Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Mindfulness for Christians

The modern world ain't so good for your psyche. It's easy to get strung out, anxious as a wildebeast in a lion convention, with thoughts looping through your mind like a roller coaster.

Eastern religions have a bunch of techniques for developing peace of mind, colloquially referred to as "mindfulness". They generally involve directing your attention away from your thoughts and into something else, like your breath. This has useful side effects for defusing negative emotions like stress and training the purposeful direction of your attention.

Mindfulness has gone mainstream as a therapeutic and self-help practice in the West. The monks and yogis (and nuns and yoginis) of the East did these practices as preparation for contemplation of Ultimate Reality. Westerners use them to run a dual-income household under the demands of modern capitalism without drowning in a pool of tears. Either way, they do a lot of good.

So Christian and post-Christian society has looked to Buddhism and Hinduism for mental tools to cope with an often unpleasant reality. What is missed is that Christianity itself has a long tradition of similar mental tools for calming the mind and directing attention, that also help to grow in the Christian faith. It's overlooked because these techniques come from Eastern Christianity, which is unfamiliar in Western society. However, as far as I can tell there is no dogmatic incompatibility which would prevent a Western Protestant from using the mental tools of the Eastern Church.

The most powerful tool in the pocket of every Eastern Christian is known as "The Jesus Prayer". It has a few different forms, but I prefer the middle-length[0] form which is regularly spoken in church services:

"Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me".

This is used as a mantra, repeated over and over. It can be used in times of stress, to short-circuit anger or racing thoughts, or just when you feel bad and don't know what to pray. Like Buddhists, Eastern Christians identify uncontrolled thoughts and desires as a major source of unnecessary suffering, and they prescribe the Jesus Prayer as medicine.

It's a simple practice, but the history and use of it runs deep. Its earliest recorded origin dates to the 5th century founders of Christian monasticism in the Sinai desert. The Jesus Prayer is the monastic's single most powerful tool in his or her quest to dwell in God. In the beginning stages, it clears the mind and the heart of passions and focuses the attention. There are also further stages that monks write about that are hard for me to comprehend. Eventually, monks seek to have this prayer constantly running in their hearts under its own power, every second of their lives[1].

Christian monks and nuns use the Jesus Prayer for contemplation of Ultimate Reality. But lay people use it for every circumstance, which includes running a dual-income household under the demands of modern capitalism without drowning in a pool of tears. The Jesus Prayer is their constant companion in traffic, at work, and when relating to others.

I once dated a girl that was a Buddhist. She carried around prayer beads and used them to count mantras. She liked to recite them silently to herself when sitting on a bus or a train as a substitute for checking social media on her phone. She found it left her in a better mood. Similarly, Eastern Christians often carry around prayer ropes and use them to recite the Jesus Prayer. They are a wonderful replacement for checking Twitter or Instagram.

If you're a Protestant Christian, you probably pray free-form prayers at specific times and when you feel you need it. But it is useful to have a little short invocation that you don't have to think about. The Jesus prayer teaches us to rely on Christ, and not on our own intellects. There is no demand on us to come up with the correct words, or to petition God in just the right way when we are distressed. Instead we just invoke the name of Christ, constantly, and trust in him. We run to him like little children and count on him to do what is right for us.

Elder Porphyrios of the Greek church says that it is not necessary for us to fight the darkness within us. Instead, we only need to open a little window to let the light in. The Jesus Prayer is that little window. The most tiny, minimal effort of turning towards God leaves us open to welcome his grace.

In this post I have drawn parallels between Eastern Christianity and other non-Christian religions. It would be irresponsible for me to not mention that elders in the Eastern church often resist this comparison[2]. In particular, they point out that Christian mental practices are relational tools for contemplation of an ultimate reality that is personal. In Buddhism ultimate reality is impersonal. So I hope I've done my duty by stating that caveat.

