Breakfast in Sihanoukville or “Nearer My God to Thee”

Is that an intriguing title or what? Let me explain:

This little café is in an unlikely setting for a retreat. It’s on the busiest street in Sihanoukville, is usually crowded and with little parking space, it’s often hard to get into, much less park my motorbike or even my bicycle in front of. Nevertheless, it’s one of my “magic” spots in Sihanoukville. Maybe it has something to do with the great fresh baked bread and pastries or the friendly and efficient staff or maybe it’s just magic, plain and simple. All I know is that every time I come here, I feel respite from the world.

click image for source

This morning I really needed respite and as soon as I sat down, it happened again: I felt at peace with the world and was content to set my mental and emotional baggage down and just ‘be’ for awhile. Then something weird happened: the words, “nearer my God to thee” popped into my head out of nowhere.

I knew they came from somewhere and that they were Christian in origin. I also knew that under other circumstances I would have found them annoying, like something a Jesus Freak, evangelical preacher or devout grandmother might say. Under these circumstances, though, they were quite comforting and reminded me of a day back in 1972 when similarly “Biblical” words popped into my head. That memory inspired me to do what I’ve been promising myself and others to do for ages and continue my Guru Who isn’t My Guru series of articles and that’s exactly what I’ve done this afternoon. Although it’s third on my list, it’s the chapter I’ve written first, about the time when Neem Karoli Baba told me to “go home and read the Bible.”

Neem Karoli Baba Kainchi ashram

Neem Karoli Baba Kainchi ashram (click image for source)

As you can see, that was in a decidedly more appropriate setting for a spiritual experience, but then again, the setting should be incidental. At any rate, I’m all blogged out now and just wanted to grab your attention. Just click the link above and read about what happened after I did what Neem Karoli Baba told me to do.

 

Thanksgiving in Sihanoukville with Penny Sisto

Moonwalker by Penny Sisto
Moonwalker

 

The original title of this post was, “Penny Sisto: My Bestest Friend”.

“God knows where that title came from, but it stuck” were the first words I wrote yesterday when I started this post. The answer came a few hours later. This is what happened:

Whenever I have a medical question I can’t find an answer to, I email my dear friend Penny Sisto and she always has an answer for me. Yesterday I had a question about a chronic ailment my wife Sopheak is suffering from. Penny replied promptly and thoroughly, as always, and also mentioned that she had completed 58 quilts last year.

I checked out her website, pennysisto.com and was inspired to write an article about her latest collection. I promise, “My Bestest” anything is not a title I would come up with on my own; it’s just not my style. Nevertheless, I sent a reply to Penny: “Tentative title is ‘Penny Sisto: My Bestest Friend.’ Just popped into my head”, I wrote, feeling a little embarrassed about my silly sounding title.

Not long afterwards, I received another email from Penny. “It struck me as you wrote the word Bestest because today is the death anniversary of . . . my bestest woman friend in this Incarnation. . . . Anyway I called Her Bestest as a nickname, so thank you for giving me that gift on her Death anniversary.”

White Buffalo by Penny Sisto
White Buffalo

This “coincidence” defines my relationship with Penny better than any other example I could give. I’ve had the huge privilege of knowing Penny since the late sixties and although it’s been decades since I last saw her, there’s still an element of “magic” to it.

Penny deeply influenced my life in many ways. For one thing, she gave truth to the rather insipid sounding rumour that “magic happens.” More importantly, she was the first person I had ever met who was genuinely and deeply compassionate. I sometimes think if I hadn’t met her, I wouldn’t really know the meaning of the word. Hers wasn’t the pseudo-compassion of the pseudo-spiritual sixties, either. She simply could not and would not say no to someone in need.

Penny makes her living and expresses herself creatively as a quilt artist. She has had her works displayed in major galleries throughout the United States and as you can see, she’s no ordinary artist. Her quilts seem to be infused with the souls of her subjects and convey all the strength of their spirits. The quilts shown here are from her latest collection, “Heartbeat 2011″, which bears the subtitle, “We live on Stolen Land.”

I will fight no more by penny sisto
I will fight no more

What would be a more appropriate subject for my Thanksgiving blog? I intended to write a rant about the hypocrisy of an American holiday that remembers the kindness of the indigenous Americans who met the first settlers and forgets the genocide that follows. Rather than burden you with words, just take a close look at these quilts and see what we have lost as a result of that genocide.

