The Stagehand

A few weeks later I drove Mister Rose out to the farm. The guys who lived there had been putting up fence for three months. With winter coming on, Rose had put out a call to the outlying groups for help in hopes of finishing the project before the ground started to freeze. We were expecting a big turnout that weekend.

Usually, these were Rose's happiest times, working side by side with young men, talking and joking in the farmhouse after the work was done. But on the ride out that day he was pensive and uncommunicative, offering only an occasional comment about the traffic or weather. I stopped trying to make conversation and we drove most of the way in silence. It wasn't until we were almost at the farm that he spoke again.

"I've been walking through a dark place these last couple of days."

I waited for more, but he added nothing.

"What do you mean, Mister Rose?"

He paused a long time before answering. "I don't know if I can explain it to you," he said. His voice was flat and distant, and it made me uneasy.

When I pulled into the parking area, Rose got out of the car and without another word headed towards the road that led up the hill to where the work was going on. I followed, and we found the others already sinking posts and unrolling wire fence. Rose continued to be somewhat distant as we worked and soon everyone fell into the same mood. We worked steadily all morning with little being said beyond the necessities of the task. Along about noon the sky darkened and a cold rain began to fall. We gathered up our tools and headed for the house.

Inside there was a flurry of activity as people began to prepare their lunches. It was several minutes before I noticed that Rose had not come in with us. I went out to my car to get the food I'd brought and saw Rose some distance away carrying a few tools towards the east end of the farm.

Curious, I followed until I saw him arrive at the grave site he had picked out for himself several years before. I knew that periodically he tended and groomed this small plot of land. As I watched he began cutting the underbrush with a large scythe, stooping occasionally to pull on a root or toss something aside. He moved with thoughtful grace as he worked in the cold rain. After a few minutes I left, feeling like an intruder.

That night in the farmhouse, the wood stove creaking, Rose began talking about his Experience without anyone first asking a question. He talked about the Absolute with an almost indifferent familiarity, the way an immigrant might talk about the old country. As I listened to him, I had the sense that Rose wasn't really there, that he was not a part of our world. He was a stranger from the Absolute, marking off his remaining days in the prison of this dimension.

"Do you think you'll remember this place?" I asked him.

"Oh, I don't know, probably," he replied, leaving the distinct impression that it didn't matter either way.

The next morning we awoke early and prepared for work, but Rose lingered over coffee and conversation with us. It was after eight before we left the house. As we gathered tools and prepared to walk up the hill to the fence line, a red Jeep Scout stopped on the road in front of us. The driver was Keith Ham--"Swami Kirtanananda." Several other devotees were with him. Rose walked over to the car and we moved closer, ready for trouble. Relations between the neighbors had never been worse. Krishna children called us names as they walked past, and one somewhat friendly devotee who had stopped by the farm told Rose confidentially that there were a dozen men ready and eager to kill him should the Swami give the word.

Rose leaned inside the driver's window. "So Keith, when are we going to get the rest of the fence?" he said.

The Swami hated to be called by his karmi name, but I don't think Rose did it to needle him--although Rose was perfectly capable of doing that. He just knew him as Keith when they met, that’s all, and no amount of power or pretense would change it.

"It will be here by noon," Kirtanananda said. It was a different voice than I'd heard in court or on the evening news. While not exactly friendly, there was no arrogance or affected holiness about him.

"It was supposed to be here yesterday," Rose said.

"I called again this morning. It'll be here by noon."

They talked matter-of-factly for a few more minutes about the fencing, which was obviously a joint project between the neighboring farms--although Rose had never mentioned it to us. When they finished their business the Krishnas drove off. We followed Rose up to the fence line and worked until almost one o’clock.

After lunch Rose again seemed in no hurry to get back to work. He leaned back in his chair and looked us over one at a time.

"You know," he said, in a slow, reflective voice, "when a person gets inspired and makes a commitment to a spiritual path--and acts on that commitment--he moves. He changes. His life changes. But when he stops acting on his commitment, he stops moving. He stops growing. His clock stops."

He paused for a moment. "That's what it's like around here now--Brigadoon. None of you are moving. And if any of you want to pick up the torch again, you'll have to figure out why your clock stopped and do something about it."

