A number of years ago I went through a long period of depression, and when I found myself coming out the other end of it, I developed an interest in “Eastern Philosophy.”
A friend loaned me a collection of tapes of TV broadcasts done by Alan Watts in the early 1960s. I had always known about Watts but had never bothered to read him. I went to school with a guy who was into Watts and, believe me, this was not a good recommendation. For years I just assumed Watts was a shallow popularizer. These TV shows changed my mind, however. Not only did Watts do an excellent job of presenting Taoism, Buddhism, and Hinduism (which I had studied before in a more formal setting) his lectures were often genuinely profound.
Soon I was reading Watts’s books, and going back to the original sources: the Tao Te Ching, Bhagavad-Gita, Upanishads, etc. Oh, and I mustn’t leave out Joseph Campbell. I was sure that these books held the key to all of my problems – the major one being my constant worrying, and also a feeling I can only describe as a sense of impending doom. I suppose this is what psychologists call “generalized anxiety.” I’m not exactly a Type B personality. Eastern Philosophy seemed like the answer for me.
Watts (or maybe it was Campbell) tells a story someplace about a young man who is admitted to a Shaolin temple and wants to learn how to fight. The master tells the student that he will attack him when he least expects it. The student therefore goes about his duties (sweeping the floor, washing bowls, etc.) in a constant state of rigid tension, constantly anticipating the master’s attacks. As a result, the master is always able to get the better of the student, because the student is so “wound up” he can’t respond quickly and flexibly enough. When the student finally realizes he is just not going to be able to anticipate the master’s moves he at last begins to relax. And to his surprise, he is suddenly better able to defend himself against the master.
There’s a great lesson in this story: if you can achieve a state of resignation in the face of the unpredictability of life, you will be better able to handle whatever life throws you. I longed to be able to achieve such a state. I longed for wu wei and for “no mind.” I longed to be the smiling Buddha (or, better yet, the laughing one).
I tried meditation, and hated it. It hurt my back and knees, and when I did succeed in making my mind a total blank I would ruin it by thinking “I’m doing it! I’ve made my mind a total blank!” Then it was back to square one. I listened to Japanese music. I bought New Age CDs designed to stimulate an alpha brain wave state. I spent a week as a vegetarian.
There were times when I thought I had really succeeded in achieving enlightenment – in achieving a state of perfect equanimity, and a sense of invincible personal power. But these states always coincided with periods in my life when things were going well. If I then suffered some setback, everything changed. It might be that my car started making a strange noise, or that I got called to jury duty. Then I would find myself in a tailspin of the old anxiety, as if nothing at all had changed in me. Worse yet, when I was going through these periods I often did not even think to remind myself of my new-found Eastern wisdom. When my worries (usually) turned out to be groundless I would become euphoric – then realize just how pathetically I had backslided, and be filled with shame. I finally had to concede to my friends that I was a fair-weather Buddhist.
Drugs helped a bit. I somehow never smoked pot at all when I was growing up, and when a friend got me started on it the experience was revelatory – at first. Mushrooms were an even greater revelation. I would go off in the woods or lock myself in a closet and chew them. Invariably, about five hours later, when I was returning to this world, I would think “This changes everything! Now everything will be different!” But it never was. I could have a profound experience on pot or mushrooms one evening and wake the next morning worrying, as if nothing had ever happened. I finally admitted to my journal: “Drugs are not the answer.” My life in this period was essentially a miniature replication of the 60s, complete with incense, lava lamps, and door beads. (No, I’m not kidding.)
Now, I don’t mean to suggest that I got nothing from all of this and that it did no good. My friends like to make fun of my “stages” and fancies and fixations. But the fact is that I get something out of each and every one of them. Did I learn something from Eastern Philosophy, and from pot and mushrooms? Absolutely. But something was just not sticking. Still, I did get a bit better over time – just a bit.
The closest I ever really came to Enlightenment did not happen as a result of any drug I took, and it was a total accident. I was visiting San Francisco (back, I believe, in the Spring of 2003). A friend and I decided to take a walk through Golden Gate Park. We had been in the Haight-Asbury area, and maybe we had just had lunch at Magnolia (formerly known as Magnolia Thunder Pussy). We walked into the park via the entrance at the end of Haight Street.
There were a number of scrawny, sketchy looking youths standing around . As I passed one he whispered “Buds?” without looking at me. As I passed another, he did the same thing. We wound our way down a path and presently began to hear the sound of drumming. Then we came to the bottom of a large, gently sloping hill and found the source of the sound: an impromptu drumming circle had gathered at the foot of the hill. It was a motley collection of pretty awful hippie types, some of them black or mixed race (with the inevitable dreadlocks). But there was something strangely intoxicating about their music.
It was a sunny, relatively warm day and on the hill a large number of locals had gathered, most of them under thirty. Surveying the crowd I realized that we’ve reached a point (at least in California) where the line between “hippie” and “homeless person” (okay, “bum”) has become blurred. My friend and I decided to stay awhile, so we found a spot on the hill and sat down. (I later learned that the hill was pretty notorious, and had been dubbed by the locals long ago “Hippie Hill.”)
Neither of us spoke, we simply sat on the grass looking at the scene and listening to the music. There is something magical about the land in northern California. As I said, it was a sunny day, but across the park were misty hills. There was a tall communications tower on the hills and what appeared to be a hospital. The effect of the entire scene was calming, but after awhile it produced a far more profound reaction. I can only describe what followed as a classic mystical experience.
First, my internal voice simply shut down: my mind was no longer flooded by thoughts. A sense of peace came over me – but that is actually an understatement. If the feeling I had could talk it would say “Everything right now, just as it is, is right.” I also felt the sense of having become one with all things.
