Sometimes human beings manage to get their lives pretty well organized – and end up going along for years or even decades in the familiar comforting grooves of family, relationship, careers, possessions, vacations, status, power … Why would comfortable people ever rock that boat by turning to meditation?
Of course, despite good fortune, many people sense there may well be more to us than these external achievements – I call those our 3am questions. As Michael Pollen put it (in a book I’ll talk about later in this article):
“By the time I arrived safely in my fifties, life seemed to be running along a few deep but comfortable grooves: a long and happy marriage alongside an equally long and gratifying career. As we do, I had developed a set of fairly dependable mental algorithms for navigating whatever life threw at me, whether at home or at work. What was missing from my life?”
The question is whether people want to risk finding out. Some do. A lot don’t. I love this quote by the late Ram Dass:
In most of our human relationships, we spend much of our time reassuring one another that our costumes of identity are on straight.
Sometimes the costumes of our identity and life narratives show signs of unravelling – and at these times our failing health or other problems and uncertainties can do us a favor by giving us little choice but to look more deeply into what life actually is about and who we actually are. As Ram Dass put it:
Suffering is part of our training program for becoming wise.
But if we have spent decades of our life in comfortable grooves that are now turning out to be more like ruts, how are we supposed to hoist ourselves out of these? According to Michael Pollen’s new book, through psychedelics.
I am bringing this up for two related reasons – one because I have been reading about Ram Dass, as you can probably tell; and the other because of a conversation I had with a 65-year-old man the other day.
Rodney (not his real name) has had a basically successful life but been depressed for the last few years since his wife died. He has been trying out meditation but it seems to be taking too long for his liking, so he told me the other day he is now trying out mushrooms as well. He reckons that at 65 he has nothing to lose, and he gave me that book by Michael Pollen with all this fantastic re-emerging research to show me how psychedelics (under supervision of course!) might be a valid path to enlightenment. Imagine how easy that would make everything!
I probably wasn’t as excited as Rodney would have liked. I tried to explain why I don’t think magic mushrooms can lead people to enlightenment. The conversation went something like this: “How do you know?” “I don’t, for sure. I just can’t think of anyone. Plus my own past experience has led to other conclusions.” “Well, though, you were just a teenage hippy — what about if you’d done it under the supervision of an expert?” “Erm, no thanks.” (I can’t think of anything more embarrassing, to be honest, than tripping while being watched and analyzed by a stranger, however “expert” they are; but maybe that’s just me.) I tried to explain that although drugs temporarily alter our consciousness, for sure, they are a quick fleeting fix rather than a path. That we need to change our minds using our own efforts, or our minds won’t stay changed. And so on. Rodney’s not really buying it.
I read some of the book just in case, hehe, and couldn’t help thinking also that Michael Pollen, talented and nice as he is, comes rather late to this particular party. Confession time: A previous me aged 15 or 16 probably would have applauded Rodney’s hallucinogenic attempts to blow his mind. If I’d been in charge back then, I would have required everyone between the ages of 30 and 65 to drop acid at least once. These dull middle-aged adults, they had no idea of anything, as far as I was concerned. They had no idea how closed were their doors of perception! That how much altering their consciousness would alter everything they’re looking at! That it would change their lives forever! I would have gone along with Pollen’s enthusiasm back then:
“Was it possible that a single psychedelic experience—something that turned on nothing more than the ingestion of a pill or square of blotter paper—could put a big dent in such a worldview? Shift how one thought about mortality? Actually change one’s mind in enduring ways?”
Coincidentally, it was only a couple of days after this conversation with Rodney that I came across some beautiful tributes to Ram Dass, who has just died. I don’t know all that much about him, but I know he experimented with psychedelics with Timothy Leary in the early days, and I know that he pretty much gave up the drugs once he discovered his Guru and the ability to develop cosmic love through his own efforts. So I did a bit more research (Google!) and report my findings below. He sounds amazing. He would have done a better job at persuading Rodney, I feel.
