Monthly Archives: August 2012

The Semester Looms

I leave tonight for a week of work in Europe. From there, I return straight into the new semester at Claustrodemonic U. Too many times over the past five years I have started a new semester with the intention of doing it differently, to not merely survive. This time I’ll maintain a good attitude, I won’t end up exhausted and anxious, drowned in the petty details. And yet nearly every semester, I end up burnt out, irritated, living by zombie routine, counting the days until its over. Despite all this, at the end of each semester I find myself thinking that I can live with my job, that it isn’t so bad. If everybody else can do it, why can’t I? It is as if I’ve sublimated all the dissatisfactions that motivated me at the beginning, and turned them into irritation and the compulsion to watch TV and eat ice cream.

I’ve gotten better over time. The irritation and descent into automaton behavior and binge relief starts later each semester. But overall trend is in the opposite direction. I promised myself in 2007 to live a new life. Instead, I have gradually and quietly slipped back towards the old. At least until I started to crawl out again this past March.

So now it is time again to take stock and prepare myself for this new semester. Because if I don’t prepare myself, I will fall into old habits and once again resign myself to my misery. And then this semester will not be my last.

In August, 2007 (as recounted here) I had received tenure, finished my second book, realized I had to break with my wife if I wanted to save myself, and promised myself that I would salvage whatever was left in the rubble of my soul. I told myself that I had spent the first half of my life accumulating. Now I had to learn how to spend it.

For at least half a year I did make what then seemed like major changes. Separating from my wife was indeed a big change. So was my relationship with Luna—a woman who is in many ways completely my opposite: no schooling, country girl, highly skilled in practical rather than bookish arts, incredibly generous and with a bottomless libido. I also spent a year reading non-academic books, engaging in self-analysis and dream analysis, attempting to be more generous with my money and time, and indulging my sudden expansion of horniness. By April, 2008, however, I was already falling back into old patterns: irritable, reading too much, worried about money, excessively planning the future, understanding and resisting Luna’s love as neediness, denying that I was ever wrong about anything, avoiding human contact, and anxious that I had lost control of my life.

I was aware of my backsliding and tried to resist it. I had some successes: I am much more detached from the poison of academic politics; have a much more diverse reading list; developed some insight into my own personal history and problems through active imagination (dream analysis was a bust) and psychedelics; am much more at ease with my sexuality; have much fewer headaches; sleep better; don’t get so embarrassed when I am wrong; and developed a great relationship with my daughter (for which she deserves much of the credit). Some problems remained recalcitrant however: My emotional distance from my lover, my stinginess, my difficulty reconciling myself with work demands. My motivation for a new life dwindled as I slowly slipped back into the patterns of the old. I lost my anticipation for the next day or next year, which all began to look the same. I looked forward instead to the weekend, or my next leave or the day I would retire.

My dad’s death last October helped me remember the danger of my old patterns. He had broad and eccentric interests, and was very much a self-inspired loner, much like me. Like me, he was also a dilettante, just taking classes and trying things out. But he was stingy and isolated and ungenerous. And the depth to which he was self-destructively trapped within his own fears and insecurities was made distressingly material in the four decades of hoarded crap in his house. To be fair, I did benefit from his financial hoarding through a decent inheritance. I had enough to make some serious changes in my life. But I soon realized that I did not know what to do with it. I did not have any alternatives to the old, familiar patterns.

In March, I visited a tantric masseuse in England (well, her training is in zen massage, and she prefers to identify with advaita rather than tantra). Over tea before the massage, she listened to some of my reasons for visiting her and not so gently implied that they were all beside the point. She also insisted that I should not expect any of the bliss and eyegazing and intimacy training promised by most Western tantra providers. And then she gave me a massage was easily the most erotic I have ever had up to then. It did not lead to orgasm, but it churned out emotions and vocalizations that utterly surprised me. I’d been vaguely aware of such feelings, but had always avoided acknowledging them. Over tea afterwards, I told her of the deep loneliness and insecurities that welled up. She told me abruptly, “There is no loneliness,” and “It’s just a massage, don’t take it too seriously.” The juxtaposition of her giving, sensual massage and the curt, zenmaster tone of her conversation was perfect for me.

She recommended that I read the trilogy of books by Jed McKenna. McKenna claims to be enlightened (“abiding non-dual awareness,” as he calls it) but describes that state as really somewhat boring, useless and isolating, albeit still wonderful. He insists that the only reason somebody would want to be enlightened was if they had a relentless hatred of falsehood. One must be willing to cut all ties and relentlessly chip away at all the lies and illusions of ego. It must be merciless.

Much of the book is also a relentless criticism of much New Age and Eastern spirituality (although Deepak Chopra gets his approval). Whether or not the original gurus were enlightened, most of these paths and institutions have just created new ways to reinforce ego and delusion. The proof is in the pudding—how many followers actually get enlightened? If one wants to be enlightened, they must find their own way. And his way embraces beef-eating, cities, video games, whiskey, cigars and impatience (little mention of sex, unfortunately).  One does not become enlightened by behaving how they think an enlightened person should act. They become enlightened by stripping away the lies. And only a deep and relentless fire and hatred of lies will suffice to pull one through the intense pain that comes with the process.

This was exactly what I needed to read. It gave me a clearer focus than just the plan to make my life better. I’ve always been attracted to the idea of enlightenment, and convinced that the world we see in consensus reality is only a fraction of the world that is out there. But I have always been too skeptical to follow any particular teacher or commit myself to any particular discipline. This book convinced my that skepticism itself could be a tool, especially when I apply it to myself relentlessly. To be sure, much of McKenna’s attitude threatens to reinforce my ego by reinforcing attitudes I have always held instinctually. But I figured that if I am going to take to heart his insistence not to believe anything until I experience it myself, and to never accept any truth as final but always move further—then I needn’t accept anything that he says either.

The only concrete method that McKenna advocates is to write, write and write until you have written something true. In the process, all the layers of falseness and ego will fall away. That inspired me to revive this blog. Unlike its first incarnation, I have made few attempts to garner a readership and have given little thought to any audience beyond myself. I’m still light years away from writing anything that is true, and these posts are still saturated with ego. But I am far happier with the posts in this second incarnation than the first. I’ve managed to express some long-standing feelings and ideas that I have always been ashamed of, can see new patterns of thought emerging. It is exciting.

I also started meditating. I don’t know what I think about that, however. In most spiritual practices, meditation is the cornerstone. Meditate, meditate, meditate, meditate. But I’m not very good at it. I just can’t let go of those chattering thoughts. More often, I just get caught up and lost in them. And they are so relentlessly trivial and repetitive! Sometimes at the beginning of meditation they remind me of things I need to do and give me ideas of how to do them. But mostly meditation leaves me with the same feeling as having wasted an hour watching a stupid TV show. I like it best when I have physical sensations—I feel 15 feet tall, or the right side of my face melts away, or my intestines start to leak out of my navel. Of course, the meditation masters will tell me to get over it, that this stuff is the booby prize. The real goal is direct clarity. But I have known 25-year meditators who claim that they can sit still with clarity for hours. And I can’t see what good its done them. They’ve learned how to concentrate. But what else? I suppose sometimes they enjoy the ego satisfaction that comes with showing off how they can meditate longer than others.

I continue, however. I like it best at a local zendo, where it is very ritualized with big, heavy robes. I get some of the most intense physical sensations there. At home, it reminds me how relentlessly puerile and trivial my brain is. And also how much the traffic and noise outside seeps into and disrupts my soul. These are both good things to be reminded of. But, in the sense of making me feel peaceful and aligning my energies, I like yoga much better. I don’t really like the act of doing yoga, but I feel right afterwards.