What unites the Christian and non-Christian takes on mindfulness is that they both encourage explicit awareness of our thoughts. Instead of identifying with our thoughts and thinking of them as what we are, we view the thoughts as something that happens. And that disidentification then allows us some amount of control to shape them and to improve our existence.

There are many more uses of the Jesus prayer, but this post is intended as an introduction. If you are a Christian looking for a more Christian practice of mindfulness, try incorporating this into your prayer life. You might start with saying it a fixed number of times in the morning and evening to get used to it. A prayer rope is useful, but not necessary. Try to focus on the meaning of the words - who Jesus Christ is, what it means to call him "Lord", and what his mercy looks like. Then you can take it out into the world and have Christ as your constant companion.

Brothers and sisters of all faiths, may we survive life in this hectic world together, with the help God's grace.

About me: I'm just a beginner, a catechumen in the Eastern Church. I'm pretty pumped about it at the moment, and I like to share things I like. Please forgive me if I unintentionally say anything that misleads or offends. 

[0] The shorter form is "Lord, have mercy" and the longer form is "Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner".

[1] See this 60 minutes special on the monastics of Mt. Athos, the holiest site in Eastern Christianity. Be sure to watch part 2!

[2] See Father Sophrony's writings on the Jesus Prayer. He was once a serious Buddhist before coming back to Eastern Christianity.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Porphyrios (an Ode)

Who ever thought I would love someone with such a name?
But as I get to know it, it plays on the tongue
like a whiskey and cigar

What a blessed man! To be God’s puppy dog.
You decided you deserved nothing,
wagged your tail.
When he closed his door you did not go away
until one night he took you into his house.

You say this is the easy way,
Don’t you see how hard it is?
To be so utterly unsophisticated.
I have an 8th ex-girlfriend
and a 3rd career
envy my coworkers that have more shares than me
resent my government
have kinks
and daydream about sex, sometimes, in church.
How could I ever be a puppy?
Maybe I could be a smelly beggar outside God’s door
whom he slips a buck every now and then
out of pity.

But oh, Porphyrios!
You have shown the way.
It is never too late to grow in trust and simplicity,
wag more, whine less,
and maybe one day I will nip at your ear in the lap of God.

Fire Built for One (1)

At a campfire built for one
my heart aches for every flame you do not see.
When the sun rises, I will weep for every golden ray
nudging the mountain awake,
lifting the mist off of the tree,
and chasing the hare across the field.

I learned that joy was made for two,
in these last three years,
I would breathe the in
and you would breathe the out.

There was never any difference between me and you
and there still isn’t, now that we hate each other.

There is nothing in life that I haven’t earned,
And I know I will carry us both to my grave.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

The Spider

The spider is a wonderful creature.
She weaves such a regular web
which has such regular features
all plotted in her tiny head.

The spokes meet in the middle
the net runs round and round.
How they get there seems a riddle,
tiny miles above the ground.

The spider swings across vast spaces
she plunges unimaginable depths
without a hint of fear on her faces
or the slightest thought of death.

Her limbs are slim and busy,
her touch, subtle as the wind.
Weaving and leaving her monuments
wherever she has been

When her work is done she sleeps
for day after day in her home
content that her work will reap her
the fruits of what she has sewn.

May my house be open to host her
may her wonders always be near
Let us raise a happy toast to her -
nature's engineer.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Four Things I Wish I Had Learned in School

When I was a kid I was good at school. That turned out to be way less important than I thought it would be. The basic school skills of memorization, arithmetic, and essay writing are fine things to develop. But this narrow range of training omitted many important skills that I would need in life. And worse, this curriculum left me squarely in middle of my comfort zone for 13 years, so I never had to develop the meta-skills of skill acquisition. I was cocky and complacent.

When I hit the adult world, the adult world hit back. I was terribly unprepared to navigate its complexity. I found myself needing to develop, on the fly, a different skill-set from the one I had been taught. I needed to work on sensing opportunities, communicating my desires, detecting and removing fantasy from my world-model, attention management, making friends, letting go of resentment, and effective problem selection.

