In 1986, I was a confused 14 year old boy, fucked up like a soup sandwich. Two events merged into one in my then trembling field of being. Through a mediocre Jim Morrison biography I had discovered the Beat Consciousness – Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, etc… They were part and parcel of my simultaneous awakening and corruption. They in turn introduced me to Buddhism (and the romanticizing of drugs). I spent many teen nights trying to decipher the Tibetan Book of the Dead (the only book I ever stole – catch that Karmic irony!) and the Diamond Sutra with burning pot smoke curling up into my eye. The Beats took Buddha off of the takeout menu and centered him into my psyche. Kerouac made Christ sound like the original beat, assuring me that “Walking on water wasn’t built in a day.” Buddha spoke of suffering, but as a young teen I simply took this as this: “all life is shit.” Fair enough. At one point I even had the grandiose plan of one day going to the Naropa School in Boulder, CO., to study at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, whatever the hell that was. I went as far as to order the Course Catalog, excitedly showing my Dad as he nodded and tried to look interested as the UK Wildcats played on the TV.
At that age, I was already an expert sufferer. This same year I met Ginsberg, Buddha and the Beatnik Christ, I had my first of many blind dates with Psychiatry. I was diagnosed depending on the doctor…Bipolar Disorder, Unipolar Depressive, Pre-Schizophrenic, Psychotic… A battery of tests followed, washed down with medications whose names all sounded like menacing constellations that had yet to be discovered: Tofranil, Stelazine, Valium, Elavil, Nardil …these pills were prescribed accordingly; pills that set me further apart from the human race, pills that marked me as being incompetently made, pills that made me fat, then skinny and at times shaking uncontrollably, pills that led to black winged hallucinations and incredible side effects like my eyeballs literally shivering in my eye sockets, spontaneous vomiting, sleeplessness, forgetfulness… more depression and anxiety. I decided to fight back at who I was and committed to a total surrender to LSD. I let the drugs fight it out in my brain. I did not care who won. I experienced two failed suicide attempts, a brief time spent in an adolescent psych ward; and then graduated to the adult ward at 19 years old. I can still recall the wave of relief when I heard (the possibly apocryphal tale) that Richard Brautigan kept a copy of Emily Dickinson’s poems at his bedside when he was spending his own stint in a mental institution. Hearing this made me feel less alone. I vowed that if I was locked up again I would have the books of both authors somehow stitched inside my straightjacket. I aimed my blame at God and those other gods of the brain: psychiatry. Over the years as I sunk deeper and deeper (the only direction, really) into active drug addiction, my resentments for all religions and all forms of psychiatry/psychology only simmered and festered. So I sought and ultimately endured a 20+ year smoke break and staring contest with myself, the life of a using addict; the end result a terror filled junky, an exhausting, self-fulfilling prophecy.
Fast forward the tape 23 years to 2009. I was now a 14 year old boy turned into a 37 year old man, totally clean of all drugs for almost two years. After getting clean, some people kept strongly suggesting that I would need some kind of higher power to get through each day clean. I realized I had to obsess over something so I aimed my inner agitation towards spirituality. I had nothing to lose; I couldn’t sleep, so I read about my enemy. In the way that I had chased heroin, I began poring over texts of various wisdom traditions, finding the most comfort in esoteric and arcane teachings. Some of this was probably a holdover of trying to be “terminally cool” yet it soon became a gradual awakening that my belief could be personalized, customized, streamlined and hot-rodded to my liking. I could say “God” and “Fuck” in the same sentence – repeatedly – and would not be hit by lightning. The recurring refrain of all of this mixed bag of beliefs was the practice of meditation. So I began sitting for five minutes at a time, then ten minutes, twenty minutes, an hour that seemed like it would never end. I felt like a fool. My mind attacked me with brute force. But I continued to meditate. My life immediately changed for the better in indescribable ways. I started gradually meeting other people that shared my own sketchy sense of God, many with a similar experience born as much from desperation than rapture. Through the serpentine path of circumstance, I eventually met my de facto spiritual advisor in the form of a guy named Tom Catton. Even though he lived in Hawaii, he agreed to help me and his first question to me was this: “Do you meditate?”