McKenna, like the Zen masters (whom McKenna calls “ballbusters”) warns us away from the physical sensations and mystical experiences. They are fine, but they are not enlightenment. They are just temporary experiences and may even distract us. Enlightenment is cold, hard and clear. The English masseuse, in our occasional email contact also reminds me that I am doing too much. That I should start from stillness. That it is fruitless to think I can calm the chaos of my mind with the chaos of always searching for a new path. I think she is right. But I also can’t help thinking that aiming directly for stillness just won’t work for me. This is for people who have always been over-engaged and overinvested in the world. That is not me. I’ve always been an introvert, somewhat aloof and puzzled about the concerns that drive others. It is the discovery of internal chaos and of deep connections to the world that helps me move forward.

I love those experiences and sensations. My ayahuasca experience was seeped in rich, sensual experience. The fact that they are not always accessible gives me a goal, something to search for–and which seems to have no perceivable end. And I am not even sure that I want any of those experiences to be abiding–they can be so powerful. They motivate me much more than the cold, clear enlightenment. A friend of mine told me how men can get caught up in pure consciousness, cold and isolated. That’s definitely true for me. I’ve never thought I was capable of anything else. But the ayahuasca was saturated in feminine images and feelings. And I’ve been increasingly attracted and aware of those kinds of feelings over the past five years.

After the ayahuasca experience, I’ve looked back over the past five years and suddenly found so many reasons why I should not have been so surprised by the sensuality and boundless love I experienced. I’ve clearly been developing an antagonism to the domination of my intellectual side over those years. And ever since 2007, I’ve been telling myself that I need to develop my sensation and feeling sides (as conceived in Jungian terms). Not to mention that I’ve been endlessly horny, after ten sexless years in which I believed I did not like sex. But I have never trusted my lust. And I figured that the problem with my sensuality and feeling was that they were weak and needed to be built, not that they were something already so strong within me. I even had tarot readings two and three years ago that emphasized the huge amount of emotional energy and love within me. It was straining to burst forth, but I was blocking it. I could not accept it because I was so caught up my rational head, and worrying about job and money. The tarot reader told me that I needed to relax and enjoy life. But I really had to be hit over the head with ideas like this before I could listen.

If enlightenment is the cold, empty world that McKenna and Eckhart Tolle (with much less scorched earth attitude) talk about, I’ll have to rescind my earlier post insisting that I want to be enlightened. I had previously thought that this was all that was available to me, because my natural tendency is to be isolated and skeptical and introverted. But I don’t think this goal can motivate me to make it through the semester without reverting to my familiar and comfortable habits.

I don’t have the fire that McKenna talks about. What I do have is a constant, roiling simmer, a nagging, dissatisfaction that always puts me at odds with the world, but rarely explodes into dramatic action. I am much too stable and phlegmatic for that. The watery metaphor is much better than fire. What drives me is not something that burns, consumes and destroys. Instead, it something that generally flows and gives way, even nurtures. But in the long term, it can also saturate and overwhelm–it can drown you, create canyons and get lost in oceans; changing the very face of the earth more deeply than a fire. It is also a metaphor that works better for the waves of sensuality and love I can sometimes experience.

Even if I don’t have the fire, I know that I am not searching just to accommodate myself better to this life. I found that many of my fellow ayahuasca drinkers and spiritual seekers only want to have insights that will help them make choices or to get along better in the things they already do. I’ve found through writing this blog and drinking the ayahuasca that I want to go further. This consensual reality and the benefits it promises do not hold me strongly. I’ve done that, and had some success. Now I want to push beyond it—even if it ends in disaster. This prospect makes me excited for the upcoming years. This excitement is even stronger than the fear of losing income, health insurance and the easy status of being able to identify myself as a CU professor. And I see the way beyond in the prospect of tapping into those energies I feel, in more mystical experiences, in the amazing and surprising things to be found in my mind and inner world, and in following these things to a deeper connection to other people and the world.

It is tempting to put up the armor as I enter the new semester, to not let myself be distracted by fears and demands and expectations, and to not fall into the old patterns. But the armor is precisely one of those old patterns. The challenge is to be open, to engage with the world differently. The shiatsu and reiki classes may help. I’ve also been looking for a tantra teacher, although it is really hard to wade through the commercialism, flakiness and superficiality that pervades this calling. But I don’t want to plan too much or fall into yet another institutionalized path like the university. I want to remain open. The prospect of unplumbed possibilities is the most exciting, and yet also the hardest inspiration to hold on to, precisely because it is so intangible.


A Night with SWIM

So, last night SWIM (Somebody Who Is not Me: a common internet drug forum acronym) ingests a shitload of M without telling me. Next thing I know, he’s curled up on the floor moaning and ahhhing like he’s almost ready to come. Man, he’s trying to erase his ego again. I’m pissed. We were supposed to go to the club tonight. He knows perfectly well you can’t get past the bouncer without an ego. But we can’t even get there at all if he’s curled up on the floor like a wanker.

So I’m lying on the bed wondering what the fuck I’m going to do tonight. Then I look up, and that asshole SWIM is hanging off the ceiling staring at me. “Get out of my face,” I say, “You’ve already screwed up my night. I don’t want to deal with your shit.”

He doesn’t listen and just keeps staring. “I told you to fuck off!” I yell at him. “I just want to get high and have a good time. I don’t need your crap.”

That asshole doesn’t care about anything. He just turns around and starts ripping a hole in the ceiling. He wants to pull me in there. It’s just lights and swirls, endless fucking repeating patterns, and these big, black gaping voids. It’s a fucking mess. “No way,” I say. “I just want to get laid. I don’t see any pussy in there.”

He doesn’t give a fuck what I say, and starts pulling the hole down over my head. I get off the bed and head out the door to get away from him. But the bastard has pulled all the fiber out of my muscles. Next thing I know I’m lying in a heap on the floor and he’s dragging me right into that damn hole and I can’t do anything about it.

All I can say is that SWIM is into some weird, fucked-up shit in there. He hangs out with these total nerds: gnomes, green elves, talking little white flying fuzzballs. They’re just prancing around these castles and pyramids covered in Christmas lights, having parades with fucking Snow White and Bozo the Clown, fighting sorcerers and all kinds of geeky shit like that. It’s totally Dungeons and Dragons. And there’s no pussy anywhere. Well, unless you count SWIM’s grandma’s pussy (I told you he was into some fucked-up shit).

So SWIM takes me to this room full of filing cabinets and leaves me there while he goes and flies around with his little green buddies and parties on top of one of those pyramids. I’m pissed. They’re having a good time doing whatever shit they do, and he just left me here twiddling my thumbs. So I start digging through the filing cabinets to see if I can find any weed or blow. But all I can find are these file folders with pictures from my life. There I am feeling lonely and abandoned in the crib. There I am crying when my friends are giving me shit for pissing my pants. There is my dad calling me a moron. Shit, man, who wants to see this kind of stuff? Boring. Why does he want to save this crap here in these filing cabinets like some kind of shrine? Nobody cares about this shit.

So I’m still rifling the drawers looking for weed when SWIM comes back and tells me they’ve decided that I haven’t finished my task. I have to zip my skin back on, and they’ll send me back to earth so that I can finish doing what I was supposed to do. Fine, whatever. I’m sick of this geekdom. Maybe there’s even still time to go out and catch a buzz. I have no idea how long I’ve been in this fucking place.

