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‘This is just a test’

Apologies for the delay in writing. I’ve been in California for the last three weeks, immersed in preparing for Burning Man, then going to Burning Man, then recovering from Burning Man. I have so many impressions from this month I can’t yet structure them into a neat essay, so consider this a postcard instead.

If I was going to sum up San Francisco, it would be the fact that in 24 hours, I met two separate people who firmly believed they were going to live forever, thanks to technological breakthroughs in the near future. Also within 24 hours, I saw two homeless people shooting up in the street. There’s a combination of evangelical optimism in the power of tech to save the world, and an anxious sense that everything could fall apart any moment – every day, an eery earthquake siren rings out over the city, followed by the words ‘this is just a test’.

I wanted to visit the Bay Area, and maybe even move here, because it’s a visionary place, a place of bold spiritual experiments. In the UK, talking about ecstatic experiences feels a bit weird. Here, halfway through a talk on ecstasy at Burning Man, I looked out over my small, stoned audience and realized they’d probably had more ecstatic experiences that morning than I’d had in the last five years.

Bay Area experimentalism goes back at least as far as the 1950s, when Alan Watts helped to kickstart the San Francisco Renaissance, infusing Zen and Daoism into American culture. Down the highway in Big Sur, Michael Murphy launched Esalen, an educational institution devoted to the ‘religion of no religion’ – I met him two weeks ago, friendly and still excited, and spoke to him for four hours about his memories of Watts, Aldous Huxley and Gerald Heard.

Esalen was a hot-tub of new ideas – it helped to develop transpersonal psychology (a psychology open to the spiritual experiences and spiritual potential of human beings) as well as gestalt therapy, holotropic breathwork, somatic therapy, shamanic healing, encounter sessions, ecstatic dance, deep ecology, and many of the other approaches which are now mainstream in the ‘spiritual but not religious’ global culture.

Murphy struck me as, firstly, a great researcher and fine mind; and secondly, an amazing spiritual entrepreneur. At 31, he’d set up an institute that is still going, persuaded luminaries like Huxley and Abraham Maslow to help, worked out a working business model, and attracted grants for research projects with universities and organisations. Five separate research institutes have been spun out of Esalen, helping to influence everything from legislation on alternative health to new approaches to diplomacy.

The Bay Area has also long been a site for experimentation in new forms of living – Stewart Brand helped to inspire the back-to-earth commune movement with his Whole Earth Catalogue, Watts lived in his houseboat with other artists, where he ran a centre for comparative religion, and thousands flocked here in the summer of love to shack up in houses or sleep in the parks. You still meet many people living in intentional communities – I gave a talk at one, Kaleidoscope, visited another – a marvellously kooky house called Embassy, and met a designer living at an ‘intergenerational commune’ called Magic in Palo Alto. It made me sad to move back to my single-dweller existence back in London.

It’s a place where people devote themselves to lifelong learning and new forms of higher education mushroom up, like Esalen, like the California Institute of Integral Studies (which Alan Watts helped set up), or online learning platforms like Masterclass and Udemy. The San Francisco Free College provides free classes to everyone in the city.

It has been, and still is, a place of experimentalism in sex and drugs. It was down the road, at the Golden Gate Park in 1968, that Timothy Leary announced the world should ‘tune in, turn on, drop out’. It was also in the Bay Area that Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters organized their acid tests in the mid-60s. And psychedelics are still a BIG part of Bay Area culture – everyone seems to take them, from the AI engineers and venture capitalists down to the hippies on Haight Street. The California Institute of Integral Studies is the only educational institution in the world which has a masters in psychedelic therapy. At one commune dinner earlier this week, my fellow guests traded stories of their experiences on esoteric chemicals, like Londoners casually swapping suggestions for the next box-set.

Free love is also explored with the same earnest, slightly techno-engineering approach. I was told of a recent workshop in ‘relationship anarchy’ where people wore badges showing different shapes indicating the type of structures they were open to (dyads, triangles, dodecahedrons and so on). Michael Murphy also told me of a chart at Esalen, one year, called the ‘Fuck-O-Rama’, indicating all the participants in a retreat, with lines showing who fancied who and who had fucked who. A flow-chat for polyamory – how very Bay Area.

