A Conversation with Erik Davis
Note: This is a transcript of a podcast episode. If you find any mistakes, please let me know.
Michael: Welcome to Deconstructing Yourself. My name is Michael Taft and in this interview I’m delighted to be speaking with the one and only Erik Davis.
Erik Davis is an author, podcaster, award-winning journalist and popular speaker based in San Francisco. He is probably best known for his book called Technosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information which is a cult classic of visionary media studies that investigates how our fascination with technology intersects with the religious imagination. It’s a great book. You should check it out, and I also really love his podcast entitled “Expanding Mind.” Eric and I share a lot of obsessions in common including meditation and the works of author Robert Anton Wilson.
Eric and I recently met in a studio in San Francisco and created the episode that I called Robert Anton Wilson, High Weirdness, and Buddhist meditation with Eric Davis. Eric welcome to the Deconstructing Yourself Podcasts.
Erik: Good to be here.
Michael: Yeah, it’s been quite a journey getting you here into the studio in the business district of San Francisco, but I’m glad you made it today.
Erik: Me, too.
Michael: Yeah. So you know there’s a lot going on, there’s a lot I want to talk to you about, but the first thing is our mutual love for Robert Anton Wilson. You may not know this but Robert Anton Wilson literally changed my life with his book Cosmic Trigger, which just at the time I read it in the early 80s was some kind of printed psychedelic pre-internet mind explosion that just literally rocketed me—not literally, but it blew my mind and changed my life. Because I ended up working at Sounds True and could get interviews with various people I was interested in back then, I pulled strings and did a week long interview with Robert Anton at his house in Santa Cruz in about ‘99, so not that long before he passed away. So he’s been a lifelong fascination of mine and I understand you’re doing a book.
Erik: Well, two chapters of the book that’s coming out in the spring are devoted to him. The book is called High Weirdness, Drugs, Visions and Esoterica in the 70s, and it’s partly about the 70s as kind of a phase a later phase of the counterculture, a different period of a certain kind of post psychedelic or psychedelic searching, seeking, more occultism, more kind of existentialism, more darkness in a lot of ways than what the 60s were about in our imaginations and then I focus it on the kinds of visionary experiences, the peak experiences to create the high weirdness with three figures: with Terence Mckenna in the jungle with the Experiment at La Chorrera, Robert Anton Wilson with Cosmic Trigger, and Philip K. Dick with the 2-3-74 material which is less psychedelic but I kind of intentionally put those things together because I think there’s a tendency when psychedelics are involved to simply bracket it “psychedelics” and it’s just that’s what’s about that’s what the tradition belongs to. And while that makes sense for some reasons, in other ways I think it’s important to look at a broader range of kinds of experiences which can take similar forms and I think with Philip Dick even he had done acid and mescaline but only a handful of times in his whole life and he was years away from those experiences when he had his crazy stuff in 1974. But at the same time it’s very resonant, it’s dissimilar let’s say from elements of both Wilson’s and McKenna’s experiences.
So I’m kind of interested in comparing them but also especially with Wilson. As you know my book is partly based on my PhD, so it’s real scholarship although it’s written in a funny way or engaging way hopefully. There’s very little attention to Wilson outside of the narrow undergrounds that were influenced and even transformed by him. So unlike Phil Dick that had—there’s a whole scholarship around Phil Dick. McKenna less so but he’s kind of more of an outlier and in a lot of ways harder to wrap your head around and while he was an intellectual. He doesn’t have the cognitive intensity and singularity that Wilson does. He is going to blow your mind and it’s going to work like philosophy except it’s like philosophy, you can’t avoid and it reprograms your way of thinking.
And I had a similar experience to you and I guess it was 1985 and I was living in Berkeley for the summer. I had just started to attend Yale but my girlfriend at the time was in Berkeley, so I went back to Berkeley and we were living in Barrington Hall. Which is a legendary Student co-op that at that point was still riding the kind of nadir of the counterculture it was you know filled with junkies and crazy anarchists and occultists and drug dealers and it was like the carpet smelled like cat piss and bong water and there was murals and like this sort of degraded haze of the counterculture, but it was still really marvelous and esoteric arcane place to live and it was during that summer that I started to read Crowley and Wilson reading Illuminatus and Cosmic Trigger and getting my mind suitably blown.
Michael: It was fascinating because Illuminatus was fun and I loved it and of course Crowley still is a fascinating read even today for me. Cosmic Trigger’s different though, it’s like I can barely stand to read a page of it right now. Even though I still really like Robert Anton Wilson work and his writing, there’s something about it. It was so of the moment and I think it prefigures a lot of things about the internet and about modern culture in a very prescient way, but it’s also sort of a weird artifact that doesn’t work anymore.
Erik: I think the same could be said of Illuminatus as well. I think Illuminatus is, if anything even a little bit more dated, but these things are hard to disentangle from their context and that’s sort of why the book that I decided to write is historical. It’s like something happened in the 70s, lots of things happen in the 70s, what do these crazy experiences of these outlier eccentric intellectuals tell us about these larger forces that are going on at that time? Because I think you can’t just pluck him out and say, oh, he’s a good philosopher. Oh, he’s going to help you illuminate your life. There’s something about a kind of transmission of an arcane, esoteric, druggie, hedonistic worldview or set of practices, there’s no way could sustain and don’t really make sense today in those terms. I mean there’s different forms of them today, but I think there is something really historically-located about those things.
And yet, even if you set up the history and kind of understand it as an artifact of a certain era, there’s a viral quality to that stuff and I think part of that reaction is also like, I don’t know if I want to get this dose again, you know I think I got that one already, you know it can scramble your perspectives. That’s a fun thing, that’s true I think of all of their these experiences as well and the text that came out of them is there’s a certain mimetic infectious kind of quality to the questioning, to the style, to the kind of mischievous playfulness combined with a kind of you know dark possibility combined with a kind of existential, you’re your own kind of aspect, it’s really good for adolescence man. It’s like if you’re young. I still say people should read Cosmic Trigger.
