1. ALEXANDER NEVSKY MONASTERY CEMETERY.
I’m standing in the snow in the Alexander Nevsky Monastery cemetery looking at a marble image of the great Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky — searching for inspiration in his cold stone eyes.
As part of a three-month theater project in St. Petersburg Russia, I am writing about Dostoyevsky’s “The Idiot”. I’ve been pulled from my warm apartment by the hope that the master’s tomb can give me some insight into my irritation and even revulsion at his book.
It is only October, but snows come early to this city twelve hundred miles farther north than Maine. The sun skims the horizon in the winter as icy winds blow from the Baltic.
It took the iron determination of the Russian giant genius-tyrant-tsar Peter the Great to build this city on a swamp of a river delta in the middle of nowhere. Peter wanted a sea port to Europe, killed off some protesting Swedes, sacraficed forty thousand serfs building it and moved his capital here in 1710. Today, the city has grown to five million and is a beautiful tapestry of canals, broad prospekts, palaces, monuments, and soaring cathedrals (and dreary Stalin apartment blocks outside of its lovely center).
In Dostoyevsky’s complex novel (SEE INSET), Prince Myshkin comes home to Saint Petersburg in the mid 1800’s after treatment for epilepsy in Switzerland. He is gentle, sweet, kind, generous and compassionate — a sort of Russian messiah coming down the mountain to help his fellows.
But his innocence and naivety (“idiocy”) is ridiculed by the jaded, greedy and corrupt Russian society. He falls in love with a sweet young heiress, but in an act of misplaced compassion for a “fallen” dark beauty, he abandons his beloved — who, broken hearted and betrayed, hurls herself into a disastrous abusive marriage. The dark beauty agrees to marry him, but full of self-hatred, she bolts at the altar to run off with the Prince’s malevolent friend — who is obsessed with a need to posses her and eventually murders her. Finally, the Prince returns in despair to the Swiss sanitarium leaving behind total disaster — his friend in a Siberian prison, his beloved ruined, and the fallen beauty murdered. Messiah indeed!
I’m irritated at the wimpy-vacuous-naive idiocy of Dostoevsky’s supposed Christ Figure Prince Myshkin, and irritated at the greedy-grasping-gossiping idiocy of the 19th century Russian society that destroys him.
My irritation has carried me out thru the steel doors of my apartment, down the murky stairwell, into the cold drizzly snow, across the cobblestoned street, into nearby Alexander Nevsky Monastery, and along their ancient cemetery wall to a hulking tomb, where I stop and look directly into the cold marble eyes of the master himself.
So, Fyodor, do you have an answer for me? What a crazy erratic life you led — with your abusive alcoholic dad and your sporadic epileptic fits. Your early writing success apparently gave you a big head and a big mouth, irritated the Tsar, and landed you in a Siberian prison — clanking miserably around in leg irons for four years. Your love of a suffering Christ deepened and sustained you there. After prison, but still in exile, you became obsessed with the beautiful but indifferent Maria. And you pestered, pursued and, after her husband died, eventually got her — only to have an epileptic fit on your wedding night. Geez. But you kept going, driven to writing some of the world’s most admired and insightful literature –producing more in a day than I do in weeks. Success! And yet that existential angst you described so well never left you. Like some whacky masochist, you seem obsessed with suffering. You were so fascinated with Holbein’s rotting body of Christ that your wife had to drag you away from it for fear its grip on you would induce an epileptic fit. And then you describe this disgusting image in “The idiot” — a book you said was about “positively beautiful individual”. [Yeeps! What were you thinking? ]
Sadly, you never found a way to sustain the flash of true spirituality and deep peace you did experience at times – like in a lover’s smile or just prior to an epileptic fit. No wonder your unresolved pain drove you to abuse your wives and throw your book earnings away on your gambling addiction.
But hey, I too know the deep pain of self inflicted addiction. I lived in it till my recovery at age thirty-seven. So, as a brother sufferer, could you give me a little insight here Fyodor?