All of this utopian experimentalism flowed into Burning Man, a situationist happening in the desert that has morphed into an experiment in urban planning and communitarian living. For one week, Black Rock City rises out of the dust, with a population of 70,000, making it the third-biggest city in Nevada, with its own airport, ranger force, psychedelic harm reduction tent, orgy camp, vast desert art gallery, and everything else one could possibly dream of (except a library, natch). And then, after a week, it dissolves back into dust.

And the area is home to some of the young companies that have changed the world and defined all of our virtual lives – Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Uber, Twitter, Netflix, Tinder and so on. It’s exciting to be close to where reality is being re-made. It’s also alluring – there’s so much money sloshing around, surely some of it will find its way to me!

But any place with so much utopian optimism is also going to have a pretty massive shadow. Silicon Valley is going through a period of soul-searching. Bay Area residents always thought of themselves as the plucky outsiders, the rebels, the Burners. But from another perspective, they’re the 1%, the new global elite, dancing at the top of Maslow’s pyramid of needs while the rest of society struggles to adapt.

Suddenly, the rebels have the power, and they’re not used to it. Steve Jobs urged entrepreneurs to ‘make a dent in the universe’ – but what if the dent is in something important, like democracy, or civility, or job security, or our capacity to pay attention? It reminds me of the Mitchell and Webb sketch where they play two SS Nazis and Mitchell says: ‘Have you noticed our caps have got little skulls on them? Hans…are we the baddies?’

Alan Watts preached the ‘wisdom of insecurity’ when he moved here, and the Bay Area has, in fact, been exporting insecurity around the world, through disruptive algorithms that take away people’s livelihoods. I asked one venture capitalist how worried we should be about automation and AI replacing jobs. ‘Extremely’, he replied. He, like several other tech entrepreneurs, thinks the necessary response is some sort of universal basic income, to support people while their jobs are taken away.

The mash-up of spirituality and extreme wealth can leave a weird taste – you’re always networking, even at an orgy. Your latest incredible epiphany becomes a way to impress people and secure funding. You emerge from your 5meo-DMT trip convinced the universe wants you to launch your new app. You’re a superhero, a divine god– why shouldn’t you be a billionaire? I’ve met shamans who run ayahuasca ceremonies to consult the spirits about new business ventures, or retreats offering ‘sacred upgrades’. I can see a scene at the Pearly Gates, when Jesus asks ‘what did you do for the starving and the marginalized’ and they (or rather, we) say ‘well…I did go on this amazing ayahuasca retreat and really connected to my highest self’.

Gurus flutter around the millionaires like hummingbirds. They remind me of the court priests of Versailles, or Mr Collins, the oleaginous vicar in Pride and Prejudice. The gurus cater to the spiritual needs of their fabulously wealthy clients and assure them of their cosmic mandate. To be honest, it’s partly why I came here – I thought I could perhaps get rich selling philosophy to Silicon Valley. But I’m not sure I want to be Mr Collins.

Meanwhile, the rents are so high in San Francisco, I met one person who pays $1300 for a bunk-bed in a communal room; a trip to the doctor to check out an ear-infection reportedly costs you $10,000; gun crime is out of control – one of my uber drivers lost her cousin to a random shooting the week before;  and there are so many drugged-out or mentally ill homeless on the streets, it’s like walking into the zombie apocalypse.

Some entrepreneurs are already dreaming of the next escape, to new cities built at sea, or to New Zealand, or to Mars. They plan, after all, to live forever. ‘What do you want to do with forever?’ I asked one of the transhumanists I met. ‘Oh, solve human suffering, have fun, explore space.’ There can be a lack of humility in the spiritual culture here (we are gods), which stems partly from a disconnection to the earth – humus – and a gnostic desire to escape matter, Earth, death, to escape shit (there’s concern about the amount of human feces in the streets here, but luckily someone has invented an app to help navigate around it).

Meanwhile, the Bay Area itself is threatened by climate change, by rising sea levels, forest fires, and the drying up of arable land. But maybe, if humans do come up with an amazing idea to deal with climate change, it will emerge from here.

Yesterday I met another Brit who’d moved here 20 years ago, and who works in a network dedicated to ‘restorative economics’, trying to find a better model for humanity to live in harmony with the planet. That sort of deep ecology also emerged here, in the work of Bay Area thinkers like Joanna Macy. The Brit told me he was inspired to move here partly by Alan Watts, and his insistence that humans are just one part of the natural ecosystem and shouldn’t think of ourselves as separate.