Michael: I always thought it was possibly the most aptly named book in the world at least for me, it really had that effect of just triggering a whole avalanche of psychedelic use and interest in meditation and so on. He called it Guerilla Ontology and it really did function in that way. I’m so impressed with his ability to almost like see into the future where now the way he was working is the way the entire cutting edge of the internet works. Unfortunately, it’s now all right using the same tricks that he was using to be mischievous, anarchist, or whatever he was, what words we want to use for him.
I think it’s fascinating that in the 90s he was leaning into the Guns and Drugs Party that was a little bit libertarian, so maybe even setting up some of today’s craziness.
Erik: There’s a whole conversation if he had there about one of the interesting things about doing this work where I was particularly interested in going back to the late 50s and 60s and really trying to understand where he came from so that I could create a kind of intellectual biography of where was he in the mid-70s when the Cosmic Trigger stuff happens.
So he talks a lot about aspects of that story but there are other things you can learn by reading his early columns and the realist for example all that stuff is online so you can go read all the articles he wrote for the real is starting in the late 1950s. And you get a better sense of where his politics are coming from which changed along the way but it is really significant that he is not as I would have to say neither McKenna nor Dick were kind of men of the left. They weren’t of exactly that particular articulation of the countercultural politics that we think of today as being not only dominant but kind of exclusive, you know especially McKenna was also more of an anarchist, more interested in technology and the way that technology was going to develop, possibilities that could be liberation as opposed to the kind of standard Luddite kind of approach that you found either among hippies or among new left people who were fearful or resistant to the power that is embodied in modern technology and computers or computer networks or things like that. And whereas these guys were like oh, no, no, let’s see, let’s see.
And so I mean Wilson’s politics end up being complicated because he is both a libertarian and an anarchist and even the relationship between those two things, we could sit here and talk for hours about. He even has a line from the early 70s. I think it’s insects and drugs where he talks about representing a form of right-wing anarchism that is so radical, it’s more radical than left-wing. And so what he says “right-wing,” what does that mean in a contemporary times, it doesn’t really mean what we mean, what it means is radically individualist as opposed to collectivist and that’s always been attention in the counter cultures. You have on the one hand communism and new forms of social movements and a very strong attention to collectivities to comrades, even in communes where it’s very much about the collective. And at the same time there’s this other current that’s very individualistic, very socially libertarian, very much like let’s just see what happens but I’m not going to follow your story man, I’m not stuck in your… You know, very, very individualistic.
Michael: And “don’t tell me what to do.”
Erik: Yeah, don’t tell me what to do. He was much more of that style. So in some ways technically, he’s not unlike more modern forms of libertarianism although even there we got to say, there’s a difference between the libertarians of the 1990s and the libertarians of today by a considerable margin.
Michael: Yeah. Quite a bit.
Erik: Quite a bit. But even that earlier phase, the thing that saves him even if some of his ideas go in that kind of direction is that: A, he always distrusted corporations, he was not a Hayek, you know a “market knows all” kind of guy. He did not believe that capitalism, taking the form of large corporations that were able to do whatever they want to do without state regulation was the perfect model of a liberated society just thought that was bullshit and he came from a poor background and he always had sympathy for poor people. He lived poor much of his life. He did use welfare at times. So he didn’t have that hatred of the poor. He thought a lot of libertarian positions were actually just hatred of the poor. So he had this kind of social sensibility that gave him an empathy and a kind of a different way of organizing his kind of anarchism. So it’s much more palatable than a lot of the libertarian perspectives that we see today.
Michael: Yeah, I mean he’s raised a poor Irish kid on Long Island He’s constantly really deeply like Voltaire levels of sympathy for the working-class regular people. It was always there in everything he wrote I never saw a hint of anything but that. And I really respected that about him, you could tell there was a tremendous amount of kindness there and just personal ethos. He really had a practice of compassion basically or at least an experience of compassion.
Erik: So his anarchism also really goes into the core if you want to call it atheology or the kind of spirituality or mysticism—none of those words are really exactly right—but his cosmic view and that was always very much against power or against concentrated power against institutionalized power. And that’s I think one of the distinctions you can make is that a lot of contemporary libertarians, they think that the state is just kind of some sort of ossified nanny, that is preventing them from doing whatever they want to do. Or letting capital do what capital wants to do or letting technology do what technology wants to do. But they’re not really aware of the way that new oppressive forms of power emerge from these kinds of unleashed markets. Whereas if you’re libertarianism or your anarchism (however you want to put it) is with a great suspicion of power at its core, then you move in a very different direction.
So for him there’s a great kind of mythology story they I think Simon Moon describes it in Illuminatus where you go back and it’s really about the emergence of the state. And how the myths that you find in multiple systems including in the Babylonian Sumerian period of where there’s sort of an original chaos goddess and then…
Erik: Tiamat. And then she’s killed and then out of her body, the raw material gets reorganized into what becomes the state.
And so for an anarchist it’s still this concern with the state, but the state doesn’t just mean government as opposed to corporations. The state is the way in which human beings kind of deny the underlying chaos or Tao that is always outside of our structures, our language, our cultural patterns, our institutions. And that there’s something fundamentally valuable about returning even for a moment even in the space of a riot or the space of a sexual ritual or the space of a psychedelic trip, but more hopefully in a longer-term way to returning to that kind of primeval chaos as a kind of refreshing reminder that it doesn’t lie in forms of human power. That’s not the answer.
And so that anarchism for him is both political and spiritual and philosophical, because it takes the form of ontological anarchism. What does that mean? It means the fundamental questions about what is reality, you know we want to boil it down: What is reality? What’s really real? How do we think about it? Do we think about in terms of science? Do we think about in terms of consciousness? Do we think about in terms of history like Natural History, Darwinism, evolutionary forms? How do we think about it?
And the ontological anarchism is like the thing itself is multiple or the thing itself is chaotic, is turbulent, is made of multiplicities, there is no there there, that boils down to a single perspective or single way of being. It’s multiple perspectives all the way down.
So when you have that attitude then that’s part of what is so transformative about Wilson because we can call that a postmodern perspective is.
Michael: It’s a metasystemic viewpoint.
