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contemplation favorite posts the truth about life

Letter to My Younger Self

Dear Younger Self,

I’ve got good news and bad news.

The bad news

You’re not a special snowflake. You’re not especially pretty, or smart, or talented.

You could take this news in stride, but American society has convinced you that you need to be special, extraordinary. Yet the odds of being extraordinary are slim to none, and the dice have not rolled in your favor. Your ancestors’ gifts to you were merely to ensure survival: a chronic fear of everything, a preoccupation with what others think, and a nagging self-concern that buzzes around your thoughts like a trapped mosquito.

You’re also not brave. You prefer to live in your cozy mental assumptions than interact with the world to discover how it really is. 

For example: 

You decide (without asking) that Jordan from geometry class is not interested in going to a movie with you. In your beauty magazine logic, you decide that he would ask you out, if only you were thinner. So you dedicate most of your waking hours to achieving a thigh gap, never questioning whether this is a worthwhile goal. Your thighs eventually stand apart. He doesn’t ask you out.

But your biggest issue is not that you think the best way to woo someone is through silent starvation. No, here’s the rub: the universe is chaos. It’s immune to your affirmations. It will not rearrange itself to suit your fancy.

Your hard-won thigh gap gives way to entropy.

The good news

It turns out the beauty magazines were mistaken. Millions of years of evolution have ensured some opposite-sex members of your species will be attracted to your fleshy, fertile-looking body. Unlike your female ancestors, your poor judgment about who to mate with won’t haunt you. Your fear of everything, which ensured your ancestors lived to reproduce, now ensures you remember to take your birth control. First your ancestors were freed from hunting and gathering and then farming; now you’ve been freed from church and children.

So while you may not be extraordinary, this world and the time you were born into are. While your ancestors didn’t gift you with remarkable wit or beauty, they did suffer through disease, birth, genocide, poverty, and war to grant you a body so that you may stand, now, on this spinning rock.

Maybe you shouldn’t be so concerned about your thighs.

It turns out society is mistaken, too. You don’t need to be extraordinary. You don’t need to be lauded by thousands to feel loved; you’ll be content with a handful of genuine friendships. Nor do you need fame or fortune to feel fulfilled; just helping one other person will suffice. 

The world is far bigger and weirder than what you’ve seen on TV. Those ideas of better and worse are all made up, and you can author your own. For example: that the pinnacle of beauty is luscious, ample thighs.

And while you may ultimately be average, in the 21st century that entails being extraordinary. You can summon any piece of humanity’s knowledge by typing the right words into a search box. You can sit in a big metal bird and chomp bubblegum while flying over mountain ranges that armies once died trying to pass. There’s so much for you to see and learn and do. 

So please, don’t waste your time worrying that you don’t measure up to some societal ideal. Be glad for the lucky shoes you stand in. Walk those shoes out past your fears, past your self-concern, and right out the front door.

The world awaits, and you’re every bit good enough for it. 

Love,
Alex

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favorite posts psychedelics

That time I drank psilocybin tea with strangers from the internet

It started with a lingering sadness. My head was a lead balloon, my arms pinned by sandbag hands.

“I get it now,” I thought, recalling people’s tales of depression weighting them to the bed. Anxiety, my lifelong companion, looked productive by comparison. At least anxiety offered a nervous attentiveness I could use to fuel overwork. This depression seemed to not bear any gifts.

I made a pact with myself. Before losing myself completely to this void, I would fight. I would do everything everyone says to do to beat depression. I would get regular sleep. I would exercise. I would spend time with people instead of closing myself off. I would stop treating sugar and caffeine like major food groups.

And little by little, the depression lifted. But when I read Michael Pollan’s book, How to Change Your Mind, and how psychedelics help the brain find new routes instead of spinning the same faulty circuit, I decided to try it—if only for insurance against the void.

I did a quick Google search for legal psychedelic sessions. One of the first results was for a group psilocybin retreat in the Netherlands, a rare refuge where psilocybin truffles were legal, hosted by the UK Psychedelic Society. I wasn’t keen on tripping balls with a bunch of randos from the internet. I wanted an experience like Pollan had. He found an underground therapist who watched over him, 1:1, as he journeyed. But I was a millennial, too lazy to network and find one of these elusive practitioners. I filled out their short application.

Day one of the retreat arrived. In the first of many group check-ins, they asked how people came to be here. One by one, we recounted our tale. “I read Michael Pollan’s book. Then I searched on Google. Now I’m here,” said two people before me. I repeated the story, my identity as a unique snowflake melting.

According to the facilitator, the groups used to attract people seeking novel experiences. Now, with the changing perception of psychedelics, more and more people arrived in search of healing.

