In this hangout on July 28, 2016, we explore ideas from both the novel and one another’s personal experiences. It’s a LIVE Freak out!
Archives for July 2016
Jeremy: I’m very drawn to what you’re implying in the description for your workshop. It speaks to our deepest anxieties and hopes right now, doesn’t it? Corrupt powers are consolidating into global behemoths of themselves just as new, revolutionary, political forces and conversations are taking hold. Amazing technology surrounds us, but we’re filled with that creeping anxiety, the dread of living at the edge of a cliff—in our case, the Anthropocene, climate change, etc. The glass is half-full and half-empty, collapsing into a singularity. A new world seems entirely plausible and yet it often feels like we’re about to implode before we get there.
It’s hard to keep this all in your head at once. Especially in your mentioning that some of the very structures of our reality, things we take for granted in modern society, like representative governments and even “religious impulses” are “relics” crumbling in the face of an entirely new way of doing things. So, I might start out by asking you the most preliminary of questions. It’s the big question we’re exploring here at Metapsychosis. How do we even begin to think about all this? What does that kind of thought even look like?
Conner: A kind of downward spiral can happen when you approach the state of the world: The disastrous US election! Mass shootings! Police Brutality! Taken alone, they’re bad enough, but they can build and build until you feel utterly overwhelmed and helpless. So as for how to begin, there are two ways: One is kicking and screaming, which is the tendency (and the one that many people and institutions in power feed on), the other is with some clarity. So that’s how we begin, or how not to begin. We don’t begin with fear, and we understand that whatever is happening is necessary for and even, perhaps, asked of us in this moment. That’s the foundation. If you can’t dispel the fear entirely (and who can?), you notice it, and let your thoughts run parallel to it rather than letting it intrude so much.
Then, one by one, you examine the phenomena. Not just with data — although of course data can be useful — but with an eye for patterns. These might be patterns in the phenomena themselves; for instance, that activist movements such as identity politics movements and Occupy both have profoundly important messages of resistance. It’s clear through them what is being resisted. But alternative positive politics are not articulated in them (that doesn’t make either of these movements lesser movements, by the way; it’s just an observation of what they are). Or there may be patterns in yourself; the expression and limits of your feeling and empathy during crisis events, for example. Why should I feel deeply moved when certain events happen, but not others? Where is that framework coming from? The individual is everyone’s starting place, so it’s ridiculous to look at world events without inquiring into the self, and vice versa.
Which thinkers have contributed to your thought? You’ve got a few listed on your event page, like the biologist Lynn Margulis, and the anthropologist Bruno Latour. I’m interested to know how they helped to develop your ideas.
Lynn was my mentor and like a second mother to me, and I owe some of what I’ve already said to her. She studied two things, really: bacteria and earth systems. And she studied how they intersect. In other words, her view was both microscopic and planetary. Lean forward, stand back. As above, so below. So her perspective and approach was as helpful to me as the content of her work (which was also mind-blowing).
The anthropologist Bruno Latour and some of his colleagues have brought me a long way to understanding how important experience is. Since anthropologists have to take experience seriously, they are, in some ways, the foundation of all other sciences, because all science springs from human sense and experience. Of course, it’s not just my own experience that I need to take seriously, but the reported experiences of others. You can’t just dismiss someone else’s sufferings, desires, beliefs, etc as stupid or “un-evolved.” Anthropology had a tough time with that in the beginning, but has caught up with itself in many ways. But it’s even more than that. Anthropology insists we question our own beliefs and experiences and prejudices, not just of political concepts or whatever, but of reality itself. You have to (here’s a fun academic buzzword, but I think it’s really useful) decolonize your mind; Latour’s particular emphasis is in decolonizing our minds from the phony objectivity claims of scientism. You have to undo yourself to come close to anyone else. What would that mean in encountering not just the indigenous person, as anthropologists are typically thought of doing, but the religious fundamentalist? The Trump supporter? What might you learn if you engaged with them seriously? Anthropology is the science of compassion and real engagement.
I’m glad you picked out these two thinkers to ask me about, since, if I’m going to try to figure out what’s going on in the world, Lynn’s macro/micro perspective — and more importantly the tension between the two — as well as real listening and inner decolonizing, are key.
How does spirituality, or mysticism underpin all of this for you?
Spirituality underpins everything I do. The culture of materialism and consumerism is a specific kind of spirituality, after all, and it’s played a huge part (though it’s not wholly to blame) in getting us where we are now. To keep moving and changing, we’ll have to readdress our spiritualities, even if it’s the spirituality of not having a spirituality.
Does art, or imagination, play a role in this new way of thinking?
Yes, especially fiction and poetry. Poetry is obvious to me: Poetry is a refusal of the world, particularly the names of the world and everything in it, as it is. Poetry demands things be said on new terms, on the terms of the poet first, and then the reader. A poet does not have to accept that a table is a table, they exercise understanding of that object as a relation to their own individuality, and write accordingly. Poets have been saying this for a long time, though not enough people have listened.
Fiction is important, though I wasn’t always so sure why. Once Daniel Pinchbeck asked me what role I thought novels had in the upcoming world (this was before 2012, of course), because he couldn’t see any. He thought — back then, at least — that they were a distraction. I love fiction, but it took years and years for the answer to arise. Now I see clearly that it cultivates compassion and vision. When I read, I have to co-create the world using the symbols in front of me, and in fiction, those symbols are of a non-existent world.
Co-creating the world with the symbols laid out in front of us: What could be a better description of what is needed right now? We need to see what’s before us, learn to read it, internalize it, and then create it by combining it with our individuality. Fiction that pushes on the boundaries of the real is what is most instructive, since what is “real” and “possible” is basically owned by people in power. So we need to start our training in the impossible. As soon as, um, possible.
Was Rudolf Steiner saying something about the Culture of the Current in his own way?
Rudolf Steiner, as your readers probably know, was a late 19th—early 20th Century philosopher, scientist, mystic, etc. He created biodynamic farming, Waldorf schools, and more, directly out of his spiritual-scientific worldview. He wasn’t a prophet, but he had plenty of warnings for us about our time, which was his future. His idea was that the world was going to be slowly permeated by the influences of something called Ahriman. Steiner thought of Ahriman as a literal being, and I think that’s a good way to consider him. But to describe in totally secular terms: Ahriman names the vast realm of materialistic impulses. The dependence on technology, the dampening of feelings, the belief that love is just chemicals in the brain, the idea that we’re biological robots. I mean, he pretty much nailed it long before these ideas were popularized. Not a bad warning. The thing he also said about the age of Ahriman is something I take to heart and that is present in my course: there’s no way to stop Ahriman from coming. There’s no way to stop these impulses from growing and growing. They will do so on their own, with or without our consent. What matters instead is how we meet these impulses. How do we move with them, and eventually redeem them?
Thank you, Conner.
Readers, do check out Conner Habib’s upcoming online workshop, “The Culture of the Current,” (starting this Sunday, July 31st) where you’ll be able to unpack a lot of what was shared in this interview through in-depth conversation and collaborative study.
I found this beautiful animated gem as a randomly generated suggestion for my Youtube account. The Irish have always had a unique, thoughtful, and sometimes humorous relationship with death, so it comes as no surprise that this portrait of the psychopomp comes from artists from the Emerald Isle. Many of us never feel as if our time here is enough. What would you wish for more of in your last moments?
We received a message in our Submissions bin from an artist calling himself “Digital Mack,” who makes electronic images of compressed visual intensity. As I looked at his work, I realized that the images seemed to be moving in front of my eyes. Or in my eyes, vibrating into my brain. (I was otherwise sober.) They also reminded me of the skateboard and graffiti art my brother, a tattoo artist in New York, has loved since our childhood. I stared at each piece—faces and eyeballs, subtle patterns—and felt an oscillating time dimension, layers of color and emotion. Transmission received.
I replied, struck up a conversation, and learned a bit of DM’s story. And now he’s collaborating with the crew on website and promotional pieces, including a series of #LitGeeks memes for our upcoming reading of Geek Love and our new Microdoses banner art. Here, we’re delighted to introduce you to his work in its purest form.
—Marco V Morelli
Click any image to open lightbox.
A part-time producer from Johannesburg, South Africa, Crystalis is pretty much unknown. His work is what today’s hipsters like to term “underground,” and to some extent this can be considered a good thing. His sounds are the kind that you keep to yourself, and don’t share with anyone. Crystalis mixes elements and features from just about any genre you can think of with his own unique style. While he is still rather young at producing, the evolution from one track to another and technical progression is obvious.
Philip K. Dick remarked that the right series of words could destroy you . It’s also true, I feel, that the right combination of light, sound and vision could recreate you. In the electronic surround of social media, the right link could function as a portal—a virtual hierophany—breaking through slogging clickbait to confront you with an encounter with the bonafide Other. This video, “To Thee Homage,” is one such slipstream. It pulls at you with its felt presence. Perhaps it’s the subject matter, that is the “Matrimandir” or “Universal Mother”; a building that functions as the “soul” of the budding city called Auroville , intended to be a “living laboratory” for the esoteric experiment of Sri Aurobindo and Mirra Alfassa. They called their spiritual practice “Integral Yoga” and intended it to be something other than religion as we know it.
So, what is it about this video? I have never visited Auroville, located in Pondicherry, India, but I intuit the sense from this and other images that Matrimandir isn’t just some strange architecture that catches the eye, merely a distraction from the digital mundane, but an interruption from the conception of human culture as we have known it. The philosophical and spiritual message of Sri Aurobindo’s work had been about latency; about unfolding futures and the planetization of human consciousness. Places that explore this future function are “living laboratories”, what William Irwin Thompson called “planetary demes”. Mutational spaces where innovation and social intensification could take place. These demes, according to Thompson, extended beyond Auroville to be bound up with Findhorn, Esalen Institute, the Lindisfarne Association and many others to do the messy, laborious work involved in imagining something beyond civilization. In Darkness and Scattered Light, Thompson refers to these kind of places as meta-industrial villages:
The metaindustrial village is such a deme; it is a place in which the four cultural forces are completely expressed. [The planetization of nations, the decentralization of cities, the miniaturization of technology, the interiorization of consciousness.] The metaindustrial village is a turn on the spiral back toward the preindustrial village, but it is not the preindustrial village; for with electronics, complex informational flow on a global level, and higher states of consciousness from a contemplative education, it is not a return to the “idiocy of rural life.” 
I could argue these mutational wellsprings are needed more than ever in our time. They take on a new form, presently—sublimated into distributed efforts, much like the structure of the web itself. This is an intensification. Most important for this phase of experimental culture building is the necessity to interiorize these ideas and bring them with us into our networks. Into the multitudes that make up the body of a world bursting at the seams and breaking open at the edges of the Anthropocene. Maybe through watching this video—uncanny iconography for our LCD screens— we can take something back into our hearts that just might evoke the spirit of Matrimandir, to allow us to relate to each other differently in our local, global, planetary efforts.
Do you feel it? Does this video pull at something hidden within you?
 See Philip K. Dick, VALIS.
 See “Building Matrimandir, a labor of love”
 See William Irwin Thompson, Darkness and Scattered Light
 Check out the wonderful documentary on Auroville, “Journey to the City of Dawn“
Editor’s note: Jenn Zahrt, fellow Metapsy author and publisher at Rubedo Press, is hosting a new course with Kepler College. “Benjamin, Literacy and the Stars” explores the lesser known role that astrology played in German philosopher Walter Benjamin’s oeuvre.
Benjamin’s classic essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” as well as the part-philosophical, part-theological literary fragments collected in popular anthologies like Illuminations, are well established as foundational contributions to the body of work known as “critical theory” (as well as our own literary venture here at Metapsychosis). Few knew, the editor-in-chief included, Benjamin’s thoughts on astrology and how pivotal the tension between astrology versus astronomy played in voicing the bifurcating pressures of the 20th century.
In his work, Walter Benjamin returns again and again to a stellar or cosmological spatiality as perceived by humans to theorize language as well as create his critical concept of the dialectical image. In this way, he sublimates an astrological way of reading into a broader form of cultural interpretation. While his direct writings about astrology surface in 1932 and 1933, an astrological hermeneutics suffuses his work – as early as 1918 with his research into German tragic drama and allegory and all the way to the Arcades Project (specifically in Konvolut N), which he left unfinished before his death in 1944.
For Benjamin, the figure of the astrologer serves as an index of a specific type of reader, who synthesizes information and reveals a mimetic affinity which is no longer directly legible to other readers. Writing can only ever contain traces of an experiential mode of reading, what critic Irving Wohlfarth has referred to as “reading what was never written.”
Benjamin’s attraction to early modern signification practices, wherein baroque allegory unhinged the dominance of symbol and symbolized, was related to the tensions and anxieties surrounding reading and meaning production in his own time. Moreover, his concern with technologies and their effects on the creation and consumption of culture gain new valence when his work is viewed against the astrological mode of reading. What emerges is a discussion that wanders through experience and image, imagination and interpretation, and generating contexts of stimulating gnosis rather than rote replication of analogies and information.
We have no evidence that Benjamin himself practiced astrology, but we would be misreading his work and missing critical pieces of his philosophical contribution, if we ignore the nuances he found in the philosophies of astrological reading and how he engaged with them to develop his own theories of cultural production. In the academy, many who read are not taught how to read astrologically, so when they read Benjamin, they overlook what they have not been taught how to see. My course at Kepler will seek to remedy this oversight.
Conner Habib is a man of many hats, but if there’s one thing he’s been at the forefront of, it’s been his sharp, philosophical appraisals of the cultural pulse of Western civilization. I first discovered Conner through our mutual interests in the philosophy of Rudolf Steiner, Anthroposophy, and the late biologist and Lindisfarne fellow Lynn Margulis (known well for her work on symbiogenesis and her collaboration with James Lovelock on the Gaia Hypothesis). Conner has recently put together a four-part online workshop, “The Culture of the Current: A Workshop for Facing the World We Live in Now.” It’s kicking off Sunday, July 31st.
Reflecting on the development of his class, he writes:
One of my great ambitions is to create new models of education that work in and are relevant to the world we live in. To be honest, I was always a little afraid to construct my own long-term course. But after years of work, I’ve finally gathered the vision and confidence to do it. The Culture of the Current is my in-depth, intimate, interactive, and network-creating online workshop on creating a politics and theory of the present day. The description below will lay it all out for you (and I’ve included some photos of thinkers whose work I’ll be drawing on). It’s limited to only 20 participants and it’s going to be great. So read the description below and sign up here. Onward!
Many of the points on Conner’s workshop page align strongly with what we’re doing here at Metapsychosis, creating a platform for conversations to take place around said “culture of the current.” So, read the event page and consider grabbing yourself a virtual seat for the workshop (who wouldn’t want to take a workshop where Latour, Steiner, and Margulis are drawn from, together?).
The time has come dear readers. “Microdoses” is our latest addition to Metapsychosis, featuring short creative pieces, multimedia art, literary fragments, micro-rants, tiny manifestos, etc. Get your kicks with our first lineup of publications including a gallery from artist Digital Mack, a spiritual riff on the Auroville video, “To Thee Homage“, ambient drips and drops from the underground by artist Crystalis, and a passage to the beyond with “Coda.” There are a few more up there, and like a microdose, you’ll be receiving more throughout the week.
On the Literary Fragment…
A brief mention, here. The literary fragment has its origins in Romantic poet-philosophers like Novalis, or the critical theorist Walter Benjamin. These are typically shorter pieces—no more than a few paragraphs—which nevertheless distill a tremendous amount of thought, reflection, or creativity for the reader. We’d like to humbly imagine that what we’re enacting here— actively resisting our tendency to write essays and treatises and instead attempting to instill insights like messages in a bottle—is continuing the art of the fragment for the digital age. We believe that fragments have a unique potential in digital publishing. Especially with our social-media sized attentions (including yours truly). We want to reach people with tiny tinctures, poetic-philosophical rants, aesthetic arrests. When we put these fragments together, when we gather them up, we come around to another related idea: that of the “florilegium,” (literally translated into “a gathering of flowers”). We’re searching our collective art and idea making for emergent nuggets of combinatorial creativity.
Relaying message; are you receiving?
We’re Coming For Your Facebook Rants
This is where you come in. Send us your Microdoses. The only way to grow our garden is pick good seeds, and you can help us find what’s good out there.
We’re looking at all those people who will publish mind-blowing rants on Facebook, only to have them evaporate in the avalanche of their newsfeed (again, guilty as charged).
We’re here for your rants, your invocations, your manifestos. Bite sized drops of wisdom splattered across social media digiphrenia. Give them homes in the hypertext, the garden of ideas that might just produce some tasty fruits of wisdom.
I feel hands on my body, male-gendered, quasi-human hands, but without physical bodies, invisible; at night they come to study me. I see reams of code, and one of these invisible beings is reading off the code to a vast intelligence. They are studying my body, my night body, my hybrid body, a phase space, a little night music.
The entity reads off the code telepathically, in an unknown language, sharing cognitive frameworks with a vast network of unseen agents, with multiple, hidden agendas. I don’t know how I know this. But I know this. I am more curious than I am afraid. They communicate with tones.
“Can you speak English?” I ask the invisible entity.” I want to remember this.”
“He is awake.” A voice, which sounds computer-generated, speaks. “All biological processing appears to be normal, and will continue to be normal. All organs and glands are functioning normally; heart action, respiration, assimilation, digestion, circulation are normal and will continue to be normal.”
My eyes are closed but I can sense that I am stuck in the in-between, what some would call the bardo, the crack in the cosmic egg. They are trying to make the passage easier, as hands move with precision across my spine and hover behind my physical heart. The voice goes from the highly cognitive into a more affective tone. “Flow,” the voice chants. “Flow…flow….” An electrical charge moves, from his fingers, through my spine, feeling like the prick of an acupuncture needle, bringing both pain and pleasure at the same time.
“Who are you?” I ask. A white noise, a spinning without motion, a sense of vertigo, like when you come home drunk and collapse into bed, a difference in scale. “Are you a teacher? Can you teach me something?”
“No,” the voice responds. “But you can teach us something.”
I wait for instructions. Words mean little, but the auditory digital habit is hard for me to give up. I seek explanations when there are none to be had. A blue light appears in the visual field. It pulses on and off. “We want to study your brain,” the voice says, and I silently consent. “Look at the blue light.” I gaze upon the blue light. The blue light becomes a beam which goes directly into my physical brain and moves in a circle-eight fashion from ear to ear, then steadies into the center of my cranium. I feel a wave of fear. “All finished.”
“But who are?” I ask, destabilizing the experiment.
“I am you,” the voice says, humanly. “We are the Night.”
“But how can you be me?” Words, words, words, huge volumes of dictionaries swirl meaningless content as I struggle with the neuro-semantics of this moment.
“Because,” the voice says, carefully, as if speaking to a lost soul. “We share the same heart. And you are not the body—you are the Night. You are one of us.”
“I want to see you,” I say, fearful of ancient warnings about seeing the Face of God.
Without warning, I lift up and out of the physical, out of the matrix, into an empty white space and view below me a wide spectrum of violent acts, wars, murders, famines, which shakes me profoundly. This parade of violence intensifies into an act of overwhelming horror: I witness a mother with an axe chop up her innocent children.
“Who has created this?” I protest in anger.” Who created this dream? Who is the dreamer of this dream?”
“I am,” a commanding male voice comments from behind and above me. I turn around slowly in my still-human shape, with a front and a back, a left and a right. I share with the voice an up and a down but I am fighting to maintain a structure, a human structure in the midst of anti-structural energetics. He shimmers, a blue-black image, and smiles. “You control the horizontal, we control the vertical.” I settle down, the spinning stops. We are in synch, attuned.
I am speechless, floating in the void, beholding a shimmering, transparent, naked, black man without organs, a God form, with a blue flame in the center of his head. Attracted and repelled by this mysterious figure, I find words. “But why the violence?” I cry out in despair.
“Because,” the Black Man says, “I love the drama. It is beautiful.” He smiles slyly. “And who are you that you can ask such a question?”
I am being seduced and my resistance is weakening, my moral sense lessening. He is beautiful, and he is beyond good and evil. But I am not. I feel the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and here, in this in-between, without foundation, floating in a white void with a black God form with a nihilistic kind of charm, I fear madness. That way madness lies.
He says, “Do you see the blue flame in the center of my head?”
My right dream hand passes through his transparent head, and with my extended index finger, I touch the blue flame and feel the human and the other-than-human converging, as a blue light flows into my night body. “Do you like it?” he asks with sadistic pleasure.
