There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
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By: Stephan A. Schwartz, Gary E. Schwartz, PhD, Larry Dossey, MD
In February 2014, a group of internationally known scientists from the fields of biology, neuroscience, psychology, medicine, and psychiatry participated in a conference on post-materialist science. The purpose was to discuss the impact of the prevailing mechanistic-materialist ideology within science and the emergence of a post-materialist paradigm for science, spirituality, and society. The nature of consciousness has been largely explored only from the assumption that it is a neuro-physiological process entirely resident in the human organism. Its inherent physicality has become an ironbound axiom. But a growing body of experimental and clinical research now challenges this assumption.
The 2014 Conference resulted in the Manifesto for a Post-Materialist Science.
Then, in September 2015, a second Conference was held. Its faculty was composed of therapists, clinicians, scholars, and researchers from the United States, Europe, and Asia, all of whom are involved in some way in the processes of human death. Many who attended felt that an exclusively materialist model of consciousness—the view that consciousness is produced entirely by the brain and that physical death annihilates it—cannot account for the experiences they see in those who are dying.
The purpose was to explore the question: What happens when we die? The conference faculty was composed of therapists, clinicians, scholars, and researchers from the United States, Europe, and Asia, all of whom are involved in some way in the processes of human death. Many felt that a materialist model of consciousness—the view that consciousness is produced entirely by the brain and that physical death annihilates it—cannot account for the rich experiences they see in the dying.
All agreed on the existence of a nonlocal aspect of consciousness, and there emerged a Declaration for Integrative, Evidence-Based, End-of-Life Care that Incorporates Nonlocal Consciousness. This Declaration represents a consensus view of the undersigned faculty concerning the greatest issues anyone faces: the origin, destiny, and nature of human consciousness.
1) Today, there are seven stabilized experimental protocols used in laboratories around the world, each of which requires the existence of nonlocal consciousness to be successful. All seven protocols have independently produced six-sigma results, meaning that the odds against a chance explanation of the experimental finding are roughly a billion to one, or above a 99.999999 percentile of certainty.
2) In addition, there are now five areas of consciousness science directly linked to the processes of death that also support the existence of a nonlocal, non-physiologically dependent consciousness: near-death experiences; after-death communications; deathbed vision and physical phenomena at the time of death; laboratory studies with research mediums; and reincarnation research, particularly involving young children.
3) We believe that the question, Can consciousness exist that is not physiologically based? has been answered in the affirmative, and that it is time to move on.
4) We believe that everyone involved in end-of-life care should be educated in an evidence-based manner concerning these findings.
5) Programs should be developed that prepare patients and their loved ones for the journey following death, based on the evidence provided in this Declaration. This can have major effects in reducing the fear of death in both patients and their loved ones.
6) The new consciousness research points to the existence of an individual’s immortal, nonlocal consciousness, a perspective affirmed by many philosophical and religious traditions for millennia.
We see nonlocal consciousness as existing within the broader context of the emergence of a new paradigm in science which incorporates consciousness. We recognize, however, that acknowledging non-physiologically based consciousness can evoke emotional responses that challenge deeply held beliefs in both mainstream science and religion. It will take courage, compassion, and integrity to address the wealth of implications and opportunities afforded by integrating these research findings. Now is the time to advance this integration.
My article is below. My article will make a lot more sense to you, if you read Paul’s first.
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The Laws of thermodynamics are, indeed, an excellent base upon which to begin any chain of reasoning.
It wasn’t until I read, “Into the Cold – Energy Flow, Thermodynamics and Life” by Eric D. Scheider and Dorion Sagan, that I really ‘got’ thermodynamics.
Before that, I wondered how, in an existence where the Second Law held sway, life could manage to evolve and get more complex. I’d worked out for myself that in excess energy environments, such as on a planet near a sun, the excess energy could be stored as organization and complexity. but this book really put it all together for me.
For me, the conservation of energy idea is a deep principle. Nature rarely, if ever, does anything wasteful. I see this idea as extendable into evolution, biology and psychology. I often talk about the ‘conservation of cognitive energy’.
So, back to your treatise on Fermi’s Paradox.
I quite agree that the laws of thermodynamics will, in energy abundant situations, tend to support self-replication mechanisms and these will eventually lead to simple life.
I also agree with your Carbon-Oxygen logic. Carbon’s four bonds are a wonder among the denizens of the periodic table.
But then I think there’s a jump in your story that could be better paved with connecting logic. That is the jump from simple life (prokaryotic bacterial) to complex (eukaryotic multicellular).
Here I can highly recommend a seminal book; “Rare Earth – Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe” by Peter D. Ward and Donald Brownlee.
They show, pretty convincingly, that the jump from simple to complex life is a very tough jump and may be quite rare.
If we assume that the jump to complex life has occuured someplace (and obviously it has here) and that the environment there has remained stable enough for the complex life forms to advance to generalized intelligence, then I quite agree that the local environment needs to provide certain things to support their ascension to civilization. I.e., energy in the form of hydrocarbons and also easily available metallic ores.
After this point in your discussion, you move into a projection of how the newly intelligent species will learn to use carbon to power its civilization’s rise. And you surmize that this use of carbon and the associated rise of a civilization will prove to be a fatal feedback loop for them.
I agree, my friend, but I think there’s another link in all of this that would more causally connect it all.
What I find needed here is the ‘why’.
Why would an intelligent species engage in a self-destructive pattern and continue on with it even when, apparently, it has the intelligence to see the error of its ways and the consequences thereof.
This is a subject I have been thinking about for years. And I think the answer lies in our evolutionary psychology.
Our perceptions and thoughts have not been bred for fidelity; much as we might imagine they have been. They have been bred, rather, for survival through unrelenting evolutionary selection pressures.
Thus we do not see all colors equally, for example. We see many more shades of green than we do shades of red or orange. Seeing what was in the green foliage around us was quite important for our survival. We do not have equal fidelity across the range our hearing range. We hear best in those sub-ranges most critical for our survival.
It is the same with our ability to think logically.
There is, for example, no real difference between something happening now verses something happening at another time. Nor is there a real difference between something happening here or something some miles from here. And, finally, something can be equally significant regardless of whether it is a concrete thing or an abstract idea.
And yet, unless we are cognizant of these biases and consciously train ourselves to oppose them, we will in general, as a species, react more to now vs then, more to here vs. there and more to concrete vs. abstract.
It is why we generally favor the short-term gains over the long-term consequences so many times and so irrationally.
It is why we don’t mind killing people and animals at some time in the future in a remote part of the planet due to some abstraction like our need for Palm Oil.
If you set yourself to watch for the now vs. then, here vs. there and concrete vs. abstract dichotomies, you will begin to see them in the irrationally all around you.
Consider where expressions like, “Once burned, twice shy” come from. They are born of folk observations of these same truths.
One of the most important legacies of our environmental heritage that lives on in us is what I call our biological imperatives:
The idea is that all biological forms here on earth, from very near the beginning of biological evolution until the present, share a deep inborn imperative to propagate their genes forward in time and to create and protect spaces within which their progeny can grow to maturity so that they can, in their turn, propagate their genes forward as well.
It is a strategy which has served all of biology very well up until now.
But now, one species, us, has become so powerful that we’ve broken free of all the checks and balances of the natural world. And we’ve grown until we’ve covered the planet.
And now, with no more frontiers to conquer and no more spaces to fill, our biological imperatives driven strategies have finally, after billions of years, come to the place where its applicability has run out and a new strategy that acknowledges limits has to be implemented or we are going to self destruct and take much of the biosphere with us.
All around us, the collect ‘we’ is still trying to maximize power, sexual partners, calories, military power and etc. And virtually all of ‘us’ are still driven by our biological imperatives.
It’s not surprising. 3.5 billion years of evolution have conserved, enshrined and focused these urges in us. Realize that all those who were less driven by these urges, fell before those who were more driven. And those who survived these contests became our ancestors and, finally, they became us.
The old brain still speaks these urges to us. Hunger urges, sexual urges, urges to manage our space for our progeny and so on.
Our irrationality as a species arises largely, I think, from these biological imperative urges. And we, the supposedly rational creatures that we fancy ourselves to be, think that we’ve conquered and controlled these urges. The evidence that this is ludicrous lies littered all around us.
So, I think that if a species could somehow, through conscious intentionality, control or transcend these biological urges in itself, that species would have little trouble seeing the logic of forming a civilization with the goal of living within a sustainable footprint on its’ birth planet.
And such a species could survive indefinitely on that planet nurturing the biosphere around it and sharpening its technological prowess so that its quality of life could continue to improve even while it held its population and its the footprint constant.
And, in time, as its technology matured, it might manage to venture into the stars.
But, we haven’t heard from anyone. And one wonders is complex life is a very rare phenomenon as per Ward and Brownlee?
And if, when life does manage this rare jump to complexity, if it then almost invariably fails to manage the next jump; the need to transcend its own biological urges?
And if, very very rarely, some planet’s biology has managed to do both jumps, then what are the chances that they are, right now, in a technological window now where we could even recognize them?
With events so rare, they could easily be, and probably are, a million years behind us or ten million ahead of us. Time is a vast and deep thing.
And with events so rare, might not they be on the other side of our galaxy or even in another?
And then there’s the speed of light.
All our science fiction authors like to posit that we’ll learn to break it. But it may be simply an absolute limit. And anyone wanting to go voyaging to the stars will have a very slow time of it.
And then there’s the question of motivation.
I’m sure we would be motivated, as we are now, to engage in such explorations.
But would the species we would be, if we learned to transcend our biological imperatives, still feel those same expansive urges?
Perhaps after seeing 100 other planets or 1000 other planets after such long and grinding sub-light speed journeys, a star faring civilization would just get ‘get over it’ and turn to some more local form of navel-gazing that we cannot even imagine now.
The Singularity Concept says that things in the not too distant future will become so very different from how we understand things now that after that point we simply won’t be able to do any meaningful extrapolations. So, in truth, we are really quite blind to try to look forward very far.
Thanks for sharing your piece on the Fermi Paradox, Paul. It got my own juices flowing. (smile)
You have new angles I’ve never suspected. A Marshal McLuhan fan, I’m thinking.
And I get what you are saying. Everything is modified by media.
But it reminds me of the description of the classic discussion between a new meditator and a meditation teacher.
The teacher explains to the highly incredulous newbie that all those voices in his head – all that ego chatter, no matter how real it seems and no matter how omnipresent it is – it is not who they are.
He says that who you really are is the silence that sits quietly behind the ego’s chatter – and that this is true no matter whether you believe it or not.
“How can one know this is true?”, the student asks?
The teacher says “Simple logic. The chatter is like the contents of a bowl and the silence is the bowl. You can take the ego’s chatter out and still have the bowl’s silence. But you cannot remove the bowl and still have the ego’s chatter. Hence we know which one is more fundamental.”
The media is like this. It is omnipresent, it taints everything and everything is modified and shaped by it. But, in the end, it is nothing without us. Without us, it cannot exist though we can exist without it.
So, I acknowledge the media’s power but I can’t go so far as you and believe that nothing is happening but the media and its effects.
Under the firestorm of information echoing and feeding back on itself is the physical world, are the lives being lived and lost, is every child learning to walk and every human learning to love.
They say that the first thing a surgeon reaches for when they confronting a problem is a scalpel, or a carpenter a hammer.
Perhaps, after so many years in the media and so many years drinking its particular kool-aid, you have lost the sense that it is, in the end, a powerful overlay and a echo machine of a high order – but it is not the substrate.
One of the reasons I read so many things, as I’m sure you do, is because multiple cross correlations can tend to null out local effects. It has been hard to get a ‘handle’ on ISIS. Cultural echoes, media echoes, vested interest echoes, nationalistic echoes and more are all jamming the river of information with crap and bias.
But, unless I’m to believe that the media is the ground or substrate of the world, I have to believe that under its storm of echoes, there lies a deeper reality that, while perhaps difficult to see clearly, is there none the less.
I know you are an idealist and a realist and that it is a hard thing to be both. And I know that people, myself very much included, can get burnt out by the world’s insanities and just go stale towards it all. I hear some of that in your words, my friend.
In all of the insanity of this world, there still is a higher road. And, in an amusing way, it is not through it but rather around it.
When Buddha said that when we wish reality to be different than it is, we only manufacturers unhappiness for ourselves, he was sharing a great truth. There are a lot of truths like that lying about. With them, one can embark on transcending rather than coping or conquering or even understanding the world.
Someone once said, “Be in the world but not of the world”. Or, more graphically, as Ali said, “Float like a butterfly and string like a bee.”
All your criticisms have a very large grain of truth in them which you’ve won through hard experience and, undoubtedly, the loss of some skin. But there’s more.
I spend a lot of time looking at this world square on trying to see its realities behinds its illusions. But I remain joyful in spite of all that because I think there’s more.
