The Practice of Paranoia

On Ram Dass, Vertigo, and Befriending the Fear


I bought a tape deck on eBay last month, and soon found myself digging through a drawer full of old cassettes, hunting for a madeleine. Amid the fun finds—moody high school mix tapes, rare Xpressway and Touch releases, some UK pirate radio ’ardcore that Simon Reynolds duped me long ago—I came across an item simply labeled “Ram Dass.” I didn’t remember the tape, didn’t even recognize the hand writing, and so I slapped it on.

I’ve always been a Ram Dass fan. During high school, me and my pals passed Be Here Now around along with the hash pipe. When we heard that the guru himself was doing a weekend workshop down at UCSD, around 1982 or so, we convinced someone’s mom to drive us to campus. During his morning talk, Ram Dass drew an Om on the blackboard, and, looking for an excuse to meet him during the break, I walked up and asked him about the symbol. I swear I wasn’t stoned, folks, but when Ram Dass looked at me, some sort of extra-dimensional space unfolded within and around his gaze. As I expanded into this floaty, tingling galaxy, I grokked that he and I were like two sides of a single cosmic coin that had Möbius-stripped itself into separate selves that were now almost ironically staging this goofy teacher-student exchange. He answered the question, smiled at me, and told me I would be an “impeccable warrior.” I still strive to fulfill the charge.

My cassette captured Ram Dass on a WBAI call-in radio show in the early seventies. He had just returned from India, and was in full-on cosmic love muffin mode. He delivered a short rap, which struck me as kinda pompous—too much beard-stroking, if you will, too much enlightened professor. But his interactions with the callers, whose problems were both eternal and deeply of their time, were priceless. While offering spiritual succor, Ram Dass didn’t paper over the sometimes painful tensions between Absolute Love and the bummers of existence: drug incarcerations, global starvation, that pesky and persistent ego. And the language was, uh, a trip in itself—lots of things were “far out”, and one guy apparently had “really beautiful vibes, man.” But there was one word that Ram Dass used throughout the recording that stuck with me more than the hippie argot. That word was paranoia.

In an earlier life, Ram Dass had been Dr. Richard Alpert, a colleague of Leary’s at the Harvard department of psychology, and therefore a guy who knew a thing or two about clinical conditions like paranoia. This doesn’t mean that, then or now, psychologists have fully clarified what paranoia is, or how to establish its exact relationship to schizophrenia or psychosis or other terms and conditions which are perpetually in the making.

But when Ram Dass talked about paranoia on BAI, he wasn’t talking about madness, or even the sort of conspiratorial narratives that Richard Hofstadter identified in his legendary 1964 article on “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” (as relevant today as ever). In that essay, which imported the term into political discourse, Hofstadter goes out of his way to distinguish the “paranoid style” he is talking about from the clinical condition, declaring his topic to be the “way in which ideas are believed” rather than any literal symptoms of lunacy. Ram Dass meant something even more diffuse, and much more common, something more like anxiety, or suspicion, or the wary way we habitually shore up our sense of self in a confusing world.

This more colloquial language of paranoia saturates the Long Sixties (ie, the period including the countercultural Seventies). The “old Drug Paranoia” is all over Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), for instance, where the word sometimes describes psychotic fear, but more often signifies attitudes like manic insight or the heightened caution of drug dealers. I also stumbled across the term in a yellowed 1967 copy of Mobius Strip, an obscure San Jose underground newspaper I recently picked up, where the editor Bill Craddock—author of the great acid novel Be Not Content, which I hope to write about here one of these days—speaks of “the neurotic hours I spend in quivering paranoia” over, um, copy-edit mistakes. That’s not cosmic plot stuff, or even fears that your phone is bugged, but something much closer to everyday subjectivity.

In the early seventies, paranoia became a cultural growth industry. You had Black Sabbath horror shows, weirdo comix, Watergate revelations, and films like The Parallax View and The Conversation—not to mention the sort of visionary but often conspiratorial mind-fucks I analyzed in my book High Weirdness. Perhaps the most audacious Long Sixties deployment of the term, though, belongs to Charlie Manson. Talking to Rolling Stone in 1970 about how coyotes move through the desert, Manson explains that “he hears every sound, smells every smell, sees everything that moves. He’s in a state of total paranoia, and total paranoia is total awareness.”

