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.
I’ve done Zen and Vipassana (Theravada Buddhist) meditation. More recently I’ve also tried the tantric breath and sex exercises. I’m going to stick with the latter.
I’ve been attracted to Zen and Theravada for a long time—since my teens. Its sparse and focused aesthetic appealed to my puritan tendencies. No complicated metaphysics, no need for gods, no demands to be faithful or dogmatic—just practical exercises and enigmatic statements. A few pointless rituals, genealogies and guru worship have accumulated around it. But the direct, bare-bones teachings are still easy to perceive underneath. It is an Appolonic approach to enlightenment: Rational, steady, refined and distanced.
I liked Zen and Vipassana because it was just like I behaved anyway: intellectual, self-disciplined, out of touch with my emotions and sensuality. The endless hours of sitting, the ‘stillness’, the ‘witnessing’ of thoughts and emotions—not all that much different from years in the archives and library. But I know people who have been sitting for years and years (in both zendos and archives) and don’t seem any the better for it. In fact, they sometimes seem the worse for it, getting arrogant and competitive about how long they can sit.
It’s also incredibly hard for me. I just can’t shut off or merely observe that chattering mind. One way that history is clearly not like Zen, is that history training works to deeply entangle our egos with our thoughts. We can ‘witness’ the thoughts and feelings of others, but not our own. Our thoughts are our careers, our lives, our glory, our selves. And we never ‘witness’ our feelings. Instead we ignore and deny them, crushing them into warped little balls of neurotic tics and immaturities. For me, a meditation practice that resembles historical practice in so many ways is not the way to overcome my ego’s attachments to my thoughts. This is the way that I built that attachment.
And I can’t help but think that all the sitting is just a method of social control—something that was overemphasized as Buddhism became institutionalized and respectable. This is even more true in the West, where Buddhist meditation is mostly touted as a method of stress reduction. Something to make us moderate, build equanimity, help us accommodate to life’s routines and go back to work.
In contrast, tantric exercises try to harness desires and facilitate the flow of energies through the body as the vehicle to enlightenment. My chattering mind shuts up as I watch the energy flowing inside and out; feel my body distorting, tearing, melting and crumbling; feel the effects of the exercises on orgasm and touch; it keeps me on track. It helps me to see that there is much more than the limited experiences of my rational mind. During the day, I often stop to watch my breathing, feel the energies, notice the colors, feel the textures. It is a dose of stress reduction to be sure—but also reminding me that there is something other than that world of daily concerns and vanity that I have lived in for so long. On the surface tantra seems a Dionysian approach to enlightenment: Channelling desire and fomenting mental effects. But in practice it feels more polytheistic, recognizing the great diversity of forms.
Some tantric practitioners say that it is the faster route to enlightenment. But it is also a trickier and more dangerous one, throwing up many temptations and diversions along the way. I can see that all the mental and sensual experiences that are so helpful now for me can become an obstacle, a distraction on the way to clear perception.
It especially hard to wade through all the neo-tantra that pervades the west. All the promises of greater intimacy and better orgasms and bliss—nice therapy, but I want more than that. Not to mention that tantra can be really expensive, too. And so many of the people involved are New Age flakes who drive me nuts. To be sure, neo-tantra often delivers on the promises of better orgasms and intimacy. That stuff is fine and helpful, but I am after more than that. I want not only bliss and better social functioning. I want to open my mind to what it has never perceived before, perhaps even enlightenment.
The less sexualized tantra associated with Tibetan Buddhism and white tantra aren’t much better. They are often obsessed with social bonding, gurus, incessant dharma talks, helping the environment, special interest discussion groups , social justice, and how to make meditation into a practical part of your life. I’m much more drawn to the rich symbolism of Tibetan tantra than I was in my puritan Zen days. But the p.c. and self-help platitudes make me lose interest quickly. (So far, I like the Ipsalu Tantra exercises–they are straightforward and effective, good focus on spiritual development, with a minimum of rhetoric and promises. We’ll see.)
And yes, I guess a lot of it is about the sex. My desire is not going away, so I may as well try to use it. I’ve spent the first half of my life in classrooms and libraries—with good professional results complemented by lousy personal ones (including lots of lust but no ability to do anything with it). I can’t see that spending the second half of my life sitting quietly would do me any better. With tantra, even if I do not reach enlightenment at least I will have enjoyed myself along the way.
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.