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A mind blowing, reality-rocking, and life changing book on how to embrace Greek mysticism and the Pythagorean Way of Life from a junkie turned holistic practitioner.
A mind blowing, reality-rocking, and life changing book on how to embrace Greek mysticism and the Pythagorean Way of Life from a junkie turned holistic practitioner.
Tripping the Night Fantastic
We've all had pivotal turning points in our lives—those critical two or three game-changers that create an entirely different life trajectory: the job that we should have taken, the relationship that we shouldn't have quit, the opportunity that we should've seized.
My life-changing fork in the road came soon after I had graduated from college on a beautiful September evening in New York during the fall of 1986.
I had grown up in the gritty, pre-Rudolph Giuliani New York of the late seventies and early eighties, as the athletic, clean-cut, yet confused son of working class Greek immigrants from Queens. As a teenager attending the Bronx High School of Science, I felt trapped in the outer boroughs and insecure with my ethnicity. Frustrated, I searched for something more as I gravitated towards the liberating downtown Manhattan club scene. With the subway serving as my trusty chariot, I ventured into the brave new worlds of Danceteria, the Pyramid Club, and CBGBs. These dark and anonymous rooms, filled with throbbing music that made my ears ring and my heart skip, offered a magical escape from the tedious grays of my life in Queens with a strict father who worked too long and drank too hard.
After high school, I bounced around a couple of different colleges before miraculously landing at Cornell University, where, in the rarefied Ivy League air, I once again struggled with my humble roots. Still confused and full of self-doubt, I drifted without the requisite plan for post-college life that most of my classmates seemed to have securely in place. I remember seeing the The Graduate during my senior year and feeling a solemn kinship with Benjamin Braddock, the Dustin Hoffman character. I so palpably felt his ennui as he sank to the bottom of that pool in his scuba gear that I was tempted to jump up from my seat and shout, "I feel you, my brother! Stay down! Stay the hell down!"
Unsure what to do with my life, I interviewed for a job as an assistant buyer at Bloomingdales, the vocational default option for those of us who were aimlessly drifting. Surprised to be hired, I started work as an executive trainee right after my graduation in June, 1986. I quickly received a welcome-to-the-real-world indoctrination as I found myself folding slacks in the Designer Men's department while getting yelled at by a short, nasalvoiced department manager.
God, I hated that job.
Adding to my malaise was the fact that I was living with my college sweetheart, a rather lovely young woman who didn't miss an opportunity to remind me that I had yet to legitimize our union by giving her a ring.
It's fair to say I felt trapped. Stultified. Smothered. Unable to breathe. It felt as if a ninehundred-pound Sumo wrestler had plopped himself on my chest as he leisurely picked at his soba noodles.
It's also fair to say that I was unhappy.
It was at just that depressing point in my life that I heard the Copacabana nightclub on East Sixtieth Street was hiring cleancut martial artists to be doormen.
"That's me! Clean-cut martial artist!" I thought to myself.
You see, back in 1986, I was still working a post-Cornell, young Republican look, but I also had a black belt and had been a national AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) karate champion. Martial arts had been another form of escape for me as a kid. When I first saw Bruce Lee in the exotic Enter the Dragon, I, along with millions of other young men looking for an identity, was sold. Karate classes followed soon after.
Escape was also the order of the day when I heard about the Copa job while dying a slow death at Bloomingdales. Now keep in mind that this was the original Copacabana that was featured in the movie Goodfellas. The same Copa of that infamous 1957 Yankees fight and the same Copa that Barry Manilow immortalized in that annoying song. But by 1986, the Copa had transitioned into a Latin dance club—a violent Latin dance club. In fact, I would later find out that the doorman I replaced had suffered a rather unfortunate occupational hazard: a bullet through the midsection, fired by an irate patron whom he'd barred from entering the club. The poor guy was now forced to take care of his private business by using a rather clumsy colostomy bag.
You'd think something like that—or the fact that since that shooting, the Copa's doormen were issued bulletproof vests to wear underneath their suits and ties— might deter me, or at least give me pause to think. Hell, some of my friends thought that I was crazy to want that job. But I didn't care; I just wanted out of the house and that damned Sumo off of my chest while maybe chasing a little excitement.
