Once again, there had been no miracle, and once again, I needed to score.
What does Vedanta teach us? In the first place, it teaches you that you need not even go out of yourself to know the truth.
As the founder of the Ramakrishna Order who helped bring the Indian philosophies of the Vedanta Society to the United States and England, Swami Vivekananda (1863 – 1902) is recognized today as a fount of spiritual wisdom. Given the above quotation that headlines the home page of the Vedanta Society of California, I believe that Vivekananda would have had a tremendous amount of insight into the degraded mental condition of a person in the vise of active addiction.
At the height of my addiction to crack cocaine in the mid-1990’s, I was desperately looking for an answer to my problem with myself. Once a person is caught in the vicious cycle of drug addiction, there is not much enjoyment to be had anymore. People with substance use disorders don’t continue to do drugs despite a storm of negative consequences because they’re having fun. Rather, they have become enslaved to the drug and cannot imagine a life without it. The freedom of ordinary life is a fairytale as the addiction takes over and shrouds all reality in darkness.
Without a true willingness to change and surrender this self-destructive way of life, the person with addiction will continue to use, often causing others to suffer as well. When I investigated Vedanta and the teachings of Ramakrishna as what I hoped would be a lightning-quick solution to my addictive struggles, I lacked a true willingness to change. I was not ready to do the work.
At the time I was living off the smokescreens of past accomplishments and family money, and I often found myself going to the Hollywood Temple. The temple is open daily to the public from morning meditation through evening classes. Founded by the Bengali mystic Ramakrishna in the mid-nineteenth century, the central belief of the spiritual movement is that all religions are rivers leading to the same ocean of transcendent consciousness. He emphasized God-realization as our paramount goal and believed that his teachings were the nectar of the supreme; once this nectar had been tasted, one would find enlightenment. Shit, when I read about that nectar, I was ready to down me a glass. But again, I was not ready to do the work. Like any good addict, I wanted an instant fix.
Feeling the dark pull of the evening, I often would find myself driving up to the Hollywood Temple for Vespers, which were held at 6:00 p.m. Known as daily aarti, candle wicks soaked in camphor are lighted as an offering to one of the Vedanta deities. During the lighting, rhythmic chants are sung in praise of Ramakrishna. Amid the heavy chants and the strong smells, I would not be drifting away to nirvana as I shed my earthly desires. Instead, I would find myself focusing on a cramp in my leg or the dryness of my throat or the stuffiness of the room as it closed in around me. Rather than tasting the nectar of the supreme, I was itching to hit the road.
Invariably, I would end up leaving before the Vespers were over. Shuffling to my car, avoiding the eyes of any temple administrators strolling the grounds, I would get out of there as quickly as possible. Once again, there had been no miracle, and once again, I needed to score. Luckily, the Vedanta temple was only a hop, skip, and jump away from Yucca Street just north of Hollywood Boulevard.
In the nineties, this area was crack central. Between Highland and Grace Avenues, crack dealers would roam the side streets like the shrouded wraiths in the Harry Potter stories. You would pull your car up next to them, and they would spit minuscule balls of crack wrapped in white plastic into your hand. Most of the time, you would drive off, still holding your booty. However, if the cops were lurking around, as they often were in the dark recesses of Hollywood, you would casually wipe off the rocks and transfer them to your own mouth. The hiding place under your tongue was like a treasure chest. Years later, I remain dumbfounded by such daily degradation.
Every morning when I woke in a clanging state of deep self-hatred, I longed to find the easier, softer way. Many of the early steps I took could have worked– from going to the Vedanta Society to embracing the Self-Realization Fellowship. Such spiritual practices have helped many find a path to sobriety because they were willing to do the work. Ultimately, almost a decade later, I would find my solution in the 12-step fellowship. I could not hide from other addicts and alcoholics in recovery. I could not lie to them successfully because they saw through my tactics. Most of them had seen it all before.
However, during my Vedanta explorations, all I did was lie while dancing around spiritual theories that I refused to put into practice. After my struggles at the evening services, I decided that I needed more seclusion and distance from the city. Indeed, I needed to go to a monastery and sit with holy monks. Surely they would guide me on a path that would lead to my salvation – the easy way.
So I booked a weekend stay at the Ramakrishna Monastery in Trabuco Canyon. With about six to eight monks in residence, I figured I was sure to stumble across a great spiritual master. It all sounded very romantic, and I drove away from Los Angeles late on a Friday morning after rush hour.
