love. week four.
city. new york city, ithaca
I’ve been avoiding writing about two topics. It’s funny because both of these topics were major reasons for me beginning the love project in the first place. Well, maybe that’s why I’ve been nervous to get into them. Afraid of letting myself down, or not living up to the task. Like a mountain climber, who arrives at base camp, sees the mountain side towering over head, and instead chooses to spend the day swimming, rather than risk failure.
Well, here it goes. The two topics are girls and drugs.
I might have mentioned these in passing but have more or less steered clear of engaging with either head-on (at least in my writing).
Today I’ll try to begin discussing the latter topic, drugs.
Back in September, when I was thinking about what kind of personal project(s) I’d like to pursue, I finally got around to reading Sam Harris’s book, Waking Up. I’d been using his meditation app for about 9 months, so I was looking forward to finally reading the book that inspired it. I think it took me two days to read and, to be honest, I didn’t learn much from it. (It’s split between the Neuroscience/Philosophy of mind, a topic I’d already dug into in college, and Sam’s personal experiences in India and Nepal, experiences which I’d already heard him discuss elsewhere.)
However, a few pages in the first chapter of the book hit me like lightening. I’ll quote them here verbatim:
A few years after my first painful encounter with solitude, in the winter of 1987, I took the drug 3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetemine (MDMA), commonly known as Ecstasy, and my sense of the human mind’s potential shifted profoundly. Although MDMA would become ubiquitous at dance clubs and “raves” in the 1990s, at that time I didn’t know anyone of my generation who had tried it. One evening, a few months before my twentieth birthday, a close friend and I decided to take the drug.
The setting of our experiment bore little resemblance to the conditions of Dionysian abandon under which MDMA is now often consumed. We were alone in a house, seated across from each other on opposite ends of a couch, and engaged in quiet conversation as the chemical worked its way into our heads. Unlike other drugs with which we were by then familiar (marijuana and alcohol), MDMA produced no feeling of distortion in our senses. Our minds seemed perfectly clear.
In the midst of this ordinariness, however, I was suddenly struck by the knowledge that I loved my friend. This shouldn’t have surprised me—he was, after all, one of my best friends. However, at that age I was not in the habit of dwelling on how much I loved the men in my life. Now I could feel that I loved him, and this feeling had ethical implications that suddenly seemed as profound as they now sound pedestrian on the page: I wanted him to be happy.
That conviction came crashing down with such force that something seemed to give way inside me. In fact, the insight appeared to restructure my mind. My capacity for envy, for instance—the sense of being diminished by the happiness or success of another person—seemed like a symptom of mental illness that had vanished without a trace. I could no more have felt envy at that moment than I could have wanted to poke out my own eyes. What did I care if my friend was better looking or a better athlete than I was? If I could have bestowed those gifts on him, I would have. Truly wanting him to be happy made his happiness my own.
A certain euphoria was creeping into these reflections, perhaps, but the general feeling remained one of absolute sobriety—and of moral and emotional clarity unlike any I had ever known. It would not be too strong to say that I felt sane for the first time in my life. And yet the change in my consciousness seemed entirely straightforward. I was simply talking to my friend—about what, I don’t recall—and realized that I had ceased to be concerned about myself. I was no longer anxious, self-critical, guarded by irony, in competition, avoiding embarrassment, ruminating about the past and future, or making any other gesture of thought or attention that separated me from him. I was no longer watching myself through another person’s eyes.
And then came the insight that irrevocably transformed my sense of how good human life could be. I was feeling boundless love for one of my best friends, and I suddenly realized that if a stranger had walked through the door at that moment, he or she would have been fully included in this love. Love was at bottom impersonal—and deeper than any personal history could justify. Indeed, a transactional form of love—I love you because…-- now made no sense at all.
Damn. That’s all I needed to hear. Two weeks later I picked up a gram of molly and headed out to my friend Shlomo’s place on Long Island for the weekend.
