Suffering, psychedelia and the illusion of ‘I’
As an habitual fantasist and clinical obsessive, my tolerance for boredom is pitifully poor. My desire for entertainment: urgent and ever-present. When Instagram’s a flutter of hearts. When the first wave of tipsy hits. When WhatsApp’s pinging like popping candy. These are the sweet things I crave.
And when I can’t have them, I chase moments and feelings in my mind, over great distances, spending large parts of days and nights in imagination – conversations, memories, arguments, embraces – always striding towards some longed-for state, some glory, some passion, some moment of heroism. As a Buddhist teacher will later put it, I am dreaming myself into existence.
Recently I haven’t been able to shake the creeping feeling that to live and to think like this, to put myself so fully at the mercy of external conditions, is making me vulnerable in some deeper, longer-term way. Because external conditions can’t always be controlled: fun fades, entertainments come and go. Then what? What’s left of ‘me’ when everything that occupies me, moment to moment, day to day, is stripped away? What’s there?
This summer I decided to find out.
“This is the path to ‘nirvana’, to ultimate freedom, to the highest peace,” the teacher says. “The word ‘nirvana’ comes from the Sanskrit for ‘cooled’ – the calming down or quenching of the hot brain; the dousing of the illusion that there is a consistent self that’s thinking our thoughts. Maybe you know that hot brain feeling? When your mind is so busy it seems to simmer with restless energy…”
I’m nodding as the teacher speaks. I’m on a nine-day silent mindfulness meditation course in California. This means no talking, no internet, no phonecalls, no TV, no reading, no alcohol, no drugs, no sex, no writing. No distractions or entertainment of any kind. Just me and my hot brain.
I expect it to be hideous. I expect drudgery, start to finish. I expect to fail spectacularly. I do not expect to experience even slightest glimpse of nirvana, and I certainly do not expect to have, without having taken any drug or substance, the most physically and emotionally intense psychedelic episode of my life.
The first day is the worst day.
I flew out to San Francisco a few days ago for the International OCD Conference, and ended up having a serendipitously wonderful week exploring the city and making new friends. I want my thoughts to linger there. Not here.
I’m waiting in the canteen for everyone to arrive, having the kind of thoughts that a teacher will later describe as ‘unwholesome’. They go like: ‘Why’s everyone queuing up like chumps?’, ‘what’s with all the Crocs?’, ‘no fit men’.
Soon, but too late, the reason for the queuing becomes clear: everyone’s choosing the housekeeping task they’ll be doing for one hour every day. The last-comer, I slope up to the table to peruse the remaining jobs, which invariably involve some form of de-goo-ing or de-scum-ing.
I am assigned decanting. This, I discover when I ask, means pouring ingredients like honey and oil and flour from big containers into smaller containers. Sometimes with funnels. Decanting, I reflect, as I walk away from the table, is not within my skill set. At home I regularly have wobbling jars and bottles wrestled from me to cries of ‘give it here’, as messy things ooze and scatter and plume. No. Decanting is not my forte. But decant I shall, mindfully. For nine. Fucking. Days.
So why did I choose this course? Because it’s a globally respected meditation centre, which has been recommended by many serious thinkers that I respect. And because as a non-believer, who’s uninspired by superstition, I wanted a secular practice, and this one’s open to everyone, regardless of faith or lack thereof.
On the whole, aside from one mention of chakras and a passing allusion to homeopathy, the practice never deviates from the rational, methodical work I came here to learn.
We will be practicing mindfulness: the judgement-free awareness of what’s going on in your body, mind and environment, from moment to moment. When you notice you’ve been lost in thought, you return your awareness to your body, to your breath, to surrounding sounds, and begin again. If you find you’re getting lost in thought repeatedly, you can try silently using phrases that refocus your attention: ‘sit and know you’re sitting,’ ‘hear and know you’re hearing’, etc. It’s both beautifully simple and excruciatingly difficult.