We all stared at our boots or hands.

"But don't wait too long," he added with a slight smile. "I don't know how much time I have left."

No one said anything for what seemed like several minutes.

"Spiritual clocks stop for different reasons," Rose went on in an almost soothing tone. "Some of you have taken on wives and girlfriends, others want to explore the limits of your ego, others want to grab for the million bucks.

"But I'm not really disappointed," he said. "When people got into the group they were college kids, they had time and freedom. I always figured that eventually they'd have to buckle down--at least the ones who didn't figure out the secret of how to live without buckling down."

He stood up and got a can of soda from the refrigerator, then began to speak about each person individually, and where he thought they were in relation to the search. When he stopped talking I was the only one he hadn't mentioned. For a moment I considered leaving it that way, but I spoke up.

"What about me, Mister Rose?"

"I've watched you for years," he said, as if expecting the question. "Your heart's not in this work. You've suffered but you've never changed."

As we worked on the fence that afternoon I thought obsessively about what he'd said. It hurt, but I knew he was right. My heart wasn't in it anymore, and the more I considered it, the less sure I was it ever had been--at least not the way Rose meant it, anyway. But as for not changing? I was sure I had been making great strides all these years, even if my commitment level might have wavered at times. If I had been kidding myself about this I truly did not see it.

I tried to look at my life through Rose's eyes, but my ego kept rushing to my defense. All I could hear were my own rationalizations coming back at me. I knew Rose thought I was too wrapped up in my career, but I thought I'd done a respectable job of incorporating his principles into my business life. Exposing untruths was the essence of effective cross-examination, and intuition was every bit as valuable in the courtroom as in meditation. I used determination and perseverance to win cases that seemed unwinnable. I did a fairly noble job of staying celibate in a distinctly un-celibate world, and of steering clear of the greed and compromise that I saw all around me in my profession. What did he expect from me? What was I doing wrong? What was I not doing that I should?

I refused to admit that I had abandoned the search. The flurries of egotistical ambition, the occasional interlude with a woman, the nights out with friends watching a ball game on big screen TV--these were merely amusements I tossed in to spice things up a bit. They were only enjoyable as long as I felt I had a "path" to return to. I did not want to think that they were what I had become, and that I no longer might hope that I would someday break through my ignorance and neuroses to discover my true Self.

Still, as hard as I argued with myself there was no getting around the fact that something was missing. What was it? The glue that bound together the hundred or so people who Rose considered serious enough to comprise the group was, of course, Rose himself. But what opened each of their minds to the possibilities that Rose presented? What inspired them to actually try and change their lives? It was the unexpected experiences that somehow "happened" to everyone who spent any time around him.

Healings, mind-readings, rapport, miracles of coincidence. These were the events that inspired and transformed people, far more than all the words in his remarkable philosophy. That was what brought me to him. That is what held my interest. This is what I now sensed was gone. I had lost the sense of wonderment--of unlimited expectation--that I had come to take for granted since meeting Rose. Without it, I was just going through the motions.

That evening as I drove Rose home to Benwood I tried to explain what I'd been thinking. I had a hard time putting into words what I’d felt so strongly earlier that day.

"I can't exactly point to anything in particular that's different," I said, "but there used to be a magic that you could feel in the group. I don't mean just specific events. It was like a crack that I used to be able to see through that kept this world from seeming so real. I don't know if I've changed, or the zeitgeist has changed, or what."

Rose smiled. "It's me," he said. "I've changed. I turned off the magic."

His statement shocked me. For as long as I had known him, Rose had never taken credit for any of the "surprises" that had happened. He also frequently spoke about how taking credit for phenomena would upset the delicate equilibrium of neutrality and indifference that supported acts of between-ness.

"I don't understand."

"When this stuff started happening it came as a big surprise to me. I always thought that healing was a trap to keep people tinkering with the props instead of breaking through and discovering what’s behind the curtain. Then one day in the kitchen, Jean was complaining about a headache and the thought came to me that I could take that headache away if I wanted. So I just put my hand on top of her head and pulled it out. Her headache was gone."

"How did you know it wouldn't be a trap for you?"

