The Zoo Fence
a commentary on the spiritual life

The Zoo Fence

A Continuing Fiction

These are the stories of Peter K. Wensleydale,
an aging American male person coming to the
realization that there is no such thing.

The Zoo Fence

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The Zoo Fence

When The Student is Ready

“Who are you?” Anna Wensleydale asked her husband, Peter, as the two of them enjoyed a drink together on the small terrace of their top floor apartment in the so-called fashionable, northwest section of Washington, DC. It was early evening of a spring day in the early 1970s.

As was often the case at this time of the day, the Wensleydale’s apartment was filled with a combination of savory kitchen odors and delicious perfume, and even now, decades later, Peter can remember the way a wave of those sweet aromas washed over him as he returned home each evening, and how, in an instant, it dispelled everything that had transpired the preceding eight to ten hours at his job at the U.S. Department of State.

“Who am I?” Peter retorted, lightly. “What kind of a question is that?”

Over the preceding six months or so, Anna had been attending a hatha yoga class offered in nearby Bethesda, Maryland by a genuine teacher, by which is meant someone who understood the function and implications of the discipline beyond its effect on the waistline. Concurrently, she had been doing a lot of very serious reading, not only on that subject, but in a variety of other spiritual areas as well. Inevitably, as Anna’s mind wrestled with the challenges posed by these new interests, the Wensleydale’s relationship, and therefore their conversations together, were affected. This question about Peter’s identity was some of that, and he knew it.

“Just answer the question, Peter,” Anna insisted, gently.

“Okay,” Peter said, “I’m a Foreign Service Officer.” That was as he saw himself, and, truth to tell, he was proud of it. Peter liked the glamour which went with the title, not to mention the black, diplomatic passport, and, particularly in his assignment at that time on the power-heavy seventh floor of the State Department building, he enjoyed being involved on a regular basis, even if peripherally, with the names and events which populated the media headlines. But it was evidently the wrong answer, for Anna shook her head in a negative reply.

“No, Peter,” she said, “that’s not who you are. That’s what you do.”

“Okay,” he replied, trying again. ”How about, I’m your husband?”

Anna shook her head again. By now, Peter guessed that Anna and her hatha yoga class had themselves been through this routine earlier in the day, and therefore, she was prepared for all of his answers. In effect, he was being set up.

“No, Peter, not that either,” she said, ”for that too is just a role. It identifies you for others. The question I’m asking you is, how do you identify yourself?”

“That is how I identify myself,” Peter insisted, quite honestly. “At least, I think it is; by what I do, by my relationship with you and with others. I’m your husband. I’m Miriam’s and Gaetano’s son. A resident of the District of Columbia. An American. If I’m not that, then what?”

“Exactly,” Anna replied. “If not that, then what? And what I’m suggesting is, it’s not that; it’s not the personality or its various roles, but something other. But I admit,” she concluded, smiling, “that’s as far as I’ve gotten.”

“That’s as far as you’ve gotten?” Peter repeated, with an exaggerated grimace. “So, what you’re telling me is, you know what I’m not, but you don’t know what I am.”

Anna nodded. “Yeah, that’s about it.”

From time to time, Peter and Anna Wensleydale are asked, and in fact sometimes they ask themselves, exactly when they decided to set out on the so-called spiritual path. On its face, this seems a simple enough question, calling for a simple enough answer: “On such and such a day, in this or that place, under these conditions and for those reasons, we reached a carefully considered, mutually agreed upon decision to forsake the world and to seek the things of the spirit, to turn from the pursuit of health, wealth, and happiness, and reach instead for Self-Realization.” But no matter how diligently Peter and Anna search their individual and collective memories, they are unable to recall such an event, and increasingly, they are convinced there was none. And yet, surely, such a decision must have been made; but if so, they presume that either they did not make it, whatever precisely that might mean, or they made it extremely gradually, so small a piece at a time that they were never fully aware of what they were doing until it was done, and by then, it was too late to turn back! Perhaps, under some circumstances, the Universe intentionally unfolds this way, lest certain seekers, if exposed too soon to the enormity of what they are about to undertake, should lose their nerve, and, so to speak, jump ship.

Still, there clearly were incidents, experiences, and conversations, which, even if Peter and Anna were unaware of their true import at the time, were a herald, or contained within them a hint, of what lay ahead. That Peter and Anna recognized virtually none of them as they occurred profoundly suggests how deeply asleep they were, and perhaps all of us are, so much of the time! Thus, presumably we are, at least at some level, always aware of what we are doing when we are doing it; but only in retrospect, it seems, do we recognize patterns and their implications. In any case, so it was with the Wensleydales. Thus, looking back now, they realize that conversations like this one should have alerted them to the epic that was unfolding as their lives, but it was not until still later that the signals became so loud and clear that even these two sleeping beauties could not fail to recognize the life-altering events occurring all around them.

