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“Life is tragic, and occasionally it’s magic.”
In this episode of the Mindspace podcast, Dr. Joe speaks with Jamie Wheal, author of Recapture the Rapture: Rethinking God, Sex and Death In a World That’s Lost Its Mind and the Pulitzer-nominated bestseller Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work. He is also the founder and executive director of the Flow Genome Project whose purpose is to build “world-class training programs on peak performance, optimal psychology and leadership.” His work has been covered in the New York Times, Financial Times, Wired, Entrepreneur, Forbes, and many other publications.
Jamie synthesizes history, psychology, neuroscience, and anthropology in order to create techniques and cultural practices centred around transforming human beings through non-ordinary states. Those practices include breathing techniques and psychedelics.
Jamie and Dr. Joe spoke about:
- The breakdown of the traditional ways of making meaning
- The social, political, psychological, and environmental consequences of this breakdown
- Jamie’s design principles for a new meaning-making operating system
- The most reliable and accessible sources of healing, inspiration, and connection
- How we can implement this approach to building sustainable communities
Here are some highlights of their conversation:
Let’s start with sort of the premise for Recapture the Rapture and what I understand what you’re calling this sort of crisis of meaning that a lot of us are feeling a little kind of disoriented or suffering because the processes or the infrastructures that we use to sort of make meaning out of our complex lives have really been kind of shaken. And many of us are feeling a bit lost around that. So can you just tee that up for us?
Yeah, for sure. I think what we’re continuing to see even more and more and more of it, like even in this latest round we’re supposed to have vaccines and everybody can be safe and back to summer and then like, ‘oh no we have breakthrough cases, but no, there are no breakthrough cases.’ Actually, there’s whole a lot of hell of a lot more than we thought there were not. What we do with kids? Do we send them back? I was even having this conversation with our kids over the weekend. Because our daughter goes to school in Palo Alto, super on the ball, like maximum lockdown health provisions, and our son is going to school in Colorado. We’re here in Austin, which is in Texas, which is like a wheels off situation. And he was talking about like at this point, you cannot even tell whose side someone is on as to whether they’re wearing a mask or not wearing a mask. Like at one point it was a relatively clear division. It was a tribal identification. Now you have no idea what even the signs and the signifiers of our public actions or what ideological camps everyone is in. It is a complete epistemological train wreck, but also a socio-cultural, psychological one.
We didn’t end up in this particular mess solely or exclusively because of a particular coronavirus. We’ve been on this slide for the last couple of decades and radically intensified over the last five, which has been and maybe even more. I think you can for sure say two thousand eight was also like a massive disillusioning, but then throw it into the 2016 election onwards.
And what we have is that basically people are orienting their assumptions on life, the universe and everything from organized religion. That was one point that has been dwindling rapidly. And then for the last four hundred years plus we had this experience of modern liberalism, civil rights, nation states, private property, markets, democracy, that kind of bundled gig, including academic institutions, research, science, empiricism, all of that. And that, too, has been kind of crumbling.
And those are the two pillars of meaning. One point to point out is that the roof has been caving in as far as any shared reality we might have been experiencing. Rather than us all becoming grown up, rational, evidence based meritocrats or something that maybe like the Sam Harris and the Christopher Hitchens might have once forecast, we’re actually getting sucked to the extremes into fundamentalism, like doubling down on belief systems and not just traditional religious fundamentalism, anti-vax fundamentalism, populist fundamentalism, take your pick.
There’s all sorts of different narratives, sacred and secular, old and new, that are showing up where people are just doubling down on a rigid belief system versus some form, some form of more provisional sensemaking. So fundamentalism on one side or nihilism on the other. Just burn it all down, blow it up, what the fuck, who cares, let’s party or let’s riot. I mean, very fight club, right, in that sort of sense and diseases of despair, which is obviously a lot of the world. You look into the rise in addiction, anxiety, depression, suicides, all of the things that you would expect when people are unmoored from their surroundings. And of course, this isn’t happening in a vacuum.
