J.C. Amberchele with Berzie G.
Just before Christmas my daughter tried to kill herself by swallowing 150 pain pills and washing them down with a bottle of vodka. When she came out of a coma in the hospital (a friend had found her and called 911), she said she was crushed to discover she was still alive.
This attempt was the culmination of three years of depression, beginning in earnest with the death of her brother (her best friend), and ending this past year with a disastrous marriage. Still suicidal, her friends discouraged her from visiting me, convinced it would be her “goodbye” to me. But she came, and at some point during the visit, feeling rather desperate myself, I decided to show her Douglas Harding’s “pointing experiment” – I don’t recall telling her why, I think I may have described it as a “game” or an interesting oddity.
The visiting room in this prison is usually crowded, and the tables are close together, but I knew my daughter would try almost anything, so I asked her to point to a nearby chair, to notice its form, color, opacity, its sense of being an object “out there”. Next she pointed to her foot, noticing that it too was a solid “thing” with color, texture. She pointed to her knee, her thigh, her abdomen, and finally her chest, stopping and noticing at each the qualities of form, of “thingness”.
And then she pointed at what she was looking out of, and I asked her to reverse her attention 180 degrees and tell me what she saw – not what she thought she saw, not what she had learned, but what she actually and presently saw.
She said, “My nose?” and I replied, “Okay, a nose blur. And what else?” She said, after a pause in which she looked puzzled, “My face?…” , and I said, “Do you see your face?” – and what happened next was truly one of the memorable moments of my life – she froze, startled, and then tears literally burst from her eyes and she groaned as she covered her face with her hands, and when she looked at me again she said, “Oh my God, that’s always been there!”
And that was the beginning, and the beginning of the end of a life that was not working for her. This was a woman who in the previous year had lost her lucrative career, her home, cars – everything, and was now homeless and broke. She describes the moment in the visiting room:
“I saw it immediately. It brought me back to what I remembered as a child. It was as if a light had gone on, my gift was back! The me in pain wasn’t me at all – what a farce! Oh I “got” it all right – you couldn’t miss it! Fireworks, tears, goosebumps – everything was happening!”
And in the ensuing weeks, she wrote:
“I have little or no money, but it doesn’t seem to matter. For the first time I am realizing that I am happy. I could never define happiness before. Listening to others has become a joy. It’s as if I stop thinking when I “See” – I’m simply soaking up the person in front of me. I literally feel their words melting into awareness, becoming a part of me.
“The beauty of Seeing is this: I don’t ask why, how, what, where or when. It just is, and has always been. There are no questions with Seeing. Talking with my friend D. today, I saw his clarity. I saw something remarkable: I saw no-thing in our way – no distance, no space, no barriers. I have never felt this kind of peace before.
“Seeing happens when I least expect it. When it happens, nothing is the same. I don’t know how others experience it, whether it’s life-changing from the start, but it was for me. I know it may sound strange to others, but when I’m doing something I’m also Seeing: doing chores, reading a book, watching TV, eating (plate, fork, food, and I’m placing it into – Nothing!). It’s not something I have to try to do. Awareness just takes over.”
Later, she sent one of her journal entries:
“I love Seeing while falling asleep. I used to have a hard time with thoughts spinning on and on about the day or what I would do tomorrow. Seeing before sleep was difficult at first, but now it’s soothing, comforting. I close my eyes and I am in no-space, the universe. It’s immensity is unfathomable, and yet I’m not nothing in my No-thing. It’s here. What is there is here. It’s like a lullaby, and I drift into sleep peacefully. I also do this during the day. I close my eyes and see No-thing. I imagine having no sight, no way of sorting out the visual world. I have nothing, no memory, no idea of what the environment consists of. Inside I see only a vastness – there are no words to describe the enormity of it. It encompasses everything. It’s a place where everything happens and I am all of it, untouched and untouchable.
“When I was a child I knew myself as part of the world. It was my world. Even when I was looking out I also saw myself on the inside, as though I were looking out and in at the same time. There was a light, and a thought, many thoughts building on other thoughts, a void and yet not a void.”
As a child my name changed many times (my parents were on the run from the law). No matter how many times my parents made me memorize my new name I was always Me, my best friend. I trusted this inner light. I remember being content just sitting and Seeing. I didn’t know it had a name. I told myself I had something special. I thought no one else had this special gift. When I looked in the mirror, what I saw was a little girl who resembled my mom and dad and brother. I saw the scars (dog bite) and sad eyes. But I remember saying: That isn’t me, the real me is when I’m not looking at me! I would laugh and feel comforted at the same time.
“My parents were drug dealers. They were also lackadaisical about parenting, and I was exposed to things that most children hadn’t even heard about. But I could always go “inside”, I could rely on this special place that was the real Me, where nothing could hurt me. And then as I got older I somehow lost that special knowing. It happened so gradually I can’t say when it occurred. I remember as a teenager trying to recapture the sense of it, but I couldn’t. When I looked in the mirror I saw what everyone else saw: the outer me with all the flaws, a victim, someone in pain and someone I did not trust.
