News and Notes
Dunno about you, but I’m often afflicted with dread of late. Not so much about my own future (we are fine), but about the unraveling of consensus reality into a welter of social media loops, disinformation campaigns, extremist algorithms, partisan crisis politics, and just plain ole American bullshit and idiocy. Lately, I have been particularly struck by the sharp rise in QAnon-inflected conspiracy thinking within circles I abut—yogis, psychedelic people, Burners, spiritual-but-non-religious dissidents, etc. (For more on this phenom, see illuminating posts by Jules Evans, Julian Walker, Jamie Wheal, and—with caveats—Charles Eisenstein.) Many of these New Agish Q converts seem shockingly unaware that their memes about Bill Gates vaccines, Hollywood pedos, and deep state machinations are part of a sprawling DIY LARP whose vast self-referential network of “research” materials, paranoid myths, chunks of truth, and apocalyptic presentiments (the imminent “Great Awakening”, etc.) all swirl around a nougatty core of Trumpism.
There are lots of stories we could tell about the rise in over-the-top conspiracy thinking. One you hear these days is about how today’s invasive and algorithmic media draw people into an echo chamber that exploits their cognitive biases. But just as important is the way that the constant barrage of screens and feeds yanks people out of their embodied empirical experience. Robert Anton Wilson (or rather, Hagbard Celine) called this level of existence the “biogram,” the perceiving human organism that becomes laminated with the “logogram” of beliefs, concepts, and linguistic filters. If people reflected on and integrated more of their actual experience—of the gifts and traps of consciousness, of how human institutions really work, of what changes when we meet people in the flesh over shared concerns—I am convinced we would be in a saner place.
One of the reasons I decided to write The Burning Shore now is that it feels clarifying and grounding to write about stuff I actually and intimately know, which means stuff about myself and the places and forces and figures that shaped me. If we are nothing more than nodes in networks these days, then we should all illuminate our most essential transmissions. So far it’s going well, and I appreciate all the great feedback and the (slowly) rising number of paid subscriptions. I’m still not sure what to call this thing (newsletter? journal? dispatch?), but I can tell it’s got legs, at least for me. The mixture of personal reflection and historical-critical explorations is allowing me simultaneously to escape into the fun of writing (sans grad school jargon), to excavate the historical bodymind that frames me, and to synthesize and probe that visionary state that not only helped birth our new confusions—not all visions are lucid or humane—but inflects and focalizes nearly all my work, from rock crit to Techgnosis to Burning Man rock operas to High Weirdness: California.
This last month, I was very happy to collaborate with my good friend, the Italian stage magician Ferdinando Buscema, on a short “visual meditation” called “On the Edge.” Inspired in part by a PKD essay that both Ferdinando and I love, “How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later,” here we riff on the proverbial house of cards. I did the words, and Ferdinando did the magic.
In May, I also participated in “My Magical Thing,” a series of short Youtube interviews with magickal folk curated by the mischievous and charming UK writer-occultist Julian Vayne. Julian’s request for a magical show-and-tell sent me into a bit of a tizzy. Should I crack out the anamolous rock pyramid I found in the San Rafael wilderness? Terence McKenna’s old Tibetan hashbox? The bag of Lonely God potato chips (I kid you not) I bought in China? I think you will enjoy the thing that eventually demanded to be shared…
• This weekend, on May 30/31, I will be presenting at the Rebel Wisdom Festival: a free online gathering of rebellious thinkers devoted to the challenging and creative work of sense-making in our nutty times. I am particularly looking forward to presentations by Jules Evans, Daniel Schmachtenberger, my session partner Greg Thomas, and the conversation between my pals Doug Rushkoff and Jamie Wheal. It’s a UK operation, so I will be speaking at the tender hour of 9:15 am PT on Sunday, which is 5:15 pm BST. Join up at www.rebelwisdom.co.uk/festival.
• On Saturday, June 6, I will once again convene the San Francisco Psychedelic Sangha at our now regular online time of 6pm PT. After a short talk, I will lead a half-hour meditation and then we will open it up for discussion. I still don’t like Zoom much, but there is something about the pandemic that is really charging up spiritual gatherings and conversations. This month I am going to talk about the maintaining the delicate cognitive balance of reason and mystery—another facet of the Middle Way, or what I refer to in High Weirdness as the “tight rope.” Sign up here; dana can be tossed into the SF Dharma Collective bucket.
