On the southern border of Washington state, overlooking the Columbia river, there is a circle of standing stones. Actually, they're not stones at all. They look like stones, but really they're sculpted concrete over wood-and-wire frames. But they are standing. And if you're weird enough, they're also pretty cool.
The standing stones are part of a full-size recreation of Stonehenge. I discovered it years ago, when I was living in Oregon. It's a war memorial, if you will permit that hideous combination of words to pass, built by someone to commemorate his son and other local young men who were killed during World War I. And it's not really the way Stonehenge ever looked; it's the way the gentleman who built it thought it should look, with a full circle of stones. And it's built at the wrong latitude, so it doesn't really have the astronomical significance of the original. But if you ignore all of that, it's kinda cool.
Ignoring things is an artform. It's the flip side of mindfulness. Once you have begun to meditate and have learned that you actually have a choice about what you place your attention on, you may find yourself experimenting with making that same choice in your daily life. You can focus on all the bad things around you; God knows there are enough of them. Or you can focus on the bright and shiny things that are also around you. Sometimes that's easy; the light is just so present that you have no choice but to focus on it. But sometimes the road gets pretty dark, and to remember light you have to ignore what's around you on the surface of life and focus on something deeper.
It's like L.A. and New York. Both are unlivable places. But if you ignore that, you can have a shitload of fun living there.
Well, the Stonehenge replica is a lot like that. Sure it's cheezy, sure they have built an even cheezier gift shop since the last time I was here, but if you ignore all that it's got a certain magic. I've been to the real Stonehenge. It's cool and all, but you can't really be there there. The whole site is fenced off, so you can only appreciate the majesty of the standing stones from a distance. Here you can wander around and touch the stones and even though they aren't really stones, it makes the whole experience more...uh...tangible.
I remember the first time I came here. It was 15 years or so before I ever ran into Rama, but I obviously had a taste for places of power even then. I had read something about the place in the Eugene newspaper and it had stuck in my mind, so one afternoon I decided to check it out. I drove upstate in my old Saab 96 and along the Columbia river and arrived at Stonehenge at sunset. No one was there but me. I sat and meditated and enjoyed the sunset so much that I decided to stay. So I folded out the weird back-seat bed thingy that Saabs had in those days and set up my sleeping bag and then went back to appreciate the stars as seen from a circle of standing stones.
It was a cool evening. It must have made an impression on me, because on this current Road Trip, I made an effort to find the place again and check it out. Driving up the final hill leading up to it, I noticed how much things had changed since my first visit. More houses, more billboards, and ohmygod...a gift shop. That sucks. Like many places, this one was better before people discovered it. But I decided to ignore all that and try to have a good time anyway.
It wasn't easy. There was a tour bus in the parking lot and the place was full of tourists. They were rushing around trying to take as many photos as possible in the time allotted to them before the next scenic stop. There was so much chatter that it was difficult to appreciate the silence, but I shrugged and contented myself with wandering around with my own camera, trying to capture some of the remarkable juxtapositions of shapes and textures. About half a roll of film later, I looked up and the tourists were gone.
So, just like the first time I came here, I got to wander around in the standing stones again alone, ignoring the cheeziness and focusing on the magic, the concept itself. I have always been fascinated by Stonehenge. I remember first discovering it in Compton's Encyclopedia as a kid, and being completely captivated. There was just something about that circle of standing stones that evoked a deep longing in me, as if it were trying to remind me of something, to force me to remember.
Wandering around the Stonehenge replica again, I begin to feel that same longing, that same need to remember something. I decide to take advantage of the momentary absence of tourist busses and sit down next to one of the inner standing stones to ponder the subject further. Pondering doesn't seem to help nearly as much as people tell you it's supposed to, so I decide to meditate instead. I close my eyes, and instead of seeing blackness the scene seems to persist in my vision. With my eyes open, I am sitting at the base of a standing stone, appreciating the sunset. With my eyes closed, night has fallen, and I see myself standing in a circle in the desert.
The circle is composed of beings of light. These beings are part of a tribe. We have incarnated as human beings this time around, but we have formed this circle before, on countless other worlds, in countless other forms. And here we are again, standing silently in a circle at the entrance to Carrizo Gorge, gazing at the fading stars, waiting for the dawn.
