Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion

waking upSam Harris is the co-founder and CEO of Project Reason, a non-profit organization dedicated to spreading science and secular values. Many of its members speak openly against the dangers and evils of religion, so I find it significant that in 2014 Harris released Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion.

It’s significant because it’s a risk. It doesn’t play to a large audience. According to the jacket, Waking Up is for the “20 percent of Americans who follow no religion but who suspect that important truths can be found in the experiences of such figures as Jesus, the Buddha, Lao Tzu, Rumi, and the other saints and sages of history.”

Most of Harris’ fans are hardline atheists and anti-theists who probably wouldn’t deign to admit that there is such a thing as “spirituality.” Even Harris’ brilliant contemporaries like Daniel Dennett and the late Christopher Hitchens haven’t entertained “spirituality” with much respect, and I suspect that a large number of people simply never will. So this book is not for them, and Harris has risked alienating himself from some of his own team.

There are also a number of other public meditation advocates who portray reason and rational thinking as an enemy to spiritual progress. Shunning reason has left many of these gurus open to absurd beliefs about consciousness and the cosmos. I assume advising against critical thinking is one of the reasons some of them remain so popular.

When I first became interested in meditation, yoga, and various techniques for the manipulation of consciousness, I went to the beginning. I read several ancient Indian yoga books, doing my best to account for cultural differences. I took claims about conquering death and walking on water with an arched eyebrow, and tried let the exercises and proofs of experience speak for themselves.

As I worked my way through history, things clarified slightly, becoming more contemporary and palatable, but even now the amount of pure garbage written about consciousness is staggering and time-consuming. I wish I had found Waking Up years ago when I first began.

Harris’ writing is clear, his claims based on evidence and experience, and he adds no metaphysical nonsense to the completely practical, physical, real-world exercise of meditation. He also expresses many of the philosophical issues about consciousness in a tidy fashion, peppering in humour and sharp skepticism along the way.

Much of the opening explains what he means when he says “spiritual.” Transcendent experiences are valid, he says, and they have long been misinterpreted through the lens of religion. Granted, some people may never have these experiences, and many will confuse transcendence with moments of aesthetic contemplation or ecstatic bliss (both of which may be extremely valuable), but for Harris, transcendence is the subjective experience of consciousness in a state prior to thought, when the illusion of the self is annihilated.

Of course, we’re all thinking all the time, so getting to that state can prove quite difficult. With years of meditation training, a firm grounding in philosophy and a PhD in neuroscience, Harris gives straightforward advice, tips about the snags and traps one can find on the path of meditation, and ample evidence that meditation is for most people an entirely beneficial practice.

Harris has successfully written a brief but engaging overview of meditation from scientific, philosophical, and personal perspectives. At 237 pages, Waking Up provides ample explanations and citations in the endnotes from a wide variety of sources. Waking Up will hopefully serve as an olive branch to people searching for peace without the usual religious baggage.

Deepak Chopra’s Cosmic Confusion

In all of history, no topic has been the subject of more bullshit writing than the spiritual side of life. We all live through the lens of our own experience, and it’s commendable to try to explain internal experiences, but because consciousness is such a mysterious and strange aspect of life, an unfortunate majority of opinions about it are sadly misguided.

Deepak Chopra, for example, says that matter is an illusion and consciousness is all there is. This is wrong. I’ve voiced my disagreement with his opinions before, but I assure you I’m not holding a grudge; I’m simply voicing my reaction to the ongoing dissemination of his ideas, which I find pernicious. We should all strive to understand our selves, so I don’t hold his efforts against him, but I would love to share a coffee with the man and let him in on the following:

Matter is real. It is one of the fundamental facts of the universe, as all sane people know. Even most insane people know this. Under some very special conditions, matter gives rise to organisms. As those organisms evolve, some gain tremendous complexity and computational powers to employ for survival, and very few attain what we would call consciousness. Referring to a persistent fact as an “illusion” isn’t helpful.

