Since that listening of the final movement of Mahler’s First Symphony, I fell into study this eveningof just Beethoven’s opening movement from the Eroica. By all accounts this is the symphony that forever changed classical music: Eroica made it about the ego, the aggrieved and the mourning hero, funereal yet triumphant, going deaf all along. Promethean Me.
I do prefer the muscular and the mad in Bernstein’s Beethoven, especially in this one.
Movement Two: From the Funereal March
Accchhhhh.. the Third and Fourth! Such Austro-German dionyseanism. (Terrible expression.)
I am not in any way knowledgeable about music or musical theory. I will not pretend to any authority. But in studying this symphony recently — really listening to it, after so many years never touching it, it comes back to me how greater this might ever be than Mahler. And that’s a really really hard thing to hear myself say. Just this one piece — the Eroica. This feeling is emerging, having never thought that Mahler’s understanding of our modern human mind could maybe never be surpassed. And hearing this Eroica again.
This whole thing, this symphony — this madness, this rage, this playfulness, this bold triumph of the Will. This piece, itself, made Mahler even happen, I realise just now. I had not noticed the strong funeral-march-to-deep-question-to-triumph link before. This symphony let Mahler happen, and let him happen with such brutality right from the beginning. Like we expected it. But we’re bystanders in a funeral march again, the funeral march we are engaged in since the moment of birth.
I am often asked about the usefulness of psychedelics and meditation. It seems like this question comes with greater frequency these days. And there is no blanket answer: I am very open-minded, to a point, and I have encouraged some few people that having a psychedelic experience could help with some particularly deep-rooted block with regard to addiction, to a trauma, or even to an aspect of their meditation practice.
Recently, at a gathering of friends, I was pulled aside by the college-age son of one of my followers (I’ll call him “Danny”). He said that he has been offered the opportunity by friends to experience psychedelic mushrooms, and what did I think about this? Now, if I do have some rules, one of them is to exert extreme care when advising the children of my students about anything that might not align with some of the most conservative norms of a meditating life. Nevertheless, I was placed at an unusual juncture where the pure-minded questioner had access only to the encouragement of some similarly-aged friends, with all of the blind peer pressure and testosterone-fuelled risk-taking bravado involved, and his own conservative parents. It seemed that the most compassionate thing to do would be to reply without regard to what his parents might think about my agency in the matter, were word of it ever to get back to them.
So, without hesitation, I gave Danny my strong, enthusiastic encouragement to try this experience at least once, but only if he did this with a very clear preparation of the proper “set and setting”: not in a throbbing dance club or crazed party, and not with people who he was meeting for the first time. I emphasised the need for “trust” in his environment, both human and situational. There should be a “guide” present who had previous experience with such substances, and optimal benefit if that “guide” were, themselves, not ingesting that night, so as to have the clearest possible view of the situation unfolding and be able to judge clearly any contingencies, were a difficult “trip” to emerge among any of the participants (especially among the first-time trippers like Danny). I told him that he must absolutely not combine this with any alcohol or cannabis or anything else. (I believe I also told him what I say to others: if one is not vegetarian/vegan, it is helpful for the trip if no meat is consumed for some days to a week beforehand — the subtle sexual and aggressive energies trapped in slaughtered animals can have an effect on the trip, bringing it to some darker places, for some people who are sensitive. I urged him strongly not to do this even in a city, but rather that he have such an awesome experience out in deep natural surroundings where Nature could speak to him, without the need to operate a car (never!) or have complex interactions with strong personalities who do not have a reasonable appreciation for and experience of the awesome power of this potentially life-altering voyage into the nature of reality.
