Skip to content


‘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.

‘Painting the heart’: how to create inner worlds

There is an anecdote in the psychotherapist Stephen Grosz’ book, The Examined Life, about a client who is always talking fondly about the house he is renovating. Whenever he’s had a bad week, he lets off steam by talking about all the wonderful improvements he will make to this dream-house – the new conservatory, the bay windows, the rock garden, and so on. Then, at the end of the long course of therapy, he tells the therapist, ‘you know, of course, that the house doesn’t really exist’. It was just an inner construction, but no less real or therapeutic for its non-materiality.

I had a similar sort of experience, writing Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations. For the five years I was writing it, I had Raphael’s School of Athens on my wall, and it became a part of my inner architecture, with its beautifully-harmonious city-scape, filled with animated philosophers. Imagining that dream-school helped me, I’d suggest, almost as much as the ideas of the philosophers within it.

The ancient Christians were particularly skilled at this sort of inner architecture. St Augustine called it ‘painting the heart’ with images, symbols, metaphors, myths, in order to expand and beautify your inner psychic life. The fifth century monk Arnobius wrote:

Paint, paint before your eyes the various fabricated things, whenever you chant of these [the psalms]. Of what sort? Those which were seen with wonder by the apostles: paint the temples, paint the baths, paint the forums and the ramparts rising on the high summit.

The Renaissance refined these visualization and memorization techniques for painting the inner world. The Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius Loyola, published in 1548, are a four-week course through which participants paint various evocative scenes in their mind – the fires of Hell, the sufferings of Jesus. Poetry helped to enhance these vivid inner worlds. Milton, who went blind in middle age, nevertheless said that the inner sight of poetic vision helped him to wander ‘where the Muses haunt / Clear spring, or shady grove, or sunny hill’. Until very recently, memorized poetry was part of the inner architecture of educated people.

One of the rooms in San Marco monastery, Florence

Art was also a means to this inner architecture – think of the stages of Christ’s story painted in each of the cubicles in the monastery of San Marco, in which the novice would go round, day by day, painting their soul with its sublime imagery. And architecture itself helped to paint the soul – who could sit among the great stone redwoods of Durham or Chartres without some of that Gothic grandeur imprinting itself on their soul?

To us, as liberal individualists, soul-painting seems like brain-washing. But it wasn’t entirely passive and top-down. Rather, the Christian world was a sort of massive multi-player open-source world made up of Scripture and fan-fiction. The medieval adept absorbed the words and imagery of the past into the deep sources of their imagination, and this led them to new encounters with Jesus, Mary, Gabriel, Michael, Sophia and others, which in turn became part of the open-source world.

Of course, the Christian world was blessed with some master-builders to help with the construction (today we’d call them master-programmers). Dante and Shakespeare, above all, helped to body forth spirits and to expand the inner landscape of the Renaissance soul. How lucky people were to have access to their great inner worlds, how lucky we are to still have their books of spells (even if we’ve more or less forgotten how to read them).

What we lost, in the Scientific Revolution, was a shared inner world. We also lost the sense of there being any point in trying to cultivate such worlds. What was the point in spending hours or even days contemplating a painting or poem? What was the use? Our minds became ever-more technocratic and focused on external, tangible results.

A few Romantic rebels still constructed beautiful inner worlds, but lacking a common open-source culture, they were often quite idiosyncratic and private, like the eccentric world of William Blake, who insisted ‘I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s.’

Last week, I met a lady who, in all honesty, had chosen a deity to worship from an app called Godpicker. She had picked a Turkish goddess, half-woman, half-fish. Things went well for her, she assured me, as long as she remained faithful to this goddess. Which is fine, but a rather lonely and private religious life (and who knows, if she has contacted something, whether it’s benign or not? What protection does she have, on her own, without teachers, outside of a community? It’s like meeting someone on Tinder and immediately inviting them to move in).

We still long for a collective inner landscape. This is what Star Wars and Lord of the Rings provided for my generation, to some limited extent. Their landscapes, characters and crises are imprinted on our souls. The multiverses of 20th century fantasy and science fiction are comparable to the medieval world of Christendom, with their massive, vivid, open-source universes, in which adepts become co-creators.

But most of these new myths lack the quality of Lord of the Rings. They are infantile fantasies of power, invulnerability and self-aggrandizement, while the greatest stories – of Jesus, Oedipus, even Frodo and Luke – are stories of anti-power, vulnerability and self-abnegation.

Still, even if we have forgotten the old method of ‘painting the heart’, we’re still doing it, unconsciously. The internet has made it far easier to create inner worlds. Where the medieval adept painted their heart with icons of the saints, today we paint our online walls with selfies. Where the Christian or Buddhist icon was a window beyond the self, today we wall ourselves in with our own reflection.

We also paint the soul with the hyper-real images of pornography. As a man / self-employed person, I’ve watched my share of online porn – how could I not, it’s so bright, so real, so immediately absorbing. Yet, a few years back, I had a series of dreams, where I was wandering through my inner world (it somewhat resembled Constantinople, if you’re wondering), and I’d find myself drawn down backstreets and alleyways until I was perusing the shelves in a porn shop. Porn had become a portico of my inner world. Which is fine but…well…it would have been more fun if I was making love to actual people in my dream-world rather than looking at images…

I find that computer games – again, so bright, so real, so immediately absorbing – also become part of one’s inner world. You close your eyes, and you’re still there, wandering the streets of San Andreas or Vice City, blowing things up. I happen to love gaming. Games masterfully create inner landscapes – think of the beautiful landscapes of Assassin’s Creed, Halo, Super Mario World, or Batman: Arkham Asylum. Some games let us co-create these worlds, as in Minecraft, Spore, The Sims or Second Life.

Perhaps we just need to dream up better worlds. Imagine an online world, a dream city, where we could absorb the best of our culture, where we could witness the great events of our common story, where we could speak with prophets and philosophers, where we could expand our soul and come back to the outer world prepared for the next level. Perhaps some monastic coders are making that world, even as we speak.

One of the player-constructed landscapes in Minecraft
If you like this blog, you can donate here – recommended annual donation for regular readers: £10