Tuesday, July 1, 2008

I Blame Leary - Part 2

A little while ago, I started writing about our divided America in a post called "I Blame Leary" which made no actual mention of Timothy Leary. I was working up to that, but let myself get side-tracked ranting about how religion has been co-opted and perverted by greedy "leadership" to keep people warlike despite the fact that religion is supposed to foster peace & harmony, or at the very least, tolerance. (Kurt Vonnegut once said that the problem with religion was simply that it aimed too high -- if instead of "Love thy neighbor" Jesus had said, "Tolerate thy neighbor" enough people might actually have attempted to comply to make a real difference.)

But getting back on track... Two Americas: one good, one batshit crazy. Each side utterly convinced it is the good one and equally convinced of the batshit craziness of the other. How does this happen? A stupid-sounding but actually very interesting thing called "Spiral Dynamics Theory" cooked up by a psychology professor named Clare W. Graves, explains it pretty well, and as I understand it, it goes a-something, a-like a-this...

As we individual humans grow from infancy to adulthood, we change and evolve in many ways, including our levels of identification, conscious awareness, psychological development, etc. We move through various stages. But not everybody progresses at the same rate, and not everybody reaches the same stage before "leveling off".

Similarly, whole cultures exist at various stages of development, based on where a critical mass of adult individuals fall in their own personal development. Now, no matter what culture you examine, from any given time and place, you'll find individuals within it at all stages. But until there is that critical mass of people at least one level up from the overall level, the culture itself won't change. Certain individuals help their cultures evolve, and certain cultures help their individuals evolve and both are in constant flux, always playing off each other, etc. etc.

Now, just because an individual's level of development is "higher/more advanced" or "lower/less advanced" than someone else's, doesn't mean he/she is better or worse, nicer or meaner, smarter or dumber, etc. (though wherever they are completely shapes that person's entire take on reality). Similarly, less advanced cultures and more advanced cultures both have positive features and negative ones.

Individuals and cultures at the highest levels manifest the currently unusual ability to recognize that there even are different levels of being to begin with. They also see each level as an inherently necessary and valued evolutionary step, and they are able to retain the positive attributes of the less advanced stages, even as they move on to more advanced stages (very Burning Man).

On the other hand, individuals and cultures at intermediate or low levels think that their level is the only one that exists. They don't think of themselves as being on a "level" -- it's just the way it is, was and always will be -- and thus cannot consciously benefit from the attributes of other levels whether higher or lower. When a group at such a level encounters someone on any other level, they unconsciously assume the guy is on their level (as there are no distinctions to them). But since the guy's behavior is dictated by the different level he is on, he could seem a bit "off" to the group. Maybe even insane. Possibly criminally so. Or, perhaps the guy will be revered as a god. Either reaction is obviously incorrect, but probably inevitable, given the limited awareness of the group. There are many famous examples of this throughout history.

Typically, when an entire culture is nearing the shift from its current level of development to the next, as it gains the critical mass of more advanced individuals needed to hit the tipping point, the culture sort of "spasms" a bit, as it shakes off the remnants of a possibly tenacious old guard, before a new equilibrium and smooth forward momentum into the full flowering of the new paradigm is achieved. The most obvious metaphor for this would be birthing pains. Often, something drastic must occur in the culture, for the transition to take place. It could be violent. But not necessarily. Some births are smoother than others.

We are obviously in the throes of this process right now. We have been for a several decades.

The two Americas consist of:
  • the people who fear change, so resist and try to prevent this transition
    • typically operating at a feudal level, culturally, if not even less advanced
  • those who welcome the inevitable transition and work to bring it about
    • typically operating at a groovy "1960's" level, if not more advanced
Interestingly, if we continue the "birth" metaphor, then it is the progressive liberal folks who are like midwives trying to ease the process and bring our new baby gently and painlessly into being, and it is the conservative folks who are unwittingly trying to abort it. Of course, given their level of cultural development (a pre-psychedelic, pre-scientific, pre-renaissance mindset) and the fact that they don't know other levels of awareness exist, they can't help but think they're right and that any other viewpoint is insane. But if you interfere with the natural birthing process, you either kill the baby (society), kill the mother (earth), or both. Fortunately for us all, many people are waking up these days.

