Experiments in Renunciation

Recently I have been sifting through journals from my early twenties and editing what feels worthwhile. It was a very transformative period of my life and was also quite heavy. I was trying to devote myself to God, although I did not know how or even what that meant. I had some intense emotional states to work through- heartbreak, confusion, low self-esteem, and was recovering from an extremely hedonistic and alcoholic lifestyle.  It was also my first so-called experiments with renunciation.

In future posts I will describe how I ended up in the Grand Canyon, and how ultimately my time in the desert acted as a stepping stone to meeting Ram Dass and finding Maharaji. All of these posts will fall under the category “Searching for the Guru.”

This story takes place between the months of December 2007 and January 2008 when I was 22 years old.  It took me through the grips of fear, existential questions of reality, and in retrospect, I must admit, is not without its share of humor.

I had lived in the Grand Canyon for about a week when I met Mark. I wasn’t trying to meet too many friends. Most of the other employees at the park were into different things. Most were around the age of fifty, lived paycheck to paycheck and spent their Monday nights drinking malt liquor and watching football. I had just quit drinking and was trying to live a simple lifestyle.

I met Mark at the local recreation center. He was climbing on a mechanical rock wall. It moved like a conveyor belt as he stayed in one place. As Mark put it, “I feel like I’m in a hamster cage.” Mark was climbing with the most ridiculous sunglasses I had ever seen. They were gold rimmed, had red lenses and looked as if they were a part of some 70s Halloween costume. He wore a Mohawk, and chains hung from the sides of his jeans. Not only was he very punk, but serious about it. He was inside, with sunglasses on, wearing ripped jeans with chains while trying to do physical exercise!

Being a fellow rock climber myself, I decided to speak with him. In the course of the conversation he convinced me to try the machine out. The thought of climbing the thing seemed ridiculous, but I tried it out and did have some fun. I told him about my current plans for healthy living, and he replied, “Really? I just quit drinking and doing drugs as well. I also just recently decided to be a vegetarian. Don’t know why, just thought it would be a fun experiment.” I couldn’t help but smile. I had been a vegetarian for about a year and thought this friend was too much. He was quite the character, and I had always been drawn to the eccentric type.

Within five minutes he learned of my bent towards mysticism, eastern spirituality and Christ. Everything seemed too good to be true when he informed me he had been practicing Shamanism for 7 years.

Within the week I moved into his room. He had no roommate and mine was much older than me and on a completely different schedule. The rooms were similar to college dormitories, but yet far different than what any freshman would ever experience. They were stuffy, and the halls were filthy. There was one day when someone wrote the word, “poop” on the bathroom stall using his own excrement.

When I told Mark, he looked astonished and said, “Someone actually wrote the word ‘poop’ with poop?!” I found out a few weeks later, when we were already on the road together, that it was Mark who wrote that on the wall. Either my friend had an ‘edgy’ sense of humor, or this was a foreshadowing of what was to come.

One week later, Mark was fired from his job. He was having dress code issues and attitude problems. I didn’t know the details about his dismissal, but it was obvious that it was a long time coming. Regardless of whether he deserved to be fired or not, he had no place to go, and the park was going to kick him out on the spot. He had no car, a meager paycheck, and was expected to figure something out by that evening.

Thoughts roamed through my head of him sitting on the side of the road with his thumb stuck out, hungry and cold, waiting for a ride back to the East Coast. I still to this day don’t know what came over me. I had only known the guy for about two weeks, and yet something inside me spoke. It told me to quit my job.

So I quit. All of a sudden my life opened up. Ideas and visions roamed through my head as the invigoration of life took hold of me. I knew at that moment what we were to do. We were to drive south and live as desert nomads, cooking by fire and sleeping under the stars. We would get work in town, but we wouldn’t need to work much. Food is cheap when you cook for yourself. No rent and no society to bog us down with extra expenses we were brainwashed to need anyway. It meant I could devote myself more fully to my fledgling meditation and spiritual practices. It seemed perfect.  The fact that I had maybe 200 dollars to my name did not seem to damper my ecstatic mood.