“Yes! Yes! Yes!” I cry out in ecstatic agony.
“Then take this.” The intensity is too great to maintain subject/object duality. “Give up form.” But I don’t want to become sugar—I want to eat sugar. I want to worship God but I don’t want to become God. Above me is an ocean of bliss and, as I merge with that semen-colored, moon-colored ocean of orgasmic bliss, I hear Peggy Lee singing, Is that all there is? Is that all there is? If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing, let’s break out the booze and have a ball, if that’s all there is….
And then before I enter that zone of bliss, I resist and recall all the lonely people, back there, down there, in the bars, the pool halls, all those little people in the dark, the drunks, the frauds, the fools; and, instantly embraced by a thought form, I fall, back down into the chaos, back toward planet earth, that little blue pearl floating in the middle of nowhere, toward the human body.
I am moving at a great velocity, down, down, down, confused. My thoughts and feelings blur. I am in a crib somewhere on my back looking up at the light coming through dirty windows. My child mind contemplates the body. How many fingers do I have? How many toes? And if your right side floats off, which side is left? Which side is right? And do you have a right to know which is left and which is right? I hear wind chimes and see the flower print of the wallpaper.
Then I grow up into a man’s body. Back to the human zone, to the world of form, to the world of objects, to the infinite horizon, to the force of gravity, to coffee and chocolate, to a shared reality, which we share with the birds and the reptiles….
But I remember something as I lie on my back and breathe deeply, slowly, a tear streaming down my face. I remember that the Sons of Shakti and Shiva are returning, the Children of Kali; we control the vertical, we control the horizontal, we will marry heaven and hell, we have lifted the veil of Isis, we have flown over the rainbow where blue birds fly. And we are coming to your house.
We are going to burn down the house, baby, we are going to burn down the cornfields, we are going to make love among those flaming fields, we are going to make love while they are burning, burning—
Manhattan, Saturday night, 1995. I cranked up the music and prepared to go out. Slipping into my other persona, I tried to admire myself in the mirror. “Live fast, die young,” I told my reflection. I changed into some Calvin Klein khaki shorts and a white t-shirt. Lacing up my combat boots, I felt euphoric. Time to go out, time to let go, time to get down.
Up on the roof, I finished my cocktail as I viewed the hot, red sunset. I watched pedestrians and traffic down below. Geared up for a night on the town, bored rock stars roamed the streets in dark limos looking for sex and drugs. Men in tuxedos and women in couture hung out on the stoops next to bag ladies and thieves, as a big banner in red letters advertised the Contemporary Dance Festival at St. Mark’s Church. The intelligentsia had gathered outside the Church to smoke cigarettes. Tiny galleries full of bad art offered free wine and cheese to the art fags as the drug dealers hawked their stuff openly on the street.
“Kiss my black ass!” some drunk yelled. Some asshole played the drums in an apartment down in the courtyard. “Shut the fuck up or I’ll call the police!” someone screamed from a window.” I finished my drink. The cacophony downstairs made me giddy with excitement, ready, willing, and able to join the human comedy. I was determined to stop in the Locker Room first to say hi to my old friend Barry, the cutest bartender in the East Village.
Quickening my pace, feeling the menace of the big city all around me, I noticed that everyone out tonight was wearing as little as possible. I loved it. Perspiring slightly, I paused at St. Mark’s Place, waiting for a car of heckling kids from New Jersey to pass.
“Hey mister,” a dirty young woman, sitting on a blanket, growled at me. “Why do you faggots all look alike?” I ignored her. Before the light turned green, I started walking away. “Why don’t you faggots go back to faggot land!” she screeched.
“You’re in faggot land, you stupid bitch!” I yelled back at her, quickly dodging a speeding cab. I opened the door to the Locker Room. Enveloped in cool shadow I sat in my regular place at the end of the bar. The bartender was my best friend, Barry, who gave me a sloppy kiss. He was wearing a tank top, revealing his washboard abs.
“Hi, Kensey, what’s up?” Barry greeted me with a wide grin on his handsome face. “I have to tell you about this guy I picked up last night.” He winked at me and made a gesture that meant we would talk later, as he was swamped with the first wave of customers.
I sipped the vodka he poured and enjoyed the air conditioning. Scanning the bar, I noticed that nasty queen Carlo hustling this tall black guy I’d never seen before. The black guy was wearing slacks, a white shirt with a button down collar, open at the neck, the sleeves rolled up, and a gold cross around his neck. He wasn’t listening to Carlo. His eyes wandered across the bar and met mine as I cocked my head to one side and nodded my head to the beat of the music. A smile played upon his features and I returned his gaze, feeling hopeful, feeling asymmetrical, leaning to one side. I nodded my head ever so slightly. He disentangled himself from Carlo and moved down to my end of the bar.
“Hi,” I said, feeling his big warm hand in mine, “I’m Kensey.”
“Joseph,” he said with a deep voice. “You live around here?”
He glanced down at my thunder thighs and smiled, as if we shared a dirty secret. He said he was from out of town. He offered to buy me another drink. By the second round, he was resting his hand on my thigh. By the third round, his knee was pressed against my crotch. By the fourth round, I was calling him Joey. I figured it was a smooth, easy pick-up, from out of town, gone tomorrow, no regrets. We made small talk; he seemed like a nice guy, stable, working class, in a hurry. He excused himself and went to the bathroom.
“I met this real weirdo last night,” Barry said, turning his baseball cap around and shouting over the music. “He’s a proctologist. He’s into kink and raunch.” Barry, a blonde, blue-eyed devil, still had, at the age thirty-eight, one of the best bodies and filthiest minds in town. I adored him. I leaned forward, eager to dish the dirt. Other customers were listening, too. Barry loved to perform. “Met him at a happy hour at the Lash. He invited me over to his place. We get into the cab and he whips out his huge piece! Well, I was a little stoned and drunk so I got down to work. I love cab sex. A bus drove past; all of these little yentas were pointing their fingers at us as I went down on him in the back seat. It’s a long, long ride up to Harlem.”
“Was he black?” I asked. Barry gave me a naughty look. “Who paid for the cab?”
“He did,” Barry said, loudly, so that all the customers could hear. “He takes me upstairs to his huge apartment, leopard skin rugs, grand piano, mirrors everywhere. He starts acting real mean. Calls me his bitch. Wants to act rough. Gets into this black master, white slave routine, which I find so tired.”
“The lady doth protest too much!” said the English professor, the one with the fruity Oxford accent.
“What kind of role model is he anyway?” Barry asked, while he mixed the professor a martini. “He’s a medical doctor for Christ sake, up all night, smoking, drinking, whoring, acting like a sadist. Goes into his office the next morning and sticks proctoscopes into people’s asses all day!”
“Nice work if you can get it,” said the professor as he sipped the martini. We all laughed. He left Barry a big tip and wandered off to the pool table. I was looking around the bar for Joey. I hoped he hadn’t left. His bag was still under his stool. I watched anxiously.
“I don’t know if I’ll see him again.” Barry poured himself a shot and gulped it down. He leaned over toward me and said, confidentially, “It’s just more of the same top bottom rigid patriarchal bullshit with racial overtones. Who needs that?”
“We do,” I said. Joey reappeared, headed my way.
“Who’s your hot date?” Barry asked. “I’ve never seen him before.”
“He’s from Philly. I’ll tell you about him tomorrow.”
Barry walked away, giving us privacy.
“What’s your name again?” Joey asked, leaning against me.
“Kensey Jones.” I slurred my words slightly. He placed a hand on my thigh. He put his other hand on the small of my back. “Let’s go back to my place shall we?” I waved goodbye to Barry. He blew me a kiss.
As we walked back to my apartment, I learned that Joey’s stride was wider than mine, that he was a couple of inches taller, that he liked to play basketball in his spare time, and that he was an auto mechanic. He ran his own garage, after serving in the army as a drill sergeant. He recoiled from my touch.
“Don’t hold hands,” he said. “Not in public.” I noticed the bit of gray in his goatee, spreading to his short crinkly hair around the temples. I guessed he was an old-fashioned, straight-acting hipster. I had a soft spot for these hard guys. I imagined that underneath the tough exterior was a poet, a social activist, someone good, but I was usually wrong. “Where are you from?”
“Texas,” I said proudly, “but I’m a New Yorker now. I’ve been living here a long time.”
“A Texan.” He smirked. “How old are you?”
“Thirty-three.” The same age, I thought, that my mother was when she died, the same age as Christ when he died on the cross. “How about you?”
“I’m turning forty next month. An old man—”
“Yo, Kensey!” A guy I knew shouted my name from across the street. “You go girl!” He gave me the thumbs up sign. I waved back at him.
“Looks like you got a reputation.” Joey said, his tone souring, tense, on edge.
“I get around.” I opened the front door, cautious, careful. “Five flights up.” As I climbed the steep stairs I felt his body heat right behind mine. When I opened the door we were both out of breath.
“Nice ass,” he said.
“Gee, thanks.” I got the door open, turned on the overhead fan, and assumed I would be getting fucked. I had already prepared for that, had the condoms and lube in a drawer near the couch. “Sorry I got no air conditioning. It broke.”
Sitting back on my black leather couch, Joey looked even bigger than he did on the street. He took off his sandals and put his bare feet on my coffee table. He had a scar on the sole of his right foot that looked like an exploding star. I wondered what he must have stepped on to get a scar like that. The purr of the overhead fan softened the street noise. I turned up the music. Etta James was singing, I want a Sunday kind of Love. Joey acted like Pimp Daddy Cool. A real tough guy, as if he owned the place. He unbuttoned his shirt. I knelt beside him on the floor. I put my hand on his knee. He nodded his head. He had another scar across his forehead. I reached over and touched it.
“Where did you get a scar like that?”
“Someone threw a TV set at me,” he scowled.
” Impressive,” I said. God only knows the trouble he’s seen.
“So you’re into black guys?” He leaned his head back on a pillow, looking at me through lowered lids.
“No, baby, I think black guys are into me.”
“You just want a black guy to fuck your ass?”
“Is that a problem for you?”
“No problem,” he said, spreading his legs wide open. “No problem at all. Do you want me to give it to you nice and easy or do you want me to really take you?”
“Okay,” I said. I knew this script really well.
I moved the coffee table out of the way. I held his stiffness. I unzipped him. His cock was a bit crooked. Then I proceeded to deep-throat him. A nice cross-breeze lifted the thin curtain like Kim Novak’s scarf in Vertigo. He was gazing out the window, not paying attention to my excellent service. The twin towers of the World Trade Center rose like a mirage above the roofs of the dingy tenements. The red light on the top of one of their giant antennae winked on and off as a yellow moon, almost full, came too near the earth.
“Can your neighbors see us?” he asked, distracted by the view.
I pulled off his dick to gasp, “I hope so.” I accepted with pride my own surrender to his big black cock. I felt all those eyes out there, watching us, silently, imagining hooded members of the Ku Klux Klan, staring at us through their binoculars with a sense of envy and outrage. His shirt was off and I felt that hard body, tense body, lonely body, his body, my body, blending, his pants around his ankles. He had long, strong legs, his legs, my legs, getting tangled together, with a smell of talcum powder, a taste of vodka. He reached over and squeezed my ass.
“Take off your pants,” he whispered.
“Yes, sir.” I said, in my best southern drawl, playing the new recruit. I pulled off my Calvin Kleins.
“Turn around,” he commanded, playing the drill sergeant. “Bend over. Spread those cheeks. Are you clean, soldier?”
“Yes sir,” I said, starting to get into it.
He ate out my ass. He slapped my ass. With a wet finger he probed me. He put on a condom, squeezed out the lube. I took it all inside me just like a pro. He looked towards my bedroom. With his sex inside me, he carried me in his arms, like a sleepy child to the bedroom. My arms around his neck, floating, he lowered me down on the bed like he was doing squats at the gym. I tasted his sweat, smelled his industrial strength deodorant. He turned away from my kiss.
“You’re white, I’m black,” he said, thrusting into me, expressing his pent-up male rage.
“White men have the power, I’m fucking a white man.” I moaned and acted like I enjoyed it.
He pulled out and shot his load on my chest. He collapsed across my body like someone who’d been shot. We were quiet, breathing the same breath. “Put your arms around me,” he said. I obeyed. Then he started to cry. He cried softly. I felt his hot tears spill onto my neck. “I’m sorry,” he said, like an actor who had forgotten his lines. I stroked the hard muscles of his back as his tears dropped onto my chest. “You’re a nice guy,” he said, “and I’ve been treating you like shit.”
“I’m used to it. I don’t take it personal.” I held him till he stopped crying. I knew why he wept. He was grieving for someone he loved.
I went into the bathroom, rinsed off his semen and tears. I asked the Peggy Lee question, while looking at myself, bleary-eyed in the mirror. ‘Is that all there is? I wondered. ‘Is that all there is to love?‘ I wrung out a washcloth. I got a glass of water. I went back into the bedroom. “I can’t see you in the dark,” I whispered.
Turning on a lamp, I startled the pitch-black Zulu warrior, reclining on the white cotton sheets. I handed him the glass of water. He drank it. He put the glass on the table. Feeling like the Good Samaritan, I washed him off with the cool washcloth.
“Thank you,” he said. He looked up at me, watching carefully.
“You’re a nice guy,” he repeated. His breathing had returned to normal, his trembling lids closed softly over those sad eyes. His face now looked as serene as the young Buddha in blissful meditation. The crucifix on his coal-black skin flashed fiery gold in the lamplight. He opened his eyes slowly. He reached over, stroked my cock. “You haven’t come yet.”
“Do you want me to?” I asked, whispering as if we were in church.
The roles were reversed. Joey was on bottom. I folded him in my arms, suddenly grateful to him for giving himself to me. What beauty in that gesture. I kissed his crucifix before I moved upwards with my tongue to praise the graceful curve of his throat, his ears, his lips. He liked to kiss after all. He turned onto his stomach. My tongue slid down his back, to the base of his spine, got him wet.
“You won’t hold my hand in public,” I taunted him, “but will you let a white boy fuck your ass?”
“Easy, baby. Easy.”
I entered him slowly, wrapped my arms around him. He felt like a sleek and slippery dolphin. I rode him, Zen-like, slowly and gently, across still, sparkling waters, hearing soft, percussive sounds, faraway voices inside my mind, floating, distant from shore. Pulled down into the center of him, coming back to planet earth, gravity-bound and heavy, on top of him, sweating, I finished with a cry. The little death. We were still. His breathing almost stopped. I studied his face. A dream child, drooling on the pillow, he wasn’t back home yet. He was still in that other world.
“Marry me,” he mumbled, half asleep. “Marry me.”
“Okay,” I said, kissing him. “I’ll marry you.” I pulled out of him, tossed the wet condom on the floor, wrapped the sheet around him and turned off the lamp. I watched the darkness, the darkness that I loved, the darkness that set me free every night, the darkness I knew before I had a name, the darkness before the Big Bang.
I got up early the next morning and did my yoga while Joey slept. I was sitting on my cushion in a lotus pose, when Joey walked sleepily into the living room.
“Hey, Kensey. What’s up?”
I opened my eyes. “I’m meditating.”
“Are you a Buddhist?”
“No. I’m into stress management. I’m studying to be a yoga teacher.”
“That’s cool,” he said. “Can you teach me how to relax?”
“Maybe,” I said.
He looked through my books and CDs as I made coffee. He put on some jazz while I scrambled some eggs. We shared the paper. He read the sports section. I read the movie reviews. I watched the expression on this handsome stranger’s face, his muscular mechanic’s arms folded across his broad chest. I got a feeling of deja vu.
He looked up. “Yeah?” he said. “What are you thinking?”
“Nothing,” I said, changing my mind. Now was not the time to give away my secret. A wave of shyness overcame me. “Last night, you asked me to marry you.”
“I did?” he said, evading me. “I was drunk, man. We were having sex.” He swaggered, “You didn’t believe me, did you?”
“No,” I said. “I didn’t believe you.”
“Don’t know why,” he said, now avoiding my gaze. “I got so sad. That happens when I drink. Don’t like to drink. I hate the bars.” For a second he looked uncertain—vulnerable. I just waited. He asked the million-dollar question. “You got a boyfriend?”
“Not really.” I shrugged my shoulders. I tried to overcome my reluctance. “How about you? Got a lover? Is that who you were crying about?”
“Not anymore,” he said, changing the subject real fast. “Man, I like the way you look. You look fine. I had a good time last night.”
“Me, too.” I returned his compliment and invited him to the movies. I was relieved when he said yes. It was a Sunday kind of love.
As we stood in line, waiting for tickets, he stood a discreet distance away from me. I couldn’t understand his stiff aloofness. I guessed he was kind of closeted back in Philly. I noticed looks of envy from other gay men. It would be obvious to most New Yorkers that we had just slept together.
Sitting side by side in the dark theater, he lost some of his reserve. We had eaten all the popcorn. The movie was almost over. While watching Bruce Willis beat up a lot of people in an orgy of violence, Joey’s large, warm hand slipped into mine, as casual as a big posh car sliding smoothly into a suburban driveway.
It was a warm but breezy afternoon. We walked around, not talking much. I took him to the lake in Central Park, near sunset, and we sat on the big rocks at its edge as the sky turned fuchsia. I admired his strong profile. Joey sent a pebble skimming across the surface of the lake. Surrounded by cackling ducks, we didn’t talk much, but I dared to hope again.
We walked to the Port Authority without saying a word. I gave him my business card and asked him to give me a call. I saw he had an urge to kiss me but he stopped himself. We were out in public. He offered his hand. I held it a little longer than necessary, feeling its weight, its strength, its weakness. He climbed onto the bus. I watched him find a seat and throw his shoulder bag into the overhead compartment. I waited for the bus to pull out. We waved goodbye to each other.
Joey didn’t call. My expectations faded into disappointment, which I protected myself from as best I could. I pretended I didn’t care, berated myself for being a romantic fool, persuaded myself that I was a single man and always would be, that I didn’t need any of that kid stuff, but I was lying to myself. I missed him, seemed to see him everywhere. Whenever I saw a black man with Joey’s build, my heart skipped a beat, just like love-sick Jimmy Stewart as he searched the sad streets for every blonde babe who looked like Kim Novak. He wasn’t just a man. Joey had become, against my will, a symbol for something, but what?
He had asked me to marry him. That was it. Somewhere in the back of my mind, there was always Joey, because he had asked me to marry him. No one had ever asked me that before. The question stirred up a controversy within me that was ancient as it was deep. We couldn’t get married, we couldn’t be normal people, and shouldn’t even try. “Marry me,” he had cried. Pedro would have told me to be careful.
Those summer nights, up on the crooked roof of my building, I’d listen to the hum of the downtown traffic and dream of Joey out there somewhere in the vast cosmic ocean. I’d find a star and focus until my mind became still. I closed my eyes and imagined being with Joey again. Opening my eyes, I returned with a dazed feeling, not knowing where I’d gone, not sure of where I was. In angry desperation at Joey for not calling, I decided to go out and find some rough trade, someone with a swagger and a strong build, someone to make me angry, someone that I would throw out of the house for stealing money out of my pants pockets. I sought out sex without love as much as possible, but somehow the desire for love kept coming back to me. Marry me. Fuck that shit. Marry me. Marry me.
“Who’s OJ?” I asked the bartender who was fixated on the TV.
“OJ Simpson,” he answered. “Football star. Won the Heisman trophy back in the sixties—”
“I’m a faggot,” I said. “What do I know about football?”
“Killed his wife. Just happened. Been on the news all day.” The bartender mumbled what sounded like “white chick.” We watched OJ being led into custody, on the loud TV screen.
“Too bad,” I replied. “He’s really cute. “I felt the burn of the cheap tequila hit my stomach.
“He was my hero.” A fat black queen at the other end of the bar had overheard what I said. “I had a big crush on him.” He slumped forward, knocked over his beer bottle. Grabbing the bottle, half of it spilled, he barked at the bartender,” He ain’t guilty till he’s proven innocent. You white motherfuckers want to lynch him. Turn that shit off. I had to watch that shit all day. I’m here to have me some fun—” The black queen stumbled over to the jukebox, dropped a coin in the slot, and selected a song. The bartender switched to the porn channel, where naked men made love to one another in a misty locker room.
Boy now go, walk out the door, don’t come around here, you’re not welcome anymore. The diva’s voice filled the bar. The fat black queen mouthed her words.
The bartender wiped up the spill at the other end of the bar. Alone at this end, I enjoyed the defiant lyrics. I watched the fat queen, slightly drunk, move to the music, her big bulk shaking like jello.
