Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Sweet Taste of Life

The Sweet Taste of Life

What a difference a day can make! Within just a couple days of having written my last piece, The Sweet Taste of Death, I had an experience that reversed my position on that matter. I mean, I still stand by what I said in the essay, on the quality of one's life influencing one's behaviors and their manifestations as either destructive or productive, but I've changed my perspective relative to that paradigm. I value my own life more, is what I'm trying to say.

This is what happened. I was hanging out with a couple friends from work, smoking and drinking and just generally not being terribly healthy. I hadn't slept much in days, and was likely more fatigued than I realized when I decided to go home. I say I was drinking, but I'd only had half a beer and was not, in reality, drunk. I think I was mostly just sleep-deprived. And high.

As I was driving home, I started to feel as though I were disappearing. This has happened to me before. But this time it was more intense. I'm used to a sort-of spiritual heat coming over me and causing the perception of a dissolution of one body part or another. This happens to many people who use psychedelics, but it can happen to me when I'm just high or when I'm completely sober. I haven't tripped in about a year and a half. Sometimes I freak out when this happens, but if I've had a number of such experiences in close temporal proximity to one another, it doesn't seem as foreign and I'm more likely to just go with it. If ever I need to come down from it, I follow the advice of an older, wiser individual who once said, "Just stick your head in a freezer if you need to feel real again." I somehow make myself physically uncomfortable in order to feel myself.

This time, it wasn't working. I rolled down my window and stuck my arm out, gripping the roof of my car, hoping that the night air would bring me to full physical presence within myself. It didn't work. I began to feel as though my entire body were blipping out of existence, as though the nature of reality itself were coming apart within the seams of myself. Space and time became a physical streaming presence that was replacing me with itself, sending my consciousness into a state of black nothingness. I was terrified.

I realized that I was in an incredibly vulnerable state. I've heard of people blacking out while driving and nevertheless making it home safely, miraculously. However, being as I described in my last essay in a frame of mind that was somewhat suicidal, I couldn't trust myself in that moment not to manifest self-destruction. I felt that if I let go entirely into that moment, it could become my last. For me, this was a near-death experience.

In a panic, I pulled over into the (closed) CVS pharmacy that is probably no more than a quarter of a mile from my house. I decided that perhaps if I walked around, or ran, or did something physically involved, it would bring me back into my body such that I could drive home safely. I got out of the car and started to walk around. As I was walking, the disappearing feeling only heightened. I was losing time, and "browning out." It was like I was only able to witness every other moment. One second, I would be walking, the next would be black nothingness, and then I would see myself again in a different place in the parking lot that was more than a step away from where I had been. Except, time itself had dissolved, so there was no perception of a second-by-second play, but rather a realization that I was losing consciousness. My "self" was dissolving into the greater whole of the moment, but because I was more identified with my fears and my death drive at that time, my consciousness was displaced into nothingness.

I realized then that the greatest sin I had been committing of late was that of not loving myself or my life as they currently exist. I learned a long time ago that I must love every moment in order to have a fulfilled life. Still panicked, I started saying, "I love you, Moment," in the hope that this would redeem me and bring me to safety.

And it did, eventually.

I knew that I needed help of some sort. I'm not the type of person who asks for help until the stakes reach a certain level. Truth be told, I've been in desperate need of some kind of help for at least a month now. I've been slipping into oblivion and death because I've been depressed and dissatisfied at the ego-level of my existence. And I've been completely identified with my ego, at that. But, as it stood at that moment, it seemed inevitable that I would pass out. I didn't want to be alone when it happened. It was late at night, and I knew that the only person I could really rely upon was my brother, Stephen. I returned to my car to get my phone and call him.

After picking up the phone, I hesitated for a moment. Really, it was my ego, still damning me with its refusal to admit weakness. It imbued me with a vision of my greatest fear that would surely manifest if I called my brother. I would call him and ask him to come pick me up. As he was on his way, I would pass out. He would call my parents and they would rush me to the hospital. I would wake up in a bleak room, surrounded by doctors and family members and would be told that I had some terminal disease, cancer, maybe. Lots of tears and so forth, and everyone would pity me and see me as a dying person until I died.