Erik: Right. Yeah, and so we can talk about it with other terms but in terms of popular thinking that’s kind of the word that ended up standing for the meta-system thinking where you recognize there’s a multiplicity of perspectives and they kind of relate, but there’s not a God’s eye view. Although there are different hierarchies within that point of view. And that’s a very kind of revolutionary idea of when you first encounter it. And in a lot of ways within occultism and within a psychedelics and in the underground that he was one of the first people to really push that perspective, really articulate it very strongly. So you couldn’t fall back on kind of simple ideas of truth.
You know there’s origins for it, it goes back, you can find it in Taoism, you can find it in Crowley, and it’s not like he invented it all. But he articulated it in a way that blew your mind. Just the fact of the multiplicity that there are all these multiple reality tunnels and we’re navigating between them all the time. Just communicating that reality was both liberating and vertiginous, kind of frightening, kind of, oh boy, oh, here we go. Kind of like, what? I took how much LSD? Oh-oh, look at the clock, here it comes! You know there’s an aspect of like you can’t go back from that perspective very easily unless you like rigorously hold on to set. You go, okay, now that’s all that multiple perspective stuff is, yeah, it’s true to a certain degree but where we really root reality is in science or rationality or history or political structure or whatever the thing is. But it becomes harder to do.
And so I think that that’s partly why Cosmic Trigger’s potent because it shows that philosophically, but it also shows what happens when that kind of viewpoint starts to be coupled with in-your-face experiences that grow farther and farther away from the norm and you realize that you don’t have an easy way back.
Michael: Well he doesn’t to you as the reader by presenting, well, I thought such-and-such was happening, but the real thing I realized was probably happening and he builds this whole alternate narrative that you buy into and then he crashes that one, oh, that’s not happening and it was something completely different and he builds another one that you now buy into and each one is just progressively weirder and more out there and totally freakish. And you find yourself, now this is the last thing to hang on to and then he crashes that one. And so you just get plunged into the depths of multi-perspectival thinking and also watching yourself grab on and then having it pulled away and grab on and having it pulled away.
I think of it as not only a demonstration of metasystemic thinking or postmodern thinking, but also it’s just emptiness, it’s just here’s non-dual awareness for you. Like let’s play with how you get right into that by pulling away your conceptual maps over and over and over. I never saw him use that word. But I can’t see any meaningful difference between you know the chaotic bones of Tiamat and what Wilson is saying and what the [cross-talk].
Erik: No, I think that it is very much Via Negativa. And it reminds me of something, this is just a slightly different direction but something a friend of mine said not long ago who was a philosopher and we were talking about philosophies of multiplicity, philosophies where you don’t try to say that it when you boil the world down, you come to one thing. And that where you’re always insisting no there’s always this kind of like seething multiplicity that we may organize in patterns of unity, but the thing itself is multiple, is plural, it’s fundamentally plural. And what he said was, yeah, I always thought that pluralism—he was also a Buddhist—pluralism was a lot closer to non-duality than the one. And I think that’s super profound.
Michael: Yeah, it’s why they call it in Sanskrit, advaita, right? Not the word oneness, it’s the word “not-twoness”. So it’s very interesting.
Erik: Yeah and I think that that’s something that I find that a lot of like the sort of Bay Area, esoteric, spiritual, meditative, Eastern, transpersonal meta thing—that whole kind of rich current that, you know, you and I have played in the waters and for quite a while now in different ways—that one of the problems with it like in the science and nonduality zone is there’s just way too much emphasis on unity in the form of the non-dual or how people are conceiving the non-dual. But it’s a lot of oneness and not that much wrestling with real difference. Like difference that hurts or difference that does not go. Like how does that tube become an opportunity for either inside or for demonstrating emptiness or for being kind of initiated into a different way of seeing.
It’s kind of just sort of a side light, but I still just think of that element of pluralism of the multiple perspectives within the metasystematicity and really not just saying, oh it’s multiple, but really wrestling with the fact that they don’t quite fit and be having to relocate between them and see what different perspectives say about other perspectives. And it’s an open-ended game. It’s not always very fun to play but I think it’s a lot more insightful particularly now than a somewhat easy emphasis on a kind of gesture towards the non-dual that’s sort of like a gesture towards the one.
Michael: Yeah, sort of like a gesture towards God or some kind of God concept. It’s really fascinating that someone like Ken Wilber who interesting guy, hung out with him to a certain extent. And his whole game is let’s make all those multiplicities fit together into one giant quilt that we kind of sew together. And that’s it, that’s the one move he’s going to make is trying to locate everything on this gigantic map and have it all fit somehow. I had learned a lot from that move but it doesn’t actually work in the end. You just notice interesting connections but there’s whole places where these maps conflict in a way that cannot be resolved and that’s the good part. It’s interesting or powerful or it gives you insights into something that you were assuming was, you know, a given or whatever. The move to just kind of hammer away all the differences in the service of making it one giant map, doesn’t work.
Erik: Yeah, I agree.
Michael: And it’s somehow Wilson got that from the get-go, I don’t know how. It seems like something that people who take psychedelics seem to get more intuitively than people who don’t. Maybe, you know, just my warped perspective, I’m not sure.
Erik: I think there’s something to be said for it. I mean I think that one of the reasons to explore psychedelics that’s beyond hedonism or pure curiosity is because I believe it helps (although can also hinder along these lines) but it helps move and become comfortable with operating with multiple perspectives. And recognizing that that implies a kind of emptiness or a kind of no ultimate position within it. And that that can be a vertiginous. And you got to kind of get used to it. And it’s kind of scary, if you actually look at it straight on. It can be really scary or really kind of like bleak or “oh my god, there’s no answer,” or whatever that— There’s a kind of existential moment in that that comes out of being able to see these different perspectives. But it’s sort of good training when you come back down, when you’re not quite so blown out. I think it can lead—not necessarily but it can—lead to more facility with moving around.
