A Friend of All Faiths, by Michael H. CohenA Friend of all Faiths is a memoir of inner and outer life, bridging Wall Street, Berkeley, Harvard, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and my simultaneous life as a lawyer and a seminarian.
What happens when a Wall Street lawyer, steeped in Judaism, enters an interfaith seminary, engages mystically, and connects with disincarnate representatives from varied religious traditions?
Michael H. Cohen studied Torah and Talmud at Hillel Day School and United Hebrew High School, and received his BA from Columbia University. He received both his JD and MBA from the University of California, Berkeley, clerked for a federal judge, graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop with an MFA in Creative Writing, and joined the corporate department of a prestigious Wall Street law firm.
A Friend of all Faiths is a memoir of multidimensional experience: of numinous encounters with ancestors, figures from religious traditions, and with other domains of consciousness. He writes of journeys into trance and the unconscious; of contact with angels, demons, and the divine. He explores archetypes and individuation, and above all, the soul.
“A deeply revealing spiritual journey, offering insights into the challenges and joys of multidimensional living.”
— Kathi J. Kemper, M.D., M.P.H., Caryl J. Guth Chair for Holistic and Integrative Medicine and Professor of Pediatrics at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine.
“Your “Friend of All Faiths” book arrived on Friday in time for me to start reading it over the weekend. Am about at the halfway point. I’m really enjoying your multi-dimensional quest, and your vivid characterizations of self and others. The “Universal Service” you invented is pretty amazing. What a great synthesis. You are also fortunate to have a wider opening in the reality-shield we all have wrapped around our psyches so that you have an access that mystics of all stripes would envy.”
— Farida Fotouhi, President, Reality2 LLC
Tanya had a vision: a wise old woman gifted her with a wood box containing a white feather. Tanya thanked the old woman but woke up wondering about the feather’s meaning. The next day, she learned that her friend Nick had enrolled in an interfaith seminary. She drove to Nick’s house to learn more; as she stepped out of her car onto his driveway, she saw a white feather, the same size and shape as the one in her dream…..
I was employed as Wall Street lawyer. I affiliated with no synagogue, and resented having to buy tickets at premium prices for a few days’ worship during the High Holidays simply because attendance was culturally expected. Rebelling, I took the day off. I found myself wandering the streets in shorts and a tee-shirt; these wanderings literally took me to the Seminary’s doorstep….
A white-haired but vigorous man warmly welcomed me to his Rosh Hashanah services: a dozen people sat in folding chairs in the basement of his apartment….As part of the High Holiday service, he included a Tarot reading. Afterward, I picked up a brochure, describing a part-time program to receive ordination as an interfaith minister. Based purely on intellectual interest in the program contents, I enrolled.
Weeks later I met Nick and mentioned how Tanya had been drawn to seminary. Forgetting that my guidance had come in its own beautiful, unique way–my own footsteps literally leading me to the door–I inquired: “Why did Tanya receive a beautiful vision from a wise old woman, while I received nothing but silence?”
“Sometimes,” he answered, “God works only through silence.”
I visited the health care service at the New York Stock Exchange to check on this feeling of ‘being breathed’ by the Divine Mother. I was wearing my best Wall Street suit. The physician, a graying man with owl-shaped, wire glasses and a pointy, gray goatee, said: “So, young fellow, what seems to be ailing you?”
“I have a friend who does séances. When we meditate together, his face dissolves into white light. I’m not crazy … I work at a law firm down the street….”
“Are you eating right?” His voice was warm. I nodded. “Sleeping okay?”
“I’d like to take a few tests.” He made me walk a few steps, touch my nose, the test the police give for drunk driving. Then: “Lie down, pull down your trousers, cough. Again. ” He performed a few more tests, then listened with his stethoscope. “Well son, your heartbeat is normal. Blood pressure, normal. Neurologically, normal. I find nothing the matter. My conclusion is: you’re hyperventilating. Too much oxygen in the brain. That’s why you’re feeling light, dissociated, tingling.”
“Then it’s a matter of science, not mystical experience.”
“Absolutely!” he pushed up his wire glasses. “The classic remedy is to breathe into a brown paper bag for one minute. You get more carbon dioxide and balance.”
I thanked him. As he escorted me out, he patted me on the shoulder: “Don’t worry, you’re not alone. This sort of thing is common on Wall Street.”
