What is here is also there; what is there, is also here. Who sees multiplicity but not the one indivisible Self must wander on and on from death to death. –Katha Upanishad II.i.9
I used to smoke weed when I was younger, until I discovered that the world is fascinating already. When I let the dogs out at night and hear the wind soughing in the neighbor’s gigantic sycamore tree, its looming form blotting out the stars over our back yard, it is fascinating; when we open up the Styrofoam cooler in the shed and find that the children have filled it with grass while playing Underground Railroad (apparently the grass represented provisions of some kind) it is fascinating; when I am bawling out my five-year-old, and my six-year-old tells her, “Daddy’s not saying you’re not a good person, Sophie,” it is altogether fascinating.
We all need fascination—what Paul Gauguin called “a sense of the beyond, of a heart that beats.” One evening while our first daughter Clare was still a baby, my wife and I were having dinner at a friend’s house when Clare began to get fussy. Our hostess picked her up and took her across the room to look at a candle. “Let’s get fascinated!” she said. Our baby stared, rapt and slack-jawed, at the flickering flame, and I saw for the hundredth time how numinous and mesmerizing the world was in her infant eyes. Not presuming to have all the answers about anything she saw, or to be able to control things by naming them, she was happy to let the world be its fascinating self–almost as though she could detect “the dearest freshness deep down things”[i] with some special sixth baby-sense. “We see the world with the five senses,” said Swami Vivekananda, “but if we had another sense, we would see in it something more.”[ii]
Longing for this “something more” is, I believe, the reason people smoke weed; having lost the baby-sense, people turn to THC to open their minds to the bottomless fascination of the world. “I tell you the truth,” Jesus said, “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”[iii] But changing is hard, and chemicals can seem to bypass the need for it. It’s not for nothing that the body’s neurotransmitter that the cannabinoids in marijuana mimic is called “anandamide”; ananda is Sanskrit for “bliss.”[iv]
A young monk went to Abba Moses–one of the Desert Fathers of 3rd and 4th century Egypt–for advice on spiritual advancement. “Go and sit in your cell,” the Abba told him, “and your cell will teach you everything.” Your life as it is, here and now, is gravid with everything you need to know–but it seldom appears that way. And yet, if we had eyes to see—if we could get our thoughts out of the way of our perceptions–who knows what we could detect in the seemingly undifferentiated landscape of our lives? If we had no mental category for “green,” the woods would be a riot of color.
The summer after I graduated from college I was with a group of friends, and we had all eaten psilocybin mushrooms. For some time, I didn’t understand what the fuss was all about; I didn’t seem to be what I thought of as “tripping” at all. “I just feel stoned,” I said to a friend. “That’s it,” she replied: “Just relax into it.”
And she was right: as soon as I let go of my prefabricated mental construct of “tripping” and simply allowed my experience to be what it was, I discovered that I was indeed tripping, and in a big way. It was all happening already, but my willing-it-to-be had kept it from my awareness. Sober, I had the life I wanted already, and I didn’t know it, because I never “relaxed into it.”
Sri Ramakrishna said that spiritual seekers climb the stairs of renunciation one by one, and when they finally reach the roof, they discover that it is made of the same brick and lime as the stairs.[v] We are not going anywhere, because we are already there—or at very least, “there” is not essentially different from “here,” now matter how much we sacrifice to our belief that is surely must be.
Jesus was apparently trying to get his hearers to “relax into it” when He told them, “The kingdom of God does not come with signs to be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you.”[vi] There is no place to go; it is already here–you are already there.
This is how the world regains its fascination: by our looking at it neither through the eyes of deluded desire that compare it to something “better” in our heads, nor through the eyes of calculation and greed for gain, but through the eyes of the Kingdom within, the eyes of a little child who sees “the dearest freshness deep down things.” Not of drugged sleep, but of alert wakefulness.
“Could you not stay awake with me for one hour?” Jesus asked His disciples on the last night of His earthly life.[vii] So OK, smartass, I tell myself: if you’re Jesus—if you abide in Him and He in you like vine and branch[viii]–stay awake with yourself! Don’t be continually falling back into the sleep of life inside your head, don’t be always drawing a veil of expectations and desires between yourself and your life. Don’t end up like Jacob, who had to physically wrestle with his Creator and sustain a painful injury before he could say, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.”[ix]
Vedanta philosophy uses the image of coiled rope in a dimly-lit room to explain our cognitive dysfunction. If upon entering the room we mistake the rope for a snake, we will be unable to see the rope, and we cannot see the rope until we stop seeing the snake. As long as we see our lives as preparatory, stalled, unreal or unfulfilling, we cannot see them as numinous, fascinating, “charged with the grandeur of God.”[x] The earliest Christian texts speak, not of the “return” of the Christ, but of Christ’s “revelation;” when the scales fall from our eyes, we will see that we are already in God. This is surely what the Psalmist longed for when he prayed,
When I awake, I will be fully satisfied, for I will see You face to face.[xi]
[i] Hopkins, Gerard Manley. “God’s Grandeur”
[ii] Vivekananda, Jnana Yoga. Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, 1982. (28)
[iii] Matthew 18:3
[v] The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, Abridged edition. Translated by Swami Nikhilananda. Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, 1988. (271)
[vi] Luke 17: 20b-21
[vii] Matthew 26:40
[viii] cf. John 15:15
[ix] Genesis 28:16b, ESV
[x] Hopkins, Gerard Manley. “God’s Grandeur”
[xi] Psalm 17:15b, NLT