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Hair on Fire

Short Stories for Seekers

by Daniel McKenzie

Seldom are aspects of eastern philosophy so lucidly presented in a story format that both engages the intellect and fills the heart. Hair on Fire promises to not only entertain, but to reveal something about the very nature of reality. For serious seekers only!

Coming March 2024!

Editorial Reviews

"In these nine stories, McKenzie skirts the edge of the fantastic, from virtual reality to hidden patterns in paintings to the afterlife, to see what lessons are to be learned there...fans of a certain stripe of mysticism-tinged fiction will find much to enjoy." —Kirkus Reviews

"McKenzie spins an eclectic batch of tales that are insightful, revealing, and at times enigmatic...Seekers will relish this." —BookLife

Chapter Summary

A Ghost Story

A solo retreat to a small coastal town turns into something else when a yogi suddenly finds himself in the role of guru to a strange spirit trying to find his way out.

 

The Day the Children Remembered

What if children all over the world began to remember their past lives? How would it effect society and the individuals who see themselves as victims and perpetrators of past injustices?

 

The Allegory of the Virtual Reality Headset

With the development of virtual reality and the metaverse, it won’t be long until people are able to experience other worlds that seem very similar, if not the same, to our own. Plato’s Allegory of the Cave may, then, no longer be just an allegory.

Like a Man with His Hair on Fire

A desperate seeker who wishes to see reality as it is, gets more than he bargained for when Maya, "The Great Illusionist," grants him his wish.

The Poverty of the Old

What do you do when old age arrives and you find that all the juice has been squeezed out of life?

Cliffhanger

Most days the world feels like we're all on a bus to nowhere driven by a crazy old man who refuses to let go of the wheel.

The Last Time

A yogi visits his father on his death bed and asks him if he has learned anything.

You Might Get Bored of Heaven

What begins as a family reunion in heaven, ends in a shocking realization for the recently departed.

The Portrait Artist

An accomplished painter teaches his young student that everything is just patterns, and that we're all more similar than we would like to believe.

Below is a sample from "A Ghost Story," the first story in Hair on Fire.

 

A Ghost Story

“Toothbrush? … Socks? … Pajamas? … Jacket?” As I drive out of the driveway, I run through a mental checklist of things I usually forget. There’s always a certain anxiety when I’m leaving home for more than a few days, knowing that wherever it is I’m going, I won’t have the same level of comfort and conveniences—which just goes to show how attached I am to my stuff. I mean, God forbid I should ever forget something as essential as my electric toothbrush; I might actually have to drive a whole two miles into town just to buy one of those cheap analog ones! As I think about my pampered modern life, I make a promise to myself to take more camping trips instead of always opting to spend my time away in a well-furnished vacation home with all the latest conveniences.

I am going away for my annual 2-week retreat, this year at Sea Ranch, on the northern coast of California, where the rugged coastline butts up against wide-open meadows and dense redwood forests. Unlike rowdy Tahoe, the nearby alternative, this magnificent area has mostly been left unspoiled. No McDonald’s drive-throughs, no 7-Elevens, no Safeway’s, no smoke-filled casinos or overcrowded restaurants, no speed boats or Jet Skiers, and no stand-still traffic in the middle of, what would otherwise be, an alpine paradise.    

The small coastal community of Sea Ranch has mostly evaded the crowds due to its somewhat difficult access—a two-lane road that winds precariously along a seaside cliff—and due to the fact that it has none of the aforementioned amenities. Sea Ranch is where you go to be sublimely bored and withdrawn, looking out a window that perfectly frames the natural beauty surrounding you. Even the tastefully designed houses have a certain introverted, antisocial aspect to them. Despite their charming conformity, they are spaced well apart, allowing the residents to imagine that nobody else is around. And except for the infrequent passing vehicle or the occasional buzz of a handyman’s circular saw, silence is prevalent.

Needless to say, Sea Ranch isn’t for everyone, especially people who are addicted to their electronic devices and loud recreational vehicles (which amounts to most people, by my calculation). No, Sea Ranch is for those who still enjoy curling up next to a sunny window and reading a good book, spontaneously making art, going for a long walk, watching the sunset with a glass of wine, or delving into a long conversation about the meaning of life—you know, all of those things we used to do before the internet came along.

