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Drugs not Meditation

I read Jack Kornfield’s After the Ecstasy, the Laundry a couple of months ago. It persuaded me to take psychedelic drugs instead of meditate. I’m pretty confident that was not Kornfield’s intention in writing the book. So let me explain.

Here is the basic premise of the book:

Meditative practices (Kornfield is a Buddhist, but the book includes examples from several religions) can produce ecstatic and blissful states, grand unity experiences, ego extinction, samadhi, death and rebirth passages and other kinds of mystical experiences that are one of the goals of many spiritual pursuits. But these states are hard to maintain. The seeker may think his life has been eternally transformed. But then the meditation retreat is over and the seeker returns home from the mountains into the daily life of traffic, work, families and distractions. Not only does the bliss itself grow more remote, but even the realizations and intentions to live a transformed life start to dissipate. Even Asian masters who leave their monasteries to run workshops and teach classes in the west often become prey to sex, money, power and the endless distractions and worries of daily life.

Kornfield reminds us that the ecstasy was only a stage in much longer (and endless?) process of awakening. The next step is to learn to live in the moment, accept the life that you have and appreciate the small things. Learn to a life of community, daily rituals, charity, compassion, sharing, caring for the environment and hanging out with dharma friends. This is the most important wisdom that comes from meditative practices, more important than the ecstasies.

Here is why meditation is like taking psychedelic drugs:

1) The ecstatic experience is temporary, and hard to integrate into daily life. That has always been a big complaint about substance-induced psychedelic experiences.

2) Both can have positive effects on health. Proponents of mediation emphasize its utility in stress reduction, improving brain performance, treating addiction, improving sex and as an adjunct to therapy. The same claims are made for psychedelic substances. Shamanic traditions call the substance medicines, and claim an ability to cure an even wider variety of physical and mental problems. Even clinical studies in the West have had positive results in using psychedelics to treat anxiety, addiction, PTSD, obsessive-compulsive disorder, cluster headaches and for general psychotherapy (See MAPS, and Heffter Institute).

3) There is a small possibility of negative health effects. Neither technique has any proven physical ill-effects. But a  bad drug trip can severely disrupt emotional well-being, especially in people who are already mentally unstable. And excessive psychedelic use can contribute to long term mental deterioration. But some meditators also experience overwhelming upsurges of negative emotions, not to mention long-term frustration and self-criticism when meditation is difficult and not having the effects that are expected. The negative feelings surrounding mediation are usually not so overwhelming as a bad drug trip—but this perhaps has more to do with the fact that many drug trips are taken without adequate preparation, whereas meditators generally have a large amount of self-discipline and awareness of what they are doing. Indeed, some bad nights (accompanied by appropriate purging) can be an essential part of an ayahuasca treatment.

As to long-term chronic effects, moderation seems again to be key. Kornfield mentions several masters who developed serious illnesses. Twenty to thirty years of sitting on your ass without much exercise is not a route to good health. (But, as with frequent psychedelic use, it is also not necessarily a route to bad health).

4) Both claim to provide access to the divine (indeed, the increasingly popular word “entheogen” to describe psychedelic substances means ‘generating the divine within’). They point to states of enlightenment or self-realization. But neither method takes you there directly or leaves you with what Jeb McKenna calls “abiding non-dual awareness.” To reach that state, you have to do some different kind of work. But both can delude you into thinking you have attained or are approaching that state already.

This kind of delusion can be actively encouraged by the proponents of each technique. Drug culture, however, is so fragmented and laden with caveats that I think it is less of a problem. The institutional force and sophisticated tones of contemporary Buddhism and the other meditative establishments are much more misleading. Here is the source of my biggest skepticism of Kornfield.

In another essay that I read a long time ago, Kornfield described the ecstatic experiences as a ‘booby prize.’ The true prize, real enlightenment, was in the next stage of being able to live in this world with enlightened clarity. This is a fairly standard Buddhist and Advaita claim. But the kind of ‘wisdom’ described in After the Ecstasy does not seem to have anything to do with this. Indeed, contemporary American Buddhism as a whole is fairly notorious for having dropped enlightenment as a goal. Kornfield talks of the continued process of ‘awakening,’ ‘realization’, and wisdom, but not enlightenment. He describes the kinds of insights that can come to many people as they become older, not just people who have been meditating for 30 years. As far as I can tell, it does nothing to apply the experiences of ecstasy and mystical experiences into daily life. Instead, it just teaches us to accommodate to the social and material obligations of this world. It is stuff that he could well have learned while earning his psychology PhD. It is a wisdom that is already everywhere even without meditation or ecstasy. (For a more extended critique of ‘consensus Buddhism’ see David Chapman’s blog)

As the tantrika in Daniel Odier’s Tantric Quest says, if the yogi can not leave his cave and be comfortable spending time in town, then the yogi has not yet really awakened. This seems to be the case with most of of Kornfield’s examples. But then Kornfield reframes their falls from bliss and awakening as true wisdom.

