–Sugmad wastes not the efforts of Its followers. __Man Del
No-harm combat games can be fun, yet at some point in life I realized they were a little too much fun for me. Oh sure, as a kid I’d needed to work up my courage to face a fistfight with a boy half my size, but that had only required intense concentration for the first sixteen years of my life. A piece of cake. Or as an acquaintance puts it, a portion of pastry.
The path to the Golden Heart proved much more difficult. True gentleness could not be taken by storm. Faced with the glowering power of human will, it slipped away repeatedly, elusive as fog in the desert. Only the Sound and Light of Eck produced results, the Light showing me the way step by step while the beautiful inner melodies washed away all sorts of inner nasties bit by bit, occasionally clearing a massive attitude blockage dramatically in a great rush. Often it remained subtle. Always it remained loving, this beautiful current of inner Sound upon which I rode my way homeward, toward Sugmad Itself.
The time came when no longer did I jut my jaw forward aggressively, for there was no need. Nor did I shrink passively, for fear had gone. There remained only Life Itself, only the Eck. Along the way, however, much gentling had to be done.
In 1978, my paintings began to reflect that healing quest, that start of an expression of softness, love of life, Sound, and Light. Of twenty-four paintings done that spring, only one depicted war: StarCraft firing on one another in some deep-space location near a rose colored planet. Flowers and kitty cats and birds perched on pitchforks, the Mahanta dressed as a sailor in a storm, even an occasional abstract or starburst over far mountains; these were the greater themes, the better pictures. From oils to acrylics and back again, I found at the easel a way to lose myself completely in the work, to become oblivious to time, often emerging from the “studio room” four, five, or even eight hours after setup without having so much as paused for a cup of tea or a trip to the bathroom.
One Friday evening after work, I completed a painting begun with no conceivable plan and allowed to grow on its own. In the foreground rolled either a tossing sea or some sort of purplish, undulating prairie country–it was impossible to tell which. In the middle distance, an island–or a mountain, depending on the foreground–rose in a single conical shape. Behind and above it all, clouds swooped in strange, upswept patterns never seen in nature. Staring at the finished project, a distinct deja vu feeling swept through me.
“I’ve seen this picture before,” I told my wife.
Her response was, “Can you change that mountain?”
“Why?” I stared at the picture, puzzled. She wasn’t in the habit of criticizing my creative efforts, though admittedly she didn’t care for my science fiction novels that much.
“It looks like a breast.”
“…Oh. You think so?”
“Definitely. Change the mountain.”
“Well. Okay. I guess I could square off the peak a bit, make it sort of a rocky cliff instead of a plain old hilltop. So anyway, I’ve seen this before.”
“Do you know where?”
We left it that way, a mountain with a square top and the artist deeply curious as to where he’d seen the picture. Magazine article? Dream state? Devil’s Tower in Close Encounters of the Third Kind? The answer hid itself and waited.
Saturday. A letter from Mom. Grandma Sarah had died on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota. I called my wife at the beauty shop where she worked between college classes, explaining I’d be hitting the road in about an hour.
“I can swing by the florist next to your shop, pick up some flowers, and head out. Just have to throw a few clothes together for the trip.”
“But….” She sounded puzzled. “Why do you want to go?”
Maybe it was a fair question at that. For years, I’d shown a degree of detachment toward family doings. Perhaps more than a degree. As a result, no one had thought to call, to advise in a timely manner regarding the wake and funeral arrangements, simply because somehow they thought I wouldn’t care enough to attend. Only Mom had thought to at least immediately send a letter, a letter that arrived in the nick of time.
In truth, however, a deep bond existed between me and the Mandan step-grandmother I’d met only once, three years earlier. Gradually dying of cancer at home, her pain and Granddad’s sore feet had persuaded the elderly couple to allow me to do for them during my two-day stay: To cook meat and potatoes, and to do up the dishes with water taken from the rain barrel and heated on the kitchen stove. Sarah, to our family’s knowledge, had never before allowed a visitor to handle chores in her kitchen regardless of her state of health. It had been a great honor.
I remembered the powerful current of love that flowed between the two of them. I also remembered the hand-beaded white buckskin dancing cuffs she had sent me years earlier, long before we had met physically, hours of painstaking craftsmanship fashioned into a beautiful gift for a little boy who lived seven hundred miles away, a child known only to the sender as her beloved husband’s first grandson.
I would be at that wake.