But in Wilson’s case I think he had that sensibility sort of from the get-go. I think long before he started taking psychedelics, he took peyote for a spell in the early 60s and then didn’t take LSD for a very long time I mean, he met Leary and hung out. He wasn’t like a super psychedelic sized guy in the 60s even he was, but it wasn’t like central practice.
Michael: He was more of a pothead.
Erik: Yeah, yeah, exactly. And might even be able to talk about that in terms of pot. I mean pot is so ubiquitous today that it’s kind of hard to theorize about, but I think it is the case. I talk about this a little in forthcoming book that pot can have psychedelic effects was definitely psychedelic for Wilson for Terence Mckenna. And that one of the things it does is also kind of show multiple perspectives, multiple angles, different ways of kind of looking at things.
But in Wilson’s case it was also just encountering Korzybski, and the idea that the map is not the territory, and that language in a sense stands in the way of reality. And once you have that perspective—which is also kind of shared with Zen or Taoism and other traditions_but once you have that perspective it’s not the language is just an illusion, it’s that it actually kind of constructs reality in different ways, but it’s still relative. And once you really take that on then you’re always going to be interested in pointing, well, how do we get outside of language and if we can’t get outside of it, how do we at least deconstruct it sufficiently to open up something like that Tiamat chaos space again and makes you inherently suspicious about full-on reality claims, because they’re in language, because they’re in another model, they’re in another map.
So if I don’t believe the map, I don’t believe language can ever really grok reality or capture reality, then I’m going to tend towards a certain kind of relativism, a certain kind of pluralism because I say, well, you could use that language game or this language game. And some of them are better than others probably more likely to lead to useful results, but that kind of pragmatism in the relationship to these multiple possibilities to me is the key thing that he does.
And I think part of what we respond to positively in Wilson is not just that he’s blowing our minds with these multiple perspectives and he’s kind of a trickster and he can be a little mean sometimes and kind of a bullshitter…
Michael: Or hilarious…
Erik: Yeah, hilarious. You know he’s kind of a bullshitter in some ways… But is that he’s also very pragmatic meaning that given this crazy situation we’re in, what are the best results for the values that I have?—whether it’s light and love, family, insight, entertainment, whatever it is let’s actually work with the things that we have Let’s not get ideological; let’s not get militant about any of our perspectives even if we take them really seriously. And I think that offers some guidance through this labyrinth in a way that he introduces you too.
Michael: Well, after he left being an editor at Playboy, at some point he got a PhD in psychology and he wrote that interesting book, actually it’s not just Cosmic Trigger, there’s a lot of books by him I really like. I still would read the Historical Illuminatus Trilogy anytime, that’s just too much fun. But he wrote that book called Quantum Psychology and some of it is whatever so it’s very suspect, you know, pseudoscience as far as I’m concerned, but a whole bunch of that book is just exercises in taking other perspectives, exercises in switching the model you’re using. Every chapter has like 20 exercises at the end of it to just force yourself to take new perspectives and practice doing that. And I gone back to that book over and over again because the exercises are really powerful. Even just reading it, even if you don’t do the exercises although he exhorts you over and over again, you know don’t just read this, you have to really do it but even reading it it’s a fascinating book. And I see how he eventually formalized this idea with his Korzybski and these sort of practices that he developed for this stuff, not that he was ever explicitly a spiritual teacher or whatever.
Erik: That’s that pragmatism you know and that dates to another interesting question you just said like not that he wasn’t a spiritual teacher and then you go, what is a spiritual teacher? What makes a spiritual teacher different from somebody who is handing you a lot of very useful techniques and practices? It’s like well it’s kind of interesting, there is a difference. He wasn’t a spiritual teacher and yet it was very practical in some ways, even though it’s blowing your mind and here’s quantum physics and here’s existentialism and here’s the history of the esoteric and here’s some conspiracy theory—I mean this is crazy world that he’s presenting and at the same time there is a practical dimension to it. And especially in that book and a few others were emphasized as specific practices that you can do that is going to change your mind and on some level change your brain.
Michael: Prometheus Rising, would be the other one.
Erik: Yeah, Prometheus Rising which is one of my other favorites there. Yeah, in that way he’s very companionable. And also again prophetic like he was talked about like there’s so much stuff that was sort of anticipated where he kind of saw what we now think of consciousness hacking or kind of neural approaches to mysticism in the context of a kind of tool oriented pragmatism rather than a spiritual technique like this is a spiritual technique handed down from masters centuries old. We use it with great reverence. He’s like, no, it’s a tool, it’s a technique, it’s this thing that’ll help you realize how the brain works and give you a little more room perhaps to avoid the programs you don’t want and to install the programs you do want.
Michael: And to experience some more of the personal freedom that was his kind of main goal.
Erik: Yeah. He’s interesting to contrast with… And that’s one of the things I write about with all three of these figures. I got my PhD in religion, in religious studies and I looked at like modern religion and spirituality, New Age, modern occultism, modern esotericism.
Michael: You’re like into California Christianity.
Erik: Yeah, that’s something else… I’ve studied that quite a lot actually. But what I really like about all these figures is the way that their work and even their personas or their characters, it gets close to something like religion or even spirituality—but religion is probably better term to use—and at the same time is not. You know it’s not. Even though there’s like materials there and here’s the esoteric and there’s some Sufism and then there’s this Gnosticism and all this stuff that’s kind of like the material of religion. We could sit around to find religion for the next hour but just to use a back-of-the-envelope kind of language. And yet at the same time, there’s a resistance to religion, there’s a kind of secularity, there’s a kind of freedom a kind of democratic spirit of like let’s just go and explore or a kind of scientific…
Michael: He would always pop the bubble.