I came hoping to chill out, trip, and bounce, but the facilitators—beautiful bright beings you couldn’t help but like—had other plans. They coaxed us through one group exercise after another. The activities prodded us into dropping our defenses. We gazed into each other’s eyes and traded closely held secrets. Reluctantly, I engaged. There was something healing about being a part of a group of people sharing openly. I became less trapped in my own little story. Maybe I didn’t need psychedelics. Maybe I just needed a dose of humanity, a sense of belonging and sharing the truth of what living feels like.

But all this authentic relating was a bit intense. My mounting anxiety about the trip was slowly being outpaced by a desire to be left alone.

At last, it was time. We settled onto mats and were handed eyeshades and cups of honeyed ginger tea to pour over our shrooms. Almost immediately, swirling shapes appeared over my vision. My heart beat rapidly, a chunk of icy fear growing in my chest. Clinging onto reality, I downed what I perceived to be the minimum dose.

I donned the black silk eyeshades and shut out the room. Closing my eyes, a universe appeared. It was dark, but there existed… something. Swirls of colored smoke entwined around the edges, framing a stage. Scene after scene of never-ending strife unfolded on this stage. Scenes of galactic wars were followed by scenes of factory-farmed animals who never knew anything but a cruel and wretched existence. In one scene I clung to my boyfriend as bombs exploded in our city.

There was no escape. I had been mistaken about life. In the end, this eternity of suffering was all there was.

I was vaguely aware I was tripping, that this kaleidoscope of horrors would end sometime, and that I had the option to never ever do this again. That sounded nice.

The facilitators were there for us in case we should want help navigating troubled waters. They so sincerely wanted to help. But… what could they do to stop all reality from ultimately being endless strife and darkness without redemption? There was no help. I was quite certain that this was all that existed.

Then a thought sprang into my awarenss: “The only good in the world is that which we create.” This sentiment was a spark that pierced the darkness. There was still the darkness, but now also the kindness created by those who care. I saw that there was still time for me to join that group and use my life to make life better for others. Such precious grace! I recommitted my life to altruism.

The golden rays of the setting sun filled the room. We were coming down. The facilitators took us on a walk, which turned out to be less of a walk and more a herding of newborn kittens with stumbling legs and awe-filled eyes.

Overhead, a giant sky was streaked with voluminous spiraling purple-blue clouds so majestic they looked shaped by Zeus himself. Everything looked realer than real, like we had taken the offramp from Flatland. Does the sky usually look like this? How could I not have noticed before?

It was October and the start of fall. The leaves on the ground stretched the gamut of sunset hues. How could the leaves fall so perfectly, with each square foot of ground like a Monet? Again, I wondered how I could have walked this path before without noticing such immaculate beauty.

At the sharing circle that night, I learned that I had one of the more trying experiences of the group. Some people had full-blown mystical experiences—love and light, deep insights, whatever.

I tried to contain my envy.

I wasn’t sure what my trip taught me. Ok, I should be a better person and use my life to improve others’. But it still seemed horrible and dark. It seemed clearer what the retreat taught me: how to be. I realized I spent my life rushing out of the inadequate present to some perfect future that… probably didn’t exist.

The retreat was all about taking time to be. At a group activity, I would think: “Okay, this must be the end of this activity.” No. “Now this must be the end.” No. “Now this must be the end.” Nope. With nothing else to do, I started leaning into the moment instead of rushing to the next.

Centered in the moment, I breathed deeply, feeling through my emotions. To my surprise, I discovered a whole store of very old emotions stuck waiting to be felt. I breathed into the emotions of myself as an alarmed infant, screaming alone. Maybe in my never-ending rush for accomplishment and self-acceptance, I had never learned to just be a human, breathing and feeling. Now I sat breathing in the moment as it was, with all its wants and faults and hurts.

I realized my anxiety was nothing more than a mounting queue of unfelt emotions, and that if I took the time I could breathe through the debt of feeling, like patiently combing through tangled knots of hair.


There were too many aspects of my life that changed around this time to objectively tell what effect the retreat had on me. But depression, my original motivation for the trip, didn’t visit me again.

A year later, as I once more waded through autumn leaves, I realized what that trip had been about: it was all of my fears about the world. All of my fears were offered to me so I could confront and integrate them. From that perspective, the trip looked less like a nightmare and more like a very kind offering. Maybe the world wasn’t so dark after all.


Many thanks to the UK Psychedelic Society for facilitating the retreat. While these retreats may not be right for everyone, I felt the retreat helped me become more emotionally integrated and more capable of contributing positively towards society.

Categories
contemplation favorite posts ideas the truth about life

Is this moment over yet? Reflections on a 10-day silent Vipassana retreat

Meditation was always something reserved for my ideal self, the self that was ten pounds slimmer and religiously followed a budget. So I was intrigued when my friend said he never could meditate before the retreat, but after it, he regularly meditated an hour or more. I wanted to try it. But finding a spare ten days with no internet connection? That took me five years.

Leading up to the retreat, I figured I should meditate to prepare. So I set an alarm for ten minutes. No problem, just ten minutes.

