Fermented pineapple: a blessing, a curse, a favorite snack among the denizens of Hell. All of these, simultaneously true, in the way so many things are. I open up Facebook, and find a post by my friend Andra Rose. It begins with a warning: “If strangeness is not your jam, you should skip this.” Strangeness is most definitely my jam, so I read on, having previously experienced Andra’s knack for primordial wisdom. (Self-Proclaimed job description: comfort the disturbed, and disturb the comfortable.) In the following paragraphs, she goes on to describe, quite powerfully, a dream wherein she is forced down into Hell, into the company of monsters. From the story, I picture a monster-wedding, monster-conference, or monster-awards-ceremony. Everyone is sitting around tables, eating fermented pineapple wrapped in prosciutto sliced from the flesh of horribly abused pigs. The drinks are bat-slaying tequila, sweetened with slavers’ syrup. Also, there are Unfair Trade mangoes, with no floss anywhere in fathomless space to relieve your teeth of those mango-strings that feel like they last for days, and cannot be captured by fingernails. The jokes run straight to everyone’s worst fears and most excruciating hangups. There is no doubt that everyone present (except the deluded NIMBY-monster) has done every awful thing that it is possible to do. Voilà! Here we are.
I am sitting at the lunch table with four fellow Buddhist teachers. We are discreetly showing one another a fang here, a devouring belly there. The topic of conversation turns to safety culture, and what place it has when offering the Dharma. Yes, it’s true that there is altogether too much hierarchical, traumatic student-schtupping going on. We shake our heads in sad disapproval. Not us, vile student-schtuppers! But then, what about the more or less explicitly-stated norm that requires all things Dharmic to be safe, tranquil, accessible, and enjoyable? We agree this is sort of meditation’s fault, for showing up with taglines like: Lovingkindness – Better than Xanax, Since 500BCE! It’s hard to magnetize the world with that particular sell, and then turn around snarling, We don’t want to be your Xanax. Deal with it! Hard to have it both ways. And yet: impossible to inhabit the fiery, awake heart of practice, if anything that shows up more Metallica than shakuhachi is automatically exiled from Buddha culture.
A friend describes offering a New Year’s Day retreat to a group that included a certified mindfulness instructor. “That was nice,” she said at the end of a day of inquiry, movement, and other awareness practices, “but I thought you would be offering something a little bit more Buddhist.” What does it mean, to be “Buddhist”? What kinds of experiences lead to the unshakeable insight that monsters - as in my friend’s dream - are sacred beings?
The teacher sitting to my right perks up when I describe my not-infrequent experience of building the Ramones or Rage Against the Machine into a dance playlist, only to have this intensity met with dance-participants' most withdrawn restorative yoga poses. Turns out the man I am talking with is a fellow fan of hard-core music, a former school teacher now working with incarcerated kids. We talk about what intense music – music the doesn’t shy away from the monstrous – does for us. It’s releasing, welcoming in a level of stimulation that resets the nervous system like nothing else will. When I unfurl into sound just at the edge of what I know how to meet, I am reminded of vastness and fearlessness in a way that doesn’t arise otherwise. In my experience, big chaos in sound and movement is a doorway into indescribable, unfabricated order. Warrior energy meets overwhelm and moves through it. I don’t want to be a Valkyrie all the time, but riding the wind, ax drawn, limbs whirling, teeth bared, gives depth and richness to parallel, peaceful states. No work also means no rest. No struggle means no resolution.
Recently, I passed again through what is a very painful gateway for me: a role is ending, and I’m not being offered what small-self feels to be the next role up. This gets right into the immigrant’s pain of not-belonging, the fear that showing up whole means remaining unseen. It fucking burns. It burns hard – harder than any of the hard music I have ever loved, and which has prepared me for just such suffering. I stay in it. I stay with it, I don’t hide it, don’t lash out, or at least try not to. Then a friend asks, How about no-role? How would no-role be? What if no-role, no knowing what comes next, is exactly where I need to be? What if enslaving myself to this-job, or that-job isn’t actually what Being is for, or about? That’s a hard one to settle into, when so much externally is about how to be good at one’s role, and how to move successfully from role to role.
With the help of some monsters I've befriended, I ride this role-wave as I have ridden countless dance-waves, writing-waves, and heart-waves. It begins, it burns, it goes wild, it releases into some spacious gift accessible only through sitting at this table, eating the fermented pineapple, listening to my poet friend tell me a monster-story of abuse and heartbreak, without slipping out the back door of judgment or disconnection. If I go into a restorative yoga pose in the middle of this wave, space out, go passive, I will lose the opportunity to eat poison and turn it into blessings. I will defer a reckoning that wants to be embodied. And of course, I do that. Of course, sometimes the monsters are more than I can meet, and so: bed, advil, food, social media. Sometimes also, the active response is to leave. Someone else’s Metallica might be my there-are-too-many-drunk-people-in-this-room. We do what we can. Bonking out teaches us the growing edge of capacity.
Andra’s dream-narrative is not a pleasant tale of beautiful, lovable monsters. She sees monsters who know themselves, and accept their roles as purveyors of horror, unfettered agents of the pain that may eventually grow us. She writes:
These monsters know all of the darkness in the cosmos as a function of their being. They are the practitioners and devotees of all that brings us anguish, revulsion, and shame. Like priests, they perform the sacred work of embodying these necessary elements. If you arrive in Hell without a relationship to these aspects of reality, it is… well, Hell. The monsters simply being who they are becomes an agony for you, because you’ve arrived in their territory without any kind of rapport. Naturally you’ll misinterpret howls of laughter for shrieks of rage and grins for predatory grimaces, all directed at you and your wretched personal suffering.
The real challenges we encounter in life are not delivered to us by safety-checked monster-simulators, planes without wings, playacting just the right, calibrated amount of Hell needed to straighten us out. They know, and we know, that we need to be smashed flat under gnarled toenails, without ever losing the thread of wholeness that keeps us all primordially connected, role after role, wave after wave, life after life.
Julie Püttgen is an artist, expressive arts therapist, and meditation teacher.