What a tribute to your former teacher. It’s both odd and moving. The texture of your pieces is always remarkable, Brian. Totally your own. Often your transitions from one thought to another are strangely surprising.
If vanity could be left behind I wonder what any woman might really think of the more extravagant terms you use applied to her. How many women lose respect for a man when he puts her too high up on a pedestal and treats her like a masterpiece in a museum, a statue of a goddess, and like a dog follows her around while looking up at her with adoring eyes. Of course there are women who lap up such treatment and have no shame in exploiting it for all it is worth. There is a vanity which knows no bounds and has the appetite of a hungry ghost. To keep up the illusion she must excuse herself and make haste to the powder room when she needs to fart. What a relief that Sue Castigliano struggled with her weight and had varicose veins. It brings her closer to us in our own blemishes and personal struggles with disorders and other imperfections which actually play an important part in making us into the unique human specimens we are. It’s a huge burden to be considered by another a conduit for a deity. To even try to carry the notion and to act as if it is a reality presumes I think an arrogance which conceals a two-face of terror of the messiness and corporeality of being human and a contempt of others for being unable to help being this way. If the veil was torn away from such a one what would be revealed, among other hateful and hurtful things, is a vengeful and perhaps even sadistic pleasure in conning and hoodwinking. “Yeah, I manifest and embody deity. Watch me with the unrelenting application of my superior skill and intelligence or just raw and shameless nerve get others finally to cave in to me and believe it. I’ll have ‘em eating out of my hand.” I know I’m definitely no medium for a god. If any youngster began treating me as if a deity was manifesting through me, I’d feel embarrassed. I’d feel a need to set the record straight. I’d probably deliberately make a fool of myself, slip on a banana peel, or put myself in a situation where I’d feel awkward or out of my depth, just to show that I’m not what the youngster imagines me to be.
It appears Sue Castigliano did just that with you. The good teacher punctured the illusion that she is a goddess and it appears she did so with humor and grace. The reality therapy quotes you share here, those words she first disclosed or confessed to you, inspired not only by the hardships and struggles she faced but by her special relationship with you and what she intuitively felt you really needed, are precious for their warm and accessible humanity!
You wrote, “If any youngster began treating me as if a deity was manifesting through me, I’d feel embarrassed. I’d feel a need to set the record straight.” As a rebellious 17-year old who had recently been expelled from a parochial school, I did not think in terms of any human being as having the capacity to serve as a conduit for a deity. Except in catechism class when I was younger and a compulsory class in religion each semester at St. Peter’s High, I had not been exposed—outside of books—to any sort of spiritual teachings. I was aware of such things as Transcendental Meditation and there were plenty of head shops and acid casualties in Worcester at the time, but, for the most part, my attitude towards other than self-defined spiritual teachings was quite caustic. If Sue had presented herself as a Guru in any mode, I doubt that I would have been open to much she had to say. So far as I can remember, she never made any claims for herself at all. She had such a significant effect on me, I think, exactly because she casually bypassed any expectations about what the teacher/student relationship was or should be.
I don’t know that I would describe my response as one of “puppy-like devotion.” The response was more one of disorientation and amazement and gratitude at having found a teacher with whom I could connect. It was not that I necessarily had a bad attitude towards teachers as a group. I come from a family with a lot of teachers in it, and my attitude towards these family members was positive. It was just that, between first and tenth grade, until I transferred to Doherty, I had encountered an extraordinary number of bad teachers, and the “one-size-fits-all” approach to education that was common in Worcester at the time was not at all suitable to my nature. Even when I finally did encounter genuine teachers, of whom there were a number at Doherty, I was often not prepared to take advantage of the opportunities, and my confrontational attitude did not endear me to them. So, timing was also a factor. When I met a teacher who seemed to see beneath the surface, who had as much or more faith in my abilities than I did at the time, and who had the intuitive skills to put me in touch with some hidden aspect of my nature, this experience had an out-of-scale effect.