 

The drive is pleasant once I get off the main highway. After going through Petaluma, I stop to stretch my legs and order my usual fish tacos at Bodega Bay. From there, it’s just a short jaunt through the little coastal town of Jenner, and then the perilous drive up Highway 1. Just past the area known as Sea Ranch is a river and a small town called Gualala, a Native American name meaning “where the water goes down.” There, I pick up my rental key, then head over to one of the two available small markets located directly across the street from each other to stock up on all my favorite eats for the week. Both markets know their customers well, catering to Bay Area foodies who expect nothing less than the finest beer, wine, meats, bread, and cheeses. In years past, when the girls were smaller, we would come up here once or twice a year and stay for a few days. But those days are long gone, and now it’s just me who visits this little Pacific sanctuary where the Pomo tribe used to gather kelp and shellfish in woven baskets, and the Spanish herded cattle.

 

When I was in my thirties, I used to attend silent meditation retreats at a Buddhist center tucked away in the nearby hills of Marin. There, I developed the skills to meditate for long hours and focus my mind. I enjoyed some beautiful insights in those early days, but mostly I just liked how it stilled the mind, temporarily cleansing me of the constant chatter that reverberates between my ears. It was through Buddhism that I was also able to get through all my stuff without the need for a therapist, and to set foot on a journey that continues to this day. Eventually, I moved on from Buddhism, seeking answers to life’s biggest questions elsewhere. But I still enjoy being a yogi, spending time in solitude, and clearing my mind in order to gain a better perspective.

The house I’ve rented is typical of the area, a modern structure with sleek vertical lines and long diagonals offset by rustic plank siding. Large windows and the lack of any landscaping or fences creates the feeling of being totally immersed in nature. The hallmark architectural design of Sea Ranch was inspired by an early Russian settlement not too far south, Fort Ross, which you can still visit today. The original Sea Ranch concept, developed in the 1960s, was to create a community that would harmonize with the environment and have minimal impact on the natural surroundings. However, in recent years, there have been more and more houses dotting the hillside, threatening the original vision with overdevelopment. Nevertheless, the quiet atmosphere of the community perseveres.

As I drive up to my rental, situated just a stone’s throw from the seaside cliff, the house appears bigger than I had imagined it from the pictures. I park the car on the short gravel driveway and power off my phone. Before I left, I told everyone I would be off the grid for a couple of weeks. Not surprisingly, this never seems to perturb my wife. I’ve always worked and played at home, where I have an office and a woodshop just off the house, so she actually looks forward to these yearly retreats when she doesn’t have to see me for a while.

From the driveway, a charming stone path with a wooden awning leads me to the front door. As I walk up to the entrance of my temporary new home, I notice a small statue of the beloved Hindu deity Ganesh, with his various elephant and human body parts fused together. He is seated at the doorway, frozen in a friendly namaskar or salutation. I figure this is a good omen and proceed to unlock the front door. As I walk in with both arms full of groceries, what stands out to me most is the silence. Oh, the painful silence! Next comes a heavy feeling of profound loneliness and longing, and I question my decision to once again, come alone. “I should’ve asked one of the kids to come with me,” I tell myself. “I could’ve at least brought the dog along.”

Inside are two bedrooms, a bathroom, a medium-size kitchen with a gas stove, a large living room with two big leather sofas, a bookshelf with old romance novels, and a cabinet full of board games. The living room also accommodates a dining table with four chairs, and a lovely centerpiece that includes a long piece of driftwood with small white tea lights tastefully wedged into it.

The interior has a contemporary style, but is still modest and cozy. Except for the bedrooms, there is tile flooring throughout interspersed with area rugs. Ocean-themed watercolors are placed sporadically on the walls, along with old, faded photographs of—I assume—the owner with friends and family. In the master bedroom is an antique pine dresser with drawers that stick, and a small built-in closet. A large skylight and a fireplace more than make up for the bedroom’s drab decor. Other amenities include a laundry room, the garage—locked and not accessible—and a patio with a gas grill, deck, and sunken hot tub. All in all, not a bad place to wind down and get back in touch with reality.

Every object in the house feels totally still and inert with a tinge of mystery, as if placed by extraterrestrials. The only thing moving is the tiny dust particles dancing in a razor-sharp ray of sunlight beaming in through the kitchen window. Even the bottle of wine on the dining table, left with a note by the caretaker, feels still and lifeless, as if it has been sitting there since the beginning of time. I tell myself that I have landed on the moon, vulnerable and alone, with nowhere to hide.

The first night is always the most challenging, partly because of being in a new place, and partly because, as I like to say, that’s when all the ghosts come out: memories of my youth, old relationships, lost opportunities, things that could’ve been, and so on. I no longer identify with such regrets knowing that it’s just my mind, now working with a blank canvas, splattering thoughts around like some Jackson Pollock painting. I’ve also learned that this is a natural progression. My mind is now fasting and will need some time—maybe three or four days before it reaches any kind of equilibrium. Nevertheless, I try to appease it by breaking up the day with various activities, such as preparing meals and taking frequent walks.