Erik: Yeah, you know the same thing with McKenna were like. McKenna comes up with like these crazy scenarios, you know aliens moving in and the history of alchemy is actually this and da-da-da-da. But on another level he’s like, look, go try it out five grams in a quiet darkness and you’re good to go. You can be the explorer, don’t listen to me. So that kind of willingness to not be the guru. Wilson had a lot of charisma. He definitely played the guru, he definitely played the kind of mischief maker, Gurdjieffian, Crowley-like like figure in a way. But there was another side of that which was very humble and goofy and cigarette-smoking and hanging out and not holding on to that kind of reverence. And to me that tension between a kind of psychedelic or mystical religiosity with all of this esoterica and this kind of sense of possibility and enchantment and wonder on the one hand and then on the other hand a much more pragmatic kind of science-informed skeptical side. I think that the sweet spot to be in the mysteries in our own personal search and our trying to figure out how our search fits in with the larger world the sweet spot is between those. It’s one foot in each world. And it’s not that comfortable and sometimes confusing. But to kind of fall on one side or the other too much, I think is actually more of a delusion, frankly.
Michael: What I see here in the Bay Area especially—in what we could call tech bro culture but in the culture generally—are a lot of people who are very, you know, what a few years ago we would have just called very nerdy, very tech, STEM tech mathematics kind of guys, wired kind of tight who are really interested in psychedelics and really using them really trying to learn meditation for real and even going to raves, going to Burning Man and all this. And this is stuff that previously would have only been you know it was marginalia to the nth degree or if it wasn’t, it was a completely different part of culture. It’s like the high weirdness freaks not these sort of rocket scientist guys (except maybe for Jack Parsons), but I’m curious what you see going on there like, is this part of a current culture of awakening or is this just the new way to kind of make yourself cool?
Erik: You know I’ve really complex feelings about it and I’ve been lately kind of reflecting. I’m in my 50s and I’m very much a creature of the worlds that shaped me and I attempt to update myself to a certain degree. I now like kind of a lot of people as they age realized that their cultural frameworks and cultural perspectives are kind of dwindling.
Erik: Archaic, yeah. You know you’re like oh wait I’m a fossil and especially now with all the change in… not just all the change but the fact that younger generations—I think this is one of the key kind of sociological things to remember for those of us who are older kind of wrestling with this issue—is it’s not just the technologies changing or that we’re ossifying, or can’t keep up or don’t want to keep up or whatever, but it’s also that the younger generations came up in a technological environment that emphasized horizontality that emphasized their connections with one another and de-emphasized the more traditional vertical relationship between generations or between different statuses in society. So even in our kind of post counter culture zone or post baby boom zone where there was a lot of criticism of tradition, our experiences are still much more modeled on these kind of connections through time. Who came before us? Who knows more than we do? And the new zone is way more horizontal. Everybody’s out there kind of making their own thing pulling open their own thing sharing it with each other and the people came before, you know it’s like that can help with some things, maybe there’s some people who are really interested but a lot of people just aren’t that interested and that’s experiences of a kind of different generation. So I recognize that I just don’t really understand that world on some level and that when I speak about it and particularly want to critique it it’s partly from who I am. So when I think about this tech bro turning on, microdosing, consciousness hacking, one thing to say about is that it’s extremely a tool-oriented. And the thing about the tool as a metaphor so it’s like psychedelics are a tool and a lot of people say this, even psychotherapists and people in the underground who are working on psychedelics to work through problems will talk about them as tools or medicines, but tools is really more appropriate metaphor, it’s a very live metaphor. But the thing about the tool is the tool always implies a tool user who has intent.
So once you start talking about from tools even before you say what they’re tools for, just by calling them tools you have also created the subject, the tool user, who uses them for certain purposes. And that’s not necessarily the best way—or certainly not the only way—to enter into a relationship with psychedelics. There’s a lot to be said for not having a clue what you’re doing. There’s also a fair amount to be said for going this is a relationship with maybe not an entity but something that has something to say, that I have to kind of learn what it means to be in relationship… I think psychedelics are much more learning experiences than tool-using experiences. In a way it’s a pedagogical relationship and that’s different than a tool using relationship.
So that’s part of what I think the difference is when you say is this part of a new form of awakening or a new grooviness. I think another possible way of saying, it’s another example of how capitalism absorbs its edges and I say that not thinking that I wasn’t part of the same process. You can tell a story about the whole counterculture where in a sense what was happening—this isn’t the whole truth but it is a truth—in a sense what was happening was an immense liberation of desire and cultural possibility that created all of these experimental situations, some of which became very useful and were crystallized and absorbed into an expanding form of capitalism which reaches its tendrils ever more minutely into the core of your subjectivity. And that’s kind of what we’re at now.
So that’s a dark kind of dystopian view is that now psychedelics are just part of the tool set. It’s a new space and a new way for those logics to absorb the kind of creative energy that is produced through psychedelics.
Michael: Well and you do have very large pharmaceutical companies who are taking people who have been psychedelic, guides and sitters on the margins of society for the past 30 years leading people through trips in the rainforests in British Columbia or whatever and they actually brought them in and paid them and learned all their techniques and now they’re patenting all that. So it is getting just ultra-absorbed right into the core of the capitalist monster.
Erik: Yeah. So that’s one way of talking about it. I think another way of thinking about psychedelics today in technology culture—microdosing world is just one example of that, that’s a very clear example of, oh look, you know this compound that if you take it and enough of a dose will melt down all of your reality constructs and force you to face the glittering, goofy void of the most at a lower level can you know help your productivity, modulate your mood, enable you to maybe be a little more creative with the kind of work that you have to do— that’s not an inherently bad thing, but it’s certainly example of how potentially radical or even revolutionary compound can be whittled down into something that’s a performance enhancer. And once it’s a performance enhancer (you know I like enhancing performance as much as anybody) but it is also part of the logic of contemporary capitalism world. Where we’re all as selves as individuals doing our work, we’re all like kind of entrepreneurs of ourselves and branding ourselves and maximizing our potential and da-da-day and keep the whole thing going and in a way that’s also part of what’s happening.
But I think a third element is that knowledge and the ability to explore, manipulate, open up, altered states of consciousness is now kind of on the table. It’s like, Oh, I could see it coming. I knew this was going to happen. This is one where I was like totally clear. As soon as you have a scientific focus on the brain and it likes “all reality is created by the brain,” like mainstream materialism and the idea that like, oh, you know psychological problems that doesn’t have to do with your mom or some story and like some Freudian thing. No, there’s like a problem in the brain. We can work on it with these techniques…
Michael: Take an SSRI.
