When you attend a meeting of 500 aspiring mystics of both Eastern and Western persuasions, as I did last weekend, you’re bound to run into some interesting people. But there is “interesting” and there is “eccentric,” the latter being a pearl of greater price. For eccentrics, by definition, make the world go unround. They remind us that neat and tidy isn’t nature’s way. Rivers don’t take a straight course to the sea. Trees sprout branches in every direction.
I’ve had the pleasure of knowing some wonderful eccentrics. Eric was a friend of my youth. A few years older than me, he would ride his bike down the highway and whip it with a riding crop while wearing his authentic white Bengal Lancers helmet with a plume on top. We had great times playing Embassy, dressed up in his astounding collection of British army/navy surplus attire (after the Brits were kicked out of India, it seems that a lot of equipment went on the market in the 1950s). Eric was a true eccentric.
My Uncle Jack played the bagpipes. To people. Also to cows, who would moo in return. And to dogs, who would howl in return. He was a profound practical joker, never growing up even as he grew in years. He was astoundingly direct, even to a fault. Once my mother, Carolyn, and I took a train from California all the way across the country to visit him in Massachusetts. I remember us stepping onto the Boston station platform and hearing Uncle Jack’s effusive greeting in his New England accent: “My god, Carolyn, you’ve gained so much weight!” Uncle Jack was a true eccentric.
After I gave my talk at the Science of the Soul meeting last Sunday, I went backstage and got some congratulations from a few people. One was an English guy a bit older than me who I had corresponded with by email, but had never met. Right away I felt like we had been friends for years, especially after he said, “I liked your talk. You remind me of me.” Exactly.
William Pryor is a writer, an ex-addict, a great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin, a poet, a publisher. And, I could tell instantly, a true eccentric. In the best sense. Meaning, William, like Eric, like Uncle Jack, is absolutely himself. Not someone trying to play the role of an eccentric, or someone trying to not play the role of an eccentric, or someone not trying to not play…(I’m starting to confuse myself). No, an eccentric is so really true to himself or herself there’s no room for the usual interpersonal bullshit that wastes so much time and puts up so many barriers.
Five minutes after I met William, as we were walking along with Laurel to find a place on the lawn to have a chat, I showed him the copy of my book, “Return to the One,” that I had read from during my talk. I said, “Well, I just got this advance copy, so I wanted to use it in speaking about Plotinus, but at least I didn’t use this spiritual setting to overtly plug my own book.” With that, William started slapping me on the shoulder with the book, yelling “No! no! no!” And laughing.
Touché. Yes, he was right. I did indeed have in mind that by being so seemingly humble (not mentioning the title of the book, not holding it up for people to see, not even mentioning that it soon could be bought), this low-key good-karma approach to plugging still would lead to some sales. I liked how William playfully punctured my pretense. Eccentrics make you comfortable with being as imperfect or as perfect as you really are.
Sitting and talking with him was a welcome change of pace from the preachy “thou shalt” tone that pervaded some other messages I encountered during the weekend. Such as the “No cell phones. No cameras. No PDAs. No voice recorders” signs at the doors of the meeting hall. No one could offer a good reason why cell phones couldn’t simply be turned off. Or why photographs of the Science of the Soul facilities couldn’t be taken. It was just a rule. An opportunity for bureaucracy to try to make an eccentric world into a perfect circle. Which can’t happen. Which shouldn’t happen.
One day I left my cell phone in my hip bag instead of leaving it in my car, as the meeting organizers wanted, or checking it before entering the hall, another option. I felt deliciously rebellious. The next day, to avoid falling into a rebellious rut, I left my cell phone in our hotel room. For the first time, when I walked into the hall, an Indian sevadar (volunteer) looked at me and said, “Cell phone? Cell phone?” I replied, absolutely honestly, “No.” I felt deliciously obedient.
William is on a book tour, promoting his “The Survival of the Coolest: An Addiction Memoir.” I’ll let you know how I like the book after I read it. I hugely enjoyed William himself, so I suspect I’m going to also enjoy his writing.