Man’s extremity is gawd’s opportunity. —old proverb
We had diarrhea attacks in the middle of the night and shit ourselves raw under the shelter of jujube trees in pure moonlight. —Conor Mitchell
This post is one of the last that I’ve been intending to write for years, possibly since the very beginning of this blog in 2012. I’ve been putting it off largely because it’s a long and heavy one. But it’s about time I finally wrote the thing. Not only has it been waiting, but time appears to be running out, as I am considering shutting down this blog indefinitely after I leave the West, or maybe even before. I’ve already written pretty much everything I had intended to write, with a few borderline exceptions, like an analysis of the mystical symbolism of Moby Dick; and also there is the whole giving up and going back to Asia issue, which I discussed in a post already written, but which I don’t quite have the heart to publish just yet. Anyway, I can promise to keep this project rolling until the next anniversary issue, which will be around the start of June. Gawd willing, if I don’t change my mind or die first. So, maybe I don’t promise.
When I was a teenager I encountered, in one of the first spiritual books I ever read, a statement by Ram Dass that has followed me ever since, especially in my younger days. He said that despair is an absolute prerequisite for significant spiritual growth. He said that only when we hit rock bottom are we willing to let go of old attachments and reach out for something better. Since reading that I have continually hoped that Ram Dass was wrong—and maybe he actually was wrong—but thus far my own experience in life, plus what I have seen in the biographies of saints and in others, appears to vindicate what he said.
It may be, though, that a more accurate term for the necessary factor is “crisis” or even “being at wit’s end” rather than “despair.” Ram Dass’s own account of his most important spiritual awakening in life, the one that resulted in him metamorphosing from Richard Alpert into Ram Dass, would seem to be more crisis-oriented than despair-oriented. It happened like this: Dr. Alpert was a former Harvard psychology professor turned experimental psychedelic drug guru, and he went to India to find a meditation master who could explain some of the states of expanded awareness that he had experienced on drugs (not just euphoria or psychedelic light shows, mind you, but heightened awareness), and possibly even teach him how to attain such states without having to ingest the chemicals. Being a high powered Western overachiever, and also a human being, he had been living in a state of chronic angst, which already had him primed for a crisis; and of course it is a hackneyed truism that all psychologists are emotionally challenged anyhow (←a small joke). So anyway, he was in India, and had pretty much given up on finding anyone who could help him. He was frustrated, burned out on India, and had been smoking too much hashish besides, and was in a bad mood and ready to give up. But he was traveling with a young American hippie guy who very much wanted to see his guru; so Dr. Alpert, not wanting to meet any more “gurus,” let the young guy drive and came along reluctantly. The hippie was singing loudly and crying as he drove, apparently in a strange mixture of excitement and bliss, which had Dr. Alpert intrigued, though still in a bad mood.
When they found the guru, a fat little Indian man wrapped in a blanket, the hippie ran to him and feel at his feet, weeping in a kind of ecstasy. Dr. Alpert was very uncomfortable with all this, and very much did not want to touch the old man’s feet. He then engaged in a brief conversation with the guru which left him even more ill at ease. Then the two Americans were sent away for food and rest. The next part of the story I will let Ram Dass tell for himself.
Sometime later we were back with Maharajji and he said to me, “Come here. Sit.” So I sat down facing him and he looked at me and said, “You were out under the stars last night.” (This, of course, was the English translation of what he said.)
“Um-hum.” [In a different telling of the story he said that at first he didn’t remember it himself, and it took him a few moments to recall it.]
“You were thinking about your mother.”
“Yes.” (The previous night a few hundred miles away I had gone outside during the night to go to the bathroom. The stars had been very bright and I had remained outside, feeling very close to the cosmos. At that time I had suddenly experienced the presence of my mother, who had died nine months previously of a spleen condition. It was a very powerful moment, and I had told no one about it.)
“She died last year.”
“She got very big in the stomach before she died.”
Pause … “Yes.”
He leaned back and closed his eyes and said (in English), “Spleen, she died of spleen.”
What happened to me at that moment I can’t really put into words. He looked at me in a certain way and two things happened. They do not seem like cause and effect, but rather appeared to be simultaneous.
My mind began to race faster and faster to try to get leverage—to get a hold on what he had just done. I went through every super-CIA paranoia I’d ever had: “Who is he? Who does he represent? Where’s the button he pushes to make the file appear? Why have they brought me here?” None of it would jell.
It was just too impossible that this could have happened this way. My traveling companion didn’t know about any of the things Maharajji was saying, and I was a tourist in a car. The whole thing was just inexplicable. My mind went faster and faster.
