The Inanity of School Lockdowns

“At no point was anyone in danger.” 
—Stephen Massey, Principal of Glebe Collegiate

glebe_high1.jpg

 

Today at Glebe Public High School in Ottawa, Canada, some dumb kid brought a gun to school for an unofficial show-and-tell. Word got around to the administration and all of the students, my son among them, were promptly told to silently huddle into the corners of their classrooms where they stayed—despite police and administration knowing early on that there was no threat to their safety—for over three hours. No work was done. Nobody was allowed to go to the bathroom, much less leave the school. 

This is the fashionable and highly odious practice known as ‘lockdown’, during which schools take what nearly amounts to illegal custody of children and removal their freedoms. This practice is a symptom of our cultural paranoia, and it serves no earthly good while effectively breeding another generation of spineless sycophants. The children—who were not (and I will keep repeating this for emphasis) in any real danger, and it was known that they were not in any real danger—huddled in hunched-over postures, whispering and checking their phones constantly for any updates from the outside world on the situation they were living through. 

This scenario really is a mindfuck if you think about it long enough. Here’s part of the problem: every generation in the workforce, whether that be education, administration, government, policing, or other, was raised on almost a steady diet of television. Culturally we are addicted to drama, and this is evident in how our often inane policies—such as ‘school lockdown’—serve to augment rather than diminish this drama. Our children are taught that their only viable option in such a scenario—where it was even known there was no threat to their safety—is to cower in a corner in fear. We are training these young adults to act, and thus to be, utterly helpless. 

Let’s say there was a real threat, an actual shooter on a rampage at Glebe High School. It doesn’t take an Infantry-trained son of an RCMP sniper (though that is part of my background) to know that bunching a classroom full of kids into corners and keeping them stationary only makes a soft target softer. 

What’s worse is—yes I need to say it again—there was no actual threat. And this was known to the people who initiated the lockdown early on. And yet, far be it from the flaccid administrators or bureaucrats to lose an opportunity to inculcate our children with the perverse forms of drama and fear that our jellyfish, over-regulated, over-insured society thrives on. 

What about borrowing a page from our British cousins? You know, that horribly tired meme that has been misappropriated and worn to death on coffee mugs and t-shirts: Keep Calm and Carry On. It’s original meaning is all but lost on most of us, but the intent behind it is valuable. Fear begets fear. Stop feeding it.

The R/Evolution is an Inside Job

We tend to embrace newer criticisms, if not because they serve our professional interest in having marketable positions, than because their new ways of reading offer hope for cultural change not found in older vocabularies.
—Charles Altieri, Canons and Consequences

We're all riding the same train.

We're all riding the same train.

I never felt comfortable in academia, where book knowledge was routinely mistaken for wisdom. Some of my most powerful lessons occurred in the ivory tower that was graduate school—not least among them that insights can be, and often are, wrong. 

It was the people who got under my fingernails like a hot blade. Many of them were friendly and kind enough, but the community I found was tainted by obsequious students and self-aggrandizing professors—these smarmy sycophants and the passive aggressive flakes worshipped at the feet of a god called Tenure. 

The wine-and-cheese breath of these sour-tongued academics was mostly vocalized to defend and preserve the bourgeois culture of what amounted to personal disparagement—which generally took the form of criticism or theory. I couldn’t watch or take part in the moribund intellectual acrobatics which constitute, ultimately, the process of exclusion. 

Professors are the appointed purveyors of an idealized culture, which is kept breathing with the bellows of stale philosophies, and contained by restricted self-awareness. Most take great pleasure and derive a sense of power from teaching these philosophies, methods, theories—molding young minds rather than opening them—and in many respects do not differ greatly from religious zealots.

What we need in all aspects of society today—politics, economics, religion, academia—is an authentic and fruitful chaos— and it is into chaos where we as a planet are indeed heading. Whether it will be fruitful or not depends upon how willing we are to tear down the systems of belief which have kept us from seeing everything we’ve been trained to miss. We must dispense with corporatocracy, with fake science, with polls and data and all the other mechanisms used to control the species and shame and terrorize us into learning what and how to believe. 

The only authentic power comes from within each unique and awakened gut, and when that gut works in harmony with the discriminatory tool that is the mind, these two elements of awareness balance in the heart, where we unlock and give birth to our true energetic potential, a reality that cannot be imagined with a fearful, reactionary mind. 

We, especially the women among us, were trained that our intuition is shit, when it happens to be our most powerful, albeit disgraced, ally. We must forgive the parts of ourselves that were coerced into trying to murder other parts of ourselves. We need to guard against our training that has shaped us into something similar to the sour-tongued academics I refer to above; this training has led us to preserve and protect the adopted beliefs that keep us small. 

It’s a genuine conundrum, one quite difficult to understand with just the five senses and the reactionary nervous system, but the revolution of the planet is, in the most sublime sense, an internal job.

I leave you with the words of Seth, from The Nature of the Psyche: 

One animal chasing and killing its prey serves the greater purpose of preserving the balance of nature, wether or not the animal is aware of this—and again, the animal's intent is not evil. Man consumes ideas. In doing so he contributes to a different kind of balance, of which he is usually unaware. But no man acts out of the pure intent to do wrong, or to be vicious. Storms rend the summer sky, sending forth thunder and lightening. Earthquakes may ravage the countryside. You may deeply regret the havoc worked, knowing that neither the storm nor the earthquake is evil. Not only did they have no wrong intent, but the overall condition corrected earth's balance. 

This requires some unique understanding. I am aware of that—and yet the destructive storms worked by man ultimately cannot be said to be any more evil than the earthquake. While man's works may often certainly appear destructive, you must not blame man's intent, nor must you ever make the mistake of confusing man with his works. For many well-intentioned artists, with the best of intentions, produce at times shoddy works of art, all the more deplorable and disappointing to them because of the initial goodness of their intent. 

Their lack of knowledge and techniques and methods then become quite plain. By concentrating too deeply upon the world of newspapers and the negative reports of of man's actions, it is truly easy to lose sight of what I tell you is each man's and each woman's basic good intent.

That intent may be confused, poorly executed, tangled amid conflicts of beliefs, strangled by the bloody hands of murders and wars—and yet no man or woman ever loses it. That represents the hope of the species, and it has ever remained lit, like a bright light within each member of the species; and that good intent is handed down through the generations. It is far more potent, that illumination, than any hates of national grudges that might also be passed along. 

It is imperative, for any peace of mind, that you believe in that existence of man's innate good intent.

It is shared by all of the other animals. Each animal knows that under certain conditions the other may fight or posture aggressively, or defend its nest. Each animal knows that in time of hunger it might be hunted by another. Except for those situations, however, the animals are not afraid of each other. They know that each other animal is of good intent.

Grant your own species the same. 

Backpacking With Babies

There is an aching nostalgia I get, a bittersweet feeling only a parent could understand, when I think of my children at the age of 3—the age they started to shed their helpless babyness and long-term memory started coming online. It's an age where speech can often be both prescient and hilarious. 

When my son Jackson was three years old and my daughter Samia was an infant, my (now ex) wife and I travelled to Thailand with them, where we planned to crisscross the country for six months with our babies in our backpacks, so to speak.

The crew

The crew

I was at that time practising Vipassana meditation daily. I had gone to painstaking lengths to make it clear to my son, the 3-year old grand inquisitor, that he was not to interrupt me while I was meditating. His understanding of "interruption" took the meaning of direct questions. 

His habit became to seek me out when I was perched on my meditation cushion and ask questions which were meant to sound self-reflective or rhetorical, such as "I wonder where my dozer is?" Or he would make general statements about the weather, or (more often) Lego, as if he just happened to be in my office and talking to himself while I was meditating. 

"This is cool," he said once. I couldn't help opening one eye. He was staring at his dirty fingernails. "My fingers have black stripes!" 

"Pumpkins are amazing," he said another time. "The best thing about pumpkins is that they look like coconuts." But he wasn't asking me a question, so as far as Jackson was concerned, he had not interrupted my meditation. While the disciplinarian in me stirred with annoyance, I generally didn't say anything because another part of me clearly loved these non-interactions I could share with him. I loved that he couldn't help but seek me out during my meditation hour. Often he would cost his own eyes to get a glimpse of his own internal world—though mostly when this happened it would be both of us sitting with one eye slightly open as we pretended to meditate. 

If Gollum were adorable.

If Gollum were adorable.

Once I just heard his young voice humming a tune he made up on the fly. It lasted for several minutes into my meditation and I drifted away in thought until he suddenly stopped. I opened my eyes. Jackson was lying on the floor with his chin in his hands, staring at me. "I'm so fond of that little song," he said. 

Another time I was pulled from meditation / reverie by the sound of paper ripping. Unable to restrain myself, I opened one eye and Jackson sat directly in front of me, ripping an old magazine. "I'm just an angry guy," he shrugged, supposedly speaking to himself. "I like to rip pieces of paper." 

"I'm just an angry guy."

"I'm just an angry guy."

While I was meditating the night before we left for Bangkok, Jackson wouldn't sleep. As I sat on my cushion I heard him bumping and groaning and stretching. I was determined to sit still and keep my eyes closed and remain equanimity but the noises Jack was making continued for so long I eventually opened my eyes. 

He was crawling across the room in his tightly-whiteys. When he stopped he sat on his bum, then bent forward and grabbed for his toes. He sat up and did some belly-breathing before flinging his body around and popping into a pretty decent downward dog. His upside-down face caught me watching him.

"I'm doing yoga," he whispered.

Who's ready for two days of non-stop travel?

Who's ready for two days of non-stop travel?

The travel portion of our journey seemed to last an eternity. By the time we lifted off the Tarmac in Tokyo, I considered that we would have to stay in South-east Asia longer than six months in order to make all these flights worth it. 

After a lunch of rubber fish in chemical curry served by ANA staff, the kids dozed in a kind of fog, sneezing at the recycled air. Eventually fatigue dragged the children deep into the realm of the unconscious. Jackson was so deep in sleep that he didn't even wake when he peed in his seat. He  continued to sleep as I peeled his pants and underpants off with a wet shlok, then tucked one airline blanket under his bum while wrapping him in another. The accident was no surprise considering his juice intake while he'd watched about a dozen episodes of Pingu on a continuous loop, laughing manically throughout. 

Eventually, we arrived.

Journifried.

Journifried.

The smells on the drive into Bangkok from the airport shook loose some olfactory memories of my experience of flying into - of all places - Nairobi, Kenya. Something about the scent of a foreign and lush land, with small bonfires burning in the distance, and the silhouettes of tropical vegetation, the shadows of foreign architecture. The palm trees, standing tall and strong, waved their leaves like pennants in testament to the fact that we'd arrived, in both our physical beings and our collective consciousness, in new and unfamiliar territory. 

Gold-medal traveller.

Gold-medal traveller.

Samia was wide-eyed and smiling, happy as long as she was facing outward in the baby-bjorn and could hang onto a water bottle. Jackson was beyond exhausted, and would spontaneously wail "WAAAAAH!" with all the air in his tiny lungs the moment anything didn't seem to go his way. 

"Waaaaaaaah!"

"Waaaaaaaah!"

Our hotel room, located in an alley off a back street near Khao San Road, was dingy and almost instantly demolished with our exploding luggage. But it was air conditioned and it was ours, and after 29 hours traversing the globe with 2 babies in economy seats, just resting my bone-weary body horizontally was immeasurably satisfying. We were all so tired we were giddy. I was seeing strange shapes in the ether. 

It did not take long for jet lag to settle in and so at midnight, wired and tired, we hot-footed it to Kao San Road where there was still plenty of unsavoury late-night activity, drunk foreigners looking for food, for more booze, or for the remaining bar girls who would sell their bodies to pasty white farangs. Loud, predictable music blared from drinking stalls and makeshift bars. 

We found a promising looking food cart and bought pad thai from an old woman. On a nearby tree, Jackson spotted his first gecko and his sense of amazement humbled me. 

Our first morning in Bangkok we had a breakfast that made the horrible days of travel seem like a distant memory. A strong, kind Thai woman wordlessly served us coconut shakes, mango smoothies, bananas in porridge, muesli with fruit and yogurt, a cheese omelette and a tiny loaf of bread. 

Stinky-hot overland travel in Thailand.

Stinky-hot overland travel in Thailand.

Jackson instantly fell in love with tuck-tuks the same way he had naturally become enamoured of dump trucks, tractors, trains and fire engines. We took a tuk-tuk to the Chao Phryn river and then paid 3 baht for a ferry crossing. We eventually made it to the train station to inquire about tickets North. On the tuck tuck ride back to the ferry boat, Samia's floppy sun hat blew off her head. Our tuck tuck driver turned to go back and retrieve it. 

The hat lay in the middle of the busy road. A young boy pulling a cart ran into the street to pick up the hat and was running towards us, to bring it to us, when he got hit by a taxi. There was a sickening thud and my ex-wife screamed as the boy rolled into a ball over the hood and landed on his back in the dust and the gravel.. 

I jumped out of the tuk-tuk, already trying to remember the ABCs of First Aid, when up popped the kid and finished his sprint over to us. He bowed to Samia as he handed her the hat. He started walking away and then I noticed he was with his mother, who collected the cart. He favoured his right leg and had one hand on his back. I was extremely concerned. I tried to tell him and his mother that they needed to go to the hospital, that we would bring them to hospital, but they wanted none of it. I had horrifying thoughts of various injuries, internal bleeding, concussion - but I will never know, because they were set on leaving. I handed the boy 100 baht and he bowed to me and smiled as he accepted it.  I felt like a cheap fool, a heartless dumb tourist, and tried again to get him to the hospital. But he and his mother disappeared into the crowd. What happened to him, ultimately? I hope he was okay. 

As we were ferried back across the river I felt sick with a profound sense of alienation. I felt not so much out of my element as out of my reality. Questions like, "Where is Thailand, really?" occurred to me. "Where am I travelling to as much as the places I visit within the confines of my own skull?" 

Always thinking about how to look pensive.

Always thinking about how to look pensive.

We all passed out before dinner and slept until ten. At 3:30 am Jackson was playing with his toy planes and his toy cement mixer. He peered into my face to see if I was awake. "Dada," he whispered, "Have you seen my dozer?" It was his favourite question of 2005. 

We spent several days in Bangkok, eating and trying to get over jetlag together. I experienced my first genuine Thai massage and was forever altered in body and spirit. We walked the streets late at night and early in the morning, waiting for our bodies and minds to adjust to both the time difference and the culture shock. 

One morning, just at the break of dawn, I looked over to see Jackson laying on his back, staring up at the pink helium balloon he'd been given by somebody the day before. He softly, slowly pulled it towards him in order to watch it float away again. He pulled it towards him again, thought about something for a minute, then quickly hit his sleeping mother on the head with the balloon. 

"Hey!" she grumbled, half asleep.

"Jack," I growled. He started, not realizing until that moment that I was awake and watching him. "Didn't I tell you yesterday I'd pop that balloon if you continued to hit people with it?"

Then I felt bad about startling him. He was bored, perhaps. Due to the nature of our travel, we had to pack light, which meant very little room for books or toys. I relied quite heavily on spontaneous story-telling to keep him amused.

"You want a story about the greatest train mystery ever?" I asked him. I hadn't even yet made the story up, but his favourite theme at the time was anything related to the railroad.

"Yes!" He shot out of bed, let his balloon drift to the ceiling and cuddled next to me as I related a story of a train that went through a mysterious cave and disappeared, making it up on the fly. I stalled from time to time by asking him "And what do you think happened next?"

His capacity to listen to stories amazed me, as did his ability to sit for silent hours of travel in his own reveries. Sometimes the far-away look in his eye could spook me, and I'd ask what he was thinking about to draw him back, tether him to me where I felt he was safest. His answer was always the same: "I'm watching a movie in my head."

"I'm watching a movie in my head."

"I'm watching a movie in my head."

I tried to write but with two young kids I could barely find the time or space to meditate. I was still recently sober, and I hadn't yet decided wether the dream I'd held as a younger man—to be a self-sufficient author of fiction—was healthy or pathetic. 

I wanted to forget all my old desires for recognition and just write spontaneously, for the pure, creative joy of it—to recognize that every little bit of it, even the mundane top-of-the-head shit, is somehow sacred. Because the intent is sacred. 

Throughout the trip through Thailand I would vow over and over again—usually while inspecting my scoliosis or love handles in the mirror—to gather and build strength through self-discipline. Part of this vow was refusing to be a passive doormat with my (now) ex-wife, who wanted  what she wanted when she wanted it—for example, she wanted our tiny family to subsist on cheap street-eats rather than real food. 

The first time I confronted her over this issue was on Khao San Road, when I put my foot down and said we would all be better off eating a nice curry and rice at a sit-down restaurant rather than Petrie-dish noodles that had been sitting in the same bowl all day on a rusty food cart. Her insistence was based on two beliefs, both of which I knew to be fallacious. Firstly, she was under the mistaken impression that eating from a food cart in the area designated exclusively for farangs would somehow bring us closer to a less-touristy, more authentic Thai experience. This seeking out of "genuine" experiences was an obsession with her, and she seemed to miss the irony that trying to be "a local" was as inauthentic as one could get. 

Not locals. 

Not locals. 

The second reason my ex-wife wanted to eat street food was that she'd come to believe that restaurant food was too expensive. true, it was more expensive than pad thai from a broken-down cart, but compared to the Canadian dollar it was practically free. She refused to relativize with me and became obsessed with not having to pay more for a meal than a Thai person would have to pay. 

"I'm not going to eat shit and feed Jackson shit just because it's inexpensive!" I shouted at her. I immediately regretted both shouting and cussing, because at the time I was going through a somewhat naive phase where I believed that pretending to be calm would somehow make me a calmer person. 

Please don't touch us without our permission.

Please don't touch us without our permission.

Later on Jackson woke up in the middle of the night and said he didn't like when Thai people kept touching him. Both the kids were routinely mauled in crowds, to the point where I had to fend off arms of strangers at times. There was something about their blonde hair that made the Thai people fervent in their quest for some display of affection from Jack, like he was an omen, or a lucky piece. I told him he didn't have to kiss or touch or hug anyone he didn't want to, and I taught him how to throw up a block and say "No" in Thai language—ไม่, pronounced "Myi". 

"Boundaries," I said, "are the best. You set your own boundaries depending on what you are comfortable with." Later that got me into hot water when he didn't want to kiss his mother goodnight.  

Jackson was rooting through the pockets on my backpack and found condoms—we hadn't had sex in months but I was thinking the trip might spark something, and I'd bought a pack for the trip—in fun colours: bright yellow and red and green and orange and blue. He walked in with a handful of condoms: "Guess what I found Mama?" He clearly took them for some kind of fruity sweet-treat, hidden candy treasure in Dad's backpack. A Thai lollipop, perhaps?

"Those aren't treats," I said.

"What are they?"

And then my ex-wife did something she always did, which drove me crazy. She made up a nonsensical lie. "Those are Durex," she said. "They are for Daddy when he gets a sore back."

Jackson looked at the condoms disguised as fruity treats. "Oh my back is sore," he said. 

We drove around Bangkok for an hour in a smokey tuktuk and with grimy faces bought a sleeper train to the coast, ferry to the island of destination, and a few nights accommodation - all for 3000Baht. 

Our last night in Bangkok, I woke at 3am and couldn't fall back to sleep. I got out of bed at 4:44 and walked around the muggy streets. People were still partying. I was making my way to a local temple when a hooker approached me and asked me what I wanted. I told her I wanted to meditate. She said I'd have to wait until sunrise for the temple gates to be unlocked. 

"Maybe I can come to your room until then?" she said. I politely declined, but was surprised to see how the idea somewhat excited me.

"Hey Buddy," called a ladyboy from a nearby bar. "You want beer for breakfast?"

The jetlag and lack of sleep eventually caught up to Jackson and he turned into a savage just as we boarded the train for Surat Thani. Hitting us, biting us, throwing temper tantrums. 

