A Monday Story: Tom Robbins, Cosmic Lounge Lizard
Coming to you bleary-eyed from inside the fort I've made from notes and interview transcripts. While I work round the clock to finish a book manuscript, I offer you dear readers an oldie but a goodie.
Beloved readers: I hope you will forgive the lack of new posts over the last week or so. I am working tirelessly to meet a manuscript deadline a week from tomorrow and have had to keep my head down and focus on this one thing. Two things, actually, in that I’m also helping my only child get ready to leave for college and juggling all that such a thing entails, materially and emotionally. But I miss you, have a backlog of fresh ideas I hope to share with you in the coming weeks, and feel badly about my absence from this space and sweet community.
So, I thought I’d share something I’d been thinking about of late: A conversation I had with the inimitable American novelist Tom Robbins in 2005, which comprises one of my favourite chapters from The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People. Tom is a legend for good reason. I adore him. I remember walking into the Algonquin Hotel in New York City one swelteringly hot afternoon in late summer, taking a seat on an old banquette not far from where the Vicious Circle used to gather, and watching himself walk toward me from the elevator as if it happened yesterday. What followed was one of the better conversations about anything I’ve ever had. We discuss religion and spirituality, creativity and psychedelics, storytelling and, well, frogs. I hope you enjoy it.
I promise I’ll be back soon.
For paid subscribers, I have an MFT post almost ready to go and hope to get it out to you sometime this week. :: prayer hands emoji :: :: grimace emoji ::
Have you ever licked a psychedelic frog?
Okay, so it’s an unorthodox way to begin an interview about someone’s spiritual life, but Tom Robbins is an unorthodox kind of guy.
It’s a bizarre question, I say apologetically before he can answer.
“Bizarre is my middle name,” says Robbins, the novelist who for more than thirty years has mixed religion, sex, countercultural social commentary, and hallucinogens in cult favourites such as Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Still Life with Woodpecker, and Another Roadside Attraction.
Considering Robbins, a famously idiosyncratic fellow with a penchant for psychedelic experiences, has crafted wild, bizarrely humorous stories involving, variously, an existentialist can of beans (aptly named Can o’ Beans) as a main character, a love affair that takes place inside a pack of Camel cigarettes, and extraterrestrial beings whose earthly representatives are African amphibians that secrete a mind-altering substance, the frog-licking inquiry is not that far-fetched.
“With your permission, I wanted to start by telling you a story and then telling you a joke,” Robbins purrs in a distinctive Virginia drawl he hasn’t been able to shake despite living just outside Seattle for more than four decades, before I can get my first serious question out.
Go for it, I say.
“It’s a Sufi story,” he begins. “There was a middle-aged man who had been thinking about serious things and as a result applied for an audience with a great master. And he eventually was granted the audience, but he could ask only one question. So he approached the master and he said, ‘Master, my question is this: What is God really like?’ And the master said, ‘God is a carrot. Hahahaha.’ Well, the man went away rather disappointed and felt that he had been mocked and ridiculed. He was quite upset and, of course, very dissatisfied with the answer. But he kept thinking about it, and a couple of years later, he reapplied and once again was granted an audience. He said, ‘Master, what did you mean when you said God is a carrot?’ And the master said, ‘God is not a carrot! God is a radish, hahahaha.’ Well, again the man went away perplexed, but he thought about it, and eventually he understood: You can’t define God. You can’t even really talk about God. Anything that you can really define or describe is not God.
“So, are we done now?” Robbins says, facetiously.
Yeah, I’ll be going, I say, pantomiming a hasty departure.
“Okay, okay. So the joke is: What do you get when you cross Jehovah’s Witnesses with agnostics?” he says, grinning.
I don’t know, what?
“People who come to your door and just stand there and shrug.” Rim shot, please.
“And that is fairly indicative of my position,” Robbins says in a more serious vein. “Because even though I have a compulsion toward the spiritual and even though I pray every night, I am at the same time an agnostic. But I will say also that I think the pope is an agnostic, Billy Graham is an agnostic, we’re all agnostics, because nobody knows and nobody has ever known, including the biblical prophets. Now, there’s a contradiction in there, but we should not let that deter us because paradox is the engine that runs the universe.
