I had a friend who used to say, “My concept of God came from Sunday School and LSD.” This statement always resonated with me because it was my experience as well. I grew up in a semi-religious family. On my father’s side of my family, my grandparents were the most faithful, dedicated Christians I’ve ever known. On my mother’s side, my grandfather was somewhere between atheist and agnostic, but he was a moral, upright man whose wife, my grandmother, I never knew because she passed away when I was very young. At home, my parents didn’t really talk about God, at least to any degree that I remember. Most of what religious understanding and belief I had was from spending time with my grandparents. If I stayed at my father’s parent’s home for the weekend, it was a foregone conclusion that I would be going to church on Sunday. If I was visiting my mother’s father and stepmother, I’d learn a little bit about hunting, fishing, or music. I was kind of a blank slate and happily indifferent either way. One day, however, I got curious about God.
As with most of my childhood, I don’t remember all of the details, but one day I remember asking my mom if we could go to church. I vaguely recall other kids in school talking about Sunday School or the like and this may have prompted my query. As someone who never really understood how to interact with other kids, as if they had some secret information on social interaction I was not privy to, I think my assumption was that perhaps church was where they learned how to be ‘normal.’ My parents obliged, and we started going to a non-denominational church fairly regularly. I even got involved with their version of religious Boy Scouts called Brigade (if I remember correctly). We went to camp every summer and did all sorts of activities from swimming and hiking to horseback riding, riflery, and archery. I wasn’t very good at any of the activities except for swimming. I was consistently the best swimmer there — I have always found a great sense of peace in the water. While some of it was fun and I have relatively fond memories of being in the woods, just like at school, I felt out of place, always slightly out of step with everyone else.
When I was in seventh grade, we moved from New Jersey to Maryland because my father got transferred through his job. Somewhere along the way, either prior to or after moving, we stopped going to church. One day at our new home, standing in the living room, I became a self-proclaimed atheist. My logic at the time was that there are no dinosaurs in The Bible and, since we have proof of dinosaurs having existed, The Bible must be based on mythology, not fact. I have since come to find great value in mythology, but I do not want to digress. The real source of my atheism is still a mystery to me. Which came first? Was it my disillusionment with humanity and my place therein, my depression and the anger that surrounded it, or my loss of faith in God? I am really not sure that it matters. For whatever underlying reasons, in my pre-teen or early teen years, I made the conscious decision to turn away from God and that decision set my path for quite some time.
Being young and out of step with the social rhythm of one’s peers is not a pleasant experience. I had some very good friends in middle school and high school, but our common bond was that we were the outcasts, The Goonies. We liked comic books, video games, Dungeons & Dragons, and we weren’t really into sports. In spite of these friendships, however, I still never really got comfortable with myself. For every friend I had, there were two or three other people telling me I was too fat, too award, too ugly, or too weird to actually have value. Combine this with the fact that I did not learn like other people, with no one seeming to notice, and what resulted was an overwhelming existential confusion that later turned to depression and anger. Then, one day in early high school, someone introduced me to marijuana.
In high school, I made friends with a kid who was a weirdo transplant like me. I had been around the area for several more years than him, but we had something in common right away with both of us being from out of state. Before either of us ever tried them, he talked about the fact that marijuana and LSD were the only mind-altering chemicals he would ever take. I have no idea where he got this idea from, but it was something he was emphatic about. When one of the other kids in school gave me some marijuana to try, I brought it to this friend and we attempted to smoke it together. We had no idea what we were doing. One or both of us already smoked cigarettes I believe, but this was a completely alien experience compared to that. We concluded by the end that we were doing it wrong and we needed to try it again another time. We did. Something changed.
Up until that point, I had absolutely no idea how loud and chaotic the noise, the confusion in my head was. I was living with this internal dissonance for so long and it was so consistent that I did not even notice it. I did not notice it until it was gone. The frightening, confusing, infuriating crisis of my existence disappeared, and I experienced peace… and joy. For me, this was a spiritual experience. It was as if I was communing directly with God. It was wonderful, and I knew that I needed to do it again. I found my solution, a solution to a problem I could not even really express, but this solution was also a problem. When the only comfort and joy a person finds in this life comes from outside of that person, it becomes very easy to get lost in these external solutions and not come back to oneself or the world. That is what happened to me.
As time went on, I got deeper and deeper into experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs and my life started to change. My friends changed. I stopped going to school and eventually failed out of high school. I was only one class, in fact one single essay and a few too many absences away from graduating. I was chasing that spiritual experience. I was running away from who I was and the world I was in, seeking my bliss on an alternate plane. There were moments where I found perfect focus, harmony, and a divine sense of comfort. My life felt expansive and meaningful, but then I would come down and the reality of my existence would hit me like a freight train. Every waking moment, I ran toward that bliss and away from everything else in my life. I would wake up in the morning, look in the mirror, and not even recognize myself. I had to get away from me, from this, again. My world was getting smaller and smaller and the spiritual experiences I was seeking were getting further and further apart, becoming more and more difficult to reach. What started as clarity and comfort turned into deeper and deeper levels of confusion and insanity.
I am fully convinced that for some people, in the right circumstances, with the proper guidance, psychoactive chemicals can be spiritual-psychological medicine. There are profound and meaningful experiences to be had, if taken the right way, with proper intention, and environmental safeguards. However, this is NOT a universal truth. Everyone is different. We all have different experiences and genetics that respond uniquely to these kinds of chemicals. Hallucinogenic drugs are a razor’s edge that have just as much potential to enhance as to destroy one’s life.
