“Was that a knock on the front door?” Julia asks, tilting her head to one side and screwing up her eyes a little, as if this might somehow sharpen her sense of hearing.
“I’m not sure, I didn’t hear anything. The music’s pretty loud though,” I reply.
“Let me take a quick look, then I’ll serve dinner; it’s just about ready.”
I must take a look at that damned front door bell. It seems to be working on and off, maybe a loose wire? This house is so long and narrow you really can’t hear when someone is at the front door without it.
The house on Avoca Street in Bondi had been built on a long narrow block in the 1940’s; I'd purchased it just over a year ago. The breakup with my partner of almost ten years had finally come 18 months before, and it had been traumatic and painful. Selling the house we'd shared for most of that time had been a pivotal step in the process of moving forward with our lives. At present my two close friends, Lisa and Julia, are sharing the Bondi house with me. I have the long, low-ceilinged upstairs bedroom that was built into the attic space just a few years back. Lisa and Jules have the bedrooms on the ground floor in the front part of the house.
The main focus of my attention at present is the intense spiritual search that was triggered by my reading of a book on Buddhism three years before, in 2003. The book had mysteriously appeared in my life for no apparent reason, and it was central to my first conscious experience of awakening (you can read the story of it here later if you would like: Mount Warning).
Six months of Jungian analysis has opened my mind to a wide panorama of issues on the psychological level, and I'm pursuing these — mostly through my own reading of Carl Jung’s extensive opus of work, but also by seeking further professional help from time-to-time. On some level, however, I know the answers I am seeking are not to be found in a psychiatrist's office.
I am quickly working my way through Adyar — the spiritual bookstore in Sydney — section by section. Jung talked about mystic and channel, Edgar Cayce, and I'd read about his life with great interest. This had lead me to Kabbalah, which inevitably resulted in my purchasing a pack of Tarot cards that I'm endlessly fascinated by. Through an image on a Tarot card, Sufism briefly called to me, and through it I connected to the ecstatic poetry of Rumi, as well as to the beauty, and profound stillness, of the whirling dervishes. The dervishes pointed me to George Gurdjieff’s work — which my mind found endlessly fascinating. Esoteric Christianity was a quick detour after Gurdjieff, but, due to negative conditioning around Christianity from my childhood, I wasn't yet ready to let Jesus fully into my heart; that would happen a few years later. After a chance encounter at a party with a tantrika, Tantra was my entry point into the Hindu scriptures, but the sheer volume and the confusing maze of its numerous paths overwhelms me, and I put it aside for possible further research at a later date.
The unifying thread of my search throughout this three year period has been the various branches of Buddhism. A deep part of knows that there is something that I need to discover from within the teachings the Buddha. At this point in time — mid-2006 — I'm still looking for a Buddhist text that will give me the answers my mind is searching for: What is this 'Truth' that all the books I’m reading are talking about? What is the cause of this intense longing that has appeared in my heart? What is the meaning of my life? What is the meaning of life? What is the point of doing anything?
With every new day, and with every new book, my list of questions grows longer. I'm yet to start finding answers.
“It’s Craig from next door. He says there’s smoke coming out of your bedroom windows,” Julia's breathless and flushed.
“Shit!! No!! Really!?!”
I spring off the stool I'm seated on in the kitchen, sprint through the living room, and take the stairs to my bedroom three at a time. My heart's thumping in my chest, and my head is tight with the possibilities of what I am about to discover.
As I take the final few stairs up into my bedroom . . . I'm plunged into darkness, and instantly disoriented. What the heck? Why can’t I see?
As I take my next in-breath, I inhale some of the thick, black, toxic smoke cloud that I've run into; I cough violently, doubling over as I do so.
At this point I am standing on the second to last step of the stairwell that leads up to my bedroom. As my body bends forward to cough, my head comes down to floor level. Here my line of vision enters the nine inch clear zone between the floor of my bedroom and the undulating toxic smoke cloud that's filling the rest of the room.
I gaze to my left and see a roiling heat haze, deep orange and fiery red, fringed with glowing embers that are adherent to the visible parts of the furniture and my personal belongings. My entire bedroom is on fire. At this point in time, however, there are no flames.
I descend a few steps, squat down so that my eyes are at floor level, and quickly assess the disaster that's unfolding before my eyes. My mind is whirling furiously. The primary question it is seeking an answer to — and which it keeps coming back to, over and over despite more important immediate issues — is, How did the fire start?
It‘s the end of August, which in Sydney means the coldest part of winter. Tonight it’s perhaps 10C — not cold by many standards, but cold enough for me to have turned on the radiator heater in my bedroom two hours earlier. But how could that have caused a fire? It's only three months old, and it's the latest model; it was supposed to be extremely safe and efficient . . . and it wasn't cheap.
Suddenly, all of these thoughts are smashed into insignificance as the four skylights in the sloping ceiling of my bedroom explode, one after the other.
My eyeballs attempt to pop out of their sockets as my eyelids widen to take in the ball of flame that has suddenly burst into existence at the far end of my bedroom with the first broken skylight; oxygen flooding in and feeding the simmering beast with its heady fuel.
Time slows to a crawl. The writhing ball of flame slowly starts to slither and slide towards me.
