Thursday, December 27, 2007

Read, Think, Marvel

By now, it’s no secret that when I was in my late teens and early twenties, I dabbled with expanding my mind through the use of illegal substances. Being the control freak that I am (oh, wait a minute, I’m not), this experimentation was accompanied by long lists of rules and regulations I’d created. I was, after all, a psychology major. On the weekends, like-minded friends and I may have been seeking out the special rooms in fraternity houses where we could get something more interesting than cheap beer from a keg tap or rot-gut punch from a metal trashcan. During the week, however, I was reading about how heroin addicts could o.d. if they took their normal “dose” in unfamiliar surroundings. Heroin terrified me, as did cocaine (because people told me once you were on it, you just wanted more, because you felt so good, you never wanted to come down), and LSD (because some guys in one of my psych courses decided to do an oral presentation on their one-time experiment with LSD, which had been fine for them, but the other friend who’d joined them had had a horrific trip, freaking out and terrifying both of them). I was also reading about the difference between drug experimentation and addiction. I wanted to make sure I stayed in the former camp.

So, LSD, cocaine, and heroin were out. However, marijuana, mushrooms, and ecstasy were all okay. If you really must know, these were my stupid rationalizations: marijuana and mushrooms were natural – as if hemlock isn’t. Ecstasy had been a “feel-good” drug prescribed by psychiatrists and had only recently (at that time anyway) become an illegal substance – as if popping illegal Prozac, should it one day be taken off the prescription-drug market would be far safer than licking a tab of acid.

Sometime during this period, I discovered Andrew Weil. Before Weil became the nutrition god he is today, he’d co-authored From Chocolate to Morphine, every druggie’s Bible, and had written other books like The Natural Mind and Marriage of Sun and Moon: Dispatches from the Frontiers of Consciousness. I read these books and was particularly interested in the latter two. Weil had a theory that all humans have an innate need to alter consciousness (manifested, according to him, by watching how even very young children will spin themselves around until they’re dizzy and disoriented). He claimed that many of us turn to drugs as a quick and easy way to accomplish these different states of mind but that the pure route is through meditation, which if one is patient, can lead to the highest form of altered consciousness: an out-of-body experience.

I read all this and thought, “True. True. We all need to experience different states of mind. Reading is probably a way of doing that. I bet that’s why amusement park rides are so popular. Meditation is so hard, though. Someone pass me a joint, please.” Even so, I was fascinated and read quite a lot about meditation after that, never forgetting Weil’s theories. I decided to give up all illegal drugs before I was thirty. I can’t possibly condemn anyone who chooses this easy route to other states of mind, especially since I’m still known to alter my consciousness with caffeine, sugar, alcohol, and an occasional prescription sleep aid (although I’m so terrified of the possibility of becoming addicted to them and never again being able to sleep without them, as well as what they might be doing to my brain, that they’ve actually been known to make my insomnia worse, not better). I just found that this easy route no longer satisfied me, and the other long-term repercussions for my health and brain were worrisome. (Obviously, I was getting older.)

Then, a few years ago, I read a book called They Speak with Other Tongues by John L. Sherrill. John was an Episcopalian when he wrote that book (sometime in the fifties, I think. I don’t know anything about him and don’t know if he’s still an Episcopalian, or even if he's still alive, although I’ve discovered this book, that I had a hell of a time finding when I read it, having to wait ages for an inter-library loan from some obscure seminary, has now been reprinted). He didn’t believe in the notion of being overtaken by the Holy Spirit, and he set out to prove that the Pentecostals and others who claimed to speak in tongues were faking it. By the end of his period of research, he was having “spiritual possessions” of his own, if you will. He wasn’t exactly converted to Pentecostalism, but he was definitely converted to a belief in a spiritual possession. I’ve wanted, ever since, to attend a Pentecostal church, but I never have.

You see, I long for this sort of episode. I want a mind-altering experience that brings me out of my body, and I don’t want to take any drugs to get there. I believe in the power of the mind. I believe the statistic that we only use 10% of our brains. There must be so much more this powerful, powerful machine of ours can do. Why shouldn’t it be able to provide us with such experiences if we only allow it to do so?

For years, though, I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I’m just not one of those people, for whatever reason, who can do it (just like I’m not one of those people who can successfully play any team sport that involves a ball). I don’t know why this is, but when I think about it, I explain to myself and others that I’m just not a “feely” sort of person, and that this is something that seems to come easily to “feely” sorts of people, but not to those of us who are “thinking” sorts, you know, those of us who are probably better known as skeptics.

I can’t quiet my brain. I feel ridiculous when I try. Believe me, you don’t want to be inside my head during one of those periods when I decide, yet again, I’m going to try to learn to meditate. My brain resembles a television set with 500 channels perched in front of a classroom full of A.D.H.D. kids, each holding individual remote controls. I’ve had discussions with many friends of mine in which we’ve admitted that when it comes to our faith, we’re not the types who ever feel overcome by the Holy Spirit, are truly skeptical when we hear others talk this way.

