December-March 2007

Revelation, Revolution, Religion and Me

aka
Why the Academies have Never Produced Revolution
or
How I Learned to Live from a High School Dropout


I have wanted to write.
I have wanted to tell you about my travels, my three revelatory baths and the girl who changed my life. My stories and theories and epiphanies have built up in me, pressing upon my mind like a great river against a dam. I am ready to overflow.
I have written - journal entries, philosophic essays, manifesti and memoirs, but I have not shared them. When I write I do so in moments of passion and clarity, but whenever I set the page down and come back the following day, the inspiration has left. My momentum is lost, my pen is blunted. I shelve the story and the experience it contains. Moreover, looking back at my words I realize they are no longer an accurate reflection of me. I can locate the place I was in when I wrote those thoughts and stories but I can no longer go there. I end up not knowing what I felt or even what I’m currently feeling (I’m much more sensitive to other people’s emotions than to my own). In the end I totally distrust myself. I feel inauthentic, fake. I become self-conscious: how will other people think of me if I tell them about this mystical revelation I just had? In that act of self-consciousness, I become disconnected from myself and can’t even be sure I felt something in the first place. So, I chose to remain silent rather than hand over a dubious and incomplete tale. But, having written so much I feel now an even greater waste if I didn’t share what I had discovered, problematic and lacking though it may be.

The Revelation:

Kate and I went running. In opposite directions. I went north and she went south, and somehow we both got home at exactly the same time. Then we took an ice bath. We submerged ourselves in freezing water, painful until we relaxed and gave ourselves over to the cold embrace. Then, on the verge of chills, we drew a hot bath and entered. I laid back and Kate began to massage my feet. I felt an erection building, and rather than attempt to ignore it or indulge in my mind’s pit of fantasy, I allowed myself to enter it--I brought my consciousness to the tip of my penis and just felt, without judgment. I began to feel a tingling in my hands and forearms, comparable only to the tingling one gets as a limb begins to fall asleep. I checked by body, changed my position to be sure no nerves were pinched. But I knew already that the tingling came from a presence of energy rather than an absence of feeling. It spread up my arms, grew more intense in my hands. I drew back my foot, took Kate’s hand in mine. I held her there for a minute, my hands several inches away from hers but sending a great deal of energy through her. My hands quivered at a high frequency, but did not tremble as I brought them down to the water.

I looked up: Kate’s jaw had dropped; candlelight drew dancing shadows from the curtains; Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos saturated the air. I hardly paused at the baroque drama; more power was flowing through me. My teeth began to tingle, followed by my mouth, lips and nose. I realized that the energy that filled me was magic--my full wizard’s power come all at once. I raised my hands up to accept the change that was flowing into me. I opened my mouth and allowed words to form. I spoke short syllables, linked together strangely. I realized I was incanting words of power and stopped the spell I was unwittingly casting. I grew wary, afraid of the power I was wielding, knowing full well that I did not yet understand how to control my power and it could be dangerous. Realizing that fear itself was the most dangerous element in this situation, I tried to focus myself.

I brought my hand down upon Kate’s crown, and then slowly dropped to her heart. I could tell she was feeling the charge, and was not ready to take in the amount of energy around me. I withdrew my hands and placed them on the water’s surface. I focussed my mind on white light, Sai Maa’s smile, love, heart, rainbow, god, anything pure to anchor my racing mind.

With my hands on the water’s skin, I closed my eyes. I felt my intuition as a physical force: two invisible hands pressed on mine and guided them to their necessary destination. My hands reached out to Kate once more and found her energy field, strong and protective. My hands drew back to me and held each part of my body: arms, then hips, then legs, back and shoulders, heart, crown, third eye. I filled myself with energy and bowed my head in thanks. My hands raised and pressed together in prayer, that the energy might leave me for the time. But the energy continued to course through me.

I stood up, gathered the energy into a ball and began a chi-gung exercise to move it out. I opened my body like an uncorked bottle and sent the energy through my outstretched arms (looking like a deluxe corkscrew). I placed my palms on the water and charged it, allowing the bath to drain me. I was exhaling hard. Finally, I sat back down. Kate washed me clean, running water down my head, shoulders and back. She pulled me down, brought me back and grounded me.

The phone rang. “It’s Natalie,” I said without hesitation. We got out of the bath. It was, in fact, Natalie on the phone. We got dressed, drove the car, picked her up, and returned.