Throughout the various sections of this essay, I have gone to some lengths to distinguish between the “person” and the “presence.” The person may point towards or be a means of gaining access to the presence, just as the presence may make itself felt through the energy and mental orientation and personal peculiarities of the person, but they are not at all the same thing, and the one should never be too easily conflated with the other. In paragraph five of the first section of the essay, for example, I speak of these two roles, but I am not, in this instance, speaking of the same person. Here is a relevant excerpt:
“Where you first exclaimed ‘Aha!’ and breathed a sigh of relief, you later are forced to read through the person to the presence just beyond, to a presence that you suspect might see your every flaw, to a presence still sympathetic but also more demanding. The seers of the World Maritime Empire had once given you a thread, before their lines of transmission were disrupted by a comet. This presence demands to know if you have taken care to preserve it. ‘Speak!’ she says. ‘Is your thread in working order? Have any of its three strands started to come unwound?’ The person hands you a copy of Par Lagerkvist’s The Sybil . The presence reaches into the center of your skull, where the pineal gland is located, massaging it in such a way that it almost stops your heart.”
The person who hands me a copy of Par Lagerkvist’s The Sybil is Sue Castiglano. The presence who reaches into the center of my skull, however, is Anandi Ma, from whom I received Shaktipat in 1990. After studying various meditative disciplines since the early 1980s, I was reasonably well prepared and more than eager to receive this transfer of energy. I was nonetheless quite shocked to feel a hand reaching into the center of my skull. As the energy moved downwards, I was sure, for several minutes, that I was on the edge of a heart attack. “How strange,” I thought. “I didn’t really think that this would work.”
The teacher/student relationship is, of course, at the heart of many spiritual traditions, Hindu, Sufi, Taoist, etc. A certain tension is involved in this relationship. The teacher performs a role and embodies a hidden potential. While the teacher is not the primordial presence, not exactly, it can be true enough that, without the teacher’s energy, the student may be unable to make the leap to a more expansive level of understanding. At the same time, this relationship comes with certain dangers. In a traditional society, when the teacher does not appoint himself and is held to strict standards of behavior—however these are defined in terms of a particular path—the role may unfold reasonably well. In the U.S.—and elsewhere in the contemporary world—the temptation of becoming the center of a cult of personality may prove too much for the teacher to resist. The role of teacher can be conceived in many ways, as that of authority figure, mysterious other, or just as friend. The key thing is that the relationship should serve as a ritual theatre, that the status quo should be disrupted, and that the deeper and larger presence that lives in both the teacher and the student should be called out of the depths. In many ways, it was probably a good thing that Sue moved back to Ohio exactly when she did. The effective student/teacher relationship is, at its heart, a paradox, one that involves both intimacy and distance. The role of the catalyst is to catalyze, and then step back.
Illustration: Victor Brauner
And yet, it is no illusion…except that it is partial and unfinished. This is the great gift-- to give the other face of the whole, when the divine face turns around and shows his/her ordinary face and we come tounderstand that the Whole holds both, and more than both, and endless permutations… and the revolutions/revelations continue…all of them “real”, continuing as we learn to be grateful for everything without exception. Which is an inhuman gratitude, yes, and yet available to us flawed and mortal human beings. Maybe a variation of “nothing alien to me”, neither divinity nor craveness nor dullness nor terror, because they all live in “me”…
Distance, my glamor, my only protection
burns off my body like dew.
When it’s gone, how will I show you
the breast of the living bird…?
from Suitors, a poem for F.G. Lorca
I neglected to add, Brian, I really enjoy that part in your piece where you describe your smart-alecky provoking of that girl into a fight. I think if I was there ringside I’d have been pulling for her to kick your ass! We live now in a time when no doubt, if it took place only recently, someone in your class would’ve pulled out a smartphone, recorded the fight, and posted it on YouTube. You’d have been immortalized in virtual reality as that damn snotty wiseass who didn’t know how to keep his trap shut and got pummelled by a chick.
