw it off based upon what I had heard from others would put me in the same box as the narrow-minded hypocrites I was trying to get away from.
I had come too far to stop now. I had tried everything that seemed reasonable. I had no choice but to give this an equal shot. Surely God would not hide from someone trying to find Him with every ounce of strength he had. If what they said was true, then Jesus himself would surely tell me. About this I had no doubt.
How would He speak?
Would I know it was Him?
How would I be sure?
The answer was simple. If God created man with ears, eyes, mind and mouth, then God knew something about communicating. He would know how to reach me so that I would know it was Him.
Jeff asked if I wanted to give my life to Jesus and invite Him to live in me. I really had no idea what he was talking about. It actually seemed like a dumb question. Jesus, if he was there at all, first had to show himself to me in some sort of direct revelation. If he convinced me that he was The One, then that would be that. As wild as I had been, everything I tried had been approached through a very logical process. From the outset, it was obvious to me: when you connect with the Creator of the universe, you stop calling the shots.
So I prayed…out loud…for the first time in my life. It was weird to talk to “the air.” Was anyone out there? If He was, He would answer. “Jesus,” I said, the words choking in my throat, “My heart is open to you. Come into my life and show me your way.”
Jeff and his friend seemed pleased. They read a few passages from the Bible, prayed a blessing over me and left. No bells, no lights, no sirens, no whistles…just silence and emptiness…nothing new, nothing different. Within minutes after they had gone, it was like they never had come. I was still alone.
Up to that day, the deepest well in my soul was filled with loneliness. The first time I saw that space was during an acid trip several years previously in our New York apartment. As the drug took hold, I became aware of the essence of my being. Call it my spirit. It wasn’t part of my body. My body was just the house it lived in. My body was to my spirit like clothing was to my body. As was usually the case for me, psychedelic drugs only emphasized my awareness of being out of sync with creation. As Yonit tried to help me, I became conscious that there was an unbridgeable chasm between us. No other person had access to the spirit place inside. I knew that no human being could reach into this well of infinite, absolute darkness.
As October began on The Land, the specter of the winter rains drew closer. The house I was building needed to be finished. The posts were in the ground. The floor was down. The walls and windows were framed out.
One day while tripping on acid and hammering away, instead of hitting the nail in the wood, I hit the nails at the ends of two of my fingers. It was a big hammer. And I took a full swing. For hours my fingers throbbed without release.
Needing to do something to get my mind off the pain, I went to a friend= s house to cook some food. They had a propane stove which needed to be lit by hand. I opened the gas valve and struck a match, holding it near the gas jet. The flame went out. With the gas still pouring out, I lit another match. A huge blue flame engulfed my whole face. The force of the explosion threw me backwards about six feet and out the front door. My hair and beard were singed off and my face felt like it was on fire. It sure made me forget about my fingers. One thought occupied my mind: “I’ve got to get out of this place while I can still walk.”
A Change of Scenery
It had been months since I’d had any contact with my parents. The last time I saw my mother was when Gil, Ken and I took a trip to New York before leaving Philadelphia. We had felt a responsibility to at least try to convince them that the only way to find God was to let go of everything else. My poor mother was so freaked out by us three long-hairs. All she could think of was Charles Manson (a cult leader turned murderer). She called my father at work and he asked us to leave.
Nevertheless, when I called from California in my desperation, they were there to help as always. Within days, I had a round trip ticket to visit them. I figured that a week away would be enough and I would be back in time for the big Halloween party on The Land.
Being at home was good. Eight months of homelessness had worn me out. Sleeping in a bed gave me a sense of well-being. In just a few days the thoughts of California began to drift from my mind. I changed my return reservation several times. Eventually I decided not to return at all.
As good as my body felt outside, the emptiness continued to eat at my insides. Thinking was my greatest enemy. With it came doubt and confusion of epic proportions. My only release was to be busy.
There was plenty of extra work at the cheese store where my father worked. Twelve hours a day I cut cheese, made gift boxes, and ran errands. But after a few months the darkness found me again. I was almost 26 and still had no idea what life was really about. I needed a place where I could let go. I couldn’t stay at my parents’ apartment any longer.
Early in January of 1973, I rang up an old musician friend I used to jam with. He was looking for someone to rent his studio for $95 a month. It was on Ninety-Seventh Street and Fifth Avenue, facing Central Park. It was not really an apartment. The walls were cinder block. The floor was concrete, pipes hung from the ceiling, the bathroom was down the hall, and there was no running water and no gas. From the one small window, you could see people, from the knees down.
Living in a basement storage room did have its advantages, however. I could make all the noise I wanted, and it was cheap. It suited my needs just fine. But the ache in my soul never went away.
I had no interest in religion.
Drugs were a dead end.
People helped “a little” .
As long as they were there.
Revelation in the Basement
One night towards the end of February, at three o’clock in the morning, I was awakened out of a sound sleep. I heard no sound and saw no image, yet I knew someone else was in the room. The name “Jesus” kept going over and over in my mind. The presence was awesome. I’d never experienced anything like it in my life. A sense of limitless power washed over my consciousness. I had never been more awake. I just knew that this “being” knew everything I had ever done, every word I had ever said, and every thought that had ever crossed my mind. I was naked from the inside out. Then, even more overwhelming than the sense of infinite knowledge and power, came a wave of unconditional love. I was filled from head to toe. I could feel love – pure love – pouring into my heart. There was no fear, only love…so much love that I couldn’t contain it.
I reached for my guitar and began to sing, “Jesus, I love you…Jesus I love you.” The very love that came from him to me was now going back to him. In a moment, all the emptiness, all the loneliness, and that constant ache were completely gone.
I was full.
The empty place was full.
I wasn’t alone anymore.
