Epidemiology, scares, containment narratives. This is what the authoritarian state uses against those who would live joyfully upon the earth. But even under rough trades, we can care for each other. Exercise compassion. Release birds from cages, shake rattles. Maintain a vibrant village. Keep each other well-housed and well-fed. Meanwhile news everywhere of schools migrating online, education conducted remotely for the remainder of the semester. These are unprecedented times.
Children of Men is a panic-pitched end-times vision, a film about fear, all of twenty-first century humanity’s worries in quick succession: terrorism, environmental collapse, wars waged between states and nonstate actors, inequality, infertility, banditry, you name it. “Theo,” the Clive Owens character, wanders traumatized, cynical and half-numb, through a kind of hell-house morality tale, until his arrival at the miracle of the nativity. His job thenceforth is to shepherd Kee, the film’s Mary, a refugee whose body houses future life, toward the hope of the film’s Utopia, a legendary community said to exist on an island in the Azores, led by a group called the Human Project. “Everything’s fine,” people keep saying, “all part of a bigger thing!” With death and danger all around them, punctuated by moments of great beauty, Kee persists, and Theo follows, protecting her and the baby from harm. Members of the Human Project arrive to the rescue by film’s end, floating toward Kee and her baby in a boat called Tomorrow.
Sarah and I arrive to the coast and set up a portable temporary architecture, chairs and a blue umbrella. Sandpipers and seagulls play by the shore beside boogie boarders, kids tossing balls back and forth, swimmers. Beaches present life at its most joyful — life measured out in waves of guiltless play. A squad of pelicans fly past hanging low, close to the water. I imagine fields and sets of objects undergoing phased modulation and metamorphosis as in the interior of a kaleidoscope. It isn’t until after a brief swim that the objects focus into grains of sand. I think of my brother, a lifelong surfer, and begin to sound out intersections of surf culture and psychedelic philosophy. By that I mean more than just The Beach Boys. I mean Rick Griffin and Surfer magazine’s 1978 interview with Timothy Leary. Unfortunately, despite abundant prompting beforehand, I let my fear of bad dining experiences interfere with my ability to heed the recommendations of others. A sign with adjustable letters reminds me, “Fears we don’t face become our limits.” Time to face those fears, I nod. Outgrow them. As always, it means learning again to trust others. Don’t just sit around in a funk watching the sunset from the hotel balcony, I tell myself, rousing myself from circumstance.
I lived in a world of imaginary friends when I was a kid. Yet when I try to visualize these friends, especially the ones I called Mr. Spaso and Goo Goo, nothing comes to mind. What I recall instead is a frightening encounter I once had with a life-sized stuffed scarecrow that I mistook for my grandfather. The scarecrow sat in a wooden chair in my grandmother’s doll room. The room was dimly lit, tucked away in a part of the house rarely frequented by others. Happening upon it one afternoon, I peppered the scarecrow with questions, addressing it as if it were my grandfather. There was something about the creature’s nose that reminded me of his. When the figure didn’t respond, understanding dawned and I freaked. Why did this realization, the discovery that I’d been speaking with an inanimate object, fill me with shock and horror? Why do I remember that and not Spaso and Goo Goo? (What’s the best way of trance-scribing that name, by the way? Spaso? Spotso?) What was the story there? Why do kids sometimes go through an “imaginary friends” phase? Western societies demand that a distinction be drawn. They teach us to shape attention, fixing it for the most part upon socially shared, spatiotemporal objects, entities, and beings. Boundaries are established, perceptions and preferences trained to what others teach us to recognize as “actuality,” responsive presence, a multiple, additive-and-subtractive, evolving, de-concealing, totality-containing, self-consistent Big Other, from which can be recognized and distinguished other possible and impossible worlds. With my imaginary friends, I remember only conversing about them with others, requesting that my parents allow seats for them at the kitchen table. Was there ever a phantasmatic side to these friends? Did I ever imagine them possessing form beyond language, form that I’ve since forgotten? Or did I think of them exclusively as inventions, made only for the sake of a game? Case shelved for the time being, pending further inquiry.
I sit beside Sarah at a town pool, the two of us drying in the air after a swim. A small green insect lands on my leg. We consider each other for a few moments, each one absorbing the other’s fear, processing it internally, transmuting it, releasing it back as love. I’m reminded of Maslow’s claim that each of us contains two sets of forces. “One set,” he writes, “clings to safety and defensiveness out of fear, tending to regress backward, hanging on to the past, afraid to grow away from the primitive communication with the mother’s uterus and breast, afraid to take chances, afraid to jeopardize what [one] already has, afraid of independence, freedom and separateness. The other set of forces impels [us] forward toward wholeness of Self and uniqueness of Self, toward full functioning of all [one’s] capacities, toward confidence in the face of the external world at the same time that [one] can accept [one’s] deepest, real, unconscious Self” (Toward a Psychology of Being, p. 46). Pool days are delightful. Look at us, sun-soaked, unfolding outward, discovering new capacities, refining old ones, becoming. The metamorphosis has begun.
