I’ve been ill and it has changed the way I look at things, because I can’t escape the feeling it has had a metaphysical dimension. I wish it were only a matter of microbes and symptoms, but I suspect that this feeling ill, week after week, has a meaning. This troubles me as much as the thought I might not get better.
I travelled up to London in mid-July for a meeting. Thick incense smoke, plus the cigarette smoke of fellow magicians silently took their toll. But I can’t lay my illness at the door of smokers; the kundalini breathing exercise that was part of my working, which we performed in the unventilated room, wasn’t a good idea in retrospect. I’d loaded up my lungs with a toxic stew.
And then – that pesky metaphysical dimension. Perhaps I became sick because I was sick already of everything. On the tube ride to Victoria Station, homeward bound, drunk people disgusted me: so many of them, self-medicating for the weekend. I was struck by the appearance of young men in particular. I wasn’t convinced they were made of flesh, but of something like foam-rubber that hung in rounded folds about their cheeks and limbs. If you prodded them, it seemed the dent might take seconds to disappear. Many sported tufts of facial hair, to distract the casual observer from how they were made of Play-Doh.
At Victoria station I bought peanuts. The man at front of the queue was drunk, playing out loudly his realisation he hadn’t enough money for his purchases. He seemed to want to involve everyone in a theatrical performance of himself. He didn’t look the kind of person you’d expect to do that: grey suit, goatee and glasses. A briefcase and a laptop slung around his shoulder. If the middle classes have given up on not acting like twats, is it any wonder the city would explode into moronic riots a fortnight later?
I’d taken my seat before I noticed the state of the carriage. It reeked of booze, because booze had been flung all over it. There were plastic glasses and beercans tossed everywhere. Ripped packets of Haribo lay under seats, their contents thrown wildly around. I helped the cleaner. We loaded his plastic sack with the glasses and cans, discovering several champagne bottles. Some of the Haribo were wet to the touch, as if they’d been sucked and spat out. I washed my hands afterwards, as best I could, but looking back, proceeding to eat peanuts with my fingers was perhaps not the wisest thing.
A man and woman sat a few rows ahead. The grey-suited guy from the shop asked if he could join them. It seemed a coincidence, but the carriage smelt so much like a pub I realised it was a subliminal Mecca for piss-heads. The train moved off and I listened to their conversation. Grey Suit talked self-deprecatingly, but then used any sympathy he received to launch personal, sexual remarks back at his hosts. Offending them, he would apologise, blame it on the drink, make more self-deprecating comments, and begin his game over again.
I wished he would wake up, and stop polluting others with his unacknowledged loneliness. But telling him that would only fuel his narcissistic self-hatred. The woman and the man eventually took flight, so Grey Suit started on the people opposite. I was sick of his bleak misery and changed carriages, and then all seemed well again. But it was far too late. The damage, the disgust, would wreak its effects.
I don’t remember much of the two weeks following. The next day I was groggy and wheezy from the smoke, but that’s not unusual after a night with magicians. Except it grew worse, until I felt feverish and aching, like the early stages of flu. I was at my girlfriend’s. She has chronic fatigue syndrome and is currently housebound. I figured I had a cold and wouldn’t be placing too much of a burden on her. But over the next few days I worsened until I could hardly move or eat and lay alternating through cycles of shivers and sweats, racked by a gurgling cough.
After a week of this and no sign of recovery, I rang my GP. I could only stand for a few seconds before becoming faint. He diagnosed pneumonia over the phone. I passingly thought it odd he didn’t need to examine me, but I eagerly took the course of antibiotics he prescribed. Over the next few days my temperature stabilised and I coughed up less green stuff. But another week passed and I still felt shit. Most of the time I stared into space, wondering why I had no energy to do anything else. I should have been bored, but I didn’t have the energy for that either. And my consciousness had changed. I could no longer see the Absolute. Since my awakening in March 2009, I’ve only had to turn my mind towards the Absolute and there it is: that vibrant spark of nothingness at the heart of self. I’d forgotten what life had been like before it appeared. Now I was receiving a cruel reminder.
