I just heard , quite late, that James Arraj died of cancer three years ago. To say I was stunned is an understatement. I had sent an email to Jim, asking for permission to reprint one or two of his marvelous essays, and his widow, Tyra, told me of his death. Although I never met them, the Arraj family has been an inspiration to me and many other people over the years for so many different reasons.
Decades ago, James and Tyra made a remarkably courageous decision. James earned a Ph.D. in spiritual theology from the Gregorian University in Rome, but, as is true for many young academics, his job prospects weren’t great. He and his wife found themselves in San Diego, right after the birth of their daughter Elizabeth, and they didn’t like their options. Jim had found a job in the County welfare office but it looked like the two of them were going to be forced to take jobs they disliked… to afford living in houses they disliked… in an area they didn’t particularly like… and that would be it for the rest of their lives. As a result, they decided to take a different path.
They moved to an isolated forest in the woods of southern Oregon, built their own home, and raised their children in the forest. They actually videotaped the entire adventure — from flying over their isolated forest home to the building of their house. You can see the videos here.
All these dreams were to lead us to the forest where the land was beautiful and cheap, but far from paved roads and power lines, and a mile high in the snow zone of the Cascade Mountains. It was here our schooling began in earnest about simple living, and how complicated it was. The first thing we needed was a house, and quickly, for winter was coming. Making handcrafts and a bookcase or two hadn’t really prepared us for this. But we muddled through by reading books, drawing plans on the backs of envelopes, and overcoming our biggest obstacle, which was the notion that had been pounded into our heads all our lives – that you bought houses made by . You didn’t just jump up and build your own.
Once we got the house up – and it didn’t immediately fall down – from then on we would simply build whatever we needed or wanted. When the kids decided they wanted their own rooms, we told them to build them themselves, and they did.
With a roof over our heads the days took on a rhythm of their own, and grew into weeks and months and years. We would make bread. For a long time that was the kids’ job. We would do home school with the kids, and all of us would sit around the lunch table and discuss everything from tigers to tattoos. We would make tofu. Our electricity came from a solar panel which was connected to a battery, and then to an inverter that converted it from DC to AC. We would cut and split wood, and feed it to our wood stove made out of an old hot water tank.
Slowly our eyes began to open so we could really see the forest around us.
We never had a well, and we would haul drinking water from town in the summer, and collect rain and snow in our little ponds for the garden. Growing a garden was a tough job when you are almost a mile high and can have a frost any month of the year, and if you do manage to grow something, the chipmunks are waiting to pounce on it.
And each year there would be something new to build. Our favorite style was to dig some holes in the ground, cut and treat some poles, and then just go on from there. Not very complicated, but tiring at times. One year Elizabeth decided she wanted to have a place of her own, and she just went out and built it.
This decision gave them the gift of time – time to do the work they were called to do, which happened to be write books and make videos on Christian mysticism and its relationship to both Eastern spirituality and Jungian psychology. Rather than work as academics in a university setting, James and Tyra created their own way of life in the forest. They then created a remarkable website, InnerExplorations.com, which is one of the strangest and most fascinating combination of subjects you can imagine – high-level philosophical discussions of Thomistic metaphysics, video chronicles of what it’s like to move and live in a forest, simple living, Christian mysticism, Zen, and on and on. Needless to say, it was like a candy shop for someone like me. Christian mystic hippies living in the forest… can’t get more irresistible than that!
I first learned about the Arraj family because, like most homeschoolers, my wife and I were interested in simple living. We bought their books on simple living because, like many homeschoolers, we felt called to a radically different way of life. But then I discovered that we shared an interest in both classical Christian mysticism but also in eastern spirituality, such as Zen. I was hooked… and have spent hours and hours, over the years, poring through Jim’s articles on the similarities, and profound differences, between the spiritual paths of Asia and the western mystical tradition. Over the coming months, we hope to republish a few of Jim’s thoughtful essays on our website with the kind permission of Tyra.
I urge anyone interested in Christian Yoga to visit InnerExplorations. You’ll find many topics of interest and will be inspired by the Arraj family’s life in the forest.