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What is real, anyhow? Erik Davis on visionary experiences and the high weirdness of the seventies counterculture

Last night I digitally stumbled across this:

High Weirdness: Visionary Experience in the Seventies Counterculture

It’s Erik Davis’s senior thesis, written as he was pursuing his Ph.D. in religious studies at Rice University, and submitted just last fall. You’ll recall that I mentioned Erik’s study of this same high weirdness last year (and that he and I, and also Maja D’Aoust, had a good conversation about daemonic creativity and related matters a few years ago). Now here’s this, the scholarly fruit of his several years of research and writing, and it promises to be a fantastic — in several senses — read.

For me, at least, it’s also laden with mild synchronistic significance. I’m presently teaching an introduction to world religions course using Comparing Religions by Jeffrey J. Kripal as the main textbook, so I’m spending a lot of time immersed in Jeff’s thoughtworld, and also helping undergraduate college students to understand it. In the past two weeks I have had a couple of email communications with Jeff in connection with the crucial networking assistance that he provided in the early stages of Ghosts, Spirits, and Psychics as I was attempting to locate suitable contributors for the book. And then just last night as I was staring at my laptop screen and realizing with pleasure that I had accidentally found Erik’s thesis on the UFOs, synchronicities, psychedelic visions, alien voices, and other crazy anomalistic weirdnesses that characterized the seventies counterculture, I scanned down the cover page and had another surprise when I saw Jeffrey J. Kripal listed as a member of his thesis committee. It’s not a synchronicity in the same league as, say, Jung’s seminal encounter with the scarabaeid beetle, but it was enough to give me a start and a chuckle.
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Waking up from the nightmare of economics

If you, like me, are consistently struck these days by a kind of unpleasant, inverted sense of numinous awe at the spectacle of economists still occupying major positions of mainstream power and respect in our culture instead of walking around in hairshirts and beating their breasts with heads bowed in unbearable shame, then Columbia University professor Todd Gitlin has an excellent piece at the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s Brainstorm blog (a consistent source of insightful posts about trends and ideas in academia and elsewhere) to help cleanse your spiritual palate. In “Have Economists Learned from the Great Recession?” (June 12, 2012), he pulls together various pieces of data indicating that economists truly haven’t learned anything from their epic failure to foresee the great financial collapse of 2008. Notice that I didn’t say the piece is comforting or mollifying, but just cleansing. As I’ve mentioned many times here, there’s much of value in seeing someone do an able job of articulating and substantiating your own running insights and intuitions.

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The Occupy movement as global insurrection and revolution

Leave it to Daniel Pinchbeck to provide a predictably excellent statement of what the consciousness movement could or should be doing relative to the worldwide Occupy phenomenon. I heard a few days ago that he was scheduled to address the assembled protesters in New York City. This new and short piece at Reality Sandwich is, I suspect, the basis of what he said there.

We are seeing the inception of a global insurrection that will not end until the dominant system is overthrown and replaced through a planetary metamorphosis. The mainstream media continues to play down the Occupy phenomenon, critiquing its lack of specific demands. Specific demands are pointless, because the entire political, social, and economic system in which we exist has rotted out from the inside. Demands would suggest that there is a way to reform the present system, but no reformist initiative is possible.

As someone who wrote about the prophecies of indigenous cultures such as the Maya and the Hopi, I believe the time we are in is one of constantly accelerating transformation. The process we are undergoing as a collective organism leads to an evolutionary leap of consciousness on a species level. This mutation happens within the next few years — it is already happening now.

[…] The consciousness movement has the sacred task of integrating our understanding of spirit and Psyche into the rapidly unfolding movement for planetary justice and social regeneration. This global movement is part of an initiatory process for humanity as a whole that will bring about a transformation of both the individual and collective ego-structure. The goal is not the destruction of the ego but the attainment of an ego-free state — liberation from the tyrannical demands of the ego, which can never be satiated. Similarly, we don’t want to see the smashing of current institutions, but their alchemical transmutation, so they support our human community and safeguard the resources of the natural world. Humanity, as a whole, is rapidly losing our appetite for violence and destruction. We are increasingly sick of the negative patterns of the past, and ready to overcome the inertia.

Full story at Reality Sandwich: “Global Revolution Underway

Art and Spirit vs. Corporate Dystopia: Can the enemy’s tools be used against it?

