CHAPTER TWO: Love at First High
So much has happened, I have no idea where to start.
I am realizing it is hard for me to write without knowing who you are. Maybe you are a bored husband waiting for his wife to finish shopping, flipping through this book while standing at a book store. Maybe this book was given to you as a Christmas present, and you are reading these lines while your partner is staring at you with anticipation, hoping to see a genuine smile of gratitude. Or maybe it’s a hundred years from now, and you are volunteering somewhere, sorting through a donation box full of old, yellowing books. Whatever the scenario is, you are hoping to find a treasure. You want to fall in love, to be enchanted. Consciously or subconsciously, you want this to be one of those books you can’t put down, a book you’ll re-read again and again as it slowly unfolds the pages of your soul, forever becoming a part of who you are.
This very notion paralyzes me as a writer. As such, this is the tenth time, at least, that I am starting to write this book.
This time, I will not stop.
My obsession with knowing my reader is partially influenced by the autistic way with which I perceive the world. My mind, you see, works like a matrix of logical associations; if you were here, I would assess the manner with which you stand, talk and follow my speech to determine the polarity of your mind – and adjust my writing accordingly. Without knowing who I am talking to, I am rendered speechless. It’s like making love to a corpse – or worse, an unenthusiastic lover. A writer’s worst nightmare is to forever mentally masturbate on paper.
First, I guess an introduction is in order. My name is Aerez Batat and I am obsessed with the manner with which the human mind works. Like many autistics, I build mental puzzles in an attempt to decipher the intricate, chaotic web of interactions which constitute the building blocks of my reality. Every phenomenon must successfully pass my towering gates of reason, then categorized somehow to fit the logical structure of associations I have created for myself. I have a subjective mental track that continuously analyzes the objective reality which I experience. It never seems to shut up, and not for the lack of me trying. A mental-head like me on a meditation retreat is like a caffeine-induced child sitting through an investment strategy presentation. Truth be told, my mind goes faster and faster as the weeks and months go by. The reason is clear - it is pregnant with a fascinating discovery, the offspring of my accumulated knowledge, and I must birth it to the world or my mind will simply explode.
The trouble is that no matter how I start, I end up facing the same conundrum. There are no words to describe what I want to share with you. I don’t mean it figuratively, but literally; it is like trying to describe fire to a fish under water. It will lose you with “first, light a match”.
Does a fish even know it is wet?
I’ll demonstrate the issue with the following real-life scenario -
“Imagine an apple. A juicy, firm, crisp apple. Can you see it in your mind’s eye?” I asked the young lady standing behind the counter at the watch repair store.
“Yes,” she squinted.
“Is it vivid? Sharp? Three dimensional?”
“Hhmm…” she pondered. “Sort of… more like an outline, not so sharp, no.”
“Like a Monet?”
“Yes!” She exclaimed. “Like a loose painting. Colorful but not so vivid. More the outline than the details.”
I scanned her features and reflected on the style of her speech before making a determination regarding her mental polarity. “I bet you are good at parallel parking,” I concluded.
She looked at me, puzzled. “Whaaaat?!... As a matter of fact, I am… how’d you know?”
I shrugged my shoulders and reminded myself not to revert to Autistalk, which would result me unleashing a tsunami of terms such as mental polarization, contextual reasoning and other geeky expressions. “It has to do with the way your mind works,” I answered. “I bet you rarely know what time it is.”
“Oh my god, it’s horrible. And I am working at a watch store,” she chuckled. “My brother, on the other hand… he is unbelievable. He can tell you what time it is with an amazing accuracy.”
“But his parallel parking sucks?”
“He can definitely use some work,” she nodded in satisfaction, scanning me from head to toe.
“Ask him about the apple,” I said. “I bet he sees it vividly. We don’t all think the same way. I, for example, see nothing in my mind’s eye.”
“No apple? Really?”
“So what do you see?”