Next thing I know, I’m back on the floor. I can move my hands and arms now, and kick my feet up and down. But then, just when I’m starting to feel alright, I open my eyes and there is my Mom hovering over me. At first she looks worried, but then she starts yelling at me and shaking this broken glass in my face asking how the hell I made such a mess, and what do I think I am doing, and why can’t I be like my sister, and don’t I know how much trouble I make for her, yap yap yap yap yap . . . .

Shit, I don’t need any of this. I just want to get high and have a good time. Is that so much to ask?

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Live free or Die. Freedom is Not Free.

A Precarious Mind and Its Potential

Following up on my last post, here is an example of how the schizophrenic experience may not be all that different from the spiritual experience. The following quote is the self-account of a schizophrenic patient. It comes from R.D. Laing, The Politics of Experience (New York, 1967), pp. 93-5; which takes it from Karl Jaspers’ General Psychopathology (Manchester, 1962):

“I believe I caused the illness myself. In my attempt to penetrate the other world I met its natural guardians, the embodiment of my own weaknesses and faults. I first thought these demons were lowly inhabitants of the other world who could play me like a ball because I went into these regions unprepared and lost my way. Later I thought they were split-off parts of my own mind (passions) which existed near me in free space and thrived on my feelings. I believed everyone else had these too but did not perceive them, thanks to the protective successful deceit of the feeling of personal existence. I thought the latter was an artifact of memory, thought-complexes, etc. a doll that was nice enough to look at from outside but nothing real inside it.

“In my case the personal self had grown porous because of my dimmed consciousness. Through it I wanted to bring myself closer to the higher sources of life. I should have prepared myself for this over a long period by invoking in me a higher, impersonal self, since ‘nectar’ is not for mortal lips. It acted destructively on the animal-human self, split it up into its parts. These gradually disintegrated, the doll was really broken and the body damaged. I had forced untimely access to the ‘source of life,’ the curse of the ‘gods’ descended on me. I recognized too late that murky elements had taken a hand. I got to know them after they had already too much power. There was no way back. I now had the world of spirits I had wanted to see. The demons came up from the abyss, as guardian Cerberi, denying admission to the unauthorized. I decided to take up the life-and-death struggle. This meant for me in the end a decision to die, since I had to put aside everything that maintained the enemy, but this was also everything that maintained life. I wanted to enter death without going mad and stood before the Sphinx: either thou into the abyss or I!

“Then came illumination. I fasted and so penetrated the true nature of my seducers. They were pimps and deceivers of my dear personal self which seemed as much a thing of naught as they. A larger and more comprehensive self emerged and I could abandon the previous personality with its entire entourage. I saw this earlier personality could never enter transcendental realms. I felt as a result the terrible pain, like and annihilating blow, but I was rescued, the demons shriveled, vanished and perished. A new life began for me and from now on I felt different from other people. A self that consisted of conventional lies, shams, self-deceptions, memory images, a self just like that of other people, grew in me again but behind and above it stood a greater and more comprehensive self which impressed me with something of what is eternal, unchanging, immortal and inviolable and which ever since that time has been my protector and refuge. I believe it would be good for many if they were acquainted with such a higher self and that there are people who have attained this goal in fact by kinder means.”

Jaspers commented, “Such self-interpretations are obviously made under the influence of delusion-like tendencies and deep psychic forces. They originate from profound experiences and the wealth of such schizophrenic experience calls on the observer as well as on the reflective patient not to take all this merely as a chaotic jumble of contents. Mind and spirit are present in the morbid psychic life as well as in the healthy. But interpretations of this sort must be divested of any causal importance. All they can do is to throw light on content and bring it into some sort of context.”

Laing offers an different interpretation: “This patient has described, with a lucidity I could not improve upon, a very ancient quest, with its pitfalls and dangers. Jaspers still speaks of the experience as morbid and tends to discount the patient’s own construction. Yet both the experience and the construction may be valid in their own terms. Certain transcendental experiences seem to me to be the original wellspring of all religions.”

I could add that the process described here is also not much different from a series of ayahuasca sessions.

Our Precarious Minds

The ‘normally’ alienated person, by reason of the fact that he acts more or less like everyone else, is taken to be sane. Other forms of alienation that are out of step with the prevailing state of alienation are those that are labeled by the ‘normal’ majority as bad or mad.                                                                  –R. D. Laing, Politics of Experience

During my recent ayahuasca experience, I learned of my deep connection to my ex-wife, and that this has something to do with her mental problems. During the last ten year of our marriage, she was seriously depressed and prone to crippling anxiety and panic attacks. Sometimes she would awake in the middle of the night, filled with a generalized and pervasive fear. She would rock back and forth compulsively, and the crown of her head was burning to the touch. During the day, fears and worries—now attached to more concrete events in her life—would crowd out all possible thoughts. She could not turn them off. She could not hold a job, and was hospitalized twice.

She also had some symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia. She always denied this, and it was never formally diagnosed as such. But I found it hard to avoid such a label when she told me that the police were reading and disrupting her computer files and bugging our phone, that the doormen were breaking into our apartment at the behest Homeland Security, that her psychiatrist was reporting her thoughts to the government, that her past employers had hired private investigators to follow us and told her current employers what a bad person she was, and that random people on the street were following her to collect information to deport her.

The depression and panic were less of a problem for our marriage. I can fully understand why somebody would have this kind of response to the world, and empathize with somebody experiencing it. She also saw it as a problem, and was willing to work to resolve it. The paranoia, however, drove us apart. This was a response to the world that I could not understand, a response that I thought was both self-destructive and an emotionally and intellectually inappropriate response to the world. She insisted—and still insists—that none of her paranoid were illusions, and she was not sick. It was not a problem that she would recognize or attempt to heal. She saw it as a problem imposed upon her by other people. Her only problem was depression which she saw as a natural response to all the shit people were doing to her.

Her obsession with people watching and persecuting her drove me into a fury. The more I argued against her and brought evidence in support of my side, the more she constructed fantastic and innovative explanations of why and how she was persecuted. And the more she insisted, the more furious I became. And, of course, my attacks only contributed to the self-loathing and vicious inner criticism that was an integral part of her problems. The paranoia was a wedge that drove us apart. But the very fact that it prompted such virulent emotions in both of us points to the fact that it was also something that tied us together deeply.

Gradually, however, I came to agree with her that medicalizing and labeling her problems an “illness” was very counter-productive. In part it was because of her insistence that she was not a patient that needed to be cured, but a sensitive person who saw the truth in her environment more acutely. This is a perfectly humane and reasonable way to understand and deal with her suffering. It may possibly even be true. It is certainly better than some of those stone-faced psychiatrists who just prescribed pills or the hell of three days in the New York Presbyterian psychiatric ward (supposedly one of the best psychiatric units in the country). It frames her problems not as things to be surgically removed or tranquilized, or as things to detest, thus encouraging more self-contempt. Instead, it frames them as aspects of herself that need to be understood, that need compassion. By recognizing them as part of herself, and find ways to transform them into something less destructive, and hopefully even productive (although this might entail a serious revision of what we consider to be “productivity” and its goals).

I found it easier to embrace this attitude because sometimes her symptoms would take the form of beautiful religious visions—emotional and meaningful experiences that anybody would be happy to have.These visions also helped soothe her anxiety and depression. She also transformed some of her feelings and experiences into wonderful computer animation pieces.  Her openness to these visions seemed to come from the same place as her paranoia. This helped me to believe that her problems should not be cured like a cancer, but that she needs to find the proper channels for their expression.