So why do I say I "blame" Timothy Leary? Well, I think this transition would be going a lot smoother if he hadn't pushed so hard for it so prematurely. The advent of LSD was the most significant event of the 20th century, as far as I'm concerned. LSD has been to our culture what labor-inducing drugs are to a pregnancy. The shit is not to be taken lightly.

In the early days of LSD research, back when such a thing was legal and small amounts were freely available if you knew the right experimental psychologist, Aldous Huxley advocated spreading its conscious use slowly, gradually, starting with influential members of the intelligentsia, and letting it trickle down from there. Leary didn't like the elitist sound of that, and probably feared the creation of some new psychedelic class system, and so advocated dosing as many people as possible as fast as possible.

Now, I'm not elitist, not by any stretch, but Huxley correctly realized that society wasn't ready for a tidal wave of psychedelia. But that's exactly what Leary unleashed. And what happened... the fearless young people tried it, had their revelations and their freakouts and amazing things started to happen. But their parents were scared shitless. For probably the first time, an enormous amount of young people were doing something totally alien to their folks. And the Generation Gap was invented. Or maybe just the biggest generation gap to date.

The nation bifurcated into the people who were adventurous of spirit and wanted to see what the drugs were all about, and the ones (not just in the older generation, of course) who were afraid of all that stuff to begin with, and recoiled in horror at seeing what happened to the kids who got into it. I mean, if you've never tried it yourself, how could anyone possibly expect you to understand purple paisley?

And enough people were adventurous enough to cause society to take a big clumsy lurching step forward. But the actual critical mass hadn't yet been reached. So that step faltered. And the old guard mustered all of its strength to fight off the insane-looking, rainbow-colored, glorious mess that it couldn't understand to save its life.

And even though pop-culture has largely remained progressive (and drug-fueled), the power-structure has done everything it could think of to set the clock back to before mass use of LSD ever happened. The neo-cons knew that there were millions of people quietly shaking in fear of all the healthy changes taking place in society, so they naturally exploited that fear and formed a new basis by which mostly rural and suburban people of modest means could be convinced to vote greedy billionaires who don't give a crap about them into high office. Certainly better than seeing Wichita overrun by those gender-bending, free-loving, birth-controlling, women working, inter-racial, communal, tree-hugging, artsy, homo-jewish baby-killing liberal elite book-reading hollywood druggie pornographers! Aaaaaaiiiiiiiiiieeeeeee!!!!!!

So now we have one America desperately trying to keep its head buried in the sand even as the beach erodes away, and another America dancing its ass off, (partly to keep from crying). Still, I'm hopeful for the future. Perhaps it took the absolute abomination of Dubya to shake enough people into their own personal transitions, pushing us ever closer to that beautiful critical mass. It hasn't been gentle and steady, like Huxley wanted. But we're getting there nonetheless.


Dominic said...