Waiting for some response or inspiration, I glance upward at the circle of white wet snow perched on top of the master’s solemn stone head. It looks ridiculous — a silly Jewish yarmulke on top of this ever suffering Christian.
Stifling a giggle, I breath in the cold clear air and become aware of the rest of the cemetery. Tchaikovsky is flanked by two angels to help him on his heavenly way. Falling snowflakes dance like the sixty floating white ballerinas we saw at his Swan Lake in the fabled Mariinskiy theater last week. And then Rimsky-Korsakov’s nearby tomb seems to serenade me with bitter-sweet melody of Scheherazade . My mood lightens with these soaring floating memories and I start to open to the source of my irritation with Dostoevsky and his weak and ineffectual Christ figure.
2. MONASTERY CAFÉ
I walk to the nearby monastery café, order green tea, and pull out my notebook computer. Ideas swirl in my head like the snowflakes outside the window.
The book just pisses me off. While Dostoyevsky was a great author, he seems to have had no conception of true enlightenment — or the POWER available to those that have penetrated the illusion of self and have no fear. They are neither weak nor necessarily sweet or gentle or kind to others ego’s. Their goal is to WAKE us up — to help us penetrate the illusion of our own foolish beliefs. Some are really scary because you know they can see right through all your protective ego masks and games.
The 103 year-old Sasaki Roshi is an example – he takes no shit from anyone – just like Christ in the temple — he is FIERCE.
Dostoyevsky does have powerful insight into how people functioned psychologically. And as a forerunner of early existentialism, he accurately points out our sick ego games and the futility of trying to achieve true peace, joy and fulfillment by controlling and manipulating the phenomenal world.
But he had no clue about a solution. He just wallows around in a sewer of negative thought. Existentialists have limited insight into the peace, wisdom, fearlessness, and lasting fulfillment that can be found in daily life by connecting to the infinite power of spirit [or source, god, etc.].
It is the power that I personally access and connect with before I break a board in Tai Kwan Do or that Gracie, my friend’s 93-year-old Jiu-Jitsu master (93!), accesses before he picks a young stud off his back and hurls him across the ring.
It is the power that I have felt radiating from the Dali Lama in Dharamsala or Thich Nhat Hanh in Los Angeles as they lead thousands in retreats or face down powerful governments.
It is the power that I personally, my teacher Shinzen and his teacher, Sasaki Roshi, access to penetrate the ego defenses of our students — so they can also connect to that power.
It is a power that taps into the exhilarating and joyous life force I have felt skiing the wall, walking on fire, making love on mountain tops, or body-surfing hurricane waves.
It is connection to that infinite power or source energy that, to me, can be called “true spirituality” or “true compassion” — wise, fearless, clear, powerful, joyful, unlimited.
Tibetan master Chogyam Trungpa wrote a book called “Cutting through Spiritual Materialism” about the need to cut through our futile ego tendency to seek happiness with the material trappings of religion. He also coined the term “idiot compassion” in which our ego futilely seeks happiness by trying to please other egos (“people-pleasing”). Idiot compassion may be kind, gentle, forgiving, sweet, even self-sacrificing, but it actually traps rather than frees others in their own destructive ego patterns. In modern terms it is called “enabling”(like buying drink for an alcoholic) or “people-pleasing”. It is ultimately self-defeating and harmful to others.
So Prince Myshkin, the idiot namesake of the novel, could easily be branded with an idiot compassion that led to his own self-destructive return to the sanitarium, to his friend’s imprisonment, his beloved’s ruin and to the murder of the girl he tried to save.
This is really unskillful spirituality — in fact the term “idiot spirituality” springs to mind.
3. MONASTERY CATHEDRAL.
Contemplating these ideas, I leave the café, walk thru the clear crisp snow and carefully climb the icy steps to the monastery cathedral. I push thru the heavy wooden doors into overwhelming steamy heat and noise. Crowds of overheated people in damp clothes, clouds of incense from burners shaken by monks, and the rich smell of wax candles the pilgrims light as they pray to the many icons. Baptized babies cry, tourists gawk and whisper, monks chant, and choir answers in lovely counterpoint. I flush and tear up from the sheer rich feast of life in this sacred place.