Penny hand-stitched this 58 quilt collection in a single year. That’s more than one per week. Take a close look at the detailing on ‘Shade’ (below) – the little crinkles around the sun, for instance – and then look at it from a distance. Now try and imagine doing all that, including finding just the right bits and pieces of cloth, in less than a week. Now imagine having atrocious eyesight and yet still creating a work of art with such rich detail that can be appreciated from any distance. Finally, top it off with an equally busy daily life on a rural Kentucky farm. How does she do it?

I could go on and on, but I’ll let Penny’s work speak for her. Visit her website, www.pennysisto.com and treat your eyes and heart to a Thanksgiving/Christmas season treat.

Shade, by Penny Sisto
Shade

My Interview with Neil Slade

All it takes is a magic feather's touch
All it takes is a magic feather's touch

Tickle the feather with your mouse to visit Neil Slade's Amazing Brain

 

I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Neil Slade the other day. “What?” I hear you say, “Neil Slade interviewed you? Why?” You’re right. It makes no sense that he would interview me rather than the other way around, but this is Neil Slade we’re talking about.

To answer your question, Neil has been interviewing a bunch of “seasoned” amygdala ticklers. He is working on a new book in which he is going to try yet again to get the word out about brain self control and I for one hope he pulls off his grand ambition to make amygdala tickling a fad.

Rather than give you a detailed account of our interview, I’ll just give you the basics as I related them to Neil:

I  discovered Neil Slade’s Amazing Brain website in around 2002 or 2003. At that time, I was going through the absolute worst phase of my working life. I had been abruptly fired from one job in a really ruthless way and had to take the first job I could find, which was for a boat builder who manufactured multi-million dollar yachts. Conditions in his factory were so bad that kids on the dole who were required to take any job they were able to get were excused from taking this one. The cavernous facility was always either freezing cold or stifling hot, the smell of chemicals vied for space with the fog of fibreglass dust while fresh air was pushed mercilessly outdoors. It was a dead end job with no future. Everyone knew that once the $20 million dollar yacht we were working on was finished, the boss was going to declare bankruptcy in order to avoid taxes and responsibility, lay low for a couple of years and then do it all over again under another name.

At that point in my life I was chronically if not clinically depressed. I saw myself as an utter failure with no future to look forward to. I had let myself down and, more importantly, I had let my family down.

I was contemplating these grim facts as I drove to work one freezing cold morning when I decided to give amygdala clicking (as Neil described it then) another try. I had stumbled across Neil’s website about a month previously and had been playing around with the technique. The reason why I had stuck with it was because it seemed to occasionally offer some mild relief from my misery. On this particular morning it gave me much more than that. As I gave first my left amygdala a tickle and then the right, a wave of indescribable bliss rolled over me. And then another

and another

and another

By the time I got to work I was on such a high, I was thanking Jesus, Buddha, Krishna and every other deity who seemed to be paying me a visit for my fantastic good fortune. How many people had the opportunity to experience a really shitty job firsthand and find a way to accept and even enjoy it? How many others were so blessed as to have discovered perfect happiness for absolutely no reason whatsoever?

Neil was most impressed with the fact that my dramatic consciousness shift had nothing to do with my external circumstances and everything to do with amygdala tickling. I went on to tell him that after that initial “brain pop,” my external life went from bad to worse, but my attitude remained largely positive and life affirming. This, in my opinion and I think his as well, is the most important contribution I have to make to Neil’s “cause”: happiness has little or nothing to do with what happens outwardly and everything to do with what happens inwardly. In the age of “abundance gurus,” Americans in particular and American influenced cultures in general somehow managed to equate “enlightenment” with worldly success. That is, in a word, nonsense. Jesus, for one, was a complete loser, but I’ll leave that rant for later and get back to my story before you get bored.

There have been more than a few hiccoughs since then and I’ve had my share of “clicking backwards” into reptilian consciousness experiences along the way, but amygdala clicking, more than any other single technique I’ve learned, has given me a clear roadmap to higher consciousness.

We ended up talking for nearly an hour and I for one would have been happy to have gone on talking much longer, but duty called and I had to cut the call short. Interestingly, Neil’s voice sounded exactly as I imagined it would and his personality, too, matched that of my imaginary Neil Slade.

This morning as I lay in bed quietly tickling away, my thoughts kept wandering towards this post, which was the first “assignment” on my list today. I wanted to convey our interview in words as best I could, but words were failing me. Then out of nowhere an old song popped into my head. The Fool on the Hill was written by Paul McCartney and was included in the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour album, which came out in 1967. Enjoy:

Was Joseph Smith the First Hippy?

