Living the Questions
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves. Do not search for the answers, which could not be given to you now because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. And perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”
-Rainer Maria Rilke Letters to a Young Poet
The uncomfortable truth is that the more I sit with the question “Who am I?’” the less certain I am of the answer. This is a question that I’ve worked with a lot over the past year in my meditation practice.
In Zen, there’s always the invitation to come back to “don’t know mind,” to rest in this space of uncertainty. An inquiry approach to meditation trains us to become increasingly comfortable resting in this space of not knowing. Inquiry practice trains us to live the questions, rather than to immediately reach for the answer.
In preparing for a recent psilocybin session, I followed a framework for preparing, journey and integrating that I learned from Francois Bourzant’s book Consciousness Medicine. Part of this preparatory and integration process invited me to identify a question that spoke to a facet of my life that was calling for my attention. I chose two related questions:
“What is love?”
“What do I have to learn in this life about love?”
In the days leading up to the journey I sat with these questions, both during my formal meditation practice and during other periods of quiet contemplation, such as walking alone in nature. On a Sunday afternoon, I consumed five grams of dried mushrooms, which was a relatively high dose that I had been wanting to take for some time.
After I consumed the medicine, I sat in formal meditation working with this inquiry practice for awhile, before I lay down on the bed, as I listened to East Forest’s track with Ram Dass, “I am Loving Awareness.”
The journey was yet another reminder that while it can be very valuable to set an intention, ultimately the trip is going to be whatever it is going to be: you have to surrender to the experience as it unfolds on a moment to moment basis.
Absolutely, “set and setting,” including working with an intention, will shape the causes and conditions in which your entheogenic experience takes shape. However, if working with entheogens like psilocybin is about anything it’s a training in surrender.
There were times when the effects of the psilocybin felt very strong. However, if you can simply stay with your moment to moment experience, notice the ways in which you’re resisting, and keep letting go, you can navigate the challenges of your journey with far more skill and ease. For many hours, the journey was not about receiving brilliant insights or exploring dimensions of bliss about surrendering again and again and again.
When things got very intense I came back to the question: “what’s going on right now?”
Hearing is like this.
Seeing is like this.
Breathing is like this.
Pressure is like this.
Resistance is like this.
Opening is like this.
Who is the “you” to whom all of these experiences happen? That’s the illusion that psychedelics shatter….at least for a moment in time, you can catch a glimpse. But how can entheogenic experiences go beyond simply being an interesting experience and lead to changes in behavior?
This is why I believe entheogens must be seen as a tool within a larger spiritual path, whatever that might be for you. Personally, I’m fascinated by the intersection of entheogens and Buddhism, including meditation.
Psychotherapy is another excellent vehicle for the entheogenic experience. It’s also complementary to contemplative traditions, and it’s this psychotherapeutic approach, combined with traditional indigneous wisdom, that Bourzant draws upon for the framework she articulates in Consciousness Medicine.
The morning after my journey, I was reflecting again on my intention and my questions:
“What is love?”
What do I have to learn about love in this life?”
As I was reflecting on these questions I started to notice how quickly my mind was trying to jump to the answer. I noticed that I was relating to my integration process as a way to solve my problems, so that I could “achieve” some “breakthrough,” so that I could figure something out, so that I could evolve, grow, get to some place that is presumably superior to where I am right now.
Then as I came back to the question again “what is love?” I remembered the spirit of inquiry itself which is, as the quote from Rainer Maria Rilke suggests, to learn to live the questions. In Zen, the practice of working with a koan is a training in learning to become profoundly intimate with the uncertainty of living the questions, of learning to rest in “don’t know mind.”
The practice is rooted in a faith that trusts when the time is right causes and conditions will come together for wisdom to arise. But it can’t be forced. This is why the spiritual journey is not a self improvement project for your ego. It’s problematic and even counterproductive to talk about awakening as something that you can achieve. Awakening has less to do with attaining and more to do with letting go.
Though of course it’s a lot easier to talk about surrender and faith than to actually walk this path. Life reminds me of this truth again and again, and entheogens have an especially potent way of doing so given the ways in which they dramatize your conscious experience.
In the days leading up to my ceremony I was sensing into this space of discomfort that arose along with the uncertainty to the question: “what is love?” If I’m being honest, even though a part of me knew to relax into the uncertainty, there was a very subtle part of me that resisted this wisdom. Underneath that resistance was a belief that I should know more about love.
What is love?
Like the other profound inquiry questions such as “Who am I?” most people can quickly fire off a bunch of answers authoritatively that might feel satisfactory. This is completely understandable because if the ego wants one thing it’s security. It wants to feel “yes I know this, I’ve got the answer boxed in, pinned down: love is like this, it’s not like that; I am like this; I’m not like that; the world works like this; it’s not like that.”
But the more we learn to sit with these fundamental questions, these core koans, in silence, the more it becomes apparent just how profoundly mysterious these questions: “Who am I?” “What is love?”
If you conceded to yourself that you didn’t really understand what love is, how would that make you feel?
Pause for a minute and sense into that space of uncertainty; take a step backwards and feel what it’s like to rest in don’t know mind.
Perhaps there is a kind of deeper knowing that comes from the heart but that defies the mind’s ability to grasp it. Even this description of the mind is limited and problematic and rooted in a more Western worldview that the mind and the heart are separate (in many Eastern languages including Sanskrit and Thai the same word for “heart” also refers to “mind”).
The mind operates in the world of concepts and the more we begin to go deep inside ourselves through contemplative practices like meditation, or the more we work with entheogens, we begin to realize the limits of language. We start to get much more comfortable with these limitations, and in resting in this mysterious, groundless ground that is awareness, this loving awareness, towards which the conceptual mind can only point, but cannot grasp.
Perhaps my most important takeaway from this latest journey was that there was no big takeaway and that there need not be some big insight following an entheogenic journey. Of course, this itself is an insight. Yet we can start to notice the ways in which the ego wants to relate the entheogenic experience as a self improvement project for itself. Sometimes, that may very well be the right approach, especially when working within a psychotherapeutic container.
We can also notice how much the ego can resist the ambiguity that lies at the heart of life’s most meaningful questions, and we can start to acknowledge that an integral part of any wisdom path is learning to become more comfortable living with and within paradox. The alternative is dogmatism and self righteousness. As one of my teachers, Douglas Brooks, says: the only thing more dangerous than ignorance is certainty.
We want to be conscious and intentional when working with entheogens, but we don’t always need to make a project out of our entheogenic journeys. If you’re a goal orientated, achiever already inclined towards this approach to life, be wary of bringing this kind of mindset into your relationship with entheogens and spirituality. If these compounds are about anything they are a training in letting go, including of what I think I know, of the ways in which my ego stakes out positions to make itself feel more secure, in the ways in which it deludes itself.
Insights and breakthroughs are great, whether it’s in an entheogenic ceremony or a meditation cushion or the therapist’s office. But it’s also ok to just BE. To rest in stillness, silence, loving awareness.
As I return to the question “What is love?” I’m compelled to concede that this inquiry leads me back to a place that is utterly mysterious. Yet this time, instead of this uncertainty eliciting feelings of fear, it draws me into an encounter with the sublime.
Experience teaches me to learn to live the questions now and have faith that one day, perhaps, the answer will be revealed. Perhaps the question is the answer.
“What is love?” is not a question that demands an answer; it’s an inquiry that we learn to sense our way into, for love is not a problem to be solved, it’s a mystery to be lived.