Blog

Life is not a problem to be solved: Part 2

Our Genetic Conditioning: The Negativity Bias of the Brain

 Evolution has built this negativity bias into our brains to help us survive, but this genetic programming isn’t such an ideal trait for predisposing us towards happiness. On top of that common layer affecting all members of the human race, modern Western values and lifestyles adds another dimension of unique challenges. Western cultures train people to have this mentality of constant improvement. It’s a powerful tool if used and put down consciously. Yet too many of us have lost our capacity for contentment. Ironically, we’ve somehow managed to lose this at a time when, historically, we’ve never had more! But more of what is the question…


Focusing on Abundance

 Eastern religious teachings often remind us to come back to a sense of abundance in each moment–the feeling that nothing in this moment is missing. I would invite you to try to start consciously connecting with a feeling of abundance in your life. Start with an easy, pleasant experience before gradually moving up to trying it in a more challenging situation.

When you do so you might observe that it’s not as easy as one would think. Our minds are built to gravitate towards the flaws:

“Oh this is such a beautiful night and the weather is perfect and this wine taste great.” Then your mind starts running through different ways that we could make this just a little bit better. If only…[fill in the blank]: “If only the weather was a bit warmer,” “if only the wine was a bit colder,” “if only ‘so and so’ was here.’”

Then the mind starts comparing: “this is really beautiful; it’s almost as good as”…”Remember that time we went to…”…”Have you ever been to Yosemite?”

 There really is no end to this game. It’s part of the human condition and we all experience this regardless of our culture. But when we haven’t been taught how to train the mind we fall into these traps that much more easily. And when we’re not cognizant of a cultural conditioning that has shaped our minds to scan for what’s lacking we need to make that much more of an effort to let go of this tendency for our own benefit as well as for those around us.

 Solving problems displays so much of what’s special and awesome about human beings. Intelligence is our comparative advantage as a species and our unique contribution to life on this earth. Employing intelligence also necessarily involves the ego.

 We need an ego to function in day to day life on this earth but without diligent awareness our egos manifest in a variety of ways that cut us off from others and from our true nature. The need to know, the urge to feel right(eous), that desire for security–”once I understand the world, then I don’t have to live in fear of it”–underpins so many of our actions.

Surrender

 When we learn to fundamentally accept that so much of life is out of our control, when we begin to touch the state of pure consciousness that lies beyond our ordinary conceptual minds, then we start to surf more smoothly in the ocean of consciousness instead of getting tossed around by the waves of thought.

 A broad spectrum of religions provide insight into this more open, light hearted approach to life. Moving in harmony with nature was at the core teaching of most societies on earth, a sensical approach which Western modern materialist thought spurned in its desire to dominate other peoples and the environment.

 Dropping the ego and learning to surrender seems to be a core teaching of every major religion. It’s at the heart of every Eastern religion. It’s at the core of what Jesus taught. The word “Islam” is often translated as “submission” or “surrender.” It’s about accepting what we know, what we don’t know, and having the courage to know the difference–to paraphrase the secularly appropriate “Serenity Prayer.”

 Surrender is at the heart of living life as a mystery to be experienced, not as a problem to be solved. Recognize the need for our capacity for wonder, acknowledge where it’s missing and create opportunities to reconnect to our sense of awe in a way that rings authentic and true for you.

 As Rumi writes: “there are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground; there a thousand ways to go home.”

Life is not a problem to be solved

This is the first of two posts that comprise “Life is not a problem to be solved.”

“Life is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be lived.”

-Joseph Campbell

Here’s one powerful intention that has changed my life: reminding myself to experience life not as a problem to be solved, but as a mystery to be lived. I first encountered this quote when I moved to Thailand seven years ago.

At this time I was starting to read a lot of Buddhism as well as Eastern philosophers such as Jiddu Krishnamurti. Living in Thailand was also giving me insight into these fundamentally different ways of viewing the world, as well as some much needed perspective on my own (American) culture and how it had conditioned me.

In Thailand I started to open up to what life was like when I approached it not as a problem to be solved, but as a mystery to be lived. I want to be careful not to romanticize or exotify Thai people or Thai ways of thinking. They share the same common sources of stress from daily commutes to paying a mortgage to raising kids–particularly in big urban areas like Bangkok in which people are living a modern lifestyle.

However, Buddhism is a part of the curriculum in all Thai schools. From a young age Thai children practice meditation and learn Buddhist psychology teachings about destructive emotions and how to skillfully work with them.

As an expat and as a teacher living in Thailand I’ve been struck by how the cumulative impact of these teachings and practices have shaped Thai people and Thai culture in very positive ways. For one, Thai people are remarkably patient. I’ve never seen such terrible traffic in my life and I’ve also never seen people sit in such horrific gridlock with so little complaint. I notice this patience in a variety of settings.

Moreover, people in Thailand are notably kind. Kindness is clearly a priority for Thai people much in the way that “success” or “productivity” is a highly prized quality among Americans. Finally, people in Thailand tend to place a premium on the past (tradition) as well as living in the present, whereas for Americans, and for much of Western culture, we’re focused on the future (how do we make tomorrow better than today).

Each way of thinking contains its inherent virtues as well as its inherent pitfalls, especially when taken to extremes, as Americans are inclined to do.

I am grateful to Thailand and to the people there for helping me to learn to live life more fully in the present. When we’re truly living in the present we’ve let go of the ego’s need for security–the need to know, to control, to reshape one’s surroundings to conform to one’s own desires and neuroses–and we’re more open to experiencing each moment anew.

Below I’ll highlight a series of mindsets that are integral to living life as a mystery to be experienced, and not simply as a problem to be solved.

Awe and Wonder

Living life as a mystery to be experienced has a quality to it of awe and wonder. When we look up at the stars, view a beautiful sunset, or listen to a piece of enthralling music we can effortlessly tap into this sense of awe. But in our day to day lives it’s easy to lose our connection with this essential component of human happiness.