Hmm it’s been a while. Maybe my alarm isn’t working. I should check.

Do I really need to che–

Oh look, it’s been four minutes. I have six minutes left.

Hmmm maybe this is good enough.

Yup, my meditation practice was like that. So it came as no surprise that the first three days were incredibly difficult. I felt like I was breaking my mind, forcing it to PAY ATTENTION. Just focus on the breath. There’s the breath, there’s the– HEY! STOP SINGING TAYLOR SWIFT SONGS.

“The mind is in the past or the future. It’s never in the present,” said S. N. Goenka, the teacher. Or something like that. I’m not sure, they wouldn’t let us take notes. Or write anything. Or read. Or run. Or do yoga. Or speak.

But I was rarely bored. Struggling with my mind was immensely entertaining. It wasn’t pleasurable by any means, but it did a great job occupying my attention.

I expected I would spend the whole week in some great peace. And there were moments of that. There were moments walking through the forest where I would watch each tree coming closer and closer and then passing behind me. And there was nothing else but that experience.

There was a moment watching the late afternoon sun through the leaves when I realized that all I needed to be fulfilled was to be present. All my yearning for money or possessions or status or love was just a misguided substitute for just. being. here. Totally aware.

From that experience, I felt myself change. My goals were different. I saw myself in a garden being present. The ego and greed and desire melted away. Or at least some of it did.

But getting to that stillness took hours. Hours of suffering, hours of commanding myself to not move, hours of guilt when I’d let my mind scamper hungrily out of the present.

Halfway through the retreat, I felt I could access any childhood memory. All the random moments I assumed I would never remember came flooding back. My mind loved presenting me with memories because I would drop the meditation to pay attention to them.

I came to distrust my mind. You know the super weird, random stuff you get in dreams? Well it turns out you also get that stuff when you’re meditating for hours on end. Images of pandas came out of nowhere. What’s with the pandas, mind? (No answer.) Then there were lots of images of cats. Not any cat I knew. Just randomly generated cat images. Striped cats. Cute cats. Cats gazing at me, wondering what I was doing.

My favorite mental image was of me as a child, drawing with a crayon over the meditation hall walls. Drawing a line portraying the hills and valleys of my breath rising, falling, rising, falling.

I’m glad no one told me how hard it was. It was so. hard. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I kept expecting someone to jump up and run out of the meditation hall, screaming, “I CAN’T TAKE IT ANYMORE!!!”

But no one did.

I was impressed by my fellow meditators. They were into it. They were committed. They were inspiring.

Then there was the weird shit that happened.

One day I got out of the meditation hall and couldn’t find my shoes. Did someone take them by accident? Then where were the shoes they had? I couldn’t figure it out. I searched and searched. Eventually, I decided to walk barefoot back to my tent for my other shoes. All over the stones and the pine cones. Ow ow ow ow. Later that day I discovered my shoes  right where I had parked them earlier that morning to use the bathroom before going to meditate. This would mean that either: I would have had to walk really far barefoot on stones and pine cones without noticing, OR some magical thing had magically transported my shoes from the meditation hall back to the bathroom.

I still can’t decide what happened.

One day we were watching the video instruction of the teacher (the majority of the instruction is by video recording of Goenka filmed in the early 90s. Surprisingly, it works). Suddenly the entire room changed to look like a palace in a spirit world. I saw the image of Goenka floating above me, still the video but suddenly as if he were coming through space and time to speak to me directly. He was talking about karma. He was talking to my soul about karma.

And then there was the night that I was completely sure I was going insane. I started getting paranoid. Who is this organization? What kind of organization takes all these random people and houses and feeds them and teaches them torturous meditation techniques for ten days without payment up front? Everyone is silent! I can’t talk to anyone! I can’t trust any of these people. The fear and anxiety mounted. I felt like I was about to break. I need to leave tomorrow. As soon as it’s light, I’m going to leave.

But the next morning I felt fine. Okay, maybe I’ll stick with it. Only six days left. By the sixth day, I was stable enough in the silence of myself that I let the material come up. I cried and released. It was hard, but I felt free.

Several weeks after the retreat, while I’m not enlightened, I do feel a change. I’m more able to sit with situations that make me uncomfortable. I was driving through traffic and I just hated it. It was dark and an unfamiliar highway and traffic and I was late and it just felt so uncomfortable and overwhelming.

And my mind said, “This will pass.”

And I breathed and felt the sensations of my discomfort and just was present. And it passed.

This whole life is uncomfortable and uncontrollable and an infinite loop of desire and aversion. And I don’t know the answer or the meaning to it all, but breathing and feeling sensation is like finding a home in the quiet eye of an inescapable storm.

Interested in having this type of experience yourself? See dhamma.org for information on Vipassana meditation retreats. There are tons of locations around the world and all retreats are by donation.