“But now my gift is back, no longer completely obscured by thoughts. Once again I am in touch with the real Me. I am Seeing.”
Not long after, I received a letter saying that she had descended from the blissful high she had been on the last several weeks. There were money problems. There were court dates, divorce issues. She remained homeless and jobless and the future looked grim. She wrote:
“Today I was in a bad place. On a scale of 1 to 10, it was definitely a 10. I’ve been in this place before and I know how serious it is. I had to do something drastic. I was in so much agony – emotionally and physically. Once again I wanted to die.
“I was sitting on the sidewalk outside the public library, fighting with my thoughts – worried about the court date, meeting with the lawyer, the obligatory psychiatric test – all of it seemed so useless and overwhelming. Part of me knew I had the tools to win over this internal pain, but another part wouldn’t let me use them! It was as if I were asleep and having a nightmare and couldn’t wake up. Oh God, please wake up! I sat there in tears as people walked by. Do you know how hard it is to See when you are in this state? So incredibly hard. But then it happened. I sat there and looked into Here and instantly (not exaggerating) I SAW NO PAIN HERE. I am not my thoughts! There is no fear in this No-place! I am not my anxiety and panic. I need do nothing – I am Here whether I do or not! Here I see an enormous wide-open warmth, and I no longer want to die. This was a good day, after all. I am thankful for this wonderful horrible time that brought me Home.”
A week later she attended The Byron Katie School For The Work, a 10-day intensive using self-inquiry to help dismantle entrenched beliefs, or “stories”, about the so-called “self” and “world” (the live-in retreat is advertised as a school you attend to unlearn). She was awarded a grant, and arrived there with the idea that “The Work” (the term for the inquiry itself) would in some way complement Seeing, in that it would help her return to Here. She finished knowing they were far more than complimentary, they were inexplicably identical. Three days later she borrowed a backpack and set off alone for central Mexico in search of her ex-pat mother, with whom she had been at odds for nearly two decades. When she returned, I received this:
“I found her, dad. I am overwhelmed by how much I love her. She is so beautiful. I don’t see the things I saw before. I don’t need anything from her – she is perfect just the way she is. I feel as though this No-space has become so incredibly full of acceptance. I am no longer in a trance of who I am to others. I am this No-thing holding all things. In This, I feel people like I never thought I would, including their pain. People come up to me and tell me about their suffering, their insanity. Why are so many coming to me with this same message? But then, every person is a reflection of me, every word a signpost. Since you helped me to See, I have been to hell and back. “Hell” because life can and does get worse at times, “back” because I find Here the stillness and peace that encompasses all – the more “hell” I experience, the more peace I return to. So I found her, and made amends, and discovered that I made amends with myself. She thinks I’m nuts. Well, if this is what “nuts” is – I’m Home!”
As of this writing, my daughter is back in D., is still jobless and without a home (she is staying with a friend). She has no specific plans, other than what seems planned for her. We sign off on our letters as “Your Ass-backwards Father” and “Your Upside-Down Daughter”, and have a good laugh. Writing to each other, we write to ourselves, and it’s always a sweet surprise, even when sitting on the sidewalk outside the library in a hell filled with tears.
About the author:
J.C. Amberchele is the pseudonym of a man who found freedom, real freedom, during the long prison sentence, which he is still serving. This freedom is the same liberation or enlightenment that so many of us are seeking, but we seek within the framework of a life where we can have access to all the paraphernalia of the spiritual search and the apparent comfort that money can buy. If you are reading this, you probably have an inkling that the real freedom which Amberchele talks about is something different and has no relation to the external freedom that most of us enjoy.
J.C. Amberchele was born in Philadelphia in 1940. He attended a Quaker school, then colleges in Pennsylvania and New York, graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in psychology.
In the early 1960s Mr. Amberchele worked as a part-time instructor at a private school in Honolulu, teaching high school math and French. An athlete in high school and college, he tried his hand at auto racing in Hawaii, but soon ran out of funds. He married in 1965, worked briefly as a salesman in both Honolulu and Los Angeles, but soon divorced and returned to Hawaii. After working at odd jobs at a local marina, he began taking LSD, and subsequently joined the growing ranks of “hippies” living in the Waikiki Beach area.
In 1967 he again moved to Southern California, and this time began selling marijuana to support himself. Soon he was transporting wholesale quantities to various cities in the U.S,, and within a year was moving marijuana north from Mexico in cars and airplanes, a “career” he followed for nearly 15 years and one which he admits drove him deeper and deeper into crime and “insanity”. During this time he married again, had two children, and travelled extensively, often to avoid the law.
After his arrest, he began writing and studying Eastern philosophy. His first book, a novel, was released in 2002 (“How You Lose”, New York, Carroll & Graf). He has been a long time meditator in prison, and has called himself a “reluctant Buddhist” since taking formal vows in 2001. As of this writing he has been incarcerated a total of 29 years, and does not expect to be released soon.