I wind my way thru the crowds to the reliquary of Alexander Nevsky. He was a 13th century warrior prince for hire who saved the medieval Russ city-state of Novgorod by killing a bunch of Swedes and Germans and bribing the invading Mongols. And for doing that, the Russian church made him a saint and Peter the Great founded this monastery in his name — immediately after Peter himself killed a bunch of Swedes to establish this impossibly northern port city and new Russian capital in 1710.
Prince Alexander Nevsky’s statue in the city plaza, the huge mosaic in the nearby metro and many paintings show him on a rearing horse with flashing sword smiting his enemies. But the monastery icon behind his reliquary shows him in the pure and perfect realm of iconography. Somehow those crazy Russians made this warrior into a saint. I join the pilgrims in lighting a candle – sensing Alexander’s contradictions offer me some insight into my “Idiot” puzzle.
Part of the answer is waiting for me at the little booth selling candles, books and copies of icons. There, in delightful serendipity, I meet a handsome Russian born tourist from Santa Barbara who makes his living painting and restoring icons. Amidst the moving murmuring pilgrims and monks, we have an animated conversation and he points out an icon of Alexander holding a sword. He explains that the Prince did a courageous and skillful job of keeping Novgorod independent by defeating the Europeans in the west and negotiating with the Mongols to the east. He is considered Russia’s greatest hero — the George Washington of Russia. He was also a deeply religious man who retired from his plush castle to an ascetic monk’s cell.
We have tea in the café and examine the idea that Nevsky was a deeply spiritual and powerful warrior prince like Buddhism’s Prince Siddhartha, Hinduism’s Prince Arjuna, Judaism’s’ King Solomon, or Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.
In any case, the Prince Alexander seems to have deserved his canonization and to have tapped much deeper into real spiritual power than the wimpy make-nice efforts of Dostoyevsky’s Prince Myshkin.
Parting from my new friend with a promise to meet again in sunny Santa Barbara, I walk past the old cemetery and reflect that, while Dostoyevsky had many deep insights, human consciousness has developed greatly in the last 150 years since he wrote “The Idiot”.Dostoyevsky’s concept of spirituality was likely connected to the idea we need to escape from this messy world to the pure sweet ascetic realm — rather than connecting and using that spiritual power to penetrate our egoic delusions and projections in this relative world. This pure realm is often depicted in Russian icons.
So how does Dostoyevsky fit into the stages of evolution of consciousness. As we have evolved from tribal to agriculture-state to modern-scientific-rational to post-modern and beyond, so have many aspects of our consciousness and culture. Our technology, economics, consciousness, art, morality and even spirituality are all developing and evolving. Dostoyevsky’s writing was heavily influenced by the rapidly developing modern European view, but his view of spirituality seemed stuck in the Russian iconography of the middle-ages.
As I unbolt the steel doors to my apartment, I decide that tomorrow I will explore this idea at the world-famous Hermitage Museum.
4. HERMITAGE EXPLORATIONS.
The Hermitage is an architectural wonder and a Louvre sized museum at the opposite end of Nevsky Prospekt from the monastery. It is in the imperial palace complex built by Peter and his descendants.
So, the next day, my itch to clarify “The Idiot” is carrying me thirty stories underground into Stalin’s combination metro, nuclear bomb shelter, and art exhibition hall. On the three-minute escalator ride down, I recall that a lifetime ago America and Russia had a standoff defense policy called MAD: Mutually Assured Destruction.
As a young mathematician at Boeing, I had a job comparing the “efficiency” of nuclear weapons systems supporting our MAD defense strategy. My computer programs determined the number of Russians killed per billion dollars cost for MAD alternatives. Startled by the memory, I look warily around at my fellow escalator riders — happily, they are oblivious.