Perhaps the most telling of these began one sun-filled day early in the summer some three years after the evening exchange just related. By then, Peter and Anna were living in Gazinga, where he was assigned as Administrative Officer at the American Embassy. He had only a few months earlier submitted his resignation from the Foreign Service [Editor’s Note: Please see the previous episode], and now he and Anna were awaiting the late summer arrival of his replacement, which would free the Wensleydales to return to the United States. This day, Anna had spent the afternoon shopping at the commissary on the US naval base nearby, and, on the way home, she stopped by the Embassy to see Peter.

“Olga came to the house this morning,” Anna said, as she closed Peter’s office door behind her, and sat in the chair immediately next to Peter’s desk. Olga was their landlady’s daughter, a bright, uncomplicated young woman in her early twenties, in no wise someone they would need to speak about behind closed doors. Peter got a feeling that something was up, and Anna’s expression that seemed to Peter a little too straight-faced, if you know what I mean, reinforced that sense.

“So?” Peter replied, expressing his confusion.

Anna’s face betrayed the trace of a smile. “It seems,” she began slowly, even conspiratorially, “there’s a woman coming to Gazinga from America.” Here, Anna paused a moment, solely for the effect of it. “She’s Canadian, and Olga says,” Anna started to let the smile out, as she could see Peter was beginning to get it, “that this woman manages an ashram in the States.” Unable to restrain herself any longer, Anna was now laughing openly. “So, Olga wants me to have her to the house for tea.”

“NOT AGAIN!” Peter exclaimed, with a huge grin. “How’s this one traveling? By astral projection? No, no, wait, don’t tell me.” Enjoying this, Peter got up from his chair, walked around toward Anna’s chair, and sat on the desk. “Why not let’s have her materialize directly in the Ambassador’s office! I’ll come up with some excuse to get you and Olga in there, and then the woman can flow out of the air into your waiting arms” – here, Peter imitated a trumpet fanfare, “da da da DAAAH – ‘Ambassador Adkins, ladies and gentlemen, live and in person, in this very chancery, an ectoplasmic phantasm!’ Can you imagine his reaction to that?” Peter paused for a moment, as they both considered the image. Then, he continued, laughing, “What is it with the Gazingans, and their psychic visitors? Where do they keep finding these people?”

The joke, of course, was that it had been just such a tea party, held by Anna at their house the preceding winter — (an occasion instigated by Olga’s mother on behalf of a psychic healer visiting from England) — which provided Peter’s boss, Ambassador Quenton Adkins, a man who disliked everything psychic, the material out of which to fashion what Peter called ‘the last straw,’ the event that cinched Peter’s resolve to resign from the Foreign Service. [Editor’s Note: Once again, for more on this incident, please see the previous episode] Another such tea party so soon after the first, and so near to the Wensleydale’s departure from Gazinga, especially considering that the Ambassador had specifically, expressly, and positively forbidden any such activities ever again, might be, well, just a trace ill-advised.

Anyway, as Peter returned to his seat, Anna resumed her report. “Apparently Olga and Artur” (Olga’s husband) “are disciples of an Indian guru, a man called Swami Tonami. It’s his ashram in the States, and the Canadian woman is his consort …”

“Consort?” Peter interrupted. “The man’s got a consort? What is this guy, an emperor?”

“Consort was Olga’s word,” Anna explained. “The point is, he’s coming to Gazinga later this summer to deliver a series of lectures at the university, and Sarada – that’s the Canadian woman’s name – is coming here next week to make preparations, to set it up. Olga thinks it would be nice if I had Sarada over to the house. She said she would like her guru’s consort to see the house she grew up in. It was I who suggested tea. So, you see, it’s really pretty straightforward.”

“It certainly seems straightforward enough to me,” Peter said, forcing a straight face. “But just to be sure, let’s see if I’ve got it right. Last winter, the Ambassador ordered me to order you never again to associate in any way with anyone resembling that British healer, and now, just a few short months later, you want me to tell him you’re not only still associating with her, but this time she’s the Canadian consort of an Indian swami. Oh, yea, that seems simple enough. But wouldn’t it be even simpler if I just set fire to myself, and then leapt head first off the roof?”

But, to Peter’s surprise, when Ambassador Adkins did hear of Anna’s intentions, he didn’t seem to care. Evidently, now that Peter and Anna were about to leave, the American Ambassador to Gazinga was no longer interested in Mrs. Wensleydale’s tea parties.

And, just as Olga had anticipated, a Canadian woman, Sarada by name, arrived in Gazinga a few days later. While visiting over tea, she asked Anna if she and Peter would like to join her in a meditation at the university the next evening, to which Anna responded that they most certainly would.