You know you are out on a limb when you are quoting Manson to make your case. But paranoia does have spiritual implications. Like Ram Dass, the wayward but brilliant Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa often talked about paranoia in his seventies books. He saw it as an aspect of the basic reactivity that characterizes the ordinary ego, with its dualistic sense of a territory that needs to be defended. According to Trungpa, serious meditators sometimes even pull back from the realization of shunyata—the Empty pot at the end of the Buddhist rainbow—out of the paranoid hunch that they don’t actually exist. That this paranoia is warranted, at least from the Buddhist perspective, is part of the dynamics of the thing. In other words, just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean that the Void isn’t out to get “you.”

It’s not only the gurus who think that paranoia lies at the heart of the self. So too did the renegade psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. In Lacan’s famous “mirror stage”, first articulated in the 1930s and revised over the decades—and herein officially mangled—life for the infant is one long existential threat. Unable to control its body or its mommy, incapable of feeding or comforting itself, literally losing its shit, the polymorphous infant takes refuge in the idealized reflection of itself glimpsed in a mirror. This reflection—which Lacan later decided was not necessarily literal but a basic structure of subjectivity—presents the tyke with an image of a unified being, coherent, knowledgeable, in control. We internalize this exterior image as an egoic fantasy, which continues to dog us whenever we seek to master ourselves, to get our house in order, to be all that we can be. The problem is that this image of wholeness and power is fundamentally other, a deceptive phantasm that bedevils us by simulating “the real me.” In this sense, we are fundamentally vexed—paranoiac—because we rightly suspect that our most intimate desires and self-images are actually sneaky intrusions from without. In the words of Rimbaud, “I is an Other.”

In the Long Sixties, Rimbaud was a major influence on Jim Morrison and other high-fallutin’ heads who wanted to submit their I’s to the Dionysian Other. But back then, you didn’t need to be deranging your senses to have good reasons to be paranoid. The cops were probably out to get you. This was true whether you were consuming criminalized substances like LSD, cannabis, or speed—all of which can spark the fear—or whether you were a sober Movement activist who became convinced that you and your comrades were being surveilled or infiltrated by undercover agents—disruptive suspicions that were later shown to be perfectly correct in many cases.

Ram Dass also tied paranoia to the intense polarization in American society that characterized the Long Sixties (as it does our own times). Once the cops or the straights are seen as a fully separate Them rather than a contested part of We, a paranoid structure is installed. (That’s what he is talking about in the Be Here Now sample above.) Paranoia is a form of social anxiety, after all, and is therefore fundamentally political.

But Ram Dass didn’t just counsel kumbaya. Instead, he called for “conscious” protest—loving protest, as opposed to the reactive, hating kind. Such protest “reduces the polarization and paranoia and allows each side to hear the other’s concern more clearly because there is less fear and anxiety.” That’s a noble vision, and it may be the only way to avoid social violence today. I believe W.H. Auden was correct when he said “We must love one another or die.” But this sentiment seems even more alien to our bitterly fearful and distrustful moment than to Be Here Now’s. The vibrations are bad, folks, the mind-net of us-and-them is everywhere, and paranoia is reeling too many in.

But there’s the rub. The intimacy with paranoia that characterizes the Long Sixties is one that we have largely lost today. People fling about the term at times, you can find memes and song lyrics, but on a basic level we no longer own or recognize our own predilection for paranoia. And by paranoia here, I mean two possible modes, which are related but don’t always go together. One is a pervasive skepticism or suspicion about people or institutions or even consensus reality as a whole. This is a “negative” mode, critical, distrustful, and oppositional. The other mode is the “positive” rejoinder to this move: a sometimes obsessive embrace of systematic speculations, narratives, and delusions—which can partake of both reason and imagination, fact and phantasm—about the actual conditions hidden behind the mask.

Given the shitstorm of dissimulation we are surfing, the absence of paranoia talk is kind of peculiar. Consider the conditions. Social media, seething with bot-armies and witch-hunts and genuine fake news, breeds intense social anxiety. Polarization is essentially paranoid, with arguments and disagreements presumed to be weaponized from the get-go. These media flows are in turn operating within a larger technological matrix that not only watches and records much of our lives, but nudges our decisions and desires in ways we cannot know but have every reason to suspect.

With the pandemic, our behavior has become intensely regulated by the state, which is creepy enough but has in turn intensified conspiracy theories that were already saturating the Internet and pop culture. The erosion of trust in scientists, journalists, and scholars, not to mention generally agreed-upon facts about the world, has in turn been exploited by actors offering up a myriad of narrative alternatives, some of which are delusional and some of which are designed to stoke the lizard brain. There are many earnest investigations as well, along with valuable allegories, but there are also more insidious forces afoot. Whoever has been squeezing off those Qdrops isn’t just going for the lulz, but wants to poison the whole well.

