Achieving Nirvana — and how I wish it for everyone else
Okay, I’m not a Buddhist monk. I’m not even Buddhist. I’m Jewish, in fact. And I was raised Catholic, and I explored Sufism for a time and . . . I was a wisdom tradition seeker.
Being a seeker can annoy people. They affix a great dismissal to people who really just seek something more transcendent, largely because they’ve experienced it and didn’t want it to seem so fleeting.
Thing is, I bet most of us have had a transcendent experience but perhaps were hesitant to define it that way. I came across the way I like to describe such experiences in an English class in college: Emerson . . . in his essay “Nature” (Clearly he needed a better title writer), he describes the experience:
There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, — no disgrace, no calamity (leaving me my eyes), which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground,- my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space,- all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God. The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances, master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance. I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty.
Can you identify with that somehow? Great, because that’s where we start.
It’s a concept that’s very, very strong in Buddhism: that through practice, mindfulness, meditation, the Buddha achieved Nirvana. Nirvana, if you didn’t know, is translated to “blowing out” as in a candle.
Remember I told you I was Jewish? In Judaism, there isn’t really good and evil, there’s the yetzer ha-ra and the yetzer ha-tov. “Ha-ra” is translated as evil, and “tov” is good. Yetzer is “inclination.” So you’ve got your good inclincation and your evil inclination. They’re in battle and they’re in balance.
Sound familiar? It’s the Taoist’s Yin and Yang in Hebrew. You can’t be a whole person without harnessing both sides. And, you’ll note, I’m pulling in a lot of wisdom traditions I’ve gained as a seeker to show you that they point at a higher truth.
So, back to Nirvana. “The blowing out.” Having had these transcendental moments, they absolutely feel like the removal of the yetzer hara. You’re you. You see yourself as one with the universe, or, as Emerson put it, “I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.”
Once you’ve seen yourself as a part of God, and that all of you is good as it is, you do, yeah, kinda want to sit and meditate all day and chase that, don’t you. But then, as real balance emerges, the yetzer hara comes back, but again, while translated as “evil,” it’s actually more of a balancing force. The one that drives you to ask for more, to do things, to strive. If you’re pure yetzer hatov, you will do no harm, but you will also actually do no good.
And what I have learned in my journey is that what that balance looks like, and what you should do with the unique “parcel of God” you’ve been given is up to you and what’s revealed to you in your state of nirvana.
I sought it everywhere.
On the highest mountains. In dangerous situations. In competitions. In books. In the fur of fuzzy animals. And it came, fleetingly.
But as I lived my life, my transparent eyeball got encrusted with other’s opinions and my interpretations of that. It happens to all of us. I began to really lose a sense of what I was doing and why — not having any true compass to tell me what I should do, but lots of external forces telling me.
I felt myself behave in ways contrary to what I believed, in ways contrary to the wisdom traditions that I’d come to believe were correct. We create patterns of behavior based on belief systems we held . . . even if beliefs change . . . patterns are difficult to break.
And so, I found myself sitting at the computer looking at an ad for Ketamine therapy. I’d had a few people tell me that Ayahuasca retreats changed their lives and set them free — but I’m not the type to appropriate a piece of someone’s religion or culture without a deeper understanding; much less puke and lose my mind with a bunch of strangers in an undisclosed location.
This was a home treatment, with a psychiatrist and a “guide” (the qualifications varied, I picked one I considered practical and scientific) — and that appealed, too. I am the type that finds myself therapizing therapists, or having therapists project things on to me.
What I really needed, after years of meditation, acupuncture, and self work — I share this to tell you I’m not ALL science and I’m not ALL woo-woo new age — was a way to bridge the gap between what my core values were (my “transparent eyeball” or “soul,” if you will) and the behavior patterns that had been wired into me to protect me that were no longer serving me. Perhaps this would work, I thought. Perhaps I could see myself as a third party and shed off the messages I’d taken on if I could be shown how silly they were.
I discussed it with my husband and he was extremely supportive, calling me brave for being willing to do it. And I suppose it was, younger me was afraid of this kind of thing — her brain was too unstable and unformed to be reliable without a semblance of control. The irony is, that meditation and self work practice is actually a lot of giving up that control, but at the same time, riding alongside its unpredictability and shaping it — much like a gleeful horse riding through a field. It took a lot of work to master the fluidity it would take for this to work, but I felt that the years of battle with myself had prepared me.
And to the first dose. You’re told to go in with an intention. Here it is: Show me that I am enough.
Much like a dream, a full recount of the session isn’t what’s powerful. What was powerful for me was that I was transported, for a very sustained amount of time, to that place of Nirvana I’d been chasing. I had time to sit with it. To perceive myself not as having a body or having problems or family or anything else — but to just be with my purest essence. Like the eyeball had been scraped absolutely clean and transparent again. And I spent my time looking and feeling. “Yes,” I felt in myself as I was experiencing it, “You are enough. Every trifling thing that isn’t killing you is nothing. Remember this feeling. Lock it away. This is what changes everything.”
As I came out of the Ketamine dose, I was overcome with a complete sense of enough. And with it, as I started my essay above, came a profound sense of blowing out of the yetzer hara and just sitting with the yetzer tov. I laughed at myself about how much I felt like the stereotypical “Tune out to tune in, maaaaaaan” experience was true for me, and it lasted throughout the week. I had to sit with myself that while it was nice to be zen and all, perhaps it came with a distinct lack of ambition.
Assuming this new me was here to stay, I’d spent the week in bliss more or less, pulled out by finding myself being pointlessly defensive in situations that really didn’t need it, so I went into the next session with this intention: I do not defend because I do not have to.