11 years navigating the turbulent currents of independent adult life is long enough that I’ve started piecing together some of the skills I need to survive and thrive. Along the way, I’ve found some specific practices that make life easier and better. When I run into one of these, I have the thought “I wish someone told me about this earlier!”.

To save you from the same trouble, I’m going to tell you about them now.

1. Improv

Image result for impro book

Practicing improvisational acting puts you into relationship with your subconscious genius. Your conscious mind learns that there is another entity sharing the head, or many. You learn the subconscious self’s habits and desires, and you learn how to harness its creative power for your own purposes.

The tao of improv is the experience of effortless creativity. When you are in the flow, you surprise even yourself by saying and doing things you didn’t know you knew how to do.

The greater tao of improv is flowing with others, effortless creativity in community. You learn how to trust and give and receive.

Improv in front of an audience is terrifying. There is no way to completely prepare. You must learn to accept failure, and to focus on the process. Are you flowing, permeable yet present, receiving and giving? That’s the thing you can control. There is so much else that you can’t control, including the audience’s mood and reaction.

I started learning about improv from a book, Impro: Improvisation and the Art of the Theatre by Keith Johnstone. I found the writing provocative, and then I just had to try some of the exercises with my romantic partner at the time. It’s a great place to start.

I found that the skills of improv bled over into other areas of my life. Having had the experience of telling improv fictional stories, I found it much easier to present in front of an audience for business reasons. I grew to trust in that my subconscious mind could come up with appropriate words for the situation, as long as I know the material.

I also have the confidence that I can teach anything I know. Lecturing is not so different from telling an improv story, and add in some hands-on pedagogy and you have an effective workshop.

Improv is a fantastic personal growth practice. But it is also very fun and worth doing for its own sake. One of my catchphrases is, “Improv is the most fun you can legally have as an adult”.

2. Power Lifting

There’s a motivational poster on the wall of my lifting gym that says, “the old that is strong does not whither”. That’s what I want for myself. As I’ve gotten older, I find myself plagued by little injuries here and there. Had I been stronger, some of those injuries could have been prevented. And I believe that getting stronger now will help prevent injuries in the future.

When I’m 80, I want to be like those old guys on youtube with the coke-bottle glasses that can still deadlift and squat a few hundred pounds. I want to bench-press my grandkids.

Lifting heavy things improperly is a major cause of injuries in life and at work. Powerlifting not only strengthens your muscles, joints, tendons, and bones, but will teach you the theory and practice of how to lift things without injury.

Now, powerlifting can also cause injury, especially if you dive in recklessly without proper training and theory. I’m paying for supervised small-group classes where a coach watches me lift and corrects my form. Not everybody has that available.

Starting Strength is a classic manual for getting started on strength training. If you start with that book and a buddy and post videos of your lifts to reddit for form review, that’s a way to get started on a budget.

Lifting makes me feel great. It feels good to be strong. It must generate endorphins or something. It takes away stress and brightens my mood. As someone who tends towards depression, that’s very important that I stay physically active.

I started powerlifting because I hoped that deadlifts would rehab a lower back injury that is keeping me out of Jiu Jitsu class. As I’ve done it, I’ve fallen in love with lifting for its own sake. I fantasize about my next lifting day. And when I get back to Jiu Jitsu, not only will it keep my back safe, but I’m going to be a stronger and more dangerous competitor.

Finally, the constant feeling of progress that lifting provides is a good backbone to my life. It is gamified by default, and there’s nothing like hitting new personal best lifts and new milestones. If I’m struggling in other parts of my life, seeing the weights move up give me comfort and motivation.

3. Authentic Relating/ Intentional Relating
Image result for authentic relating

Probably the single area where my life is going the best is in relationship. I am rich in friendship and connection.