As I walked along East Sixtieth Street towards the Copa to interview for the shooting-induced doorman vacancy, I had no idea that I was at a crossroads in my life. I had no idea that I was about to embark on a ten-year odyssey through the surreal world of New York nightlife—a journey replete with colorful wiseguys, flamboyant drag queens, self-absorbed glitterati, self-righteous literati, vacuous socialites, never-were wannabes, sleazy promoters, hard-partying musicians, synaptically challenged models, misguided misfits, corrupt lawyers, Haitian hit squads, and, of course, the ubiquitous drug dealers of all shapes and sizes.
Nor was I aware that it would also include drug addiction, overdoses, violence, death, betrayal, corruption, and back-stabbing.
* * *
I quit Bloomingdales soon after I started working at the Copa. Within three short years, after hustling and working to save enough money, I opened my own nightclub with two partners. Located on the fringe of the West Village and the as-yet ungentrified Meatpacking District, Horatio 113 quickly took off as a celebrity hotspot; we were booked solid for film premieres and record-release parties, as literally hundreds of people would clamor at our velvet ropes begging to get in. After our meteoric success at Horatio 113, we opened three more clubs in quick succession.
And, of course, there was the requisite sex, drugs, and rock and roll.
I would stand at the front door, watching the frenzied crowds vying for our doorman's attention; I'd walk through the club, stopping to do shots with Uma Thurman or going to the office to do lines of coke with the celebrity du jour. When rock stars like Slash, from Guns & Roses, got out of hand (as he did), I had security unceremoniously throw him out on his head. When sports superstars like Michael Jordan showed up with their entourages, they would come to me—lord of my absurdly superficial little fiefdom—to ensure that their self-indulgent needs were taken care of.
My world was so glamorous that even some of my employees went on to megastardom. Before he became an action hero, Vin Diesel was one of my bouncers; before winning two Grammys, Moby manned my turntables as a DJ; and before winning a Tony on Broadway and making it in films, Liev Schreiber worked for me as a bartender.
For me, a basically insecure middle-class kid from Queens, it was all overwhelming—and intoxicating.
* * *
By the mid-nineties, my life was spinning painfully out of control. I was strung out on booze and drugs. My personal life was a disaster, as my womanizing had led to divorce and break-ups. I had several pissed-off wise guys looking to clear up certain "misunderstandings." My business partners and I were fighting to keep local and state authorities from revoking our liquor licenses. And, the cherry on the cake, I had a Haitian drug-dealing gang called the Zo Zos put a contract out on my life over some rather unfortunate free-trade disagreements.
In 1995, New York State finally did revoke our clubs' liquor licenses. When the state authorities let us know that it was last call, addiction really did a number on me. Without the semblance of an identity or job to keep me at least somewhat grounded, I drifted off into an abyss.
By 1999, I was human by only the most liberal of definitions. I was holed up in the isolating fortress of my shame as I sought the round-the-clock relief of my little powdered confection. I got high over and over and over again to temporarily numb my shame and self-loathing, because I just couldn't stand—couldn't accept—the reality of what had happened to me.
But what had happened to me?
My glamorous, velvet-roped, VIP lifestyle was long over, and I was now a broke, physically battered, and emotionally shot train wreck. My life consisted of an agonizing countdown towards my next dose of numbness. Tick tock, tick tock—time never moves as slowly as it does when you're anticipating the next hit. Tick tock, tick tock—I seemed to be in a strange universe where even though the seconds interminably dragged on, the years seemed to paradoxically fly by.
Worst of all, there just seemed to be no escape. It felt like I had blinked and somehow woken up in a nightmare—a horribly repetitive nightmare. Like some twisted version of Bill Murray's character in Groundhog Day, I'd regain consciousness and still be stuck in the same miserable place. There seemed to be no way out of the bottomless trap that I'd fallen into.
I eventually came to accept that I was unfixable, that I was destined to die in an addicted flame out. Hell, I'd even romanticized the idea; "live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse" became my delusional mantra.
While I had grown comfortable with the idea of dying, I couldn't handle accidentally bumping into old friends or acquaintances as I crawled along the Lower East Side, looking for this dealer or waiting for that one. God, I couldn't stand seeing the impossible-to-conceal frown or the look of pity. Even if they didn't say the words, I could hear their thoughts in my mind: "What's happened to him? He used to be on top of the world."