Sam Harris wrote an essay which is an essential touchstone for anyone considering the role of psychedelics, and he even has personal admonitions for advising his own children:
I have a daughter who will one day take drugs. Of course, I will do everything in my power to see that she chooses her drugs wisely, but a life without drugs is neither foreseeable, nor, I think, desirable. Someday, I hope she enjoys a morning cup of tea or coffee as much as I do. If my daughter drinks alcohol as an adult, as she probably will, I will encourage her to do it safely. If she chooses to smoke marijuana, I will urge moderation. Tobacco should be shunned, of course, and I will do everything within the bounds of decent parenting to steer her away from it. Needless to say, if I knew my daughter would eventually develop a fondness for methamphetamine or crack cocaine, I might never sleep again. But if she does not try a psychedelic like psilocybin or LSD at least once in her adult life, I will worry that she may have missed one of the most important rites of passage a human being can experience. [emphasis mine]
This is not to say that everyone should take psychedelics. As I will make clear below, these drugs pose certain dangers. Undoubtedly, there are people who cannot afford to give the anchor of sanity even the slightest tug. It has been many years since I have taken psychedelics, in fact, and my abstinence is borne of a healthy respect for the risks involved. However, there was a period in my early 20’s when I found drugs like psilocybin and LSD to be indispensable tools of insight, and some of the most important hours of my life were spent under their influence. I think it quite possible that I might never have discovered that there was an inner landscape of mind worth exploring without having first pressed this pharmacological advantage.
It must be said, in this context, that I am somewhat aware of the arguments made against the use of psychedelics and meditation by the American Zen master Brad Warner. But I have a different view. While I have deep respect for him not only as a serious Zen practitioner (who also, somewhat uncharacteristically for his audience, insists on some familiarity with the texts of Dogen and others), I also believe that there is a space for the consideration of psychedelics in building the practice of meditation in one’s life — as long as there is not frequent usage, or dependency. So, while I do respect Warner very much as a recovering addict, who is quite right in warning folks away from reliance on any exogenous substances to mimic, initiate, substitute for, or expand the experience of meditation, I do feel that the experience of psychedelics is useful enough in the work of meditation to take the extra care not to assert any blanket prohibition
While the number of times I have used psychedelics is countable on two hands (well, maybe just a few fingers more), I have seen the benefit of this experience firsthand. And it is immediately useful for the work of waking up, which is the work of meditation.
One of the best, most instructive and edifying podcast conversations I have ever heard is this one, on the subject of psychedelics : This is a very very recent conversation between Tim Ferriss and the legendary Dr. Stan Grof. I think what makes this conversation so important for me is not just the catchy subject matter — “Lessons from ~4500 Sessions and Beyond” — but the encounter with such a great mind and bodhisattva soul as Stan Grof. His exploration of the nature of consciousness have truly inspired me.
As readers of this blog know so well, I am always happy to reference the thoughts of Sam Harris, because of the eerie resemblance they have to my own, in nearly every aspect and on nearly every single subject.
Many people wonder about the difference between meditation (and other contemplative practices) and psychedelics. Are these drugs a form of cheating, or are they the only means of authentic awakening? They are neither. All psychoactive drugs modulate the existing neurochemistry of the brain—either by mimicking specific neurotransmitters or by causing the neurotransmitters themselves to be more or less active. Everything that one can experience on a drug is, at some level, an expression of the brain’s potential. Hence, whatever one has seen or felt after ingesting LSD is likely to have been seen or felt by someone, somewhere, without it.
However, it cannot be denied that psychedelics are a uniquely potent means of altering consciousness. Teach a person to meditate, pray, chant, or do yoga, and there is no guarantee that anything will happen. Depending upon his aptitude or interest, the only reward for his efforts may be boredom and a sore back. If, however, a person ingests 100 micrograms of LSD, what happens next will depend on a variety of factors, but there is no question that somethingwill happen. And boredom is simply not in the cards. Within the hour, the significance of his existence will bear down upon him like an avalanche. As the late Terence McKenna never tired of pointing out, this guarantee of profound effect, for better or worse, is what separates psychedelics from every other method of spiritual inquiry.