This hasn’t always been the case. I used to struggle to connect to people. I grew up socially isolated and I was a stereotypical nerd.

I credit the practice of intentional relating with the biggest piece of that change. Intentional or authentic relating is an umbrella term that encompasses a family of practices including eye contact, asking deepening questions, noticing and communicating emotions, and reciprocal vulnerability.

Intentional relating is mindfulness applied to relationship. It creates a safe container to practice talking about real emotion that might normally feel too embarrassing. It also provides a great container for practicing healthy conflict.

The main effects this practice has had on me less is to make me less afraid of people and make me like other people more. It’s hard to overstate how important that is. It’s qualitatively changed my experience of life. I get what I want more than I used to. I turned from an introvert to an extrovert. My social life is great. Because I like people more, I like myself more.

The world is full of people, so the more comfortable you are with people the better your life will be. For a long time, I didn’t realize this was a thing I could practice and learn.

Here’s a list of relating methodologies I have practiced. Some of these might be more accessible to you where you live than others.

  • Intentional questions, such as the 36 questions to fall in love, or conversation card decks you can buy on Amazon
  • Circling is my current favorite thing. I practice with the Circling Institute which runs classes in the San Francisco Bay Area and Asheville, NC. There are other circling groups throughout the world with their own take on the practice.
  • T-Group is a practice made famous by the Stanford Business School. It involves sitting with a leaderless small group of people and experimenting with interacting with each other. Focused is kept on the present-moment emotions and desires of the participants. There’s often some conceptual curriculum before a session, such as Nonviolent Communication (NVC) which is a useful methodology for becoming mindful of your inner emotional landscape. There’s a group that meets in Berkeley that is NVC-heavy.
  • I took a year-long peer-counseling program heavily influenced by humanist psychology. Learning to hold space for others is a very good way to turbo-boost your EQ growth.
  • Compassion meditation or praying for people, depending on which spiritual tradition you prefer
  • There are a bunch of neat intentional relating games out there. Sometimes they go under the brand name of “Relating Games”.
  • The books “Nonviolent Communication” and “Radical Honesty” are good places to start if you don’t have access to training courses where you live. Practice some of the techniques with friends. Note: take Radical Honesty slowly. The book can push you to go too far, too fast.
I think everyone who works with people, which is almost everybody, would benefit tremendously from this curriculum. I wish hands-on training was available in more locations.

On a practical level, I’m available to lead intentional relating games and workshops for your group, and I can refer other people who can also do so.

4. Meditation
Image result for meditation

I almost didn’t include this on the list because of my perception that this piece of advice would be too popular. You’ve probably heard people telling you to meditate before. It can feel like a chore. And I am no expert meditator. There are many levels to it beyond where I’ve gone.

However, the exploration of meditation carries with it a philosophical payload that is invaluable. The most important for me is the difference between conception and perception. Concepts are the mental models of our mind. Perception is what comes in through the senses, what is actually happening.

The perceptual world is more peaceful and stable than our conceptual world. It is a haven. When my mind is turbulent and out of control, I can touch in with the world of my senses. My mind might be thinking something like “my life is over!”, but in the world of my senses the sun is shining, the wind is blowing, my breath is rising and falling. Much of the distress I experience is due to my mind ruminating over concepts and my perceived place in social hierarchies, and not due to my actual experience.

Once you’ve developed the meditative practice of mindfulness, of “seeing what is really there”, it can be applied to many different activities: art, dancing, relating. Mindfulness is like salt. It can season almost any dish.

Another thing that meditation gives me is awareness of my mental and emotional state. When I sit down to meditate, I can tell if I am agitated or calm, distracted or focused. I get used to noticing my mental state and I target calmer, more peaceful mental states as a life goal, like other people might target weight loss.

There are probably other reasons to meditate. As I said, I am no expert on the topic. But the habits of mind I have developed from the time I have spent meditating are invaluable.