Maybe Sue Castigliano let that fight happen, smartly concealing where her sympathy lay, because she was actually pulling for her younger soul sister to pull out a victory over the puffed-up little man. If that girl was much smaller and weaker than you and couldn’t scrap to save her life, being all soft and dainty, I’d like to think that Sue Castigliano would’ve then quickly moved in and broke it up.
I can’t help but think that if that fight broke out in the present social and political climate there would be outraged parents calling for Sue Castigliano to be fired for not intervening and breaking it up immediately. There would be no chance for the full impact of that life lesson to be felt and absorbed into the blood and fibers of the heart and soul. If I was there and that fight was never allowed to happen, just think of it, I would’ve then been deprived of the shady side business I might’ve gotten going of selling behind the auditorium after school locks of Brian George’s hair as if part and parcel of the legendary golden fleece.
Tired of delivering newspapers in spring, raking dead leaves off of lawns during autumn, shoveling the snow off of driveways in winter, or bussing tables at shitty restaurants during summer, a boy needs to make money somehow. Why not get a headstart in the ways of the world and profit a little off of the suffering and misery of others?
But seriously, Brian, it takes some guts and humility to include that account of that fight which broke out between you and that girl who transferred to your school from St. Peter’s High, in whom you unleashed the intoxicated fury of a maenad. I wonder if before you pushed her buttons she ever knew she had that in her. You may have helped her discover a power she before never realized she had. What happened between you and that girl in the aftermath of that fight? Did you avoid each other from then on? I wonder if you ever stepped aside with her and cleared the air, even bringing your relation to a point where you might laugh together in hindsight at the dramatic stress-releasing spectacle you provided for your fellow classmates when she grabbed your hair like the reins of a horse and herself started whipping around like the tail.
These lines you posted here are pure poetry, Maia, and touch me deeply. So beautiful. So memorable. You have put in vital essence, boiled down and condensed, what in large part I was trying to express in my rougher and cruder manner. Parting the lips, I hold open wide the deep cut and get a wince and cry, sometimes even a curse, but before it gets too bad you gently dab in a cleanser which stings but soon soothes; then you let drop in a bead of a special fragrant ointment you concocted, tremulous like dew, and after I let go and step back, you move in again, calm and confident, and apply the butterfly bandage.
Come one, come all, to Maia’s apothecary.
As I was reviewing the section with Miss Pink Bunny Slippers, I was aware in passing of how much the culture had changed in terms of the omnipresence of media and the importance of high-stakes testing and the straight-jacket of expectations that define the work of teachers, but I was not really focused upon these things. Now that you point out the potential consequences for a teacher who would let a class spin so far out of control, I cannot help but smile. In terms of past school experience, this was mild stuff indeed. School culture in Worcester was, I guess, in the process of changing and would change dramatically in the next ten or twenty years after this. During this period, however, teachers had virtual carte-blanche to treat students in any way they wished, so long as they caused only minor bodily harm or psychological damage.
Let me start with my grandmother, Helen, who taught first grade off and on for five decades and was much beloved by her students. She would begin each year by informing the class that they were her “solid gold children.” On one occasion, as we were crossing a parking lot, a tattooed ex-convict missing half his teeth came running across the lot towards us. I was beginning to grow concerned. Upon reaching us, he threw his arms around my grandmother and yelled, “Mrs. Shea, it’s me!” She was nonetheless a formidable disciplinarian, who casually did things that would have gotten her fired today. My friend George had her at Gates’ Lane before his family moved to our street. George was a very intelligent and likable kid with more than a few sociopathic tendencies. He had no problem with beating up girls. My grandmother either saw or became aware of a violent incident that took place between George and one of the girls in the class—let’s call her Margaret. At the beginning of a class, she asked both of them to accompany her to the coat room. My grandmother then instructed Margaret, “Show me what he did to you.” Margaret then proceeded to whack George in the head and pull his hair and kick him in the stomach. Years later, George and Margaret and I all went to Woodland Prep Junior High together. This incident seemed to have given Margaret some sort of permanent psychic advantage. If she so much as glanced at George, he would look the other way and sink down at his desk.
