A few weeks ago, just as the first leaves were starting to change, I got an invitation to the backyard of an Airbnb for a gathering of old college friends. Once upon a time, I knew the people well, although I was always just a fringe to their crew. After more than a decade of passing time, I was delighted they remembered me enough to call me at all.
The barbecue was rather, shall we say, polite, and unexpectedly so. Sure, people tossed around stories from the good old days, but they were all tastefully cast in the sweet white hue of nostalgia. One-by-one people talked about the ways they’d become more themselves over the years — finding their hidden passions, getting married, having children, figuring a niche in their various careers.
Becoming… it’s an enchanting idea isn’t it? We all know change is inevitable; how we ride it is up to us. The comparison inherent in such reunions of people makes me wonder if there’s a right way to grow up and a wrong one.
In this country at least, it seems best to self-actualize, which requires a relentless effort in self-improvement. It’s the old “pick yourself up by your bootstraps” technique to life, the kind that rewards activities that keep our sense of self intact and preserve our identities as we improve them.
And so, eventually, someone asked, “What are you up to?” And I answered, rather bluntly, about having spent quite a bit of time immersing myself in the world of drugs, specifically in cannabis and psychedelics. Before I could fill in the blanks, a look of horror struck my friend’s face. At first I thought it was concern, but as the conversation suddenly fell to silence, I realized it was something else — we didn’t know each other anymore.
Sure, he recognized me as someone he once knew, but he seemed either incapable or unwilling to recognize that the woman standing in front of him in the Airbnb’s backyard was the same woman he knew in college, as if the fundamental self at play had been betrayed. As puzzling as it was for him it was for me. I stood there in the midst of an existential crisis.
My development, which my friend saw as deterioration, has always been informed by happenstance and intentionally so. I’ve always been more interested in subversive questions and experiences, the kind that dissolve my sense of self, than I have been in ones that bolster or preserve it.
At first I thought my friend and I had come across an impassable difference and might be better off, like the rest of the country, in bitter rebuke than in commendation. I leaned back in my lawn chair, took a sip of beer and looked up to the changing leaves.
Someone once told me that the true color of a leaf is the color that it turns in fall, as if the shade of yellow-orange it happens to be when it finally falls to the ground is somehow more real than the chlorophyll-green it donned most of its life, more real than the dusty-brown that is to follow.
But that’s absurd, isn’t it? That the leaf is more true to itself in one phase than it is in the next? Would a yellow leaf, lying on the ground, ever look up at a canopy of green and call it inauthentic? Would it reflect on itself and bemoan the ways it has changed?
Some of us will preserve the self we inherit, whether that self is conceived of as a string of self-confirming ideas or experiences. But for me, well I guess I’m more interested in the idea of anatta or no-self. At least such has been my interest in cannabis and psychedelics, substances that literally violate ideas about the self, including our sense of individuality.
It is said that THC produces a three-hour-long inebriation characterized by a feeling of detachment that enables meditative absorption or a surrender to sensory stimuli. To me, to become that present is a beautiful idea, akin to more sober iterations like losing oneself in nature or looking up at the night sky and imagining ourselves a part of the stars.
Whether drug induced or not, there is a fear in succumbing to immersive states. Maybe we are afraid that in letting the self exist in wholeness with the world it will cease to exist in any meaningful way. What if we become indistinguishable from the world around us? But then again, isn’t that inevitable?
Psychedelic experience, no matter how you find it, is an unbecoming, a dissolution, a process of death. In this small, spinning pyre, the husks of delusion that entwine us burn away. And so we return to waking life — perhaps more foolish, perhaps wiser, perhaps a dusty-brown shadow of our former chlorophyl-green self. All I know is there is no true color of a leaf.