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Find The Part of You That Never Dies
Dualism, samsara, and secret whispers of the hills
I recently taught a workshop on embodiment for a few hundred people that went surprisingly well. I attribute part of my success to the advice of Rick Rubin on Ezra Klein’s podcast, where he describes a brief visualization he performs before every public appearance. In the exercise, Rubin imagines their higher Selves floating above them in vast, open space, guiding them to unearth their most profound insights and engage in a conversation that would benefit anyone who listens.
Have you ever heard a concept that you know will impact the moral trajectory of your life? One that seeps deep into your marrow, planting a seed in the garden of your psyche? That’s how Rubin’s cool-headed description of the visualization impacted me. I couldn’t predict its shape or form, but I could feel its potential to transform me from within.
Right before the workshop began, I did as they had done and more: I closed my eyes, dropped my shoulders, put the tip of my tongue against the roof of my mouth, and felt the matter of me fall into the chair. The boundless awareness was born from the tactile, working itself outwards and inwards simultaneously. I’m not sure if I achieved a higher Self but it was certainly a better Self. Fuller, lighter—readier.
During the session, I hit that flow state, that state where you are both more and less than you—you get out of your way, so you can step forward. I suddenly abandoned my lesson plan and, I swear to god, the lesson wished itself into being.
Then, something striking occurred during the Q&A at the end of the session. The very first question was …
How do you reconcile primary dualism and samsara?
For my non-Dharma-bum readers, this is what you would call a nonsensical question. To say the least! It’d be like asking to reconcile special relativity with democracy.
A speedy crash course: primary dualism is a metaphysical concept that asserts the existence of two fundamental and irreducible (or complementary!) substances or principles that underlie all of reality. Examples include body and mind, good and evil, life and death, love and grief, yin and yang.
Samsara is a central concept in Hinduism, Buddhism, and other yogic religions. It refers to the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth that all living beings undergo, driven by the force of karma. Samsara is seen as a state of suffering and impermanence, and the goal of spiritual practice is to break free from this state and attain liberation (moksha or nirvana).
The question was notably unrelated to the material and experiential exercises I’d presented. When I asked the person to clarify what she really wanted to know from me, she rattled off some fringe texts I’d never heard of, something like Human Design meets Flat Earth theory.
Perhaps the trippy Rick Rubin exercise I performed before the workshop helped me entirely grok the sense amid the nonsense she was spewing.
Turns out, it’s a question that’s never not relevant.
It may surprise you to know that long before I was teaching workshops on embodiment, I was a talented golfer. My family did not belong to a fancy country club, so my teenage years were spent working at golf courses all around the state of Maryland—caddying, practicing, chewing tobacco, gambling, blazing, hustling. I was good enough to be recruited by a few colleges, eventually earning a spot on Dartmouth’s team. During my freshman year in frigid New Hampshire, my game was sharp enough to be on the travel squad and I was dumb enough to get my ass benched.
On our team’s cross-country flight out West, I was caught stealing beers from the stewardess. (I mean …) As the team van drove through the misty hills of Northern California, I slunk in the very back, feeling a palpable dejection in my chest.
But the view beyond the glass demanded my gaze. The hills were something out of a dream, their velvety slopes carpeted in a shimmering coat of neon green moss that seemed to pulse with a life of its own. Above, rings of fog encircled the peaks like celestial crowns. And amidst it all, a herd of cows made their steady way across the ridges, their dainty legs ill-equipped for the sustained climb.
The hills seemed to breathe beneath us, rising and falling like the chest of an ancient and mythical being. As we wound our way through their curves, a force tugged with the strength of a boa, extracting me from the mundanity of competitive golf and boyish infractions—to a world of magic and wonder. Truly the hills spoke to me in a way words could not, a silent conversation that seized my soul. The experience was a kaleidoscope of strangeness, beauty, psychedelia—everything a gonzo kid like me could ask for. I felt high, and yet I was not …
As we cruised through the rolling terrain, some thing inside me shifted. The wild call of the Western hills bid me toward a new future, a new adventure. The East Coast, with its stagnant, predictable culture, would no longer cut it. You could call it a metamodern version of Manifest Destiny, driven not by a desire for domination but by a deep-seated need for space. Like so many dreamers and carpetbaggers before me. In that instant, I knew my destiny lay in California.
The Shipibo tribe believe the hills are alive too. They are the gatekeepers of ayahuasca shamanism in the Amazon jungle. A decade after my college golf career ended, I stayed with them in a remote village in the outskirts of Peru on two separate visits. This was not a luxe retreat center, but a proper immersion into the Shipibo community thanks to my friend-turned-healer, Ja, who had lived among the community for nearly a decade.
