By John Lee Pendall
First thing’s first, I’ve always been a little nuts.
I could attribute it to autism spectrum disorder, but that feels shitty, like I’m trying to downplay my own life. “I am me because of a disorder.” No, that’s not it at all. Scratch that, reverse it: “The disorder is because of me.” Bam, there we go.
Think about it, if there wasn’t anyone with autism then there would be no such thing as autism. People come first, our explanations come after.
Anyway, I live my life with one foot in the world and the other in “John World.” I have synesthesia, my senses merge and swap notes with each other all the time, so I encounter a lot of symbols in my life. I think we all have that to a degree. Quick, what color is anger? Some of you probably thought red, or maybe black, right?
Of course we can even take it further than color. When I think of anger, I see red, fire, black and muddy earth, pursed lips, a deep growling bass sound, clanging garbage can lids, erosion, stinging, the smell of tar on a hot day, a hammer, an alkaline favor, and so much more. I experience everything that way, down to even a light touch on my hand. Infinite associations.
I’m not trying to toot my own horn—though I wish someone would—just getting us on the same page. It’s impossible to communicate if we’re using different reference points.
I was born Catholic. Isn’t it weird how you can be “born” into a certain religion? We argue a lot about forced gender identities, but I don’t hear a peep about how people sacrifice their kids to -isms and -osophies before they can even spell their names. At least the people who say, “My kid is a boy,” have some kind of evidence to support their view; the person saying, “My kid is Catholic,” has nothing to back that up with.
That said, my Mom didn’t force me into the Church, it was just that I had a lot of questions and it was the only thing she knew.
Honestly, I loved it. I love how churches look and smell, and I adore the sense of sacred silence. The altars, robes, stained glass and statues are all really cool to me; they tickle my synesthesia. I wasn’t a fan of the liturgy or confession, but I liked the eucharist (Jesus’ flesh tastes bland, but it’s pleasantly salty after your saliva mixes in. His blood, on the other hand, is bottom shelf, at best).
I loved the, “Peace be with you,” “And also with you,” exchange, but—most of all—I dug the silence during communion. Everyone’s just kneeling down, all together but all alone within ourselves, talking to our personal saviors. They’re personal because Jesus is a bit different to everyone.
It’s like Build-A-Bear, but, ya know, the messiah.
As I got older, I started questioning the doctrine. “Why don’t animals have souls? That’s not cool.” “Why would a loving Father condemn his children to everlasting torture? That’s not cool.” “Why did Jesus have to die so that we could be forgiven? Couldn’t His Father just have, ya know, forgiven? That’s dumb, and not cool.” “Since I ate Jesus, am I a cannibal?” “Heaven sounds boring, and Yahweh is, at best, an absentee father; at worst, He’s a petty sadist.”
Then, finally, “There is no God.”
I have the Beatles, puberty, a mother who encouraged curiosity, and a bunch of marijuana to thank for that.
The search was on—the old fashioned search for meaning and understanding. Before I dove into Eastern schools via the Upanishads, I got into Wicca and broader Paganism. Paganism is kind of an umbrella term that applies to hundreds of different (primarily Western) mystical and occult traditions.
I devoured the Book of Shadows and then dove in, head first. It was one of the best times in my life. Suddenly, God wasn’t some brooding supreme being in the sky, there were gods everywhere, there was nature. We weren’t helpless beings living under the rule of a totalitarian deity, we were astonishing unions of mind and matter, and we weren’t powerless. We could use our will to change the world.
It was the one “religion” I practiced that was so immediately fulfilling and fun that I didn’t even feel the need to question it. My beliefs didn’t matter, what mattered was the feeling.
I soured on it after a Wiccan friend and I had a falling out. He was the one who introduced me to it (and his mom introduced it to him), so when he hurt me, it cast a shadow over the whole thing. Isn’t it shitty how that can happen? It’s like how people can ruin songs you used to love. I used to not mind country music until it became associated with a crappy period in my life.
So, I was done with it, and I took to the sea for more answers. Not really, more like eBay and the library. That’s right kids, we still had to use the library a lot back in 2002. The internet was around, but there wasn’t much on it besides porn and, well, porn.
Fast forward 11 years, and I was hooked on Buddhism. Oh man, was I hooked. I’d grown into a cynical, depressed, viciously atheistic intellectual. Then, well here were Four Noble Truths. Here was emptiness. It was easy to connect with.
After formally practicing Zen for two years, I had to scratch the knowledge itch again, so I branched out to Buddhism at-large.
I started with the Pali Canon and worked my way to modern times before settling on Chan (Who’s Chan?). I even made it to Novice Priest, woohoo! I got some fancy robes and everything (which I loved) that I threw away last winter in a fit of depression and rage.
Eventually, all the pain in life took me deeper than my practice could handle. I didn’t have the training to keep up with the escalating shit fest of 2018 – 2020. Too much death, loss, and loneliness.
Even as things started settling down a bit, the darkness was stuck to me. I was disappearing, I had been for quite awhile. I was losing the thread of my own life story, and I was so lonely—fuck was I lonely. I was just a giant mass of longing and sorrow too deep for words, too far along to spit out.
Nothing helped. I did everything I was supposed to, but I kept falling. My friends and family were worried, and I desperately wanted to hug someone, but it felt like I was living life at a distance. I was trapped behind my pain, and everything else was on the other side.
I don’t know how I kept going, how I even kept writing and teaching. My actions had no purpose to me, I was just following the program. Thankfully, I guess I followed it well. The thank yous and you’re greats kept flowing in the whole time, even though I felt nothing. I was stone.
So I started getting stoned again. Don’t judge me, monkey, it actually helped me to reconnect with myself and others. That and music, oh my music is everything, it’s the pulse of my life. It’s always taken me to the truth of things by fully engaging my synesthesia. I can melt into a song, I can feel it and see it, it’s like an ocean of associations.
But what truly brought me back, what cracked those big fucking walls, was acceptance. I met an awesome girl (we’re just friends, jeeeze, gossip much?). Well, we’ve known each other for a few years, but we’ve just started hanging out outside of work.
From the second I met her, it felt like I knew her; she made sense to me, and her vibe always made me forget what a piece of shit I thought I was.
She shines like the sun, so I started taking my guard down over the years. Now, I don’t keep anything for myself. I’m an Aspie, so I sometimes stutter and stammer when I’m emotional, I occasionally miss a meaning and dissect everything I’ve said to see if I could’ve said it better, but she accepts all of that. She accepts my sadness, my quirkiness, and all of my contradictions.
And when I share something tragic about myself, or when I say how sorrowful or lonely I feel, she doesn’t interject with her own take on things. She listens, and if someone truly listens to you, then that means they see you, the inner you.
To feel accepted on that level helped me to finally accept myself. The second I did that, everything changed. I laughed, smiled, and felt high on my own happiness; I still do. After all these years, I realized that my only true “mental illness” was Autism; everything else came about from me trying to be someone else.
Happy and loving, I was once again without a religion—I was free.
But I don’t think that we can be free for long unless you’ve entered samyak sambodhi, perhaps. For the rest of us, well, we’re monkeys—we grab onto another branch. I grabbed onto the first religion I chose for myself: Paganism.
Here we are, dear Reader; full circle and face to face. Now that I’m not worried about trying to keep Buddhism in tact, I can be myself. I have the utmost respect for Buddhism and Buddhists, but the issues the Buddhadharma addresses aren’t the same as mine. My suffering is my freedom, so why would I want to let it go? The only thing that hurts me now is your pain.
Sadly, the only thing I can do about that is have fun and hope that you do too. So, let’s get to it.
Editor: Dana Gornall