Prana, the adepts will tell you, is the life force of the breath. It is that which animates us, you and me, with each inhale, and every exhale. Now and again, over and over and over, the measure of all “time” and life.
And it was a matter of prana which brought me to a rocky glen near the Pacific Ocean in Marin, where finches twittered and darted and mists unfolded among shifting lattices of sunbeams. For J.M., my dear friend, had taken his last breath-prematurely, thought most of his friends who had gathered in his honor.
The high priest was another old friend, and I do mean high priest, for there was something in his demeanor of that eternal line of priests and priestesses who are simply born to their calling, which is to show us the gateways to Heaven that lie open all around us but are generally hidden by fear, self-deception, and ugly buildings. There was something, too, in his gathering of the strands of our friend’s unusual life which made me do the same for my own, which made me see in this “New Age funeral” (for that is what any outsider would have called it) a brief history of San Francisco, the city of Saint Francis, as a spiritual Mecca in the late twentieth century.
The priest himself is a piece of work, Divine Artistry in full motion, a latter-day druid of sweetness and erudition, fluent in Russian, a professor of English whose hobby is Sufi dancing. As I looked at him-studied him-I couldn’t help but think of the other attendees in a similar light: they were of unusual religious pedigree, had been through every practice imaginable, had consumed every drug I can name, had meditated this way and that, had been to Esalen before it existed and done zazen in Japan, Arica in Chile, est in New York, yoga in Banares, rebirthing in Santa Fe, had performed Mayan rituals at Teotihuacan and kowtowed to Sai Baba in southern India and worked with Haidakhan Babaji in Uttar Pradesh, had been to Ladakh and Bali long before they were hip, knew Fritz Perls and Ida Rolf before they died, had done Feldenkrais and Aston-Patterning before body work referred to anything but automobiles, had studied Indian dance and general semantics and neuropsychology, and dabbled at Findhorn. They read and loved Wallace Stevens, Rumi, Rilke, and Lao Tzu, and knew Freud and Jung at least as well as they knew the modern purveyors of psychological insight and panacea. They were gay and bi and hetero or weren’t sure, and had been doing psychic channelling long before it became de rigueur.
These things in themselves are not so unusual these days but they haven’t ever been unusual in San Francisco, and that is what struck me that day near the Pacific: I was the fish in the sea: how can I speak of water?
But to speak only of the past is a kind of psychological arthritis, and it’s not my intention to do that. The amazing thing, looking at my fellow mourners, was that for all their collective experience, they weren’t even old yet. To be sure, some (I shall include myself) were getting long in the tooth, a bit wrinkly, paunchy, or bald, but in general they looked good and had functioning lives.
What was it about San Francisco?
I was born and raised Irish Catholic, and the enduring legacy from my father and mother was and is an abiding knowingness about God and love with a capital L, which transcends whatever travails I may currently be enduring. The legacy of San Francisco is that God is everywhere-but particularly in San Francisco.
I say this with a smile, but why is it that I knew about chakras and mantras and mandalas before I could drive or vote? I can’t blame it all on my brothers, or even take the credit for being an aberrant child, though my parents were certainly horrified by my leanings and those of my brothers-and they certainly were right about us being impressionable. But again, what was it about San Francisco that so impressed itself upon us? (I will never forget the day my father asked my older brother Sean what Mass he had gone to and he replied, “I didn’t. I went to a Hindu temple.”)
For are there not holy places in the world? Places that are, beauty aside, more unaccountably special than others? I have traveled a great deal, and have been to quite a number of these, and I count San Francisco chief among them. San Francisco nurtured the seeker in me, its light and ambience nothing less than a spiritual amniotic fluid. This is why my brothers and I were attending meditations and lectures on mysticism at the age of fourteen, why reading Aurobindo, Korzybski, Gurdjieff, and Jung were wonders equal to wandering in Golden Gate Park with hippies, smoking marijuana and listening to Country Joe and the Fish and Quicksilver Messenger Service, or dancing naked to Jimi Hendrix.
Again, like the fish in the sea, at J.M.’s funeral I realized that I had forgotten the medium I still swim in when I am here. Half of my friends are psychics of one sort or another, indeed I met my wife at a spiritual retreat at a hot spring, most of the people I am close to believe they have lived before, they use divination methods in their daily lives, ranging from the I Ching to dowsing rods to pendulums to taping special rocks to their heads, and most of them are successful, functioning adults, parents and grandparents. I myself have spoken to the dead and firmly believe my small daughters and certain friends visit me psychically when I am abroad. On more than one occasion I have broken the laws of physics.
So what is it about San Francisco? Is this a widespread dementia that strikes the weak-minded, the gullible, who flock to California and San Francisco like minnows or sheep or fools? I think not, though I am sure San Francisco supports more silly activities per square mile than any place in the world save Berkeley. No, I think it is that San Francisco touches the Saint Francis in each of us more than do most places. (J.M., for instance, was such a seeker, rich in love, poor in the things of this world.)
In recent years, I’ve been going to a body work practitioner to help work out the kinks from an old back injury (slinging huge boxes of tile from railroad cars with 300-pound Mexicans when I was a 125-pound weakling). I wasn’t looking for enlightenment, euphoria, nirvana, or even an afternoon nap. I just wanted my body fixed. But it happened again-what began as physical therapy became the “venue” for the most profound spiritual experiences I have ever had. Under her hands I experienced the love of the creator through me in the swinging gate of the soul, my breath. I felt the creation of my very life with and in every breath. I learned to pray through my breath, that prayer is nothing but the proper attitude of one’s breath towards God, and I think even the nuns who taught me at St. Cecilia’s would be pleased. I know my father is, God rest his soul, just as I know he and J.M. and Saint Francis will be there when my prana expires, when I leave this realm as they did, as we all must.
Of course, all these things can and do happen everywhere else in the world. But for me, they happen in San Francisco as often as the fog rolls in, as readily as the tide sweeps through the Golden Gate, as constantly as the breath I take.
About James O’Reilly:
James O’Reilly is the publisher and series editor of Travelers’ Tales. He lives with his wife and three daughters in Palo Alto, CA, where they also publish children’s art games at Birdcage Books.