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1. Holy River Isis!
It was a glorious summer’s day. I had done my finals and had finally escaped the academic prison that Cambridge had become. Sitting on the edge of a soggy sofa in a fashionably squalid student house in Oxford with my old pal Justin and his Wadham buddy James, listening to something weird on the record player, with no job prospects (I read English Literature) and no idea what to do with my life, a bag of weed on the table and a tab of acid in the palm of my hand, Wordsworth’s immortal line suddenly came to me: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven!”
We dropped the acid and went for a walk down to the river Isis. The sun beat down and Oxford sparkled with the optimism of youth. Justin and James were jabbering away about something vaguely interesting but inconsequential, and I leant them only half an ear. I was too much enjoying the sunshine to want to waste it in conversation. I also somehow knew that this was going to be a Big One, and my real focus was on my level of awareness and my surroundings, which I constantly scanned for clues that I was “coming up”.
We stopped at a small ornamental bridge over the river. The water was shallow where it gently lapped a small ramp, which emerged onto the bank, for no visible purpose. Justin and James were still deep in conversation. I gazed down at the water gently flowing beneath the bridge. The sun danced off the water in a thousand brilliant points of light. A posse of ducks slowly glided past, creating trails of impossibly intricate patterns as they broke up the reflected sunlight. I was mesmerised.
I tried to follow the dancing patterns of light, but it was too fast. All I could manage was a general impression, which, I realised, was all I ever saw. But today, I wanted to see more than a general impression. I wanted to see Reality. And the LSD would help me. But however much I tried to follow the flashing pattern, as the tiny points of light momentarily shone and disappeared, with others almost instantaneously taking their place, I just couldn’t keep up.
I was always one step behind. The time lapse between perception and brain processing was just long enough that I could see little more than a shimmering blur.
Then a voice in my head said, “Make your mind water”. So I did. I flowed with the water. Suddenly, I was in. I could see the individual points of light skipping over the water with tremendous speed, but I was with them. I could see them with perfect clarity. There was no gap between the water and my mind.
I stared with intense concentration and growing amazement. How long could I keep this up for? Was it bad for my eyes maybe? All sorts of shapes and images started to emerge from the dancing lights. I saw Cleopatra’s golden barge, followed by a bewildering palimpsest of Egyptian figures and symbols and mythical beasts. It was like a procession of the weird and the wonderful in glittering lights. Most of it, although perfectly clear and well-defined, I didn’t recognise at all.
After a while I got tired of this lightning fast game of cat and mouse, and let the shimmering light show go on unseen. I started to think about the nature of reality. It occurred to me that this was exactly what the pre-Socratic philosophers had done all those years ago. I thought about Thales, who famously said that, “the world is water”. I imagined him sitting gazing at the sun dancing on the water somewhere on the Aegean coast, just as I was doing now. I felt that our minds were somehow connected and that the two and a half millennia between us was no more than a temporary misunderstanding. I was seeing through his eyes, as he was seeing through mine.
We both understood in that timeless instant that we were gazing at the same water, and that the water never stopped. It had flowed and sparkled and shimmered and rippled and danced, creating an infinity of complex forms without end, since the time of Thales and long before, since the early dawn of the Earth itself. We looked away, exhausted, but the water just kept on moving, forever and ever. We could only witness an infinitesimal portion of its infinite being and becoming.
“The world is water”: all things come into being and disappear endlessly and ceaselessly, like the irrepressible dance of water in stream and river and sea. There is no end and no beginning to the infinite dance of forms. Everything is in motion, shifting and changing, combining and transforming. That’s why it’s impossible to step into the same river twice, as Heraclitus said. Everything is constantly in flux. There is no fixity, no stability, no permanence, no being. There is no being, only endless and eternal becoming.
I gazed at the shifting waters below me, sometimes catching the glint of the sun, sometimes not, shape-shifting, swirling, ebbing and flowing. I knew that I had been hallucinating. All of those beautiful forms and shapes I saw were nothing but a spectacular illusion created by my over-active imagination. It was all just an illusion. There was no Cleopatra’s barge. I just made it all up. I was high on acid, after all. But then again, didn’t I always do that anyway? Take the passing show as real? Mistake the appearance of things for the reality? Project my mind onto the world?
If this is all just an illusion, I thought, what is reality? Well, the water itself is real, even if the shapes projected onto it aren’t. Not the ever-changing surface, but the actual substance and depth of water below the surface is real. Underneath the glitter and spectacle of endless becoming on the surface was the constant and eternal being of the water, hidden from view but always there and always the same.
Then the simple but, at the time, extraordinary truth struck me like a bolt of lightning. The surface show is the water! The depths and the surface are aspects of one thing. It’s “not-two”. The surface show is not just an illusion: it’s the cosmic play, the dance of lila, of Reality itself. Being and Becoming are one and the same!
I have no idea how long I had been ruminating like this, staring at the abstract shapes of light and shade below me, but when I emerged from my philosophical reverie and looked up and around at the trees and sky laid out before me, I saw the world transformed. I had entered the “Pure Land”.