Positive psychology is increasingly recognizing the importance of awe and wonder for our mental health and well being. One study from Patty Van Cappellen from UNC-Chapel Hill found that more frequently connecting with feelings of awe and wonder can build a range of positive emotions. The power of awe has also been shown to help us cultivate loving kindness for others and ourselves. As we get older and accumulate more knowledge we have to make more of an effort to reconnect to our innate capacity for wonder. Just as we can employ gratitude exercises as a life hack to boost our happiness levels so too can we consciously choose to dial into our need for awe and wonder.

Spiritual adepts from diverse traditions seem to have a sense of playfulness and lightheartedness to them. Zen master Suzuki Roshi coined the term “beginner’s mind” to remind students of their need to open up to new possibilities.

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”

-Suzuki Roshi

There is a quality of openness that is a necessary foundation for opening up to awe and wonder. It’s about letting go of what we know, or more precisely: what we think we know. When we learn to still the mind we become more deeply connected to the world that’s unfolding all around us. We start to live life less through concepts, and instead meet each moment anew from a space of deep, abiding presence.

Gratitude

Awe is also intimately related to gratitude. It’s easy through time and repetition that we start taking things for granted. Our problem solving mentality, which is constantly scanning our experience for what’s missing, isn’t naturally a space in which gratitude flourishes.

When we remind ourselves of basic truths–that life is always changing and uncertain, that we won’t be here forever to experience these moments, that many others are less fortunate and don’t get to experience them at all–we set aside past memories, future worries and fanciful musings and come to feel more fully satisfied within our present circumstances.

Meeting a moment fully in the present, releasing into each experience as if it were your first time and as if it might be your last, feeling overwhelmed by the vastness and beauty and magic of this universe–this is how we live life as a mystery that’s unfolding before our very eyes.

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” –Marcel Proust

Next week I’ll publish the second half of this post, “Life is not a problem to be solved.”

Reimagining The Divine: Part Two

This post is the second of a pair, and it’s the fourth post in a series of writings on Ayahuasca, Tantra and yoga.

“Facts are verified; myths are interpreted.”
–Douglas Brooks, Scholar of Indian Religions

When I started working with Ayahuasca, the Goddess traditions of Tantra came alive for me. This happened on several levels. The first point pertains to perhaps the most common, seemingly universal aspect of drinking Ayahuasca: that those who consume it experience the plant as a distinctly feminine presence. So much so, in fact, that Ayahuasca is often referred to as “Mother Ayahuasca.” Euphemistically, people use the pronoun “She” when referring to Ayahuasca.

Of all the things that I experienced on Ayahuasca this was the most clear, consistent and unmistakable: the presence of a distinctly feminine spirit. On a very visceral level I felt like I understood why so many traditional cultures around the world have historically worshipped the Earth as Goddess. Finally, I understood why we’ve come to colloquially refer to this planet as “Mother Nature.”

Fully acknowledging that we are stepping into the realm of myths (which are interpreted) and not facts (which are verified), I will say that the Goddess traditions of Tantra provided me with a set of archetypes, symbols, and narratives through which I could construct meaning of my experience.

This is a gift that mythology bequeaths to us: rich, colorful, kaleidoscopic lenses through which we can refine, rediscover, and reimagine our world.

On the highest, most impersonal level I experienced Ayahuasca as the Maha Shakti: the ultimate, formless, Divine Energy that both permeates every corner of this universe and is the very fabric of the universe Herself. This is a view of the Divine as Mother in a radically nondual sense.

I’m not referring to a Creator deity that is separate from us. I’m invoking the term Divine in its original sense, from the verbal root in Sanskrit “dev,” which means to “shine” or to “illuminate.”

Yet this intelligence, this Great Light of Consciousness, is inert without the energy that animates it: this life force, this Maha (Great) Shakti, that is the Mother. This vital partnership of consciousness and energy is not only transcendent but immanent: it is the all pervasive code underwriting the software of this universe.

On the next level I experienced the Divine Mother in multiple forms, as individual Goddesses. While in one sense the Shakti is completely beyond form, at the same time she assumes many forms across time and space and beyond these dimensions. When the Shakti descends she assumes many incarnations, just as we know from modern physics that energy indeed assumes many forms–as light and sound, as particle and wave.

In moments of intense bliss I experienced Ayahuasca as Lalita Tripura Sundari, the Goddess of ecstasy and bliss. Overwhelmed with feelings of love and abundance, Mother Ayahuasca was Lakshmi. There was the vast voidness of Bhuvaneswari: the infinite spaciousness in which universes are born.

And she was also Kali: the Goddess with the power to dispel our illusion, to shatter our small sense of self and to liberate us from our bondage.

Image: Kali dancing on the body of Shiva.

This is one of the many, great paradoxes of the Shakti: the diversity that exists within the singularity. She takes countless forms and yet she’s totally beyond form. So it is also with Mother Ayahuasca. While in one sense Mother Ayahuasca was always the Maha Shakti (the ultimate, formless Divine Energy), she incarnates in countless ways.

She is the dancer, the dance, and the stage on which She dances. Transcendent yet immanent.

This is one function of deities in myths: they serve as entry points into archetypal truths that are fundamental to the human condition. They also represent our attempt to point towards a kind of knowledge that lies beyond concepts and the language in which these ideas are enclosed.

If I were to take the most conservative view of my experience, at the very least I would have to concede that the pantheon of Tantric Goddesses provided me with a far richer framework through which to interpret my Ayahuasca journeys than I would have otherwise had.

Thus, I’d like to underscore a takeaway, even for the most skeptical of readers: if you have no use for any form of theism or no particular affinity for this Hindu Tantric cast of characters, recognize the power of myths and metaphors to reimagine the world.

There is an implicit yet crucial point that I’ve ignored up until point. Earlier I argued for the value of myths by contending that the mythology of Nondual Shaiva Tantra provided me with a set of archetypes, symbols, and narratives through which I could construct meaning of my experience.