These conditions are ripe for both phases of paranoia: one, the pervasive suspicion that consensus or “mainstream” reality is so gamed that you are a dupe if you believe it or accept its terms; and two, that the only way out of this pickle is to embrace specific reality tunnels whose self-reinforcing data-loops and “I know what I know” militancy make them nearly impervious to critique or compromise.

Again, some of these counter-narratives and rumors are true, or true enough to be wrestled with. But in the current conditions, when paranoia has been weaponized, they too often bloom into Manichean phantasmagoria. People are understandably concerned about the algorithmic manipulation of voters, for example, or the prospect of violent nihilists infiltrating legitimate protest movements. But when we totally freak out about Russian trolls or Cambridge Analytica or Antifa masterminds, we are taking the paranoid bait, which offers to resolve the fractious complexities of our moment into dystopian thriller narratives that command eyeballs and provide emotional reactions—like fear and directed anger—that are far more satisfying and self-clarifying than mere confusion. Even more dangerously, these narratives encourage believers to give up on democracy’s fragile procedures and to ignore the broad social tensions exploited by these manipulative agents, whose existence is undeniable but whose power is debatable.

And so here we are: widely fearful that the November election will trigger a potentially violent and convulsive constitutional crisis that depends, in significant part, on the erosion of a shared world through hypermediated distrust, disembodied fear, and hyperbolic blame.

So how to resist freaking out? Besides loving everybody—good luck with that—we also need to patch together some sort of common ground, by which I mean both a loosely shared picture of the world, and an affirmation of the creaking machine of pluralist democracy, including its concomitant press, which requires reforms more than fireballs. Even more fundamentally, we need to trust that most ordinary citizens are basically decent, especially if you meet them in the flesh, and that cool heads can create a workable situation.

I don’t know how much of this is possible though, at least right now. It feels like the ground beneath our collective feet is dissolving, that the vertigo is making us crazy, and that the craziness is driving too many of us to either withdraw into bitterness and fear or to embrace end-times absolutes that are violent in form and sometimes in intent. I believe we can and should find that common ground, which is something that is made not found, and made without all the certainties we might like. But I don’t know how to get there.

Here I can offer only a weird, maybe counter-intuitive suggestion. We need to own our own paranoia. We need to come to terms more directly, both in ourselves and those around us, with the raw energies and mechanisms—the fear and suspicion, the defensive projections and speculative convictions—that make outsize narratives of threat and control so damn sticky these days.

To do this, we need to de-pathologize paranoia. Clinical persecution complexes are no joke—I’ve seen them up close, it’s not pretty—but I think we need to insist on a continuum between these mad plots and Hofstader’s more general “paranoid style”, and between that style and many ordinary states of mind, at least as they manifest under the extraordinary conditions of the 21st century.

Paranoia, in this view, is not unlike envy or jealousy or anger—dangerous but quotidian emotional companions who also like to make outlandish claims about the state of the world. (What Deleuze calls the “delirium of signs” that characterizes sexual jealousy resonates quite well with the paranoid’s persecution plots and over-readings.) As with these more readily acknowledged emotions, paranoia demands shadow work of us, a kind of jiu jitsu in which we accept these affects even as we out-maneuver them, acknowledging and transforming their energies while defanging their distorting power.

I’m not saying we should get more paranoid, of course—although I do wish that QAnon folks, flat-earthers, and other naive conspiracy-mongers would apply more of that “skepticism” they like to trumpet to the sources and motives of their own favored sources of knowledge. In argument, many of these people remind me of freshman philosophy students who haven’t figured out that skepticism isn’t just a Molotov cocktail to hurl at the Man—it is an acid that can (and maybe should) eat away at your convictions, and clarify what remains. The problem with some conspiracists, it seems, is that they are not paranoid enough.

That’s why I think we are due for a revival of authentic, pragmatic, Pyrrhonnhic skepticism—which is why I like to keep RAW in the mix. But here I am interested in something less extreme, and hopefully more likely. I think we should become intimate with how paranoid we already are, and to recognize that paranoia is part of what it means to have and be a self in a world we perceive as separate. Phantasmagoric plots, it turns out, are very close to home.

A year ago, back in the old days, I had a beer with someone I’d just met, a meditation teacher who has since become a good friend. After making an intriguing claim about reactionary Buddhism among the tech bros, he contextualized the statement by admitting that he was generally kinda paranoid. This wasn’t some vulnerable secret he was admitting to, but a casual fact to keep in mind about his views of the world.