"I thought you loved trains?" I said. He growled at me. Then he wouldn't stop screaming for a treat. I slapped his hand to get his attention, and was immediately flooded with guilt and shame, and fear of my own ancestral potential for rage. As we shuffled along the tracks out of Bangkok my ex-wife fed Samia while fanning herself\. We were all grimy and greasy from the dust and the heat. I didn't win the argument to get an air-conditioned berth. 

I stared into the impossibly impoverished huts along the tracks—endless shantitowns, though everybody had a cell phone and a shiny new moped. There were numerous small temples with gaudy golden Buddhas bracketed by ugly concrete aqueducts. Some night markets, big and small. We passed numerous small gatherings of people sitting around small fires, embers really. I wanted to join their conversations, if it meant getting off the stifling train.

Eventually the porter came around and put our beds down and gave us cleanish-looking sheets. Jackson passed out finally and I watched his angry face grow still and calm. The silhouettes of the endless palm trees were illuminated by dry lightening as a storm raged in the distance. I crawled in beside my son and slept too, only to be woken several times through the night in a full-blown panic attack, feeling as if we were about to careen off the tracks or hit an oncoming train. We passed so many trains travelling in the opposite direction, and each time I felt that if I stuck so much as a finger out the window I would lose it, we seemed that close..

Jackson woke up howling, and I raised my hand in the air, in a claw-like pose, and hissed "I'M DONE!" I felt my anger come out of me and enter him as fear. His face crumpled and he started sobbing. I held him close and said we were all tired but was already thinking of ways I could make amends to him. There was only one way: not to treat him the way I had been treated. I need to love him with the kind of love I've never known, and sometimes I worry that isn't even possible. Until I hold him and resolve that it is. 

Peace takes practice.

Peace takes practice.

And like this, we unimaginatively made our way to the tourist-ridden island of Koh Samui. We stayed in a cabin on Bophut beach next to a pool belonging to The Coconut Grove. Our neighbours in the next cabin over were two Israeli men who went looking for love everyday in their unfortunate speedos. They had their own special peacock-walk which they'd obviously worked on together, consciously or unconsciously. They liked to swim up to young girls in the pool and tread water next to them while pretending they were bored, or shouting nonsensical bluster at each other. It was great entertainment. 

The massage therapists on the beach fell in love with the children, as everybody seemed to. During their slow afternoon hours they would take Samia and hold her and rock her and play with her and bathe her and change her and rock her to sleep, which was a great boon for us. It was as if the baby had abruptly acquired half a dozen doting Thai grandmothers.

Remembering why we came here in the first place.

Remembering why we came here in the first place.

For possibly the first time on this trip, which would last another five months and see all of us in the hospital at one time or another and almost capsized on a ferry from Koh Tao—a story I won't get into here—I found myself capable of relaxing. This was my first sojourn abroad as a provider and, in my mind, as a protector.

I was recently sober as well and everything—every single experience—was new, filtered not only through tourist goggles but also through the lenses of sobriety and fatherhood. 

Once, my father, with whom I didn't really get along as a boy, remarked to me: "I would die for my children, you know." It was part of a quasi-apology for acting as a pushy tyrant for much of my younger life. My first thought was that I'd never been in any danger of assassination. I never needed a bodyguard. What I'd really needed was someone to be kind and patient and to teach me things I needed to know about the world and about myself. 

This is why my reactions of anger, when they occurred, were so distressing to me. I felt helpless at times, as if the operating system of my true nature had been hacked with a virus of helpless fear and rage. Through fathering I was understanding my father more and more.

Life is a beach.

Life is a beach.

Nobody knew or could guess at what I was capable of.

I joked with tuk-tuk drivers and haggled good-naturedly with shopkeepers. To outsiders, as I carried my daughter in a pouch on my chest and my son on my shoulders, I looked like any other middle-aged white Dad carrying his children across the smelly landscape of the Land of Smiles.

But nobody knew what I was capable of. At all times I knew where the exits were and who might be potential threats. Nobody could guess at how supremely ready I was to react to any threat—real or perceived. At a moment's notice I knew I was capable of whirling myself into an energetic onslaught of fatherly fury. Nobody could guess at how readily and easily I would—and I knew it was true—die for these children. 

And I felt silly knowing it. It felt overly dramatic, carrying around this level of protective concern. I guessed that much of it was chemical in nature, wiring that had very little to do with me, personally.

The Slow Death of AA and the 12 Steps

In the 1930’s an alcoholic named Bill Wilson, so the the story goes, met with an alcoholic physician named Bob Smith, and together, on the foundations of the fundamentalist Christian organization The Oxford Group, they co-founded Alcoholics Anonymous, or AA, and literally wrote the book on the 12 step program. What happened since is a tale of success from a PR perspective, however recently the true efficacy of the 12 Steps as expounded in the AA program has been seriously called into question, with estimates of success ranging from 5 to 10%. 

Bill W.

Bill W.

AA doesn’t like people, particularly people involved in AA, writing publicly about AA. In fact, AA doesn’t like to hear about itself at all from the mouths of others, unless it is old-timey praise for how its patriarchal Christian-based dogma works miracles on the still-suffering alcoholic. I know this first-hand because I have attended AA meetings sporadically since I got sober in 2001. I tried to open a discussion about the problems inherent in AA culture while serving as Editor for Our Primary Purpose, Ottawa AA’s monthly newsletter. As the Japanese proverb goes, “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down,” and this could easily could serve as an unofficial slogan of AA; I was promptly fired for my efforts.

To be clear, I am not bitter about being let go, as I knew it was going to happen before I published the controversial issue. However, I am inquisitive and somehow still incredulous as to how an organization which emphasizes the crucial importance of a personal moral inventory in maintaining sobriety can so broadly shun questioning its own methods and traditions, both official and unofficial.  

Currently there are 12-Step programs for hundreds of the multifarious afflictions and addictions which trouble humanity. The method undeniably involves a certain amount of proselytizing—the Oxford Group, after all, was founded by a missionary who believed that the root of all problems was fear and selfishness, holding as its central tenet that the purging of sinfulness must happen through a conversion experience. In AA this translates as a sort of moral self-flagellation, where members describe themselves as perennially sick and insane and in the process of perpetual recovery, with AA and the 12 steps as the only saving grace in their lives.  AA’s basic text, affectionately referred to as The Big Book by members, outlines in no uncertain terms that AA can never fail: 

Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. There are such unfortunates. They are not at fault; they seem to have been born that way. They are naturally incapable of grasping and developing a manner of living which demands rigorous honesty. Their chances are less than average. There are those, too, who suffer from grave emotional and mental disorders, but many of them do recover if they have the capacity to be honest.
Chapter 5 of the Big Book, How It Works

AA's motto.

AA's motto.

So, in AA’s terms, only an alcoholic can fail the program by not being honest enough. And the warnings against failing to work the 12 Steps properly are positively biblical; the only other options for a suffering alcoholic are jails, institutions, or death. What is most curious about this program founded in ultra-religious roots is how it became the go-to method of treatment, codified not only in the medical profession but in our legal system as well. Countless individuals have been “sentenced” to AA by a judge. 

Adapt or Die

Some of the questions I asked the AA community included the following: 

Is it relevant to alcoholics that ancient shamanic plant medicines from the jungles of South America are demonstrating a success rate of roughly 80% when used with hardcore drug addicts? 

Why is Bill W.’s work with niacin, or the vitamin B-3 therapy, not common knowledge, even though it is the work he wished to be remembered for? 

Why are newcomers served donuts, cake and cookies and triple-sugar coffee instead of being advised that at least 95% of alcoholics are essentially hypoglycaemic and need to stay away from sweets to have a 5-fold greater shot at maintaining sobriety? 

How come the scientific evidence which supports the theory that smokers in AA get the same by-products as they do from alcohol through the cigarette delivery system isn’t made readily available to the numerous chain-smokers in AA? 

And finally, what is the real relationship between trauma, anxiety, depression, stress and addiction? 

A lot of information that would be helpful and relevant to recovering alcoholics and addicts has been at best ignored, and at worst shunned and covered up, by members of or affiliated to the AA community. The explanation offered is that AA has a singleness of purpose, and its only role is to address the tyrant alcohol and the conversion experience needed to overcome it. The problem with this ideology is that sobriety does not exist in a vacuum. 

For a group of people who assert we need a regular personal inventory in order to stay sober, many of us are reluctant to admit we need a vast and probing inventory at the organizational level in order to know why AA is faltering—because any way you cut it, AA is faltering—and what steps we can possibly take to redirect the course of an organization that has been helpful in its early iterations. 

Part of the problem for AA at the organizational level is that it is comprised of ex-drunks who still have wacky social and behavioural issues, and most of these people possess a deeply entrenched fear of change. The problem is partly our denial, and when any member questions the status quo, the membership has been designed to beat her or him back into line with dirty epithets like ‘terminal uniqueness’ and ‘self-appointed reformer,’ which suggests that having an independent thought to even bring forward to group conscience is somehow immoral. But the statistics don’t lie. 

AA needs to adapt or die. 

The Roots of Recovery

William Wilson, or Bill W., was named by Life Magazine as one of the most influential men of the 20th Century. Despite his obvious accomplishments, his service to others, and the success of the recovery movement he had helped create, he routinely suffered from bouts of personal problems and inner turmoil. Wilson was eager for publicity while living with depression, loneliness and self-doubt—not to mention a lung-tarring addiction to cigarettes. He was also reportedly a chronic philanderer, even after he sobered up. His paroxysms of what can likely be termed sex addiction caused no shortage of internal discord and friction in his marriage and, one may assume, in his own mind. I’m no judge of this behaviour; I’m merely interested in what we can learn from this information. 

Straight out of a Kerouac novel.

Straight out of a Kerouac novel.

Behavioural addictions such as sex, spending, eating, gambling and working, are tougher to recognize, let alone treat, because it is through the activity itself that the addict’s brain becomes a lab, manufacturing its own supply of the very thing it is craving.

This information serves only to demonstrate that William Wilson, co-founder of AA, clearly didn’t know or possess sustained inner peace.

If the man who literally wrote the Big Book on conventional 12- step recovery suffered so much mental anguish after sobering up, it follows that it is possible that the organization’s program is missing some elements required to achieve authentic happiness, peace and serenity.

The Role of Psychadelics

One of the greatest attributes a seeker of truth needs to possess is an objective, discriminating mind which is free from prejudice. It appears Bill Wilson possessed this faculty to some degree and his afflictions, even in sobriety, eventually led him to dabble in the occult and various forms of mysticism, including his friendship with Aldous Huxley and the resulting experimentation with Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD).

Wilson likened LSD to a miracle substance—and he reportedly used it regularly in a controlled therapeutic context well into the 60‘s. Somehow we never discuss this fascinating part of our history in AA. The probable relevance of hallucinogens to Bill W.’s sobriety and research is not part of A.A. folklore. AA members are not taught that Bill W., otherwise revered at AA meetings in quasi-cult-like form, was convinced that LSD could help alcoholics by curing their depression by chemically inducing a spiritual awakening. He even introduced a sponsee, Tom Powers—who eventually co-wrote The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions—to LSD.

LSD-alcoholism.jpg

As fascinating as it may be that AA’s co-founder experimented in-depth with acid, it pales in comparison to how revealing it is that AA will go to great lengths to ignore this information, or at the very least discount its potential impact on recovery. I submit that abject denial of events that do not fit into the closed paradigm of AA Traditions we have fashioned cannot help us expand our awareness. 

Modern Drunkard Magazine writer Richard English even reports that Wilson, near his 70th birthday, had concocted a plan to distribute tabs of blotter to AA meetings nationwide. The notion of feeding acid to scores of insecure, often anxiety-ridden, recovery neophytes who huddled in musty church basements across the continent is, possibly, alarming. However, there is some evidence to suggest that Wilson had at least some understanding of the importance of controlled and safe set and setting for the use of psychedelics.

No substance has been more widely tested and used in the treatment of addiction in North America than LSD, before and after Nixon made it a Schedule 1 substance, and these tests haven’t been without significant successes. Some such trials were eventually published in a book by Doctors Hoffer and Osmond entitled A Cure for Alcoholism. This book is no longer in print. 

when-12-step-programs-dont-work-min.jpg

LSD didn’t seem help Bill W. in the long term with his depression or his various cravings. There were also instances of people having psychotic reactions to the LSD. When the plug was finally pulled on LSD research, Hoffer and Osmond were led to study Niacin, which was validated to be, essentially, a wonder cure for multiple ailments, including heart disease, schizophrenia, and depression. 

Entheogens in the Jungle.

As the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies has shown, the research to date shows that hallucinogens can be beneficial in treating addiction, among other concerns. This is perhaps nowhere highly relevant at a treatment centre called Takiwasi, which is located in the jungles of Peru, where French doctor Jacques Mabit works with hardcore addicts using traditional shamanic medicine, specifically Ayahuasca, that is thousands of years old. Ayahuasca, however, is stepping away from the laboratory and moving further into the mystical realm of entheogens, into the sacredness of plant consciousness itself. Mabit’s rate of success for recovery is somewhere around 80%. 

When I recently travelled to Peru to take part in shamanic yoga training, I’d done my homework on the roots of recovery and the nexus between addiction and psychotropic plant medicine—but the knowledge I carried when I arrived in Cusco didn’t do much to discharge my aversion to psycho-reactive substances. I reminded myself that many of these medicines, particularly ayahuasca, are traditionally used for the treatment of addiction and while my recovery program has kept me clean and sober for over 12 years, I have not yet managed to find freedom from addictive patterns of thought and behaviour, as well as depression and anxiety. 

My gut urged me to delve into the experience of plant medicine with a teachable heart and to seek out the courage and support I needed to do so—not only from the competent and professional people running my training, but from my non-physical guides and teachers. Ultimately, as much as I feared and had antipathy towards letting anything perception-altering past the blood/brain barrier, I also knew intuitively that there was something in this opportunity that would assist me in becoming more adept at shifting my existential reference point to allow me to more fully experience the lessons which are, I believe, all around us. 

Yet the gerbil in the wheel of my small mind kept running back to the awareness that I was more or less bucking the tradition I come from and potentially isolating myself from my own community of recovering people. 

Ultimately it was worth the risk, partly because it has long confounded me why so many people recovering from addiction are trapped in grief, depression, anxiety, ignorance, subtle layers of denial, not-so- subtle judgement. So many people in recovery, myself included, engage in this navel-gazing victimization, too often re-hashing their problems and living in fear. The characterization of recovering alcoholics as chain-smoking coffee addicts who subsist on an abhorrently unhealthy diet is not far off the mark in numerous cases. 

As a yoga teacher and student of yoga, I have come to understand how, after my breath, the purity of the water and the food I put into my body is the most vital component to my health—not only my physical health but my mental and emotional health. The time for our species’ belief that these states work independently of one another passed a long time ago. 

So here it was: I wanted to know why there so many people in recovery living such unhealthy lives, treating their bodies as garbage pails, similar to how they functioned in active addiction; I also want to know how to help them. 

It’s a sad but earnest truth that for every person who makes it in recovery, roughly 20 don’t. The answer to this problem, by the members who stick around and stay sober long enough, is that the people who relapse and continue to live in misery are just not working a program. They are somehow not honest enough to work the 12 Steps correctly. The problem with such a broad statement is that there's no data to back it up. 

Even more fascinating are the multitudes of men and women who stay in recovery and stay sober but require the use of selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRI’s) for depression and anxiety, despite their dubious worth and effectiveness—and those who are on medication for stress, high blood pressure and for many other physical ailments, the roots of which I suspect are planted in a lingering and profound sense of disconnection. 

I don’t know of any reliable statistics on the number of addicts who turn to behavioural addictions to continue the natural search for connection and inner peace but my sense of it is that the numbers are alarmingly high. 

These medicines, as has been demonstrated by ancient history, as well as some avant-garde researchers, have proven extremely useful for opening a students’ or patients’ paradigm rapidly and safely. In confronting my own doubts and fears, I reminded myself that these medicines have been considered sacred since before recorded history—likely well before. They are recognized as important, legal and ethical by not only numerous governments around the world, but by the United Nations as well. 

I’m not the only one. AA members need to start thinking outside the box again, fully considering the impact of these other dimensions of experience. I think that is fundamentally what Bill W. had in mind when he wrote Step 12. 

Ancient Medicine

Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it—is but one special type of consciousness, while all about it, parted from it by the flimsiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different.
—William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience 

Somewhere out there in the ether floats an episode of The Nature of Things with David Suzuki; it’s called The Jungle Prescription and it follows Gabor Mate, a Vancouver physician, addictions specialist and noted author, into his work with ayahuasca. 

Ayahuasca is a primordial plant medicine traditionally used for multifarious purposes, including the treatment of addiction and the often co-occurring afflictions of anxiety and depression. 

Mate’s work in the downtown east side of Vancouver, a neighbourhood with one of the world’s most concentrated demographics of drug addicts in the world, is encouraging. 

As one of the most celebrated thinkers in the field of addiction and drug policy, his conclusions on the usefulness, efficacy and long-term benefits of traditional plant medicines is not just valuable but sorely needed at a time when an alarming number of people suffer from addiction—not just addiction to substances but to self-defeating patterns of thought. 

Thanks, man.

Thanks, man.

In recovery from alcoholism and addiction, it is often said those who cannot or will not recover possess a constitutional inability to be honest with themselves. 

Honest self-appraisal is a tough attribute to come by at any point in life but particularly in active addiction and early recovery, because the brain circuitry is in such a chemical and perceptual imbroglio through prolonged substance abuse, poor diet, chronic negative thought patterns and lack of self-esteem, self- awareness and self-love. 

The addict is incapable of piercing the nature of his addiction with his own self- sabotaging mind; if the brain was a bus, it has been hijacked by the addiction. Thus, the addict is not driving his own bus but just about everybody in the addict’s life (himself included) assumes he is. 

What this means, in practical terms, is that the person we see on the outside is not controlling some of his own thoughts, words and behaviours. 

Stuck in this pattern of use, the subtle but starkly illuminating truth of his own powerlessness, at a neural level, in the face of the substance in which the focus of addictive patterns has manifested, remains elusive. 

As an alcoholic, I understand how the repetition of self-defeating actions and words of the addict are steeped in denial and ignorance. The insanity of our own mental make-up kept us ingesting alcohol repeatedly over a prolonged period of time, despite catastrophic consequences; in active alcoholism, we stop at nothing to drink, even though the alcohol is very thing that is killing us. 

To break free of this cycle, we need to be somehow visited by Grace. 

As a younger man I knew and revered the subtle truths I've since forgotten.

As a younger man I knew and revered the subtle truths I've since forgotten.

The grace that comes in early recovery is at first characterized by a higher state of consciousness, a state which is often referred to as that moment of clarity in which we realize that what we are doing is really not working. This moment is sometimes born through a grace-induced insight but more often than not, it is crystallized from the consequence of some combination of public humiliation and deep personal shame. 

As we move through some dissolution of the ego and the uncomfortable release of mental and emotional patterns, the grace can be characterized as tapas: a burning desire, a strong determination to achieve sobriety. This marks the first of many perceptual shifts along the path of recovery. 

Sages of all stripes have long held that sense-gratification should be balanced in such a way that it doesn’t control an aspirant’s life. The illusion of separateness—from not just each other but the rest of existence—is part of mistaking oneself for the body/mind. 

In our world of illusion and delusion, we have misconstrued our perceptions in this very limited plane of existence for reality in totality. We really don’t know what’s going on and most of the time our ignorance, judgement and denial prevents us from recognizing this. 

The two elements in the shamanic traditions that pose the most direct and radical challenge to the accepted Western worldview are the existence of multiple worlds or realms of consciousness and the reality of spirit beings. Such conceptions are considered completely beyond the pale of both reason and science within the mindset of the modern world. However, for the many thousands of explorers from North America and Europe who have used hallucinogenic plants, including ayahuasca, as a shamanic tool for serious consciousness exploration, the recognition of multiple worlds and the reality of spirit beings is becoming quite common.
~ Ralph Metzner

It has been drilled into me through my own recovery journey that any substance which can alter perception is a drug that is no good for me; this position categorically rejects much wisdom, Bill W.’s own experience, and can ultimately be quite limiting as a healing modality. I understand these limitations as potential blockages to greater awareness and growth, yet they remain strangely persistent and clearly deeply-rooted in my psyche. Thankfully ayahuasca meets you exactly where you are at. 