If I take a moment to fantasize about going to school that includes improv, powerlifting, authentic relating, and meditation, that sounds awesome. I think younger me would have enjoyed that and been challenged by it. What about you? What practices have served you best to navigate life? What do you wish you had learned years ago? Leave a comment.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Surviving in the Alaskan Wilderness

“It is extremely challenging and some students WILL quit. Expect to suffer.”

The marketing materials appealed to me. At the time of signing up for the one-week survival course in January, I was in the early days of recovering from a crushing romantic breakup. I wanted to be lost, obliterated, remade. I wanted physical suffering, perhaps as some kind of penance, perhaps to take my mind off the spiritual pain. The survival course sounded perfect. I pulled out my credit card.

By the time the course actually rolled around in July, I was a different person. I had a new home and a new routine. My emotions had stabilized. But nevertheless, the Alaskan Field Course approached, a foreboding presence on my Google calendar. It was a wall or moat, dividing the calendar into distinct before times and after times. July Jacob had to find new motivations for following through on the commitment of January Jacob. I found four reasons for doing it:

(1) I wanted to test my will. Life is hard and I am soft. There seems to be a lot of obstacles between me and the life I want to live. I wanted a difficult experience that forced me to go beyond my previous limits, an experience that not everybody made it through. It functioned as a symbol to me that I would be able to conquer difficulties elsewhere. 

It's not quite that I want to be a hero. But I want to know that I'm capable of being a hero. I have this fantasy that if there were something difficult and important to do, that I would have the will power to step up and do it. But if my will is untested, it's just a fantasy. By doing hard things, I gain some confidence that I am the person I imagine myself to be. 

(2) I love comfort too much. On the big 5 personality model, I score above average in neuroticism, loosely defined as sensitivity to negative emotions. I like to have my home environment arranged to be comfortable and quiet and I feel distressed if I can’t accomplish that. I try to fight this. In the woods - starving, sleeping on leaves, being cold and wet when it rained, doing hard labor - I knew that comfort would not be an option. I would be forced to learn how to be comfortable with discomfort. I might still instinctively seek comfort, but I want to have the knowledge that I can handle discomfort when it is necessary. 

(3) I wanted to have the knowledge that I could survive wherever I was in the world. I wanted nature to seem less hostile and more like home. 

(4) In the intervening 7 months, I had told a lot of friends that I was going to do the course, so I didn’t want to look weak by backing out or quitting. This might have been a stronger motivation than I like.

The Alaskan Field Course involves surviving under instructor supervision for a week in the Alaskan wilderness with minimal equipment - just clothes, a canteen, backpack, knife, and a small length of cord. No sleeping bags, food, tents, or water purification tech. 

Both my January self and my July self got their desires met. I can’t remember ever suffering so much physically. I was starving and sleep deprived most of the time. Food is not a top 2 priority in a survival situation (#1 temperature control and #2 clean water), so we made do with a few hundred calories of foraged berries that were bitter and sour for the most part. And, lacking sleeping bags, we needed to tend a fire all night to prevent hypothermia which made for broken sleep through the mercifully short Alaskan nighttime. 

Work was the lifeline tethering me to sanity. On the second day in the field, our instructor showed us how to make the A-frame structures that are in my pictures. His method of motivational speaking involved a lot of dark humor. “Results are mandatory”, he reminded us. The pressure of needing to get my shelter raised and water-proofed lit a (figurative) fire under my ass. I haven’t worked that hard in a long time. I hustled for about 12 hours in the long Alaskan daylight to build my shelter, gathering sticks and moss and grass. I spent more hours on it in the following days, haunted by the nightmare of my hut leaking in the rain and being forced to spend a night doing survival calisthenics to ward off hypothermia. That was the miserable alternative available if shelter or fire failed and the weather took an unlucky turn. 

I kept surprisingly busy in the course. There always seemed to be something to do to mitigate risk or make ourselves more comfortable. I partnered up with another student to share a shelter. Once our shelter was established, we built another one for our firewood so we would have some dry wood if it rained. Gathering firewood was the single largest use of time. 