“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” – Philip K. Dick

Some of the functions of consciousness remain a mystery, but we have no evidence to assume that consciousness is all there is. What we know as consciousness today has only been around for the tiniest sliver of the history of the universe, and there is plenty of evidence to support that claim. How can Chopra’s theories explain prehistory? If consciousness is all there is, does he believe that there was absolutely nothing in the universe until the first conscious being was born? What gave birth to that being?

Chopra’s philosophy seems like redressed Hinduism, where matter is maya (illusion) and we are all facets of Brahman (God). He redresses it with the ill-fitting jargon of quantum physics, a perplexing topic that arose from the exploration of matter. Chopra is certainly no authority on this dense and confusing field of study, and most quantum physicists disagree with his interpretations.

Chopra and his ilk love to refer to materialism as “reductionism” as if materialism reduces our significance in the universe. But this is bush league word play. Pay attention to how often they use that word and you’ll realize this is a cheap tactic in a mind game and has no relation to how the world is described by materialism.

And besides, not one facet of our internal experienced is “reduced” by materialism. Whatever explanation we throw at it, we all have an internal experience. Belief in God or spirits or a soul—even the belief that we are all biological puppets—doesn’t change the fact that consciousness as we know it arises from the brain. Beliefs don’t change our qualia and don’t change our perceptual apparatus. It only changes our explanation of these phenomena to ourselves. But those explanations are just words.

I’ve experienced the feeling of being in the true presence of divinity. It was a fully conscious experience and it came stamped with an undeniable feeling of authority. I came out of the experience thinking, “Oh, that’s what they mean when they say ‘God’.” In no way does this experience prove that there is some sort of external divine intelligence; it only proves that such a conscious experience is possible. Such a feeling is possible. It’s a beautiful feeling, but it says nothing about the fundaments of the universe, and the experience would have been totally impossible without matter (my brain, for example). I spend time every day cultivating that experience, and I need no belief of any kind to justify it. These are purely pragmatic concerns, denuded of metaphysics.

I’m sure these facts have been laid out for Mr. Chopra over and over again, yet he keeps on with his message, adjusting his pseudo-scientific jargon ever so slightly but failing to learn or change or grow. It makes me question his motives. The fact is that his name has become a brand, and to admit his prior confusion hurts the brand. After all, what does an enlightened spiritual guru need with a net worth of $80 million? He doesn’t need any of your money, and you don’t need any of his nonsense.

New Holidays

I’ve written before about my inability to connect with a lot of popular holidays. In Canada, we’ve just had two of these in Valentine’s Day and Family Day, a statutory holiday inaugurated in Ontario in 2007. While I respect, for the most part, the emotions these holidays are meant to evoke, I find these celebrations arbitrary and unnecessary. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll happily take the day off.

Holidays motivate the economy in dependable ways and give people an emotional framework to relate to one another, but the attendant values promulgated for each are not usually values that I hold. I have trouble getting into the spirit of many holidays and find myself feeling like I’m basically just along for the ride.

In case the ruling Illuminati ask me what holidays I’d prefer, I have a few ready.

Reading Day

There is already such a thing as Canada Book Day (April 23rd) and the intentions behind it are similar to what I would propose, but on a larger scale. People remind themselves of the importance of books and more importantly, of reading, arguably the most important activity in the development of human intelligence. But I want a day off. A whole day to read, talk about books, and remind ourselves as a society that we can connect with each other across cultures and generations through words. The economical benefits of a day devoted to books could compete with the economical benefits of Valentine’s Day. A book costs $20, a Valentine’s Day card costs $5, and chocolates go equally well with either.

Day of Silence

In the interest of global sanity, I’d like to see everybody take a vow of silence for one day a year. Such a thing already exists in the GLBT community as a protest against discrimination, but what I’m after is silence for the sake of silence. One can learn a lot about oneself doing this practice; the habits we unconsciously carry out through language come into the spotlight when they are not an option. When we stop worrying about filling the awkward silences between us, we start to observe the emotions that drive us to inane chatter. Besides, with so much noise in our society, wouldn’t it just be nice? Again, here, I want a day off.