I was also beginning to go insane—I'm talking One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest crazy. I would wander the streets, disconnected with reality, sometimes talking to myself. I became consumed with Howard Hughes–type obsessive compulsions—repetitive behaviors, counting steps, avoiding sidewalk cracks, obsessively saving newspapers and highlighting various TV listings.
Worst of all, there were the times, when the high faded, that I would feel as if I were in a horrible free fall. But unlike the sense experienced by the parachutist whose chute won't open, my disorienting sense of plummeting was more than just physical—it was existential as well. I sensed that who or what I was falling, forever falling, into some kind of dark and dreaded abyss, disappearing into oblivion. My craziness, my compulsive repetitions—they were just my ways of maintaining some semblance of structure to reaffirm that I was real, that I was still here. But it was a losing battle.
I felt I was actually falling—or dissolving—into nothingness.
* * *
And then my parents reentered the equation.
They intervened with unconditional love just when I needed it the most. I had been so ashamed about the sad condition that I'd deteriorated into that I was avoiding them for months at a time. Eventually they figured out the truth, but rather than scorn me or judge me, they offered me love.
I moved back home with them for a period of time to try and regroup. It was very humbling having to be back in my childhood bedroom after all the fancy hotels and nice apartments that I'd lived in during my adult life. There I was, thirty-three years old and a once-upon-atime big shot, sleeping in my old twin bed, between my childhood Star Trek sheets, which were adorned with the accusing, frozen stares of Kirk and Spock, looking up at me as I tried to make sense of my life. But being back home also felt very nurturing and safe. After all the champagne-soaked VIP rooms, the blurry after-hours clubs, the grimy drug dens with all the decaying humanity, seeing my sweet little mom's smiling face every morning as she held me tight and told me that she loved me—well, there was just something very healing in that.
My parents suggested that I get into rehab; I assured them that I could kick drugs on my own. As first-generation Greek immigrants, they didn't know much about the decidedly American concept of therapy, so at first it was relatively easy to talk them out of such a silly idea as rehab.
Don't get me wrong—by that point I really did want to stop using. And I did really try. I could always stop doing drugs for brief periods—like a few days—but I discovered that staying stopped was an altogether different matter, and I continued to relapse. At the same time, I found myself in a debilitating depression. I stayed in bed for months, watching Jerry Springer and Chips reruns around the clock (since I had insomnia).
Not only did I not have the first clue about how to stay clean and sober, but I also was still an empty, empty shell of a human being.
My parents eventually began to sense that they were losing me, that I was going to die. Unbeknownst to me, they educated themselves about rehabs and the therapy process and then, once again, brought up the idea of treatment. Only this time it was more than a suggestion: I had to go, or I had to leave.
I can't say how or why, but I finally became open to the idea of recovery. Towards that end, I really did some hard work in rehab, working with my counselors and honestly discussing my issues, as well as connecting with a twelve-step program.
After rehab, I moved into a sober house on the East End of Long Island. That was an experience: twelve life-hardened, over-grown men in five undersized bedrooms. They were a mishmash of humanity that were from everywhere—from prison to psych wards—as well as a couple of regular Joes, who were all struggling to get sober. Living in such cramped quarters with such a wacky crew and having curfews and mandatory house chores was all new for me, but it was just what I needed. It reconnected me to the human race. Granted, it was the lunatic fringe subset of the human race, but it was a lot better than the addicted isolation that I'd been in.
It was while living in that sober house that I started reading again—voraciously. As a trying-to-recover alcoholic and addict, I began to realize that it was important for me to quench a deeper thirst. I was drawn towards books that helped me to make sense of things, and as I read books about philosophy and cosmology by Thomas Merton, Daisaku Suzuki, Ken Wilber, and Joseph Campbell, I began to realize that the emptiness I had felt inside was beginning to disappear and become filled with something deeper and more satisfying.
