By David Guy
On my trips to Asheville I often get together with my old friend Levi, a substance abuse counselor whom I first knew in a Durham Men’s Group 26 years ago. He moved up to the mountains soon after we met, but we kept in touch. Now that I live in Asheville part time we periodically get together for long breakfasts. I don’t have another friend who shares so many of my interests.
In recent years he’s been working part-time at a high end substance abuse facility, the kind of place where people go when their funds aren’t limited. That situation, of course, can make their substance abuse problems all the more difficult. On a recent visit he told me about two men in late middle age, both professionally successful. One is a lawyer and one an Episcopal priest, one straight and one gay. Both were addicted to crystal meth.
I shook my head in disbelief. I thought of crystal meth as a working man’s drug, associated it with desperately poor people in the Midwest whose lives are bleak out without hope. I couldn’t understand why successful people would even try such a notoriously addictive drug.
They took it in the context of sex parties. Both were promiscuous and liked to organize wild orgies, seeking greater pleasure, more partners, several partners at once, partners who would do anything they wanted, any time they wanted. When all that—apparently—wasn’t enough, they took crystal meth in the hope of intensifying things.
One of the men hit rock bottom when somebody found him under a bed smoking meth and looking at porn on a laptop. I can’t quite picture the under the bed situation, but that’s the story I was told. His life had come to that.
Years ago I wrote a book on sex and spirituality, and profiled a number of people—living and dead—who saw the connection between those apparently disparate energies and tried to live it, writers such as Walt Whitman, D.H. Lawrence, Alan Watts. One outsider I featured was a porn writer named Marco Vassi, who produced a very literate kind of porn, also wrote a memoir and one straight novel, about Zen practice. He was a spiritual seeker and sexual renegade all at once, spent years in the Gurdjieff work and countless hours in New York’s gay baths. He seemed very much a product of the Sixties.
Vassi was the kind of person who, at some point in my life, I thought I wanted to be. He was apparently a charming, charismatic man, had had sex with hundreds, thousands of people, seemed to have had sex whenever he wanted. He did all this in the eighties, so he wound up dying of AIDS. He was a kind of martyr to sexual freedom.
When I finished the book, I asked myself who had been the happiest among the people I profiled. I settled, somewhat to my astonishment, on Walt Whitman. He didn’t have a strong sex drive, wasn’t like the promiscuous gay men of a hundred years later. He tended, actually, to fall in love with straight men, to have a short-lived relationship and pine away when his beloved wandered away and got married. He wrote in a veiled way—not terribly clearly—about sexual encounters; you can hardly tell what was going on. He also wrote, pointedly and memorably, about a moment he regarded as the height of happiness, sitting in a bar with one of his special friends, holding his hand and enjoying his company. It wasn’t even a sex act, just a moment of deep affection.
You could look at Whitman as a pathetic old queer who never found satisfaction, kept falling in love with one inappropriate man after another. Yet he lived a deeply loving life. Toward the end he spent months caring for wounded men during the War Between the States, gave of himself tirelessly. I’ve read speculation that such work damaged his health, led to an earlier death than he might otherwise have had. He never regretted it.
Vassi on the other hand seemed a tormented soul, constantly seeking a pleasure better than the last. The scene from his porn books that most sticks in my mind is the time that—despite any number of free partners—he hired a prostitute and began his account of their encounter by saying, “I ate her for an hour.” I’m sure he meant to give pleasure to this woman, and maybe he did. Men often don’t think of the woman’s pleasure when they hire one; he went out of his way to make her happy.
But I think it just as likely that the woman wanted to get the hell out, pick up her cash and move on to the next trick. What was this crazy guy doing? Wouldn’t he ever stop?
He wouldn’t. He kept going way past the point of reason. He kept it up until it killed him.
The day before I saw Levi, I’d been to my favorite institution in the city, One Center Yoga, with one of the best teachers I’ve ever had of anything, Cindy Dollar. She often attends sessions with visiting teachers who come to the center, and the weekend before a man had come who had taught pranayama—practicing with the breath—and spoke in that context about satisfaction. Our goal at class that day was to find satisfaction in all our poses.
My ears pricked up as she said that. My understanding of the Buddha’s teaching is that there is no such thing as satisfaction, that pursuing it (having huge sex orgies where you smoke crystal meth, hiring a prostitute and going down on her for an hour) is a futile enterprise because our lives are finite but our desires infinite. That dilemma characterizes human beings. The notion, therefore, that we could find satisfaction in a yoga pose gave me pause, though I was open to it. The yoga teachings of Patanjali are similar to those of the Buddha, but not exactly the same. Some vocabulary is different, some ideas as well.
Cindy said this teacher claimed that we find satisfaction when the inbreath and the outbreath are in harmony, the same length and in sync. That is satisfaction.
Made sense to me. I’ve experienced that feeling in zazen, which is itself a yoga asana. The inbreath and outbreath are slowed down and calm; there’s a still point around which the lungs expand and contract. It is what Zen teacher Gudo Nishijima called the balanced state (he was referring to a balance between the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system, but that brings about a balance in the breathing). When we settle into sitting, the breathing is often subtle, just that slight movement around a basic stillness, what T.S. Eliot called “the still point of the turning world.”
I don’t think the Buddha would have disagreed. The way he saw people suffering was that they were constantly looking outside themselves to satisfy desire, relieve aversion, escape confusion, avoiding these painful states. They never really can, because satisfaction is temporary at best, also never enough. We want more.
The irony is that we find satisfaction by doing nothing. We feel our desire, feel our aversion, accept them as they are. That complete acceptance is a novel strategy, more or less the opposite of what everything else is doing. Weirdly enough, it works.
Through years of practice, there’s a way to take that stillness into the world, into activity. You’re doing things, but not in order to accomplish anything; you’re doing them to do them. You completely do them, with no goal at all. You’re just doing, the way you just sit.
When you live that way, you’re in a constant state of satisfaction. It’s not the opposite of dissatisfaction, and doesn’t exclude it. It’s a feeling that surpasses our discursive activity. It includes everything.