Hello Stephen, I’d like to have a conversation with you about drugs, and solitude. Your latest book, The Art of Solitude, is my favourite among all your books, and I have read them all, except for The Tibet Guide, which I’ve never had occasion to use. And I reckon never will have, certainly not in this time of Covid. The others, though, have been extremely helpful, as I am also a Buddhist of secular faith, and in this aspect especially I thank you for your informed guidance and encouragement.
Over the years, beginning when I took refuge in Tibetan Buddhism in the early nineteen-nineties, in Winnipeg, I was very lucky to have your deservedly popular book, Buddhism Without Beliefs, which provided a counter-balancing refuge within my almost-entirely Western sangha—almost all of them were believers in reincarnation, magical powers, and the panoply of supernatural beings. In my later middle-age my then-wife and I moved to Toronto and there I joined a sangha of Korean Zen lineage. Coincidentally same as you, going from Tibetan Buddhism to Korean Zen.
And speaking of coincidences, somewhere you wrote, maybe in Confession of a Buddhist Atheist—a book which really helped me, too, particularly in illuminating the revolutionary quality of the Buddha’s doctrine and practice, and in unpacking some of my ambivalence in respect to Zen and Theravada—not dissimilar to yours, I don’t think—and this book also was a reminder of the centrality of ethics to Buddhism, and in this it was totally an inspiration to me, particularly in the sometimes-challenging situations that arise for a secular Buddhist in a community of individuals who—again—are mostly seeking something out there, usually a salvific attainment of enlightenment. I lived for eight years in a Zen temple. But, about coincidences, I was saying: you mentioned maybe in this book that you were born in 1953. Same year as me. And now, in The Art of Solitude, there’s this chapter where you are describing your experiences with psychedelics and recounting Aldous Huxley’s taking mescaline in May of 1953, which you say was the month after you were born. And now I’m thinking: April! Hah! You weren’t by any chance born on April the ninth?
We met in person at a four-day workshop in Toronto presented by you and Martine Batchelor, who I assume is your wife. I brought an all-but-one collection of your books, about two a day, for you to sign. Great workshop, by the way, thanks again. I can’t remember the year, but probably it was sometime in the first half of time I lived in the Toronto Zen Buddhist Temple. I’m still with this group, as an elder in the sangha and also for some years now the chair of the temple’s board of directors. For me, it was all pretty accidental, how I became associated with Korean Zen, with our founding teacher and director, the Venerable Samu Sunim. It was not because of him personally or the Korean aspect that I joined there, more like because it was handily located near the residential addictions treatment facility that I was in—I’m more of a Canadian Buddhist: I’m as Buddhist as possible under the circumstances. Anyway, apparently Martine did have some personal connection to Sunim, I guess from when she was a nun in Korea. And so, I ended up setting up a temple visit for her, and that included walking her over there, and two other people came along, a nice young couple, a local sort-of yoga guru and his very nice girlfriend. The guy’s name was Michael Stone.
Before I got to the part in The Art of Solitude where you mention the late Michael Stone I had already talked with my wife—my second wife, my first wife divorced me while I was in that treatment place. Not the first time I’d been in addictions treatment, this was actually the last time, but nobody could have guessed that—I was saying: before I got to the place in your book where you mention our mutual acquaintance I had already told my wife about my idea of my writing an open letter to you. She was very pleased about me doing this. We’d been going through a rough patch, after I’d very disgracefully relapsed, had a slip, whatever, an egregious, surprise that happened over eight days when she was away and I was home, alone, and more or less in pandemic lock-down. I did not relapse to crack, which was what had got me into the six-month treatment program and out of my previous 30-year marriage, fifteen years ago. Just pot. I can hear her saying: “Not just pot, John!” Okay, not just pot. Moreover, along with this drug I’d confected—typically for me, used it together with online porn, and again in my head I hear her voice, she was so angry: “and again you go to the porn, how could you!?” Okay, okay. That was last winter. We’d been married for five-and-a-half years. Now it’s, like, six-and-a-half—and so, yeah, I’ve given this relapse, and this letter to you, a lot of thought. Because my addictions to sex and cocaine ended my first marriage, which had been remarkably calm and secure for nearly thirty years. Anyway, on this morning in the middle of last winter walking with my second wife I mentioned your book and my inclination to write you a letter. In those days we were walking together most mornings, having hugely hard talks, disagreeing a lot, but we were totally in agreement in our discouragement with one of the chapters in The Art of Solitude that areabout you taking drugs, which I’d read in bed the night before. Might not have been in bed, could have been downstairs on the sofa, or on the cot in my study. Last winter was not a happy time for us, largely due to my relapse.
She knows you’re like some kind of exemplar to me, a valued teacher. Your wisdom from afar, eh, and aloft, but we’re definitely contemporaries, we have a few things in common. And you are a very good teacher. And in my state, humiliated by my relapse, it had been discouraging and disheartening to read—this is not your problem—about how you sometimes still enjoy smoking pot. You’d enjoyed it when you were young, as had I. And you write now about how you can walk through an art gallery, seeing the art so feelingly, the doors of perception opened by some psychoactively grand defamiliarization. That’s my word for it, defamiliarization, and I can’t be sure, but I think that’s what you’re talking about. Not just the highly pleasurable buzz, but what is for you a usefully altered mental state, maybe like a warm boot for the brain.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that you mention your respect for Canada’s legalization of cannabis. Well, yeah, but I’d add that I see lots of changes. Within walking distance of my place there are several dispensaries and their doors have stayed open throughout the pandemic. In fact, new doors have opened up. Business seems to be booming. There are half a dozen pot shops between my house and the nearest MacDonald’s. My neighbourhood’s not rich enough for a Starbucks.