So, then I read Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, a book I avoided forever for two reasons: 1. I didn’t like Gilbert’s Stern Men when I tried to read it a few years ago and 2. The title was a real turn-off (I’m such a WASP at heart. Despite being married to a minister, I cringe at anything that so blatantly announces some sort of religious belief). However, I’d read rave reviews of it out here in the blogosphere, as well as had it recommended to me by other friends, so I suggested we read it for our book discussion group at work.

Suddenly, halfway through the book in the Indian ashram with Gilbert, I was beginning to feel I could no longer claim I’m not the sort of person who can have spiritual experiences. Gilbert’s mind seems to work just like mine. She thinks too much. She dwells on her short-comings and failures. She blames herself for things that aren’t her fault. I’ve never heard anyone voice so well my own thoughts about why I never really wanted to have children. And yet, here she was, disbelieving as much as I do and suddenly finding herself in true meditative states. To say I’m jealous is to say India is a slightly impoverished country. If you were to picture me wondering if there are any Indian gurus in rural Pennsylvania and whether or not Bob ought to take his first study leave from church at an ashram and take me along, you wouldn’t be too far off the mark.

But then something really eerie happened. I found myself thinking about Eugene Callender. The Rev. Dr. Eugene Callender was, so to speak, a spiritual guru of Bob’s. When Bob was in seminary, he met and worked with “Rev,” as we all call him, in Harlem. We were extremely honored to have him preach the sermon at Bob’s ordination service. Rev grew up a Pentecostal, who did fake it when he began speaking in tongues as a boy. That is, he faked it until suddenly, one day, he woke up from a trance-like state and didn’t remember what had happened. He went on to attend seminary and to become an ordained Presbyterian minister, despite his parents' wishes that he become a doctor. He was a Civil Rights leader, a friend to both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. He worked with people like Mario Cuomo, and he helped found The Harlem Academies, schools that have since closed, but that were supported by businesses and that helped pave the way for many Harlem youth, getting them off the streets and allowing them to become successful themselves. Rev’s one of the most well-rounded people I’ve ever met, able to engage you in an extremely exciting intellectual debate while emanating love and an inner peace that are magical. And he’s a magnificent storyteller.

I was thinking about Rev’s Pentecostal roots and how he later discovered meditation. He followed a guru to India, and meditation is now a part of who he is. I was observing how there must be a link between that Pentecostal upbringing and the ashram he visits in India. He’s one of those people who has the kind of brain I wish I had: a perfect combination of both thinking and feeling.

So, I’m busy thinking about meditation and Elizabeth Gilbert and how maybe I’m like her and how maybe an out-of-body experience isn’t beyond my reach after all. I’m also thinking about the Rev and how we ought to call him and see how he’s doing (see? You don’t need any more proof than this to understand why quieting my mind is so difficult), when I get to Gilbert’s description of “Swamji,” her guru’s master and what he was like. I was happy to see her compare him to St. Francis of Assissi, one of Bob’s and my spiritual heroes. Then I read a little further and came to this:

He [Swamji] came to America in 1970 and blew everybody’s mind. He gave divine
initiation – shaktipat – to hundreds and thousands of people a day. He
had a power that was immediate and transformative. The Reverend Eugene Callender
(a respected Civil Rights leader, a colleague of Martin Luther King, Jr. and
still the pastor of a Baptist* church in Harlem) remembers meeting Swamji in the
1970s and dropping on his knees before the Indian man in amazement and thinking
to himself, “There’s no time for shuckin’ and jivin’ now, this is it…this man
knows everything there is to know about you.” (Gilbert, Elizabeth.; Eat,
Pray, Love
; New York: Viking., 2006, p.165-66)

My favorite passage in the Bible is “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). It’s times like these when I feel my unbelief being helped. Now, to book a trip to India…

*He was actually at St. James Presbyterian Church in Harlem at the time this book was written (a mistake that didn’t get past this editor).


Yogamum said...

What a great post!

Jealousy was my major feeling when I read of Gilbert's travels as well. If she wasn't such a great writer, I might have to hate her ;-)

I found your discussion of drugs and ecstatic experiences to be very interesting. I've always thought they were beyond me & my analytic brain as well. Might have to rethink that.

Amanda said...

Interesting post Emily- I also think its human nature to want to alter consciousness. It's foolish that some ways of doing this like alcohol are legal and others not. For better to legalize everything, get rid of the criminal element, and then regulate and tax it (in my view)

I just read VS Ramachandran and Sandra Blakeslee "Phantoms in the Brain" which had a very interesting chapter on religious experience and the part of the brain they are experienced with. It's quite clear some people have it and some don't. Those who do have it to a high degree are also more prone to epilepsy. Ramachandran is quite careful to say that doesn't negate ecstatic religious experience but it does explain why some people have them and others don't.

I wasn't that taken with Eat, Pray, Love. I thought it started well - thoughtful, profound in parts and still entertaining and she is a good writer- but I felt by the time it got to her Bali phase she wasn't really on a spiritual quest anymore but was just looking for material to pad out the rest of the book.

I think my reading of her ashram experiences was also slightly coloured by recently having read "my childhood in orange" which is about a boy growing up utterly neglected while his mother pursues enlightenment under a corrupt guru- possibly the one Gilbert feels such a connection with so I found her accounts of mystical experience incorporating him alienating.

