The grilled cheese shop my husband and I owned in Midtown Toronto was open from eleven a.m. to three p.m. Monday through Saturday. We kept to the clipped hours since any more time hustling would have been an obstacle to my husband's spiritual rigors. Glen is the originator of Transtatic Awakening Meditation—a style of meditation he promotes as a release from karmic pain. The word Transtatic combines the meanings of transcendental and ecstatic and he always got slightly impatient if anyone had any other associations they wanted to explore. Radio static, for instance. Glen could make you feel like an idiot with just his eyes and the contortions of his mouth.
The pre-dawn hours are thought by many monks to be best for dropping into the hidden unity of all things. Glen may have entertained some renegade notions, but here he upheld the traditional yogic view. Soon after waking, he drank a cup of holy basil tea, then would settle before his candlelit shrine, a rope of braided sweet grass tossing a fragrant smoke at his shuttered eyes. His sand clock would spill grains to mark each hour he stayed on his pillow. Glen likes to say that in meditation he finds an oasis from the dark and ravaged world.
Each day, after the grilled cheese shop closed, Glen would go out walking through a nearby wildlife preserve. Not that snow or fierce rain and wind ever deterred him, but spring and summer in those urban woods brought their share of wonders. You could often see red-winged blackbirds, hawks scouting the territory for prey, flowers teeming with butterflies, and the kind of daytime moths that imitated bees. Glen would sometimes sit in a clearing in open-eyed Transtatic, though usually he did a walking version of his meditation as he hiked along a path that shored the ravine.
Sometimes I would join him, mainly because I wanted to talk. Although I knew that most of our time there would be eaten up in meditation, there was a burst of hiking to do under the evergreens and Glen didn't like to plunge into the bliss of non-duality the moment he entered the gates. He preferred to wait until the sounds of traffic dimmed and you became enclosed in the chirping woods. It was only when he reached a red-painted bridge that he became irretrievable.
One afternoon, I tagged along with my husband to the wildlife preserve after we'd swept and locked the grilled cheese shop. Since I went for the purpose of chatting with Glen, even for a couple of minutes, I became annoyed when he started frittering away the time on his Android. Sacrifice was one of the pillars of his philosophy—and I usually stifled my complaints—but on this occasion I said that he was falling short of his own guru advice.
"Just hang on, Becca," Glen said. "I'm having trouble accessing the cloud. I need some updates."
"I don't understand why you don't want to talk a while before we meditate," I said. "You're the one who always insists on your rules and routines."
"We aren't meditating today. I thought you knew."
"What do you have planned then?" I said. "Snapping pictures of the birds? There's a woodpecker behind you. Hear it?"
As Glen squatted close to the loamy path his head sank below the line that cut the sun from the shade, his features mellowing in the relative darkness. He was wearing the beige round-brimmed hat he always wore on those outings. His beard was at an all-time record length. Its brown-grey tip sagged across his breastbone—the location of his heart chakra he might point out. "Birds?" he said. "That's supposed to be a joke?"
"Why? This is the place for them. This is the season too." When I looked at Glen it put me into a frenzy, my cheeks burning up like I was suffering from an allergic response, and I turned away and tried to make out the woodpecker. It was out of sight now, curtained behind the leaves, though I could still hear its busy drilling.
"I guess I didn't mention it," Glen said, "but I've started using one of my hikes each week to answer questions for my disciples. Not the physical ones. I'm talking about my cyber fan base."
"News to me."
"I must say, it's convenient to have you here on a day like this. You can hold my Android. I'm going to start live streaming in a moment. Just try to limit the shaking. Last time I got quite a few comments from people who said they felt dizzy as they watched."
Apart from my husband, the disciples who attended the Transtatic Awakening gatherings twice a month and the regulars in the grilled cheese shop, Caroline was the only person I saw with any frequency. I liked having someone who wasn't enthralled by Glen the way his disciples were. In fact, she'd only met him a single time.
"Well, I finally cross paths with the great enlightened one," she said to me after I hopped into her air-conditioned van. If it had been my brother who'd made a smart-ass remark about Glen I wouldn't have hesitated to reply in kind, but I'd long since killed all contact with my family members and Caroline's snippiness still seemed good fun. "Did you feel something?" I said. "A little taste of his magnetism?"
"He does have some magnetism."
"He was in a meditation when he said hi to you."
