The bridgeI was talking with a friend the other day and this memory came up in the conversation. What I write about truly happened in this way, two grueling events of public humiliation for which I was very much guilty, in a foreign country where there was not a lot of slack for this kind of behavior. One of those intense “learning periods” in my life. I think it gave me my first serious face-to-face with guilt (with parents it didn’t count!), and pretty much obliged me to find another solution, which, I’m glad to say, was there to be found. Looking back, it was a profound event, probably my first real awareness that something other than my purely guilty mind existed. As an aside, this was still several years before finding ACIM.

Tokyo, April 1983
A thousand miniature pink and white butterflies fluttered and danced before my tired eyes. A warm breeze for this time of year lifted the flower petals from the cherry trees in swirling waves from the trees in Tokyo’s ‘Central Park’, but I hardly had the heart to pay even the slightest attention. I sat myself down on a bench and looked upwards, trying to work out where precisely I had gone wrong. Mr Ohmori’s words still echoed in my mind, his weathered, gaunt face peering paternally at me over the bar in the dim tavern, and I shuddered with their guilt-laden meaning.

I had failed – again. Fitting into Japanese society was now further away than ever; my hard work had come to absolutely nothing. There was only one thing to do now, and I wondered precisely how I was going to manage to do it.

I had arrived in Tokyo eight months earlier to make my debut in what I considered to be a truly sensitive and mature culture – that of the Japanese and their art of living. My mind was full of the spirit of Bushido and my heart set on finding the truth of the Zen masters; I was to enter a karate dojo on the western side of the city, learn Japanese and, well, ‘grow up’. I was only nineteen, and knew there were still many things to learn in this strange world. The Japanese seemed to be powerful masters in so many fields, and at the same time brought a particular sensitivity to even the most mundane activities. In the short time I was there, I had been astonished at their attention to even the smallest details. Wrapping a parcel for a customer buying a gift of rice sweets was a thing to behold. So much concentration, a fluidity of movement, and a precision that showed me I had still a long way to go to understand what it meant to be really ‘present’ with my daily activities.

Fate, however, or better, call it the ‘unconscious’, can make a mess of really good plans. The language school I had booked into did not come up with the promised cheap dormitory accommodation and instead had relegated me to a downtown hotel – way above my means. In scrambling around to find any kind of alternative, a secretary at the school introduced me to a colleague, Takahashi. Now, Mr Takahashi seemed like a nice young man somewhere in his early thirties, who then introduced me to his equally nice-looking friend, Mr Mori. It just so happened that Mr Mori lived with his parents who had a room they could rent to me in their house very inexpensively. As Mr Takahashi informed me, this was a very good proposition, and besides, his friend needed to improve his English. Yes, according to him, this would be perfect favor for his friend.

I looked from one to the other in the coffee shop and began to experience a weird sensation, one I would become uncomfortably familiar with during my time in Japan: it was the ghost of ‘social obligation’. And it started to seep into me from the surroundings, the o-cha teapot, the foreign faces, the exotic language. I was being ‘hooked’, and since I was just a lowly, poor and relatively unworthy foreigner (meaning, not coming with social connections of any note), I knew I needed to develop a network, get myself ‘in’ with some people. This did not seem like a perfect fit, but at least I was making in-roads into Japanese life. Hey, hardly a week had expired and I was already living with a real Japanese family. That sounded like progress.

A week after moving in my expectations were dramatically altering. My new ‘family-life’ was evidently going to be archaically constraining. You see, as a ‘young-un’ I was expected to go to school and hurry myself back into the family fold where I would studiously work through my language homework till dinner time, then off to bed. But this emancipated Australian had recently come from a year in Austria were all known social taboos were expected to be broken and life and libido to be enjoyed without further ado. A little adaptation was okay. But this was too much. There was an entire foreign city out there to explore! And my karate classes were on the other side of town (two hours train ride from ‘home’). It just wasn’t going to work, but how to get out of this sticky situation?

I was most concerned about not offending my new hosts by turning down their gracious hospitality. And so I turned to the only friend I had, Mark Grattle, a fellow Australian also dedicated to karate and learning the art of Japanese social etiquette. He said it was truly impossible to extricate myself nobly. I would have to ‘do a runner.’ Basically this meant packing my bags and leaving, without attempting to explain to anyone what the problem was. I gave in to his worldly experience, and the next day head out the door with my bags in tow, a very perplexed lady-of-the-house (who spoke no English) closing the door suspiciously behind me.