To the voice on the telephone, I could only answer, “If you don’t already know why I have to go, there’s no way to explain it.”
The silver gray 1976 Pinto sedan hummed steadily toward North Dakota, a thoroughly reliable machine named Namo, an Eck word meaning “blessings.” It angled north and west without hesitation, crossed the line, found the freeway into Bismarck. An Eckist friend in neighboring Mandan welcomed me for a few hours of conversation and a good night’s sleep on his living room floor. No rush now; a few more hours of driving would put me into Mandaree on the Reservation.
Next day’s driving started late; a recent Carlos Castaneda volume on my friend’s bookshelf kept pleading, “Finish me before you go!” I never could resist such a plea.
Nonetheless, around five p.m., the Pinto rolled into the valley and arrived at the little store my grandparents had run for years, the building with the stopped-up plumbing, not to mention the rain barrel and outhouse out back. New owners directed me to Granddad’s present house. I pulled up in the yard, stepped out, and blew my uncle Gene’s mind.
He laughed his deep-voiced laugh and escorted me inside. My other uncle, Bob, took my presence in stride. Granddad, mourning the loss of the woman he had loved for three decades, took a moment or two to understand who had so unexpectedly arrived. Emotion worked in him then, enough in itself to pay for my journey seven times over.
Shortly, we all drove to the local community hall where my father was helping a number of the Reservation residents set up for the Saturday night wake.
A lot of water had passed under the bridge since my childhood years. I had broken free of my parents’ home, abandoned their spiritual beliefs, changed jobs and wives and sometimes troubled their hearts with what they perceived as an indifference toward normal family ties of any sort. I stepped out of the Pinto just as Dad stepped out of the building. We faced one another across eighty feet of asphalt parking lot. One of my uncles called to him, “Look who’s here!” I grinned, ear to ear.
Dad’s jaw actually dropped. He stood motionless, staring. In more than forty years of knowing the man, I have seen him totally speechless only once, and that was the time. For a long moment we were somehow one being, once again two cowboys sharing cheap western novels in cheap hotel rooms, an unspoken understanding miraculously bridging the gulf that had yawned between us over the years. I felt very good inside.
The wake, my uncle explained, would run through the night. The idea was to stay up with the coffin, no sleeping, and the next day–Monday, at 10:00 a.m.–the funeral service would begin. Okay. A new one on me, but I’m game.
Numerous goodies are being prepared for the feast to be held after the funeral. Pies of fruit and mincemeat, plus great Army-sized pots cooking beef by the hundredweight, boiled until done and then dumped in a great pile on a canvas to cool. Conversation drifts quietly around the room; talking is not forbidden, only sleeping. It is my first wake, and I like it.
Bob and I spend hours chatting. He is my closest uncle in age, just seven years older, and we share many things in common. Of the entire family, only Bob and I strum guitars and write songs. Only we have divorced. He is also the only relative deeply curious about the Eck teachings I follow, though they seem to be not quite for him. Never have we had an opportunity to talk like this. His sharp intellect probes for a while. How sharp? I have never beaten him in chess. He asks questions both general and personal.
At length he confesses.
“I’ve been studying Assertiveness Training. A person can respond to his environment in a passive way, but that leaves him feeling dominated and resentful. Or he can respond aggressively, but the aggressive person uses force and angers those around him. It’s a losing proposition, just like the passive response.
“The third response is known as assertive. The assertive response stands its ground without having to either attack or retreat. It’s by far the most balanced approach to life.”
Bob studied my face a moment, then went on. “For the past half hour, I’ve been throwing questions at you to test you. Tough questions, some of them. In the past, you would have come on aggressive to questions like that. But tonight you responded assertive to every single one.”
“Great!” I grinned at the good news.
“And I have to admit,” Bob chuckled, “Eckankar must get some of the credit. You’re not lashing out at your environment the way you were a few years ago.”
His words gave me food for thought. There had been a lot of snapping and snarling, a willingness to become more or less enraged the moment I perceived a boss or parent or casual acquaintance as trying to interfere with my freedom. I was deeply glad that studying the Eck works had taught me well enough to give my uncle responses that brought credit to those teachings, though at that time I could hardly grasp the enormity of what there was left to learn.
I visited a little with Gene and less with Dad, whose love and attention focused primarily and properly on Granddad. A curious crew we were: Dozens of Sarah’s Native American relatives and friends plus a few–very few–white men. Remarkably, every surviving male descendant of Granddad’s who still carried the Baker name had come… and not one of the women. A sense of enormous significance in that fact possessed me, yet the deeper truth lay somehow hidden behind appearances, something subtle and important and entirely beyond the world of words.
