Stretching

I’ve in the last week picked up a copy of a book composed by Timothy Leary and associates back in 1994, two years before Leary’s death in 1996, and around the time when I was imbedded in the post-psychedelic New Age culture of art and speculation that nested in and around Santa Fe, New Mexico. I’d actually passed by Doctor Tim in person as he toured as guest speaker and celebrity for some sort of exploratory consciousness fair that took place at the city’s main Convention Center.

I am certainly no stranger to Leary’s thought and his writings. From the time when he was advocating from an eminent platform at Harvard for boundary breaking explorations of consciousness via LSD and Psylocibn, to the time when I spent days trying to process my own headlong perceptual journeys out to the boundaries of consciousness and beyond. I travelled along parallel paths while Leary made his way through prison and exile and paranoia and the trials that came along with pop stardom and self deification.

When I walked into my dormitory room at Case Western Reserve one night, getting off on some form of chemically induced revery I heard Leary’s voice come over the radio, telling me to, “Sit down Ralph.” He then took me on a guided verbal tour of my brain, the universe and the whole history of human DNA. It turns out that the ‘Ralph’ in the recording, played that night over the student station was of Leary at Harvard conducting an LSD session with one of his grad students, Ralph Metzner. I didn’t learn this until years later, and in the meanwhile carried it around with me like the inner knowledge of some secret synchronistic initiation, a mystery for which I sought no further solution.

The book I’m reading is one I wasn’t particularly familiar with, lent to me by a friend. It’s called “Chaos & Cyber Culture.” By 1994 Leary as visionary prophet had been largely discredited by both popular and serious academic culture. He had spent time in prison, in Europe and in North Africa, in flight from the American police, hobnobbing with revolutionary elites and movie stars and science fiction writers, hounded by governments and ideologues of the Left and the Right. The 60’s dream of storming the barricades of capitalist/consumer culture had long ago faded or been absorbed and replaced by the high octane quest for new meaning and new wealth accelerated by revolutions in technology and communication.

Society was itself going through the initial stages of the sort of destabilization one encounters on an acid trip. Timothy Leary, along with many former prophets and outlaws and explorers were now mere flotsam in massively circulating currents of change. He was gone before the currents would peak and then break into fading fragments after September of 2001.

The book is a collection of words and images splattered across pages designed in the mode of a psychedelic version of The Whole Earth Catalog. There are dozens of typefaces in all sizes floating in the form of giant quotes and poster graphics and images from the past and the future. There are interviews and conversations with the likes of William Gibson and William Burroughs and David Byrne and all sorts of artifacts assembled around a political documentary and summary of sorts of Leary’s broad visions of past, present and possible future.

Other than in worlds of extreme science fiction I haven’t read anything like this in years. Drawing on history, art, mysticism, biology, psychology, computer science and literature, framed with over-the-top optimism regarding the future of civilization and human consciousness, Leary’s vision has no boundaries, and in reading I grow increasingly aware of how much my vision and that of my culture has narrowed over these past four decades. As a nation and as a world we’ve become increasingly ruled by fear and apprehension, which by nature is a narrowing of consciousness to the primitive state of flight or fight that responds robotically to a wider and wider range of stimuli.

We sit in our cocoons of political power and economic anxiety and anticipate the worst. We are a shell-shocked population with eyes and ears open to more and more information but with less ability to integrate it into something that makes sense. We live in a world of chaos, awaiting signs of the next real ‘strange attractor’ that we hope can assemble all of this mess into meaning. We’ve entered a historic and geological period where the shocks come in accelerating waves of war, recession, natural disasters and forced migrations, and our response is to reach out to the person who promises to protect us and shield us and make it all right. Increasingly we realize that the future can’t be controlled by any power wielded by the few for the supposed welfare of the many. Individually we awake once again to the knowledge that the portraits we perceive of the world around us are painted mostly by ourselves.

At first this makes us all feel incredibly alone, until we make an effort to explore and find new ways to make contact with one another, not as crowds or constituents or mobs or armies, but as fully responsible human beings. Our challenge always, is to create entirely new realities for ourselves, through our storytelling and our imagining, that are fluid and adaptable enough to deal with the constant change that our world throws at us. We have the tools to do it, and our task is to awake to our possibilities and to summon the courage to face and dismiss those who would build walls out of our fear.

The Rise of Another World

In light of the irrelevant squabbling that characterizes the fear based struggles of the west, particularly the current election cycle, we should be aware that in important ways the world is ‘moving on.’ As a culture we will either learn to ride the waves or we will fail. 
 
My generation woke up in the sixties to the horrors and injustices of a world overtaken by colonialism and the machineries of global capitalism. We came of age in the first decades of television and the rise of electronic media. The shock of seeing the world from a whole new perspective than that of our parents drove us into a quest for the future that was both hopeful and desperate. We created the hopeful dream of a future dominated by peace and love. We tried to transcend the forces of history and in the process created unfortunate blind spots in our view of the present. 
 
Things have turned out differently than many of us dreamed, at least in the short term. Instead of an Age of Aquarius we appear to have arrived in a world where the dominant reality is one of fragmentation and fear. Instead of universal brotherhood we’ve become isolated into paranoid camps dreaming up ways to attribute our woes to others. Many ‘New Agers’ that I know have taken refuge in bizarre fantasies of persecution and/or redemption that are drawn out of thin air to ‘explain’ the bewildering complexity of the world. We are unable to give up our destructive addictions, so we turn them into religions and defend them with a passion born of fear.    
 
In our struggle to deny the reality of the situations we collectively face, we’ve been caught up in a confusion of contrarian visions, each defending its own turf against all others. The Internet, while opening us to a world of almost infinite diversity has also been a mixed blessing, particularly in the so-called ‘developed’ world. In the domain of ‘social networks’ (read ‘tribes’) we tend to gather into closed networks that reinforce our preconceptions while excluding input from contrary points of view. 
 
In spite of all of this the world continues to change and humans continue to imagine and create. What we need more than ever is the ability to pay attention, to listen to other points of view and other ways of perceiving the reality we face. More than ever we need to be detached and fluid as the world reshapes itself. My advice to us all is, “don’t sweat the big stuff.” We can only effect the enormously complex forces that are reshaping the world by the quality of our everyday interactions.
 
As an illustration of the factors that will effect our future, I offer a link to this important TED talk on China by Martin Jacques, author of When China Rules the World
 

Understanding China

 
Mr. Jacques presents a historical outline of the important aspects that we in the western world tend to miss when we assume that a country like China approaches the future in a manner that merely replicates our own and that the Chinese are motivated in the same way that we are. 
 
The main points of his talk:
 
By the end of the next decade China will have an economy twice the size of the United States. 
 
The speaker warns that “the West has lost the sense of the future.” He makes a case that the world of the future will be shaped more by the developing world than through the weakening influence of the long dominant western models.  
 
China’s problem: A huge number of people and no space. 
 
Three crucial differences in China’s sense of itself and the factors that shape its decisions:
 
The concept of the Civilization State (as opposed to the Nation State).
 
The notion of Race (the absolute primacy of a single dominant race: the Han).
 
The State as the defender of Civilization (the state as the guarantor of Unity).
 
The Chinese invented Golf.