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).