The Restoration and the Sacred MushroomThe other day, I learned something that blew my mind: Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Latter Day Saints, otherwise known as the Mormon faith, may have been America’s first hippy.

Okay, the paper I read didn’t say it in quite that way, but it did make a very convincing case that Joseph Smith experimented with psychedelics (or entheogens) himself and slipped them into his early converts’ sacramental wine. As the paper says:

These early Church members sought direct experience with God and believed that Joseph Smith had the power to grant their desires. Confidence in their Prophet was not misplaced. Between 1830 and 1836, under the supervision of Joseph Smith, many early Mormon converts enjoyed heavenly visions and spiritual raptures. However, after Joseph’s death in 1844, the great visionary period of Church history came to an end.

Of course, it’s a big leap to suggest that the true source of their visions was a psychedelic plant, but the paper goes on to present so much evidence in support of the theory, it would be very hard to dispute. Rather than rewrite what it has to say, I’ll keep this brief and get to my point.

I took a look at the official version of Joseph Smith’s life and was told that as a young man, he heard so many conflicting versions of the story of Jesus, he didn’t know what to think. As he wrote later:

So great were the confusion and strife among the different denominations, that it was impossible for a person young as I was [ … ] to come to any certain conclusion who was right and who was wrong

He goes on to write that he prayed to God and God revealed the truth to him.

In the 1960s, I and many of my contemporaries were in the same boat Smith was in in 1820. Since our verbal prayers went unanswered, we turned to LSD and other psychedelics for answers. Unlike Smith, most of us didn’t keep the source of our revelations to ourselves, but, like Smith, some decided they were more enlightened than others and went on to become Western gurus, eventually trivialising or even denying their early experimentation with psychedelics.

After comparing the official version with the revelations of the paper, I formed my own “vision” of Joseph Smith. An idealistic young man, he bravely experimented with psychedelics at a time when no respectable Christian would. Wanting to share their wonders with others, he formed a church and slipped Datura into the sacramental wine whenever he got the chance. Unfortunately, the adulation of his followers went to his head and he became a self proclaimed prophet.

What if he had spilled the beans and actively promoted the use of entheogens? He probably would have been tarred and feathered. Nearly a century later, Frederick M. Smith, his grandson, openly advocated the use of peyote:

Interestingly, Joseph Smith’s grandson, Frederick M. Smith, president of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints participated in Amerindian peyote ceremonies. Shelby M. Barnes reports that President Smith experimented with peyote as early as 1913 and notes that President Smith … widely used [peyote] … [opening his mind] to the mysteries of human ecstasy as an essential element of religion… He was convinced that every human being had the potential to expand the limits of his or her mind.” Like his great grandfather, Joseph Smith Junior, President Frederick M. Smith felt that even the least Saint should have access to the heavenly realms. In 1919, President Smith encouraged others in the RLDS Church to use peyote in a controlled manner and defended peyote ceremonies from Federal intrusion.

That apparently didn’t catch on.

Joseph Smith

Joseph Smith

Personally, I think Joseph Smith and his grandson were on the right track. They used entheogens as sacraments. In the sixties, everyone was dropping acid like it was beer and relatively few got anything of lasting value out of it. I’ll leave it to you to come to your own conclusions. You can click on the image at the top of the page and buy the PDF from the source for two dollars or you can click the picture of Joseph Smith at left and read it for free. Be sure and check out the source material, too. There’s some really interesting stuff there.

 

 

Subscribe to My Newsletter, Get a Free Book

Soul Surfer is a novel I started writing in about 1998. After tossing out 3 or 4 early versions, I got on a roll in about 2003 and finally completed a draft a couple of years later. If it sounds like that was a lot of effort for a 200 page book, it wasn’t really. It was a start-stop affair and a real pleasure to write.

If you’ve ever wondered what it feels like to surf or what it might feel like to die, you’ll like Soul Surfer. It’s a fantasy about a fallen Australian surfing icon who has a near death experience that changes his life after an old hippie surfer on “the other side” teaches him how to soul surf.

I’m working on editing and revising the book and publishing it for sale. In the meantime, if you want to read it for free, all you have to do is sign up for my newsletter and you’ll get a link to the PDF. There are no hidden catches and you can opt out at any time.

