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.

PoW: Make Hay while the rain falls

I’m writing this from the Hay-On-Wye book festival, where the rain is coming down piteously, maintaining a steady rhumba on the roofs of the marquees. There are actually two festivals here – the main one, sponsored by the Telegraph, which is rather blue-rinse; and How The Light Gets In, which is a philosophy festival. The main event is huge – a whole mini-city of walkways and pavilions. HTLGI feels more like a village fete, with the speakers and audience all mixed in together.

HTLGI started five years ago, and has done well to establish itself and to get media attention. The Guardian had an editorial this week, suggesting that it showed a ‘new confidence and expansiveness’ in British philosophy, and indicating that philosophy and ethics still had one or two interesting things to say to science. Amen to that. I think the festival could have more audience participation, and younger speakers – the youngest I’ve seen so far is in their mid-40s. I don’t see how you’re really going to have new and edgy ideas from people in the last third of their careers, which is the stage where most thinkers simply churn out the same stuff for bigger advances.

I spoke at the main festival on Tuesday – it was the biggest audience I’ve ever spoken to. I’m sure the majority had never heard of me and turned up on a whim (or because it was one of the few events not sold out in advance). Anyway, it went well, I think – the audience seemed warm and appreciative, except for one fellow who said he’d read the book and decided I was a charlatan! He obviously felt so strongly about this he was willing to come to Hay and sit through my talk just to tell me. The crowd booed him down, but personally I consider him a loyal reader.

The real discovery of the festival for me is Tobias Jones, a 40-something writer who was speaking here yesterday (that’s him on the right). I missed the talk but happened to pick up his book, Utopian Dreams, in the festival bookstore. It’s absolutely brilliant. He goes on a search, with his wife and child, for true alternative communities, and writes six chapters about his time in six religious communities – a Catholic village in Italy where there is no money; a Quaker retirement village, a New Age community in the Alps, and so on.

What makes the book so good is partly his intelligence and ability to weave together journalist accounts of his time in the communities with more philosophical reflection on what sustains and destroys communities. But above all it’s his voice, his sincerity. He’s really searching for community and for a good life, not just doing freaky tourism (which I think is an accusation that could be directed at Jon Ronson) or self-regarding self-parody (which could be directed at Geoff Dyer). Tobias Jones is genuinely searching, not just writing a book. It comes as no surprise to read on the internet that he’s since set up his own commune in the woods of Somerset, where people in crisis can go and stay for free. He finances it from his earnings writing murder-mysteries!

That impresses me – he actually sets up a community, rather than simply preaching community from the safety of the lecture-circuit (as do, say, Jonathan Haidt or Alain de Botton). There’s a giving up of ego there, a willingness to engage with the messy reality of human life.

If a writer puts so much effort into publicity, into marketing, into sales, then they’re probably seeking fame and status rather than real community (I write this to myself – as a person attracted to fame and status). But fame and status are the enemy of community – they turn you into an object to be applauded on the stage, a commodity, a reflection in a mirror, rather than helping you meet other humans and connect with them. De Botton said he wanted to set up the School of Life in the manner of Epicurus’ garden. But is he ever there? Does he make himself available to the people who come there looking for answers? Tobias Jones lives in the same house as the people who come looking for help – he actually pays for them to stay there. That’s making yourself available. That’s serving others.

Reading his book makes me feel a bit immature, to be honest, and makes me question my own values and goals, as a searcher for the good life. Are my own goals, in fact, very conventional and bourgeois: a job I enjoy and for which I get recognition and status, a happy family, a nice home? Should I be giving more of myself, as Jones does? Am I writing about the good life without really taking the risks to find it? But then, another part of me reads Jones’ account of the challenges of running a commune for the emotionally and spiritually broken, and thinks, God, that sounds hard.

Anyway, at the moment my plan is still to develop philosophy courses for the general public in the UK. Not very radical perhaps, but it’s a start. Hopefully I’ll be working with Tim LeBon, the cognitive therapist and philosophical counsellor, to develop a course that combines Positive Psychology with ethics and philosophy. Tim writes here on the need for this balance in this excellent piece.

Talking of Positive Psychology, here’s a piece from two American psychologists criticizing the US Army’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness programme (the resilience-training programme designed by Martin Seligman, the inventor of Positive Psychology). The authors say that the programme evaluation failed to test if it had managed to reduce incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression – which surely was the whole point of it.

I also discussed the rise of Positive Psychology, and the danger of an over-instrumentalised and over-automated attitude to the Good Life, in this long essay in American magazine The New Inquiry.

This piece from the Journal of Mental Health, by two academics from the School of Sociology at University of Nottingham, criticises the happiness / mental health initiatives of Lord Richard Layard. The paper argues:

firstly, that Layard’s approach does little to tackle the structural inequalities within society, which are known to be prime indicators of mental ill health. The second critique is that Layard’s proposals form a misguided attempt to use therapy as a way of compensating for a breakdown in community. The third and related critique is that Layard’s proposals suggest a medicalization of social issues in ways that individualize social problems.

Fair enough. As Harvard psychologist Jerome Kagan recently noted, the best predictor of depression is poverty. But are the authors saying that people with depression / anxiety / panic attacks need to wait for the complete overhaul of capitalist society before they can hope to stop having panic attacks? They are, it seems to me, making the inner / outer fallacy – either overcoming mental health problems is entirely an inner process (as perhaps CBT seems to suggest) or it’s entirely an external and social process (as the authors seem to suggest). Surely it’s both – you need to do inner work to strengthen yourself and make your self more autonomous and less prey to each compulsion or fixation, in order that you can engage effectively with society and change it. To challenge society, you need an anchored self. When I was emotionally disturbed, I was a passive victim, stuck in a job I hated, precisely because I couldn’t govern myself. Only when I learnt to govern myself more was I able to begin pushing against the conventions I was stuck in.

Nonetheless, the politics of well-being can certainly become too focused on inner work, ignoring social conditions – like housing for example. Happiness gurus often say ‘money doesn’t make you happy’. Perhaps not – but a nice home surely does? A garden does, doesn’t it? A beautiful view from your bedroom window does, doesn’t it? These are things that money buys.  The link between housing and well-being needs to be much more researched, as this article argues – because I think it is, potentially, the really revolutionary part of the politics of well-being.

Ed Milliband has appointed Jon Cruddas MP as his head of policy. Cruddas (that’s him on the left) is a philosopher-MP, who’s very into Aristotle, Thomas Paine, and other thinkers, and who wants to revive a form of Leftist communitarianism. He spoke about the politics of the good life here, and apparently wrote Milliband’s recent speech about the need for a more English sense of national identity, as opposed to Blairite jet-set neo-liberal cosmopolitanism.

Here’s a decent piece in the NY Times’ excellent philosophy blog, on overcoming philosophy’s western bias. Talking of which – do any of you know anything about philosophy in Brazil? I am interested in finding out more, to write a piece on it. It seems to me a country where practical philosophy is really flourishing.

Here’s another piece I did this week, in Wired UK magazine, on why we need to stop automatically pathologising religious or revelatory experiences, and try to find a more pragmatic way of understanding them and helping people to integrate them and find meaning in them.

Finally, I’d like to hear more from you, to hear your stories of whether or how you’ve been helped by philosophy and / or psychotherapy. I’d like to write some of them up, so we can share ideas and strategies for leading good lives. Get in touch if you’d be willing to help with that- your stories can be anonymous or not, as you prefer.

See you next week,