Everything was alive. Everything was on fire with overflowing life. It was just as Thomas Traherne described it: “The green trees when I saw them first … transported and ravished me, their sweetness and unusual beauty made my heart to leap, and almost mad with ecstasy, they were such strange and wonderful things”.
At the time I didn’t know Traherne, but I did know William Blake. I thought of that line from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would be seen as it is, infinite.” Now, finally, after years of trying, I had broken through to the other side and everything was, indeed, infinite. This was the real thing, the Big One, a genuine, full-blown satori. So this was Enlightenment!
Time seemed to stop. I turned my head and saw a flower. The flower was so real, the looking was so real. Everything was so absolutely, unbelievably real. I remember thinking that that moment of looking at a flower was worth more than my whole life up to that point. My life had been nothing more than a long, hazy dream. But now I had woken up.
It was as if time had stopped, although things continued exactly as they had before. It was as if my mind had stopped, although I could still think. There was a special quality of stillness in my awareness that I had never experienced before. And I was not the person I had thought I was. The person I thought I was had vanished like a wisp of white cloud in a bright blue sky.
As I looked around me, with this strange, unfamiliar mixture of stillness and wonder, it was as though I was seeing the world for the first time. Traherne describes it perfectly: “Eternity was manifest in the light of day, and something infinite behind everything appeared”.
I realised that this world that I was standing in was the same world that had always existed. All of the past history of the Earth seemed somehow contained in this present moment. I saw the miracle of existence, the miracle of life. And I myself was part of it. I wasn’t just a passive observer standing to one side of Reality. I was right in the middle of if it.
But I wasn’t just part of it, I was the most amazingly complex and conscious part of it. I myself was the growing tip of the consciousness of this beautiful planet. I myself was the culmination of billions of years of evolution. I wasn’t twenty-two at all. I was billions of years old!
I understood, in the core of my being, that I was the same as everything else. “At the water level”, I thought, “it’s all one”. The water, the trees, the bushes, plants, flowers, insects, animals, people, everything, everything was just a different form and manifestation of the same thing. At the water level, it was all the same. Everything had grown up out of the same “Earth stuff”, like different forms of the same body of water, different waves on the same sea. That’s what Thales meant.
Not only that, but one small part of all this Earth stuff saw and understood that it was all one: me. But I wasn’t “me” any more. I was just part of the one Earth. When I looked at the trees, it was as if the trees were looking at themselves. It was as if they could see themselves for the first time, as if they had woken up. It felt like the Earth itself was looking at itself through my eyes. Through “me”, the Earth had evolved to the point where it had become aware of itself. Not only had “I” woken up – so had everything.
There were a few houses beyond the trees on the other side of the river. There were fences and gardens. In a flash I saw the illusion of property. Everything was part of the Earth, and everything was mine, because they were all me. At first the fences and hedges offended me by their artificial parceling of the world, but then I realized that even the parceling and dividing, the houses and fences and gates, all of it was mine. The owner of the house and garden might believe that it belonged to him, but in fact it belonged to me and to everyone and everything, because it belonged to the Earth.
I was the Earth, but at the same time I was a human being. I was both the host and the guest. This was my home. At last, I felt like I truly belonged. I was filled with “oikophilia”, the love of home. Growing up, I had always felt like a bit of an outsider, at school, at uni, even at home with my family.
I never felt fully at home in England, my adoptive country, nor in Chile, my homeland. Now I felt that wherever I was, wherever I went, I would be completely at home, because I belonged here, on Earth. Nobody could tell me I was trespassing on their property, or that I had no right to be where I was, because this was my rightful home.
We walked on in silence. I knew that it was impossible to communicate what I was experiencing. I was transformed and the world was transformed, but actually everything was exactly the same, and just as it should be. I understood that this was “nothing special”, because it was just reality, and that as soon as I made it into something special, in my mind it would become other than reality, and therefore unreal, and then I would fall back into the mind’s dream of reality. So I kept my mouth shut. What could I possibly say anyway? I was afraid that if I started talking about it, I would lose it. Best to communicate through my actions and my simple presence.
Justin and James didn’t seem to notice anything at all. So much for my Enlightened presence! Would they have recognised Christ or Buddha? Probably not. Even without looking at their faces, I could tell that they were lost in their own dream world, believing that it was the real world. Everyone we passed as we walked along the river was dreaming too. I could see how everyone was basically sleepwalking through their own private dreams. Everyone was just pretending to be awake, by waking up for a split second every now and then, before falling back to sleep again. I felt a great surge of sadness and compassion, but there was absolutely nothing I could do about it.
We approached a young woman sunbathing on the grass. From a distance she looked young and healthy and beautiful, but when she turned her face towards us, I saw that she was in fact full of corruption. Her outward appearance was just a disguise. I held her gaze and looked into her corrupted soul. She suddenly panicked, hastily gathered her things and ran off, scrambling desperately over a fence and disappearing across a field. “What the fuck was that all about?” said Justin. I said nothing.
Further on, we passed another bridge, this time an unsightly rusty old railway bridge, covered in graffiti. Justin and James were bemoaning Man’s desecration of the natural landscape.
