Sunday, June 22, 2008

Tribes, Part 3

At the end of last year, I wrote two posts on our deep human tendency towards tribal identification. As is my habit, I've procrastinated several months on completing that series, until now.

I started thinking about this a couple of years ago, when I went back East for Passover. Customarily, Jews gather on that holiday for a ceremonial meal ("seder"), making it a traditional time to spend with family. I hadn't done so consistently since I left home at 18, but I was there this time for the sake of seeing my mother, and numerous old, home-town friends from my youth.

As I chatted with a few of these friends, I searched for topics of conversation that I'd find interesting to connect with them about, since our lives had led us to such different experiences and situations and ideas over the decades. I recalled that one of them had practiced Transcendental Meditation (TM) back in the 70s, so I asked, and we talked about that for a few minutes.

That led to her asking me about my history with meditation, since everyone knew about my years with a guru, in an Indian ashram, and practicing at a Zen center. They listened with apparent interest and some questions. Then, one of them asked, "Can you do these things and maintain your Jewish identity?"

The question confused and annoyed me. What's with this "identity" crap? I'd been inquiring into this "self" my whole life, and the one honest and satisfying answer that's appeared is "Don't Know." All ideas about "identity" seem to arise from ignoring the clear and direct experience of not knowing, replacing it with some idea of "self" we're told of by our tribal peers and authorities.

I've always wanted to avoid following the crowd, or believing what authorities tell me. Maybe my particular karma just makes my mind more suitable for doubting than for believing. I never like to follow the beliefs of the group. Even at a rock concert, when the star tries to get everyone to cheer or applaud together, my mind mutters, "I'll not be manipulated!" At sporting events, when everyone is rooting for one team, I root for the other. Hell, when I visited Gettysburg as a kid, I'd secretly root for the South.

It's possible that all of this is an unconscious way to balance a tendency to be a blind follower, if I don't make an effort to avoid it. I say this not just because of the time I spent with an guru. It also comes from watching my mind in group situations. I note, for example, that when I meditate or chant or do some practice in a group situation, it's practically automatic for me to follow along with what everyone else is doing. It's much much easier than following a discipline alone.

I don't have the slightest interest in maintaining a Jewish identity (or Buddhist identity, or any other sort). In fact, I make positive efforts to avoid holding ideas of who I am. Maybe that's why I got so annoyed by the question at the seder. It was like someone talking about beer when I'm in AA.

I've got to remind myself that even if it's my karma to practice "What am I? Don't Know," most people seem to more naturally adopt a tribal identity. And I can understand how nature in it's wisdom makes most people like that; the species not only needs followers (in order to survive), but may well need more of them than envelope-pushers.

I guess the way forward is to continue mixing with all sorts of people, and I'll naturally encounter countless ones who annoy me by advocating a tribal identity. And I'll try to pay attention to how my mind moves when confronted by the issue.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Hawaiian Trip

I'm back from my trip to Hawaii. I hit some of the great tourist spots: marvelled at the view from the top of Mauna Loa (world's largest volcano), gingerly hiked across solidified lava flows, and communed with the fishes while snorkeling at Captain Cook's Cove. I met various old hippies who had "dropped out" to simple farming lives on the island, awaiting the collapse of modern society.

I'm always just as interested in inner travels as outer ones. So I was intrigued to find that the visionary plant Salvia Divinorum grows well in Hawaii. Over the last decade, I've had a number of mind-exploding experiences smoking the herb, which I try to describe on the Salvia Stories page of my personal site. (My little claim to net fame is that if you Google "Salvia Stories," my trip reports come up #1.)

Aside from smoking, an alternate way to trip on Salvia is to chew fresh leaves. Growing the plant isn't so easy where I live, and besides, I've never had the green thumb. So I'd never had a chance to have a good trip with the chewing method, not till Hawaii.

My 3 friends and I gathered in a dim room with a tray of big leaves picked from the plants minutes before. We shared an intention to be open and awake to whatever the plant showed us, and began chewing. I found the taste awful, and holding the Salvia-filled saliva in my mouth (so the magical molecule could get absorbed below the tongue) to be disgusting.

After a little more than 5 minutes, I was ready to give up and spit it out with regrets. Then suddenly the effects took hold. Initially, it was something like a psychedelic, with swirling body feelings, and translucent mandala visuals. That lasted just a few seconds, till it grew into something unique.

I was trying to stay quiet, so as not to disturb my friends' experiences. I'd usually find it easy to be silent and introverted when I choose to be, but in this case, I somehow couldn't stop uttering moans of amazement, even verbalizing a monstrous "WOW!"

As best I can remember and describe... I saw/felt a tangle of sensations and thoughts that make up the sense of being an individual in a body. It's like strands wound together so tightly that they seem like a solid thing. More than that, this sense of bodily existence is so constant and obvious that I ordinarily don't even notice it.

I have a dim recollection of that tangle unwinding, deconstructing. The thoughts and sensations resolved back to some unknowable source, dissolving all trace of a self. After a minute, I could open my eyes and perceive the world with near normalcy... except that identity and separation were noticeably and marvelously absent. The 4 of us spent 15-20 minutes laughing and babbling about the unspeakable space we were sharing.

I vaguely remembered the physical body, but without the feeling it was "me." When my friend lit a cigarette and passed it to me (no, kids, this isn't a good idea), I couldn't imagine how to relate to my body. But somehow, my arm moved and my hand took the cig; it would have been no more amazing if I'd been able to move mountains with my will.

One of the nicest parts of the trip was the interval in which I was aware of my surroundings, but before the sense of self returned. For at least those minutes, I was able to look at my friends and only have concern for them, unfiltered and unhindered by the slightest thought of "me."

Monday, June 02, 2008

Novella for Former Ashramites

I always enjoy how this blog gives me the chance to virtually meet folks with similar interests. Most recently, I got an email from Annie Gauger, introducing her own site. She writes, "I was wondering if you would be interested in sharing my blog with your readers. It's actually not a blog but a venue for fiction. I am publishing a novella in seven page increments every Wednesday. Intended audience: former ashramites and other yogis. Please remember that the story starts at the bottom, not the top."

I'm happy to pass on this link to Annie's site: The Sad Guru & Other Stories.