Monthly Archives: July 2009

Is this what the world is like?

Teaching teenagers is an eye-opener.  Half of the time I don’t know what they are talking about, and the other half of the time I wish I didn’t.  Maybe I grew up with too many religious friends in suburbia, or maybe I was just preoccupied by other things, but I cannot believe how dirty and profane and substance-riddled the teenagers I’ve encountered are.

The sad thing is, most adults I know aren’t much better.  I am continuously astounded by the casual conversations that take place among intelligent people.  Is it strange that I don’t know and don’t want to know two dozen slang terms for every drug, altered mental state, sex act, and genital part?  I appreciate a well-placed “fuck” as a conversation enhancer, but I can’t stand gratuitous swearing.  All of this means that I have no part to hold in many conversations where I find myself present.  It’s probably an unavoidable by-product of living in a small isolated town and working in a field rife with hippies.  I like my hippie friends, but I dearly wish that there did not have to be a pot pipe present every time two or three are gathered together.

I’m not a prude or a teetotaler.  I’ve loosened up a lot since my Christian college days and have been making up for some of the experiences I didn’t have back then.  I’ve often wished I could have had those college experiences like everyone else, but now I’m also grateful that I was able to go through college and consider serious questions and really confront who I am as a person without being surrounded by weed and beer pong.

I know that casual sex, alcohol, and drugs are an important part of life and/or a rite of passage for many people.  I don’t fully understand why (does anybody?), but I have no desire to socially sequester myself from people who consider those things important.  However, I firmly believe that just because something is ubiquitous doesn’t mean it’s right or best or necessary.  It really, really frustrates me when some people think that not having those experiences equates to being less mature or less experienced or having somehow missed out on life.  I’ve seen students of mine alienate their peers and make them question their morals, and it makes me want to drop-kick them.  I also know that there are many adults who think the same of me, and I try not to give a damn.

When I was a Christian, I had concrete reasons for my moral standards, and the judgmental attitude to go along with it.  Now, I’m a lot less straight-edged and have more grey areas, but I still have personal moral standards that most atheists would balk at.  I am also a lot less defensible, because I can’t point to a book and verse or a theological position to explain myself.  I just think it’s common sense.  I find it appalling that some adults think it’s natural and perfectly acceptable for 14-year-olds to get drunk and high.  I hate the idea of kids smoking pot, and I hate seeing them do it in public.  I don’t think there’s any reason for kids to talk about drugs and sex as often as they do.  I don’t think I missed out on anything by not doing that stuff in high school.

Is this what the rest of the world is really like?

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entheogens and TV romance

I have a secret guilty pleasure when it comes to TV shows: I’m a fan of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette.  I’ve been watching all of this season on abc.com.  Needless to say, it is completely unrealistic and bastardizes the idea of love and marriage, although it certainly is fun to fantasize about having my pick of 30 eligible bachelors with dates in exotic locales.  It occurred to me recently that the show is an apt analogy for entheogens.

Entheogens are psychotropic drugs used for spiritual purposes.  Besides anecdotal use of drugs for spiritual enhancement, there are long traditions of entheogens in several religions, including peyote in the Native American Church and ayahuasca in indigenous Amazonian shamanic ritual.  Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained, a seminal book on the psychology of religion, gives an account of the author’s own experience with ayahuasca.  There’s also this interesting (if quasi-ridiculous) account of ayahuasca use from National Geographic.

The first instance of entheogen use I read about was the Good Friday Experiment, conducted by Walter Pahnke, a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School under Timothy Leary.  On Good Friday in 1962, a group of graduate divinity students attended a chapel service.  Half of them were given psilocybin, the active ingredient of psychedelic mushrooms, and the others received a placebo.  Those in the control group remembered a boring sermon.  Those under the influence of the hallucinogenic reported that it was a significant spiritual experience which had lasting effect on their spiritual life and ministry, even decades after the experiment.

When I first read about the Good Friday Experiment, it made a huge impression on me.  I was still a Christian and at Wheaton College.  At that time, a lot of people I knew were praying for a revival at Wheaton (there is a long and hallowed history of campus revivals there, an interesting phenomena for another discussion).  When I read about the spirituality-enhancing drug experiment, I recoiled against the idea of such an “easy” spiritual high.  I considered revival to be a similarly easy, and therefore less authentic, spiritual experience.  I didn’t want spirituality to come easily, just dropped down from on high or stimulated effortlessly by a hallucinogenic substance.  I believed that true spirituality, the kind upon which one could build a lifetime of faith, was a discipline.  It had to be worked for.  I began to pray against a revival, and to persuade my friends to do the same.  (I completely take the credit for there being no revival at Wheaton during my time there.)

