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.

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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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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