We’re told that we’ll ‘click down through layers of alignment’, achieving deeper and deeper insight as we practice. I cannot imagine what these clicks and insights will feel like, until they happen, a few days in, and blow my mind.
This is the daily schedule:
5.45 Wake up
7.45 Walk meditation/work period
8.45 Sit with instructions
9.45 Walk meditation
11.00 Walk meditation or mindful movement
13.15 Walk meditation/work period
15.15 Walk meditation/work period or rest 16.00 Guided meditation
16.45 Walk meditation
17.15 Evening meal
19.15 Walk meditation
19.30 Dharma talk
20.30 Walk meditation
21.30 Sleep or further practice
For the first two days (around 16 hours’ mediation) I feel miserable; a common phenomenon for mindfulness newcomers, and one compounded by my obsessiveness. For me, a thought is rarely thought once, twice or even ten times, but thousands of times. And many are noxious – vestiges of a decade of intrusive sexual mental images that were a symptom of acute OCD, and that still bring a lump to my throat.
During the first few sits I have to begin again near constantly. ‘Sit and know you’re sitting’, I remind myself as I try to develop my body awareness. ‘Sit and know you’re sitting.’
Some thoughts are benign, like the persistent ones about hard boiled eggs (which are available in the kitchen for snacking and of which I have taken full advantage). Soon, I find a neurotic wiring has linked the words ‘egg’ and ‘fucking’, and my mind cannot separate them. Language whirls in my head: ‘I can’t wait to eat that fucking egg’, ‘should have got another fucking egg’, ‘what I wouldn’t give for a fucking egg.’
On day two, in an attempt to focus, I go off-protocol and make up a mantra: ‘I am the huntsman, I am quiet and poised and still like the huntsman. I wait and I watch for thoughts. Like the huntsman spider, I wait for prey’. The metaphor implodes when taken to its logical conclusion: me stabbing my thoughts with my dagger-like fangs and immobilising them with digestive venom.
Eugh. Distractions. Fodder. Give me anything. Make me feel something. As we walk to and from the meditation hall I people-watch, and think maybe I’d been too hasty with my assessment of the menfolk. It seems there is a hot guy, clad in linen and hiking boots. Hanging from the back of his short hair there’s a solitary blonde dreadlock, so we’ll never work out. But can’t a girl can look and know she’s looking?
When you stop to listen, properly listen, your brain is shooting this kind of shite all of the time. Inanities, repeating and looping all the time, and I wonder how I will ever cut through. But I persevere. I keep beginning again, hundreds of times a day, bringing myself back to the unsettling void of my body and mind in the present moment. Because if a decade of mental illness has taught me anything, it’s patience.
During a one-to-one meeting with my teacher, I feel my voice catch in my throat when I tell her about my OCD, and how it dominated my adult life. She looks at me with a rare compassion and tells me to be kind to myself. And for the first time in a long time, I want to be. Be humbled by the power of habituation, she says. Be humbled by the power of your mind.
Later, with the sun turning orange behind the trees, I go to a hilltop to mediate. As I walk through the rushes and the junegrass, creatures scuttle and rustle all around. I reflect on the animals I’ve been so privileged to see so far: lizards, voles, dragonflies, hawks, hummingbirds, mice, wild turkeys, bunnies and deer… but my flow is interrupted by another thought, intrusive and highly visual: ‘what if you put all those animals in a giant blender the size of a house and…’ I wince, and let out a bark of a laugh.
One evening, during our nightly lectures, a teacher tells how, when asked to sum up Buddhism in a few words, Zen master Suzuki Roshi replied: “Everything changes”. I’m about to interject that while I *do* agree that Robbie Williams’ lead vocal on the said seminal record *did* mark a legendary turning point in the trajectory of Take That and the history of British pop, I fear the venerable master may have fallen prey to hyperbole; when the teacher adds a little context: “the transient, evanescent, impermanent nature of all things”. I see.