I mentioned earlier that my mother’s mother, my grandmother, passed away when I was young. Early in my mother’s life, her mother was diagnosed with severe depression. Having suffered horrific childhood abuse that either caused or compounded her own mental illness, my grandmother spent a lifetime fighting off these demons and she eventually took her own life when I was still very young. We cannot escape our DNA or our family history. The fact is that my grandmother and whatever she suffered from is part of who I am, part of my genetic make-up, no matter what. Beyond the genetic factor, there are other unavoidable environmental-psychological factors that go together with growing up in a household where my grandmother’s and therefore my mother’s traumatic experiences were an inescapable fact of life.
There are some people who are helped greatly by hallucinogenic compounds: marijuana, LSD, psilocybin mushrooms, etc. However, for some people, the genetics, the environment, the psychology of their existence line up in such a way that what is spiritual-existential medicine for others is insanity-inducing poison for them. What began as an experience of life-enhancing expansiveness and serenity, later became a downward spiral, a maze of nightmares from which I could find no escape, except to turn to stronger, harder drugs. The more I tried to find my peace through self-medication, the more I lost my mind and whatever part of wholeness I had found when I first started out.
Eventually, there was nothing left of me and the quiet was gone. Nothing I did would drown out the noise in my mind, the dissonance of my existence. I could no longer find comfort or peace. I could not sleep, and I was not eating. I reached a place where I could not imagine moving forward. One night, at the peak of my terror and discomfort, I lay in bed alone and confused and said what I now know to be a prayer, “Please! Please just let me sleep!” Within minutes, in spite of all of the chemicals in my body that should have made it impossible, I was asleep. That silent cry for help changed my life and my course. I will gladly tell anyone who wants to know the exact details of what happened next, but my life started over that day. It was not easy, but my life began to change. Help came, and I accepted it.
A few months later, right around my 19th birthday, I moved to Annapolis, Maryland to start over and I have been living around the Annapolis area ever since. For me, it has become a sort of geographical-spiritual center for my life. In Annapolis, I met a friend, the same friend who would later introduce me to my hapkido (martial art) teacher. This friend had been through much of what I had been through and he was now living a relatively sane and content life. He seemed happy. It was difficult to believe that he had suffered the way I had suffered (and was still suffering). He explained to me that he had found a spiritual practice that had greatly improved his life and offered him some of the comfort and serenity that he needed. An essential facet of his practice was meditation.
I knew nothing about meditation, but nothing I had tried in my life had worked to bring me any kind of peace or comfort. I was open to try anything. He took me to a cool little bookstore on Maryland Ave where they sold used paperbacks for $1. Since the bookstore was only a block away from St. John’s College, a local liberal arts school whose curriculum centered around the great books of Western philosophy, they had a huge selection of interesting, inexpensive books. My friend handed me several, including Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, Ram Dass’s The Journey of Awakening, and Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. To the best of my ability, I started reading. In spite of my intelligence, I have never been someone who could sit down and read for long periods of time, which is part of the reason I did so poorly in school. The thing I liked about these books is that they could be consumed in bite-sized, perspectiv-shifting chunks.
It was springtime and we would go for walks around Annapolis, where we would sit and talk. He would give me little tasks to do between our meetings, things to work on myself and my mindset. He started to teach me how to meditate and when he didn’t feel like he could help me with something, he would point me in the direction of a book or a person who could. Our meditation sessions started with him simply teaching me to sit upright and relaxed, following my breath without judgement around whatever distractions I got caught up in, distractions either in my mind or in the environment around us. As long as I could come back to my breath, I was on the path. He introduced me to some guided meditation resources and books on everything from Buddhism and Taoism to more general spiritual literature. Never did he try to sell me on religion. He simply shared his experience with me and showed me some of the things that helped him.
At first, meditating was very difficult. I could not sit still. My mind would not quiet. I could follow my breath for a few cycles and then my mind would wander, filled with paranoid angst, delusions, fantasies, and empty chatter. In a fifteen-minute meditation session, I felt like only thirty seconds were productive. I continued to practice, however. It was not easy, but it got easier. I was fighting two battles, after all. Just learning to meditate is itself a daunting task for anyone starting out. My more personal struggle, however, was the fact that I had damaged myself and my mind with chemicals to such a degree that my brain had essentially been rewired. It felt like I was crazy, like I was broken in a way that was insurmountable. Meditation could not work for me because my mind was damaged, my spirit was damaged. Still, I kept trying.
One day, I was walking around town. I did not drive at the time. I got to the top of Main Street and looked down the hill at the water. It was early in the morning and the sun was low in the sky. I paused and took a breath. A deep sense of calm came over me. Life just felt right, and I felt right. There was a deep sense of openness and comfort. The whole world slowed down. My mind was at peace. Something had changed. That same sense of ease, comfort, and clarity I felt when I first started taking hallucinogenic drugs, that sense of joy I felt, came over me like a warm blanket of light. Most importantly, the peace and serenity I felt came from inside of me. Something inside me had changed. I had a spiritual experience and I had it without chemical assistance, even though it was familiar to me because of my early experiences with hallucinogens. It felt the same, but cleaner, more honest, and more my own. My life started over.
Since then, meditation in various forms has been a regular part of my life. Admittedly, there have been long periods when I have lost my way, distracted by intellectualism or unhealthy relationships. I have written about these periods elsewhere. Whether it has been through sitting meditation, standing mediation, martial arts, or reiki, one thing has been a constant. When my meditative practice is consistent, my life, both internally and externally, is better. I have a calm and a clarity that I have never found or experienced through any other means. When I meditate consistently, I am happier and more creative. My ideas flow through me instead of avalanching on top of me. When I meditate, I am more productive and helpful, able to live a truly purpose-driven life. My conception of God came from Sunday School and LSD, but my experience of God has come through meditation.
Robert Van Valkenburgh, Co-Founder of Kogen Dojo & Taikyoku Mind and Body