This perspective was further encouraged by readings—such as R.D. Laing, Jung, Erving Goffman and James Hillman (I’ve posted an example here)—which confirm that schizophrenia has many of the same qualities as religious ecstasy, artistic visions and psychedelic experiences. The problem is that the schizophrenic neither invites nor expects them. She does not have the training or context to deal with them properly, and is overwhelmed by them. She also tends to experience their negative forms very intently (although never exclusively). A secular world-view exacerbates the conditions that shape these mental experiences into schizophrenia. In my ex-wife’s case, this was further exacerbated by a father who was a hardcore materialist communist and left her with an aggressive self-contempt of anything that even gestured towards religion or mysticism.

Most of all, I was persuaded not to label my wife’s problems an illness because I started seeing her symptoms in everybody around me. I see them in the defensiveness and territoriality of my colleagues. I see them in the paranoias of my students about the excruciating demands that their professors imposed. I see them in the fantasies of my students and colleagues about how much everybody else was chomping on the bit to criticize them, and how much they organized their work, their speech and every aspect of their lives in attempt to forestall this criticism. I see them in the way people bury themselves in work as a way to avoid life and to assure that their human contact flows through predictable channels (“I’m so busy.” “Have you been productive this summer?” “I’m sorry, I’m in a hurry.”). I see them in the way our conscious concerns are dominated by health care and retirement funds and party politics and incomes and property and investments and home decoration; in other words with security, and the relentless imagining of all possible threats, and the obsessive efforts to deflect those threats. And, of course, the symptoms are blatantly obvious in national and international politics, in the news, in the statements of institutional and fundamental religion, in internet comment and discussion threads, in parents and their obsessions over safety and the future.

Some of the people who seem most consumed by these symptoms are also the most successful—at least in terms of income, prestige and institutional hierarchies. They develop smooth public personas and take advantage of type A personalities as tools to indulge their paranoid fantasies, to protect themselves from the ever-present threats of the world, to create ever more chaos that in the end only justifies their paranoid view of the world. I saw this to some extent in my wife. I learned to mistrust her when her when her smile returned and her social skills were more effective than usual. This usually meant that she had constructed some elaborate understanding of how the plot against her was operating. Once she understood, she knew how to behave, how to manipulate, how to protect herself. When this explanation broke down in the face of events—as inevitably happened—her panic and anxiety returned.

Many people have remarked that paranoid schizophrenics are not irrational. Their elaborate constructions rarely ignore evidence and logic. I frequently tried to show my wife why her suspicious were wrong, using what I thought was irrefutable evidence. She just regrouped, thought more carefully, and incorporated my perspective into an even more insidious scenario of how they were watching us and why. The scenarios were always far-fetched and implausible. But never impossible. They used logic and evidence skillfully. Just like successful people–especially in my line of work where success is closely linked to the construction of elaborate theories.

Later, when she turned to religion (a kind of fundamentalist Buddhism) she added a new dimension of magic and spiritual forces to her scenarios. Secular logic and evidence is less prominent. But she has she has also been much more at ease with herself and able to function in the practical world. I have no idea what is going on in her mind, but on the surface it is working. I see much fewer traces of that unbearable pain.

But I still see those traces in many people around me. All of our minds are equally precarious. The main difference is that some people collapse, while others continue to balance on the edge. I can’t help but see those unquenchable drives for work and success, territoriality and defensiveness, obsessive security and accumulation, as manifestations of the same demons that have ruined my ex-wife’s life. The only difference is that those people have the talents to channel those demons and keep them at bay through the constant pursuit of power and manipulation. I don’t see those traces on everybody who is successful, but certainly on many. But the visibility doesn’t mean much. The difference between my wife and my colleagues is not so much in the intensity of the paranoia. It is in their ability to hide the demons, to channel them into action, and to persuade others that their paranoia is truth.

I can experience some of the self-loathing. But it rarely if ever transforms into paranoia. Nonetheless, I think the challenge is the same for me as for my ex-wife; how to embrace it, to transform it into something that serves rather than undermines us.

When drinking ayahuasca, I felt my deep connection to my wife and the conviction that this connection has something to do with her problems. I still don’t understand what that means. But it may have something to do with the fact that her problems, like ayahuasca, open the body spiritually and energetically. I fought against it when we were married, but it was beyond my power to remain totally closed. Something is entwined that is hard to disentangle.

I still experience my ex-wife primarily as a poison. She has also absorbed a lot of my poison—and unfortunately had much fewer defenses than I do (although she really learned to recognize that poison during our divorce). But rather than disentangle our experiences, how can we embrace our connection without sharing more poison? I feel the poison most strongly when she expresses it as fears of the practical world, as her constant anxieties and frustrations—all of which encourage me to return poison in kind. But I embrace the same impulses when expressed through her art and more mystical religious experiences. That’s a starting point.

Death and Consciousness

What happens to our ideas, memories, hopes and attachments when we die? In short, what happens to our consciousness?

The body no longer transforms energy into heat and motion, it no longer continues process of self-replication. Over a period of time, it undergoes chemical transformation. The body may disappear, but the parts that make it up do not. Its primary components just dissipate and rearrange themselves, and become part of other entities.

Does our consciousness also transform? Or does it just disappear after the intake of energy stops, leaving not a trace and contributing to no other entity? Here are some possibilities:

1. Consciousness is entirely a product of material conditions, and can be reduced to material processes. When those material conditions change, consciousness just disappears. This is the predominant assumption of scientists, who claim to be realists about it. But in many ways, it is also the most mystical. This is an argument that material processess can create something that is clearly not material. Yet this something can still cause change in outside material conditions and influence other non-material consciousnesses. And then this active, causal entity just entirely disappears, leaving not even a trace of energy, heat or motion.

2. Like the body, consciousness transforms. Perhaps it disaggregates like the body, with its component parts joining other entities and becoming unrecognizable. This is like Buddhism, in that there is no inherent self, however much we may imagine there is. We are just a temporary confluence of disjointed mental and physical functions.

3. Or perhaps the process of transformation goes the other way: Consciousness was already disaggregated when trapped in our bodies. After death consciousness is liberated, becoming part of a larger, more complex system. Our self is a temporal effect, just like a song.

4. Consciousness does not change at all. Our consciousness is always part of a broader entity that transcends our individual minds, and which we usually can not perceive because of the limitations of our bodies. When the body dies, consciousness itself is not affected. Our self is an aspect of something much more transcendent, the atman.

5. Consciousness is an emergent phenomenon. This means that it is grounded in material conditions, but it has attained a new level of organization that follows patterns and laws that are different than and not reducible to those of its component parts. Like #1, this may also disappear when we die. But we cannot be certain, because this does not preclude that 2 or 3 may also be true. What it asserts is that there is an intimate but indeterminate relation between the basic components of consciousness and consciousness in and of itself. This leaves open the possibility that consciousness can create and influence matter just as much as matter creates and influences consciousness—i.e. it is a two-way street, not the one-way street of option #1. So perhaps it is the transformation of consciousness that causes the body to disappear, rather than the other way around.

I find #5 to be most likely—in part because it is the most open-ended and holistic. But lets face it, I have no good reason to think so. It just seems to best fit my emotional predilections and ideas presented in books that I like. Which means I am choosing on the basis of arbitrariness and authority. . . . . But so is everybody else. We have no idea, regardless of how committed we are to one vision or another.

