Some books are memorable. Some may even change your life.
Some books work their magic even from the very first sentence.
For me, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn was such a book.
I first discovered Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn in the spring of 1992 while visiting my mom.
As always when visiting anybody, friends, family, but especially strangers, given half a chance, I would look into their refrigerator to see what they were eating (I know, this is a little creepy, but my curiosity was often invasive), into their music collection to see what they listened to, and of course, I would look onto their bookshelves to find out what sorts of words and thoughts and stories they were pouring into their minds.
So it was on this day, after just arriving from the airport, without even taking off my coat, that I approached her book shelf to see if there was anything new since the last time I was there.
I came upon this Capricorn book.
I pulled it out, opened it to the first page, read the first paragraph, and that was that.
I was done for.
That book owned me from the very first words.
The first paragraph of the Tropic of Capricorn was so clear, so poetic, and, as it turned out, so prophetic that to this very day, over 30 years later, it continues to stick in my mind like barnacles on the bottom of a boat.
To this day I can recite it.
To prove it, without looking at the book, no longer in my possession anyway, I can say with 100% certainty that the Tropic of Capricorn begins as such:
“Once you’ve given up the ghost, everything happens with dead certainty, even in the midst of chaos. From the beginning, it was nothing but chaos.”
It took me four years from that moment at mom’s book shelf to really grasp the meaning of these couple of sentances.
Fast forward to the spring 1996, I was living in the Alcantara District in Lisbon, Portugal.
I had rented a small room in the back of a house, owned by a potato farmer.
I lived in there like a monk.
I didn’t talk to anyone. Maybe a small hello, but that was all. No meals together, no conversations, nothing. I was the silent guy going in and out.
I would float in and out of that house with my sax and my journal; not to be seen again until late evenings.
My room was study of emptiness.
On the floor, in the far left corner of the room was a small thin mattress, with an old blanket, but with no pillow.
I used my jacket as a pillow. I had a candle next to the bed for reading as I hated the fluorescent overhead light, and couldn’t afford anything fancier than my little flame.
On the other side of the room was my suitcase, forever halfway packed (just in case…) and next to that was my saxophone and next to my sax was a small pile of about 4 essential books, along with two journals and one sketch pad.
That was all I owned in this world and all I had in that room.
The walls of peeling yellow paint were empty.
Mostly empty….with one exception.
There was one little picture, a copy of a photograph that could fit in a wallet.
Anybody could easily walk through the room and miss it.
I had discovered this mysterious picture in an academic book about leading spiritual masters from India.
The book had many pictures of men and women with flowing robes, turbens, beards, malas. You get the picture.
There was especially one that really attracted me.
The man’s name was Baba Sawan Singh Grewal.
I had no idea who this man was, what his philosophy was, what his approach to enlightenment was, or what tradition he came from.
I found something in his eyes that moved me.
Upon discovering this treasure I instantly had the feeling that this man was my teacher, and this image was what I was supposed to study.
Never mind the fact that he had died almost 50 years before the time of my discovery.
It hardly mattered to me.
I would stare at the picture every day.
I would linger on his features, until my focus softened so that I simply fell into the sweetness, innocence and powerful focus I saw. Something from those eyes reached out to me and I gave myself to that something. Whatever it was.
Thanks to the power of the internet, I have been able to find the exact picture. Here it is:
Determining that a man in a photo was my spiritual teacher was totally normal for me. My spiritual path was (and still is) an intuitive one. I just did what seemed right, and I tried to do those things all the way through.
With this picture, I would stand in front in silence, or, sometimes I would ask questions while looking into his face.
When I had troubles or was heart sick, and this was often enough, I would look at the picture and ‘give’ my hard feelings, doubts, deep questions to the image in the picture.
I would unload myself into it. I would even talk to it.
I always came away feeling unburdened, clear and a little closer to wisdom, and sometimes even joyful.
This went on for about 6 months until one day, something happened that changed things.
The day before was a full moon, and so I decided to do a full moon fast and to fast on the day after the full moon as well.
For both days I did nothing. I didn’t write or play music. I didn’t read. I didn’t see anybody.
I didn’t eat anything. I just sat and existed and once in a while I would go for a little walk.
In the process, I became very quiet and sensitive.
When the fast was finished, before breaking it at a restaurant, I went to the photo at the center of the wall.
I meditated before my beloved image of Sawan Singh.
I was just watching it and watching it, expecting nothing, knowing nothing, simply merging with the image.
All at once, something happened.
A clear voice spoke to me from within.
It said: Burn it! Your Guru is within, you no longer need this picture. Burn it now.
Without a moment’s hesitation I grabbed matches, pulled my beloved picture off the wall and, with tears in my eyes, I burned my picture to ashes.
There I sat in my empty room with the ashes in my hand.
I sat there in silence.
A magnificent smile suddenly spread itself all over my face, like a sunrise.
It was true!
Having given up the ghost, which in this case was my illusionary – meaning temporary – dependency on that picture, everything happened with dead certainty. Even in the midst of chaos.
Having giving up the form, the symbol, the dream, I was awake in the formless.
Having passed through the death of my supposed teacher, I came face to face with my real teacher.
Then I got up, washed my hands of the ashes – ashes I didn’t save, just disposed of.
I went to a neighborhood restaurant and ate a sumptuous meal.