Two-a-day courses in survival skills kept our lives interesting and added an extra layer of difficulty. For example, on the day of building the shelters, we had a hands-on course in how to safely cross swift rivers. This resulted in all of our shoes being wet. Other days, we learned how to carry injured hikers, wrap a bandage, make birch-bark bowls to enhance the efficiency of foraging, use a compass for navigation, and to trap animals and fish. 

There was a lot of misery. My will was sapped early in the week from caffeine withdrawal and later in the week from starvation and an accumulation of small injuries. My body did bizarre things. At night, it would tingle all over. I think it was a response to the starvation. My guts felt things they had never felt before. 

But there was also much that was pleasant about the experience. As my eyes adapted to the work, I began to see the forest as a store of resources. I knew that tree had analgesic compounds in its bark, that tree had sap that was a great fire starter, these leafy plants were good to eat and had protein. I learned how to sleep on the ground and I learned that moss is nature’s upholstery. My hands developed comfort and intelligence with the knife. I was turning into a bit of a wood-elf. 

Other highlights of the trip included the Alaskan scenery. We were surrounded by gorgeous mountains and camped on the banks of a clear wide stream with jumping fish. The monkey parts of my brain loved living in scenery that normally I would politely admire from a respected distance. I loved climbing over and under logs, chopping branches, eating berries fresh off the vine, and sleeping on the ground. It was a physically stimulating sort of life. 

The fellowship with other students was pleasant. In rare moments of downtime, we would lounge about on the moss and drink some boiled nettles or chaga, discussing which McDonald's food we would consume when we returned to civilization. 

The pace of work slackened in the last few days. With the extra free time, our minds turned to fishing. A variety of methods were attempted to catch them: traps, baskets woven out of green sticks or roots, hand-fishing, spears, and makeshift fishing rods. Most of the methods caught at least one fish, but the fishing rod was the most successful. It was just a string baited with guts and tied around a stick. It worked surprisingly well. 

I was disappointed not to catch any fish myself, but I did manage to barter for a small trout. I spit roasted it over a campfire. It was deliciously warm and fatty. 

From one perspective, the Alaskan Field Course is a wonderfully ridiculous thing. I’m surprised that you can buy such a real and dangerous experience in this age of regulated capitalism. The safety net exists, but it’s minimal. The nearest road was a treacherous 9 mile hike away. And we took risks. 16 adults, some of them brand new to the outdoors, spent the week running around with knives, climbing logs, foraging, hunting, and bushwhacking. We were constantly one wrong step away from needing a helicopter evac, or else spending a grueling day carrying a peer to safety. I loved that nobody stopped us for our own safety. It felt like freedom. 

The week passed by in a blur. Much of the time I was just focused on surviving. As I returned to civilization, I was left with a ghost of the forest experience. The ubiquitous smoke of campfires haunted the corners of my vision for several days. Each itch I instinctively assumed to be the probing of a mosquito.

In the end, I found what I wanted in the Alaskan wilderness. I feel harder, tougher. I lost my addiction to caffeine and sleeping with ear plugs. I've never been backpacking, but it sounds easy to me now. You get to carry food with you! And a sleeping bag! Lots of things sound easier to me now. At least temporarily, the course lowered my expected level of comfort. I’m happy I did it. I survived. 

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Psychedelic Christianity: a Review of “His Life is Mine”

I don’t want to reduce this book to only my musings on the similarity between Christian mystical experience and psychedelic experience. However, that is the piece that is most fascinating to me, and that I most want to get out before I go wandering in the wilderness for 7 days. Perhaps I will write a more thorough review later.

Archimandrite Sophrony is a Christian mystic. Through contemplative practice in the Orthodox Christian tradition, he seeks direct experience and knowledge of God. This book is partly the Orthodox mystic doctrine, and part diary. It’s a very personal account, describing the first-person experience of emotional swings between agony and ecstasy as Sophrony pursues his inquiry into the divine.