Now, in the course of Anna’s explorations into the spiritual, she had begun to experiment with meditation, and Peter likewise had ventured into it, but he only very sporadically. At that time, his involvement was predicated pretty much on hers. On the one hand, he loved her dearly, and so he wanted to share her interests, whatever they were, and on the other, just in case there was something to this spiritual business, he didn’t want to be left behind! Thus, when he and Anna joined a few of Olga’s and Artur’s friends at the university library for the evening meditation with the consort of Swami Tonami, Peter had a general idea of what he was in for ... or so he thought.

The group met in one of the library’s small reading rooms. There were no windows, and it smelled a little musty, as libraries will. The lighting was overhead neon. Against one wall was a row of bookcases, and in the center of the room, a few tables and desks were scattered about. Olga and Artur had pushed aside a couple of these, making room for a dozen or so chairs placed into an uneven circle.

When Peter and Anna arrived, the others were already seated, leaving two empty chairs. Scanning the group, Peter recognized only Olga and Artur, but he had no difficulty identifying Sarada, for she stood out from the rest like a beacon. A small, delicate woman, with dark hair, perhaps in her mid-forties, she was ordinary enough looking, but her face, and her appearance generally, were so bright and clear and alert, one’s attention was drawn immediately to her.

One of the two empty chairs was next to Olga; Anna sat there. The other was next to Sarada; Peter sat there. Seating himself in that chair is the very last thing Peter remembers until, some uncertain while later, he heard Artur’s voice bringing the meditation to a close. As Peter opened his eyes (he did not even remember closing them), he realized that the entire period he had been ‘somewhere else’; not just apparently, but literally, and that, wherever it was he had been, he had been with Sarada. He could not remember any specifics — not where ‘there’ was, what was there, how he got there, or what he did there; all he knew was that he had been somewhere, and Sarada had been there with him, and it was real. Naturally, Peter was confused, even very confused, and it didn’t help when Sarada, still seated next to him, observed to Artur, as matter-of-factly as you please, “Peter and I have been away together.”

Upon hearing that remark, Anna, seated more or less across from Peter, looked at him questioningly, as if to say, “What’s that about?” to which inquiry Peter’s response must surely have been among the numbest expressions ever effected by a human face. Unfortunately, before either he or Anna could pursue the matter with Sarada, someone else asked her a question about something else, and the group drifted off in another direction.

Toward the end of summer, the Indian guru, Swami Tonami, on whose behalf Sarada had made the lecture arrangements, arrived in Gazinga. There was only one event on his schedule open to the general public, a talk to be offered at six in the morning on the university campus on the last day of the swami’s visit.

Both Peter and Anna attended. Although they arrived early, they barely found space for themselves, as the room was packed to overflowing. There were no chairs, so everyone sat on the floor, which was not a comfortable position for Peter, especially dressed in a business suit. At one end of the room, perhaps thirty or forty feet from the Wensleydales, was a stage, raised ten inches or so above the floor, with a standing microphone off to one side. At the center of the stage was a single, straight-backed chair. The audience, composed mostly of university students, or so they seemed to Peter, maybe four or five hundred in number, was chattering amongst themselves.

Then, at precisely six, the room fell silent. Peter turned toward the door. There stood a man in his late thirties, dark complexion, clean shaven, balding, slender, medium height, in a sky-blue, possibly silk, robe. He stood in the doorway for a moment, then walked to the stage, where he sat at the chair. There, he greeted the group by raising his hands before his face in the namaste position, in which he remained, in silence.

In the course of Peter’s work over several continents, he encountered many so-called important men and women up close, ambassadors, generals and admirals, ministers of state, special envoys, even a couple of national presidents; but in all his life, Peter had not seen anyone like this. Serene — an adjective Peter had never used to describe anyone, was the most appropriate single word he could think of to describe Swami Tonami. Peter particularly noticed that when the swami walked to the stage, his feet seemed not to touch the floor.

After a while (it felt a long time to Peter, but then, he was sufficiently uncomfortable seated on the floor that the time passed slowly), the swami moved his hands to his lap, and spoke. His voice was high-pitched, a little singsong, rather heavily accented, and so soft Peter could barely hear him. Artur, at the microphone, translated the swami’s English into Ganzingan. But, as Peter did not understand Gazingan beyond a few, simple expressions, that was no help. The best Peter could do, straining his senses to their limit, was to snare the phrase “concentration, meditation, contemplation,” and that only with considerable effort, particularly because, although Swami Tonami kept repeating them, over and over, he spoke the three words as if they were one, with no pause between them, so it came out ”concentrationmeditationcontemplation,” and again, as silently as a whisper. So difficult was the swami to understand that Peter remembers thinking at the time, if this man expects a future in public speaking, he needs to get himself a coach.