Six Nights of Ayahuasca

I spent 10 days at an ayahuasca retreat in Peru. Ayahuasca is a traditional medicine/psychedelic substance made from plants found in the Amazon. My retreat was high in the mountains. But the shaman was a mestizo from the Amazon, and the ayahuasca brewed by his family in the jungle. Every shaman has his own ayahuasca mix. This one emphasizes cleansing (which often means violent vomiting). He also encourages 4 days of a ‘dieta’, which meant no salt, bland white foods like yucca, rice, eggs and plantain, and a nightly drink of tree bark tea. He says one night of drinking ayahuasca while on the diet is worth 100 nights of drinking without the diet. The retreat hosts (Ayahuasca Satsangha) also encourage mixing ayahuasca with other techniques such as yoga, meditation and ayurvedic health, so that the impact of the ayahuasca can be extended more deeply into our lives after we leave Peru.

Night 1

The shaman starts by singing icaros into each glass of ayahuasca before we drink. The icaro is a kind of chant. The words of each icaro may change. The tones are the most important part, and are sometimes whistled rather than sung. I was told that the tones are like telephone dial tones; they call the spirit of the ayahuasca (who is usually seen as a woman wearing green). Throughout the ceremony the shaman continues to wave his tree branches and sing icaros that protect us from outside energies, and to help good energy flow through our bodies. Sometimes he does it for the whole group, sometimes for each of us individually.

The ayahuasca takes effect after about 15 minutes. I can feel energy pulsating through my body, and see lots of bright, disjointed, colorful neon lights and fractal patterns when I close my eyes. It is all a bit chaotic: rushing sensations in my body that don’t quite correspond with the ever-blossoming patterns in my mind. The sound of icaros and tree branches seems all pervasive. And I laugh at the chorus of vomiting that surrounds me. My sense of space is disoriented, and I can’t quite tell where it is coming from. Sometimes right next to me, sometimes far away in a distant cave.

After a while, the lights become more intense, sometimes coming together into castles or mountains. The bodily sensations become more of a pleasant vibration. Then I hear a deep woman’s voice. “There is more. I can bring you higher. But first you have to cut everything. Cut family, cut friends, cut your job.” I think about cutting my daughter, and see an empty, glaring void. I hesitate. The lights turn off.

For the rest of the night, I mostly see only a few dark, whooshing patterns and hear only the sound of vomiting. I become lost in my thoughts. They are generally nasty, self-critical thoughts. I tell myself that all of this ayahuasca drinking and spiritual stuff is for losers. It is only an escape, a way to avoid responsibilities. That this is the story of my life, running away from responsibilities. I try to make it look so lofty and spiritual, but that is all just a lie. I just can’t face up to the world.

Thoughts and images of my ex-wife come up repeatedly. I realize I am still deeply connected to her, and that this connection has something to do with her illness (depression, panic, some paranoid schizophrenia—along with some intense religious visions that make me reluctant to call it an ‘illness’). I try to understand what this connection is. I even feel some attraction to her illness. I suspect that it really was my illness, that I gave it to her. But that doesn’t seem entirely true. It was already inside her. But I surely took advantage of it as a depository where I could project and deposit all of my shit. And now I can’t escape it so easily.

I also saw how deeply my ex- knows and understands me. Probably better than anybody else. Certainly better than my girlfried Luna. I can’t cut her off so easily. And as I think this, I start to feel the pain of her life. The many sleepless nights; the constant anxiety, panic and paranoia; the lost dreams and betrayal. Her pain flows into my mother’s isolation and bitterness, and my father’s. I am nauseous. I get on my hands and knees and want to vomit, but it won’t come. A voice says, “Don’t think you can get rid of us that easily.”

I lay down again and have a few scattered visions. One is of my bike accident a year before (which happened about two days after a psilocybin trip. As I was riding, the feelings started to come up again. I can’t remember the accident itself, although I was hit by a taxi and it was probably my fault). I see myself rolling dramatically over the hood of the taxi. I know from my scrapes and injuries it could not possibly have happened this way. But I think that this image is evidence of some flamboyant death wish. I want to show off my contempt for everything in some dramatic gesture. But then I think that my death wish is really just my inability to face anything and desire for escape.

I see the naked torsos, thighs and asses of some women I have known. It all looks so pointless. It is beautiful on the outside, but what do I think I can find by sticking my penis into that? We are just acting out our personal issues onto each other when we have sex.

When the shaman comes to sing an individualized icaro and wave the fan over me, I feel insects falling on my face—real insects. I don’t know whether to brush them off or not. One crawls over and starts to tickle my lips, and I blow it off. I hear it fall onto the pillow (in the morning I find that it was a leaf).

As the effect wears off, my mind is racing. The same thoughts keep repeating over and over again, or else I try to craft them into stories that I will tell to my friends. This relentless, narrativizing voice is intrusive and loud, and I can’t shut it up. Then I see a big red circle, with bright yellow words like a light bulb saying “FUCK INSIGHTS!” I laugh. “Yes, fuck them all,” I say. But my mind keeps racing, pushing everything else out. I want it to end.

Finally, I vomit—perhaps the last person to do so. It is a huge, explosive vomit. My jaw flies open so strongly that I was afraid I hurt myself, as if something much larger than the actual vomit was coming out. I continue to vomit, with long, endless dry heaves that are digging deeper and deeper. Then diarrhea. When I go back to my mat,  my mind goes straight back to the same old themes, trying to force everything together into a coherent narrative with a proper analysis.

After a while, at about 3 in the morning I find the energy to stagger the 100 or so meters up the hill (although it felt much, much farther) to my bed. I vomit at least twice more into the toilet.

The next day I learn that most people had an extremely difficult night. Mine was relatively painless. But this trip left me in the same place of critical self-loathing that the psilocybin trips had left me last year. Ultimately, higher doses of psilocybin had less and less effect on me, leaving me with only those nasty thoughts and little other experience. How can I get past those thoughts?

Night 2

Before drinking my ayahuasca, I state my intention into the cup: “I want to surrender. Teach me how to do it. Help me to know what I truly feel.”

I kneel for a long time after drinking. After about half an hour, I see a dinosaur head with huge teeth staring at me through the jungle—not threatening or scary, just staring. I try to nuzzle him but he disappears.

I lie down, and a red-haired shepherd goddess opening some golden gates for me. I go through and float over a lovely, cartoonish pastoral scene of green rolling hills, cloud-like trees and lollipop bushes. Every now and then I see cruel yellow eyes staring at me from dark corners, but I smile at them and they smile back. Then I float into a landscape of dark mounds and shadows filled with malevolent eyes. I smile at them, and they all turned into smiling chocolate ice cream cones.

Then I shoot out into space, with neon lights swirling all around. The colors are dark, but they are incredibly bright. I see a spiral of purple lights flowing up from the earth to join the light show. I realize that the whole purpose of civilization is to produce a purple dye that is needed for the universal light show. All the pollution and transformation of the atmosphere—this is the purpose of civilization. Why are we trying to reverse it? I laugh. It’s no more pointless than any other meaning of life I can imagine.

The lights start to come together into ethereal landscapes. The background changes from the blackness of space into white, and the lights shift to more pastel colors, forming into castles, trees and mountains. A pleasant vibration starts to pulse through my body, which is floating through the sky. Suddenly my ex-wife and her pain appears in front of me. But she quickly transforms into a lonely baby, desperately grasping for love and security (reminiscent of an image of myself from an earlier psilocybin trip). I cradle the baby and hold it to my breast, and it melts into my body. The same thing happens with my mother. Then I see a boy of about 14, angry, snarling and hostile. He has big glasses. He is really just a nerd, I see, and the hostility is just a cover. I invite him to join us. He doesn’t have to talk. Just sit with us.

