Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Prakash

The biggest personality in the Santa Cruz Center was Prakash. He was a big, lumbering, teddy-bear of a man who seemingly sold real estate for no other reason than to fund his passion for racket sports.

His spiritual reputation preceded him. Charlie's brother Dave had, on numerous occassions, told us the story of Prakash's "transcedental experience." The scare quotes aren't meant to call into question the validity of Prakash's experience. That's just what everyone called it: Prakash's transcendental experience.

The transcendental experience was of obvious import to Praksash and unquestionably significant -- one needed only watch Prakash's countenance light up as he related the story to understand the impact that it had had on him. I'm not aware of whether he ever recaptured that peak experience, but like Tantulus -- ever reaching for the fruit just out of his reach -- Prakash's memory of the transcendental experience seemed to motivate him forward.

Today, my memory only goes so far as the story's ending.

While still under the effect of this high state of consciousness, Prakash found himself in a prasad line about to receive a piece of fruit from Sri Chinmoy's hand. As he stood in front of Guru, Prakash said that he tried to share his transcendental experience with Guru. Prakash didn't say "offer" the experience to Guru, but "share," as if Guru hadn't had access to such a state himself.

Now, I -- newly converted -- was a fanatic rule follower at the time Prakash related this tale to me. I could be quite rigid in my interpretation of what was "right" and what was "wrong." Nevertheless, the attitude implicit in Prakash's statement -- that he might have achieved something, albeit momentarily, that Guru himself hadn't -- struck me as significant. Prakash, at some level -- maybe only in potentiality -- felt himself equal to Guru. That's significant.

In one of the books I'd borrowed out of the Center library, Guru wrote that his disciples' worst quality was their "reverential awe" of him. That is, the feeling amongst the disciples that Guru was a divine being, perhaps born that way, whose spiritual height was forever out of their reach. This reverential awe is bad because it erects a barrier between the guru and his disciple.

Prakash's attitude -- which would have surely struck most in the wider Center as heretical -- was the antithesis of reverential awe. In fact, it's an intimate feeling of entitlement. Prakash had accepted Guru as his master -- a tacit acknowledgment of Guru's achievement -- while simultaenously feeling capable of that very same achievement himself. A rare and valuable understanding.

This is the kind of quality that separated Swami Vivekananda from some of his brother disciples. Swamiji had the daring to think that -- like his own master Sri Ramakrishna -- he, too, was an agent of the Divine.

That's why, as Guru used to say, if one must choose between faith in oneself or faith in God, then one should choose faith in oneself. Faith in God, with no self-confidence, leaves one weak and dependent. A beggar. Faith in oneself, however, eventually leads to the Divine.

In the years that followed, Prakash and I moved from the West Coast to the East Coast, though at different times and for different reasons. I never forgot what he taught me by his example early in my own spiritual life, though: to dare to think the heretical.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Novitiate

The Santa Cruz Sri Chinmoy Center met twice a week for meditation at a two-story apartment, the top floor of which was used as a meditation room by the half dozen disciples belonging to the Center and was off limits to us non-disciples. So, Charlie and I didn't go up there. We just attended the public meditation given by the Center every Wednesday night, which was held downstairs in the living room. (Photo credit.)

By then -- the end of the summer of 1981 -- Charlie and I both wanted to become disciples of Sri Chinmoy. On Wednesday evenings, we would catch a ride over the hill from Los Gatos to Santa Cruz with whoever Charlie's brother Dave was going with. We'd usually arrive at the Center a few minutes before meditation started at 7:30 p.m. So, Charlie and I would spend a few minutes checking out the hundreds of books in the Center library (which was basically just a big bookcase).

The meditation itself would usually last an hour, and included reading, some music of Sri Chinmoy's played on tape (esraj or flute), and some silent meditation on Guru's photograph. Afterwards, we'd sit around joking and basking in the meditation-induced high we'd received (at least I did), while one of the local Santa Cruz disciples put together the fixin's for quesadillas or some other California fare. After dinner, but before heading back over the hill, we'd stop off at Marianne's for ice cream.