"I knew it wouldn’t trap me because I was indifferent to it. I knew what my direction was and I knew I wasn't going to let anything get in the way of it. So when minds got read, or people got zapped or healed, I didn't discourage it.

"But then it started turning into a circus. People were coming down to the farm just to see who'd get zapped. They weren't interested in philosophy, and they were wrecking the place for the people that were. So I pulled the plug. Magic and miracles attract people from too far down on the spiritual ladder."

I winced at his last remark and wondered if it was intended as a shot at me, knowing how big a part his magic had played in my spiritual interest. But he did not look at me or change his tone.

"A person can't wear too many faces," he went on. "I'm wearing the face of an advisor, not a miracle worker. Of course, I might change my mind if someone close to me was in trouble. But I'm looking for true seekers, people who want to find their ultimate definition. Not people who are merely impressed by magic."

Over the next week or so those of us staying in Benwood and at the farm began talking to Rose about what we could do to start moving again, to get our clocks started. He was evasive at first, as if waiting to see if we would suggest something ourselves. But a few days later he announced plans for a month-long "Winter Intensive" at the farm. It would begin January first.

Once the word got around nobody wanted to be left out. People who normally only came around for TAT meetings took time off from work or even quit their jobs to attend. I tried to shuffle my schedule, but the first two weeks were all I could free up.

On New Years Day, twenty-five of us gathered at the farm and Rose outlined the rules. There were lots of them. He had established a strict regimen and it was obvious he was dead serious about this Intensive. Up at six. Silence and meditation from six until noon. Work outdoors until five. Attend an evening meeting in the farmhouse from seven to midnight. Fasting was required for at least the first three days, and encouraged thereafter for alternating periods of three to five days. Strict celibacy was demanded, and to ensure compliance everyone was paired off in various rooms and cabins, and no one was permitted to go anywhere without his partner at any time. Rose made it clear that a breach of any rule would result in expulsion from the Intensive.

We all wondered why Rose, who generally not only refused to legislate routines but actively discouraged them, had come up with such a rigid program.

"There is no recipe for a lightning bolt," he had often said.

But this time it was different. It was as if Rose sensed that time was short, and that he had to pull out all the stops if there was to be any hope of helping someone break through. He was with us almost constantly, a combination teacher and comrade-in-arms. He fasted with us and led us on long silent walks to take our minds off our hunger. In the afternoons he worked along side us in the cold and snow, chopping trees and splitting wood. In the evenings he would hold rapport sittings and talk philosophy as we fought off the mind-numbing fatigue that threatened to overtake us.

About a week into it, Frank received a phone call from his wife informing him that his baby was sick. Rose told him to go home.

"Your first commitment has to be your family," he said, which was exactly what Frank wanted to hear. After Frank left, though, Rose spoke differently about how he had handled the delicate balance of raising a family while doing The Work.

"We used to meet Friday nights in Steubenville," he said. "It wasn't much of a group, mostly older women glad to get out of the house once a week, but I figured I'd work with what was in front of me until something better came along. Then I got to noticing that every Friday something would go wrong in the house. One of my kids would get sick, or my wife would go nuts about something. So finally I said to her, 'Listen, I don't care if you and the kids are dying, I'm still going to go the meeting.'"

There were a lot of puzzled faces. We all knew how protective Rose was of his wife and children.

"Honoring my commitment to that spiritual group was the only way I could keep my family from harm," he explained. There were still a lot of puzzled faces.

"If you're trying to take a vacation from nature in order to find your Essence," he went on, "the forces of adversity will attack you any way they can. And that usually means finding the weakest link. That can be your wife, your kids--anything you're attached to. If you let these adverse forces slow you down you're just going to encourage them, and that means more headaches for you and possibly even danger for those close to you.

"To have a chance of really doing something you have to set your psychic shield in place. That means a solid stance of pure commitment--no equivocation. This way you're protected, and though they may not know it or understand it, so is your family."

The exhausting regimen continued. One afternoon, about ten days into it, we dragged ourselves into the farmhouse wing after five hours of cutting, splitting and hauling firewood, too tired to even shake the snow and mud from our boots. We fell into seats wherever we found them. Those closest to the stove peeled off a few layers of clothing. Others waited for the warmth to reach their depleted bodies. The final rays of sunset lit up the windows and bathed the room in cool red light. No one spoke.