They saw the bridge as an imposing iron structure rudely slammed over a delicate and fragile Earth. It must have represented for them the tragic environmental degradation of the planet by our insatiably greedy and destructive species. I shared the sentiment, but I didn’t see the bridge as they saw it. They presumably saw the bridge as solid and enduring and the trees as fragile and weak. Through the eyes of the Earth, however, the bridge barely existed. Nature was eternal. The Earth was eternal. But the bridge was nothing more than a passing twig on the river. It didn’t bother me in the slightest.
We paused by the brick wall, which was covered in graffiti. It was a mixture of ugly tags and obscenities. It seemed to me that the wall was the inside of someone’s skull. Every scratch and marking, every word and phrase, was a desperate attempt to make sense of the crazy world this human mind found themselves in. Desperation, anger and frustration were laid bare before me. I felt the raw pain of humanity, of human consciousness straining to understand. Amongst the chaos and confusion, one word jumped out at me. Someone had written just one word: “LOVE”. I couldn’t help but smile. They’d got there in the end!
We soon came to another bridge. It was intimidatingly high, but there were young teenage boys jumping off it into the water. I was amazed and impressed by their bravado. Suddenly, the water seemed welcomingly cool in the blazing heat of the sun. “Let’s have a swim!” I said. “What? Don’t be stupid.”
I waded in, fully clothed. Justin and James looked on from the bank with a mixture of worry and baffled amusement. So I splashed them. There was a young boy in the water who had just jumped off the bridge. Treading water, we exchanged a few words. He was friendly enough, but looked kind of naughty. There was an edge to him, an edge of “corruption”, just like I had seen in the young woman earlier. He couldn’t have been more than twelve or thirteen years old, and I could see a sweet childhood innocence mixed in with the corruption. Perhaps “experience” is a better word.
I became aware of his awareness. It seemed to come and go. One minute he was with me, the next he was somewhere else. He had disappeared into his mind. I remember thinking to myself, “but I’m still here”.
I could see how people came in and out of reality, in and out of the present. I also noticed the difference between children and adults. Children could meet me, so to speak, in the present, although they soon disappeared back into their minds. Adults, on the other hand, rarely, if ever, emerged from their minds at all. “But I’m still here”, I thought, as he swam off to join his mates.
I didn’t notice that the current had taken me downstream, far from the bridge and away from the bank. I tried to swim ashore, but the current was too strong. I wasn’t getting anywhere.
I stopped struggling for a moment and felt the weight of my clothes and my heavy sandals pulling me down. Like a bolt from the blue, I suddenly remembered that I was high on acid. Justin and James were nowhere to be seen. “I might drown”, I thought. It occurred to me that my beautiful dream of Enlightenment could well end up as the nightmare reality of a stupid drug-induced death. Had I seen too much? Was this the pay off? I thought I was invincible, like the apocryphal LSD casualties who jump out of windows believing they can fly, and reality was about to teach me the ultimate lesson in humility.
“What a shame” I thought. But I didn’t feel afraid. If I died now, I would die happy, because I had made it. I least I would die Enlightened! It just seemed a bit of a shame to die now, just when I had seen the light, but maybe that’s how it had to be.
Then I thought, “Well, I might as well make a bit of an effort”. So I kicked off and swam vigorously towards the shore. It turned out not to be so difficult after all, and I was soon climbing out, dripping wet, with one sandal somewhere at the bottom of the river. I stumbled up the bank to the path. I was quite attached to my sandals, which were new and quite stylish, with a metal ring in the middle, and I regretted the brief moment of panic when I kicked one off. But I was glad to be alive. I had sacrificed one sandal to the water, and now I sacrificed the other to the dusty earth. It felt very symbolic, a sacrifice to the elements in exchange for my life.
So it was that, barefoot, I walked aimlessly but purposively along the banks of the river Isis, like a wild prophet, half hoping to find my way back to the house, and half expecting to wander the world forever. I had various adventures along the way. I met the same naughty boys again, who were trying to haul an old boat into the river. It was like something out of Huckleberry Finn. I helped them carry it over and lower it down into the water, and it instantly sank.
As I walked along, I had a strange sensation, as though I were straddling two worlds, as though I was a time traveller from the distant past, or perhaps the distant future. At one point, I joined two young girls in their twenties, students maybe, who were having a picnic on the grass in the shade of tree, and got talking to them. I remember, absurdly, talking about Spike Milligan. I was a little surprised that they didn’t offer me any food or drink. After a while, although I had been faultlessly polite and charming (in my eyes anyway!), I sensed that they were beginning to feel a little uncomfortable randomly talking to a strange barefoot madman, so I said goodbye and went on my way.
I have no idea how I found my way back to the house, since I had no idea where it was or even what the address was, and this was a time before mobile phones, but I got there somehow. One of the housemates, a pretty black girl, whose name I forget, was there, but there was no sign of Justin or James. The kitchen was a horrible mess, with piles of dirty plates and pans everywhere. I poured myself a much needed glass of water and set to washing and cleaning until it was spotless. Then I went into the garden to commune with the plants. I was still in raptures. When the boys eventually returned, it was getting dark. They were visibly relieved to see me. They’d been looking for me for hours, apparently.