Day of Debate

Get together with friends and enemies and have a civil conversation with the goal of analyzing your own beliefs. It’s so easy to feel complacent in our beliefs and we spend a lot of time finding arguments for beliefs we already have. That’s why debates are important; our opposition, if they’ve done their homework, are bound to point out something we hadn’t considered. A day like this might help our myopic, partisan culture to share ideas in a productive way. Granted, most debates don’t solve anything on the spot, but sometimes when we hear an argument against our position, it takes root and develops over time. And naturally, one cannot be expected to work on the Day of Debate.

Yoga Day

This would be a day to cultivate yoga practice around the world. The physical and mental health benefits of yoga are undeniable, but the practice turns off a lot of people because of a maelstrom of misconceptions. I currently know of no particular day dedicated solely to yoga (the closest I found was World Healing Day), but one day per year devoted to serious education and practice would help dissolve these misconceptions and turn people on to this gentle, invigorating, ancient art.

Fast Day

Corporations would try to kibosh this before it got off the ground, but the health benefits of one day of fasting per year would probably have such a dramatic trickle-down effect on healthcare that it might be worth considering even from a purely economic standpoint. Unless you’re working a demanding physical job where you need calories, you can survive one day of fasting. It flushes out the system, gives the digestive tract a break, and points out all those instances during an average day where we reach for food simply out of habit.

Weekend of Absolute Hilarity

I joked about this previously but I do think it’s a good idea. I try to have a few of these per year. Just do what it takes to laugh your stress away. It’s a cliché, but who doubts that laughter eases our emotional tensions and leads to better health?

Drink It In

If I expect a good cup of coffee in the morning, I go to bed excited for it. Everything about coffee appeals to me. The aroma of coffee is one of the most compelling I can think of, and the flavour of a really good cup lives up to that aroma. So for years it has boggle my mind that most people tend to drink coffee like this:

Tall French Roast

Congratulations, you have successfully robbed yourself of half the pleasure of coffee. It isn’t a fluke that when we raise a glass for a drink, our noses are in that glass. That’s just good evolution. If all you want is the caffeine, you can get that in a pill. Likewise, drinking beer out of a bottle is only a good idea if you don’t want to fully taste it.

Our senses are not as cleanly delineated as our language implies. The sense of taste is an overall impression made up of multiple brain processes. The taste from the taste buds is part of that impression, but the olfactory receptors play a vital role as well. Similarly, when we listen to music, the bass drum thumping in our chest and the vibrations through the bottoms of our feet contribute strongly to the experience.

This is why you cannot beat live music. To be inside a physical environment tailored for live music, to hear the music loudly, to feel the music and to see it performed in front of you – this is to experience music fully. The more nerve centers we can engage, the more sense data our brains have to build up our experience.

So-called holy sites can really evoke sacred feelings in people because these places are full of sights, smells, sounds, textures, and all the other sensory paraphernalia correlated to holiness. In places like these, brains simply have more to work with, more “food for thought” that can be used to build up a holy experience.

Of course it also helps to pay attention. Our senses and brains have evolved to extract meaningful data from a noisy environment. You can be inside that concert hall–band wailing away, laser light show twirling all around you–and remain totally oblivious because you are watching a YouTube video on your phone. And with all that noise in your environment, how deeply can you expect to be engaged by that YouTube video?

Mindfulness exercises teach us to connect with experience, to tone down distraction and stay present with the task at hand. Whatever we turn our attention to has the potential to completely fulfill our experience. A fully engaged experience doesn’t want for anything; the more fully we are engaged, the further we must be from worry, depression, and pain.

You can make an exercise in mindfulness out of your morning cup of coffee. It might change your life. Turn all your senses to your task, and drink it in – with the lid off.

Whole Foods Coffee

P.S. These days I roast my coffee from green beans on my stove, then grind the beans into a French press with filtered water I’ve heated to just shy of boiling. It makes for a great cup, but it takes time. Obviously this can only be worth my while if I know I’ll have the time to relax and enjoy the drink fully. You may wonder how much time I spend on coffee. The answer is…don’t worry about it.