Vitamin B-3

What happened to Bill W.’s work with Niacin? 

It is an open secret in Alcoholics Anonymous that, during the final decade of his life, Bill Wilson advocated the mega-dose use of vitamins, in particular Niacin, for its medically proven efficacy in the treatment of depression, which has long been a co-occurring affliction of addiction. Wilson worked in close contact with numerous physicians who were mavericks in their own right, acting outside of the paradigm already set by the American Medical Association and the pharmaceutical industry. Bill W. wrote three papers in all, addressed to the intended audience of ‘A.A.’s physicians’: The Vitamin B-3 Therapy: A Promising Treatment for Schizophrenia—and its high relevance to the field of alcoholism (December, 1965); The Vitamin B-3 Therapy: A Second Communication to A.A.’s Physicians (February, 1968); and The Vitamin B-3 Therapy: A Third Communication to A.A.’s Physicians (January, 1971). 

Bill W. worked earnestly in conjunction with Dr. Abraham Hoffer, Director of Psychiatric Research for the Department of Public Health, University Hospital, Saskatoon; and Dr. Humphry Osmond, also in Saskatchewan acting as Director of the Bureau of Research in Neurology. The research of Dr. Hoffer and Dr. Osmond at the time of the first paper demonstrated that massive doses of niacin—3g or more daily—had not produced any adverse or harmful side effects, apart from mild flushing, after being given in large quantities over a number of years to their schizophrenic patients. 

Dr. Abram Hoffer

Dr. Abram Hoffer

Bill W. is on record as saying that he would rather be remembered for his work with Vitamin B-3 therapy for alcoholics than for being co-founder of AA. He trusted AA’s physicians to carry the message. They failed him. 

Vitamin B-3 had proven to be reliably counteractive to the toxin created by malfunction in the adrenaline andrenochrome metabolism in these patients. The implication this work had on alcoholics was staggering, as Bill W. noted in his first paper: Schizophrenia, or a schizo tendency, is often the principal cause of many of the emotional troubles that beset us alcoholics, both before and after sobriety. This state of affairs, to which something like one-third of all alcoholics now appear to be more or less subject, goes far to explain many of A.A.’s failures: also many of our ‘slippees’ and so-called ‘unhappy sobriety’ people. These classes of cases are seldom acute situations. For the most part they are individuals having schizophrenic tendencies—a condition that heretofore went largely undiagnosed. 

I’ve been active recovery and attending semi-regular AA meetings for well over a decade, and this haphazard finding—a poor copy of Bill’s typewritten manuscript—was my first introduction to the apparent ‘schizo- tendencies’ that exist among at least a third of the alcoholic population. 

Medicine has its fashions and we, the consumers of medicines, are carried from one apparent epidemic to the next: schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, attention deficit and hyperactive disorder (ADHD), chronic pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, fibromyalgia. My right-brained intuition as a scientist of my own experience tells me that these are all medical terms for concepts and tendencies both real and imagined, at times excruciatingly palpable on a daily basis to the sufferer and at other times misconstrued and exploited mercilessly by the industry that medicates them. 

I’m not alone in this theory; it has it’s backers from the medical field. In his revolutionary work The Divided Mind: The Epidemic of MindBody Disorders, John E. Sarno, M.D. asserts that health care “is in a state of crisis” and that certain segments of medicine “have been transformed into a dysfunctional nightmare of irresponsible practices, dangerous procedures, bureaucratic regulations, and skyrocketing costs. Instead of healing people, the broken health care system is prolonging people’s suffering in too many cases. Instead of preventing epidemics, it is generating them.” 

If this is the case, what’s at the root of this chaos in the medical field? There are multifarious reasons: one of them is the sinister agenda of not only the pharmaceutical industry and government, but the system that controls them both. The more obvious and readily dissectible aspect to this crisis is the bewildering tendency of the medical profession to willfully ignore psychosomatic medicine, or the impact emotions have on illness. As Sarno explains, “though it has yet to be appreciated by either physical or psychiatric medicine, unconscious emotions are a potent factor in virtually all physical, non-traumatic ills. The true cause of the pain serves the purpose of primary gain, that is, to prevent the conscious brain from becoming aware of unconscious feelings like rage or emotional pain.” 

It is not surprising to me in the least that Bill W. became unpopular with board members he himself had appointed to AA International, who felt he had no business messing around with vitamins or the potential impact they had on helping integrate unresolved emotional luggage. They refused to pay attention to the hard science which demonstrated, in Dr. Hoffer’s words, that vitamin B-3 is so versatile because “it moderates or relieves the body of the pernicious effect of chronic stress [and] therefor frees the body to carry on its routine function of repairing itself more efficiently.” 

As a yoga teacher I know that we all of us carry our emotions in our bodies. Our unresolved feelings bury themselves in our very tissues, causing a whole host of problems and conditions that are often, at root, the fundamental fear that feeling our feelings too deeply or too authentically can kill us. This is essentially why alcoholics and addicts turn to booze and drugs in the first place. Psychosomatic illness serves the same purpose: to distract the conscious mind. 

Any alcoholic or addict can understand the concept of schizo-tendencies or being of more than one mind, and acting against one’s best interests and genuine wishes despite drastic consequences. 

“What have often been regarded as ordinary varieties of neuroses,” writes Bill W., “are now seen as cases whose emotional difficulties are greatly aggravated by the long time presence of the schizo-toxin, even though the quantity might be minute.” 

In the face of all the science, there is a heart-centered understanding among many recovering alcoholics who have made at least an initial survey of their own lives, and the motivations, reactions and tendencies that drive behaviour. This shared understanding seems to suggest that alcoholics and addicts are much more than our addled brains. The medical terms for our often co-occurring disorders, such as anxiety and depression, all encompass one vital principle: the lack of power or vital energy in our own lives to grasp for joy or achieve any sense of peace. They describe, on the material plane, a deeper spiritual malaise. 

And yet we ignore the physical plane at our own peril. As within, so without. In a letter to Bill W., Dr. Hoffer (pictured above) wrote the following: 

I have personally administered large amounts, three or more grams daily, of these vitamins to large numbers of schizophrenic patients under my charge; this over a period of many years, most of them since remaining permanently on these materials. During the course of this work, certain other benefits have resulted for these and for other people: arthritic conditions have been helped, circulation improved, blood cholesterol lowered, memory and energy improved—to mention a few. Quite contrary to some still prevalent impressions, neither massive niacin nor nicotinamide appear to have any damaging side effects whatever. Many years of experience have fully demonstrated this to me. Therefore you may recommend these materials freely to anyone. There are no contraindications regardless of the condition of patients, and no interference with any other medical treatment they may be taking. You may use my name in saying so. 

At the time he wrote these papers, Bill W. insisted that he not be publicly identified with the research and promotion of the use of Vitamin B-3 therapy—a therapy he used himself. One can surmise that the already established members and directors of the AA corporation would have, whether out of ignorance or maliciousness, frowned upon ingesting large doses of niacin as an adjunct to the 12 Step program, despite its proven effectiveness. Bill W. didn’t spend years giving his time and energy to accumulating and disseminating the good news about niacin as it relates to alcoholism and depression just so that it could be filed away into a black hole; he trusted the doctors affiliated with AA to ‘carry the message’ about Vitamin B-3 therapy. From all appearances, they didn’t. 

I should end this exploration of AA’s drawbacks by stating unequivocally that I sobered up in August of 2001 and after provincially-funded 12-Step rehab, AA was part of my ongoing recovery plan for years. I am indebted to AA for bringing me in contact with numerous individuals who helped me understand some basic and vital truths of getting and staying sober. AA also introduced me to some very sick people, who have all been powerful reminders of the kind of life I do not want to live. So, in this sense I am indebted to AA. The most powerful way I can think of paying back a little bit is by being as authentic as possible in relaying what my research and experience has shown me.  This is exactly what I have done with The Metta Method, taking the best inter-related elements from yoga, qi gong, shamanic journeying, Ayurveda, pranayama, the 12 Steps, CBT, and self-analysis to bring a program of recovery that touches the root level of our dis-ease. As time goes on, this program of dynamic awareness will evolve with me, and with us, as a species.

I think AA would do well to remember that Bill W. believe AA would self-correct in its own evolution. It would be nice to think that fear of change won’t stop it from doing just that.

Otherwise, AA is destined for the history books.

Micro-Autobiography in Seven Year Cycles

I recently launched The Metta Method, 21-days of training for $21, and so far one single person has signed up for the course, which was a decade in the making. The fault is entirely my own, for I focus on content only, and have completely neglected any sort of marketing. It feels like a passive form or sabotage. 

My second, third and fourth novels continue to receive rejections. The publishing industry is an entirely different realm than it was when my first novel was released over a decade ago. 

Lately I suspect my memory of deceiving me. Events, concepts, principles I thought I remembered seem to have vanished, or exist as a half-life of what they once were. The consequences are jarring: the architecture of my identity crumbles quietly within, as foundational beliefs break like support beams in abandoned houses. 

Lost in thought in Rae-Edzo, NWT.

Lost in thought in Rae-Edzo, NWT.

Memory, I have good reason to believe, is the foundation of identity. And yet it is utterly fallacious. The moment I realized I’ve been remembering all the wrong things, I understood with no small sense of betrayal that the foundation of my own identity has been crumbling for some time. 

At the age of seven I wanted to be a librarian, craving not a life of active adventure but wall-to-wall solace in the presence of books, each page a portal to another dimension of possibility, each page an affirmation that I wouldn’t need to hide from my drunken father forever, that I wouldn’t be enmeshed with my codependent mother until the end of time. I had loving parents who did their best, but as an unwitting empath who didn’t understand how to protect myself, I picked up on all the dark undercurrents of energy and absorbed them. Despite this, I was blessed with a palpable host of non-physical guides and teachers who helped me navigate 3-dimensional reality and brought solace to my already uneasy heart. I communed effortlessly with the natural world and was surprised when I found out this wasn’t the case with everybody. 

First Communion, shortly before I suspected I was being taught half-truths.

First Communion, shortly before I suspected I was being taught half-truths.

At the age of fourteen I wanted to be anything but a cop; I wanted to be anybody other than my father. The smell of Lamb’s Navy Rum jolted me with panic, and the rigidity of the household led me to vow that I would be free in the world as soon as physically possible. This was a vow I broke in spectacular fashion when I joined the Artillery Reserve two years later, surprising nobody more than myself. It was a solemn event, during a year in which I cashed in my books and already-broken dreams for combat boots and a C-7, the Canadian version of an M16. With a driver’s license and my first real girlfriend, I found the idea of freedom without enjoying it, and I found intimacy without being able to surrender to it. I erected razor wire around my deepest sensitivities, still hoping to somehow, in some way, please my father. 

The era of skinny leather ties and Miami Vice. Times (and people) were simpler then.

The era of skinny leather ties and Miami Vice. Times (and people) were simpler then.

My father is a good man, and apart from the common human denials, honest to his core. In response to the current madness on planet Earth, he and my mother have retreated further and further into right-winged religious fundamentalism; it baffles me how they continue to miss the shallow irony of how the Roman Catholic Church calls its congregation the flock.

Sick beats? The Family Connection: MC Cassanova and DJ Chips

Sick beats? The Family Connection: MC Cassanova and DJ Chips

My father used to rip telephone books in half at social gatherings, and all his life he has refused to seek comfort for chronic pain. One thing I learned from my him, and from men in general, was how to avoid facing vulnerabilities head-on, and to not seek or accept outside help. The old idea of male strength involves a curiously simplistic ritual of displaying various physical strengths while masking—or quashing—any elements of the Feminine within oneself, behaviour which helped evolve the male cultural plague of self-loathing and the fear of women, and all its tragic attendant consequences.

I still find this picture remarkable for countless reasons.

I still find this picture remarkable for countless reasons.

At the age of 21 in a rusty trailer in Gagetown, I got a tattoo of a shamanic mask on my left shoulder, to serve as an emblem of my intention to remember and follow through on my solemn vow to find peace and genuine freedom in my life. I was already drinking alcoholically and looking for a way out of the army. As an Infantry Officer, I knew I was slated to head to Bosnia as a platoon commander, and the reality of the impending job was too much for my psyche to bear. I had recurring nightmares of going to house parties, pulling out the DND-issued Browning 9mm against my own volition and, to my extreme horror, shooting my own friends. Always in the head. Sometimes the bullets would obliterate the familiar faces in front of me, but more often they would become inert, impotent, as if I was shooting BBs that only stung rather than wounded. Instead of being grateful, I would panic and keep shooting, as if I had crossed some line in my behaviour that necessitated finishing the job of killing, however loathsome it was.

That time I went AWOL to drive to Victoria and experiment with LSD.

That time I went AWOL to drive to Victoria and experiment with LSD.

I came clean with the military psychologist—what a mindfuck that job would be!—at CFB Kingston about my reservations, and my depression, and the panic attacks, which had me gasping for air every night. The psychologist wasn’t remotely interested in the hazing I’d experienced which had, much to my shame, broken my autonomy and rotted my self-respect. Instead, she was singularly interested in my casually admitted desire to never take another human life under any circumstances. I was already referring to war as state-sponsored murder, and this not only appeared unpatriotic, but to the machinations of the Department of National Defence, extremely dangerous. I could not see, until years later, that this casual assertion of my authentic self was my first autonomous act of strength. 

I misremembered my release from the army for a long time, and it wasn’t until years after I finally sobered up that I recollected it was, of all people, my father who suggested I exit the armed forces in any way possible, even if it meant through a medical release. I suppose I didn’t see it the way it happened because I couldn’t fathom my own father finding me so unsuitable for the role of soldier. In the mind I carried at the time, I no doubt feared he would determine that I was weak. I forget to remember it happened that way because with his surprising input he was trying to save both of us, and he was making himself vulnerable, something I’d learned to distrust and deny. 

My father’s validation, as it was, of my desire to leave the hard-assed world of terror disguised as courage, murder disguised as duty, and patriarchal zenophobic, homophobic, masochistic entropy that was, ironically, just a broader version of the worlds both my father and I had grown up in. 

Eventually the bill for our behaviour comes due.

Eventually the bill for our behaviour comes due.

By the age of 28 I was a full-blown addict, drifting from city to city and job to job, only a few short painful months away from being homeless. I would often wake up from a chemical coma to find my jeans soiled with my own urine, or my shoes missing and my feet caked in dried black blood. I alternately tortured and soothed myself with narcotics, barbiturates, and dread. I experienced panic attacks strong enough to knock me out of waking consciousness. 

Trying to get clean as a tree planter in Northern BC.

Trying to get clean as a tree planter in Northern BC.

Eventually, the shame and pain was enough to prompt me to walk into a detox centre in Northern Ontario, after taking some advice from my newly sober father. In the interest of holding on to childish resentments, I have often forgotten to remember these things: it was my father who had taken my call in the wee hours of the dark night of my soul, it was my father who had driven the 10 or so hours to drop me at the treatment facility, and it was my father who gave me my first sober job, which was clearing trees and brush with a smokey Husquevarna and an antique axe. This was important work, a persistent metaphor for all the weeds I had to pull from my own mind. 

So there’s this mundane dichotomy of filial existence which crops up to this day whenever I step foot into my parents’ home. On the one hand lives his sobriety, his compunction to act with this clunky old notion of honour, his ability, or rather need, to work hard and not complain and to never cheat another soul. On the other hand live the breathing imprints of how much and how quickly I learned to fear him before I had a brain that could rationally process what fear really is. To deny these imprints outright invites all sorts of reflections and behavioural complexes I’ve already spent years unlocking.

At a writers' workshop, Banff Centre for the Arts.

At a writers' workshop, Banff Centre for the Arts.

When I was 35 I was six years sober, a father, a published novelist, a Canadian diplomat posted to Asia, and dug in to a doomed marriage that was as ill-conceived as much as it was necessary to bring two very unique souls onto planet Earth.

As I raised my son and my daughter, I found great joy and great sorrow coexisting within me. I was gratified to see how my die-hard penchant for play bridged my world to theirs. I was also horrified to witness how quickly I could snap and growl and glower at these two innocents, whose mere curiosity could, in my tired moments, incite a rage that seemed channelled directly from the father I had as a child. This nebulous anger seethed in me like some long-term dormant infection. 

I suffered from alienation, the disease of the Self, making my way through my work diligently, disappearing into countless immigration files and the less mundane problems of other families. I navigated my sexless marriage via Vietnamese massage parlours, always incredulous and ashamed at my need to be touched. 

By the age of 42 I was divorced and had lost any claim on custody by staying to work my job in India. I navigated legal vitriol and divorce papers from a refugee camp in Damak, Nepal, where I was stationed briefly to interview and resettle Bhutanese refugees. By 42 I was just completing my slow yet dramatic exit from the Foreign Service, exhausted by decades of pretending I had my shit together, hiding behind one critically-acclaimed novel and a red passport. I was constantly seeking through channels that were far from unique—meditation, yoga, ayahuasca—seeking some avenue to that elusive state of authentic freedom. I moved seven times in seven years, I changed five cars in five years, I forgot everything I’d ever learned about “as within, so without.” I dropped my abused will, left it for dead as I succumbed to a depression that verged on despair. 

It has taken me almost this long to acknowledge that I’ve always known what I needed to do. I was simply unwilling to do it. As much as I like to imagine my efforts as a writer, as a yogi, as a soldier-cum-buddha sitting on my buckwheat-hull-filled zabuton in a meditation posture while mentally renovating the imaginary house I haven’t built yet, the house I fear I will never get to build—as much as I’ve enjoyed imagining myself as a lightworker, and illuminated artist, I had essentially only replaced the booze and drugs with specific patterns of thinking, with social media, with Netflix. I have worn the marks of acedia into half a dozen couches which are linked by a trail of stale potato chip crumbs. In my unconscious effort, however, I have relentlessly struggled to find my way back from the plane of inertia to the place of joy, of peace—that pinnacle of genuine freedom I have so far only glimpsed in my life. 

And now I am 45, and all of this is, in a way, to admit that the strangest thing I realized while creating The Metta Method was that I’ve known all along exactly what works. I knew as a child that I could elevate myself out of despair and anxiety simply by doing a few simple things to raise my vibration. But I was trained and educated away from this inherent knowledge, and I was taught to distrust and belittle my own intuition for not being rational or scientific. I started toying with my despair as a puppy might toy with a feral cat, chancing to see if I’ll get wounded by ignoring the daily needs of my ever-thirsty spirit. I had been craving freedom while keeping it at bay through my own actions.

This whole story is so fucking mundanely human it bores me. And fascinates me. While I continue to evolve into the man, the father, the writer, the healer, the lover, the fighter, the human I’ve always envisioned I could be, every day I feel like I’m lagging behind where, and who, I am supposed to be, trapped by the somnambulant consumerism that informs our every nervous tic. 

And yet, this story is evolving as I am. We are in the midst of massive, unprecedented energetic change on planet Earth right now. By becoming so enslaved by our corporate governments, by our archaic brain-numbing institutions, by our own lemming senses, we have forced the hand of Freedom. True authentic power has never been so close within our grasp as a species precisely because the reflections of our own denials—such as, for instance, chemtrails, or the tragicomedy that is the Presidency of Donald Trump, or the broken oceans, or endless war, or the poisons in our food, drinking water, vaccines—have never been so odious.

Most days I understand how all this is necessary to shake us and wake us. Other days I’m disgusted with the human race and cross my fingers for our extinction.

But most days, like I said, a weird new hope blossoms—whether it is for earth-shattering technological innovation to help save us from ourselves, or for a smooth transition into five-dimensional existence. Through all of the ups and downs I have to keep reminding myself that I might as well be joyful. In fact, it is incumbent upon me (if I am who I think I am) to find that elusive sweet spot we call happiness.

By the time I’m 49, I’ll have it all figured out. I swear. 