That night we all watched A Room with a View. Every time a spliff came my way I politely refused. I didn’t need it. The film made complete sense, and I shed quiet, hot tears, which I managed to conceal in the semi-darkness. I went to bed in the early hours, exhausted but calmly elated. The next morning, I woke up with the mother of all hangovers, and my beatific vision was no more.
2. Heaven and Hell
That amazing experience by the river Isis didn’t come completely out of the blue. I got my first taste of Zen at the tender age of twelve, when my father took me to a Japanese ex-monk’s Tuesday meditation evenings in a semi in North Finchley. Since then, I had read my way through my dad’s bookshelf (a heady mixture of Buddhism and postmodernism), and raved my way through my teens. My church was Whirl-y-gig and my spirituality was getting high.
Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell were gospel to my young, impressionable mind, eloquent witnesses to the truth of Suchness and Higher Consciousness. It was all very exciting. But now, lying in the half light of a stale student room in Oxford one summer morning with a cracking headache, I had incontrovertible proof, through direct first-hand experience, that all this Enlightenment business was actually, literally true. It wasn’t just fanciful, wishful thinking. It wasn’t metaphorical or symbolic mumbo-jumbo, or exaggerated poetic license. It was plain fact.
Heaven was, indeed, a place on Earth. I already knew that hell was. I had already been to hell, at an all-night rave in a country mansion in Hay on Wye, in North Wales, just a couple of years before.
This was my personal glimpse into the abyss, a voyage into the depths of madness, psychosis and paranoid schizophrenia. Once recovered (it actually took me about a year to fully recover from the periodic flash-backs and panic attacks), I seriously considered pursuing a career as a psychiatric nurse, knowing now what the horrors of madness really were.
Some time after this harrowing experience, I happened to watch a film version of Franz Kafka’s paranoid classic, The Trial. The screenplay was by Harold Pinter, and it starred Kyle MacLachlan (of Twin Peaks fame) as “K”. It was an almost blow-by-blow account of my own bad trip. I was transfixed. I lived the whole experience over again, vicariously, in my parents’ front room. Clearly, Kafka had been there, and so too possibly, had Pinter.
With hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have got stoned on the coach trip there and shouldn’t have taken a micro-dot and half an E on arrival. Set and setting were not good. I didn’t know anyone there, apart from the couple of friends I arrived with, who I quickly got separated from. On one of the dance floors, I had an altercation with a clown (I was mildly hallucinating) and it was as if my mind shattered into pieces, like a plate at a Greek wedding. It was all downhill from there.
I was on trial. Like K, I spent the whole night searching for “the Law”. I needed to be acquitted of a serious, existential crime, but I had no idea what it was. All I knew was that I was guilty and somehow had to prove my innocence. But “the Law” was also “the Truth”. I didn’t know what was real any more, and I was hell-bent on finding out. This was my mission: to find out what the hell was going on and to find absolution and forgiveness for whatever it was I had done wrong. As the night progressed, I drew closer and closer to the Law, which lay at the centre of all the craziness like a spider at the centre of its web.
There were four or five dramatic turning points. Something extremely weird would happen, and with a dreadful mental crash, I felt another turn of the screw in my brain. I was on a spiral inexorably pulling me into the middle of an irresistible vortex. I was wrapping myself ever tighter in the invisible threads of the spider’s web and inching ever closer to its patient jaws. There was nothing I could do. The more I fought it, the more powerful it became, this centripetal force pulling me into the dark centre of my mind.
Eventually, I found myself sitting on a wall in front of the house as the sun came up, smoking my last cigarette before my execution. “Do you want a cigarette?” Never had those simple words been so pregnant with meaning and foreboding. How could I refuse? I knew that the person offering it to me was none other than the Devil himself. He was calmly sitting next to me, biding his time with infinite demonic patience.
I was strangely relieved. It was almost over. After all my frantic struggling, I had reached the innermost circle of hell. This was my final judgement. I thought I could outwit the forces of darkness, but they were far cleverer and far stronger than I. With an inner sigh of resignation, I understood what should have been obvious all along: the Truth I had been looking for was the fact of my own death.
The Devil turned out to be a tall, wiry black man. Between drags, he whispered ponderously and enigmatically into my ear. After a few ambiguous statements, which I took to be further confirmation, in cryptic, coded language, of my impending doom, I began to wonder why he was stringing me along so much. Why didn’t he just get on with it? Then he said something about black people. In that very instant, I knew, with huge relief, that this couldn’t be the Devil. Why would the Devil be going on about racism? What did that have to do with my execution? Maybe he was just a black man with a chip on his shoulder off his face on drugs!
I think I actually laughed out loud, which can’t have helped his own nascent paranoia. I thanked him for the cigarette and went back inside. It would have been good to take a walk in the surrounding countryside, but there was still the slim possibility that I would be stabbed to death and thrown into a lake.
As luck would have it, I bumped into my friends, hours after having been separated from them, and they managed to talk me round. I explained, with heart-rending pathos, that however hard I tried, I just couldn’t work out what was real. My Chinese friend, Colin, with the profound sagacity of a Taoist Master, uttered five simple words that probably saved my sanity, if not my life: “Just accept it – you’re fucked!”