Dead end. I told you, there are no words. I can tell you that I am mentally blind, but that would infer that I am mentally deficient in some manner. I see nothing in my mind’s eye, and yet I “visualize”, fantasize and have a very rich “imagination”; it is simply devoid of any imagery. This is, of course, asides from my “auditory” or “verbal” form of thinking. I can think of a narrative which includes an apple, and the thought will be sequential, like a super fast conversation in my inner ear. I can also “visualize” an apple; but this is where language fails to serve me as a researcher of metaphysics. The terms “imagination” and “visualization” suggest that one sees pictures in his inner eye. How will I describe to you the manner in which people like me think? In reality, I visualize an apple non-visually, and imagine and apple without seeing an image of it. I do it… well, with vibrations. I feel it, for a lack of a better word; as if it is right there, occupying space, but covered with an invisibility cloak.
I first discovered this fact about seven years ago, when I was 38 years old. My wife Diane and I were snuggled on the couch. It was a Friday night, and we just smoked some Marijuana. Diane was laying back, her eyes closed, and I warmed her feet with my hands, lost in my own mind, when she suddenly blurted –
“I see pink elephants. They are dancing.”
It wasn’t the first time she verbalized her thoughts, but this time something clicked. I rose up, curious. “What do you mean, you see pink elephants? Like, an image?”
She opened her eyes, squinting, partly from the light and partly to assess the seriousness of my question, then closed them again. “No, more like a movie. Why?”
“Is this usual for you, to see movies in your mind? Like, do you do it when you are not stoned?”
“Sometimes. Sometimes I just see images, you know, still imagery.”
“Always in color?”
She opened her eyes once again. “Of course. Sharp as sharp can be. How else would I see it?”
“Well, I see no imagery in my mind’s eye. Nothing. It’s all black.”
She rose up, perplexed. “Seriously? What do you mean, nothing? Like, now, or never?”
“Well,” she sighed and sunk back into the cushion, closing her eyes. “Sucks for you.”
Talk about a rude awakening. Things suddenly made so much sense, like why I can’t draw to save my life or describe how someone looks. When Diane traveled to Africa for a month, I needed a photo of her to be reminded of her facial features. When I was working in corporate America, I could not remember the names of freshly-met business colleagues (stop moving around, people! The seating chart I diligently put to paper is now worthless). I remember people, but differently and without their name, in a way I can best describe as “their energy”. I never forget someone’s smile, for example, but only if it is genuine. Some people told me that the they remember someone’s name by mentally visualizing it in image form — that is, the letters of the name are actually “seen” in one’s mind together with the face, which I obviously cannot do. A disadvantage when it comes to socialization, to say the least. Pile that on top of my autisticly-induced social awkwardness, and you can imagine why I tend to stay at home and have very few friends.
Realizing other people think in pictures was a breakthrough in my research, the next breadcrumb on what would turn out to be a most intricate puzzle – deciphering the structure and mechanism of the mind. I suddenly had something to work with. Was my mental blindness unique, and if so, how unique? What other differences are there with the manner with which people think? How does it impact the way with which we perceive reality and what other phenomena can it explain?
It all started a couple of years earlier, when I managed to get high for the first time. I was 35 years old at the time. As a young adult, I was never exposed to any form of drugs and was deathly afraid to alter the manner with which my mind worked, but shortly after I met Diane the idea of trying out Cannabis was planted in my mind. I can’t remember exactly what caused my curiosity to spark; Diane was a die-hard liberal who was well connected in the hippie bay-area scene, and I was instantly exposed to various forms of marijuana, mushrooms, and LSD use. For years I judged those who used any altering substances; but now I was able to recognize the fear that produced the judgement, and suddenly felt like a geek who never ventured beyond his conservative boundaries, hiding behind his unfounded righteousness. My courage was reinforced after I learned that Diane had her share of experience with psychedelic substances – like drinking Ayahuasca with the Amazonian shamans in the thick of the jungle, as well as many other forms of mind-altering adventures. Still, for me, trying weed was quite a daring act. I was raised in a conservative Jewish environment where there was no distinction between a psycho-active substance such as cannabis or an opioid such as heroin, for example, and I was afraid of any experiment that would potentially alter my beloved mind forever. I toyed with the idea for a while, and mentioned it to Diane, who seemed to be amused by my curiosity.