“Man is a machine,” G told O, perhaps with a twirl of his black moustache. “All his deeds, actions, words, thoughts, feelings, convictions, opinions and habits are the results of external impressions. Out of himself a man cannot produce a single thought, a single action. Everything he says, does, thinks, feels-all this happens. Man cannot discover anything, invent anything. It all happens. To establish this fact for oneself, to understand it, to be convinced of its truth, means getting rid of a thousand illusions about man, about his being creative and consciously organizing his own life, and so on…. But no one will ever believe you if you tell him he can do nothing. This is the most offensive and most unpleasant thing you can tell people. It is particularly unpleasant and offensive because it is the truth, and nobody wants to know the truth.”
G’s truth had to do with inner work, “work on oneself,” a constant struggle against negative emotions, imagination and lying. That much I had gleaned in my afternoon read of a third of P.D. Ouspensky’s book, In Search of the Miraculous. Now, sipping the cool juice Hugo had slipped between my hands, a tall glass with a liquid of a remarkable seagreen color, I waited, curious as to what might happen next.
Hugo took the rocking chair to my right. Two other persons emerged from the kitchen, each cradling a glass of mint juice. Hugo introduced them, in his robotic voice. “Da?veed. Sa?leem.”
“Hello,” I said.
They took their seats.
“We live in this house together,” Hugo said. When he spoke, he gave each word equally weight, as if each word took great effort. “We are computer engineers.”
I had the feeling that the last sentence was for my benefit, as if to remove a sense of mystery about something not in the least mysterious. I sipped the tea and waited. Hugo had the habit of leaving great, open pauses between his sentences. The sound of his voice seemed to inhabit the tiny space between a great emptiness. I looked at Daveed. His eyes had a curious penetrating quality, as if a light had been clicked on inside. I got the impression that he was not so much looking at me, as he was looking into me, or through me, perhaps, or looking at himself, from somewhere inside, looking at himself look at me.
The mint juice was a great comfort as I contemplated these thoughts. Its cool sensuality kept me out of my head, and helped soothe my anticipation.
Hugo caught me staring at Saleem. “Don’t worry about him. He likes to make funny faces. It is only useful, nothing more.”
Saleem smiled. His eyes were moving rapidly back and forth, as in REM, only the lids were open. His mouth twisted and turned, up in a smile and down in an inverted U. His cheeks went through various contortions, his face all the time changing shape. I hadn’t seen anything like it since The Exorcist.
“He does that to try to get above his machine,” said Hugo.
Then there was a great silence. And more silence. I glanced up at the Beatles poster, thinking of that group’s musicality, but now an endless void permeated the room. Some immense effort was being made, but being uninitiated, I could determine neither its origin nor its purpose. I could only speculate from the snippets of Ouspensky I had read.
“Have you ever,” came a voice from Saleem, not from his throat or chest, but somewhere else; it seemed to be coming out of his forehead. “Tried.” There was another great silence, followed by a tremendous contortion in his facial features. He smiled, as if to apologize. “I almost forgot to remember myself.”
Hugo spoke, slowly, considering each word. “Have you tried … to watch … each thought, each emotion, each micromovement of your body?”
He was speaking to himself. Watching. As best he could.
I was unsure what to watch. But I had the uncanny sensation of having stepped into another dimension, a strange new room. And the outside world had practically disintegrated, leaving behind old perceptions of reality.
“I am beginning to divide my attention,” said Daveed.
“That’s good,” Hugo said.
Silence. The consensus in this sealed environment as to that in which reality consisted was quite different indeed, than beyond the threshold of the cross on the lawn. Indeed, I was amazed that the vision of the mock grave suddenly popped into mind, as I had been hurled by Daveed’s facial contortions and the gravity and slowness of Hugo’s voice (or perhaps by any undisclosed ingredients in the “mint juleps”) into an altered state of awareness, in which the present moment held fast and hovered in the room, rather than slipping away like second-hands on a watch.
“I’ve worked ten years for this,” said Daveed, the slightest triumph in his voice.
Saleem continued his struggle to get “above his machine.”
I tried my best not to cast sideway glances at his “funny faces.” And tried my best not to interpret what they might mean. I knew that Ouspensky, like Tart, had spoken of four states of consciousness. The lowest one was ordinary sleeping and dream. Next came ordinary waking, which Tart called “consensus trance” or “consensus reality,” and G called “sleep.” Then came a state characterized by self?remembering; and finally, a state G called “objective consciousness.”