The Truth dawned on me with the warmth of the rising sun. The vice on my head loosened its grip. Yes! I’m fucked! I have no idea what’s going on! Just like that, the quest was over. I gave up on my crazy, desperate mission. Everything relaxed. It was ok. I didn’t have to work it out. I didn’t have to fight. I didn’t have to find justification for my existence in this crazy place. And I didn’t have to continue down this one-way road to destruction. Once I accepted it, the nightmare simply evaporated, like a faerie mist.
My psychotic episode was soaked in paranoid delusions and driven by hyper-vigilance and hyper-rationalisation. My brain was working overtime, spinning one theory after another in a desperate attempt to make sense of what obviously didn’t. It wasn’t so much a case of irrationality, as a case of misplaced hyper-rationality. However brilliant my judgement and insight into the probability of the reality of my predicament, it was all just more strands in the tangled web of the convoluted logic of my madness.
My experience of heaven two years later was the exact opposite. On my trip by the river Isis, the world seemed to expand outwards to embrace all existence, whereas by the Wye, everything was pulled into a tight fist at the centre of my shattered mind. In that hellish night in Wales, everything pointed towards me. It was all about me. This is the essence of paranoia: a kind of twisted narcissism. On that heavenly sunny day in Oxford, on the other hand, nothing was about me. It was all everything else: the trees, the Earth, the universe. I wasn’t a prisoner of my self. I was free.
In Heaven and Hell, Aldous Huxley reflects on the contrasting effects of good and bad trips on psychoactive drugs like LSD. I had to agree with his conclusion that what we call “hell” is an extreme contraction of the ego, while what we call “heaven” is an extreme expansion.
The black hole at the centre of the mental vortex of hell is really nothing but “I”. The Devil sitting at the centre of the innermost ring of hell is a projected, psychotic image of “I”. In hell the world contracts and revolves around this central core, but in heaven, there is no core. In between these two extremes lies the ordinary, sober state, where “I” and “the world” somehow find a poised equilibrium, which is what we generally call “sanity”.
I should probably have learnt my lesson and learnt to make do with sanity after the horror of my “Wye trip” (or my “Why trip”), but something drove me to keep pushing on the envelope of reality. I knew what hell was and I knew where it was. So I knew how to avoid it.
All I had to do was to push in the opposite direction, in the direction of expansion rather than contraction, and surely, I would find happier and greener pastures. As William James said, there are many realities out there, just waiting to be tapped into:
“Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the flimsiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there.”
For James, the requisite stimulus was nitrous oxide, laughing gas. For me, as it was for Huxley, it was LSD. LSD was my gateway drug into both heaven and hell. It is psycho-mimetic, because it recreates psychotic conditions, but it is also, potentially, mystico-mimetic. Like other psychedelic compounds, it is an entheogen: it can “generate God within”. But could I generate God without the drugs?
This was one of the big questions that naturally arose as a result of my brief sojourn in heaven. I was already more committed to a broadly Buddhist conception of self-reliance and self-mastery than to the drug-fuelled psychedelic pre-millenial revolution of the ‘90s. The Buddha advocated meditation in pursuit of Enlightenment and explicitly ruled out the use of intoxicants for his followers. As part of their vows, Buddhists must refrain from partaking in “the wine of delusion”. In this, he departed from the older schools of Indian mysticism, where soma, the mysterious “food of the gods”, and the widespread use of charis, marijuana and hashish, were central to the mystical visions of Saddhus and Brahmins.
I decided that if it could be done without drugs, it should be. Drugs had their obvious disadvantages, not least of which was the very real danger of going permanently mad. I knew that “set and setting” (a positive mind-set and safe environment) were of fundamental importance in negotiating psychedelic experiences, but even then, drugs were probably too hazardous over the long term.
Also, it was cheating. If I couldn’t sustain the enlightened awareness once the effects of the drug had worn off, it was because I was so far from the real enlightened state when I was sober, that I just pinged back to my habitual deluded state like a rubber band. I was haunted by the refrain “Was that trip really necessary?” It could only make me more dissatisfied with myself and so more dependent on drugs. There was the potential for psychological and maybe even physical addiction. And I could easily get distracted from genuine satori by who knows what phantasmagoria of makyo. Who knows if I would ever find my way out of the countless rabbit holes I might get lost in?
I’m sure that lots of people must have “heavenly” experiences similar to mine. Perhaps they are content to treat them as just a “good trip”, another notch on the psychedelic bedpost. Most people, I imagine, remember these “spots of time”, these partings of the veil of reality, with fondness, like a beautiful remembered dream. I couldn’t do that, though. I couldn’t just file it away as nothing but a happy memory! It wasn’t just a memory, because it wasn’t just an experience. It was conclusive evidence and incontrovertible proof that reality was not this collective dream we think of as real.
This was precisely the Buddha’s claim. Our ordinary waking consciousness is unreal, a delusion. We must wake up to how things really are. Waking up from the dream of false consciousness is satori, Enlightenment. And my “Isis trip” was confirmation of the objective truth of the Buddha’s claim.
