In the spiritual tradition I follow we talk sometimes about being a mirror for the people we meet, and also how the people we clash with are mirrors to the things we detest about our own selves.
I’m prompted to write about this after a disturbing Facebook event. A woman I barely know, with whom I am “friends” on Facebook only as a professional courtesy, just bullied me on Facebook in a manner that had me question her sanity. It ended with her posting lies about me and using expletives in an email directed at me, after I asked her not to email me.
She was employed by my employer for less than 9 months. Her contract was not renewed after the first two semesters. The reason I say this is because this person passed a lot of judgements, publicly on Facebook about my competence as a professor, admitting, even as she wrote this, that she does not know me. She doesn’t. Our personal knowledge of each other is limited to occasional hallway meetings until her contract was not renewed and she was dismissed by my employer, after which, I never saw her again in person. I accepted her FB request as we have one mutual friend I trust. Apparently, she follows me so closely on FB that she claims to know a lot about me, enough to pass sweeping judgement on my behavior. As I only check FB once or twice per week or so, and usually to connect with close friends, post cat videos, or promote my publications, this was more than surprising to me. Was she stalking me? Do people do this? How long had she been “seething” about my objectionable behavior in social media? Why hadn’t she merely unfriended me after a few of those hateful posts she so objected to?
The very disturbing experience that triggered a Facebook “troll fight” with this woman was as a result of an article about The Dark Side of New Age Drug Tourism: Ayahuasca a fatal lure for naive experience junkies (quite literally the title). The article is the same of a series that have been proliferating lately on the internet. I have read about a half a dozen of them in the last week alone. The articles explore the new “fad” that is Ayahuasca spiritualism: that is, people who go to spiritual retreats that serve a specially preserved herb mixture known as Ayahuasca in order to induce powerful hallucinations that most people who have experienced them call “life changing.”
I have read a lot about Ayahuasca, at least six or seven books, some written by scientists who experiment with DMT, some written by shamans, others written by archeologists, and so forth. I’ve also read innumerable blog posts and articles from experiencers and shamans. I am not a proponent of recreational drug use. I don’t like losing control of my faculties. I am not even capable of getting drunk, let alone stoned. I was deathly afraid of drugs in high school and steered clear of all that scene in college as well.
But Ayahuasca seems different. My educated foray into the literature strongly affirms that this herb is not a recreational drug by any means of the imagination: most experiences are troubling and even psychologically disturbing to the user, not to mention very hard on the body. They seem to have the effect of pushing someone towards facing his or her own darkest fears or darkest side. By no means an experience for the faint of heart. At the same time, the outcome seems to be that of great elation and spiritual insights that most people find the uncomfortable physical effects and the discomfort of a trip to the jungle definitely worth the benefit. Many honest scientists are also looking into Ayahuasca’s effect as a possible cure for depression and addiction. There are rumors of miraculous physical healing, too. Serious stuff.
However, there have been deaths, two well documented ones, to be exact. It is known that Ayahuasca does not mix well with MAO inhibitors, that is, most anti-depression medication. Serious shaman sites warn the potential users that one must give up the medication months in advance of a journey with Ayahuasca as the wrong interaction could be lethal. Since Ayahuasca is illegal in the United States except under very strict circumstances, it is easy to see how those eager to have a life-changing spiritual experience might dive headlong into a problem by experimenting with the herb before actually giving up their medication, and let’s face it, anti depressants and anxiety drugs are so freely prescribed in the United States, precisely to the kind of person who would want to reap the benefits of Ayahuasca, that it is more of a testament of the shaman’s caution to me that only two deaths have occurred than otherwise.
The proliferations of articles on Ayahuasca that have sprouted out lately all seem of one mind to condemn Ayahuasca as yet one more failed psychedelic “hippy” experiment. They do not mention the science or the innumerably profound testimonies, many coming from very successful academics and productive members of the commercial world. If they do, that information is usually quickly thrown up against the psychadelic 60’s and other suggestions of “tripping their heads off” behavior. Shamans and experiencers both are willing to risk a jail sentence and, in the case of seekers, their safety on a trip to the jungle, yet bloggers can see nothing more to this than just a thrill-seeking fad promoted by the rich and liberal actors and musicians eager for self promotion. I find this sort of dismissal typical of a society obsessed with materialism, and of one who tolerates spirituality only when it is safely corralled in the now very politicized walls of state-sanctioned religions. But while I expect it, it is disheartening all the same.