“The Bible itself is absolutely teeming with contradictions. But the problem with Christianity— one of the many problems with Christianity—is that the contradictions don’t seem to bother the Christians. They pick and choose and say under certain circumstances, ‘Jesus said, “Turn the other cheek; love thine enemies.“’ But then on a different day, with different motives, they will quote the Old Testament, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ The problem is not with the contradictions themselves. I don’t think the Bible is any less valuable because it’s full of contradictions. The problem is Christians choose one or the other. And you have to choose both. You have to hold both of those ideas in your head at the same time,” he says.
“We don’t have any tradition of paradox in our culture, so it’s very difficult for Westerners to deal with that, which is why it’s also very difficult for Westerners, no matter how well meaning, to ever achieve enlightenment in the Asian sense of the word.”
Robbins grew up in what he describes as an “extremely strict” Southern Baptist environment in Richmond, Virginia, where paradox was not particularly well tolerated. Both of his grandfathers were Southern Baptist ministers, and he attended church services at least twice a week through most of his childhood. “As I became more well traveled, more well educated, more well read, I began to see the wizard behind the curtain and to see the fallacy in so many of those beliefs and the hypocrisy in so many of those beliefs, that it sent me out on a quest to find the truth,” he says. “It sounds pretentious to talk about a vision quest, but I feel to a certain extent that I’ve been on one.”
Robbins’s spiritual journey has been, in the truest sense, a very long, strange trip. It began when he was a boy of eleven, and as he approaches his seventieth birthday, he’s still traveling.
“I had my first two spiritual experiences as a result of Natalie Wood,” he says. “When I was eleven, the local minister was this really creepy guy. My mother liked him a lot, but I just thought he was weird—wet, sweaty palms and pale skin. His name was Dr. Peters. They were getting ready to have a revival at our church in Virginia, and he wanted me to consecrate my life to Christ, and to step forward, to walk the aisle. So I did it, and I was baptized—immersed— in the Rappahannock River. I kept waiting for some kind of uplifting enlightenment experience. I thought I would feel really different and it didn’t happen. I felt wet and that was about it.
“A few weeks later, our family drove to a town about twelve miles away, to a movie theater which showed films that were a little bit more recent than the ones shown in our little town. And it was a film with Natalie Wood as a child actress. Somehow that movie touched me so deeply that on the way home, in the dark backseat of the car, I had this oceanic experience where I felt that we were all one, that I was part of the oneness. I felt everything that I thought I would feel after being baptized. I suppose in that little half-baked eleven-year-old brain of mine, that’s where this spiritual quest began, when I realized there was this feeling, but it didn’t come from church.”
Robbins says he had lost interest in Jesus at an even earlier age, also as the result of a movie. “When I was growing up I bought into the idea that Jesus was what it was all about, that he should be my hero and my ideal and my savior. And then, at probably age six or seven, I saw my first Tarzan movie, and Jesus could no longer cut the mustard. Johnny Weissmuller just completely wiped him out.” Everything about Weissmuller’s Tarzan appealed to Robbins. “The freedom, swinging between the earth and the sky in an absolute liberation. Not wearing many clothes. Being in a totally exotic environment. Communicating with the animals. Diving into those lucid pools. Just everything about it—even the yell, which I can still do. I’ve been kicked out of a number of bars over the years for doing my Tarzan yell. He captured me in a way that Jesus obviously had not.”
None of this sat particularly well with Robbins’s parents, who shipped him off to a military school when he started seriously rebelling in high school. “It was a Southern Baptist military school. We were literally marched to church every Sunday morning. But the following year I went away to college, and I’ve scarcely been in a church since,” he says.
In college, Robbins began reading about Zen Buddhism, German mysticism, and various traditions of Eastern philosophy. “A lot of it made sense to me, but it was all intellectual, whereas the Southern Baptist teachings had somehow wormed their way into my emotions.