Erik: Take some SSRIs. So once we kind of move into a very biological brain-based approach to psychological experience or even to consciousness you got something set up there. Which is that, well, at some point you’re going to have to explain this other stuff that happens to brains sometimes like, you know whatever, synchronicities, out-of-body experiences, near-death experiences and most obviously, psychedelics. Because all those other ones, well, we’re not sure what they mean or the people’s story and it is not going to hard, but something definitely happens on a big dose of DMT. And if you’re going to have a robust explanation for the brain and for the relationship of consciousness in the brain, even if you’re not interested in psychedelics at all, you’re going to have to come up with a really good story.
But once you have to come up with a really good story about what’s going on with the brain and psychedelics, Uh-oh, the cat’s out of the bag. Oh, now psychedelics are on the table. Oh wait, what does it mean? Oh boy, okay, what do we do with that? And I think a lot of what we’re seeing now is that… (This is one story. I don’t know if it’s true) Sometimes I think a lot of what we’re seeing now is that people can’t really deal with the full reckoning of what that means, because in their extreme, psychedelics are terrifying, scrambling, exulting and deeply-deeply weird. And I don’t want to do it. No, we don’t want to do that. Oh, they’re good for this, they’re good for PTSD, they’re good for whatever. And not that those people are wrong or that they’re hiding something by emphasizing either the healing or the efficiency or the creativity or the usefulness. All of those things I think are true or can be true. But I think it’s partly the way that our society is kind of going, oh, there is this thing we haven’t really come to terms with about the mind, about the nature of reality, about these compounds. And that we’re really only just beginning to sort of see what happens when we engage with that. So it might just be a phase if you will. But at the same time I think you lose a very, very important tantric spark when these things are no longer illegal. You know if you think of Tantra, what does that mean? We talk forever another four hours on Tantra, but one core aspect of it is that you are dealing in a ritual context with things that are culturally forbidden.
Michael: Yeah. It’s the totally secret, forbidden, loss-of-caste type stuff.
Erik: Yeah. And so that aspect shapes not just the meaning of drugs like psychedelics—which of course are still illegal and so that’s a more complicated one, but cannabis is very clear—it’s not just the meanings of it from afar, it’s the actual kind of subjectivity of the engagement of it the relationship with it is modulated partly by its social condition. So once you make it legal it just changes the vibe. Whether or not it becomes hyper-commercialized or simply decriminalized or whatever, there’s something that’s changed. It’s not bad, it’s not good but it is real. And the idea that my relationship to cannabis when I can go to jail for 10 years for a joint and my relationship to cannabis when I can go to the corner store and buy an ounce of stronger weed that that isn’t different? I think kind of foolish. And so some of that is happening in psychedelics. Now even if technically they’re still illegal on the street and that will remain that way for a very long time.
Michael: Except maybe in Oregon.
Erik: Yeah, maybe. Yeah, it’s true, you don’t know. You know could be psilocybin, you know it could happen, it really could. But until then we’re still seeing the social story is changing around them and that’s going to have downstream effects even on the vibe that I think we’re only beginning to tune into.
Michael: Something similar has happened with meditation, right? Probably this is impossible but theoretically if you had learned Buddhist meditation 500 years ago, they would have killed you in Europe for that. Like, okay, you’re doing something completely non-christian although of course there were Christian forms of contemplative practice but still that would have been as illegal as it gets. And then you have people in the 20th century experimenting with it and it’s still pretty counter cultural and weird and different. And then in the 90s the Buddhist community in America went out of its way to kind of tame the whole thing and make it completely acceptable and totally like gelded it to the point where it’s as safe as milk and now we’re microdosing mindfulness at work. Part of my job is teaching people in corporations to meditate. So I believe in doing that and yet at the same time it does have this similar feature of being the kind of like tamest possible version of something that is potentially radically mind-expanding and reality bending or exploding. And you see people like will it be Britain who are dealing with the edge of that where people who take this safe little dose of meditation every day, go just a little too far with it in quotes and they start having really intense experiences and that’s not what they signed up for.
And so there’s always been this parallelism I think between psychedelics and meditation, certainly in America they go together him and it’s funny that both of them are being introduced now or have been introduced as like performance-enhancing, brain hacks that are going to help you as a work or drone be kind of special.
And there’s something really in a way cool about that and in another way it’s like, huh, what happened to the tantric spark? As you put it what happened to the thing that caused me to go to India and sit underground for months to learn this stuff with centipedes crawling the walls and no food and stuff. It’s like there was a thing there that was so captivating and beautiful and just amazingly expansive and in a way not forbidden, but certainly weird that just isn’t even part of the conversation right now.
Erik: Part of where I’ve kind of wound up, I mean I never really intended when I started writing and being a cultural critic and writing about history of Technology and writing a lot about music, I didn’t think that I would wind up being like spending so much more time thinking and talking about psychedelics. And one of the reasons I do and one of the reasons I wrote the book that I did is that, I think one of the important things for at least people like me to do now within that domain and also within Buddhism that’s a separate conversation but I feel a similar devotion towards certain aspects of Buddhism, although I’ve written much less about it. It’s just emphasizing to keeping it weird or reminding everyone that the weird is in the room now and they may get caught up in this thing about psychology and fixing this and a new accreditation system and pharmacies and there’s so much other stuff for people to go to as it becomes a mainstream and I’m just kind of like, yeah, and if you take enough it’s really weird. That’s all I can say. I don’t have to say it’s spiritual, I don’t have to say it’s sacred, I don’t have to say, it gives you truth. I don’t know.
I mean I have my opinions—that’s a separate conversation—but what I am saying is like it’s weird and the weird is real. The weird is part of reality. It’s not a distortion of what is otherwise seen with clarity. Weirdness, anomaly, not knowing where you are, confusion, vague sense of wondrous unease. Those things I believe are stitched into the nature of this game that we’re in and that psychedelics are going to open up that space for at least for some of us.