 

My First Journey With Ayahuasca

One thing Peru—more specifically ayahuasca—had taught me was that I still seem to be running the same self-defeating patterns in my life.

Arrival in Lima. I didn't stay long.

Arrival in Lima. I didn't stay long.

Ayahuasca is the ancient psychotropic plant medicine—most accurately referred to as an entheogen—that dissolves the rational mind while uncovering spiritual dimensions. It’s not a trick of chemistry or faith, but a merging with plant consciousness where shared visions are commonplace. In the face of such a new, and often disturbing, reality, ego is deconstructed and the root of one’s trauma becomes apparent, often through heavily-weighted symbolism. It is a visionary formula which unlocks emotional memory, causing paradigm-shifting catharsis in those who drink it with appropriate intention. Many people don’t drink it with appropriate intention, and yet that doesn’t matter either because Ayahuasca has a way of teaching us exactly what we need to learn.

Sacred vine of the souls. Photo credit to Temple of the Way of Light.

Sacred vine of the souls. Photo credit to Temple of the Way of Light.

I was in Cusco September of 2012, so I was roughly 11 years sober the first time I tried ayahuasca. I spent weeks leading up to the ceremony agonizing about how the use of psychotropic medicines, ancient or not, would impact my sobriety—both in my eyes and in the eyes of people I knew in recovery. Part of sobriety that takes getting used to is how deeply and how often I question my own judgement. I wanted input from someone I knew or could trust, but I was in Peru with people who were virtually strangers. 

Running a business of posing for tourists in Cusco.

Running a business of posing for tourists in Cusco.

I’d been reading Dr. Gabor Maté’s brilliant In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, and I knew he had done some work with ayahuasca and addicts in Vancouver, so I wrote Dr. Maté an email asking if, in his opinion, I could reconcile the limiting beliefs of the AA tradition with the knowledge contained in ancient shamanic practices. To my astonishment, Dr. Maté wrote back almost immediately:

I understand [your tradition’s] suspicion of ‘drugs’, but ayahuasca is not a drug anyone uses for recreational purposes. Unlike addicted drug use, the purpose of which is to lower one’s level of consciousness and awareness, ayahuasca—used in the proper context with the right leadership—gives access to higher awareness. It does not encourage ongoing use. 

An expert.

An expert.

It was enough to solidify my resolve, and I am immensely grateful to Dr. Maté for taking the time to answer a jittery Canadian seeker.

Of my six fellow students in Shamanic Yoga training, I was the only male, deepening the impression that Peru was an experience of strong female energy. Ayahuasca herself has a powerful gender presence. 

San Blas market square, Cusco

San Blas market square, Cusco

We journeyed by bus from Cusco to Calca. By car we were jostled over broken strips of land that passed for roads until we arrived at a natural sanctuary in the Sacred Valley, where a maloka (indigenous word for cabin) was surrounded by trees, cactus, mountains, and a waterfall. Almost immediately after our arrival we entered the maloka and hung out on our yoga mats and mattresses for several hours until it got dark. Every now and then I glanced at the white plastic bucket next to my mat. Everyone had one.

The moloka

The moloka

“For vomit,” one woman said. She was a doctor from Canada and had done this before. 

Sometime after dark, Elisa, the Shipipo shaman who’d travelled all the way from the jungle village of Pucallpa, entered the maloka. She laid out various ceremonial materials in front of her: a bowl for burning; Palo Santo, which is a fragrant and sacred wood used as incense for purification; a bottle of Agua de Florida; her own plastic purging pail; and two large plastic water bottles filled with a dark, viscous liquid. 

Ayahuasca. The sacred vine of souls.

After an hour or so of relative stillness, the lights in the maloka were dimmed and Elisa called for a ceremony full of force and love. She set two crystal glasses in front of her. We students were called in pairs to come and drink. I was one of the last students to raise a glass to my lips before the shaman and the teachers swallowed their portions. 

There was a small moment before I drank where time stretched out to reveal a swirling sea of doubt. I was acutely aware of how little confidence I had in myself. I could not make sense of why on earth I was drinking ayahuasca. I couldn’t even remember why I’d come to Peru to study shamanic yoga in the first place.

As I kneeled on the floor in front of Elisa, the intriguing ayahuascero, I took the crystal glass in both hands and breathed the only intention that came to mind into the thick black liquid: give me the teaching that is most useful to me right now. 

The shaman smiled gently, and I sensed she had a kind a trustworthy heart. Feeling slightly safer, I drank all that she had poured out for me. Tradition holds that the medicine itself informs the ayahuascero how much to portion out for each person. My portion seemed too much, and it went down much more slowly than I would have liked. It tasted vile, like a coffee syrup that had turned sour after being spiked with moldy lemon rinds that had been seasoned in a heavily used 1970’s ashtray. 

I returned to my cushion and watched time pass unendurably. I closed my eyes and brought my attention to my breath, trying to remember how to meditate. I knew nothing. I opened my eyes and saw small pale ghosts dancing outside the maloka. It took me a few moments to recognize that it was the movement of Tibetan prayer flags responding to the trickery of the moon and the wind. I closed my eyes again and white-capped anxiety lapped over me like waves crashing into the surf. 

I knew intuitively that I would have a much easier time of things if I could just surrender completely to the experience, but I also knew that with the type of mind I was carrying, it wasn’t going to be possible for me to just surrender. I was going to have to be psychically broken down, there was no way around it—the medicine was already teaching me the obviousness of this reality—and it fucking terrified me. 

Despite these uncomfortable understandings I continued to fight whatever was already washing through my gut, my heart, coursing past the blood/brain barrier. 

I had to feel everything with the dreadful knowledge that it was certainly going to get much more horrifying before I would get back to any sense of peace. I steeled myself against what was coming. In a sort of perceptual paralysis, I understood I was capable of creating my own reality but knew that the only reality available to me for the next few hours was one whose origin was my own denied horror. 

Then I felt Her move. Like a serpent, Ayahuasca slid into the seat of consciousness, coiling herself around the base of my brain and squeezing.  From the top of my head came a cold fountain of terror. 

I desperately kept bringing my focus back to my breath, breathing long and deep until I acquired some confidence that I might make it through the experience, which had, in 3-dimensional time, barely started. As soon as I felt that confidence and trusted in it, it was ripped out of me with a spasmodic sensation of icy treachery. Everything was so utterly unpredictable I felt irretrievably lost. It was as if every panic attack I had ever had during the seven worst years of anxiety had been woven together to create a thick cloak of dread which lay across my shoulders. It was so heavy—so cold and so shocking—that for several moments I couldn’t draw a breath. 

When I did eventually inhale again I did so greedily. I opened my eyes and couldn’t see anything. I closed them and then opened them again. My vision had utterly disappeared. I was trying to understand if this was part of the medicine or if I had coincidentally happened to go blind at this very instant. Then I lost my hearing. 

Blind and deaf, my world was completely internalized. Something told me that I didn’t even have a voice to cry out for help. But I wasn’t sure - I could have been screaming and there was no way to know it. I was stricken with a new variety of alarm, a distress so penetrating that every cell of my being vibrated in panic. I was going to die. And still, even with such palpable fear, fear I could literally taste, my ego was intact enough to not want to be the only dude in ceremony who was crying out for help. 

I was going to die. 

I was suddenly freezing and was about to die. It almost made sense that it would end like this, once I came to the understanding that the only way out of my fear was through death. It seemed a little extreme, of course—not to mention disappointing—but in many ways it made perfect sense. 

Death is so much easier than we imagine.

The moment I accepted my death, a small aperture opened up in my mind’s eye and I knew I had to pass through it. I took what I literally thought was my last breath and let go, surrendering completely. 

I was sucked through the aperture and the sounds of the world returned with a tremolo hiss, then a peaceful blankness, and then as my sight and hearing returned, I remembered to breathe. I found myself back in the maloka gasping for air, as I have done many a night since the early 90’s. 

Eventually I relaxed somewhat into my seated positioned, and noticed how the fluctuations of my mind had started dancing with the medicine. Or, more accurately, the medicine danced in perfect step with my mind, meeting each thought in perfect cadence, outpacing each notion as it arose.  

The sensation of cold left me and my body became a series of interdependent pinpricks of fire. With the sensation that I was choking, I ripped off my alpaca hoodie and the medicine bag that had been gifted to me by a Q’ero shaman. I threw these items beside me, and knocked over my gear into the inky darkness. All the care and concern I’d taken, the circumspect attention I’d paid to the placement and order of blankets and pillows and water and headlamp, etc. was completely fucked. 

I sat in worried darkness for a long time, slowly understanding my habitual way of thinking until I was ultimately overcome with a profound feeling of compassion for myself. This sensation centred in my heart with a sunrise of consciousness spreading over the landscape of my usually fearful mind. 

Eventually my fever subsided and I lay down, wrapping myself in my sleeping bag, with a clinical awareness of my internal organs. I studied my bowels, the pressure of gravity on my skin, the movement of my cells. 

I abruptly took flight right then, and in one breath travelled back decades to find myself where I used to hide behind the couch with my dog. I took myself by the hand, and could feel the smallness of my own fingers as a boy, and walked myself to the park near where we’d lived in a suburban area called Barrhaven. I pushed myself on the swings until the boy version of me was smiling, and until I sensed that he trusted me. 

I knew instinctively what had to be done, and I told that boy he was beautiful. He was me and yet he wasn’t me. In that moment I loved him so much that my body in the maloka shed tears of happiness. I would later learn from the shaman, through rocky translation, that this type of episode is known as spontaneous soul retrieval

There was more sitting up, lying down, adjusting clothes, adjusting pillows. I could hear others shifting in the darkness. Someone started vomiting, and it struck me that I, too, needed to purge. After some fumbling in the darkness I found my bucket just in time before I started heaving. Nothing came out, however, and after a few minutes of dry-retching I was seeing stars and returned to a supine position. 

Every single thought, of which I had perhaps thousands each minute, became a question exploring why I thought that way—why I thought in that particular manner. The lessons, as endless as my thoughts, were so instructive and illuminating into the prison of my own conditioned thinking, exposing all the habit patterns of my mind, my bias, my denials, my myopic judgments.  

It was clear to me that I had been granted access to a virtually endless stream of information from a source contained within the dimension I had obviously passed into through the aperture of my little death as the medicine had first taken hold of me. I felt on the cusp of great illumination; I was on the verge of reaching up to pluck a fragrant kantuta out of the night air in the maloka and decoding the fibonacci series. 

And then Elysa, the shaman, started to sing her icaros, the lilting high-pitched melodic songstaught to a shaman by her spirit guides. These songs were simultaneously unsettling and soothing, and Elysa filled the space both within and without her own voice, and a new dawn broke in my mind. With my eyes shut tight, my inner vision filled with warm light and foreign birds spiralled softly around the maloka, carried upon the currents of the ancient strain of icaros. The melody surgically extracted fear from me until I was filled with a genuine compassion for all beings.

I saw the ancestry of so many men, so bereft of will they used their fists in mock show of power. I saw them in the gloomy hours of a waxing moon, numbing their minds with drink until they were so full they crested, spilling their own fear over the banks of their lives, rivers of fear breaking the levies of denial. 

I could see my own resentments against my ex-wife playing out through the generations to come after my own children. I subsequently went through every single relationship and discovered my own character defects at work in each. What the medicine appeared to be doing was giving me an unbiased capacity for empathy. 

That night, my first night journeying with plant medicine, I emerged at dawn with the awareness that I was transformed and I knew things. I would forget them in time, but for a while, I knew these beautiful things and understood them all deeply.

Cognitive Dissonance and San Pedro

I encountered no small amount of cognitive dissonance while studying shamanic yoga in Cuzco, Peru, where I fled in one of my many attempts to outrun myself. Shortly after the course started, the teachers informed the ten students that we would be working with San Pedro. It wasn't lost on me that the entheogen in the form of healing cactus has been in use at least 2900 years longer than AA has been around. The Roman Catholic church attempted to suppress its use, but was obviously unsuccessful as the plant was named after St. Peter. As St. Peter ostensibly holds the keys to the Kingdom of heaven, San Pedro cactus lets one glimpse heaven while still on Earth, most notably through the alkaloid mescaline.

I wanted to avail myself of the teachings of San Pedro while in Peru, but the dogma of AA stuck in my heart like shards of glass. 

I fasted in preparation for the plant medicine, as required, and met the small group I was training with in San Blas market. We hiked to a nature reserve near Saksaywaman, and prepared for ceremony in a wide clearing surrounded by forest. The Incas, I knew, had deemed this place the belly-button of the world. I took my kinto—an offering of three coco leaves—between my fingers, held it up to my mouth, and was abruptly overcome with waves of grief over the death of my stale knowledge of recovery.

photo (23).JPG

My prayer was a blubbery whisper to figure out how to better serve the still-suffering addict—who was, in many ways, me. 

There was nothing romantic about the look and feel of San Pedro—basically bright green slime in a greasy Mason jar. My busy thoughts immediately went to how I would design the packaging for San Pedro if someone happened to ask me for input. Perhaps a stone replica of an Incan statue for a bottle with a cork stopper. But nobody was asking me. 

We all went through the ritual of burning our kintos in offering before drinking our share from the jar. My teacher handed me an amulet, a figure of Pachamama and pachapapa back-to-back. Pachamama, I knew, is the Earth Mother. Pachapapa, I researched later, literally means earth potato. But the intended meaning of this gift from my teacher wasn't lost on me: the unifying of opposites. 

The non-dual reality our minds so often block in their stubborn refusal to shed binary thinking. 

We have been subjected to so much programming from such a young age, we never even had a chance to learn to question it. Now we walk around with all sorts of layered beliefs, many of which don't even necessarily belong to us. 

Everyone drank three times in turn and then we strapped on our packs and headed into the forest. We hiked for about an hour when I noticed the smell of pine and was immeasurably moved by it. I was momentarily transported back to my youth in Canada. When we came to a clearing high above a small waterfall, I understood San Pedro, a grandfatherly presence, was expansive and wise, and he took me by the shoulder and was shaking me awake. My senses sharpened. I closed my eyes and the phosphenes showed me an owl. 

We scattered into the woods along a cliff, each of us following our own internal journey. I lay down in the grass amid wildflowers and closed my eyes. The ancient medicine seemed to tether me to the earth and make me heavy. I had an image of all the anxiety I'd accumulated over decades clumping in my stomach. This sensation was immediately followed by a vision of black crows descending from the trees to eat these clumps of anxiety out of my guts.

Some time later my teacher, a nurse from Kansas, came over. I sat up and she sat down, facing me. She put her hands palms-up in front of her. I rested my hands in hers. I was overcome by a confusing alloy of relief and melancholy. Suddenly she rapped at my sternum with her knuckles.

"God, John," she said, "How'd you fit so much pain in there?"

Almost immediately—as if she'd given previously inaccessible parts of me permission to feel—grief and blank sadness poured out of me, fat tears and awkward snot bubbles strung together as if representing an unbroken chain of suffering from a time long forgotten. 

Other things happened after that, experiences that I would have to classify as inter-dimensional, incidents that I wouldn't be able to convey no matter how many words I wrapped around them.

Memories From the Land of the Midnight Sun

While there’s a twinge of guilt around my deep sense of affiliation with First Nations peoples in the face of my stark male whiteness, I have to attribute these feelings to early childhood.

My first memories are of living on two First Nations' Reserves in the Northwest Territories—one in Rae-Edzo (now Behchokǫ̀) and the other in Inuvik. I don't have a large portfolio of memories from those early times, and the memories blend together from both outposts, but I know from the tremors in my heart that they were formative years. I didn't understand the difference between my Inuit friends and my privileged white ass except that many of my friends seemed, at the time, to be deeply unlucky and get in all sorts of trouble. These were my only friends, and as much as my mother and the neighbours’ dog, Koomik, tried to shelter me from the dismal realities of Reserve life in the 70's, it was there, permeating everything.

I went to the same school, wearing the same kind of homemade mukluks on my feet as we walked through the crunchy snow in near year-round darkness, and I studied the same classes, ate the same caribou stew and Flinstone vitamins at lunch time, and hosted the same head lice.. 

We played and travelled along the massive steel pipes that spanned the community. I never gave these pipes much thought, and only years later did I question why they were there, which was to house the hydro-electric infrastructure that couldn’t be buried due to permafrost. 

I walked to school with my older sisters in the dark and we returned from school in the dark, except for roughly two weeks of constant sunshine in the summer when families would be out barbecuing at midnight. In the two weeks of midnight sun I ran around the Reserve with my friends while people stayed up and socialized at all hours, soaking in as much Vitamin D as they could. I distinctly remember skidding out my Big Wheel in the cracked streets and feeling like anything could happen in a place where the sun didn't set.

Koomik was part German Shepherd and part Husky, and though he belonged to the neighbour, his food dish was at our house and he slept in my bed. I would wander around the yard when I was five and six years old and Koomik would stay with me, watching the perimeter and fencing me in with his body whenever I made a move to wander off the property. Disturbingly, the dog had been trained by a racist, which meant that if any Native men walked by our little pink house, Koomik would bark ferociously at them. The dog became so aggressively intimidating that people started to give our house a wide berth. In a way, Koomik is, years later, an appropriate metaphor for the trained cultural dichotomy of violence, privilege, fear and appropriation.

The North was a land where extreme things happened. My once father fell off a skiff in the Beaufort Sea when they hit ice. His fellow Constables couldn't  hear him shout and didn't even notice that there was a man overboard. When my father reached out instinctively for the boat, he had his hand chopped to the bone by the prop. The local doctor sewed his hand to his stomach for a time as a form of skin graft. Some four decades later, the skin on my Dad's left hand still tans in blotches in the summertime. 

It was a dry Reservation, which meant that liquor was prohibited. Products like Pam cooking spray. Listerine, and Lysol were sold behind the counter due to the alcohol content. The intent was to keep noxious substances away from those who’d use them, like the giant.

The giant was Charlie Bishop, and that wasn’t a nickname for him. He was a massive lamb of a man who suffered from gigantism and was feared by all in the community. His thick fingers moved like a club when he waved, and he looked fearsome not because of his flat nose and prominent, coarse jaw, but because his large lips seemed to twist into a painful grimace whenever Charlie Bishop smiled. 

My Mountie father sensed opportunity and quickly recruited him as a sort of "Special Constable" in order to help police the Natives. However, like many people on the reservation (my father and, years later, myself included) Charlie Bishop had a hard time of it under the bottle. One night my father got a call from a neighbour because the usually-gentle giant was sideways on whiskey and had beaten his wife pretty badly. 

My Dad was 6'2" and looked like a ventriloquist's puppet next to Charlie, who was in a drunken rage when he arrived on the scene. My father told him that there was some trouble at the jail and he needed Charlie's help. Appealing to his sense of duty calmed him, and my Dad had Charlie stuff himself into the front of the cruiser and drove him back to the Reservation's jail, which was attached to our house. 

My two elder sisters and I were sleeping when my father led Charlie next to one of the empty cells. Charlie was going along with it under the false pretence that his help was needed. My father couldn't shut him inside the cell while he was still wearing his thick leather belt. Charlie hadn't had an easy existence and was a prime candidate for suicide watch. 

Charlie asked what they were doing there. In mid-sentence of a response my father jumped up and wrapped Charlie into a sleeper hold with one arm while undoing his buckle with the other. My dad whipped the belt out of its loops and shoved him into the cell with all his nerve-wracked strength, and just managed to shut the door as Charlie clued into the game and flew into a mighty rage. 

My father was almost immediately called out again for some other incident, so my 5'2" mother perched herself in the tiny prison on a folding lawn chair, terrified that Charlie's gargantuan hands would rip the bars right off of his cel. My mother wanted to check on me and my sisters, but didn't dare leave him unobserved, as if eyeballing him was the only way to keep him locked up.  

Charlie Bishop kept screaming in a forlorn, husky lam: "MY FRIEND! RCMP! MY FRIEND!”

The next morning, a sheepish Charlie was discharged without fuss but he cast his head low in shame and from that day forward he never again made eye contact with my mother. The incident proved useful, as my father became somewhat of a legend for being the white man who subdued Charlie Bishop, and was never physically challenged again during the remainder of the time we lived in Rae-Edzo.