Well, it didn’t take long to start my intensive training in what not to do in Japan. Takahashi called me up at the language school and ordered me in language which left no choice to an executive meeting in the same coffee shop where we had met. I was faced with two staunch adversaries in this cultural sparring match, one was fuming and sweating, spittle dropped from his mouth occasionally as he punctuated another injurious phrase with an insult or jibe. The other, Mori, was evasive, wounded, his eyes meeting everyone’s except mine, finding a point of focus in his o-cha cup, leaving all the hard work of punishing this foreign subversive element to his big friend. Indeed, over the space of an hour and a half, I was ranted at in a voice raised to a level that left no one in the coffee shop unaware of what was happening in the far dark corner.

I’m sure I was white with fear. I was extremely embarrassed, and terribly impressed, taking very seriously Takahashi’s claims of having contacts that would see me expelled from the country in short time. What had I done? I had exposed this poor Japanese family to the heartless, selfish whims of an outsider who had been welcomed with open arms by this family sacrificing its only room for my benefit. I was totally socially inept, less than worthy of being admitted into Japanese society for the sake of my studies. My only consideration should be to return as quickly as possible to my homeland where my offences would go unnoticed, bathing as the Australians obviously did in a mish-mash of permissiveness and complete lack of social structure.

Welcome to my projection.

If only it had stopped there…

Some months later I was still in Japan and making some progress. I had promised Takahashi that my mother was working on booking me on a flight. She was sure he would understand, she asked me to tell him, that she would be most appreciative if he would allow her son to be able to finish just one semester since the expense had been so great to bring him to their country. My mother, of course, knew nothing about this. But strangely I did not dislike Takahashi and attempted to understand him. He had been embarrassed, and was doing what he thought he had to in order to defend his friend. I could understand that. And so what if he exploded at me? I had seen worse. I even began to give English lessons to his sister’s daughter, which I genuinely enjoyed. I think that made a difference with him.

Mark Grattle in the meantime had become my best ally (despite his previously poor advice) in our race to ‘become Japanese’. After all, it was well known that the most respected foreigners in Japan were those who had adopted all the appropriate social manners, even to the extent of criticising other foreigners who quickly became cultural ignoramuses in their eyes. Mr Ohmori’s tavern was the center of Mark’s social world, a circle a Japanese client had introduced him into. I was quickly adopted as the young Australian boy who needed a hand making his way through the maze of Japanese traditions.

This is where it gets ‘interesting’.

My younger sister, Romanda, visited me from Australia, to learn a little from her older brother’s experience in the wide foreign world of Asia. Sumiko and her husband, two of the tavern’s regulars, thought it was a pity we did not discover something outside of Tokyo. They invited us to share space with them in the apartment they had rented for a few days in the mountains not far from the city. It was February and there was still some snow, we could all go skiing together, wouldn’t that be good? Wouldn’t it??

I looked around the tavern: slightly different faces, different scenery, but the exact same feeling – the ghost of social obligation was definitely back again. I didn’t really want to go and besides it was going to cost money. But they were so persuasive, and it was clearly such a generous gesture on their part, it would have been quite inappropriate to refuse. What reason could I give that was valid? Nothing I tried seemed to work. All my arguments seemed like a veiled refusal of their hospitality. I had learned; I was more aware; but I did not yet possess all the tricks and nuances of a fully practiced member of Japanese society. Everyone thought this would definitely be the best thing. They wanted us to go. Yes, it would definitely be best if Bernard and his sister went skiing with Sumiko and her husband. Mr Ohmori thought so, so it must be true. He was the group-father; he knew everything. How could they possibly refuse? How could they know otherwise? They were too young.

Okay, so now we’re going skiing…

I was not happy. The night before we were to leave (a 6 am departure) I was sitting with Mark and my sister in a bar and contemplating my unhappy circumstance. That’s when Mark came up with his second most brilliant idea ever: we just had to “chuck a sickie.” And voilà, all problems resolved! My sister just had to get sick and we couldn’t go – how simple. We wandered out of the bar about midnight feeling quite happy about our solution. But our joy was suddenly dampened when we bumped into a local from Ohmori’s tavern who tipped his head in a gesture of good evening as we passed. Mark and I looked at each other. Nah, he wouldn’t tell.

I called Sumiko at 5.30 am and explained that my sister had come down with a sudden case of gastro-enteritis and we were unable to leave with them. She was understanding and sympathetic and asked if there was anything they could do. They were quite sweet. Being such extremely sweet people, I should probably not have been surprised when the doorbell rang at 6 am and there was Sumiko and her husband on the doorstep. But I was. I was surprised, and terrified. And embarrassed – again. Was there anything they could do? No, it was really too, too kind of you to stop by, but she just needs to rest. She has all the medication she needs with her. No, we don’t need any food. Thank you for the oranges, but we don’t need…

A week later I was summoned to an official meeting in the tavern. This was it, my second dressing down in a public place. How humiliating! You guessed it, the fellow we had bumped into recounted to everyone at the tavern about our midnight loitering in the bars of Tokyo the night prior to leaving. They had quickly concluded that the entire thing had been a farce, insult had been done, payment must be made.