The extreme depth of the metro also takes it under the city’s waterways. Only a tyrant like Peter the Great would decree that Russia’s new capital and port city be built on deserted boggy river delta in the frozen north at the cost of 40,000 lives.
At the bottom, I walk with crowds of rushing Russians (eager today to explore capitalism’s opportunities) a half mile thru tunnels and stairways to get to my train — passing on the way a huge bronze of Prince Alexander killing Swedes. I am crushed onto the train, catch glimpses of other art-filled stations, and am then expelled a few minutes later to ascend another interminable escalator to the surface.Canals, palaces, cathedrals, eager men and long-legged Russian beauties greet me as I make my way up Nevsky Prospekt to the Hermitage.
I cross Palace square, flash my card at the Friends entrance, walk past Greek statues, Roman gods and Egyptian mummies to the earliest exhibits of human development — and stand staring at a naked woman with huge breasts, hips, thighs, and vulva.
She was made with great care and reverence some 22,000 years ago at the tribal or “magic” stage of human development when our consciousnesses were still imbedded in our natural surroundings. Trees and deer and figurines and human flesh were full of magic and power — to be worshiped or even eaten for their power. It was also a time where women gathered half the food and shared greater power.
Then, 5000 years ago, we invented plough agriculture — a technology that enabled one strong man to feed many others. Cannibalism waned but the patriarchy waxed and we invented god-kings, priests, scribes, religions, armies, slavery and lots of other supporting rules and roles to control that surplus of food. Our natural spirituality was controlled with formal structured religions that emphasized ascending from this dreary messy world to the pure lands of heaven.
I trace the gradual changes in this stage in the art of the Hermitage — Egyptian mummies, Roman gods, feudal armor, and medieval icons.
This traditional or “mythic” mindset dominated human culture for many thousands of years — and still predominates in much of the world from conservative Islam to the bible-belt.
About 500 years ago, our natural creative desire led us to rebel against the suffocating church-state orthodoxy and a modern-rational-egoic-scientific consciousness started to develop. Free of the mythic mindset, science, technology and economics blossomed — eventually leading to printing, market economies, the industrial revolution, democracy, increasing power for women, and the end of slavery.
The museum traces this era with Renaissance, modern, and post-modern art. Suddenly art depicts real people doing real things — and then stretches that. It is a radical change from icon purity.
But tragically the modern and post modern abdicated spirituality to the old religions — leaving a deep dark hole where we need to connect to the power and juice of spirit — existential angst some call it. Rational thought is a useful tool for manipulating the physical world, but useless in connecting to life’s meaning.
We are only today finally evolving a mature rational stage of consciousness (called “Integral”) that includes a fully developed integration of spirituality and rationality — pulling from eastern mysticism, experiential meditation and western science. Unlike the mythic asceticism that tried to escape the world, this new spirituality uses spiritual power to fearlessly enliven and infuse the world with power and meaning.I see this evolution toward integral spirituality directly on the walls of the Hermitage — from the light and magic of Renoir to the freedom of Kandinsky.
But Dostoyevsky was obviously imbedded in the transition phase — and further handicapped by the dark Russian culture. The Russian elite of the time could see the increasing freedom and enlightenment of Europe and compare that with the far more repressive political atmosphere of Russia.
The elite of the time, Dostoyevsky with them, had lost connection with any true powerful connected spirituality — and thus Dostoyevsky presented us with this wimpy spiritual replica, Prince Myshkin, meek, sweet, loving, and kind — but without the wisdom, clarity and power of true spirituality.
So I leave the Hermitage with some understanding of my irritation with Dostoyevsky’s “Idiot Spirituality”.
But that does not clarify why I can no longer even pick up the book to read it. Reading a novel is for me like entering a world and living in it – and my reaction to Dostoyevsky’s world is like my cat’s reaction to his travel box when I am going to take him to the vet — all four paws out resisting with all his might. I can read about Dostoyevsky’s world, but the thought of picking up the book and entering it makes me nauseous.