My father did the right thing that night, I have no doubt, but my literary mind wants to frame the incident as another metaphor of a once powerful culture becoming tainted by exposure to colonialism, and then hoodwinked into a false partnership, and finally cast into an existence of shame—shame that doesn't belong to that people but has been carried by them on behalf of the engineers of cultural genocide.

The author (right) as a reluctant member of a Northern parade.

The author (right) as a reluctant member of a Northern parade.

I have to believe that living on a Reserve for years just as my long-term memory was coming online would be the main reason I have felt a bashful kinship with First Nations' peoples—my whole life. Perhaps part of my felt-sense of kinship with First Nations comes from my own experience with shame, and denied rage in the face of a control system I don't recognize. 

That reality during those formative years was all I knew; since then I've been romantically and ignorantly eager for all the peoples who have endured so much to boldly stand up and share from the gut what has been learned of fear, of courage, of rage, and of faith. Despite my naive magical thinking, I still know that there is a correction coming—we are in the midst of it—on planet Earth, and black folks and aboriginal folks, particularly the women, are at the heart of it.

Watch and see.

 

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A Brief and Preposterous Hermit's Life

(the following is an excerpt from Survivalism, John-James Ford's upcoming picaresque)

I wrote the first draft of my first novel on the East coast of Canada at a now-defunct place called The Association of Hermits, which amounted to a few shacks in the forest occupied by two nuns, one priest, and a few bizarre drifters. My Great Aunt Phyllis was a Catholic nun and she’d been living there for years. I was living a version of the madness Kerouac wrote about in Big Sur and was trying to escape it by being somewhere wholesome and remote. 

In exchange for meals and a plywood cabin equipped with mouse-eaten insulation and a rusty wood stove, I harvested timber for the other hermits. I can still taste the blue smoke from the temperamental Husquevarna I used to chainsaw my way through oak and maple trees. I enjoyed the work, even though I was always skittish about widowmakers and the fact that there were no ear defenders or safety goggles available. This turned out to be a healthy fear, since I almost got crushed by a dead tree and did eventually end up in emergency with a splinter in my eye.

To combat the oily fumes I hauled in lungfuls of sober cigarettes. I’d scared myself with my drinking and part of my self-imposed exile in the weirdly religious bush was to dry out. I wore a purple and red-checked lumberjacket, old Carhartt dungarees and bitten-leather steel-toed boots, overly conscious about looking the part in the uniform of a salt-of-the-earth working man.

In the autumn, when enough lumber was in, my duties changed to picking turnip. This work turned out to be more miserable than any I’d ever done, including washing dishes, treeplanting, and basic Infantry training. Since we picked after first frost the endless drills of turnip were half-frozen; to claw the bulbous taproots from the cold earth required fingers unencumbered by mitts or thick gloves. Some degree of frostbite was more or less inevitable.

The priest from the hermitage ran the turnip farms at a perennial loss because it meant turkey at Christmas for numerous families. My co-workers were out-of-work fishermen still partly in denial that the cod fishery had collapsed, and who couldn’t feed their families with the sparse catches they made from angling. 

The work was a new brand of anguish for me and I learned about determination from those men, most of them twice or three times my age; I marvelled at what they would put their bodies through to bring something extra home to their families, their lack of quit, and how they’d lunch on nothing more than a thermos of black tea and a raw turnip. 

It’s possible I’m waxing romantic. Could be those guys just went and drank all their earnings at quitting hour—I have no way of knowing for sure other than what it felt like then. At that time I had the twin voices of guilt and denial whispering all sorts of things to me, and to keep those voices at bay I wrote.

I only worked lumber or turnip about three days of the week; the other days I spent banging away at an Olympia portable typewriter. There I built, sheet by sheet, the manuscript that would come to be Bonk on the Head. I used to get lost in reverie and flip the pages over and run my hands over the punctuation hammered in like very spare Braille. 

I knew I was going somewhere with that book because it was virtually uncoiling itself from old traumas that had long lay dormant in my gut.

Lately I've felt that same feeling again.

 

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Vaccines and Natural Law

Practically all humans who promote the use of vaccines (or amalgam fillings, fluoride in water,  omnibus bills, the Patriot Act) erupt with visceral hatred at the suggestion that individuals should have free will. In this case many people are questioning the right under natural law to choose whether or not to vaccinate themselves and their children. 

    These people reflexively claim to have all science-based medicine in support of their position, but are unaware of how deeply they have been programmed to parrot consensus reality. It may surprise many to learn (because lapdog media hasn’t informed them) that vaccines are an extremely divisive topic in current medicine and research, not just among the general public. 

    In case it needs to be iterated, ‘scientific’ is not synonymous with ‘true’. Carl Sagan warned us that those who control science and technology will control humanity. One needn’t become a conspiracy theorist to reach the conclusion that our systems and the institutions that support them are failing us, and have been continually failing us for a long time. 

    A scientist who balks at the official party line will have her funding cut, will likely be disparaged by her peers, and may even lose her job. In some cases of extreme human interest, scientists who’ve stepped outside the established paradigm with valuable (i.e. damning) information have lost their lives under questionable circumstance.

    Vaccine safety studies are rigged and the safety of the preserving agents in vaccines is highly questionable. It is the manufacturer who funds testing after all. And yet this blatant and critical conflict of interest still passes, to the masses, for what we call science. Even the warnings from within the scientific community, such as the Institute of Medicine, are squelched.

    The system that is interested in mandatory mass injections is actually not concerned with disease prevention. As difficult as this will be to swallow, vaccines are not scientifically sound methods of eradicating disease. In many cases, vaccines have caused outbreaks of the diseases they were supposed to prevent. The general population has erroneously assumed the science behind vaccines is concrete merely because vaccination has been implemented, officially supported, and in place as long as it has. The system which controls vaccines and their delivery relies on this assumption.

    Here, in broad strokes, is what the proponents of vaccines are demanding: We need to blindly accept all science that promotes the use of vaccines and mindlessly reject all science that refutes it. We need to give up our right to choose to have vaccines or not to have them, and in doing so, we must indiscriminately trust both our governments and the pharmaceutical industry with unfettered access to our veins. We must accept that the known neurotoxins and the unknown compounds and untested agents, which include, but are not limited to formaldehyde, aluminum hydroxide, aluminum phosphate, thimerosal, and polysorbate 80, will enter our bloodstream and impact our central nervous system in ways we fully do not understand. Despite the fact that vaccines contain established carcinogenic, neurotoxic, immunotoxic and sterility agents, we must accept them without expecting or demanding informed details about the shady history of vaccine development and the pseudo-science behind the entire program; we have to trust that the impacts of the contents, or testing that has (or has not) been done on some of the chemical compounds and preserving agents, known otherwise to be highly toxic and to bioaccumulate with each successive injection, especially when attached to an organic compound, will somehow magically not be harmful to us or our children because the CDC or Health Canada says so, without having ever done any substantial testing of their own

    Even if vaccines are harmful, we must uncritically accept that the rewards of vaccines, despite their dubious success, outweigh the risks, notwithstanding existing evidence to the contrary. We do not have the right to question the motives of this mass-delivery system that knowingly contains neurotoxins, and we do not have, nor should we have, the right to refuse it.

    Now, surely most people in 2017 must realize that we cannot trust mainstream media or mainstream science. The so-called ‘gold-standard’ in medicine, namely peer-reviewed journals, is not immune from corruption, bias, outside influence, and, in the interest of ongoing funding in various fields, extreme self-censorship. The money trails in science, medicine and media all lead back to the same place. Scores of scientists, celebrities, politicians, medical professionals and internet trolls, whether out of ignorance or some more sinister motive, jump to the defence of vaccines as if the very thought of questioning them is inhuman, ignorant, and even evil. The result: mass of public opinion intentionally shepherded to shame and vilify anyone and everyone who questions the validity of the ‘science’ backing vaccine use.

To understand the fundamentals of the arguments around vaccines, we must possess an informed understanding of denial, and how denial is used. The system in control of what passes for science, government, business, medicine, law, religion, and media is not, simply put, what it appears to be.

    Denial is what keeps the official narrative—any official narrative—alive, in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, and in spite of our own gut feelings. There is a very good reason intuition is ridiculed as baseless and holding none of the ‘exacting’ standards of science, and this reason has nothing to do with the benefit of humanity, the other beings we share this space with, or the beleaguered Earth which supports and sustains us.

    How it works: in the face of prolonged, relentless corruption and scandal, individuals in denial reduce each scenario to so many isolated incidents of bungling incompetence and basic human greed. Like lab rats habituated by electrical shocks, we’ve been acculturated through manufactured fear for generations. We have been hornswoggled by the very same system that purports to educate us, govern us, inform us, and entertain us. The ongoing epidemics of mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression, chronic fatigue and addiction on this planet are often the expressions of conditioned helplessness.

    Anyone who chooses to step outside the stifling atmosphere of consensus reality are derided and scorned, and not even by the authors of this fallacious reality, but by fellow lab rats who react automatically to defend the status quo denying anything outside the official narrative with as much vitriol or sarcasm as they believe the occasion warrants.

    The brilliance behind the vaccine narrative is the presupposition that my recommended injections (which are not synonymous with immunizations) are necessary to protect other people as well as myself. This is why, if I choose to not get myself or my children vaccinated, my fellow lab rats can’t just let me be in peace. I need to toe the line in order to keep the narrative intact, and all of us safely and cozily held in the miraculous arms of modern science.

    The conditioning into denial has been ongoing for centuries, or longer, and presently nearly every professional and ‘elite’ in our society is infected with denial. So, not only do we perform the dirty work of hiding the truth, but we heap criticism and derision upon those who would bring the truth to us.

    The so-called ‘science’ of vaccines has inauspicious beginnings. In the late 18th century, a British physician named Edward Jenner decided to test out local Berkely parish folklore that diary workers exposed to cowpox were immune to smallpox. Jenner’s scientific inquiry involved taking the cowpox strain from the fluid on an infected milkmaid’s hand and transmitting it to his poor gardener’s eight-year-old son James Phipps. Several months later, Jenner infected the boy with smallpox. James Phipps was resistant to smallpox. Jenner infected the boy twenty more times, to no effect. This, in a nutshell, comprises the specious and shaky foundations of the entire theory of vaccination.

    What is not often mentioned is how deaths from smallpox increased dramatically directly after the introduction of the smallpox vaccine.

    And, (let me interrupt while you attempt to bring up the so-called miracle of the polio vaccine) the ‘grand chapter’ in the vaccine narrative relates how virologist Jonas Salk was a national hero who not only saved countless lives with the polio vaccine but took the moral high ground by refusing to patent it. 

    “Would you patent the sun?” he famously told Edward R. Murrow—omitting to mention that the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis had already had its lawyers analyze the possibility of patenting the vaccine. It was determined that a patent would never be granted. Salk also conducted illegal and unethical medical experiments on patients who were senile and mentally incapacitated. And, incidentally, numerous sources have demonstrated that ‘polio elimination by vaccine’ story is actually a hoax, and that post-1955, the polio vaccine was actually SPREADING polio, a phenomenon which necessitated a massive cover-up, which included the renaming of vaccine-induced polio-type diseases, including aseptic meningitis. The fact that 200 people were paralyzed and 10 people died from Salk’s early administration of the vaccine never seems to make it into the literature, for some reason.

In 1955, just after the release of the Salk vaccine, the CDC radically changed the diagnostic parameters of polio, automatically eliminating 90% of subsequent diagnoses - 30,000 cases a year we were then told were prevented by the vaccine.

In 1999 the CDC conducted the Verstraeten study, which found a direct correlation between the mercury in vaccines and speech and learning disorders and autism, so they re-formatted the study five times over two years, each time watering down the statistical significance another inch or two, until they were able to announce to the devout American public that there was no connection.

In 2002 the CDC conducted a study that found a definite correlation between the MMR vaccine and autism. In response they re-designed the study, after the fact, eliminating the damning data, ultimately to publish the conclusion that no causal relation had been found. 

There are specific reasons why a Corporatocracy might want to deliver high levels of aluminum to the pineal gland, but without even going into my theories on that, the now incontestable link between MMR and autism - something that was proven over a decade ago and then "debunked" by corporate-backed science—should be enough for anybody to be willing to ask hard questions of a "science" that has a lot of gaps. People still believe the "debunked" version (re: autism link) because it was fed to them like pablum, and it is likely too terrifying for many people to actually consider the implications of what more and more medical professionals (and yes, informed parents) are saying. To just look at the raw data from U.S. HRSA Vaccine Injury Compensation Court is enough for any educated individual to be deeply concerned. 

It might be time to stop mocking those who are brave enough to bring us hard-fought bits of truth, and give ourselves some credit by being open enough to listen objectively. Nobody in 2017 should remain naive enough to believe that the Corporate Health Industry is interested in the health of the people. Vaccine history is doctored history engineered for corporate profit and population control. 'Herd Immunity' initially described the amount of population that had to be healthy in order to build resistance to disease, and was somewhere around 70%. This term was co-opted by the vaccine industry specifically to brainwash the public into believing that 95% of the population needs to be vaccinated for everyone to be safe. Fear is a tried and true motivator.

    Our current predicament of denial is grim. Consider this: over 3000 Americans are currently imprisoned for allegedly shaking their babies to death. Deaths from shaken baby syndrome (SBS) are alarmingly similar to sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS, the peak incidence which occurs between 2 and 4 months of age, or exactly when routine vaccinations are given. Auto-immune deficiencies and complications from toxicity, particularly with hot lot bad batches of vaccines are reportedly similar to the damage described by SBS.

    How many parents have been imprisoned when the real culprit is the vaccines? This deserves a sincere and earnest independent inquiry, at the very least. To those who claim vaccines are safe, how is it that the American government has paid (it is conveniently illegal to sue the manufacturer of a vaccine in the USA) roughly 3 billion dollars in damages to families who have lost loved ones to toxic vaccines?

   To ignore / poke fun at the hundreds of thousands of parents who have seen their children virtually disappear almost immediately after routine MMR injections is not good science - there is a serious lack of objective data to prove vaccines even do what we have been trained to believe they do, but the data that is available—including that which has been leaked from CDC—shows at minimum a horrifying toxicity issue. The process of how so many people who have diligently recorded and reported these experiences, presenting a very clear pattern, get vilified and discounted as hysterical is even a more interesting question to me than the issue of dangers of vaccines.

    There is enough empirical evidence available from scientific research to soundly refute the mainstream position on vaccines, which is why millions—millions, friend—of intelligent and educated people are opting out. It is also quite curious how many believers of vaccines change their minds when they start their own research, but skeptics of the whole CDC-backed gambit do not generally start trusting their government again, ever.

    There has been scandal after scandal associated with vaccines as well as with the official organizations that administer them, most commonly the World Health Organization and the Centre for Disease Control, who have acted in direct contradiction to their stated mandates. All of our beliefs and judgments need to be dismantled, quickly, so we can truly see our denials objectively.

    Is it toxic to deliver high quantities of heavy metals, formaldehyde and other neurotoxins directly into the bloodstream, particularly for an infant? Does the pharmaceutical industry have the health and well-being of the people as a priority – not in its mandate given in a press release, but in its actions as demonstrated throughout its history?

    Has the government, embodied by such organizations like Health Canada, the CDC, or the WHO, consistently demonstrated both a willingness and ability to protect the health and well-being of the citizens it is mandated to help?

    I worked for the government for years, and I’ve seen firsthand how statistics are spun and manipulated to tell the public one thing, stakeholders another, and the politicians something else. What I see so often is that people decrying the dangers of ‘stupid people who refuse vaccines’ are quoting statistics and information that almost universally leads back to corrupt government “health” agencies that have knowingly been complicit in scandal related to vaccines.

    The people who are mocking and vilifying the ones questioning the truth are complicit in repressing it. Because what is at stake here is a tremendous amount of liberty and freedom of choice. In the balance, we are blindly being asked to submit our bloodstreams and neural pathways to the chemical control of organizations like the CDC and Merck.

    It’s a framing issue. Vaccines make all the sense in the world as long as you believe 1. Our immune systems are garbage and can’t evolve and 2. Our governments or large corporations are incapable of willfully poisoning large swaths of the population. If you are going to claim science is on your side, you need to consider all the science, even—or especially—the science that is buried. The stuff you have to dig for. Don’t just blindly swallow the swill that is shoved in your face.     

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How Naive and Heartbreakingly Beautiful

I recently found an old photograph of five boys, myself included. It was taken during the summer of perhaps the most pivotal of my teenage years, and is uncommon in how well it has been preserved over nearly three decades. 

I remembered the camera was on a timer, so there was nobody, nothing but blank air staring at the five of us, at how we’d positioned ourselves around the picnic table with practised nonchalance.

“Try to look hungover,” we’d said, just before the shutter clicked, stealing some of the light that shined on our anxious youth. 

Looking hungover seems an odd thing to strive for, and to say, considering we were hungover as fuck. If there was ever any doubt it is dispelled by the fourteen bottles of hard liquor, displayed proudly on the table-top. On the bench we’d arranged the husks of several dozen beer cans we’d used as chaser.

“Try to look hungover,” we’d said, worried about capturing the moment accurately, even though we were hung like death after a week of booze and beach. It’s oddly unsettling for me to consider—as a sober, slightly depressed 44-year old man—this teenage version of myself, and the dreams he nurtured. 

First it giveth, then it taketh away. 

I’m most curious why it was so important, so relevant, that we look as beat down and washed out as we could, like life had done a hard number on us (which it would) after we’d heeded nothing but our own simple urges for days on end. We’d followed our various thirsts—for wisdom, for that wobbly omnipotent understanding that booze sometimes bestows. Mostly our urges led us towards girls who stood or lay on the beach, teens our age who were a safe distance from their fathers. We were motivated by their tanned bodies, their scents, their frustrating indifference to us, and the idea that someday, somehow, some of them would be interested in letting us have them. 

The mere notion of pussy was enough to commandeer our young bodies and minds, and it marched us dutifully in full parade, tromping for drunken miles up and down the shore behind our sweaty semi-erections. We paraded under a cartoon sun, stepping barefooted towards liberty, or at least release, which came only for an instant—and usually in stolen moments of shameful solitude as we blorted into our own cupped palms.

“Try to look hungover,” we’d said. For most of us, it was our first real beating as part of a brotherhood, and our eyes look almost hardened by the experience that just one good drink-up can give, and the price it extolls the next day, and in the days after that.

For me, that sudden erosion of innocence is evident, like the detritus in the aftermath of a festival, where one realizes we've taken a beautiful thing and made it look like garbage. 

In my own eyes, behind the thin veil of pride, I can glimpse the wake of false hope surfing on a deeper fear; any wonder that I’d already, at such a young age, shut down all my options to anything but that.

That fear, I realize, is still with me. But I am transmuting it into something else every day—sometimes creation that moved me forward, sometimes behaviour that sets me back on my heels.

It took this long to see it, and how naive and heartbreakingly beautiful to think one can choose his own time to become a man, or even a god, through something as simple as a word, a breath, a paroxysm of semen, or even—as with us in the photo—a few stiff drinks.

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The surprising thing I learned from Survivor.

For the past year, I’ve been binge-watching old seasons of Survivor. In this stalwart RealityTV show, 20 castaways are divided into tribes and pitted against each other for 39 days of meagre sustenance, brutal challenges, and routine “tribal councils” where players are voted off the show one-by-one until a sole survivor is chosen from the final three by a jury of former players. 

I don’t know why I have shame about watching Survivor—perhaps the thought that my television viewing should be more cerebral or educational, or that I shouldn’t be watching television at all, particularly the kind that implies a stationary posture on a couch with a bag of potato chips.

If you remember watching the first few seasons of Survivor during the dawn of reality TV, at the dawn of a new millennium, you remember the deliciously horrifying voyeurism of the genre, watching a group of individuals sacrifice their dignity and integrity on national television for a shot at the grand prize of one million dollars.