When the woman I mentioned earlier posted one such article on Facebook, it was the fourth I had read this week alone that dismissed not only Ayahuasca as a fad, but also all those who are in search of such life changing experiences as naive New Age thrill seekers.
Off hand, the word New Age is only used for the purpose of diminishing and insulting people. I have never seen the word New Age to describe anything positive. New Agers themselves never use the word to refer to themselves. They are yogis or shamans or Buddhists or Wiccans, or alternative spiritual seekers. They all know the connotation of the word New Age to a mostly conservative, mostly dogmatic non spiritual materialist public and they rightly do not like it and seldom if ever use it.
Because I may be considered a New Ager by those who write these types of articles, I am very sensitive and very aware of the charged language used to dismiss spiritual searches that fall outside of the pre-established acceptable traditions, namely Judaism and Evangelical Christianity (even Catholicism is suspect in the Bible Belt, where I live). The first step towards dehumanizing someone is by using diminishing language.
Therefore, I object to the outright dismissal of Ayahuasca retreats as New Age fads and object to the language and tone that accompanies such claims.
More strange still is a new wave of what may be considered New Agers (Wiccans, Buddhists, Yogis) who now rally against what they call “appropriation” of ancient traditions. Don’t get me wrong: I am completely sympathetic to the dangers of commercializing ancient spiritual traditions. Commercialization of religion is really scary to me. But it’s another story to make claims that those traditions must be confined only to the cultures that generated them. If that were our yardstick, then no religious tradition would be practiced today: Christianity is an appropriated Middle Eastern spiritual movement, as is Judaism and Islam. Hinduism and its offspring, yoga. are also appropriated traditions, which were appropriated from shamanism of the Kush, in turn. A popoular blogger recently claimed she wanted to “take yoga back” from, presumedly, Western culture. That this was a balking statement (some of the yoga experience I’ve had were life saving for me) did not register with the usual pc crowd, which is always eager to point out white privilege in others, but too often fails to consider its own privilege (e.g. Ivy league educations, immigrant or minority but who thrive in the US on trust funds, or as sons/daughters of successful doctors and engineers, people well versed with the upper classes, educated elites, who have never actually seen just how much white privilege is in trailer parks, etc.)
The idea that only remote cultures in the Amazon have a right to shamanism is one that, I think, is seduced by a romantic and decidedly white, decidedly privileged ideal of a shaman archetype of the wise man of the earth who can make no mistake and can never be tempted to do wrong. Testimonies and studies report that such a vision of the shaman is naive at best. There are plenty of “charlatans” who have never stepped out of the jungle or worn a brand pair of jeans. As there are plenty of very competent shamans who are quite westernized and wordly. A paycheck does not validate a spiritual experience; but it doesn’t invalidate one either.
It is unfortunate that there have been two deaths by Ayahuasca which could have probably been prevented. It is possible and even likely that there may be a number of so-called shamans out there who are not qualified to perform these rites and who are being unscrupulous about the consequences. I don’t challenge that. I only think that it’s inevitable that such a thing occurs. Are there no unscrupulous Evangelical or Catholic Christians? Has no rabbi ever preached wrong? Has no one ever died of Christianity/Hinduism/Buddhism? A small pause to think and we shall all come to the consensus that no religion is harmless. Does this justify condemning some as deluded spiritual tourists while praising others as having the right to shape politics and culture?
What separates owners of Hobby Lobby and their right to withhold contraceptives from workers from dedicated shamans and their rights to usher in Ayahuasca to a spiritually hungry public? Who are making these judgements? Who decides who the “rightly trained” shamans are? The bloggers for the New York Times and Huffington Post? What is their spiritual background to give them authority in judging these spiritual searches?
So when this woman posted the article, she posted a warning about mixing spiritual practice with profit.
I don’t disagree with that warning: it is always a tricky proposition to mix idealism with commercial profit. On the other hand, let us not forget, shaman need to eat as well. Ministers make a salary. Preachers also. Rabbis are on salaries as well. Nothing of the spiritual persuasion is free. I don’t ever remember attending a Christian mass where I wasn’t required to make a monetary contribution. My very good friend who studies Wicca, whose rites and ceremonies are free and open to the public, has completed her rigorous training at the tune of thousands of dollars. This is not surprising. Teaching takes time, effort, and dedication. In all spiritual traditions, shamans must be paid, in one form or another, as they, too, need to eat. And not everyone who benefits from the Ayahuasca herb has ambitions to become a shaman. Some simply want to connect to the divine, and they have heard via testimony that this is an effective way to do it.