Though I wasn't a disciple, nobody in the Center ever tried to recruit me. In fact, it took what I thought (even at the time) extraordinary effort on my part just to find out about the public meditations.

Ever since my awakening -- that day when I first meditated on Sri Chinmoy's picture and came away high as a kite -- I had been pestering Dave to let me know how to apply to become a disciple of Sri Chinmoy. While he told me that it entailed having my photograph taken and sent to Guru, he had no good answer about when that might happen. All he told me was that at present, the leaders of the Santa Cruz Center were out of town and no pictures would be taken any time soon.

Not satisfied, I wrote New York. I'd seen an address for the Sri Chinmoy Center headquarters there and wrote, asking what I had to do to become a disciple. A few weeks later, I received a response. While the response was meant to be helpful, it suggested that I contact the Santa Cruz Center, which was nearest my location. Armed with that response, I re-approached Dave, who then suggested Charlie and I attend on Wednesday nights, until the Center leaders were "back in town."

As it turned out, the leaders of the Santa Cruz Center were a married couple -- Devadip and Urmila (a.k.a. Carlos and Debbie) Santana -- who were in the process of disassociating themselves from the group. The shock of this event on the local disciples was lost on me and my new found zeal. All I wanted was to have my picture taken and sent to Sri Chinmoy. And as the new school year started, I got my wish -- my photo would be taken at the next Wednesday night meditation.

When Wednesday came, one of the disciples told me that I could go upstairs and meditate by myself. After ten minutes or so, he said he'd come up and take my picture. For the first time, I got to ascend the stairs to the disciple-only shrine. It was sublime. The meditation room was all white -- very plush white carpet, white chiffon curtains behind the shrine -- and a large, high quality matte print of Guru's photo. The room was bristling with energy.

With that, my picture was taken and the waiting game began. My understanding was that the photo would be sent to Guru, who would then meditate on it to determine whether my soul was meant for his path or not. No one, however, could say how long the process would take. I just had to wait.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Awakening

After near hot tub electrocution, I was all business. No more sitting around with my eyes closed. I actually had to learn to meditate. Unfortunately, though, none of the many books I'd read about yoga actually explained how to meditate.

By that time, I knew that Charlie's older brother Dave meditated by staring at an austere looking black and white photograph of his guru, Sri Chinmoy. So, despite my misgivings about yoga masters living in America, I found the same photograph -- referred to by Sri Chinmoy's disciples as the "transcendental" -- printed in one of Sri Chinmoy's books and I cut it out. I placed it on the shrine in my room leaning against a small stained glass piece inscribed with the Prayer of St. Francis. Behind the stained glass, I had placed a single deer antler (photo credit Terry Richard) that Prahlad had given me a few months earlier. He'd found it on one of his walks at Ananda and said it was a mystical object.

Then I lit some sandalwood incense and sat down on my meditation rug -- a bath mat -- and looked at the picture.

As I recall, Sri Chinmoy's book said that the student should focus his or her attention on the forehead of the photo and then mentally burrow in deeper and deeper. At first, however, I let my eyes rest on his whole face, which looked other worldly. As I continued to stare, my eyes came to rest on his forehead, and something strange started to happen: Sri Chinmoy's face appeared to change in my peripheral vision. I remember seeing a man with a beard, for example, but as I took my attention away from the photo's forehead to look at the whole face again, the man with the beard disappeared.

It occurred to me that this experience was simply an effect of the eyes, something that would happen to anyone who stared at any photograph for too long. And even if it were a "vision" of some kind, it struck me as a sideshow, so I focused again just on the forehead area of the picture, and while the face of the photograph continued to change, I paid no direct attention to it. After about 15 minutes, I got up and sat on my bed.

As I sat down on my bed, I felt pure joy, a joy that seemed to be emanating out of myself. It was something I'd never experienced in my life. I was blown away. I laid back in my bed and asked myself: "If I feel this way after just 15 minutes of meditation, what kind of sea of bliss is this guy [Sri Chinmoy] living in every day?"

I had crossed the Rubicon.

Here's a great blog post by a former disciple describing the history of Guru's transcendental photograph. November 9, 2009.