“I love this song,” he said, to no one in particular. “My coming out song.” He laughed to himself.
I gazed out the grimy window to view the building across the street, where the unmarked door of the Bijou swung open, and a parade of men and boys kept going in and out of it.
Turning my attention back to the dimly lit bar, I watched the homeboys play pool. One player, a gangly youth with baggy pants, glanced my way, scratched his balls, yawned. No action here. I’d rather be across the street.
I will survive, sang the diva bitterly, as long as I know how to love….
I don’t want to survive, I thought to myself, I want to get off the wheel of samsara. I want to share the merit of my meditation with all sentient beings.
Sighing deeply, I closed my eyes, and recited my mantra, silently to myself, resting on the cool ocean of bliss, beneath the scattered debris stirred up by my monkey mind. I felt the earth beneath me, big, black, formless, holding me softly. The noises faded, as I turned inward. Looking into that darkness, darkness that the blind do see, I wanted to sink into that shimmering blackness, to disappear, to fade far away into the forest dim—
“Hey pal,” the bartender said. “You can’t sleep in here.”
“I’m not sleeping,” I said. “I’m meditating.”
“Whatever,” he said. “You want another beer?”
“No,” I said, “not yet. I’m waiting for a friend.” He discarded my empty bottle, walked away with indifference, and joined the cluster of men at the other end of the bar, watching the TV screen.
A man, his skin the color of deep dark chocolate, crossed the room. I remembered Joey. He smiled, leaned across the bar. “Where were you tonight?” he asked in a Jamaican accent. He checked out my coat and tie. “Just got off work?”
“Work at home,” I said, feeling overdressed in this sleazy pool hall. “Massage therapist.”
“Oh,” he said, “is that so? I got a pain in my back—”
“Strictly legit,” I said. I handed him my business card. He glanced at the card, “I work uptown, downtown, all around town.” He put my card in his back pocket. “Tonight I was at Carnegie Hall,” I explained. “One of my clients gave me a free ticket. I should have gone straight home, but here I am. Feeling restless.”
“Are you a bottom?”
“I’m going to the Bijou,” he said. “Meet me there.”
I watched him walk out the bar. I reached into the fish bowl of condoms on the bar, took a handful, put them in my back pocket. To be or not to be at the Bijou, that was the big question.
I still had some vague hope, that if I sat at the end of the bar I’d meet Joey again. If I found him, I wouldn’t need the Bijou—that big ugly sex cave, full of slithering reptiles—but it was too late for me to turn back now. I was on my feet, unsteady, walking a thin line toward the door. I was off to the snake pit. I felt a pang of sweet regret. I paused, my hand on the door, having second thoughts.
I wanted the kind of love that smells as fresh as a newborn baby, but I knew with a cold despair that I was destined for the Bijou, and that the next morning I would smell like cigarette smoke and stale beer.
Without much confidence, I walked out the door of the bar, smelling the hot fumes from the street. I crossed the street, wishing that I had stayed on that cool bar stool. I opened the door of the Bijou and got a whiff of the poppers coming up the steep stairs. On the walls were tacky posters from old Broadway musicals. At the foot of the stairs were a large potted plant and a glass booth, simulating the lobby of a dentist’s office. From behind the glass booth, a guy read a newspaper in Arabic. He had luscious eyes and full lips, but you could tell from his dull expression that he was hetero. I plunked my money down. We didn’t look at each other.
The Arab guy buzzed me in. I felt the bars of the turnstile against my pelvis give way as I crossed over onto the other side, feeling expansive, wide open, ready for adventure, with none of that chit-chat bullshit you have to put up with at the bars. I took a moment to stuff my money in my shoe, just in case, wary of the pickpockets.
I entered the labyrinth of hallways, a maze of doorways gaping wide into narrow cubicles the size of small closets, rooms large enough for two men to have stand-up sex. A small bench allowed one man to sit, if he chose. There were many men that were so used to such cramped spaces that they didn’t like to have sex lying down. I saw some guys I knew. We pretended not to notice each other. If you were out to have anonymous sex, it was polite to pretend that you didn’t know anybody, but you still knew them and they still knew you.
Men standing in dark corners feigned indifference, men in the doorways rubbed their cocks, men sat down in the dark and snored with mouths wide open. Tall men, short men, ugly and beautiful, beardless youths, hairy old men, working class men who worked in the deli, corporate lawyers putting their kids through college. Asians, blacks, Hispanics, tourists, the healthy and the infirm and the crazy. We are the hungry ghosts. I am no better and no worse that anyone down here.
I saw Father Andrew in a sweat suit and sneakers talking to some troll at the end of the hallway. I avoided him. He was the last person I wanted to see in a place like this. I leaned against the wall and watched the porn flick. It was in French. A pretty Parisian boy was gangbanged by muscular brutes. I watched with fascinated disgust. That pretty boy, who was gangbanged, had a mother who loved him.
“You are looking for me?” the Jamaican whispered in my ear.
For a brief moment, we were young lovers. I felt the joy of instant gratification. He took me by the hand and led me through the maze to an empty cubicle. He locked the door behind us. A naked red bulb created a lurid glow. We kissed. He pulled off his shorts and t-shirt, leaving only his socks and shoes on, the floor sticky with cum. I snorted the poppers he offered me. He fondled me, loosened my tie, unbuttoned my pants. We knelt down before each other and took turns sucking each other’s cocks. His was huge. I closed my eyes, trying to concentrate on my sensations, as I had at the concert, letting the meaning of the music happen without trying to force it. He lifted me off my knees. He turned me around, unwrapped the condom. He tried to penetrate me but was too big.
“Don’t want to hurt you,” he said. He turned around, moved his ass towards me.
We switched roles. I slapped on the rubber. He faced the wall and took a quick inhale as I entered him carefully from behind. The exclamations of other copulating men created a rising power in me, bonded as I was with all those other lonely men out there in the dark. We were thrown through space like Lucifer into the fiery pit, burning, scalding, into the center of the sodomy circle. God roared, Let there be light! Us cocksuckers cried out, Fuck you, God! We love the dark!
The Jamaican moaned, thrashed like a man in the electric chair, and spilled his seed on the concrete floor. I pulled out of him. We put on our clothes.
We sat on the couch in the lounge area, held hands and watched TV. Cops and robbers. Car chases. Shrill screams. Bloody corpses. I watched his passive face in the flickering blue light.
“I thought you were going to fuck me,” I said tenderly, trying to prolong the moment. “But I fucked you instead.”
“It was a good fit,” he said in a flat tone.
He kissed me on the lips, rose to his feet, moved lightly through the exit door. I waited for a minute then felt panicked. Fighting off my disappointment, I followed him through the exit door. I looked for the Jamaican, hoping that he waited for me somewhere in the shadows, but the street was empty.
The gray morning light crept over the old tenement buildings as a garbage truck growled, devouring mounds of trash. Heavy black plastic bags, stacked in the back alley, were being heaved into the truck’s gaping mouth by weary-looking men. I stepped on a used condom, kicked a broken bottle, and cried out, “Joey!” I felt the presence of all the men that got away. A fat rat scurried into the corner of the stinking side street.
Deeply troubled, I walked the desolate downtown streets to visit Father Quinn. Avoiding well-lit streets with crowded cafes, I traveled the back streets, where the homeless were gathered, huddled in the cold. It began to rain. Glancing furtively over my shoulder to be sure I wasn’t seen, I slipped into the entrance of the rectory.
Searching under the mat, I found the secret key, and opened the front door. I walked past the empty reception desk and down the pitch-black corridors. Then I paused, afraid I’d taken a wrong turn. It was a relief to hear the tinkling of Father Quinn’s harpsichord in the distance. I approached his door, left slightly ajar, and listened for a few seconds before I slipped in. The room was warm and dim. I closed the door, shook off my raincoat and hung it on the coat rack behind the door.
Having warmed my hands at the fireplace, I sat down and waited. He was playing a slow passage from Bach’s Goldberg Variations. The elegant syntax of the music contrasted with the chaos of the wind and rain beyond the grimy windows. I loved the sounds of both and tried to hold them in my mind at the same time. Andrew stopped playing and came out of the music, the way a great actor removes his make-up after a demanding performance. He sat adjacent to me in a high backed chair.
“That was beautiful, Andrew.” We were on a first name basis. Although he was close to me in age, I liked to treat him as if he were advanced in wisdom. He was a handsome man, a red-haired Irishman with a slim build. I was not attracted to him, though he did make frequent passes at me. His attraction created a great deal of cognitive dissonance.
He acknowledged my compliment and waited. Gazing into the flames in the fireplace, the crisp crackle of the wood, I watched the images take shape in my mind, gather force, swirl into view.
“I feared that I had died,” I said, uncertain of how I could put the experience into words, “That I was left in this limbo, this halfway house for the recently departed. I walk around this place and found on a desk a piece of paper and a pen. I write my name, Kensey Jones Jr., and watch the words disappear. I look into a mirror and there is no reflection looking back at me. I wonder if I’ve turned into a vampire. One of the hungry ghosts. Then I see the knob of the door begin to turn. Three hoodlums appear ready to jump me. I grab a sword and chop off their heads. Their heads shrivel like balloons filled with hot air, letting out loud flatulent noises.” I paused, uncertain how to proceed. “It’s hard to describe.” A strange sigh came out of me, “I cross through an open door and enter a hallway. There is a wide door. I call out, ‘Where am I?’ My voice seems to have altered, as if it didn’t come from my location but is evenly distributed throughout this big space. I enter a room which has no ceiling. Gathered on the floor are hundreds of black women, kneeling, washing the floor, silent. I ask one of them, ‘Excuse me, miss. I need help. Can you tell me where we are?’ She remains silent. I asked her, ‘Can you direct me to a teacher?’ Again, she says nothing. I get down on my knees and take her face in both my hands and look into deep sad eyes and say,’ I love you.’ Those are the magic words. She points her finger over my shoulder. I turn around slowly and see a giant black woman. She is an angel.”
“And how do you know that?”
“The way she looks. Her presence is huge. She’s radiant and highly intelligent. I cry out,’ Help me, help me.’ I hear organ music; I float into the air. Behind her is an altar with a plastic Jesus, a red light bulb in his chest flickering on and off as she speaks. It’s in a musical language that echoes in my head. I ask her if she could speak in English. She has to turn down her vibration to do so. She asks, ‘How did you get here?’ I say that I don’t know. I ask her, ‘Do you know where I’m from?’ She says, ‘You’re from planet Earth.’ I ask, ‘Have you been there before?’ ‘Many times,’ she says. ‘You take the God stuff way too far,’ she warns me,’ ‘I’m on a much higher plane than you are but we don’t think about God that much, nor should you. We’ve got work to do. And so do you. Your job is to be a human being. Go back to planet Earth where you belong. Forget about all this God stuff.’ She put her hands on my head. It’s like a bolt of lightning. Then I’m falling at a high speed through black space, a luminous black space until I see a tiny planet, like a blue pearl floating in a black void. As I enter the stratosphere I feel my self float light as a feather toward the earth’s surface. I see the United States, I see my neighborhood in Texas, and I see the backyard of the house I lived in when my mother was still alive. I am on a cross, crucified in my own back yard but free of pain. I am in ecstasy. I cry out, ‘Mama, mama, I’ve had a vision.’ My mother appears in the kitchen door, drying her hands on a towel. I say, ‘It wasn’t a dream, it was a vision. The kind of vision that mystics have had throughout the ages. I can’t speak of it—I go into unspeakable bliss—for I am within and beyond all worlds, including this one. It’s impossible. Yet the desire to express it is strong. It’s my mission in life, and I know I shall never fulfill it.’ My mother looks at me sadly. She says, ‘That sounds just awful.’ She scolds me like I’m a schoolboy. ‘It’s time for you to do your homework.’ I returned fully into my physical body, as an adult in my bedroom in Manhattan. I walked around all day feeling disoriented, laughing, and crying. What’s happening to me, Andrew?”
“Would you like some sherry?”
“No thanks, I’m giving up drinking.”
“That’s a mistake.” He poured the amber liquid into two glasses and handed one to me. He raised his glass. “Cheers,” he said. I enjoyed the sweet warmth of the liquor going down. “How is your boyfriend, what’s his name?”
“Joey,” I said. “I’m going down to Philly to spend Thanksgiving with him and his family.”
“Good. You should have lots of sex with Joey. Help you stay grounded. Give up meditation for a while. You don’t need it.”
“But I love my meditation—”
“Follow the black angel’s advice. You have taken this God stuff way too far. I should know. I’m a priest. Look what it’s done to me.” His eyes had turned gray with pulsing red pupils, picking up the glow of the fire, like some wild nocturnal beast. “This too shall pass.”
“But I don’t want it to pass, I want to express it—I want to live it—”
“So wise, so young, do not live long,” he said sternly. “Let it go.” He rose from his chair and glanced out the window.” Stopped raining. Vanity. All is vanity. Many mystics, go to the office, the supermarket, surf the web and never go to church at all, or they end up sucking cock at the Bijou till the crack of dawn, which is what I intend to do tonight. Are you going uptown? Perhaps we can share a cab?”
“But Andrew, you can’t go dressed like that?” He was still in his priest uniform.
“Quite right,” he said. “I must get incognito.” He took off those heavy bible-black shoes and stepped into the bathroom, leaving the door open so I could see him sit on the toilet. He moaned. “My hemorrhoids are acting up again. Occupational hazard.”
He flushed the toilet. Washed up. I heard him talk from the bedroom as he got into his street clothes.
“Each man kills the thing he loves,” Andrew quoted, as he sauntered briskly over to the door and opened it. “After you.”
On the street, he looked quite mysterious in his black trenchcoat, like a detective in a film noir. He whistled for a taxi. After we got in, he gave the driver directions and sat back, his hands in his pockets, Quite handsome with his fine silver hair, I looked at my own reflection in the window as the dark city streets sped past and felt bewildered by my own anxious face.
The cab stopped in front of the Bijou. “I forgot my wallet,” Andrew said. “Can you loan me a few bucks?” I asked the driver, who broke a larger bill. When we got out of the cab I handed Father Andrew a twenty. “Are you coming too?” he asked.
“No,” I said, “I’m going to walk home from here.”
“Remember what I said.” The street lamps and the light drizzle created a swirling halo effect around his head.” Stay in your body, drink lots of alcohol and have lots of sex.”
“I promise.” I said, giving him a peck on the cheek. I watched him enter the unmarked door of the Bijou.
Andrew had become the guardian of my heart in the midst of the cold, gray city. I continued to walk through the city streets, aimless, observing the skeletons of the trees, almost stripped bare of leaves, wondering where all the sweet birds were. The streets had dried out after the rain but the cold had set in. I loved seeing the mist ride on my breath. I hoped to feel sleepy after the meal I’d had at the diner but felt, instead, wide awake, overstimulated by the beauty of the city at night. Thoughts raced through me. I vowed I would do my best to do as the Black Madonna had told me to. Be a human being, she had said.
I began to slow my pace and start the trek back home. The inner voices and perpetual dialogues ceased for a while. The bars had closed. The great city was spread out before me, almost deserted, except for the hopeless stragglers like myself, stirred up, unable to sleep. I walked the crooked pavement and imagined that Walt Whitman and Hart Crane had done the same, taking refuge in the shadows while waiting for the stranger. It was a city of drunken poets, dreamers, and hungry ghosts.
In front of my building, there was a homeless guy searching through a dumpster. He had pulled out computer parts, bottles, and old clothes, and had put them in black hefty bags and piled them onto a shopping cart. He was a black guy with a lighter-than-average complexion and long, kinky, wild hair and a missing front tooth, which reminded me of a cartoon character that had peed in a light socket when he grinned. I returned his smile. The sun would be coming up soon. Like two vampires, eager to return to the crypt, we acknowledged each other’s presence. I began hunting for my keys before I noticed that he was looking down at my crotch.
“I’m no faggot,” he said in a childlike way. “I’m a man and you’re a man.” I found my keys and unlocked the door, but paused before I opened it.
“Where do you live?” I asked gently, the way you would talk to a child who had roamed beyond his neighborhood.
“I live in the Bronx,” he said. “With my daddy.”
“You live with your daddy?” I asked. The man seemed to be simple-minded.
“What are you doing out here on a night like this?”
“I don’t know,” he said, still looking at my crotch. “What are you looking for?”
” For God,” I said.
“You won’t find him here. Only the devil lives around here.” He pointed to the street and began to laugh. I laughed with him. The distance between us, I felt, was not so great. I felt he was safe. Besides, I needed some company, and it was cold outside.
“I’m a man and you’re a man,” I said, repeating his statement. “What do you like to do?”
“If I told you that,” he said, starting to laugh, “I take the chance that I’ll lose you.” I felt the presence of the black angel.
“Would you like to come in?”
“Someone might steal my stuff,” he said, looking up and down the deserted street. “Lots of devils live around here.”
“We can hide it in the hallway.”
He left the shopping cart and the hefty bags out in the hallway, like I’d suggested. Removing his boots before he came into my apartment, I imagined how confined he must have felt being indoors. It must have been like a foreign land to him. He started to undress. He took off ten layers of clothing (I counted them all), folded them neatly, and put them on a chair. I was spellbound by what I witnessed.
There before me, totally naked, the thick garments having been removed, was an exquisite physique, classically proportioned as you might see on one of the best dancers of the New York stage. His cock throbbed, stiffened. I wanted to fall on my knees and worship, but I didn’t. I stood there, staring, too stunned to move.
“You want to touch it?” he asked.
I moved closer to him, afraid he might smell bad, but he didn’t. I reached down and held his balls in my hand, weighed his massive testicles in the palm of my hand, pulled back the foreskin and saw twinkling dew at the tip of the head of his penis.
“A strong brown god,” I murmured.
“You got a dildo?” he asked bluntly. I fetched my dildo from a back closet. “Got some lube?” he asked, squeezing a blob of it onto his hand and applying it to the dildo. Then he got on his knees and sat on it before unzipping my pants and pulling my dick out. “Slap my ass,” he said. “Call me your bitch.” I leaned across his back as he put my cock in his mouth and slapped his ass. I took control of the dildo and moved it rhythmically in and out of his butt. “Yeah, man, give me a double whammy.” He came quickly, shooting a wad on some books I had on the floor. With a look of rapture, he pulled out the dildo, found a paper towel, wiped his ass with it, washed his hands and put back on the ten layers of clothing. How do I know this isn’t a dream? I asked myself, as I watched the prince put on his toad costume.
“You got a hat I could borrow?” he asked. “I lost mine.” I went into my closet and found a thick woolen hat that he pulled down around his ears. “Thanks. This is for you.” He handed me a stick of deodorant. I gratefully accepted his gift. To do otherwise would have been an insult.
“You can stay here if you like,” I said, pointing to the couch.
“Got business to tend to.” He was eager to get out of the confining space I offered him, so that he could be out under the night sky, enjoying the stars, looking for bargains that people had thrown out in the street. I felt for a moment his immense freedom. In my flesh I will see God. He retrieved his boots from the hallway, laced them up, and before he left, offered me an army salute. “Later, chief,” he said.
I closed the door, bolted it, cleaned up after him, and tossed the dildo into the wastebasket, feeling it would be sacrilegious to use it again. I lit a candle, collapsed on the floor, fully clothed, and wrapped a blanket around me. “My God, my God,” I whispered to the dark, “Why hast thou forsaken me?”
A flood of purple, then of gold, came through the curtains of the back windows and glazed the objects in the room; the old tenement buildings, turned radiant, shimmered, as in a fairy tale. The fat pigeons, perched on my fire escape, flapped their wings, ready to take their first morning flight.
The person who loves their dream of community will destroy community, but the person who loves those around them will create community.
In July 2015 I attended the Fourth International Integral Theory Conference, a four-day event hosted by the MetaIntegral Foundation, held at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, California—a congenial setting for a gathering of minds, though drought had parched the surrounding land of much of its green.
ITC is the premier academic conference for a global network of enthusiasts devoted to an intellectual framework called Integral Theory.
Most people don’t know what Integral Theory is—but even if you do—there’s no reason to flee if you don’t feel like geeking out with a treatise; this is not a theoretical paper. I’m not going to rehash the “four quadrants,” or “states and stages,” or the “eight methodological zones.” Nor will I examine MetaIntegral founder Sean Esbjorn-Hargen’s attempt to articulate an “Integral 2.0,” which proposes expanding the number of zones (to 24). I’m only mildly interested in the proper way of configuring the 2nd-person perspective (i.e., “you”) within an AQAL Matrix…although, not quite obliquely, this is precisely what my essay is about.