We woke up early on Saturday, prepared some shakshuka for breakfast, and then each dissolved 100 milligrams of molly into some water and drank up.
Before I describe our experiences on molly, I need to back up a bit and talk about two things that we randomly did earlier that weekend that (I believe) contributed to our trip.
Firstly, the night before rolling molly, Friday night, we got high and watched David Attenborough’s nature documentary, A Life On Our Planet. This featured 2 hours of stunning footage, designed to expose the viewer to the beauty of nature as well as the present threats that threaten our planet. I submit that it’s impossible to watch this film without feeling a deep appreciation for our planet as well as compassion for the abuse that it’s been facing lately.
Secondly, I presented to Shlomo a powerpoint that I had put together on Martin Buber’s book, I and Thou. Buber was a German Jewish philosopher and theologian who was famous for his philosophy of relations. He points out that most of our experiences take the form of an I (the subject) directed at some It (the object). Even our interpersonal relationships, argues Buber, take on the I-It form. However, now and then, we can experience an alternative relationship, an I-Thou relationship. In this form, the object of our experience doesn’t take on the form of an object, an It, but rather seems to stand as another subject, a Thou, that holds us in its presence just as we hold it in ours.
In any case, I had put together a presentation that tries to point out the various characteristics of the I-Thou relationship, and Shlomo and I spent an hour or so on Saturday morning discussing these before drinking the molly.
I never intended to engage in these two activities before taking molly, but I’m pretty sure that they—nature and modes of relations—completely altered (and infused) our trip.
Here are a few takeaways from that chilly day back in October:
I had of course heard people describe their experiences on molly as ‘boundless love’. The closest thing that I’d experienced to that (or so I thought) were my peak romantic experiences. Therefore, I was expecting something that was emotionally as well as physically overwhelming. I expected to fall in love. And, just as when I’d fallen in love with women, I expected a gripping, breathless, almost desperate experience.
This couldn’t be farther from the truth. The experience I had on molly was one of complete calm and balance. I was not gripped by love. It held no hold upon me. My heart was soft, and my mind was clear. Rather, I felt a sense of deep and permeating joy. But a joy, not with myself, but with everything around me. Literally everything. Everything deserved to be celebrated, and everything seemed to be beautiful. The boundaries between myself and the world became increasingly flimsy, and I felt completely at home in my environment.
Similar to the point above, before taking molly, I had been worried that if I did it with another guy, there would be some sort of weird sexual tension that would make me (us?) very uncomfortable. I was worried that I would feel a sexual attraction that I would want to fight, and there’s no surer way of destroying a drug trip than by fighting it.
However, the connection between sex and love didn’t even arise, let alone trouble me. It was almost as though sex was an excuse to feel intimate with another person, and while on molly I didn’t need any excuses. I felt as in love with the surrounding trees as I did with my friend. We even spent some time hugging various trees and laying down in the moist grass. And, I have to say, I haven’t experienced greater intimacy and care than I did with our vegetative neighbors that day. In a very real sense, we all share a home with each other, support one another, and are even literally (distantly) related to each other. We may separate ourselves into a special category that we call humanity (or American or Male or Jewish or Liberal, etc), but before all of that, we are all of the same stuff. We share far more in common than that which separates us.
Which brings me to my next point. While Shlomo are I were happily frolicking with nature, an elderly couple quickly walked past with scared looks on their faces and for a second we saw ourselves in their eyes. A pair of deranged adolescents who’d lost their minds. And it hit us. We live in a society where intimacy with nature is not only considered strange, but is actually scary. Of course, we understood that this is not because the couple actually thought that love is scary, but the point remains. For whatever reasons, in modern culture, expressions of love and joy are treated with fear and suspicion. What kind of ramifications does this have? And how would a world in which love was not feared, but actively sought and encouraged, look?
There are other things that I learned that day: the pleasures of feeling of water against my skin, the orgasmic beauty of gentle piano, the special treasure that is contained in friendship.
