Who Am I? Yoga, Psychedelics & the Quest for Enlightenment by Allowah Lani
The last few years has seen a plethora of books that blend personal narrative with the exploration of various aspects of psychedelic drugs. Who Am I, as the title suggests, is one such book. Allowah Lani, a Generation-X yogi from the United States, shares with us a personal tale of his spiritual journey with the yoga of psychedelics, embedded within some fascinating forays into the history of psychedelia.
This book is rather like reading someone’s diary; following the progress of our hero as he encounters psychedelics in his thirties, after many years of yogic spirituality and practice. We see how Lani wrestles with what he calls “the ambivalent relationship between yoga and psychedelic substances.” The author, while clearly undergoing his own transformative experiences through his engagement with psychedelic drugs, is beset with the sometimes stern and unnervingly sure sounding voices of various gurus as they denounce these substances. For example, Lani quotes Meher Baba who pontificates (pun intended) as follows:
“The state of ecstasy brought about by music or some extraneous influence like drugs does not mean spirituality. It is a state in which the mind overpowers itself, and is a weakness to be guarded against. Instead of roaming wild, the mind should be self-composed. This comes with control. Tell those that are (taking drugs) that if drugs could make one realize God, then God is not worthy of being God. No drugs.”
(Our author, who comes across as a nice guy, is much more kind in his analysis of Meher Baba that I might have been.) Lani provides quotes from other spiritual luminaries, which demonstrate a range of views. Unsurprisingly there is no consensus among the elect as to whether drugs are bad, in fact their views appear to be indistinguishable from pretty much any cross section of society, leading me to the inevitable conclusion that they are (drum roll) just people.
Lani suspects as much too, but being deeply invested in yoga (by which I assume the author means hatha yoga, breathwork and mediational practices – drugs are explored in the book but interestingly yoga doesn’t get a similar analysis) some of these pronouncement from respected teachers are problematic for him. Meanwhile our hero is busy brewing an ayahuasca analogue in his kitchen and stepping beyond a spirituality that is provided by didactic discourse.
The hero’s journey of the book branches off into histories of Tom Law, the yogi shown in the Woodstock movie, Leary, Ram Dass and all the gang. These stories of the European engagement with psychedelics shed light on the calcified elements within those otherwise tremendously valuable spiritual technologies (that are grouped together as yoga) from Asia. Other limbs springing from the central trunk of Who Am I include chapters containing an interview with a ‘Traditional Peruvian Shaman’ (though I wonder if anyone has yet interviewed a ‘Radical Peruvian Shaman’?) and the near ubiquitous ‘what was Soma?’ discussion. While there is much in these sections that can be found in other books the value in these chapters is their presentation by Lani in relation to this tension between (traditional and conservative) yoga and (radical and liberal) psychedelics.
Towards the end of the book the author writes: “I see this book now as essentially a spiritual “coming of age” tale,” and this is quite true. While the author does himself a disservice when he describes his work as “verbose and unwieldy” this is not a finely polished book, and in that is its charm. By being open and honest about his limitations, his experiences, his knowledge and his uncertainties, this results in a book which has an authenticity that is very engaging.
Along with DMT: The Spirit Molecule by Rick Strassman, Who Am I records the uneasy intersection between certain interpretations of Eastern spiritual practices and drugs (Strassman had some stress from his Buddhist chums as a result of his explorations with psychedelics and has recently taken refuge in Old Testament entheogenics.) People caught up in similar struggles between (apparently) opposed spiritual technologies or traditions would benefit from reading Who Am I, not for the facts of psychedelic history, but from the opportunity to reflect on the interference patterns between different beliefs that the book explores.