She was right. I was good for about three steps, and then my mind would take over, saying "Hey! You’re walking on hot coals!" Then I would get burned, though not badly, just a mild blister or two. Eventually I was able to walk the length of the fire pit, about 10 to 12 feet, without losing focus.
The benefits of firewalking are that you develop your power of concentration, and you go into an altered state of consciousness where great healing can take place. It was always a great experience.
Firewalking was great preparation for a job I had later installing television cable. I’m afraid of heights, and climbing utility poles was a challenge I had to master. One false move and you could be on the ground quicker than a wink. I was able to do it by being entirely focused on climbing, to the degree that nothing else in the entire universe was happening except for me and the pole. I also went into a bit of an altered state.
It turned out that pole climbing became the only thing I liked about the job, and looked forward to it as the high part of the day. The ownership and management of the cable company hated its employees and customers, and they put out a crappy product: TV. But climbing poles was pure fun, and the risk made it a good practice of being in the present moment.
There have been many other experiences of altered states in my life, most intended, but some great surprises. Early in my yogic practices I did several hours of tantric chanting of the "Jap Ji," under the direction of Siri Singh Sahib Harbhajan Yogi Singh Khalsa, the Mahan Tantric, also known as Yogi Bhajan. It was a long chant with men and women chanting in pairs, doing "mudras," or hand postures that channel energy in specific ways. I wasn’t very good at it, but I didn’t have to be, since I was with about 1,000 other people doing the same thing. It was very uplifting.
In 1976 at a Yogi Bhajan "ashram" (the name for a residential meditation center) right here in Madison I had an intense experience of universal unconditional love that lasted about twelve hours, and the after effects lasted several days. I had been doing some difficult "Kundalini Yoga" exercises that morning, especially one known as "Sat Kriya." It is a very hard exercise involving pulling in the "bandhas," or energy knots in the subtle body. I felt that day as though I had done it pretty well. Not mastery, but good enough.
That day was one of the best in my life, and I remember it like it was yesterday. I spent most of the day sitting on the front porch, and strangers from the neighborhood came by all day to hang out. I remember at one point being a little concerned that I would be this way for the rest of my life, and decided that if that were the case, it would be a pretty good thing.
Not long after that I moved into one of the ashrams of Swami Muktananda Paramahansa, and experienced a number of intense meditative states over the span of eight years, living in ashrams in several states and in India. Muktananda was known for transmitting energy through "Shaktipat Diksha," or awakening of the Kündalini energy within a person. I stayed in his ashram in India for several months, and had a variety of experiences of altered states. The most intense was at the spot where his guru, Bhagawan Nityananda, died, or as they say in India, took Mahasamadhi.
It is worth mentioning that meditation and following a guru are not practices designed for the weak and timid, though it is O.K. to be weak and timid and still do these practices. One of the people I got to know in those days was former pro football bad boy Joe Don Looney. I can't say we were friends, because he was as remote a person as I have ever known, but he would express his kinship in his own inimitable way. I got knocked in the eye in a touch football game we had one day, and ended up on the ground bleeding. Joe Don broke through the crowd, and had one question. "Who did it?" He played opposite the offending player for the rest of the game, and gave him a pummeling he would never forget.
For a while in the 1990s I studied shamanic journeying, and went into a number of shamanic states over the course of a couple of years. Journeying is done for healing, power, and soul retrieval. My interest was primarily for healing, but I also just plain liked being in those states.
While on a long camping trip in 1997 I visited the Rosebud Lakota reservation in South Dakota, and participated in a few sweat lodge ceremonies. In a sweat lodge a group of people sits together in a small hut covered with canvas or deerskin, and water is poured on very hot rocks. The heat becomes very intense, and if the ceremony is properly conducted by a "medicine man" or Native shaman, great healing can take place.
I used to do a bit of Sufi dancing with a group here in Madison. It was always an experience of upliftment, again an altered state. I will get back to the practice one of these days.
In the early 90s I worked at a holistic studies center in upstate New York, and experienced a number of altered states from the practices there. Various teachers of holistic healing practices, meditation, dance, art, African drumming, and numerous other forms of spirituality and group ritual. One of my favorite times was when the drumming teacher Arthur Hull held a drumming session that included about 20 drummers, of which I was one. The session lasted a couple of hours, and put me in a trance.
Another time that summer, I participated in a Native pipe ceremony conducted by Nicki Scully, the former wife of the manager of the Grateful Dead. She was given a pipe by a Lakota elder, and was told to do the ceremonies. It was an experience of transcendence and unity at once.
The Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh was there for a week, and I sat in on a few of his lectures. He was very different from what I was used to in a meditation teacher, very quiet, gentle, soft-spoken. I found being in his presence to be very quieting, and again, a mind-altering experience. He emphasized practice, and was an embodiment of his teachings.