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Last Straw

By the end of our sophomore year -- June 1981 -- Charlie's older brother Dave had found his own living guru: Sri Chinmoy. Sri Chinmoy was little known, which was probably a good thing considering it was the era of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.

I, however, was sure that my guru was in India. Any guru in the U.S. was suspect in my eyes from the start. And while I felt a living kinship with Swami Yogananda, instinctively I longed for a living master.

Truthfully, at 16 I had no idea how I was going to find my master in India, nor did I feel much urgency to do so. While I had made some superficial changes to my lifestyle -- I had become a vegetarian and tried to meditate for a few minutes each day -- I was pretty much the same emotionally dysfunctional kid I was at the beginning of the previous school year. That, however, was about to change.

That summer -- through a connection of my dad's -- Charlie and I got summer jobs at the Capitol Drive-In Theater (pictured). We worked at the snack shack selling Cokes and making popcorn. One evening, a girl passed me a note with her phone number on it and I called her the next day.

She lived in the foothills east of San Jose and invited me over to go swimming. So, with my swim trunks in hand, I drove over there (in my 1965 Ford Falcon). The home was pretty nice, with a pool and jacuzzi in the back. As I recall, there were a number of people about, including her parents, so it seemed apparent to me (unfortunately) that there'd be no monkey business going on between me and the girl. So, we settled into the hot tub and shared some nervous chatter. While we talked, we were listening to a boom box that was plugged into the side of the house and set on the edge of the tub.

Sure enough, one of the other guests walked by and tripped over the boom box, sending it into the hot tub while still plugged into the wall. Now, I don't actually know whether there was any danger of electrocution to us, but it scared the shit out of both me and the girl. Shaken, I went to the bathroom and changed out of my swimsuit and the girl then walked me out to my car. In the few minutes of privacy we had before I took off, we made out. For me, though, it was mechanical; my heart wasn't in it.

On my drive back home, I vividly remember slamming both my open hands on the steering wheel in despair and frustration. I had almost died, I thought, and what had I been thinking of? A girl! My mind was nowhere near the Divine.

That was it. It would be another decade before I kissed another girl. The search for my spiritual master was on.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Prahlad

Mom and I arrived at the church where the lecture on yoga was to be held by a disciple of Swami Yogananda a little early. There were about a dozen others there, mostly women. I was excited to be there. Not really to hear the lecture, but rather to see a real live yogi.

From the time I first read Autobiography of a Yogi, as thrilled as I was by its revelations, its happenings struck me as remote in time and place. Compared to Swami Yogananda, I had already squandered my chance for God realization in this life. At 15, I honestly thought that I was over the hill. Thus, the spiritual life was the stuff of dreams. Sitting at the church that night, however, made me realize the spiritual life could be a reality.

The speaker told us his name was Prahlad. He was long and lean, like a runner, with shoulder length, curly, brown hair. He appeared to be in his mid to late twenties. Prahlad's most prominent features were his eyes. They were warm, liquid brown, which projected a gleam of sincerity that I had only noticed before in Swami Yogananda's picture.

I'm not sure if I realized it right then or only later, but what I saw as Prahlad's spiritual spark -- something I'd characterize as more than simple charisma -- seemed to be irresistible to the women he came in contact with (something akin Kramer's Kavorka).

I don't remember the substance of Prahlad's talk, but his intent was clear: he wanted to start a local hatha yoga and meditation group. At the end of his lecture, he asked those interested if anyone would like to volunteer their home as a meeting place. Mom volunteered.

So, in the fall of 1980 -- shortly after my inexcusable behavior at the Sadie Hawkins dance -- Prahlad began leading a weekly meditation and hatha yoga class at my mom's Saratoga home. I think there were only a half dozen participants other than me and mom, and as I recall I was the only guy. Perhaps for this reason, Prahlad and I bonded from the beginning.

As his physique suggested, Prahlad was a runner and we began meeting in the afternoons before class to jog. During these runs, Prahlad would answer my endless questions about the spiritual life. He told me that he belonged to a spiritual community called Ananda, which at the time was based in the Sierra Nevada mountains. The spiritual leader of Ananda, he said, was Swami Kriyananda, an American-born direct disciple of Swami Yogananda himself. It was Swami Kriyananda who had given Prahlad his Indian name (the significance of which can be found here).

