Altered States


We’ve all had days when we got out of bed on the wrong side. Woke up late, stubbed our toe on the way to the bathroom, dropped a blop of toothpaste on our shirt, burnt the toast, stuck in traffic on the way to whatever appointment… and the spiral goes on until the self-defeating pattern is broken. Of course we also have those other days when we wake up happy to the sound of birds, the sun is shining, our favorite song comes on the radio, we bump into an old friend by chance, and all feels right with the universe. And we’ve all known people (perhaps ourselves) who embody one of these extremes, always fluid like Pooh, anxious like Rabbit, dismal like Eeyore.  I’ve always been curious about the process underlying such dramatic contrast in life. I’ve sought answers through all sorts of philosophies and practices, approaches to help me fully enjoy this life. Often my explorations come back to a simple question: Are you really _______? Or have you just been practicing _______ so long that you’ve become that?

On my first Vipassana retreat in 2004, I encountered a quote attributed to Gautama ‘The Buddha’. I’ve seen various authors credited through the years, but it’s irrelevant. I’ve seen the truth of this principle  everywhere I’ve looked, in my own life and around the world.

Watch your thoughts, for they become words.
Watch your words, for they become actions.
Watch your actions, for they become habits.
Watch your habits, for they become your character.
And watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.
What we think, we become.

In my wanderings, I’ve attempted to fully immerse in different settings, to tear away my belief systems and identities, to take part as subject in my experiments in truth, to reveal an authentic part of myself unencumbered by cultural conditioning. While the above axiom does appear to govern so much of what I witness, there are forces that affect it. Thankfully, many of them can be adjusted.

Every interaction conditions us. We either expand or contract in response to external conditions, we accept or reject, we adapt or resist, we learn ways to behave to satisfy our needs, or ways to defend ourselves from things we don’t want. Surrounded by others at all times, we learn to focus outward, always aware of what is harmonious with our family, neighbors, culture. This is the status quo, and rarely do modern cultures teach us to look inside for what is authentically us. We can easily go through life just following what others do, never asking disruptive questions. But this doesn’t work. Eventually, disconnection from our own self will manifest as dysfunctional behavior. We simply cannot live outer lives of fulfillment when our inner landscape is untended. In solitude, it is easy to find our true center, to know what brings us joy, what song we are here to sing. Anyone who hikes in the woods or meditates regularly knows this. As a process to learn this, meditation retreats in supportive settings can help. Surrounded by disciplined truth seekers, we entrain to their frequency, benefit from the support of the harmony around us.

Entrainment is a process where nearby objects affect each other, begin to move in rhythm. The classic example is of two grandfather clocks left in a room. In a short time, the swing of each pendulum will fall in sync with the neighboring clock. Here’s a video that models this nicely using metronomes:

I believe this concept has great impact on thoughts we select, behaviors we indulge, character we develop. I have known times in my life when my heart was so open. From that openness, my life became poetry in motion. I found within myself unknown musical and healing abilities, courage and self esteem to open doors into the outside world. Out in the world, I found soul-enriching friendships, opportunities to serve and to grow at every turn, others who honored their creative power and lived their truth. In a self fulfilling feedback loop, the more I expanded, the healthier I became, the more vibrant my own light, the more magic I found in the world. Then I came home to my own country and culture, unaware I was about to begin a journey through the other side of entrainment.

My intent was always to help. I want to share with others the joy I’ve felt out in the wind, living in different ways. So often, however, others don’t hear that. They hear criticism, they project privilege onto me, they respond with excuses, go back to whatever they were doing. I try to point out alternatives, break through conditioning, but it so often ends in me feeling lonely, burnt out, unable to find common ground with those I want to love. I am from a place full of paradox, a nation constantly at war with itself and the entire world. In the words of George Carlin “When you’re born you get a ticket to the freak show. When you’re born in America, you get a front row seat.” I suspected this before my travels, but after finding some outside perspective, it’s painful for me to return. Of course there are great things and people near my roots. Part of my practice is to remember that, to explore local things, speak to people, and not get overwhelmed by the big cloud of dumb that is so prevalent. I still cling to hope that this country is more than the patho-adolescent face it shows.

Even as the USA lags behind the rest of the free world in every measure of progress, there is plenty of innovation, diversity, potential for so many things. I spent my entire young life exploring this nation and beyond, developing intellect, finding compassion, an inclusive view of our global tribe and its common needs. Perhaps the most troubling thing I find when returning home is the constant focus on other. Whether it’s blaming the poor, blaming the rich, the Muslims, the Mexicans, the corporations or the kids, it seems to be a nation out of touch with itself, unwilling to question its own actions. We watch movie stars and politicians, ever-ready to criticize or praise, always putting our power in outside authority figures, so rarely taking time to unplug and examine our own shadow, or skip off to explore beyond the fence. The USA is not a friendly nation to its own people or to the planet. We imprison more citizens than any civilization in history, we cannot agree to care for our poor, veterans, those in need of medical care. Then we brag about the biggest military, greatest wealth, we drop bombs wherever we choose, and somehow call ourselves Christian at the end of the day. It scrambles my mind to witness it all. Everyone sees this except the USA. There is this major blindspot that allows the nation to think itself the good guy while the overwhelming evidence is a fractured place, deficient in essential community values.

When I return, I have to face all of this. A part of me feels responsible for creating solutions. I have all manner of projects in my imagination to empower individuals and communities, create jobs, contribute. But I often feel like one voice screaming into the void. I’m yelling eloquent solutions in a nation that’s chosen a leader with a 5 year old’s vocabulary. I’m not sure my efforts are even wanted, and the void has often shown me that it’s not to be trusted. What’s a brother to do? I sit with compassion. I feel it all. I do what I can. But the highest gift I am here to offer is opening a door to show you that it’s safe out there in the greater world. We will always have issues at home. But you are free to take steps to correct our orientation toward it.

I’m here to tell you…
The altered state is the conditioned self, the paranoid fear, the shallow side of you that gets approval from the culture, but lacks soul. It is the shadow we were all taught, the dis-ease we all agree upon, the habits practiced without question. It is driven by insecurity, causing you thoughts of lack that lead to beliefs, actions, character, destiny. And it’s all so easily manipulated to pull you out of integrity, make you whatever the group says.

The real you is kind, generous, compassionate, and curious. It is the childlike wonder buried under layers of conditioning and wounds. You are free to try new things, to grow, be weird, tear off your mask and be free, create, play, care for self and other. You have value to contribute to the community, some gift to share that is more than money. Too often that gift never comes through, for it’s drowned by the influence of life around you. Why not step outside, away from all the noise? Unburden yourself from the weight of altered states, and live as your true self. Maybe you’ll find new thoughts, new words, new actions, habits, character, new destiny… the choice is yours.



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