Wordfail

Most of my favorite works of art deal with psychological, internal, and (if I may) spiritual problems. I might be in the minority on that, but it’s hard to tell. Most pop cinema and music seem to actively avoid these issues in any serious or thoughtful way, but my view may be skewed by massive PR budgets, while many profound works count on niche marketing and word of mouth.

Two nights ago I was working through an internal process during my meditation, essentially allowing my sensory inputs to drain out and empty, and it occurred to me (not for the first time) that many of these internal obstacles literally defy rational language. The scientific method is a beautiful tool for explaining and enhancing our understanding of our world, but when it comes to internal experiences, scientific language fails to capture the experience in any way I can relate to.

I can talk about the cessation of dialectical thinking, stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system or increasing respiration for lowering systolic blood pressure, but these descriptions are cold and say nothing about the end-user experience, despite their medical accuracy.

To speak about “turning the light around” captures more of the mysterious essence of the experience, even though this phrase provably does not describe what’s going on in my body. All language is in a sense arbitrary. If we can find language that more closely captures the experience, we should use it.

Scientists have been encroaching on this field for a while now, and with good reason. Some organizations like The David Lynch Foundation try to analyze meditation from a scientific perspective so they may explain it to rational people. This is totally laudable and seemingly essential these days. But I was always more affected by artistic interpretations of internal experiences, art forms that somehow poetically capture the ineffable nature of what’s happening, what it feels like to have internal revelations.

This is where I find uncompromising value in art. Art is the best conveyor of human experience, and exposure to it seems essential to me if we want to mature as human beings.

All communication is symbolic. The word “kite” is not the physical object called a kite. If the best we can do to symbolize an actual kite is to come up with a verbal grunt with sharp sounds on each end—a sound that is intrinsically meaningless—then we are at least slightly lame as a species. The word itself seems complete gibberish to someone without experience of an actual kite. But to watch a film of some kite-flying enthusiasts, or read about a child’s wonder as the wind pulls the kite down a sunny beach, is to learn on more than merely verbal levels.

This is where I cut a lot of slack for religious literature. There are a lot of religious books which, if taken literally, are absurd and stupid. But those books tend to elicit analogical and mystical interpretations that resonate with people in deep ways. Reading The Bhagavad Gita, I never once expected that the events depicted in it really happened. But I was moved by it, and I continue to find it beautiful.

This might be why I value “saying something” over simply making art for money. I am glad to fork over my hard-earned cash for a meaningful experience, and usually annoyed when I walk away from a movie or book thinking, “so what?”

I have written on this previously, if anyone is interested.

Change Your Brain – Pt. 3

It’s annoying to me when politicos criticize their opponents for “flip-flopping” on issues. Anyone actively seeking enlightenment will tell you that changing one’s mind and opinions is part of the process. It would be nice if politicians were actively seeking cultural enlightenment. Partisanship and one-sided thinking leads to a lack of adaptability.

In the early stages of successful meditation it’s common to have the realization that we are more than just our bodies. We are minds that think and feel, process information, and create new ideas. Except in reproduction and the physical activities of arts and crafts, creativity happens in the mind. Soon the meditator might feel like they are a Mind, first and foremost, that uses the body like a tool.

The belief that “I am a Mind” might lead to metaphysics, belief in God or gods and ‘upper realms’, questions of ontology, spiritism, eschatology, and all sorts of non-physical contemplations. Suddenly one might feel one is more than a mind and settle on the conclusion that “I am a spirit”. Mind and body seem like lower realms caught up in maya, the world of form and matter (in other words, the transitory illusions of everyday life).

As one’s observational powers improve, the mind-blowing successes of early meditation don’t come as often. This could easily lead the practitioner to believe that their experiences of God or higher spiritual dimensions were neurological aberrations brought on by physiological exercises. It’s common for meditators (particularly in Zen) to come back to the firm realization that “I am my body”.

Flip-flopping is part of the game of life, as all life is subject to change. The ability to change one’s mind on big-ticket ideas is actually a good thing, and I would sooner trust a politician who changes his or her mind than one who stubbornly sticks to idiotic beliefs.