There were certainly darker aspects to this tolerance of improvisatory discipline as well. My own first-grade teacher, Miss Shea—my grandfather’s cousin—believed that all of her students should be able to perform perfectly whatever they had been asked to do, even if they had no idea at all of how to do it. During our reading circles, she would hover like a bird of prey, twirling a sharp pencil in her hand, If a student got a word wrong or paused too long while reading a passage, she would swoop in and jab the student in the head. Just to remind us that the pencil was still there, she would step away every ten minutes or so to sharpen it. My second-grade teacher, Miss Campbell, was far worse. To offer just one example, if a boy was caught chewing gum, he would be forced to stick it to the bottom of his pants and then sit in the waste paper basket at the front of the class for an hour. By the end of the year, I was a cringing mess and, whenever she walked by, I would throw myself over my desk to cover up my work, in fear that some small grammatical error might offend her. My fifth-grade teacher, Mr. Rembezewski, was notorious for “playfully” roughhousing with his students, and, when he was in a mood, for throwing them against walls. He was finally sentenced to life in prison for beating his wife to death with a baseball bar. “What could have gotten into him?” our administrators thought. “There were never any signs that such a thing could happen.” Shortly before I got kicked out of Saint Peter’s, I had a nun for English and Religion class whom everyone referred to as “Red.” She was aware of the nickname, and she always assumed that this was due to her red hair. In reality, the name was due to her volcanic temper. She was built like a boxer and would turn bright red when she got angry. When she wound up and hit or slapped someone, the impact was like an explosion, and you could hear it echoing through the halls.
So, Sue’s mild bending of the rules of decorum were not really seen as a big deal. With my arrival at Doherty, just as I was moving out of a culture of harsh improvisatory discipline, I found myself projected into a counterculture of improvisatory self-discovery and psychic and spiritual exploration. I mentioned in my previous comment that I had not been exposed to much in the way of spiritual teachings outside of books or Catechism class. Thinking back on the period, this is only partially true. I had never encountered any spiritual teachers, as such, and I was contemptuous of spiritual cults, of whom there were any number in Worcester at the time. During my junior and senior years, however, I was a member of LRY—or Liberal Religious Youth—a Unitarian church group that organized three-day weekend retreats at various churches around New England. These were great adventures. The attitude of the Unitarians seemed to be “If teenagers are going to take drugs and have sex, it is far better if they do these things in a church.”
Evenings were usually devoted to performances by rock bands and long conversations and spontaneous romances. Days were most often structured around either consciousness-raising political action sessions or Esalen-style “Encounter Groups,” in which participants would be encouraged to set aside all psychic and social boundaries in order to plumb their anxieties and wounds. The goal of such encounters was definitely not to push any tenets of Unitarian doctrine or to generate a cult-like psychology. This was both the great thing and the terrible thing about them. After ripping yourself open, you would then return to the day to day world, expecting everyone you met to act with the openness and attentiveness and sensitivity of your fellow participants in the Encounter Group. Needless to say, the world did not cooperate. I should perhaps speak only for myself. As wonderful and life-sustaining as these weekends were, I would often be left wandering around in a wide-eyed daze when I returned. In any sort of magical working, once you have opened up the vertical axis and set the forces of the other world in motion, it is also essential that you put a definitive end to the ceremony and seal the action of the energy. While Sue’s “speech classes” were conducted in a format with which I was familiar, the tone and the sense of protection and the end results were different.