So I decide to let this essay go for a while — to stop worrying about my strange reaction to “The Idiot”. The answer, I feel, will come, if I just relax and enjoy this wonderful country.
5. RUSSIAN TRAVELS.
So I walk the streets of this beautiful city — bridges and shops and museums and churches and canals — palaces and cathedrals. Here is the dazzling Church of the Spilled Blood on a winter morning, built to commemorate the murder of Alexander II — the reformist Tsar who freed those serfs and might have brought Russia into the modern era if he had not been murdered. And nearby, over the frozen Fontanka canal is the Sheremetiev palace — the town house of my friend’s grandfather — whose family at one time owned 200,000 serfs — 200,000 men women and children!
I take my wife to theaters — most memorable is a night at the famed Kirov ballet seeing Swan Lake. Pure magic.
I help our wonderfully talented Russian repertory theater group — called Pokoleniy. They have had to move from the historic Peter and Paul fortress and we help build out a new theater space in a rough 19th century warehouse on Lahtinskaya.
We also support these marvelously talented and rigorously trained Stanislavsky actors as they interweave body and emotion to evolve wonderfully impactful scenes and plays. One is an affair between a German and a Russian who use the language of love to transcend any mere language barriers. It opened in Russia and Germany to standing ovations.
I travel to Novgorod to see the ancient city that Prince Alexander Nevsky saved. Dawn is at 9:30; temperatures are below zero. More castles and cathedrals and statues. Most memorable was kids laughing and riding in sleighs in the moat outside the fort that must have run with blood during Alexander’s time.
I go to Pushkin Park and down the steps to the Stray-dog Art Café to the English speaking recovery meeting. It is where poets and artists and intellectuals plotted the 1917 Russian revolution — and now four or five of us sit around a small table plotting our continued sobriety. I talk about how the different customs and language and even the Cyrillic alphabet has continuously knocked me off center. From the minor irritations of buying ground pork instead of beef, or getting off at the wrong subway stop — to the anger-fear-shame emotional roller coaster of being pick pocketed twice!
During my 30 years of recovery, I have learned to lean into those roiling emotions and physical sensations — to breathe deeply into the open space of breath and spirit — and from that deep spiritual connection of trust-love-clarity-power — take the needed actions — call banks in America — put my money in my secure travelers wallet — be awake (and not afraid) in the subway crush — and continue to enjoy my stay in this beautiful city.
We share our desperate dark lives before recovery — and how the recovery program helped move into the sunlight of the spirit. Two members tell of the dreary life under the Soviets and the desperate problems in the initial post-soviet period only ten to twenty years ago — and how now there is a sense of optimism and possibility and self-empowerment among the Russian people today.
We emerge from the dark café to see children in laughing in Pushkin park.
I travel by the Sapsan high speed train to Moscow. The overhead sign reaches 230 KPH and minus 30 Celsius as we speed over the rolling white forests of western Russia . Small country dachas, farms, occasional towns with Stalin era tenements flash by. Finally Moscow — I join the river of Russians moving to the metro.
For most of my adult life Red Square by the Kremlin represented the “evil empire” where Stalin reviewed tanks and goose stepping soldiers from Lenin’s tomb at the time of our MAD strategy. But this now it houses skating rinks, laughing children, Christmas trees, and colorful churches.
I wander thru a few forts, churches and museums, listen to carolers and buy some trinkets and ice cream at the huge but lovely Gum department store, visit the famed Bolshoi Ballet, and fall asleep on my warm bunk on Nikolaevsky Express home — arriving the next morning just as the Sapsan express is leaving. A remarkable 24 hours.
At last, our 90 day business visa’s are up and it is time to say goodbye to this incredible city. We pack up our apartments, lock our steel doors for the last time, slip and slide on the snow to the airport, endure two security lines and an eight-hour delay in a blizzard, make it to Berlin, endure more security, more snow, and more delays there. And then, like Prince Myshkin, we retrace our incoming flight back to Switzerland.