“Just try it,” she said casually. “What’s the big deal. See what happens.”
Not much happened for a few months, but then Diane threw a party in our Oakland home and someone brought a tray of pot-brownies. I couldn’t resist trying one. Baked goods were usually forbidden due to a sever egg allergy, but these brownies turned out to be egg free (thank god for vegan hippies) and I decided that this was a sign. The opportunity I was waiting for was given to me. Suddenly, however, I was afraid to make the move. I eventually ate one as fast as I could, partially because of my deep hedonistic curiosity, and partly because I didn’t want to be seen as a tight-ass to Diane who casually blurted “Stop analyzing it so much. Just do it or let it go.” I then sat on a chair in the corner, carefully monitoring my thoughts to see if anything changed. Nothing did. The disappointment was layered with deep jealousy towards the other jolly attendees, and in turn fueled my increasing desire to try again on other occasions. Alas, every time I ingested cannabis I felt nothing. I started wondering if my mind was different somehow, special in some way, mentally unique in my ability to resist the high. Curiosity eventually defeated my inflated sense of uniqueness, and by the time we moved out of the San-Francisco Bay-Area I was consumed with a burning desire to successfully get stoned.
The opportunity presented itself a week after we arrived our new home in Spokane. We visited new friends - Jane and her husband Mike. Jane was a bubbly Jewish woman who was admirably unabashed about her somewhat-tactless manner. As an Israeli I felt immediately comfortable with her; a rare occurrence, given my autistic nature. Mike was a socially awkward perfectionist who was determined to master every craft he engaged in. He was a bow hunter and an award-wining fisherman. His intense desire to be witnessed by others mirrored mine, and therefore triggered me almost immediately. I felt nervous and uneasy. He walked me through his attic, where he grew his marijuana, and boasted in his creation.
“Look at these little babies,” he held one of the buds between his fingers. “See how many crystals? White Widow, the strain is called. I take good care of my plants. None of that brown shit they sell out there. There is some real crap, I tell you – but this, you take one hit and you are set – a clean, cosmic high, none of that paranoia shit you might have heard of. Did you take a hit?”
“I did, twice already. I feel nothing. Wait, what? What paranoia? There is paranoia?”
“It doesn’t matter. Did you cough? You need to cough, it’s the cough that gets you off, you know.”
“I did cough. It was pretty bad. I didn’t get off. Get off what?”
“You need to know how to do it, you probably didn’t inhale right. Let’s go down and I’ll show you, it’s not that hard. You’ll get it soon enough. It’s not the pot, these buds are out of this world. If you don’t believe me, get a medical license from your doctor, then go see the ones they sell at the dispensary – they are skinny and brown, with almost no crystals. Nothing like these diamonds. No way you inhaled right and didn’t get stoned – these babies are magical – ”
He kept talking, guiding, and instructing as I tried it again. I inhaled, coughed, then inhaled again, then coughed some more. By that time Jane, too, was hovering above me, giving conflicting advice. The fifth hit was administered by her personally – she sucked the smoke into a water pipe and handed it to me so I could inhale it without the added complexity of lighting it myself. “Here, this way we know how much you are getting in. Look how milky the white smoke is.”
Determined, I closed my eyes and sucked it all in, and they all cheered in laughter. The hit was so big, smoke kept coming out of my nostrils for almost a minute later. I coughed so bad that I thought I was dying, my face red, my throat scratchy and burning.
”I swear I just saw smoke coming out of his ears,” Mike bellowed with laughter.
“That’s enough guys, don’t forget he’s asthmatic,” intervened Diane, who until now was floating around the house quietly lost in her own high, watching the whole scene as if from a distance.
“I’m fucking getting stoned tonight, I don’t care what it takes,” I shrieked back with a rusty voice, my hands pushed against my knees as I bent over and coughed some more.