Well, at least this time it was more civilised. The shouting was all internal, strained faces, hushed voices, piercing looks. But the guilt and disapproval were just as palpable. Sumiko and her husband were masters of the art of the wounded look. But it was nothing in comparison to Mr Ohmori himself in whose establishment the crime had been committed. I wasn’t sure which was worse, his words of disappointment and betrayal, or his silences that stunned me into instant submission.

Despite my succession of humiliations, I was learning. I wasn’t sure precisely what, but I was advancing on my path. I could feel it.

Some months later, as I wandered the streets of Tokyo amongst the intense noise and humanity, I still felt the incisive heat of self-hate, my own accusations of stupidity and disrespect, issuing from the two social catastrophes I had incurred in the space of eight short months. The faces that looked back at me all seemed to reflect my painful judgment. And yet there was something else present there, too. Something that wasn’t just hate. What was this ‘other thing’?

It needed to be explored, approached, investigated, even amongst the rubble of my feelings and pride. And so I took the metro to the Emperor’s Park at Chiyoda and strolled amongst the cherry trees now in full blossom at this time of year. There was something else there. And as the floating petals settled on the ground to the delight of children and picnickers, I let my thoughts roam and felt the presence out there come just a little closer. Something was there, quiet, calm and serene. I had been through the worst and had come out alive. But I was still there. Socially, I had been murdered. I was a mass of pulp, having been manipulated and turned and twisted around and made to admit all my terrible errors. But funnily, it didn’t matter. I was still there, or something was still there, and it wasn’t shameful at all. I had died, nothing more remained to salvage, yet something was left, and it was remarkably calm. In a real sense, nothing had really happened.

My objective for first coming to Tokyo returned to mind… It was clear I was not learning from Japan. Or at least, I was not learning to become Japanese. And then I blinked. Suddenly it was all so obvious – I was not Japanese! I was a Westerner! Yes, I was a Westerner, and that was okay. That was not a cause for shame or disrespect. It was quite acceptable. Where I came from, things were different; they were not better, we were not superior. Just different. There was no formal obligation to participate in this foreign relational game of guilt, disgrace and obligation. It was all my choice. Looking around me now at the faces sparkling in the shower of wafting flowers, I smiled spontaneously. I felt truly free.

It was like instant liberation. I was suddenly free from the need to pretend, to try to fit in. It was a magical moment and I still remember it well. Months of debilitating self-judgment dropped away in that instant of awareness that whatever was there in me, or with me, it was okay. It was profoundly okay, despite all my faults and transgressions. In fact, the more I looked at my heartache, the more it amused me. There had never been any real problem. It had only been my insistence on taking their judgments seriously that had caused my upset. As such, they had become my judgments, and yet the instant I stopped sharing them, the crime was gone. Evaporated.

Sitting there on the bench I became abruptly aware of my breath. Had it always been there in that way? The soft, rhythmic movement, participating with the air around me in the gentlest fashion. Why was I suddenly noticing it now? My mind felt lighter, the dark shadows of an imminent judgment had temporarily disappeared. A presence somewhere close by – the sakura forest perhaps – was speaking to me, and everything shone differently. Everything was suddenly just there, not dwelling on some past heinous act, or on some fear-laden future. There was nothing to judge. Everything was just the way it was, and that was perfect. And then I was sure I knew what I had to do, and how to do it.

I rose quietly from the bench and began my first true discovery of this magnificent city. Not as a student painfully and dutifully trying to learn things Japanese, but just as an observer watching the play of life around me. Shinjuku and Ikebukuro were still the same mad, hectic urban centers, but my zig-zagging and slaloming amongst the throngs of anonymous faces was now purposeful: I was there just to be. Not to try to be; to be this or that. Not to aspire to something else, for things to make more sense, to decipher the enigmatic social code . There was a freedom from expectation, a freedom from the idea that ‘one-day’ I would perhaps master this language, this culture. No, I could just look and participate in the flow of bodies and sounds, the flashes of neon light and the clangs of the city. My yakisoba were slurped now without wondering if I was making just the right noise. Would people notice I wasn’t born in Japan by the way I ate my noodles? It didn’t matter! It was so much fun… freedom from guilt and sin; a moment in life unencumbered by heavy thoughts and judgments. A moment of innocence, and harmony: the true spirit I had come to this country to find in the first place. It had been there all along. It was everywhere.

After two months of absence from the tavern, Mr Ohmori sent his son, Miki, to talk with me.