My mind began to spin.
What’s going on?
Why is this happening?
Where did this come from?
Am I becoming a “Jesus freak”?
What will my parents think?
What will my friends think?
(Somehow I had totally forgotten about the time in the tent on The Land with cousin Jeff when I asked Jesus to come into my life and show me his way).
A Conditional Invitation
Then he spoke. It was not with an audible voice, but as surely as I knew that I was awake, I knew that I wasn’t hearing my own thoughts. What he said made that very clear: “This is the love I have for you to dwell in forever. You have to give yourself to Me to have it.”
He asked me to give myself to him. I understood what that meant, all right. Whatever he would say, I would do. No questions, no “ifs,” no “ands,” no “buts”…total and complete surrender of my independence to him. What a concept. It was too much for me to deal with. I couldn’t just give myself to someone else. I just couldn’t. No other words were spoken. Nothing else was communicated. He heard my thoughts and left. I went back to sleep.
When I awoke, the reality of the experience was still with me. Was it a dream? My mind was completely occupied with the request. “Give yourself to me!” I considered the ramifications of such an action. I was simply afraid to do it. The whole thing bordered on the surreal. But if it never really happened, why would I be afraid of giving myself to someone who didn”t really exist? It could not have been a dream. The reasons for fear were obvious:
Who could be trusted with the control of another’s life? How could one be sure he would not be used or exploited?
But what if there were someone who would never require anything of you that wasn’t in your best interest, and you could be sure of that at the beginning? And what if that someone were the only one that could do something for you that you couldn’t do for yourself…that you desperately needed and could not live without?
If that were the deal,
and those were the conditions,
only a fool would pass it by.
But how could you ever trust someone that much?
I didn’t know much about Jesus. I had heard something about him giving up his life for the sins of others. I didn’t really relate to that, but if it was true, then he was someone that could be trusted.
In less than a week the remembrance of my meeting with Jesus was out of my mind. Not one thought of it came up. Instead, I had a great restlessness to get my life moving. I needed to get the past behind me and start over. Yonit and I were still legally married, but the marriage didn’t really exist anymore. It was history. I needed to get a divorce.
End of A Chapter in My Life
Within weeks, a letter arrived from Yonit. It was the first time I’d heard from her since leaving The Land. She told me she believed in Jesus. I couldn’t believe it. She had really lost it. I immediately wrote back to her, “When are you going to stand on your own two feet? You are just looking for another guru to follow.” Now I was sure I had to get a divorce.
Once more Mom and Dad paid for another plane ticket. Their only stipulation was that under no condition would I bring Yonit back. They thought that she had been the cause of all my troubles. Before I’d met her I was a perfectly normal money-hungry egomaniac, stepping on other people as I clawed my way up the ladder of success.
On May 10, 1973, without letting anyone at the commune know I was coming, I landed in San Francisco, caught a bus into Palo Alto, hitched up Page Mill Road and arrived at The Land. Things were pretty much the same as when I had left eight months before. I, on the other hand, had undergone some changes. My beard was gone, my hair was short, and brown velour pants replaced the dhoti. I was as straight looking as could be. If I hadn’t told people who I was, they never would have guessed. Tired from my trip, I made my way to the “Dome,” found an empty mattress and went to sleep. Yonit was at a music festival and wasn’t expected back for a few days.
After renewing some friendships the next day down the hill from the Land, I headed for the house where my cousin Jeff lived. He wasn’t there, but the folks made me feel at home. Over and over, one after the other, they told me, “You need Jesus, you need to be saved.” I answered them, “I love God. I’ve got God in my heart.”
They just shook their heads and kept droning on about Jesus. After a few rounds of their narrow religious rap I decided to head back to the Land. I was anxious to see Yonit and figure out the easiest way to get this divorce thing going so I could have my new start.
A New Beginning
It was strange being in the Dome again. It was at the same time familiar and also like I had never been there before. A stream still ran by the back. It was a peaceful place. The moment I had anticipated for days arrived. The door opened and in walked Yonit. There was a surprising ease between us. Not at all what I expected. No tension, no animosity, no venom. Somehow, we were just like two friends, exchanging pleasantries.
Before I had a chance to mention the reason for my coming, she asked me how I was doing and if I was telling people about Jesus. Her question took me by surprise. “Why would I do that?” I replied. “Well then, what happened in the tent last year with Jeff and Dianne?” she asked.
That simple question exploded in my mind. The tent! The prayer in the tent! Suddenly I remembered what had happened. Jesus coming to me in the basement was the answer to the prayer I had prayed back in August. I asked him to prove himself to me by coming into my heart and showing me his way. He did exactly what I had asked him to do.
It was true.
He was the Messiah.
My search was over.
I had found the way to God!
For my whole life it was as if a veil had been over my mind. Then in a flash it was lifted. For the first time I could really see. Try to imagine being born blind and in an instant seeing. Light flooded my inner darkness, a golden light filled the very room, and the peace and love I had so desperately looked for filled my heart. He did for me what I couldn’t do for myself. Tears streamed down my cheeks.
Meanwhile Yonit, waiting for an answer to her question, saw me start to weep and asked, “What did I say?” I could hardly speak, yet I managed to tell her that I knew it was true. Jesus was, Jesus is the one…the Messiah of Israel, and somehow I also knew that the Old and New Testament, which I had never really read, was also true.
Yonit began to cry. We sat there, together, hugging and crying. Who could have ever imagined such a moment? In a flash we went from being worlds apart to sharing the most intimate fellowship we had ever known. God had given us new lives. All my questions were gone and so was the emptiness.
* * *
There remains a pivotal question, which was posed in the movie “The Matrix”:
Do we want the red pill … or the blue pill?
* * *
2003 Copyright by Arni Klein