Caveat lector: Contains discussion of self-harm and post-industrial-grade pessimism. Also, this is coming on the heels of an ecstatic episode. I apologize for the forlorn grandiosity.
This recounting and reflection will seem a performative contradiction. I defer to Whitman on that point.
During the delving days of my depression I would repeatedly traumatize myself with horrific violent video/audio/imagery. This reliably resulted in dissociation, frequently followed by cathartic hysteria. I would laugh and weep and seize and spasm in agony. Whenever I would ineptly prepare to hang myself, or idly envision stepping into traffic, bodily relaxation and mental quietude would overtake otherwise omnipresent restless discontent.
There’s a Pali compound for this one: vibhava-tanha: craving for non-existence. Craving something’s annihilation only causes it to become more prominent in experience, and if one believes in rebirth and its end as the goal of spiritual life, I can understand how craving an end to one’s own existence would be soteriologically problematic.
Nonetheless, I see impolitic similarities between what was occasionally and painfully achieved through those means and what I now easefully enjoy through meditation. Self-destruction and meditation are alike in that they, if pursued to their ends, amount to existential surrender. That said, as a stratagem for coping with suicidality, anhedonia, and alienation, I would heartily recommend the latter over the former. Better for all involved. These deleterious behaviors continued until I consented to expensive and thorough rehabilitation.
I returned from said rehabilitation with tremendous appreciation for the importance of environment to my wellbeing. Pratityasamutpada in practice. The lesson seems not to have stuck, but we’ll get to that. Removed from opportunities to perpetuate self-destructive habits and in community with others, I recovered very well from depression, if not pessimism. I transitioned to living, much as I do now, in nominal cohabitation and actual isolation while I finished high school. During those months, despite being active enough to progress towards the goals I had set myself, I was increasingly disconsolate and familiarly alienated.
Prior to writing this, I happened upon something I had written during that time, and it expresses very well the thoughts which emerge from a spectrum of expansive, sublime, unitive experiences with which I am now far better acquainted. The one of which I wrote occurred after reading War and Peace, and was likely induced by Tolstoy’s ruminations on ‘will’, the feeling of agency, and determinism.
…everything is nothing and everything at once and all this is I and you and me and too much, much too much.
I had entirely forgotten it. Funny how that happens. Retrospecting, it is impossible to know how much of my present phenomenology is misleadingly embedded in the arising of its memory.
In the spring and summer following my graduation, cognizant that I had been happiest in community, I explored a variety of alternative modes of life. As it turned out, I craved purpose and salvific activity absent in secularly styled communes, in the best of which I read Nagarjuna, which caused another all-too temporary state-shift out to spacious freedom. I figured the Buddhists were onto something. I attended a retreat in a monastery. In one of several sage-on-stage style presentations a monk commented offhand on the certainty of death, I believe to arouse urgency in the present, and I recall thinking, not at all morbidly, ‘I will die!’, as though for the first time, with genuine surprise and relief, and what a blessed thing it was. Light streamed from clear sky into the hall.
Meditation, what of it I did at the loosely structured retreat, didn’t make a marvelous impression on me. Frankly, I don’t remember anything about it from those weeks, except that it seemed a good thing to do. The habit died after departing the monastery. It wasn’t until I, again unhappily alienated in the first semester of university several months later, ingested 150 micrograms of LSD under the influence of Buddhist philosophy that enduring conviction in the possibility, and profound desirability, of phenomenological de/re-construction arose. Following fascinated hours of observing/being the flux of shape, colour, sound, identity, space, and time, which by then were all quite evidently the same process, I was assailed by an intolerable corporeal ecstasy. Involuntarily crumpling to the carpeted floor and, finally, resting my eyes, all exploded out into abstract dimensionality and was gone.
Awareness returned to space without form or thought. Senses emerged from silence. Thought and speech failed to arise beyond brief impulses. Others’ words were understood. I recall exclaiming, ‘Words are back.’, just as soon as they were. I was asked, ‘Wystan, are you okay?’, and something replied, as if it were utterly inconsequential, ‘Oh, Wystan? He died a while ago.’ That unpremeditated sentence, springing forth without anyone’s assent, jolted something or other. What was shockingly grokked, and thereafter astounded, was that while the lights were on, no one was home, nor had anyone ever been, nor could any of all of anything ever have been other than as It is/was/will be: here rests the clear peace of perfection.