After several minutes Rose stood up and unbuttoned his long wool coat. His movements were stiff and he looked suddenly old.

"You look tired, Mister Rose," Nick said.

"It comes from trying to breathe life into twenty-five statues."

No one laughed. Nick stared at his work boots. "I'm sorry I asked."

"Don't be," Rose said, taking off his coat and sitting back down. "There's twenty-four statues who didn't."

Rose had repeatedly said that Nick was the most sensitive and intuitive among us, and perhaps the most likely to have some kind of Experience. The trouble was, he said, those same qualities made Nick the most likely candidate for a garden-variety nervous breakdown, too.

"I honestly don't know how you do it, Mister Rose," Nick went on. "You work harder at this than any of us, and you've already achieved, or become, or whatever. You're already enlightened."

"There's no point in getting a fat head about being in this work," Rose said. "I'm nothing special. Nobody’s anything special. Everybody is working for God. Most people just don't know it. Maybe God doesn't even know it."

"But there is a difference between a person just living an animal life and somebody trying to find the Truth, isn't there?" Chuck asked.

"We’re all living animal lives. Don't think you're better than nature. I don't believe in violating natural programming. But at the same time everybody also has the right to solve the mystery of life--to become who you are. That is your prerogative, and also your sacred trust. The complex web of nature is part of a blueprint that also gives every individual the chance for ultimate survival, ultimate definition. Not a guarantee, but a chance. And you don't have to violate nature to take a shot at it.

"There's nobody on earth who doesn't want to know the Truth. They’re all moving towards it at the precise speed of their commitments, which is usually very slowly. People have no choice, really, but to try and find a way out. Everybody is miserable. A baby on his first day of life wakes up screaming. He doesn't like the atmosphere. Even the animals suffer. Everything's trying to eat them, and that's bound to be a headache. We're all just animals trying to survive in this jungle. I'm an animal, too. I've just seen a light, perhaps, that the other animals haven't seen."

He stood up and got a soda from the refrigerator.

"The irony is that animals and instinctive people--people who live like animals--pick me up better," he went on. "They know I'll be kind to them."

"Can you help people like that?" Larry asked.

"You can't help everybody, if that's what you're getting at. If you reach too far down the ladder, people end up dragging you down instead of you pulling them up. Even with the people who are receptive, whose heads have opened up for some reason or another, you can't necessarily help them in the way they demand to be helped. Sometimes even when you want to, you can't get too close. The formula for magic is to stay ten feet away from people. Love your friends, but keep your distance."

"Does that go for people in the group, too?" Chuck asked.

"Especially for people in the group. We're walking a tightrope. On one hand you have to have friendship, because without friendship, there's no hope of attaining anything of spiritual value. If people don't have the capacity for true friendship, they have no spiritual capacity, either.

"But if people are really serious about working together for the Truth, they have to hold up mirrors for each other. They have to stick their finger in their friend's face and say, 'Look, here's what you're doing wrong, this is what's hanging you up.' Because that person can't see it from where he's sitting--he's in it. The eye cannot see itself. This system is based on confrontation, not reinforcement. If I am to inspire anybody it will have to be because of the way I live my life."

The Intensive created an altered reality for me, one in which I sensed my clock could begin to run again, if I so chose. Fasting cleared out the physical, and perhaps even some of the metaphysical, poisons that had been plaguing me. The exercise and prolonged meditation gave me a sense of physical and even psychic power. In his book, Psychology of the Observer, Rose outlines a system for climbing the various levels of the mind, or what he calls "Jacob's Ladder." When I'd read the book before it was just words. Now, with time and renewed energy I was actually able to see my thoughts, and to observe them as foreign entities separate from myself. Gradually I became conscious of this "observer" of my thoughts, and grew curious about who or what was observing them. At odd times I would get insights into my behavior and persona so clear and true that they frightened me. When my two weeks was up I felt like I was just settling into the valuable part of the Intensive, and I left with the feeling that I should have tried harder to clear my schedule for the full month.