"He was?" Caroline turned down the stereo. The pop beat and remastered singing sounded like tiny insect music. "I thought meditating meant sitting cross-legged and staring at your nose."
"There's a whole cocktail of things he does. You know those clowns that come to birthday parties? The ones with the balloons and kazoos and pogo sticks in their bags? Glen's kind of like that with his spirituality. My guess is that he was in a Deep-Witnessing Meditation."
Caroline drove with one hand on the wheel, looking intently through the mirror. "What does that involve?"
"Well, it's a bit like being in a trance."
"Doesn't sound all that delightful."
"He can stay in a session for ten hours. He used to stay in it for days. He said he could hold to his awareness right through the depths of sleep."
She slowed to a stop and a helmeted cyclist rode past us, followed at a much calmer pace by a man pushing a stroller, the baby rattling a toy.
"Did he ever teach you that technique?" Caroline asked. "That deep-witnessing thing?"
"I've tried it. Those were in the days when I was seeking for God as much as anyone has. I guess now I've lapsed."
Caroline and I had met at a book club hosted in a spare room of a local library. At first, the club read novels and story collections by prize-winning authors, though at some point things deteriorated and we began to read memoirs by celebrities who were selling sex tips and secrets to keeping a youthful body through the darkness of middle age. Eventually, our club didn't have anything to do with books. Instead we'd discuss blogs or even just videos by ordinary people who had their own YouTube channels. Caroline and I drifted from the club.
We would get pie and coffee somewhere, although we had different instincts when it came to bakeries and cafes. Because of Glen's practices, austerity—or at least a lack of pretense—was a cardinal virtue in my world. Caroline tended to oppose my choices, urging us on to tackier environments where the baristas were intentionally rude if you didn't look like a movie director or fashionista.
In spite of these disagreements, Caroline and I got along swimmingly. The one subject I tended to guard against was anything concerning Glen and his movement. I worried that if I started expressing myself openly about that then the peculiarities would make me feel overly exposed. But after the day Caroline finally met Glen, her curiosity was stimulated, and I couldn't segue us into happier terrain. It was my own fault for revealing that Glen had likely been practicing a bizarre form of meditation.
"It sounds like you're just kind of putting up with it all now," Caroline said.
"Even that's becoming difficult," I admitted. "I lost interest in meditating a while ago, but it's only in the last few months that his ideas have really started to bug me."
"Well, how about that Glen is an embodiment of the divine."
"More than anyone else?"
"Everyone has a spark. Only Glen has taken that spark and fanned it into an eternal blaze."
"Yeah, I could see how that would be a piss off," Caroline said.
In some ways, I'd never fully believed in my husband's teachings. An aspect of me was able to put distance between myself and his most outlandish sayings. If Glen had gone too far in a couple of places ("ancient Mayan cities were built from alien blueprints," "exorcisms are still an essential spiritual tool"), I viewed it as the fruit of eccentricity rather than delusion.
In my early twenties, some years before I met Glen, I used to be more intense in my quest for self-actualization. I went to yoga retreats and experimented with fasting. I chanted, I prayed. I immersed myself in sensory deprivation tanks. Even more importantly, I'd had what Glen would later call Third-Eye Flashes. I don't know if these were dead-on mystical experiences—the sorts of things that happen to every prophet and saint—but they were surprising, frequently euphoric, sometimes haunting, and always very weird. Voices would address me, spirits or beings from hyperspace that would tantalize me with ominous insights and taboo wisdom. Faces of friends would transform into those of gremlins or trolls. One time an elfin figure frolicked toward me through an empty soccer field, repeating my name in-between notes on his pan flute.
If all that sounds like a romp into madness, I might add that pills and magical fungi could have played a role. Sometimes, at parties and festivals, I'd swallow the drugs that were offered to me knowingly, though it was my custom to try to forget that I did so as not to destroy the element of surprise. I wanted God or a group of woodland sprites to take possession of me without feeling like I'd booked an appointment in advance.
I had also learned to meditate by taking a course that ran for ten Saturdays out of a high school gymnasium. FREE MEDITATION CLASSES boasted signs on lamp posts everywhere. The price sure suited me fine. I showed up an hour late on the first Saturday to find forty people meditating in the bleachers. I'd never seen an image so peaceful before. They seemed bewitched by an invisible basketball game so thrilling they couldn't clap or cheer. All they could do was sit there, still as owls, but with their gaze directed inward.