You also write about how you’ve also occasionally gone globally tripping on psychedelics and ayahuasca. Maybe I want to talk about that, too. And of course you can have a glass of wine, which my wives, first and second, also have with dinner. For a while I was an alcoholic. Interesting though, after taking ayahuasca you quit alcohol, from which you’d abstained while you were many years a monk but resumed when you left that life and got married. And for me, my drinking ended with the cocaine affair that wrecked my marriage. But yeah-no, I mean, it’s all okay for you, but my second wife and I, we’re thinking here: Could your good-trip story be framed in a way that would be without the harmful influence on people like me? People whose lives—yeah-no never mind, I had a bad trip in the Summer of Love, 1967. Bummer: forty years of addictions. Much of that time hard-core, and actually it’s really boring. Like most people’s addiction stories, mine’s just not very interesting. Just a lot of bad luck. Mine, not yours, eh?
But, then: A few chapters further on in your new book you recall Michael Stone’s fatal overdose on fentanyl. And that’s when I think, okay, Stephen, it’s not just for me and my wife that I want to try to strike up a conversation now, with you, about taking drugs. You write that you’re wondering whether if by observing the Buddhist precept of abstinence you might have been a better example to him. You said you’d wished that you’d gotten in touch with him, because he was your friend. I didn’t know you were friends, and I’m sorry. Yeah, I know the feeling, when I’m thinking I should reach out to someone and then suddenly it’s too late. People I know who knew Michael were shocked, it was really sad. He’s gone—sheer bad luck—but, luckily, we’re still here. Me, I’m amazingly lucky to be here. Several people I know have died of drug overdoses, in this other epidemic.
Michael Stone’s misfortune was that he was a person with bi-polar disorder, and there’s a stigma, especially in the new-age yoga world, and under the pressures of professional and domestic responsibilities he very privately sought the relief of medication. British Columbia’s health care system was not satisfactorily responsive, but illegal sources are especially easily accessed there. I can imagine that the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gotama, in his youth might have done something similarly stupid. He described his youthful self as “most delicate.” Whatever, only a hopelessly narrow reading of the precept against intoxicants precludes pharmaceuticals for the treatment of a mental health condition. But pot, psychedelics, alcohol, and stimulants are typically different, and I think that the choice to use them is problematic. Caffeine’s okay, I think. And I drink. Coffee. Every morning, with my writing.
I wish we could sharpen up a spiritual perspective on a wise and compassionate use of psychoactive products, for our time. And not come off sounding like monks or aged hippies. Also not be too specifically focussed on life-long addicts like me, for whom the chemical hooks in most of these substances make them very much not worth it. I have a genetic predilection, and early life trauma, and since then a history, and so for me abstinence definitely works best. My past and present wives and family, friends, various cohorts, and my communities—they all heartily agree. I feel that they are in a way empathetic, but not entirely accurately empathetic. And because for most people the decision to not use is a lot less obvious than for long-time drug addicts like me, I think that the accuracy of our empathy is hugely important. And difficult, because it has to do not only with drugs, but with a necessarily wide take on addictions, and therefore, I believe, on relationships. Because I really don’t think we can talk about addictions and not be talking about relationships.
Not once in The Art of Solitude do you mention your being married. You’ve never written about your relationships or about taking drugs in any of your previous books. For me, with what I have to share, reticence on either topic would just not make sense. Your Buddhist books didn’t need these disclosures. Now, in other cases, with other Buddhist teachers, it’s different. For example, Alan Watts and Chögyam Trungpa were alcoholics, and since finding that out—and not from them—their writings have felt less truthful to me. The life-long boozing killed Trungpa Rinpoche. He was only forty-eight, and his end was ignominious. Such things in the lives of our spiritual teachers are of more than passing interest. Siddhartha, the historical Buddha, on the day his wife gave birth to their child, walked out. Left the family home, although not before naming the baby, Rahula, which in English is “fetter.” What am I supposed to make of that? I don’t get why people don’t ask questions, don’t want to talk about these situations. Michael Stone left a pregnant wife and their three children. Where are the before and after Buddhists in this situation? I have one son and two young granddaughters. My wife is a devoted daughter, dear big sister, and adored aunt. Every family is an interweaving process. The word family should be a verb. How can there not be questions and conversation? Except that I know that even just sharing my story of drug-taking, not to mention the stuff around sex—I mean, even trying to just start up a conversation without harming my loved ones is really hard. Currently and especially with regards to my wife. There’s stigma, for sure. And yet for very sure, admitting to the suffering that my behaviour causes others is pretty darn close to the empathetic bull’s eye.
So, I think that when we talk about taking recreational drugs, the conversation has to recognise the harms of addiction and acknowledge mental illness. I need to speak from my experience. And for sure I also have to believe that people can use my story, many other stories, and maybe in some sense and at some level yours, too, to work through the issues—including not only individual mental health and addiction challenges, but also the effects of our behaviour around drugs, and sex, on the people in our lives.
Relationships are essential to everyone. Unlike recreational drugs, which only some people get into, although the numbers are going up, for casual consumers and for addicted users. And seems to me that voluntarily chosen solitude is vanishingly rare, or becoming so. I think that it’s really interesting how drug-taking and solitude are both very significantly social. A drug trip, even if undertaken in isolation, will amplify the voices in the head. And sober seclusion does the same. The mind evokes the voices of others. You describe this very well in your book. How when we go inside ourselves we meet others. And how distinctions can be lost between people who are remembered, people who are entirely fantasized, and those who are actually in proximity. Drugs eliminate solitude and dispel silence. I recollect how it felt like the stoner society was crowding me out. Sometimes weirding me out, stampeding and trampling me. Whatever, for better and for worse, we’re wired for togetherness, and if we want the experiences to be for the better, whether we’re on drugs or not, we have to be rightly attentive to the march of this inside out parade.
