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We are in the habit of visualizing man’s political and social history as a wild zigzag which alternates between progress and disaster, but the history of science as a steady, cumulative process, represented by a continuously rising curve, where each epoch adds some new item of knowledge to the legacy of the past, making the temple of science grow brick by brick toever greater height. Or alternately, we think in terms of “organic” growth from the magic-ridden, myth-addicted infancy of civilization, through various stages of adolescence, to detached, rational maturity.
In fact, we have seen that this progress was neither “continuous” nor “organic”. The philosophy of nature evolved by occasional leaps and bounds alternating with delusional pursuits, culs-de-sac, regressions, periods of blindness, and amnesia. The great discoveries which determined its course were sometimes unexpected by-products of a chase after quite different hares. At other times, the process of discovery consisted merely in the cleaning away of the rubbish that blocked the path…
All we know is that mental evolution – from cave-dwellers to spacemen – cannot be understood either as a cumulative, linear process, or as a case of “organic growth” comparable to the maturing of the individual; and that it would perhaps be better to consider it in the light of biological evolution, of which it is a continuation.
Evolution is known to be a wasteful, fumbling process characterized by sudden mutations of unknown cause, by the slow grinding of selection, and by the dead-ends of over-specialization and rigid inadaptability. “Progress” can by definition never go wrong; evolution constantly does; and so does the evolution of ideas, including those of “exact sciences”.
New ideas are thrown up spontaneously like mutations; the vast majority of them are useless crank theories, the equivalent of biological freaks without survival-value. There is a constant struggle for survival between competing theories in every branch of the history of thought.
The process of natural selection, too, has its equivalent in mental evolution: among the multitude of new concepts which emerge only those survive which are well adapted to the period’s intellectual milieu. When we call ideas “fertile” or “sterile” we are unconsciously guided by biological analogy.
Most geniuses responsible for the major mutations in the history of thought seem to have certain features in common; on the one hand scepticism, often carried to the point of iconoclasm, in their attitude towards traditional ideas, axioms, and dogmas, towards everything that is taken for granted; on the other hand, an open-mindedness that verges on naive credulity towards new concepts which seem to hold out some promisse to their instinctive gropings. Out of this combination results that crucial capacity of perceiving a familiar object, situation, problem, or collection of data, in a sudden new light or new context…
This act of wrenching away an object or concept from its habitual associative context and seeing it in a new context is, as I have tried to show, an essential part of the creative process. It is an act both of destruction and creation, for it demands the breaking up of a mental habit, the melting down, with the blow-lamp of Cartesian doubt, of the frozen structure of accepted theory, to enable the new fusion to take place.
Every creative act – in science, art or religion – involves a regression to a more primitive level, a new innocence of perception liberated from the cataract of accepted beliefs.
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Roughly within the five generations from Canon Koppernigk to Isaac Newton, homo sapiens underwent the most decisive change in his history. The uomo universale of the Renaissance, who was artist and craftsman, philosopher and inventor, humanist and scientist, astronomer and monk, all in one, split up into his component parts. Art lost its mythical, science its mystical inspiration; man became again deaf to the harmony of the spheres. The Philosophy of Nature became ethically neutral, and ‘blind’ became the favourite adjective for the working of natural law…
As a result, man’s destiny was no longer determined from ‘above’ by a super-human wisdom and will, but from ‘below’ by the sub-human agencies of glands, genes, atoms, or waves of probability. This shift of the locus of destiny was decisive. So long as destiny had operated from a level of the hierarchy higher than man’s own, it had not only shaped his fate, but also guided his conscience and imbued his world with meaning and value. The new masters of destiny were placed lower in the scale than the being they controlled; they could determine his fate, but could provide him with no moral guidance, no values and meaning. A puppet of the Gods is a tragic figure, a puppet suspended on his chromosomes is merely grotesque.”
ARTHUR KOESTLER (1905-1983)
Penguin / Arkana.
“The day capitalism is forced to tolerate non-capitalist societies in its midst and to acknowledge limits in its quest for domination, the day it is forced to recognize that its supply of raw material will not be endless, is the day when change will come. If there is any hope for the world at all, it does not live in climate-change conference rooms or in cities with tall buildings. It lives low down on the ground, with its arms around the people who go to battle every day to protect their forests, their mountains and their rivers because they know that the forests, the mountains and the rivers protect them.