Alas, 20 more minutes passed and I felt nothing. The mounting frustration turned into my familiar self-pity, and I was ready to give up. I just didn’t have the type of mind that could get stoned, I concluded once more. But then Jane came over and gently touched my shoulder.
“You’re safe here,” she told me quietly. “Push comes to shove, you can stay here tonight, you can sleep right here on this couch. Besides, Diane can drive you guys home. I asked her. Nothing to worry about.”
I looked up, and Diane nodded back in reassurance. “I’m good, I’ll be OK to drive us back later, no problem.”
I nodded, surprised to feel an unexpected lightness spreading through my body. My tense shoulders relaxed, and I suddenly found myself standing in the middle of the room, unsure what to do next.
“Hey, Diane,” said Jane, “Wanna see the garden?”
I followed them, strangely confused. As they all went outside, my mind became unfamiliarly empty. I was trying to digest what was happening around me but couldn’t quite catch up with my own perception; it was as if time slowed down, and yet I did not have the chance to mentally digest the visual and auditory input of my surroundings. My mind kept wanting to resume my life-long practice of thinking, processing, analyzing, exploring, and concluding; but all I was able to do —barely — was to catch up with my senses, which seemed to have intensified. Anxiety crept back in, and suddenly I wasn’t sure if I could keep my balance. You are in for the ride now, I suddenly heard a voice in my mind’s ear.
“I think, I might…” I mumbled, trying to connect my words without losing the thread of conscious narrative. “I think I am feeling it,” I finally managed to blurt, astonished to notice the wave of shame that was attached to my reluctant release of control.
“Finally! Let’s get you inside,” a familiar, pleasant voice answered in response, as if from far away.
As my fear barrier was finally demolished, the cumulative force of all five hits assaulted the THC receptors in my brain with all their might. I got so high I ventured into the psychedelic zone and lost touch with reality. For the first time since childhood, my perception traveled into the abstract realms of the mind. Hovering between terror and awe, I dozed in and out of consciousness in what seemed to be a never-ending hallucination. At some point I gained control of my mind again, latching onto one frightening thought that was powerful enough to maintain its grip on my perception – will I ever go back to normal?
“I need you to tell me I will be OK,” I mumbled to Diane who was sunk into the couch next to me. “I will be OK, right?”
“You will be OK,” she repeated. “You just smoked too much, that’s all. You need some water. Here.”
She handed me some water, but to my amazement, my fingers went right through the glass. I simply couldn’t hold it, no matter what I did; it was as if matter did not matter.
“The glass, it is invisible, I mean, not invisible, but my fingers – “
“Here,” she brought it up to my lips. I mustered every ounce of mental attention to drink as much as I could, then plopped back onto the couch, zoning out again for yet another eternity. A couple of hours later, when the impact from the enormous amount of marijuana I inhaled finally started to dissipate and I landed back into what would be considered a typical pleasant high, it was time to leave. I was sober enough, however, to purchase some marijuana from Mike.
“Here, this is about an ounce of White Widow, and try this one, too – ” he handed me a small bag with greener, darker buds. “It’s also a good one, but very different. Not sure what it’s called. That one is on the house.”
On the way home, I could not hide my excitement, verbalizing every moment of my experience to my exhausted wife, my analytical mind attempting to make sense of what just took place –
“It was like I could watch my thoughts from above, you know, and yet here I am, back to normal, but I feel different, like it changed me, you know, it’s like I am a different person but can’t quite tell you how, I want to try it again – not every day, maybe on weekends. Fridays. Maybe Saturdays, too, I’ll see how soon I am back to normal, I can’t let this impact my work; by Monday, I need to be sharp and ready, but there is so much to investigate. Mike told me that every strain is different, I wonder what other strains are like; I got these two here with me but I want to check out others; I will label them all. I need time, because I want to try each one separately to ensure I clearly understand what the impact of each one is – ”
It was love at first high.
