If you discount the countless times I used to get stoned, I was 26 years old when I took my first fully conscious inhalation and meditated for the first time.
The stoner’s path just wasn’t an option for me. After being completely hooked I had finally given up a couple years earlier—it had stopped being fun and its function had become to make me feel normal, which seemed pretty pointless. As when I’d given up anti-depressants a few years earlier, I knew I had to discover who I was without all that.
I was on a mission to find ecstasy, or at least some peace of mind. The non-drug route was now appealing, if only because getting off my head had provided just fleeting respite from ‘me’ so far. After extensive immersion in losing my mind I had to concede that there were still as many downs as ups and I still hated myself.
Could meditation really offer relief from the depression and anxiety that wrecked each day? As the Buddha had observed, life was suffering, and I needed a way out.
So I started meditating.
I wondered exactly how I would find the time to meditate in a day that was already too short. There seemed only one way to do it. With a rare display of conviction I set my alarm clock 40 minutes earlier than normal. This was how it would be.
I remember the first time I meditated. I was hungover. I listened to a guided meditation on a CD. As I cycled to work later that morning, the colours and textures of the world were different. Richer, more detailed, more real. Maybe I was still pissed. Whatever, it was enough for me to figure that perhaps there could be something in this after all.
In those early days I was shocked at the sheer volume of shit that my mind insisted on spewing forth. It was a continuous tidal wave of mental and emotional sewage. I was amazed. Is this really what is happening whilst I attempt to go about my daily life? No wonder I’m screwed. The thought that peace of mind was an actual attainable thing seemed ridiculous as I cowered under this mental bombardment.
While frustrating, I had glimpses of what could be. Though hard to stomach, the notion that we can choose how to respond to our thoughts had been planted like a seed in my mind.
I recognised how this could be a remedy for the victim status I occupied in relation to my own mental activity. I dared to envision a day when this was no longer the case. I trusted what I had heard in regard to this being possible, and gambled that waking up 40 minutes earlier for the rest of my life was a price worth paying for that freedom.
The time I invested started to pay off. Sitting on that cushion I learnt not to judge the quality of my thoughts, but to simply experience them, recognise them for what they were, allow them to be, and let them go. In time, the intensity and imposition of these thoughts would slowly begin to subside.
With more time, I started to recognise how thoughts emerge from nothingness, that they appear for a while in awareness, and then dissolve back into the same void from which they came. I realised their transitory and illusory nature.
I spotted their cunning plan: to hijack my emotions, to fool me into believing they had substance and they were real, to trick me into thinking my thoughts and feelings were ‘me’, that my brain vomit should affect my mental state.
As much as I could, I stayed present. I learned how to feel but not respond to the sensations, emotions and thoughts that came.
I wasn’t blocking anything out. It wasn’t about trying to control the contents of my mind, but to let whatever it was just be, without invoking an emotional response. And if there was an emotional response, I tried to just hold that in my awareness without judgement too.
I was able to nurture a space between the arrival of a thought and how I responded in relation to it. In time that space made it’s way from my cushion to other parts of my life, and it continues to grow. Not smoothly though. Fuck no. Sometimes it feels like nine years of meditation was for nothing. But these downers pass, like everything else.
Sometimes I experience astonishing things. Waves of ecstasy. Compassion. Love. A strange and intense spinning sensation. Clarity. Insight. Focus. Having thousands of arms like a Buddhist deity. Often it’s the best half hour of my day.
I’m convinced that the activity of our mind that causes us so much trouble is like clouds in the sky. When we meditate it’s like sitting in a plane that’s taking off. As that rising plane pierces the clouds that shield the sun, we pierce the veil that keeps us from experiencing the clear blue sky of our untainted minds.
At other times I feel tired, frustrated, sleepy and blunt.
I learnt that actually none of this matters. What is important is to just do the practice. Witness the contents of awareness and let it be. Meditation is not about achieving anything, it’s the process of observing and letting go.
It’s been a while since I last drank ayahuasca. The stinky stuff changed my life but I’m scared shitless of taking it again. And now, when I feel that I could really benefit once more, I just cannot bring myself to drink the wicked healing brew.
Maybe I’m being a bit of a pussy. But even the potentially game-changing properties of that murky, mercurial, magic potion cannot convince me to face the demons that will inevitably plague my visions, thoughts and body for what will seem like forever.
The daimistas call it ‘work’ but that’s not the half of it. Work is doing something you don’t like for a while. Drinking ayahuasca is the most terrifying experience of your life.
At least it is for me, and I’m pretty sure I can’t be alone. Can I?
It baffles me how some people come out of a ceremony having spent hours being caressed by angels inside a velvet-lined light-filled heart-shaped box of luxury chocolates as they pulse glowing beams of golden light out of their asses while listening to little lambs bleating in a solfeggio frequency.
I mean who has parents that good?