So why, rather than dismissing Ayahuasca deaths as evidence of a shallow pool of moronic New Agers, couldn’t we look at these deaths in perspective, as human errors? Perhaps the practitioner wasn’t entirely honest with the shaman about his or her diet and medications (i see blog posts of people admitting that they lied to the shaman about having not eaten and other such small omissions that caused them significant problems during their journey). They could have been because of neglect. They might have also been the result of a greedy shaman who knew “just enough to be dangerous” as my colleague who wrote disturbing things on Facebook put it.
I don’t disagree, it’s possible that it may have been due to any or all of those things. But I do disagree that this means we should dismiss Ayahuasca and the general desire of more and more people to experience authentic spiritual awakenings as a New Age Fad, or to suggest that unless you’re willing to sell your belongings and move to the jungle you don’t deserve to partake in an authentic spiritual awakening. These views are of the same romanticized stock as Hollywood films.
For expressing this view on Facebook on a thread started by someone who by all intents and purposes would qualify as a New Age person, I was covered in insults. Not your average curses and such: these were “academic’ insults; jabs at my personality, my attitude, my ostensible racism or prejudice, my presumed condoning the commercialization of sacred traditions, my hatred of other religions (!!!!!) and every attempt I made at clearing my position was met with more attacks and distortions, until the whole thing turned to this woman posting outright lies about me and blocking me so as to prevent me from denying her false claims.
This is what in my spiritual tradition we call a “charge”: feeling pulled into a confrontation that we’ve had before, we recognize all the colors, all the signs, yet we can’t help avoid, in spite of knowing better, in spite of knowing it will lead to nowhere but grief and frustration.
I tried really hard not to take the bait, yet at the same time I could not let someone who had just called me all those things in a public forum like Facebook go unchallenged. I do not let offenses go unchallenged, and I don’t want falsities about me to float in the cyber ether indefinitely. So when someone (often intentionally) distorts or misinterprets my words, I clarify my position. Because of that, I’ve often been called sexist insults; virile, contentious, aggressive — words that no man under the same exact circumstances would ever have to suffer — and this, by women who assure me they are feminists, but only when it concerns them, and their right to express their own opinion and to bully others out of their discussion threads – a thread they own, apparently, even if it’s in a public forum.
I have been accused of arguing too aggressively too often to consider it a fluke: but if I believe in something passionately, why should I back down? Especially if I have not called anyone names. Is this a personality flaw? Is expressing an opinion passionately a social crime? Apparently it is so in the United States, according to some. Let us hope these “some” will not be the ruling majority.
I have been to this place before. It usually ends in something like a pointed finger: You are this. You are that. You always do this. You always say that. Those kind of preludes to the accusation that follows have always been triggers to my “charges”: because how can anything truthful and useful ever follow such a prelude? It took me a long time to understand that is why it drives me crazy to hear that.
My brother once accused me: “you were never going to…” “you were thinking this…” “you were going to….” He spoke as if he could read my mind and he was so sure he KNEW me, so sure he predicted all the decisions that I did not take, all the things that did not happen, and even when confronted with the fact that these things did not happen, he insisted; “You would have done them if you’d had the chance.” I can forgive my brother and my sister for thinking they know what I think and what I feel, although I find it irksome and irritating, but when a total stranger, who, by her own admission, begins her diatribe by telling me “I don’t know you” and proceeds to say “you are always attacking people” the charge is particularly difficult to bare.
I am an introspective woman, in spite of my admittedly combative argumentation style. Never does an argument end that I don’t review every accusation brought against me and search my heart for any specks of truth in it. But this time around, I really felt what the spiritual tradition I follow has been trying to tell me: this is not about me. This was not about me. This woman was seeing something in me that was in herself, and her projection covered everything I said, everything I tried to convey. I never stood a chance to be heard, because her projections had already covered up everything. She could not see me at all. It was all just inside her own head. And yet, somehow, I was caught in that confrontation with her, which means, somehow, it was also in my own head witnessing this for a reason.
So, yes, I am angry, but beyond the anger and frustration and hurt of having my evening ruined by a total stranger who apparently thinks I need to take lessons from her in social grace, I see something more. I see a woman drowning in her own anger, for whatever reason, for whatever trigger of charge I caused in her by pointing out that New Agers are spiritual seekers, no less or no more flawed than those seekers belonging to any other tradition, Christian, Hindu, or Islamic. Now it’s my task to figure out how my frustration with her reflects a flaw inside me.