Without knowing, I was hooked with what would become my full-time occupation — consciousness exploration. What exactly happened in my mind and how? A few more hours passed before I relaxed enough to lay my head on the pillow, my eyes open, staring at the ceiling. How did my fingers go through the glass? That’s impossible. Even if my mental perception was altered, how was it possible that the laws of nature were bent? Something didn’t make sense. What should I do with the unmarked strain Mike gave me? What’s the point of experiencing something I won’t be able to eventually replicate? I’ll never know which strain it is, unless Mike remembers. I must be organized, I decided. I must approach this scientifically. Every strain should be labeled; if unmarked, I would give it a name, and track each experience while taking notes. What was going on in my mind when high? Why did everything seem like it took forever? I knew short-term memory would be impacted and reflected on the experience in an attempt to recall what that felt like. It was a big, unknown puzzle I never thought to investigate before – the way my own mind actually functioned. Until now, I assumed that my mental experience was fixed, and the manner with which I was thinking was rooted in who I was, like my height or the color of my skin. I felt as if my conscious awareness suddenly rose from flatland and became three dimensional. In what other ways can I alter my perception of reality? The experience showed me that my mind was obviously capable of internally shifting its processing abilities. My actual awareness of reality changed, while the environment stayed the same. Furthermore, something in my perception of who I was shifted, and it seemed to me that it wasn’t temporary but rather was here to last. For the first time in my life, I experienced the addictive blissfulness that comes with a sudden expansion of one’s consciousness. The bliss was quickly chased away by anxiety and I suddenly shuttered. What if I fucked up my mind? It was exactly what I was afraid of – that my mind would forever change. I started dozing off, frightening thoughts still floating in my mind. What if I can never go back to “normal”?
What is normal? A voice came flying in as I was dozing off. How do you know which perception is the “normal” one?
“Hmm, good point,” I mumbled to myself and pondered the question as I finally fell asleep.
My excitement did not die out the next day and I couldn’t wait for evening to come to try it out again. For some strange reason, I didn’t even think to smoke during the day; it just didn’t seem right. Diane and I went together to a smoke shop and she chose a big, hand-made water pipe. “Cleaner this way,” she rationalized the spend. “If we are now smoking weed, I want it to be as least damaging to our lungs as possible.”
The obsessive-compulsive approach I took to my mind-altering experiments was deemed unsuccessful. Once one is introduced to the world of psycho-active substances, one is swept away by its abstract, imprecise nature. I kept labeling the jars, but as more and more strains made their way into my basement shelf – sometimes in the form of a single flower I exchanged with someone – I started losing track of the specific experience associated with each strain. An altered state of consciousness is like visiting a foreign country – you are left with memories of a story but the actual sensation – which cannot be captured in words – is quickly lost until experienced again. Hence one remembers the idea of being a child but cannot replicate the same state of consciousness by simply thinking about it.
I developed a labeling system that tagged the qualities of the high based on how I felt and what seemed pleasurable to do, but I wasn’t sure how accurate it was, since my high time was limited to two nights a week and there were only so many activities I could try during each session. I did not want to mix strains in order to protect the scientific value of the experiment from being diminished, and since I was determined to find a pattern in the way the plant impacted my mind, I clung to my originally established method and continued to mark the white label on each jar. It felt pointless; deep down I knew my method has failed. I was a paramedic resuscitating a body that had already taken its last breath.
Months later, on a cold Friday night, I smoked alone after having a senseless fight with Diane and realized that my mood was clearly a major contributing factor to the quality of the high. In other words, the choice of strain and amount of smoke inhaled were clearly not the only criteria. This fact threw me off completely. There were simply too many variables; the strain, the mood, the amount inhaled, the size of the bud, and amount of crystals, the activity I chose to engage in… god knows what other unknown variables existed, like blood pressure or how fresh, dry, or moist the buds were. I also noticed that when I received marijuana from people I didn’t like, the high was more cloudy, heavy, distorted. Was it my imagination? I shared my thoughts with Diane.
“Oh no, you better believe it,” she insisted. “It’s all about the energy of the person who grows it, and the intention they put into it.”