Like all good healers, Sue know just how far to push things, when to open the flow of energies and when to set a limit. Above all, there was a sense of grounding, that all of the jagged pieces thrown up in the air would somehow be fit back together, if in a form that none present could yet visualize. In previous experiences of this type, I most often had the sense that the leaders of groups were “flying by the seat of their pants,” that they were almost as much in the dark as everybody else. With Sue, this was not the case; there was a sense of some larger guiding intelligence that was simultaneously both earthy and transcendent, adventurous and almost safe. This essay was certainly written as a tribute. It was also written in an attempt to figure out just how presence and person interacted, to give some shape to a process that was and must remain mysterious.
You wrote, in relation to my teacher “puncturing the illusion” that she was a goddess, “This is the great gift—to give the other face of the whole, when the divine face turns around and shows his/her ordinary face and we come to understand that the Whole holds both, and more than both, and endless permutations… and the revolutions/revelations continue…all of them ‘real,’ continuing as we learn to be grateful for everything without exception.” As you say, I think that it is not a question of “either/or’ when it comes to whether a teacher, with all of her/his human flaws, can serve as a conduit for or the embodiment of some more than human presence, some other than knowable energy; just speaking from my own experience, I would say that it is a question of “both/and.” Even that presence first experienced beyond the veil of the personal, the presence that upends one’s sense of reality and comes as so much of a shock, is really just the lifting of the corner of an ocean, whose deeper currents may take countless lifetimes to explore.
If speaking such a way does not make any sense to someone who had never had this type of an encounter with a teacher, just as speaking about love can seem incredibly silly to someone who has never been in love, the dynamics of this type of connection are actually everywhere in the realm of our day to day experience. Most people do have at least some experience with the high weirdness of romantic love, in which all sorts of ideal qualities are projected onto the Beloved, only to be yanked back when this figure shows some flaw or refuses to cooperate. Those immune to such intoxication may nonetheless have felt the magnetic pull of a friend with natural leadership abilities—the first to suggest a reckless childhood adventure or keep arguing friends from getting into fistfights—or they may attribute out-of-scale powers to the leader of their chosen political party. Many of our attitudes do not depend on a minute analysis of a person’s strengths and weaknesses. There is often an uncanny element. Most forms of psychotherapy would not work well at all if it were not for the phenomenon of “transference,” in which the therapist taps in to the deeper dynamics of the psyche and is fitted into the role of transpersonal guide. For the process to be effective, the therapist must seem to fully embody a lost archaic potential, even as he/she pushes the patient to ultimately cut the ties of the relationship.
Whatever the process of hide and see, whatever the tumult involved in extending and then taking back one’s projections, I believe that, as you say, gratitude is the key that puts the whole of the experience into context.
Much appreciation to all for such deep conversation here!— surprising forays into myth and poetry—ongoing dramas and mysteries of human psyche and world soul.
Hi Brian and Maia:
I understand what both of you have written concerning person and presence, and a moving part which in shifting reveals another aspect of the whole. With what both of you have written I might make an amendment to this I wrote: “If any youngster began treating me as if a deity was manifesting through me, I’d feel embarrassed. I’d feel a need to set the record straight. I’d probably deliberately make a fool of myself, slip on a banana peel, or put myself in a situation where I’d feel awkward or out of my depth, just to show that I’m not what the youngster imagines me to be.” I can see in this statement of mine where another experiencing the “manifesting through” is quieted into a prayerful contemplation even all the way up to what might be considered engagement in sacred rites and rituals. This embarrassment I feel is a confession of a kind of unworthiness, an understanding down in my body and soul my actual human value with all my very real shortcomings and limitations and proneness to folly and foibles in relation to the divine and all of its radiant and mysterious presences which come down to us in various forms and signs and symbols to communicate with us, and I think it is proper. Honestly, if I don’t sense in another who talks of these high things this kind of embarrassment, which turned inside out is modesty, then I begin to grow suspicious that I am perhaps dealing with a deluded megalomaniac, a con artist, a self-deifying guru or a wannabe cult leader.