I began to feel charged again and laid in the grass. I peered out into the sky and the stars returned my gaze. My mouth began to tingle again. I yelled into the glittering abyss, at first timidly, then with the full might of my wind. After the last heavy scream shook me to the core of my body, my mouth stopped tingling. I got a drum and rattle I had made, and pounded them as I paced through my memory’s path of an old labyrinth built in my backyard out of string, long-since devoured by the hungry grass. As I walked the rest of the land, still beating my drum, I came face-to-face with a surprised badger and a few steps later, a fox.

I returned inside to clear out the lingering energy in the bathroom. I looked in the mirror and saw that my eyes had changed. They were more open and were even tilted slightly. I had a wise and open look to my face, and I was seeing the world with more care and delight. I was walking with new height. Natalie and Kate noticed the difference right away: “Oh my God! Your eyes!” I smiled all throughout the evening, watching Kate and Natalie play together as an elder watches children.

Religion:

The next day I was in a blissful calm. I found myself smiling sweetly, gazing at the world with unabashed recognition. Kate and Natalie left, to their respective parts of the country. I climbed trees and wrote down every detail of the events I just described to you, plus a tangled web of the events leading up to it. I made resolutions to myself, attempting to reinforce my experience, fortify it and make it lasting (with slight fear that it would fade like previous revelations). I tried to capture the magic I had felt, to hold it and not let it go, to not let it become just another fading memory. But that high faded, as all highs do. As I told my close friends about it, I found that I was beginning to question how much of my experience was real.

Now, let me pause here to acknowledge any doubts you may have about my story. First of all, let me say it is quite possible that I’m making the whole thing up. Or, at least, I must be embellishing the facts, leaving out things that would demystify the experience and explain it as the result of purely physical or psychosomatic conditions. My body had just experienced some extreme conditions. I was in love; delirious, perhaps. I’ve had those doubts myself. Even as I was in the midst of the experience, I was doubting its authenticity. I have tried to relay everything to you as it happened to me; I have tried to be truthful. But I must admit, I left things out. And, by leaving things out, I gave other things more importance. I have tried to write memoir, tried to be accurate and faithful, but memory is not a warehouse of finished stories, nor a gallery of framed pictures. In order to make memory’s fuzzy montage into a precise narrative, I must admit that I invented.

It is easy to see that when any two people communicate, meaning will always slip. Symbols (such as words) always fall short of the ideas they stand for, and we can never know that the same word will conjure the same idea or feeling in any two people. This is obvious. We can accept that we will always be strangers to each other on some level, and however close we come to one another, every man will remain an island. The harder experience to reconcile is becoming a stranger to oneself. Yet stranger to myself I became, as the more I thought and spoke about myself, the less of myself I felt.

Even after such a revelatory experience as I have just described, I found that by the fifth time of telling it, I no longer was telling an experience; I was telling a story. I was drawing from the times I’d told the story before and from my journal entry, in which I sought to anchor the experience through sequenced time and descriptive detail. I tried to hold on to it, make it last, and in so-doing I lost everything that made it mine. Now the experience exists as a set or a symbol or an object: namable, repeatable, ownable, easily separable from its context of my inner life. It became more knowable and tangible, less true, less real, less personal. It now belongs to the persona that is Harper Stone; it is filed with other stories and pictures of him, classified as a ‘spiritual’ experience, and put in a set of other ‘spiritual’ experiences, filed apart from his ‘mundane’ experiences. As a ‘spiritual’ experience, he tends to share it with only his ‘spiritual’ friends (those whose laughter he does not fear). The experience is no longer a part of me except in a few hazy still images. In all the rest I’m reinserting myself into the story in my imagination, just as you are doing now, just as we put ourselves into the movies we watch. I’ve lost the “I” in the story; it ought to read “the narrator” or “Harper Stone.”

The process of trying to hold onto experiences and ideas is a classic example of spiritual materialism. In fact, in one chapter of the book Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, Chögyam Trungpa describes exactly what I did and what happened to me following my revelation:
“Speaking generally what happens is that, once we have actually opened, ‘flashed,’ in the second moment we realize that we are open and the idea of evaluation suddenly appears. ‘Wow, fantastic, I have to catch that, I have to capture and keep it because it is a very rare and valuable experience.’ So we try to hold onto the experience and the problems start there, from regarding the real experience of openness as something valuable. As soon as we try to capture the experience, a whole series of chain reactions sets in.
“If we regard something as valuable and extraordinary, then it becomes quite separate from us. For instance, we do not regard our eyes, body, hands or head as valuable, because we know they are a part of us.… The evaluation comes from the fear of being separated, which is just what keeps us separated. We consider any sudden inspiration to be extraordinarily important, because we are afraid of losing it. That very point, that very moment, is when self-deception comes in. In other words, we lost faith in the experience of openness and its relationship to us.”

