Posted by: Harold Knight | 01/20/2011

Oh, to be an obviously spiritual (other-worldly?) creature

My life (and yours, too, I suspect) would be much easier if I (we) were obviously spiritual (other-worldly?) creature(s). I am not. I feel myself to be the bull in the china closet most of the time. I do not have the “social graces” to mix in polite society. My body is not, generally speaking, a comfortable place to be, especially when other people (other bodies) are close by. And my spiritual life is, well, chaotic.

Years ago I spent quite a lot of time with an older woman (I thought she was old, but looking back I’m not at all sure how old she was—she was most likely not much older than I am now), a widow. She was so rich I could not imagine her wealth. She was so well-connected I was always uncomfortable at her home when she invited her friends in. She was a Boston Brahmin. Her friends (I’m not making this up) were the Cabot’s and the Lodge’s and the Pickering’s and the Peabody’s.  She introduced me to Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., at the funeral of one of the Pickering’s—for which I had played the organ, a small pipe organ brought to the great hall of the Peabody Museum for the occasion.

My friend was the epitome of “you can never be too rich or too thin.” Her basic black dresses looked the same only from a distance. In reality she had many of them, and, they were all different in detail. She told me once that she did not have an “R” in her “vocabulahry.”  I have no idea how to reproduce her speech. She was the product of a New England “finishing school” and of Radcliffe College.

Exactly why she enjoyed my company, I am not sure. Perhaps because I was ultimately safe. I was young and somewhat talented (holding a socially but not professionally important music position) and gay. I don’t know. Sometimes I felt like her mascot. My partner at the time was not amused—he was not often included. The first time I travelled to Europe (England in 1979), she invited me to her home to tell me what I should and should not do in London. She gave me a bottle of Kentucky whiskey—some expensive brand I could not afford—to take in my suitcase because, she said, one could not buy a proper drink in London. “All they have is Scotch. Not whiskey at all.” Bourbon was her drink of choice.

May I, by perceiving all phenomena as illusory,
Unattached, be delivered from the bondage of samsara.

If someone undertakes such a practice [the conventional mind of enlightenment] motivated by worldly concerns like wishing for a long and healthy life in which he has happiness and achieves perfection, this is basically wrong. To undertake the practice, hoping that people will call one a great religious practitioner, is also definitely wrong. So is viewing the objects of one’s compassion as truly existent. You should undertake this practice with the understanding that all phenomena are like illusions (1).

All phenomena are like illusions.

While my Brahmin (she would be horrified if she knew I called her that) friend and I spent time together, I was trying to figure out how to be an active drunk and write a PhD dissertation at the same time. It was not working exceptionally well. The drunk won out over the scholar every time. I had discovered the hymntune Federal Street (2) in the Episcopal Hymnal 1940. Federal Street was one block over from the church where I was organist, and the composer of the tune had lived on Federal Street when he wrote it. My friend suggested I should search the county historical museum (The Essex Institute—founded in 1821 before most of the US even knew it had a history) for the composer’s papers. I did, and Henry Kemble Oliver became the subject of my dissertation. My friend is directly responsible for my advanced degree. For one of my significant successes.

All phenomena are like illusions.

My life (and yours, too, I suspect) would be much easier if I (we) were obviously spiritual (other-worldly?) creature(s). I am not.

Now it gets spooky.

My perception of the world is colored by my (from time to time, constant) sense of dissociation apparently (perhaps, maybe) caused by TLE. Perhaps it’s not dissociation at all. This writing is nearly impossible for me because I am not an obviously spiritual (other-worldly?) creature. I’m selfish beyond words. What’s all that talk about my Brahmin friend and her friends about, anyway? Jealousy. Desire to have standing, to have stuff, to be accepted, even to be important. My pride and or amazement that I was ever part of that world and my (sometimes) distress that I can never again be.

All phenomena are like illusions.

I’m not sure why I began this writing with the Cabot’s and the Lodge’s and the Pickering’s and the Peabody’s. Except to say I have seen how one manifestation of the cream of human society lives (and have once been peripherally a part of it). It seemed like a good place to begin to make clear that I’m not some sort of spiritually evolved creature.

But I know—and know more clearly every day—all phenomena are like illusions. What, I asked here yesterday, is real. Is there a “there” anywhere?

. . . you must give up the idea of substantiality or existence. The usual view of life is firmly rooted in the idea of existence. For most people everything exists; they think whatever they see and whatever they hear exists. Of course the bird we see and hear exists. . . understanding of life includes both existence and non-existence. The bird both exists and does not exist at the same time. . .  We say true existence comes from emptiness and goes back again to emptiness. What appears from emptiness is true existence (3).

Quoting the Dalai Lama and Suzuki is not an indication that I’m some sort of seeker after the way or a Zen student. I’m not trying to find enlightenment through eastern religions. Both of the books I’ve quoted came into my life in rather prosaic ways—I did not go looking for them..

My hunch that nothing is real—don’t try to categorize me as a nihilist or any other philosophical/ theological practitioner—is not comfortable and does not seem to be enlightenment. I don’t care for this sense I have that we are all striving after what is not real. It’s pretty scary to me. I’m not an other-worldly mystic. I don’t know what I am or what I believe. What I know is there’s a reality besides our reality. It isn’t Jesus or success or being called “Doctor” or any other of my preconceptions. I’ll let you know when I figure it out.

A voice says, ‘Cry out!’
   And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’
All people are grass,
   their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
   when the breath of the LORD blows upon it;
   surely the people are grass.
 The grass withers, the flower fades;
   but the word of our God will stand for ever.
(Isaiah 40:6-8 NRSV)
(1) Dalai Lama. The Essential Dalai Lama: His Important Teachings. Ed. Rajiv Mehrotra. New York: Viking Penguin, 2005 (192-193).
(2) The tune written By Oliver was published by Lowell Mason in 1836 in the Boston Academy Collection of Church Music. Oliver set the hymn “So fades the lovely blooming flower.”  The words set to it in the Hymnal 1940 are nearly as sentimental, published by Joseph Grigg, in his Four Hymns on Divine Subjects, 1765. The first two stanzas: “Jesus, and shall it ever be,/A mortal man, ashamed of Thee?/Ashamed of Thee, whom angels praise,/Whose glories shine through endless days? Ashamed of Jesus! sooner far/Let night disown each radiant star!/’Tis midnight with my soul, till He,/Bright Morning Star, bid darkness flee. “
(3)Suzuki,  Shunryu. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. New York: Weatherhill. 1970 (110).


  1. […] Henry Kemble Oliver (1800-1885) was a Salem, MA, church musician, educator, and politician. In the 1840s he was one of the civilian overseers of the US Military Academy at West Point. He was appointed to this position because of his leadership in the citizen militia of Salem, whose “exercises” on the Salem Common he describes in his memoirs (which I have transcribed). […]



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