But here’s a debate at the heart of any discussion around religious narratives: did the stories provide me with the language and concepts with which to construct my experience? Or was the truth revealed to me by the medicine?

Here’s what I’d like to see as the middle path between these two. On the one hand, I find the notion of revelation at the heart of many religions at best flawed and frankly dangerous. Historically when human beings decide to view any text, any set of ideas, or any human being as infallible–and therefore not subject to critical discussion–really, really bad things tend to follow, to put it mildly.

With that preface in place, multiple ceremonies left me with the unmistakable impression that Ayahuasca has a way of communicating to us. As I mentioned in my first post “The Power of Plant Medicine”, this is perhaps the most unique and defining aspect of Ayahuasca, relative to other psychedelics: this power to teach us lessons that feels different than the insights that I’ve experienced on other psychedelics.

In this sense, I can’t help but conclude that Ayahuasca, like one of the Five Acts of the Shakti, has the power to reveal. This is what makes Ayahuasca such sacred medicine: it is Divine in that original meaning of the word: it “shines,” it “illuminates.”

What does She Illuminate? That which lies in the shadows.

Yet like the mythological tale of Ganesha’s inception reminds us, we should be wary of taking things too literally. Ayahuasca does indeed communicate to us yet she often does so through metaphors.

Image: In one version of the creation story of Ganesha, his father, Shiva, cut off the young boy’s head in a fit of anger for attempting to prevent Shiva from visiting his wife and Ganesha’s mother, Parvati. The moral of this story warns against taking things too literally.

One essential limb of yoga that’s often overlooked in the modern yoga’s world’s emphasis on Patanjali’s eight limbs of ashtanga yoga is tarka: “discernment” or “discriminative awareness.” Tantrik critiques of the classical yoga of Patanjali argue that it is tarka, not samadhi, that is the highest limb of yoga: for the razor sharp sword of discernment is necessary to cut through our samskaras and to separate true wisdom from the impurities that obscure our perception of it.

So we should be receptive to what Ayahuasca has to teach us, while also being prudent in how we interpret her signs and messages. Remembering the story of Ganesha, we are wary of literal interpretations of her signs and understanding that she often speaks in metaphors.

Ayahuasca spoke to me through metaphors that resonated with me: the mythology of Tantric, Shakta (Goddess) traditions.
She is the Mother (Earth) that nurtures us. She is the Shakti that drives us and inspires us. She is Kali: the Liberator with the power to cut through the ropes of our bondage.

Maha Shakti. The Great Goddess. The Divine Mother.

She shines. She illuminates. She extends the hand of grace that pulls us onto a brighter path.

Reimagining The Divine: Part One

This post is the first of a pair, both of which are part of a series on Ayahuasca, yoga and Nondual Shaiva Tantra. 

“The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”

–William Butler Yeats

 Since adolescence I have not been a big fan of organized religion. From my own cultural perspective growing up in the midwest of the United States, religion seemed to carry a lot of baggage. My studies of History, especially of the West and of the Middle East, offered a mountain of evidence for serious issues that I had with organized religion.

 Like nationalism, religion seemed yet another form of glorified tribalism at the heart of which lies an “in group vs out group” mentality whose greatest legacy resides in the propagation of division, conflict and violence in the world. I found the assaults on reason, freedom of speech, and the subjugation of women and minorities as distasteful as most contemporary readers would, though I was, and still am, incredulous as to how so many people could so easily overlook these passages in their own holy books.

 I’ve read a lot of the work of the New Atheists, in particular the work of Sam Harris–someone for whom I have a great deal of respect. His book, Waking Up: Spirituality without Religion, is a book that I would highly recommend for those who find themselves interested in exploring questions around consciousness and spirituality without the baggage and dogma of much of organized religion. Like Sam, I find far more issues with those religions that fall within the Abrahamic tradition, though many problems are common across religious traditions. 

All of the progress that we today value in the West came about really in spite of The Church, not because of it. Scientific progress, technological advancement, the ideals of the Enlightenment–the Church vehemently fought these bedrock values of modernity at every twist and turn, as it sought to preserves its privilege at the perch of power and influence in European society. Religion seemed to be the ideological justification for power, wealth, and status for a Church swimming in corruption.

 Whenever I read passages of The Bible as a teenager the book struck me not as something divinely inspired but as a document clearly reflective of the species who wrote it: full of jealousy, anger, pride, and judgment. If an omnipotent Creator exists why is he so preoccupied with the extent to which this puny species worships Him or not? Apparently, God had an ego and a BAD temper. Apparently, He also had the gender of a human, even though He was allegedly transcendent.

Suffice it to say that I could write many, many posts (an entire blog really) about my qualms with organized religion. Yet while I still appreciate the work of those who push back on religious dogma anywhere, I’ve come to see that focusing solely on the negative aspects of religion is a big mistake as well. One significant way in which some of these New Atheist authors miss the mark is that they underweight the important functions that myths have to play in human societies.

  Myths allow us to interpret experience in different but equally important ways. Most developed countries appear to be largely disenchanted with myths. We find ourselves torn between two extremes. On the one hand, there is religious literalism. This view insists myths are literally true, rather than appreciating them as the far more nuanced, rich, and metaphorical lenses through which humans can interpret and explain fundamental experiences of the human condition. Past and present is littered with examples of the collateral damage of this world view.

Of course, myths live on in other ways precisely because it is part of our basic need as a species to answer the same set of eternal questions: Why are we here? How did we get here? What is our purpose?

One space in which modern societies perpetuate myths is in their History textbooks. While I don’t think History textbooks should be a place for telling myths so much as a forum for teaching critical thinking the fact that they do so in ever society highlights the need of our collective unconscious to tell the story of who we are as a people. Of course Hollywood plays a role in retelling myths; the popularity of the Marvel action series speaks to this in some ways.

 While modern science provides far more persuasive answer to some of these questions, science can’t do the job alone. There’s a good reason that we should read novels, along with non fiction. We need epic stories with compelling characters, rich metaphors and resonant themes that both help us to reflect on and even to reimagine the human condition. Telling and retelling these stories is an integral part of the project of human flourishing itself.