This process of revelation, recognition, and dissociation has happened to me more times than I can count. The cumulative effect is one of alienation, a deep vast feeling of aloneness and disconnection. This effect is heightened by my awareness (if only from brief glimpses) that I can feel connected, passionate and clear, that I can really be present and whole, if only on rare occasions. The more I try to decide or change about myself, the more isolated I feel, and the more powerless I become to actually be myself.

Every religion (including the religions of psychedelia, academia, and politics) is birthed by a revelatory experience. In the effort to help other people experience the revelation (or from fear of losing it), stories and rituals are developed. Over time these stories become ideology and dogma, the rituals become tradition. Ideology and dogma invariably become oppressive, and unchecked tradition becomes a blinding routine. All ideology originally comes from experience, that is to say from perception and feeling and thought (indivisible, simultaneous). But over time, as the perceptions and feeling fade away, we are left with just the disembodied idea. Since it is no longer connected to perception and feeling (which are constantly in flux), the idea remains static. The idea is severed from reality, no longer informed or checked by perceptual feedback and internal sensation. The idea, now floating above reality, only relates to other ideas as it assumes an unassailable authority, rejecting any detail which does not fit into its worldview. Often that ideology is used as a justification for action (the most brutal wars are fueled by the most noble causes); even if ideology stays in the mind, however, it seeps away our ability to be true and full. Once irreducible and unique, reality is abstracted, labeled, and categorized. The complexity of life is enslaved to the system of the mind, and our perception merely serves to trigger preexisting notions. The idea, born from a desire to liberate, has become a restrictive ideology, a tidy world-view, a prison to contain our vast experience.

So now, let us turn to the institution which promises liberation more than any other (except the church): the school. The liberal arts were initially called ‘the liberating arts’, because they give us knowledge, that we may have choices, and so be free to choose (rather than blindly accept a tradition or condition). They do all this, and do it well: our perspective is broadened, our knowledge heightened, and our morals made more complex. They have liberated us the cave of ignorance, but upon returning to the world, we find ourselves without the tools create dynamic, positive freedom and lasting change.

If education has liberated me from the prison of a single point of view, it has also abandoned me in a desert of rootless knowledge, a cosmopolitan room of mirrors in which I can only experience myself externally. In the search for authenticity, as in the search for meaning through language, there is always slippage. I will never find a cohesive self nor craft an honest self-image, because as soon as I start looking for it, I’ve lost it.

Meaning is generated first by sensory perception, second by internal sensation (i.e. emotion, intuition, desire, and other components of the lower brain), and lastly by language (the systematic ordering and classifying mechanism of the cerebral cortex). The capacity to act depends on this buildup of meaning. Belief is a requisite to conviction, which is necessary for sustained action; doubt entails stasis. Conviction occurs when sensory perception, internal sensation, and linguistic rationality are all in accord. At this moment there is a unity of being - our different aspects affirm each other. When they are in discord, we are fractured. Meaning cannot be built in reverse order -- we cannot know something and then feel it and then see it. Memory and desire are able to traverse these three stages, mingling their products into the emblematic web of experience and recognition and meaning.

Revolution:

To take a leap one must have conviction (which is not to say expectation: one may have conviction in surrender) in order to overcome the lack of stability that comes from leaving what is given (the ground). Without conviction, we will hesitantly walk, treading worn paths and retracing steps, doomed to reinforce the world as we’re given it. Revolution or evolution of any sort requires a leap. That leap requires the conviction of a united self, which in turn requires that what we perceive, what we feel, and what we know are in accord.

Education is important. But for that education to be meaningful, for it to give rise to action, it must begin with the experience of perception. How many artists graduate art school never to make art again (or find themselves endlessly quoting and copying others)? How many passionate youths study politics or law with the intention of changing the world, only to find themselves passionless servants tacitly perpetuating the system they sought to fight? History becomes a fortress when it is not connected to memory. Knowledge without experience is a paralyzing burden. The fractured self is the most conspicuous condition of postmodern society, and it is a dead end.

