We cried in bitter anguish, we cried in utter bliss. We felt the devils anger, and the sweetness of a kiss. We meditated for so many years. Had therapists and many tears. We got drunk on beer and wine and whiskey and vodka and life. We got high, and we got low. We felt the heat and the ice.
We got sober. We ran away. We found the fields and the jungle and mountains and the cave. We drank the wicked brew and saw our lives break open. We travelled the world across land and ocean. We learned to be mindful, we learned to be still. We learned to forgive, just a little.
We did so much. And how we tried. And how we cried. We cut. We loved. We fucked. We sunk in to the ocean. We danced among the stars. We lied and we cheated, we collected many scars.
We tried to make things right. We tried to be good. We tried to live up to the expectations of others the best we could. We tried not to care. We tried to conform. We tried to be free. We tried to just be.
We tried to find the answers but we didn’t know the questions. We tried to find our way but we didn’t have directions. We sought protection from the world but we had no protection from ourselves. We were our worst enemies, not anybody else.
We tried to find god or spirit or love or nature or ecstasy or something. Anything, bigger and greater than ourselves and our parents and our education and our politicians and our culture and our society. Something to hold on to. Just something we could cherish and belong to. Something worth living for.
We never stopped searching. We kept on believing tomorrow might just be worth living an extra day for. But tomorrow never came. It’s still always today. And I’m still me and you’re still you. And we still want to change but we don’t know what to do. We still wish we were someone else. We’re still waiting to be saved.
When will this stop? When will this end? When will we get there? Does ’there’ even exist?
After all these years we’re still broken. Perhaps it’s unspoken, perhaps it’s not quite so much as before, but we’re still, frustratingly, achingly sore.
We still hate ourselves. We still feel weak. We still lack power when we speak. We still dream big, but our doubt is bigger. Too scared to try to actualise dreams, still scarred by painful memories of previous failures. Too self aware. Too hurt to care. Too clever but not quite clever enough. Too intimate with our minds and our flaws. Still unable to open doors.
Still unable to love. Still jealous. Still children, still seeking approval. We try and fail to be grown up. Trying and failing to be a success. Confused as ever about what we want from life, and still no clearer what any of this is for.
But there is no ‘off’ button, and we will go on. Learning, sharing, hoping, daring. Giving up, trying again, holding on, letting go. Finding ourselves, while getting lost.
When falling in love, we long for each other when we are apart and gain immeasurable pleasure from being together. Ecstatic energy flows between two bodies rapt in love. We blithely bathe in oceans of lust. When falling in love we cannot get enough.
For many people what they wish for most is to fall in love. And yet, the consequences of a love gone wrong are potentially so devastatingly and crushingly brutal that the aftermath of a relationship turned sour can literally be a life destroyed.
People kill others for love. People kill themselves out of love. Depression and heartbreak are symptoms of falling in love with the wrong person. All of which makes me wonder – is it too risky to fall in love?
Falling in love has to be one of the most intoxicating mental states available to us in the great pantheon of mundane and crazy experiences that comprise the human condition. In fact, looking back at the experience from a decidedly sober and not ‘falling in love’ state of mind, it strikes me how ridiculous and almost delusional the whole process seems.
It’s not just the subjective experience of being completely besotted with someone else, it’s the way we become so willing to give up so much to be with that other. Love is strong. Love strips us of our volition. Love derails plans, estranges us from friends and empties our pockets.
Falling in love is inherently risky. Most relationships fail and even those that ‘work’ are fraught with difficulties along the way. Falling in love exposes our deepest insecurities, triggers powerful feelings, and bestows great power in the hands of another. Falling in love opens us up to to the possibility of rejection, of not being good enough.
Falling in love makes us vulnerable and creates a gamble that wasn’t there before: that while we may win the love of another, we could just so easily lose it. The price of losing this gamble is rejection, and the triggering of any related past traumas. Love is a land inhabited by the demons and devils of our early-life conditioning. Only the brave would dare to tread here.
At least you’d think so… But in reality we do not choose to fall in love, love chooses us. Or rather, mysterious and powerful unconscious forces propel us irreversibly to collide with the universe of another.
Only if we have already been hurt sufficiently do we start to question whether we want to fall in love. Or maybe we proceed with more caution, chastened by experience, battle weary and wary of exposing ourselves to more pain.
Ultimately though, love can be a powerful tool. It is one of life’s great teachers, if we are receptive to it’s lessons and pay attention to the wisdom it can inspire. The burning light of love exposes the darkest recesses of our hearts.
It shows us the ways in which we hurt, the ways we react when our insecurities are triggered, and offers us the opportunity to bring these ghouls out of the dark and in to conscious awareness. Slowly we are given a method by which to integrate our pain, and with the other, or without the other, we grow.
It is sometimes said that before you can love someone else you have to love yourself. I think this is a stupid saying – not least because it gets banded about without anyone really knowing what it means, and in any case you can’t just simply decide to start loving yourself all of a sudden.
However I do think these words allude to an important truth. Before we can have a truly healthy relationship in love, one in which we are not using the other in order to fill something missing within ourselves, we need to be whole. This means we need to have developed to the point where our sense of self worth is not dependent on the validation of another.
