I didn’t invent the connection between spirituality and nightlife. The Sufi poet Rumi beat me to it by over 800 years, comparing a mystical union with God to drinking wine and dancing with his beloved.
But that connection is something we recognize in theory. In practice, I get shocked looks when I say I found dancing with prostitutes in a Russian nightclub to be as spiritual an experience as singing Latin plainchant in a Swiss cathedral; partying at a tequila bar just outside Jerusalem’s Old City to be as religious as kissing the Wailing Wall; and running away from the Verona police with two Dutch girls and a Croatian woman to be as holy as living in a Buddhist monastery in India.
The surprise is understandable — but these experiences were all part and parcel of a single tapestry to me, because I entered them all in a state of pilgrimage.
My sophomore year of college the Off-Campus Programs officer, a mentor of mine, asked me to come to her office. She told me to sit down. She looked me in the eye and said, “Benjamin, if you could go anywhere in the world and do anything, what would it be?”
To my credit, I didn’t give a cheap or easy answer about the beaches of Tahiti or a career fast-track on Wall Street. I spoke from my heart, saying, “I’d like to live in a Buddhist monastery, not as an observer who’s asking, ‘Why do these quaint people believe what they believe?’ but as a participant, observing firsthand what that the life and the meditation practices do to your mind, and how it changes your life.”
She walked over to the wall, pulled down a brochure, and said, “Have I got a program for you.” It was exactly that.
If you find exactly what you were looking for, you’ve never really left your backyard.
I was able to make a wish — for anything — and see it granted. It didn’t fit with my course of study or life plan at all, but of course I had to do it. It was nothing like what I’d expected. I’ve never been the same.
About five years later, frustrated by graduate school and a nasty break-up, I realized that I was unhappy with the life I had built. “Well,” I said, “what is it that I really want to be doing?” I sat down, meditated using one of the techniques I had once learned in a Buddhist monastery in India, and eventually realized:
“I want to travel the world.”
Like going to the monastery, traveling the world required sacrifice. I quit my jobs in print and radio, left my Masters program just short of graduation, said goodbye to everyone I knew, and hit the road. Four months later, through a series of extraordinary coincidences, I was paying my way across the world by writing stories about international nightlife for Playboy.com. It was nothing like what I’d planned. I’ve never been the same.
One experience involved sitting very still, the other chasing bright lights into dark clubs, but I entered both in a state of openness and sacrifice — I had explicitly asked for a new life and then made room for what came. These experiences happened not just because I said, “This is what I want,” but because I willingly gave up my old life to pick up a new one, leaving behind plans, careers, and most of all, certainty. I learned two lessons: Saying “yes!” to the divine in your life is an active process, not a passive one; and you cannot go on a pilgrimage to a destination of your choosing. If you find exactly what you were looking for, you’ve never really left your backyard.
When the writer Cary Tennis told me that he wanted to publish a collection of my short fiction, I gave him a group of my recent stories to look over. At our next meeting, he mentioned, “A lot of your stories take place in bars.”
Did they? I hadn’t noticed. He was right — but that wasn’t the only pattern. Many of these stories involved people going into bars and finding a god there. Or having a spiritual revelation.
I was, I realized, processing my pilgrimages in my fiction.
Those stories are now a collection, A Guide to Bars and Nightlife in the Sacred City, and I’m asked on an almost daily basis, “How can you say there’s anything spiritual about going to a bar?”
Well, there doesn’t have to be, any more there has to be something spiritual about going to church — both can be passive processes in which you sit on an uncomfortable bench, put in your time, and leave exactly the way you were when you walked in.
It’s a pathetic divinity that can only appear beneath flying buttresses on Sundays.
But don’t we dream of more? Isn’t the whole point of a spiritual experience to change your life?
If bars were really about the booze, you’d drink at home. If going out were really about seeing your friends, you’d visit each other’s homes. Nightlife, at its essence, is the desire for something amazing to happen. To go out searching for a miracle. We may think of that yearning as distinct from “spiritual” experience because our culture generally associates religion with puritanism, but the same hope and need and desire for meaning can push us to both churches and clubs. It’s a pathetic divinity that can only appear beneath flying buttresses on Sundays.
Perhaps the biggest proof of concept of this today is Burning Man, which for hundreds of thousands of people is simultaneously a massive party and a spiritual pilgrimage. Bacchanalia? Sure — but that was a religious festival, too. What Burning Man offers most is possibility: you have no idea what you’re going to encounter when you cross the street, or what will happen as you step into the desert — but you have gone out of your way to get it. That voluntarily chosen “primacy of possibility” (to use the sociologist Philip Rieff’s term), a source from which anything can happen, is the engine that powers Burning Man as both spiritual pilgrimage and party, and is fuel that fires great spiritual journeys — whether monastic or sensual.
The fact that these possibilities are not necessarily benign, that they can do damage, that your soul is at risk, is exactly the point. A spirituality that is incapable of leading across loneliness, addiction, and tragedy has nothing to offer anyone in this broken world. The stakes are real, and anyone casually familiar with scriptures, let alone the deity, knows that a pilgrimage is not harmless. This isn’t self-help culture. Easy answers are not on offer. Sacrifice is the price of admission.
We take the pilgrimage up anyway, into churches and dive bars. We follow the divine’s path until it finds us.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.