(Though I was oblivious to it at the time, Ananda was an "unauthorized" offshoot of Swami Yogananda's original spiritual organization Self-Realization Fellowship or "SRF." Apparently, there were frictions between the two groups, which eventually erupted into outright litigation.)

During the weeks between classes, I began incorporating elements of a spiritual practice into my daily routine. I pilfered a small coffee table from downstairs at my dad's house and put it into the corner of my bedroom. I covered it with a white pillow case and set up a rudimentary shrine for my daily meditations.

At the time, my meditations consisted of little more than a breathing technique Prahlad had taught our yoga group, followed by ten or 15 minutes of sitting with my eyes shut waiting for something to happen (no visions of the divine for me). I also became a vegetarian, a decision my dad greeted with detached bemusement.

Later that school year -- possibly in the spring of 1981 -- Prahlad invited me to spend the weekend at the Ananda compound in the Sierras. I wanted to go and I don't remember any objection from my parents. I do remember a few things. First, on the long drive up, I asked Prahlad whether Swami Kriyananda -- his teacher -- had realized God. Prahlad answered frankly: "I don't know, but I think he's close." As it turned out, Swami Kriyananda was out of town that weekend and I never met him.

Another lingering memory of mine was the strange -- and to my teen aged taste buds unappetizing -- food. We spent our time going to yoga classes, meditation and chanting sessions, and taking peaceful walks in the woods. Because it was all new to me, I was both bored by and thrilled by the Spartan atmosphere of Ananda.

By the time I returned home, I was convinced for the first time that I hadn't missed my chance to tread the path of Yoga. Perhaps spending that weekend with a bunch of adult seekers gave me the sense of exceptionalism -- of specialness -- that I needed.

Though he'd no doubt reject the idea today, Prahlad was my first guru. In a very special way that perhaps even he didn't understand at the time, Prahlad's friendship -- his ability and willingness to talk to me and treat me as an adult, as a peer -- opened an entirely new vista to me. That new vista simultaneously beckoned me towards the power and beauty represented by Swami Yogananda and the path of Yoga, and away from the sins of my recent past -- away from my emotional dysfunction.

For that, I'm forever grateful to Prahlad.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Seed Begins to Sprout

In the fall of 1980 -- age 15 -- I began my sophomore year at Leigh High School. I was determined to excel at sports, and I did.

On the frosh-soph football team (I'm number 80 in the front row), I started at cornerback and led the team in interceptions. The team itself finished the season undefeated.

From football season, I went right into the wrestling season. Between the long practices after school and the equally long bus right back to my dad's house each night, I had little or no time with Charlie. And Brett, by this time, had made his fateful move to Alaska. Little did I know that I'd never see him again.

Wrestling season, like football, went well for me (I'm in the bottom row, third from the right). I won at least two frosh-soph tournaments outright and wrestled most of the year on the varsity team, earning my letter in that sport. Inexplicably, however, I still felt empty. The answer, I thought, must be sex (or the lack of it). My next opportunity for it -- one largely of my own making -- went badly though.
It started out much like my other encounters with girls did. A freshman girl whom I did not know asked me out. To be accurate, one of her girlfriends asked me if I liked this girl and whether I'd say "yes" if she asked me to the Sadie Hawkins dance. I said, "sure." So, I had a date.

I remember little of the events leading up to that night. What I do remember causes me heartache still. I remember meeting up with Charlie before the dance and getting sloppy drunk. I remember the girl and some of her friends picking me and (maybe) Charlie up and taking us to dinner. I remember their first question to us both as we got into the car: "Are you guys drunk?" "No," we no doubt slurred in unison. And I remember getting to the dance and hating it -- I hated dancing and that was the first and last dance I ever attended during high school. So, I suggested to my date that we "go out to the bleachers."

