Enlightenment: what is it good for?

Text: Mark 10:46-52 (a blind beggar gains sight)

One of my favorite public commentators, the food critic and writer Michael Pollan recently wrote about a moment of enlightenment. In that moment, he said he was lifted out of his ego and was able to appreciate beauty and truth in a way undisturbed by his usual fears and desires.

His description of this experience interested me. But I was even more interested in the question Pollan posed to his spiritual guide the day after this blissful moment.

“What’s it good for?” he asked. Pollan’s enlightenment hadn’t lasted. The next day – even the next hour – his fears and desires were once again leading him around by the nose. So, what good was this moment of enlightenment?

I heard Pollan talk about this experience on the CBC Radio show “Ideas;” and I got the idea for this sermon from that conversation.

In today’s Gospel reading, a blind beggar named Bart is gifted with sight by Jesus. For me, this is a story about an enlightenment similar to the one enjoyed by Michael Pollan; and both of these stories bring to my mind the joys and costs of waking up to life in its full truth and beauty.

Bart has spent his life asleep to the eternal and Sacred dimensions of love. But when he hears that Jesus is passing near him on his way to Jerusalem, Bart cries out for mercy. Because he trusts Jesus and his path, Bart is healed. His encounter with Jesus opens his eyes, and he follows Jesus down the road.

This story is set right before Jesus fateful entry into Jerusalem. By joining Jesus at this point, Bart will soon encounter the cross. After a life of poverty and blindness, he encounters a Love so compelling that it moves him to follow Jesus to death and new life. There is great joy in Bart’s enlightenment. But I imagine that Bart also sees the cost for Jesus and for himself.

In moments of enlightenment, joy and the cost of joy are often experienced at the same time. So, even though Bart doesn’t ask the same question as Michael Pollan, we may do so – “Enlightenment: what is it good for?”

Pollan’s blissful moment of enlightenment occurred during a psychedelic trip. After spending his career teaching and writing about culture and food, this year Pollan published a book about scientific research into mind-altering psychedelics and their use in treating psychiatric problems.

Pollan is best known for his 2008 book “In Defence of Food.” I first learned of this book via a quote that became a meme: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

I used Pollan’s work as inspiration for a sermon on communion in June 2016. I had watched a Netflix adaptation of his 2013 book “Cooked” in which Pollan details the mysterious power of bacteria to help us create foods like sourdough, cheese, and yogurt.

Pollan’s popular books and TV documentaries have generated controversy in the food industry. But his latest book – titled “How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence” – may be even more controversial given the heated debates about psychedelic drugs that have raged since the 1960s and the fears that many of us have about their use.

Pollan’s book is part of renewed interest in mind-alerting drugs. For one, there is the legalization of the recreational use of marijuana in Canada on October 17. And Pollan’s book is not the first one about the therapeutic potential of psychedelics I have recently come across.

In September, I bought the latest book by Bruce Sanguin, one of Canada’s best-known United Church ministers; and it is also about psychedelics. Over the past decade, Sanguin has published books about the church, evolutionary spirituality, prayer, and the Bible. Until 2012, he was the minister of Canadian Memorial United Church in Vancouver. In 2011, he was profiled in the United Church Observer. Some of you may have read his work or heard him speak at one of his frequent public engagements.

His latest book – “Dismantled: How Psychedelics and Love Broke a Clergyman Apart and Put Him Back Together Again” — is more personal and controversial.

I bought it and read it despite misgivings I have about Sanguin. I had corresponded with him in 2012 before hearing him speak at the Banff United Church Men’s Conference, where he was the keynote presenter. Because of our correspondence, he suggested that we meet for breakfast one morning at the Conference, and I appreciated the conversation.

After that Conference, Bruce took early retirement from ministry in the United Church. As he details in his new book, he and his wife had separated; and this led to an ugly fight in his congregation. Instead of dealing with the fight, Sanguin left. Since then, he has worked as a psychotherapist and public speaker, and he has maintained an online presence of blog entries and videos.