I asked him what he thought would happen to the Earth this century. ‘Well, the arctic is releasing methane, which is not good news. The IPCC’s predictions seem overly optimistic, so I expect sea levels to rise over the next few decades. That will lead to serious geo-political instability in response to mass migration, and potentially nuclear wars.’ I imagined seeing a mushroom cloud in the distance, as I kayaked down Piccadilly Circus. ‘And what about the longer-term?’ I asked hopefully. ‘Hopefully some humans will survive.’ And the strange thing was, I still enjoyed the rest of the day.

The Quakers on how to balance inner and outer work

Last week I visited Pendle Hill, a Quaker retreat centre outside Philadelphia, nestled between the gorgeous Quaker liberal arts colleges of Haverford and Swarthmore. I made a sort of mini-pilgrimage there as part of my research into the ‘mystical expats’ – Gerald Heard, Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood and Alan Watts, four English writers who moved to California in the 1930s and helped invent the ‘spiritual-but-not-religious’ demographic (which is now 25% of the US population).

Gerald Heard is the least remembered of the four, but in many ways, he was their guiding light. In the early 30s, he was a BBC science journalist, the Brian Cox of his day, who became interested in the idea of man’s social and spiritual evolution. He thought the next stage of man’s evolution would involve an exodus beyond tribal authoritarian religion – people would learn to practice and study techniques for self-transformation from a variety of religions, testing them out with empirical psychology. He called for new institutions of education – somewhere between a monastery and a college – where adults could come to study and practice these psycho-spiritual techniques, thereby sparking man’s evolution to a higher level of group consciousness.

This marriage of psychology and contemplation was very influential for Huxley and Isherwood, for the founders of Esalen (the 60s adult development college in Big Sur), and for western spirituality in general. In fact, it’s only in the last decade that contemplative science has become mainstream, and contemplative education has begun to influence university curricula. Heard’s vision is still ahead of our time.

Gerald Heard (left) and Christopher Isherwood with Swami Prabhavananda in California

During World War Two, Heard and Isherwood both spent a lot of time at Pendle Hill. Heard wrote several pamphlets for the Pendle Hill press on Quaker topics, and helped set up a Quaker journal on contemplation, called Inner Light. For a while, he thought the Quakers could be the vanguard for the next stage in western culture’s spiritual evolution. Quakers didn’t claim a monopoly on salvation – they thought all humans have an ‘inner light’ connecting them to God. They rejected ritual and priestly hierarchy; and they still practiced a rudimentary form of meditation in their silent worship. He hoped there might be a contemplative revival in the Quakers, as they absorbed insights from ancient contemplative practices and modern depth psychology.

But how would this contemplative revival fit with the Protestant focus on good works, on mission and evangelism, on social action, bearing witness to injustice, and the burning question of what to do in response to Nazi aggression? Heard and Huxley had been prominent pacifists in the UK. But in the US, with the war in full swing, both seemed to withdraw from politics and go within. Heard declared that a peaceful politics was impossible with man at his present level of evolution – humans needed to evolve to a higher stage of consciousness. Until we did the inner work, all outer work would end badly.

This is an important question for our own time. I’m part of the culture that Heard et al helped usher in – ‘spiritual but not religious’, psychologically literate, trying to do inner work while not joining any particular religion. But this path risks becoming selfish, spiritually proud, consumerist and individualist. At the same time, I’ve seen too many people who dedicate their lives to charitable or development work burning out and doing damage to themselves because they’re not taking care of their own souls. So how do we balance care of our souls with the outer work of trying to build a fairer and kinder world?

Rufus Jones

One Quaker who thought a lot on this question was Rufus Jones, who Isherwood ironically dubbed ‘the Pope of Quakerism’. Jones taught philosophy at Haverford College and often visited nearby Pendle Hill. He was a great friend of an ancestor of mine, Yorkshire Quaker John Wilhelm Rowntree. The two met in the 30s and immediately felt a spiritual affinity.

Both of them were mystically-inclined – JW Rowntree had a spiritual experience in his 30s, after being told by a doctor that he was rapidly going blind. He left the clinic, walked out into the streets of York, and suddenly felt filled with the inner light of God’s love. Jones, meanwhile, travelled across the Atlantic to visit JW Rowntree, and on the journey he woke up in his cabin and felt a sense of anguish. That was succeeded by a deep sense of peace, love and divine support. On arriving in England, he discovered his beloved son had died that night.