The show has its redeeming qualities—host Jeff Probst, a no-nonsense fella who has one of the most enviable jobs on the planet—being the first one. The show is also vindicated by its distinct effort to use its wide popularity and reach to give a megaphone to voices cutting across all cultural and gender lines.   

Jeff Probst

Jeff Probst

In particular, ever since the first season with the inclusion of Richard Hatch, a gay man who not only defied all tired stereotypes about gay men, but eventually won the title of sole survivor, the show has routinely demonstrated an enlightened tendency towards inclusion of members of the LGBT community, even—or particularly—when the vast majority of its viewers were still largely ignorant regarding gender issues.

Survivor is still going strong. The most recent offering pits two arbitrarily-conceived generations against each other in Season 33: Millennials versus Gen X. Arguably one of the most tender moments in that season is when a player from Gen X, a cop from Boston named Bret, confides in Zeke, a doughy Millennial openly gay nerd from New York, that he, too, is gay. 

Bret the Gen X

Bret the Gen X

“I didn’t grow up in a time when it was normal to talk about [it],” Bret says after his “coming-out” on national television. “But I’m hoping that from here on out I can be that way.”

Zeke is genuinely and pleasantly shocked. When asked why or how he masked it, Bret shrugs: “I’m from a different generation.”

Zeke’s comments got me thinking about my cousin Amy. After keeping her attractions to elementary school teachers—who inspired many love letters, poems, and drawings—a mortal secret, locked in her own confused heart for years, Amy came out unintentionally when she was 16, during a fight with her mother. 

“I know how you feel about women,” her mother charged. For a moment, Amy was small, not only under the pressure of an entire society’s carried shame, but because the accusations were coming from her own mother, the first woman she’d known. 

Mortified, Amy could only think to ask: “Does Dad know?”

Despite the argument, her parents ended up being supportive. Her younger brother, David, was wide-eyed and shy, and in his world Amy could do no wrong. Her friends supported her with strength and curiosity, demonstrating, as youth generally will when given half a chance, an enlightenment beyond the ken of their so-called “educated” and “worldly” parents. 

Notwithstanding the support of her immediate family and friends, Amy was hen-pecked by her gossipy aunts who relished the scandal and the authority that judgement gives. 

Still, one could argue that Amy was lucky, in a relative sense. Many gay people of her generation had zero support. There were ramifications, however.

The backlash Amy experienced was passive. The intensity of the shame she was expected to eat by the ignorant factions of her small-town society increased in direct proportion to the more gender queer her appearance became.

Her coming out was a draining ache of identity drawn across the landscape of most of her childhood and adolescence, wherein she lacked the societal support to bolster the development of who her heart yearned for and what she wanted to look like. 

When she was 18 Amy raged against the pressures that would keep her small by writing and publishing a newsletter, which she distributed at her high school. It was a publication about choice—the right to choose what you wear, the right to have an abortion, the right to believe what suits you, and the right to have sex with the partner you choose. The newsletter was threatening enough to the establishment that it got her expelled. 

She was writing about choice and identity in oblique terms, in a courageous attempt to create space for her own felt identity. That’s the thing about LGBT people of her generation—with a distinct lack of public role models in a culture of shame, so many of them struggled to explore and find these things on their own.

Amy was 19 when the iconic 1993 Vanity Fair arrived in the mail with the controversial cover of supermodel Cindy Crawford shaving K.D. Lang, who had just come out as gay and was dressed—quite smartly—as a man. 

Pioneer of gender-bending.

Pioneer of gender-bending.

Whatever people had to say about this cover, this image alone gave Amy tacit permission to feel more comfortable in her own skin, and to further imagine—and intend towards—who she knew she truly was. Prior to that moment she’d lacked any language to articulate her identity.  

While Amy was going through her struggles as a gay woman, I was going through my own as a sensitive son of an ape-like alcoholic / rageaholic cop. We ended up needing escape from our own lives at the same time, which was how Amy was my first road trip partner. During our respective periods of personal crisis, she and I drove out East to Cape Breton to stay in the woods at a bizarre Catholic hermitage. Neither of us was religious at the time, but our great aunt lived there and provided a destination and a free cabin to hang out while we got our shit together. That was the beginning of our respective lives on the road. 

Amy went her own way after that, and for a while I went mine. While I joined, and then left, the army, Amy was hitch-hiking across North America with her half-brained and fiercely loyal dog, Japhy Ryder (named after Kerouac’s semi-fictional portrayal of Gary Snyder in Dharma Bums), living in communes, exploring drugs, rock and roll, and a unique brand of courage, which led her to drive to Dawson City on her own in a rusted-out Ford Escort, where she became a statistic as one of every three women who will experience violent assault when she was beaten near to death. From her journal: You clobbered me with the weight of your world. Never thought I would have to yell “help me” so fiercely. So glad that I was heard. 

In recent times, I’ve had the pleasure of travelling with Amy more, and whether we are sitting through Vipassana courses,  snowboarding in Quebec, playing tennis on a clay court in Sri Lanka, or zipping through the streets of Vietnamese towns on motorbikes, it always occurs to me that Amy is more the brother I never had than anyone else I’ve known. 

Once, in Hoi An, while we were both shopping for suits, the pretty Vietnamese women were touching Amy’s face and body as they fitted her, cooing: “So handsome!” 

I was, I admit, a tad jelly. 

Throughout her adventures and her ordeals, Amy has maintained her zest for life and her ability to laugh and bring light and love into any human interaction—even heated dispute. It is no surprise that she has become a leader in the queer community in Vancouver and just received the Mayor’s Award for Arts Board Member of the Year.

I admire Amy so much I brought her to life as the lovable, free-spirited character of Gertie in my first novel, Bonk on the Head. This is why it was so crushing to me that I couldn’t attend her wedding last year at Christmas, when she married her beloved Teresa—not only because it was a celebration of their love, but because it was a celebration of Love, in all of love’s forms. 

Back when Amy first came out, many members of my mostly-Catholic family didn’t know how to take the news. They wanted to love her still, but they certainly didn’t want their neighbours or—god forbid—their priests to know the family’s ‘dirty’ little secret. 

“I know there are going to be gays,” said one, a generation above me, “But what in god’s name have they got to be proud about? We can’t be teaching our children that it’s okay to be gay.”

Oddly, that was exactly the point. We needed, desperately, to teach our children that it is wonderful to love. Love is the point, whether one loves a member of the same sex, or a person with different coloured skin, or a person with a bald head, or green eyes. Love is always valid, in any form, and the planet desperately needs more of it. 

As Zeke from Survivor put it: “I owe a lot to Bret’s generation. I would not be able to come out at 15 were there not the pioneers who paved the way. And, I think that really reflects this Millennial / Gen X divide.”

Zeke the Millennial 

Zeke the Millennial 

Recently, 9-year-old Avery Jackson had the distinction of becoming the first transgender person on the cover of National Geographic. If this proves anything, it proves that gender is—and never really was—a binary issue.

Gender is a dynamic presence along an axis of male and female polarities. 

Authenticity within the individual brings healing to the family, which brings greater harmony to the community—and ultimately to the entire energetic grid of the species. Authenticity is the only religion that is viable, which is why I am so proud of pioneers like my cousin Amy and her beautiful and brilliant wife Teresa for helping pave the way for all of us. 

So, recently, after finishing a work-out, I sat on my comfortable couch with a bag of Whole Foods house-made potato chips, and thoroughly enjoyed the Season 33 finale of Survivor—one of the most entertaining and enlightened seasons ever. And I enjoyed it without shame. Because you know what? Shame is a learned thing. A carried thing. It very rarely belongs to us.

Amy taught me that. And I guess, in a way, Survivor did, too. 

 

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1993 in Washington D.C.

I recently passed through Washington, D.C., and my brain simultaneously sorted through images purloined from House of Cards and data from a fascinating eight week study in the summer of 1993.

During the experiment, a number of experienced meditators, some with feathered or crimped hair, practised transcendental meditation as a focused group over two months. This effort precipitated a 23% drop in homicide, assault and rape in the D.C. area. The crime rate rose again shortly after the experiment stopped. The bean-counters determined the odds of this being a coincidence were roughly 1 in a billion.

The most amazing thing is that this experiment took place over two decades ago! I started thinking about all the nefarious, conspiratorial reasons why there would be no organized official follow-up to such staggering data.

Then I did my own thought experiment. I began to imagine what it could be like if there was a significant portion of National Defence and Homeland Security and R&D money flowing into similar experiments. I imagined police meditating on compassion and justice and entire armies being trained to meditate on peace.

source: Tracy Quantum

source: Tracy Quantum

What an image: some 65,000 shorn-haired troops in Canada and roughly 1.5 million in U.S. uniform dedicating ten hours a day to focused meditation with the intention of loving kindness. The technique could be completely non-sectarian! 175,000 more soldiers in the U.K. 186,000 in Afghanistan. We wouldn’t even have to pay them overtime! There are about 2.3 million soldiers / potential-meditators in China alone! 1.3 million in India. Roughly the same in North Korea. 845,00 in Russia.

It took 4000 meditators a few weeks to reduce crime in D.C. by a quarter of what it was. Basic training in insight meditation only takes ten days. There are 140,000 troops in Ethiopia, 480,000 in Vietnam, 360,000 in Thailand. There are apparently energetic economies of scale. With these kinds of numbers, with troops having meditation duty for six hours a day, with staggered rotation five days on, two days off, my calculations put us in a state of World Peace within nine months.

 

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A Subtle Miracle at Standing Rock

When I saw the video of Army veteran Wes Clark Jr. kneel at the feet of Lakota medicine man Leonard Crow Dog, and a gathering of vets follow suit, I understood that what is happening at Standing Rock is far greater than most people realize. There is cause for rejoicing because the solidarity of many peaceful voices has resulted in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denying the Dakota Access pipeline company permit to drill beneath the Missouri River.

But there is a greater cause for euphoria because by standing in solidarity with the First Nations' people, several thousand veterans have proved that there is a massive shift happening in the evolution of human consciousness. This was a watershed moment where soldiers, normally pawns of a control system we don't fully understand, displayed a courage and sense of moral duty the likes of which this planet has not seen in many lifetimes.  

To understand why the actions of the veterans who arrived at Standing Rock—a day before it appeared to be "over"—are so monumental, one has to understand more about the military ethos itself.    

BACKGROUNDER ON POMP AND RHETORIC

Less than a month ago we, particularly those of us in Canada’s national capitol, suffered through another November 11th. I don’t wear a poppy, and I haven’t worn a poppy for years. I had to go through military training and a decade of hard drinking to reach the sober conclusion that Remembrance Day is strategically directed Agitprop. The purpose behind a day to honour our war dead, and all the ceremony surrounding it, is to give us a vector for our grief. 

Ultimately, however, all the ribbons, wreaths, and medals for valour and courage, amount to very little, particularly in the face of a government that sues its own veterans to legally establish that the Crown has no sacred or moral obligation to its veterans. The fact that this is really happening makes November 11th barely more than a distraction for our own deeply held denials. 

The poppy, a copyrighted symbol of bygone sentiment, was Moina Michael's idea, one inspired by McCrae's poem In Flander's Fields. In 1920 she petitioned the American legion to adopt it as an official symbol of remembrance. We should be wary of when anything 'official' attempts to apply itself to subjective sentiment. Ms. Michael’s inspiration came after The War to End All Wars, and was intended as a reminder of the nightmare of war so that we, as a species would never choose to put ourselves through such horrors again.

An admission that the poppy did not fulfill its intended objective is long overdue. There has been conflict after conflict, and since September of 2001 we've had the red herring of terrorism introduced as the foundation for perpetual war. The poppy is now irrelevant because it has not served its purpose for a very long time. Worse, the symbol has been adopted by the patriarchal control system and its meaning utterly perverted. 

We do not remember the horror as much as we romanticize the loss of life as 'heroic' sacrifice. We still vilify the enemy as The Other. Soldiers are, in reality, not so much willing to lay down their own lives as they are willing to take up arms for hire and kill on command to satisfy any and all political objectives. In return for this, soldiers are allowed to be cavalier about how they can absolve themselves of responsibility, always under the rubric of 'duty'. I have long failed to see anything heroic in that. 

Despite what we've been trained to believe, the Armed Forces are not a sacrosanct organization. Their actions are not beyond criticism, nor is their budget. And yet we continue, at the peril of our undiscerning soldiers and our own sovereignty, to allow our government and media to glamourize, romanticize, and justify war. Worse, we allow our corporate governments to pit men and women of all branches of service against their own citizenry.

But then we have the veterans making their way to Standing Rock in solidarity with the position of First Nations' people. Here is a definition of true heroism, a sacred sense of duty, and something I thought I would never see in my lifetime. This phenomenon is a turning point in the growth of human consciousness - all the more so because it is set against the backdrop of a President Elect who suffers from narcissistic male rage. 

But to understand why this move taken by thousands of brave veterans to form an unarmed ring of protection around thousands more protesters is so pivotal, we need to understand the depth of the ingrained paradigm these soldiers are subverting by not only supporting the stand against the Dakota Access pipeline, but by, chiefly, taking a knee and begging the forgiveness of a people who were and are subject to systemic crimes against humanity

UNPACKING THE WARRIOR ETHOS 

Asserting that poppies are propaganda is contentious because the programming related to our societal notions of war, honour, valour, glory—and even heroism—runs deep enough to have strong roots. The first ones to throw feces are the monkeys who've been trained to retort that I, a flouncy writer with no experience in battle, can only speak so freely and openly precisely because of the sacrifices made by Canadian and allied soldiers in the name of freedom. 

Let's unpack that: the loaded words here are "sacrifice " and "freedom", and neither of those words mean what we've been trained to think they mean. Nobody should accept guilt handed to them with the subtext that it is disrespectful to speak one's mind about certain—let’s say culturally sacrosanct—topics. Bullshit. The exact opposite is true. The so-called freedom to speak openly and challenge the dominant paradigm is meaningless unless it is used.

As demonstrated by its actions—not by the empty rhetoric we are bombarded with—Canada, like most nations, prefers its veterans dead. That's the only way the narrative of 'honouring' them with wreaths, monuments and hollow words works. The living—those who survive to suffer the nightmares of what they've witnessed—are too expensive to support. There are so many. 

In answer to this dilemma, government actors at Veterans' Affairs Canada and the Veterans' Review Board have developed a closed, non-transparent system which supports their unofficial policy of refusing as many applicants as possible outright, both to mitigate the perceived impact of war and to reduce the number of pensionable conditions.

The burden of proof placed on soldiers is too high, the process by which soldiers apply to receive benefits is way too bureaucratic, and the attitudes of our poppy-wearing government officials, especially those on the Veteran's Review Board, are way too flippant and dismissive of the real and pressing needs of these wounded soldiers to offer any substantial benefit. Hence, many of our 'honoured' veterans are taking their own lives, marching in anguish to death—the only place where we, as a nation, seem to be able to comfortably accept them. 

Citations for valour universally extoll the virtue of selflessness, where the group comes before the individual, both on and off the battlefield. All military training is engineered around this principal. At home during times of peace there is no battlefield outside the mental landscape, and for a mind riddled with nightmares and an emotional body invaded by demons, there are huge hurdles to overcome. This is why many soldiers who experience war often reach a place where they only feel at home during war. 

It is incumbent upon the government that enables the witnessing of horror to take full responsibility for its effects—not only on the soldier and the soldier's psyche, but on that soldier's family as well. This is not being done; If it were, the government would not be so cavalier about throwing our troops into the breech. 

Instead, the government builds phallic monuments in such mocking reverence while the families of soldiers and the soldiers themselves are left to roll in the detritus of the trauma which war bestows. There is nothing glorious about it. The shallow payoff—medals, citations, badges, memorials—is all too meagre. The honour and glory promised by the warrior ethos is illusory and fleeting while the wounds last usually as long as forever, and when unresolved are fed to others - generally spouses and children.

copyright Maya Wilson

copyright Maya Wilson

QUASHING THE FEMININE

Stephen Pressfield opens The Warrior Ethos with an account of a messenger returning from battle who was hailed by a Spartan mother; she asked how their country was faring. The messenger, according to legend, burst into tears. 

“Mother, I pity you,” he said. “All five of your sons have been killed facing the enemy.” 

“You fool!” said the woman. “I did not ask of my sons. I asked whether Sparta was victorious!”

“Indeed, Mother, our warriors have prevailed,” replied the messenger.

“Then I am happy,” said the mother, and she turned and walked home. 

The absence of grief in what is a nearly complete inversion of maternal instinct demonstrates one of the principle goals of military training: the quashing of the Feminine, of feeling, in order to instill certain beliefs and values that will enable a soldier to lay down his life and to abhor shame more than death. This does sharpen courage, and creates a template for honour and loyalty—the boilerplate fare of military indoctrination—but what I am concerned with in a healing context for those suffering from PTSD, anxiety, depression and addiction are the parts of the human spirit that get killed or maimed when this mentality is fully adopted. 

At the root of all the sabre-rattling and bravado is a disdain for the sacredness of the mystery embodied by the wombs from whence we came. The Warrior Ethos has no room for reverence, because reverence implies an acknowledgement of the sacred in everything, a compassion for oneself and ultimately for all life. It would be highly counterproductive to allow a warrior to have compassion enough to see himself in The Other, because then he would be unable to perform his duties. 

Like all military entities, the Army is a substratum of the society it lives and trains in. The Army is a closed community, an association which supports its own demography, moral code, and language. The basis for success of military training, which allows the soldier to act and react while under phenomenal stress in the face of stark trauma, rests in the disembodiment of the individual psyche, alienation from universal human principles, and the dependence upon the standardized group-ego formed specifically and scientifically by and for his new environment. The mental landscape is bleak without the ‘band of brothers’ and the effective—if odious—notions of honour and sacrifice. 

The Warrior Ethos is built on and fuelled by fear of creation and unity, and it insists that to follow orders blindly is to exhibit loyalty; to kill on command demonstrates courage and selflessness. However, to see others as separate—let alone as the dehumanized entity of Enemy—bears a significant psychic cost. The soldier is a human animal cut off from its own true nature, subjected to violent twists of consciousness during training in order to be able to perform in combat. 

The violence, degradation and horror that is witnessed during battle allows the idea of The Enemy to become self-reinforcing. In effect the Warrior Ethos alienates the soldier from himself and from others. French philosopher Jaques Ellul, an expert on propaganda, argued convincingly that alienation is the equivalent of slavery. For soldiers, this alienation is the product of a very calculated system, however abstract it might seem from within the organism itself. 

There is a distinct correlation between narcissistic male rage, as exemplified by characters such as Donald Trump, and how we celebrate war. 

In a culture that sees gender more and more along an unfixed axis of polarity, it should be self-evident that within every individual resides the male and female. To put it another way, each human embodies, to various degrees, yin and the yang, the hard and the soft, the rational and the intuitive, the calculating and the creative. The human dilemma is to balance it all without resorting to denial. 

If these elements aren't balanced, or aren't allowed to balance, the rage isn't simply directed outwards, at this nebulous, ephemeral notion of The Feminine. It is directed inwards, to the parts of ourselves that we, and our society, has chosen not to accept. This is how we get people, especially soldiers, living in a suspended state of narcissistic self-loathing. 

Terrorism is, and always has been, a red herring. Similar to the United States, most of Canada's threats today are domestic, including the Corporatocracy that gave birth to such tragedies as the tar sands, the empty apology to First Nations, the crisis of poverty in many communities, the approval of more pipelines and the ongoing issues of mental illness and the impact it has on society when not treated with awareness and compassion. 

For decades there has been an ongoing push within the military and law enforcement to recruit people who are both emotionally needy and narcissistic in the extreme. It's time we admit that the Trumps of the land are products of the world our denials have built, as are the soldiers who rape and torture, as are the police officers who engage in brutal human rights abuses against their own population. 

These narcissists are characterized by self-preoccupation, lack of empathy, and unconscious deficits in self-esteem. Their love of themselves and of power automatically means that they will try to crush others who get in their way. This is born of a rage that can only exist in denial of the Feminine. Any sense of balance is impossible with denial present.

