Birth of a Gravestomper

Maybe it all started that afternoon when I was wandering through the St Francis Borgia grammar school library looking for something to read. Those days reading bored the hell outta me. I preferred being outside: running, biking, lying under the hundred-year-old silver maples in my front yard making up adventures. There was life outside in the open air and things were so stagnant in that Catholic school. There was little of interest to me within it’s beige walls and filthy asbestos ceilings. So much so that in second grade I asked one of the nuns to let me go to the bathroom and I simply walked out of the school and ran away. It took my father throwing me to the ground, beating me and kicking me to make me agree not to leave it again.

 

But anyway: back to the library. I was looking for something that would excite me. I’d already read the only book the school had on Greek mythology about fifty times. I loved the stories of the Gods. They were so much more interesting than the battered crucified curse we had to face above the chalkboards every day. That was a constant reminder that there was no way to win. If the Catholics didn’t lobotomize me with their our fathers and hail mary’s, then someone else would sling me up on a tree and nail me in. Their philosophy sucked. A point I reiterated years later in Catholic high school to a gym teacher who then dragged me into his office and beat me up. Another curse. They were all about curses, these people. But the old Greeks knew the Gods weren’t infallible. They were like us only bigger and more powerful. This seemed important to me. But there was only one book about them in that Catholic library. Looking back now, I admit, I’m surprised there was even the one; but there was, and I’d read it; and I was looking for something else; and that’s when I saw it.

 

It was the cover that caught my eye. It was black. On it was was a black and green winged figure pointing at a couple of tombstones. Behind the figure a purple sky was split by a lightning bolt and above this was the title, Here Lies the Body by Scott Corbett.

 

I checked it out and immediately started reading it. It was about a New England boy and his little brother, who was may age, who got a summer job cutting grass in ‘Hemlock Hill Burial Ground’. The elder brother wanted to be a writer and spent his time making up poems about the names on the tombstones. Turns out there was a mystery surrounding the two old men who owned the cemetery. It was a great read that left an indelible mark on my imagination. I read the book maybe a dozen times after that.

 

As it happed, my house in Chicago was walking and biking distance from at least six cemeteries. I decided to have some adventures like my heroes from the book and started spending my days—and when I was older, some nights—in Acacia, Westlawn, Mount Olive, St Joesph’s and Elmwood Cemetery in River Grove where John Belushi was originally buried before they moved his body to Massachusetts. In my teens I discovered Graceland and Rosehill on the North side where the first communal mausoleum was built. I fully explored the famous Mount Carmel: notorious for all of the gangsters like Al Capone who are buried there and where all of my Irish/Italian family is buried. I was looking for something. I didn’t know what.

 

When my mother found out I spent so much time in cemeteries she was horrified and said: “How can you do that?”

 

Why” I said to her. “It’s not the dead I’m worried about. It’s the living.” Which tells me now that even then I understood one of the principles central to the Tibetan Bon process: a realization that this life is characterized by suffering. But what no one seemed to be able to tell me was: How to we go beyond that suffering?

 

My time in cemeteries instilled a habit in me. One that lead me to search through the dark of this city for something even though I didn’t know what I was looking for. I know now I was looking for the way to go beyond death. I knew there had to be a way and it wasn’t through the crucified curse. I’d read about Easterners who meditated in cemeteries and I was intrigued. Where did the practice come from? I wanted to know. Later I would find out: Tibet.

 

In my late teens I began to explore dark Chicago nights, clubs, smoky bars and glistening city streets the way I’d searched those cemeteries in my youth. Still looking for the answer to what was behind that dark. On the way home I’d drive into Acacia cemetery, which was open all night back then, and I’d sit on the gravestones and stare up at the stars. One those nights I always knew: the answer would eventually come.

 

One night in the late 80’s I was in club Berlin, staring at a New Order video on the screen. I set my glass down hard on the bar and said aloud to no one: “I’m not coming back! This is it for me.”

Evidently I’d made a decision, but about what I didn’t know. By the time I hit 30 I’d fully explored the ‘New Age’ and found it to be to be no different from the religion I’d been raised on. There was no answer to what I’d been looking for in those cemeteries, or on those dark streets. Just an endless string of opinions.

 

By the time I was in my mid thirties I was researching Tibet. I uncovered a reference to these incredible Tibetans who were called Bön. They were in Tibet before the Buddhists got there and indeed the Buddhists had learned from them. I couldn’t believe some of the legends about these incredible people. Could they be true? According to the book they were all but extinct.

 

“Now, where the hell am I going to find one of these Bön?” I said to myself.

 

But I didn’t have to find one. Two weeks later one found me. I was up in Wisconsin doing palm readings at a Spring festival. He was a Bönku or “seed of Bön”. That is, a Bön master. He gave me a meditation to try and I did it. When I’d master it he gave me another exercise. Unlike all the religions I’d grown up around he never asked me to trust him or believe him or follow him. He simply gave me these experiments and said, “Try them. See what happens.”  See, now, if I was a New-Ager, this is the part of the story where I’d tell you that this Bönku told me I had a special gift, great spiritual power and that I was chosen to lead people. That sort of thing is pure bullshit. He didn’t tell me I was ‘special’ or that I was ‘chosen’. In fact he basically showed me how ignorant I was, and I how I was a prisoner of my own life and habits the way all of us humans are. If anyone had told me I was very powerful I would have known it was bullshit because I felt totally powerless back then. Power was the one thing I wanted because I was tired of having any and all power taken from me by others. I’m astonished so few are willing to admit the fact that they want power. They’re so afraid of it. But just because they pretend not to want it, doesn’t mean they’re fooling anyone. It could lead them to great things if they’d just admit it. But he did tell me that if I worked my ass off I could have great power and reach enlightenment: the way all humans can. It’s just that most humans already think they are already enlightened and so they can’t even be bothered to try and grow further. 

 

By midsummer that year I had taken vows of refuge. Meaning, I committed 11 years of my life to Bön training. That first year I learned all about the famous “cemetery work” of the Bön. (Some of it is chronicled in Alexandra David-Neel’s wonderful book, Magic and Mystery in Tibet.) And I realized why I had always been drawn to cemeteries. Lets just say that cemetery practices and all of the practices we Bön do are aimed at ending suffering: our own and the suffering of others. And we’ve dedicated our time here to manging our minds and ending suffering.

 

Now, cemeteries hold a great deal of magic for me. And I, as a Bön “Gomchen” as we are called, spend my time stomping the grounds with a great deal of appreciation and respect not only for the energies present in those places, but in the power of those places to relieve us of suffering, fears and limitations. For me, every trip to a cemetery is another adventure; it reminds me that we are more than mere dust and bones. We are energy.

 

But as my Bönku said to me the first day I met him: “If you’re not managing your energy, who is?”

 

And that my grave stomping friends, is the key to it all…

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