And, if like an Existentialist or a Stoic, you look at it square and accept that there is one hell of a lot that cannot be changed, there still is all the rest to play in. And one of the best areas to play in is your own mind and perceptions. They are malleable, they are shapable and they are yours to own. Intentional, incremental self transcendence is quite simply capable of being yours.
That was recorded lecture #43 from Dennis’ “Ministry to Burnt Out News Folk”. Stay tuned next week when we offer a shampoo that will, with just one application, make you literally 20 years younger and twice as smart.
Until then, hang onto your willy and never give up,
– Recently, the Guardian Newspaper, which I read, asked its readership what it should be doing. The occasion of asking was the posting of a new editor-in-chief there. I wrote them the following:
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What’s missing in today’s news is a sense that it is unbiased. The very fact that the Guardian seems to report a number of stories that fly in the face of how the powers that be would like to see the world explained to the average man, speaks well of the paper’s independence.
But left open are still the questions of (1) whether or not you are simply recognizing an under-served part of the market and serving it. (2) whether you are focusing on a type of sensationalism that works because it goes against the grain or (3) you are actually trying to report the news in an unbiased manner because that is what best serves all of us.
Many of us perceive your reporting as arising from motive (3). If that is so, you need to recognize that this is what makes you special and you need to accentuate it, defend it and promote it. But most of all, you need to really do it by walking your talk in everything you do. Build your brand on it.
In a world where the reader can trust nothing they read in the media because it all seems to be shrouded in spin serving various factions, the reader will simply give up and society’s self-awareness will fragment and dim.
Humanity does have a right to clear, unambiguous information about the state of the world. And we have this right whether or not is it codified anywhere. People who speak the truth, in spite of the peril it costs them, know this instinctively. And those of us who align ourselves with the good of all, rather than the personal good of the few, recognize such truth-speaking as heroism and as being the best of us.
– This in an interview with Mukti, wife of Adyashanti, about her awakening experience. It reminds me of some lines in Dylan’s song, ‘Tangled Up in Blue‘.
Then she opened up a book of poems And handed it to me Written by an Italian poet From the thirteenth century And every one of them words rang true And glowed like burning coal Pouring off of every page Like it was written in my soul from me to you Tangled up in blue
– There was a time, a few years ago now, when I meditated daily, and sometimes deeply.
– One of my most memorable experiences took me to the place Mukti described here. I characterized it as ‘stopping time’ but I recognize it now as the same place she’s talking about. Movement ceases, is’ness is all there is, and the sense of being a timeless and empty mirror is complete.
– Something always stayed with me from that time. And, someday, I will return to that place and drink of it again.
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Q. Tell me something about your background and your understanding of spiritual marriage.
MUKTI: That which is awake was calling since I was very, very young. I was raised Irish Catholic and felt that a love of God and Christ was foundational to my life. There was a tremendous yearning to know God. When I was seven, my parents found the teachings of Paramahansa Yogananda, and, with that, new perspectives opened up for me. As a young adult, I heard a talk by one of Yogananda’s disciples, Brother Anandamoy, on spiritual marriage. I must have listened to this talk on tape dozens and dozens of times. And the one line that deeply penetrated me was, “The purpose of spiritual marriage is to find that the One in me and the One in my husband or wife is the same One in all of life.” I knew this was my deepest yearning.
Later, soon after I was married to Stephen Gray, now Adyashanti, we attended a satsang (teaching) with a teacher named Gangaji. Right away Adya got up and spoke with her from his perspective. I could see that the dialogue that ensued was from a shared, awakened perspective of knowing Oneness, and that it was a dialogue in which I was not able to participate. As I witnessed their exchange, something came fiercely alive inside me, saying, “In order to have a true spiritual marriage, a true meeting of Adya, I must know this perspective.” And my seeing this didn’t come from a place of jealousy. It just came from a knowing that this must be—it was as though within myself, without literal words, my Being was saying, “This must come to pass. So that I too can meet my husband from this perspective.”
This knowing kicked off a real fire within me. In the past, I’d come from traditions of faith and trusting in the guidance of a savior or guru. But this was different. I think it was the first moment when something in me knew that it was time for me to be truly serious, to truly engage the issue of realization for myself.
Q: To become what you were witnessing in them…
MUKTI: Become that and to no longer waste time. It was as though something just clicked inside me that took me out of a sense of “Whatever God wills” to an intense inquiry: “What is God? What is this?” Before that, when I had a savior or a guru, I would place my trust in their wisdom, their divinity.
Q: Their enlightenment.
MUKTI: Their enlightenment. I believed that if I emulated them as best I could or followed the teachings that they’d set out, then maybe I would come to know what they know. But in this moment, what happened was it went from following the teacher to “this must be.” There was just something inside me that made not knowing no longer an option, and in that sense it was as though time had run out. Sharing Adya’s perspective had to be in order for this marriage to be what it must be for me, the only thing that will be satisfying for me.
It shifted from wanting to know God to seeing God in these two people interacting, to seeing that they looked out of those eyes of God. And my saying to myself, “I will not be satisfied unless this is my perspective,” changed something. It no longer was about wanting to know God (as an object). I wanted to be that. So this inquiry began…“What is that? What is that perspective?” And the word that Gangaji and Adya were using for the One was “Truth.” So, it ignited something new. As opposed to wanting to know love or bliss or the joy of union with God, the movement came to wanting to know the truth of that perspective, of Oneness.
And so, this became my inquiry, a very, very alive inquiry for months. And I had to do it for myself. The outward, more routine spiritual activities I did, such as attending services or meditations, became arenas where I would dive into these questions. I think it’s important to emphasize that something shifted inside me where I had to know. It’s not something that I can take credit for. Something in me just turned.
And yet, one of the distinguishing features of that moment was that the marriage itself became part of the motivation to say, “I can’t stop here. I’ve got to go where I can meet this being where he is.”
If I’m going to be a married person in this world, I have got to know what true marriage is. That conviction was fierce within me. It just had to be. So, that was the drive. Then, after maybe five months passed, I attended my very first silent retreat, which was also Adya’s first retreat teaching as a teacher, in July 1997. I was the retreat leader in charge of the logistics of the event. A few days into the retreat he gave a talk on “stillness.” I knew that he was speaking from a perspective of stillness that I didn’t know. My mind had an idea of stillness, but I could tell it wasn’t matching up with how he was speaking of it. And the way he was speaking of it was mysterious to me. It was unfamiliar but intriguing.
When the day ended and people had gone on to bed, I stayed in the hall to meditate and really dove into that question “What is stillness?” “What is it?” And that was the inquiry that brought me into direct experience of stillness, which flowered into a knowledge that that is Self. That is the nature of Self. Although stillness moves as form, it is the one constant. It is the One. Stillness is the perspective of permanence, of that which does not come and go, even as it comes and goes as form. I think, part of the inquiry that may be of interest to people was that I truly didn’t know what Stillness was. I had completely set aside any ideas that I had about it. And with all of my senses I followed the sense of stillness in my body, and really traced all movements within my body as I was sitting, until my body became more still than I’d ever known. And then my attention went to the outer world, and I sensed what Stillness was in the outer world.
Q: Tracing outer form back to whatever was behind it, which was non-form, the non-movement behind movement. In that inquiry—this is just more of a personal question—did you feel guided by any kind of inner voice or not—how did that tracing phenomenon happen? Was something telling you how to do this or was there just a settling in and of itself?
MUKTI: I did not hear a voice. I guess it just seemed the most obvious place to start…to sense stillness as I was sitting in meditation. Perhaps because some of my main teachers had come from traditions of meditation and had had some of their innermost dialogues with the Divine in meditation, I was drawn to meditate. When I wanted to know something of this order, I would sit and meditate. That was my training. And so, when I went to sit, I sat in meditation posture, as was part of that training.
So, the outer body, of course. was still.
It was still, but I always had experiences of really not truly being still inside. But on this evening, it just seemed obvious that the first place to look was “Is stillness here? Even in the midst of activity of mind and body?”
Including breath, heartbeat, thought, feeling, sensation—all that moves, changes.
Yes. So it was not an inner voice but a natural curiosity to start with, a curiosity about “What is most immediate in my own direct experience of stillness of body-mind?” And the inquiry itself invited a dropping of that question into my Being, not posing it to my mind.
Q: The question, “What is Stillness?”
MUKTI: Yes. “What is Stillness?” I dropped the question “What is stillness?” into my being, into my innermost being, down into my gut. Then I began to sink into a sense of stillness in my body, and all the movement within my own form began to settle and become quieter and quieter, and there remained a very quiet, still watching of all this settling.
Q: And then, there is still another leap beyond the perspective of the watching?
MUKTI: Yes. As my energies were withdrawn from movement, that which is aware of movement became prominent and was experienced as stillness. It also became clear that there was no perceivable difference between that which was aware of movement and all that was in motion. One could say that subject and object were experienced as one.
At the time, this did not register as an insight of oneness, it simply was what I experienced that evening…at which point I decided that any more efforting to inquire would be the antithesis of stillness, and so I went to bed. I was fully aware of all of the sounds of the outer world, and I went into deep sleep which later, when I reflected back upon it, was unlike any other sleep I’d had in that I was completely unaware of the world of form at a certain point. I don’t recall even moving. Then I heard the morning wakeup bell, and I went about my functions of the day. I don’t remember much of them to speak of, other than that I fulfilled my duties—but without a sense of self-consciousness, without any sense of self-reflecting. I’m using both of those terms to say that I was not aware of a sense of “me.” Then, after breakfast a woman bowed in “namaste” to me. In fact, she did a complete prostration before me and that was when a sense of the awareness that was looking out of my eyes at the world of form recognized itself as emptiness. And the laughter! I felt utter delight at this magic trick of what is completely empty and without form appearing before my eyes as form and appearing specifically as the form of a woman who was bowing to me as if I was something.
Q: I remember you said that her ” namaste” was no more significant than if she had bowed to a blank place in the room.
Right, or bowed to a toilet! It was amazing that she actually believed that there was someone in front of her. I mean, it would be as funny as one hair on your head jumping up and bowing to another hair on your head and dancing back and forth, bowing, worshiping each other. It was just delightful and humorous although ultimately those words fall short.
In the moment of the bow, in the moment of somebody in front of me interacting with me as though I were a something, all of a sudden the heightened awareness popped in that I’m not a something; I’m emptiness looking out of this form. And in that moment emptiness was born as an experience. What I am, what life is, what you are, what everything is, was seen as all that is, the one reality. All of this is being perceived from emptiness and clearly there was no “me” in this experience—this experience of myself as no-self or emptiness. And then, as the day went on, that experience opened, registering in my human consciousness as if to say, “This emptiness is this fullness that I’m looking at. This formlessness behind my eyes is what’s looking and is what’s looking back at me. This formlessness is this form, and it’s all arising as one thing. That which is perceiving, that which is sensing life, and the movement of life, the forms—all of them—are arising simultaneously.”
Q: How about after this experience of awakening out of identification with form—how were you different?
MUKTI: Some of the conditioned mind, concepts that separate or cause a sense of a “me,” that create a center or position in relation to life—some of this returned. But a lot of it just mysteriously dissolved. It’s the seeing that has the power to dissolve conditioning.
Q: In the work that I do with people, sometimes insight alone is enough for a pattern to dissolve. More often, however, insight is not enough. Without the experience of awakening, patterns have much more tenacity. I would imagine that, after the experience of awakening, when conditioned mind arises, there is a new perspective that lets you know “this isn’t real”?
MUKTI: So, the conditioned thoughts and beliefs have a much shorter lifespan.
It’s more efficient. I guess what I was really left with was a sense that “me” lives only in thoughts that are believed.
Q: So, in a sense, having awakened to the reality that what you are does not depend on believing the thoughts you have about yourself, those beliefs can drop away more quickly. Prior to awakening, we might investigate a defensive behavior pattern (for example, avoiding intimacy) and find the beliefs on which it is based (for example, a belief that “If I let someone close to me, I’ll be rejected”), but there is still a tendency to justify the belief because of an underlying assumption that the “me” has substance and can be hurt by others. Whereas once you’ve had an experience that who you really are doesn’t depend on a “me,” and that who you really are cannot be hurt by anyone, then, when the feeling of “me” being threatened arises, we can question it from a whole different perspective, which allows it to dissolve more quickly.
MUKTI: Yes, it does. And, there’s no desire—at least I don’t experience a desire—to make it go any faster. When there’s a dawning that it’s all yourself—even the illusion—it’s not something that needs be rooted out. But there’s a natural curiosity to see what the illusion is. There’s this whole fundamental aspect of consciousness—meaning life, reality—that moves to know itself in form, even if that form is a belief or a feeling of threat or suffering. There also seems, from everything that I’ve seen, to be inherent in all of experience a movement towards freedom. So if there’s, let’s say, a painful emotion; that emotion responds. It moves to be seen, felt, heard, experienced. In a sense it’s born to be experienced, and once it’s seen and experienced directly, not suppressed and not embellished, but seen in its exquisite suchness, just as it is, it has served its own life’s function, and it dissolves. You could say it’s been freed.