It is probably no coincidence that psychometric testing is on the rise globally—particularly for positions of bureaucracy, law enforcement, and Defence—at the same time as there is a rise in what can only be described as an organized and widespread political contempt for the common citizenry, whether at the level of national, state, provincial, or municipal government.

Through recruiting and screening large numbers of narcissists, and through established training programs which include techniques such as neurolinguistic programming (the effects of which are cumulative) the entire subculture of the military and paramilitary has been reframed to see anyone outside itself as The Other, the potential terrorist, the ever present threat. 

It needs to become apparent that we deal with symptoms in our society, not root causes. And so it continues, the tip-toe towards totalitarianism, and the media falls into lockstep, looking outside, to the Other, for villains—when in fact we need to be examining ourselves.

source: cbc

source: cbc

You want to honour the dead? First thing you can do is honour their living brethren by giving them the support they need. Otherwise, all the parades in the world and the fucking plastic poppies on your lapels are lip-service. What better emblem for our collectively unconscious, guilt-ridden and befuddled submission to the official narrative of honour could we dream up than a plastic representation of a blood-red opiate? Our senses and sensitivities around this topic have been purposefully deranged to suit the ongoing political objectives vis-a-vis war.

From the parade square to the sports filed to the trenches, what the warrior ethos instills very deeply in a soldier is shame. Shame of speaking his own mind, of acting as an individual, and of indulging in his own human tendencies. Any act towards creativity and nurturing is dangerous to the system and is thus viewed with contempt. To be unique, under the manifestations of the military ethos, is to be depraved. 

Our society's ways of knowing itself are broken. It is useless to quote a doctored history, and fruitless to cite manipulated polls. Science has been co-opted and manipulated so much that no pure science exists anymore on planet Earth. Or, if it does, we the people do not have access to it. It is utterly foolish to trust our government. 

It is important to meditate on the ways and means by which the nauseating notion of patriotic sacrifice has been designed to keep our consciousness from touching the unacceptable number of lives needlessly lost to specious wars and avoidable conflicts. Research—not into the historical texts but in the gaps which lie between them—builds its own story, gradually, at times with only the help of intuition and eventually an informed skepticism emerges. 

The reality is not noble; the reality is grim. 

Ernest Becker, in The Denial of Death, argued that narcissism “is what keeps men marching into point blank fire in wars: at the heart one doesn’t feel that he will die; he only feels sorry for the man next to him. Freud’s explanation for this was that the unconscious does not know death or time: in man’s physiochemical inner organic recesses he feels immortal.”

The soldier must lie to himself in order to keep life from becoming psychologically unbearable. Through the mendacity of his own condition, the soldier becomes almost unconscionably absorbed with himself. This makes sense when we understand how he is shaped to perform the army’s specific task of killing The Feminine in himself to be able to kill others. 

In my own combat arms training years ago, I remember how people who could not keep up were called split-arses, cunts, women, girls. A common retort to someone who complained was “Oh, is your vagina hurting?” implying what The Feminine embodies is shameful and to be loathed. Weak. Ineffective. Soft. Not only does this denigrate women in general, it denigrates every human being. 

THE PSYCHE OF THE NEWLY AWAKENED SOLDIER

The military once tried to steal my own fire. I took it back by writing my first novel, but it was over a decade after my release from the armed forces before I had consciously clued into how these longstanding twists in my own consciousness were still at work.

I am very intrigued by the soldier who wants to free himself from the slavery of alienation and move into the light of the present moment and the interconnectedness of everything. This shows more courage than any other action a soldier can take. This is the transformation from soldier into warrior-poet, and the more of our soldiers who make this transformation, the easier they make it on those who follow. These men and women should know that there are those of us who exist on the outside, championing their move into authenticity to take their fire back. 

The true enemy is ignorance: acting as if we know when we do not know. This enemy is fought on the battlefield of denial, and the carnage is widespread. But sometimes, a soldier is somehow, by grace or by luck, moved out of the suffering of an overly shame-based mind and into a new reality. 

I only ever had a faint hope in the possibility that a soldier grappling with alienation could reach a heightened awareness while embodying the very antithesis of existentialism—by becoming everything, rather than becoming (or coming from) nothing.

The old version of strength meant that one could put up with a lot without getting affected and/or carrying a lot of weight. The new version of strength in this emerging planetary consciousness is the ability to balance the masculine and feminine in the heart, and accentuate both by doing so. To the soldier in denial, the very prospect is terrifying and bound to incite rage. The soldier who is waking up is compelled to embark upon the monumental task of embracing The Feminine within himself, a journey which demands incredible courage and self-acceptance.

This, finally, is the point to be made through this insanely long blog post: the veterans at standing rock have displayed awe-inspiring courage by engaging in an unarmed mission of peace, by taking a knee in sincere humility of their privilege to serve the First Nations’ peoples, and by owning a legacy of human rights abuses. They have overcome their own mindfucking training to evolve as the peaceful warriors the world needs now.

These veterans, most of whom have witnessed unspeakable horror, have come through as medicine workers in their own right, and as such are able to see with humility, which means to see things as they truly are, a gift that was once reserved for The-People-Who-See-With-The-Heart. 

This awakening is both subtle and profound, and ushers in a new era of light and hope for a planet on which we have just proved that the unification of many voices for a higher purpose can not ultimately fail. 

 

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My Journey Out Of Vipassana

(continued from previous post)

When I found myself in Thailand at what would become my last Vipassana course, I already had more than a dozen under my belt. But there was something different this time. Not with the teachings or the technique. There was something different with me.

 I was, I suppose, ready to release the last fragments of denial sticking to what I already knew: the most obvious thing about this technique of Vipassana – the precise thing I needed to salvage my own life – was that not giving in to craving or aversion meant they were already heartily present.

It had taught me how to effectively ignore something that existed. But wasn't there already enough denial on planet Earth?

As much as I appreciated Goenka for carrying the torch, for making sure people in the age of duplicitous information could learn the same technique taught by Gautamata Buddha in all of its objective, non-sectarian simplicity; and as much as I loved Goenka for being such a loveable, happy goofball, this sharp shard of knowledge – one edge experiential, the other intuitive – cut through the clutter in my mind and induced a crystallization of consciousness. The exact awareness I needed, and feared, entered me like a knife: I could never fully subscribe to what was being taught, because the teaching – with apologies to Buddha – was based on flawed imprints.

copyright John-James Ford, all rights reserved

copyright John-James Ford, all rights reserved

“Wait just one second,” I said to myself, surprised at the sound of my own voice. Was this, perhaps, just one of the five enemies Buddha had talked about? Doubt? Doubt about the technique, myself, or my teacher?

Nope.

I’ve never admired how so many so-called spiritual paths invest so much capital in trying to head doubt off at the pass. In Islam doubt is called a disease of the heart that adds uncleanness to the doubter's uncleanness and they die while they are unbelievers. The Christians have the cautionary tale of Thomas to demonstrate to children the danger – and shame – inherent in doubt. As it turns out, Thomas had good reason to arch an eyebrow at the stigmata. 

Doubt was the fuel I needed for further expansion of my perception, and it was only at that very moment I caught a glimpse of the human energetic grid, and how the work we do—seemingly on our own—can be of benefit to the entire species.

I could also no longer square with a spiritual path that viewed sexual congress as immoral. 

I was in a jam that I couldn’t think myself through. The only place my thoughts could lead me was into a corner for which I possessed no light.

Vipassana courses are generally ten days in duration. The morning of day nine at my final Vipassana course in Thailand, I spent nearly five hours on my meditation cushion trying to feel my way through the conflict arising within. I invited my own voice – the voice that had been hushed by education, training, social assimilation – to speak, assuring it that I would finally be able to listen.

Holy fuck, I thought. I’m going to have to walk away from this practice. After a decade of practice, that reality seemed harsh and depressing. I hadn't yet left and yet was instantly grieving over this cold hard fact of my departure, a fact that had only moments ago been a nebulous cloud of doubt.

copyright John-James Ford, all rights reserved

copyright John-James Ford, all rights reserved

Of course, I knew this could be another storm. Without books, journals, TV, movies, extra food, internet —even contact with other humans— there was no way for the mind to hide from itself and its own impurities. Without the aid of some distraction or substance to ground the mind, muffle it, or numb it into oblivion, the backed up noise and the emotions beneath it which begin to surface can be uncontrollable. It can be too much. Enlightened addicts can attest to the fact that during the active addiction we fear our feelings so much we will sometimes kill ourselves to avoid experiencing them.

Despite what I knew about these psychic storms and their impact on the mind, I also knew that my situation this time was different.

I had to leave.

The drill sergeant formerly in command of the parade square in my mind would have barked at me to soldier on through doubt and discomfort. I had already pushed through so many ten-day courses, and here I was halfway through day nine. 

But my former self had burnt to a husk under the flash of my latest insight, and I just couldn’t stomach being inauthentic anymore. 

I found the course manager, an odorific trim brown man with a pedantic smile, and informed him with sigh language that I needed to break noble silence and speak with him.

“What is it?” he whispered, after walking me around the pagoda, a token gesture to get us out of earshot of the other meditators.

“I’m leaving,” I said.

He gave me the smile he used to show people he pitied them their ignorance.

“So,” I continued, “I’ll need my passport.”

“You agreed to stay for 10 days,” he shrugged.

“I’m not at all concerned with appearing to be consistent,” I said, I hoping I was quoting Gandhi correctly. “In my pursuit after truth I’ve discarded many ideas.”

“I can’t just let you go,” he said.

“Of course you can’t,” I said. “Please relay my message to one of the assistant teachers, and make it clear that I’m not asking permission to leave. I’m informing you both as a courtesy and in the interests of getting my passport back.”

He made his lips thin and straight. There was no way to tell what his expression was meant to convey, but his eyes were dark with judgment, like a schoolmaster, or a priest. He clearly considered me rude, and I was surprised that I didn’t give a toss what he thought.

Previously, in the life I’d just left a few paltry moments ago, I’d had the repugnant habit of subsuming my own true desires for the sake of demonstrating how accommodating I could be.  Now I knew that repressing my will was no good for anybody. It was akin to a pilot paying no attention to his plane’s guidance system.

No wonder we humans are always crashing into each other.

copyright John-James Ford, all rights reserved

copyright John-James Ford, all rights reserved

Many would call it selfish. But what is selfish really—doing what comes natural to us, or someone expecting us to do what conforms to their version of reality? We’ve been well trained to confuse self-annihilation with service to others, and we’ve learned to beat our own wills into submission until they are two terrified to make a peep. The proof of this is reflected in how society treats not only our women, but The Feminine in general.

“This is difficult path when we let ego get in the way,” the course manager said.

“Without ego, we wouldn’t be able to differentiate ourselves from anything else,” I said. “Just pass along the message, please.”

I understood that expressing myself authentically was not only necessary for my own health, but for the health of the planet. Most people would proclaim that I would only be harming others if I were to do as I pleased, but harming others is much different than disappointing others’ unreasonable expectations of us.

Becoming whole – becoming authentic – meant, in part, taking responsibility for not being a victim or caretaker. It also meant not driving myself to a place where I would have to fragment even more than I already had.

Not twenty minutes after informing the course manager of my intentions he arrived just as I was putting on my jeans and packing the few pieces of clothing I had.

“Teacher wants to speak with you,” he said, outside the door. “She is waiting in Dhamma Hall.”

He walked away. I threw my toothbrush in my pack and followed him apace, leaving nothing behind in the cabin where I’d dreamed so many severe dreams. As I walked I felt the sun on my face and was grateful. My feelings truly were the ultimate guidance system, far outstripping cold reason in effectiveness when choosing the next right action to take.

I was surprised that it was the female assistant teacher who was meeting with me – she was Japanese, visiting Thailand from her native Tokyo.

I approached the teacher and brought my hands together and bowed, then sat cross-legged at her feet as was the custom.

“So,” she said, smiling.

We both waited a beat. In the cool darkness of the meditation hall, her black eyes were gleaming. Even with the outside light dimmed by so much gauzy cotton over the few small windows that existed, her skin seemed radiant.

“Yes,” I said, smiling back.

“You have been cold these past days?” she asked after a pause, in a faint Japanese accent. Her entire demeanour was matronly, yet there was a definite masculine energy about her. She was an undeniably beautiful human being. By ‘cold’ she was referring to the temperature dropping below 21 degrees Celsius at night.

“Umm, not really. I’m from Canada. Last night here was still t-shirt weather back home.”

She smiled again. Not a talkative one. I wondered if this was an intentional teaching style, or if it just came naturally.

“So, I am leaving,” I said finally.

“Tell me,” she said.

I drew a breath, not knowing where to start, launched somewhere in the middle of what I thought needed to be said, all the while becoming more acutely aware of how limiting words can be.

copyright John-James Ford, all rights reserved

copyright John-James Ford, all rights reserved

“The teaching is always talking about cause and effect, cause and effect. I understand that it works – I can see that clearing the sankaras makes life less of an up and down journey. Goenka keeps telling us to ‘remain equanimous, remain equanimous.’ But nobody is equanimous until they get there. Right? It’s simple to see when you look at. All of this stuff arising and passing, and we are trained to focus on the sensations, the physical sensations only, and notice that they do not linger forever. That’s it, in a nutshell. But the root cause of these so called defilements is what? It’s emotion. Unresolved feelings of fear, anger, grief, Underneath that, very rarely pierced layers of terror, rage, sorrow. And so, with this technique we leave these emotions unresolved, and say we have cut them out at the roots. But what we have cut off is part of ourselves. Our own will, our intuition, this massive engine of creativity and vulnerability and receptivity. This practice is for the enlightenment of the mind, but it leaves the will and the body behind as collateral damage. That, to me, is denial. Denial of a fundamental part of myself, which has been a fundamental denial in our society, and the reflection of that denied rage, terror, and grief is going to keep coming around and keep coming around in this world and we won’t recognize it for what it is if we have to cut it out of ourselves. It is the Feminine, which is so much needed for balance in all of us right now, to have any hope of finding balance on this planet. I know I signed up for ten days, but I feel—“

“No, that doesn’t matter. Of course, you need to leave. This is not your path. You need to go and find your path. And you need to be happy. You need to be happy and walk your path.”

Her words were so unexpected they shocked me. I had braced myself internally for a battle. But the tone of her voice was so gentle and caring and fundamentally understanding, it momentarily stunned me.

“What?”

“You are on a different path now. It’s good,”

To be heard! 

To be listened to and witnessed in all authenticity and truth is a greater gift than I could have imagined in my new state of awareness. I’d walked away from so many paradigms, and was sticky with guilt about it, but when I felt this woman’s understanding vibrating through me, I was moved to tears. I was joyful, free, liberated from yet another bundle of my denials and fears.

“Don’t be sad,” she said. She looked affected. Calm, but affected. And then I wondered if Vipassana itself was the source of the masculine energy driving her calm and poise. Did she miss the messy feeling bits of her she had so carefully, patiently and persistently excised through insight meditation?

What I had wanted to shout in the meditation hall was: Where is the JOY? Where is the laughter? Where is goddamn spontaneity?

Our eyes met and I was crying while laughing, and I told her: “But that’s just what I’m saying – it’s okay to be sad. How can I really know happiness otherwise? It is crucial that I feel this!”

“Be happy,” she said. Her smile had faded.

“Yes,” I said. “I am.” I looked down for a moment, and wiped my eyes, thinking that in another life she could have been my mother, or I her father.

A few hours later I was in a dusty van destined to the train station with enough light left in the day to find my way. And my gut, my will, which after so many years of taking commands from my own determined focus, like an abused child, sensed a bit of receptivity. We were building trust, I thought. It was like two parts of me were circling around the kitchen table in a formerly abusive home, testing each other out. Was it safe? Was he for real this time? Or was I just going to get beat down and shut out again?

After however many lifetimes of this game, it was not exactly easy to freewheel.

“I’m listening,” I said to myself. When I felt something shift, I added: “What’s next?”

 

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My Journey Into Vipassana

The first time I heard the word Vipassana it put the hook in me. 

Vipassana is the Pali word for ‘seeing things as they truly are.’ Pali was the language spoken at the time of Buddha. Technically, it describes the consistent practice of observing sensation in a systematic manner throughout the body, without attaching any positive or negative value charge to any one sensation. The practice of observing without reacting allows, in theory, for an experiential understanding that all fluctuations of mind and matter are transitory. As such, one comes to understand that craving of pleasant sensations and aversion to unpleasant sensations are futile reactions which serve only to more deeply engrain the habit patterns of the mind that give rise to unhappiness and suffering. This understanding leads to a more equanimous state of being, which in theory leads to a happier, and necessarily less harmful, life.

The late S.N. Goenka was a former Burmese industrialist who was introduced to the technique of Vipassana while seeking out a cure for his persistent and severe migraines. His success with the technique under his teacher Sayagyi U Ba Khin led him to become the one who essentially brought the technique, allegedly Buddha’s original technique preserved for centuries in Burma through a lineage of monks, into the mainstream. There are currently close to 200 Vipassana Centres around the globe.

The late S.N. Goenka was a former Burmese industrialist who was introduced to the technique of Vipassana while seeking out a cure for his persistent and severe migraines. His success with the technique under his teacher Sayagyi U Ba Khin led him to become the one who essentially brought the technique, allegedly Buddha’s original technique preserved for centuries in Burma through a lineage of monks, into the mainstream. There are currently close to 200 Vipassana Centres around the globe.

For over a decade I attended at least one 10-day meditation course, as taught by the late S.N. Goenka, every year. I meditated most days throughout most years. Through thousands of hours of Vipassana practice I learned that correct knowledge is based on direct perception. Illusory knowledge is based in a distortion of reality caused by erroneous perception. Just as Goenka said I would.

This is what is wrong with us as a species: everyone is running around squawking at each other, asserting their beliefs are facts when in truth most people have zero direct experience with the fundamental principles on which they’ve established the framework of their lives. Book learning is not direct experience. Teachings from other people will not constitute direct experience. The assertions of a scientific community rife with industrial conflicts of interest does not amount to direct experience. Reality, in essence, is a very personal thing. And because we’ve had so much bullshit layered into our minds, it takes some perseverance to get to it.

Once, while Goenkaji was still alive, I attended a course at the meditation centre in Igatpuri, India. I flew into the insanity that is Mumbai, dodged numerous bribe attempts by Indian officials, and was driven over bumpy roads to Dhamma Giri in a rusty land Cruiser by a man who I’m still convinced had active tuberculosis. I arrived past midnight and was nonetheless struck by the ornate Myanmar Gate at the entrance.

There was an arduous span of time spent with the security guards at the gate, and numerous late-night phone calls I couldn’t follow because I don’t speak Hindi. I was tired, my mind drifting. The course, which cost nothing, including room and board, and was run entirely on the donations of old students, and they had trouble finding my name. Finally I was told to follow a guard who would escort me to my bunk. I struggled to keep up with him along the path.

I heard the tinkling of wind chimes to my right. I followed the sound with a sleepy gaze and was struck into wakefulness by the immensity, the immediacy and sincerity of the building that stood there in almost perfect silence. I’m normally not a fan of any spiritually-based infrastructure, but the golden pagoda at Dhamma Giri was somehow different. A soft yellow light promulgated through the spires at the top and each archway. From the base, constant rows of tiny, honeycombed windows were stacked upon each other, the lowest row right in front of me, each subsequent row raised a level then set back, each window framed by a rococo vault, like the petals of an enormous lotus. There were hundreds of them, and this was just on the side of the pagoda that I could see. What are they?

We passed a green sign: Entrance to Pagoda Cells

“Meditation cells,” I whispered. The enormity of what I was looking at, and the mystical sound of the phrase “meditation cells” as I whispered it to myself a second time, gave me a sangfroid that made me think I’d misplaced something precious, and was about to be made for accountable it.

The guard stopped at a tiled hut with faucets labeled “Drinking Water Station.” Another sign said, “Drinking water: do not touch the glass to your lips. Be Happy!” I took the steel cup chained to the faucet and drunk as the sign advised, pouring the cool water into my mouth, wondering about parasites, amoebic dysentery, giardiasis, or the possibility of gastroenteritis.