When I lived in Hawaii I participated in a Medicine Wheel ceremony with Sun Bear, a Native healer who was told in a dream to do the ceremonies all over the world to heal the planet. It was a powerful experience, and I felt a presence there of an energy beyond the material.
While in Hawaii I heard that going inside the Haleakala crater on Maui is an experience worthy of pilgrimage. Actually, it was Muktananda who supposedly said this. I took a quick flight there one day on a Waikiki handbill inspired tour. I only went down a few feet into the crater, but felt a great presence there, and a strong sense of well-being. The pilgrimage was well worth it.
The Dalai Lama came to Madison in 1998, and conducted a three day retreat, which I attended. He performed a ceremony on the last day that for me was a mixture of uplift, emotion, and cleansing. The reason the Dala Lama comes to Madison is that one of his former teachers, the Venerable Geshe Lhundub Sopa established a monastary nearby, and was the Abbot until his recent retirement. I often visit the monastary, and consider Geshe Sopa a living Buddha. To be in his presence, called Darshan in the East, is a great blessing.
Another great teacher I visited was Amritanandamayi Ma, also known as Ammachi. She came to Madison in 1988, and I also went to see her in one of the Chicago suburbs in 1996. She goes into a state of identity with the Divine, called Krishna bhava or Devi bhava, depending on the occasion. She receives everyone who comes to see her, and bestows a blessing of Divine love. The uplift I experienced was one of temporary ego-loss, a great relief.
Nowadays I practice Tai Chi Chuan, a Chinese martial art that involves a series of movements that harmonize the energies of the body and spirit. Whenever I do it I reach a state of harmony and uplift.
From time to time I also meditate at the local Zen center, where the discipline is to not move at all while "sitting," and to keep your eyes partly open, focusing on your breathing, or nothing at all, the goal being a thoughtless state. I'm no master of this practice by any means, but always come out of it in a state of upliftment.
In addition to these experiences of altered states, transcendence, and uplift, I have been in a number of altered states through listening to music, both recorded and live.
When I was still practicing Catholicism, I would occasionally experience a deep sense of uplift when singing Gregorian chants. But my most vivid memory of uplifting experience was in singing "Holy God we praise thy name," in a choir, which if I remember right, was during Easter. Another, "Tantum ergo sacramentum," was also an uplift. (For a view of the lyrics in Latin, along with the music, click here.).
During my guru-following days, chanting was done for hours a day, and could be very intoxicating. God-intoxication, it is called. Sometimes, to observe Indian holidays, the chanting would go on for several days. The energy field became very thick at those times.
One of the earliest epiphanies I had listening to music was when I was about 20, hearing Bob Dylan’s "It’s all right, Ma (I’m only bleeding)." Muddy Waters made an album called "After the Rain" in the late 60s. It was one of the things that got me through the Army. "Screamin' and cryin'" is a song everyone should hear at least once in their lives. Not enough could ever be said about sitar virtuoso "Ravi Shankar". He and his accompanists "Ustad Ali Akbar Khan on sarod, and "Ustad Alla Rakha on tablas, have created some of the most serene and awe inspiring music on the planet for decades. If I hear a live Grateful Dead recording that I haven’t heard before, it can be a transcendent experience.
Then there are the concerts. The most memorable were the free ones. I experienced transcendence at concerts given by the German violinist Michael Urbaniak, the bluesman Hound Dog Taylor, the Indian Tabla player Zakir Hussain, Indian sitar player Imrat Khan, jazz flugelhorn player Chuck Mangione and his group, Canadian folk singer Garnet Rogers, and numerous others.
The ones I paid to see that resulted in altered states were the Earl Scruggs Review, Joan Baez, Los Lobos, Paul Butterfield’s Better Days, Paul Simon, Henry Mancini, John Prine, and the German techno group Kraftwerk. Paul Simon was a pleasant surprise. I expected a hokey concert, but his connection with the audience and his music was immediate and direct. I went to see Merle Haggard a few years ago, and even though he was having an off night and was in pain, a couple of songs like "Mama tried," and "Ramblin' fever" put me in sync with higher energies.
The Grateful Dead deserve special mention. "There is nothing like a Grateful Dead show" has become a cliche, but a true one. I saw them six times, hardly qualifying me as a "Deadhead," but they were all journeys to deeper realms. It took a few shows for me to "get" the "space jam" portion of the shows, but once I did, it became the highlight experience. One of my favorite things was to pick out a theme for the evening, and once one manifested, the experience was enhanced greatly. I am forever grateful.
What all these experiences have in common is that they were varieties of altered states, and none of them were drug-induced. They were all legal, and available to anyone who accesses them.
Since our various governmental bodies are spending billions of dollars in what is known as the "Drug war," it is worth asking just what the war is all about.
Using chemicals and plants to reach an altered state is illegal, in violation of municipal, state, and Federal laws. The penalties for consumption, sale, and distribution of illegal drugs can range from fines to long prison sentences, and has resulted in millions of people being incarcerated, and in what is known as the "Prison industrial complex."