Nevertheless I called him, because my greater Self took control and I couldn't do anything but call him. I said, "Stephen, I love you, and I need you to come pick me up." Without hesitation, he agreed, and I told him where I was and he headed out to get me. After the call, my fears were assauged, and I started to feel real again. I was still in a state of reduced-free will, but I could feel my body and I was no longer losing time. I began to rejoice at the instantaneous-ness of my recovery, and I started praising God, proclaiming myself as His, and speaking in tongues. I was waving my hands and dancing around in an ecstatic fit that I could not control. I was exuberantly happy to be alive.

Within no time, for me, literally, no time, Stephen arrived and I told him what had been happening. I asked him to take me to Wendy's, which was still open, so that I could eat something and come down further. He took me, and I got a salad and baked potato. On the way, he told me that he'd had experiences like mine before as well. We're both a little too interested in drugs.

He took me back to the empty CVS parking lot, and I ate and we talked a little. He reminded me of what I was supposed to be doing instead of hanging out with work friends. He said, in simple honestly, "So, basically, you ditched mom to go get high." It was the truth. I was supposed to hang out with my mom, and I got depressed, and didn't feel like I could handle her presence, so instead I went out in search of weed. Typical me.

I told Stephen that one of us would have to stop all this drug nonsense and get healthy soon, and that it should be me. He agreed. He told me that I needed to stop smoking cigarettes as well, and I agreed. I was, by this point, able to safely drive home, and so I thanked him and told him that if he ever needed me to return the favor, I would surely do so.

As I drove home, with the window down, I constricted my core muscles as to maintain my grip on the present. I made it home, completely safely, and headed for bed. I lit candles in my room, and laid down for a meditative rest. I felt the cleansing of the Spirit, and fell asleep without any trouble. I'd known that it was my destiny to sleep well that night, and so I did.

And since then, I have had a renewed interest in living. I'm still smoking, but I'm gradually weaning myself off of cigarettes (smoking Newport Lights, currently ;} ), and I've set a date for their complete cessation: October 15. I'm eating better, and have decided to return to my vegetarian ways, with the occasional exception of fish. I've started reading this amazing website called Christ's Way (, thank you David for the recommendation!), and a little bit more of the Bible. I'm feeling an elevation, a renewed interest in being at one with the Spirit, and a general satisfaction with everything in my life. I'm making peace with my past and enjoying the present, losing concern for the future and instead choosing to love myself into increasingly grander states of being.

Love and Life are miracles that are ours to have and share. Material circumstances are but illusions that can be mastered through the power of God's Love. How blessed I was to have a moment in which everything was nearly taken from me, so that I could wake the next morning with a revived appreciation for the beauty of All that Is!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Sweet Taste of Death

The Sweet Taste of Death
Sean Michael Barker

On my way home from work tonight, I stopped by Wendy's and ordered Honey Barbecue Boneless Wings and a medium chocolate Frosty. It's a contemplative sort-of evening for me, so I'm sitting here eating my snack and reflecting on why I'm attracted to things that are gradually killing me. It won't be long before I light another Newport, in this same vein.

For starters, it's clear that I'm going with a certain flow. I am by no means the only person I know who can make an entire diet out of fast food, nor am I the only Danvillian who smokes menthol cigarettes. In fact, for perhaps the first time in my life, I consider myself to be in the majority in this sense; what I'm doing is considered completely "normal" here. Indeed, with two working parents and a cultural endorsement for choosing tasty convenience, I can honestly say that I was raised on fast food. Outside of Danville, it took a great deal of conscious effort to will myself out of my fast-food addiction, not to mention a group of well-meaning friends who lovingly looked down upon it. But here I am again, surrounded by folks who see nothing wrong with a habitual stop at Hardee's or Bojangles or McDonald's or wherever you fancy (pick your poison!), and I have relinquished my will power to the greater judgment of my present context. And, I must admit: I am a lot happier now that I've stopped trying to be health-conscious and vegetarian in Danville, VA.

The question at hand, then, has less to do with why I-personally am making these decisions, and more to do with why we, as a culture, find ourselves constantly doing this. I have a theory which I aim to share.