There is a felt sense that life is living itself, and it’s showing up as feelings. It’s showing up as everything, which includes feelings and beliefs; those are directly experienced, and then life goes on. I’m free to experience these things as they arise. It’s showing up for the whole thing, as all of it. Sometimes people are kind of in a hurry to be free of things, and they miss the freedom of being a human being, of getting to experience the miracle that anything can even occur out of nothing. I want to add as a reminder that everybody’s totally unique. Some people may experience some of the things I’ve shared that happened to me after awakening, such as a greater capacity to see personal beliefs and patterns which cause suffering; yet many people see such patterns long before awakening. There are those common questions “How does awakening unfold? or What does it look like?” Well, it can look all sorts of ways—from a more gradual dawning of what’s real to a sudden dawning of what’s real.
Perhaps there’s seeing an object and knowing oneself as that object, or as another person, or as all of life, or as nothingness. Perhaps there is a dis-identification from the sense of “me,” or perhaps the “me” is seen to not exist at all. In the absence of “me” one may know what they are not. This knowledge can exist with or without the knowledge of what one is. In other words, there are all kinds of awakenings and seeings, my story is just one. There are no two alike.
Q: Can you tell me anything more about what has changed in your relationship with Adya?
MUKTI: I think the biggest thing that this shift of perspective affected, certainly initially, was how I heard things and how I communicated. A lot of my life’s experience had been that of wanting to be understood and of defending how I acted in the world. For example, feeling like I needed to justify why I did what I did or to explain why I was having the experience that I was having, so that I could be understood or accepted. And a lot of that fell away, so I was able to also listen in a way that wasn’t listening through that defensiveness. That was a huge change. At the time of the awakening I was in a program studying Chinese medicine. As I student I thought I had every ailment that I studied! But because the fundamental fear of death fell away with the awakening, it changed my whole relationship to health. As a result, a lot of the conversations I would have with Adya about my health just stopped. This freed up a lot in terms of energy and time that Adya and I spent together.
I’ve always had this sense of Adya, especially when he was a new teacher; he always felt like a real maverick to me. It wasn’t too long after that movie Top Gun came out, and in that movie there were these people who fly fighter planes and they just respond like this (snapping her fingers). They possess some internal navigational skills that are highly instinctual and intuitive. And Adya felt very much like that; he’d respond immediately to what life offered, and easily reverse direction. Now, within myself I feel that the more this awakening is deepening and unfolding, the more I have a sense of suppleness and ability to shift more quickly. Life is turning this way, “Okay,” and then you turn this way. And then comes its next curve or turn, and it feels a little bit more like somehow the whole ride is being ridden.
Q: You said that the point of spiritual marriage, is for the One in you to recognize the One in the other and together to come to the knowledge of the Oneness that we are. Is this now more available to you?
MUKTI: Yes, to see that the One in me and the One in my husband, in this case, is the same One in all of life. So, it’s not that we need to see that together. But I think the recognition that that’s the same One in all of life came at the exact same time as seeing that it’s the same One in my husband.
Q: Do you think you serve the same function for Adya?
MUKTI: Everything serves that, absolutely.
Spiritual Marriage: An Interview with Mukti
By Susan Thesenga
I was talking with some friends of mine, recently, on-line about whether or not Representative Democracies are the best option we have to deal with the world’s increasingly critical problems.
One of them said said:
“Frankly, I think representative democracy is the best tool available to deal with modern 21st Century social and public policy given that democracy is very imperfect form of government but the all the alternatives are far less desirable. Of course, I am all ears if political theorists and politicians can conceive and implement a new form of governance than those over the last several millennia.”
And I agreed with that assertion, though I found it disappointing when juxtaposed with something else that he said (and to which I also agreed). He said:
“Regardless of governance type, I unable to imagine how public policy at the international level needed for global problems, such as climate change, can be addressed rapidly and effectively. The problem is simply too complex, the decisional bodies involved too diverse, and the combined resources required too enormous to do so.”
Earlier in the exchange, this friend had written a detailed discussion of how Representative Democracies work, and in that he referred to the fact that the actors at all levels in such Democracies are all (or almost all) making their choices based on their self interests. This includes the voters on the street, the elected officials and the lobbyists who represent special interests.
From this, I get that Representative Democracies are a method of governance in which competing self-interests have achieved a state of relatively stable balance.
But, self-interests are not the only possible inputs to governance.
Common interests could, and should, be valid inputs as well.
Indeed, we as a species are failing to come to grips with the problems we are facing globally because we haven’t been able to find a way to transcend our self-interests to work for our common good.
Of course the following criticisms of the common good idea could be raised at once:
1. It is extremely unlikely that any group or groups focused on common interests could wrest the power to set governmental policy away from the intrenched self-interests.
2. And hasn’t this been tried before? And wasn’t it called, in its purest form, Communism?
I haven’t any answer for the first criticism. Though I would love to hear some good ideas.
I do note that within our current Representative Democratic systems, there are many NGOs operating. And many of those are focused on issues concerning our common good. But I also note that while they are sincere, and while they do good work, they are nowhere near to wresting control away from the forces that focus on self-interests.
On the second point, I would assert that Communism is not the only system we can formulate that holds our common interests as its highest goal.
A system of governance could be conceived in which there was a Prime Directive (i.e., the highest priority) of governance. And that Prime Directive would be to maximize the quality of life for all of us; both for now and into the indefinite future.
That would certainly be in our global common interest. Singapore, is perhaps the one place I’ve seen that seems to have a glimmer of this.
But beyond the primacy of the Prime Directive, we would all be free to do as we pleased; each in accordance with his or her own special interests.
So, for example, if someone wanted to form a company to go out cut trees for wood, the government would allow them to do so – so long as they did not cut trees faster than they could grow back and so long as nothing they did resulted in a net degradation of the environment we all share.
Capitalists could still be Capitalists.
But their possible activities would be constrained by the Prime Directive if those activities came into conflict with the Prime Directive.
In other words, the common good would always trump self-interest. But, so long as the common good was not threatened, the freedom to do as you like would be guaranteed (Probably as the Second Directive).
I think you can all see the basic idea here which is that what we lack with our current Representative Democracies is any meaningful acknowledgement of our common interests.
And the lack of this puts us in a very untenable place indeed when you consider my friend’s two quotes, above.
After I wrote this, another friend pointed out to me an idea that’s been known and discussed in academia and elsewhere for some time. It is called “The Tragedy of the Commons” (see Here). And, his comment was that this idea correlated, quite significantly with the ideas I’ve been exploring here.
So, I went and read the Wikipedia article on The Tragedy of the Common and I quite agreed – there’s a good match.
– I love this Pope. The first one in my life that I can really stand up and applaud.
– Bravo for sticking it to the GOP folks who wave their religion around like it is a justification for greed.
– We need a better world, one that goes beyond power and greed as the prime movers, and that’s what the Pope is talking about. And, predictably, they are not going to like it.
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Conservative politicians have cited faith in shaping politics but are running from pope’s climate change teachings
WASHINGTON — Pope Francis is expected to take a provocative stance on global climate change Thursday, releasing an encyclical — a teaching letter addressed to Catholic bishops — that not only affirms the reality of man-made warming but issues a moral call for changes in lifestyle, consumption and policy to stave off environmental disaster.
That puts Republican lawmakers in the United States, many of whom outright deny that human activity has contributed to the warming of the earth, in an awkward position. Many of those conservative politicians, after all, have often cited their deeply held religious convictions as informing their political beliefs.
“I think it’s easy for Republicans to dismiss Greenpeace and other people who they see as tree-hugging leftists,” said John Gehring, the Catholic program director of Faith in Public Life, a religious advocacy group in Washington, D.C. “It’s much harder for them to brush off one of the greatest moral leaders of the world.”
“The pope is doing something that will make a lot of people very uncomfortable because he’s challenging a status quo that the richest and most powerful benefit from,” he added. “The Exxons of the world are not going to love this encyclical. The Koch brothers are not going to be sending it out as Christmas card. While the pope is a bridge builder, this is a provocative document that is meant to wake us up.”
Some prominent Republicans have already pre-emptively countered Francis’ message, arguing ahead of the official release of the encyclical that a religious leader has no place crafting public policy.
Bush, who converted to Catholicism 20 years ago, has nevertheless taken a different view for most of his public life, speaking occasionally on how his faith has played a role in shaping his policy views. His religion is believed to have played a pivotal role in his decision as Florida governor to prolong the life of Terri Schiavo, a brain-dead woman embroiled in a right-to-die battle that gained national attention.
Rick Santorum, another 2016 presidential contender and a devout Catholic, has similarly said his faith informs his staunch opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage. But when asked about the pope wading into the climate change debate earlier this month by a radio host, Santorum answered, “The church has gotten it wrong a few times on science. I think that we are probably better off leaving science to the scientists and focusing on what we’re really good at, which is theology and morality.”
Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner, yet another prominent Catholic in politics, has thus far not weighed in on Francis’ encyclical. But earlier this year Boehner held the standard Republican line that climate change regulations kill U.S. jobs and that he would leave it to scientists to debate the facts.
Richard Cizik, a former top lobbyist for the National Association of Evangelicals who was castigated by Christian conservative activists after he became a believer in climate change science, was baffled by comments dismissing the pope from the realm of politics.
“It’s not only disdainful. It fails to appreciate political decisions are at heart moral decisions. They know that too,” he said. “It’s time for everyone to pause and reflect and not just respond politically to what the encyclical says but, first and foremost, personally.”
Bob Inglis, a former Republican South Carolina congressman, was voted out of office in 2010 shortly after making remarks regarding the need to address climate change. He believes the tension between Catholic teachings and Catholic politicians’ current positions can be a positive development for those hoping to break the partisan gridlock on the issue.
“There are a lot of Catholics who might have been critical of other Catholics who haven’t accepted the church’s teachings on abortion. They called them cafeteria Catholics,” said Inglis, now the executive director of RepublicEN, a group dedicated to conservative solutions for climate change. “Now the question is whether those same folks will become cafeteria Catholics and not accept the church’s teachings on climate change. The dissonance is going to be very constructive here. I hope what’s going to happen is that the encyclical is going to establish this as a moral question as well as a question of policy and economics.”
Other observers have noted the difficulty in defying hard political reality on climate change. The oil and gas industry, whose business interests lie in perpetuating the use of carbon-dioxide-releasing fossil fuels, contributed $18 million to congressional campaigns in the 2014 elections alone, the vast majority of that to Republican candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Climate change skeptics have continued to dig in on their positions. The Cornwall Alliance, a Christian conservative organization that claims climate change science is grossly exaggerated, said the arguments made in the encyclical are misguided.
“Pope Francis puts his moral authority as the leader of roughly 1.2 billion Catholics in jeopardy when he addresses technical scientific issues on which he has apparently only been given one side of what is a very vigorous scientific debate,” said Cornwall spokesman Calvin Beisner. “He will certainly have an influence on public opinion about this … I think he’s mistaken.”
Nonetheless, Cizik said, if people of faith across the country unite on the issue, Congress will ultimately follow.
“When faith communities unite, politicians listen,” he said. “It just seems to me now is an opportunity for those who have been wanting to make a change to come forward and boldly say so. People sometimes need a conversion. If you’re not going to change your mind every once in a while, you might as well be dead.”
– Most excellent article by, arguably, the most sincere and honest president during my lifetime. Too bad that the American electorate did’t think he had the right stuff but then they seem drawn to ‘strong leaders with easy to grasp sound-bite answers’ – much to the detriment of the country and the world.
– Bravo, Jimmy Carter!
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Women and girls have been discriminated against for too long in a twisted interpretation of the word of God.
I HAVE been a practising Christian all my life and a deacon and Bible teacher for many years. My faith is a source of strength and comfort to me, as religious beliefs are to hundreds of millions of people around the world. So my decision to sever my ties with the Southern Baptist Convention, after six decades, was painful and difficult. It was, however, an unavoidable decision when the convention’s leaders, quoting a few carefully selected Bible verses and claiming that Eve was created second to Adam and was responsible for original sin, ordained that women must be “subservient” to their husbands and prohibited from serving as deacons, pastors or chaplains in the military service.
This view that women are somehow inferior to men is not restricted to one religion or belief. Women are prevented from playing a full and equal role in many faiths. Nor, tragically, does its influence stop at the walls of the church, mosque, synagogue or temple. This discrimination, unjustifiably attributed to a Higher Authority, has provided a reason or excuse for the deprivation of women’s equal rights across the world for centuries.
At its most repugnant, the belief that women must be subjugated to the wishes of men excuses slavery, violence, forced prostitution, genital mutilation and national laws that omit rape as a crime. But it also costs many millions of girls and women control over their own bodies and lives, and continues to deny them fair access to education, health, employment and influence within their own communities.