So we hit the road and looked for our future home. After a few failed attempts in various areas of Arizona, we learned that heading South did not necessarily mean warmer weather, so we settled outside of Las Cruces, New Mexico. Las Cruces was a comparatively low elevation which made the winter nights tolerable. The coldest it reached at night was about 20 degrees.

Outside of the city was miles of BLM land, and we had no trouble finding a place to set up camp. We were far enough from the city that we felt  alone in the wilderness, but close enough that we could get supplies and find work.

Although it never dropped below twenty degrees, sometimes it was hard to start a fire due to the extreme winds and winter storms. Mark never put much effort into the fire, so I had to do it all myself. On the stormy nights I would hold a blanket over the wood, creating a little fort with me inside. As I tried to start the fire I would hold my breath so as to not breathe in the smoke, battling my burning eyes and air-deprived lungs until it seemed that the fire could withstand the wind.

We made simple, one-pot meals and kept the fire going until we were ready for sleep. We went into town during the day to look for jobs and get needed supplies.

Week 2

Mark and I were both dead broke. I had found work canvassing for a local environmental non-profit, but I wasn’t to be paid for another 10 days.  It was a Saturday, and we drove into town so I could volunteer at the local co-op. By volunteering I could get a much needed discount on groceries. I hadn’t noticed until we were already in town exactly how low my gas tank was. Not only were we broke, but completely out of gas. Even if we were able to make it back to our camp spot, we would just be stuck there, with no way to get gas or for me to make it to work on Monday. It was looking like we were going to be sleeping in town.

In the desert, when one sleeps under milky stars he falls off into romantic dreams of heroism and is a man of the wilderness. When one sleeps in the mall parking lot of a conservative and elderly city, he is awoken by the blue lights of protection and can be called nothing else but homeless.  I was not eager for that to happen.

I had just finished volunteering and was on my way to my car, praying that I had enough gas to make it to Mark on the other side of town. As I was about to open my car doors, a man yelled from behind, “Hey man, you looking for work?”

This startled me as a shock. Even though I was homeless, I didn’t think I looked homeless. I turned around in confusion, and then realized the divine opportunity. “Sure,” I said, “What ya got?”

The man had a bad knee, and needed yard work to be done. I worked for him for two hours, planting flowers and doing basic gardening, and he paid me twelve bucks. He was drinking tequila while I worked, and by the time he drove me to my car, he was pretty trashed. He talked to me incoherently about metaphysics, his multiple ex-wives, nude beaches, and why Californians were so much more evolved than New Mexicans.  He tried to act fatherly towards me and offered me some life advice. I was too filled with gratitude for my 12 dollars to even find the humor in the situation. As I filled up my gas I thanked God for this intervention in my life, only to find that She wasn’t done with me yet.

I drove to the mall where I had dropped off Mark. When I arrived, I found him wearing an entirely new outfit. He was dressed like a woman, wearing a short skirt and black leggings. As I was working for a drunk doing yard work for 6 dollars an hour so we could buy gas, Mark had a friend from the East Coast wire him money so he could go to Hot Topic and buy women’s clothing. I was both upset and confused. A few days later he had turned what began as a simple skirt into an entire persona.

He started going by the name Natasha and told people he was a Russian immigrant. He even spoke in a fake accent. He wore knee-high black boots, black leggings and a very short, purple and pink kilt. He wore a bra with no shirt over it, a girdle over his stomach and a leather jacket that was left unzipped, revealing his girdle and bra for the world to see. He had bright red makeup on his cheeks, blue eye shadow, and a blond wig he bought from a costume store.

I considered myself to be an accepting person, but I had never been in such a situation before, and I didn’t know what to think. I decided that if he wanted to be Natasha, that it was fine with me, but it wasn’t easy. Sometimes we would walk through Las Cruces, and people would honk and whistle. Mark took this as a sign that people thought he was “sexy.” As the days progressed it dawned on me that this was more than an identity issue. Mark was becoming delusional.

Problems with Mark

It turned out he had been taking Robitussin for the last few weeks without me knowing, but had now upped his dose to a daily basis. Robitussin, taken in large doses, is an extreme dissociative. Taken daily, it can completely alter one’s reality.