Once back in the office it was impossible to hang on to the fragile state of mind the Intensive had induced. The demands of the practice threatened to consume the small quantum of energy I had managed to bring back with me, and I found myself wishing I was chopping wood in the snow with Rose. I felt I needed him to administer some kind of jolt to me to keep me from sliding back into my old self, and I anxiously counted the days until he would return from the farm.

When he did, it was clear that the Intensive had exacted a heavy price from him. He looked drawn and pale, and he seemed to shuffle more than walk as he moved around the kitchen. I wondered if any of the "statues" at the farm had benefited from his loss of energy. I kept out of his way while he attended to his backlog of mail and paperwork, and waited for him to regain his strength and vitality.

A few days later I finally caught him alone in the kitchen. It was late evening. He seemed in good spirits and although we'd run into each other a few times in the past couple of days he greeted me like a long lost acquaintance. After a little small talk, I brought up the subject of the Intensive.

"How'd it go after I left?" I asked.

"Well, was you there when Nick had his experience?"

"No," I said, expectantly. "What happened?"

Rose put the kettle on the stove. "Nick picked up on my head one night and got a glimpse. It was genuine, but he didn't go too far. Put him into a tail spin, though. I ain’t sure he pulled out of it before he left. He was still off the deep end."

Rose went on to describe Nick's experience, and how he acted afterwards. One night he had taken Rose's hunting cap and worn it for an evening, evidently putting himself in line as Rose's true successor.

"Hell, I ain't dead yet," Rose said with a chuckle. "Then a couple days later he and Phil ran in the snow with nothing on but their undershorts."

"They did what?"

"It got real cold up there, below zero. I was talking to the boys about tumo--the inner heat a man can generate that protects him from any cold. The Tibetans know this. There's some of them can run naked for hundreds of miles in the dead of winter.

"Anyway, I wasn't around at the time, but I guess Nick and Phil just cooked up this notion they'd give it a try. They stripped down and run from the house to the Chautauqua building and back. Phil come out of it okay, but Nick got frostbit toes and we had to take him to the hospital."

"Is he okay?"

"He's all right. No amputations. They kept him in the hospital three days, then he came back out to the farm for the last of the Intensive."

We talked for the rest of the evening about the Intensive and what had transpired there, then went to bed. Later that night I was awakened by the ringing of the telephone. I looked at my clock. Two-thirty. It took me a moment to force myself out of my warm bed into the freezing house. As I got to the door of the bedroom I heard Rose pick up the phone.

"Hello." It was the same neutral greeting Rose always answered with. No trace of concern over why someone would be calling in the middle of the night. No anger at being summoned into a frigid hallway. No impatience to return to a warm bed. Just "hello." I waited by the door to see if it might be for me.

After a long pause Rose said, "Where you at?"

For the next minute or so I heard only the "hmms" and "uh-huhs" someone makes while listening. Whoever it was evidently wasn't looking for me, so I gratefully climbed back into bed. Since the door to my room was left open in winter to catch what little heat made it upstairs from the wood stove, I could hear Rose as he spoke.

"I know, Nick. That's the way I felt in Seattle. I thought I'd gone insane."

Long pause.

"Yes, that's what happens. You're getting a glimpse of the mind from above. You're seeing that it doesn't exist, not as an individual unit. Right. Right. It's a contact point with another dimension. That's all it is. It isn't you. The human mind is just a matrix, a port where the larger Mind dimensions can anchor."

In the silences between Rose's comments I listened to the house creak.

"I know, I know. Right about now you wish you could stop what's going on and return to illusory life. When you walk up to the edge you think your head's coming apart. You get frightened."

Long silence.

"Yes. Yes, I know. But that's necessary. That total lonesomeness is what takes you away from all your contact with relativity. That lonesomeness comes from the realization that your essence is separated for all time from your loved ones and your attachments to the world."

Another long silence.

"Of course you're scared. You're afraid that if you let go, you'll crash into the sides of the bank and everything will fall apart. But believe me, Nick, you'll find that everything keeps moving as it should, even better than expected. Better than it would if you were still trying to control it."

Sometimes five or ten minutes passed between Rose's comments. Periodically I checked the clock. Three o'clock. Three-thirty. The hallway was freezing.