The impact of these religious beliefs touches every aspect of our lives. They help explain why in many countries boys are educated before girls; why girls are told when and whom they must marry; and why many face enormous and unacceptable risks in pregnancy and childbirth because their basic health needs are not met.
In some Islamic nations, women are restricted in their movements, punished for permitting the exposure of an arm or ankle, deprived of education, prohibited from driving a car or competing with men for a job. If a woman is raped, she is often most severely punished as the guilty party in the crime.
The same discriminatory thinking lies behind the continuing gender gap in pay and why there are still so few women in office in the West. The root of this prejudice lies deep in our histories, but its impact is felt every day. It is not women and girls alone who suffer. It damages all of us. The evidence shows that investing in women and girls delivers major benefits for society. An educated woman has healthier children. She is more likely to send them to school. She earns more and invests what she earns in her family.
It is simply self-defeating for any community to discriminate against half its population. We need to challenge these self-serving and outdated attitudes and practices – as we are seeing in Iran where women are at the forefront of the battle for democracy and freedom.
I understand, however, why many political leaders can be reluctant about stepping into this minefield. Religion, and tradition, are powerful and sensitive areas to challenge. But my fellow Elders and I, who come from many faiths and backgrounds, no longer need to worry about winning votes or avoiding controversy – and we are deeply committed to challenging injustice wherever we see it.
The Elders are an independent group of eminent global leaders, brought together by former South African president Nelson Mandela, who offer their influence and experience to support peace building, help address major causes of human suffering and promote the shared interests of humanity. We have decided to draw particular attention to the responsibility of religious and traditional leaders in ensuring equality and human rights and have recently published a statement that declares: “The justification of discrimination against women and girls on grounds of religion or tradition, as if it were prescribed by a Higher Authority, is unacceptable.”
We are calling on all leaders to challenge and change the harmful teachings and practices, no matter how ingrained, which justify discrimination against women. We ask, in particular, that leaders of all religions have the courage to acknowledge and emphasise the positive messages of dignity and equality that all the world’s major faiths share.
The carefully selected verses found in the Holy Scriptures to justify the superiority of men owe more to time and place – and the determination of male leaders to hold onto their influence – than eternal truths. Similar biblical excerpts could be found to support the approval of slavery and the timid acquiescence to oppressive rulers.
I am also familiar with vivid descriptions in the same Scriptures in which women are revered as pre-eminent leaders. During the years of the early Christian church women served as deacons, priests, bishops, apostles, teachers and prophets. It wasn’t until the fourth century that dominant Christian leaders, all men, twisted and distorted Holy Scriptures to perpetuate their ascendant positions within the religious hierarchy.
The truth is that male religious leaders have had – and still have – an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women. They have, for their own selfish ends, overwhelmingly chosen the latter. Their continuing choice provides the foundation or justification for much of the pervasive persecution and abuse of women throughout the world. This is in clear violation not just of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but also the teachings of Jesus Christ, the Apostle Paul, Moses and the prophets, Muhammad, and founders of other great religions – all of whom have called for proper and equitable treatment of all the children of God. It is time we had the courage to challenge these views.
– Jimmy Carter was president of the United States from 1977 to 1981.
– This is a subject near and dear to my heart though I don’t typically talk a lot about it because these substances are still outlawed in much of the world.
– Do I think they can be harmful? Yes, absolutely. If people who just want to party or who have mental problems or unstable personalities take them – they can be a nightmare.
– Do I think they can be helpful? Yes, absolutely. If stable, mentally healthy people take them for reasons of self-inquiry, I think they are some of the most amazing substances on the planet. They can be positive life-changers.
– Check these associated articles out for other opinions: ➡ and ➡
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Research into psychedelics, shut down for decades, is now yielding exciting results.
On an April Monday in 2010, Patrick Mettes, a fifty-four-year-old television news director being treated for a cancer of the bile ducts, read an article on the front page of the Times that would change his death. His diagnosis had come three years earlier, shortly after his wife, Lisa, noticed that the whites of his eyes had turned yellow. By 2010, the cancer had spread to Patrick’s lungs and he was buckling under the weight of a debilitating chemotherapy regimen and the growing fear that he might not survive. The article, headlined “HALLUCINOGENS HAVE DOCTORS TUNING IN AGAIN,” mentioned clinical trials at several universities, including N.Y.U., in which psilocybin—the active ingredient in so-called magic mushrooms—was being administered to cancer patients in an effort to relieve their anxiety and “existential distress.” One of the researchers was quoted as saying that, under the influence of the hallucinogen, “individuals transcend their primary identification with their bodies and experience ego-free states . . . and return with a new perspective and profound acceptance.” Patrick had never taken a psychedelic drug, but he immediately wanted to volunteer. Lisa was against the idea. “I didn’t want there to be an easy way out,” she recently told me. “I wanted him to fight.”
Patrick made the call anyway and, after filling out some forms and answering a long list of questions, was accepted into the trial. Since hallucinogens can sometimes bring to the surface latent psychological problems, researchers try to weed out volunteers at high risk by asking questions about drug use and whether there is a family history of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. After the screening, Mettes was assigned to a therapist named Anthony Bossis, a bearded, bearish psychologist in his mid-fifties, with a specialty in palliative care. Bossis is a co-principal investigator for the N.Y.U. trial.
After four meetings with Bossis, Mettes was scheduled for two dosings—one of them an “active” placebo (in this case, a high dose of niacin, which can produce a tingling sensation), and the other a pill containing the psilocybin. Both sessions, Mettes was told, would take place in a room decorated to look more like a living room than like a medical office, with a comfortable couch, landscape paintings on the wall, and, on the shelves, books of art and mythology, along with various aboriginal and spiritual tchotchkes, including a Buddha and a glazed ceramic mushroom. During each session, which would last the better part of a day, Mettes would lie on the couch wearing an eye mask and listening through headphones to a carefully curated playlist—Brian Eno, Philip Glass, Pat Metheny, Ravi Shankar. Bossis and a second therapist would be there throughout, saying little but being available to help should he run into any trouble.
I met Bossis last year in the N.Y.U. treatment room, along with his colleague Stephen Ross, an associate professor of psychiatry at N.Y.U.’s medical school, who directs the ongoing psilocybin trials. Ross, who is in his forties, was dressed in a suit and could pass for a banker. He is also the director of the substance-abuse division at Bellevue, and he told me that he had known little about psychedelics—drugs that produce radical changes in consciousness, including hallucinations—until a colleague happened to mention that, in the nineteen-sixties, LSD had been used successfully to treat alcoholics. Ross did some research and was astounded at what he found.
“I felt a little like an archeologist unearthing a completely buried body of knowledge,” he said. Beginning in the nineteen-fifties, psychedelics had been used to treat a wide variety of conditions, including alcoholism and end-of-life anxiety. The American Psychiatric Association held meetings centered on LSD. “Some of the best minds in psychiatry had seriously studied these compounds in therapeutic models, with government funding,” Ross said.
Between 1953 and 1973, the federal government spent four million dollars to fund a hundred and sixteen studies of LSD, involving more than seventeen hundred subjects. (These figures don’t include classified research.) Through the mid-nineteen-sixties, psilocybin and LSD were legal and remarkably easy to obtain. Sandoz, the Swiss chemical company where, in 1938, Albert Hofmann first synthesized LSD, gave away large quantities of Delysid—LSD—to any researcher who requested it, in the hope that someone would discover a marketable application. Psychedelics were tested on alcoholics, people struggling with obsessive-compulsive disorder, depressives, autistic children, schizophrenics, terminal cancer patients, and convicts, as well as on perfectly healthy artists and scientists (to study creativity) and divinity students (to study spirituality). The results reported were frequently positive. But many of the studies were, by modern standards, poorly designed and seldom well controlled, if at all. When there were controls, it was difficult to blind the researchers—that is, hide from them which volunteers had taken the actual drug. (This remains a problem.)
By the mid-nineteen-sixties, LSD had escaped from the laboratory and swept through the counterculture. In 1970, Richard Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act and put most psychedelics on Schedule 1, prohibiting their use for any purpose. Research soon came to a halt, and what had been learned was all but erased from the field of psychiatry. “By the time I got to medical school, no one even talked about it,” Ross said.
The clinical trials at N.Y.U.—a second one, using psilocybin to treat alcohol addiction, is now getting under way—are part of a renaissance of psychedelic research taking place at several universities in the United States, including Johns Hopkins, the Harbor-U.C.L.A. Medical Center, and the University of New Mexico, as well as at Imperial College, in London, and the University of Zurich. As the drug war subsides, scientists are eager to reconsider the therapeutic potential of these drugs, beginning with psilocybin. (Last month The Lancet, the United Kingdom’s most prominent medical journal, published a guest editorial in support of such research.) The effects of psilocybin resemble those of LSD, but, as one researcher explained, “it carries none of the political and cultural baggage of those three letters.” LSD is also stronger and longer-lasting in its effects, and is considered more likely to produce adverse reactions. Researchers are using or planning to use psilocybin not only to treat anxiety, addiction (to smoking and alcohol), and depression but also to study the neurobiology of mystical experience, which the drug, at high doses, can reliably occasion. Forty years after the Nixon Administration effectively shut down most psychedelic research, the government is gingerly allowing a small number of scientists to resume working with these powerful and still somewhat mysterious molecules.
As I chatted with Tony Bossis and Stephen Ross in the treatment room at N.Y.U., their excitement about the results was evident. According to Ross, cancer patients receiving just a single dose of psilocybin experienced immediate and dramatic reductions in anxiety and depression, improvements that were sustained for at least six months. The data are still being analyzed and have not yet been submitted to a journal for peer review, but the researchers expect to publish later this year.
“I thought the first ten or twenty people were plants—that they must be faking it,” Ross told me. “They were saying things like ‘I understand love is the most powerful force on the planet,’ or ‘I had an encounter with my cancer, this black cloud of smoke.’ People who had been palpably scared of death—they lost their fear. The fact that a drug given once can have such an effect for so long is an unprecedented finding. We have never had anything like it in the psychiatric field.”
I was surprised to hear such unguarded enthusiasm from a scientist, and a substance-abuse specialist, about a street drug that, since 1970, has been classified by the government as having no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. But the support for renewed research on psychedelics is widespread among medical experts. “I’m personally biased in favor of these type of studies,” Thomas R. Insel, the director of the National Institute of Mental Health (N.I.M.H.) and a neuroscientist, told me. “If it proves useful to people who are really suffering, we should look at it. Just because it is a psychedelic doesn’t disqualify it in our eyes.” Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), emphasized that “it is important to remind people that experimenting with drugs of abuse outside a research setting can produce serious harms.”
Many researchers I spoke with described their findings with excitement, some using words like “mind-blowing.” Bossis said, “People don’t realize how few tools we have in psychiatry to address existential distress. Xanax isn’t the answer. So how can we not explore this, if it can recalibrate how we die?”
Herbert D. Kleber, a psychiatrist and the director of the substance-abuse division at the Columbia University–N.Y. State Psychiatric Institute, who is one of the nation’s leading experts on drug abuse, struck a cautionary note. “The whole area of research is fascinating,” he said. “But it’s important to remember that the sample sizes are small.” He also stressed the risk of adverse effects and the importance of “having guides in the room, since you can have a good experience or a frightful one.” But he added, referring to the N.Y.U. and Johns Hopkins research, “These studies are being carried out by very well trained and dedicated therapists who know what they’re doing. The question is, is it ready for prime time?”
The idea of giving a psychedelic drug to the dying was conceived by a novelist: Aldous Huxley. In 1953, Humphry Osmond, an English psychiatrist, introduced Huxley to mescaline, an experience he chronicled in “The Doors of Perception,” in 1954. (Osmond coined the word “psychedelic,” which means “mind-manifesting,” in a 1957 letter to Huxley.) Huxley proposed a research project involving the “administration of LSD to terminal cancer cases, in the hope that it would make dying a more spiritual, less strictly physiological process.” Huxley had his wife inject him with the drug on his deathbed; he died at sixty-nine, of laryngeal cancer, on November 22, 1963.
Psilocybin mushrooms first came to the attention of Western medicine (and popular culture) in a fifteen-page 1957 Life article by an amateur mycologist—and a vice-president of J. P. Morgan in New York—named R. Gordon Wasson. In 1955, after years spent chasing down reports of the clandestine use of magic mushrooms among indigenous Mexicans, Wasson was introduced to them by María Sabina, a curandera—a healer, or shaman—in southern Mexico. Wasson’s awed first-person account of his psychedelic journey during a nocturnal mushroom ceremony inspired several scientists, including Timothy Leary, a well-regarded psychologist doing personality research at Harvard, to take up the study of psilocybin. After trying magic mushrooms in Cuernavaca, in 1960, Leary conceived the Harvard Psilocybin Project, to study the therapeutic potential of hallucinogens. His involvement with LSD came a few years later.