What a trip, eh? Hard to integrate an experience like that. I regained the use of personal pronouns sometime later, and, despite having some difficulty remembering how pants are put on the following morning, it was an unmitigated success. Unfortunately, insight (or madness, depending on your perspective or lack thereof) so accessed fades without fail save some practice to sustain and nurture its development. Several months later, gripped in unanswerable anxiety, I fled university and lived in a succession of Buddhist monasteries. I learned to meditate, to consistently tune into the instability of experience and soak, surrender therein. Through waves and cycles, dissolution and reconstitution, layer after layer, love comes, or its like, and I am moved to act. In the course of such an afternoon, the phenomenal field alert and alive, tenderly attentive, I saw my monastic ambition rooted in aversion to a world whose pain, in that state, I ached to embrace. I departed the next week.
In truth, I don’t believe I could have remained a monk in any tradition long, had I ordained. Throughout my time in the monasteries, there persisted feelings of guilt, as though from infidelity. I don’t subscribe to the metaphysics, cosmology, and thus soteriology of any of the many Buddhisms, and I would never feel justified representing a tradition whose tenets I do not hold. Without that path laid out, I found myself suddenly adrift. Okay, then, not monasticism. What, then? Well, you’d like to continue awakening. Not an issue, the tools are ever at your disposal. Okay, well, I’d like to help people. Many ways to do that.
Of course, once more outside the idyllic grounds of monasteries and the warm communalism therein, I find that, despite deepening, expanding transcendence (or rather, the sense of transcendence within immanence), the immanent sphere of my own and others’ lives in unsustainably consumeristic Canada hasn’t changed a whit. My isolating and avoidant behaviours remain, or have returned, and I wonder whether I wish to train to care for the casualties of an inhumane society which I can’t dare hope will change before we all shall have problems worse than insufficient care for addicts and neuro-atypical unfortunates. Our species is sleepwalking towards its degradation and diminution. We are not at risk of extinction, but that which is worse: the immiseration of an ever greater share of our population. Thomas Metzinger writes:
I predict that during the next decades, we will increasingly experience ourselves as failing beings… It will be an image of a class of naturally evolved cognitive systems that, because of their own cognitive structure, are unable to react adequately to certain challenges—even when they are able to intellectually grasp the expected consequences, and even when, in addition, they consciously experience this very fact about themselves clearly and distinctly.
Climatic changes brought about by the logics of profitable extraction, exploitation, and immoderate consumer habits are forecasted to further blight the oceans, flood the rivers, sink our cities, and desertify the green spaces. Agricultural industry, most of which is in the service of our addiction to animal flesh, has so degraded the soils that much of the earth will not be fecund for the support of my generation’s grandchildren. Many millions will migrate, and nativists will militate. I’ll leave you to imagine the consequences. Perhaps another Haber-Bosch miracle will manifest. Maybe Malthus catches us, after all. If not him, then entropy, eventually. Some place faith and hope in nature, and perhaps a return to it, whatever it is. They must labour under a delusion. There is nothing more natural than what is occurring here, now. Earth is not kind to its denizens, nor they to each other. Predation and population collapse are as natural as symbiosis within stable ecologies. Ajahn Chah was quite right:
Our birth and death are just one thing. You can’t have one without the other. It’s a little funny to see how at a death people are so tearful and sad, and at a birth how happy and delighted. It’s delusion. I think that if you really want to cry, then it would be better to do so when someone’s born. Cry at the root, for if there were no birth, there would be no death. Can you understand this?
What to do? Many states evince clarity, some compassion, and a few convince of timeless freedom from birth and death. However, it is poor epistemology to infer from aberrant, if unsurpassed, phenomenologies that they reveal the ultimate truth of things. Not that we have any other means to capture that old canard; foundationalism forever flounders. What a weight, is hope. I can’t believe in salvation any longer. No one can be redeemed. After all, we were never really here.
Indic cosmogony is characterized by cyclic creation and destruction. A fair reflection of earth, as it might be of heaven. Modern cosmologists conjecture that by infinity’s span space shall diffuse to eternal equilibrium, and to dust we shall return. Nothing lasts forever. Still, I hope they are right.
Until then, I’ll take my cues from the Titanic’s band.