"Sure, I understand. I know that. Just try and keep yourself chemically balanced. You can handle this if you don't become unbalanced chemically."

A little later.

"You're becoming real. It’s painful to part with what you thought was you."

Rose's remarks grew more frequent. I guessed that Nick was settling down on the other end. Rose's tone grew lighter, and more familiar. Finally there was laughter.

"Hell, no, I didn't cause this. I had my hands full just keeping an eye on you guys. Maybe something I said at the Intensive got your wheels turning, but whatever's happening is taking its own course, and that's the way it has to be."

After a short pause Rose laughed.

"Right, that's my function. I have to keep everybody on their toes. Zen is a system of shocks. But a teacher can't lay out in advance how he's going to do that. You can't tell somebody in advance that you're going to shock them. Otherwise they'll prepare for it and ruin the effect."

I heard Rose giggling and chuckling. I knew the crisis had passed.

"Well, as long as Tim's there with you, he'll keep you from doing anything really dangerous. Tell him to call me back if you try to join the Army or get married. Sure. No problem. We'll see you. Bye."

When I went down to the kitchen the next morning, Rose was sitting at the table. He wasn't watching the news or cooking breakfast or filling a book order, or any of his other morning activities. He was just sitting at the table in the darkness. I felt like I was interrupting when I came through the door.

We exchanged good mornings and he sat in silence while I fixed myself some toast. I checked the clock to see how much time I had before leaving for court.

Rose cleared his throat. His chest was congested, and he coughed a few times. "I feel like hell this morning," he said. His voice was low and weak.

"You have to start unplugging that phone after midnight."

"Nick was really shook up last night. He thought his head was coming apart."

"It frightened me just listening to you talk."

Rose turned towards me. "He got a glimpse. It scared the hell out of him."

He stayed quiet for a few moments, watching me butter my toast, then continued.

"This is what happens when you start backing away from what's unreal. When you start out, it's a wide path. There's all sorts of garbage you can get rid of. As you go on, the path gets ever narrower and the things you have to let go of are very precious to you. Finally there's no escape. You go through the funnel and that's all there is to it."

The image of a funnel terrified me. Like Rose said last night on the phone, it meant the end of everything I loved, especially myself, and there was no going back.

"Nick is scared and confused right now. It's pretty traumatic when you wake up and realize you've been living your life as a shadow in a stranger's nightmare. For a while you're suspended over an abyss--not here, but not anywhere else either.

"That's why you can't just transmit to people. Most of the time out there at the Intensive the guys just stood around waiting for me to zap ‘em, and save 'em the bother of having to work. Sure, I'm always looking for people on the brink that I can push. But even if the conditions were right and I found the right opening in their heads, I'm not sure I'd be doing them any favors. The difference between a breakdown and a breakthrough is the momentum you carry with you into the Experience. And that's something nobody but the individual can provide. I can't provide it for 'em."

A familiar intensity crept into his voice, a blend of resignation and impatience.

"I've always told you people, don't wait around for me to do this for you. Otherwise you'll look up after ten years and wonder where the hell they went and what you did with them. For a lot of the guys in the group ten years have passed already without them doing anything on the path. Then they put down their games for a month to take a vacation out at the farm and expect me to wave a wand and give them ten years worth of spiritual goodies. None of you are fighting for this. Nobody's knocking on the door. And even if they do, they run away when I answer it."

He began coughing again, then stood up and got himself a glass of water. After drinking it he remained at the sink. When he spoke again it was in softer tones.

"You know, when I was a kid, I used to hear about this great Shakespearean actor over in England who was famous for playing Shylock. I think his name was Peter Benson. I guess he could really play the part. Only trouble was he got so wrapped up in the performance that when the curtain went down he couldn't get out of the character. So after every performance a couple of stage hands would have to walk him through the streets of London, repeating over and over, "You're not Shylock, you're Peter Benson. You're not Shylock, you're Peter Benson." Rose looked up and caught my eye.

"That's all my job is in this place," he said. "I'm just a stagehand walking alongside a few people, saying, 'Hey, you're not that egotistical blob of flesh you think you are. You're God.'" Home    |    Table of Contents    |    Next Chapter