I'll just hop posts like Tarzan and answer the other stuff here. If you don't mind. Bioinformatics is a field in which you ask biological questions with computers. For example, you need to do it since there's so much DNA sequence informaion that you couldn't navigate it by yourself so I write programs or scripts that answer specific biological questions.
About your post:
Did you ever read Tom Wolfe on Kesey. He also wrote a great essay about the Me generation, in which he dubbed the Me generation the ‘Me generation’. It's in 'mauve gloves and madmen'. If I remember it right, (I can't remember whether it was the acid test or the me generation essay) he connected the Jesus freaks (a bonafide social group at the time, remember Godspell?) and the whole hippie culture. These cornfed kids were streaming in from the midwest and encountering the whole counter culture and somehow finding religion in all that. At the end of the book, Wolfe goes out on a limb (I think) and seemed to imply that Kesey was essentially trying to start a sort of religion. Kesey wanted to make something permanent out of his whole merry prankster phase. Wolfe sees Psychedelia as a product of this. It was a way to evoke tripping without the acid, you know, the trappings of tripping.
You know how when you're tripping you want to bring some shiny thing back with you some tangible thing that will remind you of where you were? I had notebooks full of this crap in college. Believe me, they were no longer shiny the next day.
Tripping is at once exhilarating and empty at the same time. You have these great feelings and thoughts, but the next day you realize you were just playing the big player piano in your head at the wrong speed. Seeing your potential objectness so starkly is scary. But that wish is a reaction its secondary. Its not a development of the trip-state. There's always a tear (the kind in fabric tare? or tear? tear right??!!) the next morning between where you were and where you wake up. Through that tare you sometimes see the abyss.
Don't get me started talking about acid though. I have one friend at work, and whenever we do anything together, our conversation devolves into a mutual flashback of our drug induced days. It scares our lunch mates.
In any event I believe that abyss is wrong. It is not a rational belief that it is wrong. because reason may not be the best guide here. This is one place where I believe scientific reason can actually lead you astray.
When I was in grad school this big famous guy that was giving a talk condescended to have lunch with us grad students. He was from Sandford and we were from lowly Rutgers. Like if it wasn't for this guy all the cells in your body would just not make protein anymore, and you would just Die like that: snap!! Cause he actually invented that enzyme that transcribes DNA into mRNA. That's how big and famous he was.
Well anyway, he started off the conversation saying: 'Now of course nobody here believes in god do they' Oh my god that pissed me off so much, I don't remember what I said to him but everyone in the room was glaring at me and he kept trying to change the subject and I kept bringing him back to it. He just pissed me off so much. Who the hell was he ? What the hell did he know about any of this stuff ? It was similar to the reaction I had reading that scary psychiatrist who put his kids in the box. BF Skinner. I had to write an essay about it. I knew he was right in all his little steps, but I also knew all his conclusions were so infuriatingly wrong, but I couldn’t say why he was wrong. I was like, but Hitler . . But Kim Jong il. . . But But But Charley Manson . . . etc For me the answer would be framed in a religious tones. But I knew that answer wouldn’t cut it.
Your post is somewhere looking for an explanation for red state blue state issue, which is really the issue of the persistence of faith in an otherwise rationalistic world. A world that has seemingly, everywhere else * moved on from there. I don't have a simple answer. But I don’t really think its necessarily such a bad thing though.
One writer I read recently, GK Chesterton says this in his book Orthodoxy:
"The whole secret of mysticism is this:
that man can understand everything by the help of what he does
not understand. The morbid logician seeks to make everything lucid,
and succeeds in making everything mysterious. The mystic allows
one thing to be mysterious, and everything else becomes lucid."

For me that one thing for me is my faith, for others it is some thing else just as beautiful to them. (Like, for those corn-fed Midwesterners that are causing so much embarrassment and consternation, it could be all that damned protestant megachurch bible belting crap). Maybe it really is not such a great mystery after all.

*(ugh except for the middle-east, Asia and Africa and India, and much of the Pacific Rim) But I didn’t want the obvious irony between the parentheses to get in the way of the beautiful prose back there.

Dr. Brainwave said...

Ah... Bioinformatics! Sounds very cool! So, given that your field deals with both biology and computer science, and you are someone with a strong traditional (Catholic?) faith, how do you feel about, say, stem-cell research? (Did I just open a huge can of worms? Haha!)

Yeah, I read "Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test." Wolfe does as good a job as could be expected in trying to capture all that stuff journalistically, without (I assume) ever taking acid himself. He missed the mark a few times, but for the most part I think the book is worth reading. (A good companion read is "Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD, The CIA, the Sixties, and Beyond" by Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain.)

So, right, I probably should've mentioned Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters along with Leary, as they certainly dosed a huge amount of people across the nation. But it was more expedient to just put it all on Leary, who was well-known as the 'Acid Guy'.

And I wasn't really serious about "blaming" people who wanted to spread acid widely and quickly. I can certainly understand the impulse to do so. But I'd rather dose Congress, The Pope and all the other religious and political leaders.

You started touching on some of my favorite subjects. So, forgive me if I get a little long-winded with the rest of this.