After more snow delays, we finally escape Zurich and I pull out my laptop for our 12 hour flight home to LA. I have already written about why Dostoyevsky’s “Idiot Spirituality” irritates me. Now I need to write about why his world repels me.
6. HIGH OVER THE ARCTIC.
Thirty-five thousand feet over the arctic. We have been chasing the sunset since we left Zurich and as I work on this essay, I glance down and am startled to see, not endless clouds, but the sunlit crystal ice cliffs of Baffin Island. We are half-way home.
I’m reading the introduction to Dostoyevsky’s “Notes from the Underground”. It describes the dark-dismal world of the underground man — and his brief dream of escape during white nights. And I flash on the memory of coming out of the recovery meeting in the dark underground art café to see the bright laughing face of a child in Pushkin Park. I have my answer.
I personally and intimately lived in Dostoyevsky’s world of darkness and addiction for twenty long years prior to my recovery. I lived in fear, despair, and self-hatred. Even suicide did not lead to escape. Each time a small ray of hope would shine, it would get smashed and I would get more and more depressed. I was as addicted to negative thoughts as I was to alcohol. A swirling sewer of stinking negativity with each negative thought attracting more negativity — and negative people — and miserable times — thus proving that I was right about what shitty world this is and what a miserable shitty human being I was and how terrible and screwed up all the people in my life were. Reading Dostoyevsky took me back all to vividly too that hell-hole of no escape.
So my revulsion of Dostoyevsky’s world is driven by my personal escape from that dark world to one of positive light and life and love — but the pull of his negative darkness still sucks on me — threatening to pull me down into that miserable swirling cesspool of negativity.
And the tools of reason and psychology are no help in that dark pit for me personally — or for the denizens of Dostoyevsky’s dark world. Reason only ties the web together tighter. Psychology only examines the pieces of shit in more detail
Dostoyevsky had flashes of the light of true spirituality — his wife’s love, the sight of a mother nursing a child, his release from prison, his Christian beliefs, or sometimes just prior to an epileptic seizure.
But he was so addicted to the negative that his wife had to drag him away from his fascination with Holbein’s repulsive rotting painting of Christ. And on another trip Dostoyevsky wrote his wife: “I am reading the Book of Job, and it brings me to a state of feverish ecstasy.” Yeeps! Sounds like a poster boy for the M part of S&M.
My own answer came from finding glimpse of real hope in recovery meetings — that others who lived in that dark world of negativity and addiction had escaped — and just maybe I could too — I could start focusing on the light and not the darkness.
In meditation one learns to decide to follow the open space of the breath — and — if the mind wanders simply come back to the breath.
The secret, I have found to living in the sunshine instead of the darkness is simply to notice when my mind has wandered into the negative — and gently refocus on something — anything more positive. Sounds simple — but the old addictive pull is strong. — and of course that pull attracts more negative thoughts which attract more – which gets agreement from others as to how awful it is — which leads actual negative events which reinforce the whole dismal world. We have to STOP and reverse that spiral.
This “positive thinking” is not covering up shit with chocolate — but a deliberate decision to connect to my own deep positive spiritual experiences. Even Dostoyevsky had them — a sunset, a child or lover’s smile, a soaring symphony — to connect to true joy. And then I can expand from there — to look at my world from that place of deep peace, power, freedom, wisdom, and joy. And somehow, bit by bit — my world can start to respond to that positive thinking and action.
And for the last thirty years I have learned to really live life — to come back in balance from sicknesses, divorce, bankruptcy, firings, and rejections to stay sober and joyously find the love of my life, the love our six children, and help many others find a good life on this planet.Looking down on the icy world below, I say goodbye to Dostoyevsky’s dark world, and to modern Russia. I wish them well as they expectantly enter this chaotic but hopeful world of democracy and free markets.
Soon I will be back in LA. I hear it is very warm for December — in the 80’s. I smile. I surfed the day we left in August. Maybe I can catch a few winter storm waves on our return.