The instructor—a skinny man who wore sandals and wool socks and a necklace made of pristine shells—seemed like a holdover from the hippie era. At some point the signs started coming together: despite the generic meditation style he was teaching, the instructor was not only embedded in a cult, he was evangelizing on its behalf.
Perhaps cult is too poisonous a word. Judging by the instructor and the stories he told, the sect he belonged to was a love-drunk people, chaste and vegetarian and with hobbies like weaving and playing the tabla drums. Even so, there was a figurehead at the center of it all who'd been declared a Bodhisattva. Having touched the bright empire (nirvana) of which death, illusion, and sin played no part, he chose to come back to earth to work toward the liberation of the rest of us who were still wading in the muck.
His devotees would travel to other countries, teach his simple meditation technique, and sell his books of God-touched poetry. They would undertake bi-annual pilgrimages to the guru's ashram in Brooklyn, where they would kneel before the master's feet and scatter rose petals as they wept.
The wealthy members of the sect were encouraged to donate all their assets to the guru. Afterward, they'd be expected to live on the annual stipend he would grace them with. If they assumed they could hoard all their money in a mutual fund and still make spiritual progress, then they were lost and would never escape the common destiny of fools.
Well, once Glen started inviting people to the Sunday gatherings, I began to wonder if that wasn't somehow Glen's grand aspiration too. But from what I could tell, he never coveted money. Modesty oozed out of Glen. He had two uniforms—the orange robe he wore when he was meditating and the black smock he wore when he stood flipping sandwiches at the grill. He also said he liked the way I looked better without goopy eye makeup or without doing anything dazzling with my hair.
Thrift stores were good enough for our wardrobes. The dollar store sufficed for our glassware and plates. For vacations we'd cram a few things—sleeping bags, lawn chairs, tarot cards, weenies and beans—into a rented Volvo and drive out to a forested area with a picnic table and fire pit. And we'd stay put for a week or more even though the tent we owned wasn't adequate in thunderstorms or for keeping the mosquitoes from their vampire ambitions while we slept.
There was one disciple of my husband's who'd try to hound him into seeing the potential in the profit side of spirituality. The disciple reasoned that far from being a selfish idea, it would ultimately be more charitable to the world if Glen advertised more ferociously since his message would have greater reach. Glen would only chuckle when he heard these arguments. He was sure the good news would spread without his having to do anything particularly flashy. It's not as though Toronto was a haven for seekers, but there were enough people with a hunger for the divine. Eventually those seekers would find their way to our grilled cheese shop on the first and third Sundays of the month.
Caroline ripped a caramelized tuft from her cinnamon bun and blew upon the whirling steam. "If Glen always thought he was a minstrel of God, what's changed in him now?"
"What's changed," I said, "is that a whole lot of other people buy into it too."
"And you think he's kind of sucking up their adoration of him? Taking their attention a little too seriously?"
"Put it this way: I find it odd he doesn't think what's happening now is stranger. His reaction to getting loads more supporters in just a couple of months is almost no reaction at all. It's as if he always assumed something like this was in his future. It's starting to feel a little too creepily messianic for me."
While Caroline went to the ladies' room, I caught myself in the window chewing my fingernails, a habit I thought I'd kicked ages ago. We were in one of her preferred cafes, the pretentious kind, and that might have been fraying my nerves.
"What was that podcast Glen was on?" Sitting down again, Caroline wrapped herself in a purple shawl.
"You must be thinking of Incandescent Ghost with Mindy Garrison," I said.
"I keep meaning to download it."
"It's probably the biggest spiritual podcast out there. I find it hard to believe he was even chosen as a guest, but then the pagan magician who was supposed to be on cancelled and they couldn't find anyone else in a pinch besides Glen. Glen did come off charming, I'll say that. He was eloquent, but also otherworldly enough to be attractive to Ghost's listeners. He had Mindy Garrison hypnotized from the intro. The way she pitched his books to the audience, you would have thought she commanded a percentage of the sales."
"And that's around when his books started trending on Amazon?"
"Yeah, and it wasn't just his second book that was selling, his first one came out of hibernation too. And that one has a lot of esoteric things in it. I'm surprised anyone could get through it besides a patient wife."