My religious beliefs have changed completely, but my attitude towards spirituality hasn’t.  I still view spirituality as primarily a discipline, a way of looking, rather than a feeling.  Transcendental experiences are a dime a dozen, but living in a way that takes into account the full life of the spirit is a daily discipline.  These lines from the poem “For Memory” by Adrienne Rich capture the essence of what I mean:

Freedom.  It isn’t once, to walk out
under the Milky Way, feeling the rivers
of light, the fields of dark—
freedom is daily, prose-bound, routine
remembering.  Putting together, inch by inch
the starry worlds.  From all the lost collections.

Surveys of the Good Friday group show that their entheogenic experience did influence a sustained spirituality, in many cases directly informing the subjects’ ministry.  I think that’s probably due in large part to the subjects themselves; graduate divinity students probably already have a strong scaffolding of spiritual discipline with which to inform artificially provoked transcendental experiences.  Some of them have even become advocates of the controlled use of entheogens.

Still, I think entheogens are the cheap way to spirituality.  They create a neurobiological environment favorable to transcendental experiences, without an implicit discipline of sustainable spiritual practice.  In the same way, The Bachelorette creates an environment favorable to romance in which any breathing person would fall in love, without any indication of how to proceed to build a sustainable relationship.  It’s rare for such a relationship to last past its TV gestation.

after living in the wilderness

As much as I love the wilderness, as much as I love the reduction of living to its most basic components, there is a part of me that I welcome back.  After the magnitude of various acts of living are reassembled, after eating and sleeping and pooping have returned to their previous insignificance (although with renewed appreciation), there is a dimension of things that I realize I have missed.  At some point into a weeklong expedition I invariably will have found myself humming violin concertos, but it isn’t until after I’ve returned to civilization that I realize how much I miss the other stuff of the mind.  Intellectual stimulation is a large part of what I love, and most of a sort that is technically superfluous.  I relish my return to the world of complex literature and abstract science.  I want to contemplate the dissonance in a Shostakovich string quartet.  I crave a discussion about artificial intelligence or agricultural domestication.  I need to catch up on the Science journals that have stacked up in my absence.

These things are a part of who I am, and I love them.  But I never want the knowledge of who I am to come at the expense of what I am.  A living body with muscle and breath among a world of towering rock and cavernous ocean.  One living thing among so many others.  One living thing that can hardly survive in this landscape of wind and sun, that doesn’t really belong, yet I do.

I want to hold the world of muscle and breath and sweat and grime alongside the world of paper and pencil, data and scores and the maze of knowledge my mind can explore.  I want to inhabit both the wilderness outside and the sculpted landscape of the mind.  I can’t say which is the bigger part of me.

living in the wilderness

“Now I know the secret of the making of the best persons.  It is to grow in the open air, and to eat and sleep with the earth.”  Walt Whitman

During the summer my job entails being a field instructor for a number of wilderness science programs.  I’ve just returned from a month working in the field, and the peak of my field season is now over.  Our programs are small, and our small staff does everything.  As well as planning, teaching and leading activities, I also cook, clean, drive students to and from places, and haul water to our campsite.

This is my favorite way to learn and possibly my favorite way to live– immersed in daily life with a group of people; eating, sleeping, breathing, and learning together.  I love it when life is not compartmentalized.  I feel most intensely alive when one activity melds into another and there is no superfluity or hierarchy of importance.

The act of living in the outdoors is such a grand thing.  It reduces living to its most basic components, and magnifies them so many times.  Everything takes much more effort: cooking, sleeping, getting water, going to the bathroom.  But it is this magnification of the most essential elements of living that I find so beautiful.

The last program I instructed was a wilderness kayak expedition, which is my favorite.  When my kayak strokes have settled into the rhythmic sweet spot that is like meditation, when I wake in a tent on a cliff to the sound of waves crashing, when I’m digging catholes to poop in the woods (which is a singular and rather philosophical pleasure), there is nothing I miss.  Those times are when I feel like I know the most of what it is to be alive, and when I confront who I am when I simply am– when I am being instead of doing.