The first step towards reimagining a world gone terribly wrong would be to stop the annihilation of those who have a different imagination — an imagination that is outside of capitalism as well as communism. An imagination which has an altogether different understanding of what constitutes happiness and fulfillment. To gain this philosophical space, it is necessary to concede some physical space for the survival of those who may look like the keepers of our past, but who may really be the guides to our future.”
(The image that illustrates this post was found in Flick; it’s a “Pachamama” refers to “Mother Earth” and is central to many indigenous cultures across South America.)
“As the pioneering psychedelic chemist Alexander Shulgin (1927-2014) has pointed out, the idea that the Earth moved around the Sun was radical heresy at one time. A century later, it was a commonplace truism. The prospect that the inner exploration of consciousness with psychedelics might be recognized as, in itself, a positive and worthy endeavor is another radical heresy that may be seen as self-evident in the future. Rather than collapsing into anarchy, a civilization that supports the adult individual’s right to utilize these chemical catalysts for self-discovery and spiritual communion might advance to a more mature and stable state. Much of the anxiety and negative conditioning around the subject could be dispelled with logical argument based on evidence for the relative safety of psychedelics, especially natural ones, compared to other drugs. The point is not that everyone needs to take psychedelics but that the minority of people who find themselves compelled to make this exploration could be permitted to do so. (…) In a culture that is awash in prescription chemicals, drugs of abuse, and mood-altering SSRIs, it seems increasingly odd to ban a handful of plant substances and related compounds (even LSD is closely related to a chemical found in ergot fungus) that have been used by human beings for untold thousands of years.”
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“To a large extent, the cultural and social movements of the 1960s developed in reaction to the Cold War, which nearly reached a devastating nuclear climax during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. The awareness of humanity’s hair-trigger proximity to self-inflicted annihilation inspired individual acts of courage and brilliance, and mass movements for social and personal liberation. It also led to widespread interest in psychedelic exploration as a fast track to self-knowledge and spiritual illumination. Rather than leading to instant “enlightenment”, the visionary insights, temporary dissolution of ego boundaries, and deconditioning from proscribed social codes often induced by entheogenic explorations helped some people to reevaluate their own role in society at that time.
Today, we are faced with an intractable and unpopular war in Iraq that has already continued longer than the U.S. involvement in World War II, a rise in terrorism, and a global ecological crisis of terrifying magnitude. Just as the 1960s generation had to confront the militaristic insanity of the Vietnam War and the Cold War, our generation has to reckon with the individual and collective mind-set that has brought us to this critical threshold, quickly approaching the point of no return. While it would be the height of silliness to consider psychedelics, in themselves, as the Answer to the massive problems now facing us, they continue to offer some individuals a means for looking at the world from a different vantage point, integrating new levels of insight.”
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“When we cast a cold eye on the current planetary situation, we discover that the industrial culture and excessive lifestyle of the affluent West masks an intensifying scarcity of resources that is unsustainable, even in the short term. According to scientists, 25% of all mammalian species will be extinct within the next 30 years. Our oceans are 90% fished out, with the potential for an irreversible collapse of many fisheries. As accelerating climate change leads to an increase in natural disasters, the polar ice caps are melting at rates that exceed predictions, potentially leading to a significant rise in global sea levels, causing coastal flooding. At current rates of deforestation, there will be no tropical forests left on the planet in 40 years. According to many geologists, we are on the verge of ‘peak oil’ – the highest possible production of oil, after which procution must decline – leading to higher prices and potential scarcity of energy in the next decades… Our efforts to find short-term technological fixes for the problems we create often lead to deeper errors and more dangerous unintended consequences. We are faced with the urgent task of changing the direction of global civilization if we want to avoid biospheric collapse and species burnout.
Without romanticizing native cultures, we can recognize that in many cases their intimate and sacralized relationship to the natural world kept them from overshooting the carrying capacities of their local ecosystems. The modern fixation on abstract, quantifiable, and rational modes of thought has profoundly alienated us from the directly sensorial and mimetic forms of knowing and relating maintained by indigenous cultures, allowing us to treat the natural world as something separate from ourselves. The entheogenic experience can temporarily reconnect the modern individual with lost participatory modes of awareness that may induce a greater sensitivity to his or her physical surroundings, beside raising a psychic periscope into the marginalized realms of mythological archetype and imaginative vision. It is not a question of forfeiting our mdern cognition for fuzzy mysticism, but of reintegrating older and more intimate ways of knowing that can help us find a more balanced relationship with the human and nonhuman world around us.