There is a center to the circle. The center's name is Rama. He is telling a story about the myth which connects the beings in the circle and the circles themselves. "In another time, an entire tribe formed a circle like this. This was a tribe of mighty warriors, great mystics, and the circle stretched for miles. The time had come for the tribe to leave their world and jump as a band of warriors to the next place. This was the end of a cycle, and new adventures awaited the tribe on a new world.
"As the time for the leaving grew near, however, a few beings from the tribe - let us say twelve - left the circle and gathered together on a hill nearby. They knew that within the circle there were a few individuals who would not be able to make the jump. The reasons were many - some were too attached to this world, others lacked the personal power to make the jump, and a few just weren't ready.
"The twelve, realizing this, left the circle and remained behind. Although they had vastly different personalities, the twelve shared one common trait - compassion. They knew, possibly from experience in another yuga, what it is to be separated from one's tribe in an infinite universe. So they vowed to return, over and over, and try to help the stragglers find their way to the next place."
Rama stops talking, and begins to turn slowly, gazing at each of the students in the circle in turn. Beams of light emanate from his eyes as he spins - it's as if Rama had become the armature of some enormous cosmic generator, and is charging us up as he spins. As his gaze falls on me, I feel light flood my being and wash away all the fatigue I had been feeling after hiking all night. In fact, I feel so energized I'd be up for trying the jump to the next place right here and now! I imagine many of the other students feel the same way.
Rama must know something we don't about our readiness and our limitations, however, because as he completes his scan of the circle of students, he simply reminds us to stay alert on the way home and to drive carefully. With a final, "Try to remember," he says good night and walks back to his jeep.
I open my eyes and I am back in the circle of stones that was prompting me to remember something, having remembered. I had forgotten that night completely. Wow. That was one heavy myth Rama laid on us that night, as we stood in a circle around him in the desert. The funny thing is, like all great myths it really doesn't matter whether it is true or not. It contains truth. You can feel it.
The myth of the twelve compassionate beings just rocks. It's all about love and courage and the persistence of memory. Love and courage on the part of teachers who stick around in dark times to pick up stragglers along the path. Memory in that their job is easier than it appears. In each seeker, in each member of the tribe of beings who finds him or her self drawn to light even in times of darkness, there is some kind of memory that persists from lifetime to lifetime. It may lie dormant for years, but then something - some place, some phrase, some book, some teacher, some stranger who wanders into their lives for a few minutes - reaches out of the maya and grabs them by the lapels and shakes them and says, "Try to remember."
That's all that the spiritual journey is, trying to remember. It's not like we're unenlightened and need to somehow attain that which we have never achieved. We are all always enlightened; we just need to remember.
I meditate for a few more minutes, trying to remember, but then I hear another bus pulling into the parking lot. For a moment I consider not moving, forcing the tourists to deal with the spectacle of some old fart meditating where he clearly should not be meditating, but then I hear their voices. It's a busload of kids.
I stand up and brush the gravel off my butt and watch them run into the memorial. They're older than I would have thought from their voices, probably Junior High School students. They wander around Stonehenge in clumps of three or four or five, talking furiously, ignoring the standing stones, clearly cliqueing out. I watch them for a while, hoping some of the silence of the place will cause them to stop and look around and see the place - any place - with a sense of wonder again, but they are lost in their world of boyfriends and girlfriends and popularity. Sigh.
I turn to walk back to Protector and head off down the road, but then something catches my eye. Wandering around the outer circle of stones, away from all the other kids, is a young girl. She is Goth Central, dressed in black from head to toe, her eyes more makeup than eyes, her face more piercings than face. But she's digging this place. She's digging it a lot. She's just tripping around on her own, touching the stones, the other kids and the things they think about completely forgotten.
She's dancing, weaving in and out of the standing stones as if they were her partners at an English country dance. She's smiling, a phenomenon I would be willing to bet is not all that familiar to her. She's not sure what it is about this place that she likes. Maybe it's the sense of magic that inspires her to imagine the world of the Druids, great mystics living in a time and place where things were always shiny and bright. Maybe it's just the fact that it's all just so Goth. She's not quite sure what it is she's feeling, but it reminds her of something. And dancing with her tall and silent partners, she's beginning to remember what it is.