 

I am usually not one to record my experiences in a journal, but this time I make an effort to write at least a few sentences each day, using an old yellow pencil I found in one of the kitchen drawers, and a nice leather-bound journal my sister once gave me for my birthday.

 

DAY 1

Mind is like a fish flapping about on dry land. Hard to stay focused just on the breath, but I am relentless and come back to it over and over again. Some brief moments of clarity, but have trouble dozing off. I probably should catch up on my sleep before doing any more meditation. I forgot how difficult the first few days are! Had my first walk and sat under the cypress trees for a while with my eyes closed listening to the ocean waves below. Just wonderful.

 

The next day not much has changed.

 

DAY 2

Mind is still flapping about. It’s starved for stimulation and tries to distract itself with problem-solving (“Could I build a boat with the tools I have in the shop?”) or with some distant recollection (“What was her name who used to sit with me in those history lectures?”). Back and knees hurting a bit, but I’m sure they’ll settle in soon. Finally saw some wildlife today: a flock of tiny, rosy-faced house finches, ten or twelve of them, on the driveway this morning. Such social birds they are, always together! I also saw a fox leaping through the meadow, and a family of deer grazing just outside my bedroom window at sunset. There’s always been a special brilliance and quality to this place. Speaking of brilliance, earlier I was eating lunch, and an interesting light pattern moved across the wall in the kitchen, like one of those Starlink satellite constellations now observable in the night sky. I tried to see where it was coming from, but no luck. It must’ve been from a passing hiker. Still, can’t imagine what would make such a pattern!

 

It’s now day three, and I have settled into my daily routine, 

interspersed with more meditation. I jot down my schedule in my journal, amazed that a day occupied with such simple activities can feel so fulfilling.

 

DAY 3

5:00 a.m.: Yoga

6:00 a.m.: Meditation

7:00 a.m.: Breakfast

8:00 a.m.: Walk

9:00 a.m.: Meditation

10:00 a.m.: Reading

11:00 a.m.: Meditation

12:00 a.m.: Lunch

1:00 p.m.: Nap

2:00 p.m.: Meditation

3:00 p.m.: Journaling

4:00 p.m.: Meditation

5:00 p.m.: Dinner

6:00 p.m.: Walk

6:30 p.m.: Meditation

7:30 p.m.: Reading

8:30 p.m.: Preparing for bed

9:00 p.m.: Lights out

 

Before going to bed, I open the large sliding glass door that leads out to the deck. I admire the starry night sky for a while and the sound of the ocean made muted by the trees strung along the cliff. I witness a shooting star, then go inside after it gets chilly. Later, lying in bed, I close my eyes and the same night sky I was looking at moments ago reappears before me with amazing clarity. Just one of the little gifts some alone time can bring.

 

DAY 4

Overall, a good day. Woke up to a thick fog outside this morning, which made the holy silence I was experiencing even more meaningful. Meditation is going well; mind is starting to quiet down now. Thoughts are beginning to lose their staying power, and I’m now able to rest in the moment. Things are also coming more into focus. Throughout the day, I observed this self-functioning body with utter amazement, knowing that I am doing nothing to keep my blood flowing, my food digesting, or the little hair left on my head growing. It’s all just happening on its own. Call it the Tao, the Creative Force, nature, God, or whatever. It’s delightful to just rest in such wonderment.

 

DAY 5

After lunch, I decided to deviate from my regular schedule and go on a longer walk than usual. Hiking along the coast here can be dramatic. The immense cypress canopies are large and intertwined, but managed with care so that they don’t just swallow up everything. As I walk through their haunting entanglement, it’s not hard to imagine I’m in some mythological Tolkien world and that at any moment I’ll run into Gandalf. At times, the darkness, coolness, and quiet these canopies encapsulate can be intimidating. I entered one such “tunnel” where every step seemed to be magnified, as if I were walking through an ancient cathedral. Uninhibited, I marched toward my destination—literally, "a light at the end of the tunnel." When I finally broke through, there was a beautiful beach with bleached white sand and little sandpipers nervously running here and there in the surf. I took it all in and then sat down for some time, contemplating the immensity of the ocean and how the old sacred texts often use the ocean as a metaphor for describing our true nature.

 

DAY 6

Dreamed most of the night about the ocean from my excursion yesterday. There’s a lovely verse in the Mundaka Upanishad that says: “Just as rivers flowing become lost in the ocean and give up their name and form, so the knower, freed from all his identifications with name and form, reaches the supreme goal.”