In the wake of Wasson’s research, Albert Hofmann experimented with magic mushrooms in 1957. “Thirty minutes after my taking the mushrooms, the exterior world began to undergo a strange transformation,” he wrote. “Everything assumed a Mexican character.” Hofmann proceeded to identify, isolate, and then synthesize the active ingredient, psilocybin, the compound being used in the current research.
Perhaps the most influential and rigorous of these early studies was the Good Friday experiment, conducted in 1962 by Walter Pahnke, a psychiatrist and minister working on a Ph.D. dissertation under Leary at Harvard. In a double-blind experiment, twenty divinity students received a capsule of white powder right before a Good Friday service at Marsh Chapel, on the Boston University campus; ten contained psilocybin, ten an active placebo (nicotinic acid). Eight of the ten students receiving psilocybin reported a mystical experience, while only one in the control group experienced a feeling of “sacredness” and a “sense of peace.” (Telling the subjects apart was not difficult, rendering the double-blind a somewhat hollow conceit: those on the placebo sat sedately in their pews while the others lay down or wandered around the chapel, muttering things like “God is everywhere” and “Oh, the glory!”) Pahnke concluded that the experiences of eight who received the psilocybin were “indistinguishable from, if not identical with,” the classic mystical experiences reported in the literature by William James, Walter Stace, and others.
In 1991, Rick Doblin, the director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), published a follow-up study, in which he tracked down all but one of the divinity students who received psilocybin at Marsh Chapel and interviewed seven of them. They all reported that the experience had shaped their lives and work in profound and enduring ways. But Doblin found flaws in Pahnke’s published account: he had failed to mention that several subjects struggled with acute anxiety during their experience. One had to be restrained and given Thorazine, a powerful antipsychotic, after he ran from the chapel and headed down Commonwealth Avenue, convinced that he had been chosen to announce that the Messiah had arrived.
The first wave of research into psychedelics was doomed by an excessive exuberance about their potential. For people working with these remarkable molecules, it was difficult not to conclude that they were suddenly in possession of news with the power to change the world—a psychedelic gospel. They found it hard to justify confining these drugs to the laboratory or using them only for the benefit of the sick. It didn’t take long for once respectable scientists such as Leary to grow impatient with the rigmarole of objective science. He came to see science as just another societal “game,” a conventional box it was time to blow up—along with all the others.
Was the suppression of psychedelic research inevitable? Stanislav Grof, a Czech-born psychiatrist who used LSD extensively in his practice in the nineteen-sixties, believes that psychedelics “loosed the Dionysian element” on America, posing a threat to the country’s Puritan values that was bound to be repulsed. (He thinks the same thing could happen again.) Roland Griffiths, a psychopharmacologist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, points out that ours is not the first culture to feel threatened by psychedelics: the reason Gordon Wasson had to rediscover magic mushrooms in Mexico was that the Spanish had suppressed them so thoroughly, deeming them dangerous instruments of paganism.
“There is such a sense of authority that comes out of the primary mystical experience that it can be threatening to existing hierarchical structures,” Griffiths told me when we met in his office last spring. “We ended up demonizing these compounds. Can you think of another area of science regarded as so dangerous and taboo that all research gets shut down for decades? It’s unprecedented in modern science.”
Early in 2006, Tony Bossis, Stephen Ross, and Jeffrey Guss, a psychiatrist and N.Y.U. colleague, began meeting after work on Friday afternoons to read up on and discuss the scientific literature on psychedelics. They called themselves the P.R.G., or Psychedelic Reading Group, but within a few months the “R” in P.R.G. had come to stand for “Research.” They had decided to try to start an experimental trial at N.Y.U., using psilocybin alongside therapy to treat anxiety in cancer patients. The obstacles to such a trial were formidable: Would the F.D.A. and the D.E.A. grant permission to use the drug? Would N.Y.U.’s Institutional Review Board, charged with protecting experimental subjects, allow them to administer a psychedelic to cancer patients? Then, in July of 2006, the journal Psychopharmacology published a landmark article by Roland Griffiths, et al., titled “Psilocybin Can Occasion Mystical-Type Experiences Having Substantial and Sustained Personal Meaning and Spiritual Significance.”
“We all rushed in with Roland’s article,” Bossis recalls. “It solidified our confidence that we could do this work. Johns Hopkins had shown it could be done safely.” The article also gave Ross the ammunition he needed to persuade a skeptical I.R.B. “The fact that psychedelic research was being done at Hopkins—considered the premier medical center in the country—made it easier to get it approved here. It was an amazing study, with such an elegant design. And it opened up the field.” (Even so, psychedelic research remains tightly regulated and closely scrutinized. The N.Y.U. trial could not begin until Ross obtained approvals first from the F.D.A., then from N.Y.U.’s Oncology Review Board, and then from the I.R.B., the Bellevue Research Review Committee, the Bluestone Center for Clinical Research, the Clinical and Translational Science Institute, and, finally, the Drug Enforcement Administration, which must grant the license to use a Schedule 1 substance.)
Griffiths’s double-blind study reprised the work done by Pahnke in the nineteen-sixties, but with considerably more scientific rigor. Thirty-six volunteers, none of whom had ever taken a hallucinogen, received a pill containing either psilocybin or an active placebo (methylphenidate, or Ritalin); in a subsequent session the pills were reversed. “When administered under supportive conditions,” the paper concluded, “psilocybin occasioned experiences similar to spontaneously occurring mystical experiences.” Participants ranked these experiences as among the most meaningful in their lives, comparable to the birth of a child or the death of a parent. Two-thirds of the participants rated the psilocybin session among the top five most spiritually significant experiences of their lives; a third ranked it at the top. Fourteen months later, these ratings had slipped only slightly.
Furthermore, the “completeness” of the mystical experience closely tracked the improvements reported in personal well-being, life satisfaction, and “positive behavior change” measured two months and then fourteen months after the session. (The researchers relied on both self-assessments and the assessments of co-workers, friends, and family.) The authors determined the completeness of a mystical experience using two questionnaires, including the Pahnke-Richards Mystical Experience Questionnaire, which is based in part on William James’s writing in “The Varieties of Religious Experience.” The questionnaire measures feelings of unity, sacredness, ineffability, peace and joy, as well as the impression of having transcended space and time and the “noetic sense” that the experience has disclosed some objective truth about reality. A “complete” mystical experience is one that exhibits all six characteristics. Griffiths believes that the long-term effectiveness of the drug is due to its ability to occasion such a transformative experience, but not by changing the brain’s long-term chemistry, as a conventional psychiatric drug like Prozac does.
A follow-up study by Katherine MacLean, a psychologist in Griffiths’s lab, found that the psilocybin experience also had a positive and lasting effect on the personality of most participants. This is a striking result, since the conventional wisdom in psychology holds that personality is usually fixed by age thirty and thereafter is unlikely to substantially change. But more than a year after their psilocybin sessions volunteers who had had the most complete mystical experiences showed significant increases in their “openness,” one of the five domains that psychologists look at in assessing personality traits. (The others are conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.) Openness, which encompasses aesthetic appreciation, imagination, and tolerance of others’ viewpoints, is a good predictor of creativity.
“I don’t want to use the word ‘mind-blowing,’ ” Griffiths told me, “but, as a scientific phenomenon, if you can create conditions in which seventy per cent of people will say they have had one of the five most meaningful experiences of their lives? To a scientist, that’s just incredible.”
The revival of psychedelic research today owes much to the respectability of its new advocates. At sixty-eight, Roland Griffiths, who was trained as a behaviorist and holds senior appointments in psychiatry and neuroscience at Hopkins, is one of the nation’s leading drug-addiction researchers. More than six feet tall, he is rail-thin and stands bolt upright; the only undisciplined thing about him is a thatch of white hair so dense that it appears to have held his comb to a draw. His long, productive relationship with NIDA has resulted in some three hundred and fifty papers, with titles such as “Reduction of Heroin Self-Administration in Baboons by Manipulation of Behavioral and Pharmacological Conditions.” Tom Insel, the director of the N.I.M.H., described Griffiths as “a very careful, thoughtful scientist” with “a reputation for meticulous data analysis. So it’s fascinating that he’s now involved in an area that other people might view as pushing the edge.”
Griffiths’s career took an unexpected turn in the nineteen-nineties after two serendipitous introductions. The first came when a friend introduced him to Siddha Yoga, in 1994. He told me that meditation acquainted him with “something way, way beyond a material world view that I can’t really talk to my colleagues about, because it involves metaphors or assumptions that I’m really uncomfortable with as a scientist.” He began entertaining “fanciful thoughts” of quitting science and going to India.
In 1996, an old friend and colleague named Charles R. (Bob) Schuster, recently retired as the head of NIDA, suggested that Griffiths talk to Robert Jesse, a young man he’d recently met at Esalen, the retreat center in Big Sur, California. Jesse was neither a medical professional nor a scientist; he was a computer guy, a vice-president at Oracle, who had made it his mission to revive the science of psychedelics, as a tool not so much of medicine as of spirituality. He had organized a gathering of researchers and religious figures to discuss the spiritual and therapeutic potential of psychedelic drugs and how they might be rehabilitated.
When the history of second-wave psychedelic research is written, Bob Jesse will be remembered as one of two scientific outsiders who worked for years, mostly behind the scenes, to get it off the ground. (The other is Rick Doblin, the founder of MAPS.) While on leave from Oracle, Jesse established a nonprofit called the Council on Spiritual Practices, with the aim of “making direct experience of the sacred more available to more people.” (He prefers the term “entheogen,” or “God-facilitating,” to “psychedelic.”) In 1996, the C.S.P. organized the historic gathering at Esalen. Many of the fifteen in attendance were “psychedelic elders,” researchers such as James Fadiman and Willis Harman, both of whom had done early psychedelic research while at Stanford, and religious figures like Huston Smith, the scholar of comparative religion. But Jesse wisely decided to invite an outsider as well: Bob Schuster, a drug-abuse expert who had served in two Republican Administrations. By the end of the meeting, the Esalen group had decided on a plan: “to get aboveboard, unassailable research done, at an institution with investigators beyond reproach,” and, ideally, “do this without any promise of clinical treatment.” Jesse was ultimately less interested in people’s mental disorders than in their spiritual well-being—in using entheogens for what he calls “the betterment of well people.”
Shortly after the Esalen meeting, Bob Schuster (who died in 2011) phoned Jesse to tell him about his old friend Roland Griffiths, whom he described as “the investigator beyond reproach” Jesse was looking for. Jesse flew to Baltimore to meet Griffiths, inaugurating a series of conversations and meetings about meditation and spirituality that eventually drew Griffiths into psychedelic research and would culminate, a few years later, in the 2006 paper in Psychopharmacology.
The significance of the 2006 paper went far beyond its findings. The journal invited several prominent drug researchers and neuroscientists to comment on the study, and all of them treated it as a convincing case for further research. Herbert Kleber, of Columbia, applauded the paper and acknowledged that “major therapeutic possibilities” could result from further psychedelic research studies, some of which “merit N.I.H. support.” Solomon Snyder, the Hopkins neuroscientist who, in the nineteen-seventies, discovered the brain’s opioid receptors, summarized what Griffiths had achieved for the field: “The ability of these researchers to conduct a double-blind, well-controlled study tells us that clinical research with psychedelic drugs need not be so risky as to be off-limits to most investigators.”
Roland Griffiths and Bob Jesse had opened a door that had been tightly shut for more than three decades. Charles Grob, at U.C.L.A., was the first to step through it, winning F.D.A. approval for a Phase I pilot study to assess the safety, dosing, and efficacy of psilocybin in the treatment of anxiety in cancer patients. Next came the Phase II trials, just concluded at both Hopkins and N.Y.U., involving higher doses and larger groups (twenty-nine at N.Y.U.; fifty-six at Hopkins)—including Patrick Mettes and about a dozen other cancer patients in New York and Baltimore whom I recently interviewed.
Since 2006, Griffiths’s lab has conducted a pilot study on the potential of psilocybin to treat smoking addiction, the results of which were published last November in the Journal of Psychopharmacology. The sample is tiny—fifteen smokers—but the success rate is striking. Twelve subjects, all of whom had tried to quit multiple times, using various methods, were verified as abstinent six months after treatment, a success rate of eighty per cent. (Currently, the leading cessation treatment is nicotine-replacement therapy; a recent review article in the BMJ—formerly the British Medical Journal—reported that the treatment helped smokers remain abstinent for six months in less than seven per cent of cases.) In the Hopkins study, subjects underwent two or three psilocybin sessions and a course of cognitive-behavioral therapy to help them deal with cravings. The psychedelic experience seems to allow many subjects to reframe, and then break, a lifelong habit. “Smoking seemed irrelevant, so I stopped,” one subject told me. The volunteers who reported a more complete mystical experience had greater success in breaking the habit. A larger, Phase II trial comparing psilocybin to nicotine replacement (both in conjunction with cognitive behavioral therapy) is getting under way at Hopkins.