If a person had achieved a higher state of consciousness, what would he or she look like? How would we know? Mere actions would not necessarily reveal an extraordinary state. Was it possible that Saleem’s “funny faces,” the visible signs to the external world, were harbingers of some immense, internal effort, some Work, an inner alchemy, a crystallization of an internal being (call it God, or the soul, or the “permanent I”) of unknown dimension, and by the standards of ordinary consciousness, potentially “miraculous”?
I knew that I had come to the limits of my ability to know, at least by sensing truths with my head. I had to open myself, if possible at all, to this “meeting” with knowledge of my lack of knowledge. If anything that was being “done,” either internally or externally, were to have the possibility of teaching me anything.
It would, of course, have been easy to dismiss the whole experience as a wacky interlude with silly people. I considered this option and sipped the cool mint juice. But as Hugo spoke of Ouspensky’s work, the ideas took a powerful hold.
….The lamp on the nightstand spread filtered yellow light over my friend’s sleeping face. The oversized Bar exam book lay folded on her chest, rising and falling with each deep breath. She looked peaceful. Quite literally, she was asleep; and I awake. What did that mean? Who in me was asking the question, and who was listening? And who was watching one part of myself address the other? Could I be still and experience the observer? Could I re?member, if only for a moment? Could I practice the exercise, quickly, before the circling thoughts, inner talking, commentaries on commentaries, body movements, silent sneaking speaking emotions, a thousand tiny movements directed from somewhere beyond my conscious awareness took charge of my “I,” without announcing themselves, and before the “I” could detect their presence? And could this inner work be done while maintaining an ordinary outer life, observing even while participating in everyday activities, living on two levels, being in the consensus trance while piercing its veil?
That was, after all, the premise of G’s method: not the way of the monk (emotional), the fakir (physical) or the yogi (mental), but a “fourth way,” one grounded in the world, requiring neither asceticism nor retreat from ordinary intercourse. What did the Fourth Way mean to Hugo, Daveed and Saleem? What was divided attention, anyway? And what did “self?observation” have to do with the kind of observation demanded of a lawyer or writer?
Such thoughts made me sleepy. I climbed into bed. It seemed as though nothing had changed. And yet: everything had changed.
I stared at the row of Greek books on his shelf: classics, probably Homer, Sophocles, the greats. I told him I was having recurring nightmares, in which this intruding and frightening face appears in my childhood bedroom.
“God is facing you,” the professor interpreted. “The face is your own.”
I was unsure. I told him about creative visualization. He was skeptical, emphatic. “The loving God has spoken to you for two thousand years!” He gestured with his hands. “Again and again He tells you, do not fear, I am with you. You are filled with Him; you have only to pick up His word and fill yourself!” He pointed to a shelf full of New Testaments. “You have your Holy Book; why turn to Eastern practice? Jerusalem is Eastern; Judaism is Eastern!”
WALL STREET, SEMINARY
(NEW YORK CITY, 1990-93)
Prologue: Vision 10
1. Channel 11
2. Locust Valley 13
3. The Ashtar Command 21
4. Third Eye Opening 26
5. Robot Dreams 32
6. Sometimes A Cigar 36
7. The Blessed Virgin 42
8. Grounding 49
9. Crucifixion 53
10. Home 62
11. Law’s Cool 74
(PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC OF BERKELEY, 1984-86, 87-88)
12. Communion 82
13. Alarm Clocks 85
(IOWA CITY, 1988-90)
14. Black Smoke, White Fire 100
15. Washed in the Blood 114
(LYKENS, PENNSYLVANIA AND UPSTATE NEW YORK, 1993-96)
16. Short Mountain, Deep Valley 128
17. From the Finite to the Infinite 143
(DETROIT, BUENOS AIRES, AND JERUSALEM, 1962-1979)
18. In the Desert 162
COLLEGE AND FEDERAL COURT
(NEW YORK CITY, 1979-1983, 1986-87)
19. Our Mother Who Art on Earth 176
HERE AND HEREAFTER
(SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA, 1996-1999)
20. Checkerboard Squares 196
21. Through the Tunnel 212
THE OLD WORLD
(BORDER OF POLAND AND RUSSIA, 1800’S)
22. Longing 218
HARVARD TO ATLANTIS
(CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS AND THE BAHAMAS, 2000-04)
23. Sanctuary 228
Wizards of Love 247
About the Reader 249