Another aspect we need to pay attention to, which you also describe in your accounts of drug-taking, is the frame of higher concerns in which both drug trips and silent retreats are shared. Right before taking peyote in Mexico or ayahuasca in Spain, your cohort assembled in a circle, with each participant telling everyone what they came for. I believe that a group’s shared intentionality is key to working up the spiritual quality of the experience. Whether this experience be the sacred rituals of indigenous origins in which you ingested ayahuasca, and vomited, a lot, into transformation. Or the crack houses in which I smoked and injected cocaine, and ejaculated a lot—albeit mostly I did it in my own abode and alone although always online and often also with one or occasionally two other people, like crackwhores obsessively shooting selfies—but it’s the same difference: multiple-personality minds and bodies let loose and acting out in cultural circumstances that are imbedded with belief in shared purpose. First time I had sex—at a love-in when I was fourteen, same summer you were fourteen—I was on LSD. And again then about ten thousand times. I bet I did more acid than Timothy Leary and Ram Das put together (Ram Das, born Richard Alpert, on April 6—did you know us Aries are the least likely of all signs to believe in astrology?). I digress. Way more acid, I did, and for me it became some strange kind of aphrodisiac—just saying. Reading in your book about how their forerunner Aldous Huxley requested that his loving (second) wife give him LSD as a sacrament on his deathbed, I was reminiscing about my communions with those girls, sometimes two a time and us all trying to synchronize our orgasms with the crack cocaine rush—we loved each other, too. In a way. A very, very temporary way. Choice of soundtracks in these scenarios is crucial. T.S. Eliot wrote of “music heard so deeply/That it is not heard at all, but you are the music/While the music lasts.”
Can any of this mysticism be married to moral and ethical principles? I ask you, Stephen. My misguided history shouldn’t be all what begs my question here. I mean, I might fantasize that I’m doing acid with Eliot, and Heidegger, and me, the Canadian Buddhist, I’d be, like, saying: “Yeah-no but don’t you think the sort of liberal government we have in my country aligns more nicely with an ethical secular faith than that Hitler-thing you guys are into? And what is it, spiritual freedom, anyway, eh?” I’d ask, and then maybe say that whatever it is, might a secular faith be maybe just, like, somehow actually better than full-on being in a state of rapture? Despite how good that feels. I dunno. I might say that, and yeah-no, I really don’t know, because when the most inspired poet and the highest philosopher are bearing the light on the path, it seems really tactless, not to mention totally a buzz kill, to bring up thieving and murdering politics. But still, Stephen, you, and me, we’re the old guys now and you’re definitely still, as one ought to be, an explorer (who I’ll keep on following). “Here or there does not matter. We must be still and still moving, into another intensity. For a further union, a deeper communion, through the dark cold and the empty desolation.” Said Eliot, and about that he was right on. And Heidegger’s philosophy was right on. But the politics of both these men was certainly dubious.
Whatever, we really don’t know how things are going to play out, what myths and morals will prevail. I’m still feeling the depths of the Canadian winter, the last one was my worst ever and I hope to hell won’t be like this the whole the coming one, too—spending our time locked down, this pandemic wearing, worrying, wearying, and draining us.
Drugs, ethics, and religion, I don’t know what to think, what to do. Because I really still wonder what mind-altering drug experiences might have to do with spirituality, freedom, and faith. One thing we do know is that it’s not possible to get high on a drug that doesn’t have an endogenous counterpart pre-installed in the brain by biological evolution. Cannabis releases natural endocannabinoids, we have opioid receptors triggering the release of our endorphins for fentanyl, heroin, and other opiates, and alcohol. For oxys we have the hormonal neurotransmitter oxytocin, and cocaine serves up a neural cocktail that starts with my getting a big shot of my very own dopamine. And psychedelics have, well, I don’t think we know what all they have, and research has only belatedly got going again. Anyway, the exogenous substance facilitates the experience, it doesn’t invent it. The drug makes it happen, but the potentiality is innate. But, whatever, taking the drug means that you don’t have to work at it, don’t have to practice anything. Alive we arrive, fit as a fiddle, fully prepped for full-on play.
To play, or to be played? Pharmacists make sure you know how to take your prescription safely. They’re interested in your wellness. Unlike the Hells Angels, who don’t care. I didn’t get any sense one way or the other of feelings towards customers from the kids working at the Cannabis Canada/Express Canada Delivery Service. The exchange of money for product was through a half-closed door and masks were mandatory. We just purchase some amount and let it lever the chemicals found in our brains. With the result that some people, a lot of people, who are like me, will get so egregiously good at consuming these mood-altering products as to almost always attain extremely desirable outcomes. Doing something that’s inherently easy and learning to make it quite obviously necessary.
Do people who’ve never smoked pot know how strong the high is? This is not a coffee with an extra shot of espresso, in the morning at your desk. This is not a couple of glasses of wine over a period of three hours starting in your kitchen after work, proceeding through the dining room and eventually landing in the den. This is that amount of time feeling intense physical pleasure and an amazing change of mental state that for the average person can no way be maintained without drugs. Multiply by at least an order of magnitude for the power of drugs other than cannabis. Drugs which are readily available thanks to large corporations and multi-national syndicates. Recreational drugs may not be inebriating like alcohol, but being less inept doesn’t mean the user is not totally bat-shit stoned. And the way that worked for me was that for most of my forty years addicted I really worked it, and for the longest time I appeared to get away with it. To be a guy on his game. In my teens, instead of going to high school, I played guitar, relatively successfully. And even after I stopped making music, I continued to be creative and productive. Sort of. I definitely stayed active, presenting myself as an independent individual. A free-living young man. Marching into middle age to a different drummer. Seemingly able to routinely recreate my body-mind as a mystic rapture machine. But what I was doing was teaching myself to get addicted and stay addicted. I was an ironic reference to spiritual freedom, immersed in a counter culture that upheld my continually intoxicating myself. My in-crowd was a caricature of a faith community.