In the end, I only knew that my presence made the happening complete, an overwhelming spiritual event Sarah had somehow made possible with her transition.
Night passed. Dawn toyed with us, time dragging during the deep-night hours. At last, a reddish light began to manifest in the east, richly colored and magical. Even those of us who had catnapped felt it, the rite of passage in each Soul as we stared into the lightening sky just above the eastern horizon. I savored the experience, drinking it in, inner sense set on Receive and Record. We greeted the dawn in silence, stretching tired muscles, saying nothing, knowing some sort of initiation had touched us all.
Sarah had lived her life as both a Catholic and a Native American, and her funeral reflected that dual spiritual citizenship. A sincere Catholic priest waved his incense burner and spoke his magic, exhorting Sarah’s Soul to stay stuffed in the coffin until her Lord came for her. Knowing myself as a free Soul able to soar to the Sugmad at any time, I found this depressing, found myself hoping Sarah had more spiritual sense than to wait around in an underground box indefinitely.
Not to worry. Once the Catholic father had finished and stepped aside, a Mandan gentleman moved to the foot of the grave and began speaking in his native tongue. Another Mandan gently requested that we clear the pathway, where the head of the grave pointed and where Bob and I–through ignorance–happened to be standing. This man very quietly explained that the speaker was telling Sarah she was now done with this life, to go on to the East, to the Happy Hunting Ground, to be free and not to look back.
A joy bubbled in me. I couldn’t help smiling, at least on the inside. My step-grandmother’s people might have embraced the white man’s religion, yet when all was said and done, they retained their essential understanding of life, their understanding of spiritual freedom and of God. I gazed at the beautiful open country to the east, wondering if the priest knew the Mandan tongue, knew that his instructions to Sarah were being countermanded by this spiritual freedom fighter speaking boldly and with love at the foot of Sarah’s grave. Somehow, I felt he did not, and that this was best for all. Go Sarah! Go! Go! In the name of the Sugmad, of the Great Spirit, of that which the Lakota call Wakan Tanka and for which I know not the name in your Mandan tongue, go!
Go in peace, beautiful Soul.
Then it was done. I headed for home, passing up the feast to drive many miles, taking with me treasured memory and the Pendleton gift blanket given to me at the ceremonies. Obviously, sleep would be necessary along the way, but even a little mileage covered would give the feeling of having begun. Up out of Mandaree, struggling to stay awake to Killdeer. Black McDonald’s coffee in a Styrofoam cup, weaving on the freeway east of Killdeer as exhaustion took its toll At last I could go no farther.
The exit said “GECK.” I smiled, remembering having noticed this exit on the way west. God and Eck combined, Spirit and the Source as one, in this one spot. Barely able to navigate, concerned lest my sleep-driving cause me to go on past the exit altogether, I assembled a great force of will and turned the Pinto off to the right, away from the freeway. Less than a hundred yards from the asphalt, GECK’s dirt road offered a wide spot clear of traffic and totally suitable for napping, not a human habitation or another wheeled vehicle in sight.
It was a gorgeous, sunny afternoon, cool yet just right inside the car. Turning sideways across the front bucket seats, I arranged the Pendleton blanket across my legs, leaned back into the driver’s side door, and dove blissfully into deep, dreamless sleep.
Three hours later, my eyes opened…and stared straight into my mysterious painting. Framed through the car window, the round-topped hill rose from a rolling sea of short-grassed plains. Yes, round-topped, exactly like the original painting, before turning the hilltop into a squared-off, rocky cliff. Clouds had come in during my snooze, strange upswept patterns never seen in nature…until now. For long moments, there seemed to be no point in moving, only the delicious restfulness and things-are-right-in-the-world realization of pleasure Soul deep and sky high. And I realized I had known the scene would be there, had known it before returning to the body.
Four days earlier, I had painted this place with exactly these clouds, saying, “I have seen this before.” How long before? It didn’t matter; time and space had been transcended.
In a later year, the Pendleton blanket moved on, finding an important placement with yet another Native American family, several states away in Portland, Oregon. The memory of GECK, however, remains with me.
For our readers who may not recognize terms like Eck, Eckist, or Sugmad, the definitions can be found in A Glossary of Eck Terms at Eckankar.org.