In great detail Miki explained how there had been a misunderstanding and how it was essential that I return to the fold. I smiled inside. There was genuine compassion for this young man who was so caught up in games of obligation and obedience. We did not know each other, this was the first time we had met; he had come because his father had told him to. He was afraid of returning with a negative response. Now the group was feeling guilty that they had perhaps truly insulted me. I had to return to assuage their feelings. But I would not. I calmly informed him that I was aware of my inability to become a proper and responsible member of their group (which was true), and that my mind was made up. I would return to Australia to continue my studies there. I gave no further explanation or excuses. That was in his culture to do so, not mine. I hoped that he felt the same calm presence around him that I was feeling at that moment because he would need it upon returning to describe our conversation. He would be held responsible for any perceived failure.

My conversation with Miki was a particularly adult moment for me at that time, I remember. I felt comfortably equal with this thirty-something year old, and capable of holding at bay a tavern-full of mature Japanese adults. I must quickly admit, however, that this did not stop me in the future from sinking right back into serious adolescent anger and resentment at times. But it was a start, something I could remember in the future as a signpost. At least I had seen that there was indeed ‘another way’.

* * * * * *

In May, just before returning to Sydney, I returned to my bench in the park one last time. The cherry trees in the Emperor’s garden were patiently nurturing their fruit for the early summer harvest. I tilted my head upwards toward a blue sky, and saw once more in my mind the whirling froth of pink petals that had laid such a magnificent carpet at my feet. They seemed to have stayed with me as I traversed the last few weeks of my time overseas. I felt that maybe they would always remain somewhere close by.

Despite my failure at integrating into Japanese society, and my inability to master the sport and the language I had come to study, I felt I had learned something very important during that year in Japan. Perhaps the ancient Zen masters had manoeuvred everything precisely so that I would end up in that cherry tree wood that wonderful spring day.

ACIM Footnote:

Now that I look at this finished blog post, a couple of things strike me which I don’t think are very clear in the text. I should probably make a quick note of them here…

1. It is clear to me that this was all of my doing; there was no real victimization, even though we might all certainly agree that what was done to the character ‘Bernard’ was not motivated by love or compassion. It was all my doing in two ways. Firstly, my interpretations were causing me pain, not the angry words spoken to me, as mentioned above; and, secondly, it was no accident that I had ended up in those particular places faced with those particular people.

Something crazy inside me was drawing me to these situations (this wasn’t the last time, unfortunately!), and that something was my deep desire to feel put down, subservient, humiliated. Why? Because my insane ego was telling me to find reinforcement for an inner picture of the world and myself, a picture I desperately wished to maintain. This would certainly help me to keep feeling like a particularly real and unworthy individual, albeit at the expense of happiness and God’s Love. And, of course, it wouldn’t hurt to find someone I could blame for this unhappy picture, instead of taking responsibility for my choice for turning my back on Love. In effect, I had arrived in Japan at Morita airport, descended the stair ramp with my backpack onto the tarmac, and had stuck my nose proudly into the murky Tokyo air and said to myself (unconsciously): “Somewhere in this gigantic city there is a person and a place which is going to give me exactly the humiliating, dishonoring experience I’m secretly looking for. Now, which metro line should I take to find it?”

After all, no one had forced me to listen to my friend Mark and to follow his advice. Why did I do it? Why did I not try to explain to Mr Mori’s family that I had made a mistake? Why was I so unable to explain to Sumiko and Mr Ohmori that my sister and I would not be able to go skiing? Surely that was not impossible. No. My humiliation-sniffer-outer was working full-time and had found a way of being disgraced, of getting myself into impossible situations of obligation and duty. And I continued for a very, very long time doing precisely this (okay, even yesterday…). Don’t we all?

If it is not a situation of subservience, then it is something else, some other way of feeling disempowered, a victim, hard done by. (Remember, it is not a question of avoiding being taken advantage of or hurt – this is inevitable in the classroom of the world. It is when we have the feeling of being the victim that is a signal to set the right-mind into motion). It is the ego’s blame-sniffer, and it is always on the alert for a propitious opportunity. “Ah-ha!” it exclaims, on encountering yet one more juicy situation, “I’m sure I can make something of this. There is a justifiable way of being a victim here. Now, what’s the story-line going to be this time…?”

2. This series of experiences happened to take place in Japan, but I’m quite convinced it could have happened absolutely anywhere. It was not something particular about the Japanese that made these events inevitable. On the contrary, I had met many foreigners there who had had wonderful experiences with their local hosts. I could have gone to Santiago or Bombay or Dublin and found myself having exactly the same type of experiences, okay, perhaps without the o-cha and cherry trees. But basically the way I see it life will always give us exactly what we are looking for, which in ACIM-language might translate to ‘denial always leads to projection’: whatever we secretly harbor within ourselves will find its way into the world and be reflected back to us via our experiences and perceptions. If we want to feel better, if we want to move toward an experience of Love, it’s up to us then to learn to become aware of these perceptions and the mind that is choosing them. Only then can we make a different choice. The Love is always there.

Cherry blossoms are floating in an eternally blue sky, wherever we are.

Bernard Groom