My average brain, like all human brains, evolved to be a social organ in a culturally-defined organism. We are born prepared for sociability and we develop into it throughout our lives. And herein lies our capabilities for freedom and for addictions. We have very liberative capacities for loving kindness and altruism. But we also have a potential for an intense self-centredness, concomitant with which is the autodidactic entrapment of addictions. And now we’re in with social media, and with neurofeedback coming on, and real artificial intelligence, more than the current well-learned machines, mayhap on the horizon. Oh, there be monsters here, in the uncharted oceans at the edge of the inner and yet very sociable world. Navigating it will be terribly challenging. We need wise and compassionate spiritual teachers and guides.
In The Art of Solitude you write: “By taking cannabis as a monk, I learned that such substances generate a power in one’s mind that is neither good nor bad in itself. What matters is whether or not you have the ability to turn this power to your own ends instead of being overwhelmed by it. In my case,” you go on, “this required that I first achieve a degree of self-governance through mastering a contemplative discipline rooted in a philosophical and ethical vision.” And beginning the next paragraph you say: “I also learned that such self-medication is as much about enhancement of performance as the elimination of painful feelings. I found that cannabis was best taken in solitude and silence while in a clear and untroubled state of mind.”
Well, good for you, Stephen, for your enhancement of performance following your philosophically and ethically rooted mastery. But what can we say to people other than highly disciplined monks who want to know what to do when it comes to drug-taking? Those of us for whom a clear and untroubled state of mind, even a little silence now and again, is just not happening. A contemplative community augmented by scholarly peers is not the reality that most people inhabit. In my world people will turn your words around to suggest that you are advocating drugs as the path to untroubled clarity. Easy-peasy switcheroo. Three years after legalization, the Canadian government is now deciding on rules for advertising, whether to allow cannabis dealers to be freed as for alcohol or restricted like with cigarettes. If I had a pot dispensary I’d love to put a poster of a Buddhist monk in the window, like you, maybe, with a quote, in a cloud coming out of your mouth, the words: “I learned that such self-medication is as much about enhancement of performance as the elimination of painful feelings. I found that cannabis was best taken in solitude and silence while in a clear and untroubled state of mind.” Further to which my entrepreneurial self is imagining a line of calming merchandise. Maybe even seeing an opportunity to open up a chill space for my customer’s uninterrupted using.
We’ll see what happens, but I expect that plentiful supply will match an easily-grown demand, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see advertising promoting performance enhancement, marketed to people in solitude—a euphemism for involuntary and sad aloneness—and the high will be described as a glimpse of the summit of enlightenment. I’m saying that the purchase is not enhancement of anything good, it’s typically self-medication, as a futile attempt to relieve the fear and pain of disconnected lives, lonely hearts, and undernourished souls. The techniques for turning the power of the intoxicant to wholesome, creative purposes, which you have achieved through your self-described life-long practice-leading-to-mastery, will not figure in corporate business plans. Because addicted customers are the most profitable kind, and anything that treats the pain of loneliness is bound to cause addictions. Raw money power reigns, late-stage-capitalism chews and spits culture, and young people today don’t have my generation’s flower-powered counter-culture, with its benevolence of great guitars and vocals. Although back then we didn’t really have much of a true discipline’s philosophical and ethical vision, I must admit. In a lot of ways we were just lucky, and now that luck seems like it’s running out. And what my experience suggests to me is that we should be very, very careful what we say now about the goodness of taking drugs.
Basically because average brains like mine are just all too easy to hack. I have been a practicing Buddhist, meditating daily and occasionally attending retreats, et cetera, for almost thirty years, and before this recent relapse I didn’t drink or take drugs for nearly fifteen years and for the first half of that time I lived in a Zen monastery. Abstinence had ceased to be a problem for me. Renunciation felt more like freedom from addictions than deprivation. I’m shocked that I slipped, and I’m appalled at the harm my wife is still suffering today because many months ago, while she was away, I spent eight days and nights getting stoned. In your book you describe psychoactive products as medicine, many times that’s how you refer to them. Medicine?! When your shaman guide gives you a dose you ask him: “If this is a medicine then what is it curing?” And he answers: “A closed heart.” End of chapter.
By my reckoning that quote should be at the beginning of a very interesting new chapter. Because when I read it I wanted to go to this man’s home, and yours, and I wanted to ask you both, in front of your families, to tell me: What is not enough right here? What is there about right here that is not more than enough to cure and curate a closed heart. What is not enough about an ordinary everyday mind, in the company of our loved ones? What’s preventing the heart from opening here, without making expensive and deeply fraught purchases? Opening is, after all, just exactly what heart naturally wants to do, for free. Isn’t it?
We attend retreats, sit in silence and sometimes in solitude, to heal and open our hearts. People in our lives might misunderstand and liken it to escape. But just compare the mountain of evidence for well-being following sincere and sober contemplative practice, in contrast to the vast and deep pit of suffering caused by drug-taking.
Medicines are prescribed by doctors according to medical science, for the treatment of illness and injury. The promotion of OxyContin was a transgression, and one way for a government to engage in society’s drug problems is to do what British Columbia and other jurisdictions are doing to Purdue Pharma: busting the executives’ assess, making these drug-pushers pay a share of the health-care bills. Meanwhile, in Canada and elsewhere, repurposing pot smokers from criminals into tax payers is not, in itself, a bad thing. But both these reactions are not empathetically accurate, because they represent a lack of compassion, and of inspiration. The war on drugs was a terrible idea, so better late than never, yeah, okay, let’s stop doing that. I got busted for possession of marijuana fifty years, to the day, October 17th, before my country officially legalized it. My family lived in a small city in rural Ontario and the lawyer asked me why I used the drug and I told him it was for performance enhancement. Because I wanted to be a great guitarist. And I said that I also smoked it for relaxation. Because I worked so hard, wanting like anything to be successful. I’m laughing out loud now remembering this kindly and wise old Jewish lawyer looking across his huge mahogany desk, looking at me, the long-haired high-school drop-out son of the local Lutheran minister, and telling me that my rationalizations for taking drugs were utter bullshit. I was tried in adult court and narrowly avoided a two-year prison sentence, which was back then the norm. Luckily, I got probation, but still, the effects of that arrest and trial on my youthful self, and especially on my family, were awful and lasted a lot longer than two years.