After this introduction to a shaky sense of spirit, I wound up 8,000 feet above sea level at Estes Park, Colorado at a Zen Buddhist Retreat hosted by the sangha of Thich Nhat Hanh. I booked my ticket for the sole reason of deepening my burgeoning practice of meditation. I met Tom and his wife Bea there, both veterans of this kind of thing, having already spent decades investigating various retreats and spiritual traditions spanning the globe. They walked the walk. At the retreat, I was also surrounded by a thousand other people of every possible color and creed, sitting in silent meditation, attempting to continually come back to the breath and the present moment. Ironically, Thich Nhat Hanh was not at the retreat. At first I called bullshit on this, thinking he had pulled a Sly Stone/George Jones on us enlightenment junkies. But he was in fact ill and one of the nuns read a letter from the venerable master, expressing both his apologies and assurances that the dozens of monks and nuns on hand were more than able to guide us.
Over the course of the week, and after overhearing conversations in passing, I began to notice that I was in fact alarmingly outnumbered by many Psychologists/Psychiatrists. So I found myself trapped 8,010 feet up in the Rockies (oddly enough, 60 miles from the Naropa School) at a Religious retreat surrounded by a veritable cabal of Shrinks.
In a moment when I could feel the galaxy shift, God literally lifted these resentments from me. Later that night, I found myself quietly crying as I sat on my meditation bench during a guided session in the great hall filled with others. I realized that grace and transformation can sometimes follow forgiveness. God can be momentary and change me in that moment. I went outside and looked up at the sky and it seemed as if the clouds were a ring of eyes looking down at me, the light and shadow resembled wispy eyelashes, all approving, and forever loving me. I believe I was healed at that moment of a needless prejudice, another barrier that had been keeping me apart from people. In that very instant, I was directly transformed through meditation.
During those five days, I ultimately received the Five Mindfulness Trainings through the Thich Nhat Hanh tradition, which I ultimately forgot and blew off. I was also given the name “Dharma Opening of the Heart” which I also shook off like a new age nickname.
But the experience of that first retreat undoubtedly changed me. I became a meditation junkie. A lifelong love of William Blake was reborn and Blake in turn led to Austin Osman Spare, which in turn led to me meditating on a Sigil, a magical symbol of my own design. My identification with Gnosticism led to Hermeticism, then a deeper understanding of Carl Jung and the ever-radical Annie Besant and G.R.S. Mead. I kept wandering. I sat at the feet of a guru espousing the way of the Brahma Kumaris; I left with little more than a few pamphlets as souvenirs, printed in Sanskrit I still cannot decipher. I spent a weeklong satsang at the Jainist-derived lineage of Dada Bhagwan; the culmination of that experience led to a ceremony called a Gnan Vidhi, an hour long experience of chanting which promised to clear away all karma. During the ceremony, I had the odd experience of all of these “meditation memories” rising through me. Yet I can also remember that night walking out to my car in the parking lot and thinking with certainty, “that guru is full of shit.” I sat restless in a few church services, certain that inevitable demons were going to blast out of my skull. There are over 40,000 different denominations of Christianity; with my track record, I am bound to pick the one that leads to death by strychnine poisoning. I was abruptly blown off by a Vedanta center, ostensibly after revealing to the head Swami that “getting off of drugs” is what had led me to the Brahman. The Sant Mat people never returned my calls. Ten days were spent deep in the Georgia woods, learning the practice of Vipassana meditation as taught by S.N. Goenka, a retreat that some consider the ultimate boot camp of mindfulness; 12 hours each day are spent meditating and the entire event is held in noble silence – no one speaks for the duration of the event. I had an indescribably and even purifying experience while there, but also felt that Goenka, while being an undoubtedly superb teacher of the dharma, had a touch of the huckster in him as well. “This method is a completely non-sectarian technique,” he assured us in nightly video discourses; as he went on to badmouth every other religion. Through another bizarre turn of events, film director David Lynch wound up paying for my Transcendental Meditation training, but celebrity encounter aside, TM was ultimately not the fit for me. I immediately experienced the benefits of the TM method of meditation, yet also sensed that I was simply returning to the same destination visited by my previous vehicles of sitting. An ancient Vedanta saying assures us all, “One Truth, Many Paths.” And while TM boasts a legion of devoted adherents, in my personal opinion, the greater organization’s pricy, “pay-to-play” approach, and encouragement to surrender to increasingly expensive “upgrades” that are offered in teaching a very basic method of meditation, seemed more like Amway than Atman liberation to me. That being said, after all of my searching for the most suitable method for myself, I finally returned to the practice of Vipassana, which I still adhere to as my main vehicle of inner realizations. Twenty minutes a day, returning to the breath, letting the thoughts and body sensations rise and fall; easier said than done.