On the first rows of dorms we came across I spotted a moth the size of a small beaver clinging to a screen door, and I prayed I didn’t have to be the one to disturb it. We crossed the concrete path to another bunker of rooms and he motioned to one labelled J-13. I stepped onto the miniature porch and opened the feather-light screen door, nodding goodnight to my guide. Inside was a room barely bigger than the small bed it contained. Above the bed was a shelf. The space next to the bed just large enough to access another door, which opened into the coffin sized washroom which pulsed keen wafts of mothballs into the atmosphere. 

I let down the bug net over the bed before coiling myself in the cotton sleeping bag liner provided. I wrapped my t-shirt around the stained, damp pillow and as soon as I laid my head down I was pulled instantly, almost against my will, into a feverish sleep.

In the morning I awoke in the dark to a chill in the air and the sound of a gong being struck repeatedly by someone walking through the compound. The answer to my question about water safety seemed to be answered by several bouts of explosive diarrhea. I washed and dressed quickly and in cotton drawstring pants, and a t-shirt, and somehow I found my way to the appropriate meditation space, which was called a “Dhamma Hall.”

It wasn’t time to enter the meditation hall yet, however. In the evening there was some kind of orientation offered in five different languages, where I would have to confirm that yes, I was ready and willing to stay on the premises for the full ten days’ course and I would not leave early.

I had time and space to myself in the lush silence of the place, and found a space on a bench with an exquisite view of the grand pagoda circumscribed by the petals of individual meditation cells. In the distance I could hear a waterfall from a river swollen by recent rains, and there was a heavy fragrance to the air. The previous night’s India had been noise, bodies, corruption, diesel and dust. That morning’s India was an India of lush vegetation, banana trees, papaya, durian. I concentrated on a point in the forest rising above the mist, and for a moment had the sense I was sitting on the edge of a giant bowl of clouds. In the distance, somewhere below the canopy of jungle, between the mountains and me, were rivers and streams and lakes that dated back to the last glaciation. Everywhere in that moment the air was clean and crisp. India was abruptly a place of ancient magic.

Igatpuri

Igatpuri

The gardens were fragrant, damp from the mist. All the facilities were clean and practical. A large gong hung somewhere near the main dining hall, but apart from that and the shape of the grand pagoda, I saw no statues, no art, nothing carrying any religious or sectarian significance. There were dozens of volunteers living on site for the duration of the course, cooking our meals and cleaning up after us.

In the evening, after a generous helping of lentil soup and naan bread, the course started. I grabbed several pillows from the stack of meditation cushions and sat in the silence of Dhamma Hall for the first time. We all sat, men separated from women, and everyone in a state of noble silence, even avoiding all eye contact. 

There was chanting. The voice that chanted floated round the hall like the low, slow flight of a hundred sun-drunk bumblebees. I had the firm sense that we were not meant to look around, but I couldn’t help myself. The assistant teachers sat at the front of the hall with the volunteers, or Dhamma workers. The recording of Goenka’s voice asked us to take refuge in Tripe Gem: the Buddha, the Enlightened One; the Dhamma, his teaching; and the Sangha, the community of meditators.

Goenka’s chanting, his instructions, and the nightly discourses were all previously recorded, while any questions about the technique would be handled by two of his assistant teachers. With nearly a hundred meditation centres on the planet, Goenka couldn’t be a physical reality, even when he was still alive. Thus were the teachings of Buddha disseminated in the Information Age.

During the few hours before dinner I’d avoided conversation with any of the other students, preferring to keep to myself. But when the noble silence started, and there were no more opportunities for talking, not even gestures or eye contact, for ten whole days, I considered I I should have perhaps said something when I still had the opportunity. Perhaps I could have asked question or two, because the moment Noble Silence commenced, thoughts swarmed me like gnats.

When Goenka’s disembodied voice finished with its chanting, he informed us that the New Students were to follow five precepts, while the experienced, or what he called Old Students, were to follow eight precepts.

The first time I’d followed one of these courses, it crossed my mind numerous times that I’d voluntarily signed on for an elaborate brain wash. Eventually, the technique itself taught me everything I needed to know to have a better understanding of it.

I agreed to abstain from killing any living creature (which explained the vegetarian meals), to abstain from stealing (though there was nothing to steal for miles), to abstain from all sexual activity (hence the segregation of men and women, which helped heterosexuals, at least, from temptation), to abstain from telling lies (hence the vow of noble silence because most of us are incapable of not lying, or at least embellishing, while talking), and finally, to abstain from all intoxicants. The extra three precepts for us Old Students included refraining from eating after noon, from wearing jewellery or adorning the body, and agreeing to not sleep on luxurious or lofty beds—which wouldn’t be a problem, considering my simple living quarters.

After agreeing to all these precepts, I snuck another good look around. Even in the Dhamma Hall, there was no religious paraphernalia anywhere – no statues, no icons, no paintings, no candles or offerings. No prayers. Just a large hall of meditators sitting like so many statues of Buddha.

For a split second I experienced a total body absorption into a state of alarm. I couldn’t logically piece together the chain of events which had led me to where I was – none of it seemed possible. I felt that there was a mass in my brain somewhere, a mental muscle, a series of connected tissues tensing in my mind to keep my thoughts tight and narrow and quick.  This muscle had been tensed and unable to relax for a very long time. 

Am I in shock?

I considered what Goenka’s ghost was saying: that my sensations were merely reactions, aversions to the unknown. All the fruitless years of craving, brought on by the void of Future, yawning endlessly in front of the cavernous cipher of my past.

Goenka explained how since action stems from the depths of the subconscious, we must somehow learn to really penetrate, communicate with and practice in these deep subconscious regions. This awareness of sensation, and the need for equanimity in the face of whatever arose would train or retrain the realm of the preverbal actions that constituted my entire consciousness on a moment-to-moment basis. From what I was given to understand, this was the root level of conditioning, and thus the root of suffering. It was also the root of action (karma), which embodied the process of how we perceive, experience, and learn what happens from moment to moment, even while we slept.

During the closing chanting for the day, Goenka bid us happiness, and when he did – for one sweet, brief millisecond, the knot in my mind relaxed.

But then, next morning, rising pre-dawn, I was taken aback by the heavy demands of the schedule. The course, I remembered, was intended for intense, ass-breaking work, and not at all for relaxation. Every time I leave a Vipassana course I forget how hard it really is.

We were instructed to observe our breath, nothing else. We were to observe our bare breath, not to try and change it, influence it, or control it. We were to do this while sitting motionless for a period of one hour, at least ten times per day. Plumbing the depths for that place of stillness is rarely, if ever, a pretty process.

At breakfast I was reminded that no contact and no communication notwithstanding, there was zero sense of personal space because personal space did not exist in India. The India of breakfast was an India of queue-jumpers.

The food was healthy and fresh. All the Dhamma volunteers worked silently, and earnestly to provide us with two meals each day. And yet this centre, in fact all of the Vipassana centres worldwide, were run solely on a donation basis. But donations didn’t come from canvassing or corporations, they were only accepted from students who had already completed a ten day course.

I remembered the bolts of doubt which flashed through my mind during my first Vipassana course: Goenka must be gathering intelligence on behalf of some government agency. How else could he really fund so many meditation centres?

But during the first evening discourse, when we got to see a video of Goenka talking about what we’d experience on the first day, I was instantly disarmed. Here, finally, was the face behind the voice. He was a squat man with tiny eyes and a pudgy, smiling face. He had the big belly of a happy Buddha and grey hair. He wore a simple collared shirt and sat cross-legged. He didn’t look like a guru. He didn’t look like a freak. He looked like a businessman, or like someone’s jovial grandfather.

In the video he spoke to a group that we couldn’t see from the camera angle, but as he talked to this group about their wild minds, their untamed minds, and the difficulties associated with sitting for long periods at a stretch – all of this might as well have been intended specifically for me because it captured what I had been experiencing all day. I left the Dhamma Hall after the discourse with fresh hope and a renewed sense that I have come to the right place, once I realized I hadn’t thought of my predicament once in over an hour.

My nightmares became more complex; in one, an unlikely heroine, heroin-chic, pressed her finger to her lips. Her other arm was no arm at all but one massive black wing. She stepped towards me, treading lightly over the placenta of my birth, pointing at the crest of a fish-lens sky, I awoke mid-roar from another dream, somehow on hands and knees on the floor making the sounds of a bear. The tiny cabin of J-13 was destroyed, the mattress, linen, and what little gear I had been tossed – presumably by me, as the door was bolted from inside – all over the place. Like pus coming out of an infected wound, rage and terror bubbled to the surface every night, to be skimmed off the surface of consciousness through barely-remembered dreams.

The process went on, one minute, one hour, one day, after the next. Self cannot dissolve self; tiny pinpricks of awareness were gifted to me at each moment of release. During Annapanna meditation I had to continuously return to my breath, and I was truly bewildered by what an untamed beast by mind could be. People I’d known stormed my memories, turning mover every emotional cupboard. 

Between sittings, as I stretched my legs walking around the pagoda and gardens, I spent time composing and rehearsing a speech, a carefully crafted homily designed to resonate with all beings, and to gently but firmly inseminate their consciousness with the virtues and wonders of the meditation technique I was learning.

I delivered the speech to myself over and over again, watching each word crystallize in the humid air. I delivered this speech in my sleep and awoke sweating with exhilarating genius of it. My gestures to accompany this speech were equally wild, and equally in vain, because when I awoke on the third day I would never give that speech another thought again, since it had been crafted by my ego and I understood how insanely futile it was writing sermons to myself.

For three whole days I learned to observe nothing but my own bare breath. Goenka explained how to do this. I sat until I thought my bones would shatter, but eventually I could stay with my breath longer, for at least a minute or so, before my mind started to wander. On days one and two my body was almost always in excruciating pain from the extended hours of sitting, but on day three it happened several times that I seemed I’d just started to observe my breathing before the hour was suddenly, miraculously, up. Time was no longer what it usually seemed to be.

When all I ever wanted was a sense of peace, I’d instead reached out for oblivion, for distraction, ruled by the same anxious, fractious shards of thought shrapnel. Fear was the detonator. I became—in my own life and marriage and career—more the empty husk, lighter than ash, tethered to no place.

Photo belongs to the talented Matt Sartian

Photo belongs to the talented Matt Sartian

On the fourth day we took our first steps into Vipassana, or what Goenka’s voice referred to the field of wisdom, and from then until the end of the course we would be observing the sensations that we could feel on our body. It was for this reason we had been sharpening awareness with Annapanna for three days.

And so it went, and on day five I experienced what Goenka called storms, moments I wanted to scream in agony, or frustration, perhaps loneliness. I thought of my children, and couldn’t choke back my grief. There were moments I wanted to fly out of the Dhamma Hall cussing in rage, to flee from silence and tranquility where I’d become prey to my own thoughts and truths.

And yet, these storms were counter-weighted by moments of peace and contentment like nothing I’d ever experienced in my life – a state of quiet joy in which I wanted for nothing but to share this with other humans. A loner almost my entire life, I was thirsty for community.

The Buddha, Goenka further explained, did not teach sectarianism. He did not teach an advanced method of intellectualization. The Buddha did not discuss philosophy or theology; rather, he was a practical scientist who set out detailed instructions on how to experience the truth directly.

I awoke on day six, still buzzing from my dream, painfully aware that any knowledge I had of myself was superficial, at best. I’d began to form a militant suspicion of desire.

I’d never expected all this work. Every day was drudgery. I toiled within myself. Storms raged and fell, suns rose and set within me. Day six started as a blissful day, after my first sit on a beautiful beach and turned rapidly, without notice, into white squalls.

Meditating all day sometimes seemed like trudging through a desert. I began to look forward to Goenka’s nightly discourses in the same way as a parched man would look forward to a glass of water. I forgot the sound of my own voice.

I began to worry a tiny bit about the attraction I felt to everything that came out of Goenka’s mouth, and that I might have already become part of a cult. Was it possible that everything he said could make so much sense? I looked to what was expected of me. Nobody was asking anything of me other than to live clean, watch my breath, and observe my sensations objectively without reacting to them. If this was a cult, it was a highly ineffective one.

I awoke in the dark of early morning on day seven, but wasn’t fully conscious and was still acting out my dream, wherein I was the Immigration Officer responsible for letting Indian nationals onto a train that would somehow bring them to Canada.

One slim fellow with deep black eyes presented a passport that was newly issued, had no visa, and contained travel stamps to various other countries which appeared fraudulent. I called him on it immediately and said I would have him collected by the local police. I said this aloud, sitting up on my sweat-soaked bed in J-13. I patted the mattress, lifted it up, looked around everywhere for this guy’s passport, which had somehow been misplaced. What was my water bottle doing here? 

Then, it was revealed that this man had actually been hired by me, or a part of me that I wasn’t aware of, to investigate fraud with the police. The plan seemed vaguely familiar to me so I couldn’t discount it, nor could I remember doing it. I had to be careful. I eyed the man suspiciously.

I lay in bed, half-awake, for at least an hour wondering what the fuck I was going to do with this guy and his missing passport before I grasped that they didn’t actually exist in 3-dimensional reality.

“Good god,” I said aloud. “I’m delirious.”

4:00 AM            Morning wake up 4:30-6:30 AM        Meditate in Dhamma Hall or in your room 6:30-8:00 AM        Breakfast break 8:00-9:00 AM        Group meditation in Dhamma Hall 9:00-11:00 AM        Meditate in Dhamma Hall or in your room according to teacher’s instruction 11:00-12:00 PM        Lunch break 12:00 – 1:00 PM       Rest 1:00-2:30 PM           Meditate in Dhamma Hall or in your room 2:30-3:30 PM        Group meditation in Dhamma Hall 3:30-5:00 PM        Meditate in Dhamma Hall or in your room according to teacher’s instruction 5:00-6:00 PM        Tea break 6:00-7:00 PM        Group meditation in Dhamma Hall 7:00-8:15 PM        Teacher’s discourse in Dhamma Hall 8:15-9:00 PM        Group meditation in Dhamma Hall 9:00-9:30 PM        Open Q&A session in Dhamma Hall 10:00 PM               Lights out

4:00 AM            Morning wake up

4:30-6:30 AM        Meditate in Dhamma Hall or in your room

6:30-8:00 AM        Breakfast break

8:00-9:00 AM        Group meditation in Dhamma Hall

9:00-11:00 AM        Meditate in Dhamma Hall or in your room according to teacher’s instruction

11:00-12:00 PM        Lunch break

12:00 – 1:00 PM       Rest

1:00-2:30 PM           Meditate in Dhamma Hall or in your room

2:30-3:30 PM        Group meditation in Dhamma Hall

3:30-5:00 PM        Meditate in Dhamma Hall or in your room according to teacher’s instruction

5:00-6:00 PM        Tea break

6:00-7:00 PM        Group meditation in Dhamma Hall

7:00-8:15 PM        Teacher’s discourse in Dhamma Hall

8:15-9:00 PM        Group meditation in Dhamma Hall

9:00-9:30 PM        Open Q&A session in Dhamma Hall

10:00 PM               Lights out

During the first group sitting of day seven, it occurred to me that my body, the entire body, contained the mind. In a way, I’d been learning this my whole life. I understood implicitly that every part of me had mind, not just the heavy pumpkin I carry around on my shoulders. As I went deeper, I came to see that my whole life had revolved around sensations – running after the pleasant ones while trying earnestly to avoid the unpleasant ones.

That very night Goenka explained that an addict takes a drug because he wishes to experience the sensation which brings him most pleasure. I couldn’t deny that as soon as any desire was fulfilled, I would generate another one that needed satisfying.

I went deeper still, and glimpsed for one, brief, lucid moment, the layers of ego, like an endless stack of mille-feuilles, a thick curtain sticky with self that kept me from seeing each moment, in which resided the timeless confluence of Source Energy and the spark that lay within. I had no ideaat the timethat I would very soon have to eventually renounce even this meditation, the very practice, which had led me to these insights.

There was no way to discern how long I was standing in front of the bulletin board staring at the daily schedule which I already knew by heart, but it must have been a long time because I had pins and needles in my feet. As soon as I became consciously aware of this sensation, I was literally blown backwards against the wall by an electric sense of foreboding.

I skipped my next meditation and lay on my back, staring up at the spider on the ceiling of J-13, coming to the conclusion that it must be another storm, that my mind was laying tricks, trying to get me to leave my practice before the ten days were up.

As I observed, thoughts were becoming clearer to me. Then I remembered my purpose was not to think, but to observe. All of my thoughts were misleading – the way out of the jungle was through observation of sensations. My thoughts could never bring me peace or enlightenment – only awareness of sensations could – as long as that awareness is devoid of reaction – completely equanimous.

We were not supposed to open our hands or change our posture, but I made one slight adjustment and moved my hands from my lap to my knees, in a kind of physical commitment to higher mental vigilance, for better concentration.

I was sweating and drowsy. But I knew that this moment would change. Just as every moment preceding. The insight was simple, but untouchable until I experienced it myself: everything was and is constantly changing. 

Good God it must have been frightening for the Buddha! Doing this all on his own, in the darkness of jungle forest with the monsoon rains and the frogs and bugs and snakes – he couldn’t have been automatically accustomed to it.

All these years I’d been waiting and expecting to learn who I was, waiting to learn who I was supposed to be. What if all my suffering was the result of concentrating on my suffering?

But here it is: it has happened. I had happened.

I’d happened without me planning or realizing it. I was already that person, that person I’d been waiting to define and sculpt and finally move into. I’d always been him, and he’d always been right here, changing. And to think of all the time I’d burned, all this energy I’d wasted trying to sculpt meaning from the clay of my experiences. I’d been exactly who I was.

And then at a certain point I realized that who I was, and how I perceived myself, needed to be wiped away.

Not only that, but I was the one who had to willingly go inside and do the job, solo.

On my meditation cushion, I had to come back to Annapanna because of my elevated heart rate. There was so much information pouring in.

Vipassana meant seeing things for what they really are, and for the first time I understood the meaning of humility: seeing things for what they were – not as I wanted them to be, nor as I feared them to be.

Our so-called elites – The Control System – had known for know a very long time how powerful human emotion and human intent is in the creation of our shared reality. Quantum mechanics and string theory had barely touched on the process of manifestation but were slowly, painstakingly, illuminating to the left-brain what the yogis and shamans had known for ages. But the Control System knew about it and had exploited it so thoroughly that most of our species was locked into a pattern of unconscious acquiescence. We were herded by our own fear into fields of ignorant submission.

I observed new sensations in my skin, my jaw and cheeks and as if my entire face was going to be magnetically ripped away from my skull. With these sensations came the stark understanding of what we’d lost – or forfeited – as a species.

I thought of the media I’d been bombarded by my entire life, and the staggering manipulation of a reality that we couldn’t’ seem to stop swallowing long enough to catch a breath. They were throat-fucking us with their lies! I was appalled by any and all talk of the economy, electrons, politics, Hollywood, the environment – people quoting people quoting people who’d been told what to say.

I raged internally, fighting wars inside my own skull, sweating bullets.

I’d never considered that I wasn’t still sitting in Zen-like quietude until I managed, with some difficulty, to notice that I was in gyrations, spasmodically twitching on the floor of the meditation hall. 

That night I slept more soundly than I had all course, and I woke up long after the gong on day nine, so long it was light out and warm, and I’d slept right through breakfast.

In that tiny, fragile room called J-13 I felt a presence.

Nothing new – a presence like an old friend whom I’d forgotten, suddenly lying in the space next to me.

What I experienced there, in the morning quiet of a day like any sunny Sunday, lying in stale sheets, on the cusp of understanding with the cheap drapes open, was my own life’s telling truth.

I closed my eyes and knew how the exposed current at the base of the waterfall drank the earth, swirling itself all the way to the ocean, spinning sea-borne thoughts into spoondrift, spraying the salt-fed anchors, atomizing the wreckage of our so-called lives, doubt dying again and again, impaled upon so many glittering knives of light.

From my bunk in J-13 I could even smell it, and I shuddered, for a moment shunning - fearing indifference to – the grievous beauty of frisson.

(To be continued.)

 

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