Seabrook, William Buehler - The Bliss of letting go
Type of spiritual experience
William Seabrook became, in his later life, an alcoholic in the true sense of the word. He was drinking not just pints of alcohol but quarts of alcohol every day and was also unable to control when he stopped and started. He realised that unless he stopped drinking he would die, as the amount he was consuming and his inability to control himself would eventually destroy his brain and his liver.
He decided his only hope was to get his friends to check him into an asylum. The asylum that they chose was for the mentally ill, but also took alcoholics occasionally – if they thought there was some hope of weaning them off the alcohol. It was extremely well run on humane lines, with the inmates segregated according to the severity of their illness and an emphasis on simple occupations [woodworking, basket making, painting, pottery] to calm the mind and open the channels to creativity; plenty of walks in the fresh air [the asylum had large tree filled grounds]; and exercise in a purpose built gymnasium.
The day was organised for every person such that they had to make no decisions. They were woken up the same time, had breakfast the same time, had dinner at midday and supper very early in the evening. They went to bed at 9pm. There were newspapers, but no initially no radio or outside communication [other than relatives]. They were treated largely like children, organised, gently reprimanded and told what to do. All threats were removed, all obligations removed and there was little point in having any desires or objectives because they would never be fulfilled. If you expressed a desire for anything, it was rejected. Whatever you wanted, you couldn’t have.
It was thus the perfect retreat.
Seabrook had a very rough first three months as the alcohol left his system and had to undergo ‘wrapping’ treatments plus a number of other humane methods to try to help him calm his nerves and stop the uncontrollable shaking, but after a while the tremors started to subside and he was to all intents and purposes a sane man in a retreat, with a remnant of brain damage from the alcohol and a need to find out why he drank [which he did with psychiatric help]. He was there for 7 months and left apparently cured
Thus the following observation is especially interesting as an example of what a true retreat can achieve.
Needless to say, this state could not last because the objective was to get him fit for the outside world again, but he did realise why people in there sometimes didn’t want to leave even though cured.
A description of the experience
Asylum – William Seabrook
It was snowing outside the big windows; it was peaceful and warm inside. I was listening to muted Siegfried and Valhalla motifs – symphonic Rheingold excerpts coming from Carnegie Hall, tuned low, on the radio--this ,may have been the fortuitous trigger - when I began to find myself interiorly illumined with a sort of mystical, if not maudlin, exaltation strangely like that which comes sometimes from prolonged drinking when the whiskey is good and -one drinks a lot of it without becoming violent or sick.
I suddenly found it wonderful, strange and beautiful, to be sober, and it curiously produced an illuminated sensitiveness which was astonishingly like the flashes a drunken man gets on the rare occasions when drunkenness seems golden and divine.
It was as if a veil, or scum or film had been stripped from all things visual and auditory, or as if the world had been suddenly diffused with a soft, unearthly, revealing light.
I was sitting close to the radio, and. was almost afraid to lift my head or move, for fear it all would fade. The colours in the carpet at my feet were abnormally vivid and made harmony.
Mr. Duval came, standing in the doorway and was looking in, as he did from time to time. I had seen him often thus, a fat-faced, fussy, spying, prying, pompously masculine old maid. I saw him now, benevolent, kindly and solicitous. He was my father and mother. He wouldn't let me hurt myself or let –anything hurt me. He was there to protect us, watch over us, and be kind to us. Four or five fellow-patients were scattered round the big room. I looked at their faces.
Their faces too were diffused with kindly, human light-even the face of one I had disliked, now wondering why, for he was now my brother. Some minutes had passed, but the illusion still persisted. It had not flashed, fleeting. It was still there. I took stock of it.
I realized that it was wonderful and at the same time slightly maudlin. I said to myself that if Quigley came in at the moment, with his ugly, little, mean pinched face pursed in authority, I'd probably love him. I didn't like that idea. I got up and shook myself, as it were, walked over to the window. But the big, bare trees against the white snow in the falling darkness seemed of an unearthly, almost holy beauty.
The thing still persisted. I felt mildness and goodness and child-like wonder within myself. I said , "Tripe!" to myself. I said, “I might as well be drunk." Instead of being pleased I shook myself again and fought it, as one fights the waves of alcoholic intoxication. I thought, “this is the hooey. This is a lot of baloney." I went out to the lavatory to wash my face for supper.
At supper, I scarcely noticed my companions or Mr Duval. I was absorbed, not knowing whether to be pleased or not, with a further phase of what I began to think might be an authentic “mystical illumination," if it weren't just a maudlin neurasthenia caused by the shut-down on the large quantities of booze in which my system had been soaked.
The phase was that dry, fresh bread, a piece of boiled potato, even the water, but particularly a scrap of plain, unbuttered bread, had a taste that was - ridiculously delicious, heavenly. There was a breaded chop in tomato sauce, which I am usually fond of, and I cut a mouthful anticipating that since dry bread suddenly tasted like ambrosia, this now would taste better than any banquet a starving man had ever dreamed of. But I had guessed wrong. It seemed too highly seasoned – a mixed gambit of savors, too sharply seasoned. I said:
"Spike, was there too much salt and pepper on your chop or does the tomato sauce seem sharp?"
"No" he said. "It's all right. I just put a little more salt on it."
So I knew its seeming too highly seasoned was a part of the weird state I was in. I got the same reaction to the salad dressing, but some leaves of lettuce with no dressing were as good to me as they would have been to a rabbit. And I still felt good and happy, though slightly scornful and puzzled about it.