Hippie Squared: The Face of God in Burger King (Or Was That the Back of His Head?)

William Blake's GodThis is part two. But I think it’s self-contained. You be the judge. If not, you can find part one right over here. In fact, I hope you’ll check it out either way.

We were talking about God. Or the lack thereof. You know, just good old fashioned party talk. Unless you’re luckless enough to live in one of those all-too-frequent times and places run or over-run by religious fanatics. In which case such talk could get you burned at the stake, crucified, stretched on the rack or suicide-bombed.

When last we left me, in part one, it was around the time that I was calling myself a “spiritual atheist.” What did I mean by that? I’m not really sure, except that I didn’t believe in god, per se, but I was attracted to Taoism and Buddhism, two religions that don’t require a god. And I’d been intrigued all my life by the kinds of questions considered by religions, astrophysicists, and poets: ultimate questions. What is? Why? How long? What came before, if anything? What will come after, if anything? What’s right to do, while we’re here? What’s wrong to do, and why?

And with great trepidation, fearing I might be perceived rude somehow or unenlightened, I had told the enlightened Buddhist master, Maezumi Roshi of the Zen Center of Los Angeles, that I was an atheist. With great compassion he had asked, “Is that a problem for you?” throwing me back on my spiritual heels.

“No,” I’d said. But the Roshi was far smarter than I. He was enlightened, after all. And I can get insufferably impressed with myself at times, but I know damn well I’m far from enlightened. So that one stuck with me, and it nagged at me. And I began to find that even such a consciously paradoxical formulation like “spiritual atheist” began to feel like one more damn flag, and I don’t believe you can get to the mountaintop carrying a flag, so I threw that one aside too.

Little matters like the nature of reality, or the nature of right and wrong, are too important to be settled by planting a flag on a hill. Whole peoples have lost thousands of years fighting and dying in the foothills that way, instead of pushing on to find that stairway of clouds that ascends above the mountaintop.

Meanwhile, after casting off that self-made label as inadequate, I had this tab of LSD that I’d been saving for several years, in a baggie folded into a tiny square in the door of our freezer. It was the last of four little black pyramids we’d procured for an adventure in Muir Woods above San Francisco—my first “trip.” It was grand and glorious and fun and I wrote an iambic pentameter sonnet about it. Remind me to share it with you sometime.

But I saved the last hit just for me. I wanted to do it alone. I wanted to do it as a kind of spiritual quest. I craved an ecstatic or transcendent experience. A tall order, I know, but I was patient. I waited about three years before Elise had to go out of town when I couldn’t. I took a couple of days vacation from work. On a warm, sunny, spring weekday, sometime around noon I placed the little black pyramid on my tongue and sat back on my couch and waited.
About an hour it was supposed to take. And slowly I felt it come over me. When I felt it had kicked in good and strong I went straight to the bathroom mirror. I had been told when you do acid you should never look in the mirror. So that’s exactly what I did. And my face looked deeply lined, with bulging ridges of skin connecting my mouth to my nose, and vast pores, and it was pink and blotchy. And I was okay with all of it. I was delighted, in fact.

I wanted to be out in nature. So I decided to take a walk down to Echo Park. I lived at the time up in Angelino Heights. It was a long walk by LA standards: three long blocks downhill and another two long blocks to the park.

It was a lovely weekday afternoon, not many people in the park, but they were there. Lying on a blanket on the slope. Drinking beer from a paper bag leaning against a tree. Riding a bicycle along the path. And there were ducks out on the water. Flies and bees buzzing by. I looked at the grass. At the leaves on long spindly branches hanging down close to the lake. And I looked at the water, and I began to get the sense that all these beings, including the flower’s stalk waving before my eyes, were each little bubbles of consciousness, arisen out of a vast lake of consciousness. After floating briefly above the lake they’d pop and rain back down as droplets into the vast pool.

I knew this was an archetypal psychedelic experience. It’s the kind of thing I’d wanted, but it didn’t feel like I’d made it happened, it just came over me as a natural follow from what I saw and heard and felt around me.