In late 2015, I got into a heated online dispute with Sanguin about the topic of the one United Church of Canada minister who arguably has a higher profile than him, the Rev. Gretta Vosper of Toronto. She is a minister who is facing discipline because of her professed atheism. She also happens to be the minister in a Toronto congregation that Bruce Sanguin left in 1997 when he headed to Vancouver.

The disagreement was about a blog entry Sanguin wrote that criticized both Vosper and one of her defenders, American Bishop John Shelby Spong. Spong had written to the Moderator of the United Church of Canada in support of Vosper, and Sanguin wrote his entry to counter Spong’s ideas. Sanguin agrees with the leadership of our church that Vosper should no longer serve as a minister.

By the way, Bishop Spong is the author of the book “Unbelievable” that we will begin discussing here on Thursday. And Vosper will enter the sentencing stage of her heresy trial before a church panel next month in Toronto.

I was angry at Sanguin’s 2015 blog entry because he argued that Vosper’s beliefs meant she should leave ministry. In reply, I argued that progressive clergy should support one another and work to expand the United Church’s welcome instead of kicking out people whose thinking we don’t like.

Last year, I heard both Vosper and Sanguin speak at a church conference in Portland, and Bruce and I talked for a few minutes in a way that felt like reconciliation to me. So, when I saw that his latest book was about psychedelics and that he linked his use of them to his career as a United Church minister, I bought it.

I am glad that I did. I have appreciated reading it, and have found connections between it and the path I try to follow. This path is about awaking to reality despite trauma we may have suffered or the grief that waking up to our reality might occasion. The payoff to waking up is huge, in my opinion. But it is a payoff that runs counter to conventional wisdom and to the fears and desires of our egos.

For Sanguin, using psychedelics with a therapist has been key to finding this path. But today, in referring to the books of Sanguin and Pollan, I am not suggesting that we all find a psychotherapist who uses psychedelics. This may work for some; for others it may be disastrous; and it is hardly the only path to enlightenment.

I imagine that there are a million ways to wake up in this life . . . a million ways to confront and heal trauma . . . and a million ways to rise above or below our egos and touch the Source of Love and Life we call God. Mind-altering drugs may work for some. But they are hardly required for a life of grace, joy and love.

That being said, I am glad that after decades of repression, scientific research into LSD, psilocybin, and related substances is occurring in Canada and in many other places; and I hope that the legalization of recreational marijuana use in Canada will be followed by the decriminalization or legalization of other mind-altering substances.

Further, I am intrigued by the reports Pollan, Sanguin and others make about the therapeutic use of psychedelics. For some people who are living with addiction, pain, or a terminal diagnosis, they have been helpful.

Judging by such reports, the paths opened by psychedelic treatments sometimes seem to be ones of death and resurrection . . .

The Gospel of Mark doesn’t tell us what happens to blind Bart after he gains sight and follows Jesus; but I trust that it is new life, which, though it may have been bought by loss and grief, is one shot through with joy, unity and love.

In his profile on “Ideas,” Michael Pollan provides his own answer to his question “What is enlightenment good for.” He now views his moment of awakening as a taste of another way of being, one that allows him to trust in life despite the things he fears and one that allows him to be more present to himself and his neighbours in love.

Pollan says he was transformed by his psychedelic experiences; and he now maintains contact with this other way of being through meditation.

In our lives, we have much that we fear, and we are often distracted by our desires. But we also have innumerable opportunities to rise above fear and desire through acts of service, experiences of beauty and creativity, and in loving relationships.

Sometimes, we may find ourselves in the dark with Blind Bart. Like him, we may be unable to wake up to reality because of our fears and distractions. But when, like Bart, we accept the grace to lay down our egos, if only for a moment, and cry out for healing, we may taste another way of being: one of connection instead of loneliness; one that is eternal and not fleeting; and one that has grieved past traumas and so has opened us to the healing power of Love, both now and always.

May it be so. Amen.


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