Eating Pizza in Siberia

PizzaA student recently asked about the relationship between psychedelics and awakening. “It’s kind of like…” I thought for a moment, searching for the right analogy and coming up short. But as so often happens in these situations, the next thing out of my mouth surprised us both, “it’s like …eating pizza in Siberia.”

Of course, that one needed some explaining.

Weirdly enough, I once lived in Siberia. I won’t bore you with the details of how I got there or what I was up to, but I was in a small town near the center of Siberia for close to a year.

In a shopping plaza in the center of town was a pizzeria, which promised authentic New York style pizza. It even had a statue of Liberty painted on the sign out front. This was before Pizza Hut had ventured beyond Moscow into the frozen interior, but there were lots of Pizza Hut commercials on TV. No one in town really knew what pizza was supposed to taste like, but they did know what it was supposed to look like, and everyone was very curious to try it. Being the token American in town, I had to make a visit. But when I got my first slice I immediately realized something was amiss. For one thing, it had corn on it. Corn.

But it wasn’t until I tasted it that I realized what I was really eating. And it wasn’t pizza. It was an undercooked piece of dumpling dough with barbecue sauce. It was topped with fresh dill and salty cheese. After months in the cold of Siberia, far from home, I was eager to have some pizza. It was so disappointing.

But it occurred to me that I was disappointed only because I knew what pizza was supposed to taste like.

As I looked around the restaurant I saw lots of Russians hungrily eating the pizza, nodding to each other, and seemingly enjoying it. I realized that if you’ve never had pizza before, this stuff might not taste so bad. It might be kind of interesting. Maybe even pretty good if you have no expectations on your first bite.

It’s kind of like that with psychedelics and awakening. You’re told that a psychedelic experience is a kind of awakening to reality, and naturally you’re curious. You try it and get a wild light show, energy fluxing through the body, and a radical shift in perspective. It seems to match what the texts describe as awakening. And it’s really interesting because it is so different from the normal way the mind usually functions. If you don’t know what awakening is, then this can seem like the real thing. You may even take up a meditation practice to try and replicate the experience.

But if you keep meditating long enough you’ll find that psychedelic experiences aren’t the same thing as awakening. They just look like it. It’s like eating pizza in Siberia.

None of this is said to diminish anyone’s good time or bash psychedelics. If they inspire you, that’s awesome. I’ve heard from far too many people about how their first big psychedelic experience inspired them to meditate to dismiss them out of hand, and I’ve had enough wonderful trips of my own to know their value. Some meditation teachers discuss their own psychedelic experiences openly and compare the two experiences favorably. I get that. I see the connection. But it is important not to overlook the differences as well, and they are significant.

The first difference is that awakening is not a state. Tripping comes and goes. So its a state. Awakening is not a state. The second is that awakening is a livable experience. That is, it is not like tripping for the rest of your life. You can pay your bills, do your taxes, raise your kids, do your job, and lots of other normal activities from a place of awakening. Not so with psychedelics, which pretty much bring a halt to all normal functioning. Additionally, when psychedelics go bad they bring out deep fear and ugly visions. By the time awakening occurs, those difficulties have been outgrown and left behind.

Finally and most important, awakening is seeing mundane life, the ordinary boring details of our humdrum lives, as they really are, and not wanting it any other way. It is a contentment that allows the mundane to become exquisite. Normalcy does not go away. The ordinary is still ordinary. But one’s contentment and love for being itself brings a sweetness to normal life that no drug ever could.

So have fun. Enjoy the thrill. Get inspired. But understand that when you come home for real, it feels different than any state may have led you to believe.

Posted on July 24, 2014, in Enlightenment, Meditation, Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Hi Ron,

    Thank you for your article. You wrote, “awakening is seeing mundane life, the ordinary boring details of our humdrum lives, as they really are, and not wanting it any other way. It is a contentment that allows the mundane to become exquisite.” Do you personally have this level of awakening?

    I ask because I am looking for inspiration to practice. Incidentally, I have also, recently, become curious about psychedelics.

    • Yes, this has become my persistent experience now. It is most strongly characterized by a lack of searching and restfulness. There are moments when it is deeper or “thinner” depending on how much problem-solving is needed in the moment, but it is always there.

      • Thanks, Ron. According to my teachers Beth Resnick-Folk and Kenneth Folk, I attained first path two years ago. I didn’t notice a change in my experience of life at that moment, but over the years encompassing that moment I have gained some contentment and appreciation of the mundane. Yet this pales in comparison to the few drug experiences I have had. Since first path, my interest has shifted away from intensive noting and toward trauma-recovery practices. Now I am considering resuming intensive Vipassana. If 4th path brings one to such contentment that drug experiences are seen as “pizza in siberia”, then it may be worth trying for.

  2. Ron, this post rocked my socks off! Your second to last paragraph may be the best description of awakening I’ve heard.

  3. So glad you liked it Josh. Keep enjoying the contentment!

  4. I find the analogy a bit lacking from my point of view. I ate american pizza for around a year when I was in USA and always though brazilian pizza was much better (and so did every brazilian I talked to). But I wouldn’t be so sure an american would find the brazilian model of pizza better than his own (i.e. it wouldn’t taste like his concept of pizza, even though it can taste good in it’s own way). So basically pizza in Siberia is still pizza, only with a regional taste. It can’t be said that pizza in other countries is “more pizza” than the pizza in Siberia.

    • I saw someone point out that what the author meant was “eating american-style pizza in Siberia”, because the shop promised new york-style pizza. So I think it makes more sense now.

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