With each shattered skylight the monster grows in size and intensity, incrementally expanding to fill my vision, and the now dazzlingly illuminated interior of my bedroom.
The fourth, and final, skylight is directly above my head in the stairwell. A clamour of thoughts forces their way back into my conscious awareness, and, with the wall of flame only feet away, my brain gives the command to my body to, DUCK AND COVER!!
I crunch into a tight ball. My back and shoulders are just below the level of the floor of the room as the flames approach. The final skylight explodes.
Most of the glass is blown outwards; a small smattering of fragments land on my back. The wall of flame jumps toward me, and oozes its way over my back. It starts to crawl, painfully slowly, down the outside of the stairwell where I am crouching, terrified. It engulfs me completely. I'm surrounded by fire. Time is flowing like cold molasses, then . . . it stops all together.
What's different about this silence than the relative quiet I've enjoyed when camping under the stars on a clear, still, summer night, is that in this moment it's my mind that is totally quiet.
Completely silent, and completely still.
There are no thoughts in my mind. There is no movement in my mind. There is the awareness of the absence of thoughts, but there are no thoughts.
The main feature of the experience now is that every thing has disappeared. There's no fire, there's no house, there's no world, there's no Stevie. There's just radiant clear light, arising out of deep, silent, peace. This light is the awareness that is observing the light. It is observing itself. There's no separation between the awareness of the light, and the light. There's no separation between me, who I am, and the light. I am the light. I am the awareness.
Deeper than the light, deeper than the awareness, perfusing it, co-existent and co-emergent with it, is a deep sense of peace. I feel the peace; I sense it in my physical body. It's everywhere, in everything. This deep silent peace is the very substance and ultimate nature of everything, and I am That.
Searing heat and a deafening roar surge back into my awareness as time picks itself up, dusts itself off, and gets on with its business of life-ing. I open my eyes in time to see the wall of flame, having exuberantly consumed the oxygen made available by the broken skylights, retreat back up the stairwell, over my huddled body, and back into the main part of my now fully flaming bedroom.
I gasp, inhale deeply, shudder as I release the tension trapped in my cowering body, cough forcefully a few times, then spring up and sprint down the stairs, running out of the house and into the street where three fire crews have arrived, and are preparing to enter the house.
As I run I notice that something in my experience is different, something new. The silent, radiant, peaceful awareness that I've just experienced and realized deeply to be who I truly am beyond the identification with my mind, is still with me. Actually, it’s not that it’s new — I see that it has always been with me — it’s just that now I know that it's here, that it's always here, and that it's always the truth of who I am. I also see that I need do nothing for that to be true.
The ordinary, everyday, garden-variety awareness that I've used to observe my world for the past 42 years is the same Awareness that I've been reading about in all the spiritual texts, and which is variously referred to as God, Spirit, Being, Consciousness, Truth, Love, etc.
As I run through the house and into the street, the world around me has an unreal quality to it. It’s like I’m seeing it from deeper in, from the depths of silence itself. From here I see that every thing is exterior to the silence, which is the manifest world, the universe. I also see that it's all just noise; all vibration. Paradoxically, the noise is made out of silence, made out of emptiness. The noise doesn’t disturb the silence in any way: the sirens, the flashing lights, the neighbours gawking, the police questioning, the ambulance crew fussing, the oxygen mask delivering, the news helicopters filming. All is unfolding within the unmoving truth of myself, and the unmoving silence is perfectly untouched by the whole drama.
Concerned faces lean in and ask me if I’m OK . . . followed immediately by the question: "How did the fire start?" Later that night, when I am finally free of the chaotic scene in the street outside my burning home, I glimpse myself in a mirror and realize why people have been staring at me so strangely. When the fire started I had been wearing a green T-shirt and white yoga pants. Now, thanks to the toxic smoke cloud, I am jet-black from the waist up — only a pair of bleary, red eyes breaking the uniform darkness. My yoga pants are smeared with dirt here and there, but remain white. The look is dramatic, and extremely comical.
The house in Avoca Street is still standing; the rapid response of the fire crews saved the structure. My bedroom, however, is a gutted shell. As I look around the scene of devastation I realize that all evidence of my personal life up to this moment is gone: I possess no clothing, shoes, or personal belongings. My computer, back-up drive, and all my photographs and videos are gone. But I'm alive, and tonight I have received the most precious, astonishing, astounding gift that anyone can receive in their lifetime. I am so grateful.
As I continue to survey the destruction in my bedroom, one of the firemen comes up the stairs with a set of infra-red goggles to give the room a final inspection before leaving; he wants to ensure there are no hot pockets that might flare up and re-start the fire after they leave. As he is surveying the area where my small alter used to be—the place where I have been beginning to meditate intermittently—he lets out a long, loud whistle.
“Wow. That is amazing. Never seen anything like it before. Here, take a look. I’m gonna go get Geoff and Warren, they have to see this. Incredible!”
I take the infra-red goggles he has handed me and look towards the spot indicated. There, beneath ash and burned debris, is the stone Buddha head that was the centre-piece of my alter. Through the infra-red goggles it is glowing brilliantly, radiantly, like a tiny sun.
Buddha smiles up at me, serenely, knowingly . . .
January 31st, 2015.
The fire occurred in August 2006. Listen to the song, Beloved Waltz, that I wrote about it.