From the Buddhist point of view, there is a spectrum of reality, with hell at one end and heaven at the other. The midpoint between them, the realm of Earth, is not really “reality”, flanked on both sides by two unrealities, one pleasant, one unpleasant. This would be the conventional, rational view. For hard-headed rationalists, heaven is just as much a deluded state as hell is. No, Earth is just one point along a spectrum of consciousness that finds its apotheosis in Enlightenment. In other words, our normal waking consciousness is not absolutely real, it is just half-way real.
I decided not to go down the psychedelic route to Enlightenment. I also decided not to go down the monastic route, although I did think about it a lot. At one point I came seriously close to becoming a postulant at a Zen monastery, because I despaired of ever getting enlightened in the “real world”. I soon realised that my state of consciousness was so intimately related to that of everyone else, that it was almost impossible to maintain any other state in the midst of ordinary life.
I remember one occasion very clearly. I was meditating upstairs in my room one evening in a shared house in Greenwich. I managed to break through to a beautiful, heightened state of awareness, where my mind stopped, and I became intensely aware of even the subtlest movement of my body, and of everything around me. The way I intentionally closed the curtains will remain with me for the rest of my life.
When I was called down for supper, I immediately saw that my friends were on a completely different wavelength. I knew they would be, of course, but I wanted to test my altered state to see if it could survive the social onslaught. I could see layer upon layer of delusion as they merrily chatted away, and I merrily, but knowingly, joined them. After maybe half an hour at the most, my lucid awareness was gone. My delusion and theirs was one seamless delusion. And it wasn’t just because of the wine.
I realised that because everyone I knew, and everyone I met, family, friends, even casual acquaintances and strangers, were in the same ordinary rational state of consciousness, I was automatically pulled into it whenever I had any dealings with anyone. It seemed that the only way to live in this deluded world was to be deluded myself. Now I understood the powerful draw of the anchorite’s cell and the monastery cloisters. It was the only way to escape the “world trance”.
Was it possible to be “in the world but not of the world”? This was the challenge. Could I minimise social influences and social contact at the same time as leading an ordinary life, while also making time for meditation and spiritual practice? I tried Buddhism; I tried Qi Gong; I tried the Fourth Way. I joined the School of Economic Science, which offered “Good Company” and “the Householder’s Way”. This seemed to offer the answer to my dilemma. But in the end, after only three years, I decided to leave, when I discovered the miraculous Amazonian brew, ayahuasca.
Ayahuasca turned me on to the power of the imagination and the power of the body. It’s all about visions and energy. This was a world away from the reified mansions of philosophy and meditation. I saw (or rather, was shown) how philosophical detachment and transcendental meditation can be as much of an obstacle to the spirit as the ordinary distractions of the world. Ayahuasca is a great teacher. It teaches with compassion but with great force. It is “the vine of the dead”, but it teaches life. It doesn’t teach an escape from the world, but full immersion in it. It’s all about life. Life is spirit and spirit is life, and the energy and consciousness which runs the whole show is what we call love.
It also reveals the dark side, the “sickness unto death”, and, of course, the snakes. In my first purge (the violent vomiting which often accompanies the experience), I saw dozens of thick, black, writhing snakes come out of my mouth and disappear into the ground. It felt like an exorcism. I emerged from the experience refreshed, energised, lightened, relaxed and happy. What a medicine!
The ayahuasca experience is the subject for another book. Research into its effects is still in its infancy, and, as with LSD and Ecstasy, once the utopian hysteria has died down, we discover that it is not, in fact, the cure for all our ills. This is because, unlike the prescription drugs of the pharmacological industry, which purport to chemically straighten out our twisted minds without any effort on our part, it all depends on us.
Ayahuasca, and psychedelics in general, require active participation. They offer insight and healing, but only through conscious dialogue, through conscious relationship.
Taking ayahuasca is a sacred act, which must be taken in a sacred setting, since it opens the channels between human consciousness and … and what exactly? Plant Consciousness? Gaia Consciousness? Higher Consciousness? God? At the end of the day, these are just words. The essential nature of spiritual experience will always remain a mystery.
Psychedelics, of which DMT (the active ingredient in the ayahuasca brew) is just one, are no substitute for spiritual practice. They are powerful aids to meditation, visualisation, somatic energetics, emotional catharsis, deep psychotherapy, etc. etc., but they must be approached with the utmost care and respect. As soon as use turns into abuse, all the good work is lost. And they are not for everyone.
3. The Gateless Gate
An Enlightenment experience is called satori in Japanese. It is impossible to convey the content of this experience to someone who hasn’t had a taste of it themselves. It is ineffable. This is why Zen Masters don’t waste time discussing or debating the content or meaning of Enlightenment. If you asked a Zen Master, “what is Enlightenment?” he (or she) would probably just show you the best posture for zazen (sitting meditation). Words are pointless. Only direct, personal experience can answer the question.
Why? Because satori is not just one experience among others. It is an “ASC”, an altered (or alternative) state of consciousness. Any description of it, if addressed to an “OSC”, an ordinary state of consciousness, will automatically be translated into terms that make sense within the ordinary frame of reference. Alternatively, if the ordinary mind can’t make sense of it, it just won’t make sense!