I kept walking around the lake and as I got closer to the Glendale Blvd side, I decided to set myself to a test. I would walk to Burger Kind and buy a coke. This would seem a simple enough test but at full-throttle on the acid I wasn’t quite sure I could pull it off. But I was game to try. And it didn’t seem to me that the consequences of failure would be drastic. I’d burble out some nonsense, they’d look at me like I was crazy, and I’d walk away. No harm no foul.

Now, this was not too long after I’d read The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are by Alan Watts. He talks about an Indian belief that I’m sure I’ll mangle, but it’s something like the idea that God got bored one day, and so he decided to play a game with himself, by fracturing himself into myriad conscious beings, all the conscious beings of this universe. And none of us remember that we are in fact god, and we are in fact one. One day we’ll wake up and remember, and we’ll be god again, and that will be the end of this universe.

So fairly fresh off of entertaining these ideas I opened the glass door of Burger King and walked into a place of almost ludicrous brightness. I pointed myself toward the smiling people in uniforms at the counter and walked steadily in their direction. Eventually I arrived. I pieced together a sentence: “Can I have a Coke, please?”

To my dismay, or to my challenge, this resulted not in a Coke but a return question. Size? I thought. “Small,” I said.

When I got the Coke I walked back through rows of colorful plastic booths and slid into one. I sipped my Coke. I looked around. I caught someone’s eyes and he looked away. At a woman across the restaurant. After a moment unaware of his stare she turned and caught him. He looked away. She in turn then looked at someone else. And so I watched this human gaze get passed in a relay around the little space occupied by these few disparate humans, strangers to each other.

And I had the vivid sense that they were all eyes looking out of the same head. They were all the eyes of god. God was trying to catch himself not looking. Trying to see the back of his own head (and I use the male pronoun here solely for convenience–certainly not for accuracy).

So I felt like I saw these faces of God in Burger King. And I saw the back of God’s head. That meant I was God too. And so were you. It was lovely. Does that mean that I believe in God now? Not necessarily.

That was clearly a religious experience I had. So am I religious now? Probably not in any way you’d quite recognize.

The psychedelic experience comes out of plant life. For plants, imbuing animals with ideas about the interconnectedness of all life is not a bad evolutionary survival strategy. I had that experience, and it was vivid. But it doesn’t prove anything other than itself. I don’t disbelieve it. But I don’t draw any sweeping conclusions from it either. Nor from the vision I had in Burger King. Did I have that vision because it’s a true model of the universe? Or because I’d read a book and acid made me suggestible? Either way, the experience was mine, it was vivid and profound, and I treasure it.

On some level, perhaps, I’m with William Blake (siding with the poets again): “Everything that is possible to be believed is an image of truth.” An image only. Whatever it is the truth must be bigger than our little minds can conceive, and so we cast about for ways to understand that are doomed always to fall short.

To believe is an affirmation. To disbelieve is a denial. I neither affirm nor deny the existence of “god,” whatever the hell that word means anyway. I neither believe nor disbelieve. I don’t pretend to know. But I revere the mystery itself. I revere the very question. I relish the whole range of possible answers to the questions that go with it (though not their murderous dogmas and theological alliances with politics): How did this all begin? Did it begin? How could it have not begun? What comes after? Is it all really circular? Are all times, places, moments, really just one place and one now all smashed together? How could that be? But then how could any other possible answer be? Is consciousness diffused throughout the universe and in some way also unified? The very fact that I’m sitting here, alive, with my mind in my body and your mind over there in your body, each thinking our different thoughts at the same time—how is that even possible? Doesn’t it thrill you to really bear down and consider it all? It does me.

Neither atheism nor any religion I’ve ever heard of seem quite adequate to me, to express or encapsulate the depth and breadth and preponderance of these mysteries. This essay is terribly inadequate as an expression of how I feel about all this stuff. But I’m okay with not knowing. I’d rather know, mind you, but the mystery is big enough that not knowing suits me just fine. It seems proportional to me. It seems right. Poetic, in fact.

I don’t need a period at the end of every sentence. A question mark? By all means, and yet sometimes an ellipsis strikes me as just about perfect…sort of a stairway in the clouds ascending above the mountaintop…