wrestle with mortality paris, 1974
As my mentor Marcel worked, I had days on end to look after myself, especially in Paris. Through an acquaintance of his we had the use of a small apartment in the Latin Quarter, three floors above the famous Caveau de la Huchette, jazz music drifting up every night until the small hours.The building was owned by the City of Paris, and because our friends’ family had held continual occupancy since the 18th century, the rent was historically controlled and now amounted to about $50 per month…
Wandering the city, week after week, encountering who I might, I eventually grasped that if I spent my whole life there I could still never see it all, the magnitude and complexity of the world forcing its way into my view. I also went home with every cult that approached me, and all western cities in the seventies had droves of spiritual envoys out on the streets. Children of God, Bhagwanners, Hare Krishnas, Moonies, Scientologists, Eckankars, Maharishis, Mormons, Born-agains, Jehova Witnessers… I was curious to see what they offered. Some were all about the guru-worshipping, like Bhagwan and Maharishi, some were also cash machines – Moonies, Scientologists and Maharishis, and some were just conservative spiritual traditions open to the new seekers on the streets.
It was not hard to resist their requests to join, although the Children of God had a neat trick of sending their cutest female member to hug and squeeze you, fervently whispering ‘Thank you Jesus!” over and over in your ears….
In this setting I took on what was to become a three-year process dealing with my mortality. Most adolescents house a sense of immortality, but coming-of-age requires a farther horizon, where the limitations of human existence, where the abyss itself claims certainty.
It became clear to me that all things passed, all living things would die, all grist for the mill. It was also clear that nobody I met had a clue why this was, or where we went after the passing, or where we had been before getting here. This was not all right by me, and I was not going to just let it be.
And so I began a daily observation that I could well be living my last day, that all I could see would in time crumble. I knew these things were true, and so I kept them in sight. All day, all week, all month, all year. About a year into this practice I was certain that I had lived the last of my carefree days in adolescence, and that from here forward was a struggle against the unknown. It is likely a good thing I was travelling, as friends and family may have found me to be deeply depressed. Only a few things could pull me up to the surface of normal leisure – intimate encounters, powerful music or film and some psychedelic experiences in nature. Otherwise every move was clothed in uncertainty, in resonance with the thin ground upon which I walked. I worried about whether I was checking out groceries properly, whether I had eaten just the right amount, and especially how to answer the casual greeting one exchanged several times a day: “How is it going?”
Over the next two years, three singular events encouraged me and finally brought me to the other side of the chasm.
The first was to find the writings of the Third Patriarch of the Zen Bhuddist tradition. He wrote that as a young man he had approached a master swordsman and asked if he could follow him and learn his art. The swordsman looked at him and said “Perhaps, but you have already mastered something, what is it?” The young man declared that he had never followed any of the spiritual arts or apprenticed under any teacher. “I am never wrong about this”, said the swordsman,” You have mastered something” The young man thought and said that several years earlier he had begun wrestling with his mortality, and had chosen to persevere in the process. After a few years, it was not as if the question was answered, rather, it just stopped asking itself. “That is it!”, said the swordsman, ‘I will teach you.” And so the young man eventually became one of the five Patriarchs who built the tradition of Zen Bhuddism, and wrote down his experience. Reading it, I gained a sense that what I was doing might not be crazy after all, and so I chose not to let up, harried as I was.
About a year later I was sitting in the garden of the American Student Centre in Paris while chopping some firewood for them. I smoked some marijuana, following the strict practice learned from Marcel years before in resonance with indigenous traditions and the use of medicinal plants which affect the mind. They are called teaching plants in indigenous traditions, and respected above those plants which only heal the body. The practice is to take very little, one draw, maybe two, and stay focused on the act, and for the next four hours or so not to lose focus on any effect until it wears off naturally. In this way, one is intending to actually learn or discover something, rather than just have fun or forget one’s cares.
After a half hour or so of sitting, the dead leaves on the ground reminded me that all the living ones now in the tree would soon join them, and looking out at the young girls passing on the street, knowing they would age and die…. Well, I was not uplifted, and so started walking. At the back of the Centre was an artists’ studio, Henry Moore-style carvings in the grass around a small atelier, a door ajar with a light coming out, and so I knocked and entered.
A jovial, short 80-year old man greeted me, the resident artist. I had heard about him, a Romanian. He told me to come in, and in greeting me said “What are you doing with your life?” ”Je Voyage”, I responded, ‘I am travelling’. He showed me the clay sculptures his students were working on, in clay and plaster, all very jovial and good-natured. Then after about ten minutes of considering their work he turned to me and said “So what are you doing with your life?” This time the question merited more thought, so I explained that I was researching my cultural roots and the spiritual history of the west, somewhat trying to figure out how we got into such a mess, burning people at the stake in the name of Jesus, etc. But the question amplified my discomfort, and so I wandered around his cluttered studio. Up against a wall he had propped the insides of a grand piano, the whole steel frame and strings all there. As an ardent guitarist, I began plucking the chords, making some very nice sounds, and slowly got myself backin to a workable composure.
