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afterlife

‘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.

Life is a game

Buddhist snakes and ladders

The other day I came across one of those ubiquitous articles about the Problem with Men. And it had this line: ‘life is not a race, it’s not a game, and it’s not a fight’. The problem, the author suggested, was men were attached to the wrong metaphor for life. He preferred ‘life is a dance’ – that frames life in a non-competitive and open way.

In the Quran, Allah likewise says: ‘We didn’t create the heavens and the earth, and all that is between, for mere play.’  The Islamic apologist Hamza Andreas Tzortzis writes: ‘believing life is just a game equals no ultimate purpose and value. Not only does it make life ludicrous but it also represents a very bleak outlook on our existence.’ 

ludicrous: early 17th century (in the sense ‘sportive, intended as a jest’): from Latin ludicrus (probably from ludicrum ‘stage play’)

So does treating life like a game necessarily empty it of meaning and moral value? It depends what game you’re playing.

In the history of games, there have been games designed to teach people the hidden meaning of life, death and the afterlife, like Senet, an ancient Egyptian game where the movement of the pieces followed the soul’s journey through the afterlife. In medieval India, a popular game was Gyan Chauper, in which players tried to move their pieces towards Moksha or ultimate liberation. Along the journey, the pieces could move up ladders – representing virtuous actions – or down snakes – representing vices. The soul could be one square away from liberation, only to tumble down a large snake – how often this seems to happen to spiritual gurus!

American Puritans developed a similar game in the 19th century called The Mansion of Happiness, in which players moved across squares representing the Christian virtues and vices until they reached heaven (shown on the left). However, in 1860 a new version of the game was developed, called The Chequered Game of Life, in which the object was not to get to heaven but rather to get rich, get a family, and retire in a nice home. That version – now called simply The Game of Life – is still played today. We edited heaven out of the game of life.

Today, we can create games that are so immersive, so huge, so brimming with intelligence, that we feel like we’re in another world, a world of humans’ own creation. That’s what I felt when I played Grand Theft Auto for several days in a row – there were so many missions and side-missions, the world of the game was so changeable, so beautiful, so full of interesting characters, that I became totally absorbed in that world.

And when you can create games which are that absorbing and immersive, you can start to see this world as a game, a virtual reality. And that’s precisely what’s happened in the last few years – various philosophers and futurists have suggested we’re actually living in a virtual simulation, created by future humans or some other intelligent species.

I’ve found myself thinking this more and more over the last couple of years, and I’m not sure if it’s healthy or not.

I remember walking back over Hampstead Heath one evening last year, as the sun set. It was a beautiful evening, the sky was turning a sort of bruised purple, the darkening heath seemed to flicker with pagan mischief. And I thought, if this is a computer simulation, what an utterly beautiful simulation. The sky, particularly, is a masterstroke, but you can also drill down on tiny details – right down to the microscopic or even atomic level – and it’s still beautifully and wondrously made. And then the characters you come across – so fascinating! So unpredictable! In fact, we’ve been playing this Earth game for 200,000 years and we still haven’t exhausted all its missions, secret levels and hidden Easter eggs. Bravo to the makers, seriously. 9.5 / 10 on IGN.

Another beautiful moment in the world of Grand Theft Auto

I felt it again when I went to India last year. I hadn’t been back-packing for two decades, and I was a little nervous. The first place I stayed was a beach in Goa called Patnem, where nothing much happened. I thought about walking to another beach one night, to watch some fireworks. My nerves told me not to go, that it might be dangerous (what a chicken), but I went anyway, and as I walked into Palolem, I imagined a digital voice saying ‘New level unlocked: Palolem’. And I walked in wonder among the bongo-playing hippies and children throwing firecrackers, enjoying this new level.

I guess I was inspired by Westworld, which I’d been watching the month before. It’s about a fake Wild West world filled with AI cowboys and Indians, who let the visiting tourists act out their wildest fantasies without legal consequences (it was Charles Dickens, in 1838, who first had the idea for a theme-park populated by robots so humans could act out their murderous appetites). In Westworld, tourists can either stay near the centre, where the action is pretty tame, or they can go on missions further out. ‘The further out you venture, the more intense the experience gets’.

Is it unhealthy, this tendency to view life as a virtual reality game?

It could be. You can start to see everything and everyone as fake. This is what happened to me after I emerged from a 10-day ayahuasca retreat in October. Somehow or other, in the days afterwards, I became convinced I was in a fake reality, one that was shoddily constructed and filled with anomalies. I couldn’t work out if it was a dream (why did it go on so long), or the afterlife (what a crappy afterlife) or if I’d been trapped in a fake reality by an evil shaman (I’d been watching a lot of Twin Peaks). How strange, to become really convinced that the reality you’re in isn’t real – is there a name for this delusion?

Something similar happened to Timothy Leary the first time he took LSD. He became lost in a reality where everything seemed fake and everyone seemed like plastic dolls. It was all just a rather shoddy cosmic play, which he had seen through. He wrote about it in The Psychedelic Experience, suggesting it was a phase people often go through on psychedelics:

We are little more than flickers on a multidimensional television screen…You feel ultimately tricked. A victim of the great television producer. The people are you are lifeless robots…You are a helpless marionette, a plastic doll in a plastic world. ‘I am dead. I will never live and feel again’.

This is a sort of extreme dissociation from reality. It’s what happens to people sometimes after trauma – their soul detaches from the horrific situation, because it’s too painful to be there and feel it. It flies off and views it from above, as it were, as if through a safety glass. That’s what happened to me when I had trauma in my late teens and early 20s, and I think the ayahuasca brought this traumatic dissociation back up, to give me the opportunity to process it and bring my soul back.

Luckily, the delusion wore off for me after five days or so, once I’d come back to the UK and surrounded myself with people I loved. But I still feel a sort of detachment and dissociation from life, that is, from the usual games people play in this life. I can’t take them entirely seriously. I mean career games particularly, the sort of quest for ego-gratification that is totally absorbing in ones 20s and 30s. I can’t take those games that seriously.

Sometimes this loss of interest in my previous games means this life seems a bit ludicrous, and I almost fall drawn to death. I don’t mean in a suicidal or depressive way. I just think…death is where the mystery is. Between the levels. What is happening there? But sometimes this detachment and dissociation means I can calm down, take a breath, not get so absorbed in the trivial stuff, and just look around and enjoy the beauty and pathos of this game-world.

I can let go of fear and anxiety and craving – the fear of failure, the fear of ageing and sickness and suffering and death. It’s just a game, and we have multiple lives. We can try out multiple ways of living, in fact, we already have. And if we wake up to the game, we can let go of some of the more boring and obvious missions – accrue a lot of money and glory – and get into some of the deeper and more interesting missions. How do we level up? Who is the programmer – is it us? Can we change the code?

I’ll end with a quote from Ram Dass, Leary’s former colleague, who often uses the ‘life is a game / dream’ metaphor:

If you know you’re dreaming, can you continue to dream? That’s what the soul does – the soul appreciates that it’s a dream and that it contains the ego. If you push away the ego, if you cultivate an aversion to that dream, you’re never going to be free because there will be an attachment. The process is realizing that you and I exist on more than one plane of awareness simultaneously and on one plane suffering stinks, and on another plane suffering is grace. The question is, “Can you balance those two things in your consciousness?”