"Your restaurant must be popping now with people on those Sundays," Caroline said. "I'm tempted to go just for the social aspect of it."
"The funny thing is that the buzz hasn't caused much of a spike in live attendance at the gatherings. What's shifted is that there are now so many people who just want to watch it over the internet. I can't say why anyone would want to look at a man sit in lotus with his eyes half shut, but then there's a lot that I don't understand about what's been happening."
"You've fallen out of love with your husband's ideas."
"If only it were just his ideas."
That day, in the wildlife preserve, Glen answered questions about death transcendence. He told his disciples how they could open their crown chakras and reignite their dormant kundalini energy. He dabbled in Kabbala, warned against the allures of the satanic Aleister Crowley, and interpreted the phenomenon of alien abduction testimonials, which he promised to tackle in his upcoming book. After he bid everyone shanti and I logged us out of FaceTime, he gave me a smile before he floated off into meditation. Our walk back home, though silent, was charged with a dark electricity. Glen had said that certain forms of psychokinesis were viable—and would soon become scientifically testable—and I wondered then if he was picking up on my thoughts of doing him harm.
At home, while Glen ducked into his office and made notes on his laptop, I chopped veggies and picked herbs from the garden to add to the ratatouille. Usually I enjoyed preparing dinner. Cooking was more of a hobby than a chore as long as it was without the constraints of the clock and the faint pressures of frowning customers harrumphing in their stools. And yet, that night, I couldn't find any comfort in the calm of a summer sunset, the breeze coming in through the screened door, or even in the moon shining a honey-yellow, its scarred face almost complete. I could have distracted myself with an internet talk show—certainly nothing like the kind of thing Glen put out there—but instead I let the silence beat down on me until I became terrified of everything harsh swirling 'round in me.
Glen came to the table in an open-eyed meditation. He ate dinner in his slow, almost hedonistic savoring way.
"Did you notice the arugula in your salad?" I asked.
He nodded. It was the kind of nod meant to shut me up.
"It comes from the garden," I said. "The rosemary too. Any comments?"
He looked down at the blue- and black-checkered tablecloth as though a revelation was transfiguring the squares.
"I know you're not big on coriander," I said. "I threw some in anyway to satisfy myself."
Glen licked his plate like a cat cleans itself, methodical and with his whole spirit put into each swipe of the tongue. Then he retreated to his office while I dreamed of sad and violent things over soapy dishes. He wasn't typing anymore and from that I concluded he was reading. Most likely he'd been drawn into the wormhole mysticism of G.I. Gurdjieff.
Leaving the kitchen after restacking the dry plates, I was still wearing the pink latex gloves.
Later, I snuck up on Glen as he was brushing his teeth. "I've got a question for you. Did you hear me?" I said when I saw him wince. "Don't you ever take questions from your wife?"
His reflection in the mirror blandly contended with me.
I said, "How come you told your disciples today that you were enlightened into Real Self on the fifth of June when you were twenty-three?"
"That's what I always tell them," he said, garbling his consonants. "That's my story."
"Yes, but there's something you usually tail it with. Today you didn't bother to."
Leaning over the basin, Glen spat minty white gobs. "What are you talking about, Rebecca?"
"You always used to say that, although you were enlightened into Real Self on the fifth of June when you were twenty-three, you didn't realize until eight years later that there was a much subtler cosmic dimension you could get on. That insight only came to you after meeting me. Your Real Self Twin is what you called me. Forget about all that?"
He made a cup of his hands and, filling it with faucet water, he rinsed. "You have to consider, I was trying to get through thirty questions in ninety minutes. I didn't have time to bask in every trivial connection to the main story. When you do a rapid-fire Q and A you have to reign those tangents in. Or you're lost."
"You're lost anyway, don't you see?"
He stared at me, not resorting to the mirror now. "What is this? This is just . . . it's mere death-fearing talk."
That's when a stream of unforgivable things flowed out of me—a wave of such venom I'd never known I could summon. My hair was all frizzed up into some kind of witchy tangle, my face so dark a red I seemed to be dangling from a noose, starved of breath. I laughed, I cursed, I wept, and then I laughed, cursed, and wept again. Since I didn't know how to reach God anymore, I figured I better unleash my scorn on the closest thing.
"You should hear yourself right now," Glen said. "You're only planting yourself deeper into an illusory consciousness. This all comes from a place of Animal Finitude."