This admission was also an opportunity for some anti-paranoic bonding, since, as anyone familiar with my work should hardly be shocked to learn, I am also more paranoid than your average bear. In my case, I suspect this has something to do with my rather porous psychic boundaries, and the fact that distressingly hyperactive brain resonates easily with perspectives and paradigms not my own. For me, like my friend, paranoia is just part of the furniture.

This has forced me to adopt what I call the practice of paranoia. Recall the two sides of the condition I described above. On the one hand there is a pervasive “negative” anxiety or distrust about the surface claims of reality, whether people or institutions or matters of ontology. This is the “we are being lied to” moment, the goose-bump hunch that things are not what they seem. On the other hand, there is the “positive” embrace of systematic explanations, arcane narratives, or conspiracy theories.

The first moment is deeply unsettling, a vertigo of doubt, while the second, though often grim, provides a sort of coherence, as we embrace stories about hidden agents or powerful technologies or evil motives that, however bleak or oppressive, also shore up the sense of who we are and what we stand for. This manufactured sense of shared purpose is why a lot of QAnon media streams are rather cheery, despite their obsession with a vampiric Satanic cabal of globalist pedophiles who have taken over the govenment.

The practice of paranoia is to stay with the feelings of the initial vertigo, to attend to the narratives that might arise—which may, after all, be true or at least figuratively useful—but to not grasp at them like life-preservers of false certainty. Distrust the world, as you must, but distrust your thoughts about the world as well. Stay with the trouble, and try not to panic. Surf, don’t submit. Breathe.

For better or worse, many things in life have given me the opportunity to practice paranoia. As High Weirdness and some of my other work shows, I have studied and sometimes participated in many fields fringed with paranoia, from occult practice to Ufology to psychedelia to conspiracy theories to ancient gnosticism. Reading is very much part of the practice for me, certainly including the reality-warping texts of Philip K. Dick, Thomas Pynchon, Robert Anton Wilson, Terence McKenna, H.P. Lovecraft, and other high weirdos. While I don’t care for slasher movies or torture porn or gore, I also love supernatural horror and mind-fuck SF thrillers. Such films, like weird fiction, or like certain dank strains of hip-hop or heavy metal or psychedelic prog—and presumably like those creepy, claustrophobic video games I don’t play—produce a sometimes delicious frisson of imaginative dread.

This means that some of us, at least, are capable of enjoying paranoia. What is this enjoyment? Like fear, paranoia can be a thrill: it can energize the body and sharply enliven awareness, just like Manson’s coyote. Yet there is an additional Lovecraftian feature of paranoia, a kind of dread that sets it apart from fear, a sense of solving the riddle that is your doom, or peering through a dungeon keyhole, or finally fitting the puzzle pieces together only to form a horrible image of something that, in the depths of your mind, you had always known was the case.

This arguably perverse enjoyment is deeply woven into contemporary conspiracy culture. Such nerdy, anxious pleasures are part of the draw of all those youtube rabbit holes in the first place. I suspect a lot of people get lost because, just as they confuse entertainment with rigorous historical research, they also confuse that intense frisson with the near proximity of truth. That’s why so much conspiracy media plays on secrets, revelations, and disclosures. The practice though, is to suspend the drive to finally Know the Secret. Entertain possibilities, some of which might stick, but stay in touch with how this vexed, almost paranormal pleasure actually feels—an anxious verge that recalls what Lacan called jouissance, the enjoyment we dread but compulsively submit to, driven on by “terrible promises” that threaten to destroy us.

This recalls another practice of paranoia: the few years I spent on the classic Freudian couch, undergoing Lacanian psychoanalysis. The analyst, who was a casual friend before we worked together, sat outside my field of view, lurking like a spider ready to pounce on some slurred syllable or slip of the tongue. I trusted the guy, but was often frustrated, often sick of myself, and brimming with suspicions—including the suspicion that this expensive and time-consuming Chinese finger-trap was doing me no good. Which wasn’t true, or at least not exactly true, since the “me” in question remains an open question. As Lacan himself suggested, the analytic situation is a roundabout way of inducing controlled paranoia in the analysand, paranoia that can stage the essential conundrum of attempting to “be” a separate self that itself is fundamentally split, and essentially vulnerable.

Probably my first big-time practice of paranoia, though, involved taking drugs in high school. These days, everybody knows that weed can make you paranoid. Researchers have proven it, most stoners have experienced it, and many former stoners attribute their parting of the ways to the frequency of it. Indeed, cannabis discourse is one of the main domains today where people admit to their own paranoia, even as breeders and marketers promote strains that are supposed to outwit the condition.

