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.
Suffering sucks. Whether it’s a temporary case of the grumps or the desperate, agonising self-destructive death pangs of the suicidal mind, suffering sucks ass. Trust me, I know, and I don’t say this lightly.
But how to deal with it, when the dark seems to have extinguished the light? It sometimes helps me to remember that life is supposed to painful. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying ‘life is shit and it’s always gonna suck’, but there is no rule that says existence is obliged to feel good to us all of the time. Once I realised and internalised this, my own relationship to pain changed just a little.
I’ve started to think that there are two components to our suffering (of course there are more but let’s keep it simple). There is the thing that is causing our pain, and if you look carefully for it, you might just find the belief that we should not be suffering in the first place. This second component magnifies the impact of suffering. Therefore, the mere act of recognising this can take the edge off the hurt.
It’s tempting to think that life, existence and everything is or should be inherently ‘good’. If it’s not then this causes an existential problem—we might rightly ask, ‘what’s the point in any of this at all then?’ It seems as if life is not fulfilling its part of the bargain.
The problem with thinking that everything should be good and when it’s not something has gone wrong, as though life has somehow strayed from its default ‘goodness’, is that although it aligns with our human tendency to experience stuff as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’, it does not accord with the way things actually are. Hence, with this perspective we are doomed to suffer.
Recognising the universe’s inherent composition of both creative and destructive processes puts our experience into perspective. It teaches us that we have no ‘right’ to feel good all the time at all, but that moving between subjectively positive or negative states is all part of life’s ebb and flow.
Take the very origins of the universe itself. This was an act of profound creation and yet huge violence. Carbon based life on earth itself is the direct result of stuff being spewed by dying stars (it’s often romantically said we are made from stardust but in truth ‘stardust’ is the product of a massively violent cosmic death). Our earth as we know it has been shaped by tumultuous and violent events, as flooding, volcanoes and earthquakes regularly demonstrate.
The nature of existence is a dance between creation and destruction, and it follows that the human experience mirrors this fundamental state. That’s not too say we should give up on attempting to feel good. That, of course, would be dumb, as feeling good rocks and positively affects everyone around us.
What I’m talking about is recognising that part of life is to feel crappy sometimes, and that it just can’t be any other way. The physical and human realms demand this of us. Therefore it is not just you who is getting the bum deal, but all of us from time to time, and this is what we signed up for by being born. Yes, I know that it’s scant consolation for the most extreme suffering, but internalising this lesson really can help us get on with things when the proverbial shit hits the fan.
I repeat, this is not a depressing recognition. To the contrary it is liberating, because it reminds us that it’s okay to feel crappy sometimes. It can take the edge of our hurt and connect us with others who we know are also participating in the grand universal oscillation between joy and pain.
As a result we are less likely to attempt counterproductive avoidance tactics when we suffer. We can try instead to embrace our pain, to really feel it, to realise it is ultimately separate from that more real part of us that never changes, and through doing so release some of its psychic grip. We can recognise the lessons it can teach us, and perhaps even grow in the process.
Yes, life is supposed to be painful.