Tuesday, December 16, 2014

On Psychedelics and Yogic Practice

As a fourteen-year-old living in Los Angeles, I'd exhausted the margin of joy my psychological disposition had to offer. Six years of growing up under the Bush administration with two more to go, a stressful family life (my divorced parents could never reach a consensus on how best to raise me and my twin brother Sam, leaving us feeling a bit like ping-pong balls shooting back and forth between houses and sets of rules), and a school environment seemingly designed to suppress my natural inclinations to learn, had me in knots of frustration that could only find expression in the ironic and transgressive. When I wasn't off seeing punk bands with names like "Cheap Sex" and "The Adicts (they intentionally misspelled it)," I was watching early John Waters films or playing violent video games like "Grand Theft Auto." It was all fun on the surface, but beneath it was a bleak, anxious feeling. Even the budding empathy that had prompted me to become a vegetarian and identify closely with radical anti-war politics felt like futile sentiment against the backdrop of doomed world.

When Sam and I, together, started smoking pot around the end of eighth grade, we'd inadvertently gifted ourselves some desperately needed breathing room. I'd already stopped doing my school-work by then, partly from the general boredom and burnout, but largely due to a deeply felt need to pay closer attention to the spaces between my prescribed schedule. Marijuana both validated and magnified those spaces, and throughout the next six months, Sam and I were introduced to drugs that did so even more: mdma, psilocybin, and LSD. It was my first LSD trip in particular that validated my imagination to the extent that dropping out of high school the next day seemed like a no-brainer. I still maintain that this decision—which, off the cuff, might be a parent's worst nightmare—was crucial to my psychological development, and in ways well beyond the initial catharsis.

Leaving school meant moving in with my dad full-time. Sam, seeing no fair scenario in which he had to go to school and I didn't, quickly joined me. With our dad gone a lot, we became weekend ravers with very little structure in between. Sure, we checked in with a home-studies program twice a week for about an hour (we later got our "equivalency certificates"), but for the most part, life was an unconstrained creative canvas that reflected our mental dynamics back for us to absorb with profoundly new sensitivity.

For me, it was two-fold. On the one hand, I'd engineered an environment that perfectly suited a deep exploration of the subtler realms of mind. Between the psychedelics and ecstasy I would do almost every weekend—in addition to my penchant to be stoned whenever possible—I was in a near-constant visionary space, immersed in elaborate cartoon scenarios superimposed upon the mundane landscape of my San Fernando Valley neighborhood, and prismatic, abstract intelligence when I closed my eyes. What became apparent before long, however, was that this whole trip was bound within the orbit of certain bad habits I'd developed.

Cocaine and prescription-grade opiate use ran concurrent to my psychedelic experimentation. In contrast, they were consciousness reducing drugs—ones that a child-hood rife with binge levels of sugar, TV, and over-stimulating digital media had primed my synaptic pathways for. When I began turning to these substances to numb my more difficult emotions, I knew there was a fork in the road. I could either stare the unsavory, un-pleasurable aspects of life directly in the face, or destroy myself running from them.

By some miracle, I chose to quit all non-psychedelic drugs (though I consider marijuana a psychedelic, I stopped using it too). I was guided to pick up a book on Zen Buddhism I noticed through the corner of my eye at a local book store, and I started to silently meditate for a brief period each day. I also began reading books by Terence McKenna and Daniel Pinchbeck that articulated the astral sensibility already obvious in my day to day experience.

It was about six months into this detoxification of sorts that the idea of yoga as a means of self-mastery became intriguing. I'd gravitated towards the "2012 meme," which was an episode of apocalyptic excitement that buzzed within the psychedelic community for a while. The focus ranged from new-age glitter to downright paranoia, but in the more lucid moments, touched on some crucial insights that emphasized how our industrial-age tendencies towards greed and insecure self-interest are at a wall, and now threaten our survival as a species if not for a more empathetic and ethereal transformation of values, and a practical reform of our social systems. I took to calling what I saw as the end-all of this process "the fifth dimension," and I rambled and wrote about it obsessively.  The basic asanas I'd begun doing out of a book on hatha yoga seemed to be preparing my body and mind for it. I was also dropping acid twice a week for good measure.

Perhaps that can explain the nonchalant way in which I strolled into my first kundalini yoga class in July of 2008. As sure as I may have been that I was already on the right track, I perked up unexpectedly when the teacher, Guru Singh, sat down and announced that our species was "entering the fifth dimension." For the rest of his lecture and the subsequent yoga set and meditation, I was convinced he was reading my mind. Much like with psychedelics, I'd discovered an answer that I only subconsciously knew I was looking for.