My theory dates back to my college days, when it was my job to think (or, depending on the class, to repeat others' thoughts). I was a Black Studies major, because the thoughts inspired by these classes were the ones that I found to be the most interesting. Every Black Studies class will at some point address the history of slavery. Most of these conversations will make some attempt to connect the past to the present. This is what I loved most about Black Studies: it helped me to make sense of the world I currently live in, by offering a wider array of conceptions of the past than I found in more "traditional" classes.

I'm not sure which one it was, but in one of my classes, we talked about soul food. As in, the culinary tradition that originates in Southern African-American culture. My very insightful professor told us that slaves--particularly "field" slaves--were generally fed what amounted to table scraps. The master and his family, fittingly, would reserve the choice foods, specifically the "good" cuts of meat, for themselves, and would give the slaves whatever remained that was edible. The slave's diet, then, would be a combination of foods that they could grow for themselves in their precious-little "free" time and their owners' leftovers. This explains why black Southerners (and even some white Southerners of poorer backgrounds) retain their tastes for intestines, livers, dark meats, and what have you. At one point, this was all they had to work with. It also accounts for black people's cultural penchant for rich seasoning: they needed to add a good deal of flavoring to their food to make it palatable, because they were eating parts of the animal that were not even considered to be "food" by the culture-at-large. So, there you have it: a tradition is born, predictably out of the conditions of oppression.

My "original" thought comes in here. I completely accept the narrative that I just laid out as truth, but I have a contribution that I believe adds further insight into the situation. Let's say that you're a black American slave at the turn of the 19th century. You have no personal connection to Africa because your family have been in America for 3-5 generations by now. You work sunup to sundown for a man who does not love or care for you, who beats you whenever he feels the need, who rapes your daughters and considers you to be an animal. You have no conception of a better life than the one you're living now, because you know that any effort you make toward self-liberation will result in a brutal death. You know that you can be separated from your family and loved ones at any moment; your teenage son can literally be sold to the highest bidder. What, then, do you really have to live for?

Hope springs eternal and the will to live is one of the most profound phenomena of human existence. Nevertheless, suicide exists, as do subtler forms of self-destruction. It seems to me that there is a sort-of economic factor when it comes to living. When the cost of living outweighs the cost of dying, perfectly sane people choose to die.

But there seems to be a gradient. We have the extremes: those who kill themselves, and those who completely embody health and vivacity. But we also have a vast middle ground of people who have no desire to die in the immediate sense, but who clearly demonstrate patterns of behavior that can only result in death. Perhaps a similar economic measure can be applied to those in the "moderate" categories.

This is the thrust of my theory: even though everyone knows that certain behaviors, certain foods, drugs and other products are as good as gradual death sentences, people nevertheless choose to engage in/consume them based upon the degree to which they value their own lives. This is why I find more smokers in my social circle as a waiter in workingclass Danville than I did as a college student in middleclass Williamsburg. People here believe that they have less to live for. The longer I stay here, the less I believe there is something to live for.

And who can blame us? Our work is repetitive, degrading, depressing, and soul-crushing. Most of us have aspects to life outside of our work that gives us something to live for. But, when most of our waking life is spent doing work that is not intrinsically rewarding or meaningful, why wouldn't we want to ensure that the release of death draws ever-closer? On the opposite side of the coin, why wouldn't those who lead more fulfilling lives want to prolong it as much as possible? It can all be reduced to a cost/benefit analysis.

And, in the case of good food, good times, and good friends, what better way to go could there be? When no quality of life is apparent, we create it out of thin air. No matter how bad my job was on any given day, it can all be turned around if I have a delicious meal when I get off. When I have no strong desire to live anyway, death can taste quite sweet indeed. It's only when that menacing voice of hope emerges that my habits start to reek of bitterness again. Thankfully, my will toward destruction remains strong enough to silence that voice, no matter how loud it gets. I'm always only one mentholated puff away from where I started, and for the time-being, that's how I like it.

I trust and believe that someday I will find a self-sustaining drive toward health and life. But while my material circumstances dictate my reality, I reserve the right to kill myself a little bit, just to take the edge off of what would otherwise be a completely abysmal situation. My taste for death is completely moment-appropriate, and I do not comdemn myself for obeying my treacherous desires. At present, death to me is as sweet as honey. I will know it's time to move on when it begins to taste as bitter as itself again.

As for right now, it's time for me to reward myself with another Newport :)