A changing world needs a changing brain. Part of changing our brains is contemplating different points of view. The following points of view helped flip-flop me closer to my goal.

Raj YogaRaj Yoga by Swami Vivekananda

As far as I’ve read this is the essential book on the mental side of yoga (of which the physical yogas form only the preliminary). Vivekananda guides you right into theory and practice with direct examples and a sense of playfulness that can carry you through the various humps and dry-spells that are inevitable in this kind of activity. Compared to many of the other, older Indian books on yoga, (like the Shiva Samhita) this one has only a moderate amount of culturally-specific symbolism to decipher. It uses the analogy of the conscious mind as a monkey, jumping about from branch to branch on the tree of knowledge, squawking and eating whatever it can, but resting only in sleep. The techniques in this book can help calm that monkey down, but it goes far beyond that. This is enlightenment training. I recommend this text for anyone who wants to get serious about meditation.

 

Collected FictionsCollected Fictions by Jorges Luis Borges

While all his work seems great, I’m mostly thinking of the two short story collections called The Garden of Forking Paths and The Aleph, both of which are contained in this one handy unit. This is fiction at its most potent. When I used to read Philip K. Dick I would see a blurb on the jacket claiming that Dick was the “homegrown Borges”, and when I finally got around to reading the Argentinian-grown Borges, I found the analogy to be a good one. Reading Borges is a lesson on narrative economy and big ideas. His stories range from historical realism to mystical fable to flat-out fantasy, and his ability to condense huge ideas into short stories is unparalleled in anything I’ve read. Many feel that Borges reinvented the short story and I can see why. Because of the power and brevity, Borges offers the most bang for your buck. I recommend Borges for writers, mystics and intellectuals.

“A man sets out to draw the world. As the years go by, he peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses, and individuals. A short time before he dies, he discovers that that patient labyrinth of lines traces the lineaments of his own face.” – Jorge Luis Borges, from the Afterword to The Maker

 

MagickMagick by Aleister Crowley

Aleister Crowley was a mountaineer, chess master, poet, writer, yogi, black magician, white magician, philosopher, heroin-addict, bisexual sex-addict, “wickedest man in the world”, and all around great guy. His corpus of writing is immense, and Magick might be his most comprehensive masterwork. Detailing necessary training, tools of the trade, philosophical grounding, practical techniques and mystical symbolism, this massive work gives the reader just about everything they need to start practicing real magick. So what is magick? It is the art of causing a change in conformity with the Will. Ceremonial magic has been around for thousands of years and it’s still practiced today. Even with the modern advancements of neuroscience, psychoanalysis and depth psychology, the techniques in this book remain effective. Get to know the strange agencies that live in your subconscious and affect real change in your behaviors and thoughts. The best part of this work is that Crowley tells the reader to avoid imposing any objective validity on the spirits, sephiroth, symbols and so-forth, and simply pay attention to this fact: when certain actions are performed, certain things happen. Things can get weird with this one, so I don’t recommend it for anyone who isn’t mentally and physically healthy. It is for serious students of the occult.

Reasoning Skills

I frequently see signs for something called the School of Philosophy. Usually the ads ask vague questions like, “Can philosophy make me happy?” or, “What is the meaning of life?”, and they’ll show a little person staring off into a bright white expanse. Though I never seriously studied philosophy in school I did take a class about reasoning skills. But philosophy has always interested me, so the advertisements usually catch my eye, though I always felt there might be something fishy going on here.

Then I saw this one:School of Philosophy ad“The Best Things In Life Are Not Things.” – School of Philosophy.

“Yes they are.” – Eric R. Schiller.

If I said, “The best doctors aren’t doctors,” someone should quickly respond, “then don’t call them doctors, idiot.” Using a word twice in the same sentence with two different meanings is very confusing. Maybe this doesn’t bother people, but it does bother people.

Language is our most fundamental tool for externalizing ideas. When language is used improperly it creates misunderstanding. This might be because language, improperly used, is a symptom of muddled thinking. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that there is value in a snappy slogan. Corporations like McDonald’s use them all the time. But McDonald’s wants you to give them money and eat cow. I expect more from a “school of philosophy”.