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Song of Walt Whitman and Myself

Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman

I was first introduced to Walt Whitman when I was in my third year of college. Looking for a subject that would complement my growing interest in yoga and all-things-spiritual, I signed up for a course called ‘The American Transcendentalists’. One of the wonderful things about UC Santa Cruz was that it offered a lot of such courses. From memory, we covered Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman and I even got to meet the real Johnny Appleseed. It was a fascinating class, but reading Walt Whitman was a revelation, in the true sense of the word.

I was on the verge of dropping out of college at the time. My yoga and meditation was all-consuming and I was rapidly losing all ambition, other than to go to India, which I did the following year. My problem was that I had no one to share the mind-blowing experiences I was having with and didn’t know whether I was going crazy or my “doors of perception” were actually opening. When I read these words from Song of Myself, I felt like Whitman had written them for me, exactly when I needed them most:

I believe in you my soul, the other I am must not abase itself to you,
And you must not be abased to the other.

Loafe with me on the grass, loose the stop from your throat,
Not words, not music or rhyme I want, not custom or lecture, not
even the best,
Only the lull I like, the hum of your valved voice.

I mind how once we lay such a transparent summer morning,
How you settled your head athwart my hips and gently turn’d over upon me,
And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue
to my bare-stript heart,
And reach’d till you felt my beard, and reach’d till you held my feet.

Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge that pass
all the argument of the earth,
And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own,
And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own,
And that all the men ever born are also my brothers, and the women
my sisters and lovers,
And that a kelson of the creation is love,

To me, a great poem speaks to the heart, not the intellect, and a truly great poem says something different to every reader. What follows is what these stanzas from Song of Myself said to me:

Young Walt Whitman

Young Walt Whitman

Immersed in yoga and “self purification” as I was, I was struggling with my “ego.” After my spirit soared during meditation, I would inevitably come back down and be faced with the limitations and faults of my personality. When I read, “the other I am must not abase itself to you,” I felt that Whitman was gently telling me that the ego was not something to be despised or “abased.” I began to accept myself. I also began to realise that I was not just one personality: as Whitman wrote elsewhere, “I am large, I contain multitudes.”

The second and third stanzas were perfect descriptions of what my experiences in meditation were like. The “hum of your valved voice” was the humming sound I heard in deep meditation. It felt like the humming of a cosmic, living engine. I had read elsewhere that it was the “Om” sound and accepted it as such, but Whitman’s line spoke far more eloquently to me than any of the yoga texts I had read.

The sensual imagery of the third stanza felt just like the experience of deep meditation. Beginning with a delicious feeling of pleasure and relaxation, it deepened into an overwhelming ecstasy, culminating in the revelation that “a kelson of creation is love.”

I’ve reluctantly come back down to “reality” since those early years, but every time I read those lines of Whitman’s, I get a taste of that transcendental bliss again. For that, I am infinitely grateful.

At the time, UC Santa Cruz had a Pass-Fail program: you either passed a course or you failed it. That was lucky for me, because my professor wasn’t overly impressed with the gushing essay I wrote about Song of Myself.  After I left the campus, I went to work for a wonderful bookshop. One day while I was cleaning the shelves, I stumbled across a book called Cosmic Consciousness. Written in the late 19th century, it is an extraordinary book. The author, Richard Maurice Bucke, explained in great detail what he believed the hallmarks of cosmic consciousness were and provided a list of individuals he believed possessed it to some degree or other. Of them all, Jesus and Buddha included, Bucke considered Walt Whitman to be the greatest exemplar of cosmic consciousness who ever lived.


It’s a pretty dense book, but is well worth reading. You can read it for free if you like. It is now in the public domain and I am going to attach a link to a PDF and put it on my sidebar. If you want a bound copy for your bookshelf (highly recommended), click the cover image here. Yes, it’s a link to my Amazon affiliate account, so I’ll get a tiny commission, but that’s not the only reason why I urge you to buy it. Here’s an anecdote about Whitman from the book:

The writer has seen Walt Whitman on Long Island, New York, remain on a verandah a whole long summer evening, the air being literally loaded with mosquitoes. These would settle upon him in large numbers, but he did not appear to notice them. From time to time he waved a palm leaf fan which he held in his hand, but did not use it or his other hand to drive away or kill any of the mosquitoes. He did not appear to be bitten or in any way annoyed by the small creatures, who were driving the rest of the party almost wild. It is well known that Walt Whitman came and went freely and with impunity for years, off and on as he pleased, among the most dangerous people of New York. It has never been said that he was at any time molested or even spoken roughly to. As to the life of the possessor of the Tao (if that is Cosmic Consciousness) being indestructible by tigers, or other wild beasts or armed men, that is the simple truth.