In our present greed-fueled, corporate-consumerist global dystopia, it’s common for artists and subcultural or countercultural thinkers to reject the present order not only in principle but in practice. They (we) are so disgusted and discouraged by the socially, culturally, spiritually, and ecologically destructive nature of the all-dominating system that we’re driven to the edge of despair, and we either hold back and participate only enough to scrape by, or else we reject it wholesale by dropping out and “living off the grid,” as it were, inhabiting the margins of the culture and remaining obscure and poor.

Daniel Pinchbeck

Daniel Pinchbeck, the cultural critic and psychedelic philosopher whose 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl is a truly brilliant tour de force that’s worth your time and attention, published an essay last December at his Reality Sandwich website/franchise/gathering place that speaks to this issue in exhilarating and inspiring terms. It’s titled “Business Shamanism,” and in it he advances the position that, yes, the system is corrupt and capsizing and imploding and manifesting an epic fail right before our eyes, and yes, it’s driven by evil motives and an elite cabal of ill-intentioned people in the form of the “masters of the universe,” who aren’t evil Illuminati conspirators but just the plainly visible pullers of the financial-economic levers in the entrenched government-corporate complex. (In other words, they’re much more evil than Illuminati conspirators.)

BUT — and here’s Pinchbeck’s shining thesis — the enlightened solution is not to flee or reject the whole thing but to actively engage it, learning all its features and skills and nuances, and then to skillfully use its own weapons against it.

It’s a long essay, but like Pinchbeck’s above-mentioned book it more than repays the investment of time and attention. Here’s a portion that leaped off the screen at me:

Many people in the communities that I frequent have sought to avoid rather than engage with the power structure, the financial world, on its own terms. They have not entered the playing field where amorality provides leverage to whomever is skilled enough to make use of it: the arena of wealth-creation. Because of an inveterate contempt for dirty money, disdain for the ethical compromises required to make gobs of the stuff, the alienated outsiders of the spiritual and artistic counterculture have tended to forfeit this area to the business class, to their own and society’s detriment.

[…] If your work is important to society, then that society should value it in whatever ways that it chooses to ascribe value. Perhaps you would like to influence and awaken people, to change their way of thought and patterns of behavior? You should realize that most people will find you far more convincing if you are radiating health and abundance, rather than scraping for pennies. They will want to know how you pulled it off, and be more open to what you tell them.

[…] Most importantly, the tools of the corporate world can’t be discarded. They need to be learned and repurposed. Corporations are extremely efficient machines for transforming matter and energy. We are going to need corporate managers, along with all of the skills that corporate managers have mastered, if planetary transformation is going to happen with the necessary speed and efficiency, when we consider the intensity of the ecological crisis, above all.

[…] Although it is necessary to fight against malevolent corporate practices, we want to transmute the corporate form. People will always need beautiful and useful things, and they will always seek out services and learning experiences that benefit their life and their soul. Fulfilling these real needs in a good way is not antithetical to some kind of revolutionary movement. In fact, it needs to be a part of any meaningful movement that arises.

So what do you think? Is the strategy Pinchbeck recommends reasonable, workable, desirable, advisable? Is it a pipe dream? Is he selling out? Personally, I find that it resonates, and resonates deeply.

Image credit: Daniel Pinchbeck, by herwig maurer (herwig maurer) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The 1960s Redux: In our new age of apocalypse, is the consciousness revolution back on?

For the past few years, I’ve had a mounting sense that the abortive consciousness revolution of the 1960s and early 70s may have come back from the dead, riding on the wave of apocalyptic sentiment that’s been washing over us all since the late 1990s. Sometimes a new datum, or something that I interpret as a datum, enters my field of awareness and reinforces this.

Today, as on most days, I spent a few minutes browsing the latest updates at Tony Peake’s forum. That’s Anthony Peake, mind you, the British author of Is There Life after Death?, The Daemon: A Guide to Your Extraordinary Secret Self, and the forthcoming High Plains Drifters and Time, Dreams & Precognition. The first offers a revolutionary, scientifically-based theory of subjective immortality. The second elaborates on an idea included in the first: that we’re all divided into two separate centers of consciousness, and that the self which does things like read the words you’re now reading is the “lower” one which is ontologically preceded, accompanied, and guided by a higher one. The third will be a study of out-of-body experiences. The fourth is explained by its own title. For obvious reasons, Tony is occasionally described as a successor to Colin Wilson.

At his forum today, I found a mention of a new book, published in May and accompanied by a blurb from Tony, titled The Dark Man. Written by Deborah Wells, who, like me, is a participant at Tony’s forum, it is devoted to exploring the “mysterious dark presence . . . a tall, dark, gaunt man” that “stalks us through our dreams, our waking lives and our creative endeavors” and is pervasive in “the history of religion, philosophy, art, and literature.”