Without science and reason humans tend towards dogmatism and authoritarianism. Without myth and metaphor life becomes too dry and mechanical. Without savoring stories we don’t taste the rasa–the juice, the flavor, the essence–of life.

I’ve come to view literalism–rigidity of thought–as the larger problem. This isn’t to discount the contents of religious doctrine–some ideas can be more dangerous than others when followed literally–but rather to acknowledge the real culprit. Literalism not only affects religious thought but other types of ideologies: economic, political, even science. This is part of the work of our yoga: to make our minds more malleable and responsive to varying contexts and conditions.

The Lord Ganesha, son of Shiva and Parvati. In one version of the Ganesha story, Shiva cutt off Ganesha’s human head because Ganesha had taken instructions too literally and, in a fit of anger, Shiva sliced off the young boy’s head, which he later replaced with the head of an elephant. The moral of the story warns listeners against the perils of thinking too literally. 

Source: Lord Ganesha

 Over the past year I’ve come to appreciate the power of myths and metaphor and the role of many religious traditions in passing down these stories. I’m indebted to several teachers including Richard Freeman and Mary Taylor, Sally KemptonDouglas Brooks, Hareesh Wallis and Paul Muller Ortega for helping me to appreciate the importance of myths and metaphors. Studying a school of yoga known as Nondual Shaiva Tantra (NST) has allowed me to fuse rigorous intellectual inquiry and critical thinking with a profound sense of mystery and mythology. Reading the work of Joseph Campbell has also inspired my interest in myths. 

  In forging a new relationship with the Divine, it’s instructive to return to the root of the word itself. This term comes to the English language via Old French (deus), which in turn originates from the Latin word “divus” (godlike). However, an older antecedent of this word reveals a richer layer of meaning: the Latin root “divus” ultimately derives from the Sanskrit word “deva,” whose verbal root before “div” means “to shine,” or “to illuminate.” Thus, we can conceive of the Divine as that which illuminates. Conceiving of the Divine in this sense is central to the views of Nondual Shaiva Tantra and to the way that I’ve come to think about the Divine as well.

 If you’ve had issues with organized religion yet find yourself interested in exploring these fundamental questions around consciousness, this universe and our role within it perhaps you’ll find it helpful to return to this original meaning of the word Divine: that which shines or illuminates. 

 This is what myths and metaphors allow us to do: at their very least they enable us to see things in a new light; at their most potent they empower us to illuminate that which was dark. Like the endless embrace of Shiva and Shakti, of consciousness and energy, we find ourselves returning to the timeless imagery of light and shadow that appears in so many myths and religious texts.

What is the day without night? What is consciousness without energy? What is this universe without myth, mystery, magic?

Everything is Shiva

Everything is Shiva


Shiva as Nataraja, Lord of the Dance, a central piece of iconography in Nondual Shaiva Tantra.

Source: Shiva Nataraja

“Whatever you’re feeling or thinking. Whatever you notice. Whatever state of mind you’re in, is pervaded by Divine Consciousness. By Shiva. Wherever your mind goes, whether to the inside or to the outside: there’s nothing there but Shiva’s presence…Have the recognition that it’s divine consciousness, energy, Shakti that permeates every thought, every perception, every physical experience.

Doorways to the Infinite, by Sally Kempton

Intention for this Post:

 Myths can invite us into experiencing life with a new set of eyes. The various lineages within the broad category of “Nondual Shaiva Tantra” (NST) are particularly rich in motif and metaphor. These teachings resonate strongly with me, and with many other yoga practitioners, in no small part due to the beauty of the symbols and language surrounding these teachings.

 In this post I want to address how Ayahuasca unfolded for me a central teaching of NST: that everything in the universe is pervaded by a singular source of consciousness, which Tantrikas of this school refer to as Shiva.

Background on NST:

 NST is a non dual school of thought, meaning that the Divine is not some abstract deity to be worshiped but rather that the Divine is everywhere–in the stars, in the dirt, inside you, in the people you like, and in the people you don’t like. Though there is only One Absolute this school recognizes that humans need concepts, images, and metaphors in their attempts to get closer to fundamental truths that lie beyond the reach of thought.

 In NST, the “Divine” is an endless interplay between two forces: consciousness (Shiva) and energy (Shakti). Each set of forces has complementary characteristics that make them inseparable pairs. For example, Shiva is masculine and Shakti feminine; Shiva is static and Shakti dynamic. NST employs poetic language and draws on mythologies with fantastic narratives to explore ancient and timeless questions facing humans.

Though NST is over a thousand years old the inseparability of consciousness and energy makes a lot of sense from our modern, rational perspective as well. From my early studies of NST, it was pretty easy to relate to the teachings of Shakti. The assertions that NST makes around Shakti–that everything in this universe consists of a vibratory, pulsating energy which is ceaselessly dynamic and which permeates all things–is very much consistent with what we know from modern physics. Thus, the idea of Shakti made a lot of sense to me.

Shiva & Shakti are sometimes depicted as two halves of the same being, to emphasize their complementary, inseparable nature, as well as to underscore the duality that exists within unity.

Source: Shiva Shakti Images

 However, the claims that NST made around consciousness (Shiva) were far less clear to me. How does everything have consciousness? Plants? A grain of sand? A table? I found this particular teaching of NST to be elusive.

Ayahuasca Ceremony #6:

 During ceremony number six from my May retreat, Mother Ayahuasca took me deeper inside this teaching: that Everything is Shiva. But She did not take me to the light without bringing me through some very dark shadows. When the medicine came on it was overwhelming. There were extremely intense visions of fractal geometry. At one point I noted the interesting ways in which the visions seemed to resemble yantras, which certain Tantric schools assert are manifestations of the Divine in geometric form.

Yantras are a form of the Divine in a geometric shape. This particular yantra, the Sri Yantra, represents the Goddess Lalita Tripura Sundari.