"Sinister son of a cocksucking divinity! Fuck you to the bottom chasm of hell with your Animal—"
"I won't listen to this anymore," Glen said mildly as he walked away.
That night, packing up one light suitcase, I clamored about our bedroom as loudly as I possibly could. I couldn't tell if Glen was asleep. If he wasn't, he managed to stay in corpse pose without stirring, even as I stomped about, slamming trunks, clattering hangers, muttering and addressing insults to his pyjamaed form in the bed. If I kept cursing, would Glen feel it imperative to perform an exorcism on me?
The hope proved in vain.
At some point, out on the street, where it was raining, I had the sense to call Caroline. "I need your help," I said. "Can you pick me up?"
"Rebecca? Are you alright?"
"Has there been an accident? Tell me where you are."
"Oh God, I can't even see. Everything's a blur."
I thought maybe our marriage could be repaired if we remained business partners. It took only a couple of weeks of that arrangement to realize that I couldn't put up with Glen in those circumstances either—that it wasn't the persimmon-orange robe or the beard or the inscrutable glances or even his silences that were anathema to me, it was all of it, everything we'd constructed.
Although Glen didn't hold a grudge against me, there was no cure for the hollowness of our interactions. We spoke hardly one word outside the mantra of shouting orders.
"One cheddar combo plate."
"Two large slaws, and a zesty with extra pickle."
"Medium vanilla shake."
"Turkey avocado feta on rye."
The names of our dishes were all that remained in the repertoire of our speech.
I slept on Caroline's futon while I transitioned to another kind of existence. The only real skill I had cultivated was the cooking, and so, inevitably, I got work in a restaurant. But this time the menu was about as long as a Chinese takeout. All the different combinations you had to memorize gave me a headache. The hours were longer too, the night shifts a grind.
After I found my own bachelor apartment, I stayed friends with Caroline. Even went to church with her for a while, though the habit died before I ate the cracker. Sitting in the pews with her, leafing through Corinthians, I soon had enough.
Actually, Jesus reminded me quite a lot of Glen. They had a similar facility for compressing their ideas into parables and pithy enigmatic sayings that made you wonder if you'd ever really known a single straw about the world. Then there was that they both had a gift for making enemies. They antagonized through their indifference, or even contempt, for the personal side of you. And both were warriors of compassion. Both had made it their mission to share their Divinity Light and their Transtatic Love. I suppose I find Glen's spiritual lexicon more cozy than Jesus'. Sure, I'd suffered a loss of faith, but I had, after all, not merely been his wife for twenty years but one of his disciples too.
After two years of not seeing Glen, although he could no longer be my husband or my business partner, I sought him out again as my guru. I'd tried to get on with some vague atheism and to forget about visions of the golden orchards and pastoral lands for singing and roaming that would spring up once Real Self had been purified and renewed. In the end, though, I came back to Glen's teachings because I needed an oasis from the dark and ravaged world.
Jesus, on the cross, couldn't stop thirsting for water. I remember doing Glen's astrological chart one year, back when I was interested in anything with an occult flavor. Everything about the man was water. The fish and the crab and the scorpion turned up in each of his houses. In his first book, he'd even devoted a chapter to his previous life as a mariner on a baroque sailing barge.
Not only did I never tell Caroline that I'd once more accepted Glen as my guru, I never even told Glen. I didn't have to attend his gatherings in person, I did what so many Australians and Germans and Japanese did: I watched his gatherings on the Web. It was enough to see his eyes—his eyes so clear and vividly green they were like a picture of the ocean in a cruise ship ad. To look at his eyes, never mind the technology, gave me back my anchor and restored me to tranquility.
I believe Glen must have known that I was watching him—that I'd become a Returner—because all that had been aching inside of me was eased. Forgiveness bloomed like a lily weeping in the light. People don't recognize why flowers smell so sweetly. It's because they're weeping at the sight of God and there's no sweeter perfume than tears.
Yesterday, when I tuned in to Glen's live streaming from the wildlife preserve, a disciple had posted a question in which she said that although she still loved her husband, she feared he was hindering her spiritual evolution.
Glen breathed deeply and stood in silence before answering. "There often comes a time in a true aspirant's life," he said, "when romance, even marriage, has to be overcome."
Title image "High Podium" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2019.