Weed has always been more squirrelly than that for me—the same strain that has kissed my brow with fairy dust can, in a different set and setting, send me on a twisty bardo ride. Obviously dosage is a factor. In high school, my slice of SoCal was flooded with skunk and other strong and sticky sinsemilla from up north, while favorable trade winds brought the occasional, and most holy, Thai stick. Huffing on these powerhouses often filled me with social anxiety, and sometimes outright paranoia, both cosmic and banal. But I didn’t stop smoking. Weed was an important social practice, and besides, then as now, I appreciate weird at least as much as fun. I tried to emulate my friend Bry-Fry, who said he learned to appreciate pot paranoia because it forced him to get over his insecurities, to not care what people thought about him, to go for whatever madness it was anyway.

Things could get even gnarlier on shrooms or acid, of course. But the tricks were more or less the same, if more mythopoetic: Reality might actually be as fucked-up as it seems right now, so keep paying close attention, but don’t forget that it might be screwing with you as well, so don’t hold on too tight. Mind your manners around devils and tricksters. If you get locked in an ill paradigm for a while, just buck up, and ride it like whitewater, trusting the flow to carry you past the fear.

These are psychonautical attitudes, rather than safe therapeutic ones. I wouldn’t exactly recommend them to anyone. It also needs to be emphasized that we were adventuring within generally safe and permissive white middle-class neighborhoods, where concrete reasons for paranoia were few. But learning to navigate the rapids of psychoactive paranoia did leave me with a, uh, high tolerance for ambiguity, as well as some searing Dune-worthy lessons about the relationship between fear and the mind.

This isn’t just drug stuff. Two decades on from those early journeys, I was at a Zen sesshin in Marin County. It was evening, four or five days into the retreat, the hall was dark and the samadhi was cooking. My concentration pooled in my belly, and I entered a sort of hypnogogic state whose sudden output was a visionary grok that struck with the force of revelation: The earth is surrounded by astral demons who consume our souls upon death and there is absolutely nothing we can do about it. Peeling open my eyes in more than mild alarm, I also realized that all the monks and meditators surrounding me were simply amplifying the signal of these archons, whose awareness of my gnosis had set them gloating.

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This kind of thing is more common than you’d think in meditation retreats, where genuine psychotic breaks definitely go down. I don’t think I was close to that, but I do know that there was absolutely no room in my mind for any sort of critical thinking or doubt. I wasn’t convinced—I knew. This was the secret truth and now I was cursed to hold it close until the gloomy end of my days. And yet something else worked in me, some hunch deeper than any thought, some gut intuition that held its breath as it clawed its way towards the surface. Without decision, I opened my eyes even wider, rolled them around the sockets, and started pumping ditzy show-tunes into my head, anything to break up what my body somehow knew was a crystallized cognitive trance.

The spell soon passed, and though I was a bit shattered afterwards, the experience left me with an even deeper trust in the current of awareness that everything else rides like a carrier wave. I also walked away from the retreat with a concrete bit of unshakeable knowledge—not that such soul-eaters exist, but that my mind is capable, without any drugs, of absolutely believing outlandish claims about the world that have no support beyond my momentary imaginal convictions. In other words, I now know that I can totally know without really knowing anything.

This is important lesson for paranoids, and I desperately wish it was more widely absorbed today. After all, the practice of paranoia is not just a matter of affect or altered states. It is also a commitment to a kind of thinking, almost a set of philosophical protocols, a sort of imaginal or acrobatic skepticism that is capable of pulling the rug out from under itself without losing its center of gravity. This is the realm of Descartes’ evil genie, or Nietzsche’s demon whispering the “most abysmal thought” of Recurrence, or the analytic philosopher’s “brain in a vat,” or RAW’s Chapel Perilous. To think into the depths is to confront a vertigo that prepares one for the dissolution of ground, for the “end of the world,” maybe even for something like awakening.

The paradox is, through the very integrity of the practice, and some trust in the process, a kind of stability emerges, even a wry sort of humor, a strangely practical gravity-in-motion you might compare to dashing down a steep hill—or maybe Castaneda’s “running in the dark.” It is liberating to realize how little certainty is available in this world of flux, and that nonetheless the world appears, again and again, in all its vivid materiality, its rainbow array of clouds and books and fellow critters, its narrative seductions and endless disasters and endlessly renewed struggles for a world common enough and kind enough to keep us together, at least for the time being.