Great, I thought. I wasn’t fully convinced in the truth of her statement; it sounded “woo-woo”, hippy dippy to me. However, my experience suggested she was right, and if she was, it was yet another abstract variable in an ever-growing equation. I felt that I hit a brick wall. My linear, scientific approach to the experimentation clearly failed. If there was a pattern to the high, I couldn’t detect it by tracking figures and words. Yet, it was obvious that different strains had a different impact on the psyche – more euphoric, for example – a fact that manifested in the clear preferential bias I developed towards the now dwindling stash of White Widow, which Mike said he was out of. It was simply the best marijuana I had ever smoked; but I wasn’t sure if it was because of its obvious quality or because of the emotional association I had with the strain that forever claimed my mental virginity. Still, I wasn’t ready to give up; some intuitive voice told me there was a pattern after all.
It was then I discovered my mental “blindness”.
In the beginning, I was perplexed. Was there something wrong with me? Was I supposed to see in pictures? If not, then what “superpowers” do I possess which balance my inability to see with my mind’s eye? I could never remember thinking – or even dreaming - with imagery. Was anyone else experiencing this phenomenon? A quick survey of my friends and family members revealed that while it wasn’t common, I was not the only one.
The discovery turned out to be a breath of fresh air to my research. I quickly started to notice other differences in the manner with which people were thinking. Here’s another example; this also took place on a Friday night. This time we were dancing in our living room to the sound of a funky tune. That is to say, Diane was dancing, and I was merely shifting my weight from leg to leg while thinking about dancing. The phone suddenly rang, and I stopped the randomized playlist so Diane could answer the call. She was back in less than 5 minutes and I hit shuffle again. The same funky tune was randomly selected (seriously Spotify?).
“Oh my god, I love this song!” Diane exclaimed, her body twisting and moving to the beat.
Something about the way she said it felt odd. “You ARE aware that we just heard this song, 5 minutes ago, right?”
She stopped dancing and looked at me, puzzled. “Really? Are you sure? no way,” she concluded and resumed her dancing.
Diane’s mental “deafness” turned out to be as extreme as my mental “blindness”. It was my first real clue as to the polarized nature of the mind. I can replay “Rehab” by Amy Winehouse in my mind’s ear right now, on demand. If I want, I can simply play a familiar song in my mind’s ear just to entertain myself, or to replay some conversations of interest, almost verbatim. Diane cannot. In fact, she cannot even recall the words said in a conversation she just had, only the contextual and emotional resonance. That said, she can match the color of a dress on the rack to a scarf hanging back at home with remarkable accuracy, while I continuously fail to notice she got a haircut or a new dress.
Without knowing the nature of the puzzle I was building in my mind, I was hooked on a journey that would last a decade, and is climaxing as I am writing these lines. At last, I feel that what I found is ripe to be shared with the world. Know this - for everything to function there must be a mechanism, and consciousness is no different. What seems as a chaotic, arbitrary fluctuations in the manner with which we perceive reality is in fact a result of an elegant blueprint governing our conscious experience.
The very notion of consciousness exploration is inherently paradoxical; it is the conscious mind which seeks the answer. For the fish to know it is wet, it must venture outside the water; for a conscious experience to be evaluated – quantitatively or qualitatively – we must depart from it. Unfortunately, we can only explore consciousness using the infinitely unique manner with which we perceive it. Each of us has access to one state of consciousness at any given time, and our perception is forever confined to our unique life-long experience. Figuring out the structure of consciousness is like showing a thousand individuals a different piece of a giant puzzle, then assemble it in complete darkness by asking them what they saw. For the first couple of years I didn’t even know the image on the box; how was I to find the boundaries of what seemed to be an infinite ocean of experience? What were the parameters? Where could I find my answers? I did the only thing I knew how to do that served my intrinsic love of solitude – I quit my corporate job, and buried myself in hundreds of books for a period of four years.
And then, in the least expected places of all, I stumbled upon a 4500-year-old map of the human psyche.
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