Formerly, when unpleasant sensations arose, although there was suffering it was also apparent how there is actually no one to suffer – because at the heart of self is nothingness. But I couldn’t see that any more. The reason seemed to surface in a distorted fashion during feverish dreams. I dreamt I felt bad, yet kept assuming that feeling bad was centreless and absolute, a principle or the origin of experience rather than just another impression. The awakened recognition of the Absolute as the centre of self seemed to be serving me badly, now that I was ill. I’d assumed that a connection with the Absolute makes illness or dying easier to bear. But this is not the case. There are no guarantees against suffering for the awakened mind in illness – and, presumably, on the verge of death. The reason for this is obvious – but first, I had more suffering to do…
The antibiotics helped, yet my lungs still wheezed like a broken accordion, and in the night I couldn’t stop coughing once I’d started. I could get up for short periods, but a trip to the corner-shop left me faint and wiped out. So I rang my GP again. After much wrangling, a doctor came and examined me. She diagnosed bronchitis-asthma and prescribed inhalers, plus a course of steroids. Within two hours of the first dose of steroids, I felt miraculously better. I still had symptoms, but suddenly there was no sense of ‘illness’. It felt so striking, I tried to sketch the difference in my condition before and after:
In the top drawing, the individual consciousness emerging from the Absolute, shown as the circular area, has impressions from the non-dual (I), astral (A) and etheric (E) levels bleeding into it. The lungs feature hugely in consciousness, which is fuzzy with illness, not as capable as usual at differentiating impressions of itself from others.
The bottom drawing shows the sense of illness dropped away: sensations from the lungs are less, and consciousness is clearer, because it can distinguish more ably impressions of itself. From a non-dual perspective the notion that consciousness is the container of impressions is problematic, but it seems to me this sensation of separation plays a role in our sense of well-being. When we are less able to distinguish between consciousness and its impressions, albeit an illusory distinction, then we live in a diseased universe rather than a diseased self.
The course of steroids lasted five days. Still shaky, I went back to work the following week, but started to notice that foods I usually enjoyed were becoming oddly repulsive. This steadily grew worse until I struggled to find food that didn’t make me retch the moment I put it in my mouth. By the Monday following, chocolate was about the only thing I could stomach, so that’s what I had for breakfast. Then I started to brush my teeth, but the sensation of the toothbrush in my mouth was suddenly so nauseating I found myself over the toilet bowl, puking.
‘Nausea is a common reaction to withdrawal from steroids,’ the doctor said. ‘If it hasn’t passed in a week, come back.’ And thus began five days of monumental vomiting and nausea. Each day until the Friday following, I puked up at regular intervals a rosy bile with flecks of blood in it. No matter how plain, all food was vile. And while I lay weak and inactive, my asthma, which had begun to improve, now took the opportunity to make a comeback. This nausea, supposedly a reaction to the medicine, felt worse that the condition the medicine was supposed to cure. I seemed in a worse place than where I started.
The metaphysical dimension was nagging me again. Suppose my own disgust had made my experience disgusting? Had this to do with the magical work I’d been doing? The last Enochian aethyr I’d scried had been the tenth, which traditionally is said to span the Abyss. I’d supposed that the Abyss held no further terrors for me. But what if the Abyss is that which by its nature presents an ordeal, regardless of where we are? I recalled how, the day after scrying the tenth aethyr, I’d visited the toilet and unexpectedly pissed blood into the bowl. (I’d decided at the time not to get this checked out, figuring that if it signified a serious condition it would recur – which it didn’t.) What if this signified the beginning of an ordeal of health? What if my passage across the Abyss hadn’t ended with the vision of the aethyr that I received, but somehow I were still inside it?
These thoughts nagged as I continued to fail to recover. And as the Absolute continued to evade me, I started to brood also over one of Christ’s last utterances from the cross: ‘Father, Father, why have you forsaken me?’ (‘Eli Eli lama sabachthani?’ Matthew 27: 46; Mark 15: 34) Not that my condition bore any comparison with Christ’s mutilation, but those words made me wonder why even a spiritual master as great as Christ had experienced an unexpected withdrawal of the Absolute at the moment of his greatest suffering. Was the absence of the Absolute a failing on my part, or an indication there are other possibilities for development I have yet to grasp? The weeks of illness have convinced me that the experience of the Absolute is of limited use against suffering. To paraphrase the Zen saying: first there is shit, then there is no shit, then there really, truly is shit.
The reason the Absolute is not apparent at the height of suffering is that the experience of the Absolute is not the Absolute. Because it is just an experience, it can be eclipsed by more powerful experiences – such as those we encounter in illness. To assume that the experience of the Absolute must be our most powerful experience is to make the same mistake, because if it’s an experience then that’s all it is. Its content doesn’t matter, even if its content is no content whatsoever. An experience of no content is still an experience. My feverish dreams tried to show me this, in a reversed fashion. Formerly, I could take refuge in the experience of the Absolute, assuming it were different somehow from experiences of suffering. In my fever-dreams I took my experience of illness as if it were absolute, and the result was a universe of suffering.
Although I now feel much better, I’m still not recovered. My health might remain fucked-up for a while, or maybe for years. Having witnessed the Absolute shrivel uselessly in the face of this suffering, a change in direction and view seems called for.