As he sits with us, the neon landscapes become more beautiful. The nasty thoughts from last night appear in the form of physical words. But I can let them slip right past, usually without reading them. A deep female voice tells me to sit back and flow. “This is time for a massage, nothing more.” The vibrations grow stronger and stronger. Over time, the visions get less spectacular: long, endless fields of vibrating bars, rolling up and down like a calm ocean. The colors become muted. But the physical vibration remains strong. I feel like I am floating above the fields, blissful and calm.

I have some brief visions of small tropical resorts isolated in the middle of endless, bright barren landscapes of light. I think that this is like enlightenment: cold, barren, forbidding, isolated and lonely, but at the same time indescribably beautiful and seductive. And ultimately a little bit boring. I don’t know if I want it.

I finally purge as I start to come down. Violent, but not so strong as last night. As the images and vibrations fade, my mind starts to chatter again. None of it is very interesting, but I can’t let it go. I want to sleep, but can not. I get a splitting headache that does not go away until noon. When the headache dies down, I take a walk in the mountains. The colors and details of the landscape are incredibly strong, like when I take psilocybin. I feel at peace.

I  learn that we were attacked by a rival shaman last night. Our shaman spent much of the night fending off his bad energies and blocking spiritual darts (a job he claims to have enjoyed very much—master of his game on the open playing field). The other participants were very aware of this, and saw black clouds and demons when they opened their eyes. For most, it was an even more difficult night then the first. I was totally unaware, enveloped in my own bliss.

Night 3

Tonight, I state a simple intention: “I will cut, friends, family, job.” I suddenly see myself embraced by a goddess in an act of sitting intercourse, like one of the Shiva-Shakti statues.

Nothing happens for a long time. I try breath and relaxation exercises. But most of the time I lie there, bored. I try but often fail to let go of the random, trivial thoughts that float through my head.

I start to doubt again. It doesn’t look so exciting when nothing happens, does it? Don’t you feel stupid paying so much money to lie here on a mat in the mountains hoping for transcendence? Even when you do get transcendence, it just goes away quickly. You would make much better use of your time building up your real life rather than chasing these enlightenment fantasies.

I have a couple of brief sex fantasies. Then I pull back in doubt. Is that why I am not having visions, because I brought lust into the healing? Did my lust block the spiritual experience? . . . Or is my problem really that I repress my lust so much, that I should just accept it for what it is? I go round and round on this. Fuck, just stop.

I do get two images. One is of my daughter when she is a teenager. She is still a lovely, affectionate girl. She says a couple of nasty things about me—the usual kinds of things that teenagers say about their parents. But it doesn’t bother me. I know she will have to slip away and be her own person. I hope that I will have enough resources to help her if she ever needs it when she is older.

The most substantial vision is of me sitting at a small, round stone table on the top of a mountain. It is a bright, barren, stony landscape. On the table is a weird ceramic sculpture made up of disks. It is clearly supposed to represent two people having sex. Suddenly a very short, green elf-woman flies in. She looks like a pickle. She says, pointing at the sculpture, “That’s what you guys like to do. It’s not what we like to do. Well, we do it, but not like that.” The disgust is tangible in her pronunciation of  “that.” Then she flies off into the sky. I try to follow her, but she just laughs at me and zooms away, leaving me back on my mat.

I am called up to the front for a blessing from the shaman. I stumble when I stand up, and realize that the effect of the ayahuasca is stronger than I realized. Kneeling in front of the mesa (an altar between the shaman and the drinkers) I can feel the wind of his fan going through my body. It is a bright green color, filling me up. I can’t stop smiling. I feel like I am growing taller and straighter.

The rest of the night I feel drunk, fading in and out of sleep. I have a brief vision of Snow White leading a parade out of the F.A.O Schwartz toy shop, but it does not engage me very strongly. I stagger home at about 3 or 4 in the morning, and the drunk sensations do not go away until after dawn. The sensations are mostly physical rather than mental. I think that I need to learn how to read my body better, get better connected. Later in the morning, after the ayahuasca has worn off, I dream that I am a tantric masseuse.

Night 4

Tonight I ask Shakti to teach me what is important in my life. I bring up the image of her embracing me again.

I kneel for a long time. I lie down when I start to feel some mild physical sensations. I see an ocean of glowing, multicolored ice cubes. It is gorgeous. Then I see flows of purple lava, but it fades quickly. My final image is my offering a wooden tray full of dark wooden blocks to my daughter. Nothing happens for a long time. I am bored. I wonder what the last image means. Is it a connection to my daughter that I just can’t cut?

A couple of hours after the ceremony, after many people have gone home, some visions of landscapes come to me. But as I move into them I think that I left my daughter behind in that little port town down in the bay. I turn back to get her and the visions stop. I start to think of my ex again. I think of how painful her life was, of the unfulfilled dreams after she moved to the United States. The pain starts to engulf me. I am inside of a dark cylinder, that goes deep, deep down into unperceivable depths. I am aware of how much her pain has seeped into me. I also feel the pain of my parents, of Luna. But it is all trivial compared to the pain of my ex. It is a pain that is bottomless, a pain that seeps into me and pervades every fiber.

It goes on like this for what feels like hours. Finally, the nausea comes into my stomach. I get on my hands and knees to vomit, but it won’t come. Only a few burps and dry heaves. “Come on,” I implore. Finally, it explodes. And then more dry heaves, digging deeper than I thought possible. And more vomit comes out, and then more.

At the end, my body is shaking with tears dripping down my face. I kneel and hear a woman singing (quite probably from the music that was playing). It is loving, nurturing, healing. I raise my head and open my mouth. A warm, glowing milk fills my throat and torso, radiating out to every corner of my body. It is pure love and healing.

I see waves of a purplish-pink substance, translucent and filled with bubbles, thick and viscous like a very soft plastic. It washes over me, again and again, purifying, nurturing, making me feel a boundless love like I never could have imagined.

I am praying in front of a huge, wooden Buddha. I see the back of my ex-wife’s head in front of me. She is also praying. Then I see the dark shaft of her pain, but now it is outside of my body. Golden threads curl and unfurl from the depths of the shaft. I know that this is her illness. Some of the threads reach out and embrace me, entwining me in their light. I think about how deep my connection to my ex is, something from before we were born, something that can not be cut. I have no deep connection like that with Luna. But I have betrayed my ex. I can’t betray Luna, too.

But I had to betray my ex to save myself. Her illness was a poison, slowly killing me. I certainly can not go back to her and be suffused with that poison again. Families are insane. They take love and spiritual connections, and then destroy them in these hells of mutual criticism, nagging, disappointment, jealousy, smothering and betrayal. No I can’t go back to that. But I must recognize this connection.

Then I see bodies being hacked into pieces with blood flowing everywhere. And the purple-pink substance come back again, washing over the flesh and blood, transforming it into boundless love.

As the last purple-pink wave washes away, I open my eyes. My body is shaking. I have never felt anything like this before. Of all the experiences I was imagining or hoping for with ayahuasca, boundless love was not one of them. I’ve always thought of it as flaky New Age stuff. I take a sip of water. It is incredibly sweet, as if artificial sweetner were added (sort of like the artificial feeling of the neon lights). I put it down, worried that somebody had vomited in there (when I drink again several hours later, the water is fine). I step outside to pee. The stars in the sky and the leaf in front of me all seem part of the same dimension, with no distance between them.

Back inside I collapse in a chair. After a while, my mind starts chattering again. I think about how I will tell this to friends. I want to shut it off but I can’t. Finally at dawn, I walk home. When I take a walk in the hills in the late morning, I can feel the sensations of boundless love rise again. I wonder if the boundless love came from outside me, or if it something I had inside me all the time without knowing it. What should I do with an experience like this?