Until then I had had two models for psychic experiences. One was: “Well it happened to somebody else, and it’s very interesting and we certainly must keep an open mind about these things.” That was my social-science approach. The other one was: “Well, I’m high on LSD. Who knows how it really is?” After all, I had had experiences under the influence of chemicals in which I had created whole environments.
But neither of these categories applied to this situation, and as my mind went faster I felt like a computer that has been fed an insoluble problem—the bell rings and the red light goes on and the machine stops. My mind just gave up. It burned out its circuitry, its zeal to have an explanation. I needed something to get closure at the rational level and there wasn’t anything.
At the same moment I felt this extremely violent pain in my chest and a tremendous wrenching feeling, and I started to cry. I cried and cried and cried, but I was neither happy nor sad. It was a kind of crying I had not experienced before. The only thing I could say about it was it felt as if I had finished something. The journey was over. I had come home. (—from the book Miracle of Love: Stories about Neem Karoli Baba, compiled by Ram Dass)
In a different telling of the same story he says that the wrenching feeling in his chest felt as though an old door that had been sealed shut for many years were suddenly being torn open on its rusty hinges. Shortly after these events he stopped being an unemployed psychology professor and started being Baba Ram Dass, a spiritually-oriented being who helped many, many Westerners turn toward Dharma.
Now, of course, some of you readers, maybe most of you, although hopefully not all of you, will easily come up with rational explanations for the sake of not being blown away. Obviously, Dr. Alpert told the hippie guy about being under the stars thinking about his mother, and forgot. Or he just remembers the story wrong. Or maybe he just made the whole thing up, since he’s a weird New Agey-type person anyway. Right? Sure. This resistance of some (but hopefully not all) readers against being blown away is largely because of a human compulsion to explain everything in accordance with one’s belief system, and nowadays in the West the belief system is scientific materialism. But all this is irrelevant. One should recall that Dr. Alpert apparently was not so different; in fact it was reportedly this same typical Western need in him to explain everything being overwhelmed and incapacitated, along with other contributing factors, that flung him into the great crisis described above. His mind was blown to the point that he let go of everything he was certain of, everything that he thought he knew, and it opened his mind to a radically different, deeper mode of experience. This happened quite a lot around Maharajji, and was particularly intense for Westerners, since most of the Indians believed in psychic powers from the beginning.
And even if one grants the possibility that Maharajji was faking the psychic power somehow, the fact remains the same: Being at wit’s end was what blew the roof off of Dr. Alpert’s mental prison, or at least what forced open a door. That is really the main point here, not whether or not materialism is true.
As for my own life, I must admit that the main spiritual growth surges I have experienced have been conditioned greatly by despair. I became consciously aware of a spiritual dimension to life at the age of seventeen, at a time when I was hitting the rocks hard as a result of rebelling against a system I couldn’t take seriously, yet being unable to come up with anything sustainably better. Also, at around the age of forty I experienced a kind of awakening, which taught me to stop rebelling against my own nature, which was the result of some pretty serious despair, described in the old post “The Middle Way of Mediocrity” (10 Nov 2012). Furthermore, I was going through some unusually intense despair shortly before my ordination, which didn’t cause my renunciation, but certainly facilitated it. For that matter, the despair of ever finding a place in the West, with the stark possibility of spending the rest of my life as a cave-dwelling recluse in tropical Asia (sleeping in the bed I made), may turn out to be fertile ground for another crisis, and a breakthrough into something better. That would be nice. (It just now occurred to me, looking at the preceding sentences, that the present difficulty of my situation is that I am rebelling against a Western system I can’t take seriously, yet am unable to come up with anything sustainably better. Except for solitary cave-dwelling.)
In addition to the major cases mentioned above I have experienced other, less chronic crises that have resulted in insights that have stayed with me ever since. For example, a few times in my life I have been very near to possible death—as a layperson this involved driving a car at high speed and suddenly losing control of the vehicle. In these cases my mind went completely silent and crystal clear, devoid of thought, and it was as though some level of consciousness higher or clearer than the ordinary waking state took control of my body and did whatever was necessary to keep me alive. It was only after the danger was past, like when I had successfully avoided the accident, that I would return to a more ordinary state of mind and start thinking again. The spiritual benefit of these occurrences, aside from simply helping me to stay alive, was to show me that such states are even possible, and furthermore to suggest that this level of consciousness is always available, always here, watching from behind the scenes of the Matrix. Such experiences are somewhat similar to psychedelic drug trips in that they demonstrate what is possible: they offer an alternative perspective which, even after the state has subsided, allow a memory of such possibility, and thereby a permanent shift in perspective.
One doesn’t have to be an advanced meditator to have a crisis-induced shift in consciousness. For example most of the occasions mentioned just now occurred before I became a monk, and the big shift at the age of seventeen occurred before I ever sat in meditation. The following is a rather extreme instance which occurred to my father.