I came back to Guru Singh's classes as often as I could, as well as attending classes taught by other established teachers. The practice of kundalini yoga made me feel more awake and engaged—mentally, emotionally, physically, and beyond—than my most informative psychedelic trips led to believe was even possible. I bought a manual on developing a personal daily practice, which allowed me to earnestly explore the vast archive of yoga sets and meditations taught by the late Yogi Bhajan, who I learned was behind this system of teachings. The more that I looked into, the more I marveled at the synchronicity. Yogi Bhajan was said to have come to America in the late sixties out of a deep sense of obligation to assist the many psychedelic experimenters in cultivating and grounding their spiritual awareness to collectively serve what he felt was a coming era of conscious civilization.

Since I shared this aim so concertedly, it took a while for me to object to anything in the teachings, short of wearing a turban. As an orthodox Sikh—as bearded and turban-clad as could be­—Yogi Bhajan also flatly recommended a strict abstinence from drugs of all kinds for his students. At first, this was no problem for me. Given the powerful yoga sets, chants, and meditations I was practicing, I'd spontaneously halted my intake of substances in general (even caffeine!). I was also enjoying the wave of relief that came from not having to worry about draconian legal penalties, simply for altering my state of mind. After a few years, though, when my daily practice (about an hour of kundalini yoga, followed by an hour of chanting in the ancient language of Gurumukhi) had become a deeply established habit, I found myself routinely googling things like "yoga and psychedelics," looking for an external authority—some hip yogi, perhaps—to validate my revived interest.

This time around, I felt that should I choose to use psychedelics, I owed it to myself to be as disciplined as possible. While of course, I couldn't buy the over-simplified, seemingly puritanical opposition to them that Yogi Bhajan and the majority of Indian and Buddhist teachers voiced, my mind had slowed down enough to see that I got a bit carried away with my earlier use, probably biting off more than I could chew. It left some psychic scabs, so to speak, in the form of an inflated notion of myself and my place in the cosmic scheme. I feared compromising the clarity and balance that I felt I'd gained since. Plus, I was alarmed to have seen some friends over the years have schizophrenic episodes through downright reckless intake. All in all, I questioned whether my inclination to do them again was out of a genuine desire to grow, or simply an impulse to retreat from the purifying potential of embracing the mundane non-intoxicated realms, where all the obstacles of my impatience, my sense of entitlement, my stored bodily tension, etc, would emerge front and center.

In spite of these reservations, I ended up smoking pot again, here and there. I also undertook a few DMT and mushroom trips. My conviction, that I've stuck by, was to always do yoga and meditate sober, beforehand. This is a crucial tenet of what I see as "moderation" in its truest sense. In occasionally using psychedelic substances this way, I'm able to better set my intention and process their impact, both during and after the intoxication. As long as my meditation practice is strong, independently of them, they seem to inform and support it—with anything from a mist of cognitive amiability, to a "deep-issue massage," depending on the substance and doseand often, they point to their own superfluousness. While some might view that as a sign to "hang up the phone," as Alan Watts famously said, I trust that if I couldn't benefit from them, my desire to do them would be gone; and I do draw a distinction between desire and impulse, though a bit of Dionysian revelry can be healthy once in a while, too.

I think that the tendency certain spiritual practitioners have to shame psychedelics as "bad" and unnatural, stems from a kind of institutionalized self-preservation mechanism on the part of most yogic traditions, but for the more ancient, shamanic ones. I do understand how such thinking can help an ashram run smoothly: daily chores would certainly be disrupted by the monks erupting in involuntary laugh-fits, or ripping their clothes off to dance in ecstatic revelation. I can also see why some argue that the same applies to conventional life in Western society (I've certainly seen of few therapists that have. None of them had a clue about what they were talking about). If that's true, though, I think it's fantastic. We live in a time when we desperately need the type of radical creativity and insight that psychedelics provide. While I'm not so daft as to think that there aren't exceptions, it's very difficult for me to imagine receiving the initial reality check I was gifted through my first LSD experience without the LSD. Perhaps I would have eventually found my way to a yogic practice that would have, alone, served the same purpose, but I don't want to second-guess it.

In our contemporary society, where yogic practices are the stuff of booming industry, and psychedelic usage is at its highest on record since the 60's, it makes a lot of sense to wisely combine the two, freed from trappings of the ancient traditions they derived from, to assist us in the unique new challenges we face. While psychedelics offer us an initiation ceremony for the secular age, yoga and meditation are tools to carry us through, as conscious spiritual beings with physical and psychological flexibility.

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