Since the various things I experienced were perfectly legal, but would result in criminal penalties if induced by drugs, the illegality can’t be the state of consciousness. The illegality is in the possession, consumption, and distribution of physical substances that induce altered states of consciousness.
In other words, the criminality is based on convention, on community standards of right and wrong. It is wrong to get high if it is done with assistance of a mind altering substance.
Any functioning society has an interest in the well-being and growth of its citizens. If a nation, state, or municipality is going to limit the ability of people to alter their consciousness, then there must be valid reasons. The commonly expressed reasons for making drugs illegal are that they cause people to use other drugs, they make people lethargic and they lose their motivation to work and improve themselves. They resort to other crimes as they slide down the slippery slope of drug addiction. An additional reason is that of public safety. We can’t have people driving around high on drugs endangering other drivers.
This is where the issue stands at the present time. A stalemate, it would seem, between the community at large, expressed through the various branches of government, and the recreational drug users.
Ignored in this stalemated situation is that getting "high," whether through drug use of otherwise, has been around for millennia. Plants like theAyahuasca plant used by Amazon tribes, Peyote and Mescaline, by Southwest U.S. and Mexican Indians, Marijuana, or Ganja, as it is known in various places around the world, and Coca leaves by the Inca Indians of South America.
What perhaps causes the greatest confusion is that traditionally the goal of using drugs to go into an altered state of consciousness has not been to get "high," but to gain the benefits of the altered state. If all one gains through the drug experience is a "kick," or "buzz," then it is just another cheap thrill. Mystics and sages the world over have warned about getting seduced by spiritual experiences. Whether the experiences are the result of meditative practices or ingestion of psychotropic drugs, they are only glimpses of the Divine, and should be seen as signposts on a long journey.
Looked at in this context, the seemingly opposite poles of drug users and law enforcement are merely two sides of a coin, and there are other forms of currency to spend. In a secular mass industrial system everything is seen as objects for human exploitation. Nature is separate from Man, Spirit is nonexistent, and transcendence is a leisure activity.
In this paradigm, or model, of reality, there is no resolution to the quandary of drug usage and control. Work and survival in the mass system will always be an alienating experience, and drugs will be the natural "escape." Something you can "consume."
If we actually intend to "solve" the drug problem, we have to change our model of reality. Since our model of reality is the industrial model, it must go. And go it will, the drug issue among the least of the reasons. Thanks to the unending greed of the high priests of industrialism, the corporate elite, we will not lift a finger to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The other forms of environmental destruction will continue unabated for the foreseeable future. Our economic system will continue to pursue infinite growth at full speed ahead.
It is no accident that the Bush crime family is presiding over the final phase of the industrial era. As can easily be seen in the Terry Schiavo case, the ruling elite of this country is hell bent on reducing our public discourse to the preposterous, the ridiculous, the irrational, the false, the hysterical, the emotional, and the distracting. The Bush/Rove juggernaut is nothing if not bold. Of course they will fail, but it is an indication of the fear and desperation of the corporate backers of the Bush gang that they are willing to bank the present madness. It also should be a source of optimism for all who wish and work for a livable world that change is near. Just don’t think it will be easy, or that you won’t have to give anything up. A different world is a different world. Vive le difference!
Here's some Hamza el Din music.
This video of Ali Akbar Khan is a good example of his work. Here's one of Ravi Shankar.
Here is Zakir Hussain with his father Allah Rakha.
Click here for a version of Muddy Waters doing "Screamin' and Cryin'."
Kraftwerk had an international hit with Autobahn.
Here's the Grateful Dead doing my favorite song, Ripple. This is pretty much my second favorite Dead song, seen live at Ann Arbor, Michigan, November 10, 1979), acoustic version (set list can be seen here).
This is a nice Henry Mancini tune.
Here's a sample of Chuck Mangione. My favorite Chuck Mangione tune, The Land of Make Believe, was done with his small group when I saw him, and much, much better. This big band style is what you hear done at college football halftime shows. I wish I could get the version with the singer, Esther Satterfield. You can get one free listen here. Here's another place to get a free listen.And still another.
This is the only Michael Urbaniak I could find.
This Grateful Dead song is better live, but the studio version is plenty good. That's Jerry Garcia on the pedal steel guitar. He can be heard on the same instrument on Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's Teach your children.
Mama tried. Ramblin' fever.
This song, along with The Boxer, is my favorite Paul Simon song. When I saw him, he was backed up by a group called Urubamba, and the Jesse Dixon Singers.
Here's a bit of Hound Dog Taylor.
This Garnet Rogers song is worth a listen.
Can't leave Dylan out.
Foggy Mountain Breakdown is one of Earl Scruggs's best known tunes.
Muddy Waters is hard to find.
John Prine is always a heartwarmer.
Just for a little extra, some Brudda Iz and Gabby. And this.