Charlotte said...

Beautiful post, Emily. I love the way you brought all the different threads together.

Like Yogamum I was pretty envious of Gilbert's having the time, freedom, finances to go to India for months to be part of an ashram. However, what comes across so strongly is what a struggle it was for her to learn to still her mind. Not an easy process.

I was lucky enough to learn meditation from my grandmother as a child, so am able to slip into a deep meditative state very easily. However, it's having the time, the inclination, the energy to choose to do it that I struggle with.

Emily Barton said...

Yogamum, yes, to think she got paid to do that and that now she's a best-selling author. Life is so unfair.

Ms. Make Tea, hmmm...did Blakeslee present any theories as to why some might have that in their brains while others don't? I'd pursue two tracks if I were studying such a phenomenon: is it evolutionary? Is it something humans USED to have for some reason that some still do while others have lost it? Or, is it more like a muscle: use it and it develops. Don't use it, and it shrivels up (might still be there, just very hard to find). I agree with you that the Bali phase was the weakest. I kept thinking how different the book would have been had things turned out differently in Bali, and I was a bit annoyed with her, kept thinking to myself, "No, no, no. DON'T pursue a man. Prove to yourself once and for all that you don't need a man to be happy." She might say she already had, but I say, a few months without a man doesn't prove anything. "My childhood in Orange" sounds interesting, too. I guess it just goes to show that a parent who is going to abuse a child through neglect can do so in any number of ways whether it's pursuing the top rung on the corporate ladder, a lover, or spiritual enlightenment.

Oh yes, and one more thing, I agree with you about legalizing drugs. Alochol, after all, is one of the most dangerous, and yet it's perfectly legal (of course, maybe one of the reasons it's so dangerous is because it IS legal).

Charlotte, yes it was a struggle for her, which is why I could so sympathize. It was also a lot of work (maybe one of my problems is that I'm not really keen on putting in all that effort?). Lucky you having been taught how to meditate at a young age. Is that something you're passing onto your children?

litlove said...

I was interested to hear you mention Andrew Weil, who in my UK-based way I know only through his work with meditation. I, too have such a loud and busy brain that altering it sounds like a fabulous idea, but I've always been terrified of any drugs (even painkillers) in case they make things worse rather than better. So it's been the meditation route for me, and whilst I'm still struggling along it, I do think it's full of potential for serenity and calm, no matter how frantic one's mind is. Once I'd become accustomed to the idea that it's not about shutting it up, but about exploring a little distance between me and my thoughts, then it all fell into place a little. Great post, Emily!

Emily Barton said...

Litlove, you're absolutely right about the serenity and calm. I think that's the number one reason I'm so fascinated by meditation. I will keep in mind as I pursue this path myself that I must stop telling my brain to "shut up."

Rebecca H. said...

I enjoyed reading John Horgan's book Rational Mysticism on this subject a while back -- he talks quite a bit about mind-altering drugs, as well as other forms of consciousness-changing. After my experiences at a Pentacostal church, it was a relief to leave it and no longer deal with the speaking in tongues and the ecstatic states, but, like you, I'm more interested in the whole subject now (broadly speaking -- not just Pentacostal churches).

Amanda said...

I don't think Ramachandran had an explanation of why some people are more susceptible to religious experience- he was just reporting it as an observable localised brain function present in some people

I was just reading about the neuropsychology of religious experience which you may find interesting

My reading of it is that meditation can take people to that place though some people are more susceptible than others and a lot will depend on context.

Emily Barton said...

Dorr, I must read Rational Mysticism.

Ms. Make Tea, thanks for the link! Such fascinating stuff.

mandarine said...

I can't stop my brain either. Even when I try to switch to stand-by mode, all I can do is revolve full speed around a narrow subject -- this generally results in violent ejection from centrifugal force.

In terms of mind-altering experience, the closest I've been to an ecstatic transe was playing the flute in an orchestra or singing in a choir. I remember singing in Prague's St Vitus Cathedral with three thousand 'pilgrims' from all over Europe and thinking that if I were God, I'd consider that as a pretty convincing manifestation.

Emily Barton said...

Mandarine, that sounds like a fabulous experience. I bet your mind managed to slow down at least to get a passing glimpse while you were there. Oh, and rocket scientist, brilliant thinker, brilliant writer, gardner, baker, AND a floutist? Is there no limit to what you can do?

mandarine said...

I have not played the flute for fifteen years now. Maybe I'll get around to playing during service here (every third Sunday in the month), but the handful of elderly singers are so badly out of tune it would take a philharmonia to get them back on the right track.

Oh, and I can't dance. At all. And I have stopped trying.

mandarine said...

Just to give you a rough idea of what it was like in Prague, I have found this. Too bad the composer, Jacques Berthier, died in 1994.

Emily Barton said...

Mandarine, lovely! Oh, and I am very glad to know you can't dance; thus, there is one thing you can't do, although, don't forget the old African saying, "If you can talk, you can sing; if you can walk, you can dance." I don't believe a word of it. I can neither sing nor dance (although I still attempt to do both all the time).