In my home—my home as a kid then and now again in my present home as an old guy—hearing psychoactive products called a medicine, or a performance enhancement, as you refer to cannabis, it just hurts us. And the thing is, our serious discomfort is overwhelmingly more typical than your performance enhancement, even if we’re talking about just pot, and not the opioid epidemic that is devastating families and communities. And I could go on about on-line porn and the effect of it on relationships—rapidly gets to my main point, which is that addiction, whether to mind-altering drugs, behaviours, or both, touches us all, and a conversation about doing drugs should acknowledge such a significant source of suffering.
Further to which I want to talk about two other things that are hugely important to how I understand addictions. The first is personal and the second is pretty eccentric, so please bear with me. First, the personal: the relationship with my significant other. In uncovering the causes of my relapse I’ve had to work hard on the marriage, the pre-existing problems with which both my individual therapist and the couple therapist think were the source of my relapse. They’re telling me that my relationship was more germane than my long history of addictions, genetic predilection, current pandemic circumstances, whatever—but no, it was the personal relationships, the conglomeration of romantic partners, present and past significant others, and my deceased mother, that done the trick. My uncovery process has been very humbling therefore, and kind of scary, because I thought that with the work I’ve done, and the help I’ve had, over many years, that I’d learned my lessons and defused those triggers. Well, I reckon not, and it’s interesting how my unclear and troubled state of mind, and the lack of silence and solitude during this pandemic time, conditioned my misadventure. I got caught in an encrusted submerged structure, like a skin-diver trapped in a wreck. Used to sail the high seas on that ship, wasn’t I the skipper? Yeah-no, it’s all on me now. But I still just can’t see how a person can write a whole book about solitude without even mentioning being married. Moreover to the woman who I’ll venture to guess that you gave up being a monk to be with, I am just guessing, and I shouldn’t, but seems like there’s a story here. Maybe you fell in love and gave up being nun and monk to be together. Or was it a bunch of coincidences? Mayhap doctrines and conveniences. Yeah-no, nobody’s business but yours and hers, certainly not mine. I originally meant for this letter to focus on drug-taking. Also I felt that I needed to recognize the significance of solitude, and silence, and self-governance, these spiritual necessities, because these things are all related and by my lights they’re connected with the story of why we get high. And now I’m saying: moreover, that the orbit of life’s conversation is the journey of love that we take with our loved ones, and others, because love is still what it’s all about—YES!? I realize that I’ve no equanimity here. I feel like an asteroid’s moon, just small, but I get black-hole emotional when I talk about love. Or the lack thereof. Happens to me more often than I’d like, that I get angry, I mean, and find myself actually yelling over love. Lots of asteroids have moons, I recently heard, maybe no larger than a shopping mall parking lot, one might swing off and away into space and it’s like a speck of dust. Not even that. Ohmygod.
But for sure, good conversation truly helps, and I hope my being such a nosy and emotional not to mention wildly digressive person isn’t a complete turn-off to the people who I’d like to hear from, like you especially, Stephen. Because there’s still this second talking point I’d really like to share, if you’ll forebear. And it’s about how if we’re talking about a skillfully compassionate reset of the Buddhist precepts against sex and drugs—orthodox, puritanical rules that are non-operational in today’s society—our being skillful requires more than a reconciliation with both the relational and the religious aspects of our species nature. We also need to try to bear in mind a hard problem. But I’m not talking about the hard problem, consciousness, I’m talking about what I regard as a similarly hard problem: Time. I say similarly but I really don’t know and just because two things, consciousness and time for example, are both great mysteries, that doesn’t mean they are the same great mystery. This is an easy mistake to make. I made it with quantum physics, spirituality, and consciousness. And now here I go again maybe, because I want to try to say something about capital T, Time. I know I’m eccentric but I just really want to imagine the possibilities for thinking very differently about time, in relation to love, spirituality, and addiction. So what is time anyway? This great mystery: time in the cosmos, real time. Real-time hyphenated more often, as in a real-time meeting, and soon it will be written as just one word: realtime. Supposedly, here-and-now time. I really don’t know what it is, but still, I feel it’s amazingly important. I used to think that with the Buddhist insight regarding non-self—that with recognizing the pregnant and clinging error of our identification in self-making, I could believe that our concept of time, our sensible error, was an accessory attached to that self-same self-making. And that therefore the false-subject self and the sense of time that comes along with it were logically upstream of those aforementioned other two most significant naturally-selected human characteristics—our sociability and our religiosity—I used to think this was all neatly true, back in the day when I also believed that we stand on the banks of time, which like a river flows past us. Physics says that’s not correct. Apparently, time doesn’t pass. We do, we all pass away, but time just is. We try to make it out to be a resource at our disposal, but maybe that’s totally wrong, and instead of our having time, we are time. We’re, like, units of time. So now I really don’t know, don’t know how to think about time. Contemplating astrophysics, a person really has to wonder what’s true. And mindful of Buddhist insight, a person will wonder who’s wondering. And now, in this pandemic time, temporality has especially got everyone’s attention. Now, when the future just ain’t what it used to be. And when, like everyone, I’m as totally bewildered as I am over-informed—and that’s on a good day! Somebody tells me I’m over-thinking all this and that everyone should just live in the moment—to me that’s just a totally paradoxical notion. Like, where’s there a free will to be anywhere else? What’s more, if not in the present then where else is the past? Because for sure it’s not passed away. That’s what they say in Ireland: “The thing about the past is that it’s not passed.” And where and when else but now in our minds lives a future that we can or even should stop thinking about? It’s all happening right now, right here! Past and future just take their rightful places, right along with everything, in punctuate consciousness, right now, on and on. And the thought of eight billion brains all seeking out some other-ly metaphysical moment, naming it now and trying to plant a flag on it is as incoherent as it is frightening.