The "bleachers" were just that -- the seats surrounding Leigh's football field. The poor girl. Nothing that happened from that point on could have been very pleasurable: not the cold bleachers where we started necking, and certainly not the new move I tried on her. When I came up for air, she registered her [embarrassment, disgust, fear, all of the above] by refusing to kiss me when I tried.

After she zipped up, we made our way back to the dance. The night was over for me and I left. The next Monday at school, the girl still seemed interested in me, but I was overcome by self-consciousness. Part of it was that as sophomore, I was embarrassed to be with a freshman -- I thought I should have been dating a girl my own age. Most of the problem, however, was the overwhelming sense of guilt I had for the way I had treated this nice girl.

So, I dealt with it in the only way I knew how: by not dealing with it. I just refused to acknowledge the girl at school (or her increasingly vocal friends). I gave her the silent treatment. All along, though, I knew my behavior was reprehensible and I truly hated myself for it, and I'm sorry still. Looking back, this was really the low point for me.

It was about at this time -- the fall of 1980 -- that the seed planted by Swami Yogananda's Autobiography of a Yogi two years earlier began to germinate. As it happened, my mom had seen a poster for a lecture that was going to be given at a universalist-type church in Los Gatos by a disciple of Paramahansa Yogananda. She asked me if I'd like to go.

Friday, January 11, 2008

On To High School

There were still a few weeks left of summer vacation when I returned home from Camp de Mar. I spent them catching up with Brett and Charlie, before heading to Leigh High School as an incoming freshman to try out for the football team.

I loved football. Even though the long hair extending out the back of my helmet attracted some good-natured ribbing from the coaches, I loved nothing more than suiting up and hitting the practice field. In large part, football allowed me exhibit my pent up rage in a sanctioned and controlled way. Playing football also gave me time away from Brett and Charlie, neither of whom played. We still smoked pot together before class everyday, but we weren't with each other all the time.

After football season, came wrestling season. Once wrestling season ended, however, the three of us were back at it full time. It was around this time -- the end of 1979 or the beginning of 1980 -- that Brett made a new friend: a young kid who couldn't have been more than 10 years old. This kid had regular access (apparently stolen from his folks) to the best weed we'd ever seen or smoked. He was willing to give us our fill for the "privilege" of hanging out with us older boys.

We were so giddy at our good fortune that it never occurred to any of us how fucked up the situation was. Then one night, in the throws of the munchies, Brett, Charlie, the kid, and I walked over to the local McDonald's for burgers. As fate would have it, my mom also stopped there on the way home from work. She took one look at us, saw the kid, saw we were all stoned, and that was it.

Within a week I was shipped off to my dad's house across town, where I'd live for the rest of my high school years. I'm sure at some level it tortured my mom to send me away, but it was the best move she could have made. I continued to attend Leigh High School, but getting there meant long bus rides to and from downtown San Jose, which in turn meant that I had little time to hang with the guys. On top of that, I was afraid of my dad. He was a cop. I was afraid of what might happen if he found out that I was smoking pot. As a result, I immediately stopped my smoking habit almost entirely.

With that significant break in my routine, I completed my freshman year at Leigh and moved into my sophomore year with a little more clarity of mind and purpose. I really hungered for some recognition from my peers -- boys and girls -- and figured that by excelling on the playing field, I might get that recognition. I didn't.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Shame as a Driving Force

Shame -- and not mere teen aged awkwardness around the opposite sex -- had the most corrosive effect on my self-confidence. The seeds of this psychic disability were planted around the end of fifth grade, when I was about 10. (That's my fifth grade class picture above. My good friend Dave Moretti is in the third row up, second from the left.)

At the beginning of fifth grade, I had my first girlfriend. Her name was Carol (first row, third from the right; I'm in the same row at the right end). She passed me a note in class asking me if I would "go" with her. Not knowing what this entailed, I said, sure. As it turned out, for the remainder of the school year, I was Carol's staunch defender at four square -- if anyone got Carol out, I got them out. I also found out early that relationships entailed gifts. I had heard that Carol was a tennis player, so with my dad's help I bought her a tennis outfit for her birthday. Before Carol's birthday, I told Dave about the gift. He swore not to tell her, but then told her anyway, which lead to a temporary rift between us.

