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.
“The natural universe is neither prickles nor goo exclusively. It’s gooey prickles and prickly goo.” –Alan Watts
“All perception of truth is the detection of an analogy.” –Henry Thoreau
“I maintain that the cosmic religious feeling is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research.” –Albert Einstein
I’m at the Psychedemia conference on integratic psychedelics into academia at the University of Pennsylvania. The two quotes above are from a poster presentation by Sarah McManus, titled “Pricles and Goo: Playing with Scientific and Psychedelic Metaphors.” She argues that the even though the scientific and intuitive (mystical? psychedelic?) traditions are often grasping towrads the same insights, their different metaphorical styles make it difficult for them to speak to each other. She wants to discover common ground between reason and insight.
She gave several quotes from scientists–most of which I can no longer remember–who confess that their models are never truth but only useful approximations; that we are nowhere near understanding the basic nature of the universe; and that at best science can only capture fleeting moments in time and make very limited, context-bound predictions.
I know we could dig up several more quotes from scientists asserting the opposite: a firm belief in theories and particles; that we are at the verge of understanding everything; and only have to work out the details to work out. But I think she has a point. As I have written elsewhere, the most exciting science creates some of the most mind-boggling mystical visions around.
But after reading the poster I wondered: Why would scientists want to study mystics and mysticism? Why should mystics care about science? I don’t think they have much to offer each other yet, even when they are heading in the same direction. The divergence between the two lies in more than just metaphors. There are also fundamental differences in how to gain knowledge and what to do with it. The universe may be prickly goo and gooey prickles–but our modes of accessing it excessively emphasize either the goo or the prickles.
Although some scientists like to make big theories and philosophize, most of science is about reducing the great, holistic, super-entwined structure of the universe down into manageable chunks that can be analyzed and transformed into clear, useful, focused results. They retreat in trepidation when confronted with ineffable, unmodular holism. This is both because of the need for testable hypotheses, and because of the social pressure to justify research through practical consequences. Mystics, however, are all about dissolving our attachment to the particular manifestations of the universe. learning to be aware of the whole and perceive the undifferentiated fabric. The scientists work hard to put words and formulas to the parts that they analyze. The mystics are searching for those experiences that are beyond words.
Some scientists are curious about the mystics. They even like to brain scan meditating monks. But even that is all about breaking the brain down into its modular parts to figure out how it works. It has nothing to do with helping people to reach those mystical experiences. In fact, encouraging an over-analytic mind may even make it more difficult to obtain those experiences. At most, after they study all their brain scans and understand the chemistry, science may be able to develop more drugs to facilitate mystic experiences (Alexander Shulgin, for example–as well as more underground chemists today). But there is little incentive to do so, because such drugs would surely be made illegal.
In the end, the mystical scenarios created by scientific theorizing are held from us at arms length, beautiful ideas for us to appreciate but not to experience. At best, we must take it on their word that a few elite mathematicians are experiencing ecstasy through the symmetries and algorithms they discover.
Some mystics (and scientists) like to point to the similarity between mystical perceptions and the conclusions of scientific research. But I never find that very compelling. The analogies are often vague and sometimes misleading representations of science. And I often feel that the appeal to science is merely an appeal to authority, a way to justify mysticism to a skeptical audience. It is not an appeal that really helps us to have the experience. And once you’ve had the experiences, you realize that the science offers just one of many possible interpretation.
Most scientific research into psychedelics these days has more modest goals, usually to investigate their potential for therapy (basically the only kind of research that can get government permission). The investigators recognize that mystical experiences are often a crucial part of the therapeutic experience—an experience which may lead to quitting smoking, curing cluster headaches, or reconciling to cancer. But they have little to say about that experience (at least in their published work). Their research is still limited to correlation, i.e. showing a high number of patients who receive the psychedelic treatment have good results as compared to those who take placebos. The reasons and mechanisms remain mysterious, and the experience itself is valued mainly for its practical results.
Technology is the one other place were many people see an overlap between psychedelic mysticism and science. Many people like to give credit to psychonauts and psychedelic drugs for many recent advances in computing and networking (although the military surely deserves as much, if not more credit). And in turn, structures and metaphors of networking, computing and information are providing new ways to interpret the psychedelic experience (among psychonauts at least–less so among institutionalized scientists). But the more thoughtful of these theorists will be the first to admit that it is just fun and games. That the most difficult thing about mystical and psychedelic experiences is that the minute you try to stop it, to think about it and describe it, you have lost it. That’s no use for science, and no use for mystics.