After awhile I discovered that my friend was having the same experience. Before long I noticed there were some girls moving through the crowd carrying wicker baskets. One of them approached us and said “Do you want some food made with ganja?” It was $5 for a brownie and we each bought one. Nobody bothered to tell us that you don’t feel the effects of a pot brownie until quite some time after you have ingested it. We felt the effects when we were back at Magnolia drinking Chocolate porter and saying “This changes everything! Now everything will be different!”
This experience on Hippie Hill did change things for me – a bit. It had a much profounder effect on me than Alan Watts, meditation, the Tao Te Ching, mushrooms, or pot. (And it’s important to note that when we had this experience we were not yet stoned.) In the days and weeks and months that followed, when I found myself worrying I would often think of Hippie Hill and tell myself “But you’ve seen through to the real truth: Everything right now, just as it is, is right.”
I returned to California a number of times over the next two years, and every time my friend and I visited Hippie Hill. Inevitably, on the second visit we decided it would be even better if we got stoned before going to the park. It did indeed actually make the experience more intense. And, yes, I did have the exact same “mystical experience” every time I went back there.
The result of this was that I entered into what I now call “my Dionysian period.” I had always been a very Apollonian sort of chap, but Hippie Hill induced me to become . . . well, a hippie. I kept buzzing my hair shorter than a Marine’s, and kept shopping at Brooks Brothers, but I became a hippie on the inside. Except not a lefty hippie. More a Manson-style hippie.
I looked for ways to “get in touch with my body.” I had sex while stoned. I got massages. I got Rolfed. I went to Esalen. I read Wilhelm Reich and Alexander Lowen. I read Death in Venice. I read Alain Danielou. I listened to Ralph Vaughn-Williams. I practiced Kundalini yoga. I read that male multiple orgasm book. I drank a good deal of red wine.
The whole idea here was that my Dionysianism, my particular version of the Left Hand Path, would be a way to personal transformation and personal power. Self denial, I decided, left a lot to be desired. Instead, I would give in to my desires. I would ride the tiger and transmute the lead of base desire into the gold of enlightenment.
The trouble with this was that it didn’t work – not for me, at least. After all the wine was drunk and linens had been changed, I was still the same person. Dionysianism felt much better than Zen, but it wasn’t doing much more for me than Zen had. And, quite honestly, I began to find it more and difficult to control my desires. I began to feel that perhaps the Christians weren’t all that wrong in thinking there was something satanic about Dionysius. The idea did occur to me that perhaps I had unleashed forces that I could not really control. And I began to feel a certain amount of contempt for myself. I know the Left Hand Path promises power through indulgence, not abstinence. But I’ve always admired the abstinent more than the indulgent.
And so, after awhile, I felt like I was ready to go crawling back to Apollo. But not before I made one last trip to Hippie Hill.
That trip happened, actually, just a few months ago. I went to Hippie Hill with the same friend, stoned just as before, expecting just the same experience. But it did not come. It had actually been maybe three years since I’d been there, but I just expected things to happen exactly as they had before. It was a day just like my first day at Hippie Hill had been. The conditions were identical. I made a conscious effort to relax – but nothing happened. I sat there on the cold ground waiting for it to hit me: the sense that everything is RIGHT, the feeling of oneness with all things, and so on and so on.
I thought that perhaps I was just too wound up and that I was having trouble “opening” to the experience. I had been under a lot of tension and pressure for the last year. Maybe this was interfering. So I tried even harder to relax – and still, nothing happened. Then I began to get angry. “What am I doing here?” I thought. “Sitting on my ass on the bare ground, stoned, waiting to be carried off to ‘enlightenment’ by the primitive music of Untermenschen. Is this me? This is not me! I don’t want to ‘detach’ myself from this world. I don’t want to feel like everything is ‘one.’ I want to make distinctions. I want to take stands. I don’t think everything, just as it is now, is ‘right’ and I don’t want to feel like it is. I want to act in the world. I want to care about things. I want to be attached. And, most of all, I want to hate.”
And then it happened. I relaxed and suddenly I was overwhelmed by a sense of peace – and, yes, by a sense that everything is right. By accepting my anger, my hatred of the modern world, my desire to change — well, really to destroy — everything, I had found real peace at last. A lot of the mystics have got it wrong. They think that enlightenment comes from world-acceptance and making peace with what is. But I am part of what is; I am part of this world. And so are all my thoughts and feelings, including my feeling of opposition to this world. Paradoxically, in accepting my inability to accept the world, in embracing my desire to destroy it, I had achieved peace.
After awhile, my friend and I made the trek up Haight Street to Magnolia and got rather drunk. And I told him of my experience – of how I had made peace with my inability to achieve enlightenment, and how that had enlightened me.
Flash forward to just a few days ago: I post an essay on Counter-Currents, “How I Found My Mission In Life.” If you’ve read it, you know that my mission is the destruction of the modern world. My friend in San Francisco, the one from Hippie Hill, read it and got on the phone with me. He has essentially the same mission, but he said to me, “What if nothing we do matters? What if the system is too strong and there’s nothing we can do that will make a real difference – no way to destroy the modern world.”
“Read the Bhagavad-Gita,” I said, and reached for my copy later that evening.
Nothing I have read and nothing that I have done has been wasted. I have learned from all of it and all of it has made me what I am. One cannot view one’s life like that without having the sense that there is something like Providence. And that gives me a small reason for hope.
I’ll be back in San Francisco this summer, and yes I’ll be returning to Hippie Hill.