Until life is ‘okay’ without the sweetness of our beloved’s touch, we run the risk of being broken by any subsequent withdrawal of love. And this is the challenge. Often, without consciously realising it, many people will use love because it will provide them with a sense of what they most need – to know that they are worthy of someone’s affection, to know that they are not alone.
But to rely on someone else for these comforts is to deny ourselves the opportunity of discovering them within oursleves. We take when we should give, and despite feeling strengthened by relationship, we give our power away.
Yes, it is risky to fall in love, too risky perhaps. It is also seldom a choice we make. But for those consumed by love’s mysterious waters, who are able to listen and learn, love is a teacher and love will help us grow. Love can hurt, but slowly love can heal.
An earlier version of this article was published in July 2013.
I’ve no idea how long I’ve been lying here. It could be half an hour, it could be several weeks. I open my eyes. All I can see is the dark infinity of space and a deep, expansive sea of stars. I feel at ease, completely relaxed, my awareness no longer confined to the constraints of my physical body. I’m floating, somewhere, far, far away.
Actually I’m in Chiswick, west London, in a floatation tank. From my east London abode this is indeed somewhere far, far away. I’m floating, essentially weightless, in 10 inches of Epsom salt water in a pitch-black chamber. I make the sojourn west roughly once a month. In the midst of my hectic life it’s about the closest I get to genuine unbridled relaxation, and for that reason alone I suggest anyone try it. But there is so much more to it than that…
Floatation tanks—sometimes also referred to as isolation tanks or sensory deprivation tanks—owe their existence to the determined innovation of an American scientist-mystic named John C Lilly. His is a fascinating story, retold in his autobiography ‘The Scientist’.
John Lilly had glimpses of apparently transcendent realms in his childhood. This led to an interest in the big questions around meaning, identity and the ultimate nature of existence that were to later manifest in his work. He studied hard and eventually became a respected scientific researcher, sometimes participating in particular research projects in order to fulfill his ulterior motives of learning more about the brain and consciousness, and acquiring the necessary knowledge for advancing his ability to perfect the construction of a sensory deprivation tank. He even undertook much of his personal research in secret for fear of being discredited or disqualified by his more orthodox colleagues.
His designs went through various stages of evolution, and were the precursors of the sort of tanks that are commercially available today. They’ve gone from being one man’s private obsession to an evermore popular and widely available way of attaining supreme relaxation and exploring consciousness.
It wasn’t only the material aspects of the tank he was interested in perfecting, such as how to minimise sensory input of all types. Lilly was obsessed with exploring the farthest recesses of his mind and he started utilising consciousness altering substances during isolation tank sessions, trying LSD—”I took LSD for the first time, in the tank, with three dolphins under it in a sea pool. I was scared shitless.”—but settling with introvenously and intramuscularly administered ketamine as his floatation tank and general mind-tweaker of choice, and later addiction.
Perhaps unsurprisingly to anyone who has tried ketamine outside of a floatation tank, Lilly experienced extraordinary results ingesting it inside. I chuckle when I read the guidelines at floatation tank centres prohibiting floating on illegal substances, knowing that’s exactly what the inventor of these tanks had in mind!
But what can an hour in a floatation tank do for you? Well the fact that feeling so genuinely and completely relaxed is so difficult to achieve these days strikes me as a good reason to go just on its own. In addition, floating is like extreme meditation, facilitating insights into how your mind generates thoughts and providing ideal conditions to practice letting go of mental activity.
Let’s face it, at first it’s kinda weird to lie naked in a completely enclosed miniature Dead Sea for an hour or two, and as with meditation, there can be periods of slight discomfort; the mind may not be quite able to settle or relax, or to understand the experience. The unusual environment can sometimes trigger disorientation and momentary confusion. Where am I? Who am I? …the play of the the mental realm. But these tricky moments often take place against the backdrop of a pristine and unblemished field of awareness. Like a lone cloud in an otherwise unbroken blue sky, they offer a glimpse of the temporal and illusory nature of our thoughts.
It’s an opportunity to learn about what is real and what is not. We may observe that our thoughts are not us; they manifest in our awareness, stay for a while, and then leave. This provides training in mindfulness and empowers us to choose how to respond to the contents of our mind in other situations.
Likewise, just being able to relax to the degree that a floatation tank allows strengthens the body-mind’s ability to recall that state whenever that response might be useful. Physically it works wonders too and sometimes I can literally feel my tight muscles ping as they release tension and lengthen.
Another fascinating aspect of floating is the experience of depriving your mind-body of most of the sensations and stimulation it is normally accustomed to. It’s a chance to see what the mind gets up to when it’s not preoccupied with all that other stuff, to experience a more fundamental level of mind even. You might experience a widening of your sense of self to far beyond your physical boundaries, deep inner peace, feelings of ecstasy and sensations like being enveloped in nurturing amniotic life energy. Or you may not. It’s different every time. What ever happens, it’s fascinating.
But the most compelling reason to go for most people, whether you’re a hippie or not, is simply the fact that afterwards you will feel incredible. Colours are more pronounced, visual details more intricate, the mind elated, the body relaxed. My favourite time to go is Sunday night — it’s the perfect end to a weekend and incredibly I wake up on Monday morning feeling refreshed and happy. I have a spring in my step and even going to work feels good.
Anything that makes Mondays enjoyable has to be the good stuff. I salute you, oh pioneer of consciousness exploration, Dr John C Lilly.