Not only had Mark developed a new persona, but he became very suicidal. He began cutting himself and talking about how he wanted to die. I was beginning to become scared at night. I would wake up in the middle of the night and hear him howling like a wolf. He never acted violent towards me, but I had no idea what his handle on reality was.  I didn’t really even know him, and now I was all alone with him in the middle of the desert, trying to fall asleep at night while I listened to him scream at the moon.

I was in way over my head, so I did the only thing I could think of to do. I called his mother. Mark had used my phone to call her, and so I fished out her number from my call history. We discussed a plan where she would try to come up with the money to buy Mark a bus ticket home. She had a terminal illness, and so money was sparse. With time she was going to try and do the best she could.  I of course still had no money.

In the meantime Mark was becoming progressively worse. He stopped eating or drinking water for a few days straight. He could hardly stand and looked extremely unhealthy.

So again I called his mother. She informed me that Mark had been hospitalized before due to a previous suicide attempt, and she felt he needed to be hospitalized again. She also told me that Mark hated hospitals and would not go willingly. We made a plan.

Mark and I drove into town with the premise of hanging out at a coffee shop. Mark was losing it, and our conversation began to revolve around his suicide attempt.

“You see, the difference between me and you is that you want an answer. You want the truth. I do not care too much for that. I just want to do what I want to do. This has nothing to do with what will make me happy. It’s just that this is what I want to do and so I am doing it.”

Although now I have worked quite a bit with addiction and mental illness, at the time I did not have the experience or the training to deal with the situation. I’m sure I said all of the wrong things, and my paranoia about it couldn’t have helped either.

‘What if Mark just grabbed my steering wheel and drove me onto oncoming traffic?’ I thought.

I was afraid. It seemed to me that one of the main assumptions we have as humans is that life is sacred, whether we know to call it that or not. It is that assumption that allows us to interact and is what our most cherished laws and moralities are based on. If Mark had no trouble taking his own life, what would stop him from taking mine with him?

My mind still racing with fear, I pulled in front of the Barnes N’ Noble, telling Mark I had to use the restroom. Once I left the car I called 911. Cops pulled up and circled around the vehicle. I watched from the distance as they spoke to Mark. I then felt my stomach drop as I watched the police pull away, leaving Mark in my car.

I approached one of the officer’s in a parked car to ask what had happened. He informed me that there was nothing they could do. Since Mark was an adult, and since he didn’t admit to feelings of suicide, they were powerless to act.

Not only did my plan fail, but now I had to confront Mark. His first words stung me coldly.

“I hate you,” he said.

I had no idea what to do. The cops told me they could kick him out of my car if I wanted, but Mark had no money and no place to go. I couldn’t do that. At the same time, I didn’t feel comfortable being around him. The thought of being alone in the desert with a mentally disturbed person who hated me did not sound appealing in the least.

A few days prior I had seen a sign for the Community of Hope, a local assistance program to help those in need. I looked up their number and gave them a call. I had no idea what they could possibly do to help. I didn’t even know what to ask, but my options were low and it was worth a try. I told the man on the phone my situation, and that’s when the miracle happened.

“Well, you know, if your friend has a return phone call, like from his mother, then we will buy him a bus ticket.”

He told me that it wasn’t a regular service of the Community of Hope, but that he knew about it because his friend got a bus ticket that way the week before.

I made a deal with Mark. I told him I wasn’t comfortable living with him. I also told him that if he stayed at the shelter of Community of Hope they would buy him a bus ticket home. Mark reluctantly agreed to the plan. I drove him to the shelter, and for the next three days I visited him in the morning and brought him food. After he left, I sent the rest of his things in the mail to his mother. A few weeks later I called her and she gave me an update. Mark was hospitalized upon his return home, and after his release he moved in with his mother. I have not heard from either of them since then.

This left me alone, living out of my car, in the desert of New Mexico with very little distractions. It forced to be with myself in a way that I had never before done.  Although difficult, the craziness of the circumstance and the seeming miracle of Mark’s bus ticket made me feel that I was supposed to be there. It gave me the fuel I needed to stick it out for a few months as I learned to slow down and live in a new way. It turned out to be a very important stage in my journey.

About Sitaram Dass

kirtan, devotion, activism, and writings at sitaramdass.com View all posts by Sitaram Dass

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