Of course, as soon as I got on that horse, and this time I was able to anticipate what would happen, I altered my course a bit, meditating on a different intention as the drug set in: Why do I defend, why do I have to always provide an answer?
Well, again, let’s set aside the personal stuff — but this round a very specific memory from my past got dug up and I realized that my parents had created this tendency in me as a means to instill work ethic. I don’t think it’s their fault by any means, and that was the key — that something my parents did very intentionally, that I was kind of proud of for producing the kind of work ethic I value in myself, also caused a need to defend and answer. And it was silly! I literally did not understand the assignment and it’s been plaguing me my whole life?
I got another sustained look at me without the crusty defense mechanisms and rules I’d acquired, and lived in that space some more, marking it — hoping, honestly, that this what greets us at death. It’s a beautiful, whole, fluid, but also heavy feeling.
When the drug wore off, my yetzer hara was back and now I was totally free of my need to defend and answer because I’d been shown that the core thing that made me think it was a hard and fast rule was something I’d just taught myself wrong. I got right to work on doing things I’d been feeling not brave enough to do lately, I found my voice, confidence, and ambition again. It was expansive.
But then, now that I was so expansive, what do I do with it? I talked to a colleague of mine about my experience and I’d framed it like, “I always thought I had to prove I deserved something to others and myself” and she stopped me and said, “Maybe your next session, erase the word ‘deserve’.” WISE thought — because my core value is that things happen — and we cause our own happiness and suffering around what happens and that is all.
At the same time, I also wanted to address some resentment I felt for things in the past around that deserving. Things that made me cry at Disney moves a little harder than I liked.
So this next session? Intention was: I cannot change or value what is.
Like the other sessions, my “horse” arrived and I did my best to ride it where it wanted to go. It turned into a meditation of great people with great ambition achieving great things, but also losing so much of the beautiful stuff of life. It was paired with this green grassy field aesthetic that relates so much to me — I love being in my head, I love acquiring power to do amazing things, but I also love being on my farm in the green grass with the sun and the animals. And it showed me that I could go either way and that my potential was limitless.
Sitting with that was harder than you think. I often tell people graduating college that they might enter a “quarter life crisis” where they suddenly are spit out with infinite options and potential and no idea what to do and no guidance for the first time in their life. That’s where I felt. Happily, I’m approaching more “mid life crisis” but without the crisis, firmly set in my understanding of my capabilities, having explored a lot and built up a life I truly value that won’t need great upheaval thanks to my realizations — but I also have a lot of time left on this Earth, Baruch HaShem, and if you’re shown you have limitless potential, the next question is . . . what now?
For my last session, that’s what I asked. If I have this limitless potential, what should I do?
I should describe for you the stages the sessions go into: Mindbloom gives you a delta-wave music soundtrack to listen to, and I have noticed that it’s definitely built to fit the cycles — the first bit is you listening to this music and kinda sitting back and if you’re me, saying your intention in your head a few times and seeing what pops up. Not much at first, maybe some cool visuals (mine are quite cinematic), and then an idea will come up that you get hyper fixated on and explore. Then as you get to the deepest phase, that’s when the transcendental experience hovers, and then back into ideas to explore. At least for me. Suddenly you’ll feel a bit bored, like you were going into it, and that’s when you know you’re done.
So this round, it was pretty clear from the get-go that the message was legitimately was, “I showed you everything you need, what more do you want.” This session was so much less like an experience as it was me just working out day to day things, including fleshing out whether to write this essay. The transcendental peak was weaker — and it was a bit different in perception this round — but it didn’t feel disappointing, it felt so familiar that it couldn’t be such a mind blowing out (Nirvana, get it) experience as those first because I’d integrated into me.
And I think that’s pretty true, too. I’ve felt the change and seen myself react to things so differently in the past weeks. Discussions with people are different, my ego’s so far out of them that if it’s a strong disagreement, rather than getting invested emotionally like I usually do, I enjoy the disagreement. I see other people’s weaknesses and flaws and insecurities for what they are and I’m not afraid of them because of it. The transparent eyeball hovers with me, more and more. The yezter tov maintains a sense of calm wisdom, but the yetzer hara comes out to play the way I need her to to enjoy my life.
I long thought that enlightenment and true wisdom had to look like that first week, but giving up suffering also means giving up profound joy. I read a bit of Pema Chödrön — and her voice made it clear to me that she too enjoys a bit of yetzer hara and yet here she is as a celebrated Buddhist monk and teacher. That gave me permission, I think, to recognize that we make this life what we make it — and if it means, for me, being spicy zen, so be it.
And I still have two more sessions to go — but what to do with them. The ride has been amazing, and I know that not all things last, but just as dreams can last decades, I think sitting with yourself in your purest state for that amount of time and being able to draw from it going forward? That’s a true gift. That’s what we’re all seeking, in whatever form of worship or wisdom we seek. I wish it for all of you, but I am realistic that it may not be easily attained.
In fact, another Jewish wisdom tradition, Kabbalah, teaches that you cannot learn the higher teachings until you are forty, married, and an expert in Talmudic law — because otherwise, your life has not been enrichened enough by experience and maturity to handle the profundity and transcendence that its practice brings.
As the great Rabbi Maimonides said:
I say that it is not proper to dally in Pardes [i.e., mysticism] till one’s belly is filled with ‘bread and meat,’ knowledge of what is permitted and what forbidden, and similar distinctions in other classes of precepts.
What if Ketamine therapy is the same? What if, if you’re seeking something like my experience, you need the ability to draw from lots of rich experience to truly make it work?
And will it last? Time will tell.