Night 5

I drink a cup and a half tonight. Most of the other participants have reduced to half a cup, or stopped drinking altogether. They don’t like it when they lose their sense of time and place, when they get lost in chaos and negative experiences. They want mild experiences with practical insights. But I want it strong. Only when it is strong can I escape that trivial chattering and analysis in my mind. I promise again to cut friends, family and job. And I imagine Shakti’s embrace.

I get some mild light shows at the beginning, but nothing strong. I begin to feel my ex’s pain again. But the female voice tells me to put it away. I see a black, felt bag attached to a wall, and put the dark shaft in there. This is one of many bags attached to the wall. Then I see that I am inside a huge black sphere with thousands of pinpoint lights in it. The bags are miniscule compared to the size of the sphere. I am pulled into the middle of the sphere, surrounded by a smaller sphere of streaming golden and silver sparks.

Then nothing for 4-5 hours, until long after the ceremony is finished and most people have already gone home. I would go home too, but my body can’t move. I am still chattering to myself, trying to figure out why I am not experiencing any effect, when the physical sensations start to grow stronger. I try to shut off the thoughts, or let them flow past. Again, and again, and again, and again, and again.

Then I remember the instructions from from the first night, “FUCK INSIGHTS!” I latch on to this, thinking of the many reasons why insights should be fucked. Insights are my job, it’s what I do. I generate insights 40 hours a week. It’s my meal ticket. I can’t build anything, can’t grow anything, can’t take care of anything. But I can generate so many insights that I can no longer tell which ones have truth and which ones are bullshit. When I comment on a conference paper and say “it has many insights,” what I really mean is that the paper has nothing meaningful or substantial to say. It only has some vaguely interesting observations on trivial things. Insights are the death of truth. They are all about translating truth into words. But the very act of translating an experience or sensation or feeling into the abstraction of a word has already distorted much of the truth. How much worse for me, with my relentless skill in translating everything into ever more abstract concepts and ideas. I have no idea what threads of truth are still left. That is the danger of ayahuasca: it lets loose all the crap and self-justifications and fears of ego in your mind just as much as it frees up the true feelings and allows direct connection to the universe. And we have so little ability to distinguish between them. Many of us grab on to those insights, especially when they seem to provide solutions to practical problems. But when we translate them into practical solutions, we have already lost that visceral truth underneath, we are already misguided. Insights have fucked me long enough. It’s time for me to fuck them!

That was an insight too. I laugh. There’s no escaping insights. We are so screwed. But that one felt good.

My mind turns to my job. I see that I am in the service of the devil, cultivating and spewing poisonous bullshit. The bullshit runs unfathomably deep. Every one of us professors thinks we see the bullshit around us, even the bullshit in the university. And most of us think we stand outside of it, that we are somehow offering our students an alternative. But it is precisely this belief that is our blindness, that makes us such an indispensable part of the bullshit dissemination system. Our main role is to teach students to sit still for long periods, listen, ingest and regurgitate. We instill them with skepticism, competitiveness, attachment to being right, guilt, overwork and self-doubt. We think we are critical of society, but we are the ones who train and produce people who will become polticians, greedy businessmen, lawyers, soldiers, and all those other people who make up those institutions that we so readily criticize. Or we’re preparing them for long lives in their office cubicles, never able to stand up for themselves, or to even understand what they desire and need because they are so aware of the other point of view, the possible ramifications, the dangers, the needs of society, and are so dominated by intellect. In the name of freeing their mind, we open them up to Big Brother. The diplomas that are supposed to create opportunity are actually proof of submission, that they have reformed all their ambitions and desires into the shape of what other people want.

We can see the results in how students change over their four years at university. When they spew poisonous bullshit as first-years, it is usually obvious and untactful. We train them to be more nuanced and skillful in their deployment of poisonous bullshit, to learn how to spew it so  it sticks. Sure, we teach them logic, analysis, how to use evidence, how to write clearly. Those techniques are fine. But we confuse those techniques for truth. They are only tools, which can be used to demonstrate just about anything. The more we focus lopsidedly on these intellectual tools, the more we are unable to understand, believe, or even to perceive the emotions and impulses that shape how we deploy those tools—those things that come out in biases, assumptions, convictions and the rampant emotional immaturity of professors. And because we are so unaware, these emotions remain unrecognized, untended, transformed into vile, poisonous bile as the only way they can be expressed. Just sit in any academic department (or read the blogs of ex-academics) and feel the anxiety, insecurity, resentment, status fears, jealousy and anger of graduate students and faculty. The atmosphere would be almost visceral if not for the enormous efforts we have made to block off any awareness of it. How can any institution that creates this kind of poisonous bile not be serving the devil?

None of these ideas are new to me, although I am expressing them more forcefully and dramatically than usual. But finally, after 4 years of hesitation it is now clear to me that I can no longer stay in my job.

I suddenly have a childhood vision of my grandfather’s farm. I used to stand at the back of a tractor that he drove around the farm. One day, two other children whom I did not know were visiting the farm and were allowed to drive the tractors. I jumped on the back of one of the tractors and the boy yelled at me to get off, that it was not safe. I got off and looked at my grandfather. He did not do anything to defend me. It was a small thing, but I burst into tears. I realize that from that day I began to lose interest in the farm, and even in nature altogether.

I hate the voice of safety. It is the voice of authority, of absolutism. It is a dogmatic voice that crushes the spirit. How many children have been similarly crushed by the voice of safety? Safety speaks in absolutes, and allows no argument or disagreement. It poses itself as pure common sense, which you are foolish not to follow. All reasonable arguments are crushed with the fear that “something bad might happen” (the same fear that lawyers use to ruin the world). And it tells us that this bad is so bad that it is worth sacrificing all the possible good that can come to us, and that it is even worse than all the dissatisfaction, disappointment and dullness that will come from listening to the voice of safety. It tells that the only good worth having is the good that comes from defending ourselves and being safe. The voice of safety does not even allow for reasonable compromise, only slavish obedience. The arguments for staying in my job—economic security, status, the fear of failure and that I may go down some even stupider path with no return—are also the voices of safety. The voices that crush.

Yes, these are all more insights. And they are just more forceful versions of thoughts I have had before. But they come with an unreasonable extreme and an emotional conviction that tells me they are not my usual intellectual contortions, that they have their roots somewhere deeper. And I did not vomit all night long, or even have diarrhea (although plenty of farts and burps). This is not shit to be purged. It is the shit of my soul.

The cleaning lady comes at 7AM and I have to go back to my room. During the walk, I resolve to listen more carefully when such feelings and ideas come up in my daily life, and to listen less to the reactive voices of ego and safety that always come in their wake. If those voices won’t compromise, I’ll just have to ignore them.

Night 6

I tell the apprentice shaman (who used to work for a hedge fund) that I am a bit frustrated with my lack of visions and difficulties in losing myself in deeper experiences. He suggests that I take a second dose about 40 minutes after the first, after the MAOIs have done their work and the DMT can run free. Before stating my intention, I express my gratitude to Shakti and ayahuasca for what it is already done for me. I reiterate my commitment to cut friends, family and job, and ask her to guide me deeper into the truth.

Again, nothing much happens for a long time, even after the second dose. It only starts to take effect gradually towards the end of the ceremony. There are no visions—indeed for most of the night I only see a blank darkness when I close my eyes. I feel it physically: the feel of the blanket, the breeze of the fan, the energies surging through my body, and most of all the music. I am there in the moment, not off in a different world. I know the ayahuasca has really set in when I start to listen to the icaro. In the earlier sessions I usually found the icaros and the sound of the fan a bit annoying. This time is voice is amazingly powerful, deep and rich. I hear incredible nuances and shifts in tonality and melody.