What follows is a story about the human dimension of ideas. It’s about the gifts—and limits—of a community founded upon a set of ideas. It’s about how our relationship to ideas can bring us together and rend us apart. In a way, it’s a simple love story. As a young man I fell in love with something called “integral.” Then I became disillusioned with that love. Then I found a deeper love, which had been there all along.
On the one year anniversary of the 2015 ITC—I reflect on what integral means to me now—and what I think is beyond integral, meta and otherwise.
I. Wine Country (2015)
I will resist indulging (but simply notice and observe) the impulse to gush. There is always a lovey-dovey feeling at these events where people who share a spiritual, creative, and intellectual passion for some conceptual object—in this case signified by the word “integral,” variously interpreted as an idea, a movement, a community, a brand, a meta-theory, a cultural ecosystem, a level of consciousness development within an onto-epistemological matrix by the same name…or just a signifier—where these almost-by-definition somewhat odd people get together in one place and interact; it feels good.
For me at least, there is a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood; of friendship, admiration, curiosity, desire, delight. There’s the presence of love. The event blossoms into a kind of metamorphic field or quasi-psychedelic state wherein, in all the quiet splendor of my weirdness, I can relax and “be myself”…with others. I empty and fill myself of interbeing. It’s an ecstatic experience, a feast of communion, and I end up falling in love with the people I get to have it with: in conversations over lunch, during academic presentations, or in the jubilance of bacchanal; modes of intercourse spill into each other. The event serves as an accelerant for a fermentation process that occurs between specific people, in specific ways, creating a density of hermeneutic pathways (ways of feeling one another) that become deeper, richer, sweeter, and more complex over time. The wine of intersubjectivity is glorious indeed.
While I prefer not to call it a “we space”—as if there’s precisely an us that agrees on who and what “we” (somewhat homogeneously) really are, and which would imply (however innocuously) a “them” outside ourselves—at the very least, swirling in the mix, there’s a tender, beautiful presence of that sense of I-Thou that Martin Buber inscribed into our discourse. I say “our discourse,” but I really just mean the space itself, before ‘I’s, ‘We’s, and ‘It’s get too defined….
Attending the conference was particularly significant for me, as it gave me an excuse to go on a three-week road-trip pilgrimage to the West Coast—visiting Idaho, Montana, Seattle, Vancouver (BC), the Oregon coast (with its gorgeous cliffs and breakers), Eugene and Ashland, Marin County, and the California Redwoods, before circling back home to my family in Colorado. Along the way, I reunited with old friends; met formerly only-Facebook friends; camped, hiked, swam in lakes, and wandered city streets; and finally, on the culminating night of my trip, had something of a religious experience, listening to old blues, folk, and country strummed on vintage guitars by a couple grizzled deadheads and libertarians I met (among twilight zone souls) in a bar in the dusty void of the Nevada desert.
Most of all I drove. I drove and I drove….
In a way, the whole journey was a return. I was reconnecting with a cast of characters, and revisiting a plane of conversation, I thought I might have left behind in my life. In fact I was sure I wasn’t interested in what “integral” had to say, even though the word itself, as a pure descriptor, still felt generally applicable to my work in the world. The reason I signed up for the conference was strictly for the people, I told myself. I had little if no interest in discussing theory. I wanted a chance to talk with individuals I could only encounter—in some practical, concentrated form—within the context of an explicitly “integral” event such as the ITC, octopusicly positioned between the worlds of philosophy, social science, business, the arts, academia, spirituality, political economy, and other relevant fields—an event whose underlying intention, as I understood it, was not merely to promote transdisciplinarity for transdisciplinarity’s sake, but to enact, through a principled combinatorics, a contribution to the meta-project of evolving the human experiment as such.
In the end, I couldn’t avoid re-engagement with the theory, which was embedded in the DNA of the whole gathering—a professional conference, after all, geared explicitly to practitioners engaged in learning, applying, and exploring a real conceptual thing called “Integral Theory.” But while most of the attendees I met were conversant with integral thinking, or at least attracted to the field of possibilities it opened up, I also experienced many as relatively free in relation to it: able, willing, and eager to move amongst other modes of discourse and human relating, without fixating exclusively on the Integral ideal. Fortunately, there was no shortage of such people, who could relate to each other first as people, and then as “integralists.”
It wasn’t all communal bliss, of course. Where there is light, there tends to be shadow—as Integral Theory itself points out. One could posit an entire “hauntology” (I’ve heard it said) of absences, elisions, frictions, tensions, constrictions, and other uneasy solidities that warp the space: entanglements of convergent and divergent histories, with their excesses and wounds. I felt these too. Moments of repulsion, self-doubt, chagrin. Curious little psychodramas. Ambiguous political disputes. It’s ultimately very personal (and political) to participate in collectivity, and I had my peculiar history (in fact, all kinds of history) to negotiate—like everybody else.
II. Viva la Revolución! (2012)
Before this ITC, it had been many years since I attended an Integral event, going back to when I left my job at Integral Institute (aka “I-I”) in 2007, where I had worked with Ken Wilber & co. on Integral Naked, Integral University, Integral Life Practice, and other integral-branded online media, educational, and networking projects. Since that time, I’ve worked for other Integral teachers, authors, nonprofits, and entrepreneurs—usually in the role of a web designer and copywriter—but have otherwise avoided being a consumer of capital-I Integral goods and services, or a participant in any collectivity that might refer to itself as an “integral community.” In general, within my personal and creative sphere, I tried to avoid identifying or associating with integral altogether—a term which, even before my departure from I-I, I had grown to regard with irritation.
I was not entirely successful, however. One exception to my withdrawal from integral involvement was the Integral Incubator workshop I signed up for in 2011, in Boulder, CO, which turned out to be an important event for me, personally and creatively, helping me break out of a writer’s block that had lasted five years (the poem I wrote was my cry of freedom). The other exception was an essay I wrote with Terry Patten in 2012 called “Occupy Integral,” published in the now-defunct Beams & Struts magazine. We intended the essay to be the opening salvo to a book we were co-authoring titled The Integral Revolution. In our collaboration, which Terry sponsored, we called for a more activist and politically engaged Integral movement to arise, proposing that integralists reclaim the word integral itself (“occupy” it) in service of a more radical (yet holistic) orientation in the face of global crisis.
This was during the time of the Occupy movement, and we wanted to give the moment an integral expression, while supporting and contributing to a conversation (which the editors at Beams & Struts were already pressing) that combined Integral Theory with progressive ideas on social justice, economics, democracy, art, and a more engaged form of spirituality than was typically expressed in the Wilber-inspired Integral world to that point. The essay got a splurge of attention and provoked a long scroll of commentary with some sharp debate, and perhaps we offered some support to others who felt frustrated, as we did, by a pattern of abstraction into overcomplexity and subtle insularity prevalent in the community, where we felt a bolder energy was needed; but we didn’t go on to complete the book. The writing hit a wall of inner resistance and outer complications, and it became clear that I wasn’t going to be able to deliver a text Terry could work with.
And Terry wasn’t going to do it either. After completing first drafts of an Introduction and a couple chapters, which entailed me staring at my computer screen for obscene durations of time barely eeking a few words out of the stone of my heart, Terry and I came to the mutual understanding that it wasn’t going to work out. I was done. I had excavated a few good words out of rough ground. Even a couple diamonds in the rock. I felt that something wanted to come through, but that it couldn’t live in the integral box I had built around myself. The Integral Revolution was a dud.
When I did my post-mortem, I came to realize that the reason the writing process had broken down was that I couldn’t truly give myself—fully commit myself, unironically—to another Integral project. I sincerely tried—spent months working desperately on an early draft of the book. But ultimately, I had to admit that I was failing, merely hoping to fake it till I made it. In reality, at a soul level, I no longer felt the need or desire to identify with or be part of any kind of integral anything. Or any anything. I no longer saw the point of “occupying” an idea I couldn’t believe in—let alone be willing to live and die for, as a real revolutionary might. The very attempt to pretend that I would felt insidious and repellent.
Of course, I was grateful to Terry for the opportunity to write with him, and for his faith in me as a collaborator. After paying my dues over the years designing websites and writing marketing copy for Integral enterprises, I relished the chance to do more serious work—engage the world on a higher level, write a kick-ass intellectual barnstormer of a book, an activist and artistic tour de force that could make shit happen. Perhaps I simply wasn’t ready for it—developed enough as a writer and thinker for all the project demanded; or able, professionally, to act as a ghostwriter (which is truly what I would have been). But I know the source of my failure went deeper than that. It went back to the original “Integral Revolution” in which I had served as a gung-ho lieutenant a few years earlier, but which I hadn’t yet integrated within myself.
III: The Prequel (1996–2001)
I was one of the so-called ‘Integral kids’—in my early 20s when I discovered Ken Wilber. I remember seeing his bold bald head and bespectacled gaze glaring from a book cover in the Naropa University book store the first time I visited Boulder in 1996. The book’s title, A Brief History of Everything, intrigued me, and I thumbed the pages, briefly, feeling a strange lust for cosmic comprehension seize my brain. I didn’t purchase the book at the time—on a summer road trip and short on cash—but Wilber’s name (it sounded so very ordinary…not philosophical at all) stuck in my mind, and later that summer I came across an article in the Shambhala Sun where the same Wilber expressed an appreciation for certain postmodern thinkers I was studying at the time (Foucault, Derrida…) but then made the argument that what they lacked, and what postmodernism in general lacked, was a practical conception of radical emptiness—a direct experience of the “true nature of reality,” as described by various schools of Buddhist thought.
As a philosophy major with a fledgling meditation practice inspired by Zen and Vedanta, Ken’s words were music to my ears. My philosophy department at Binghamton University, while strong in both analytic and continental disciplines (of which I favored the latter—Nietzsche, Heidegger, the Germans were my crack), didn’t really know what to do with, or didn’t want to do anything with, anything sounding like spirituality or religion. And yet, the notion of radical emptiness was, to to my mind, profoundly philosophically significant. As Wilber argued: what this term, radical emptiness, pointed to could not be reduced to an effect of linguistic deconstruction, but rather could only truly be understood as an experience of self-deconstruction in one’s actual awareness and being—a state of consciousness achieved and stabilized, primarily, through contemplative practice. What most impressed me at the time was the fact that a writer so steeped in the world of Eastern spirituality (in fact, often stacked on the New Age shelf in bookstores for this reason) was conversant with contemporary Western philosophy as well. Indeed, he proposed to broadly reconcile these traditions. Further, to my mind, Ken’s writing style was compelling—sharp, deft, lucid, witty, refreshingly polemical, encyclopedic and visionary in scope.
It would take some time to germinate, but the seed was planted. I returned to Binghamton that fall and graduated a couple years later with a BA in philosophy and comparative literature. I had been an assiduous student, passionate about the life of the mind, but by graduation, I was tired of spending the best of my waking hours, and the cream of my youth, studying post-representational phenomenologies with professors who confessed to be merely spinning their wheels, going nowhere and accomplishing nothing. I had reached a limit of what the discourse could reveal to me, and craved a more intimate and immediate relationship with the world: less philosophy and more reality. I longed to interact with “real people,” outside the bubble of the university and my sheltered American life.
Then one day I noticed a flyer in the lecture hall (one of the countless ones stapled haphazardly to the sprawling bulletin board) advertising a volunteer program that involved traveling to Nicaragua and doing international development work. I ripped off one of the little paper tabs with a phone number on it, and when I got home immediately called to request more information.
The program, with a Scandinavian-based outfit called the International Institute for Cooperation and Development (IICD), turned into a nearly three-year engagement that profoundly shaped the course of my life, provoking a ‘leap in consciousness’ if there ever was one for me. I went from ivory tower to grassroots overnight, learning to work together with my fellow volunteers and our Nicaraguan counterparts, literally “getting our hands dirty.” We built a healthcare clinic in a remote mountain community—a coffee cooperative that was originally organized during the Sandinista revolution of the 1980s.
The history of that revolution (which violently overthrew a dictatorship but then itself was violently overthrown) was still present in all sorts of ways, and compelled me to think about my own country’s history and role—and by implication, my role—in the suffering I saw and felt around me. My new awareness entailed a political awakening to the actuality—in the most concrete human terms—of concepts in political theory such as U.S. imperialism and economic globalization. I talked to people from all walks of life, soaked in as much of the society and culture as I could, and in my spare time, traveled around the country seeking out writers and poets and working on my first book—a collection of translations of Nicaraguan poetry written by the post-revolutionary generation of writers and artists that emerged in 1990s.
Through my experiences, I fell in love with a depth of humanity I couldn’t even imagine before: the volunteers in my group who shared the same latrines and tropical diseases; the “campesinos” and ex-revolutionaries who told their stories and mocked us gringos; the everyday people bustling in the cities, on buses, on top of buses, going to work or to find work; the college students, as eager to master their studies as to take to the streets; the wizened old women living in shacks with dirt floors and chickens running free and barefoot children playing, laughing, begging, up at the rooster cry of dawn to pick sacks of green coffee beans before school; and last but not least, the poets, my lost tribe of brothers and sisters, with whom I shared books of verse and bottles of rum, and whose words gave me intimate access to the dreams and traumas of the people and the place.
All the while I kept meditating, trying to experience radical emptiness. I carried my trusty black zafu in my backpack wherever I went. It was ridiculous, actually, to carry such a bulky cushion everywhere; but I didn’t want to give up my practice. (I suspect my fellow volunteers regarded me with a mix of affection and amusement.) Every morning I’d wake up before sunrise, do a little yoga, then sit for 45 minutes under my mosquito net; then I’d write for 30 minutes or so while the others roused from their cots. I was sleep-deprived and exhausted most of the time, due to the daily physical labor (there was no machinery or power tools to speak of) and truncated sleep. But something was driving or pulling me forward. I needed to open up a space within myself where something bigger could emerge in me—I didn’t exactly know what. And though I hadn’t yet formally encountered the integral idea, I was making my way to it instinctively.
After completing my translations and returning to the U.S. from a second trip to Nicaragua, where I shared the book with the poets and celebrated with more rum, I was eager to move on. Yet I had fallen into an extended period of heartbreak, confusion, and despair as to what to do next with my life. I had no job and was living with my girlfriend in San Antonio, Texas, in a relationship that was entering its terminal phase. And, though I had finished college and even had some Real World Experience now to add to my résumé, my career prospects remained limited. I was thinking about grad school again, as I often did when I didn’t know what else to do with my life…but I still wasn’t feeling enraptured by the prospect of an academic life. Then one afternoon I was browsing the aisles of a Half Price Books, when I stumbled upon three volumes of Ken Wilber’s Collected Works along with a paperback of A Brief History of Everything—there it was again. This time I snatched it up—adding his magnum opus, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (which promised to be merely Volume I of a forthcoming series called The Kosmos Trilogy), to my pile—and, when I got back to the ranch, began reading Wilber for in earnest for the first time, diving into what was to become the deepest rabbit hole of my life.
IV: I-I & I (2002–2007)
I spent the fall and winter after 9/11 reading Wilber and diligently meditating in my parents’ home on Long Island, NY. The following spring, I moved into an apartment in Brooklyn with a friend whom I’d met at IICD, Mark Binet—who, it turned out, had also been bitten by the Wilber bug (independently, yet almost exactly at the same time I was). Like me, he was an artist and spiritual seeker. He was a kind of trickster, always haranguing for the nondual mystical experience. When we met, he was especially enamoured of the spiritual philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti. He lectured on the nature of a whiffle ball bat as the divine incarnate. Once he almost went to fisticuffs with a member of a philosophy discussion group, when the other claimed to have attained permanent witnessing consciousness. Radical emptiness was everywhere. Mark was my kind of man. We became great friends and soul-brothers—seemingly going through parallel phases of spiritual development at the same time. That tiny Park Slope apartment became our ashram of the absurd, our madcap monastery, where we meditated, wrote poetry, read Wilber, Rumi, Kafka, Shakespeare, and other greats, and negotiated the energetic dynamics of two young human males jostling with the evolutionary impulse of an enormous Wilber-tinted Kosmos in less than 350 square feet of habitable space.
At some point in 2002, while we were still living in Brooklyn, the first Integral Institute website launched, announcing that Ken (who up to that point had been known as something of a recluse) was now looking for students and volunteers to be part of a new organization dedicated to promulgating his ideas. In January 2003, Mark and I moved to Boulder together. We had no connections with anyone working at I-I, but it seemed like “the place to be,” where the “next big thing” might be happening. As it turned out, within a couple months of arriving Mark fell in love with Argentine tango and left to Argentina to continue learning the dance. In the meantime, I had met some of Wilber’s foot soldiers, and in April 2003 got myself invited to an audience with the man himself, which was billed as a meeting of “integral youth” and was due to take place at Wilber’s loft in Denver, which turned out to be one of those LoDo industrial warehouses converted into a hip urban living space.
That meeting with Ken changed my life in ways that continue to surprise. I don’t remember what we discussed, but later that same night, I emailed him to clarify a couple things I had said. A quick sequence of events ensued. By early morning he had written back, thanking me for my note, and asking (curiously, I thought) about my living situation. I replied that I was staying with friends temporarily and had only a part-time job that I didn’t much care for. Hours later, he emailed back with an offer almost too good to be true: not only a job working for I-I, but also a room in his old house in Boulder, where the core I-I staff (three other “integral kids,” also young men) were staying.
Before proceeding with the rest of my story (which will dovetail with my thoughts about the conference, I promise), I feel it’s important to convey my state of mind at the time. I was 28 years old. I had been out of college for five years. My accomplishments during this time included two self-published books of poetry and a job history consisting of various low-wage stints. Yes, I had done the volunteer work, and had glowing recommendations from my professors—but academia felt like a spiritual dead end, and I was reluctant to devote myself to another activist cause that didn’t include a philosophical or aesthetic dimension. A corporate job was out of the question. Now I was living solo in Boulder, where in my first four months I had gotten fired from a restaurant in retaliation for an expression of dry humor, and relieved from duty in a bagel shop due to an excessively slow and mindful way of constructing breakfast sandwiches, and was now stuck doing mind-numbing medical billing (lackadaisically) in an urgent care center. My best buddy was gone, and I was still heartbroken from a relationship in Brooklyn that ended when I left. I’d written a couple poems since arriving in Boulder, which were indeed beautiful and felt like they were pushing into new artistic territory for me; but it was a lonely struggle, and I felt alone and irrelevant. I was beginning to feel desperate for that something, to happen….
Needless to say, I said yes to Ken. In fact, I kept on saying yes. I dove into the deep end. Anything that needed to be done for I-I, or for Ken, I said yes. It was a dream come true—not only an egoic validation (What philosophy major actually gets a job working for a real philosopher? Suck on it, all ye who doubted me), but also an opportunity to learn directly from one of my intellectual and spiritual heroes. And, it was an opening to a lofty world of interesting people doing fascinating things—scholars, filmmakers, spiritual teachers, visionaries, entrepreneurs. Ken was meeting and communicating with hundreds of culturally influential, powerful people, and I got to be right there at the center of it, in Boulder/Denver, Colorado—which we began referring to as the “Integral Epicenter.” For me, the chance to be at the “leading edge” (as we called it) of a transformational movement—a revolution in human consciousness, is what Ken’s version of Integral promised—was more than seductive: it was irresistible.
I could tell stories, but I neither want to romanticize nor indict the experience. I’ll just say that the best parts of I-I, for me, were the lucid philosophical discussions with Ken and the opportunities to interact with him directly, where I felt he was almost always generous with his energy and time. The events with spiritual teachers from various mystical traditions were also deeply affecting. I have particularly fond memories of rediscovering the Judaeo-Christian mystical lineages through Father Thomas Keating, Brother Wayne Teasdale, Brother David Steindl-Rast, and Rabbi Zalman Schacther-Shalomi. I also did retreats with Genpo Roshi and Diane Musho Hamilton in the Zen Buddhist tradition. And I had the chance to meet some truly visionary artists, such as Alex Grey, Saul Williams, and Lana Wachowski, not to mention the inimitable Stuart Davis, whose music fueled my early integral enthusiasm. The friendships I forged with my fellow “integral kids” (and Boomers too) became an especially important part of my life.