That night, as I leave the building, I look up to see exquisite pink clouds and sun rays filling the sky. A thought that has not crossed my mind since I was a teenager, crosses it: ‘what if this is a sign from God?’ In keeping with my practice, I notice the thought, observe it, let it be there, and it fades away into irrelevance, as thoughts tend to, if left unruffled.
I wonder if humanity’s many thousands of god myths, past and present, were dreamt into existence at the level of neurons like this – as thoughts which, because they felt right in single moments, and in the absence of any better explanations, were not left to fade, but attended to, stoked, buoyed; until, trillions of synaptic firings later, most the species holds one of many bitterly conflicting convictions, which could have come and gone as peacefully as passing objects of consciousness, or setting suns.
On day three, after 25-or-so hours’ meditation, I am experiencing intense anxiety. I am letting it be there, with no resistance, though it really does hurt.
Today, my mind is repeatedly recalling an Ajahn Chah quote that our teacher has shared: “There are two kinds of suffering: the suffering that leads to more suffering and the suffering that leads to the end of suffering. If you are not willing to face the second, you will surely continue to experience the first.” My cyclical brain has perpetuated its own suffering for too long – enough now. So I keep breathing, keep listening, keep feeling, without aversion. I do not run, as I did for a decade.
Then, in a single second that afternoon – a single click – wholly different from the one which went before, I start to feel things I’ve never felt in my life. Tingles in my feet, but not like pins and needles, or cramp, or any sensation with a name. I hold my attention on them and they immediately start to rise in waves up my legs. Suddenly, I also don’t seem to be controlling my breath – it’s breathing itself, every inhale drawing the tingles higher, through my torso and then into my head, as waves. Where just seconds ago there was fear, now there is a distinct feeling of radiating light.
The sensation builds with great sweeps of falling feelings, then floating feelings. The bell for the end of meditation rings, but it doesn’t occur to me to move. There are no thoughts in my mind. I notice I’m hearing footsteps. The heavier thuds are felt in my body as ripples. This is so new and so beyond language, it’s almost destabilising – if there were thoughts in my head they would ask ‘who am I?’ I am a treading a fine, exquisite line between rapture and panic and it’s very nearly overwhelming.
I don’t know how long later, I start to test the feeling. I move my leg and the waves roll deeper. Then I’m walking – who knows how slowly – and soon I find I’m in my bedroom, peeling an egg (obviously). My location and my posture and everything around me has changed, but my internal experience has remained continuous and unbroken, the intensity of the euphoria, constant and undimmed.
Now I’m holding onto the balcony railing of my dorm building with the waves still rolling. I’ve held balcony railings before, years ago, wanting to jump. How is this the same mind? Everything changes.
Thoughts come occasionally but they are way up high, above my head. One says, clear as crystal: “I want everyone I love to feel like this”, and I start to cry. Images of my family appear and disappear, as if projected from somewhere behind me. The feeling grows bigger with boundless, brink-of-blackout pleasure, as another thought comes: “I want everyone in the world to feel like this”.
Then, some time later, I’m lying on the floor of my room, with my arms and legs outstretched, where, as quickly as they came, in a single moment, the waves stop. I look at my watch: 90 minutes have passed. There’s broken eggshell everywhere.
Here are the drugs it was better than: weed, coke, mephedrone, diazepam, THC, ketamine, BZP… It was most like MDMA, if MDMA was taken in quiet, airy, sunlit temples, served on quilted buckwheat cushions, instead of snaffled from gusset-warm baggies in black strobing boxes underground.
My teacher tells me it was a bliss state: possible and exquisite, but not to be plumbed for meaning, or clung to, or strived for. “When the fruit is ripe it will fall from the tree”, she says. I see what she means. In the following few days I cannot help but strive to get back there, and can’t. The fruit’s not ready. The frustration is intolerable. I am knackered from the effort.