And the way I think about it now is before you were alluding to this group compass which is a for-profit a pharmaceutical based you know form of a company that after acting like it was a non-profit and being really groovy and talking to a lot of like researchers who were really open-minded, hoovered all their information and it’s now kind of shelled up and is trying to establish the kind of unanimously monopoly but at least control over a network of therapy centers mostly in Europe where they’re going to be producing the psilocybin through a trademarked way or a patentable way of producing a synthetic psilocybin and using them inside clinics that they run and control. So it’s obviously a huge pyramid whatever, it’s a whole vertically-integrated corporation where their potential make a lot of money.
And meanwhile other people are saying, hey, we can do a non-profit form where we’re just making things available at cost and blah, blah, blah but there’s another outside to all this even as it develops and people look at it and focus on it, there’s still all these mushrooms growing up in the grass. And as long as there’s a culture of bored teenagers, crazy and people who commune with nature and people who like weird experiences, there’s going to be like this zone that’s outside of it, and people who are taking these things as ways of insight into plant consciousness or ways of insight into the nature of reality or as portals or rocket ships that have blast you into other kinds of dimensions. You know you continue to cultivate that space because it will never be strictly controlled. That’s what’s kind of amazing about it. Because even if they control, it’s not any different than prohibition. They’re still going to be those outsides. We don’t think about them, we don’t talk about them because it’s all about this mainstreaming effort but it’s just nice to remember that the mushrooms are still growing between the blades of grass.
Michael: Yeah, it’s interesting to me that, again, I’ll go back to this parallelism with the meditation. I’m curious if you see some similar property that no matter how corporate it may become we can still do our own practice at home or perhaps go to some other cultural context and learn weird practices or something that maintains that edge of danger and forbidden as’ and possibility.
Erik: Yeah. I think in the concept of meditation, I think about it personally maybe a little bit less in terms of the weird or the exotic and a little bit more in terms of frankly the religious and I mean that in a good sense. So one way of saying the kind of problem is Buddhism when it hits the West.
Michael: What’s your relationship with Buddhist practice?
Erik: I started studying Madhyamika, Gelugpa, Tibetan Buddhism in the early 90s and I quickly found that while I loved the material I didn’t love the structured lamrim style meditation practices. I was like that was not my style. So I started looking for meditation places and I found Zen group in New York City, Manhattan, and they were part of the Maezumi Roshi lineage so which kind of combines Soto and Rinsai approaches. And I just started sitting then and I went through, you know, many years of being very much a capital-Z Zen practitioner, lots of sesshin, lots of sitting and reading. By the early 2000s, I was kind of both not so happy in my practice situation but also increasingly alienated and kind of even a little sickened by the discourse of American Buddhism.
So I kind of checked out. I kept sitting. I’ve always been pretty much a shinkantaza, just sit, breathwork but not a lot of visualization or really complex meditations. I’ve done a little bit of that stuff, I like it. But my core sitting is kind of on the shinkantaza-Dzogchen line and I’ve never been a “I’m a disciplined, twice-daily sitter!” You know, I’ve always been sloppy. I felt bad about it forever for years and then I was finally like, one day I was like, oh wait somehow along the way I still kind of became a mature a practitioner even though like, I’m not really like following the rules. So I have a pretty idiosyncratic approach which I’m really quite happy about especially now that I’m doing a little bit more formal practice again. It’s like I have this whole body of independent ways of thinking and doing these things that I’m very appreciative for. So I have a great respect for meditation, both for its sort of psychologically curative effects but more just for its interest. What a marvelous microscope we’ve been given, or a set of exploratory tools to be able to go in these realms and, they’re right. I mean I remember Maezumi Roshi saying, you know back in the 90s he was like, you know “You just keep doing this you know when you get, easy to say get to my age but that was the implication when you get older, you’ve just got this like yummy pot cooking in your belly all the time,” and it’s true. It’s a great relief and a literal joy, the fruits of meditation after doing it for a long time. I mean it’s not just cognitive and psychological effects. You generate bliss states in your body that can stabilize you and keep you from getting caught up with all the glittery delights of the desire world as mediated through postmodern capitalism. You’re like, yeah, I could do that but if I just sit down for 10 minutes, I’m feeling pretty good. That’s nice. You know, I don’t need anybody else, amazing thing too. Existentially realize in the core of your own experience that in some ways it’s not an absolute statement but in some ways, I can make myself happy. Or happy isn’t even the right word just bliss or intimacy, presence.
Michael: It’s right there.
Erik: It’s right there. So I love that stuff and I’m happy that middle managers, sports fans in Iowa are given the opportunity to introduce something like this into their lives. I think that’s a good thing. So then it becomes this question of, how do you encourage the highest percentage of those people who are doing that kind of mainstream meditation to enter into the deeper folds of it? And this is where again the religious aspect becomes kind of interesting again. So go back, you think like, okay, Buddhism is coming in. It’s a mix in a way to use modern terminology where they’re you know this religion over here and there’s science over there and there’s psychology kind of on the science side, but overlaps a little bit helps explain religion. And you get this Buddhist package and whether you’re talking Tibetan Buddhism where it’s really obvious, Zen is a little more sneaky about it. There’ve on even a little bit more sneaky about it it’s this combination of religion and what we would think of as kind of secular scientific psychological science and that mixture was always there. You know like where some people were alike you know really believing these tantric deities were you know in the room and they’re becoming them and they’re like it’s there there’s this whole magical universe that they’re interacting with powerful objects and a chance that are based on the holy guru from the past, you know all that kind of stuff which whatever the details looks and smells like religion because it’s kind of religion, and at the same time there are these principles and practices not just the practices but actually the kind of mind principles that you can distill from them that clearly resemble and work very well with in a secular context that we can psychologize them, we can think about them in terms of how the brain works, we can think about them in terms of how the mind works.
And over the last few decades that side of it, the secular side of it has become more and more potent, more and more central, more and more dominant. And that was part of that 90s move of like, let’s make this let’s defang this as much as possible as counterculturalized Buddhism as much as possible so they turn to psychology and they turn to neuroscience. Those are the main…
Michael: And medicine.