Source: The Sri Yantra Diagram, Wikipedia.

 While spectacular at times, the intensity of the visions was overwhelming. I kept trying to come back to my breath, but the medicine was so strong that I was losing my center.  It wasn’t only the visions that were overwhelming, but there was this indescribable feeling throughout my body of constriction. I knew that my natural resistance to the medicine–for wishing that the Ayahuasca wasn’t so strong–was part of the block. I kept trying to let go but the feeling was simply too powerful. I was on my side, slithering all over my mat. Eventually, intense bouts of nausea motivated me to pick myself up and go outside for fresh air.  

 The next couple of hours were some of the longest, most difficult ones of my life. When I made it to the top of the stairs I ripped off my shirt, overcome with hot flashes. I felt like I was covered in serpents. I didn’t even see them; I just felt them. Everywhere. I was struggling with the most intense waves of nausea imaginable. I huddled into a corner and braced for what was hitting me.

 There really is no way to describe quite what this felt like. Suffice it to say that it took me to the brink of my sanity. I was wandering in the desert. At one point my mind flashed to the Old Testament. My God, I thought. That’s it: I am Job.

 Throughout all of this mind bending madness was this incredible resistance throughout my body that over the course of the next hour or two was slowly starting to crack, bit by bit.

 Then at one point, my mind flashed back to an image that I’d had from my previous ceremony: the unmistakable image of a serpent shedding its skin.

Author of the classical era yoga text The Yoga Sutras, Patanjali is often depicted with a series of cobra hoodies shooting up from his back. There are several ways in which serpents surround the mythology of Patanjali–for one, he is rumored to be an incarnation of Adishesha, the cosmic serpent on which the God Vishnu reclines.

Source: Patanjali Cobra Hoodies

 At the time I didn’t really know what to make of it but now I suddenly understood: the overwhelming feelings of the last two hours, the slithering on the ground, the very way that I felt this bag of resistance around me was cracking: I was that serpent, shedding its skin. The medicine had foreshadowed what was to come in my previous ceremony. And now the process was unfolding.

 In this very moment, I was dying and being reborn. I was experiencing the teachings around impermanence in a very poignant way. Birth and death is not only something that signals the beginning and end of the body; it happens in millions of small and big ways over the course of our life. We are constantly changing. Who we are today is not who we we were yesterday, and it’s certainly not who we were when we were 5 years old, or 15, or 35.

 This is the role of the Shakti: she destroys and creates without end. Just when you think you have a grip on things, She comes in and stirs things up. Life is ceaselessly dynamic: like the serpent it’s constantly moving, bending this way and that. What would life be without death? Or day without night?

 Among her many forms of the Shakti, Ayahuasca is the Maha Kali: the Goddess with the power to shatter your small sense of self. Shiva (consciousness) would be nothing without the Shakti (the divine energy) that animates it. Just as energy permeates every part of this universe so too does consciousness. Everything is Shiva.

 Over the course of the next hour my consciousness went through different bodies and planes of experience. After the serpent, I had the distinct experience of existing as a large cat, in particular a jaguar.

Jaguars are a common symbol for those who drink Ayahuasca–both visions of these big cats as well as feelings of being incarnated as these animals.

Source: Terra Gaia Medicine Woman Ayahuasca

 The medicine then took my consciousness through the forms of various animals and plants. I felt a sense of embodiment as an ant. Then a blade of grass. Then a tree that was swaying in the wind. When I came back to my body the thought arose: “Are you ready to accept the idea that EVERYTHING in this world is pervaded by divine consciousness? Do you finally understand that EVERYTHING is Shiva?”

 Like so many insights that I had on Ayahuasca, this lesson on consciousness was not a new idea, gifted to me by the medicine. Rather, the medicine created this sort of theater in which I played a role, one that was initially unclear to me though over the course of the night She revealed to me, along with deeper lessons underlying it.

 These were teachings that I had been studying for years and meditating on, but now the medicine was taking me through a lived, direct experience of these insights. In essence, Ayahuasca was helping me to move from a space of theoretical understanding to a deep, direct, lived experienced of these insights.

 In teaching me this axiom of NST that Everything is Shiva, Ayahuasca was building on an idea that I first encountered in the classical yoga of Patanjali: ahimsa. Embodying as an ant was particularly instructive for me. Living in Southeast Asia, my wife and I constantly deal with ants in our home. My wife, being a committed Buddhist, refuses to kill any of these insects. Though I appreciated her sentiments, I kept repeating my old patterns of “wiping” them off the counter. 

Ayahuasca was now saying to me:

  • “Are you ready to truly accept the teaching of ahimsa: to act with gentleness and non violence towards all creatures?
  • Do you see how savage it is to kill a living creature because it’s a nuisance for you to look at?
  • Do you see that Everything in this universe is Shiva, that consciousness is everywhere?”

 While the idea of ahimsa long predates Tantra, the NST view that Everything is Shiva profoundly enriches one’s appreciation for the meaning of this term. In a Tantrik view, one does not simply refrain from violence out of compassion for lessening the suffering of other sentient beings, but rather does so from the recognition that we are made from the same divine consciousness that permeates everything.

 This was one of the many moments on Ayahuasca that highlighted our interdependence with other beings and our natural environment. Paradoxically and simultaneously, we are nothing (no self, beyond ego) and everything (divine consciousness, Shiva, and energy, Shakti).

Conclusion:

 One remarkable capacity of this plant medicine is the way in which She communicates to people through the language that makes the most sense to them. This is a characteristic of Ayahuasca noted by several teachers, including my own teachers at Lotus Vine Journeys.

 Interestingly and perhaps eerily, Ayahuasca demonstrates how human beings are deeply intertwined with one another. The morning after this ceremony, many other people in our group talked about how they experienced incarnations as animals. Many experienced Ayahuasca as a serpent; several people also said that they incarnated as a jaguar, as had I.