I think it's great and perfectly natural that the Jesus kids found religion in psychedlia, as that's what it's really all about. I don't view drug experiences as empty (unless you mean "empty" in the Buddhist sense of transcendent "voidness" - haha). I think "psychedelic" and "religious" are practically synonymous, though this isn't always easy to recognize, due to all the individual ego / psychological stuff that often comes up during, say, an acid-trip. At its best, a drug experience can lead to total spiritual awakening (I only know this because it happened to me on mere marijuana, without any conscious intention on my part, about 12 years ago). But despite how great it can be, I would still say that drugs are nowhere near as good/reliable as simple drug-free meditation. Meditation is definitely superior on almost every level as it enhances physical, mental and emotional health in addition to providing great spiritual insights, etc. And unlike the drugs, it is much easier to integrate those insights into routine life when they are received through meditation (the shiny thing you want to hold onto). Of course, meditation requires more time and discipline than drugs -- things which many Americans, myself included, lack these days. But the drug-spirituality link is clear. Why, it's practically a cliche to drop acid, have a "religious experience" and then start reading "Eastern" texts. (Besides having an innate understanding of the meditative and psychedelic experiences, the Eastern religions tend to be less dogmatic [or completely non-dogmatic], more experiential and more straightforward than any Western religions, so they have great appeal for a truth-seeker if the religion he was born into proved uninspiring). The whole, "drop out and go to an ashram in India or a Zen monastery" type thing. But obviously, your mindset going into an acid trip heavily influences what you'll experience, so if a kid who is already way into Christianity takes acid, he'll probably be even more into it afterward. He may even come out of it with a much deeper and more nuanced understanding of what Jesus was really all about, which is obviously a fantastic thing and I'm all for it. Part of the reason the Powers That Be criminalize entheogenic substances like acid, is precisely because they don't want people to have true spiritual experiences, as they tend to alleviate people's fears and make them happy and free -- thus rendering them much harder to manipulate / exploit.

I think it's also extremely important to draw the distinction between religion and spirituality / mysticism. Spirituality is independent of religion, whereas nothing is independent of Spirituality. Spirituality deals with one's personal connection to, and direct experience of, the deepest aspects of all existence. Religion is the socio-cultural / socio-economic institutionalization of spirituality. As such, it is to true spiritual understanding what our government is to true democracy, which is to say it is something which claims to embody or lead to the goal, but which actually only offers a pale shadow of (at best) or an impenetrable barrier to the goal (more typically). Religion is highly corruptible. Spirituality is incorruptible. Acid and the other entheogens can enhance true spiritual understanding. As such, they are feared by all weak human-egocentric power hierarchies, notably governmental and religious ones. Fortunately, people still find ways to get and do them (thank God!).

"Faith" is such a loaded word. Maybe even more so than all the other loaded words we've mentioned. I know lots of people use it interchangeably with "Religion". But I can't do that myself. I have no use or respect for Religion, but faith is admirable. Of course, it is only admirable when people put their faith in something worthy of it.

And there's the rub, obviously. In the absence of direct spiritual experience, which leads to Knowledge, all you're left with is "belief." Belief is not to be taken lightly, as a really strong belief shapes a person's experience of life as surely as anything real. But it ain't a substitute for knowledge. Belief can be shaky. Knowledge is solid. You don't have to bother to "believe" in the existence of the chair you're sitting on. You simply know it exists. Belief is a willingness to accept something as true that might turn out to be false. Faith is similar. You can put your faith in something you know from your own experience is right and true. But religions generally demand that people put their faith in something somebody ELSE only CLAIMS is right and true. You can put your faith in something you sorta believe but aren't sure about. You can put your faith in a person or thing who turns out not to be reliable whatsoever. Millions of "the faithful" were duped into putting their faith in George Dubya Bush. This unmitigated disaster will be haunting all of humanity for a long time.

Still, it isn't quite the "persistence of faith in an otherwise rationalistic world" that I see accounting for the so-called red/blue divide. Rather, I would say it is the persistence of childish and unsophisticated faith. Our world has seen incredible advancements in understanding that really shouldn't be ignored. But the "red" people seem to insist on ignoring them. You might want to read the comments on an earlier post (the first "I Blame Leary" one) in which a reader who was taught creationism and not evolution contributes a nice few paragraphs, and I respond.

Traditional faiths, religions, belief-systems, etc. have brought comfort to many people. But they're also responsible for an enormous amount of pain, suffering, injustice, and on and on. I have no trouble whatsoever saying the following: Over the entire course of human history, on balance, religious faith has done more harm than good. Much more. And it is still doing so.

But I don't think Religions should be scrapped. They simply need to evolve. Change with the times and the new levels of understanding available to us. A lot of ancient wisdom still applies. But not all of it. God is Eternal, everything, everywhere, past present and future, right? So how can it be that God would inspire the dudes living in Biblical times and not people like us living today? God gave us free will, infinite creativity and incredible smarts. But we're not supposed to use them when it comes to reconnecting with God? Impossible. We can definitely do better. Our religious institutions just need an infusion of more ACTUAL spirituality / mysticism and the masses have GOT to be encouraged to experience and think for themselves more. Then they'd be much less susceptible to making the tragic Dubya mistake again.