I was hesitant to read the book, worrying that the account of a man of faith would not speak to such a heterodox person as myself and that I would be overwhelmed with boredom or skepticism. When people ask me about my religion, I admit to being strongly influenced by Buddhism, Christianity, and psychedelics. And of course I spent some years as an atheist scientific materialist which is a viewpoint I often find useful, though I am not limited by it. But my interest was piqued upon learning that Sophrony himself was a worldly, cosmopolitan person before becoming a man of faith. As a young man in Russia, he became fascinated with Eastern religions and meditation. He fled his native Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution and took up residence in Paris, where he became a painter. It was only after a time that he returned to the Orthodox religious tradition of his youth and became a Christian monk of the monastery on the holy Mount Athos.

Perhaps there is something about Sophrony’s own cosmopolitan spirit that speaks to me, a kind of spiritual kinship between those who must wander. The book was gifted me by an abbot in the high desert of New Mexico on my own wanderings. He had also led a colorful life, living as a Hari Krisna and a hippie in San Francisco before adopting the black robes of the Orthodox monk. I think he sensed an echo of similarity between our three souls. And indeed, sensing the curious spirit of both Sophrony and that abbot allowed me to trust their honesty and to more deeply enter dialog with them. I don’t trust a man who hasn’t done a certain amount of exploration.

Sophrony’s account of Christianity is the most attractive that I have seen. There are religions that are more about questions and religions that are more about answers. The questioning, questing religions are the better ones. Sophrony is on a quest to know God through imitation of Christ. He is led by his bold, open heart and a humbleness of spirit

There are many surprising and touching passages that I would like to share with you. But I don’t have time to do so before I am shipped out on my adventure. So I will try to share one particular insight for now.

There is a resonance between Sophrony’s description of Trinitarian doctrine and the psychedelic experience. I am interested in the bridges between two of my three favorite religions: Christianity and psychedelics. Although I am interested in both, there is mutual enmity between the two traditions.

A common psychedelic theme is the oneness of existence. This can be an impersonal oneness, or it can be more pantheistic in which the participant stays aware of some sense of identity. Psychedelics tear down the boundaries between things. But there can be a tension. There can be a part of the mind that holds onto distinction, to the duality between self and other, subject and object. Sometimes this can cause distress, as the person fears losing track of his identity in the current pushing him towards oneness. The dualist and monist view of reality go to war.

Sophrony’s description of the Trinity perhaps offer a way to reconcile the unreconcialable. Referring to the biblical assertion that “God is love”, Sophrony writes:

“If God, the First and the Last, were [one person], then He would not be love”.

Yet he also writes

“To love is to live for and in the beloved whose life becomes our life. Love leads to singleness of being”

Thus, in the mystery and paradox of the triune Godhead, we see the true nature of love demonstrated, requiring both duality and oneness. It is as if both perspectives must be seen and held simultaneously in order to see reality’s true nature. The paradox is accepted, without attempt to resolve it. And this true nature, the proper understanding of one’s relationship to existence, is love. Love unites self and other, subjective and objective, without annihilating either.

It is this mysterious, paradoxical nature that we are invited to participate in through the communion of the faithful. Sophrony says that according to ancient Orthodox tradition, man is one-in-many, just as the trinity is one-in-three. This brings to mind the words of Jesus in John chapter 17:

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

I hope that some brave Christian psychonaut explores this connection further.

Besides these things, there are many surprising, touching, and heart-rending passages in Sophrony’s book. It is not a popular book, but it is a powerful one. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in Christianity but jaded by the shallow conversation they hear in the mainstream churches. Sophrony’s Christianity is Christianity with some meat on it. It is challenging and deep, engaging the whole heart and mind, an infinite experience in pursuit of knowledge of fundamental reality.