This is happening at a time of accelerating exponential change, both better and worse, which is also really hard. And most people put all their belief systems onto one or the other. It’s either like Steven Pinker and Ted talks exponentially better, Matt Ridley. Or the doom and gloom naysayers, Extinction Rebellion and and any others pointing out the decline of civilization and or survivability. And you’re like, wait, which is it? It’s both. And they’re both exponential.
So which way this goes is going to be a crapshoot to the very last minute. And who do I look to to tell me where I should go? Oh, they’re all dead or gone or have abandoned their posts. So it’s every man for himself and do your own research. So that’s kind of the setup, which is we’re in a tight spot and someone broke our dashboard. So how do we find our own cosmic positioning system to reorient to what must be done? Because I think the most the worst thing we can be doing right now is fucking nothing, because we’re in that agitated, irritated, bored state. Like, we need to get off that dime and be moving in whatever direction we’ve chosen.
So you are orienting us or trying to inspire us into a new kind of operating system for making meaning. From meaning 1.0, you have identified three key processes or three key mind states: inspiration, healing, and connection. And I’ll let you talk about that and then continue down towards the Alchemist Cookbook.
There’s an awful lot of utopian thinking in general. If you look at anybody from whether it’s true old school, Alpha and Omega, Judeo-Christian stuff, like there’s going to be the Armageddon and the Rapture or any of those kind of things, that old school stuff, all the way to techno utopianism like Ray Kurzweil. I’m going to upload our consciousness to computers. To blockchain and seasteads. ‘We’re going to disrupt the nation state and we’re going to create our own little communities or civilizations.’ And maybe they float. Maybe they don’t. Maybe they’re in–it is not Croatia. It’s Estonia. One of those Eastern European bloc countries. They have some unclaimed land that is potentially going to be a libertarian crypto paradise. Or the psychedelic renaissance or trance tech like neuro link and implants or immersive VR.
There’s always the, ‘Yes, this is ugly. Yes, this is hard, but there’s some hockey stick redemption at the other end of this.’ And this also shows up in info marketing and self-help and new age and pop psychology. ‘Let’s poke your pain points and you get irritated and agitated. And then we offer you something whether it’s a workshop or a pill or a meditation practice in just seven minutes and then you’ll be delivered.’ And that is such a deep trope, both of Western thought, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. But it shows up in communism. It shows up across two thousand years plus of Western thought. But then it was metastasized and weaponized by marketing in the 20th century.
And Tim Wu, the guy who wrote The Master Switch and tons of other stuff. He is a professor and thought leader. He also wrote a book called The Attention Merchants. And it’s basically outlining the genesis of 20th century marketing, like how do we get to Mad Men? How do we get to Don Draper? And the short answer is a bunch of down on their luck literal snake oil salesmen and washed up former preachers. ‘You have bad breath? You’ve got to try Listerine. You’ve got dandruff? Try head and shoulders.’
And then here’s your shot at redemption, in a product, a package, a pill. And that is so entrenched in everything, including the full hijack of the spiritual marketplace. We are almost hard wired to believe that there is an up and out play if only we can find it or buy it. Many of those end up being pathological because if the ends or heaven on earth or off it and the means are always, always justified, and there’s all kinds of spiritual bypassing, there’s all sorts of disassociation from the here and now and often our social and ethical responsibilities to others and ourselves and the whole thing.
That was a long windup to point out that the model of, hey, there’s this three legged stool or flywheel that is the human experience: inspiration, healing and connection. And we never get out of that. We never get out of the endless cycle of getting up to the high ground, remembering what we’ve forgotten, being informed and inspired, if we’re lucky–only to go down into the depths of our brokenness and either get crushed by life events and tragedies. Then we’re forever doing that.
And that sense that redemption lies not in getting to the mountaintop and camping out there because nothing lives up there, you can visit. You can put some prayer flags up there, but you need to get back down in the valleys, right. So there is no end to this. It’s forever. We’re forever being propelled forward from our life of highs and lows. And together, life is kind of tragic. That’s inescapable. That’s Buddha’s first noble truth.