I don’t know if abiding enlightenment or non-dual awareness is really a possibility. I won’t know until I somehow manage to awaken to the fact that I am already there (to use the lingo of the genre). Meditation, drugs and ecstatic experiences are, at best, only tools with limited functions in that awakening.

But if I am searching for ecstatic, mind-blowing, self-therapeutic or difficult introspective experiences, I’ll choose drugs over meditation. As far as I can tell, the only reason to undergo years of meditation, muscle cramps, ‘witnessing’ that endless inane chatter in my head, and trying to persuade myself that all those hours were well-spent, is because I have some kind of bizarre work ethic. And even then, there’s no guarantee I’ll get my ecstatic experience. Although the drug experience is definitely easier in terms of time and long-term effort, this does not mean it comes without costs. A powerful experience needs good preparation and follow-up (which could include meditative practices). And it will still be mentally and physically draining.

The illegitimate and semi-legitimate status of psychedelics and entheogens combines with the power of these substances to hit you unawares to produce a much more open interpretive context. If I want to my experiences to be sanctioned and to learn how to interpret them as some kind of progress towards wisdom and better integration into society, I’ll join a meditation group. If I want challenges, confusion, adventure, endless possibility, shifting reference frames, or to just stare into the abyss with awe, I’ll stick with the drugs.

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Discursive Enlightenment

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.

The Zen Drug

I went to a Zen temple once in Chicago about 20 years ago. I’d read about Zen and Buddhism for a long time before that, but this was my first time to actually go to a temple and try to meditate. We also listened to a recorded talk from the master. A lot of it was about how zazen would help with stress reduction and finding a center of calmness in our hectic lives.

I was a bit skeptical about the whole stress reduction thing. While eating tea and cookies after the meditation, I asked the resident monk about this. It seemed to me that this focus on stress reduction was teaching us how to accommodate our daily lives rather than search for enlightenment. I also thought we were not supposed to chase after goals like stress reduction during zazen, but to just be aware without attention to possible benefits.

The monk told me that, yeah, it wasn’t quite like the zen of medieval China and Japan. It was adapting to the needs of American society. And that was the best thing about Buddhism and Zen, it has always changed and adapted. Zen in Japan was not like Ch’an in China, which was not like Mahayana in India, which was not like Hinayana two and a half thousand years ago. Buddhism has adopted and changed in everyplace that it has spread. North America and Europe are the most recent frontiers, where the most dynamic change is happening. Let’s see where it takes us.

I thought that was a great answer. I was a budding historian and confirmed relativist, so anything that talked about change and local adaptation would seem true to me. I wouldn’t judge at Buddhism as practiced in Thailand, or Japanese Pure Land based on how much it adhered to my own rigid preconceptions about what Buddhism should be. I would try to understand it as the adherents understand it, to appreciate what it did for them. Why shouldn’t I approach Western Buddhism with the same attitude?

But it wasn’t a great enough answer to make me go to the temple again or continue meditating. In fact, meditating made me angry.

Instead, I focused my devotion and practice even more deeply on the academy. And over the next several years I learned to deepen my commitment to change and relativism by developing analyses of how and why change happened in distinct ways in different times and places. What were the social contexts and particular historical trajectories that created each cultural development? What larger categories of economy, society, politics and precedent could explain it? Of course, constructing these kinds of analyses only created more stress rather than ameliorate it. But stress wasn’t the point, was it? Truth was—at least if we understand truth as recognition by colleagues that you have used their categories and methods in skillful yet innovative ways.

I don’t think this brief zen episode was very important in and of itself. But it took place in a period when I was being painfully defeated in my angry struggle against graduate school and slowly surrendering to professionalization. The struggle continued for a couple more years, but it was a lost cause. The completion of six months of concentrated dissertation writing was the moment of final surrender. Even if my subsequent professional behavior was somewhat slack, non-careerist and idiosyncratic compared to my colleagues, the institution still shaped most of my thoughts and desires for over a decade.

Now, after about five years of fitful attempts to reconstruct my soul, I look back on the monk’s response and find it tragic. He’s given up the search for truth and insight, and left it to other institutions that are even less equipped to find it than Zen. He was helping to restructure Zen as a drug that helps relieve the symptoms but does not address the illness. Zen is becoming one more supportive adjunct for the perpetuation of institutions that create stress and illusion.