If you read any of the big philosophers, the first part of their major works generally define the terms they will be working with. The language must be unequivocal. Even where there might be confusion, differences in meaning must be strictly delineated. Otherwise ambiguities build up as you read, compounding the confusion until you’re left with a bunch of ineffective ideas and a headache (but a really toned brow).

This seemed like the worst kind of ad for any School of Philosophy, assuming the school aims to promote clear thinking. So I looked at the website, which is very vague. There is no hint of any real lesson plan. I did see pithy quotes from philosophers on the site, then read that “Writings and sayings of great philosophers such as Plato, Ficino, Shakespeare and others, set the stage for enlivened discussions based on personal experience.”

I then read that the school was founded in 1976 and later, in the 60s, was influenced by Eastern philosophy. This is not the only mistake on the site. They inspire no confidence in their ability to teach me clarity and wisdom. Besides, in my opinion, real knowledge comes from self analysis, not slogans.

But lo and behold, they do teach meditation. I soon discovered a strong undercurrent of Hinduism on the site.  It seems like a secularized, modernized, and disguised school of Hindu philosophy and I doubt it takes any serious look at philosophy at large, but grabs pieces that fit and ignores piece that don’t. I’m not terribly surprised.

This isn’t all bad necessarily. There’s value in learning the language of philosophy so we can think about these things fluently. But I wonder if $185 per course is worthwhile. Anyone interested in philosophy can go to the library and discover at their own pace for free. So what does that $185 tuition buy me?

The School of Philosophy is not for profit. And according to their website, all their instructors volunteer their time. So where does the money go? With no diploma and no course text, it seems that the money goes into the pocket of the person hired to collect it. After paying, the registrant is allowed to sit in on discussions between other students and instructors. So what are the qualifications of the instructors? It appears they are all former students.

Curious, I clicked “Registration” button. The message I received was “Fatal Error”.

Touché. The site seemed to have collapsed under my piercing scrutiny.

I definitely agree with meditation and yoga as a road to knowledge and wisdom. You might point out that yoga came from the ancient Hindus. But that doesn’t make Hindu philosophy right. To believe that would be to make the philosophical error known as a syllogistic fallacy. “I believe yoga works (A). Yoga comes from the Hindu tradition (B). Therefore I believe the Hindu tradition (C).” This is false logic. Reasoning skills!

So if you’re interested in learning about philosophy, go to the library before you shell out $185. The internet is such a repository of knowledge we can learn almost anything on our own, even meditation techniques. Or better yet, just send me $100 and we’ll talk over coffee.

 

P.S.

If you’re interested in “living in the now” so the universe can rain gifts of bliss down on you, sit still and take notice. Last night was possibly the best meditation of my life. Today gifts of free music rained down all day. So full-screen these beauties, sit back, and open up to the mystical transmissions of Yo La Tengo, David Bowie and Roy Montgomery.

YO LA TENGO

 

DAVID BOWIE

 

ROY MONTGOMERY

 

The Sound of Confusion

The different types of music I’ve listened to throughout my life seem very clearly to be a reflection of how I saw myself at the time. I’ve played a lot of different types of music in my life and these too seem like outward expressions of my inward states. This seems like straightforward logic, and it should have been fairly obvious, but it’s impossible to say with certainty whether I was drawn to those types of music because of my state of mind, or if I found the music and it then affected my state of mind.

In high school I didn’t meditate. I listened to a lot of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath instead. I had an interest in drums and my parents were masochistic enough to get me a kit. I made a ton of noise in the basement of Mike Beauchamp until we decided the world needed a new band, so we formed The Moon Patrol, after the Atari game. In those days, mentally, I was going a hundred ways like most high school kids and the music showed it. It was loud, influenced by rock, blues, punk, funk, dub, metal, and we had fun and burned off a lot of steam.