Dad was an alcoholic of a type that is relatively rare in America but common in eastern Europe: He drank a fifth of vodka every day, and never seemed to be quite drunk, but never seemed to be quite sober either. It was as though he were fueled on ethanol. Anyway, when he was in his fifties he decided to stop drinking; and bull in a china shop that he was, he went cold turkey, sitting alone in his house. Before him on a table were two quick escapes from the ordeal, a bottle of liquor and a loaded pistol. So he sat there and went through the delirium tremens, raging and pissing his pants and tearing at his hair, with imaginary bugs crawling all over him. At one point he began hallucinating a huge eye on the wall, watching him. (I always imagine this to look like the eye on top of the pyramid on the back of a US $1 bill.) He somehow knew that the eye was totally indifferent—it didn’t care what happened, didn’t care whether he lived or died. He also somehow knew that the eye represented a deeper level of himself. He was the eye. So I suppose it was similar to the state of mind that would take me over when in a car about to crash, or while falling down a very steep hillside in the dark in a Burmese forest. And he learned something from that. Somehow it gave him strength.
As the years go by I have seen more and more examples of people for whom despair or a crisis or being at wit’s end has resulted in a life-changing epiphany or insight. One of the most famous cases I can think of is the story of Paul of Tarsus in the Christian Bible. Even before he converted to Christianity he was prone to fanaticism, in fact before his conversion he was fanatically anti-Christian. He went around having meek, humble primitive Christians arrested, flogged, imprisoned, and even occasionally put to death, which no matter how one rationalizes it is liable to plant the seeds of some incipient crisis in one’s heart. So one day as he is riding to Damascus in order to persecute some Christians there he is struck blind, knocked off his horse, and lies there on the ground hearing the voice of Christ. Those of us who are not Christians, and possibly some who are, may consider this extreme upheaval in his life to be not so much the work of God or Christ as the work of his own subconscious conscience: The man obviously had some sensitivity and desire for virtue in addition to his fanaticism, and his outward attitude and behavior finally drove his inward need for goodness to the boiling point. What some might call an act of God, others might call a hysterical meltdown. But obviously, the result of this despair or crisis was life-changing—he remained rather fanatical, yet he died to the world and became “alive in Christ,” not to mention pretty much inventing a new world religion.
Arthur Schopenhauer in his classic The World as Will and Representation gives two interesting though less well-known cases of despair driving a sensitive person deeply into a spiritual life. The first is Raymond Lull (1232-1315), a brilliant Franciscan philosopher, who got himself martyred by trying to convert Muslims in North Africa to Christianity. According to the story, he began his career as a sensualist courtier in attendance upon the King of Majorca. Although married, he had long been pursuing a certain beautiful woman, who finally invited him to her bedchamber. He arrived in eager anticipation of having his desires fulfilled; yet when they were alone together, the beauty opened the front of her dress to show him her breasts horribly eaten away with cancer. In the words of Schopenhauer, or rather his English translator, “From that moment, as if he had looked into hell, he was converted; leaving the court of the King of Majorca, he went into the wilderness to do penance.” He was beatified in 1837, and his feast day is June 30.
The other example is Armand Jean le Bouthilllier de Rancé (1626-1700), a very wealthy and powerful man who eventually renounced it all and became the founder of the reformed Trappist Order of Roman Catholic monasticism. I may as well let Schopenhauer describe the case himself:
The story of the conversion of the Abbé Rancé may be given here in a few words, as one that is strikingly similar to that of Raymond Lull given in the text; moreover, it is notable on account of its result. His youth was devoted to pleasure and enjoyment; finally, he lived in a passionate relationship with a Madame de Montbazon. When he visited her one evening, he found her room empty, dark, and in disorder. He struck something with his foot; it was her head, which had been severed from the trunk because, after her sudden death, her corpse could not otherwise have been put into the leaden coffin that was standing beside it. After recovering from a terrible grief, Rancé became in 1663 the reformer of the order of the Trappists, which at that time had departed entirely from the strictness of its rules. He at once entered this order, and through him it was brought back to that terrible degree of renunciation in which it continues to exist at La Trappe even at the present time. (E. F. J. Payne’s translation, Dover 1969)
Elsewhere, Schopenhauer adds:
If we consider how, in both cases, the transition from the pleasure to the horror of life was the occasion, this gives us an explanation of the remarkable fact that it is the French nation, the most cheerful, merry, gay, sensual, and frivolous in Europe, in which by far the strictest of all monastic orders, namely the Trappist, arose, was re-established by Rancé after its decline, and maintains itself even to the present day in all its purity and fearful strictness, in spite of revolutions, changes in the Church, and the encroachments of infidelity.