Life is tragic, and occasionally it’s magic. Which blows our minds and redeems our souls, our souls and gives us a reason for being. And then we’re back to toggling back and forth between those two things. There is nothing to do but laugh but shrug, but be on the inside of the cosmic joke and then it’s comic. And that’s that kind of sharing and buffering with each other. If we couldn’t look at this all and just go Zorba the Greek, like, fucking hell, the full catastrophe, you know. Like yesterday, at last night’s show, we were dancing and raising the roof and it was nothing but quicksilver magic. And today the kids just shit their diapers and the repairman is not coming and the dog just ran away.
So the tragic, the magic, and the comic. And it feels to me that if we center ourselves in the middle of those things without obsessing or fetishizing about one or the other one at the expense of the other, and we just say. ‘this is it, the full catastrophe, the human experience, my job isn’t to bypass it or transcend. It is to bear witness to the whole thing that feels to me more grounded. That feels to me more reality tested than some saccharin, sweet promise of up, up and away.
I think in your argument that Flywheel ultimately comes from meaning 1.0 and a more sort of religious framework. One of the reasons why it sort of crumbled, so to speak, is that access to these things was mediated by an elite group in a position of power. And most people had to find access to that through some watered down way and had no direct relationship to this kind of spiritual connection.
And so you’re introducing some design criteria for how we ought to make meaning 3.0 work. This is pulled out of the classical liberalism model. Can you talk about open source, scalable, and antifragile?
I think particularly in indigenous religions, but also mystery schools. For thousands and thousands of years, for hundreds of thousands and millions of humans, there have been absolutely effective religious and psycho-spiritual practices of initiation and transcendence. They haven’t always been widely distributed. It’s not like every single person in a given society or civilization had access. Sometimes they were quite selective. But there have been massively effective, both indigenous and and sort of quote unquote, civilized techniques of ecstasy and initiatory mystery cults, mystery schools.
But I would say that somewhere post, at least in the West right somewhere, posts Konstantin Augustine like some sort of Orthodox Christianity coming online. Anything kind of more mainstream got pretty watered down, became pretty weak sauce initiations. So that’s the sense of like, ‘hey, no matter how much we might resent or resist the Spanish Inquisition, the priests, all the sort of the man keeping us from our own birthright as far as an initiation into the mysteries. There’s vital glue there, vital nutrients in what organized religion used to offer. And that’s healing, inspiration and connection.
So meaning 1.0 which is all men and women are created equal and entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. You could also say pursuit of happiness, subset, you know, initiation into the mysteries of what it means to be a human on this earth. And so for that to work, the notion of open source means, ‘hey, let’s try and get this out of the cloisters. How can we offer the tools that anybody, anywhere has access to because we subscribe to that sense that every human on this earth is a child of God and entitled to a fair shot at the good life. So if it’s expensive or rare or esoteric or exclusive, then what are we doing right? We’re just perpetuating more of those inequalities that people are becoming increasingly aware of and sick of. So that’s the open source piece.
The scaleable piece is kind of the other side of that, which is just we’re in a tight fix and there’s eight billion of us. So it’s not enough to have, you know, hundreds or a few thousands or even tens of thousands or even millions. We kind of need billions of people on something resembling the same page that this planet matters and that clean air, clean water, and clean soil are probably human birthright and really shouldn’t go along party lines. And that we’re in this to win this. We’re actually in this to perpetuate living on our home planet.
So those are the first two and then the antifragile is–Oh, we are in this goofy, paradoxical state, which I think is creating a lot of mental disease. We are sort of on the one hand in the early twenty first century, let’s say we are sort of blessed with the perspective of gods. You know, we’ve got the Large Hadron Collider and we can sort of look back to the moment of the Big Bang and we can map and model it using the Hubble telescope. We have live feeds from rovers on Mars and at the same time go, ‘oh, oh, shit. You know, more ice melted yesterday in Greenland.’
So we’re sort of coming alive at the very, very same time that we realized we might be in an existential crisis. And I don’t know whether to be happy and elated about this infinite possibility of consciousness and humanity or abjectly terrified as to the stakes. And wouldn’t you know it to make it even weirder, the very same super sophisticated techno economic civilization, including carbon economy and all the things that has provided this platform for us to be watching Alan Watts remix videos on my smartphone on YouTube filled with cobalt, lithium and random rare earth metals and beamed up to satellite. So I get this in real time with no lag.