I relished going to meetings at the Loft. I would sit on the leather couch in a state of samadhi, sipping a Red Bull and eating lemon-flavored xylitol mints, while the Executive Committee (‘ExComm’) discussed I-I business. Occasionally I’d try to say something relevant and intelligent and/or make some deadpan joke (which Ken was sometimes kind enough to indulge, but admittedly didn’t always get). There were parties at the house—an architectural dream in the Boulder foothills with a view of the Colorado Front Range to the east and the Rockies to the west. There was always something uber-kool and bleeding-edge going on. There was always some new amazing project to work on. And I worked my ass off. The number of emails I processed daily was a point of pride. Breakfast burritos became my staple source of metabolic fuel. Late nights in front of a computer screen were the norm. I kept saying yes to Ken, taking on more responsibilities within the organization, to the point that I asked to be, and was made, the acting Chief Operating Officer (COO) of the Institute—a level of power I wanted; it felt so much needed to be done that I could do it; though in reality, I was thoroughly unqualified for the job, and already in quite over my head. I had “risen to the level of my incompetence,” as they say.
I-I was growing very quickly. Ken likened it to being on a runaway train while laying tracks at the same time. We were surfing the “frothy edge” of evolution. It was a “hyper-dance.” We were hurtling toward an Integral “tipping point,” where our Integral Vision would finally catch on in the mainstream and change the world. That was the big dream, the narrative we spun. The question was, how to get the ideas out there most effectively? And here, looking back, is where I believe we erred. We turned Integral Theory into something too much like a product—some kind of proprietary software for the mind, which one could buy into, and in so doing solve the big questions of life and the universe. For example, we advertised the idea that one could “download” an Integral Operating System (as Ken dubbed Integral Theory…the original “IOS” before the iPhone), “install” it in one’s brain, and suddenly improve everything about one’s life. It was a brilliant metaphor, but misleading. In our marketing, we used adverbs such as “staggeringly” and “literally” to modify the grandiose adjectives attributed to the theory. (The iOS connection with Steve Jobs and Apple’s inflated rhetoric is worth noting; Wilber could be a Jobs-like figure, with his own “reality distortion field.”)
The idea was simply to meet the market where it was at, and create a sense of coolness around our work: an integral “scene.” At the time, this felt like a refreshing change from the squishy, anti-modern New Age kind of image often associated with contemporary spirituality. But it resulted in a message which, while in many ways exciting and inspiring, in other ways merely recapitulated the dominant logic of the consumer paradigm. We were selling the idea, as I came to see it, that one could be special, part of a “leading-edge” movement in consciousness and culture, and by implication slightly more evolved than everyone else. This, simply by virtue of joining our tribe and consuming our products. There were certainly many highly intelligent and I would say “enlightened” people attracted to I-I. But our message was off-putting to many more who I would consider just as evolved, but looking for a more grounded, egalitarian, less self-aggrandizing kind of approach. Besides, being cool is tricky: trying too hard to be cool actually makes you un-cool. Though of course, being uncool can be cool in its own (dorky) way. And the geekiness of Integral Theory was cool all on its own, without our having to say it, which (the redundancy of saying it) made it less cool. And so it went….
I’m not saying I drank the kool-aid totally uncritically, or that anyone did. Of course, one also had to do the work—learn and practice—to truly be “integral.” That was part of what we were selling. But a self-conscious, awkward wanting to be cool became part of the ethos of our language, and I think began to overshadow other, more important values. While it may have been in the service of noble ideals, we embraced the communicative strategy of marketing buzz and hype. Ken was now a philosophical/spiritual rock star, and I and others treated him that way to some extent. He went along with it, perhaps even encouraged it, because it served the mission of “getting integral out into the world.”
And it worked. Thousands of people from across the world got involved: connected with the institute, and with each other. We cranked out hundreds of hours of audio and video; organized conferences and workshops; published books and journals; formed strategic partnerships; and were hard at work on the Big Idea, the Mother Ship—an online membership platform called the Integral Multiplex, which would link all the major areas of integral activity in the world into one interconnected, multidimensional whole. Business, art, medicine, ecology, spirituality, psychotherapy, international development, politics—we had identified “thirty or forty” distinct areas where people were doing Integral work, applying Wilber’s AQAL Integral Model (which we were working on trademarking, so as to be able to certify others in its correct usage) and the plan was to dock them all into the central hub which was I-I. Ken sketched a schematic drawing of the whole vision, which became iconic. It looked like Star Wars, so he called it (with more truth in jest than I realized at the time) “the Death Star.”
I won’t detail everything that went wrong, because then I’d have to write some kind of nauseating tell-all book, and I have better things to do before I die. Some have thrown around the “C” word; but if I-I was in any way a cult, it was a pretty lame cult—no murders or sex slaves or apocalyptic pronouncements or money laundering or fleets of Rolls Royces. The problems were human, all too human. In-group/out-group type stuff. An overly male-centric culture with no women in senior leadership. Mismanagement of limited funds and resources. Failure to distance the organization from abusive spiritual teachers. Suffice it to say, mistakes were made. We made mistakes. I made mistakes. It was a mistake, for example, to say nothing when people were derided as too “green” (i.e., un-integral, or less developed than us integral folks); or to keep my mouth shut when friends were banned from I-I events for committing perceived offenses that angered Ken; or to participate in pushing people out of the organization because they were complaining about unfair pay and had become difficult to work with, when there were actually real issues of compensation that needed to be resolved.
Which is to say that there was—as the theory itself pointed out and many of us acknowledged at the time—a shadow side to I-I. That was obvious and to be expected. But I think it’s worth making a connection between these internal issues we were experiencing and the commodification of Integral Theory, which I believe—in some subtle and not-so-subtle, unmistakable ways—corroded our integrity. I think it caused us to put our faith in a kind of dogma (a cognitively sophisticated, high-level dogma, to be sure) in place of actual thinking and critical inquiry. This seems to be what happens when one puts more energy into promoting an idea—which requires constantly reiterating a pre-established story or narrative, (which one easily becomes defensive around)—rather than questioning one’s ideas within the context of a broader intellectual debate. Ken’s public talks became increasingly repetitive, and it seemed he only engaged with critics who already agreed with him on most points, or were already operating within the terms of his AQAL Integral Framework. On a couple occasions, he lashed out at his more disagreeable critics. To be fair, some of these critics had themselves become redundant, and even creepy, in their ad-hominem obsession with him. (This is certainly not to say that there weren’t legitimate criticisms.) But Ken’s take-down of these critics, where he suggested, among other things, that they (metaphorically) fellate his manhood, became a fault line within the community. It was harsh, sarcastic, funny, one might even say brilliant from a certain literary perspective…but also unfair and unbecoming of a leader of a global institution purporting to address the big, serious problems of our time.
In our (I-I’s) defense, we did acknowledge some of the deeper issues; we did begin working on them; and we were beginning to make positive changes, culturally and systemically. We brought in new leadership (I was thankfully shifted from my role as COO to that of a writer with the media and marketing team); gave everyone raises and benefits; and instituted an “office ILP” (Integral Life Practice) program to bring our spiritual principles into our working environment. We recruited life and business coaches to mentor staff, held group process meetings, and so forth. But it was too late. By mid-2006, I-I’s own operating system had become chaotic and unstable; staff were speaking out, on the verge of revolt; finances were strained; and Ken’s health was deteriorating. In late 2006, the interior and exterior conflicts became too severe and Integral Institute…disintegrated. At an infamous meeting in Ken’s loft, a number of staff walked out in protest. It was dramatic. It was sad. It was pathetic. But it needed to happen. After the meeting, when I approached Ken, he put his arm around me, reassuringly. I expressed some words of loyalty and camaraderie, which were heartfelt…but false. In truth, I had already been planning my exit for some time.
I was burnt out. I had been going full speed, neglecting my health and my own “ILP.” I no longer read books. I wasn’t writing. No poetry. I was barely meditating. As toward the end my college career, I felt disconnected from “real people” in the “real world.” I wasn’t free to express myself without worrying about whether what I was saying was “integral” or not. In other words, I had stopped doing all the things that brought me to integral in the first place! Instead, I was focused merely on promoting an intellectual framework; essentially, as I was relating to it, an intellectual religion. My soul was dying. I had visions of my “subtle body” in a hospital bed, hooked up to waste tubes and life support machines. My entire world was integral integral integral. It was getting tiresome. And, though I was privileged to be given the opportunity to co-author a book with Wilber (written by Terry Patten, Adam Leonard, and myself, with Ken serving as the “meta-author”) called Integral Life Practice—and I remain proud of our work on that—by the end of the process, I was exhausted. I was done with integral. I loved Ken, and still do; but I needed to move on and do different things with my life. In January 2007, I composed an email to Ken and ExComm containing my resignation. I took a deep breath, preparing to face the unknown once again—and hit send.
Integral Institute meanwhile restructured and became Integral Life. Some stuck with Ken; others moved on to start new organizations and communities, become coaches and consultants, get PhDs, write books. New blood arrived. The Integral enterprise continued and became a proper business with a CEO, a business plan, a marketing strategy. Ken moved into a smaller loft and eventually sold his house in Boulder. I got married, bought a house, started a family, and began to work on my own writing again. After the integral earthquake, there occurred a kind of diaspora from the epicenter…which in retrospect turned out to be an amazingly fecund event. It hurt most everyone involved, but was part of a process of growth and differentiation. New structures were emerging; new cognitions and imaginings stirring. The integral kids were growing up.
V. Beyond Integral or: Going Meta—A Critical Appreciation (2015)
I tell my story because it explains both how deep as well as how limited (colored by my personal experience) my feelings about integral were before the Integral Theory conference. In truth, I had mixed feelings about even showing up. I chose to do so, however, because it seemed that MetaIntegral was staking out territory beyond, yet respectful and inclusive of, the “old school” integral I had both loved and grown sick of. I had not attended any previous conferences, nor been following happenings in the community more than peripherally; but from the promotional emails I received, I got the impression that the organizers were earnestly trying to be inclusive and self-critical in their approach, which I appreciated. I felt their enthusiasm for the larger project, without feeling that I was being sold a special experience or sense of identity with, or belonging to, some elitist group…which I would have had to politely (or dismissively) decline. I also reached out to one of the founders of Beams and Struts, Trevor Malkinson, who encouraged me to sign up, promising that it wouldn’t be the “orthodox” kind of experience that I feared.
I’ve come to believe that the problem with integral culture is not the marketing of it per se—but the bad marketing. Marketing that insults one’s intelligence. One of the features of integral discourse that unfortunately emerged with I-I and has continued for the last ten years (some of which I even helped write) involves a subtle flattery of the self in the attempt to define a psychographic market segment and attract it to one’s cause. A typical message goes something like this: “You’re Integral. Here are five things about you that are different and amazing…but you also feel pain: you feel alone in this incredibly fragmented world, and need to be connected to, and supported by, other integral people like you who long for greater wholeness, etc.” All of which might be true, of course; but the question I have is: So what? Who really cares? If I really care about you as a person, and am not merely interested in enrolling you in my integral community, then identifying you as “integral” is not going to be my priority. Rather, I want to know what you’re actually doing in the world—what you stand for, how you struggle—what your real experience is, how your mind works, and how you feel life. I shouldn’t just be trying to get you on my email list. I should want to know your story, the quality of your presence, your energetic flux. And, most importantly, I should want to know if we can work together, be friends and allies, peers and equals—learn from each other’s example. Not merely aggregate you to my larger project that remains, at some level, a capitalistic game.
The game of group self-flattery is ultimately self-flattening. Which is not to say that integral evolutionary ideas are not real, or that one might not authentically identify with, believe in, benefit from, and want to advocate for these ideas—even passionately so. But when the ideas are packaged into a worldview or lifestyle that describes a group and is meant to define me as an individual in the context of a marketing communication, I get suspicious. More often than not, the signal I’m receiving is too easy to interpret as saying: “We don’t expect you to think, or do real work, or deeply question yourself (or us) or the underlying order of things, or truly participate (as a peer and equal) in a larger, more meaningful and collaborative endeavor.” I’m being treated not as a real person but as a mere consumer—albeit a highly spiritually evolved consumer—and I can’t help but smell a very fragrant yet all the same execrable bullshit.
The feeling I got from MetaIntegral was different. Theirs felt more like an authentic invitation to engage in the project that defined their mission. For example, if I had wanted to, I could have submitted a paper for presentation at the conference, which could even have been highly critical of some aspect of Integral Theory or the Integral movement, as long as my argument was thoughtful and reasoned. I certainly felt free to interact with and question any of the presenters at the conference itself—there were no sacred teachers who disappeared behind the scenes after their piece was done. (Or, if these teachers were there, they were not the selling point.) I also appreciated that part of purpose of the conference was to promote and celebrate (through the grants and showcases) the work being done by other integralists who were not all part of MetaIntegral, but active in the wider integral community and working on real-world problems.
I found the overarching theme of the conference—impact—intriguing, and again, articulated in a spirit of genuine inquiry. Asking the question of how integral meta-theory is measurably and demonstrably making a positive difference in the world, and how it could do a better job moving forward—felt to me timely and honest. At the same time, I found myself musing on the linguistic and ideological implications of the word, “impact,” and wondering whether and how I resonated with it. Did I feel that I could really Be Impact (as the tagline enjoined) in my life? As Sean explained, the phrase is a clever synthesis of the “Be the change” mantra attributed to Ghandi and the “Just do it” swooshy spirit of Nike. Should that be taken as indicative of some kind of corporate spiritual activism, or activist spiritual capitalism; would that even make sense? I felt that the focus on “impact” could be interpreted as a sign of “selling out.” Or, could represent a form of “skillful means” in service of an overriding moral vision? Or both?
I wondered if the idea of Integral Impact might be expressing a “meta-mechanistic” or corporate bias (I imagined a 7-dimensional field of colliding billiard balls, fractals of nested supply chains criss-crossing the globe) in how one interacts with reality—suggesting that one must somehow hit, force, or manipulate the world in order to yield measurable results. What of other, perhaps more feminine-associated, modes of interaction, such as cultivation, nurturing, patience, letting-be…? To be sure, an integral practitioner would aim for comprehensive results, in all four integral quadrants and eight (or twenty-four) zones, using distinct measurement criteria depending on the dimension of impact being evaluated. The point of “integral impact,” as I understand it, is to be radically non-reductive—to include subjective and cultural factors equally with objective and systemic ones; to enfold, indeed, all of the modes, perspectives, dimensions that Integral Theory itself discloses, in judging the effectiveness and value of an action.
Yet what if a value can’t be measured in terms of impact? For example, as an artist, I might ask myself, “What kind of impact do I want my work to have?” And certainly, I might want it have total impact—high, deep, clear, wide—a full-court integral impact. But at the same time, I must remember that there’s a side to being an artist which literally (and crucially) needs not to be concerned with impact—in fact, needs to give not give a crap at all about how one’s work will affect the world or others, but rather focus completely on imparting radical integrity into the work itself—come what may. As an artist, my concern is that if I focus on “impact,” then that part of me that wants to feel important, or flattered, will seek to reassert itself—to be reassured that something about me is special and important; that what I’m doing is meaningful because it has impact. I know from experience that if I overly indulge that part of myself, it will infect and degrade my art—and potentially send me into a narcissistic spiral that defines the worst aspects of the integral landscape.
It’s quite possible I’m just nitpicking. I admit to being hypersensitive on this issue. For, however I might deconstruct it, at the end of the day, I still want to have an “impact.” If I care about the world, and I want to change it for the better, I must enter into an action-inquiry feedback loop whereby I look seriously at what my work is accomplishing, and let the information I receive inform what I do next and how I do it. Hard data could be a part of this. Marketing, too, might have an important role to play. That’s why ultimately, I was grateful for inquiry concerning impact. It actually got me questioning myself and those around me, and sparked a few substantial conversations.
Indeed, what I most appreciated about the conference was precisely the space to question—to feel ambiguous, self-critical, open, curious, and transparent about the space itself—and to realize that I wasn’t alone in the complexity or nuance of my feelings. And still, I could acknowledge that not everybody felt similarly or overlapped with my history or sentiments, or would even be aware of them…or give a crap if they were—and that was OK too.
What’s important is that the conference provided an open space for these kind of reflections and conversations to occur. In this regard, I was especially pleased to observe how the discourse itself (i.e., the actual conversation around and about Integral Theory) has become increasingly de-centralized, how the sense of a center itself has weakened, in favor of more a sense of a field. Of course, Ken Wilber still had a featured role and presence—he gave a talk on “pluralistic ontology” (his response to the interest among some in Critical Realism and questions surrounding the proper meta-theoretical relationship between epistemology and ontology, as distinctly conceived in Critical Realism and Integral Theory) on Sunday morning. But integral is now truly something bigger than Ken—that was palpable—even while his influence (and impact) was still pervasive, and his AQAL Integral Model still at the intellectual heart, as least as far as this particular conference was concerned.
As for the official program, I was admittedly a poor conference attendee. I missed more than a few presentations and talks. But, I took every opportunity to connect and dialogue with individuals. I let the spirit of the gathering—the “scenius”—guide me. I did make it a point to attend the formal debate (called a “Democracy 3D” panel) involving Zak Stein and Bonnitta Roy (for) and Michael McElhenie and Andrew Johnson (against) on the proposition: “It’s time for Integralists to stop catering to corporate interests and start fighting for social justice.” I rooted for the for side, expressed by Zak and Bonnitta as an argument for a post-capitalist form of integral activism; while the against side defended their approach of working with and within capitalism, to improve and indeed evolve it (i.e., arguing for “conscious capitalism”)—but I grew in sympathy for the “against” side as well, if not for their debating points then for the people making those points. (Jeremy Johnson, the official conference blogger—who I had previously known only online and was delighted to get a chance to meet—wrote a nice summary of the debate here.)
The evening poets and performers made my soul feel most alive and at home. Mark Fabionar (founder of The HUB: An Integral Center for Diversity, Vitality, and Creativity, at Sonoma State University) and Jordan Luftig (working with MetaIntegral at the time) deserve wicked props for bringing them in and adding an explosive mode of communication to the academic focus. I deeply felt with and profoundly enjoyed the performances of the Thursday night poets, including Mindy Nettifee, Jason Bayani, and Joshua Merchant in particular (though the others were also impressive). The Friday night solo show Wrestling Jerusalem, by Aaron Davidman—with the ‘invocation’ by Miriam Gabriel, (who I also had the great pleasure of meeting) and Robert Farid Karimi—was perhaps one of the most powerful artistic experiences of my life and deserves a whole consideration unto itself. For me, the “cultural performances” of the ITC recalled Wittgenstein’s phrase: Ethics and aesthetics are one.
I’ll lastly mention that it seemed a lot happened in terms of actual, “meta-theoretical” philosophical thinking, which I’m far from caught up on—particularly in the work of Bruce Alderman, Michael Schwartz, Bonnitta Roy, and Chris Dierkes that I interfaced with. Admittedly, there were many more presentations than I fully could take in. However, the nightly dorm suite symposia seemed to be where the real sparks flew.
VI: TransIntegral Futures (2016—…)
Where does this leave things, one year later, with me and Integral? What’s the future of the integral movement? Whither the meta-revolution from here?
I still feel that Integral, however interpreted, hasn’t quite figured out its next phase. There’s the “Integral 1.0,” one could say, of Ken Wilber’s AQAL model—which seems to me a solid foundation conceptually, but might still be burdened by the legacy of I-I. And MetaIntegral is working on Integral 2.0, moving toward a more decentralized (or distributed) global integral space. But the conference still probably only represented “Integral 1.5,” in my view. This would be a significant milestone (halfway there?) but still leave a lot of room for growth. There’s certainly much to commend and celebrate in the overall initiative, especially as expressed, for example, in the keynote presentation by Karen O’Brien on Integral approaches to climate change, describing her work with the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCSS)—or in MetaIntegral’s budding partnership with the Nature Conservancy, which represents another huge opportunity for “impact”…one of many being pursued by integrally-informed practitioners around the world.
What I’d really love to see in a future MetaIntegral conference is a much stronger focus on social justice and especially the role of activism, art and engaged spirituality in facing our global crisis more directly. Overall, I didn’t feel a very powerful sense of focused urgency in the conference—and that was a shame. It was a smorgasbord of interesting (sometimes very interesting) ideas and reports from the field, but never reached the level of hardcore collaborative problem-solving and strategic action in a coordinated way. For example, I’d love to see a conference where every presentation focused on some aspect of enacting an “integral revolution”—inquiring into what that might really mean in the present moment, in the most concrete social and political terms, as well as in consciousness and culture.
At the same time, there is something beautiful and essential about metatheory. It’s an art as much as anything is art, and to practice theorizing for the sake of theorizing is no different, in the end, than poetry for the sake of poetry. It’s human beings pursuing a passionate embrace of the numinous. Past a certain point, I imagine theory bleeds into poetry, and poetry into theory. And both together could provide a spiritual language for (meta-)revolutionary change.