The ceremony finishes and the apprentice turns on some music. I easily dissolve into sounds. As is common for me on psychedelics, the different instruments and parts of the music become highly distinct. But now they reintegrate on a higher, emotionally saturated level. I am riveted by the emotion in some (but not all) of the singing. Every few minutes, I feel energy flowing through my body in waves. Sometimes it reaches out to my toes and fingers, making them curl. It is the same energy as an orgasm, but reaching farther and deeper than any orgasm ever does. I realize that lust and sex are always a search, for some deeper, core feeling and truth. I feel like I am getting far closer to that core than ever before.

Thoughts and insights come to my awareness every now and then. But instead of getting caught up in them, I see how it is just my ego trying to justify something that it wants, and explain away something it doesn’t want. I see how the over-analysis takes me farther away from the truth. I see how my thoughts serve to distort my emotions. I see how I use thinking to look for the cracks in everything, to never appreciate the pleasure as I encounter it. I see how I internalize other people’s negative comments. I see how my ego stuffs those negative comments into a corner and lets them fester and rot in my soul. I see how I change my thoughts in light of what I think other people might think of them. I see how I also deceive myself in my attempts to create a better self-image. I see how I fear criticism, how I fear somebody will say something nice about me (and usually misunderstand me in the process) and how I fear that nobody will pay attention to me at all–there is no way to win. I see how nearly every attempt to make something better just makes it worse because of our abysmal ignorance of what we really need. I see how the more we learn and anlyze, the more abysmal that ignorance becomes. I see how I have no idea what is good for me because I am so lost in my intellectual contortions. I see how we, as a species are totally fucked. And it is hilarious. Every thought dissolves into laughter. Sometimes it is a gut-busting laughter. And the thought disappears. As the laughter dies down, sometimes I mutter, “We’re so fucked.” And then I return to the physical ecstasy and sound.

I hear several moans of pleasure around me. I think what a wonderful thing it is for 14 of us to be lying here, lost in our own worlds but simultaneously sharing this. I open my eyes and see that most of them have gone home. There are only about 4 of us left. That makes me laugh, too.

The shaman has brought his wife and baby, who are sleeping in the corner. Every now and then I hear the baby cry for a few seconds, which fills me with indescribable pleasure. One time I look over and see a silhouette of the mother sitting and cradling the baby, and it is so beautiful.

One of the few visions I have is of Luna and I having sex. Sometimes I am inside my body during the sex, and other times I am outside, watching us fuck as we float in dark space. Waves of happiness flow through my body, sometimes creating audible moans and bringing me to tears. I think that making love to Luna is as close to perfection as I can get in this world. It is not only the sensation and the power of her boundless libido and huge pulsating orgasms. It is the fact that she has so much love to give. I can see it when she is with animals and children, and her pleasure in taking care of people. But she has so much trouble expressing it. Some of the trouble is because of her parasitic and ungrateful family. Some is because of her emotionally distant boyfriend (me) who finds so many ways to deflect it. Most is just because of her volatile personality and many ways she has of undermining herself (like most of us do). But when we have sex, that love comes out openly, mingling with the physical. I think what an honor it is that she has chosen to love me. She could have any of the dozens of men who routinely come courting her, and yet she chose me. And I think of the love in her eyes when she gives me something—and of all of the times when I have resisted that generosity. But when we have sex, it all comes together—the love, the generosity, the passion, the vulnerability and the pleasure—open and flowing. Some people dream all of their lives for moments as perfect as we have when making love. I can have it every day when I am with Luna. Why do I get so hung up on the other stuff?  None of that matters compared to this.

It goes on like this for hours: laughter, music, sex with Luna. All of it pulsating and surging through my body. It is still going on when the cleaning lady comes, although it has settled down a bit. I barely manage to stagger back to my bed. The entire day, I just sit there, smiling, recalling the sensations, feeling the reverberations as I pet the dog or look at the mountains.

My only thoughts during the day are reflections on the physicality of my ayahuasca experience. It was so sensual and colored by feelings of inexhaustible love. This caught me completely by surprise. For most people, ayahuasca is predominantly visual. But my visual experiences were very much secondary.  I was expecting and hoping for all kinds of things: to fight with demons, a death and rebirth experience (thus my frequent promises to cut), to undergo a mythic journey or to speak with alien beings. But instead I got boundless love and physical ecstasy, something I was definitely not expecting.

I have never thought of myself as a physical guy–quite the opposite in fact. But I can find precedents for it in the past five years of my life. During the second half of my marriage, we did not have sex. And with other people I usually did not like hugging or touching. I even told myself I did not like physical contact. But the month after I decided to break with my wife was an explosion of sex, masturbation and massages. As I have expressed earlier in this blog, I truly admire and am grateful to some of the sex workers I met in this period. It ended with my meeting Luna. It was love at first smile, and we were in bed within 4 hours (she says for the first time since her husband died several years before). She has a supercharged libido, and to my surprise I have usually been able to keep up with her.  Since then, I have been much more open (although still sometimes uncomfortable) to touching and hugging my friends. And I have been giving much more attention to comfortable surroundings, showers, and sitting at home naked. And spending lots of money on massages of all kinds. And Luna and I are still together, beyond all odds.

If these are not all just random changes, what do they mean? I have usually assumed that they are just compensation for my history of excessive self-repression of my sensual side. Sometimes I even fall into a more regrettable yet conventional interpretation of them as just routine lust drives, something that I should try to overcome. But the power of these sensations brought on by the ayahuasca, along with the fact that I was the only person experiencing it this way, makes me think that my connection to these physical sensations is deeper and more visceral than I have realized. My previous aversion to touch had more to do with the adaptations of my lonely, low-contact childhood and my fear at what might happen if I allowed that sensuality to burst free without control. But I need to embrace sensuality, not escape from it. I remember a passing thought from last night: A spiritually-minded masseuse I have visited told me briefly of the awakening that had convinced her to change her life and become a healer. I should ask her to tell me the story of her conversion in more detail.

The retreat hosts tell us that many of the effects of the ayahuasca and its cleansing may not become apparent until six months or more after the drinking. We are not supposed to drink alcohol, have sex, masturbate or eat pork, duck or piranha for one month after the dieta. This past week, I do find myself more attuned to nature, more in the present, sometimes walking around with a huge smile on my face. I have more enthusiasm for exercise and yoga. I can sometimes even feel some of the emotions and feelings of the ayahuasca sessions surge up within me again. None of this was true yesterday, however, when I went to campus for the first time in a month, where I absorbed the anxieties and nervous plans of my students and colleagues. By the end of the day I had that same barren, slightly irritated and somewhat restless feeling that I have lived with so routinely over the past 25 years. I took a long walk through Central Park and meditated in the zendo afterwards, but still couldn’t shake the feeling. Finally, as I took the subway back to Queens and saw the fleshier bodies and softer expressions of my immigrant neighbors (a generalization that is not so true for my neighbors from East Asia as for Latin America, Tibet, India and the Philippines) and watched a baby playing across from me, I felt the smile come back. And I had a lovely walk home where the stars, trees and bricks seemed almost indistinguishable.

I’ve signed up for massage classes. I’ve even told a couple of people that I plan to quit my job at the end of the semester in December, on the assumption that if I tell a few people it will actually come true (although I’m not sure I said it with a conviction that convinced them). I’ll see what happens. I think one key is, instead of planning it all out, to be open to whatever comes and honestly distinguish the true from the crap.