This struck me with an electrical jolt of personal significance. Why? Well, it’s obviously because of my own experiences with the dark man via my sleep paralysis episodes. And that surge of ecstatic and fascinated recognition as I first read about Ms. Wells’ book and then availed myself of the Amazon and Google Books previews helped to crystallize my aforementioned thoughts and feelings about a possible resurrection of the 1960s consciousness project. Because, as evinced by the very existence of her book, and Tony’s work, and a thousand other current and recent reference points, we are right now experiencing an epic fermentation of cultural discourse about consciousness, selfhood, the paranormal, scientific knowledge, and the nature of reality itself.

I was born in 1970, so my personal memories of the period are drenched in a misty air of mythic significance. When in my late teens and early twenties I discovered the intellectual/cultural/spiritual/philosophical legacy of 1960s — by obsessively reading Alan Watts, Theodore Roszak, Robert Anton Wilson, and other authors; by watching the likes of Dr. Strangelove, The Graduate, Easy Rider, Harold and Maude, I Love You, Alice B. Toklas! and 2001: A Space Odyssey about two million times; by studying the history of the civil rights movement, the hippie movement, the psychedelic culture, the Vietnam War and its attendant cultural insanity, the great worldwide protests of 1968, etc. — I wished fervently that I could have lived through that heady period, when it seemed as if the collective cranium of Western and global civilization was primed to erupt in a psychedelic expansion into new realms of thought, experience, and being that would inevitably lead to new patterns of social, political, religious, and cultural arrangement.

But of course we all know what became of that age. In America (and Britain), the excitement died a miserable death under the onslaught of various assassinations, scandals, economic calamities, and the eventual consolidation of the corporate consumer worldview under and after Reagan (and Thatcher). And that’s not even to mention the movement’s own inexorable centrifugal force and latent narcissism, which led it to corrupt itself from within.

So that’s the past. Now fast forward to the first decade of the 21st century, and what do we find? As in the sixties, everything seems apocalyptic. Everything seems poised to melt away and reveal an ugly truth lurking beneath the facade of what we have collectively agreed to call a normal way of life. For Americans especially, what primed us for this was the Y2K non-event. Then 9/11 deflowered us. After that, successive waves of tentative financial calamity, followed by our current and ongoing full-blown financial-economic collapse, erased our (illusionary) innocence entirely. Additionally, fears about serious and calamitous climate change have made significant attitudinal contributions, along with other ecological portents, fears about peak oil and 2012, and the first-ever wide-open recognition, by pretty much the entire public at large, of the entrenched and seemingly incurable corruption of our most prominent political and business institutions, as illustrated most recently by the collusion of BP and the U.S. federal government in creating a total fustercluck in the Gulf of Mexico.

And running neck in neck with this — again as in the 60s — we’re seeing a concomitant explosion of new discourse, expressed in books (including Tony’s and Ms. Wells’), films, music, and more, that appears to pick right back up where the original consciousness revolution left off. This formerly esoteric and marginal realm of investigation and experience, which deals with a true upending of conventional notions about selfhood, identity, time, space, and reality, presently appears to be snowballing into a major cultural force with transformative and mainstream-invading potential.

To name just one more example, only two weeks ago Rachael by-God Ray featured a segment on her network television show about “mysterious illnesses” — and one of them was sleep paralysis, a subject which, as indicated by the explosion of recent books and documentary films (one of which caught Ray’s attention), and by the solid backbone of scholarship established by Dr. David J. Hufford over the past three decades,

  1. is linked directly to religious experience, and is in fact an authentic firsthand religious experience of its own;
  2. is a classic instance of a major human experience that has been rejected by the dominant Western worldview of the past several centuries; and
  3. is manifestly edging its way into the mainstream of the Western first-world cultural conversation.

In short, I find this all quite astonishing, not to mention hugely gratifying. And although I fear my chosen data points in support of my conclusion or suspicion may seem idiosyncratic and weird, I don’t think this invalidates the suspicion itself.

So where’s it going to lead? Naturally, I have no idea. But I’m currently rereading Robert Anton Wilson’s Cosmic Trigger to remind myself of where the original consciousness revolution came from, and of the extent of its failure due to a tendency toward personal dissipation, as interacting with the violent backlash from a dominant mainstream culture acting out a psychological/neurological imprint of reactionary hatred and fear. At the same time, I’m wondering if maybe, just maybe, things might really have a chance to change this time.