 Our consciousness, our energy, was somehow tied up with one another. I do not claim to know the reason for this; it simply happened with so many people and on so many occasions that it seems difficult to write off as mere coincidence.

 Ayahuasca spoke to me through the language of NST because these are teachings that resonate deeply with me. Ayahuasca allowed me to have a brief glimpse into the ineffable beauty and mystery of this universe. She wiped off some of the dirt and dust that usually obscures my perception of the world, and She allowed me to understand deeper truths about the universe and about myself.

 The medicine walked me through the shadows of deeply esoteric teachings and illuminated them in a clear, piercing light. It transformed my intellectual understanding of ideas into direct, experiential knowledge. It’s all well and good to say “it’s all one” but without direct realization of a profound teaching–such as the interdependence of all phenomena or that Everything is Shiva–the knowledge itself will not have a radical effect on one’s life. To transform our way of living in this world insight must move beyond the level of theoretical understanding.  

Crucially, experiencing such insights should not lead one to a feeling that one is special or superior to those who has not had them. The feeling is precisely the opposite: by stripping off the many layers of the ego, we come to know our true nature as Shiva: this pure awareness, this divine intelligence, that permeates everything in this universe.

Beyond the many masks of our persona, more than our flesh and bones, we are nothing but this sublime, conscious intelligence (Shiva), which comes to life through the undulating, dancing movements of this divine energy (Shakti).

 This is the dance of Nataraja: the manifestation of consciousness through energy, from the macro to the micro level. The same interplay of intelligence and energy that illuminates the cosmos also animates the play of your consciousness: the drama of thoughts, feelings, sensations, and images that unfolds across the screen of your awareness. This consciousness isn’t trapped in your head. It’s everywhere. He’s everywhere. Everything is Shiva.

The Power of Plant Medicine

The Power of Plant Medicine

After years of interest in drinking Ayahuasca I finally did so in Peru (where it’s legal). Over two weeks I drank this powerful brew on eight separate occasions. Without question, it was one of the most challenging experiences of my life. But it was also one of the most profound, extraordinary, and worthwhile decisions that I’ve ever made.

Why was I drawn to doing this?

 Ayahuasca is famous for making those who drink it purge, a cleansing that can manifest in many ways: vomiting, diarrhea, the cold sweats. Sounds enticing doesn’t it? You may well be asking: do people voluntarily sign up for this assignment or is this an enhanced interrogation technique reserved solely for enemy combatants? Fair question.

 For a long time I’ve found psychedelics to be a very powerful tool for exploring my consciousness. Primarily, these experiments have involved psilocybin (psychedelic mushrooms) and LSD. I had a little experience with a synthetic form of DMT, which is the predominant psychoactive chemical in the Ayahuasca brew. During several earlier encounters, I had very significant psychedelic experiences that changed me for the rest of my life. Through psychedelics I started to perceive everything in the world as deeply interconnected (this axiom, as I would later discover, has strong parallels with key tenets of Eastern religions). Often times, the trips provided me with perspective on myself and on significant events in my life. These journeys frequently left me with worthwhile insights and a profound sense of gratitude.

 But in recent years it didn’t feel like I quite got so much out of using psychedelics. Effectively, I had hit a plateau. More significantly, I felt stuck in other ways as well. Meditation and yoga have had a very positive, transformative impact on my life in many respects. These practices have helped me to uproot some deep seated kleshas (a Sanskrit word meaning “poisons” or “obstacles). But in other respects I felt myself repeating the same old, unhelpful habitual patterns.

In this Tantric artwork from Tibetan Buddhism, the crown of five skulls represents the five kleshas (poisons, or obstacles): avidya (ignorance), asmita (egoism), raga (attachment to pleasure), dvesa (aversion to pain) and abhinivesa (fear of death).

Source: “Everything about Tibetan or Tantric Buddhism”

 I had read several accounts of people who had drunk Ayahuasca and who spoke with passion about the transformative, even healing properties, of the plants contained within this potent concoction. When I found out that a Buddhist meditation teacher, Spring Washam, runs retreats integrating Ayahuasca with Buddhism I was intrigued. In a podcast interview with Dan Harris on his show “10% Happier,” Spring spoke about encountering a similar impasse in her personal life that her meditation practice was not cutting through. She spoke about how Ayahuasca had helped her to break through these barriers and to deeply heal a lot of her past wounds. Above all this was my biggest motivation for drinking Ayahuasca: I hoped that the experience would serve as a catalyst for personal growth. I saw it as a practice that could potentially deepen the work that I was already doing through yoga and meditation to become a more awake, compassionate, and conscious human being. Having made this decision I signed up for a retreat with the organization that Spring spearheads, Lotus Vine Journeys.

To believe? Or not to believe?

 Before I start talking in detail about what it was like to work with Ayahuasca let me just begin with a brief preface. If you find yourself dismissing any of what I’m going to tell you as complete fantasy or the delusions of someone on a drug I completely understand where you’re coming from. I’m an extremely skeptical person who has spent pretty much my entire adult life priding myself on my rational approach to arriving at decisions. If the evidence isn’t there I simply won’t believe it. Period. I rejected any system of thought that required a leap of faith. This is what drew me to the highly scientific, non faith based approach of Buddhism.

 But all I can say is that what I’m going to share with you is what I directly experienced–and the clarity and the profundity of these experiences shattered old beliefs and opened me up to new ways of engaging with the world. Moreover, the spiritual and medicinal qualities to the Ayahuasca journey were not something that I had encountered through using other psychedelics, making me less inclined to dismiss these insights as delusions from a drug but rather to conclude that there is something special about the plants that come together in the Ayahuasca brew. Furthermore, as I’ll share with you, I’ve considered alternative explanations to some of my conclusions but any doubt has been swept away by the power and clarity of these experiences…and the consistency of the messages over repeated occasions for myself and for many, many other people.

