Some people go to the temple or church when things are not going well or they’re feeling out of sorts. Some people go to the pub. Some people feel that something is missing in their lives and end up in the temple and others feel that same sense of hollowness but end up in the pub.
A few months ago, I decided to do neither. I went to the shaman and drank some medicine called ayahuasca. Here’s what happened.
After my second drink, I sat down in my place in the ceremony room and felt instantly queasy. I tried to keep the medicine down, but it was impossible. So I reached for my bucket and was violently (and I mean violently!) sick. All I remember of the terrestrial world after that is putting the bucket down. Then I was gone.
Where did I go? Well, it’s hard to explain. Basically, I was nowhere. There was nothing. It was so nothing that it didn’t even feel like a “void”. After a while (I couldn’t tell you how long), the words “I am immortal” came into my head (although I didn’t have a head). This produced a flutter of panic in my stomach (which also didn’t exist), but I managed to calm myself down by repeating to myself, “It’s okay. I’m immortal. It’s okay.”
This went on for some time. The vista of infinite nothingness ahead of me, for all eternity, was a terrifying prospect, but I continued to self soothe, and somehow managed not to spin out. I knew that I was God. But it wasn’t as much fun as I had imagined. I was kind of trapped in my own immensity.
Eventually, I started to get a bit tired (not bored exactly) of this endless sameness. Then, slowly at first, I began to have visions. It was a procession of binary opposites. I can’t remember them all now, but there were hundreds (maybe). The most obvious ones were light and dark, male and female, good and bad, left and right, up and down, all clothed in religious imagery (the male and female entities were Indian deities, for example, forms of Shiva and Shakti).
This went on for what seemed like another eternity. Then I began to feel a strange sense of discomfort in my body, although I was completely unaware of my body. I felt pain where my ribs would have been, and I felt a curious dry feeling, which I eventually realized was thirst. I began to have visions of a pub as I processed the concept of drink.
A memory of water pulled me back into the physical world as I remembered that I actually had some water and could actually drink it. As I slowly came round, I realized that I was lying face down on the hard wooden floor, which explained the pain in my ribs. I found my mattress and took a swig of water. It was like a magical elixir. It was amazing.
I looked around at the dimly lit room and at the other participants in the ceremony. Everything was bathed in a magical aura of uniqueness. I felt buoyant and light. I felt like singing. So I did.
I afterwards learned that I had been “gone” for about two hours (Earth time), and that all the things that I thought I had said in my mind I had actually said out loud, which was a bit embarrassing. All in all, it was not a particularly pleasant experience, but it did provide me with a powerful understanding of the underlying movement of the spiritual journey.
This is how I came to understand my experience. Firstly, the dosage was clearly too high. I was rocketed out of my body into another plane. I lost all sense of physical reality. I forgot who I was and where I was. All I knew was that I was conscious and that I was immortal and that I was God.
On reflecting on the experience in the days and weeks that followed, I was reminded of the fourteenth century mystical classic, The Cloud of Unknowing. It was as though I had been catapulted through The Cloud of Forgetting and into The Cloud of Unknowing, which is where the (anonymous) author says you will find God.
When I arrived there, I had a sense of recognition. It was like, “Oh yes! I remember! I’m God!” It was like Plato’s “anamnesis”, literally “unforgetting”. In my terrestrial life I had forgotten that I am actually the eternal consciousness behind all existence and now I remembered. (I had had similar transcendent experiences before on ayahuasca, so I was also obviously remembering those experiences).
But remembering God (or remembering I was God) simultaneously meant forgetting everything else. I forgot my past, my ego, my body, and everything and everyone on Earth. It was as though I had to pass through a Cloud of Forgetting the World before (or at the same time – it doesn’t matter) entering the Cloud of Remembering God.
After some time, however, I got the niggling feeling that I’d forgotten something, and the more tiresome infinite consciousness became, the more I wanted to remember. Eventually the unity of pure consciousness began to divide itself up into binary opposites, and I started to get glimpses of the world that I had forgotten.
When I realized that I was thirsty and started thinking about the pub, I was struck with an amazing revelation. In this (admittedly somewhat ideal) pub, the choice of drinks was infinite. They weren’t binary at all. It wasn’t just this or that, red or white. There was rose and sparkling, and an infinite variety of reds and whites and all other types of wine, from the old world and new, of all types of vintage. And there was an infinite range of possible beers and ales to choose from as well, not to mention all the spirits and soft drinks. The infinite variety of possible drinks was mind-boggling.
I realized that the same is true of colour. It’s not just black and white. And it’s not just the primary colours or the colours of the spectrum. Colours are infinite, because there are infinite combinations and hues. The world of colour is not binary. It’s infinite.
I later understood that I had experience three layers or levels of reality in one cosmic experience, and these three levels were clearly described in Taoist philosophy. First I had merged with the “Tao”. Then I had descended from the Tao into a world of opposites, “Yin and Yang”. Then, finally, I had landed back in the world of the “Ten Thousand Things”.
I saw how this movement between levels had also been traced by Western philosophers. It was the old dichotomy between the “One” and the “Many”. But I had never quite appreciated how many the “Many” actually was. It was practically infinite!
Drinks are infinite. Colours are infinite. But so are sounds. And smells. And sensations. Basically, all the impressions of our five senses are infinite. You might live to be a ripe old centenarian, but I guarantee that you will still enjoy a meal that you’ve never tried before. And you will never exhaust the existing corpus, let alone future corpus, of music or literature.
So why does it all get so stale? Well, we go to the pub and we order the same beer. We go to our record collection (or Spotify) and listen to the same tracks. The infinite “Many” is too much for us. “Ten Thousand Things” is a few thousand too many. So we filter it all down, according to our own particular binary “Yin/Yang” algorithms.
But the binary world we live in, which is the world as conceived and constructed by the human mind, gets boring. We begin to develop a yearning for transcendence (some more than others). We begin to dream of the great shining Temple in the sky, where God lives, and where All is One.
Many people live their whole live dreaming of the One. It becomes a part of their life narrative, of their binary code. They dream of it, but they never reach it. They might even just give up and hope they’ll get there in the afterlife (if they’re good).
But some people do get there in this life. We generally call those people “mystics”. But the interesting thing is that they don’t just stay there in a perpetual samadhi trance-coma. They come back. And when they come back, they see the world with new eyes. It’s not all binary any more. It’s infinite and unique and miraculous. By forgetting the world and remembering the “One” and then forgetting the “One” and remembering the “Many”, the world reveals itself in all its resplendent and infinite glory. The world is born again.
It’s not really just about the Temple in Heaven. It’s also about the Pub on Earth. The Mystic must come back down from the “One” and become a Shaman, and experience the “Many” directly, instead of through the filter of the “Two”.
We like to think that the spiritual path is a one-way street. We seek and seek for God and then, in the final climactic scene, we find Him, and live happily ever after. Roll credits. But the reality is very different. It’s not so much a linear path as a cycle of remembering and forgetting. We forget the world and remember God; we forget God and remember the world. Each cycle counts as another life, because each time, you are born again. If you move through the cycle often enough, you might even find what the Taoist Masters found: immortality.