Brian, brilliant stuff you’ve added in response. Deeply stimulating and highly entertaining too. You still didn’t answer what happened in the aftermath between you and that girl you provoked into a fight. Did you talk to each other sometime afterward, or did you avoid each other like the plague? From how you opened your comment I gather she took a piece of you and still has it with her wherever she may be. Maybe with it she made a voodoo doll in your likeness which she keeps under her bed, every now and then taking it out, chanting an incantation to the underworld, and shoving a long pin into it. Have you been having any unusual aches and pains lately?
I was just being silly with the bunny slippers reference. To answer your question: no, there was no ongoing tension or animosity at all. The girl was in my class for the rest of the year and we did not have another confrontation. This sort of class would not work at all if any resentments were allowed to linger. I can’t remember if it was at the end of the class that day or at the beginning of the next class, but Sue had us shake hands and apologize to each other. As time went on, the girl and I began sharing memories about the absurdity of Saint Peter’s.
Here is a perhaps relevant excerpt from my essay “Revenge is a Dish Best Tasted Cold”;
Before being kicked out, I attended a parochial high school for two years—two years of Hell, or of preparation for the arcane tortures of the Apocalypse. An “education in the Classics,” as they say. The mind is a muscle, which one would never be allowed to use—or else. Self-knowledge was regarded as a form of masturbation. Just see where that would lead. And, once you got started, then how would you ever stop? It might one day become impossible to distinguish between one’s intellect and an orgasm. No exclamations of “Eurika!” were allowed. One’s flash of sudden intuition might disrupt the Pre-Game Pep Rally.
Such intellectual “exercise” as there was—and the use of this term strains language to the breaking point—was like the watching of an aerobics video: The instructor shouts like a drill sergeant. It is good for you, somehow. Although sitting on a couch, one feels virtuous by the end. St. Thomas Aquinas had corrected the few small mistakes of Aristotle. He was smarter than you! In this age of genetic recombination, he was the thinking Darwinian’s modernist. He had determined how many angels should be allowed to dance on a pin. No more need be said. Still, those angels are too petrified to get off.
No doubts need mar one’s contemplation of the shadow of the atomic bomb.
Usurping the right-of-way on Main Street, we were forever staging marches with felt banners, and singing songs with choruses like, “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love.”—Yuck. Such sentiments are among the few things that can inspire me to hatred. Even now, the sight of a flaming dove can cause my stomach to turn over. They are not cute; they are evil. But the basic idea of “forgiveness” is a sound one.
“Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
Christ—yes; Christians—no. How many devotees of the cross have ever shouldered the above pronouncement? The first part they take seriously, yes; the second part they ignore. “Only connect,” said E.M. Forster. Both injunctions perhaps point us toward the fact of our radical interdependence. The web is inconceivably complex. And, in this light, forgiveness may be the only sane position. In the Cloud of Unknowing, it may prove to be the only method of “dead reckoning” that will work. It is possible to observe the cosmic principle in action, to measure the ideal against the hard weight of experience, as well as to test how alchemically it performs. To illustrate: on a tiny level, my wife and I made an agreement that we would never go to bed angry, and this may be a key to the solidity of our marriage.
Some hard kernel of insight has survived my scorched-earth war against the “Savior,” who, as an omniscient god, should have known better than to hang around with Christians. “Thank god that I am Jung, and not a Jungian!” exclaimed Jung, in a tone that we can imagine to be incredulous with disgust, or perhaps relief. A foreknowing Christ should have followed Jung’s example. I would argue, too, that a Monotheist is the greatest enemy of the One. They have named “G-d,” though in a somewhat generic form. To make an idol, they have shrunk the haunted oceans of the Void. They have cut down the Tree of Life. Omphalos is now horizontal. They have literalized the interdependent meanings of the Ur-Text.