You’d hope that after thirty-odd torturous sessions I might have expunged the legacy of generations of dismal genetic luck, socioeconomic misfortune, terrible parenting, supernatural disturbances, crappy DNA, wonky brain chemistry, bad spirits, planetary misalignment and divine retribution that have made my family tree so darkly colourful.
But apparently not.
As Bill said, it is only a ride. It’s good advice for both life and tripping balls. And I’ve tripped as much as the next dude but it doesn’t seem to help once I’ve gulped and gagged down 150ml of the Amazon jungle’s finest.
I’m toast. Served up crispy and burnt for the preternaturally-nasty spine-chilling beings of my mind, or the underworld, or the afterlife, or the devil’s intestines—or wherever the hell it is that they come from—to play with me as they please.
And play with me they do. Pulling out organs, nailing me to crosses, cursing me with psychosis, and whatever other sneaky tricks they can scheme between their conniving little bastard selves. The more traumatic, the better, it seems.
But still, one day, I know I’ll drink again. I’ll suffer for countless eternal hours wondering what on earth I was thinking. And then perhaps I’ll feel fantastic afterwards and evangelically espouse the glories of the great mystical tea, until such time as those heady days wear off, and the great fear slowly creeps again.
Ok it’s about time somebody said it. There is way too much stupid, weird and wishy-washy language banded about in spiritual circles. So much in fact that I don’t like to use the term ‘spirituality’ at all. Its useless to me. Wasted. Irrelevant.
It’s so easily associated with so much stuff that is lacking in critical thinking, removed from reality and alienating to people not participating in the ‘spiritual’ arena, what ever the hell that is.
Yet, at the same time, we also understand the term ‘spiritual’ to indicate the highest of human qualities. It implies wisdom, depth, and compassion. A commitment to something larger than oneself. The great men and women of our time are often said to have these qualities.
I lament the fact that the word ‘spiritual’ has so many uses and meanings. I’m sure many people who would benefit from engaging with practical teachings about the mind and how to live a meaningful life are put off by a weird world of tarot, angels, mediums and astral realms.
Walk in to a bookshop and go to the ‘Mind, Body, Spirit’ section and you’ll see what I mean.
That’s not to say that some of these things might have some value, and could be really interesting to explore but can’t we just use another name for them please? ‘Spiritual’ language, while perhaps sometimes inspiring, often just isn’t applicable to the reality of our daily lives, and frankly it’s often embarrassing to use the ‘S’ word.
Frequently its vocabulary serves to reinforce a framework and perspective of the world that is akin to religion: long on preaching, short on relevance, and all too often requiring belief in something that may or may not exist.
Of course spirituality in its broadest sense is about many things, and many interpretations of these many things. For me though, what I wish the core of spirituality came down to is this: developing compassion for ourselves and others through gaining insight into the nature of our minds.
I think it is important to define spirituality in these terms because in doing so we get down to what is most universally applicable and important. We make it secular in nature and more relevant to those who might benefit from its insights but have no time or interest in fluff. We strip away all the indulgent and seductive aspects of spirit and make it human again. Apposite and of use, right now.
What greater ideal could there be than to be at peace with our experience of the world? And what is it that filters our experience of the world and determines the quality of our mood and perception of ourselves and the world? Mind. So it strikes me that if what we truly want is to be content and live well, we have to start with our mind.
This definition of spirituality is essentially an enquiry in to the nature of who we are and how we work at the most practical level. It’s a secular definition that should alienate less people and could apply to everyone.
It brings us together, ‘spiritual’ and ‘not spiritual’ folk alike, demonstrating that these definitions do not really exist: we all want to make the best of our minds and our experience of reality.
It’s all spirit and no fluff. It requires no belief in anything you can’t see or can’t prove and it’s concerned with our real lives, right now.
We cried in bitter anguish, we cried in utter bliss. We felt the devils anger, and the sweetness of a kiss. We meditated for so many years. Had therapists and many tears. We got drunk on beer and wine and whiskey and vodka and life. We got high, and we got low. We felt the heat and the ice.
We got sober. We ran away. We found the fields and the jungle and mountains and the cave. We drank the wicked brew and saw our lives break open. We travelled the world across land and ocean. We learned to be mindful, we learned to be still. We learned to forgive, just a little.
We did so much. And how we tried. And how we cried. We cut. We loved. We fucked. We sunk in to the ocean. We danced among the stars. We lied and we cheated, we collected many scars.
We tried to make things right. We tried to be good. We tried to live up to the expectations of others the best we could. We tried not to care. We tried to conform. We tried to be free. We tried to just be.
We tried to find the answers but we didn’t know the questions. We tried to find our way but we didn’t have directions. We sought protection from the world but we had no protection from ourselves. We were our worst enemies, not anybody else.
