Having lived a drug-free life, I sometimes wonder if I'm missing out. Is there really an experience only a substance can provide?
I'm standing in a field in the English countryside. I can feel the breeze. I can smell the earth. There are half-a-dozen or so of us. And we're blindfolded. It's a “darkness” retreat, one where you spend a week in the dark meditating, where night blurs into day and you don't really know where you are.
In this presence I felt like a tree, a sod of flesh. I was dead.
Filling my lungs in the field, the group leader tells us to take a single step forward, if we choose to embrace the unknown before us. I trust there won't be snakes biting my heels, so I'm ready.
He then tells us to take a step back, if we prefer to stay in the known world. Since I stepped on the ground behind me I know it's just grass, or mud. Either way it's safe.
Finally, he tells us to stand still if we're unsure. To wait. But at some point, we all have to move forward or back. It's a great metaphor for life. But being me, I want more. This is the end of the week. This is the finale. I want as much as I can get.
When the word is given I step forward. I pound my left, then right foot into the earth. But this is too easy. I really want to face the unknown. This is why I agreed to be blindfolded for a week. This is why I agreed to feel my way around rooms and eat like a baby, with a gaping mouth, so that nothing slops down my top. Didn't I say we ate in the dark too?
I call the group leader over. I want to run. I want to run with my blindfold on. I want to push myself as far as I can. He tells me there's a field right before us and he will run beside me, just to be sure. I agree. Trusting he won't let me tear into a ditch, I start with a jog.
Back in the field and blindfolded, I was acutely aware of confronting my fear of life
I pick up speed and I'm sprinting. I can barely hear the sounds of the group leader beside me. I'm alone as I can be, literally running into the dark. The unknown. I scream at the top of my lungs. I run as fast as I possibly can. Inside I'm screaming out to the universe that I can take anything. I fear nothing. Throw life at me. I trust, I trust, I trust.
My heart is throbbing. My legs are straining. And I slip. I'm on my arse. The earth is cool and soft. I'm asked if I'm okay. A quick, “Yes” and he leaves me to lie there. And I lie there for an unreal amount of time. Not hours or days, but a moment. An extended moment. One I can't measure. In this presence I felt like a tree, a sod of flesh. I was dead.
Eventually I stirred. I rolled up foetal-style and carefully removed the blindfold. My eyes were still tight shut, my hands covering them. And slowly, I peered through my fingers. I saw the most amazing, vibrant, living patch of grass I have ever seen. It was so green. The blades were so defined. It was a world unto itself. I sat, again for a lost moment, staring at this sight.
As my eyes adjusted, I looked up to the clouds. The effect was wearing off, but it was beautiful to see the horizon again. It was amazing, and so utterly normal. I imagined waking from a coma. To wake is the most natural of acts, but in this instance, it is utterly profound.
Later, as I rejoined the group, I heard several voices claim that their experience of seeing the grass, just as I had done, was similar to the vividness they'd experienced on ecstasy. Having never taken ecstasy, it gave me an insight into the drug. It reassured me that I wasn't missing out. I was experiencing the high naturally.
On another occasion, I ate what I was told was a very mild, yet “special” birthday cake. I consented, trusting that it was mild and took the smallest slice. I was fine, then an hour later I felt a massive surge of energy run through me. Having worked with Reiki for many years, I knew what was happening.
The cannabis was making me more sensitive to the energy already flowing through me. I felt like a light bulb. I could almost see blue balls of electricity in my hands. I got so high with the energy I crouched in the corner of the beer garden I was in (a great place to do this), my back being watched by a friend, and put my head and hands on the ground to bring myself down. I'll never forget it, but later I wondered if I could have experienced it without cannabis? Was it an experience waiting to happen anyway, or was cannabis the key?
Being a sensitive soul I've generally preferred to stay away from intoxicants. After years of meditation, starting when I was eighteen, I've become too sensitive to consume intoxicants of any kind. I say too sensitive, but the more I think about it, I feel I'm developing a healthy sensitivity to my body. And my body simply doesn't like most of what's on offer these days.
To wake is the most natural of acts, but in this instance, it is utterly profound.
Sometimes I wonder if I will end up in a cave, sipping stream water and eating leaves. But then I ask myself, what is it that is filling me, or returning to me, as I leave much of regular society behind? And by “regular society” I mean the mass media, fast food, chemicals, routines that numb and kill the soul.
More and more, I see drugs, food, music, TV, the internet, as forces acting upon me; substances I can absorb through my skin, mouth, lungs, mind and heart. Religion is the opium of the masses, and to quote Roxy Music, “love is the drug, got a hook in me”. Anything we become addicted to is a drug, for we take drugs in order to change our emotional state, whether that be to escape or to experience something we wouldn't normally.
In this light, meditation too can be a drug. There are many who spend years searching and searching for their soul, life purpose or some kind of peace. This refusal to be in the present moment is no different to someone popping a pill. A pill is more immediate, but the driving force is the same: an avoidance of the emotions alive within you in this moment.
No drug or meditation can force this. It happens… when we are ready.
I feel we're all running from ourselves, and yet we all so desperately seek a deeper connection with ourselves, through drugs, sex, meditation, for whatever else takes your fancy. Some practices or substances have the potential to take us very deep, and yet when we feel we're getting too deep, when we're touching those raw nerves, we can hurry to the substances, objects, people and places that carry us back to the surface, to the known. The question then is; how deep can you go before you have to come up? Can you take the pressure, can you witness the stillness within?
So drug or no drug. Meditation retreat or walking the dog. Anything can trigger an experience that can shift, or alter your relationship to life. An alcoholic at the end of his tether, on the brink of death, who in that crucial moment chooses life undergoes a profound change. His alcoholism has been his meditation. It has taken him within. It has shown him the very depths of his being. We cannot create these moments. No drug or meditation can force this. It happens… when we are ready.
Slowly, I'm figuring out what does and does not work for me.
Back in the field and blindfolded, I was acutely aware of confronting my fear of life, the unknown, and in a small and safe way, showing life that I trusted it. I was acknowledging I can't control it all. I can only do my bit, and trust the rest will be taken care of. For me it was a place to retreat, a safe place to go deeper and discover something of myself that might have a positive impact on my life. And it did it. But the effect, as ever, is cumulative. Every experience adds up. And for me, all life has become my meditation.
The key for me is one of intent. If a retreat really is a retreat, then it's no different to getting mashed on a Saturday night. Alternatively, with the right people in the right moment, drugs can have a profound and life-changing effect, just as spiritual as any meditation practice.
So when I ask myself, what is it that is returning to me, as so much slips away? I can truthfully say: self-knowledge, and with it, peace. Slowly, I'm figuring out what does and does not work for me.
I'm not saying life is suddenly easy or without its up and downs, but they rattle me less than they used to and I'm more accepting of what is. I'm learning to say no, because I know what I need, and more importantly, I'm learning to say yes. I'm saying yes to what fills me with life.
I'm still learning, and always will be, but now more than ever, I know what fills me with love. There are many paths, and ultimately everything will take you within. So find what works for you. Find your love. Your joy. Find your self.
“There are too many Andrew Southerns in the world. I’ve checked. There’s a whole bunch of us. It’s kind of annoying. In an over-populated world it’s humbling to realise there are multiple versions of you. Maitland, on the other hand, is a name you don’t see.
Like any writer, I need to make my mark. So I can sink into the Andrew Southern soup or go the Maitland way. It’s a name my ego loves and humility shies away from. I can’t sink into the soup. It’s not my style. So grandiosity it is. You can call me Andrew, though. Not Andy. There are too many of those too.