(But there is still the possibility that continued interaction of clinical scientists with people on psychedelics confronting the ineffable unverse will have some kind of long-term effect on science, and even vice versa. I suspect that the results will look quite different from the science and mysticism we currently have–perhaps something more like alchemy?)
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
Before listening to Led Zeppelin yesterday, I found myself in a huge, drafty space with eerie lights and loads of evil spirits floating around. The Indian music that was playing nurtured the evil by chiseling open the weak spots in my defenses. I started to worry about sorcery. It is not usually something that I worry about. I’ve often told my girlfriend that I don’t have to worry about ghosts and sorcerers hurting me because I don’t believe them, and she agrees. But this space was so otherworldly and alien that I easily began to understand why many ayahuasca drinkers felt vulnerable there and worried about sorcery. It didn’t help that both my ex-wife and girlfriend have asked monks and shamans to cast spells that will manipulate my affections, and possibly to punish me.
It also occurred to me that these evil spirits might just be my own poisonous emotions. This interpretation was much more appealing and I tried to convince myself it was true. But the problem is that sorcery is adept at deception. By treating the spirits as mere emotions, I might be lulled into dropping my defenses and lured into their clutches. It was a paranoid’s paradise.
It had all the makings of a bad trip. I had to do something. I turned off the music. And I made a practical decision: I have no idea how to deal with sorcery, but I do have some ideas about how to deal with poisonous emotions. Instead of fighting them, I would just go with the flow, see what images they produced and what memories they dragged up. It helped. That huge, threatening space got a little bit smaller and less drafty, and it filled up with filing cabinets. It was an historical archive! If I wanted a memory, all I had to do was look it up in a drawer and pull out the file. There’s me feeling lonely and abandoned in my crib. There’s me trying to bury myself in my grandmother’s bosom. There’s me listening to one of my old friends talk on and on, influencing my ideas about how to live. I even had some files about people close to me. There’s Luna living her childhood in desperate hope that she could make her absent father return.
But I quickly realized that there were limitations to this research (beyond the fact that I really had no way to cross-check my findings). The archive setting created a comfortable and familiar space that protected me from those rampaging spirits. But it is precisely the same space I have lived in over the past 20 years to repress and ignore those spirits. My researches might give me some intellectual insights, but they still keep me separate from those churning emotions. I am still fearful, unable to express or deal with them.
So I turned on the music again. This time I chose classic rock, something familiar that could appeal to the emotions of my youth. Having been a white, suburban teenager in the 70s and early 80s, I of course worship at the altar of Zep. So Zeppelin music seemed the most appropriate.
My last post reported some of the results of this musical choice. I outlined the bulk of that post while I imagined coming down from the Ayahuasca. At the time it seemed like a great way to build a bridge between my psychedelic experiences and intellectual interests. In hindsight, I am a bit more ambivalent. Framing my experience in academic terms is just one more way to avoid dealing with those poisonous emotions. And if I don’t deal with those emotions, they are going to keep on coming back as sorcery and other crappy things. Also, academic perspectives can not really deal with the overwhelming strangeness and impact of the worlds encountered through psychedelics. I have only had fleeting glimpses of those worlds. But from what I have seen I am flabbergasted by the complete indifference of that world to the processes of human history.
To be sure, an historical analysis could show the ways in which experiences of that world are shaped by social and cultural expectations, and how those expectations are built on the descriptions and expectations that came before. In other words, the meanings we project onto that world are not inherent to that world itself, but derive from our social experience. And this is all be good and true. But the danger of this kind of analysis is the implication that it is all about social construction. It too easily leads to the insistence that all experience is really only about power, money, Darwinian survival or neurochemical balances—i.e all the things capitalism claims to be true (even while the real practice of capitalism is all about creating and promoting desires and fantasies). It shows no respect for the overwhelming impact of the experience itself—however we construct it. Some people talk about ego death, a higher plane, an alternate universe, a white light, a mystical experience, getting closer to god, or whatever. Right now the only words I can use to describe it are “a place where all kinds of really weird shit happens that has a vague relation to us, but really couldn’t care less about us.” Other people talk about being suffused with a feeling of pure love. I haven’t experienced that, but it seems like a better narrative than the one I am on and I am willing work towards that goal.
