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In late 1969, I lived with my brother and his wife in Portland, Oregon, and spent my time smuggling marijuana and training as a boxer for my third professional fight.
But importance didn’t make me happy. I couldn’t put my finger on why, but I had become chronically unhappy. However, two individuals in my life made deep impressions on me because of their natural contentment: my brother and my crime partner.
One evening my brother invited me to attend church. He was happy and content. And yet, he was not trying to be important — just happy about life. But I declined his invitation.
After my brother and his wife left, I went outside. I can’t recall the details of how quickly the following occurred but a random tranquility came to me that I cannot put words to. I had never experienced this feeling. Suddenly, the most intense peace of mind I could imagine came upon me, for no reason.
It felt unexplainable and wonderful. But I suspected it would be gone when I woke up the next morning. So I wandered around the neighborhood in a weird state of bliss late into the night, looking for signs. I found a bible tract pasted to a phone booth. I studied it, looking for a personal message, but couldn’t find one.
The next morning the feeling had left me. I knew if I could have that feeling again, I would live my life any way God wanted. But first, I needed some confirmation that God existed. Then, if I knew God existed, naturally I could just live the way He would want me to live.
A few weeks a later, I lost my third fight by a decision. A week after that I stood in front of a judge along with my crime partner. The judge sentenced us both to federal prison for smuggling marijuana.
Waiting in an Arizona county jail for the Marshals to transport me to the big house at Lompoc, I spotted a book in a garbage can. I saw the words “Peace of Mind” on the torn cover. That book, smelly but intact, changed me.
Now I could read the exact description of how to find peace of mind. Never an academic person, I could only read if the subject spoke to me deeply — words, however important, just wouldn’t stick. But this book seemed different. I had never heard of Hermann Hesse, Krishnamurti, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Buddha, Plato, Socrates, Gurdjieff, Alan Watts, Mary Baker Eddy, Ouspensky and countless others, but for the next 14 months I buried myself in their words.
I simply tried to find the similarity between their search and mine — the search for themselves, or for God, or for truth or for whatever would bring back that feeling of inner tranquility I had once felt. One by one, I read and then tossed those authors aside, feeling an initial attraction dim when my intuition would reject them. I got a little light from each, but then the switch snapped off.
I was at war with myself and losing. I had such fierce anguish inside that I would scream into my pillow so the other convicts wouldn’t hear me. I wanted to know if there was a God! Where was that elusive feeling of tranquility and spiritual peace? I was vacant absolutely. The prison shrink was no help. No one would understand me about the feeling.
Then the feeling came again, in my cell. It came, I felt, as a direct response to me silencing my inclination to box again. I wanted to free myself from my strong attachment to boxing, to the self-importance it gave me. I had planned to train hard for those two years in prison, then leave prison to resume my boxing career. I struggled with it, but I did lose my boxing mentality by the time of my release.
So I didn’t know what to do to be somebody at that point. I was paroled to San Diego to live with relatives, who feared for me because I spent most of the time sitting on the back steps with my head in my hands, thinking, thinking. They worried that I was suicidal, but I wasn’t. I just didn’t know why I was alive and if there was a God. If there was a God, why couldn’t I know? Where was the feeling, after all? How could I find it and keep it?
In Part II – Is Art Worship?