By University I began to think meditation might be for me. I read somewhere that David Lynch used Transcendental Meditation, and since I wanted to make films like his, I looked into it. I never went through with the TM course, but reading books about meditation (The Science of Being and the Art of Living, by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Raj Yoga by Swami Vivikenanda) did start me towards understanding and having the language to speak about states of mind. It was obvious to me that toning down the level of noise inside my mind would be a good thing. A few frustrating attempts at meditation didn’t lead anywhere because I think I was more excited to read about meditation than actually do it. But finally a few techniques got me over the hump and I began toning down that chaos.

Coming out of The Moon Patrol I started playing guitar. Banging around on drums was great, but there was something missing. Naturally I sucked at guitar pretty well, but I knew I needed a bit of melody. Friends in another band were having differences of opinion on – what else? – the “direction” of the band. I settled in jamming with these guys. The music didn’t have any definite direction at all. It just built and flowed and didn’t change much, and we all loved it.

Bloemfontein (with friends Brian, Matt, and Mike) was more like cinema score than anything you’d hear on the radio. (A little while after we started playing regularly, a similar band Explosions In the Sky got quite big scoring the movie Friday Night Lights.) There were almost no scripted changes in the music. We’d just start playing. Sometimes the music would build or shift or get quiet and it would just flow along until it broke apart or petered out. It was so simple we were almost embarrassed at how much we liked the way it sounded. We actually listened to this stuff. We played a ton of shows around Windsor and people actually came out and got into it too.

None of the music was abrasive. Some was cheery, some was sad, but it was almost all mellow. The music would just settle in and become almost background to your own thoughts. That’s how I remember it, anyway. And at the time I was getting very used to analyzing or simply observing the flow of thought during meditation.

But then I hit a wall in meditation. I could quiet my mind, but only to a point, and that point shifted around seemingly at random. I now think of this barrier as the intersection of three factors: 1) my will to master my mind and quiet things down in there; 2) my mental inertia (a pattern of scattered thoughts, loosely controlled for twenty years and change); and 3) my fluctuating frustration with meditation based on my successes and failures, how I slept, what I ate, and a host of different typical anxieties.

So despite some early successes quieting my mind, I could no longer reach that point where the mind lets go. When the rational mind lets go you can sometimes feel a surge of bliss and a feeling of unity with everything. I’m pretty sure that this feeling is something we can all feel. I think it’s what they mean when they say “religious ecstasy”. That feeling is what I was after.

Right around 2001 Bardo Pond put out their album Dilate and I saw their live show. Now, this music is distorted, druggy, and full of noise, so it might have turned me off. But it definitely turned me on. I realized that you can get back to that bliss feeling, that feeling of dilation, by soaking your mind in noise. That was a total revelation for me and I became a devotee immediately. And I mean devotee – the music had a the feeling of gnosis to me. I’ve had two out-of-body experiences at their concerts. Actually.

So of course Bloemfontein’s music became a playground for noise. I had a Line 6 Delay Modeler that, to this day, is one of my best purchases. I’d layer guitars with different levels of delay and distortion until it was just a droning wall that would slowly build up under the melody. So before you realized what was happening you’d be just buried in sound. I couldn’t get enough. I stayed up for hours just playing, looping, layering things by myself in a dark basement until it was time to go to school the next day.

I also read all sorts of far-out stuff at this time, from the Tibetan Book of the Dead to David Icke. I loved alternate histories, disinformation, postmodernism, and anything that blended truth and fiction. And the stuff I read led me to other art forms, artists, ways of thinking. Once again, I cannot trace the causality of my own mental influence perfectly. I can only point out signposts. I know that Pavement came before Guided By Voices came before The For Carnation, but can’t define the why of it all.

It’s been a long time since Bloemfontein played together, and I’ve since developed new techniques for meditation. But lately I’ve been feeling like I need something more. In meditation I’m adding about five minutes of mental exercise to my regular routine. The urge to make this addition just came recently, but with it was the urge to play more music. I’ve been banging around on an acoustic guitar for years and I’ve worked out a lot of new material that’s a far cry from anything I’ve done before. At the end of the day I don’t care if one causes the other. Because whether it’s music or meditation, I just want something that gives me that feeling of ecstatic union.