Some religions have channelled and promoted this experience in a way that gives meaning and social context. This is rarely the case now. Most mainstream religions have become hostile to ecstatic experiences, especially independent ones. But we live in time when chemicals, sexual techniques, raves and a variety of gurus promise easy access to these experiences. And for no more than the exchange of a few dollars, the chemicals can often deliver on the promise (the other methods can too, but much less frequently). But these experiences necessarily take place at the margins. The large religions and political establishment are much more invested in suppressing the chemicals and sexual commerce than in integrating them as part of the social fabric. How can we make sense of these experiences in a way that does not reduce them to the clichés of materialist capitalism?
Psychoanalysis is one modern trend that has developed a good relation with psychedelics. Psychoanalytic self-exploration has proven to be a good way to create order and meaning out of the experiences. But they only go so far. Personal history seems to be a good framework for accessing those experiences, but at some point we reach a space where it seems totally irrelevant and we are left on our own. (although Carl Jung had many ideas about how to extend psychoanalysis beyond the personal. See also the work of Stanislav Graf).
Science, on the other hand, has not developed a good relation with psychedelics. It rarely engages with the experience, and often tries to explain it away when it does. Among scientists who are open to the experience on its own terms, their elucidation of chemical and neurological structures have only tentative insight. Other scientists are exploring practical uses for psychedelics that range from curing cluster headaches to stopping cigarette addiction to easing the anxiety of cancer patients. This is a necessary way to go, given the social and legal constrains on psychedelic use. But this approach ultimately depends on this-world justification for the psychedelic experience. It only leaves us on the doorstep.
Many proponents of psychedelic use have embraced Eastern or shamanistic religions as a way to make sense of their experiences. I’ve spent enough time in my girlfriend’s ghost-infested landscape in rural Thailand, and seen enough of her ghost-free life in Bangkok and the U.S. to think that these religions will not translate easily to the modern world of chemicals and individualistic psychonautics–at least not in their mystical sense (although Buddhism as stress-relief is doing well). The tribal/art-based sociability surrounding Burning Man and other festivals may be working towards an innovative integration of the psychedelic experience and our modern social lives. I have never attended, so I can only speculate. My impression from reading accounts is that it is still in a state of flux: the arrival of big money and air-conditioned RVs is changing the nature of the festival, and many attendees only feel loss when they return home from the festival, unable to incorporate the experience into their daily lives.
For now, at least, I am more attracted to personal exploration that mass gathering and changing the world. I am surely infected by modern individualism. I also find the broader capitalist-scientific world that we live in to be equal parts fascinating, objectionable and attractive. And, for now, I am still attached to my skills in historical research and analysis. However much the psychedelic world may be indifferent to us, the way we experience these psychedelic and sexual encounters are at least partly a product of life in this world of science and capitalism (see previous post). If we are going to find meaning and significance in these encounters, we have to work with what we have. . . . I see I am convincing myself about the value of my last post.
My posting yesterday inspired me to drink a cup of ayahuasca, which in turn inspired me to think more about what I wrote about sex work yesterday . I also listened to Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog,” and it occurred to me that I would willingly pay a lot of money—at least a month’s rent—to a woman who could perform a sensual dance for me that embodied the sensations I felt while listening to this song. I also realized that not just any talented woman would do. It would have to be a woman who was black and buxom.
This fantasy can be unpacked in many ways–and I cycled through a lot of them: misogyny and the objectification of women; unexplored racism; power relations; infantile fantasies of my grandmother; my anima; or as a manifestation of the great earth mother. My conclusions were tentative, but one fact remained: This fantasy is still lodged in my soul.
The fantasy also seemed like the perfect bargain of late capitalism (i.e. the capitalism that has moved beyond production and fulfilling needs and now concentrates on services that create and fulfill desires). I would get my deepest fantasies satisfied in return for a substantial monetary remuneration for the skilled service. The promise of capitalism fulfilled! Deals like this are already quite common, except that the service providers are usually called therapists. And if we prorate for time and expense, I doubt that therapists are any more successful at generating satisfaction than sex workers.
