Five years ago today, outside a tiny airport in Indonesia, I put down a drink and decided to wait a moment before picking up the next one.
I am still in that moment.
I am going to write about my process in the event it might help anyone stuck in a pattern of drinking or stuck in re-covery. After that, I am removing the annual reminder from my calendar. The more time that passes, the less interested I am in observing the day I hit pause, even though that pause is more of a stop by now. This runs counter to the outlook of most people in re-covery. More length is less interest, not more victory for me.
Below is my first of two insights. If it gets traction and seems to be of help, I will write out the rest.
I use this saying from the Japanese poet, Basho as a guiding principle in my life: “Seek not the path of the masters, seek what they sought.”
I cannot undertake anything without thoroughly understanding it first. The more I researched Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), the more it became a problem for me that it’s founder, Bill W never worked the 12 Steps himself.
I attended a conservative school briefly as a teen, before being asked to leave. It had a series of rigid traditions in honor of men who had pioneered, broken away or rebelled against rigid systems and had gone on to create significantly in their own way. As a way to honor them, we would all copy them in a uniform manner. Any break away action, non-redundant, non-circular behavior was punished. For me, it showed lack of respect to follow the process of men who broke from a process… as a way to respect them.
Years ago while already on a trip through India, I made an impromptu detour to Rishikesh, where yoga began, to gain more understanding about the eight limbs, something I was enjoying at the time and wanted to dive deeper into. I arrived during International Yoga Week and was repelled by the chaos and the influencers. I fled up into the mountains nearby and spent time alone on my practice under a waterfall, very confused… until I remembered Basho.
The ancients retreated up the Ganges away from the masses and into the remote foothills of the Himalayas to turn inwards. I was a few miles off their now well-worn path but I was seeking what lead them here more closely.
Mythologist Joseph Campbell says, “If there is a path, it is someone else’s path and you are not on the adventure.” I think it applies.
Likewise, Jiddu Krishnamurti, who would know a thing or two about this, also says, “truth is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever, by any religion, by any sect.” He was plucked off a beach in Goa as a boy, taken to the West and forced to lead the Theosophical Society. He went on to reject the role and tried to turn people onto the idea of a pathless way, which in turn made them want to follow him even more.
The energy around people who carve out their own way is so strong that it creates a gap behind them in their midst. Nature abhors a vacuum and energy rushes to fill it in, naturally. Here, in the form of people.
It is like piercing through the repetitive loops and revolving habits of a wound-up ball of knitting wool with your own golden thread. Breaking away herniates the integrity of a structure. It is hard, uncharacteristic and essential for growth.
It is my sense that we can still reference the path of someone before us if we are doing so to better understand our own. There is a zen saying, ‘the finger pointing at the moon is not the moon.’ We can use established ways as signposts on our own journey but not as destinations, or we will be stuck and not on our own Campbell-esque adventure.
Both Basho and Krishnamurti suggest we may ask what lead others to this point and that can indicate what we are also looking for but cannot see. Studying their venturing out will give us clues but the footsteps they leave behind will not give us the same results they have, and that we aspire to.
So there I was, out-of-control-drunk and studying Bill W…
It was a maze of failed attempts but two things in his process seemed to influence his eventual success: he took an hallucinogenic nightshade called Belladonna and he became fascinated with William James’s book, Varieties of the Religious Experience. The word ‘religious’ was used interchangeably with ‘spiritual’ at the time — so read it here as a book about commonalities across spiritual experiences. But reading it wasn’t enough. If I followed it, I would be back in the process paradox that I am sure I have contradicted many times in my efforts, because William James never got to where he got by reading his own book.
I had to also study William James, especially his life before he wrote this seminal book and became the father of American psychology. He was a failed artist and medical school drop out, and a member of one of the most prolific families of all time. After a host of disappointments, middle-aged, unemployed and unaccomplished, he disappeared on an expedition up the Amazon but came back shortly, having even failed at running away.
Heavily invested in this identity of being a loser and hitting rock bottom, James tried an experiment on himself. Every day in his diary for a year he viewed his situation and his identity ‘as if’ they could be different. This term ‘as if’ was the foundation for everything that followed as he levelled up to the successes of the rest of his family.
When you hear that a significant transformation in a person, which also lead to maybe the most influential text in psychology and philosophy of the last hundred years, came from journaling the words ‘as if’, the temptation is to set aside ten minutes a day to write ‘as if’… Certainly the life coaches of this world world tell you to but Basho urges us to look deeper.
James noted all spiritual experiences had one thing in common: the awareness of a larger identity, personal or not, that you do not currently know, but can also be aware you do not know, and how the simple acknowledging of it is the first step towards communion with it. This should sound familiar to you because every hack has been teaching courses about this, touting fingers pointing at the moon to be the moon, and where a big problem comes in.