I wandered back to where he was working and said it had been nice to meet him and that I should be going. He walked me to the door, and as we shook hands to say goodbye he looked me in the eye and said “So what are you doing with your life?”
In that moment, it felt like he had reached down my throat to grab the truth, and I knew as I opened my mouth that there could be no skirting the issue, though I had no clue what I was going to say. I heard myself state “I am preparing to die! (je me prepare a mourire!)”. Without missing a beat he retorted “From what, laughing?
(De quoi, rire?)”
My head tossed back and I let out a full laugh, deeper than I had done in maybe a year, and felt instant comprehension of his dual message, as I saw he was working on two levels. On the surface level, it was pretty funny, a strapping young lumberjack from the forest of Canada declaring to an 80 year-old that he was preparing to die. However, the real message underway was to offer the option of dying laughing as an option, and one that had totally passed over. I instantly understood that even if dying was a certainty, that did not rule out that one could die laughing. This could be attainable. Suddenly the narrow walls around me opened up a bit, and I was again encouraged to persist.
Another year later, I am in the Salt Lake Valley with Marcel, the skiing season is over, but the hills are still good for spring skiing. This beautiful sport takes advantage of the way the warm days melt the surface layer of the deep powder snow and the cold nights freeze it solid. Each morning you can easily hike up the mountain, walking on the surface snow without breaking through. At mid-morning there is a window of about an hour where the warming sun will melt just enough of the surface that you can ski on it with the same control as on a regular piste, only the shape and lay of the mountainside is virgin snow with no tracks, and so the beauty is singular.
We were invited to spend the night of the full moon eclipse with a group of young people on a farm in the valley. They all planned to take some LSD, and knowing the character of the hosts, we knew it would not be a party scene, rather more akin to the spirit of communal seeking and discovery that interested us. So we went.
You will often hear that it is difficult to describe a psychedelic experience to someone who has not tried it. This is mostly the result of a social compact which holds that there is only one reality, the shared normal one is which we live our daily lives. This idea is so embedded in modern western society that to refer to it as a ‘social compact’ is enough to rouse suspicion. Generally the best reference to allow access to the concept of reality outside our norm is through common mysteries in normal life. A neighbor’s dog that suddenly starts baying without stopping for an hour, then one learns the neighbor has been killed in a car accident 40 miles away. A dream which unfolds in perfect detail three days later. Feeling you are being watched, then discovering that in fact, you are.
Plants which are psychotropic have a massive power to convince you that the actual myth is ‘that there are no plant spirits.’ Their capacity to transform what one is experiencing has made them always at the heart of careful ritual and ceremony within indigenous communities across the planet. Peyote cactus, Psilocybin mushrooms, ayahuasca, marijuana, and many more species fulfill this same place of respect among the healthy-minded within tribes.
The two themes you will find always associated in the long traditions of their use are that of healing and that of learning to live a better life. This is not negated by overuse and abuse among communities who are unaware or unconcerned about these traditions, but it is often overshadowed by such error.
So, to continue, we arrived at the farm out in the valley, and when all were assembled we ate the LSD. Ergot – the mold which grows on rye husks, and which throughout European history would occasionally arise in the bread eaten by a whole village, causing havoc and the term ST Vitteus’ Dance.
The waves of perceptual shift which arrive after ingestion are common to psychotropic plants across a surprising span – mushrooms, cactus, vines and bushes. With strong plants these waves increase for about three hours.
Well before that, I had begun to notice that whoever I spoke with I could see absolutely perfectly how to make them laugh, and then effortlessly increase what they thought was funny until they were either on the floor in fits, or scrambling to get away from me so they could recover from non-stop laughter. I did this the whole night, except for a few forays out to see the actual eclipse, which was totally there.
In the morning, after no sleeping, but back from the effects of the ergot, we drove up into the Wasatch Range and climbed for an hour, carrying our skis, finally reaching a beautiful ridge overlooking the whole salt valley in the morning sun. A few other groups had come to the same spot and the coffee and high cheer of something great ahead was in everyone. When the snow reached the right consistency (corn snow) we slipped off our perches and sailed over the round mounds, between the trees, over clefts and gullies. As I watched it all go by, in my head was pounding the phrase “What wonderful people, what wonderful people!”
In the months that followed I could see that I had regained my faith in being human, mortal or not, flawed or not. I sensed that this was a deep shift and that although I could have waited for my deathbed for the process, I had chosen to meet it instead in my early twenties, and I was glad for that. I felt like it would make the road ahead easier rather than harder. I also agreed with the observation that the reality and certainty of death is at the root of all fears, and without facing this reality deeply, these fears are far more difficult to overcome.