Of course, this wonderful capitalist bargain it is not really so simple. The first problem is that if all desires were so easily fulfilled, capitalism would quickly lose steam. Consumers have to be left somewhat unsatisfied, willing to come back for more, always in the belief that next time will hit the spot with fulfillment achieved. But my fantasy is predicated on a one-time payment. I could not afford such payments regularly (like the therapists demand). There is a chance that, if conditions are just right, the one encounter would hit the spot perfectly and some kind of catharsis would be attained (I am not just speculating idly). But structurally speaking, the chances are small. It is likely that further desire would be generated.
The problem is not only that the mechanisms of capitalism are designed more for the further extraction of profit rather than the satisfaction of fantasies, for the creation of desire more than its fulfillment. There is also the danger that the consumer will forget that this is essentially a ritualized and professional encounter. For it to work, it has to operate on a symbolic level as much as a physical one. But all too often, the customer will mistake the fantasies he projects on the woman for the woman herself (since this is my fantasy I am generalizing the sex worker as a woman, although this need not be the case). Indeed, a successful sex worker has to be skilled at attracting and reflecting such projections. This is when the encounter becomes a problem, when the customer confuses his fantasy for reality, is in a constant state of increased desire, and in worst-case scenarios starts to pay far more than he can afford in a desperate attempt to realize his fantasy. The ideal capitalist bargain begins to look more and more like late capitalist exploitation (These ideas are also inspired by a posting in Tits and Sass).
But exploitation of who by whom? I don’t think it is clear. At one extreme we could say that, like any good entrepreneur, the sex worker is just trying to maximize her profit. She needs to recognize an opportunity when it comes and milk it for what it is worth. On the other end, we could also argue that the exploitation is the other way around, that any relation in which a man pays money for sex is characterized by masculine aggression and domination that degrades and objectifies the woman. I don’t think either of these arguments entirely hits the mark. Because, ultimately, when the fantasies are at play it is about so much more than exploitation and money. Even when the sex workers claim they are only in it for the money, and the customers are sexist, domineering jerks—these are attitudes that are easy to adopt because they are accepted and even expected as sufficient justification in the context of capitalist norms. They may well be true, but they only scratch the surface of an encounter that is much more complex, shot through with dreams and fantasies we rarely talk about openly.
At the same time, those dreams do not represent some irreducible non-capitalist core. Tantric goddesses and sex surrogates play up the mythic and therapeutic aspects of their work, but still make good money and market themselves wisely. My fantasy of a buxom black woman whose “honey drips” and will grind, rob me blind and then transform into a woman that will “hold my hand, tell me no lies and make me a happy man,” may be a reenactment of distant goddess mother archetypes and myths (or it may be sexist, racist tripe). But that reenactment can not be separated from the sights, sounds, social structures and churning desire machines of modern capitalism and Led Zeppelin.
I have been thinking about what my next large research project will be . . . and whether I should even have one at all. I keep coming back to the idea of a global history of drugs, commercialized sex and the idea of freedom over the past two centuries. This may be something I can wrap both my head and my heart around.
First, here is what I am imagining in academic terms:
The international movement to abolish slavery from the late 18th through the 19th century established ideas of freedom and slavery that has shaped the ways that we think about morality, politics and personal values to this day. Perhaps most importantly, they established a polar opposition between freedom and slavery that were taken to be self-evident. This binary has made it difficult for us to understand the many gray areas that lie between these two poles. The temperance/anti-opium and anti-prostitution movements were the first two major major post-abolition transnational social movements of the 19th century. They latched onto this vocabulary of freedom and slavery in a big way, shaping the way we still talk about drugs and commercial sex. Ironically, these suppression movements arose in the context of expanding global capitalism, and what better exemplifies the markets, urges and consumerism of capitalism than sex and drugs? Both are commodities in nearly indestructable markets in which the logic of prices, supply and demand and all of the other capitalist fetishes survive and flourish even in conditions of repression. Culturally, sex, drugs and the fantasy of freedom virtually embody the desires, urges and dreams that are the life-blood of capitalism. Yet sex and drugs have been primary targets of global suppression in the capitalist world. And both are usually suppressed in the name of freedom: freedom from addiction, freedom from exploitation, freedom from enslavement to our passions, freedom from druglords, pimps, traffickers, chemicals . . . etc. Indeed, drugs, sex trade and the preservation of freedom are frequently justifications for intervention–often violent–into domestic lives and foreign countries. What better way to understand the paradoxes of modern life and the consciousness of globalization?