It’s an epidemic. Like untold numbers of electronica nerds over the last decade or so, the West Coast down-temp producer Bluetech has succumbed to a maniacal obsession with analog synth modules. Now he has curated his first compilation of other modular synth musicians for his Behind the Sky label. Entitled Portals: A Kosmische Journey through Outer Worlds and Inner Space, the release is unapologetically retro, a collection of sonic science fictions as evocative as an old Bruce Pennington or Tim White paperback cover. The time is the 70s, but the late 70s, after Jarre’s Oxygène hit and Tangerine Dream discovered sequencers. Tracks like Ian Boddy’s “Omicron” and Steve Moore’s “DataVision” (which video artist Yoshi Sodeaka has turned into an eerie chromatic blob) layer melancholic chord washes over burbling melodic arpeggios, a space-music strategy later inherited by chillout artists of the early ‘90s. Elsewhere we get standout cuts from Lisa Bella Donna—the stuttering, shimmering “Rahmenerzhlung”—and the soundlord Steve Roach himself, who demands you don the cans for his enigmatic, weirder-than-you-think “Escher Sketch.” Strange, groovy, immersive, and sweet, Portals will remind you that the Milky Way is a spinning disc with a black hole at the center. At least if you get your hands on the vinyl…
Under the guise of research for a future book, I have been reading and rereading a lot about acid lately. It’s a blast. At a time when plant medicines and other compounds are grabbing the limelight—psilocybe mushrooms, ayahausca, ketamine—acid remains refreshingly sidelined, in psychic as well as discursive space, like that old hidden path through the popular park. I just finished Brian Barritt’s rare Leary memoir The Road of Excess (a scattershot and sometimes brilliant lysergic stew), but here I really want to recommend Christopher Gray’s The Acid Diaries (2009), which Jay Babcock had first tipped me to years ago. I had almost ignored it: Gray’s book came out on Park Street Press, the funnel through which much of the last decade’s deluge of psychedelic literature has flowed, and I have come to find their crank-em-out curation and repetitive cover designs rather untrustworthy.
The no-doubt slapped-on subtitle to Gray’s book—A Psychonaut’s Guide to the History and Use of LSD—is a case in point. One of the great things about The Acid Diaries, especially in these days of metastasizing psychedelic expertise, is that it’s not a “guide” to “use”—it’s one man’s sensitive, insightful, and funny account of his own methodical, marvelous, and harrowing LSD self-experimentation. Gray is a boomer, and the author of books on Situationism and Osho, but the time period of his investigation is the early 2000s, when Gray returns to acid in the midst of a difficult and confusing slide into late middle-age. The frameworks he builds for his experiences draw from the history of mysticism, Grof’s perinatal matrixes, and radical politics—including its disappointments. But he also spends a good deal of time discussing phenomena—including deep memory retrieval, the excellence of medieval music, and sometimes painful physical symptoms—that are not as deeply woven into acid lore. Gray isn’t just a psychonaut—he is a real writer whose exemplary discernment and honest reflections are humble and hard-won.
Traditionally, spiritual breakthrough would have been preceded by years of devotion and steady practice. It would have been rooted, contextualized, in daily life from the first, whereas with psychedelics everything works the other way around. First there’s the breakthrough, then the devotion and practice. I guess that’s the only way it can happen in a society of such doctrinaire materialism—but it puts unprecedented emphasis on keeping memory of the breakthrough alive and working through its implications.
I suspect that most people are maxed out on video input right now, but I enthusiastically encourage folks to check out Patrick Shen’s freely streaming documentary In Pursuit of Silence, a beautiful, subtle, and deeply illuminating—or resonating—meditation on the pursuit and practice of silence. I have always been an audio guy, with a low-end hi-fi vinyl obsession, a deep habit of deep listening, and a growing despair when it comes to urban and apartment noise—which at least means I can fully attest to the arguments the doc makes about noise pollution. Luckily, Shen does not stay on the level of psychobiological critique, and opens up his topic to Cagean aesthetics (there is some great footage of the man performing “4:33”), forest therapy, and the ascetic practices of monks East and West, for whom silence is not the literal absence of sound—which Shen makes clear is technically impossible—but rather a pregnant work of intimacy and solitude. With excellent cinematography and sound design (natch), In Pursuit of Silence offers a rare combination of conceptual insight and spiritual balm, demonstrating, in a hopefully infectious way, that “silence should be explored, not explained.”
I hope you enjoyed this flicker of the Burning Shore. Over the summer, I will be experimenting with various types of content, and will eventually create subscriber-only posts. Please consider a paid subscription if you can. Or pass it along to someone who might dig it. Thanks!