I rarely saw Carol outside of school, however. In fact, I remember only one such occasion. We were alone outside her house in the afternoon and the unspoken question -- on both our minds, I think -- was whether or not we would kiss. We never did. The four-square relationship ended at the close of fifth grade. The next year, I moved to my dad's house and went to another school.

That summer however -- the summer between fifth and sixth grade -- would be eventful in a negative way. Because my parents had divorced just a few years earlier, neither my mom nor my dad paid much attention to where I was or what I was doing in the two or three hours between the end of school each day and the time either of them was off work.

Possibly because of the temporary rift between us, I wasn't spending much time with Dave and instead was hanging out with a couple of other kids who themselves were not supervised. We engaged in a lot of shenanigans, including some low level vandalizing of property, throwing rocks at cars -- you know, just doing what unsupervised kids will do: get into trouble. At one point, however, the other boys began expressing interest in each other's bodies.

In retrospect, our activities didn't include anything too disturbing, but even now -- some 32 years later -- I feel some emotional discomfort thinking about it. "It" being daring each other to get naked or to fondle one another. With time, I've come to realize that the term "boys will be boys" probably covers this kind of experimentation. And while I now suspect that such behavior between young boys is more common than I had once imagined, at the time it was happening I felt very self conscious about it all, and later, downright frightened.

I was frightened that someone -- anyone -- might find out about it. As I moved into sixth and then seventh grade, it seemed my sense of shame over these incidents grew exponentially. I was desperately afraid of being labelled a queer, though I hardly knew what the term meant. (As I look back at it now, the picture on the right also from fifth grade is the last truly happy smile photographed of me until my graduation from high school some years away.)

Through junior high school shame drove me to put as much psychological distance between those early experiences and myself as I could. In large part, that's why I drove myself so hard in sports; why I fought so often; why getting drunk and high was so comforting. That's why having a girlfriend was so important to me, and so magical. A girlfriend was like an elixir.

I don't even remember how I met the first girl I kissed. Her name was Jackie and we were both in the seventh grade. She let me know somehow -- probably through one of her friends, which seemed to be the standard operating procedure -- that she liked me, so I walked her part way home after school. We had a real live kiss, tongue and all, for a few minutes and that was it. She told me she was moving away the very next day!

The next year, I had a true girlfriend -- Chrissy. That relationship started as effortlessly (for me anyway) as the last one did. I was bent over a drinking fountain after football practice and some girl I had never met walked by and pinched my butt. The next day, Chrissy and I were "going around." We did so for the rest of the school year, some seven or eight months.

That very first day, Chrissy asked me to go home with her after school. We rode the 27 bus from Union Junior High School to her house a few miles away. Chrissy's sister, Cathy (they were identical twins), and her new boyfriend Roger (one of my football buddies) also came along. To my surprise, the girls' mother greeted us all with a warm smile as we got to their house.

After introductions were made, Chrissy announced that she and I were going to her room. I was kind of in shock. For all I remember now, her mother may have even said, "Okay, have fun!" In any event, we retired to Chrissy's room, where she put on the radio (KLOK, if memory serves) and we laid down together on her bed and made out for close to an hour. Then we stopped and went out to the kitchen, where Chrissy's mom served us -- I kid you not -- milk and cookies.

After our snack, we retired once more to Chrissy's room for another hour or so, and then I returned home by bus. I was never a big milk drinker, but to this day I remember the strange and somehow wonderful taste of making out with Chrissy after milk and cookies. Chrissy and I would carry on this routine for pretty much the rest of the school year, and then I broke up with her.

On the surface, the routine got old and I wanted to hang out with my friends. But the real problem was, I was afraid and unsure of how to "move forward" in our relationship. I suppose, had I had the nerve, Chrissy and I could have had sex. I didn't have the nerve, though.

Chrissy was wonderful. It was just a matter of weeks before I realized my mistake. Just a year or so later, when we were in high school, I passed her as I was on my way out to smoke a joint in the school's parking lot. She said hello and I took the opportunity to ask her for some matches, which she pulled out of her purse. I thanked her and went on my way. As I walked on, I put the matchbook to my nose and it smelled just like Chrissy -- all those sweet memories poured into me as if from nowhere. Magical.