It sounds fine as an academic project. As I outline it in my mind, however, I am increasingly dissatisfied. It is all too easy for me to fall into those familiar academic patterns and analyses that will make this book indistinguishable from so many other books: some criticisms of the state capitalism and social control projects; an ironic look at the consequences of regulation and suppression; all flavored with an “I-understand-things-more-deeply-than-you” smirk. I can see where I might add something new by looking at the global dimensions and the interaction of these three phenomena that are usually kept separate. But ultimately the prospect of producing yet another critical, skeptical tome—framed in footnotes and passive voice—leaves me feeling empty.
To put it differently, the inevitable result of all my training in skeptical criticism is to turn it on my own mode of researching, writing and thinking. And when I watch myself thinking about these two topics—drugs and commercial sex—I see how quickly I start thinking of various abstractions and convolutions that will make them acceptable to an academic audience. What insights will I water down, what topics will I avoid, what conclusions will I delete? And once I produce this properly formulated academic tome, I will have contributed to the very structures that put commercial sex and drugs into this cultural hinterlands where we can’t talk about them openly. I would reinforce the very sense of illegitimacy and danger that I had intended to subject to critical analysis in the first place.
Let me explain:
Histories and classes about drug trades and controls are common. Histories of drug use less common. There seems to be a tacit knowledge among my colleagues that many of us have consumed psychoactive substances in our youths. None of us talk about our current consumption other than alcohol and caffeine. I have brought up my recently renewed consumption of psychedelic substances with a few of my closer friends at Claustrodemonic U. Their responses were more accepting than hostile. But they (with the exception of one) quickly shifted the subject away from the experiences to more familiar terrain about legality, distribution and how we might build careers by researching other people’s historical drug use.
Like many users of psychedelics, it is hard for me to forget the actual experience of taking the drugs. I want to understand it, integrate it into my life. I can usually shift the discussion towards topics that now interest me, like the history of addiction science, the psychonautic explorations of 19c doctors, and the ways that big pharmacy has created and packaged drugs from cocaine and heroin to Prozac. But these still feel trivial—modes of analysis that continue to avoid the meaning of the experience in much the way that all the doctors, politicians, temperance activists of the past have avoided it by subjecting it to excessive categorization, abstraction and rigid explanation. They betray the drug experience itself, which constantly reminds users of the limits of these kinds of analysis.
At the same time, I can not easily dismiss the political, social and institutional analyses. All the prisoners and destruction of the War on Drugs; and the ways in which science and political propaganda have shaped even our personal experiences of drug use are not at all trivial. And I am enough of a skeptical historian to get easily frustrated with the more enthusiastic attempts to show that drug use has inspired every aspect of the origins of culture and religion (the conventional methods of historical evidence are worth something). And I can easily dismiss the more utopian claims of contemporary users about how these substances can free our souls and create a society of love (yeah, we’ve heard it all before).
There has been a recent resurgence of interest in psychedelics among psychologists, therapists and doctors (watch the videos from the Horizons conference on psychedelics). While I am happy to see this (indeed, my recent experiences have been much more Freudian than I expected) I really hope the doctors don’t get too much control over the meaning of psychedelics. The goals of medical science and therapy are ultimately to make us normal by avoiding serious health disturbances (which are increasingly proliferating to include more and more forms of human behavior). They tend to see exploration into new mental experiences only as risky behavior, with consequences that will need to be cured. This is not so much a matter of the attitudes of individual doctors who have an interest in psychedelics, but of the larger structures within which they work—the therapeutic state in which the preservation of life and maintenance of bored, ‘adjusted’ normality seems to trump all other goals.
Say, by some miracle, all of our social critiques, discoveries of medical benefits and calls for freedom of choice took root—what then? Are we ready to engage drug experiences on their own terms? I don’t think so. Our mental equipment has been forged in the fire of analytical reason and criticism. We will just go spiraling in to some new mutually-repressing hell. Critical analysis is not sufficient.