It should be borne in mind that the book was published in 1844. Whether the French people are still the most merry and the French Trappists still pure and fearfully strict, I really can’t say.
I continued to encounter, in myself, in others, and in books, evidence of profound spiritual awakening being a result of an acute crisis (some of which will be mentioned in part 2); and then one day I happened to find in a used book store in Mandalay an old copy of Battle for the Mind by William Sargant, a book which not only acknowledges this phenomenon but attempts to explain it empirically. Dr. Sargant was a psychiatrist who treated soldiers with post traumatic stress disorder (or “battle fatigue,” as it was called then) during and after the Second World War; and he found that a kind of abreactive psychotherapy was often successful in treating his patients. This kind of treatment entailed putting the patient under renewed stress by having him relive in memory the traumatic experience. He later found that in cases when the experience was so traumatic and horrible that the patient couldn’t bring himself to relive it, having him imagine a somewhat similar stressful experience was good enough—it wasn’t so much re-experiencing the particular event but experiencing any desperate one that was effective.
Such results in his own work inspired him to investigate the work of others along similar lines; and he found that this tendency of the human mind to respond radically to being at wit’s end has been utilized since the stone age, and developed and exploited more and more in modern times, for various purposes.
The principle itself, in a general sense, applies not only to human beings, but to any kind of relatively intelligent animal. It could be called instinctive. Pavlov studied it in his dogs, for instance. The way it works is that we (including dogs, etc.) are governed by habit; and so long as a habitual way of going about life works—which is to say, so long as it keeps us alive and functioning, more or less, regardless of how happy it allows us to be—for so long we resist changing it. Even though we may be chronically unhappy, we hold to our ways. We stubbornly cling to beliefs and behaviors that have gotten us this far. So it may actually be easy to teach an old dog new tricks, but as Pavlov could attest, to unteach it its old tricks could be extremely difficult. However, if we find ourselves in a situation in which the old habitual beliefs and behaviors just don’t work, in which they cannot cope anymore and our perceptual world starts to break down, then a crisis is reached in which we become much more willing to let go of the old and much more open to accepting something new. Pavlov found that after essentially torturing his dogs, physically or psychologically, stubbornly entrenched behaviors could be reprogramed relatively easily; and clever leaders and manipulators around the world have found that pretty much the same thing can be accomplished with people.
This principle has been used since prehistoric times in initiations, such as tribal manhood rituals for establishing youths as new men of the tribe. They may be required to go into a wilderness and undergo some harrowing ordeal, possibly having the living daylights scared out of them, as a method of preparing them for indoctrination by elder men (who of course have been through the ordeal themselves), transforming them into “braves” who will do whatever is required of them for the good of the tribe, and who will not flinch at pain or even at death. Vision quests and other religious rituals also may follow this principle; and of course in “primitive” societies religion and everyday life are not necessarily differentiated, so indoctrination into official manhood and so on may themselves be considered religious. Difficult or otherwise awe-inspiring initiation rituals to this day, including military basic training, are continuations of this, and no doubt have a similar effect.
In modern times, as the principle became better understood, or at least its effects became better known, the method of breaking a person down into a quivering mess, and then “reconstructing” that person in accordance with the ideas of the people organizing the ordeal, has become used for various purposes, both positive and negative. In addition to some initiations and abreactive psychotherapy, the principle is also the foundation of “brainwashing” and extreme interrogation methods. In the Stalinist Soviet Union, for example, political prisoners were subjected to psychological torture in a way that would not only compel them to confess to trying to overthrow the government, but would cause them to actually, sincerely believe they were guilty of trying to overthrow the government. Those who have read Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four may recall that the Ministry of Love used similar methods on Winston Smith and many others.
But interesting as this principle is in general, my primary interest is with regard to the mainly positive spiritual aspect of it. Religious conversions are not always positive, however.
Long ago I had a monastic friend who had grown cynical and had dropped out of the monkhood; and on at least one occasion he pointed out to me the resemblance between intensive Vipassana retreats and what went on at communist Chinese thought reform camps. Both sorts of inmates enjoy minimal sleep, few meals, are forbidden to talk with anyone except the indoctrinator, and generally live so austerely and unnaturally that it can be quite stressful. Some people just can’t stand it and break down. One of the main differences, of course, is that expanded consciousness and greater freedom of mind are encouraged at a good meditation retreat, and ruthlessly outlawed at the indoctrination camp. But the underlying principle may be seen to be the same—the artificial nurturing of a crisis, if not a full-blown psychological breakdown, leading to a breakthrough to a different way of experiencing the world.
(end of part 1)