But for the time being, and for the sake of this project, I’ll simply restate that, on that day, I had the opportunity to discover a version of love which was nothing like I’d expected, and yet exceeded my wildest expectations. It is a version of love that I can still recall, sometimes even invoke, and can continue to strive towards.
Which brings me to my next drug experience. This took place this past weekend, so it’s a bit fresher in my mind.
I had gone up to my friend Efraim’s place in Ithaca, NY for the weekend. (Sidenote: Ithaca is absolutely gorgeous.) I had just about passed out in bed on Friday night when he came into the room, woke me up, and informed me that we’d be doing ketamine now. I’d never tried ketamine before, but I guess there’s a first time for everything. I’ve made a habit of never saying no (Just Say Yes) unless absolutely necessary, so I went along with it.
I asked Efraim what it feels like and he said he couldn’t explain, so I was going in blind. All I knew is that it’s a psychedelic, so I was instantly terrified, but I knew Efraim would take care of me. He lit up his essential oil diffuser, dimmed the lights, turned on a gentle electronic track, and we each took a bump.
I laid back in bed, stared at the ceiling, and let my mind drift…
Over the next hour I had two diametrically opposed experiences, which are nonetheless nearly identical.
I realized that the entire room existed in my mind. Well not so much realized, as actually experienced it as such. Not only were my thoughts and emotions contained in my mind, but the music reverberating around the room, and even the stereo system itself existed solely within the confines of my mind. I took turns shifting my attention around the room, first taking a perspective from within my head but then moving my attention to various ‘external’ perspectives, like listening to the music from behind the stereo. I heard Efraim say that space exists in his mind, and I knew that we were on the same page. I told him that he exists in my mind, and that we can swap perspectives if he’d like.
Later on, while lying on my back looking up at the white ceiling, I had the exact inverse experience. My mind existed outside in the world. It was not contained in my head (or any other part of my body) but literally filled every inch of space. Imagine that you’ve been watching a movie, a really good movie, and had become so engrossed in what was happening on screen that you lost all sense of reality outside of the movie. Then, in an instant, you get sucked back into the room, back into your body. You still see the movie playing on the screen across the room, but you are no longer swallowed up inside of it. You’ve woken up.
Lying there, I had the sense that I’d woken up. I could still hear my own thoughts and feel my own emotions, but they no longer defined me. I could just as easily shift my attention over to the bed that Efraim was laying in or into the corner at the far side of the room. My consciousness became (nearly) identical with the world, or reality.
I know that these experiences aren’t new or unique. They’ve been discovered and documented by thousands of yogis, druggies, poets, and mystics before me. It’s not even entirely new to me. During some of my meditations I’ve experienced shadows of these states. But this was the first time that either of these states was so clearly realized and maintained, particularly outside of a meditative state. I wasn’t trying to transcend my sense of self, I was simply noticing that I had already done so. More importantly, I noticed that I am always already transcendent of any sense of self. In an important sense, I had just woken up to that fact. As I write these words, I am back asleep. I am writing as myself. But like a lucid dreamer, I can still remember what it’s like to be awake.
There are two things I’d like to respond to. The first is the objection that these experiences aren’t real because they were under the influence of drugs. I’m not sure what the difference between a real or fake experience is, but I guess I see the problem. Why should I trust these drug-induced experiences more than my everyday experiences? I have to think more about that, but for starters I’d say that it’s not an issue of trust, but rather of preference. Living a non-egocentric life just seems far more exciting and meaningful, and now that I have a model for how that might look, I have a potential goal to work toward (in my meditations, my interactions, and my philosophical work).
The second issue is what this all has to do with love? And the answer is that it doesn’t really. I do think that cultivating and maintaining a sense of self-transcendent awareness will improve my capacity to connect to and love those around me, but I think that’s more of a side-effect? I’m not really sure. It will also increase my ability to be present and patient for others, but again, that’s another fortunate side-effect.
The truth is that I just wanted to write about these experiences :)