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.

To the Super Bowl

So, this evening (Monday, Feb. 3rd) the REAL Super Bowl begins. Now that all of the Impeachment drama is coming to a close and the football drama is over for a year and we’ve watched the most expensive commercials ever made, perhaps we can get down to business of moving forward.

For the year’s total anticlimax there’s the State of The Union embarrassment taking place tomorrow, in which the Donald will…who knows what the Donald will do or say? The best approach in dealing with our Asshole in Chief is to ignore him as much as possible and go forward with our lives, using our thoughts and imaginations to conjure more palatable futures.

Rush Limbaugh is dying of lung cancer. That’ll take some of the wind out of the sails blowing toward oblivion. While Senators bloviated, the biggest news this week is that the Thwaite Glacier is getting ready to drop and could quickly raise the ocean levels by up to 3 feet. The impending drop of what scientists have dubbed the ‘Doomsday Glacier’ will only be the first of many. There goes one civilization, to be replaced by necessity with another.

I’ve spent the past three years stewing in the juices of my own anger and it has gotten me nowhere. The daily disaster has driven me to forget that the best way to observe the ongoing bombardment and spectacle of news and information is to step as far back from the sheer noise and confusion as possible. The news of the ‘moment’ is mostly made to sell personality and product rather than offering much in the way of useful information. What happens in the moment isn’t as important as our collective mediated response to it. The Reality we perceive in this digital world is of necessity always second hand.

We are each in the business of assembling a world that corresponds to our own predilections. For myself I’ve chosen to accept information primarily through online digital conversations, rather than merely accepting what is ‘broadcast.’ Avoiding antiquated mediums like television and radio or newspaper, I seriously engage with information only after it’s been processed through trusted networks of intelligence and discrimination, carefully evaluating the materials with which to assemble my own picture of the world. I’m a subscriber to reality, mostly through print and podcasts, and an occasional glance at headlines from selected inputs on Apple News or Flipboard or the front pages of newspapers.

When I encounter, as in the laundromat, televised news formats in real time I’m conscious that what I’m receiving is an agenda that has more to do with commerce than truth. This stuff, including all forms of mass public broadcast, from out and out propaganda to public radio, is safe to consume only to the degree that one is aware that every broadcaster has their own agenda. Whatever presents itself as absolute truth is only ideology.

Everyone I know who merely consumes ‘The News’ on television or radio appears to be driven crazy by it.

As a consuming culture many Americans are being consumed by cynicism, doubt and despair. The world we’ve constructed in our minds is one in continual emergency, to which we must react without being given a trusted set of tools to react with. Too many of us are swimming and drowning in a pool of helplessness where new alarms are shouting every day, “Danger! Danger!” After years of daily bombardment we are shell shocked and numb, unable to pierce the fog that obscures the future. Christians and New Agers await the Apocalypse, white supremacists look forward to their ‘boogaloo,’ conspiracy fetishists obsess over every revelation while screwing themselves into increasingly paranoid fantasies, and the rest of us deal with a growing sense of apprehension and dread.

Meanwhile, the world trundles on within webs of mind boggling complexity and we are swept along in rushing rivers of karma and consequence. So easy to imagine that we are either victims, or else we are fighting a constant war for particular outcomes. So easy for me to spew words into the void like weapons, effecting only to increase the chaos instead of offering clarity or hope.

Well, it’s a new year and I’ve been mostly silent lately, after what has felt to me like constant struggle against overwhelming odds. It’s true that there is struggle. The need for change is obvious. The change that’s needed however, can only come about through a change of channels. I’ve been paying too much attention to the idiots waving the flags, and too little time spent in a world where human beings are meant to live, one that’s woven through our minds and our imaginations, where we tell each other stories and look at dire situations as problems to be solved. This is the only kind of world where we have a chance to live beyond our fears. It’s the only world where we can construct the necessary bonds that will hold this ship together.

Let’s try something different for a change.

The Lost Art of Ecstasy

I was recently sent a link to an article in the New Yorker reporting on the most recent results of research into the use of psychedelics for treating the anxiety of cancer patients. This led me to a longer and much more in depth article written last year by one of my favorite writers on food, in this case food for spiritual nourishment. As in all of Pollan’s work, his investigation goes to great depths and approaches the subject from many angles, alternating history with personal anecdotes to deliver an encompassing view of the possibilities.
For those of us who grew up in the sixties, and embarked on many of these same explorations on our own, without supervision or scientific rigor, these efforts to understand may appear absurdly restrictive. At the same time, they are very familiar. Although the Michael Pollan article is pretty long it’s worth a read, particularly for those facing problems of addiction or depression, the loss of loved ones or the prospect of impending sickness or death, or anyone interested in possibilities at the frontiers of therapy and science.
Finally I include a link to a video that offers a look into the face of a person encountering the ecstasy of release and freedom. There was a time when this look was not so uncommon in the people we found around us.
May we all be happy. May we all be well. May we all find freedom.
The Short Version:
The Long Version:
The Ecstatic Version:

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“If you want to find pure gold, you must see it through fire.” – Mumonkan

“You’re part of my crew. Why are we still talking about this?”  – M.R.