Nonetheless, having a looser identity about his ‘loser identity’ lead to a change in him — specifically, a form of growth in himself towards something larger. He pointed to something bigger in himself every day and then stepped into it.
This seems to be what happened to Bill W too when he took the nightshade at an experimental rehab facility, though it was more jarring and resembled a psychotic break, it pointed to the same thing. He was aware that there was something larger than himself and that allowed him to break out of the rigid identity he was in that was not budging, and move into something else. My sense is also that is what psychotic breaks aim to give us, if only they are handled and integrated correctly — a break from a finite structure that is butting up against growth. The finite structure is a survival response, often from a trauma, that resists growth till it lags behind and creates the fissure in time as anything that cannot grow, expand or change is subject to destruct.
Now that I had read William James, the next step was to take a hallucinogenic. I took Ayahuasca for two days and it reiterated all of the above. What helped was that I really had a clear intention of why I was doing it. I wanted a simple yes or no and it showed me what I asked to experience in a beautiful fashion of confirmation bias — the something larger than the identity I was holding onto currently, even though I cannot conceive of it.
Without knowing why you’re doing hallucinogenic, you can do real damage, freaking yourself out moving into all sorts of spaces that exist in every direction left, right and down. My sense is that people who get lost in constantly doing plant medicines are navigating these spaces and because these spaces are infinite in every direction, they will carry on till they hit some sort of positive buoyancy by accident, or keeping floating around. The same goes for any process. ANY. And this is where I go in the later parts of these articles to come — unintentional re-placing through lack of direction or tension.
I am always touched by the story of a man who says in an interview that hallucinogenics changed his entire life and is a big part of everything he does every day and then the interviewer asks him how often he uses them and he says, ‘oh no, it was just once in a forest forty years but I got what I needed.’
The day after taking Ayahuasca, I flew to Bali on a whim. I landed and had a beer and some unhealthy fast food before getting a taxi to my hotel.
It dawned on me that I would probably get drunk the whole holiday and that made me feel sad because I had a sense there was another way to experience Bali. I had no concept of what it was like to be someone who did not drink. I did not really know people who did not drink all weekend and at least most of the week. I was very rooted in my identity as drinker — although I knew I wanted something else. Luckily, my mind had been primed by now from endless consideration, research, and Ayahuasca.
I finished the beer and put it down and thought let me just wait before ordering another one and see what comes into this gap I create… my ears started to ring and I realised that in this moment of not drinking, I am behaving in exactly the same way as every other person in the world that is also not drinking right now, it is ‘as if’ I am not a drinker… I was just going to stop putting alcohol in my mouth in this moment and see where it lead.
It’s like the man who goes to fight the bear but the bear can mind-read. The bear blocks his every action because he can read the man’s plan. Eventually the man is exhausted and drops his plans, fights and conquers the bear by just in the moment doing the necessary thing.
William James make significant moves by suspending his disbelief and rising to higher levels. He only knew being a bed-ridden underachiever but he could hold the idea that in theory there was something else than what he was holding onto so tightly.
That pause creates a gap. A disconnect in our brain. An opportunity for it to rewire. The ancients were essentially just evoking opportunities for neuroplasticity through raising their awareness. Various ‘spiritual’ acts and experiences can assist in doing this. They may seem mysterious but by en large they are overriding neural pathways or repetitive, frozen actions in our nervous system and giving us the chance to change the structure. This also touches on the connection between healing and present moment awareness. Humming, asana and a breakdown have a lot in common — potential for change.
Change is either about moving laterally to something else the same size, or up to something bigger. This is everything.
Alcohol is a solution, pun intended. A hint at a yearning for another state than this finite one. So is AA, the meetings, books and processes. Or to be fair let’s say they are commonly used as a solution.
Used incorrectly, it’ll give you a horizontal shift. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, and that that is why you’re doing it, you probably will not have the experience. Unless there is an overbearing unconscious desire and it slips through. This is why you are to seek what the masters sought.
If you use it as a solution, if you use the processes or the solutions as a destination, you will end up a another static place, at a finger pointing at the moon.
Many of the 12 Steps are clear rewordings of William James’s sentiments but if you focus on them and not what they are pointing towards, you’re in a circular process. You are re-placing ‘this’ with ‘that’ if you follow a teaching or a ‘solution’ and not using it to understand what it points towards.
Any derivative process or path you follow will more than likely replace one identity with another equal sized one. Another person’s path cannot be bigger than whatever path you are on. Only you can create that, though other paths, traditions or teachings can point to them.
This is why I will not do AA.
It is almost always a way to re-place. You want to dis-place.
I am not in re-covery. I am dis-covery.
Part Two will explain how my internal tension was as important to replicating my own ‘as if’ experiment and must never be ignored.