The Transgressive Spiritual Life

When I was five, I got mixed up about the Bible story of Peter denying Christ three times. Somehow I heard that Jesus escaped from the cross three times and they had to catch him and bring him back. I even made a little puppet show about it for my pentecostal grandmother. She was, well, mortified.

Later, at Vacation Bible School (the ol’ VBS), I drew a very ripped Moses swinging his staff and smiting things, but his staff looked suspiciously like a lightsaber. (Star Wars may have debuted that summer…)

While a teenager, I attended church three times a week, participated in youth group, preached from the pulpit, and studied the Bible daily. At the same time, I was learning to read Tarot cards, teaching myself to cast horoscopes, and quietly lusting after boys from deep in the closet.

I went to college to become a Southern Baptist minister and promptly started hanging out with drag queens, smoking, and rocketing into an alcoholic career that would last for the next eighteen years.

From my earliest memory, I have lived a transgressive spiritual life. Of course, I didn’t realize it. I wasn’t even aware there was such a thing. I simply felt weird, defective, and, frequently, damned. In my small Kentucky town, the most exotic spirituality was Catholic. Maybe Mormons, but they, like Jehova’s Witnesses, were not to be trusted.

Not until I took a pastoral counseling class and a comparative religion class in college did I catch a glimpse of a much bigger spiritual world. Bill Moyer’s Power of Myth series with Joseph Campbell had just been released. Watching those episodes turned my world upside down. By the end of college, I had a degree in theatre. Fitting ancient mystery religions were where it all started.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have the maturity to reconcile the tangles of my young adult life. I was sheltered, repressed, highly creative, emotionally immature, and a good boy with good grades expected to do spectacular things with my life. Upon graduating from college, my first boyfriend (hostage) and I broke up. I was lost.

I gasped and flailed, acting out transgressive spiritual dramas without realizing it. I danced with oblivion. I did jail time. My parents were at their wits’ end, but I was too self-absorbed and oblivious to notice. I made sweeping choices to uproot my life. I eagerly staggered after any number of glittering temptations.

I lived in the East Village in Party Monster-era New York. I nearly became a postulant at not one but two Episcopal monastic orders. It was not until the mid-90s, when I discovered Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, that I first learned about Buddhism and started to get a little perspective.

Part of Goldberg’s ‘writing practice’ was to not censor. To accept anything that came up and write it down. I did not hold back. All the taboo thoughts and fantasies, all the embarrassing moments, all the fear and whining made it’s way, line-by-line into my journal.

As my alcoholism intensified my conscious spiritual questing hit a dead end. My transgressive tendencies showed up as abject hedonism. Sex. Booze. More sex. More booze. Intense self-destructive partnership. Jealousy. Self-hatred. Even more sex. Even more booze.

Once I got sober, I began to understand that alcohol was a dark part of my spiritual path too. I was completely defeated. Emotionally exhausted. My ego was in tatters. I was having auditory hallucinations from alcohol. I had all but stopped eating food.

In this raw space, there was nothing to do but be present. To take life one day at a time. One breath at a time.

I tried praying, but I just felt like I was talking to myself. My sponsor told me that is all prayer is–talking to yourself. You just don’t realize you’re god. Luckily, I’d found a wonderfully transgressive sponsor!

Once I had a little bit of sobriety under my belt, I decided to make a conscious, intentional effort to explore spirituality. I went to retreats and meditation spaces. I read ravenously about Zen, Theraveda, Tibetan, and Shambhala buddhism. I checked out Taoism, Shivaism, and the many marvelous works of Alan Watts (suprise–a former roommate of Joseph Campbell).

Then a couple of years ago, during the Great North American eclipse, a friend of mine did a tarot reading for me. That inspired me to break out my own dusty deck. Shortly thereafter, I discovered an amazing podcast, Fortune’s Wheelhouse, which introduced me to the richly, esoteric world of Western Hermeticism.

Here was a transgressive shadow-spirituality that grew up under the nose of Christianity. Angels and demons, the fourfold name of god, divinity descending from on high down to earth. Here were alchemy and gematria, qabalah and astrology–all dancing together in esoteric glory.

There was so much to absorb, so much to analyze, so many connections to make. I made fast friends in the Fortune’s Wheelhouse Facebook group. We delighted in finding wormhole after wormhole to dive down.