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If It Smells Like Religion….

New Rule: ‘If it looks like a religion and acts like a religion and smells like a religion…it’s probably a religion.

Our brave hidalgo mounts the southbound train and proceeds upon adventures that will bring him face to face not with windmills, as they are of an archaic character and are only of service to cows, but with the true adversaries of this day. Although it’s true that the landscapes of this time and place resemble those in which that earlier hero, Quixote wandered, with its broad and brilliantly lit plains ringed by dark mountains and forested thickets, our hero won’t encounter imaginary giants or dark knights in castles. Instead he finds himself in a wilderness of competing doctrines and beliefs that both claim to explain his reality and threaten to freeze his thinking. 

The land is layered in religions and their histories going back even farther than that of ancient Spain. Our train crosses pueblo lands inhabited by clans decked out in turquoise and squash blossoms. There are the cathedrals of the Spanish with their churches of forgiveness and absolution. Then the conquering armies of the Protestant northlands arrive with all of their self-rendered judgements and ever splintering dogmas and styles. Finally the religion of the technocrats arrives, presuming to know with certainty both our past and our future. These are all parts of the soul of New Mexico, for this is a place that exists where many boundaries intersect.  

Our hero knows that the country that stretches desolate and dry on either side of this train will never give up their spirit or their mystery. Being a warrior he choses to place himself at the boundary between what we can know and what we will never know. Although he respects science and rationality as sacred tools, honed through long struggles and only recently released from the shackles of superstition, he senses that in any presumption of absolute purity there are seeds to destroy the world.   

Observe the Richard Dawkins website.  Here are links to many of the carefully constructed arguments denying that atheism is a religion. Surely Richard Dawkins believes that the purpose of his site is only to defend science against the threatening inroads of fundamentalism. And yet, observe, here is a manual for proselytizing the faith that echoes precisely the rhetoric of religion. (Almost like the Tea Party using Saul Alinsky’s Rules For Radicals as an organizing tool.) Articles on science weave among condemnatory commentary against religions. There are blogs where atheists can talk with other atheists and where we can learn that the scientific method is the only valid means for discerning the truth and that religion has caused most of the problems today afflicting the world. Most importantly we will learn about the impregnable boundaries beyond which reason is excluded (this is dogma).

 
Digging deeper one will undoubtedly link to the argument that atheists don’t have to prove the nonexistence of God for there is no way to prove a negative. On the other hand, why would one bother? In this argument we are then told that it’s the burden of religion to prove the existence of things like God and the spirit world, but that only the rules of scientific enquiry will be acceptable. Again, why would one bother? When whatever can’t be measured or replicated within the limits of the laboratory or the statistical survey is discarded as superstition there isn’t much room for things that can only be experienced on a personal level. Whatever our experience, we are asked to remove it to someplace deemed ‘the personal’ with the implication that we should keep it strictly to ourselves. If we let it out that would be considered irrational, even mad, a religious act, and therefore it behooves all people in all cultures to submit to a single system of assumptions or humanity is doomed.  

Submission is the word and the demand. Militant atheists say they are not a religion, but like every fundamentalist faith their goal is absolute submission, with little respect or regard for those who resist. Some atheists entertain us by calling other cultures and other beliefs “stupid” or “inferior.” They claim the right because science has cured disease and made life longer, if not better. Scientific thinking represents progress and is the salvation of the race. Ignored is the fact that it may also contribute to its doom. There’s little or no acknowledgement of the mistakes and abuses and unintended consequences that have afflicted the history of ‘rational’ thought and no recognition that the worship of progress has led to horrors inflicted on people declared to be primitive and thus evolutionarily ‘inferior.’ While many modern advances in tolerance and human freedom have been led by people of faith, scientists have sometimes been guilty of reinforcing the worst prejudices against those who don’t fit the dominant cultural criteria. 

Many atheists complain that they’ve been oppressed by the dominance of superstitious belief, and it is true that they have been, as we all have been. Just about every religion has been oppressed at one time or another and whenever religion is used as a utilitarian tool for governing there are abuses against those who deviate from dogma. On the other hand atheists complain about having to sit and listen to prayers while in effect many are advocating cultural genocide. It is assumed that rule by strict technocracy will be somehow better. One can look perhaps at Communist China to find an answer to that. Militant atheists say that their intention is to advance reason, but beneath the veneer of reason and intolerance of religion one can sometimes detect the stench of cultural bigotry. Atheism, even in its etymology is a belief system defined by other belief systems that it attempts to negate. 

Not all atheists are zealots and not all Christians or Muslims are fundamentalists. All religions have their priests and their zealots. Atheism is no exception. Among atheists there is a tribe of militants who follow the prophets on a mission to stamp out religion. They apparently believe that their way is the only way, and that the world will not find peace until the absolute superiority of scientific thinking is accepted by all. When faced with contradictions or paradox they are as mystified as anyone, but they will deny to the last that there is anything in the universe which can’t be measured or known, there are no miracles and the all that we perceive can be reduced to equations. They are intrigued by mysteries but they will never trust in them.