 Ayahuasca shook some of my most closely cherished beliefs right to their core. It opened the deepest parts of my being to the beauty and mystery of this universe. It taught me the value of being guided by my heart and not always intellectualizing everything. I’m not talking about throwing reason to the wind. But in listening to these stories I would ask you to expand your definition of “evidence” to the power of personal experience (including the accumulated experiences of many people, in the case of Ayahuasca). Be critical. Ask tough questions. But we can’t wait for everything in life to be measured by a double blind clinical trial before we decide if it has any value. Buddhism and yoga have helped me to appreciate that other forms of evidence, mainly the power of our own personal experience, is also an indispensable tool, along with the scientific method.

How is Ayahuasca different from other psychedelics?

 There are two key ways in which Ayahuasca is distinct from other psychedelics: spiritually and medicinally.

Ayahuasca as a Spirit

 When Ayahuasca comes on it feels like a spirit coming up inside you. As time passes there is a very distinct, feminine quality to this presence. The feeling is maternal. Among the people who have used Ayahuasca that I have met, without exception all of them described these basic yet unmistakable qualities to the experience. People refer to the medicine as “She” because it has such a distinct feminine quality. After my Ayahuasca journeys I felt like I finally understood why many cultures around the world repeatedly refer to our environment as “Mother Earth” or “Mother Nature.” Drinking Ayahuasca is like drinking Gaia: it’s earth consciousness. Pure and simple. This presence of a spirit makes it distinct from other psychedelics.

Artwork depicting Ayahuasca as “Mother,” i.e. a  form of the Divine Feminine. 

Source: San Pedro Workshops

 Moreover, while you’re on the medicine, “she” teaches you lessons. While I’ve had profound insights on mushrooms or LSD I would never say that the fungi or the molecule “taught” me things. I would say that “I experienced ‘such and such insight’ under the influence of this psychedelic.” Quite notably, even when I did pure DMT–the psychoactive molecule in the Ayahuasca brew–I did not have this experience of an outside force teaching me lessons. This makes me much more skeptical of purely neuroscientific explanations of the Ayahuasca experience: if it were simply a matter of what a chemical was doing to the brain then why wouldn’t directly ingesting that chemical (DMT) by other means produce at least generally the same experience?

[If you’re interested in reading more about the science behind DMT I’d suggest reading Rick Strassman’s research].

 But Ayahuasca is fundamentally different in this respect, in the way that there is a distinct presence of a female spirit. It’s also unique in the way that the plant unfolded lessons for me. The knowledge didn’t come from outside of myself but Ayahuasca allowed me to perceive these lessons in a much more powerful light. These were teachings that I had studied for years in some cases: of yoga and of Buddhism, and she unfolded the wisdom of these teachings for me in a way that was systematic, clear and profound. In particular, she took me much deeper into the teachings of a tradition that I’ve been studying over the past year, non dual Shaiva Tantra.

She helped me to appreciate the difference between knowledge and wisdom, or between what some in Shaiva Tantra would call academic knowledge vs. a kind of knowledge that can actually pierce through your delusion and liberate you from suffering. In many cases “she” enabled me to move from understanding a concept on a purely intellectual level to directly experiencing the truth of that insight. I’ll elaborate on many of these points and with examples in subsequent blog posts.

Ayahuasca as Medicine

 Secondly, Ayahuasca is truly plant MEDICINE. If you’re smiling at calling a psychedelic substance “medicine” I was right there with you until recently. People kept referring to it as “the medicine.” After this kept happening I was thinking to myself “look I really appreciate the value of psychedelics but medicine!?” But it only took one experience for me to understand why people insisted on using the term “medicine” when talking about Ayahuasca, and my appreciation for this term only grew over the succeeding seven ceremonies.

The central role of shamans in Ayahuasca ceremonies underscores the spiritual and medicinal aspects of working with these plants.

Source: “A Gathering of Minds”

 Ayahuasca is medicine and it is deeply healing. I base this conclusion not only on my own experiences but also on the accounts shared by my fellow participants on the retreat. A desire to heal intensely traumatic experience is a common motivation for many people to work with Ayahuasca. To hear first hand accounts of how Ayahuasca explicitly engaged trauma from people’s past and helped people to transform this pain was revelatory. As I listened to numerous accounts of how Ayahuasca helped people to confront, skillfully work with, and ultimately let go of painful trauma from their past, break free from addictions, and forgive unimaginable betrayals I was left in awe of what exactly this plant medicine is and how it has this healing capacity.

In what ways was Ayahuasca healing?

Psychologically:

 Ayahuasca works on people in different ways in accordance with whatever issues (physical, mental, emotional) are present. Speaking from my own experience, Ayahuasca compelled me to take a very hard look at some of my issues and hang ups. It showed me my attachments and aversions–how they arise in the mind and how they hook me. Then it helped me to LET GO of this grasping. It allowed me to forgive: both others and myself. It empowered me to confront lingering grief from my past and to release it.

 It utterly shattered my ego. It would showed me a particularly destructive emotion, such as pride. It would reveal to me clearly an area of my personality in which I exhibited too much pride and then it would walk me through an experience of totally shattering my small sense of self. Destructive emotions like pride interact with our egos in ways that create particular identities in which we become heavily invested in nurturing and protecting. The medicine revealed to me these layers of my ego and unraveled them.

 In one instance, she used the imagery of a sand castle. She revealed to me the rigid structures of my ego, the places in which I was very attached. She often used imagery, such as this one, to convey these truths. In this instance she built a castle in the sand to serve as a symbol for the rigidity of the ego; then, after a brief pause, the wind came in and totally dissolved it (in yogic texts wind is often a metaphor for the divine energy of the universe, or shakti, which has the power to destroy existing forms and give rise to new ones in its place). The resulting feeling was a complete sense of emptiness, which I experienced not as a destabilizing force but as a profound opening into vastness, into something beyond my small sense of self. It imbued me with a deep sense of humility. It opened my heart and showed me that I could hold both the beauty and the suffering of this world simultaneously.

Through Ayahuasca I’ve felt significantly greater levels of compassion–not only while I was on the medicine but in the subsequent weeks since taking it. Moreover, it has motivated me to not only feel more compassionate but to act in ways that express this compassion more fully in the world.