In his timeless essay, “Self-Reliance” (1841), Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” Foreshadowing where this insight would lead, in the development of one of the most significant essays ever written in the English language, Emerson writes several paragraphs later, “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.” This essay was a revolutionary turning point for me: reading it deeply for the first time in Paris while teaching English and German there in 1988-89, it marked the last bit of Western philosophy I would absorb intellectually before turning with gusto to the practice of Zen — and leaving all the books behind, and gradually the Mahler and the Beethoven as well. Every single line of “Self-Reliance” felt like something my soul had always screamed for, admonitions I had always needed to hear but could not, trapped in dogmatic superstitions for so many years. Emerson’s soul really broke open the cage for me, intellectually but spiritually. “Self-Reliance” (and For while I had already read one Zen book by the time I encountered Emerson’s words, it seemed I needed some affirmation from an intellectual great to confirm that I would be heading in the right direction, were I to go deeper into Zen.
So, how much more these words by Albert Einstein strike open the heart like a similar thunder-bolt of recognition:
Self-reliance, for doing this spiritual work, has been merely the living out of a recognition of being this “lone traveler” who has never belonged to country, home, friends, or even immediate family. “In the face of all these ties, I have never lost a sense of distance and a need for solitude.”
Except for a seven- or eight-month period when I was about of Providence Zen Center in 1997-98, I have lived outside the United States pretty continuously since 1994. During that time, I have lost all contact with my Yale College classmates and Harvard Divinity School network, and with one of the two significant friendships I had since childhood. (And one of those relationships had zero contact or communication for over 20 years, during the period of my most intensive training and teaching in Asia.) I do not have ongoing relationships with really any of my eight brothers and sisters (or their children), especially in the years since my Mother died. Needless to say, such things as “cousins” and such relations have grown so distant as if almost to inhabit another, pre-verbal phase of some before-life. There is no judgement in this: it is just how things have grown in the years since I decided to “leave home” and enter the monastic path.
I do not feel “American”, except in a cultural sense, in the same way that I do not feel as a “Catholic,” except for some of the cultural and psychological stamps I received from being raised in that worldview. I do not feel allied to any one nation or tribe (except, to be honest, the “tribe” of people who would wake up to their True Nature through meditation).
Einstein’s words, above, capture so perfectly the way I view this life.
Or, as Jesus puts it in Matthew 12: 47-50:
47 Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”
48 He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?”49 Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
It started out as a little serendipitous public repository of things I have encountered in practice and training as a monk, which I might like to look at again and offer to others. Things by the Buddha and Mahler and Beethoven and Bassui, Sapolsky and Harris and Dawkins and Zen Master Seung Sahn. Pointers by Schopenhauer and great Cioran that I might like to reflect on again. Beethoven had a daily table-talk book where his very conversations were recorded as his deafness became total. This blog is just supposed to be my own daily table-talk book speaking only to my own practice, and maybe enabling some help for others’ practice if they find it useful. It is a digital collection of helpful quotes and talks that I found helpful for expressing the otherwise-wordless practicing way to others. By having them here in public, there is the sense that maybe someone somewhere seeking some practice could get some benefit from the pointing of one of these teachings. We cannot expect everyone to connect to the intensity of Zen. There are many doorways to the one truth.
So, this blog doesn’t aim to anything high-road. These are just snippets of talks and memes and citations that might spark the interest of someone on the Internet today who is open and seeking the Way, whether they realize it or not consciously. But it is something which begins to create a hunger for more and more exposure, more display. I have to watch that.
“That’s according to the Doomsday Clock – a device created by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 1947 as a metaphor to indicate how near we are to a humanity-ending catastrophe,” reports the most recent edition of Physics World (02 Sept. 2020). “The clock started out at 11:53 p.m. and over the years has shifted backwards and forwards as the global situation has worsened or improved. But on 23 January 2020 the clock was moved closer to midnight than at any other time in its near 75-year lifetime.
“This year’s historic decision was announced to ‘leaders and citizens of the world’ at the National Press Club in Washington, DC by members of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. In setting the clock to 100 seconds to midnight, they cited risks such as worsening nuclear threats, a lack of climate action, and the rise of ‘cyber-enabled disinformation campaigns that undermine society’s ability to act'”.