“We desperately need a new treatment approach for addiction,” Herbert Kleber told me. “Done in the right hands—and I stress that, because the whole psychedelic area attracts people who often think that they know the truth before doing the science—this could be a very useful one.”
Thus far, criticism of psychedelic research has been limited. Last summer, Florian Holsboer, the director of the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry, in Munich, told Science, “You can’t give patients some substance just because it has an antidepressant effect on top of many other effects. That’s too dangerous.” Nora Volkow, of NIDA, wrote me in an e-mail that “the main concern we have at NIDA in relation to this work is that the public will walk away with the message that psilocybin is a safe drug to use. In fact, its adverse effects are well known, although not completely predictable.” She added, “Progress has been made in decreasing use of hallucinogens, particularly in young people. We would not want to see that trend altered.”
The recreational use of psychedelics is famously associated with instances of psychosis, flashback, and suicide. But these adverse effects have not surfaced in the trials of drugs at N.Y.U. and Johns Hopkins. After nearly five hundred administrations of psilocybin, the researchers have reported no serious negative effects. This is perhaps less surprising than it sounds, since volunteers are self-selected, carefully screened and prepared for the experience, and are then guided through it by therapists well trained to manage the episodes of fear and anxiety that many volunteers do report. Apart from the molecules involved, a psychedelic therapy session and a recreational psychedelic experience have very little in common.
The lab at Hopkins is currently conducting a study of particular interest to Griffiths: examining the effect of psilocybin on long-term meditators. The study plans to use fMRI—functional magnetic-resonance imaging—to study the brains of forty meditators before, during, and after they have taken psilocybin, to measure changes in brain activity and connectivity and to see what these “trained contemplatives can tell us about the experience.” Griffiths’s lab is also launching a study in collaboration with N.Y.U. that will give the drug to religious professionals in a number of faiths to see how the experience might contribute to their work. “I feel like a kid in a candy shop,” Griffiths told me. “There are so many directions to take this research. It’s a Rip Van Winkle effect—after three decades of no research, we’re rubbing the sleep from our eyes.”
“Ineffability” is a hallmark of the mystical experience. Many struggle to describe the bizarre events going on in their minds during a guided psychedelic journey without sounding like either a New Age guru or a lunatic. The available vocabulary isn’t always up to the task of recounting an experience that seemingly can take someone out of body, across vast stretches of time and space, and include face-to-face encounters with divinities and demons and previews of their own death.
Volunteers in the N.Y.U. psilocybin trial were required to write a narrative of their experience soon after the treatment, and Patrick Mettes, having worked in journalism, took the assignment seriously. His wife, Lisa, said that, after his Friday session, he worked all weekend to make sense of the experience and write it down.
When Mettes arrived at the treatment room, at First Avenue and Twenty-fifth Street, Tony Bossis and Krystallia Kalliontzi, his guides, greeted him, reviewed the day’s plan, and, at 9 A.M., presented him with a small chalice containing the pill. None of them knew whether it contained psilocybin or the placebo. Asked to state his intention, Mettes said that he wanted to learn to cope better with the anxiety and the fear that he felt about his cancer. As the researchers had suggested, he’d brought a few photographs along—of Lisa and him on their wedding day, and of their dog, Arlo—and placed them around the room.
At nine-thirty, Mettes lay down on the couch, put on the headphones and eye mask, and fell silent. In his account, he likened the start of the journey to the launch of a space shuttle, “a physically violent and rather clunky liftoff which eventually gave way to the blissful serenity of weightlessness.”
Several of the volunteers I interviewed reported feeling intense fear and anxiety before giving themselves up to the experience, as the guides encourage them to do. The guides work from a set of “flight instructions” prepared by Bill Richards, a Baltimore psychologist who worked with Stanislav Grof during the nineteen-seventies and now trains a new generation of psychedelic therapists. The document is a summary of the experience accumulated from managing thousands of psychedelic sessions—and countless bad trips—during the nineteen-sixties, whether these took place in therapeutic settings or in the bad-trip tent at Woodstock.
The “same force that takes you deep within will, of its own impetus, return you safely to the everyday world,” the manual offers at one point. Guides are instructed to remind subjects that they’ll never be left alone and not to worry about their bodies while journeying, since the guides will keep an eye on them. If you feel like you’re “dying, melting, dissolving, exploding, going crazy etc.—go ahead,” embrace it: “Climb staircases, open doors, explore paths, fly over landscapes.” And if you confront anything frightening, “look the monster in the eye and move towards it. . . . Dig in your heels; ask, ‘What are you doing in my mind?’ Or, ‘What can I learn from you?’ Look for the darkest corner in the basement, and shine your light there.” This training may help explain why the darker experiences that sometimes accompany the recreational use of psychedelics have not surfaced in the N.Y.U. and Hopkins trials.
Early on, Mettes encountered his brother’s wife, Ruth, who died of cancer more than twenty years earlier, at forty-three. Ruth “acted as my tour guide,” he wrote, and “didn’t seem surprised to see me. She ‘wore’ her translucent body so I would know her.” Michelle Obama made an appearance. “The considerable feminine energy all around me made clear the idea that a mother, any mother, regardless of her shortcomings . . . could never NOT love her offspring. This was very powerful. I know I was crying.” He felt as if he were coming out of the womb, “being birthed again.”
Bossis noted that Mettes was crying and breathing heavily. Mettes said, “Birth and death is a lot of work,” and appeared to be convulsing. Then he reached out and clutched Kalliontzi’s hand while pulling his knees up and pushing, as if he were delivering a baby.
“Oh God,” he said, “it all makes sense now, so simple and beautiful.”
Around noon, Mettes asked to take a break. “It was getting too intense,” he wrote. They helped him to the bathroom. “Even the germs were beautiful, as was everything in our world and universe.” Afterward, he was reluctant to “go back in.” He wrote, “The work was considerable but I loved the sense of adventure.” He put on his eye mask and headphones and lay back down.
“From here on, love was the only consideration. It was and is the only purpose. Love seemed to emanate from a single point of light. And it vibrated.” He wrote that “no sensation, no image of beauty, nothing during my time on earth has felt as pure and joyful and glorious as the height of this journey.”
Then, at twelve-ten, he said something that Bossis jotted down: “O.K., we can all punch out now. I get it.”
He went on to take a tour of his lungs, where he “saw two spots.” They were “no big deal.” Mettes recalled, “I was being told (without words) not to worry about the cancer . . . it’s minor in the scheme of things . . . simply an imperfection of your humanity.”
Then he experienced what he called “a brief death.”
“I approached what appeared to be a very sharp, pointed piece of stainless steel. It had a razor blade quality to it. I continued up to the apex of this shiny metal object and as I arrived, I had a choice, to look or not look, over the edge and into the infinite abyss.” He stared into “the vastness of the universe,” hesitant but not frightened. “I wanted to go all in but felt that if I did, I would possibly leave my body permanently,” he wrote. But he “knew there was much more for me here.” Telling his guides about his choice, he explained that he was “not ready to jump off and leave Lisa.”
Around 3 P.M., it was over. “The transition from a state where I had no sense of time or space to the relative dullness of now, happened quickly. I had a headache.”
When Lisa arrived to take him home, Patrick “looked like he had run a race,” she recalled. “The color in his face was not good, he looked tired and sweaty, but he was fired up.” He told her he had touched the face of God.
Bossis was deeply moved by the session. “You’re in this room, but you’re in the presence of something large,” he recalled. “It’s humbling to sit there. It’s the most rewarding day of your career.”
Every guided psychedelic journey is different, but a few themes seem to recur. Several of the cancer patients I interviewed at N.Y.U. and Hopkins described an experience of either giving birth or being born. Many also described an encounter with their cancer that had the effect of diminishing its power over them. Dinah Bazer, a shy woman in her sixties who had been given a diagnosis of ovarian cancer in 2010, screamed at the black mass of fear she encountered while peering into her rib cage: “Fuck you, I won’t be eaten alive!” Since her session, she says, she has stopped worrying about a recurrence—one of the objectives of the trial.
Great secrets of the universe often become clear during the journey, such as “We are all one” or “Love is all that matters.” The usual ratio of wonder to banality in the adult mind is overturned, and such ideas acquire the force of revealed truth. The result is a kind of conversion experience, and the researchers believe that this is what is responsible for the therapeutic effect.
Subjects revelled in their sudden ability to travel seemingly at will through space and time, using it to visit Elizabethan England, the banks of the Ganges, or Wordsworthian scenes from their childhood. The impediment of a body is gone, as is one’s identity, yet, paradoxically, a perceiving and recording “I” still exists. Several volunteers used the metaphor of a camera being pulled back on the scene of their lives, to a point where matters that had once seemed daunting now appeared manageable—smoking, cancer, even death. Their accounts are reminiscent of the “overview effect” described by astronauts who have glimpsed the earth from a great distance, an experience that some of them say permanently altered their priorities. Roland Griffiths likens the therapeutic experience of psilocybin to a kind of “inverse P.T.S.D.”—“a discrete event that produces persisting positive changes in attitudes, moods, and behavior, and presumably in the brain.”
Death looms large in the journeys taken by the cancer patients. A woman I’ll call Deborah Ames, a breast-cancer survivor in her sixties (she asked not to be identified), described zipping through space as if in a video game until she arrived at the wall of a crematorium and realized, with a fright, “I’ve died and now I’m going to be cremated. The next thing I know, I’m below the ground in this gorgeous forest, deep woods, loamy and brown. There are roots all around me and I’m seeing the trees growing, and I’m part of them. It didn’t feel sad or happy, just natural, contented, peaceful. I wasn’t gone. I was part of the earth.” Several patients described edging up to the precipice of death and looking over to the other side. Tammy Burgess, given a diagnosis of ovarian cancer at fifty-five, found herself gazing across “the great plain of consciousness. It was very serene and beautiful. I felt alone but I could reach out and touch anyone I’d ever known. When my time came, that’s where my life would go once it left me and that was O.K.”
I was struck by how the descriptions of psychedelic journeys differed from the typical accounts of dreams. For one thing, most people’s recall of their journey is not just vivid but comprehensive, the narratives they reconstruct seamless and fully accessible, even years later. They don’t regard these narratives as “just a dream,” the evanescent products of fantasy or wish fulfillment, but, rather, as genuine and sturdy experiences. This is the “noetic” quality that students of mysticism often describe: the unmistakable sense that whatever has been learned or witnessed has the authority and the durability of objective truth. “You don’t get that on other drugs,” as Roland Griffiths points out; after the fact, we’re fully aware of, and often embarrassed by, the inauthenticity of the drug experience.
This might help explain why so many cancer patients in the trials reported that their fear of death had lifted or at least abated: they had stared directly at death and come to know something about it, in a kind of dress rehearsal. “A high-dose psychedelic experience is death practice,” Katherine MacLean, the former Hopkins psychologist, said. “You’re losing everything you know to be real, letting go of your ego and your body, and that process can feel like dying.” And yet you don’t die; in fact, some volunteers become convinced by the experience that consciousness may somehow survive the death of their bodies.
In follow-up discussions with Bossis, Patrick Mettes spoke of his body and his cancer as a “type of illusion” and how there might be “something beyond this physical body.” It also became clear that, psychologically, at least, Mettes was doing remarkably well: he was meditating regularly, felt he had become better able to live in the present, and described loving his wife “even more.” In a session in March, two months after his journey, Bossis noted that Mettes “reports feeling the happiest in his life.”
How are we to judge the veracity of the insights gleaned during a psychedelic journey? It’s one thing to conclude that love is all that matters, but quite another to come away from a therapy convinced that “there is another reality” awaiting us after death, as one volunteer put it, or that there is more to the universe—and to consciousness—than a purely materialist world view would have us believe. Is psychedelic therapy simply foisting a comforting delusion on the sick and dying?
“That’s above my pay grade,” Bossis said, with a shrug, when I asked him. Bill Richards cited William James, who suggested that we judge the mystical experience not by its veracity, which is unknowable, but by its fruits: does it turn someone’s life in a positive direction?
Many researchers acknowledge that the power of suggestion may play a role when a drug like psilocybin is administered by medical professionals with legal and institutional sanction: under such conditions, the expectations of the therapist are much more likely to be fulfilled by the patient. (And bad trips are much less likely to occur.) But who cares, some argue, as long as it helps? David Nichols, an emeritus professor of pharmacology at Purdue University—and a founder, in 1993, of the Heffter Research Institute, a key funder of psychedelic research—put the pragmatic case most baldly in a recent interview with Science:“If it gives them peace, if it helps people to die peacefully with their friends and their family at their side, I don’t care if it’s real or an illusion.”