What’s admirable in the scientific mind is that it proceeds with doubt, always testing and challenging its own hypothesis and never claiming to have achieved more than theory. The scientists’ frustration with those who claim to know the boundaries of everything, be they religious fanatics or conspiracy theorists or New Age charlatans, is quite understandable. However,  every major advance in science has challenged the established boundaries, beliefs and assumptions of a particular era. When it ceases to do this it becomes a religion, just like atheism has become a religion. 

As our hero drifts across the countryside in this very late autumn, looking down into poor backyards and water filled arroyos, with the crowns of churches poking over reservation trees and the train whistle sounding, he settles once more into the knowledge that he will never know the truth of things. Not the whole truth. All of the books he reads and the faces he meets only open up new mysteries. Our brave hidalgo will always battle dragons because he likes a good battle, but I earnestly wish that he will avoid inflexibility, for the universe is fluid and ever changing. Whatever we think is absolutely certain will likely be challenged and then change again and then again and finally drift off like smoke in the wind. Even science in its long history of trial and error has discovered this.    

 
– Ralph E. Melcher

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You Can’t Stop The Signal

Biology

Notwithstanding Chris Matthew’s comments this week referring to Republicans who believe in Creationism as Troglodytes” (a view with which I share some sympathy) the arguments waged between biologists about the true nature of evolutionary processes are vastly more intriguing (and relevant) than the abstract arguments between science and religion. In some ways the disputes between biologists resemble the friction between religious factions, but in more important ways they represent the very manner in which science progresses toward new conclusions, which then lead to new discoveries and new arguments, ad infinitum. 


One of the most important arguments being waged is between the selfish gene theories of neo-Darwinists like Richard Dawkins and theories of symbiogenesis pioneered by Lynn Margulis and James Lovelock. It is important because it challenges scientists to think beyond the conventional linear boundaries of simple cause and effect and to embrace much wider possibilities of complex systems involving interactions on a multitude of levels where cause and effect become so enmeshed as to be indistinguishable. This view requires that our approach to knowledge comes against traditional boundaries between disciplines and thus it has met resistance from those who hold those boundaries sacred.
 
A recent essay discussing the life and work of Lynn Margulis appears in the Lindisfarne Cafe section of The Wild Rivers Review. An eminent biologist and wife of the late Carl Sagan, her theories and experiments into the mysteries of life’s origins challenge the conventional views of natural selection. She died on November 22, 2011.
 
From the essay: 

Lean Forward, Stand Back:

The Worldview of Lynn Margulis (Scientist)

by Andre Khalil 
   

 

Many neo-Darwinist concerns circled nervously around words like “Gaia” and “cooperation” (which Margulis did not like to use). They were, perhaps rightly, concerned that these terms were ripe for religious appropriation. But Margulis herself was outspoken against such mishandling of her research.

Some new-agers love to grasp symbiosis as signifying “altruism” between organisms. But it’s much more complex than that—there is something “in it” for every symbiont, just as a state beneficial in some way arises out of each symbiosis.  Terms like “altruism” had no scientific value, because they are too single-minded to describe the phenomenon.

New age thinkers also use Gaia as a blanket term. They’ve appropriated it to mean that the Earth is a living organism. Or they refer to Gaia as a “goddess.” This turns Gaia into a sort of Stepford planet by containing its complexity in a simple and inadequate metaphor. This no more grasps reality than “selfishness” does our genes.

Margulis expressed her solution to the error once by saying, “Gaia is not merely an organism.”

The Earth is beyond stale conception. It is more magnificent and active than we can imagine. Gaia is object and process. Gaia houses volcanos and every book, every word on volcanos ever written, and at the same time is those volcanos. It is where our greatest loves live, and where every human heartbeat has ever rhythmically pulsed.  In this new understanding, that something can pulse with life and yet be beyond our concepts of living, those concepts begin to change.

If Gaia is conscious, it possesses a consciousness of a different magnitude, probably of a different order all together.

Richard Dawkins and his pre-cursors like John Maynard Smith, as well as other neo-Darwinist thinkers, could not and cannot understand this lesson: this complexity is impossible to incorporate in a linear and reductive understanding.

Part of their failure lies in a misunderstood version of cause and effect that plagues science.  At a certain level of complexity, somewhere just above a billiard ball clanking into a another billiard ball, cause and effect begins to change its shape.  This change may be real—that is, it may actually shift in its laws and patterns in nature—or it may be imagined. In other words, it may demand a different sort of thinking.  Effectively it doesn’t matter, since we need to contend with the shift in our thinking. To encompass complex systems with our thinking, we must imagine a model that is less like “cause-effect” more like “being-manifestation.”  That is, multiple layers and numerous agents of forces unconsciously conspire together, and their conspiring is so intermingled, that it is simultaneously cause and effect, and thus beyond both.  For example, the being, or process of Gaia manifests itself as an unstable, constantly correcting level of oceanic salinity.  One cannot be said to cause the other, since the oceanic salinity interacts so deeply with the beings and environs from which it arises. Symbiosis and biological forms demand the same sort of thought.


 

  

 
 

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