* * *
After a few months in the sober house, I moved back to New York City, where I reconnected with one of my dearest friends, Gary Lewis. Gary was a former bartender in
my clubs and by far the best human being I have ever known. Like so many others, he had moved to New York after college to pursue a creative dream, but wound up working in clubs and restaurants instead. A dead-ringer for Cleavon Little of Blazing Saddles fame, he was just the warmest, most genuine, most kind-hearted person that you could ever want to meet. He was also the only person—other than my parents— that hadn't turned his back on me during my descent. Even during the darkest period of my life, he constantly tried to reach out and offer his help.
Gary and I reconnected and became inseparable. During one of our many late-night coffee sessions, while trying to figure out the next phase in our lives, we decided to write a television series that would capture all the drama and pathos of the downtown New York nightlife scene. I now had a dream again, as Gary and I met every day to work on our creative project. This was a wonderful period of growth for me, as I also continued my philosophical readings, attended daily twelve-step meetings, and regularly hit the gym. Drugs and alcohol became the farthest things from my mind, and I was able to put together just about a year of sobriety.
Around this time I also met (or re-met) Lucy, an old friend I hadn't seen in almost fifteen years. The last time that I had seen her, she was a young, sexy, Latina high school kid, dating one of my best friends while I was still working at Bloomingdales and moon-lighting at the Copa. Since then, she'd blossomed into a mature and soulful schoolteacher who had traveled the world. The attraction between us was instant and magical. I happily reconnected with Lucy during Thanksgiving week of 2000.
That same week, on Thanksgiving Eve, Gary and I had just carried two loads of his laundry up to his fifth-story walk-up when I noticed that Gary was struggling to breathe. When we finally got to his landing, he dropped his bag with a big exhale and looked very flushed as he tried to laugh it off.
As he opened the front door of his apartment, he mentioned that he wanted to show me something on his computer. He was still red and breathing heavily as we sat side-by-side on his new wooden computer bench, but he managed a smile as he lifted his finger with an exaggerated arm motion.
"First we turn the computer on!" he said as he hit the power button. Those were his last words.
Suddenly and without warning, his eyes started bulging, and he started to make a choking sound while furiously reaching with both hands towards his throat.
Excerpted from How Plato and Pythagoras Can Save Your Life by Nicholas Kardaras. Copyright © 2011 Nicholas Kardaras, Ph.D.. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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Part I My Personal Odyssey
1 Tripping the Night Fantastic 3
Exercise 1 Who-and What-Am I? 17
2 The Journey Home 19
Exercise 2 Take Me to the River 32
Part II The Being Human
3 White Crows: Mystics, Savants, and Other Harbingers of Human Potential 35
Exercise 3 Mystic Mind (or How to Crack Open the Cranium) 57
4 Wake Up! Greek Philosophy Breaks the Trance 59
5 The Ultimate Cage Match: Philosophy, Science, and Religion (or Togas, Bibles, and Microscopes: Why Can't We All Just Get Along?) 73
6 Homo Anxious: I Think, Therefore I Worry 81
7 Newsflash: Science Declares God Is Dead-But Can't Prove It! (or The Scientific Atheism Fallacy) 95
Exercise 4 Mindfulness Walk: "Being" Without Thinking 102
8 Why Philosophy Matters 103
Exercise 5 Am I a Neuron in the Mind of God? 106
Part III Reality Bites
9 The Physical World: The Tip of the Reality Iceberg 109
Exercise 6 More to Reality Than Meets the Eye 117
10 Real Deal Reality: Beyond Sense and Beyond Reason 119
Exercise 7 Beyond Logic: Riddles and Paradoxes 129
Part IV Pythagoras, the Big Beat, and Cosmic Consciousness
11 Pythagoras Squared: Who Was This Mystic Mathemagician? 133
Exercise 8 Infinity: The Ultimate Mind Trip 158
12 Good Vibrations: Pythagoras and the Big Beat 161
Exercise 9 The Cosmic Symphony: Music from the Universal Orchestra 167
Part V Escaping Plato's Cave
13 Plato's Retreat-from the Material World 173
Exercise 10 The Universe as One Big Thought 185
14 On the Nature of Change: The More Things Change 187
Exercise 11 Change: The Great Illusion 193
15 Death: The New Birth 195
Exercise 12 Incubation (or How Death Can Transform Your Life) 205
Part VI Yes, But ... What Does It All Mean?
16 New Science and Old Wisdom 209
17 Musings From My Dissertation 225
18 Some Final Thoughts 229