Zen and these Asian systems of liberation, which I identified with more, I could only process on an intellectual level. That is until that fateful day in 1963 when I ingested three hundred micrograms of absolutely pure Sandoz lysergic acid diethylamide thirty-five,” he says, fondly.
The first time Robbins dropped acid in Seattle, more than forty years ago, was the best day of his life, “the one day in my life I would not exchange for any other,” he says. “During the eight hours that I spent in the same chair— I got up once to go to the bathroom and that was like the Odyssey-all of it made sense to me on a cellular level. Not only these concepts of Zen Buddhism and Taoism and Sufism but also the Einsteinian concepts, the theory of relativity, suddenly were as real to me as this tabletop. I mean, the cliché of having your mind blown was really apt,” he says.
There are Indians in Mexico who live in the hills above Oaxaca who explain his experience in a slightly different way. “They say about Christians, ‘You white people talk to God. We talk with God.’ In other words, they get answers. It’s not a one-way conversation; it’s not just a monologue,” he says, adding that he’s had that kind of dialogue with the divine only when he’s been in a psychedelically enhanced state.
Does he still dabble in drugs? “The kind of drugs that I’ve taken one does not dabble in,” he says as a big wiseass smile spreads across his thin goateed face. “You get in your little canoe and you push it out on that vast dark ocean and just hope you get back safely. It’s not something that you do lightly, and it isn’t necessary to do it very often. I’m still mining nuggets from that first experience. Psychedelics may be our only hope. It’s the only thing that may be standing between us and the destruction of the planet.”
If that’s true, then I’m out of luck, as I’ve never taken any psychedelics, I confess.
“Well,” he says, pensively, “as I wrote once: It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.”
We’re sitting in the lobby of New York City’s historic Algonquin Hotel, not far from a table where Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley used to convene their fabled Round Table luncheons in the 1920s to debate the issues of the day and critique culture. This probably isn’t quite what they had in mind, I think, as Robbins continues explaining the connection between altered states and spirituality.
“The whole goal of these Asian systems of liberation, which is really what Zen is, is the obliteration of the self. Patriarchal religions—Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—are used to prop up the ego, to inflate the ego. Whereas our whole relationship with the divine should be to merge with the divine, and you can’t merge with the divine as long as you have ego. You should get rid of the self, and that’s what happens in a psychedelic experience—the ego disappears.
And that’s why it’s so associated with the feeling of ecstasy. That’s why orgasms are so popular. At the moment of orgasm, you don’t know who you are. You lose yourself. You don’t know your address, your job description, your name, your race. And people crave that. They crave this loss of ego, but they don’t really know how to go about doing it, so we go about it in crude ways.
“There is a sense in which a crack house is a temple. People are going there to smoke crack and, even though they don’t know this consciously, to obliterate the self and the ego, to reach that level, that plane of ecstatic participation in the divine universe,” he says, smiling.
In 1971 Robbins—who has several generations of loyal readers, rivaled in their devotion perhaps only by Deadheads, Trekkies, and Red Sox fans—published his first novel, Another Roadside Attraction. It’s a story set largely at Captain Kendrick’s Memorial Hot Dog Wildlife Preserve, where the roadside attraction is the mummified body of Jesus Christ, which has been stolen from the Vatican by a couple of countercultural characters, and which they intend to destroy as a way, more or less, of saving society from itself. The novel, which was clearly heavily influenced by the author’s discovery of hallucinogens and adherence to Timothy Leary’s call to “turn on, tune in, and drop out,” presents his persistent belief that if Western society could rid itself of Christian traditions and embrace a higher consciousness, the world would be a much happier place.
Robbins’s novels are told in complex sentences laden with his particular brand of metaphor—a favourite of mine from his 2000 novel Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates describes “a mist- bearded Saturday morning, gray as a ghoul and cool as clam aspic.” The plots, which sometimes unfold using the metafiction technique, in which the author, as himself, interjects an explanation or a point, are complex, often ridiculously far-fetched, sexy, and packed with ideas from various spiritual traditions meticulously researched by Robbins.