Zen Masters are renowned for their bizarre and paradoxical utterances and behaviour. They make no concession to the state of consciousness of their students, in order that they might be jolted into kensho (a brief glimpse of Reality) or full-blown satori. The only way to make sense of the Master’s strange words and actions is to meet them in the same state of consciousness. Thus the famous koans of the Rinzai School encourage trainees to break through habitual thinking by frustrating all the possible solutions offered by the OSC.
Satori is ineffable. It is also “nondual” and “egoless”. These terms point to two further aspects of satori, which are themselves essentially ineffable. Let’s take the first one first: “nonduality”. On the face of it, this seems a rather straightforward and unproblematic concept. If there is no duality, there must be unity: “All is One”. But what exactly does this mean? It is easy to say, and perhaps even easy to understand on an intellectual level. But what would the actual experience be like? How would it differ from our ordinary way of seeing things?
Clearly, if there is no duality, then there must also be no distinction between “self” and “other”, which accounts for the condition of anatta, “no ego”. This also makes perfectly rational sense.
But again, understanding this conceptually brings us no closer to the actual experience, which the OSC can only imagine, not experience.
The day after my own Enlightenment experience, everything was back to normal. It was overcast. And I was back in duality. Depressed at my inability to recreate the awareness of the day before, I went back to the riverside clutching a copy of Meister Eckhart’s writings for good measure. I sat and gazed at the water. I meditated cross-legged on a rock. I read a few choice passages from the book. I meditated some more. Nothing. No magic. No parting of the veil of reality. The ducks seemed to be laughing at me. Meister Eckhart seemed abstract, pretentious, boring.
I found myself on the horns of a classic dilemma. Yesterday I was “Enlightened”, but today I was “Deluded”. I knew that I could create all sorts of stories, theories and ideas about yesterday. I could immortalize it in poetry, philosophize about it, mythologize it, even write a book about it. But the more special I made it, the less special my present reality seemed. The more attached I was to my enlightenment yesterday, the further it receded from the light of today. Only a few hours ago, and it was already lost in the mists of legend.
The day before, I remembered thinking, “this is nothing special”. I knew that if I made it into something special, it wouldn’t be real for me any more, because my OSC would be “nothing special” and therefore real. I would slip straight back into deluded thinking. But in the ASC, which I knew was really “nothing special”, I also knew that I was experiencing reality for the first time in my life, and that what I had previously taken to be reality was just a dream in comparison. So it was kinda special!
Yesterday, my so-called ASC (by rights, it should be the OSC) seemed completely natural, totally real and perfectly ordinary. Now, however, looking back on it with my ordinary mind, it seemed a million miles away, another world, another reality, like Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland or C.S. Lewis’ Narnia. And there was absolutely nothing I could do about it. I felt as though I had been banished from Eden.
I knew that if I went to a Zen Master to tell him (or her) all about it and seek confirmation of my Enlightenment experience, he (or she) would just point at my empty hands and say, “Where is your Enlightenment now? Show me your Enlightenment now!” I would have to muster all my resolve to resist the temptation to tell him (or her) to eff off. But in my heart I would know that it was true: the more I obsessed over the past, even if it was a completely genuine Enlightenment experience, the less I was able to be in the present moment, and so the further I was from Enlightenment now. I was just dreaming about a time when I was awake, which, precisely because it was such a lovely dream, made it all the harder to wake up now!
I understood then the intractable problem of dualistic religion. The duality creates a great chasm between the “sacred” and the “profane”, keeping us firmly and eternally on the profane side, with God and his angels eternally and sacredly cavorting on the other. We can establish some kind of communication across the chasm, through supplication and prayer, and catch occasional glimpses of divinity, but essentially we belong here, in the “real world”, the “fallen world”.
If we didn’t make any distinction between the two worlds, the world of “enlightenment” and the world of “delusion”, we could have no way of knowing that there was another, deeper reality. There’s no way round it. Shakyamuni Buddha taught his disciples about “Enlightenment” and Jesus taught his disciples about the “Kingdom of God” as a way of pointing to a radically different way of experiencing the world. Were they talking about the same thing? Were they talking about what I’m talking about? It sounds like it to me, but who knows?
Whatever they did mean, or might have meant, the same problem rears its paradoxical head. The more “other” the other reality they point to, the more separate and inaccessible it seems, but the less “other”, the less visible and clearly distinct it is, and the more likely it is to get subsumed into our ordinary awareness, co-opted, appropriated and colonized by the OSC.
If the nondual view is the true, enlightened, view, and the dualistic view is simply wrong and deluded, then not only is dualistic religion wrong and deluded, but the very duality between delusion and enlightenment must be wrong and deluded.
The term “nonduality” is itself dualistic, because it defines itself in opposition to “duality” (although nondualists attempt to avoid this inherent contradiction by doing away with the hyphen).
There clearly is a difference between delusion and enlightenment, so duality must be true. Yet if from the enlightened perspective there is no difference, then nonduality must be true. If we assume that enlightenment represents the true version of reality, nonduality trumps duality. But almost everyone, almost all of the time, lives in a non-enlightened state, so put to a vote, duality trumps nonduality. Even if it seems as if there is no difference between delusion and enlightenment when you’re enlightened, we know that actually, of course there is really. How can we resolve this conundrum? Or are we just putting hair on the tortoise and a tail on the hare?
