Thought Catalog
October 18, 2011

Hunting For Religion, Part I

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What is the issue?

I was born with the nonsense in my blood, runs deep on both my mother and father’s sides, and so it only made sense that I’d find my way to the Baron. First I heard of him was from the zoe on those hard-ass Miami fence crews — concrete fences? Seriously? — and while most of them loved to talk Jesus, not all of them loved to talk Jesus. That’s not to say folks were ready to just go off about some voodoo, but let me tell you there’s something about the endless pallets of sod and stone that’ll make folks speak on just about anything but sod and stone.

And so the Baron—Baron Samedi, I mean — he didn’t much care about waking up on a Sunday or wearing your wrinkly church-Polo or memorizing catechism or none of that. Which I liked. Which suited me; if I’m being real it was laziness more than piety that first drew me to him, but catechism always talked big about mustard seeds and so it seemed as good a reason for conversion as any.

I mean, if the Baron would have me. Here’s the thing: you’re walking down the street and you hear some Jeezy-bass coming from a car behind you, real chest-shaking stuff, but as it passes you look past the rims to see two white dudes in throwback Milwaukee Bucks caps bobbing their heads along — lame, right? I guess what I’m saying is there are things white folks just can’t do without it coming across painfully awkward, and for the longest time I hung reluctant on the idea that maybe a lanky-ass white dude getting into Haitian spirituality might be the most embarrassing thing ever. But people who knew better than me explained that Baron as a rule doesn’t care about that sort of thing, in fact he was cool with white folks so much so that he married one: an Irish girl, if you can believe.

So I was sold.

The Baron days were good. He didn’t make you feel guilty if you went out all night, got drunk and had some crazy unsafe sex, so long as the next morning you brewed him a cup of coffee and set aside a little rum. I was always told that we were brothers and sisters in Christ, but the Baron was the first time I ever felt anything like spiritual kinship. You didn’t have to confess nothing to him, it was like he was happy so long as he could tag along. Dear Baron, intercede on my behalf and seek healing for my hangover, I got you three Philly blunts and a bunch of Bacardi I couldn’t finish. Like we were buddy cops. I’m sick, Big Baron Buddy, now just hold off on digging me out a grave here and I’m gonna get you some Cohiba and mackerel. I never much got into the other spirits and I sure as hell didn’t mess with any of those other, significantly scarier aspects of the Baron, but for a good while my poppet and I were inseparable.

Thing is, though, I had a wandering eye. Happens every time I’m in a good relationship, where I look as hard as I can for problems to get hung up on. Like, why should I be running through offerings here, keeping an advocate on retainer to communicate with whatever the larger divinity happened to be? Couldn’t I just bypass all that stuff and go straight to the top? It’s the thing Protestant folks talk about when Catholics aren’t in the room: they’re wasting their time with those saints and the confession booths and the Hail Mary’s, they say, don’t they know He’s given us a direct line? If you’re going to choose — and with religion, you always do — wouldn’t it be easier to choose one with fewer middlemen?

And so without changing too much of my behavior, I switched tracks and powered on toward vamachara. It was an easy enough transition in that practitioners don’t run in entirely dissimilar circles, but also because of the perks — whereas the Baron drank a good amount of my rum, the vamachara tantrist I studied under was quite keen to pay for VIP and bottle service so that, economically speaking, this was a religion where I was earning.

And listen, I know you’ve got Wikipedia so I won’t get too far into it, but the basic idea behind vamachara is that you can obtain enlightenment — you can commune with whatever divinity you believe there is — not through the Right-handed path of purity and reflection, but by diving so deep into your humanity that you bottom out and get reset at the top. Digging straight down to China, as it were, rather than taking to the skies and flying there. One is a noble, lifelong path; the other quick and dirty — look, there’s a good Star Wars analogy here but I’m not going to type it because I’m afraid my virginity might just grow back. But remember that gut feeling you got when you were young and exploring sex for the first time? Cigarettes? Sneaking out to joyride?  Remember your first fight? Get in it, get it in you, feel it, learn to follow it: that’s tantric vamachara, if you wanna make it simple.

I know that boy Sting is all about he’s gonna worship a yoni forever, my guru would say, and he’s right-handed as hell but you gotta know all about that. You gotta start where he stops, got me? But I didn’t got him, not at first, not until the books started to arrive. One after the other, thick, harsh volumes with clinical diagrams alongside words like “chakra” and “seed.” Strange exercises in each chapter to be completed before turning the page. Captions like, Do not continue until mastery is achieved. Estimated time: 3-6 months. The parties dried up. He didn’t want nothing with me until I’d done my homework. I hated homework. I hated him.

