When I was six years old, I had my first love affair. Yes, really. Of course, not until years later did I recognize the experience for what it was. But like every first love, it changed my life forever. My father was a jazz musician, so our house was equipped with the best possible sound equipment. He and I loved to listen to music—just about any music available—at full volume, of course. This, my mother, could not stand—which made it, even more, exciting. While my playmates roamed the hills of Hollywood skinning their knees, I would lie on my belly in our living room, listening to music as loud as I could make it.
One day, combing through our vast supply of records, I came upon Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring." The name meant nothing to me. But I liked the colors on the cover, so I put it on the record player, turned up the volume and flopped down in front of our huge speakers. Strange, mysterious, discordant sound flooded my body, opening a secret door to somewhere deep inside me—a mysterious inner world I had never entered. I didn't know such a place even existed. I trembled with fear and excitement while Stravinsky's music continued to wind its way through my body. I flushed hot and then cold. My heart raced, then calmed. I lost all sense of place and time as I rode the waves of an imaginal sea of sound into unexplored worlds, too numerous to name.
I have no idea how long all this lasted. Eventually, even the "boat" carrying me along on vivid images began to dissolve like sugar in water. In a perfect union, the sounds and the child-that-had-been-me swirled into a vortex and became lost in each other. We shared the excitement, fear, longing, fierceness, and sadness. As lovers, we had come together—music and child—in an immediate, passionate, all-encompassing union. Eventually, I found myself at the center of this whirlpool. Then, even the ecstasy of the movement vanished. Like Alice down the rabbit hole, I tumbled—not into Wonderland, but into an experience of unspeakable stillness.
Zen practitioners claim this experience is available at any moment to each one of us. For me, it was an indescribable event—beyond space, beyond time, outside thought. Without the slightest possibility of ever being able to describe it, I knew that everything was as perfect as it was meant to be. In the words of Zen Master Daisetz Suzuki, in this place, I would eat when I am hungry, sleep when tired. I knew that "it was fine yesterday and today it is raining." In the words of Julian of Norwich, I was sure that "All things shall be well, and all things shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well."
My affair with Stravinsky lasted more than four hours. At least, that's what my mother said. "Don't tell me you are still listening to that awful music." She had to raise her voice to be heard above the sounds. "For God's sake, turn it off. Do something useful."
So I did something useful. I went to school, then to university where I learned, at least, some of what you are supposed to learn. I earned praises for top marks, went to work, won prizes, gave birth to four children by four different men, raised them on my own, wrote books, made films, gave talks, led workshops, created products for companies, made television programs and so on and so on. In effect, I did what millions of men and women do—I became the breadwinner, the caretaker, the nurturer of people's lives.
Through all the years between six and now, my passion for music, painting, books, poetry, architecture and movies has never left me. Far from it. During all of these years, the epiphany of emptiness that Stravinsky brought to me that day and the sense of absolute stillness has never faded. It has made it possible for me to create so many things as well as to explore new places and ideas. It's invited me to move beyond thought towards a place of unity with the rest of the universe. All this continues gnawing at me. I suspect it will never go away, just as the urge to breathe never goes away, no matter how long we try to hold our breath.
What I did not know—and this took me scores of years to find out—is that the rabbit hole into which I had unexpectedly tumbled has for millennia, been, described by every culture and religion in the world in one form or another. Nor had I any idea that, at any moment in time, regardless of the circumstances of our lives, it is available to each of us.
To Zen Buddhists, this wordless, timeless space represents ultimate reality: That which can only come through immediate experience. In Suzuki's words, "For the sake of those crucial experiences Zen Buddhism has struck out on its own paths which, through methodical immersion in oneself, lead to one's becoming aware, in the deepest ground of the soul, of the unnameable Groundlessness and Qualitylessness—nay more, to one's becoming one with it."
It is a state in which nothing is thought or contrived, longed for or expected. It reaches out in no particular direction, yet it knows itself able to handle the possible as well as the impossible. Concentrated, yet so expanded too, such power is both purposeless and egoless. As such, it can be called truly spiritual. Why? I believe because it is charged with an awareness that spirit is present everywhere. Because the cosmos is present everywhere, we too are present everywhere. We can have direct experience of this, and access the power that continues to create the universe itself. And we have full access to that power of creation to use in our lives, in whatever way we choose.
The Sufis call this state fana—the annihilation of your individual selfhood. When you experience fana, your everyday personality becomes transparent, so the larger being that you are shines through. You soon become absorbed in an all-encompassing fascination for the moment. Life is lived in the NOW. Cutting-edge physicists speak of a holographic universe in which we live but seldom access because we are plagued by endless mental concepts that blind us to so-called reality. This blinds us to the experience of Samadhi—"a non-dualistic state in which the consciousness of the subject becomes one with an experience of the object." This selfless absorption and total surrender of Samadhi is characteristic of children when left alone to follow their instincts. It is available to each one of us, regardless of age or condition. Honoring whatever brings you bliss in your life opens the door to it.
That day, when I lay on the floor lost in Stravinsky, without recognizing, I became conscious of it what would inspire me most: The beauty of art—whether it be music, words, stories, sculpture, buildings or what-have-you. Why? Certainly not because I had any idea that art was supposed to be valued as part of what grown-ups refer to as culture. I couldn't have cared less. After all, I was a kid who, when not entranced by what I was seeing, hearing, feeling or touching, spent the rest of my day learning card tricks, wrestling with my huge dog Tuffy, and trying—unsuccessfully—to sell packets of chewing gum which my grandfather gave me to neighbors' kids. Nope—I loved the beauty and wonder of art in all its many forms because, unlike the world around me, with which had little in common, it had grabbed hold of me and would never let me go. It demanded of me both a submission as well as active participation in the making of it. I now believe that my first love affair at the age of six became the harbinger for how I have lived my life.
At any moment in time, regardless of the circumstances of our lives, fana is available to all of us regardless of age. Honoring whatever brings you bliss opens the door to it for you.