Jones and Rowntree felt a shared sense of mission. They wanted to reframe Quakerism as a liberal, mystical religion, an empirical spirituality flexible enough to respond to scientific and historical criticism, which recognized the value of spiritual experiences in other religious traditions. But they also wanted to show, through historical research, that this mystical Qnuaker religion was not some flaky modern innovation, but a re-connection to a deep, central tradition in Christianity.

So they embarked on a project to re-position the Quakers within this mystical tradition, thereby uniting the warring liberal and traditionalist factions of the Quakers and re-animating the movement for the sceptical and scientific 20th century. Alas, JW Rowntree died aged 37, while visiting Jones in Philadelphia. I discovered on this trip that he’s buried next to Jones in the Quaker cemetery in Haverford, a few miles from Pendle Hill. I went there and found a corner of a foreign field that is forever Yorkshire.

Jones continued the project alone, and wrote Studies in Mystical Religion and many other books and essays on mysticism. He helped to reframe the idea of mysticism for American readers, who still had the traditional Protestant suspicions of the word: mysticism was considered introvert, solitary, morbid, sectarian, and completely opposite to the American cheery, practical, civic ethos.

Jones rebranded mysticism by insisting it meant simply ‘direct first-hand fellowship with God, and the deepened life-results that emerge’. The true mystic feels a ‘marked increase in joy’ and an increase in productivity and effectiveness too: ‘Under the creative impact of their experience, they have become hundred-horse-power persons, with a unique striking force against gigantic forms of evil and with a remarkable quality of leadership’. Very American eh? The mystic as super-powered manager.

Jones is a pretty biased historian of mysticism. He rejects almost all medieval monasticism – except for the Franciscans – and prefers obscure Protestant dissenter movements like the Brotherhood of Eternal Love and the Seekers (it’s thanks to Jones’ fascination with this 17th-century group that we got the modern term ‘seeker’ for restless spiritual searchers). He also barely discusses eastern mysticism and its attempt to overcome the illusion of this world. The true mystic, for Jones, doesn’t deny the world – they affirm it and work vigorously to improve it.

The Quakers have, of course, been incredibly effective at reforming the world. Although a tiny denomination with rarely more than a hundred thousand members, Quakers were at  the forefront of the movement to abolish slavery; they led humane reforms in asylums and prisons; they did important work in supporting the minimum wage and the introduction of the welfare state (particularly thanks to JW Rowntree’s brother, Seebohm); they have a central role in the history of adult education and adult literacy; and they’ve also played a key role in championing pacifism and non-violent resistance.

Jones found time, while teaching philosophy at Haverford College and writing histories of mysticism, to help set up the American Society of Friends Committee (ASFC), which re-settled thousands of Jewish refugees during the war – Christopher Isherwood volunteered for them and lived at Haverford for a year or so. The ASFC also helped feed a million German children after the war. They were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947.

I personally find Quaker contemplation a bit limited. To me, it’s too non-hierarchical, too non-structured. There is no sense of the structured journey through the psyche that one finds in Buddhism or medieval mysticism, nor any sense that we need guides and rituals on that journey. It’s like an orchestra where no one admits that some people play better than others, and sometimes you need teachers, a conductor and a score.

I’ve often criticized the tendency towards guru-worship in Buddhism and Hinduism. But perhaps the Quakers go too far the other way. People need help and guidance in tapping the deep well of consciousness within them. I’m not surprised that the Quaker renaissance that Heard called for didn’t happen, and that instead millions of westerners turned to Eastern practices like Vipassana, Zen, yoga, Daoism and Vajrayana Buddhism. We want to be taught by contemplative experts.

Nonetheless, the Quakers – and Rufus Jones – have an important message for us. What’s the point of all this inner work if it doesn’t make us kinder and less egocentric, if it doesn’t turn us outwards towards our fellow beings, including particularly those who are hungry, homeless, rejected, uneducated, locked up and abused? How can we combine eastern contemplative practices with Christianity’s emphasis on not accepting the world as it is, but rather trying to improve it? How do we avoid spiritual pride and the idolatry of priest-worship?

The Quakers also show us the importance of socializing your spirituality, connecting it to networks of friends and groups. It’s when our spirituality is knitted together with others into a quilt of community that we become much more effective at working to help others. As a chronic individualist, I need to remember this.