After a time, though, I began to realize all this metaphysical spelunking was leading me away from my life, not into it. I was so busy discovering more and more pathways, that I never stopped to consider which direction I was going.

Eventually, I wore myself out. I got stuck in a loop, questioning ‘to what end?’, ‘to what end?’

Choygam Trungpa, the transgressive and controversial founder of Shambhala, asserts that we cannot begin to make serious spiritual progress until we give up any expectation that there’s a center that holds. Every moment we think we’ve figured something out or got solid ground beneath our feet, we’re engaged in self-deception.

The ultimate nature of reality is unsayable.

“The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name.” – Tao Te Ching

“A finger pointing at the moon is not the moon. The finger is needed to know where to look for the moon, but if you mistake the finger for the moon itself, you will never know the real moon.” – Zen parable as told by Thich Nhat Hahn

The nature of reality is beyond concept and language. In truth, the nature of reality is beyond all human sense. But human sense is what we’ve got, and we have to start somewhere.

“But who cares about the ultimate nature of reality?”, you might ask. “I’m just trying to live my life over here. Pay bills and lay low. Avoid a pandemic and all that.”

Well, that’s where suffering comes in.

As humans, our gift and our curse is that we can think conceptually. It allows us to use numbers and letters to create a simulacrum of the world we perceive. We can manipulate our representation, and imagine modifications, innovations. Over the course of human history, however, we’ve become hopelessly lost in the illusion of our abstraction. We believe our shorthand is, in fact, the thing we’re referencing. We have a permanent Human™-brand Instagram filter on all our perceptions of the world.

Because we have this permanent filter that allows us to analyze and manipulate the world with rules of logic, math and prediction, humans have developed over the ages a deep sense of separateness.

We’re us ‘in here,’ and the world is everything ‘out there.’ Other humans, maybe animals, have their own sentience and as such are supporting characters in our drama. The rest, though, is just set decoration and hand props.

This sense of separateness is what creates human suffering. We perceive ourselves as self-contained little constants in a mad, rushing river of change. We try to hang on to the good things that come our way. We try to get rid of the things we never asked for. And when it all gets too overwhelming we shut down and numb out.

The first step out of the river of suffering is to ditch the filter.

Artists and poets do it naturally sometimes. Sometimes they spontaneously create space where the unfiltered light shines through. The mystic and magic impulse can get you there too. Once upon a time art, poetry, mysticism, and magic were all part and parcel.

By consciously dismantling the conceptual filter we place over everything, we start to have clear, conscious contact with the ground of being. The ineffable world as it is.

Once we begin to touch the ground of being, we start to get a sense of the ultimate nature of reality. We understand we’re not constant. The world is not constant. The whole universe is a swirling dance of energy rising and falling, appearing and disappearing. All of it changes constantly, and all of it is interconnected.

One sip of tea contains sweaty Sri Lankan farmers stripping leaves, plantation owners haggling with merchants, marketers making invoices, freighters navigating stormy seas, truckers pulling all-nighters, grocery clerks stocking shelves, cashiers making small talk, a friend dropping by unexpectedly, and all the myriad threads that go into boiling water, pressing sugar cubes and mass-producing stainless-steel spoons. Every moment is miraculous.

But wait! There’s more…

These miraculous moments, when viewed with a contemplative eye, begin to reveal patterns. And what humans may be best at is perceiving patterns. To patterns, we add meaning. Meaning leads to understanding. And if we can stay with the ground of being and not get lost in concept, then we can start to perceive the patterns shifting and morphing in the universal kaleidoscope.

The rush can be freeing or maddening or a little of both. Spontaneous compassion arises as we see how tangled everything is and how furiously folks are working, believing if they try just a little harder, they can untangle it.

Eventually, if we can remain connected to the ground of being, we understand we can dance with everything arising. We can work with energy like weavers with yarn. We can move with intention instead of reacting to circumstance.

And then, as we connect more deeply to the great flow of energy, we can drop our inner narrative. Our own ultimate nature starts to shine through. We move and act instinctively, intuitively. We do the things that are the most ‘us’ to do. Our perception and concept of what we’re doing dissolves. We are pure action. Unadulterated us. We are no longer transgressing. We’ve gone all the way over.


Photo: Sister Ken Tagious, mother hen of the Kentucky Fried Order of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. Perhaps my most favorite transgressive spiritual tradition.

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