What does it mean to become mindful of a practice? Take my use of language in combination with my use of cannabis. What enters my awareness, what happens to my consciousness (and is there even still an “I” to whom these properties belong), once I’ve allied myself with a plant? Does becoming mindful mean observing language use, moving recursively through the parts of sentences, sounding them out, testing their properties, aligning them into sequences that please an inner judge? Does it mean editing in accordance with a previously taken-for-granted Reason, or Substance, or Preestablished Essence? Is this latter equivalent to what the ancients used to call Logos? And where does the “I” sit in all of this? Does choice of words have an impact on Being? Is the metabolism that emerges from this impact a healthy one? Let us relinquish the question-form and see. A kind of “angel” arrives here speaking to me from the pages of a book. It claims to be a messenger—though what it wishes to share with me, it says, is not information so much as a “language of transformation” — words “capable of renewing those to whom they are addressed” (Latour, as quoted in High Weirdness, p. 156). Earlier in the day, a friend posted a favorite passage of his from Frank Herbert’s Dune — a “Litany Against Fear” that seems apropos given the tightrope I walk. “I must not fear,” says the novel’s hero Paul Atreides. “Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” This passage seems to favor action — but some fears are warranted, I tell myself. Afterwards I catch myself humming “Knock Three Times,” a hit song released in 1970 by Tony Orlando and Dawn. The unprompted strangeness of this song, the way it rose to mind without any clear catalyst, causes me to reflect for a moment on its lyrics. Noting a correspondence, I decide against a second hit.
Distant thunder accompanies a bird calling from the trees beside my home during a light afternoon shower. I struggle to part with belongings, items I’ve gleaned over the decades. I scavenge, I collect. Clearly there’s some part of me resistant to change. There’s some deep-seated fear in me that I won’t be able to find my way home. I’ll go off on a weird walk, a long strange trip. The heroic answer, I suppose, is to reframe the derivé as a “mythic journey” where, unsatisfied with the old stories, we unfold our own. The question I find myself asking, however, is “Who is the hero? How do we make the journey transpersonal, collective, communal?” In order to gain a degree of autonomy from established ways, I need to begin a process of sorting through what I’ve been given. This process of rejecting and discarding, though, terrifies me in its implications. All things seem freighted with meaning: occult disco LPs, implicate orders, standing reserves of belief and unbelief. How am I to act given my uncertainty and distrust? What is it at bottom that I fear will happen? I fear I’m being tested by invisible forces aiming to trick or deceive me — forces that threaten an apocalyptic finale. This fear sometimes grips me in ways that cause me to rethink my relationship to psychedelics — including my use of cannabis. I hem and haw indecisively about the cumulative effects of these substances, uncertain of whether they help or hinder being. A friend chimes in here over social media: “To beat the heat,” he says, “one must become it.”
This is a story wherein culture learns to behave lovingly. Animated anthropomorphic cocktail glasses wearing party favors raise cocktail glasses while dancing at a party. Next thing I know, my eyes are open and I’m speaking unashamedly, meeting the gaze of the Other with an expression of goodwill despite the capital-relation that binds us and brings us together. No matter how we interpret it, we’re always here, called upon to occupy this subject-position on this phenomenological plane. Let us do so each day as best we can, drinking juice guilt-free. I used to worry that guilt was something I carried, like a sentence of unknown extent, causing me to cower in fear of a temporarily-absent-but-due-to-return “Big Other.” For those who have ears to hear, say the Christians, this Big Other has already expressed willingness to forgive—but only upon certain conditions spelled out by fallible earthly translators, emissaries, bearers of sacred word. Who could help but fall astray under such conditions? Let us accept their fallibility—theirs, as well as our own—as the essence of the message. For this acceptance constitutes a freedom, a horizon opened up before us, judgment stayed. To live otherwise would be to live in fear. I acknowledge I’m not much of a narrator. I wander, I digress, losing myself in forests and labyrinths, out of which I rise occasionally to otherworldly heights like a self-styled Captain Marvel. This is as it should be, I suppose, for the stories that save me aren’t the Christian ones. They’re the ones involving X-Factors and New Mutants, where latent powers and hidden potentials suddenly become manifest. The psychedelic experience arises alongside this mythos. The world we live in is the one where the change already happened. For better or worse, human societies have birthed a new era of augmented consciousness, have they not? There’s something apocalyptic about the event itself, a kind of veil-lifting — the arrival of a new phase of history. Suddenly we’re in the worlds of Grant Morrison’s Supergods and Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology. (Another name for all of this, perhaps, is the Anthropocene.)
Evening fireworks as the city celebrates the approach of summer. Nineties hip-hop artists intervene like the members of a chorus of those who know. Wise Angelenos. The rebel, they say, is the hero in history. But me, I’m just flexing, wondering, longing to do the right thing. Without reinforcement, however, it feels like I’m grasping at straws. Cheer up, I tell myself. Overcome the fear response. Learn to play the game.
These trance-scripts haven’t spoken adequately yet about the most common altered state of consciousness, the one to which our society remains addicted: namely, fear. There is an element of anarchy in the ontology of the cosmos. This is its beauty. We each have to find our own truths, our own interpretations, the meanings that suit our being. Before meaning’s arrival, though, before its revelation (when all is said and done), there is the maze, the labyrinth, the dungeon — the as-yet-unexamined. Fear emerges when we project into the labyrinth a Minotaur, a spirit of malevolence, an enemy Other. If we concentrate on breathing and re-center in our bodies, fear dissipates. Sunlight catches on windblown leaves, goldens a wall of stained pine.