As soon as it was over, Artur waved to Peter to join him on the stage. Peter did so, making his way carefully through the crowd, many of whom were still seated on the floor. There, Artur introduced Peter to Swami Tonami, saying, “This is the officer from the American Embassy.” The swami, who was standing now, smiled, but said nothing. Peter reached out to shake his hand. The swami responded in kind, although rather limply, Peter thought.

Outside, as they walked to their car, Anna told Peter about something extraordinary that had happened to her.

“Sitting on the floor,” she said, ”stretching to see Swami Tonami over the heads in front of me, and straining to understand what he was saying — I could hardly hear him, could you? — suddenly, out of nowhere, his eyes met mine, and they bored straight into me. I swear, Peter, for a moment, it was as if time stood still, and he and I were alone in the room, the only two people in the universe.” She paused a moment, and then added, solemnly, “I can’t really put it into words, but I could almost feel his eyes in my heart.”

In the days following the meeting, Peter found, to his surprise, that he was unable to rid himself of the phrase ‘concentration, meditation, contemplation.’ Somehow, the expression had got caught inside his head, and, from time to time throughout the day, at work or at home, regardless of whatever else might be going on, and for no apparent reason, he would hear himself thinking ‘concentration, meditation, contemplation.’

The words did not really mean anything to Peter, at least nothing special beyond their dictionary meaning, but all the same, they would not go away. And, of course, Peter did not know what Swami Tonami intended for them to mean, particularly strung together that way. Presumably, it was some sort of practice, or a call to discipline, but beyond that Peter was at a loss. He supposed that the swami had addressed this issue in the bulk of the talk, but as Peter had been barely able to hear it, that was no help. All Peter knew was, he could not shake loose of the words. It got so bad after a while, he started making fun of the expression, and particularly of the way Swami Tonami had spoken it; so that, at any moment, Peter might, say, sneak up on Anna or she upon him, for the phrase had gotten inside her, too, and whisper softly, imitating the swami’s accent and delivery, ”concentrationmeditationcontemplation, concentrationmeditationcontemplation, concentrationmeditationcontemplation.” And they would both laugh.

More than six years passed before Peter and Anna saw Swami Tonami again, and that encounter too, just like this one, was by apparent coincidence. But this first meeting in Gazinga, and particularly this extraordinary ordinary expression, changed everything, even if Peter and Anna did not fully realize it at the time. Now, decades later, Peter wonders if Swami Tonami seems to whisper on purpose, consciously or unconsciously, precisely so that those in the audience who are, as, say, Peter and Anna were then, too distracted by the activities of their lives to listen, will be forced, not only to listen, but to make an effort to listen. Who doesn’t strain to overhear a whisper, whatever it’s about? And then, while listeners are thoroughly preoccupied trying to hear, and trying to understand what they are trying to hear, the Teacher’s message sneaks into their psyche, and sets into motion its task of inner change, renewal, and awakening.

Thus, that bright, summer morning in Gazinga, walking from Swami Tonami’s public talk to their car in the university parking lot, Peter was listening to Anna with one part of his mind and reading his watch with the other; holding her arm in one hand and fidgeting with his day book in the other; one half of himself was there with his wife, while the other half was already at his desk in the American Embassy. To coin a phrase, Peter K. Wensleydale was a man multiply addressed. But somewhere deep inside of him, already laying claim to all of that and to everything else there was, was the phenomenon Peter and Anna came eventually to call ‘the Swami word,’ concentrationmeditationcontemplation. Like an infinitely potent, healing virus, it penetrated into every nook and cranny, every cell, every tissue, every cavity, every membrane, every memory; dusting, scrubbing, vacuuming, discarding, releasing, and recycling; centering and focusing, turning on lights and cracking open windows; and leaving behind endless, self-generating, liberating echoes of its presence.


At the outset of this event, you will recall, Olga told Anna that Sarada was coming to Gazinga to prepare the way for Swami Tonami. Now, grown in vision and wisdom, Peter and Anna Wensleydale realize that things can be true at more than one level at the same time.

You are never without a Guru, for he is timelessly present in your heart. Sometimes he externalizes himself and comes to you as an uplifting and reforming factor in your life, a mother, a wife, a teacher; or he remains as an inner urge towards righteousness and perfection. All you have to do is to obey him and do what he tells you. What he wants you to do is simple: learn self-awareness, self-control, self-surrender. It may seem arduous, but it is easy if you are earnest. And quite impossible if you are not. Earnestness is both necessary and sufficient. Everything yields to earnestness.

Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj Q

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For another account of this event, please click here. See also here and this book review.
For a “true fiction” account of the Wensleydale’s life in Maine, please click here.

The Zoo Fence

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The Zoo Fence

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