The use of the words “the knower” in this translation resonated with me, meaning “the one who has eliminated all false identifications about themselves, and as a result, has become one with the truth.” But knower of what? The Self, of course.

Some strange happenings this morning. After finishing my eggs, I was washing the dishes and laid down my fork and butter knife on the drain board while I looked for a towel. When I picked them up again, they were stuck together, as if by some strange magnetic force. With all my strength, I couldn’t separate them. Same thing happened tonight, except with a plastic spatula and a wooden stirring spoon. When I came back later, they were apart again, as if nothing had happened. Oh, and the Starlink constellation I first saw on the kitchen wall the other day? Saw it again—this time in the bathroom, of all places. I’m not the type to read into things, but this was just weird!

 

As I sit for meditation the next morning, I try not to let my mind spin out on the recent events. But it’s too irresistible, and it spends the entire session trying to come up with various rational explanations for the trailing lights and sticking kitchen utensils. As a result, the peace I’ve worked so hard to cultivate begins to erode.

The day seems all but lost, when I take the garbage out and discover a bicycle in the small shed that keeps the trash cans hidden from the wildlife. Suddenly, my day has a new purpose. I pack a lunch, throw it in a backpack, and decide to pedal to wherever my legs will take me. I bike along the paved road and cross Highway 1, going uphill, east toward the forest. To my surprise, I find a small bakery seemingly out of nowhere and sit down to enjoy a cup of tea and a bagel, along with some reading I brought. I come upon a passage from one of my favorite teachers that catches my attention. In the passage, the swami describes what in Sanskrit is called a jivanmukta—that is, an individual (jiva) liberated (mukta) within their lifetime.

 

Similarly, having reached the limitless Self, it is proper to say that one does not return from there, in the sense that one does not go back to seeing themselves as limited. Even though such a person has gained knowledge, since the upadhi remains, we still call him a jiva, but a liberated one—a jivanmukta.

 

In other words, once an individual gains knowledge of their actual identity as unchanging, limitless, eternal, non-dual awareness/consciousness (aka, the Self), they never go back to identifying as a limited individual (jiva). The body-mind is a sort of veil, or to be more exact, a conditioning agent that conceals one’s true identity without ever altering it—an upadhi. Thus, even though one is “enlightened” and now identifies with the Self and not the body-mind, they still appear to be just a regular Joe—and they are! Just a liberated one—a Joe-mukta.

In the same book, Swami-ji goes on to describe samsara, and how it’s our misidentification with the body-mind and our binding desires that keep us perpetually tied to an endless cycle of birth and death. The sages tell us that those who know the Self do not come back. This may be understood literally or figuratively, because if I identify with the Self—pure consciousness as the “non-experiencing witness”—and not with the person I appear to be, then I am already out of samsara, and there is no one to be reincarnated. Thus, reincarnation, for the enlightened, is a moot topic. No person = no rebirth = no samsara. This might sound like a bad deal, but it’s not, because the jivanmukta rests their identity in the whole rather than in the apparently flawed individual. The wave now understands that it is the ocean, and that there never was a time when it was not the ocean—which is pretty cool, if you think about it.

 

DAY 7

Woke up this morning a bit startled to find the deck chairs stacked straight up in no particular order, with one of the plant pots sitting on top, and barbecue utensils sticking out of it. Below, lying on the ground, were some gardening tools and bamboo stakes, which looked as if they were also a part of the structure, but had fallen out. The disarray had a kind of sculptural feel to it, as if some kids were trying to build something out of whatever miscellaneous objects were at hand—which wouldn’t surprise me. Kids quickly get bored up here if they haven’t learned to be away from TikTok for more than five minutes. No big deal; a minor nuisance, that’s all. Another random event.

My meditation is back on track, and I’m really savoring the silence now. Sometimes I sit and just silently watch the thoughts percolate to the surface. Or I investigate the feeling tone—that is, the quality of the experience, and whether it is pleasant, unpleasant, or neither pleasant nor unpleasant. This is something I picked up from the Buddhists. Other times, I meditate on awareness itself, using what I have learned from my other studies. Between sitting and walking, I read verses from the Gita or Gaudapada’s Mandukya Karika, sometimes aloud in Sanskrit (just because I like the way it sounds). I find it’s easier to sleep when you’ve made amends with the world. So, before checking out, I wish all beings good health and that they may seek the truth. I even say a little something for the small critters just outside my window. May the world be well. May it be in harmony with itself. All is good. Om tat sat.

 

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Coming early 2024!

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