What a joy it was for me to discover this book! Walt Whitman was as good as a guru to me, but I hadn’t realised that someone else thought as highly of him as I did – especially someone who had actually known the man. My English professor certainly didn’t: she thought I was way too enthusiastic about Whitman.

It’s been wonderful to write about Walt Whitman again after all these years. I feel like I’ve gotten in touch with an old friend and mentor.

 

Being There Now with Be Here Now

I ran across Eckhardt Tolle’s bestseller, The Power of Now the other day. It’s an interesting book and highly recommended, but that’s not what this post is about. As soon as I saw the title, I went on a trip back in time, to when Ram Dass’s Be Here Now was the Now book of the moment. That’s what this post is about.

I met Ram Dass back in about 1969 or 70, after his guru, Neem Karoli Baba told me to go see him in Nainital, a beautiful city in the foothills of the Himalayas. I didn’t hesitate to go, but it wasn’t for the obvious reason – that Ram Dass was famous. In his incarnation as Richard Alpert, he was famous as the infamous (in conservative circles) Harvard professor who, along with Timothy Leary, helped popularize LSD. When he  traveled to India seeking enlightenment, he was introduced to Neem Karoli Baba and subsequently became Ram Dass. It’s a long story and one he tells best himself. If you want to read his story, check out his website.

The reason I did as directed was simply because Neem Karoli Baba told me to. I had only gone to see Maharaji out of curiosity, because he happened to be in Vrindaban at the same time I was, but after just one brief visit, I was already under his spell, if that’s the way to put it. There was just something about him. He shattered my preconceptions about what a guru should be like, but remained compelling to me in spite of my firmly held yoga purist’s convictions and prejudices.

I went to see Ram Dass as told and found him to be a really nice guy – warm and friendly and unpretentious. I also met some other devotees of Neem Karoli Baba. They came in all sorts of personality packages, but I found them refreshing. At the time, the world of Western Hinduism as I knew it was the world of yogic discipline. My summer job at the time was teaching hatha yoga and meditation at a retreat in the foothills of the Sierra Mountains. Maharaji’s followers didn’t seem “spiritual” at all. They just liked to hang out with Maharaji. No, they lived to hang out with him. I could relate to that, though I couldn’t quite put my finger on the reason why.

This will be a very long blog post if I don’t get to the point. The original title of this post going to be, “A Journey into Darkness.” It was going to be about how I let myself be driven by fear for a good portion of last week and the terrible realization that this and other negative emotions – everything from despair to greed, anger and pride – seem to be the driving force behind so many people’s entire lives. I’ve been aware of this intellectually for years, but the other day it hit me like a sledgehammer.

There were remnants of fear in my consciousness this morning when I sat down to work. I was going to bang out a quick blog post and then get back to work. Because I had been reminded of Be Here Now, I thought I’d google Ram Dass and see what he was up to. Then I randomly clicked this link and my eyes fell on these words from Neem Karoli Baba:

“The real contentment comes only when there is no desire, no hankering in your mind for anything. How can you say that you have got everything and do not want anything more when you are holding an empty vessel in your hand? You might be saying this with your mouth, but there would always be the worry in your mind about how the pot could be filled, always looking from side to side with the expectation that somebody will come and fill it up. Well, how can you call this contentment? When one sees that when the pot before him is full to the brim, it is emptied, and when it is empty, it is refilled of its own – that is contentment. If anyone wanted to give him anything, he would show that the pot was full already. What would he do with anything more? Even if he wanted to share it with others, where would he put it? This is the real contentment and it comes only through the grace of God. When you have full faith in Him, full reliance on Him, when you can surrender everything to Him, then that grace comes to you by itself – you do not have to ask for it or make any effort. Such is the value of faith in God.”

Neem Karoli BabaNeem Karoli Baba doesn’t look much like your stereotypical guru. He didn’t act like one, either. The only words of spiritual advice he ever gave me were, “love everybody and eat jalabis” and, when I asked him if he was my guru, he gave me an emphatic “No!” Jalabis are delicious Indian sweets, by the way, not a mysterious psychedelic drug. Make of his words what you will, they have been with me ever since that day.

I want to go on writing forever about the year I spent in India. To say it was magical would be an understatement. It’s time to close now, though. Thanks for visiting.

notes: I originally posted this about 2 years ago. I’m the guy with his hand on his hip at the top of the photo. It should be obvious who NKB is.