“I’ve been asked why I write as much as I do about religion and about sexuality, and I say, Well, because those are the two things that people on this planet are most interested in,” he explains. “And they are very much intertwined, entangled. Religion is so entangled with sexuality that it’s almost impossible to separate. They’re often confused. They often overlap.
There’s a great deal of sublimation going on on both ends, but that’s really what it’s all about.
“One of the reasons I’ve been attracted to Tantric Hinduism is that Tantra is the only philosophical system for liberation that takes sensual energy, which is the most powerful energy that we humans possess, and actually uses it in a spiritual way. Tantra harnesses it and uses it as rocket fuel to blast off into the godhead. So if you come up on a Tantric saint, he would probably be playing a sitar, smoking hashish, drinking wine, there would be beautiful paintings on the wall, beautiful fabric everywhere, at least one and probably more clothed or unclothed women around him, with whom he would have repeated intercourse. All of that. But he would be using that in a spiritual way. It’s just so beyond comprehension in our culture.”
Certainly writing is an intrinsically spiritual activity for him. Almost every act in life can be spiritual if the intention going into it is correct, Robbins says. He labors over his novels—on average he releases one book every five years. He’s written eight novels and one collection of short stories and essays over a span of thirty-five years.
“I was on a panel once with John Irving, and he said he would never begin a book if he didn’t know how it was going to end,” Robbins says. “I just looked at him in disbelief and said, ‘John, I can’t believe you’re saying that! Isn’t that like having a job in a factory?’ Well, ya know, I guess it works for him. But I have to surround the act of writing with surprise and discovery and even terror in order to do it every day. I have to let it marinate down there in the green ooze at the bottom of my brainpan and then squeeze it out a little at a time, like a tube of toothpaste.
“It’s a journey,” he says. “It pleases me when people say that my books are a trip, or a journey, because that is literally what they are.”
Enlightenment is Robbins’s chief pursuit. Twice he’s had what are called “satori” experiences, or glimpses of Nirvana, while he was entirely sober. They lasted only a few seconds each. The first occurred while he was driving in a blizzard in Seattle in 1964, and the second years later while he was watching yet another movie, 1991’s The Fisher King, starring Robin Williams. “I understood how the universe was put together, what held it together. There was nothing I didn’t know during those one to three seconds,” he says.
Robbins abandoned faith in a traditional, personified God years ago. “I’m a pantheist and a monotheist,” he says, explaining that he believes a divine force infuses everything in the universe and therefore God is everything and everywhere. Over the years, as people have tried to affix a religious label to this notoriously private man, he has been described as pagan, neo- pagan, Druid, Buddhist, Hindu, Tantric, and Zen. Robbins says he’s all of those and none of them at once because, essentially, they’re all the same. And he doesn’t believe in heaven and hell in the biblical sense, preferring to think of them as spiritual states that exist here on earth.
“Heaven is a small, porous, flexible ego and hell is a big, stiff ego,” Robbins says. “If you live in your ego, then you’re livin’ in hell. Now Jesus himself said in the apocryphal Gospel According to St. Thomas—a book that is very much at odds with the four that were included in the Bible— ‘Heaven is spread upon the earth but men cannot see it.’ In other words, open your eyes!
“We live in hell because we take ourselves too seriously. If there’s any one message that’s permeated my literary output, I guess that’s it: Stop taking yourself too seriously, which is not the same thing at all as living a life of frivolity. There is nothing whimsical or frivolous about it,” he says. “When I fall out of grace, which is a great deal of the time, sooner or later I realize it’s because I’m taking myself too seriously.”
For the record, no, Robbins has never licked a frog, psychedelic or otherwise. But if the opportunity presented itself, he wouldn’t necessarily decline.
From Falsani, Cathleen. The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), 2006
Let’s be as brave and as kind as we can.
Don’t forget that you haven’t met yet everyone you will love, and you haven’t met yet everyone who will love you.
Much love from me,