Roland Griffiths is willing to consider the challenge that the mystical experience poses to the prevailing scientific paradigm. He conceded that “authenticity is a scientific question not yet answered” and that all that scientists have to go by is what people tell them about their experiences. But he pointed out that the same is true for much more familiar mental phenomena.
“What about the miracle that we are conscious? Just think about that for a second, that we are aware we’re aware!” Insofar as I was on board for one miracle well beyond the reach of materialist science, Griffiths was suggesting, I should remain open to the possibility of others.
“I’m willing to hold that there’s a mystery here we don’t understand, that these experiences may or may not be ‘true,’ ” he said. “What’s exciting is to use the tools we have to explore and pick apart this mystery.”
Perhaps the most ambitious attempt to pick apart the scientific mystery of the psychedelic experience has been taking place in a lab based at Imperial College, in London. There a thirty-four-year-old neuroscientist named Robin Carhart-Harris has been injecting healthy volunteers with psilocybin and LSD and then using a variety of scanning tools—including fMRI and magnetoencephalography (MEG)—to observe what happens in their brains.
Carhart-Harris works in the laboratory of David Nutt, a prominent English psychopharmacologist. Nutt served as the drug-policy adviser to the Labour Government until 2011, when he was fired for arguing that psychedelic drugs should be rescheduled on the ground that they are safer than alcohol or tobacco and potentially invaluable to neuroscience. Carhart-Harris’s own path to neuroscience was an eccentric one. First, he took a graduate course in psychoanalysis—a field that few neuroscientists take seriously, regarding it less as a science than as a set of untestable beliefs. Carhart-Harris was fascinated by psychoanalytic theory but frustrated by the paucity of its tools for exploring what it deemed most important about the mind: the unconscious.
“If the only way we can access the unconscious mind is via dreams and free association, we aren’t going to get anywhere,” he said. “Surely there must be something else.” One day, he asked his seminar leader if that might be a drug. She was intrigued. He set off to search the library catalogue for “LSD and the Unconscious” and found “Realms of the Human Unconscious,” by Stanislav Grof. “I read the book cover to cover. That set the course for the rest of my young life.”
Carhart-Harris, who is slender and intense, with large pale-blue eyes that seldom blink, decided that he would use psychedelic drugs and modern brain-imaging techniques to put a foundation of hard science beneath psychoanalysis. “Freud said dreams were the royal road to the unconscious,” he said in our first interview. “LSD may turn out to be the superhighway.” Nutt agreed to let him follow this hunch in his lab. He ran bureaucratic interference and helped secure funding (from the Beckley Foundation, which supports psychedelic research).
When, in 2010, Carhart-Harris first began studying the brains of volunteers on psychedelics, neuroscientists assumed that the drugs somehow excited brain activity—hence the vivid hallucinations and powerful emotions that people report. But when Carhart-Harris looked at the results of the first set of fMRI scans—which pinpoint areas of brain activity by mapping local blood flow and oxygen consumption—he discovered that the drug appeared to substantially reduce brain activity in one particular region: the “default-mode network.”
The default-mode network was first described in 2001, in a landmark paper by Marcus Raichle, a neurologist at Washington University, in St. Louis, and it has since become the focus of much discussion in neuroscience. The network comprises a critical and centrally situated hub of brain activity that links parts of the cerebral cortex to deeper, older structures in the brain, such as the limbic system and the hippocampus.
The network, which consumes a significant portion of the brain’s energy, appears to be most active when we are least engaged in attending to the world or to a task. It lights up when we are daydreaming, removed from sensory processing, and engaging in higher-level “meta-cognitive” processes such as self-reflection, mental time travel, rumination, and “theory of mind”—the ability to attribute mental states to others. Carhart-Harris describes the default-mode network variously as the brain’s “orchestra conductor” or “corporate executive” or “capital city,” charged with managing and “holding the entire system together.” It is thought to be the physical counterpart of the autobiographical self, or ego.
“The brain is a hierarchical system,” Carhart-Harris said. “The highest-level parts”—such as the default-mode network—“have an inhibitory influence on the lower-level parts, like emotion and memory.” He discovered that blood flow and electrical activity in the default-mode network dropped off precipitously under the influence of psychedelics, a finding that may help to explain the loss of the sense of self that volunteers reported. (The biggest dropoffs in default-mode-network activity correlated with volunteers’ reports of ego dissolution.) Just before Carhart-Harris published his results, in a 2012 paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a researcher at Yale named Judson Brewer, who was using fMRI to study the brains of experienced meditators, noticed that their default-mode networks had also been quieted relative to those of novice meditators. It appears that, with the ego temporarily out of commission, the boundaries between self and world, subject and object, all dissolve. These are hallmarks of the mystical experience.
If the default-mode network functions as the conductor of the symphony of brain activity, we might expect its temporary disappearance from the stage to lead to an increase in dissonance and mental disorder—as appears to happen during the psychedelic journey. Carhart-Harris has found evidence in scans of brain waves that, when the default-mode network shuts down, other brain regions “are let off the leash.” Mental contents hidden from view (or suppressed) during normal waking consciousness come to the fore: emotions, memories, wishes and fears. Regions that don’t ordinarily communicate directly with one another strike up conversations (neuroscientists sometimes call this “crosstalk”), often with bizarre results. Carhart-Harris thinks that hallucinations occur when the visual-processing centers of the brain, left to their own devices, become more susceptible to the influence of our beliefs and emotions.Carhart-Harris doesn’t romanticize psychedelics, and he has little patience for the sort of “magical thinking” and “metaphysics” they promote. In his view, the forms of consciousness that psychedelics unleash are regressions to a more “primitive style of cognition.” Following Freud, he says that the mystical experience—whatever its source—returns us to the psychological condition of the infant, who has yet to develop a sense of himself as a bounded individual. The pinnacle of human development is the achievement of the ego, which imposes order on the anarchy of a primitive mind buffeted by magical thinking. (The developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik has speculated that the way young children perceive the world has much in common with the psychedelic experience. As she puts it, “They’re basically tripping all the time.”) The psychoanalytic value of psychedelics, in his view, is that they allow us to bring the workings of the unconscious mind “into an observable space.”
In “The Doors of Perception,” Aldous Huxley concluded from his psychedelic experience that the conscious mind is less a window on reality than a furious editor of it. The mind is a “reducing valve,” he wrote, eliminating far more reality than it admits to our conscious awareness, lest we be overwhelmed. “What comes out at the other end is a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help us to stay alive.” Psychedelics open the valve wide, removing the filter that hides much of reality, as well as dimensions of our own minds, from ordinary consciousness. Carhart-Harris has cited Huxley’s metaphor in some of his papers, likening the default-mode network to the reducing valve, but he does not agree that everything that comes through the opened doors of perception is necessarily real. The psychedelic experience, he suggests, can yield a lot of “fool’s gold.”
Nevertheless, Carhart-Harris believes that the psychedelic experience can help people by relaxing the grip of an overbearing ego and the rigid, habitual thinking it enforces. The human brain is perhaps the most complex system there is, and the emergence of a conscious self is its highest achievement. By adulthood, the mind has become very good at observing and testing reality and developing confident predictions about it that optimize our investments of energy (mental and otherwise) and therefore our survival. Much of what we think of as perceptions of the world are really educated guesses based on past experience (“That fractal pattern of little green bits in my visual field must be a tree”), and this kind of conventional thinking serves us well.
But only up to a point. In Carhart-Harris’s view, a steep price is paid for the achievement of order and ego in the adult mind. “We give up our emotional lability,” he told me, “our ability to be open to surprises, our ability to think flexibly, and our ability to value nature.” The sovereign ego can become a despot. This is perhaps most evident in depression, when the self turns on itself and uncontrollable introspection gradually shades out reality. In “The Entropic Brain,” a paper published last year in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, Carhart-Harris cites research indicating that this debilitating state, sometimes called “heavy self-consciousness,” may be the result of a “hyperactive” default-mode network. The lab recently received government funding to conduct a clinical study using psychedelics to treat depression.
Carhart-Harris believes that people suffering from other mental disorders characterized by excessively rigid patterns of thinking, such as addiction and obsessive-compulsive disorder, could benefit from psychedelics, which “disrupt stereotyped patterns of thought and behavior.” In his view, all these disorders are, in a sense, ailments of the ego. He also thinks that this disruption could promote more creative thinking. It may be that some brains could benefit from a little less order.
Existential distress at the end of life bears many of the psychological hallmarks of a hyperactive default-mode network, including excessive self-reflection and an inability to jump the deepening grooves of negative thought. The ego, faced with the prospect of its own dissolution, becomes hypervigilant, withdrawing its investment in the world and other people. It is striking that a single psychedelic experience—an intervention that Carhart-Harris calls “shaking the snow globe”—should have the power to alter these patterns in a lasting way.
This appears to be the case for many of the patients in the clinical trial of psilocybin just concluded at Hopkins and N.Y.U. Patrick Mettes lived for seventeen months after his psilocybin journey, and, according to Lisa, he enjoyed many unexpected satisfactions in that time, along with a dawning acceptance of death.
“We still had our arguments,” Lisa recalled. “And we had a very trying summer,” as they endured a calamitous apartment renovation. But Patrick “had a sense of patience he had never had before, and with me he had real joy about things,” she said. “It was as if he had been relieved of the duty of caring about the details of life. Now it was about being with people, enjoying his sandwich and the walk on the promenade. It was as if we lived a lifetime in a year.”
After the psilocybin session, Mettes spent his good days walking around the city. “He would walk everywhere, try every restaurant for lunch, and tell me about all these great places he’d discovered. But his good days got fewer and fewer.” In March, 2012, he stopped chemo. “He didn’t want to die,” she said. “But I think he just decided that this is not how he wanted to live.”
In April, his lungs failing, Mettes wound up back in the hospital. “He gathered everyone together and said goodbye, and explained that this is how he wanted to die. He had a very conscious death.”
Mettes’s equanimity exerted a powerful influence on everyone around him, Lisa said, and his room in the palliative-care unit at Mt. Sinai became a center of gravity. “Everyone, the nurses and the doctors, wanted to hang out in our room—they just didn’t want to leave. Patrick would talk and talk. He put out so much love.” When Tony Bossis visited Mettes the week before he died, he was struck by Mettes’s serenity. “He was consoling me. He said his biggest sadness was leaving his wife. But he was not afraid.”
Lisa took a picture of Patrick a few days before he died, and when it popped open on my screen it momentarily took my breath away: a gaunt man in a hospital gown, an oxygen clip in his nose, but with shining blue eyes and a broad smile.
Lisa stayed with him in his hospital room night after night, the two of them often talking into the morning hours. “I feel like I have one foot in this world and one in the next,” he told her at one point. Lisa told me, “One of the last nights we were together, he said, ‘Honey, don’t push me. I’m finding my way.’ ”
Lisa hadn’t had a shower in days, and her brother encouraged her to go home for a few hours. Minutes before she returned, Patrick slipped away. “He wasn’t going to die as long as I was there,” she said. “My brother had told me, ‘You need to let him go.’ ”
Lisa said she feels indebted to the people running the N.Y.U. trial and is convinced that the psilocybin experience “allowed him to tap into his own deep resources. That, I think, is what these mind-altering drugs do.”
Despite the encouraging results from the N.Y.U. and Hopkins trials, much stands in the way of the routine use of psychedelic therapy. “We don’t die well in America,” Bossis recently said over lunch at a restaurant near the N.Y.U. medical center. “Ask people where they want to die, and they will tell you at home, with their loved ones. But most of us die in an I.C.U. The biggest taboo in American medicine is the conversation about death. To a doctor, it’s a defeat to let a patient go.” Bossis and several of his colleagues described the considerable difficulty they had recruiting patients from N.Y.U. ’s cancer center for the psilocybin trials. “I’m busy trying to keep my patients alive,” one oncologist told Gabrielle Agin-Liebes, the trial’s project manager. Only when reports of positive experiences began to filter back to the cancer center did nurses there—not doctors—begin to tell patients about the trial.
Recruitment is only one of the many challenges facing a Phase III trial of psilocybin, which would involve hundreds of patients at multiple locations and cost millions of dollars. The University of Wisconsin and the University of California, Los Angeles, are making plans to participate in such a trial, but F.D.A. approval is not guaranteed. If the trial was successful, the government would be under pressure to reschedule psilocybin under the Controlled Substances Act, having recognized a medical use for the drug.
Also, it seems unlikely that the government would ever fund such a study. “The N.I.M.H. is not opposed to work with psychedelics, but I doubt we would make a major investment,” Tom Insel, the institute’s director, told me. He said that the N.I.M.H would need to see “a path to development” and suspects that “it would be very difficult to get a pharmaceutical company interested in developing this drug, since it cannot be patented.” It’s also unlikely that Big Pharma would have any interest in a drug that is administered only once or twice in the course of treatment. “There’s not a lot of money here when you can be cured with one session,” Bossis pointed out. Still, Bob Jesse and Rick Doblin are confident that they will find private money for a Phase III clinical trial, and several private funders I spoke to indicated that it would be forthcoming.