But then every few days I’d get an email with something like smoked a ton of opium before 13-hour commune with new girl, after seventh consecutive full-body, non-ejaculatory orgasm lost total control of senses, hung out with God, woke up two days later and set new deadlift max. How’s progress? And I defy you to find a single part of a message like that which isn’t totally, irreconcilably dope. So I did the work. All the work. And when I finished I joined my guru to wreak Dionysian havoc until we became one with the universe, chuckleskeeting on everyone who thought they could enlighten themselves without getting their hands dirty.

Feel the fear.

Locate it on your body. Pull it up your spine, let it wash over you. Notice the adrenaline spike. Locate it. Pull it over your body. Bite the lip until you draw blood. Push more adrenaline into your arteries. Control it. Build it. Feel your heart rate rise. Count it. Pull tight the leather cuffs. Blow past the safe word – know that this is the disposable safe word, the one meant to be ignored – bite scratch tear suck cut and kiss kiss kiss kiss, feel her heart rate with your lips. Eke out just a bit more adrenaline as your hands mime Khajuraho. Work through the wine. Work through the opium. Work through the spectators. Map her twitches and vibrations. Know. And then. And now. Hear her loud. And now. Slow your heart by fifty. Don’t count. Know, feel it sync to the groove in your chest, the nook carved by all that homework. Hear nothing. Go white. Feel suddenly aware of everything and everybody. Feel totally lucid. Feel lifetimes pass. What’s adrenaline? Build a house outside Damascus. Return and know you’re still moving, in media res and everything where you left it.

Figure you can do this five more times before 6 A.M.

For a while that’s how it went and I couldn’t have been happier. I’d never been able to speak in tongues by the Holy Spirit, never once got ridden by those voodoo lwa, was never so lucky to have one of those “religious experiences” everyone talks about – and studying neurology as I was, wasn’t really sure that this necessarily qualified — but it was something. Something good that I didn’t understand, that not everyone had, that made me feel special. What more could you ask from a religion?

But just like you can only get so clean, you can only get so dirty. The movements relied on intensity of sensation and the easy power of the taboo, on tearing at your humanity and exploring that empty space – but given enough exposure, everything becomes boring. What happens when there isn’t a craigslist kink left for you? When you’ve run out of fingers and toes to count how many times you’ve done I can’t believe we just did that? It’s growing a tolerance. It’s needing an unattainable dose.

Maybe I was just bad at it, after all, since my guru seemed consistent. Maybe. All I know is after pushing myself toward constant debasement, day after day after day… you know how after a day full of drinking you just want to sleep for twelve hours and then maybe brunch? How, above all, you just want to rest? Multiply that by the last year of my life. By every little thing that might cause my body that beautiful revolt.

I needed rest.

I needed something easy on my body. Something gentler for my soul. A bland milky base to balance the acid inside me. I made my momma proud: I went to church.

And maybe it’s just because I’m older now, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as I remembered. It’s sitting and listening to stories, and sometimes you stand and can sing as loudly and awfully as you please, like it’s karaoke but everyone’s too sober to tell you you’re terrible. And the stories are incredible. How had I never noticed how great these stories were? The Almighty God goes around commanding whales to eat people. He attacks an entire ethnic group with frogs in order to convince their leader to release a second ethnic group, which he later attacks with snakes. Sometimes he turns into a bush, because why not? One time he asked a dude to kill his son just to see if he’d do it. Then later he ruins a guy’s entire life to win a bet. That’s right: God gambles. There’s like a thousand pages of this stuff and, while sometimes the narrative gets a little bogged down in meaningless detail, for the most part it’s coherent and driving toward a point — like Infinite Jest if David Foster Wallace had a sense of humor.

But again the problem of exposure. For all the joys of the Bible, the services themselves eventually turned from welcome respite to the same sighs and fidgets that drove me out in the first place. Reruns of the stories I’d already read. Sermons rehashing the same topics. I still couldn’t speak in the tongues, and on those morbid, lonely nights the stacks of neurology textbooks provided little comfort. I wanted the safety that so many had. The certainty. The serenity. The spiritual contingency. I wanted my place.

I would find it. TC mark

image – Ian Burt

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