There is a third option: scientific materialism, which dismisses the whole crazy debate by pointing out that there clearly is no such thing as “Enlightenment” or “Kingdom of God”, and therefore neither duality nor nonduality. They are just figments of a febrile imagination. Any ASC is just an altered state, a chemical imbalance, an aberration and a deviation from the objective empirical evidence of the OSC, which is as real as we’ll ever get. Common sense and majority opinion carry the day. There is no “other world” and there certainly are no “other worlds”. There is only this world, which you would do well to cleave to as closely as possible, if you want to avoid losing your grip on reality and on your marbles. Oh yes, and massacring millions of innocent people because they don’t happen to agree with your particular brand of imaginary god and heaven.
Scientific materialists like to think that they are the enlightened ones. They are, after all, heirs of the European Enlightenment, which conclusively and comprehensively blew away the mists and cobwebs of medieval mysticism, scholasticism and superstition. Now we are all atheists, apart from a few irrational “Flat Earthers”, because we believe in Reason, not God.
Does the arrow of progress necessarily point unambiguously from “Faith” to “Reason”? Is materialism really an advance in the cultural, moral and spiritual evolution of humanity? The people that Jesus and Buddha addressed must have held a variety of beliefs and opinions, but the majority were probably scientific materialists. In other words, they were only interested in “this world”. Why else would Jesus and Buddha exhort them to look for the “other world”?
The early shamans, who pre-dated organized religion by centuries if not millennia, taught that there was more to life than scientific materialism. They taught people techniques and practices designed to transcend the brute fact of materiality and access higher states of awareness. Shamans, prophets, philosophers, gurus throughout the ages, Moses, Socrates, Lao Tzu, Buddha, Shankara, Jesus, Mohammed, all pointed to a deeper and greater life than the ordinary one given to us in the OSC. They taught a radical duality and nonduality which promised emancipation from the dreary round of materialism.
Dualism presents its own problems, but monism is really a regression to a more primitive state of being, not a sign of progress. The great majority of people, the silent majority, have always been scientific materialists, since the earliest dawn of humanity. It’s just that their science was so bad. Just because science has improved does not necessarily mean that scientific materialism, as a belief system, is right. Just because we know more about “this world” does not mean that there is therefore no “other world”. It marks an advance in scientific understanding, but not an advance in religious understanding. Reason does not supplant faith. It supplants reason.
Science has certainly progressed enormously, particularly over the past few centuries, for which we should be extremely grateful, but so has religion. The understanding of dualists and nondualists is far greater and far more sophisticated now than it ever was in the past. Of course there are ignorant dualists and stupid dualists today, as there always have been, and there are ignorant and stupid monists (it’s harder to find stupid nondualists but I’m sure they’re out there somewhere). If you must compare, you should compare like with like.
Throughout history, there have been those that have heeded the call of the shamans, prophets and priests and have embarked on their own journey to “the other shore”, and there are those, the majority, who haven’t. Atheism and monism are nothing new. In a sense, they are the default position of an unreflective humanity. The modern myth that scientific materialism is a historical advance on religion has things precisely backwards. Human spiritual progress does not proceed from dualism to monism. It progresses from monism to dualism to nonduality.
Scientific materialism is not an option. So we are back with the seemingly intractable puzzle: duality or nonduality. Which shall it be? Or could it be both?
Yesterday, I somehow passed into another reality far more real than my ordinary, everyday reality. I passed through a “portal of God”, or what the Zen tradition calls “the gateless gate”. But today I found myself back on the outside again. From the outside, there is clearly a gate between this world and that world, which needs to be unlocked and opened and passed through in order to get from here to there. There is duality. But yesterday, on the other side, there was no gate.
Once through the gateless gate, I had turned to look behind me and had seen nothing but a vast, unobstructed view in all directions. No gate to be seen. No division whatsoever. Everything was included in the great nondual sweep of my vision, as if the gate I had passed through had vanished into thin air, as if it had never existed. Today, however, not just a gate, but a portcullis, a moat, a thorny forest and miles and miles of dark and treacherous boggy terrain seemed to separate me from this blessed vision of effortless unity.
Meister Eckhart said, “The eye with which you see God is the same as that with which He sees you.” Is this not another way of saying the same thing? The eye with which you see God is the “gateless gate”. From the dualistic point of view, there is a “gate” between “you” and “God”. And “strait is the gate”. Only the most determined can pass through. Looking back from the other side, however, you are no longer seeing with your own eyes, but with “the eye of God”.
Looking back at yourself, it is God that sees you. Looking back at the world, it is God that sees the world.
The eye is the same eye, but it is, as it were, a reversible eye, or a reversible lens. Looking up at Heaven from Earth as though through a telescope, you perceive a duality between Heaven and Earth, God and yourself. Looking back through the telescope from Heaven to Earth there is no duality, no separation, no boundary. All things are seen as part of One Existence. From this side, there is an eye. From the other side, there is no eye. There is only seeing.