During my stays, I learned about the pharmacopeia of healing plants in the Amazon rainforest. As protectors of this sacred ethnobotanical knowledge, the Shipibo’s orientation towards life is fundamentally relational. For instance, in their view, you might be sick with an autoimmune disorder not because your biology or psychology are broken, but because you crossed a river with spite in your heart. You might have developed an opioid addiction because, like many crass Americans, you abused your relationship with cannabis, leading Mama Ganja to punish you for your lack of respect. You might be depressed because you inherited a dark spirit from a past-life in need of being purged from your body. During one of my visits to the Amazon, Don Julio, the renowned shaman, became mildly sick, followed by several weeks of intense lethargy. In the eyes of the Shipibo, the cause of his illness was not a viral infection, but rather a curse that had been placed on him by another shaman. These relational and dark arts of shamanism—curses, cruxes, the manipulation of spirit-in-action—are rarely talked about in the much-bandied Psychedelic Renaissance.
The jungle held many surprises for me during my weeklong dieta secluded in isolation. But none quite as shocking as the ceremony in which the guardian spirit of the land—a colossal, sentient slug the size of a nuclear submarine—exorcised a dark alien baby from my belly. As the slug pulled away the child I never knew lived inside me, I was paralyzed by the terrifying fear of losing him. Yet as the experience unfolded, layers of my identity crumbled away, and I felt myself realigning, shifting toward reparation. Suddenly, I understood what I meant to be a tiny drop in the ocean of life—insignificant, yet part of the whole. It was as if I’d finally rubbed my eyes free from night’s sandy sleep, and I was able to accept help in whatever form it came, slugs and all.
During my inaugural visit, I embarked on a trek that took me deep into the heart of the jungle. I geared up in full mosquito-proof attire, while Ja and my Shipibo friends strolled along in sandals and tank tops. Our journey led us far into the forest, to the realm of towering, ancient trees known for their extraordinary healing properties. Some say that merely standing in their presence is enough to cure Stage Four cancer. For those who dwell in the forest understand that dualism is a construct of the mind, a flawed attempt to simplify the complexity of existence into binary halves. To them, Earth is a living, breathing entity where life is not solely your own, but a single thread in an unfathomably grander tapestry of creation. They understand that before there were Two, there was One, and by honoring this fundamental truth, you open yourself up to receiving the help you are in search of.
At the dawn of my recovery, around the same time I took those trips to Peru, I sought refuge in Jack Kornfield’s Monday night meditation sits at Spirit Rock in Marin, California. Amidst the tranquil atmosphere, Kornfield often recounted stories passed down by Ram Dass, one of my most cherished guides. In one session, he shared the following:
“A sage was once asked, ‘Master, how long have we been on this journey, in this wheel of samsara?’ The sage replied, ‘Imagine a mountain three miles wide, three miles high, and three miles long. Once every hundred years, a bird flies over the mountain, holding a silk scarf in its beak, which it brushes across the surface of the mountain. The time it would take for the scarf to wear down the mountain is how long we’ve been doing this.’”
The first time I heard this story, it felt like a revelation. Suddenly, my pain and struggle, the weight of my failures and crimes, all made sense to me. Through the throes of my recovery, I came to believe that my life has a profound purpose—to mend the scars of my forebears and, yes, build a better world for my children-to-be. This life, as “Alex,” is a mere blip on the radar of a perpetual soul voyage. I don’t bear the burden of convincing you of this matter, for I am already certain of its truth—and I can bear your disbelief.
In the canon of another one of my favorite dharma masters, Rob Burbea’s soulmaking teachings along with his magnum opus Seeing That Frees loom large. His radical interpretation of Buddhism eschews convention by delving deep into the immensity of emptiness (alternatively translated as “interdependence” or “spirit”) that imbues all. Burbea posits that the observer structures, shapes, and construes her own construct of reality, a way of endlessly modifying our perspective of each moment as it passes through our life. Emptiness is the stuff of experience, ever-instantaneous realignments of sense and sensation, interactive and impressionable.
Embracing the power of perspective—of momentary perception—can change everything. The Shipibo, for example, see the world as an interwoven network of connections. If you choose to look in this way, your destiny might change, too. When you look for the sacred in every moment, you inevitably uncover its presence. (Yes, seek and you shall find.) Indeed, you’ll soon realize that the self-worship prevalent in our culture—the never-ending quest to “become” something or someone at the expense of what’s right before your eyes—yields neither miracles nor grace. I wish someone had told me sooner that the wheel of suffering only breaks when you stop obsessing about yourself. Even writing that I feel the relief washing over me, remembering a cosmology that accounts for the tides and gales and gravitational glue that hold this whole show together. This is because some perspectives are, in fact, better than others—regardless of what postmodernists or existentialists may argue. Your way of looking is interwoven with your sense of autonomy, communion, and freedom.
When confronted with the challenge of “reconciling” dualism and samsara, I told the woman that I couldn’t offer a concrete answer. However, I told her that the willingness to adapt my worldview had a profound impact on me. The unbendable stalk of wheat cracks in the wind; if it wishes to stay whole it bends. It is in our changeability that we find our permanence, within and without. When I identify with the timeless and shapeless essence that exists beyond the confines of my physical body, I can hear the whisper of the hills. I remember that I am not just a strand of the web, but the web itself. I told her that I charge myself every day to find the part of me that never dies.