Tomorrow I leave for 10 days of ayahuasca, dieting and meditation in Peru. So it seems appropriate to take some time to think about what I want.
Skeptic that I am, I have always hesitated to say that I am searching for enlightenment, or awakening, truth-realization or anything like that. Of course, the Buddha listed skepticism as one of the five hindrances (lust is another big one for me). And such hesitation is an opening for fear to take control and stop me from making any commitment, telling me that I am better off plodding along as I am, being a professor and then dead.
One of the things that makes me skeptical, is how easily seduced I am by the smooth rhetoric of ‘Eastern’ spiritual and enlightenment-speak. From the Vedas, Buddhist Sutras and Laozi to Carlos Castaneda, Mooji, Deepak Chopra, Jed McKenna and my tantric masseuse, certain seductive words and phrases come up repeatedly: mindfulness, stillness, non-action, nothingness, witnessing your thoughts and feelings, freeing yourself from ego, realize that you are already god/the Buddha/truth, don’t mistake the pointing finger for the moon, duality is an illusion, everything is one, everything is love, meditate meditate meditate meditate. There is such an enormous fund of existing rhetoric that anybody who picks wisely will have a hard time not sounding wise and profound. We could say that this is proof of the validity of a great tradition (and thus paper over the many significant disagreements in Eastern religion and spirituality—and ignore the many traditions that don’t use this vocabulary at all.) Or we could also call it a flaky, New Age grab bag. There is no doubt that many charming charlatans have pulled from the grab bag and convinced the suckers that they are enlightened. But even among those who are not searching for disciples and fame, is there really any experience of enlightenment outside of the repetition and faith in these phrases? There is not much pudding to give us proof. Of the millions who have repeated and believed these phrases, how many have been enlightened? (How would we know?) And are even the enlightened doing anything more than merely convincing themselves of the truth of these phrases?
When it comes to monotheistic religious talk, I am much less easily seduced. I have no problem seeing even the most highly nuanced and passionate monotheistic claims and discussions as a discursive construct—something that does not exist beyond language and our own emotional attachment to the words. And I have little trouble seeing monotheistic religions as mostly a method of social control: be humble, don’t cause trouble, take care of your families, listen to the men and the priests, give money to us, work hard, don’t doubt, feel guilty. If you do all that, we promise to continue saying beautiful and hopeful words to you.
I think it is not only monotheism, but any organized religion. I also feel this easy skepticism of certain aspects of Buddhism, especially in daily Buddhism as I encountered it in Thailand and the early Buddhist Sutras (not to mention Pure Land and esoteric Buddhism). In addition to small doses of this enlightenment-speak, Buddhism spends a lot of time telling you not to steal, not to lust, to respect your parents, respect your teacher, treat your servants well, don’t hurt people, don’t cause trouble, don’t think bad thoughts, listen to authority, and so on and so on. It is not about transcending the illusions of this world, but about reinforcing those illusions by insisting that transcendence is only attained through social order.
And monotheism has cracks. We can find traces of Eastern Enlightenment-talk among Gnostics, Sufis and other assorted ascetics and heretics. It is as if the institutionalization of religion serves to snuff that kind of talk out, and all we are left with from what were once flourishing mystical and ecstatic traditions are a few disembodied phrases with their talk about higher consciousness, great unity and the nothingness/god that already exists within us—phrases now just flopping around homeless waiting for entrepreneurial gurus to mish and mash them back together.
But something does keep me going. It is the reality of mystical experiences. I’ve never had a full-blown emptiness-of-all-being, death-and-rebirth, or Oneness-of-God kind of experience. But I’ve had strong enough psychedelic experiences, been able to call up enough visions, remember enough dreams, and have enough weird bodily sensations in meditation to think that there is something going on a lot different than our consensual reality. Scientists try to explain those experiences away (thus carrying on the work of organized religion in suppressing ecstatic experience) but barely come close to scratching the power of these experiences. Only the mystics come at all close to engaging with those experiences. Even some of the most platitudinous of Enligthenment-talk phrases come closer than scientists and institutionlized religion.
Of course, many Buddhists and other enlightenment-seekers will tell you that these experiences are just more illusions. At best, they are temporary insights and not abiding truth-realization. Enlightenment comes when you have gone past all that, and directly perceive everything clearly. As the zen parable states: Before you start meditating, you look at a mountain and see only a mountain. Once you are well along in your practice, you look at a mountain and see the great unity of all being. When you are enlightened, you look at a mountain and see a mountain.
But to be willing to do all that work for a possible enlightenment is really a matter of faith. You must believe that it exists, and that these methods of sitting, exuding loving-compassion, chanting mantras, or whatever will lead to it. I am not capable of such faith. I need those mystic experiences to keep me going. They make me aware that something else is out there, that there is a different way perceiving and processing–perhaps a different way of being.
Sometimes I just tell myself that it is an adventure. That the same curiosity and desire to understand everything that drove me into academia is now driving me into inner exploration. I’m going to die, so may as well take some chances and make the best of my time alive. But somehow that is not enough. The promise of a job, income and glory was necessary to pull me through the more difficult moments of academia. Some promise of liberation, awakening or whatever will also help pull me through some of the nastier psychedelic moments, and even more nasty periods of loneliness and doubt. I look at all the people describing enlightenment, and see the enormous divergences in their experiences and sometimes I experience doubt. But at other times I figure that this is only evidence that the mid is a bizarre and pliable instrument. Liberation, great insight, truth will never look the same, but will always be translated through the conditioning of a particular mind.
The works of enlightenment-speak that I often find most convincing are those that say it is hard work and you’ve got to do it yourself. And always push farther, never be satisfied with the next layer of illusion, never believe promises. This means don’t think you can follow the path that somebody else took. His or her strengths and insights are not mine. Instead of bemoaning my hindrances, I should work with them as my strengths. Rather than spending my energy fighting my demons and trying only to be blameless and undefiled, I should learn to harness them. Fighting them will only exhaust me and keep me continually fearful and obsessed with them. Instead I need to listen to them, learn what they want, collaborate in the hopes that it can transform us both. Use my skepticism to keep on pushing further, never getting caught in the trap of gurus and organized religions and multifarious ways of controlling you in the name of searching for freedom and grace. Follow those lustful fantasies into explorations of those feelings that never find expression in conventional frameworks. But never get attached–don’t live within those activities and criticisms and reify them as truth. Instead always watch and move forward. Moving further means that at each step you have to grab for some new truth beyond the one you’ve just rejected—and which will be rejected in turn.
So may I meet the goddess of ayahuasca without fear, open, willing to surrender and perhaps even be healed.