Many of the researchers and therapists I interviewed are confident that psychedelic therapy will eventually become routine. Katherine MacLean hopes someday to establish a “psychedelic hospice,” a retreat center where the dying and their loved ones can use psychedelics to help them all let go. “If we limit psychedelics just to the patient, we’re sticking with the old medical model,” she said. “But psychedelics are so much more radical than that. I get nervous when people say they should only be prescribed by a doctor.”
In MacLean’s thinking, one hears echoes of the excitement of the sixties about the potential of psychedelics to help a wide range of people, and the impatience with the cumbersome structures of medicine. It was precisely this exuberance about psychedelics, and the frustration with the slow pace of science, that helped fuel the backlash against them.
Still, “the betterment of well people,” to borrow a phrase of Bob Jesse’s, is very much on the minds of most of the researchers I interviewed, some of whom were more reluctant to discuss it on the record than institutional outsiders like Jesse and MacLean. For them, medical acceptance is a first step to a broader cultural acceptance. Jesse would like to see the drugs administered by skilled guides working in “longitudinal multigenerational contexts”—which, as he describes them, sound a lot like church communities. Others envisage a time when people seeking a psychedelic experience—whether for reasons of mental health or spiritual seeking or simple curiosity—could go to something like a “mental-health club,” as Julie Holland, a psychiatrist formerly at Bellevue, described it: “Sort of like a cross between a spa/retreat and a gym where people can experience psychedelics in a safe, supportive environment.” All spoke of the importance of well-trained guides (N.Y.U. has had a training program in psychedelic therapy since 2008, directed by Jeffrey Guss, a co-principal investigator for the psilocybin trials)* and the need to help people afterward “integrate” the powerful experiences they have had in order to render them truly useful. This is not something that happens when these drugs are used recreationally. Bossis paraphrases Huston Smith on this point: “A spiritual experience does not by itself make a spiritual life.”
When I asked Rick Doblin if he worries about another backlash, he suggested that the culture has made much progress since the nineteen-sixties. “That was a very different time,” he said. “People wouldn’t even talk about cancer or death then. Women were tranquillized to give birth; men weren’t allowed in the delivery room. Yoga and meditation were totally weird. Now mindfulness is mainstream and everyone does yoga, and there are birthing centers and hospices all over. We’ve integrated all these things into our culture. And now I think we’re ready to integrate psychedelics.” He also points out that many of the people in charge of our institutions today have personal experience with psychedelics and so feel less threatened by them.
Bossis would like to believe in Doblin’s sunny forecast, and he hopes that “the legacy of this work” will be the routine use of psychedelics in palliative care. But he also thinks that the medical use of psychedelics could easily run into resistance. “This culture has a fear of death, a fear of transcendence, and a fear of the unknown, all of which are embodied in this work.” Psychedelics may be too disruptive for our society and institutions ever to embrace them.
The first time I raised the idea of “the betterment of well people” with Roland Griffiths, he shifted in his chair and chose his words carefully. “Culturally, right now, that’s a dangerous idea to promote,” he said. And yet, as we talked, it became clear that he, too, feels that many of us stand to benefit from these molecules and, even more, from the spiritual experiences they can make available.
“We are all terminal,” Griffiths said. “We’re all dealing with death. This will be far too valuable to limit to sick people.”
– A discussion going on here in New Zealand about the role of intellectuals in society. But, I think it is relevant for any advanced western society especially now as business-centric neoliberalism is in its ascendency and seriously needs questioning.
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The recent uproar over comments by writer Eleanor Catton (here) showed that there are still dangers in being a public intellectual in New Zealand. Some Kiwi thinkers talk about their experiences with Philip Matthews.
What happens when you lift your head above the parapet? You must be prepared for the slings and arrows of outrageous criticism.
“Public intellectuals need to be as tough as Special Olympics athletes,” says David Rutherford, chief commissioner of the Human Rights Commission.
He should know. Not because he considers himself a public intellectual – in fact, he does not – but because he came to the commission after running Special Olympics in Asia Pacific.
Yet he knows how it feels to be on the receiving end of official opprobrium for speaking his mind. Despite being government-appointed, by then justice minister Simon Power, he has taken public flak from Prime Minister John Key and MPs Nick Smith and Gerry Brownlee for his commission’s stance on spying, Christchurch red zones and democracy.
Rutherford is in a rare, sometimes difficult position as a state-funded fly in the ointment. Critical public intellectuals? Despite excusing himself, he sees the need.
“While New Zealanders are pragmatists who value common sense I also think most of us know we need people who challenge our thinking and the status quo.”
This need has become enormously topical in the wake of the response to writer Eleanor Catton’s comments at a literary festival in India last month. Catton talked about New Zealand’s “neoliberal” orthodoxy, the reluctance of our authors to pen manifestos, the general underfunding of the cultural sector and the tensions that come when individual artistic success is somehow “owned” by the rest of the country.
Key did not like it and criticised her tenuous Green Party affiliations. In an infamous segment on Radio Live, broadcaster Sean Plunket attacked Catton as “ungrateful” and suggested that state funding, whether it comes from arts body Creative NZ or a job at a tertiary institution, should buy the New Zealand government unquestioning promotion abroad.
Everyone with an opinion waded into the debate. Which was good and healthy.
But a greater issue went mostly unexplored. Do we have public intellectuals? If so, who are they and how do they feel now about what they do?
So we set about identifying a dozen public intellectuals, some established and some lesser-known.
They were sent standard questions about whether they considered themselves public intellectuals, what the role involves, the risks of being public and their assessment of support from universities, media companies and the general public.
Only one declined. Psychologist and broadcaster Nigel Latta resisted applying the label to himself and opted not to join the discussion, as “I think this whole incident has been completely overcooked so I’ll politely decline the offer rather than contribute to the already overboiled pot”.
Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci defined intellectuals as those whose work is based on the possession and exercise of knowledge. New Zealand writer Bruce Jesson said that the role of an intellectual is to be a critic of society as well as a servant of it and saw no difference between being a servant and a critic.
Gramsci and Jesson’s lines appear in the introduction to Speaking Truth to Power: Public Intellectuals Rethink New Zealand, which is almost 10 years old but highly relevant to the Catton debate.
The anti-intellectual strategies of former prime minister Robert Muldoon, who mocked intellectuals as “snobs” and “ivory tower types”, are close to those practised by Key and Plunket.
And when academic Laurence Simmons wrote in the introduction that “while we revel in the global branding of our sporting heroes, our adventurers or our show-business successes, we shrink from acknowledging the influence and legacy of our thinkers who question the way things are”, he all but predicted the Catton story.
If the Catton furore had a prequel it was the art and media controversy around New Zealand’s installation at the Venice Biennale in 2005.
The exhibition by the et al collective was repeatedly misrepresented in the media and as it was part of et al’s art practice to not speak directly to media, misunderstandings accumulated.
Stung by the bad publicity, Creative NZ commissioned a major report and opted not to return to Venice until 2009. From now on, the “creative team” should include people with “recognised public relations skills”, the report said.
The Venice report found that “one prominent New Zealander stated that the ‘deliberately obtuse manifesto was hard to understand’ and went on to explain that the New Zealand public like it straight up and down and are impatient with things that are perceived as too hard to understand”. Anti-intellectualism was taken as gospel and applied as a marketing strategy.
As in the Catton story there was an idea that if the government has funded art, the artist is obliged to do positive tourism promotion abroad. Was Venice about art or New Zealand Inc networking?
That was under Helen Clark’s Labour government but belittling of academics and experts has also been a feature of Key’s government. Besides Rutherford and Catton, there was the time architecture writer and presenter Kevin McCloud was dismissed as “a tourist” by Brownlee when he offered opinions on the Christchurch rebuild. Leading academic Dame Anne Salmond was attacked as “shrill and unprofessional” and “high and mighty” by Attorney-General Chris Finlayson when she opposed spying legislation in 2013.
Even Whale Rider star Keisha Castle-Hughes was told to “stick to acting” by Key when she voiced an opinion on climate change in 2009.
But none of the previous criticisms generated anything like the coverage accorded to Catton. Partly this was because of Catton’s international status as a Man Booker Prize winner, partly because she responded so calmly to her critics on her blog and partly because the conversation raised deep issues about intellectual discourse in New Zealand.
University of Otago politics lecturer Bryce Edwards thinks that Catton emerged with more fortitude than ever and that it was Sean Plunket who lost face. He sees the Catton story as a lightning rod for wider discontent about politics and the media.
Salmond, in her response to our questions, says: “Some fundamental matters act as flashpoints, where debate spirals out of control.
“This is partly because some groups with vested interests do not welcome public scrutiny of their activities and actively seek to suppress it. This happened in the Dirty Politics saga, for example.”
Salmond believes that “the tone is set from the top”. In attacks on Catton and some journalists, “the responses have been quite vicious and designed to damage people’s lives and careers. The quality of public debate in New Zealand is increasingly nasty and that’s a matter for concern.”
Some of our media is courageous and some is obsequious to those with wealth and power. As for our universities, “they are increasingly required to dance to the tune of vested interests, from politicians to corporate funders”. This is dangerous for democracy and works against creativity, innovation and the free flow of ideas, Salmond adds.
Economist Gareth Morgan dislikes the term “public intellectual” but concedes that he has been working in the public eye since 1982 and has lately enjoyed the luxury of applying his research skills and resources to subjects ranging from climate change, public health, fisheries management, tax and welfare, and obesity to the Treaty of Waitangi.
Morgan has estimated that five years of work on his Treaty book will have personally cost him $600,000 by the end of 2015.
“In order to educate myself I research and write a book and then share those learnings with the public at large, often starting a national conversation on the topic.”
One great example was the national conversation Morgan started about the threat of cats to native birdlife.
And while others must wear criticism from politicians, media or the public, Morgan seems immune. He believes his experience as a public thinker has been largely positive.
“My experience is that the public love the conversation. Further, I find that when we become well-informed, the public is incredibly rational and balanced. Eventually it steers our politicians in the right direction.”
Writer and investigative journalist Nicky Hager generously opened his discussion by listing others he would name as public intellectuals. The Dirty Politics author rates political scientists Bryce Edwards and Jon Johansson, economists Rod Oram, Bill Rosenberg, Brian Easton and Marilyn Waring and science lecturers Mike Joy and Nicola Gaston.
“There are plenty of people who will defend those in power,” Hager says.
“My picture of a public intellectual is someone who is willing to challenge established interests and ideas on behalf of the public, and provide a counter narrative.”
When Dirty Politics appeared, Hager was attacked as “a screaming Left-wing conspiracy theorist” by no less than the prime minister.
He says it is “sadly common” for those who speak on public issues and are attacked to then bow out of public life.
“Large numbers of people in New Zealand are pushed out of public roles and effectively lose their freedom of speech in this way. That is a large part of what Dirty Politics is about.”
In Speaking Truth to Power, Hager argued that the “tall poppy syndrome” is the establishment’s way of cutting down critics rather than the authentic response of the man or woman on the street. Not anti-intellectualism but “a punishment of alternative views”.
He believes that New Zealanders are open to and appreciate the work of public intellectuals, even if they might not use the term.
“There is a wide appetite for intelligent discussion and ideas. But there seems to be little active support and the media in particular should do more to encourage them. The media could start using thoughtful and informed people for commentary instead of people offering celebrity and ignorant controversy.”
Remember the incest gaffe?
Former ACT leader Jamie Whyte knows how it feels to be personally attacked for dissenting views.
Within weeks of assuming the party leadership, Whyte was ridiculed for his belief that the state should not intervene if adult siblings wish to marry. He quickly learned that what is acceptable for rational but politically naive philosophers is taboo for politicians.
Attracting ridicule is an inevitable risk, he says. Sometimes it is deserved, he adds.
Even the public intellectual label “rightly attracts ridicule because it is pompous and suggests that some kind of authority comes with it. None does. No one’s opinions are worth any more than the arguments or evidence that supports them,” he says.
“Vilification is also a risk. If you discuss sensitive topics, such as race, sex and religion, you are likely to upset people. Some will accuse you not only of being wrong but of being wicked. I notice a trend towards arguing not about what people have said but about whether they should have said it.
“Many people seem to believe they have a right to go through life undisturbed by being confronted with views contrary to their own.”
So is New Zealand hostile to intellectuals? Not especially. Whyte sees that English-speaking countries generally have a healthy scepticism about public intellectuals compared to continental Europe.
“Politics is no more intellectually downmarket here than in the UK, US or Australia. Perhaps there is less commentary from intellectuals on TV but that mainly results from the lack of think tanks and similar organisations that aim to push ideas into the media.
“The lack of these organisations results from our small population. To put the matter in perspective, you might ask whether life is better for a public intellectual in New Zealand or in Kentucky, which has the same population.”
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