We tried to find god or spirit or love or nature or ecstasy or something. Anything, bigger and greater than ourselves and our parents and our education and our politicians and our culture and our society. Something to hold on to. Just something we could cherish and belong to. Something worth living for.
We never stopped searching. We kept on believing tomorrow might just be worth living an extra day for. But tomorrow never came. It’s still always today. And I’m still me and you’re still you. And we still want to change but we don’t know what to do. We still wish we were someone else. We’re still waiting to be saved.
When will this stop? When will this end? When will we get there? Does ’there’ even exist?
After all these years we’re still broken. Perhaps it’s unspoken, perhaps it’s not quite so much as before, but we’re still, frustratingly, achingly sore.
We still hate ourselves. We still feel weak. We still lack power when we speak. We still dream big, but our doubt is bigger. Too scared to try to actualise dreams, still scarred by painful memories of previous failures. Too self aware. Too hurt to care. Too clever but not quite clever enough. Too intimate with our minds and our flaws. Still unable to open doors.
Still unable to love. Still jealous. Still children, still seeking approval. We try and fail to be grown up. Trying and failing to be a success. Confused as ever about what we want from life, and still no clearer what any of this is for.
But there is no ‘off’ button, and we will go on. Learning, sharing, hoping, daring. Giving up, trying again, holding on, letting go. Finding ourselves, while getting lost.
When falling in love, we long for each other when we are apart and gain immeasurable pleasure from being together. Ecstatic energy flows between two bodies rapt in love. We blithely bathe in oceans of lust. When falling in love we cannot get enough.
For many people what they wish for most is to fall in love. And yet, the consequences of a love gone wrong are potentially so devastatingly and crushingly brutal that the aftermath of a relationship turned sour can literally be a life destroyed.
People kill others for love. People kill themselves out of love. Depression and heartbreak are symptoms of falling in love with the wrong person. All of which makes me wonder – is it too risky to fall in love?
Falling in love has to be one of the most intoxicating mental states available to us in the great pantheon of mundane and crazy experiences that comprise the human condition. In fact, looking back at the experience from a decidedly sober and not ‘falling in love’ state of mind, it strikes me how ridiculous and almost delusional the whole process seems.
It’s not just the subjective experience of being completely besotted with someone else, it’s the way we become so willing to give up so much to be with that other. Love is strong. Love strips us of our volition. Love derails plans, estranges us from friends and empties our pockets.
Falling in love is inherently risky. Most relationships fail and even those that ‘work’ are fraught with difficulties along the way. Falling in love exposes our deepest insecurities, triggers powerful feelings, and bestows great power in the hands of another. Falling in love opens us up to to the possibility of rejection, of not being good enough.
Falling in love makes us vulnerable and creates a gamble that wasn’t there before: that while we may win the love of another, we could just so easily lose it. The price of losing this gamble is rejection, and the triggering of any related past traumas. Love is a land inhabited by the demons and devils of our early-life conditioning. Only the brave would dare to tread here.
At least you’d think so… But in reality we do not choose to fall in love, love chooses us. Or rather, mysterious and powerful unconscious forces propel us irreversibly to collide with the universe of another.
Only if we have already been hurt sufficiently do we start to question whether we want to fall in love. Or maybe we proceed with more caution, chastened by experience, battle weary and wary of exposing ourselves to more pain.
Ultimately though, love can be a powerful tool. It is one of life’s great teachers, if we are receptive to it’s lessons and pay attention to the wisdom it can inspire. The burning light of love exposes the darkest recesses of our hearts.
It shows us the ways in which we hurt, the ways we react when our insecurities are triggered, and offers us the opportunity to bring these ghouls out of the dark and in to conscious awareness. Slowly we are given a method by which to integrate our pain, and with the other, or without the other, we grow.
It is sometimes said that before you can love someone else you have to love yourself. I think this is a stupid saying – not least because it gets banded about without anyone really knowing what it means, and in any case you can’t just simply decide to start loving yourself all of a sudden.
However I do think these words allude to an important truth. Before we can have a truly healthy relationship in love, one in which we are not using the other in order to fill something missing within ourselves, we need to be whole. This means we need to have developed to the point where our sense of self worth is not dependent on the validation of another.
Until life is ‘okay’ without the sweetness of our beloved’s touch, we run the risk of being broken by any subsequent withdrawal of love. And this is the challenge. Often, without consciously realising it, many people will use love because it will provide them with a sense of what they most need – to know that they are worthy of someone’s affection, to know that they are not alone.
But to rely on someone else for these comforts is to deny ourselves the opportunity of discovering them within oursleves. We take when we should give, and despite feeling strengthened by relationship, we give our power away.
Yes, it is risky to fall in love, too risky perhaps. It is also seldom a choice we make. But for those consumed by love’s mysterious waters, who are able to listen and learn, love is a teacher and love will help us grow. Love can hurt, but slowly love can heal.
An earlier version of this article was published in July 2013.