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 that ancient mystery religion rituals 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’s 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?’

I decided I would revert back to nice, more socially acceptable Buddhism. But this time, things felt flat. I tried to jazz it up with a little Nam Myoho Renge Kyo action. I got curious about some inspiring young Shambhala teachers just as that organization imploded. A new movement of Buddhist psychonauts fueled by psychedelics confused and intrigued me.

Then I fell into a dangerous pattern. I became obsessed with ‘figuring it all out.’ ‘Getting it Right.’ Solving life. Solving Mystery.

I read more. And more. And more. I listened to podcasts and visited endless webpages. Wikipedia couldn’t keep up.

Luckily, I have a fulfilling and rewarding day job. That helped keep my obsession from spiraling. Hermeticism kept pulling me back with its patterned practicality. Buddhism, Zen, and Taoism kept pulling at me with their humanity and deceptive simplicity.

Finally, on the eve of COVID-19, I decided I was going to revisit the Golden Dawn’s labyrinthine nexus of occult knowledge, and reinterpret it through my own lens. I planned to reconceive the Tree of Life and reinvent Qabalah with English/Latin characters instead of Hebrew. It was going to be epic!

Instinctively, intuitively, I started with a bang. My work was to strip through the overwrought trappings of the Golden Dawn and get down to the essence of the system.

Gradually, though, I started getting stuck. I realized I needed to step back. And back further. Get to the root of all these connections.

It seemed my ‘reimagining’ was just anemic anti-authoritarianism. Rather than anything truly transgressive, I was simply forcing another layer onto an already cumbersome system. Again I fell into my old questioning, ‘where is this leading?’ ‘what is the purpose?’ ‘to what end?’

As the COVID-19 crisis ramped up, the suffering of so many people naturally inclined me back toward Buddhism. After all, compassion is what was called for, not mystical revelation.

My job became more demanding, my family life more stressful. My metaphysical dilemma seemed paltry and even a little silly. Still, in every moment of downtime, in every quiet moment, I could feel myself gnawing away at this existential bone.

Luckily I had the good sense to reach out to someone. A Hermit Priestess, no less, who laid out my life in cards and helped me clarify some of the energies at play. She showed me that my path was moving along the axis of analysis to intuition. The way forward was to stop solving and start surrendering–not a natural thing for me to do.

In the midst of twenty-tab online research, it hit me. Tantra is what I have been trying to do all along. To take all the elements of my life and turn them into a spiritual path. A spiritual path not afraid to dance with anything that comes up and let it lead to awakening.

Normally, I would have revisited tantra as just another wormhole. Scour texts for essential clues I’d missed. Find the one thing that would connect all the dots.

This time, my intuition kicked in. I stopped. My life is the path. There is no solution because it’s already solved. The Mystery isn’t ‘out there’ it just is.

Tantra is the transgressive spiritual life. It refuses to distinguish between sacred and profane, spiritual from mundane. God can just as easily be on a throne as a toilet. Angels and demons are equally welcome company for tea.

So now I feel like I have footing to move forward. This blog can be a practice space rather than a performance space. Poison can be transmuted into medicine. Lead can be transmuted into gold. I can embrace the banner of ‘this too.’ Things that are frightening or dangerous can become fuel for compassion and liberation. I can slip into Mara’s high heels, laugh at illusion and twirl. All this in my own everyday life. Dorothy was right. There’s no place like home.

The transgressive spiritual life is it’s most ultimately transgressive when it is simply life. No separation. Everything accepted. Nothing rejected. Everything holy and nothing holy. Everything sacred and nothing sacred.

Everything is the path. And we’ve already arrived.


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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