So, while all the king’s horses and all the king’s men try to put my brain back together again, I spend a couple of days doing some investigative work on my mind and body, and here’s what I discover:
Thoughts, which I’d always assumed happened somewhere vaguely ‘in my head’, actually happen very specifically behind my eyes (visual thoughts) and my mouth (language thoughts). They never happen higher than the middle of my forehead, or lower than my bottom lip.
Anxiety is a shifting set of tight sensations in my mouth, throat and chest, that I half visualise, half feel, as a longitudinal translucent mass, with distinct but flexible borders. I’ve spent half my life trying to avoid anxiety, as though it were an enormous storm that I couldn’t see the edges of. Now I know exactly where and how it lives and moves.
I’m aware of emotions only on the left side of my sternum. I’m unable, despite repeated attempts, to feel any emotion on the right of my body – it’s the dark side of the moon over there. The dividing line is so straight I could draw it. Perhaps this is because my emotion-perception is dependent on the building of internal visuals, which the analytical left hemisphere struggles to do on the right side of the body it oversees.
I started to dislike myself at exactly 10-years-old. I know this because when the teacher asks me to bring compassion to the image of myself as a toddler, child, adolescent, etc., I feel great tenderness until in the images I reach about 10, where’s there’s a physical blockage and the tenderness stops.
I am struck by these simple yet concrete realisations – baffled that they’d always been so readily accessible, yet I’d never thought to look.
After eight days, 70 hours of meditation, two split jars of honey, three billowing clouds of nutritional yeast, and innumerable chaotic oil slicks, it’s nearly the end of the course. I have come to terms with the never-to-be-repeatedness of my bliss state. I have stopped trying to get back there. The freedom of this relinquishment has made infused my practice with a relaxed, playful curiosity.
The teachers have been adding new layers and possibilities as the week has progressed, introducing us to more nuanced techniques. Many of these inspire ‘whoa’ moments, not least the insight from philosopher Wittgenstein, who, when writing about the language of the self, said that “‘I’ is a shadow cast by grammar.” By this he meant that one of the reasons we’re so tightly bound by our sense of self, is that our language is restrictive (try talking about yourself without using: ‘I’, ‘me’, ‘my’). On the last day of the course, the teachers encourage us to play with grammar and see if our sense of ‘I’ erodes.
In every moment, we’ve been told, there are two things happening: a mind object (a thought, sensation, sound, etc.) and your knowing of that object. When you notice yourself having a thought, we’ve been instructed, rather than saying in your head, ‘I am having a thought’, try saying, ‘a thought is being known’, and see what happens. For hours I see no results, until:
The second click. The next layer of alignment. Out of the blue, like the first.
It happens when I notice that I’m rerunning an imaginary argument with a colleague for the hundredth time, and for the hundredth time I whisper: ‘a thought is being known’.
Right then, I feel a sense of distance opening up between the thought and my awareness of the thought – a sudden creation of space and light between my thoughts and ‘me’. A giant wave of now-familiar tingles hits me and I physically quiver with the unmistakable sensation of something being let go.
Now, I see in practice something I’ve only ever known on a conceptual level, I really see it: I am not my thoughts. The thoughts that distract me. The thoughts that frustrate me. The thoughts that excite me. The thoughts that keep my phone in my palm. The thoughts that once made me harm myself. The thoughts that once made me want to die. There is consciousness and freedom beyond them, and right now, in the present moment, I am here.
Then, behind my eyes, a clear image appears: me, aged four, dressed in a green knitted jumper. Behind my mouth, words are being spoken to her, like a soothing hand on a feverish little forehead: “there is no need to be afraid”. And for the first time in my life, ‘I’, the knower, know it’s true.
That night, on the last candle-lit session, I hear the guy next to me breathing deep, trembling breaths, and sense that he’s falling to the place from which I’ve just returned. I send him on his way with the most hippie thought I’ve ever had: ‘Go, brother, go’, followed by another: ‘Fucking egg’.