Letters from Berkeley: The simplicity of senselessness


In the course of my summer living and working in Belgium, I came across a small monastic community in the Ardennes, led by a Dutch shaman with an eclectic past — a former United Nations employee in the Middle East, who then became a Sufi master for a dozen years before beginning his own teachings.

I had gone to Belgium almost randomly — following a course powered by what I call “intuitive decisionmaking.” Basically, this just means that I have no rational goals in mind when faced with a choice, except that something just “feels right.” And it means also that it’s impossible to make a wrong choice.

Of course, this form of decisionmaking has its drawbacks. When it came to my summer job, it had me going to a small human rights nongovermental organization in a yuppie city, where I was getting little money and no legal training and where the most prestigious contact I made was with the Belgian leader of the largest UFO-related religious movement in Europe.

But, that’s beside the point. Belgium was where my intuition took me, and by my first weekend there I’d already discovered this shamanic ashram, where the basic philosophy was that the only thing we can really know is that there is something greater that we’re a part of. The nature of this is beyond our comprehension, so we might as well vibrate at love.

What made the whole experience at this ashram so unique was how devoid it was of an intellectual, analytical, rational grounding. Being in this vibration — basically, being surrounded by people who shared this perspective — allowed me to open up and enjoy the panoply of strange experiences to be had. I participated in daily meditations where we shook rattles and made low humming noises, meant to integrate the right and left brains. I went on Alice-in-Wonderland-like shamanic dream journeys led by the sexy head monk, meant to expand my “causal vision,” that deeply intuitive sight that’s freed of the emotionally charged filters that normally control the way we see the world. I entered “deep states of annihilation” in a longer ritual featuring the shaman ringing bells. They drummed and rattled in what appeared to my incense-drugged consciousness to be some strange parody of a Salvation Army Santa, accompanied by images of Hello Kitty and other “power animals” dancing across my brain, and a sensation that the borders of my body were dissolving.

The simplicity of the senselessness worked. The total lack of judgment from those around me was amazing — an example of this was that one woman I made friends with told me that she didn’t even notice I was Asian for a week! The open-hearted philosophy, the idea of compassion with detachment, allowed transcendence of judgments.

Being one of those people with a world savior complex, I asked the shaman at one point how one person could most effectively change society. And why, I asked, were the great “realized” people of all spiritual traditions unable to end conflicts, since supposedly they’d evolved to a state where their will could move mountains?

“If you think of yourself as a drop in the ocean, it’s impossible to change the ocean,” he told me. “If you think of yourself as the ocean, then whatever you do, you’re changing the ocean.”

Implicit in his response was the answer to my other question. Thinking of conflicts or disasters impending or realized as separate from the whole “ocean” of human experience, as problems to be solved like cancers to be removed from a body, was an attitude that could only have limited success. Addressing only one problematic piece of the totality in isolation from the rest doesn’t get to the source of the problem, merely perpetuating a state of disequilibrium. That source lies in the imbalance of the whole, and therefore can only ever be solved by looking at the whole.

This perspective is what I got from my summer. So I’ve begun my third year now as an exchange student at Boalt, trying to maintain this attitude — of being the ocean, not getting caught up in the worries of what on earth I’ll be qualified to do or what I’ll even want to do after this year is over. The idea is that as the ocean, my lifeforce flows out to balance where balance is needed, and I don’t have to control anything. Opportunities will appear, and the universe will provide the means to take my next steps.

It’s a wonderful idea — to let go and stop fighting, as a drop, for footholds in water. Intellectually the idea doesn’t seem too compatible with a legal career, but with a little shift in perspective it makes all the sense in the world.