While perhaps a little bit true that a lot of middle-aged people don’t have a clue about how far their consciousness can lead them, you might be happy to hear that I stepped down from my arrogant youthful stance on obligatory acid-dropping. Like Ram Dass, once I met my Spiritual Guide and a brilliant spiritual path, I realized what I had been looking for was within us all already and that drugs were not required to bring it out.
My enthusiasm didn’t last because I had honestly found something far more profound, meaningful, blissful, mind-boggling, and lasting. Something that explained clearly to me what consciousness is and how it changes, and how then to deliberately and permanently use that understanding to change it for the better. How to practically use universal compassion and non-dual wisdom to destroy the causes of suffering once and for all. Dharma goes so deep. Drugs come nowhere close IMHO.
It is not as if Ram Dass didn’t try to make drugs work over quite a long period of time. For example, “In an effort to avoid the disappointment of “coming down” from a drug experience, Ram Dass said he and five others locked themselves in a building at the estate for three weeks and took LSD every four hours. “What happened in those three weeks in that house no one would ever believe, including us,” he wrote in “Be Here Now,” but they were not able to avoid the inevitable return to reality.”
We simply can’t stay high that way. Not to mention the risk of bad trips and mental illness if we have unprocessed traumas, an addictive personality, etc. I do know that I would be terrified to die while under the influence of psychedelic drugs — way too risky — so that also tells me something.
If we want to stay high, we have to put in our own efforts to understand and master ourselves, and to attain states of altered consciousness, selflessness, non-duality, love, wisdom, bliss, liberation, and enlightenment.
While Ram Dass credits drugs for awakening his spirituality, he ultimately found them unsatisfying. He found that after coming down from a high, he was depressed. As his tolerance to LSD increased, the thrill had diminished. And as the drug experience deteriorated, tensions between Mr. Leary and (the then) Mr. Alpert rose.
Searching for deeper meaning and a more permanent high, he embarked on a spiritual quest to India, where he met Maharaj-ji.
Ram Dass had taken a batch of LSD with him to India to share with holy men in order to get their opinion of it. At Maharaj-ji’s request, Ram Dass gave him a super-sized dose of LSD. However there was no discernible effect on him, nor again 3 years later when they repeated the experiment. He concluded that his Guru’s consciousness was already so awakened that drugs were powerless to alter it.
I am pretty sure that drugs would also have zero effect on Buddha Shakyamuni, Atisha, Je Tsongkhapa, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, Trijang Rinpoche, or any of the other great Yogis and Mahasiddhas in the Buddhist tradition. If I thought Geshe-la was sitting around getting high, it would in fact undermine my faith. I am quite relived that none of these great masters has advocated the taking of drugs, in fact rather the opposite, because it means I don’t have to figure out how to take them either to get their transcendent realizations. It seems like an easier example to follow, overall.
Through Maharaj-ji, Ram Dass found a spiritual love deeper than anything he had ever experienced. Drugs would no longer be a major factor in Ram Dass’s life. The old orthodoxies slipped away. He said he realized that his 400 LSD trips had not been nearly as enlightening as his drugless spiritual epiphanies — although, he said, he continued to take one or two drug trips a year for old time’s sake.
What about cannabis, while we’re on the subject of drugs?! It is of course legal all over the US these days, starting in Colorado the same month I arrived just over six years ago. I don’t have strong opinions on whether or not it should be legal, nor whether it’s any better or worse overall than alcohol; but I do think we have to be careful not to kid ourselves that smoking pot helps us to meditate better. In my own past experience, I never found cannabis helped my concentration or my mindfulness very much – and that I had to wait to come down to be able to get on with anything much other than wandering around the countryside or listening to music. As a long-term and experienced meditator wryly remarked the other day: “No, it doesn’t help you meditate better! You might think it does, just like you might think you’re quite interesting when you’re stoned.”
Instead of doing drugs, this is what Ram Dass did instead:
I hang out with my guru in my heart. And I love every thing in the universe. That’s all I do all day.
This is pretty much all I want to do all day as well.
So, Rodney, if you don’t believe me, ask Ram Dass. He might tell you that meditation turns out to be infinitely more satisfying (and actually easier) than taking any number or type of drugs, and will also lead you on the most cosmic journey to deep peace and mental freedom. I’m sure Ram Dass is blissfully happy as we speak.