Because that’s what we working on, after all, yes? A revolution in the heart of being. A transformation of our concrete reality. What’s the point of a word if it doesn’t evoke a possible reality? What’s the reality that integral is evoking? Where is the art of integral being?
Personally, I prefer being an outsider to any particular theoretical framework at the same time that I welcome a diversity of metatheories in the field. I enjoy being conversant with Integral Theory, friendly with it—yet I don’t want to identify with or evangelize it anymore; nor am I working on developing it as an explicit system of thought, a community, or a movement. Yet I’m supportive of such efforts, generally speaking. The downside of occupying such a position might be that, as an outsider, I fail to have the kind of impact I could have as an insider, being part of a coherent, theoretically grounded community working together for a larger purpose. At the same time, my outsider status might serve the function—in a wider cultural ecosystem—of exploring areas of inquiry and creativity that would otherwise be ignored, but open a pathless path into the future for certain minds.
My current project—A Theory of Everybody—was obviously hugely inspired by my experience with Integral Theory and the Integral community. There is a lineage, a genetic inheritance, an in-spiration (breathing in)…as well as a rupture, a discontinuity, a differentiation. (Breathing out.) I’m grateful to Ken, to Terry, to all my colleagues at I-I, and to all the friends I’ve made and people I’ve met, for taking their various chances on me over the years and letting me be integral for a while.
I’m also wildly grateful to everyone I met and talked to on my great summer road trip; for all the graciousness and hospitality I was shown in my travels (I’m looking at you, C4Chaos, Trevor, and Dan). I’m especially thankful for all the history and that brought me to this strange, beautiful place; for being alive in a time when we could have an ‘meta’ conversation, and it could matter. I hope it does.
Editor’s note: The following piece is part of an ongoing series that cultural historian William Irwin Thompson has been running on his blog. We’re featuring it as the first in a new section we call “Microdoses.” These will often be shorter, experimental publications like visual art, film, music, podcasts, and the poetic, philosophical “mind-jazz” that Thompson’s style embodies so well here.
Microdoses are hypertexts. Connective, interlinking ideas between larger thought-pieces and works of art. They’re assemblages, which in their inter-weaving, reveal the “patterns that connect.” We consider the Microdose to be a digital mutation of the literary fragment.
There have been a few developments in the 2016 election since these pieces have been written. For the sake of these “microdoses,” quick-fire mind jazzes on the political landscape as they occurred, we’ve kept them in their temporal slice of time.
The term “metapolitics” was coined by the poet and cultural historian Peter Viereck in his 1941 book, Metapolitics: the Roots of the Nazi Mind. I confess that this book had a strong influence on me as I was writing my first book, The Imagination of an Insurrection: Dublin, Easter 1916, A Study of an Ideological Movement (Oxford University Press: New York, 1967).
Politics is expressed in ideologies that are territorially based, but when an ideology is lifted from one location to become a universal ideology, it becomes more messianic and its leaders become avatars of a new worldview. Think of Che’ Guevara. For me, the cultural shift from an identity that is based upon a nation or a territory to one based upon a state of consciousness—indeed even a seizure of consciousness—expresses the transition from politics to metapolitics. In several of my other books, I have called this kind of movement a shift in individual identity from territorial nation-states to noetic polities. ISIL, Al Qaeda, and Boko Haram are current examples. I have also maintained before in more than one of my books that: “Evil is the annunciation of the next level of organization.” ISIL, Al Qaeda, and Boko Haram are the evil forms of planetization that use the Internet to attract followers, but other forms like science are also noetic polities. New forms will emerge as new global institutions come forth to deal with the crisis of industrial civilization and climate collapse.  Nations will increasingly become like organelles within the cell. Our present planetary system of communication satellites that supports our new social media has become what printed media and the railroads were for the spread of modernism. In this blog I am trying to take a few more steps in this exploration of an unknown new world.
I. Donald Trump and His Nativistic Movement
Generally populist demagogues present themselves as voices of the people and they appeal to their sense of resentment and jealousy of the rich. One thinks of Huey Long. Donald Trump represents a new sort of cultural emergence. He is a billionaire based in New York City, but presents himself as the common man of the Heartland enamored with simplistic solutions. Mexicans, Muslims, and menstruating women become his favored scapegoats and objects of derision. He represents the new American cultural fascination with Winners that has been created by television. Politics is just another alpha male Super Bowl and TV is a medium that profits from attack ads, sound bites, and polarization in shouting matches rather than solitary reading and reflection. Trump is what Joe Six Pack would like to be, and his hideous Las Vegas High Rollers Suite sort of taste—expressed in the photos of his penthouse apartment on the Web—is just the style Joe Six Pack would chose if he won the Powerball Lottery. In his marriage of corporate elites and mass vulgarity, Trump’s brand of Republicanism recalls the union of the I. G. Farben and Siemens corporations with the new masses of the National Socialists in Germany in the 1930’s. We had White resentment then for the Treaty of Versailles, and we have White resentment now for the new multicultural America in which these angry white working class men and women now feel like aliens in their own country. When Trump says “Make America great again,” his supporters know it is a code for “Make America White again.” Hillary has lost her historical traction; the coming election is an example of McLuhan’s “cultural retrieval” of the thirties with Bernie’s reprise of FDR’s New Deal socialism and Trump’s reprise of Mussolini’s populist fascism. “The medium is the message.” And we need to remember that in the nineteen-thirties, radio transformed politicians like FDR and Churchill into cultural saviors, and television transformed the presidential election of 1960, so now social media and the Internet are transforming this election of 2016.
The Republican Party got trumped because it had no intellectual philosophy of governance. It just had a clot of negations of other people’s ideas. You can’t run a complex, multicultural, nuclear-weaponed nation-state with the gut feeling that government is bad, and so the less we have of it, the better off we will be. Thus, being against philosophies of governance, climate science and evolution in particular, and science in general, left the Republican Party without an intellectual immune system and the infection of nativism and white male anger took it over.
Nativistic movements arise when the “mazeway” of paths in a culture become incoherent and confusing, and this incoherence often arises when a culture is shifting from one worldview to another. The Ghost Dance in America and the Boxer Rebellion in China are classic examples. In successful cultures, intellectuals arise who aid the transition by articulating the new worldview. Such was the case in Europe with the Renaissance and its shift in world views from religious medievalism to scientific modernism, from hierarchical kingdoms to bourgeois nation-states. But even in the case of Europe with its Renaissance, Scientific Revolution, and Enlightenment, there still appeared the bloody Thirty Years War, and England had to go through a civil war with Cromwell to bring forth a parliamentary republic. But England and its American colonies kept thinking, first with Locke and then with Jefferson. Yet even with the American, French, and Irish revolutions, revolution was followed by civil war.
With the new polarization of the United States between the social democracy of Bernie and the white nativism of Trump, the USA is entering a danger zone of political polarization that can lead to civil war. The coasts express a planetary cultural awareness, but the Heartland—from Montana down to Texas, the Midwest and the Deep South—expresses nativistic values. It is ironic that this nativism has found its leader with an elderly man showing the signs of the onset of senile dementia  who is a billionaire and a New Yorker. Trump’s new nativistic movement has emerged because it is really about multiculturalism versus White Protestant America.
So it is time for America to do some serious thinking—thinking about science, climate change, immigration, and the ideas needed to govern a complex multicultural technological nation-state that lives within a world economy. Fortunately, the northern part of North America has already started with the election of Justin Trudeau to the premiership in Canada. Now it is time in this national election for the USA to follow Canada’s lead.
III. Trump, Islam, and the Politics of the Noosphere
When I was too young to read Aristotle on the polis—when I was in the eighth grade and studying ancient history in LA—I learned that the Greek polis emerged in the Assembly of wise seniors and able-bodied young men who could defend Athens in democratic hoplite formations against the attacks of the Persian Empire. War was no longer a warrior’s individual heroic display in his Homeric aresteia, but a collaborative effort.
The Persian Empire was a communication system held together by good roads and fast horses with messengers and military outposts. An empire, as opposed to the Greek democratic polis, was the territory of the subjected. The territorially assembled were subjects and not citizens. From the dawn of civilizations in ancient Mesopotamia, India, and China, empires had an ethnic and religious dyadic system of identity of “us” and “them.” Even to this day, the Han Chinese maintain a system of exclusion of “foreign devils” and hold to their system of identity by using the communist party as its priesthood.
The Roman Empire, by contrast, introduced the idea of the citizen, and St. Paul in Syria was proud to be a Roman citizen and used his citizenship as a means to transform a local Palestinian prophetic movement into a universal religion. Classical Rome tried to use its clumsy system of polytheism as the cement for imperial identity, but it was not successful, and Persian Manicheanism, Mithraism, Gnosticism, and Christianity remained attractive alternatives. With Emperor Constantine first, and then Justinian, Christianity proved to be a simpler and more effective way to hold an empire together. Even after the final collapse of the Roman Empire in 476 A.D., Christianity survived and grew during the Dark Ages and Charlemagne was crowned Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire by the Pope in 800 A.D.
What is happening today is that these two ancient and archetypal forms of empire have returned and are competing for dominance. The so-called American Empire sought to absorb civilizations into its multicultural identity. With the Marshall Plan, and the postwar Bretton Woods American Dollar economy, it first absorbed Western Europe. Now it is trying to show that Islamic Civilization can also become American. The Umah and the oil barrel can both live in peace within a new expanded “us.” So when I walk the streets of my city, Portland, Maine, I see little girls in hijabs playing baseball in the local schoolyard, and I see Somali women wearing the Dirac and Guntiino. This multicultural America is what Trump wishes to eliminate in his nativistic movement of a return to White Protestant America. In this nativist vision, if immigrants come to America, they should wear blue jeans and American college sweatshirts. Paradoxically, Trump’s vision is isomorphic to the Han Chinese vision of empire and identity in which China seeks to shut out the incursions of the World Wide Web.
If the USA follows Justin Trudeau’s vision of a multi-cultural North America, and is able to absorb Islamic Civilization, as before it absorbed Irish Catholics and Central European Jews, then the Roman model of Empire rather than the Persian will emerge, and thanks to the Internet and the politics of the Internet that Bernie Sanders exploits so well in his fund-raising, the Noosphere first articulated by Russian Vernadsky and then by French Teilhard de Chardin will emerge as a global noetic polity.
Sanguinal polities are based upon blood lines; imperial polities are based upon territory and an imperial language. With the emergence of English as a global language with a world English literature of writers like Salman Rushdi and Amitav Gosh, the Noosphere is no longer a visionary idea, but a cultural reality. To put a stop to this cultural evolution is what Trump is all about, but as a global businessman he doesn’t stand a chance to succeed. He can obstruct and impede, and set back cultural evolution in favor of a new American Dark Age, but he cannot succeed in the long run. Mongolian nomads sacked India and Persia, but eventually the Mongolian Empire became the world’s largest. However, I do not wish to fall into a simple Whig vision of history as an inevitable march of progress. In Indian Partition after the Second World War, the united kingdoms and nations that was India fell into Islamic and Hindu nativist visions and now face off with one another and threaten nuclear war.
Nativistic movements can do a lot of damage, so as these two archetypal forms of empire face off with one another in this American election of 2016—as they did in the emergence of classical Greek democracy after the battles of Thermopylae, Marathon, and Salamis—let us step back, look at the Big Picture, and vote to enhance the emergence of the Noosphere by realizing that Islam helped to create the European Renaissance and can now become as American as hamburgers and falafel.
I don’t think we Americans should characterize the recent Brexit vote as an another version of nativism with blond Boris Johnson serving as an English version of Trump. The EU bullied Greece, and the neoliberals—who define culture only in terms of a theory of markets of rational self-interested individuals—enforced economic austerity rather than Keynesian public investments. Yes, there is an element of anti-immigration among the working classes, but that is because the corporate managers dump cheap labor into their communities to break up labor unions, and then retreat behind their gated communities to avoid the social consequences. Planetization and Nativism are entwined forces. As we saw before in the Taiping and Boxer Rebellions in China, when the global economy expands, time contracts and becomes mythologized in new compensatory systems of identity. In the EU and the UK, as well as the USA, it is time for a new Big Think about the role of nations in the globalist capitalist system where they are seen as encultured societies with differing systems of identity based upon class and language and not simply as rational agents operating in a market system.
Now that the vote is in for Brexit, I hope Scotland leaves the UK. And this time the Scots should do it right by getting rid of the monarchy. A much harder call is what to do about a new Scottish currency. Ireland has the Euro, but the Euro is massively undersupported. Better brains than I will have to figure that one out, but new thinking is called for—perhaps one in which Scotland faces westward to support its currency with Canadian and American dollars rather than English pounds. On the political level of governance, there should be a county by county referendum in Northern Ireland to let the people decide whether they wish to be part of the Republic of Scotland, or the Republic of Ireland, or the Monarchy of England. Monarchy is an expression of what Jean Gebser would call the Magical structure of consciousness. It expresses a system of dominance that we inherited from the apes rather than a system of representation. It is useful in holding a collection of warlords and warring tribes together on a higher level of organization, but it is not an appropriate form of government for a modern nation-state. And yet, there are many people in the Old World who still cling to this Old World form of thinking. They may no longer believe that the king’s touch cures scrofula, but they do have faith that the face of the monarch on their currency secures it as a fiduciary instrument. Qui iudicent populum.
In the transition from nation-state to noetic polity in our process of planetization, there are two missing institutions that we will need in the immediate future. I do not expect to see them in my lifetime, but I believe they will arise before the end of this our twenty-first century. The first is the creation of tricameral legislatures for nations and the United Nations in which the third body is a congress of scientists elected by the university faculties of their respective countries who can provide governments with real scientific facts about climate collapse and other global catastrophes. 
The second is Professor Saul Mendlovitz’s proposal for a United Nations emergency military force that can go into nations that subscribe to the UN Charter and remove dictators that are violating the human rights of its citizens.  We should not let dictators like Syria’s Assad slaughter its citizens and destabilize Europe by creating hundreds of thousands of refugees. The Blue Berets should step in and take away the dictator for trial at the World Court in the Hague, just as the UN did with Slobodan Milosovic in Bosnia.
Yes, such interventions are a violation of sovereignty, and the Permanent Five Members of the UN Security Council—especially China and the US—will always veto such an action. So the challenge of our century is to redefine sovereignty, just as the United States had to redefine states’ rights in order to transform a loose federation of sovereign states into the United States of America; and that political evolution, certainly, was no easy transformation and actually took a civil war to effect it.
The first institution can inform and the second institution can implement laws that address global climate collapse and its attendant catastrophes by compelling nations to comply with UN standards for reducing industrial pollution. China and the USA can no longer consider the atmosphere to be a public sewer into which they can dump their toxic by-products of industrial manufacture. Perhaps such an institution could become an extension of the World Health Organization. One cannot control the outbreak of pandemics by concretizing national boundaries with walls, so as the catastrophes of the present increase in number and ferocity, some new UN institutions will need to come forth.
After a civil war in 1848, the Swiss created a national federation that energized the language and culture of the canton, so some form of compensatory cantonization will need to be part of the process of planetization. If these cultural and ecological challenges cannot be met because of the reactionary blockages of religions and nation-states, then Homo sapiens will simply experience extinction and the meek of the insects will inherit the Earth.
- See David W. Orr, Down to the Wire: Confronting Climate Collapse (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).
- See Sophia A. McClennen, “Maybe Donald Trump has really lost his mind: What if the GOP frontrunner isn’t crazy, but simply not well?” Salon. April 25, 2016.
- See William Irwin Thompson, “Catastrophist Governance and the Need for a Tricameral Legislature” in Self and Society: Studies in the Evolution of Culture (Imprint Academic: Exeter, UK, 2004, 2009), pp. 137-143.
- http://www.globalcommonsecurity.org/gcs/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/Mendlovitz-UNEPS_Statute.pdf. Professor Mendlovitz proposed this idea at the Lindisfarne Fellows Conference at the Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, NM in 2007.
The real voyage of discovery does not consist in looking for new landscapes, but in seeing with new eyes.
What can art tell us about the nature of consciousness? The question is meaningless if it refers to the personal convictions of this or that poet or musician, this or that genre, school, or movement. The goal of this essay is to explore what the things artists make—the works of art themselves—tell us about the nature of mind and matter, self and world, over and above their creators’ personal beliefs. Is there a metaphysics that art as such implies? Or maybe the question is better framed in McLuhanian terms: What is the message of the medium of art with regard to the nature of consciousness?
The first thing that strikes me is that art is not discursive. It doesn’t constitute an attempt to represent things—to talk or think about them. Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings isn’t a piece of music about sadness. It is a sadness in itself. It is a sadness that has acquired a form outside the private experience of a subjective mind. If after the death of the last living thing on earth, there remained a radio playing the Adagio over and over again among the ashes of civilization, there would still be sadness in the world.
Works of art like Barber’s famous composition do not represent but enact the movements of experience. By doing this, they preserve these movements in material form. Only poor art tries to represent or reproduce, and that is why it generates only clichés, stereotypes, and opinions. Genuine art isn’t representational but demonstrational and imitative. It is deeply implicated in the experiential dimension, all that we associate with consciousness. But whereas most of the time we approach consciousness discursively from an assumed outside perspective, works of art catch it from within, in media res. What art gives us is consciousness in action—not consciousness of the world, but consciousness in the world.
In Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice, I try to show this by comparing a technical drawing of a sunflower found in a botanical guide with one of Van Gogh’s sunflower paintings. The technical drawing as such makes no claim to art beyond a broad, utilitarian sense of the term. It has a diagrammatic function. Its goal is to communicate the concept “sunflower,” helianthus annuus, outside of any particular instance of the species. What we are given in this image is the sunflower as an ideal construct, the quintessential sunflower of which every physical specimen is a more or less exact copy.
Van Gogh, in contrast, captures the sunflower as an experience, a singular encounter. The resulting image exudes a presence that is like an alien sentience. Sunflowers are no longer instances of a type but sui generis. Each is a unique and unrepeatable event in reality’s unfolding. It’s only after the fact, when the intellect steps in to take apart the experience, that we label the image “sunflowers in a vase.” If the botanical drawing suggests something like Plato’s metaphysics of ideal forms, the painting throws us back to the likes of Heraclitus, the Pre-Socratic philosopher who held that there is no fixity of being, only a flux of becoming.
In Van Gogh’s work, something familiar is reimaged in light of an ineffable newness that inhabits it and makes it an event. We realize that there is no such thing as sunflowers in the abstract, but only these sunflower-events that the intellect then classifies according to generalities which exist only in and for it. The way I put it in Reclaiming Art is that, while the botanical drawing eliminates every anomaly in order to represent the generic specimen, the painting removes all that is general in order to preserve only the anomaly. That’s why even the most naturalistic work of art contains a note of strangeness, a soupçon of the Weird.
Art isn’t concerned with how the world appears to the intellect because it operates at the level of sensations as opposed to concepts. The term “aesthetic” denotes an engagement with reality at the pre-conceptual level of instinct and intuition, affect and vision. Van Gogh’s picture conveys its sunflowers as pure sensations, that is, as that which exists before the intellect subsumes it in a generalization.Sensations are the immediate data of consciousness. Before the intellect reorganizes it according to general ideas, reality is a sensuous affair through and through. That’s why it isn’t wrong to speak of aesthetic experience as unmediated. There is always a moment, before the intellect does its thing, during which reality reveals itself to us directly. Something exists before we name it, before we attribute a function to it, before we subordinate it to our ideas, beliefs, and judgments—before “we” come into play at all as rational subjects. This is what I call the Real. It isn’t generic reality but the raw Real that comes to us in works of art.
A Play of Forces
Nothing in the foregoing implies that the aesthetic imagination is opposed to intellect. Novels, poems, films, paintings, and even choreographies are full of general ideas and concepts. But when such things appear in an artwork, they do so as sensuous events within the aesthetic world that the work evokes. They are on a plane with everything else, because the intellect too is in the Real.
Take for instance the idea of Christianity in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. What is it that makes this novel, written by a fervent Christian, different from those fundamentalist paperbacks we find on drugstore bookracks? It’s that The Brothers Karamazov doesn’t absolutize Christianity. It doesn’t raise Christianity above the fictional universe in order to make it a given on which the significance of other things depends. On the contrary, Dostoevsky allows his Christian faith to exist on a plane with the other forces that make up his universe.