Even before the flame vaporizes the substance and the fumes of the dissolving rock of crack cocaine get sucked into the body’s bloodstream, the brain has already exploded in sweet anticipation. This phenomenon—an expectation of imminent pleasure served up with a side-order of astonishment—has something very interesting in common with how we enjoy music. Because this confection of expectation and surprise is the same neural process that makes it possible to domesticate noise, to turn the chaotic din into wonderful art. Music, at least from the point of view of what happens in the brain, is the experience of expecting something to happen, and then having it play on us in a unique and pleasantly surprising way. So the thing is, whether in taking drugs or making music, what’s essential is sweet anticipation. It feels weird to me now to look back recognizing this similarity in both my drug-tripping and my music-making, how I was play-acting myself into future time. Weird the way for decades I found them both so bloody affectionate. A polymath of Early German Romanticism, Novalis, said that all diseases are musical problems and all cures are musical solutions. Well, we don’t know what he was talking about either.
I sometimes wonder how my addiction counsellors remember me—I once tried to count up how many addiction treatment counsellors worked on me and I stopped counting at forty-four—I wonder how many would remember a story of mine, totally a trope, I called it One Last Time. This one last time, the last use before quitting, just once more, it was always a really great time—in fact it was the best time. The anticipation of letting go, of forgetting about all this bullshit and making myself totally available for some new amazement that was coming at me from wherever, everywhere. Because with this, every time I set it up, there was this sense of: “Something big coming up here!” Which is exactly what I used to say, and because I always relapsed, I’d get say it again and again. Believing in it again, every time. Because One Last Time was always about adding something to the excitement of using. It was never about actually quitting, abstaining, or renouncing.
Incorporating a wink and nod, a bow, to a sober future enabled my skipping off to re-live the lie that denied that very future. Because face on, the thought of having to change was way more frightening than the thought of, for example, dying of an overdose. Death was bittersweet, it was a player’s risk. What terrified me was the thought of actually running out of this stuff, of crack, or whatever. So I needed a go-around that I could believe in. Some pretense to protect me from a time when the person I will become will have to endure the effects of the person I am now. One Last Time was my personal favourite pretense.
This is not just about me and drugs. It’s about nations perpetually growing their economies. It’s about our making long-term investments in fossil fuel extraction while we nod to the science of climate change. It’s about constructing invulnerable social media identities while we tell our kids they should be in touch with their feelings, especially empathy. We’ve got major addictions and we don’t want to take responsibility for the consequences of our appetites. What limited sense of time we once upon a time had is getting totally skewed by compounding and conflicting cravings. Are we so different from the millions of Americans who’ve fallen in with Q-Anon? Who, despite that what their leaders said would happen didn’t happen and won’t ever happen, they can, like every other prophecy cult in history, just reset their key date and ramp up their beliefs. Q-Anon has already done this several times in only a few years— “the storm is coming!” say they—and so long as they keep repeating it their membership just keeps on growing. Because their Internet sites, like crack houses and thousands of places of worship, are crowded with expectant believers waiting for the big event that will make everything okay again.
For going on fifteen years of my being clean I thought I was cured of all my addictions, and then I relapsed. I’d spun a good story of addiction and recovery, but as is most often the case with stories, when you factor out the bad luck and the good luck, what’s left is mainly the conceits of the story teller. Stories are bundles of lies. But okay, never mind that, this time for sure: I promise to never again hide in the false protection of such pretense. I admit that good luck is the main reason my addictions didn’t kill me. By sheer luck I recovered and had the resources to uncover the roots of my issues. So now I am here and doing well—lucky for me. But for very sure now I don’t want the combination of blind luck and pretense to be the platform I stand on, and neither should anybody who’s lucky enough to be alive.
I detect another faint echo of blind luck and pretense when I hear advocates of ayahuasca saying that it’s a one-shot deal, describing it as the opposite of Freudian psychoanalysis. One-shot deals, breakthroughs, ah-ha moments, and Enlightenment—I’m skeptical. But seekers will abide. I’m not a seeker, but still I reckon we’ll see what happens. At least until we don’t or can’t see anymore, because we’re gone. Perhaps gone not because extinct but because we’ve changed beyond what we now recognize as our natural and normal selves. Which might be a terrible fate, or it might be very okay. Depends, but whatever, won’t be the first time ourselves and the world has been irrevocably altered.
Given time, for example for confronting global warming instead of we just get whacked by a meteorite, a new theory of addiction would definitely be useful. And, I think, fascinating. To better understand how we do and undo habits. And also, and I think similarly important: how do the ways we relate to one another change when we’re orbiting around an addiction? The warp and weft of relationships is the cosmic tissue. When is the time to repair, when the time to rip asunder? When is the healing time? I don’t know, but it’s interesting. There’s an old saying, pertains to me: Give a man a hammer and pretty soon everything he sees is a nail. And I’m still here with my hammer, trying to deconstruct my sex and drug habit. Turn my history into stories and theories. Thing is that in this season of life I’m mostly using my hammer’s claw-end.
A really clear view of addictions would uncover human nature’s capacity to change habits and restore relationships. Would be good to be seeing and hearing things differently, before it gets too dark to dance, or too warm—not just for old addicts like me, but for all beings on this timely planet.