I discovered a weird logic and guidance in all of this and gathered something from all of these and other attempts. In the same way that all conspiracy theories seem tied to a linked hierarchy of paranoia, it seemed as if all of these explorations of different belief systems seemed to dovetail together into the same ultimate experience, one of positive change. But I always ventured in with a healthy dose of discernment, open-mindedness and downright skepticism. A dear friend of mine, a resolute secular humanist, once pointed out that I “keep seeing sunflowers because you are looking everywhere for sunflowers.” And he is absolutely correct. But what can I do when I keep stumbling into all of these gardens? I do believe that divine intervention is based as much on the willingness to receive as anything else. But after all of this seeking, sitting and praying I still feel like I am about as religious as a fistfight at a baptism.
I also realized that nearly all of these traditions suffered from the inevitable reality of the cult of personality. I have watched two meditators argue and snicker over which teacher had the real goods on mindfulness. I’ve cringed as I listened to people talk glassy-eyed about how wonderful their guru/preacher/whatever truly is; I once participated in a discussion group following a Buddhist teaching and sat uncomfortably as a woman sobbed over the perfection of her guru. It was the same kind of manic, scattered emotion I had once witnessed in the common area of a psych ward.
Having said all of this, I honestly believe that I am drawn to this surprising attraction to spirituality simply because of this: I am afraid, I am broken and I need help and assistance from something greater than me. And I truly want to be a better person. I realized I can’t do this alone. “God enters through the wound,” said Carl Jung and I am a wounded fucking person. I have literally risen from prayer and been flooded with thoughts of violence that horrify me. In the last year alone, I have lashed out at certain people in ways that I can only hope might one day be amended. But I am healing and I am getting better.
What is most remarkable to me is that I asked for none of this. It just seemed to show up in my life. I have certainly wondered if I parlayed a nervous breakdown brought on by opiate withdrawal into a mystical experience, but fuck – it works. It still works! And I think I have become a better person from the entire experience.
I wrote this piece with some apprehensiveness since spirituality and God are, at best, a highly personal thing. But something happened to me. I am simply trying to document and convey what has occurred in my life and remains as an ongoing, shape-shifting presence. And I also must acknowledge the people closest to me who tolerate my beliefs and blathering on about God, most of who are in fact agnostics or atheists. They have taught me as much about compassion, a way to live and unconditional love as any starry-eyed, convinced believer.
It really all comes down to this: when I was a child I was terrified of learning how to ride a bike and I watched other children ride their bikes, at times out of jealous suspicion.
Now I am riding the bike.
I post the following quote quite a bit on Facebook because I identify with it very much and think Selby was another person who was somehow transformed by something as well. I also think that he is, for lack of a better word, one of the most directly spiritual writers this country has ever produced:
“Because of what has happened in my life, I’ve discovered something within me. I guess some people call it God. I don’t like to use that word too much because it’s a tough word, people misunderstand it. What I’ve discovered has got nothing to do with church or religion…a power of infinite and unconditional love that has created and maintains the Universe, has revealed itself to me from within…and I attempt to live according to the principles this power lays down” – Hubert Selby, Jr. (1928-2004)
Daniel A. Brown