At the sensuous level of aesthetic vision, all things—even ideas, concepts, opinions and beliefs—manifest as forces. In philosophy, it was Friedrich Nietzsche (and Baruch Spinoza before him) who showed that even the most abstract concepts are, at bottom, feelings in disguise. At any rate, this is how they appear to the aesthetic imagination. Concepts have no transcendent power over reality. They don’t hover above the spatiotemporal universe, shining down upon it. They are no more (nor less) “objective” than anything else. Like all things, concepts are events in a world. You use them as you’d use a hammer, to build something up or tear something down. Even the loftiest conceptual system fully belongs to this world. Judging by the novels he wrote, Dostoevsky didn’t conceive of Christianity as a theory to be accepted as true or rejected as false. He saw it as a force that inhabits us, opening up new possibilities and closing off others. A similar view runs through the work of Nietzsche, who was above all a great aesthetic thinker, maybe the greatest who ever lived. And Nietzsche’s key insight is that the world is shaped by a primal energy of desire. Look at any concept or idea closely enough, he says, and you’ll see that within it there burns a sensuous force, a “will-to-power.”
Aesthetic vision apprehends the universe as an immanent field of living forces. All of reality is ensouled, willful, alive. Small wonder, then, that works of art present the world as innately sentient. The forces that compose the aesthetic worlds of a writer, filmmaker, or painter are not the blind and brute entities of physics. They are forces of desire, or what John Carpenter, in his brilliant film Big Trouble in Little China, refers to as “furies.” Any painting or piece of music could serve as an example. The colors and lines that make up a painting, like the notes and sounds that make up a symphony, are more than the isolable elements they appear to be for the intellect that breaks the work down to its constituents. They are interdependent furies vying with one another, forming alliances or waging war to produce what is called a composition. The same is true of other art forms.
Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there. 
When Chekhov advises writers to remove extraneous details from their narrative work, he means that every element should enter into a dynamic relation with every other element as well as with the work as a whole. This is because each one is itself an intentional force that alters the world of which it is part. The rifle on the wall isn’t just a rifle on a wall; it’s a will, an intention, a desire that at some point must fulfill itself. In art, guns want to go off. This is the case not just with inanimate objects but also with with places, settings. Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining presents the Overlook Hotel as a living creature with at least as much agency as the hapless family trapped inside it. Likewise, in Dickens’ Great Expectations, the dank and foggy marshes of Kent, Miss Havisham’s rambling house, and the city of London all exert a presence that makes them more than mere backdrops for the actions of human figures. As a matter of fact, in the work of both Kubrick and Dickens, human characters are themselves the expressions of places which are every bit as alive and ensouled as they are, sometimes even more so.
Artists are people who can experience the world imaginally at the level of sensations or aesthetic forces. Matter for them is alive and vibrant. Through their eyes, life in its broadest sense leaves the domain of biological entities to become an energy coursing through all things. And by “all things” I don’t mean static objects but events, becomings, each relating to every other. The aesthetic imagination sees the world as a clash of forces, an agon radiating a strange vitality which defines the Real. “Art,” wrote the American philosopher Susanne Langer, “is the objectification of feeling and the subjectification of nature.” In it, all that the human intellect normally claims as its exclusive property is restored to the forces that compose a pre-human imaginal world. All that ordinary awareness deems to be mere objects is also restored to those forces. There is only the agon, the Event that is a kind of miracle occurring at each moment. Art captures the moment to preserve the miracle.
The Transcendental Field
Under the terms of ordinary subject-object awareness, the experience of, say, a vase of sunflowers “belongs” to us, in the sense that we are the basis on which such an experience can be said to exist. But when Van Gogh perceives a vase of sunflowers, he experiences it as belonging to something bigger than his subjective mind. This “something” is what Jean-Paul Sartre called a transcendental field, a kind of proto-consciousness in which beings arise as subjects and objects.
Deleuze defined the transcendental field as “a pre-reflexive impersonal consciousness, a qualitative duration of consciousness without a self.”  It is this field that produces Van Gogh as a subject and the sunflowers as an object at one and the same time. Subject and object are the two poles of an unprecedented event. The painting is an embodiment of the event, embracing both the experience and the act of experiencing.
The transcendental field isn’t projected by a conscious mind. It is the impersonal locus from which conscious minds emerge. Because Van Gogh stayed true to the field, allowing his self to fold back into the event instead of insisting that the event was happening for him, he produced a work no one can dismiss as just another object. The painting is alive, the sunflowers too. The life and agency we would normally ascribe only to the human mind is present in them. We can’t in good faith continue to say that the sunflowers are just “contents” of “our” perception, at least not unless we also admit that we are contents of their perception, since the sunflowers here are creatures in their own right, watching us watch them. This, I think, is what Paul Cézanne was getting at when he said that in the heat of creation, he and the landscape he painted formed a single “iridescent chaos.”
The subject-object structure that the usual conception of consciousness assumes doesn’t obtain at the aesthetic level. Normally, when we talk about consciousness we mean mind, personal awareness, self-consciousness, the “I” that knows itself aware. But as every psychologist knows, subjectivity represents only a very small part of psychic reality. We would do well here to consider one of the key insights of Sartre’s seminal essay, The Transcendence of the Ego (1936):
When I run after a streetcar, when I look at the time, when I am absorbed in contemplating a portrait, there is no I. (…) In fact, I am then plunged into the world of objects; it is they which constitute the unity of my consciousness; it is they which present themselves with values, with attractive and repellant qualities—but me, I have disappeared; I have annihilated myself. There is no place for me on this level. And this is not a matter of chance, due to a momentary lapse of attention, but happens because of the very structure of consciousness. 
I wonder what Sartre would have said on the subject of the neurological condition known as blindsight. People who suffer from blindsight are cortically blind, but able to respond to visual stimuli as though they could see. For instance, a person with blindsight will report being unable to see anything when a red handkerchief is dangled in front of them. Nevertheless, when asked to name the color of the item they will answer correctly, “red.” Blindsight is consciousness without awareness, perception without sight. It takes the “con” out of consciousness to confront us with a more primordial sentience that is completely objective.
Which is to say that psyche can be uncoupled from subjectivity. C.G. Jung was right to describe his collective unconscious as an objective psyche: it is the weird sentience of a transcendental field, “a qualitative duration of consciousness without a self,” an unconscious that isn’t a repository for static archetypes but the energistic field of Nature understood as an eminently creative and dynamic process. Cézanne’s iridescent chaos is a perceiving chaos. It is in some strange way alive: it sees, thinks, and desires. Nietzsche’s utterance, “And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you,” has more than metaphorical value.
When we imagine that it is the forces shaping the universe that perceive and not the subjective minds that are born and die inside this universe, we are close to the imaginal vision conveyed in art. As a metaphysics it amounts to a form of animism or panpsychism. The panpsychic universe is one that exists in itself, objectively, just like the material cosmos of scientists, but whose molecular sentience produces minds all over the place. Experience or perception is not the cause of existence, but its perpetual correlate. To be is to perceive.
Everything is Alive
Matter is physical, matter is psychic: both statements are true when made in unison. As soon as one is used to negate the other, however, the aesthetic vision is lost. For then concepts are placed above the sensations that shape them, the intellect is raised above Nature, and we are inevitably left with some form of anthropocentrism. The panpsychism of art, by contrast, entails that human consciousness is just one manifestation of a sentience that precedes human intellection. The Real ceases to be the comfortable theatre for human action it is for idealists and the hostile no-where it is for materialists. It is very much our home, but our home is a haunted house: strange, uncanny or, to borrow a word from weird literature, eldritch. Eugene Thacker, in a probing analysis of Fritz Leiber’s story “The Black Gondolier,” describes a moment where “everything human is revealed to be only one instance of the unhuman.” 
The above image by the great Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi contains a couple of empty rooms in a turn-of-the-century flat in Copenhagen. There are no human subjects in these rooms. The feeling of emptiness is reinforced by the mirror, which reflects nobody. Yet somehow, sentience isn’t absent from the image. There is a haunting presence here, immanent to the place itself. The rooms exhibit what J. G. Ballard called a “transcendental geometry,” intimating a non-human life that thrives even in the most humanized spaces. We’ve all experienced it before, be it in an empty hotel corridor, an old house, the depths of a forest, or some derelict urban area: a presence that precedes and exceeds us, that perceives us even as we perceive it, a strange form of life irreducible to our own minds, but pointing instead to an alien knowing underneath the familiar world. There is nothing cozy about this presence; indeed at times it verges on the frightening. Facing it means confronting the “it” that shapes all things, even the most familiar ones, even a couple of empty rooms, even the eyes, brain, and spinal cord with which I perceive those empty rooms.
Hammershøi here gives us a glimpse of this occluded reality. When we allow ourselves to enter into his painting, there is a chance that it also enters us. Who hasn’t experienced a film, play, or concert so powerful that for hours or even days afterwards it seemed to refashion the world in its image? We are all poets when this happens, seers beyond the ambit of a closed, all-too-human subjectivity. What disappears in such moments of encounter is the judgment underlying the view that humans are the centre of cosmic attention. Philosophically, these moments challenge any conception of consciousness which, construing the world in terms of representations for human beings, reduces the teeming forces of the cosmos to the props and decor of an all-too-human stage.
The notion of consciousness implies two things: a spatiotemporal perspective, and a power to choose among potential actions or thoughts from this perspective. As Henri Bergson argues in Matter and Memory (1896), to be conscious means to be able to discern. My consciousness is my freedom to direct my becoming as a being in a world of beings. Consciousness, at bottom, is discernment. But what is the difference between discernment proper and the judgment referred to above? Simply, there is discernment when I act with the awareness that my perceptions and thoughts are contingent and relative. Given a different set of circumstances or a new perspective, I would perceive and think differently. This is consciousness in the world, consciousness as a field in which my I and the objects it apprehends arise on the same plane.
Conversely, there is judgment when I act under the belief that my perspective is necessary and absolute; that is, when I assume that my perspective is the one from which final statements can be made. Explicitly or implicitly, this is what happens whenever the subject is posited as the source of consciousness, whenever experience is attributed to a pre-existing experiencer, in short, whenever subjectivity is located outside the phenomenal world. Discernment supposes in an open reality; judgment, a closed one. I judge when I decide that consciousness begins with me or my group, that objects exist only in correlation with me or my group, when I choose to perceive the ever-shifting horizon of my human perspective as the absolute horizon of reality itself.
Oscar Wilde famously wrote, “All art is quite useless.” What he meant, I think, is that the aesthetic nature of the work of art allows us to feel the ultimate “uselessness” of all things. It connects us to what the Buddhists call sunyata, emptiness or openness. Art makes us see things for what they are in themselves instead of limiting them to the uses we normally put them to. To see the world aesthetically is to see beyond the judgments of self, culture, and society. For insofar as it belongs to the order of dream and vision, art isn’t part of culture. On the contrary, it is the intrusion of Nature into the human realm. And what the intrusion reveals, ultimately, is that in truth there never was “culture.” Words, concepts, beliefs, ideations are forces in a universe of forces. As Paul Klee said, if humans aren’t the masters of the universe, it’s because each of us is “a creature on a star among stars.”  To see things otherwise is to judge the world, to arrogate the right to decide on the purpose and nature of things that in reality exceed us.
Johannes Vermeer’s Woman Holding a Balance (1662) shows a bourgeois woman weighing gold and pearls strewn on a table before her. On the back wall is a picture of the Day of the Lord, when Christ will break into history a second time to judge all sinners. Vermeer’s painting has often been interpreted as an allegory on the sin of vanity, i.e. pride and egoism. If the woman is preoccupied with the value of the jewels, it can only be because jewels are scarce and exclusionary. As material possessions, they indicate her privileged place among mortals. Their value, itself an outcome of human judgment, augments her personal worth over other beings. The fact that she is facing a mirror lends support to this allegorical interpretation, as does the aforementioned picture on the wall. In Early Modern Europe, mirrors were still luxury items, and few things bespoke social status like an oil painting in the home. Vermeer’s inclusion of a picture within his painting speaks to what artworks in general signified in his time. Like gold, pearls, and mirrors, they were coveted tokens of prestige.
Given these signs, the viewer comes to an obvious question: Shouldn’t someone who takes the doctrine of Revelation seriously find better things to do with their time than count their riches? The juxtaposition of the figure’s activity with the image on the wall seems to imply a clear moral message. This woman would be better off valuing the “treasures of Heaven” over the “treasures of this world.” When we add that the painting has affinities with a tradition, widespread in the Netherlands of the time, of moralistic “vanitas pictures” in which mirrors and gold prefigured as symbols of vanity, the interpretation appears confirmed.  Vermeer’s painting contains a moral allegory, and not a particularly subtle one, what with the judgment of God looming in plain view. And like all allegories, this one asks us to judge. We are being asked to judge the woman in the foreground. “Look how vain she is,” the painting seems to be saying. “Don’t be like her.” You can imagine the pious nods of the upstanding bourgeois who clued in on this while gazing at the picture in some austere but proud parlor of Delft in the late 1600s.
But if the painting’s allegorical function finds its proof in the presence of that picture of Judgment Day on the wall, that same picture introduces a note of irony into the overall painting that is absent from most vanitas images of the period. In fact it constitutes an example of an aesthetic rift. Briefly, what I mean by a rift is a gap, breakage, inconsistency, fissure, excess, flourish or other imperfection in the otherwise smooth surface of a work of art. It is what sets certain works apart from the rest within a specific class or tradition. In Reclaiming Art, I argue that rifts are what make the difference between “masterworks”—perfect examples of form—and “classics,” which deserve that name precisely because they each belong in a singular class of their own. Looking at vanitas paintings of the seventeenth century, we find no shortage of masterworks. In fact, with its emphasis on the realistic rendering of material possessions, the genre was particularly well-suited to displays of technical virtuosity. Most vanitas pictures, however, are known today only to experts on the period and art history students.
Few would argue with the assertion that Woman Holding a Balance stands out of the lot. Likewise, few would deny that Vermeer’s work isn’t just a masterful example of a genre but a true classic, a singular work that stands on its own, defying comparison. On the other hand, many would probably resist the argument that this painting, which in the end portrays an everyday activity of the Dutch bourgeoisie, is an act of subversion undermining an entire moral order and touching on the non-human core of human existence. This is what I would like to demonstrate in the conclusion of this essay.
The Last Judgment
Vermeer’s picture, I believe, contains not just one but three rifts, each of which extends and transforms the irony of the overall picture in order ultimately to annul the judgment that appears, on the surface, to be its message. The first has already been touched on. It is the explicit reference to Judgment Day in a picture that clearly didn’t need it, given the fact that moral allegories were common, even expected, at the time it was made. The second rift has a self-referential or “meta” function. It is that this reference to divine judgment takes the form of a painting within a painting. Had the image been a bible on a lectern or an angel wagging its finger, the allegory would have remained intact, because the notion of an actual transcendent judge in whose name humans could judge the living and the dead would have remained plausible. But the fact that we are faced with a painting of judgement is significant. The woman is being reprimanded for her apparent love of luxury by an object which is itself a thing of luxury—and this irony appears to us within Vermeer’s own painting, that is, within another luxury item. No artwork can decry the “treasures of this world” without itself being such a treasure—not even a Cathedral or a Buddhist shrine. Absolute judgments can’t be communicated through art without relativizing themselves absolutely. An artwork may seem to communicate one thing, but insofar as it is art, it will express something else.
Aesthetic works are necessarily material in nature. Regardless of the message a work appears to convey, its existence inheres in space, time, matter, and energy. Materiality—stone in sculpture, light in cinema, movement in dance—is its indispensable condition. The beauty that genuine art brings into being is the beauty of matter itself. It is the sublimity of a Nature always transformed but never eliminated or replaced. No painting could deny this world of becoming without at the same time affirming it in beauty. Vermeer’s image points us to this truth. It shows us that beauty, meaning, and truth radiate from this world, not from the next. The very conception of a transcendent reality on the basis of which judgements become necessary and absolute as opposed to contingent and relative is, in itself, an idea in and of this world. It too is an earthly treasure. The painting transmutes judgment to discernment in a rift through which we see that all judgments are contingent. All of them belong to the sublunary world of becoming, because Being is a flux of becoming and nothing beside.
The third rift is the clincher. Whereas a true vanitas picture of the period—a masterwork—would have loaded the scales with jewelry, Vermeer leaves them empty. He thus ensures the failure of his work as an allegory even as he subverts allegory in every form.
As mentioned above, the allegorical interpretation demands that we judge the woman for her vanity. Seeing her weighing gold and pearls in front of a picture of Judgment Day, the morally upright viewer reacts with disdain and comes away with a moral lesson.
But since the scales are empty, the question arises: Who is doing the judging here? In reality, the only thing the woman has been weighing is the transience of the moment itself as an event in time. John Berger describes the effect beautifully in his 1972 documentary, Ways of Seeing:
Gradually, the painting becomes more mysterious, less easily explainable. The light falls on her face, on her fingers, on the scales, on the pearls. The moment has been preserved. And as we realize this … we also realize that like every moment, it was unrepeatable. It is as though she is holding the moment between her finger and thumb, in the scales of the past and the future. Despite its apparent celebration of property, this painting is about the mystery of light and time as we look up at the stars. 
Vermeer’s painting confronts us with the absolute immanence of a world without judgment. The fact that the scales are even is significant, as it tells us that only in immanence—immanence that is “not immanent to anything but itself,” as Deleuze puts it—is true justice achieved. This is why Nietzsche said that “only as an aesthetic phenomenon is existence and the world eternally justified.” 
So, it isn’t in the picture on the wall that we see the real Last Judgment but in Vermeer’s painting as a whole, which bodies forth the judgment against judgment that frees the cosmos from an anthropocentrism that would make the human perspective absolute. Though this universe includes humans, it also includes the light of the sun, the undulations of marine blue fabric, pearls produced over years in the shells of mollusks, gold forged over eons in the depths of the earth, and religious myths that are like the beautiful waking dreams of humanity. With judgment gone, all things are allowed to exist in an immanent frame. Revelation ceases to be a forever-postponed future event to become an ever-present unveiling wherein the world discloses its immediate suchness. “The apocalypse is the way the world looks when the ego has disappeared,” Northrop Frye wrote. 
The elements in Woman Holding a Balance form together a single miraculous event, a clash of forces, an explosion of the new—terrible, beautiful, and real. The painting enacts this event even as it embraces the judgment that would deny it. In the frozen moment where immanence irrupts into the imagination, there is nothing left to judge, not even judgment itself, because even the most anthropocentric act of judging is a non-human event shaping the human world. Is this what the voice in the Book of Revelation means when it says, “Behold, I make all things new”? Is divine judgment less a moral invective than a creative act through which the human world is restored to the innocence of the Real? That is what I think the myth on the wall is telling the woman. It is what Vermeer’s picture, I believe, is telling us. It is what art as a medium reveals all the time. Art liberates the forces that judgment seeks to contain and control. It connects us to a reality that exceeds human consciousness, even as it makes us the conscious creatures we are.
This essay is based on a presentation given at the Science and Nonduality conference in San Jose, CA, in October 2015. An earlier draft appeared on the Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice blog under the title “Consciousness in the Aesthetic Vision.”
- Anton Chekhov, quoted in Valentine T. Bill, Chekhov: The Silent Voice of Freedom, Philosophical Library, 1987, p. 79.
- Gilles Deleuze, Pure Immanence: Essays on A Life, translated by Anne Boyman, Urzone, 2001, p. 25.
- Jean-Paul Sartre, The Transcendence of the Ego: An Existential Theory of Consciousness, translated by Forrest Williams and Robert Kirkpatrick, Hill & Wang, 1960, pp. 48-49.
- Eugene Thacker, in a lecture: https://vimeo.com/groups/86415/videos/22862986
- Paul Klee, The Thinking Eye: The Notebooks of Paul Klee, edited by Jürg Spiller, G. Wittenborn, 1961, p. 63.
- Mark W. Roskill, What is Art History?, University of Massachussets, 1989, p. 148.
- John Berger, Ways of Seeing, BBC, 1972 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0pDE4VX_9Kk
- Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, Cambridge University Press, 1999, p. 33.
- Northrop Frye, The Great Code: The Bible and Literature, Penguin Canada, 1982, p. 172.
Love is patient, Love is kind. Love is not boastful or envious or arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” St. Paul, First Letter to the Corinthians Chapter 13 verses 4-7
You’ve likely heard these lines at pretty much any wedding you’ve ever been to. As someone who used to officiate at weddings I can recall all the glazed eyes and people checking their cell phones whenever someone would start reading it. It was like I could feel the air go out of the church.