Undermining our refuge
For me, I suppose, as a Buddhist, one of the main problems with intoxicants such as drugs, tobacco, and alcohol is not so much the occasional use with one’s eyes open (although that can be a slippery slope); but that due to our attachment we slowly turn to them more and more for refuge without realizing we are doing it. How can we tell? Maybe if we feel depressed or nervous at the idea of not being able to use them?
And this undermines our efforts to take refuge in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, and therewith our inner peace, making us have to try even harder to escape inner turmoil or boredom through these substances. It can become a vicious circle. This is addiction, not liberation.
These addictions do two bad things to us – they trap us in a cycle of dissatisfaction AND at the same time they detract from our real quest for freedom.
For those of us who are moreorless committed to the Buddhist path, there is another quite subtle point that may bear thinking about just in case. If we are attached to drugs and other substances, we may inadvertently be developing a sense that meditation on its own is not sufficient, that on some level Buddha didn’t get it quite right. This wrong view might have unintended consequences down the road, spiritually speaking, such as creating obstacles in our meditation practice. Recently in his Mirror of Dharma teachings Venerable Geshe Kelsang was emphasizing that one of the principal obstacles to our meditation practice, and one that we need to purify, comes from holding wrong views in our past lives. If we are developing a reliance on making ourselves happy and controlling our mind outside of just doing it, in the long run this might undermine our spiritual practice and our path. What do you think?
Making samsara work
While I am on the subject of addiction, it is not just addiction to intoxicants that slows us down and distracts us from real joy. We keep trying to make samsara satisfying in other ways too, for example through social media or video games addiction.
Nowadays strong attachment to being always “on” is a serious problem for people who want to go deep and stay deep. If we’re not careful, not only can these addictions take us away from a guaranteed source of peace in terms of using up our time and interest, but we end up going for refuge to them, seeking relief in them instead of Dharma.
I know how I feel when I go for refuge to social media or entertainment rather than to the guaranteed peace, joy, and satisfaction I get whenever I bother to take Dharma to heart. And it’s not that nice, to be honest. How about you?
What to do?
So what do I do? What I have found is that it’s easier to overcome an addiction by figuring out first why I am attached to it – what positive experiences does this substance or activity give me that I think I don’t have already?
Having figured out what I’m actually searching for, when I find my mind turning to an object of attachment, instead of immediately denying myself and feeling sad and discouraged, I use it as a reminder to turn instead to an object of real refuge such as love or wisdom or clarity of mind.
A few examples. What do we want to get out of social media? Maybe we want to feel connected to stories or to feel love. In which case, learning how to meditate on love and taking a compassionate interest in others gets us there too, but without the huge time suck.
We may turn to drugs to alter our consciousness. For example, as Pollen put it: “The study demonstrated that a high dose of psilocybin could be used to safely and reliably “occasion” a mystical experience—typically described as the dissolution of one’s ego followed by a sense of merging with nature or the universe.” In which case, by becoming practiced at meditation we can have that on tap.
We may turn to binge-watching to seek entertainment, alleviate boredom, or reward ourselves after a hard day. However, nothing is more entertaining and less boring than seeing life as the play of bliss and emptiness, Heruka’s mandala; and if we spend the day in the mandala, we don’t need further rewarding.
These alternatives take practice, of course, but they do the job. Please feel free to add other examples in the comments.
If you are new to Buddhism and meditation, please know that even the simplest breathing meditation makes us feel better if we give ourselves a few minutes to do it — just letting our thoughts dissolve away for a bit in the natural peace of our consciousness like waves dissolving into a clear ocean. Cravings don’t last all that long, anyway, apparently — just between 5 and 20 minutes for the most part.
Once we’ve given ourselves, say, 5 to 15 minutes to meditate on the breath or love or faith or wisdom or renunciation or whatever we like best about Dharma, we can then let ourselves have that original object of attachment if we still want it. We might still want it, but there again we might not. Even if we do, we won’t want it so desperately. Our habits and consciousness will already have started to change for good.
Thank you Ram Dass for a life of service, example, and inspiration for so many people.