The problem with equivalencies (upon which any symbol-based system, such as language, depends) is that the irreducible uniqueness of the real world of experiences and things and beings is translated to a universal abstract world. Meaning is gained and lost, and is inexorably altered upon retranslation into the world of irreducible uniqueness. Since I can remember I have been trying to fit the real world into the abstract world so that I can grasp its patterns and be cradled by the comfort of understanding (to abstract is to make small; by believing we comprehend something, we believe ourselves to have power over it). And so abstract knowledge, whose root lies in the act of naming, is the way by which we take ownership of the physical world. And, though we believe that in owning it we have power over it, by reducing our experience of the world to the language of our minds, we are removing our own power to act in it.

The more specific and literal our symbols, the further they flee from reality. The more complete the system of equivalencies, the easier it becomes to believe that system is reality. Think of a boy whose life consists of sitting at the computer (as mine once did). On the internet, he crafts a persona, finds friends, plays games, gains recognition, falls in love, gives advice. He believes himself to have power, wisdom, grace and affection. Every few nights when he realizes that his body is tired, he goes to bed and dreams in the internet. In between drinks of Mountain Dew and coffee, he goes to the bathroom and looks in a mirror. He sees a pale-skinned stranger, eyes half-closed, back hunched, throat closed. He tries to feel inside himself to reconcile this self-image, and from far away his clenched heart can be heard to whimper.

Remember, the internet is only one deceptive system of equivalencies. The system of meanings and morals (as present in the mentality of progressives and scientists as in the superstitions of the religious) is just as dualistic, as stagnant and removed from life, equally disabling, and more deceptive because it is more prevalent and accepted. We try to arrange experiences (re-collect) to give them meaning. The problem is that in doing so, we subject them to an external ordering system (we presuppose the system by which we give them meaning) and so the meaning we get can only reinforce the system by which we order it. It’s a logical fallacy, and while fine for doing the taxes or giving directions, is a barrier to real connection or growth.

This materialist mentality converts the world to a department store or museum in which every subject is turned into an item to be consumed or rejected, and converts us into customers and tourists of reality. We shop for spirituality. We take pictures of passion, and then watch the movies of our lives. We collect happiness and meaning. Even if we know that unexpected experiences are the most exciting, we plan our lives to the minute: we live in a culture that tries to dictate all the circumstances of our lives. We manufacture and mediate our reality like no other. We become afraid of facing unmediated reality, direct experience, anything outside the bounds of what we know. We even theorize the impossibility of such experience in order to sidestep our fear.

So how do we escape this prison of equivalencies? The impulse to understand (to make smaller) our experience by abstracting and categorizing it is completely ingrained in us. Schools have made sure of that. The only path I have found to escape the bonds of equivalence (and the ideology that invariably results) is the path of direct experience. Taking psychedelic mushrooms at 16 brought me back to myself and to the world; I stopped being the boy at the computer. Of course, the flash of a psychedelic episode fades and is lost if not met with changes in everyday life and outlook. After the ecstasy, the laundry. Always.

The further I pursue the truth, the more I hold on to my revelations, the greater the sense of despair and futility that envelops me. I remember once, when I was 17, I deduced God through some properties at the edge of calculus. I remember recording my discovery in my journal and disclosing it to the girl I had a crush on. Her nonplussed response, distinguished by its tangible lack of enthusiasm, redoubled my ordinary awkwardness and insecurity. That night all I could write in my journal was “I am so lost” hundreds of times. It seems my quest to find the ultimate Truth (that from which all else can be derived or explained), in other words the quest to know/become god, has only brought me farther from myself and from reality.

I have spent twenty continuos years in school, in the cult and culture of disembodied knowledge. I have spent the bulk of my lifetime building my mind’s floating fortress and neglecting my body, my intuition, my heart. I feel old, far beyond my years and peers. I have become disillusioned with education, activism, entertainment, novelty, social activity, self-improvement. The only things that tend to give me satisfaction nowadays are running, yoga, music, art, nature, loving, and playing with children (or with adults acting like children).

My impulse to share my experience is met by my reluctance to add any further abstract clutter to the cacophonous discourse of our lives, and my resentment towards photography’s pervasive dominance over our image-world. I have chosen silence over mis-speech. That is why I have not written, shared photos, or given any indication at all that I am still alive. The only expression of my experience, the only contribution I can reasonably make right now is my art, and the silent recognition I hope it will produce. Though painfully aware of my many failures and shortcomings, I still believe that art (as well as music, nature, play, love, exercise, meditation, direct experience), when done effectively, can produce the opposite of numbness, ideology and spiritual materialism. It is thus, in the practice of art and direct compassionate living, that I find the only hope for ever producing a lasting and beneficial change in our culture.



Art
Writing
Life


to contact me, email hstone (at) harperstone.org