In those moments the thought that always ran through my head is why did this reading became so popular at weddings in the first place? Sure, on a base level, there’s an obvious connection between Love and marriage.
On second glance I find it very odd indeed that we should have this reading at so many weddings when after all this passage is about esoteric paranormal phenomenon. It’s true. The original context of these words are a criticism of the ethical misuse of esoteric and paranormal capacities. So unless the couple in question getting married have been consistently misusing their esoteric capabilities, especially in regards to their relationship, it raises the question of whether it is the most apt reading for their wedding.
The famous lines quoted above come from the 13th chapter of St. Paul’s First Letter to the newly formed Christian community in Corinth. It was very likely written between the years 53-57 C.E. about 25 years or so after the death of Jesus.
The wedding canopy that hangs over 1 Corinthians 13 has caused us to miss what this passage is actually about—an ethical and spiritual reflection on the appropriate and inappropriate applications of esoteric or mystical experiences. In an age of renewed interest in esoterica, the occult, paranormal and mystical phenomenon, I think St. Paul’s words have some serious import for us if we can only get a sense of what he was actually saying.
Metapsychosis, as Jeremy so eloquently articulated, means (for him) “a movement of soul-within-soul. Mind to mind. Psyche to psyche. The movement and transmigration of consciousness, culture, and world(s) as they churn in the sea of becoming and meaning-making.”
I think that St. Paul’s writings in the First Letter to the Corinthians have something very important to say to us about this meta-path of soul. In particular what are the ethics of working soul to soul, psyche to psyche? How do we relate to each other and use for the good that which arises out of our souls? Especially in this time, in this age?
Here I think is where St. Paul’s subtle analysis of mysticism, esoterica, and ethics can be of great value to us. A key reason I believe so are the parallels between the ancient Corinthians and our own contemporary era.
Corinth at the time of St. Paul was a colony of the Roman Imperium. It was a city with longstanding history and prestige in Greece but had fallen into relative decline as money and peoples moved elsewhere in the globalized economy of the day. Rome had in fact destroyed the city—brutally disappearing its men, selling its women and children off to slavery—a mere century or so previously. Rome repopulated the city with Romans, Greeks, including a significant percentage of Jews.
While the state machinery of Imperial Rome whirled in full gear, a soul sickness pervaded the empire. The civic religion of the Roman state was beginning to decay, weaken, and fracture. As the civic religion desiccated, people looked for Eastern religions to fill the void—which in their time meant to places like present-day Egypt, Palestine, Iraq, and Iran, especially Judaism and what would come to be known as Christianity (interestingly for us labeled “Western” religions with our Eastern religions then being Southeast and East Asian ones).
During this time all manner of spiritual exploration and experimentation flourished: Goddess worship, Mystery Cults, philosophical-mystical revivals, exorcists, medicine people populated the scene. The world became filled with messianic figures—Greek, Jewish, and otherwise.
There was a thriving marketplace for spiritual awakening, debate, and engagement. In the rapidly hollowing-out husk of the Roman Empire people turned to God or gods. There were charges of problematic eclecticism (i.e. ancient spiritual cafeteria-ism), critiques of true Westerns being blinded by “Eastern” heresies.
I hear many echoes to our own day: from the dark underbelly of Pax Americana and globalization, to the wild wanderings of beings to find meaning, wisdom, and solace in any and all places, to the specific explosion of interest in alternative states of being and experience.
From this ferment was came an explosion of interest in and experience of mystical experience. Including but not limited to a very small community in the city of Corinth. This community consisted of Gentiles who had been drawn in certain respects to Judaism. These were Gentiles who were drawn to the Jewish spirituality (but not necessarily Jewish customs of circumcision or kosher food restrictions) were known as God-fearers.
St.Paul—who was Jewish as were all the leaders of the first generations of what came to be known as Christianity—felt that God had called him to work with Gentiles. So he began by connecting with God-fearers. These individuals formed the basis of what we would call the Christian community in Corinth (though they did not call themselves Christians it should be noted).
Paul preached his message, his gospel, of the Crucified and Risen Christ Jesus and these Gentiles embraced this message. For them it opened their hearts, their souls, and for many of them their subtle experiential channels (as we’ll see in a moment).
That is to say the ancient Corinthian Christians were newbies; they only had a few decades of practice in the way of Jesus under their belts. They were attempting to be formed in a tradition, one that they were not born into. One that they were both trying to remain faithful to and yet also incorporate while modifying it to reflect their own reality, all the while hoping to remain faithful and genuine in doing so.
This challenge these Corinthians were faced with I think is very much the challenge of many contemporary North American spiritual practitioners of all shapes and sizes: plant medicine practitioners, Western practitioners of Eastern traditions, spiritual but not religious. Perhaps even more broadly the entire moment towards a globalized identity and culture faces this same question: what will be the spiritual expression(s) of such a globalized person, of communities that seek to live such an identity?
In particular, what are the ethics of a meta-psychosis? If meta means both a second order reflection on as well as that which is bigger, the question of the ethics of our psyches is absolutely crucial.
I maintain that St. Paul’s words transmigrate across time and space in contexts that are different but perhaps not as totally different as we might surmise. These words speaking of the primacy of love.
Paul was one of the founders of the community at Corinth. It is in this role that he wrote his letters, primarily as it turns out in this case to admonish and critique the growing problems of the fledging Corinthian Christian community.
Though the Corinthian Christians were still relatively young in their practice they were nevertheless accessing very strong spiritual experiences. They were also apparently really struggling to maintain their ethical integrity in the midst of such experiences. They were navigating important questions of authority and tradition on the one hand while allowing room for spontaneous expression on the other.
I hear echoes of that struggle to our own—only a few decades since the counterculture rise, the importation of Eastern spirituality, shamanic revivals, along with the loss of traditional supports and consequently numerous forms of abuse: financial, spiritual, sexual, and emotional. Yet all the while we maintain a sense that these experiences and capacities are crucially important and have something profound to offer us.
It would be tempting to call this reflection an esoteric reading of 1 Corinthians, except that would be wrong. It’s not importing esotericism into the reading. The esotericism is there in plain ancient Koine Greek (or English in my translation). It’s right on the page. If anything it’s taken enormous amounts of efforts over the years to misread the very clear intended meaning of the text.
Paul begins his letter to the Corinthian community in this manner:
“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given to you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind…so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Notice the emphasis there on knowledge of every kind—including as we’ll see esoteric knowledge (gnosis). Esoteric or paranormal experience were apparently quite common in the Corinthian church. Intriguingly Paul recognizes this reality but this is not Paul’s primary interest. His interest is in the ethical and communal context of esotericism.
So what are these esoteric gifts? What kinds of experiences and capacities (siddhis) were these early Christians expressing?
Paul offers a list of what these esoteric Christian spiritual gifts are (in chapter 12 of 1 Corinthians): in traditional Christian theological language these are called charismatic gifts, from the Greek charism/charisma meaning grace.
utterances of wisdom
gifts of faith
gifts of healing
prophecy (aka divination)
discernment of spirits
speaking in tongues
Paul later adds to the list things like “various forms of assistance and leadership.” (Rejoice and be glad organizational visionaries and movement builders, you too have a spiritual gift to give!).
The key point is that the presence of a spiritual power, what Paul calls The Spirit of God, has unleashed esoteric experiences and capacities in this community. So far, so good. But something is not well. After all the nice flowery greetings and thanksgivings in the first 9 verses, Paul gets right to the point in verse 10:
“Now I appeal to you brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul, ‘I belong to Apollos’, or ‘I belong to Cephas (Peter)’, or ‘I belong to Christ.’ (1 Corinthians 1: 10-12).”
So while there’s a great sense of esoteric and mystical experience abounding these experiences are not solving the fundamental problem of a community rife with division, power plays, and egotism. The spiritual experiences are being subsumed into the larger context of division and spiritual egos. This is what all the “I belong to Paul or Cephas or Apollos” is about—people in the community were lining up behind their favorite charismatic spiritual teacher. This is the mystical equivalent of “My dad can beat up your dad.” Sadly my spiritual teacher can beat up your spiritual teacher is alive and well in our time.
So something’s gone very wrong. In order to try to heal the divisions and transform the situation Paul reminds the Corinthians how they came to their spiritual experiences in the first place:
“When I came to you brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom…I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.” (1 Cor 2: 1, 3-4)
Here then is the crux of Paul’s argument. If I put it in point form it’d be:
1. We only come to spiritual experience through grace (the Spirit and power of the divine).
2. That spiritual power is best expressed, paradoxically, through humility and love.
Fancy discussions, lofty treatises, and the like will not grant us spiritual insight (human wisdom versus the power of god(s). But then, more pertinent for our purposes here is point #2: what is the best way for the grace of the god(s) to be expressed in life? Can these experiences come to actually reinforce and strengthen a sense of egotism? Or can they help resolve such egotism?
St. Paul’s answer is that while these experiences are ultimately meant to help reduce egotism, they can just as easily get sucked into supporting egotism. In the case of the Corinthians (and sadly I think we are far too Corinthian nowadays) he sees the latter, not the former occurring.
In response to this failure, Paul will articulate a beautiful vision of the power of love as a medicine to heal all egotism, particularly spiritual egotism.
Liberal Christians as well as academic religious scholars have shied away from this (obvious) esoteric context to Paul’s letter as it raises the uncomfortable question of mystical experience. Now it is certainly true that the ancient Corinthian church lived in a radically different social, technological, philosophical, and political world then we do. There are points of overlap I would argue, but there the distinctions really need to be honored. That being said, the specific esoteric processes being described by St. Paul are not unfamiliar to our world. They are available experiences today in very similar, if not nearly identical form. I contend that while Paul’s words are expressly in response to specifically ancient Christian forms of esoteric experience, I think his words can have meaning and insight for those of us in participating in the larger realm of esoteric and mystical experience who aren’t doing so in a specifically Christian context or form.
Let’s start in Chapter 12 (one chapter prior to the Love is patient portion read at weddings).
“Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed…There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; there are varieties of service but the same Lord; there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” (1 Cor 12: 1, 2-7)
I really want to emphasize that last line:
“To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”
Paul then goes on to articulate his famous image of the church (the spiritual community or sangha) as a body, with no part of the body ultimately being superior to any other, but rather each simply performing its function for the sake of the whole.
“If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be?…If all were a single member, were would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ (1 Cor 12: 17, 19-21)
This message is a radical one in this or any age. It clearly states that our own spiritual, mystical, or esoteric capacities only exist as gifts to help others. Further we are not to grade or judge each other based on a supposed hierarchy of spiritual gifts. All are equal in the eyes of God. Different gifts are simply different gifts and each has their place.
Perhaps most radical of all Paul states boldly,
“On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be the weaker are the indispensable.” (1 Cor 12: 22)
In an era where spirituality is increasingly a pastime pursuit of elites, Paul reminds us that those who seem on the periphery, the forgotten, marginalized, and oppressed ones, are the indispensable ones. And just so we keep our historical sense in mind, the Corinthian church was having a problem with its wealthier members excluding its poorer ones from their spiritual gatherings–which Paul rails against in Chapter 11 of the letter. The Corinthians are sounding more and more like us or we like them every second.
In contrast, Paul’s vision is one of radical interdependency or inter-being. It’s a complete and total critique of Western culture’s pursuit of radical individualism–even and most especially within the context of spiritual individualistic consumerism (aka spiritual materialism).
Which brings us to the last and crucial line of Chapter 12 (verse 31):
“Strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.”
Paul is saying there something tremendously important not only to the ancient Corinthians but to us. Yes we should strive for the greater esoteric gifts—if you are called to plant medicine that is a kind of spiritual gift. If you are called to energy healing, that’s a kind of spiritual gift. Strive for all these insofar as you do so with an aim to buildup the common good. We should strive for these gifts as a way to help each other.
But there is still yet an even more excellent way than striving for the buildup of the common good through spiritual gifts (as great as that it is when done properly)—and that way is the way of love.
The Corinthian church was doing neither. Just a recap of what we’ve learned of the Corinthian community:
1. They had formed factions around various spiritual teachers in the Christian movement
2. The rich were having a separate gathering with each other, excluding and shaming their poorer members (poorer in human economic terms only).
3. They were misusing esoteric processes for their own glorification (spiritual egotism).
And here are a few other gems I haven’t mentioned but worth listing here to get a sense of the serious problems in this community.
4. Some of them were suing each other in civil courts (Chapter 6).
5. They were fighting over food purity issues (their version of our vegan, vegetarians, raw foodists, gluten-frees, omnivores and carnivore fights).
6. One individual was sleeping with his stepmom (true story, read Chapter 5—”a man is living with his father’s wife’).
In other words, image, sex, money, and power were corrupting their spiritual path. Sound familiar?
In this toxic brew, Paul reminds them of key points:
1. Spiritual experience is a form of grace. It is a gift of the divine and is meant to be shared as a means of building up the common good, not to glorify oneself. Because after all one has not really done or achieved anything—as it all comes from The Divine.
2. Strive therefore for the greater esoteric gifts, offer them to others as gifts in service.
3. Above all follow the yet more excellent path of love.
And then after all this comes the famous passage of Chapter 13:
“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels but not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge and I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have I love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” (1 Cor 13: 1-3).
All of the processes there mentioned are esoteric ones—speaking in tongues of angels, prophetic powers, understanding all mysteries, having all knowledge and faith so as to remove mountains (co-creators! manifestors!).
Yet: “If I do not have love, I am nothing.”
No qualification. No hedging there from Paul. Without love, it’s all meaningless. Without love, spiritual experiences add up to a giant pile of nothing, maybe even something worse than nothing.
Again Paul reminds the Corinthians it’s worth striving for these capacities, as long as we remember A) they are gifts to be used in service to others and B) what motivates our giving is love.
“If I give away all my possessions but do not have love I gain nothing.”
That’s a direct shot to contemporary celebrity spiritual philanthropists who give away lots of money to make themselves appear holy and caring.
“And if hand over my body so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing.”
Paul here is referring to spiritual ascetics, who perform incredible acts of self-denial but only do so to boast and look superior. In our day, we’re less likely to see as much denial ascetics as we are to see yogic super athletes. They may not hand over their bodies, rather they may rather work them out to appear incredibly physiqued, sexy, Tantric, whatever. But if they do so without love, they gain nothing.
What then is love?
“Love is patient (i.e. long-suffering), love is kind…Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues they will cease; as for knowledge it will come to an end. For now we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part, but when the complete comes the partial will end…For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part, then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide these three; and the greatest of these is love.” (1 Cor 13: 4, 8-9a, 12-13)
Love runs deeper (according to Paul) then all mystical or spiritual experiences, however graceful, however helpful they may be. In so arguing Paul makes clear that love is the possibility of all beings. For any number of reasons a person may not have the opportunity or aptitude to work with esoteric capacities, but all can love, which in an ultimate sense is the only important issue in play. The mystical-esoteric phenomena and gifting can be a relative aid to the ultimate work of love. But shorn of the context of love, these capacities are more than likely to only create a more nefarious, spiritualized form of selfishness.
Love is fundamentally wishing the best for another, for all others. It is letting go completely of the idea that I ultimately know what is in the highest good for another being. In that releasing and surrendering of understanding, I cease to try to control. I watch my tendencies to try to manipulate another—whether covertly or overtly—and I simply hold in my heart a vision of their deepest blessedness. If I may add simple acts to that intention which, as best as I can relatively discern, may help in their blessedness and if those acts are welcomed by the other, then I hope to take those acts. Something as simple as a smile, holding a hand, cooking someone a meal, offering a truly listening ear, communicating (verbally or nonverbally) empathy and compassion.
Love is radically simplifying.
Love is, where appropriate, being willing to step aside for the good of another. If we were all constantly stepping aside to give to another then all would be taken care of. In Christianity this is called the perichoresis, whereby each of the persons of the Godhead mutually indwells with the others. In true love, one finds one’s true self only in loving another and being loved in return, just as the other only finds her true self in loving another and being loved in return.
Paul’s point is that love transcends the mystical esoteric (it includes it as well, at least ideally). Love is deeper.
I believe that St. Paul’s wisdom can help us in this unmoored spiritual age to find renewed discernment and care.
Love, as Paul says, never ends. Everything else, all other spiritual capacities or powers do eventually end. Therefore all such capacities must be judged in light of Love. Any other approach to esoteric powers, however well-intentioned, is, I believe, ultimately untrustworthy.
We find ourselves living in the multiple simultaneous breakdown of empire, postmodernity, and meaning. Out of those breakdowns some feel the ineluctable pull to reweave, to rebirth, and to generate something creative, something new, some beauty and wisdom in the face of such monstrous oblivion-inducing technologies and anti-life forces. Some of those forces being political, others being embedded in consciousness directly, while yet still others being of an etheric nature (what St. Paul calls the powers and the principalities.)
Against those St. Paul offers this sagely insight:
Experience the grace, the ultimacy, and the potency of Love.
Out of love for Love seek the higher esoteric gifts so that they may be given as a way to build up the good of all.
But deeper than the gifts is to Love.
If we are to meet soul to soul let it be in Love. Amen.
conscious stream ebb and flowage counterfuge
backbreak the underfoot, the last rhyme sighing
whiskers mellow and consume
bare exposures with hyphae
an intertwining of cell bodies follows deeper
than geometric probabilities
surface vortex shaved with exacting pre-scission
slight enhancements, places carefully augmenting
the preferable behaviors, responses over come and
multiple delicacies awaiting discovery,
literal translation applicable…
torrid scenes raw, make the steel tremble
one form never expressed, and disposed of in every-
the globe remaining a shock to the tired aftermath
of the cube worshipped.
curves, familiar tonalities in vocal transmissions,
wet keys, and unlocked secrets lie dormant
on the doormat, waiting for ring worm attack into
frequent erogenous glances of imaginary tapestries
pathways open to insidious capture
initiate the in-layer, or lay in the initiation,
weakness in the grapple: quiver:lips:sight:mental
exaggeration to the point of tangible sustenance
physical hunger for the taste, muscular deprivation
but a side effect to the opinion
the limits attract form,
full circular expanse of tense skin
breeze scapegoated for the understated reality
entirely possible to walk and know this out of sheer
lack of mass? shape including physical entrances?
critical disagreements, contrast
looming on the horizon of the back, walks a fly, spy
to the pheromone made
when goal and imagery bleed together,
a tilted wet masterpiece.
Colonies of ants hoard free will
underneath Cinco Bayou
they dwell and feast their eyes on texts unheard of
from Italy did it spring,
the well of will-to-travel and travail the council
board of (not-to-be) trusted?
eating and relieving themselves of the duty
money in the form of false bonds
Stone hinge, transfixed moments unravel
last link to their undoing
the ovule that is impregnated every eighth year by
the Sun, Sol invictus, a spiral to the motive,
motif: a spiral
and aspirational, off to Mexico, Brazil, and Rome,
banks, accounts [of conduct]
false Popes die under setting sons,
venus blossom, people, possums,
hit my moving vehicles of Masonic evasion
these men, to pretend they are in fact a falsity
perpetuate false titles barged into neural pathways
of press mono-ploy
a trust vortex in itself.
every one of them.
polish in the squalor
harbor resting making
festive nesting in between
the wave caressing
the possessive grave infesting
active action proton turning
with a burning fervent feeling
growing sky go forth abide
along a blow torch thigh inside
a scorching flyer in
the blaring sound completion
mound retrieval fairy ovum
life deletion in cohesion
holding restive festing evil
Jurisdiction lies in zoology
patterns create toxic waste
sewn seams on lawns and tribyearnal
crib inscription with intentions
building architects elite
and deceit for the vulgar
thorax expands and contracts with ease
die oxide spray
sink sink wink
invoke and revoke
blunt and broke
so it sharpens with each
id and albatross grow in here
like the beads of a satisfactual
adjacentury blow billows into the flea
OH the disease
expanding and contract
sheer sheer blunt
fornicapable and for
able to walk without
“need a new handicap”
like it follows
Zeitgiest, looming jungles
the difference of three and four
pressures stacking connect<regrapple<gammatize,
niches unstiching fission
whipping exposed thin atom chains,
unit>rewrit>split and commit
attached: not to be admired
but to be destroyed in the eyes
only for the narcissistic reality
of graphite sheets through massacre
Room altitude a
jettison mystery relived on the LCD monitor.
Green hue played out in the wait
with lachrymal patients whining,
“lived near the ocean”
a sooty grab at skull entrance
NO lies on the couch
with certain tertian predilection
predictions of oncoming drill masochism
char and the taste of burnt tooth
left over after the chair.
presently the likeness imprinted
up there and before it.