Erik: And medicine. Right. And putting it in a medical kind of context. So in a way the problem of the corporate mindfulness is an inevitable outcome of that. Because now that we’ve defined it enough, we made it secular enough that even mainstream corporations are not, you know they don’t want anything to do with weird New Age stuff or whatever, even it becomes thinkable in those environments and people who are working in those environments. So now what you find is like, you know in a way we need to balance that, is in a sense a return to religion, not a return to religion in the boring sense of, oh you got a do the rituals or we start believing in the hierarchy again, but more in the core motivations which are; liberation, the fact that the world is suffering, the fact that you’re going to die, that it’s going to suck probably then everybody you know is going to die, that everything’s going away and those kinds of questions don’t fit too well in the boardroom. You don’t have to be religious about them but they’re kind of religious questions. So they’re the kind of questions that religious people ask or obsessed with, try to work through. And believe that you can work through rather than just going, oh, there’s no meaning, give up, don’t worry just enjoy life while you have it and then you’re going to die be in the ground it doesn’t matter you know instead of nihilism.
So if you’re not going to be nihilist about those things and in some ways, you’re picking up this sort of religious seeking and it’s less about making sure that meditation is wild and wacky, it’s almost more about making sure that it remains coupled to these insights and these questions. So that at least some of the people who are exposed to corporate mindfulness will begin to go, wait, this job is kind of meaningless or I’m going to die. Do I want this to be what I do until I die, or gosh, that product we’re making that we make in China it’s actually full of toxic, oh I don’t know if I could… you know whatever those kinds of questions are whatever kinds of like world activating value shifting insights are, they are coupled at least implicitly with these practices. I don’t know how you maintain it, whether you just make sure you keep the conversation robust alongside the corporate mindfulness so at least you draw some people over, you know whether you become kind of a foot soldier and you go into those realms with these deeper questions intact. I mean how do you do it? Like when you’re teaching these things and you can see maybe even with certain individuals, like well this person’s really going down. Okay, they might be ready for some a little more heavy that is beyond my purview as a corporate mindfulness teacher. So I mean I’m curious how do you balance those?
Michael: Well we do see that not often but often enough, you see someone who’s having either a major experience right there in the middle of your daylong retreat at a corporation or who reports that doing the practices at home even 10 minutes a day is starting to really have some strange and interesting and sometimes disturbing effects. You know it depends on the situation obviously sometimes the correct way of dealing with it as far as I’m concerned is to tell them to slow it down or back off a little bit because it’s so destabilizing, and their personal goals seem to be really about stability. But for people who seem to be more let’s say robust or a little bit into the instability that, they’re eager to go after those questions, then there’s the local center or the local meditation center and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend mine over somebody else’s or whatever, but I’ll see what they’re into and see if they have openness to going and sitting at a day-long a little bit more, let’s say hardcore meditation retreat or beginning to read that material. And even in a very non-religious Buddhist kind of way begin to expose them to that realm of ideas. You may be aware that you know down in the Mission we’ve got the San Francisco Dharma Collective now and in the past month or two or… So what was previously Against the Stream, when that collapsed, I was a teacher there. The students all of whom are you know really interesting counter cultural figures, at least many of whom are we’re like, yeah, screw this. We’re not going to let our Center go away just because the teacher messed up. So they basically took over and created a new entity called the San Francisco Dharma Collective that is, you know, you were talking about the horizontality. It’s student-led community based, there is no root teacher and they’re running it.
So something like that where it’s very vibrant the sense of vibrancy and aliveness and interest and energy skyrocketed immediately as soon as they took it over. The engagement level is just awesome to see but that’s the kind of place where I might go, yeah, you might want to go down there and just sit in on some meditations and see what’s going on because you’re not going to get indoctrinated into someone’s religion or someone’s particular guru hood or whatever. It’s a little safer than that.
Erik: Yeah, I mean I think that’s the tricky spot. It’s again one of these one foot in both worlds or balancing along the line is that there is something even though there’s so much in traditional religion that’s wrong that we can see the way that the guru model and inherited hierarchies and supernatural thinking and a lot of those things largely obscure a lot of the things that we want, they’re valuable, they’re interesting, there’s reasons that maybe at some point in someone’s life they plunge into more of a deeply kind of religious practice. But there’s something that’s lost when we completely let all that go and just embrace secular values and like, oh these are things we’re going to explore them. They’re going to help us do this and I’m going to deal with my psychology to do with my obsessions. There’s something that’s lost in that that leads towards the lack of dynamics in a kind of corporate situation. So it’s in a way of very narrow paths which again, you know, in a psychedelic way brings us back to some of the things I was saying about Terence and Robert Wilson where there’s a navigating that’s going on. And even if we can look at them as kind of excessive examples, there’s still the sense that part of what we want is there’s something within religion, there’s some strands, there’s some key motifs that we want to be engaged with in the context of our still largely secular lives to the point that maybe that distinction even begins to break down somewhat. And all of that’s coming down the pike. It’s like the younger generation, the Millennial’s are, you know it’s like a quarter of the like no religion. I mean it’s changing radically.
And so there’s some kind of spiritual but not religious sensibility that is kind of the future, but I think it’s important to try to make it sure it’s still intense in some way. It’s not just kind of easy oh whatever makes you feel good. There’s still some kind of intensity, some kind of drive, some kind of confrontation, with fear confrontation, with difficulty confrontation, with pain, embracing a shadow all of that more difficult side of these practices. I think in a way becomes more available when you open up beyond a purely secular framework, because within the secular framework it’s about happiness and manifesting your goals, becoming more efficient, you know whatever. It tends to have the sort of positivity, happiness seeking.
Michael: To the point of denying, any difficulties and suffering.
Erik: Yeah. So what’s going to draw you into suffering other than actual suffering you can’t get away from like disease or the loss of somebody, but it’s there all the time and I am very on that side that it’s about finding your light whatever light you can gather and stepping into that stuff, whatever’s going to help encourage that kind of process is very helpful right now.
Michael: Eric, thanks for coming on the Deconstructing Yourself podcast.
Erik: Absolutely. I had a great time.
Michael: Me too.
photo by Michael Taft