I’ve recorded a scant few tunes since I’ve lived in Toronto. This one, called “Homecoming”, is only a demo so the quality isn’t great. But it’s probably as close as I’ve come to blending quiet and noise in one track. I recorded it under the name Dwale, an archaic term for a delirium-causing potion. Beware…it’s very, very mellow.

The Language of Enlightenment

The first steps on the road to enlightenment are fairly simple. Here’s what you do: 1) Sit still; 2) Stop thinking. If you can cover those two, you’re way ahead of the game. But most people don’t master either of those in their lifetimes. Those two little instructions can take years even to understand.

Talking and writing about meditation is tricky. Sitting down to meditate for the first time is a little like trying to paint a timeless masterpiece without practice; it’s pretty much impossible to have a game plan, or even know what you’re doing. One of the best arguments for reading books on meditation is that they provide us with a vocabulary. The vocabulary helps give intelligible form to nebulous concepts.

I notice while I’m reading religious or so-called spiritual books my meditations tend to be better, even though my meditations aren’t religious and I don’t consider myself a religious person. I just find that the concepts in such literature have an almost gravitational effect on the other thoughts in my mind. It’s similar to learning about a new car, or a new word, and then noticing it all over the place as though it just appeared into the world. When ideas about meditation or philosophy or spirituality are fresh in my mind, it focuses both my conscious and unconscious tendencies towards a positive use of attention. In other words, those books help me keep it real.

Over the years the lexicon I use to describe my meditations (in my journal entries, two per day) has developed into an idiosyncratic jargon with a few symbols and neologisms thrown in for fun. I doubt anyone who read it would understand it. That’s perfect, because the journal is only for me, and just like meditation, develops with me, and is something that nobody outside can comprehend. The fact is, if I wanted to explain what happens inside me while I’m meditating, I would have to adopt some kind of familiar language to use, and that’s where so-called spiritual literature comes in handy.

(Obviously I don’t like the term spiritual. Like the word God, it is spoken about often but rarely defined. I only use the term spiritual because of its relation to the Greek word pneuma, which I define as the action of Mind. Mind, of course, includes thinking, but also all conscious and subconscious content. See the problem with words?)

There are a lot of different definitions of meditation. The Buddhists have their stages of jnana, Catholics have contemplation, there are shamanic trances and Transcendental Meditation, and The Secret of the Golden Flower, then there’s Samadhi, dharana, zazen, prayer, petition, and on and on. Swami Vivekananda doesn’t define “meditation” the same way as Dr. Michael de Molinos. But it’s fair to assume that any meditation practice that survives hundreds of years or more must have some legitimate value to the people who use it.

When taking advice on interior matters, I prefer someone to speak in concise, concrete terms. Skip the flowery language about opening like a lotus above the surface of the water (flowery, get it?). The style of advice that motivates me most is practical. “Try A. What happened? Okay, now do X, Y, and Z.” I think clear language is a symptom of clear thinking, and clear thinking is something I want. Though to be fair, I think it’s good to balance things out with the occasional lotus vacation.

I don’t like hearing advice from someone less qualified than me. You are fit to speak authoritatively about those things in which you have breadth and depth of experience. You are not fit to speak authoritatively about those things in which you have little or no experience. A child looking up from the sandbox adorably, saying “We all go to heaven when we die,” is no excuse for believing.

You can have faith, but faith is belief without proof. Also, you can have faith in something without really believing in it. However belief is like pretended knowledge. You can believe something and still be wrong about it. It happens all the time. The real goods is the knowledge.

Real knowledge comes from experience. I’m going forward with a try-everything-and-see-what-works approach. If it works, it’s fair game. It doesn’t matter if your guru is charismatic, or brilliant, or ancient, or Hindu, it matters that the message resonates with you and the advice makes a practical positive change in your psychological welfare.

Now I would like to sign off with a sample of Bardo Pond lyrics for your collective consideration.

“I have to say
It’s opening up
Inside
Outside
It smiles at you
All the way to the door
And the hole in it’s middle
Runs out
We push our way

There’s a place
For those who came
All this way
With the clouds in your eyes”

Inside, from the album “Dilate”