It is even harder to speak openly of sex work in academia than it is to speak about drugs. By and large, the anti-commercial sex as exploitative patriarchy attitude is still the norm. There are some cracks in the edifice, but most of them are abstract and cautiously formulated. However much I might openly propose alternative facts and generalizations, I still wouldn’t dream of telling my colleagues that I have visited sex workers. To be sure, some sex workers in academia have come out to their colleagues, usually without horrible results. But it often comes at a price of having to express their activities in terms of abstractions and a critical vocabulary that does not always do justice to their experiences. (For unorthodox academic opinions on sex work and the difficulties in airing them, see Laura Augustín’s blog Naked Anthropologist).
I am not entirely sure what attracts me to this topic. To some degree, it is that sex sometimes take us into those same realms of ineffable experience as drugs. And adding some commercial exchange can make the experience significantly different—although no less ineffable—and directly links that experience to the more conventional historical topic of capitalism.
I’ve also found that sex workers write some of the most thoughtful and eloquent blogs on the internet (some are listed at the end of this post). This is no accident. The work both attracts people with independent personalities and fosters an outsider perspective, one that is built on daily experience with social hypocrisy. A sex worker daily engages with people who are often at their most vulnerable, insecure or obnoxious. A successful sex worker has to understand the human condition. A successful sex worker also learns to restrain judgment, manage difficult situations, play roles and project images, make people feel at ease, convey self-confidence, manage her or his own conflicting emotions and attachments, and deal with the self-doubt and anger that results from the relentless public criticism of their jobs. When they are good writers, this translates into a mix of emotional nuance, trenchant social critique, unique perspectives, self-awareness, unflinching observation and great story telling. It is a model for how I would like to write. It is a perspective that should not be ignored if we want to understand the modern world.
Drug literature is rarely a model for how I would like to write. Much about drug consumption is asocial and private, and the writing is often excessively personal and opaque, or else self-pitying. Even drug-taking that is about sociability and bonding has a personal dimension that is hard to express. Commercial sex, on the other hand, is fundamentally about communication and social interaction (at least if we focus on person-to-person exchanges rather than the internet). Sex workers and their writings are grounded in the material world, while still living in that liminal world where new insights and truths are more easily found. They directly inhabit the interface between practical reality, social marginalization and the ineffable experiences and emotionality of sex. And it is all mediated through money.
Most of my ideas about freedom come out of my academic experience, so the problem is different here. With drugs and commercial sex, I am confronted with the problem and limitations of translating emotional experiences into academic analysis. Here the problem is of not understanding the emotional and personal implications of my intellectual knowledge. I can elaborate endlessly on the many historical meanings and manipulations of the idea of freedom; the way the preservation of freedom so often justifies intervention into and control of the lives of others; and its uselessness as an abstract idea that can deal neither with the complexities of an interconnected society nor the needs and demands of our psyches. I find it hard to believe that freedom exists, or that it would be desirable if it did.
My historian colleagues will give me a good hearing, acknowledge the nuances of my argument, and then go right back to praising agency, resistance, freedom of choice, multivalence, fluidity or any of many vague ways of putting freedom on a pedestal and criticizing those who might block us from getting it. And I have to admit that, whatever I may convince myself of intellectually, in my daily life I still feel that freedom is something that I want, something I enjoy, an ideal I strive for. And I stubbornly pursue most of my individualistic goals and inclinations more than most people that I know (my stubborn criticism of freedom being one of those inclinations). What the hell is going on here?
I worry too much. Whatever new directions I am trying to explore, I am still excited by the nerdy historical ideas I described back in the second paragraph. The real challenge is how to combine the abstract over-analysis with these more visceral experiences and knowledge. And my black-and-white picture of academic resistance to open discussion about these liminal activities is a bit extreme. Academia has numerous pockets of tolerance and exploration (although one often has to sacrifice the career ladder in order to enjoy them). Any fear and resistance to exploring in new directions comes more from inside myself than from the outside. . . . . That’s something I’ve learned from drugs and sex.
*Some sex worker blogs that have inspired me (there are many more):