Note on this last picture: That's me in eighth grade at the time I was going around with Chrissy, though the girl in the picture is named Coby, one of the popular cheerleaders at Union Jr. High school. We sat next to each other in some class that year and somehow she came to like my smile. She lobbied her friends on my behalf and thus we were voted the "nicest smile." We never went out together.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Camp de Mar

During the summer before I moved from junior high school to high school, I spent a month in Cozumel, Mexico scuba diving with a half dozen other teenagers whom I hadn’t previously met. The only adult supervision was provided by the scuba camp leader, Owen Lee (pictured, on the left). It was 1979.

Owen learned to dive in the 1950s and was the first American diver to be named to the crew of Jacques Cousteau’s team. (Today, Owen is the proprietor of the Las Gatas Beach Club.) Sometime later he retired to Zihuatanejo, Mexico where he leased some land and founded “Camp de Mar,” a scuba diving camp for teenagers. That’s where I was supposed to go -- Zihuatanejo -- but just before our trip, a local Mexican government official took a liking to Owen’s spread. So, at the last minute, Camp de Mar decamped for Cozumel.

Before the trip, my dad took me to meet Owen in San Francisco. The only thing I remember of the meeting was Owen’s warning about the strict marijuana laws in Mexico. Even a joint, he said, could get you jail time. So, alcohol it would be. On my unaccompanied flight from San Francisco to Mexico City, I ordered and received my first legal (at least on AeroMexico) cerveza: a Tecate, with salt and lime. I was 14. It was going to be a fun trip.

Once in Cozumel, we all dove by day and after dinner -- when Owen left us alone for the rest of the night -- we went clubbing and drank Cuba Libres. I think I quite literally threw up every single night I spent there that month. I was spending so much money on alcohol that after two weeks I had to wire my dad for more.


It was something I didn’t do on that trip, however, that in retrospect would have the greatest impact on the next decade or so of my life. I didn’t have sex with one of the girls at camp when the opportunity presented itself.

One night, shortly after getting back to my hotel room, there was a knock at the door. I opened it to find one of the camp girls standing there in a long t-shirt which just covered her underwear. We spent the next hour or so necking and nervously feeling each other up in my hotel room, but we never consummated the deal. She was 16, and I guess I had expected her to take the lead -- not an unreasonable expectation considering my age (two years younger) and her sudden appearance at my room that night. She didn’t take the lead though.

The next day, as we all lounged about the hotel pool, it was clear that all my camp-mates knew what had happened -- or what had not happened -- the night before. The girl -- I’ve forgotten her name -- was pissed off about it all and had been talking. Apparently, she thought that the reason I hadn’t slept with her was because I hadn’t wanted to. So, she went on the offensive and tried to bad mouth me to the others.

Perhaps because of the mix (four boys, two girls), her campaign against me was ineffectual and short lived. Amongst the guys, her effort probably boosted my stock and spared me the need to boast myself. Under the surface, however, I felt very insecure. The problem wasn’t that I didn’t want to have sex with her, but rather that I didn’t know how. Sure, I knew the mechanics; I knew the theory. But applying the theory -- that was something else altogether. I was scared.

Over the following year and a half, I’d have a few more intimate moments with different girls at high school or in the neighborhood, but it would be many years before I was to get a better shot at having sex than I had had that one night in a Cozumel hotel room when I was 14. Many times in the ensuing years I would look back to that night and wish I had been more confident. Had I been -- had I slept with that girl when I was 14 -- the act would have gone a long way towards removing the primary source of my personal insecurity. I would have entered high school the following fall with a completely different outlook on life.

Ironically, though, my “failure” to bed a 16 year old when I had had the chance -- and the resulting magnification of my personal unease -- would serve as the engine which would drive me to the zenith of the contemplative life. Looking back, it was largely a sense of shame, embarrassment, and insecurity about sex and sexuality that would prod me to renounce the “life of desire” once and for all just a couple of years later.

There was more to it, though, than just a schoolboy's natural reticence around the opposite sex.