It may seem unlikely that psychedelics could be rehabilitated, but who knows? Profound shifts in consciousness and culture happen in surprising ways, overturning the smug certitudes of academic experts and media commentators. New forms of awareness develop below everyday consciousness, gestating in hidden reaches of the collective psyche, long before they are allowed to be articulated and manifested as new social realities. What was once scandalous and impossible can become acceptable and obvious to a new generation, and doors that long seemed securely padlocked may swing open at the merest touch. As new paradigms of knowlege emerge, breaking through the crust of old habit and received conditioning, change becomes possible – and sometimes inevitable.”
– Daniel Pinchbeck,
Introduction to The Psychedelic Experience, by T. Leary, R. Metzner and R. Alpert,
Penguin Classics, 2007.
“…records the exciting intellectual friendship of three amazing minds pushing to the edge of history in search of new consciousness, blending scientific observation, mythic imagination and visionary speculation.” – Riane Eisler, The Chalice And The Blade
“Stimulating and often startling discussions between three friends, all highly original thinkers: Rupert Sheldrake, controversial biologist, Terence McKenna, psychedelic visionary, and Ralph Abraham, chaos mathematician. Their passion is to break out of paradigms that retard our evolution and to explore new possibilities. Through challenge and synergy they venture where few have gone before, leading their readers on an exciting journey of discovery.
Their discussions focus on the evolution of the mind, the role of psychedelics, skepticism, the psychic powers of animals, the structure of time, the life of the heavens, the nature of God, and transformations of consciousness. Three fine thinkers take us plunging into the universe of chaos, mind, and spirit. Instead of leaving us lost, they bring us back with startling insights and more wonder than we knew we had.” —Matthew Fox, Original Blessing and Sheer Joy
* * * *
BRIEF BIOGRAPHIES: Rupert Sheldrake is a biologist and author of many books including The Sense of Being Stared At and Other Aspects of the Extended Mind. Ralph Abraham is a mathematician, one of the pioneers of chaos theory and the author of several books including Chaos, Gaia, Eros: A Chaos Pioneer Uncovers the Three Great Streams of History. The late Terence McKenna was a scholar of shamanism, ethno-botanist, psychedelic researcher and author of many books including Food of the Gods and True Hallucinations.
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Conversations with Myself:
Time & The More It Changes:
Work as Play:
Buddhism & Science
The Discipline of Zen
To be continued…
Few figures were as influential as Alan Watts and Aldous Huxley in popularizing experiments with psychedelic drugs and Eastern religion in the 20th century. Watts did more to introduce Westerners to Zen Buddhism than almost anyone before or since; Huxley’s experiments with mescaline and LSD—as well as his literary critiques of Western technocratic rationalism—are well-known. But in a countercultural movement largely dominated by men—Watts and Huxley, Ken Kesey, Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg, etc—Huxley’s widow Laura came to play a significant role after her husband’s death.
In fact, as we’ve discussed before, she played a significant role during his death, injecting him with LSD and reading to him from The Tibetan Book of the Dead as he passed away. In the interview above, Laura speaks with Watts about that experience, one she learned from Aldous, who performed a similar service for his first wife as she died in 1955. The occasion of the interview—conducted at Watts’ Sausalito home in 1968—is the publication of Laura Huxley’s memoir of life with her husband, This Timeless Moment. But talk of the book soon prompts discussion of Huxley’s graceful exit, which Watts calls “a highly intelligent form of dying.”
Watts relates an anecdote about Goethe’s last hours, during which a visitor was told that he was “busy dying.” “Dying is an art,” says Watts, “and it’s also an adventure,” Laura adds. Their discussion then turns to Huxley’s final novel, Island (which you can read in PDF here).Island has rarely been favorably reviewed as a literary endeavor. And yet, as Watts points out, it wasn’t intended as literature, but as a “sociological blueprint in the form of a novel.” Laura Huxley, upset at the book’s chilly reception, wishes her husband had “written it straight.” Nonetheless, she points out that Island was much more than a Utopian fantasy or philosophical thought experiment. It was a document in which “every method, every recipe… is something he experimented with himself in his own life.” As Laura wrote in This Timeless Moment:
Every single thing that is written in Island has happened and it’s possible and actual … Island is really visionary common sense. Things that Aldous and many other people said, that were seen as so audacious – they are common sense, but they were visionary because they had not yet happened.
Those things included not only radical forms of living, but also, as Huxley himself demonstrated, radical ways of dying.
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