I’ve listened to ten thousand check-ins, my cohorts in addictions therapy taking about their predicaments. I remember the time, in Group, I realized, said out loud: “We’re all lonely as Hell.” Still think it’s true: addictions are all about losing in love. Not demon drugs, bad genes, capitalism, dislocation, homelessness. Not the parents, the schools, the legal system. Not trauma, pre-and-post-natal. Yeah, sure, all those things, but still, always, the commonest thing, it’s loneliness, broken heartedness, I’m still listening to addictions and that’s what I’m still hearing, about how it all went wrong.
I guess one thing about my web platform is that I don’t have an editor, so now I’ve nobody who’ll stop me from sharing my latest odd and embarrassing thought, maybe it’s a kind of crazy longing, which I confess I’m following up in books and podcasts: I wish that we could meet extra-terrestrials. Okay, I said it out loud, and it sounds flakey and puerile, but yeah, I’d really like for humans to somehow hook up, I mean, like, start up a conversation, with beings from another planet. Their existence is highly probable, so, where is everybody? I imagine the way a meeting would go is that we’d have a little laugh over the Fermi paradox—our new BFF is wonderfully kind and good-humoured—and so then we’d get right down to the business of asking for help. Maybe they were once upon a time lonely lost creatures, too, I don’t know, but for reasons I can’t explain I’d just really like to ask someone who’s super-smart and not human if he/she/they or whatever thinks it’s because of our being lonely that we keep on choosing to build bad habits into addictions. Because as far as I can tell no one on Earth has figured it out. So I’d like to ask they if they thinks our loneliness has something to do with why at times we go off by ourselves. Is it because there just ain’t no cure for love? It don’t matter how it all went wrong, that don’t change the way I feel. Maybe I could share with they a verse from this song by Leonard Cohen:
All the rocket ships are climbing through the sky
The holy books are open wide
The doctors working day and night
But they’ll never ever find that cure for love
There ain’t no drink no drug
(Ah, tell them, angels)
There’s no cure for love,
No cure, for, love…
And I can’t believe that time is gonna heal this wound that I’m speaking of. Speaking of, shouting of, and sometimes singing of. The curation requires creative expression. And deep wounds—lost loves—also need silence and solitude, for the non-story of healing that allows our better angels their timely shining.
I accept that there may be a right time for taking mind-altering products, when some people might find them helpful. In extraordinary situations. Whether that be in ceremonies in circles around fires, guided by elders, or in treatment centres run by psychiatrists, I don’t know. Seems to me that old-school is a better bet than the medicalized model. No doubt it all depends. But I don’t believe that psychotropic drugs are in themselves liberative, redemptive, or curative. I’m actually pretty okay with the orthodox Buddhist precept, that it’s just not good to take drugs. Probably I think that’s basically true. And what’s wrong with me saying so, except that there’s nobody else around here who agrees? And I get it, because for Christ’s sake I’m advocating feeling bored, sad, and lonesome in a world where escaping those feelings in self-administered chemical intoxication is almost completely normalized. The admonition against drinking and driving and the age restrictions on alcohol consumption are exceptions that prove the rule. If you are an adult and not behind the wheel, go right ahead and enjoy as advertised. The choice to get high on your drug of choice is on its way to being enshrined as a right, conflated with life, liberty, and happiness. And in my opinion, this choice is unhealthy and immoral, because along with the extremely pleasurable buzz comes deprivation of nourishment to the soul. And because consumer hedonism’s conceit of invulnerability discounts empathy. When I wish someone good luck that includes my hope they’ll not be getting high, let alone not get hooked and do great harm their loved ones.
People told me a lie about addictions, when I was young. They said that a person’s nature doesn’t change, and that some of us, for example, are just stoners. That if people like me take those drugs, we won’t be able to quit. Demon drugs, disease-prone people, just do the math, and say no. And what I took from that is that I might just as well go crazy because what I might otherwise try to do doesn’t really matter. Meaning I don’t really matter, might as well write my sober reality off, and so if drugs and sex relieve my pain and bring on bliss, even very temporarily, just say yes. I remember in a comic strip Lucy counselling Charlie Brown. She said: “Your problem, Charlie Brown, is that you’re you.” That’s the lie, and people are still saying it, and what’s behind it is the idea that for some of us there’s no capacity for spiritual freedom. But the truth is that there is, for everyone. For everyone and at all times, including and instead of happy hour. And even if none of us can be totally cured of all what we suffer, we can all be well curated. Always and urgently, the soul deserves our care. We can make artforms of our lives, in solitude, and together, in community.
Our earliest human ancestors went deep into caves to draw on the walls. I read in a book by E.O. Wilson that every one of those more than two hundred known sites of paleolithic cave paintings has acoustics of the quality of a concert hall. Remnants of musical instruments are found in these places. People were doing something together, in places difficult to reach, in ceremony and art, curating their lives and inner selves, their fears, their dreams. They had beer and most likely other drugs. Whether human communion required those products then, I don’t know, but I definitely believe we’re better off without them now. The ways of being spiritually free are always changing.
I imagine that for our prehistoric forbearers there was a sense of being in the right time and place. For their real-time veneration of collective memory and mystery. That they were sharing something essential and auspicious, is what I like to imagine. In our post-modern notions of time and place, time is a naught and space is in nonmaterial flows. All of a sudden we’ve wired ourselves up in this crazy-humungous media experiment, in which everyone is the subject, everybody and nobody is running the show, and who can say for sure what’s coming down the pipe next? Because the supply chain logistics of our everyday situation is no good for understanding what we’re becoming. So I ask: what kinds of tripping can be beneficial, let alone auspicious, in this bewildered world, into which we arrive socially disconnected and stay totally and continually distracted from cradle to grave surrounded by highly processed drugs, distilled alcohols, and a kaleidoscope of coloured pixels on beeping and ringing devices? I think we have to come to grips with the fact that the situation has really changed. The intoxicants are different, and so are we. Maybe ten, twenty, thirty thousand years ago getting high and getting it together were beautifully aligned, but I think it’s possible that that stopped being reliably true sometime around 500 BC, when new insights into the nature of things came along. Our bad luck that organized religions came along around then too, to wage their wars against curiosity and good humour. Banning the drugs, murdering the witches. The war on drugs was just the most recent of such reactions. All this religious negativity has given renunciation and sobriety an undeserved bad rap. And could be even worse luck now when a near-total misalignment of mind, body, and spirit is in hyper-capitalist overdrive.