It has also cultivated a greater sensitivity to appreciating awe and wonder. At the same time it has prompted me to appreciate the miraculous wonder of this world and it has inspired me to serve it on a much deeper level. It has showed me how intricately my well being is intertwined with the well being of others and, eventually, she even showed me ways in which I could more positively contribute to the welfare of others.

Source: “Peacock Mama Aya”

Physically:

 Ayahuasca is healing not only a psychological and emotional level but also on a physical plane. People who take the medicine can purge in a variety of ways. Though the amount of purging will depend on a number of factors, one’s diet and lifestyle has a significant influence on the extent to which one will purge. I did not vomit that much. I also had been on a vegan diet for months going into the retreat. Moreover, I had not been drinking alcohol for several months leading up to the retreat as well. Anecdotally, friends who are vegan or vegetarian told me that they also didn’t purge too much. So, to some extent, people can influence the degree to which they will purge but closely adhering to proper guidelines around diet in the weeks heading into the retreat. That said everyone will purge and it is part of the cleaning process.

 This isn’t to say that the experience will be pleasant but I definitely felt that it was a positive, detoxifying process by the end. For example, on several nights I was continually blowing my nose. It felt like I had taken an antihistamine, like Sudafed. I can’t remember the last time that my sinuses felt so clear. While the physical work of Ayahuasca for me paled in comparison to the psychological work it still was notable. For one it showed me how deeply interconnected the body and the mind are (modern medicine and science continue to affirm this truth, such as the research on how trauma is stored in our bodies). Notably, for many others the physical aspect of the medicine was much more pronounced.

What Ayahuasca is and IS not:

 Let’s clarify what Ayahuasca is NOT. It is definitely NOT something that one does for recreation. Undertaking eight ceremonies in twelve nights was nothing short of a crucible on a physical, emotional, and psychological level. At times, I experienced bouts of intense nausea, mixed in with some vomiting, diarrhea and cold sweats on the side.

 Emotionally, I experienced some of the deepest states of bliss in my life, but I also sat with intense feelings of sadness and grief, associated with painful memories from my past. It pushed me to the absolute edge of my psyche. One night in particular was one of the most challenging nights of my entire life. Eventually the journey turned into a profound teaching but the first few hours was like putting my soul on trial. Think Old Testament. Book of Job.

 So Ayahuasca is certainly NOT something that one does for fun. It is also definitely NOT for everyone, even for those who have the best of intentions. Those with certain mental illnesses should not partake. Nor should anyone on any medication such as antidepressants, which can interact in severe and dangerous ways with Ayahuasca. Furthermore, it’s not for many people who are perfectly mentally healthy and medication free but who are not willing to let go of control and to totally surrender. Chances are that Ayahuasca will push you to the brink of your psyche and the potential benefits for some people are not worth what they will likely have to go through to reap the rewards.

 For those who are seriously considering working with Ayahuasca, take your time; do your homework. Use site like Aya Advisors or Retreat Guru to read reviews on the various organizations that offer Ayahuasca ceremonies. Unfortunately, there are many charlatans out there, and stories of abuse from incompetent gurus with bad intentions are not uncommon. Read about how Ayahuasca works from a variety of sources. Speak to numerous people who have done it. Personally, I can say that I had a very positive experience with Lotus Vine Journeys, and I will do another retreat with them in the future. If you do decide to use Ayahuasca, I would strongly suggest having a consistent meditation practice going into any retreat (or working with any psychedelic, really).

 For me, and for many others, working with Ayahuasca has been a life changing experience for the better. In spite of all of the difficult moments throughout my retreat drinking Ayahuasca was one of the most worthwhile things that I’ve ever done. The medicine did not make me experience anything that was not ultimately a beneficial teaching. Life is not an unrelenting blissfest and this isn’t a substance that will help you to escape from the harsh cruelties of reality. Instead, this medicine took me through the darkest shadows of my mind and transformed them into light. She took my pain, sorrow, grief and showed me how to heal. She showed me how to let go and how to forgive. Ayahuasca opened my heart and inspired me to serve the world more deeply.

Source: “Faces of Buddha” by Virginia Peck

As my teacher Spring noted: the true test of the medicine’s effectiveness is the extent to which our lives have changed in the weeks and months after our retreat has ended. In this sense the onus is ultimately on us to ensure that these gifts from Mother Ayahuasca blossom into something more enduring and more impactful. Ayahuasca is a powerful tool for accelerating personal growth but it’s not an easy short cut. If you’re lucky enough to receive meaningful insights on how to improve your life you need to actually have the courage and discipline to follow through on making these changes. That’s what I’m starting to do now.

 I feel extremely blessed that I was fortunate enough to receive these teachings. While there is so much still to process, there is no question that I feel more awake in this world than before I drank this sacred medicine. The word “Buddha” means one who is awakened. That is the beauty and the calling of this life: to wake up for the benefit of ourselves and for all beings.

Welcome

IMG_3950 (1)Yoga has had a transformational impact on Adrian’s life, and the immense benefits that he continues to receive from these teachings inspires him to share these practices with others. Over time, Adrian’s interest in yoga has deepened and broadened to include the study of yoga anatomy & physiology, yoga philosophy, meditation, pranayama, and plant based nutrition. Adrian is passionate about conveying these teachings to others in a way that that can guide people to leading more balanced, healthy, and purposeful lives.

Continue reading “Welcome”

Why do you practice yoga?

imgresWhy do you practice yoga (asana)?

This is a question into which I strongly encourage any yoga practitioner to inquire. It is a question to which I’ve repeatedly returned over the past few years. In particular, moments in which I’ve experienced injury and in which I’ve been unable to enjoy my asana practice have compelled me to take a long, hard look at this question.

The reasons that I brainstormed were many but most of them boiled down to a simple answer: health. Physical, mental, and emotional health.

Continue reading “Why do you practice yoga?”