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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.

To philosophize is to learn how to die

Frank Ostaseski and Roshi Joan Halifax

Last weekend I went to a seminar on dying at the Garrison Institute. That might seem a rather Gothic weekend, but I don’t think it’s that weird. Socrates said: ‘To philosophize is to learn how to die.’ When we focus more on death, life comes into greater focus – its mystery, its poignancy, its brevity, and its purpose and value.  What things do I worry about that don’t really matter? What does matter? How should I prepare for my inevitable departure and does it matter where I go?

I’m sure you have your own theories – my working hypothesis is that the purpose of life is to realize our divine nature, over multiple lives, by learning to love more, and cling to the ego less. But am I really living according to that understanding? How often do I get lost in the ego-dream?

On a more mundane level, I also wanted to check out the Garrison Institute, because it’s the sort of neo-monastery I’d love to work for one day – a place, somewhere between a retreat and research institute, which teaches contemplative practices from several religions, and which combines practice with scientific research and critical discussion. It’s a beautiful old Catholic monastery on the banks of the Hudson river, an hour from Manhattan by train. It has a large shrine room which still feels pretty Catholic, if it wasn’t for the enormous golden Buddha at the front.

The weekend was led by Roshi Joan Halifax and Frank Ostaseski, two well-known western Buddhists who have done a lot of work with the dying, and who are old friends. They are a funny pair – Frank is like a large, lumbering, loveable bear, Joan like a small, fierce fox.

Frank founded the Zen hospice in San Francisco, which started by helping AIDS victims in the 1990s  (sadly it just closed due to lack of donations). He now runs the Metta Institute in San Francisco, and recently released the bestseller, The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully .

Joan, meanwhile, started her career as a medical anthropologist in the 1960s, studying shamanism and altered states in various indigenous communities. She then married Stanislaf Grof – the transpersonal psychologist – and conducted LSD trials with him, before becoming more interested in Buddhism and eventually becoming a Buddhist nun and founder of the Upaya Zen centre in Santa Fe. She now runs the Being with Dying project, which trains hospital and hospice staff to have a more mindful attitude to death.

She’s one of several western spiritual teachers whose interest in Eastern contemplation grew out of experimentation with psychedelics – others include Ram Dass, Jack Kornfield and Lama Tsultrim Allione. Perhaps her interest in the art of dying also grew out of her psychedelic research – she spoke of how psychedelics help prepare people for death by giving them a practice run at ego-dissolution.

There were 100 or so people there, most of whom worked in hospices in some capacity – as nurses, chaplains, volunteers or ‘death-doulas’. I gazed at them and thought ‘what beautiful, pure bodhisattvas, dedicating their lives to guiding people through death!’ What a noble sector to work in!

That was probably a bit romantic. There is always room for ego and samsara in any human activity, including hospices. The first time we paired off for an exercise, the lady I was paired with – a wonderful and very no-nonsense New York Sicilian-American nurse called Linda – launched into a long tirade about the demoralization of the sector.

It appears the hospice industry has grown very big, very fast – the number of hospices in the US grew 43% between 2006 and 2016. The sector was only launched in the 1960s, with a handful of tiny charity organisations run by highly dedicated staff. Now, it’s big business. Millions of dollars in charity funding have been poured into it, and billions of dollars in health insurance. Many new hospice providers are in the business to make money, rather than out of any spiritual or humanitarian mission, and insurance fraud is apparently a big problem.

For Linda, the main problem is the pressure to increase the number of in-patients, while keeping staff costs low. Her fellow nurses are under pressure to fill in ever more forms on a hated new IT system (ironically called EPIC). Rather than having intimate one-to-one conversations with patients about they want to die, they have to tap away furiously at their computers during and after patient meetings. Many of her colleagues have resigned because of stress and over-work. What began 60 years ago as an intimate and passionate charitable endeavour has ballooned into a large, uncaring and demoralized bureaucracy, because of its own success.

Anyway, what about the teachings? What useful ideas or practices can I share with you?

Both Frank and Roshi Joan spoke about how to face suffering without losing your mind.  Joan began by telling a story about a time she and other volunteers provided healthcare to Nepalese mountain villagers. A man walked two days to come to their clinic, carrying his four-year-old daughter, who had very serious, infected burns. The little girl was in terrible distress while her burns were being treated and Joan, while watching, almost passed out – she became so unbearably identified with the little girl. She had to recollect herself, to stop herself losing her mind in a way that was no use to anyone. She breathed, grounded herself in her body and feet, and remembered why she was there.

This reminds me of the practice one develops on psychedelics, in which one can also temporarily lose one’s mind – the antidote is also to breathe, ground oneself in your body, and remember why you’re there.

Joan talked about other ‘edge states’ where one can lose one’s mind – how empathy can tip over into empathic distress, how altruism can tip over into crazy selflessness, how integrity can tip over into moral outrage. She’s quite a fierce activist herself, so it was interesting to hear her talk about the risks of excessive moral outrage today.

She said: ‘Moral outrage is catching, like a nasty virus. It can bring down the world. When it becomes your narrative and filter, it’s degrading of the values of kindness, compassion and love…We’re being colonized by negativity through social media. We have to re-colonize ourselves, like probiotics.’ I agree – so why doesn’t she leave Twitter?

Frank, meanwhile, spoke about balancing wisdom with compassion – the two wings of spiritual practice. Compassion without wisdom can get mushy, while wisdom without compassion can be too detached. We need to balance absolute with relative compassion – relative compassion is when you really feel a person’s distress, the pain of separation and transience.

But that sort of ‘everyday compassion’ can get exhausting – ‘it needs to be sourced in absolute, boundless compassion’, and the sense that, at some level, everything is OK.  In other words, it’s helpful to be able to connect to the transcendent, to some spiritual dimension that can give you hope and courage and faith, whether that’s handing your suffering over to Jesus, or the Buddha, or whatever.

Can we use our meditation training to stay present to the other person and their needs, even when they’re feeling terror? Can we stay tuned to our own physical reactions, so we regulate and ground ourselves and don’t shut down or turn away?

The main thing I took from the weekend was that we can’t escape loss and death in this life. Our loved ones are going to die and it’s going to really, really hurt. I heard stories of how grief and bereavement tore families apart and made people so sad they got ill or even died. We can’t escape our own dying either – we’re all going down that dark tunnel, and we need to practice breathing and letting go.

At the end of the retreat, we sat in a circle and repeated four phrases to each other, over and over:

I am of the nature to grow old, I cannot escape growing old.

I am of the nature to get sick, I cannot escape ill health.

I am of the nature to die, I cannot escape death.

Everything I hold dear, and everyone that I love, are of the nature to change. I cannot escape being separated from them.

My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequence of my actions.

My actions are the ground upon which I stand.

It was powerful to repeat these phrases over and over, and have them repeated to me, and to hear them repeated around me by others, often in tears. It was difficult, frightening. Sometimes during the weekend I found myself literally gasping for breath. I found it particularly challenging to say that I cannot escape being separated from the ones I love.

And yet I think my fear of suffering and loss has held me back in life. It’s stopped me trusting other people, it’s stopped me making commitments to others and building a life with them, because I’m frightened of losing people, failing them, or being let down by them.

We can’t escape loss and death, but we can try to bring an open and courageous heart and a clear mind to the losses and deaths that we will inevitably go through. I hope I can face life with greater courage – not the courage to become more detached, but the courage to let life batter my heart until it is tenderized.