Ohmygod, I’m like the Grinch who stole Xmas, I know, I’m an old curmudgeon. And I really don’t know, but I’m thinking about this: In classical Greece, the care and feeding of the soul was called eudaimonia. Practiced in solitude, and in communion fulfilled. Seems again like a good idea. Talkin’ about revolution, for the new generation.
And Stephen, just one more thing, one more coincidence. On the morning after reading of your chapter on seeing Vermeer—you say you were wondering if something you read about one of his paintings when you were eighteen had somehow stayed with you and guided you to your writing at age sixty-eight—and on this morning of mine, my aged sixty-eight self was sitting on the can reading Tricycle: The Buddhist Review. And I was reading a beautiful article called “Living in a World that No Longer Exists”, by Curtis White, who’s talking about the very same painting: Vermeer’s Woman Holding a Balance. Nice coincidence. Two very excellent writer/teachers telling me about a Dutch Golden Age masterpiece. Which depicts a householder-woman who’s looking—her face is equanimous and enigmatic, calm, lovely, and compelling, framed by the hood of a fur-trimmed jacket. Rich, white fur, maybe winter ermine. Her eyes are hooded, lowered to take in the empty balance which she’s holding in her hand, and on her table the strings of pearls, a gold chain, the deep indigo jewelers felt. White quotes 13th century Zen master Dogen:
“Enlightenment is the intimacy of all things,” said Dogen.
Coincidence and luck are my keys to this intimacy that is unlocked by paying attention, feeling amazement, because look at us here, look where we are, all alive, taking another breath, when doesn’t it seem so much more likely there’d be no existence? And either way nothing personal but still, enlightenment is the intimacy of all things. Dogen’s philosophy, Uji, is typically translated as Being-Time. The title of Heidegger’s magnum opus is Being in Time. So much in common despite they’re centuries and cultures apart, but I like Dogen better because he didn’t join the Nazi Party. And so aren’t we all still here now wondering how the person who we were some time ago might be recognizable as a pilgrim on a path to the person we will one day become? Faith today is gratitude for choices that might grace that meeting.
Time to take a breather here. I want to wish you good day, Stephen Batchelor. But just one postscript. You’ve once again provided your followers with an erudite and thought-provoking book, this one devoted to the art of being in solitude, and this important work has really helped me. For it and for all the books you’ve written I want to say thank you for being such a positive and wholesome influence. I’m urging you to update your views on drugs, especially in the context of relationships, and to expand the lens to recognize addictions, but I think everything you’ve said and done is truly helpful.
And so now I’ve been inspired to launch this podcast site, devoted to uncovering addictions, and to the art of just being very okay, alone, together, I guess now or never, whatever. And for the sake of whatever I’d just like to lastly ask: is there a common root of the mystical and the artistic that might be found in the quality of our practicing, of knowing practice in a state of grace? Because I’m quite sure that practicing an artfully curated way of living intrinsically involves ethical behaviour, by which I mean performing honourably, and for elders especially, to be guiding their communities with integrity. Not fucking up like Heidegger and Trungpa, and also Bill, who founded Alcoholics Anonymous. Him, too. Other names in Buddhism come to mind, too many. And just yesterday I read that Thomas Merton, for fuck sake Thomas Merton, celibate monk and exceptionally prolific writer, had a son he didn’t care for, didn’t speak to, and apparently didn’t get around to mentioning in all those books and letters. And I just don’t get it. You don’t go there, I don’t go there, even stoned out of my mind I wasn’t that bad. Most of my problems were the result of gross stupidity. I really don’t get how such wise people can be so unkind.
Buddhists sometimes describe wisdom and compassion as a pair of wings and that flight requires they be balanced—right up there along with the other higher-concern dialectics: the spiritual versus the secular, the ultimate versus the relative, the solitary sitting versus life’s crazy circus parade—mounted in opposition but wanting to be held in balance, high in the air. My sense is that this model is useless. I mean, why is living an examined life seen as a compromise between conflicting forces? Of course, living mindfully can be as difficult as it is urgently necessary but aren’t there usually better non-binary ways to relate to things? Ways that lead to a consensus when the complicated values in an issue seem to be drawing things apart, pulling me away. And anyway, who’s the aviator in this cockpit? On any given day. I wish I could ask you in person: what do you think? I’d like to know what you’d say to my suggesting that the real story is that there’s actually just one wing. That this is it, the wing is everything including all versions of me, and the wing has a certain shape to it. A foil shape that splits the air and in motion, by a miracle of nature, generates lift. This is Bernoulli’s principle, so-called since 1738, when it was recognized by science, this miracle that lifts a bird’s body, an airplane’s fuselage, a sailing vessel, into the vacuum on the side of the wing that represents the longer trip from the leading edge to the trailing edge. And what a miracle it is, because the separated molecules of air journeying from the windward to the far leeward end, the point to which these divided elements want—amazingly, they apparently desire—to reconnect! Why should molecules of air care about anything? I don’t understand this. I wonder if being mystified about it has to do with the misunderstanding of time. I wonder if that’s the reality of where this miracle lies—that maybe it’s not a where miracle, it’s a when miracle—but I really don’t know. Because, my goodness, what it seems like now is that the molecules are on a mass pilgrimage, all of them looking to arrive at the same place at the same time, for the meeting.
And what a coincidence, because here we are. Here I am. Here you are. And that’s just the way it is. When you’re a foil. Stephen Batchelor. Take care, have a good day.