Although driving down the 405 and heading into Orange County did not feel very spiritual, I figured all the good stuff was surely around the next corner. When I finally arrived at the Ramakrishna Monastery, I remember that it seemed dusty and flat. I was greeted not by who I thought was a new incarnation of the late Swami Vivekananda or Ramakrishna, but by several older white men in their sixties, seventies, and eighties. They reminded me of when I visited my grandparents in Palm Beach as a kid, and I would meet my grandfather’s buddies in the lobby of their apartment building. The only real difference was that these guys were wearing orange monk robes.
There could have been an Indian monk present, but I do not remember him. The monks I remember were an unexpected mix from England and Northern California, and they had all been highly influenced by the writings of Aldous Huxley. Beginning in 1939 and continuing until his death in 1963, the British author of Brave New World (1932) had an extensive association with the Vedanta Society of Southern California. Initiated by Swami Prabhavananda, he was taught how to meditate, how to chant, and other spiritual practices.
From 1941 until 1960, Huxley contributed 48 articles to Vedanta and the West, a magazine published by the Vedanta Society. Huxley’s participation had led the English men to travel to Southern California and embrace a monastic life. They had been living at this monastery or other Vedanta locations for over 30 years. Learning that information is about all that I remember of my talks with any of those fine men, although I did stay overnight, eating a couple of plain meals and attending a few services.
Sitting on 40 acres of empty rolling hills in Trabuco Canyon, the buildings and grounds of the monastery include a shrine to Swami Vivekananda. His face stares downward, and I felt like he saw me as the disappointment that I was. Like any good drug addict, I took everything personally. I also walked a trail in back that led to several shrines honoring the world’s major religions. During his lifetime, Ramakrishna became devoted to learning and practicing the major religions in the world; he wanted to experience as many of the rivers as he could that led to the ocean of the Godhead.
I was so far from being any kind of devotee. I was more like a tourist in a museum, checking out the sites. I found no solace in the meditation and spiritual sessions that took place in what I remember as a dark and dense worship hall. Still, I do not trust these memories. Undoubtedly, each one was stained by a profound disease of perception. I remember being unable to meditate; I felt plagued by the heavy sounds coming from the monks. Some were slightly asthmatic, and their breathing was a bit labored. I later used such human frailties as ammunition to justify my decision to leave.
I do remember spending a couple of hours scouring the bookstore, hoping to find the secret tome that might be the revelatory key to my salvation. However, there was nothing there that really caught my interest or that I had not seen before at the Bodhi Tree in West Hollywood. More ammunition stored. I was searching for reasons to leave left and right.
Honestly, I am surprised that I managed to stay as long as I did. The one night I slept there was just plain awful. I was bouncing off the walls, and several times I snuck out to sneak a cigarette or two. There was no smoking allowed on the property, but I needed something, and even that transgression was not enough. My skin was itching, my chest felt hollow, and I cursed myself for being there.
In the morning, I may have been awoken by bells, but I do not remember. I do recall one of the British monks reminding me after a breakfast of oatmeal and fruit that smoking was not allowed on the property. I told him that I completely understood, and I would never do such a thing. If I listen closely, I believe I can still hear his disappointed sigh.
Although I attended the morning session, I was nervous and on edge. I could tell that the monks did not like my inability to keep still. Well, I didn’t like their heavy breathing, so we were even. Somehow, I lasted for several more hours before I wandered off the property to find a pay phone.
I called my favorite drug buddy and asked what he was up to that night. He told me about a big Hollywood party in Beachwood Canyon. I had told him about my excursion and he laughed, saying that he knew I would be at the party that night, and we would head downtown to Alvarado together to score crack on Bonnie Brae. I said there was no chance, but I knew that I was a purveyor of the emptiest of protestations. Soon after, I left, and everything happened that night as he had said.
Vedanta did not fail me. Rather, I was unwilling to put a beautiful spiritual methodology and approach into practice and do the hard work that it takes to change. I was great at finding spiritual practices from the Vedanta Society and Nichiren Buddhism to the Gnostic Society and the Kabbalah Centre, but I was a complete failure at dedicating myself to any consistent spiritual practice. Without practice, any theory is bound to fail.
Even the wisest and most saintly of monks won’t keep an addict from smoking crack if he’s not willing to help himself. For my recovery to work, I had to take the first honest step. I had to become willing, and it took much longer than I like to recall. Still, today, amid the beauty of my present life after ten years of sobriety, I am so grateful for the work I have done and the precious gift of my recovery. I sometimes still wish the change had come earlier and the monks had succeeded, but like all of us, I realize now I had to fall a little farther and find a path to sobriety that worked for me.
Vedanta Temple, Hollywood (via Author)